Friday, June 15, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 4b: "Eunuchs from Birth" (Matt 19:12)?

During the course of his ministry in Galilee, Jesus developed quite a reputation as a teacher of charismatic authority and startling originality.  Hence it is no surprise that the Pharisees, the well-respected and self-designated guardians of the Torah (with the intent of thereby hastening the coming of the kingdom of God), would question his legal views and, when it became apparent that his was a competing agenda to theirs, to attempt to trip him up.  In the triple tradition pericope of Matthew 19:3-9, the Pharisees ask him to weigh in on the dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shammai over the matter of "no-fault divorce," which the Hillelites had promulgated as an interpretation/application of Deuteronomy 24:1.  Jesus' response, in effect, was that they were asking the wrong question.  Divorce was only allowed by Moses, not commanded.  It would have been better for them to look back behind the Deuteronomic injunction to God's stated purpose from the beginning, i.e., in Genesis 2:24.  Indeed, divorce — unless precipitated by adultery (in effect he ends up agreeing with the stricter Shammaites) — inevitably leads to adultery when, as was assumed, the parties remarried.

Matthew alone appends the disciples' response to this teaching from his special source:
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.  For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:10-12)
The disciples' response, as Davies and Allison remark, "does them no credit" (W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew [3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988-97] 3:19).  The lack of an escape clause led them to consider the spectre of marriage to be an intolerable burden.  Better, so they reasoned, to endure a life of celibacy than to commit oneself for life to one woman!

As one might expect, Jesus' response is unexpected.  Instead of reeducating them about the glories and benefits of marriage (which, of course, he would not have known from personal experience), he qualifies their comment.  Anticipating Paul's contention that celibacy is a "gift" from God (1 Cor 7:7), he states that their putative "insight" cannot be received by all, but only by those to whom "it has been given (sc. by God)."  In verse 12, Jesus makes it clear both who these gifted people are and why they have chosen that path.  In doing so, he uses graphic imagery to show how draconian such a lifestyle is.  In imagery no doubt designed to cause as much discomfort as it does today, Jesus distinguishes between three kinds of people who may be described as "eunuchs":
  • Eunuchs by nature's design
  • Eunuchs by human operation
  • Eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven
Jesus' emphasis lies on the third group.  Those to whom "it has been given" (v.11) are "eunuchs," not in the literal sense of being sexually impotent either by nature or by castration, but metaphorically: they are celibate by choice out of their conviction of God's purpose for them in service of the kingdom of God.  Whether or not Jesus uttered this saying in partial defense of his own celibacy, his teaching on this occasion both defended the sanctity of God's original purpose for marriage and relativised its normative status in a culture in which marriage and fatherhood were largely viewed as civil obligations.

Over the past few years much ink has been spilled over the first of the three types of "eunuchs" described by Jesus.  Particularly vocal have been homosexual advocates (both gay and straight), who have found in Jesus' mention of people who are eunuchs "born that way from their mother's womb" a reference to what we today call "homosexuals" — not simply those who perform homosexual acts, but people with an innate, same-sex orientation.  Thus Jack Rogers makes this identification and infers from it that "Jesus acknowledges and accepts people who are sexual minorities" (see his more detailed argument here).  Robert Gagnon even would include those we would call "homosexuals" within this category, though he infers from this the fact that the ancient world did indeed, contrary to the claim of many, "conceive of persons that were congenitally influenced toward exclusive same-sex attractions."  More radical gay apologists claim that the ancient category of "eunuchs" refers specifically to "gay men," thus including not simply the "eunuchs by nature," but even such classic eunuchs as the Ethiopian palace attendant converted by Philip in Acts 8.  Thus, so it is argued, God "welcomes" and "honors" formerly marginalized sexual minorities "just as they are," without condemnation.

