Eunuchs For The Sake Of The Kingdom Of Heaven

October 26, 2012 in Theology · 4 comments

“For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.” Matthew 19.12

I’ve always assumed that “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” was metaphorical rather than literal language and that Origen was sadly misguided in his understanding of that text. But just because we don’t want something to be literal doesn’t mean we should just assume it isn’t. Throughout history there have always been some Christians who understood this text as a literal command to physically castrate themselves — is there a possibility that they’ve been right?

Modern scholars who support a figurative understanding of this passage (such as Davies and Allison’s ICC Matthew Commentary) often defer to T. W. Manson’s discussion in The Sayings of Jesus. Manson says:

  1. The whole sentiment of Judaism was against castration. The eunuch was disqualified for membership of the community (Deut. 23.1). A Jew simply would not understand how this operation could serve the ends of the Kingdom of God.
  2. The word “eunuch” and the abstract noun derived from it appear in early Christian literature with the sense, unknown to classical or Hellenistic Greek, of “celibate” and “celibacy” respectively. The classic example is Clement of Alexandria’s definition (Paed. Ill.4, 26): “The true eunuch is not he who cannot but he who will not indulge himself.”
  3. There is no evidence that Jesus had any sympathy with asceticism for asceticism’s sake. He requires — and makes — the greatest sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom. If the Kingdom requires the sacrifice of the happiness of marriage, the sacrifice is to be made. Self-mutilation cannot add anything to the fullness of such sacrifice.
  4. The literal sense is inappropriate here as it is in Mk. 9.43-48 and Mt. 5.29f.
  5. Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul, and probably some of the Twelve were unmarried; others of the Twelve sacrificed their homelife for the sake of the Kingdom. But that was all. There is no word of any becoming eunuchs in the literal sense of the word. The conclusion is that the three classes of eunuchs in this verse fall into two. The first class comprehends those who cannot marry; the second those who can but do not, who sacrifice their happiness, but not their manhood, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

But contra Manson’s argument, the point must be made that Jewish belief was not monolithic — first century Jews were not necessarily interpreting Deuteronomic law, written centuries before, in a consistent and uniform fashion. Furthermore, in Classical literature, εὐνουχίζω, though rare, always and unambiguously refers to literal castration. Manson’s appeal to early Christian usage over and against Classical usage essentially begs the question, given that we are trying to determine what the earliest Christian usage actually was — the extent that Matthew was or wasn’t drawing upon Hellenistic usage is precisely the issue at hand! That Jesus commands us to do something difficult (as in Mat. 5.29) isn’t a reason in itself to consider the statement metaphorical — Jesus’ teaching are often enormously challenging. Finally, we certainly do know of three classes of eunuchs from antiquity: those born that way, such as Favorinus, those made that way for service and some self-imposed out of religious zeal, such as the Galli. Given that we actually know of these three classes, isn’t it incumbent upon those advancing a metaphorical reading to provide substantive reasons why such a passage should be take literally, other than a squeamish desire to avoid such a painful act, even if it is “for the kingdom of heaven?

So we arrive at an impasse: early Christian exegesis was very comfortable with a metaphorical understanding of this passage, but Classical usage of εὐνουχίζω and the broader Hellenistic culture point towards a literal meaning. Verses 11 and 12b acknowledge Jesus’ statement as indeed being difficult. But the precise nature of that difficulty isn’t clear: if it’s literal castration that’s being commanded, then it’s obviously a difficult statement that not everyone can accept! But if it’s a figurative expression referring to celibacy (given the context of the questions about marriage), it is still is a challenging statement (though in a less gruesome way), that also can’t be accepted by everyone. I previously referenced the Hellenistic context of the this passage, but let’s take a look at the more specific Jewish context in order to cast further light on these difficulties.

Self-castration, especially for religious reasons, simply wasn’t on the map of Jewish belief at any time — this is borne out by the Mishna and Talmud and the ODJR. The Mishna and Talmud go into excruciating detail about virtually every physical scenario and circumstance of what it means to be a eunuch. Though we can identify three classes of eunuchs in the Hellenistic world, Jewish beliefs about castration clearly fall into two categories: by man or by nature. There is no distinction between self-castration and castration done by another person; rather, within Jewish thought, castration by man is exclusively conceived of as something done to someone by someone else. If one accepts that these teachings accurately represent first century Jewish belief (and I am not aware of a better source for such information), then self-castration simply isn’t a viable option for understanding Matthew 19.12.

Self-castration did exist within the Hellenistic world and first century Jews certainly would have been aware of the practice, but it wasn’t at all part of Jewish belief or practice, varied as it may have been. Second Temple Judaism was diverse in many respects, but it was unified in its beliefs regarding castration, which are firmly rooted in Deuteronomy 23.2 and Noahic law. Given that the Gospel of Matthew was written by a Jew, about a Jew and to a Jewish community, it’s entirely proper to first look to first century Jewish beliefs about eunuchs and castration as an interpretive lens for the text, and not to Classical and Hellenistic beliefs and practices on the matter. Given the context of Second Temple Judaism, the idea of making oneself a “eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” stands in stark contrast to widely known and accepted Jewish tradition and, taken at face-value, would be virtually nonsensical to a contemporary Jewish audience — the statement, in its absurdity, is trying to make a point other than the literal.

