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Tears In God's Wineskin: A Theology of Hospitality

Part 2: Eunuchs


Eunuchs - A Biblical Coming Out

 Disagreement continues between Christians regarding the biblical texts relating to or seemingly relating to homosexuality. Some see only abhorrence from God for a deliberately chosen sexual sin that is categorically forbidden for God’s people and is a wholly unnatural human act. Others see reference to specific cultural acts related to idolatry, exploitation and abuse that have nothing to do with faithful same-sex relationships, which are acceptable before God and are as natural as any faithful heterosexual relationship.

Is it possible, then, to find a different approach that maintains biblical integrity and moves the debate forward? I believe there is. One insightful way is to find guidance within the realms of a parallel situation similarly presented in the pages of scripture. James Alison comments, “My conviction is that there is only one Bible story, and that is the story told by God . . . God calls us into being through giving us the gift of story, and that uncomplicated story is one in harmony with us, and nourished by, the fragments of biblical nudges towards it . . . a story which is not one of reaction, but of being called into being and rejoiced in.” [1] While Alison sees an “important lack” in the scriptures regarding the formation of an Exodus for the gay community, I believe one does in fact exist in the biblical history of the eunuch and I propose that this biblical ‘coming out,’ [2] begins with the clearly defined exclusion of the eunuch from the Temple as commanded by God (Deut.21:1), which surprisingly transforms with the unexpected inclusivity advocated by God through Isaiah (Isa. 56) and culminates in the matter-of-fact teaching of Christ (Mt. 18:) with an inclusivity practised by the early church as represented by the Apostle Phillip in welcoming and baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:). What God initially and irrefutably forbids, he later welcomes and embraces.

This biblical journey of the eunuch significantly indicates that the law of God, where understood to ban or forbid something, may be lifted or entirely reversed by God at a later time or under different circumstances. When we grasp this, we must become open to the possibility that whether or not Christians choose to trust in or refute an apparent ban on homosexuals, there may yet be grace enough to recognise that this issue need not be viewed from opposing sides but actually from the same place where differences of opinion may be accepted and acknowledged as equally valid, or at least understood, enabling straight and gay Christians to include one another within the Christian community based on the common understanding that where God may say ‘no’ he may also say ‘yes.’

Concerning the history of the eunuch, the bible moves unmistakably from a place of absolute exclusion to one of complete inclusion, without any sense of blurring either the text or the issue. The biblical journey regarding homosexuality may not be so clear to some but it parallels significantly with that of eunuchs, bringing it into sharper focus where consideration of the topic does not need to shelter positively behind human rights or negatively behind biblical pericopes or traditions, but rather be open to richer theological discussion and appreciation for differences of opinion.

What is a Eunuch?

In his work, The Church and the Homosexual, John McNeill notes that the term ‘eunuch’ is not used solely biblically in the literal sense of males who have been physically castrated, but also “in a symbolic sense for all those who for various reasons do not marry and bear children.” [3] Today the term ‘eunuch,’ at least in the west, tends to be given to a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual, midway through their transition. 

In India today, approximately a million or so hijras - transsexuals, intersexuals (hermaphrodites), and homosexuals who have willingly chosen to be totally castrated - are estimated to be living there according to Alessandra Zeka in her 2005 documentary, Harsh Beauty. [4] The Hindustani term ‘hijra’ comes from the Arabic root of ‘hjr’, meaning ‘to leave one’s tribe’ [5] and the social history of hijras can be traced back to the Kama Sutra period. [6] Today, as then, hijras tend to live together in well-established all-hijra communities where they are led by a guru and are self-sustaining, [7] taking in young boys who have rejected or have been rejected by their birth family. [8] Many survive by earning a living as sex workers and their social status is regarded as very low. [9] For decades they have been unofficially considered a third sex, but since the end of the 20th century hijra activists and western non-governmental organisations have lobbied for official recognition, in order to establish hijras as being neither male nor female, but a third gender in their own right. [10]    