The argumentation and logic utilized by many of these revisionists would be humorous were it not so sad.  Much of it is explicitly based on confirmatory rather than exploratory research, and hence draws conclusions from the evidence few reputable scholars would countenance.  All scholars know that the Hebrew term sārîs is used in a general sense of a "courtier" or "official" as well as the narrow sense of a castrated male (cf, e.g., BDB 710), in keeping with its Akkadian cognate.  Thus recognition that not all "eunuchs" were castrated does not give one the right to conclude that the term is but a reference to those we now call "gay men."  Likewise, it is a priori likely that many effeminate men and those who were disinterested in sexual relations with women could have been chosen especially as courtiers to queens and guardians of the harem.  Yet, once again, this was clearly not the standard practice, and certainly doesn't give one the right to assume such was the case in any particular instance.

Most importantly, the identification of "eunuchs from birth" in Jesus' statement with gay men is rendered unlikely by the fact that Jesus' distinction closely mirrors a distinction found in rabbinic Jewish literature, not least the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud.  In the Mishnah tractate Yebamoth 8.4, the rabbis make a distinction between the sěrîs ’ādām, "eunuch of man," and the sěrîs ḥammâ, "eunuch of the sun" (i.e., from the time he first sets his eyes on the sun's light).  The Gemara to the Mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Yeb. 79b-80b) reads as follows:
What are we to understand by A SARIS BY NATURE? — R. Isaac b. Joseph replied in the name of R. Johanan: Any man who has not experienced a moment [of life] in a state of fitness.1 How could this2 be ascertained? — Abaye replied: [By observing whether] when he urinates no arch is formed. What are the causes? — That the child's mother baked at noon4 and drank strong beer.
R. Joseph said: It must have been such a saris of whom I heard Ammi saying. 'He who is afflicted from birth', and I did not know [at the time] to whom he was referring. But should we not take into consideration the possibility that he might have recovered in the meantime! — Since he suffered from affliction in his early as well as in his later life, no [possible interval of recovery] need be taken into consideration
R. Mari raised an objection: R. Hanina b. Antigonos stated, 'It is to be examined   three times in eighty days'! — Precautions are to be taken in respect of one limb; in respect of the entire body no such precautions need be taken.
R. ELIEZER SAID: NOT SO etc. A contradiction may be pointed out: If at the age of twenty he did not produce two hairs, they must bring evidence that he is twenty years of age and he, being confirmed as a saris, neither submits to halizah nor performs the levirate marriage. If the woman at the age of twenty did not produce two hairs, they must bring evidence that she is twenty years of age and she, being confirmed as a woman who is incapable of procreation neither performs halizah nor is taken in levirate marriage; so Beth Hillel. But Beth Shammai maintain that with the one as well as with the other [this takes place at] the age of eighteen. R. Eliezer said. In the case of the male, the law is in accordance with Beth Hillel and in the case Of the female, the law is in accordance with Beth Shammai because a woman matures earlier than a man!  Rami b. Dikuli replied in the name Of Samuel: R. Eliezer changed his view.
The question was raised: From which statement did he withdraw? — Come and hear what was taught: R. Eliezer said. A congenital saris submits to halizah, and halizah is arranged for his wife, because cases of such a nature are cured in Alexandria in Egypt.
R. Eleazar said: As a matter of fact he did not change his view at all, but that statement was taught in respect [of the age of] punishment.  It was stated: If a person between the age of twelve years and one day and that of eighteen years ate forbidden fat, and after the marks of a saris had appeared, he grew two hairs.  Rab ruled that the person is deemed to be a saris retrospectively.  But Samuel ruled [that the person is regarded as] having been a minor at that time.  R. Joseph demurred against Rab:  According to R. Meir, a woman who is incapable of procreation  should be entitled to a fine! — Abaye replied: She passes from her minority [directly] into adolescence.  The other said to him: May all such fine sayings be reported in my name. For so it was taught: A saris is not tried as a stubborn and rebellious son, because no stubborn and rebellious son is tried unless he bears the mark of the pubic hair.  