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Tears in God's WIneskin: A Theology of Hospitality

Part 2: Eunuchs


Eunuchs in Roman Law & Rabbinical Literature

Eunuchs in Roman Law

The Digest of Justinian (483-565 C.E.), the collected established Roman law in Latin, concentrated on the work of the foremost Roman legal experts, Papinian, Ulpian, Paulus and Julian. [1] Statements in Roman law regarding eunuchs fell under the category of slavery and it was Ulpian (172-223 C.E.) who defined the eunuch as understood by the ancient Romans, “The name of eunuch is a general one; under it come those who are eunuchs by nature, those who are made eunuchs, and any other kind of eunuchs (probably those who voluntarily abstain from marriage).” [2] Ulpian’s definition of three kinds of eunuchs is in accord with the teaching of Jesus and it is clear from Roman law that eunuchs were not solely castrated men. Born or natural eunuchs were capable of marriage, even if they had no attraction for women, and were legally allowed to marry, as noted by Justinian. [3]

If a natural eunuch was generally considered to be homosexual, what would be the point of marriage to a woman? Since the majority of eunuchs were slaves the primary reason would have been a commercial one: producing children for the slave owner in order to increase his stock. Just as some homosexual men today marry and sire children, so then procreation did not change the innate sexual orientation of a homosexual eunuch any more than heterosexual marriage changed then or changes now innate sexual orientation. Legal marriages ensured legitimate children and children born in wedlock were simply more beneficial than bastards. Similarly, a natural eunuch might be purchased and married by a woman in order to produce children for her and the eunuch, being a slave, had little say in the matter. Those natural eunuchs who were free men might marry simply to escape from the occasional ridicule they faced, [4] perhaps viewing a heterosexual life as a safer way to live or even hoping to be cured.

Roman law established that slave sellers were required to inform their customers if any slave carried disease or had a defect, with disease defined as being an unnatural physical condition impairing the body for its intended purposes, including procreation. Just as used car dealers today are prohibited under the law from concealing major flaws in cars, so Roman slave dealers were prohibited from concealing serious flaws in slaves offered for sale. Rulings in Justinian’s Digest helped determine what kinds of flaws negated a purchase contract if the seller did not report them prior to the sale. [5] Small wounds, old scars or stuttering speech were called defects and as minor flaws did not require disclosure, but major flaws such as blindness or tuberculosis, were regarded as diseases and required disclosure. In this context, Sabinus defines disease as, “an unnatural physical condition whereby the usefulness of the body is impaired.” [6] Similarly, Ulpian declares that, “if there be any defect or disease which impairs the usefulness and serviceability of the slave, that is a ground for rescission,” but he matter-of-factly refers to slight fevers and trivial wounds as having, “no liability if it be not declared; such things can be treated as beneath notice.” [7] Vivian further states, “we should still regard as sane those with minor mental defects,” otherwise a slave risked having his or her health denied, “. . . without limit . . . because he is frivolous, superstitious, quick-tempered, obstinate or has some other flaw of mind.” [8] Ulpian refers to disease and deformity and then adds, “To me it appears the better view that a eunuch is not diseased, any more than one who, having one testicle is capable of procreation.” [9] It is clear that Roman law did not view all eunuchs as genitally defective and a natural eunuch was neither a castrated man nor suffered from genital deformity. Rather, he had no sexual attraction towards women and it is highly doubtful that a natural eunuch was not understood, by those during New Testament times, to be homosexual.

Apuleius, a student of both Plato and Plat and known for his prose, speaks of “half-men” (semiviri) who call each other “girls” (puellae) and offer both passive and active sex to young men. [10]  He connects these eunuchs to those who serve as cultic priests of the goddess Cybele, a traditional role for eunuchs. Interestingly, it is relatively common today to hear gay men call each other “Girl” and Apuleius regards the natural eunuchs of his day as fully intact males with sexual attraction for other men. Pliny the Elder refers to natural eunuchs as a “third gender called half-male” (semiviri) [11] as does Ovid [12] and Tertullian, [13] while the Roman historian Suetonius expresses concern over the involvement of Emperor Titus with pederasts, recording that he was, “suspected of riotous living, since he protracted his revels until the middle of the night with the most prodigal of his friends; likewise of unchastity because of his troops of catamites and eunuchs.” [14] It is unlikely that Titus would be ‘unchaste’ with eunuchs if they were missing genitalia and Suetonius clearly groups together eunuchs and catamites when referring to homosexual activity.

