Remember when they employed castrati in the Vatican choir? Most of us are too young to remember but there would be some still alive today when the last Castrati died. Eunuchs have been a feature of many civilisations. Dr Ian Elmer's commentary today delves back to explore what Jesus and Paul had to say on the subjects of eunuchs, castrati, celibacy and marriage. What is the meaning of all this today? Civilised societies do not expect men today to castrate themselves to serve the Emperor or the Church. Do we stop at the physical, or should we consider others non-physical forms of castration?
Jesus, the Eunuch: On Celibacy and the Kingdom...
There is little doubt that Jesus was unmarried. If Jesus had been married, his wife and children would have held a revered place in the early Church — just as his mother would later. As to his motivation, I suspect that we must seek some explanation in the eschatological perspective of Jesus, which seems to provided a warrant for his celibacy. Certainly, at least one of his later followers, Paul, saw things in a very similar light.
Eunuchs in the Hebrew Scriptures...
There is a telling comment preserved in Matthew (19:12) where Jesus, responding to his disciples' question about Jesus' teaching on divorce, replies,
"Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can."
I would hold that this pericope derives from a genuine dominical saying. In its original context, Jesus' use of the term "eunuch" would have been met with shock. It is unlikely that this saying would have arisen after Jesus' death; Jesus use of the term would have been an embarrassment for his Christian-Jewish followers.
The Hebrew word for eunuch, 'saris' (plural, 'sarisim'), appears seventeen times in the Hebrew books of the Bible. It is usually taken to refer to castrati; however, its usage refers to a wide class of persons. It included castrated men, court officials, shamans, sages and wise men. But within the literature of the Hebrew Bible, "eunuchs" serve as subversive elements in the palaces of Israel's enemies. An important and relevant example for our present discussion is Ebed-melech, the Cushite eunuch who acts to rescue Jeremiah from the cistern (Jer.38:7-13).
The Hebrew Scriptures do not view eunuch charitably; "eunuchs" and "Gentiles" were equally synonymous with depravity. Moreover, given that the earliest strata of the Jewish tradition did not hold to a belief in an afterlife, most Jews thought their posterity would be preserved in their progeny. Hence, an unmarried and barren person was cut-off from eternity; even, childless widows must be taken as wives by their brothers-in-law (Matt 22:24).
Interestingly, however, we are told that not all eunuchs were "physical" (Jer 38:7) — and it is probably in this sense that Jesus also used the term. Jesus had chosen to voluntarily remain celibate. But the term is even more potent — if you will pardon the pun.
Jesus, the Eunuch...
In some cases the eunuchs are to be understood as a class of men who are socially emasculated, "cut-off" from normal social life and activity. For example, Isaiah (56:4-6) understands eunuchs to be barren, without off-spring and therefore "cut-off" from society and a generative future in the land. They are a people under a curse. However, in Isaiah's eschatological perspective, the coming messianic age will see a reversal of this situation, when eunuchs and Gentiles will blessed by God. Here again we see further depth to Jesus' self-understanding as revealed in Matthew 19:12.
Isaiah 56:4-6 speaks of a new covenant, in which God will overturn the curses laid upon eunuchs — with some significant conditions. They must become Jewish proselytes "keep my Sabbaths…[and] hold fast my covenant" (Isa. 56:4). Thus, while "cut-off" from eternal life through bearing of children, it is through their faith and obedience that eunuchs are given an honourable, everlasting name that is better than progeny.
The same blessings are also extended to Gentiles (Is. 56:6), who are included under seven conditions, namely to "join themselves to YHWH, to minister to YHWH, to love the name of YHWH, and to be YHWH's servants…keep the Sabbath and do not profane it, and hold fast the covenant" (Is. 56:6). Note that Isaiah 56:4-6 contains ten conditions, which parallel to the Decalogue.
This is clearly reminiscent of the so-called "Great Commission" in Matthew (28:18-20):
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
This is not only a highly eschatological pronouncement, but also a thoroughly Jewish one. The Matthean community saw (and probably quite rightly) that Jesus understood his role in terms of Isaiah's messianic vision (cf. Matt 3:3; 8:17; 12:17; 21:4), as one who would usher in a new covenant that would bring blessings on all who were "beyond the pail" (cf. Matt 12:18-21), on the condition that they "obey everything that [he] had commanded" — i.e., the continuing validity of each "jot and stroke" of the Jewish Law (cf. Matt 5:19).