Nor is a woman who is incapable of procreation tried as a betrothed damsel because from her minority she passes [directly] into adolescence. R. Abbahu stated: On [the basis of] the marks of a saris, of a woman incapable of procreation, and of an eight-[month] child no decision is made until they attain the age of twenty.  Is, however, an eight-[month] child viable? Surely it was taught: An eight-month child is like a stone, and it is forbidden to move him; only his mother may bend over him and nurse him in order to avert danger!  — Here we are dealing with one whose marks have not been developed.  For it was taught: Who is an eight-month child? He whose months [of conception] have not been completed. Rabbi said: The marks, his hair and nails which were not developed, would indicate it. The reason then is because they were not developed, but had they been developed it would have been assumed that the child was a seven-month one only his [birth] was somewhat delayed. With reference, however, to the practical decision which Raba Tosfa'ah gave in the case of a woman whose husband had gone to a country beyond the sea and remained there for a full year of twelve months, where he declared the child legitimate, in accordance with whose [view did he act]? [Was it] in accordance with that of Rabbi who maintains that [birth] may be delayed!  — Since R. Simeon b. Gamaliel also maintains that [birth may] be delayed. he acted in agreement with a majority. For it was taught: R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said: Any human  child that lingers for thirty days can not be regarded as a miscarriage.  Our Rabbis taught: Who is a congenital saris?  Any person who is twenty years of age and has not produced two pubic hairs.  And even if he produced them afterwards he is deemed to be a saris in all respects. And these are his characteristics: He has no beard, his hair is lank, and his skin is smooth. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said in the name of R. Judah b. Jair:  Any person whose urine produces no froth; some say: He who urinates without forming an arch; some say: He whose semen is watery; and some say: He whose urine does not ferment. Others say: He whose body does not steam after bathing in the winter season. R. Simeon b. Eleazar said:  He whose voice is abnormal so that one cannot distinguish whether it is that of a man or of a woman. What woman is deemed to be incapable of procreation? — Any woman who is twenty years of age and has not produced two pubic hairs. And even if she produces them afterwards she is deemed to be a woman incapable of procreation in all respects. And these are her characteristics: She has no breasts and suffers pain during copulation. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said:  One who has no mons veneris like other women. R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: One whose voice is deep so that one cannot distinguish whether it is that of a man or of a woman. It was stated: As to the characteristics of a saris, R. Huna stated, [Impotency cannot be established] unless they are all present. R. Johanan, however, stated: Even if only one of them is present.  Where two hairs were produced all agree that impotency cannot be established unless all characteristics are displayed. They only differ in the case where these were not produced. With reference, however, to what Rabbah b. Abbuha said to the Rabbis, 'Examine R. Nahman. and if his body steams I will allow him to marry my daughter'; in accordance with whose view [was he acting]? [Was it] according to R. Huna! — No; R. Nahman had some stray hairs. THE SARIS NEITHER SUBMITS TO HALIZAH NOR CONTRACTS THE LEVIRATE MARRIAGE, AND SO ALSO A WOMAN WHO IS INCAPABLE OF PROCREATION etc. The saris was mentioned in the same way as the woman who is incapable of procreation; as the woman's incapacity is due to an act of  heaven so must that of the saris be an act of heaven; and this anonymous [Mishnah] is in agreement with R. Akiba who stated [that halizah applies] only to a man-made [saris but] not [to one afflicted] by the hand of heaven.
From this it is evident that the intended contrast lies between those who had either been castrated or lost the ability to reproduce sometime after birth due to injury or disease (eunuch of man) and those who were unable to reproduce due to some congenital defect (eunuch of the sun).  That the latter is certainly not to be understood in terms of homosexual men is clear from the remark that such men were "afflicted by the hand of heaven."  To suggest otherwise manifests a woeful grasp of Jewish moral thinking.

