“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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- The literal sense is inappropriate here as it is in Mk. 9.43-48 and Mt. 5.29f.
- 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.