Piotr Scholz comments that eunuchs still serve in harems and holy places throughout the Muslim world today, as they did across the ancient Near East, described and pictured throughout historical records. [11] However, in ancient times there was no standard form of castration. [12]  In Arabic the mamsūh had a ‘clean cut’ with both the penis and testicles being removed, while the majbub had the penis removed but the testicles left without damage. Kathryn Ringrose notes that the most common form of castration in the ancient Near East was either removal of the testicles or causing them permanent damage. [13] The process was administered through cutting, trussing, crushing, twisting or dragging, [14] and such eunuchs were regarded as khasi or ‘partial castrates.’ From his research into Assyrian incantations, Robert Biggs concludes that young boys were generally made into eunuchs by crushing their testicles, [15] which although cruel, was less painful and less dangerous than cutting off the testicles completely. Assyriologist, Karlheinz Deller, observes that the Assyrian word marruru (“to castrate”) is believed to have originated from maraqu (“to crush”) and marasu (“to squash”). [16] Young boys castrated to become eunuchs were usually foreign captives or war tributes intended as spoils for the king, as would be the case in Achaemenid Persia, according to Albert Grayson. [17] However, it is possible that eunuchs who established the highest positions in Assyria most likely came from Assyrian families who would present one of the youngest sons for castration in preparation for royal service, in order to financially benefit the family or gain royal favour. Vern Bullough concludes that it was generally the khasi (partial castrates) who were prepared for service in royal harems or women’s quarters. [18]

Kathryn Ringrose records that boys castrated before puberty remained beardless with a fresh complexion and gained fat deposits characteristic of women. They exhibited unusually long arms and legs, a tall, frail frame and their voices remained high pitched; their hair appeared thick and luxuriant and did not fall out as they aged and the beauty of such eunuchs was admired since their youthful looks were preserved for longer than usual. She further points out that total castrates, if they survived the initial operation, were fitted with a small (lead) pipe to keep the urethra open after the removal of the penis, but they often faced lifelong urinary tract problems and eventually all eunuchs suffered from premature aging, osteoporosis, and diabetes. [19] Total castration performed on a living man was extremely dangerous and the mortality rate was high with perhaps three out of four castrates dying [20] from infection, bleeding to death, or from the scarring over and closing of the urethra duct. [21]

Dead and defeated enemies were frequently castrated in the ancient Near East as a result of conquering warriors wanting ‘war trophies’ to take home, as is recorded in the Old Testament (1 Sam. 18:27). Egyptologist James Breasted records that pharaoh Merneptah of the thirteenth century BC, 19th Dynasty, had written on a memorial that he collected 6,359 uncircumcised penises after defeating an invading Libyan army, and took additional penises from the children of the chief, the brothers of the priest, and from any other high-ranking male. [22]

Eunuchs and Sexuality

It might be presumed that castrated males would lose all sexual appetite or passion and certainly debating the sexual capabilities of eunuchs seems to have been a regular pastime in the palaces where they served. [23] Sirach 30:20 notes how someone the Lord punishes “looks with the eyes and groans like a eunuch who embraces a young woman.” In truth, if the testicles were removed after puberty rather than before, a eunuch could still gain an erection, since testosterone continued to be produced by the adrenal glands, although sperm was not produced.  Similarly, boys who had their testicles crushed at a young age could still receive testosterone from their crushed testicles, enabling them to have erections; and totally castrated eunuchs could still receive anal pleasure via the prostate gland, resulting in climax but without ejaculation.  Bullough consequently argues that in reality eunuchs were castrated only to ensure that children born in a harem would unquestionably be sired by the master. [24] Whatever the true reasons for castration, the smooth, hairless, hermaphroditic bodies of young eunuchs were considered appealing by many and Scholtz notes that the apparent half-man, half-woman combination was often viewed as a wondrous union of the two genders since it exhibited the charms of both sexes. [25]

