Who Are Those “Eunuchs Who Have Been So from Birth” in the Gospel of Matthew?

Photo credit: Wendy van Zyl 

A curious, enigmatic, debated, and often dismissed, verse is found in the nineteenth chapter of the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew. Some scholars for the past forty years or so have argued that it includes a reference to men who have sex with their own gender.

There are, of course, others who won’t even consider the idea because of previous theological and interpretive assumptions, and possibly even homophobia. To them this understanding would be unacceptable.

But what can a historian of religions determine with any probability about what the writer/editor of the Gospel of Matthew meant to teach by that verse, without getting into the unanswerable issues of whether it has any historical basis in Jesus or not or whether the conclusion would support any system of theology or not?

The verse in question is found in a not well-preserved larger passage in Matthew that has variants in the early manuscripts. But, in contrast, the verse itself is unquestionably established in the passage.

And, like any idea in any of the gospels, it wouldn’t have just been included there to give a dispassionate “back in the day” historical or biographical fact, but because the Gospel’s writer or last editor wanted to promote something to his listeners and readers that he thought was “good news” (euaggélion, which in Old English becomes gōdspel) that should affect their lives.

The larger passage in which the verse is found in Matthew’s current form (19:3-12) is about men getting divorces. The full section begins by portraying Jesus as answering a puzzle posed by some religious leaders of the day.

The writer explains that the leaders meant to test him. Such debates about technicalities, legal or otherwise, were not uncommon among religious teachers then, as now.

Jesus answers these leaders by taking a strict position on divorce, which was a legal “out” available only to men and left women with little or nothing. Wives were legally the property of men and, with few notable exceptions, held any status they had through their relationships to fathers and husbands.

Jesus tells these men that divorcing their wives to take another wife is committing adultery, and thus he protects wives from being left out in the cold by men doing so. The fact that husbands were legally permitted to divorce their wives, he answers, represents no original divine ideal but was merely a legal concession eventually made to you men, “because of your hardness of heart.”

The text then moves on to make another point. It’s now Jesus’ own disciples who are pictured as the ones who react to his answer to the religious leaders. The disciples conclude that based upon what Jesus just said, it would be “better not to marry” at all.

And Jesus responds that only those “to whom it has been given” (By their status in life? By God? By their sexual orientation?) can accept the idea and live unmarried. In fact, this concept that there are only some men who have the capacity of “accepting this” non-marriage status in life is important enough for the writer to emphasize by repeating it in two verses in a row.

In 19:11 it’s: “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given.”

There immediately follows the verse that appears to be an approved list of three groups who don’t marry because they’re able to reject the cultural expectation of marriage and can live with the reality of never marrying a woman. For that reason, then, Jesus says about these men, they need not marry:

“For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” (19:12)

Our first problem is with the very word “eunuch.” Today, the usual definition of the word eunuch (Hebrew: saris, Greek: eunouchos) is a castrated male, but most Bible scholars find that too restricting.

Because some of those who were important officials and upper-level servants were castrated for certain occupations (such as guarding the ruler’s harem), a term of description that usually referred to important military or royal court officers, upper-level domestic servants, or treasury officials who were considered suited for these positions because they would have no heirs and who weren’t often castrated, became saddled later in history with that restrictive meaning.

Even in the forty-five uses of saris in numerous stories in the Hebrew Bible, there are references to important court officers who are called “eunuchs” (saris) but are not castrated men. In Isaiah, saris are praised who were not necessarily castrated but who lived without marriage. (56:3-5) The book of Esther is replete with named saris engaged in the palace and its intrigues and who befriended and advised Esther.

The law codes in Leviticus (21:20) and Deuteronomy (23:1), in fact, forbid anyone from entering the “assembly” of Israel who had been castrated. That would later be applied to forbid the castrated from worshiping in the temple in Jerusalem.

It’s likely, then, that one of the early converts to Christianity according to the world-widening evangelistic framework used by the writer of the New Testament book of Acts, a so-called eunouchus who was an Ethiopian court official, was assumed by its author not to have been castrated because he was returning home from Jerusalem where he’d gone to worship (8:27). Though, according to the text, he was rich enough to own his own scroll of the book of Isaiah and educated enough to read it, he was also certainly one who was not the marrying kind.

Jack Rogers in Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality in 2009 pointed out that no matter how we interpret this Ethiopian eunouchos, he clearly lived outside of normal sexual expectations around marriage. The writer of Acts puts a radical inclusivity on display here, Rogers concludes, for Acts thereby depicts an early Church history where “the first Gentile convert to Christianity is from a sexual minority and a different race, ethnicity, and nationality together.”

The verse under consideration in Matthew, then, delineates three types of people called eunouchus. Notice that it does so not in the context of whom they have sex with or whether they do have sex, but in the context of the expectations and legalities of marrying and marriage and whether they can and ought to live without marrying women.

And no matter how we choose to understand who these men are, it also clearly portrays a Jesus who does not judge any of them. Instead, he talks of their natural place in rejecting the normal cultural gender expectations of marriage while agreeing that they are not the kind to take a wife.

To top it all off, Matthew even gives these eunouchos an exalted place when describing Jesus’ evaluation of them.

The first group enumerated are the eunouchos who were “born” that way. One way to understand them is how Edward Bauman, Senior Minister of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C. did back in a 1977 sermon using the words of his day: “This is the closest description we have in the Bible of what we think of today as constitutional homosexuality.” Others have understood this first group that way since.

The second group is, notice, purposely distinguished from the other two. It’s clearly those who “were made eunouchos by men,” those who in this second case were men who actually were physically castrated, and whom we’d call eunuchs by today’s definition.

The third group is “those who made themselves eunouchos,” who chose to give up marriage, but did it for a spiritual reason: “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” We know little about these people in the first century, and nowhere is Jesus portrayed as recommending others do this no matter how noble, he agrees, their intentions are.

So, let’s admit that this is a difficult verse to understand in Matthew just as there are many in this old collection of books written in different times and cultures, a collection we call the Bible. But dismissing any idea that Jesus was talking about gay men would be done too quickly and smack of interpretive pre-judgment.

Yet, what we can say with certainty is that this verse is another found in the very same Gospel that takes time to tell us of the païs of the Roman Centurion and praises his great faith. If we could shed the interpretations that smack of heterosexism and institutional entrenchment, we might understand it as demonstrating that the author of this Gospel knew that there were men who for many reasons, including religious ones and what we might today call their sexual orientation, were not going to, nor needed to, marry.

There can also be no doubt that Matthew does want to portray to his readers here a Jesus who just didn’t judge these people no matter where else in Biblical literature or in the history of the Christian Church someone else did. Matthew’s Jesus knew of, accepted, and even elevated the status of these three types of eunouchos.