Certainly, to ‘love boys’ was a permitted practice within Roman law. Not only so, but it was generally accepted by social opinion, having solid support in both military and educational institutes. Theodore W. Jennings speaks of how it is thoroughly documented as being a high honour for boys to be chosen and taken for training by older warriors in the citizen militia of Athens who would also take them as lovers, and is well attested to regarding the famous love affair of Hadrian and Antineus. Similarly in the Samurai culture of Japan, wakashūdo, the ‘way of adolescent boys,’ was an established custom, with an older warrior taking a boy to train in the Samurai arts and, with the boy’s permission, as his lover until the boy came of age. [15]

For civilians, it was believed that there were two kinds of boys, good boys (agathoi), with whom men could develop pederastic relationships, and call boys (pornoi) who were used as one night stands. [16] Nissinen points out that a popular boy could be surrounded by lovers and thus choose his lover from several rivals. [17] He further notes that this bears similarities between the erōmenas and kinaidos, where being the erōmenas was considered honourable for the passive male, while kinaidos carried the stigma of a male being effeminate and desiring penetration. It was less the act and more the effeminacy of the submissive partner that became frowned upon in society. Whether the boy was a prostitute or not, “[t]he unmanliness or effeminacy of a man was regarded as a moral problem.” [18] A stigma increasingly faced by the natural eunuch. Girlishness or sissiness of a passive partner provoked distain and contempt, since it was regarded as a deliberate rejection of one’s masculinity.

Stephen Moore considers on the one hand the Greek and Latin terms anthrōpos, anēr, arsēn, homo, vir, masculus and their cognates, and on the other, the English terms man, male, masculine and their cognates. At the height of status were adult male free citizens, supremely but not exclusively rulers, magistrates and the heads of prestigious households, basically those who socially and economically led the town or city. These were ‘true men’ or vir, and below them were the ‘unmen’ – females, boys, slaves of both sexes, sexually passive or effeminate males, eunuchs (castrates), barbarians and so forth. Free born Roman males could, with impunity, be sexually active but not passive with other males; the law solely prohibited rape, so long as a liaison was consensual it was acceptable. [19] Apart from adultery or rape, the sexual practises for the ‘true man’ that were considered to be against convention involved incest, oral-genital contact or a strange mix of positions and situations relatively impossible or unlikely such as sex with a god, self-anal penetration, self fellating, necrophilia or bestiality. [20]

Interestingly, also included in Roman lists of prohibited sex is the penetration of a woman by another woman, which has far more to do with protection of the male ego within a male-dominant society, than with social comment on lesbianism. Sex was regarded as male initiated and centred significantly on the penis and the act of penetration. [21] The very idea that a woman could or would take on the masculine role of penetrator was anathema to Roman men, as Moore notes, “Purity of gender was no mere abstraction for such males; rather they perceived it as having social consequences of the most concrete and immediate kind.” A woman who dared cross this sacred line was abhorred: “[S]uch a woman – if that indeed is what ‘she’ was – pissed in the sacred waters of gender itself and sent ripples of alarm through the minds and texts of elite Greco-Roman males.” [22]

Since the concept of honour existed only for males, the idea of a male being sexually submissive to another male may have meant loss of honour for the submissive male but the gain of honour for the dominant male. However, the anomalous idea of a woman gaining honour by acting like a male and engaging in sexual activity with another woman meant the loss of honour for all males and thus female homoeroticism was considered a crime against all men and therefore the gods.

Same-sex relationships, at least for males then, were honoured during religious rites and festivals where the gods would be invoked on their behalf, not surprisingly since most of the accounts of male deities of ancient Greek culture contain stories of homoerotic relationships with beautiful young human males, for example Zeus and Ganymede, Achilles and Patroclus. [23] With the arrival of Sappho, and the popularity of her poetry even female homoeroticism lost its stigma. Notably, same-sex relationships are supported, affirmed and praised by a vast body of ancient literature. [24] At the same time, however, we should take care not to assume cultural similarities to a modern day West, as Michael Foucault is careful to note, “. . . the notion of homosexuality is plainly inadequate as a means of referring to an experience, forms of valuation, and a system of categorization so different from ours. The Greeks did not see love for one’s own sex and love for the other sex as opposites, as two exclusive choices, two radically different types of behaviour. The dividing lines did not follow that kind of boundary.” [25]