Although an argument can be made for a literal understanding of this passage, what ultimately tilts my interpretation in favor of a figurative understanding is the simple fact that Jesus refers to an existing group of individuals: those who “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” And within first century Judaism, such a group didn’t literally exist. If something doesn’t literally exist, the next logical step is to seek a figurative understanding that is informed by the larger context of the passage. In this case, “eunuchs for … the kingdom of heaven” are those people who chose to devote themselves to a life of celibacy in order to draw closer to God.

4 comments… read them below or add one

Rajinder Nijjhar December 24, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Hi,

I know the three types of Eunuches.

1. First men born of the prostitutes called Bastards having no surname, are not allowed to marry although they can get married and produce children. But they are forbidden as the land is for the sons of Adam.

2. Second type are Jews who become Jew outwardly and not inwardly. By replacing their tribal identity with Jew that is a spiritual self, they have rejected their tribal fathers and have become Eunuchs worse than those born of the prostitutes.

3. The people who renounce the secular world and take to Wilderness, they lead a Celibate life imposed by themselves and they are the Eunuchs who became Eunuchs for the sake of Kingdom of Heaven. Priests in Moses come under this category and John, the Baptist became Eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven. In India, Sadhus are another example.

I can explain it in details if someone is interested. I will produce a Youtube Video. My channel is nijjhar1.

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Rajinder Nijjhar December 25, 2013 at 7:32 am

Here is the full version explaining the Three types of spiritual Eunuchs.

Hi,
I know the three types of Eunuchs stated in Matt.19v.12:-
“For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by oth­ers, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the Royal King­dom of God. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.” Matthew 19.12
I’ve always assumed that “made them­selves eunuchs for the sake of the king­dom of heaven” was metaphor­i­cal rather than lit­eral lan­guage and that Ori­gen was sadly mis­guided in his under­stand­ing of that text. But just because we don’t want some­thing to be lit­eral doesn’t mean we should just assume it isn’t. Through­out his­tory there have always been some Chris­tians who under­stood this text as a lit­eral com­mand to phys­i­cally cas­trate them­selves — is there a pos­si­bil­ity that they’ve been right?
These are:-
1. First men born of the prostitutes called Bastards having no surname, they are not allowed to marry although they can get married and produce children. But they are forbidden as the land is for the sons of Adam. So, that is why under the law of Moses, a woman is stoned to death for adultery. But the second type are Real Bastard sons of Satan but they rule the world today. That is why this Age is called of Darkness and without the Light of Christ within you, you are lost.
They get away with it and stone the poor woman for adultery that has been forever. Lord Krishna of the Doapar Yug went to stay in the house of a Bastard Bidher born of the Daassi, Temple girl donated by her parents to Temple, instead of in the house of the King who had invited Him because He became a Saint. This Jesus stressed in the Parable of the Mustard seed, the people born of the prostitutes when they do not get married but devote their whole life in singing the praises of God that the sensible people visit such Saints to listen to their discourses.
2. Second type are people although born in their tribal homes yet they change their tribal identity with the religious and non identity. Typical example are Jews who became Jew outwardly of flesh and not inwardly of spirit. By replacing their tribal identity with Jew that is a spiritual self, they have rejected their tribal fathers and have become Eunuchs worse than those born of the prostitutes. That is why Christ Jesus told the Jews in the Temple that their fathers are devil who hate Him but Abraham and His tribal sons would love to listen the Gospel. John, the Baptist who baptised only the Jewish men and not a woman or a Gentile, called these Temple Priests the brood of Vipers killing people by making them unfaithful to Abraham and Yahweh, the Tares mentioned in Matt.13.v24-30. Today, most of the people when they take part in politics created in names other than the tribes, such as Congress, Labour, Conservative, Communist, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, etc. brotherhood, etc. are tares like the Jews destined to be exterminated in the Atomic War. Only the Jungle people of Brazil who are keeping their tribal identities intact would survive. That is why all those 144000 mentioned in revelations by their tribes would be saved.
3. The people who renounce the secular world and take to Wilderness, they lead a Celibate life imposed by themselves and they are the Eunuchs who became Eunuchs of their own freewill for the sake of Royal Kingdom of God in which the physical or tribal identity does not count but the spiritual identity does count. Priests in Moses come under this category and John, the Baptist became Eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven to be an Ideal Priest or Prophet Elijah. In India, Sadhus are another example.
THOSE WHO HAVE EARS, LET THEM HEAR.
Here is Youtube Video:-
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxicbdqfoaI

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Dan January 8, 2014 at 11:20 am

Well…that’s certainly one way of looking at it.

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Daniel July 17, 2016 at 9:56 pm

I think prostitute born bastard eunuchs can mix with number 3 eunuchs without stoning a woman,.. AFTER ALL it they OBEYED Gods commands THOU SHALL NOT KILL. I Would imagine if stoning was still going on today they are not reading from a complete Holy Bible.

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