Karl Wittfogel, Johanna Fürstauer, Ilse Seibert and Keith Hopkins each observe that while not all eunuchs were used for homosexual purposes, many were and those with boyish beauty and charm were in high demand among the male elite as bed partners even if they had wives. [26]  Regarding the sexual use of eunuchs by royal women in the harem, available Greek and Roman authors reveal nothing, nor do other ancient sources, but relationships between (fully intact) men and eunuchs are well documented, such as that of Alexander the Great and the beautiful young eunuch Bagoas, previously the catamite lover of Darius III. [27] Bagoas is generally portrayed as Alexander’s eromenos, or beloved, although the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, while acknowledging Bagoas as, “exceptional in beauty and in the very flower of boyhood,” cynically notes that the relationship was nothing but another Persian royal custom Alexander copied. [28] A lesser known account is the documented passion of the Persian king Artaxerxes (probably one of the later Artaxerxeses, II–IV) for a handsome eunuch named Tiradates. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones notes that when Tiradates died, the king fell into the depths of depression and out of concern his servants arranged for a look-alike female courtesan to be sent to the king’s bedchamber dressed in the eunuch’s clothes, which consequently revived the king to some degree but he could not enjoy intercourse with her. [29]

Do eunuchs of ancient times compare and contrast with gay men or male-to-female transgendered individuals in the western world today?  Eunuchs in the ancient world, though accepted and desired, were understood little, widely considered to be misfits and often regarded with contempt and derision.  Scott Spencer notes that in the ancient world, “the effeminate eunuch embodied shame, impotence, and social deviance” and was even viewed as “a threatening liminal figure,” or as “something . . . monstrous [and] alien.” [30] Ringrose similarly mentions that,, “All historical eunuchs were ambiguous figures,” their services being valued, while they themselves were frequently despised.  “They were often objects of desire [because of their youthful, attractive looks] yet at the same time many found them to be repulsive.” [31]

Tom Horner sympathises with the eunuchs’ lack of choice in their condition, suggesting there is “a special pathos to the situation in which those who had been made into eunuchs in the ancient world were often looked upon with scorn. . . .” [32] Captured Jews, for example, castrated and made eunuchs by circumstances beyond their control, were forced to leave families and religious communities behind and instead make a new home for themselves in a foreign land.

Diversity and physical differences existed amongst eunuchs and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, among others, comments that Assyrian eunuchs looked corpulent and strong, while Persian eunuchs appeared slim and elegant. [33] Similarly, the Hindu text of the Kama Sutra, written between the first and sixth centuries C.E. though claiming to be based on much older traditions, expresses the view that all eunuchs, whether effeminate in appearance or masculine, engaged in homosexual activity to a greater or lesser extent. [34]

Nevertheless, whatever ancient and modern comparisons might be considered, gay men and transgendered people in the West today do not have their sexual organs forcibly taken from them and transgendered people today have increased freedom, medical support and opportunity to fulfil their natural gender desires. Consequently, any grief experienced regarding their sexuality tends to result from the homophobic or trans-phobic attitudes of others or, for transgendered people, from the discomfort of bearing an outward sexual identity that does not match their perceived gender identity. An important parallel nevertheless remains, in that just as God expressed through Isaiah a grace that embraced all eunuchs who worshipped him (Isa. 56:3–5), in the same way God in his grace embraces all LGBT [35] people today who love him and want to serve him. 



[1] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001, reprinted 2002 and 2006), pp.196-97.

[2] In terms of a homosexual or lesbian accepting and openly declaring their sexuality, rather than hiding it out of fear and leading a double-life, the term ‘coming out’ originates from the language used for a young woman having a ‘coming out party’ where she would be presented to society.

[3] John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976), pp.64-65.

[4] Alessandra, Zeka (Prod. and Dir.) Harsh Beauty (United States: Story Teller Productions, 2005). Available online at: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/11101/Harsh-Beauty

[5] “Hjr : To break with, leave, forsake, renounce, emigrate, flee” Lahzar Zanned, Root Formation and Polysemic Organization, in Mohammad T. Alhawary, and Elabbas Benmamoun [eds.] Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics XVII-XVIII: Papers from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Annual Symposia on Arabic Linguistics (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2005), p.97.

[6] The Kama Sutra, which literally means “Short sayings on love,” mentions the performance of fellatio by feminine people of a ‘third sex’, known as tritiya prakriti. See Chapter IX: Of the Auparishtaka or Mouth Congress, Kama Sutra of Vatsyayan, Sir Richard Burton [trans.] (Tennessee: Lightening Source, 2009).

[7] Sereena Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman: The Hjras of India (London: Wadsworth Publishing, 1998), especially pp.35-54.