Furthermore, even if those we now call "homosexual men" are to be included in the category of "eunuch from birth," this would by no means affirm them in their acting upon their innate orientation.  In the context of Jesus' statement, it is abstaining from marital relations (the only valid biblical context for sexual relations) that is the common denominator of the three classifications.  Even an elementary logician can realize that permitting other types of sexual activity for one classification ruins the point of Jesus' statement.

At this point it might be helpful to emphasize once more that the Bible does not condemn "homosexuality" as an orientation, but the homosexual activity of people regardless of their "orientation."   As I have said before, I consider such orientation to be almost certainly a complex result of biological and/or environmental factors.  It is certainly perverse to claim that all homosexuals "choose" to be the way they are, just as it is a grave sin to persecute such people for their identity and lifestyle.  In this extended sense, Gagnon is right to see a parallel between the "eunuchs from birth" and homosexuals.  Yet Jesus' call to his followers who may experience such temptations is not to accept who they are and act upon their desires, but to submit themselves to the kingdom of God and its vision for human flourishing, abstaining by the grace of God from what is clearly disallowed in Scripture.


  1. Your argument is flawed. It is quite clear that some of the persons categorized as 'Born Eunuchs' had their genital intact, could produce semen etc. Bear in mind that the Rabbis then were not privy to the scientific information we have today, and so in order to provide answers to address concerns that challenged their fixed customary practices, they came up with all these nonsenses. Just as how you have boys today who have no interest in women, likewise there were boys in those days who had no interest in women and when the time came for them to be married OR when they are given into marriage and after the expected period passed and no pregnancy OR the wife revealed that her husband refused her, I am certain this would perplexed the parents and elders who would then seek to determine the cause and all their suppositions were just to help them understand what they were dealing with, BUT it is quite clear that homosexuals would be a part of that group.

    1. Dismissal of the Rabbis out of a modernist arrogance is irrelevant. Jesus, like Paul after him, transparently held to the same sexual ethic as they did. And the point is that, even if Gagnon is correct to include people with homosexual orientation among those who are "eunuchs by birth," that does not imply, as gay advocates would have it, that he "accepted them as they were" and thus celebrated their sexual activity as legitimate. THAT is certainly to impose modern sensibilities on to the text.

    2. He wasn't dismissing anything except your weak contention that maybe texts like the one from the Talmud that you quoted don't describe "effeminate" men who are unattracted to women -- i.e., homosexuals. Sirach 30:20 refers to how embracing a woman makes a eunuch groan with displeasure. Clearly eunuch there = a gay man in modern terms.

    3. Im sorry to interject so late but I take strong opposition to your reference to Sirach 30:20 it is clear you are taking that passage out of context

      Verse 18 notes the pointlessness of providing food for a man that's ill, why? Because as it explicitly states he can't eat it
      In verse 19 he then compares this as analogous to giving food to idols, why? Because as Sirach explicitly notes an idol can't eat food
      THEN in verse 20 Sirach states that the man who has been afflicted by the lord is exactly like these two examples,
      "The person whom the Lord punishes
      is like this," v 20
      Therefore when talks about the eunuch who groans when he hugs a young woman the point is the eunuch CANT have sex with her, not that he doesn't want to, the common thread linking verse 18 to 20 is inability NOT lack of desire, it goes like this
      Just as it is pointless to give a man who is illl food cuz he can't eat
      So is offering it to an idol cuz it can't eat
      Same as someone who has been afflicted by the Lord " he looks at food and sighs" cuz he can't eat
      Just as a eunuch groans when he is hugged by a young woman because he can't have sexual feelings for her

      Sirach whole point is that it is better to be poor and to be in health than to be rich in poor health because the finest foods mean nothing IF YOU CANT EAT IT. Does the ill man not WANT to eat? Of course he does but he can't! Its not about lack of desire but due to some health deformity (castration/ illness) not being able to do what you want. The Eunuch's problem isn't that he doesn't want to have sex with the young woman but that he can't. THAT is why he groans