This circuitous journey now brings us back to where we began with Matt 19:12. Jesus apparently chose to number himself among those who "have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" so as to identify with both "eunuchs who have been so from birth, and…eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others". Through his ministry the curse that was laid upon the barren and infertile (cf. Lk 23:29), the Gentiles and foreigners (cf. Matt 6:7), will be lifted. Perhaps Jesus also had in mind another important messianic passage from Isaiah (65:15-17; cf. Lk 4:17-21):
"You shall leave your name to my chosen to use as a curse, and YHWH will put you to death; but to God's servants God will give a different name. Then whoever invokes a blessing in the land shall bless by the God of faithfulness, and whoever takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of faithfulness; because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my sight. For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind."
Paul, the Celibate...
A similar line of thought is expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians (7:7), albeit without direct reference to eunuchs, to justify his celibate lifestyle. This passage is drawn from a longer section dealing with marriage and virginity and, specifically, cites Paul's choice to be celibate: "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind".
Once again, the Pauline passage like the Matthean one discussed above must be understood in what was for their authors the immediate context — the imminent eschaton. Paul considers virginity good because of the "present distress" (7:23) and "time is running out" (7:29); hence those who marry will have "tribulation for the flesh" (7:28).
For Paul the eschaton, or the "last days" (1 Cor 10:11), was already upon his generation. God would soon enter history to overturn the present world order and establish the kingdom.
For Paul, these last days had been initiated by the death and resurrection of Jesus and, via baptism, believers have been incorporated into the body of the Risen Lord (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12-13). The Holy Spirit now dwells in each believer as the "first payment" (Gr. arabon) and the guarantee of receiving the balance of that payment in the general resurrection (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-14).
With Jesus, Paul probably thought that at the resurrection there would be no more marrying or being given in marriage (Mk 12:25; Matt 22:30) and, therefore, virginity is the better state of life than marriage. What use would it be taking a wife or husband and having children if the present world order were to be wiped away tomorrow? And, in any event, we are already living in the kingdom, so our lives should be lived according to that altered reality.
Paul also imagined that the cares and worries of the world weighed more heavily on married couples. In this Paul is expressing a typical sectarian attitude that would have Christian free from the world, living a life separated from the world and its pollution. Of course, Paul is no prude; he is not against marriage or conjugal love.
He makes that point that if marriage has a place, and Paul gives it equal significance to celibacy, it not only serves as a remedy overwhelming passion and the dangers of licentiousness (a particular problem for the Corinthians it seems) but for the mutual building up of the couple (1 Cor 7:10-11). Nevertheless, the celibate and the virgin, being free from the cares of family life, more fully realise already in anticipation the perfect consecration to God in body and spirit that will characterise the "life of glory" (1 Cor 7:32-34).
Returning to Jesus' statement on eunuchs, we note a similar eschatological perspective — one which owes a great deal to the messianic material found in Isaiah. Isaiah played a significant role in Paul's understanding of his mission as Apostle to the Gentiles. With Jesus, he no doubt shared Isaiah's messianic vision (cf. Matt 3:3; 8:17; 12:17; 21:4). He saw Jesus as the one who would usher in a new covenant that would bring blessings on all who were "beyond the pale".
Isn't it interesting that apart from a few notable exceptions (primarily from the earliest years of the Church) most of our saints were either members/founders of religious orders or secular priests. In short, people committed to the simple life of poverty, chastity and obedience. While I am not trying to denigrate their holiness and the great contributions that these heroic women and men have made to our Church, I still wonder why we have not got more saints from the ranks of the married state.
As I have said on numerous occasions, I think much of our thinking about celibacy, marriage, sex and morality is governed by the prevailing dualism of Neo-Platonic philosophy, which was imported into our faith via the work of Augustine and others who were dependent upon the philosophy of Plotinus.
Dulaistic thinking tends to be suspicious of bodiliness, and especially sex. Because it gives priority to the world of the spirit it has tended to be suspicious and repressive of sexuality. We see the dominion of dualism in fundamentalist theologies that attempt to repress human sexuality and focus entirely upon purity ethics — where "purity" is exemplified by celibacy and all are extolled to be chaste in thought and deed.
This is not intended to denigrate celibacy or celibates. As we have discussed above, there is little doubt that Jesus was unmarried, as indeed was Paul. Although, I suspect that their reasons for adopting a celibate lifestyle would not be valid today, nor could we use their example as justification for imposing celibacy on all candidates for the priesthood.
The fires of eschatological fervour have long since cooled and, yet, we cling to practices that were born in "heat of that moment". If we want to maintain celibacy as a sign of the kingdom, we may need a new theology, one which does not depend too heavily on pronouncements like those found in Paul and Matthew. Perhaps the Matthean statement provides our best path, exploring the "sign" value of celibacy. But we should not thereby overlook Paul's very practical counsel that "it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion" (1 Cor 7:9).
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Ian Elmer