[8] “None of the hijra narratives I recorded supports the widespread belief in India that hijras recruit their membership by making successful claims on intersex infants. Instead, it appears that most hijras join the community in their youth, either out of a desire to more fully express their feminine gender identity, under the pressure of poverty, because of ill treatment by parents and peers for feminine behaviour, after a period of homosexual prostitution, or for a combination of these reasons.” R.B. Towle and L.M. Morgan, Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the 'Third Gender' Concept, in S. Stryker and S. Whittle [eds.], Transgender Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006), p.116.

[9] Sereena Nanda, Hijras: An Alternative Sex and Gender Role in India, in Gilbert Herdt [ed.], Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History (New York: Zone Books, 1996), pp.52 64.

[10] Anuja Agrawal, Gendered Bodies: The Case of the ‘Third Gender' in India, in Contributions to Indian Sociology Vol. 31 (1997), pp. 273–97.

[11] Piotr O. Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History, J. A. Broadwin and Shelley. L. Frisch [trans.] (Princeton: Marcus Wiener, 2001), p.26.      

[12] See: Shaun Marmon, Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) p.62; Also: Norman M. Penzer, The Harem (London: Spring Books, 1936, [reproduced 1965]), pp.142-43.

[13] Kathryn M. Ringrose, Eunuchs in Historical Perspective, in History Compass (Vol.5 No 2, 2007), p.497.

[14] A eunuch whose testicles had been removed by dragging was known as a ‘spados.’ The particularly beautiful and youthful-looking eunuch Bagoas, the catamite of Darius III (335–330 B.C.), the last king of Persia, was known as a spados; Darius presented him as a gift to Alexander the Great. See Norman M. Penzer, The Harem (London: Spring Books, 1936, reprinted 1965), p.142.

[15] Robert D. Biggs 1969, noted in Albert K. Grayson, Eunuchs in Power: Their Role in the Assyrian Bureaucracy, in Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz [eds.], Vom Alten Orient zum Alten Testament: Festschift fur Wolfram Freiherrn von Soden zum 8, Geburtstag am 19, Juni 1993, pp.85–98 (Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1995), p.92.

[16] Karlheinz Deller, The Assyrian Eunuch and Their Predecessors, in Kazuko Watanabe [ed.] Priests and Officials in the Ancient Near East (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1999) pp.304-05.

[17] Albert K. Grayson, Eunuchs in Power: Their Role in the Assyrian Bureaucracy, in Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz, [eds.] Vom Alten Orient zum Alten Testament: Festschift fur Wolfram Freiherrn von Soden zum 85, Geburtstag am 19 Juni, 1993 pp.85–98 (Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1995) p.95.

[18] Vern L. Bullough, Eunuchs in History and Society, in Shaun Tougher [ed.], Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond (London: Gerald Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2002), p.4.

[19] Ringrose, Eunuchs in Historical Perspective, pp.497-98.

[20] Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, p.16.

[21] Bullough, in Tougher, Eunuchs, p.3.

[22] James Henry Breasted, noted in Vern L. Bullough, Eunuchs in History and Society, in Shaun Tougher [ed.], Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond (London: Gerald Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2002), p.6.

[23] Ringrose, Eunuchs in Historical Perspective, p.498.

[24] Bullough, in Tougher, Eunuchs, pp.4-10.

[25] Scholtz, Eunuchs and Castrati, p.18.

[26] Karl Wittfogel 1957, Johanna Fürstauer 1965, Ilse Seibert 1974, Keith Hopkins 1978, each noted in David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990), p.123.

[27] See for example Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, in Tougher, Eunuchs, p.35

[28] J. E. Atkinson and J.C. Yardley, Curtius Rufus: Histories of Alexander the Great (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp.51-52.

[29] Llewellyn-Jones, in Tougher, Eunuchs, p.35.   

[30] F. Scott Spencer, Eunuch, in Katharine Doob Sakenfeld [ed.], New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), p.355.

[31] Ringrose, Eunuchs in Historical Perspective, p. 501

[32] Tom Horner, Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978) pp.68-69.

[33] Llewellyn-Jones, in Tougher, Eunuchs, p.24.

[34] See Horner, Jonathan Loved David, p.140, referring to the Kama Sutra 2.11

[35] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexul and Transgendered.