Eunuchs in Rabbinical Literature

Rabbis at the time of Jesus distinguished two kinds of eunuchs: the ‘sěrîs ’ādām,’ a castrated man and ‘se sěrîs ḥammâ,’ a natural eunuch or eunuch of the sun. The epithet of ‘eunuch of the sun’ appears to relate to a male born incapable of reproduction, so the sun never shines on him as a man and the Mishnah sites various measures by which the natural eunuch might be recognized. Being a castrated man, a sěrîs ’ādām was not allowed to enter into the assembly of the Lord (Yebamoth 8:70a), in accordance with Deut. 23:2, “He who is wounded in the testicles . . . shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” He was banned from worship since removal of or defect in either or both testicles disqualified him religiously as an Israelite male. Neither a castrated or natural eunuch was to be judged as a rebellious son (Deut. 21:18) because he was not considered to be a man. [26] Every Israelite was commanded to perpetuate his race, so to be a natural or castrated eunuch was frowned upon and further implied ineligibility to marry. Anyone performing castration on a man could expect severe punishment. [27] However, a distinction was made between one who actually performed castration and one who caused a man to be castrated. For the former, punishment was ‘malkot’ or thirty-nine lashes, but for the latter the number of lashes could be without limit.

If the natural eunuch was anatomically intact, what else defined him? For this, ancient notions of reproduction and how it occurred must be considered. Ancient physicians had no understanding of human sperm and eggs, believing that conception was caused by an energising heat found only in males, which transformed dormant fluids in the male into a fully generative state, similar to jelly turning from a liquid to a solid mass. When implanted in the womb, this male ‘seed’ would be nourished in the female and develop into a baby. According to understanding dating back to Aristotle, women’s fluids were non-generative because their bodies were believed to be too cool and moist to produce semen, which was why women could not produce children without males; production of a child depended upon the ‘cooking’ of semen by the heat of the male orgasm. Natural eunuchs were similarly regarded to be cool and moist, their fluids too watery and sterile to generate a baby and since semen was potentially transformed into a baby through the heat of male sexual passion with a woman, natural eunuchs were considered unable to procreate since they experienced sexual passion with other men. Only if a eunuch could penetrate and reach passionate orgasm with a woman and implant his generated semen into her could he procreate like a man. However, if he did so he would of course no longer be thought to be a eunuch, having established himself as a fully heterosexual male.

Like Roman law, the Babylonian Talmud distinguished with clear legal consequences between natural and man-made eunuchs. In Yebamoth, Chapter 8.79b, Rabbis Joshua, Akibah and Eliezer consider the law of chalitsah. [28] Rabbi Joshua wonders whether a eunuch had to marry a widowed sister-in-law in accordance with Deuteronomic law and so produce children for the dead brother or be released under the law of chalitsah. Rabbi Akibah explains that a castrated eunuch must submit to chalitsah, because prior to castration he was once in a state of fitness, but a natural eunuch has no need to submit to chalitsah, since there never was a time when he was fit to marry. Rabbi Eliezer opposes this and explains that a natural eunuch must marry, because he might be cured, while a castrated eunuch cannot marry, since he cannot be cured.

Martti Nissinen correctly notes that Rabbinic texts have no actual term for homosexuality than does the Hebrew Bible and Rabbis were more concerned with the blurring of gender roles and the penetration of a male rather than same-sex desire or attraction. [29] He refers to how the Talmud contains only one story that implies sexual interaction between Jewish men (Mishnah Tractate Sanhedrin 6. 4, 23c). It concerns Rabbi Judah ben Pazzi entering the attic of a school building and catching two men engaged in a sexual act. The men tell the Rabbi simply that they are two and he is only one, meaning that within Jewish law two witnesses or more were required to testify to the actuality of an event. The story, however, confirms the reality of same-sex sexual activity within Jewish communities and as Nissinen points out, “Specific moral commands and norms are born from the needs of the time and the place; the fundamental thing is that love become real and influential in the process.” [30]

Lesbianism, as across most historical literature, has almost no mention. However, in a discussion between Rabbis concerning the required status of a woman intent on marrying a priest, it is agreed that a harlot cannot qualify to be a priest’s wife, but Rabbi Eleazer surmises this means a woman who has previously slept with a man but not a woman who has slept with another woman. (Yebamoth 76a). In the Palastinian Talmud the Rabbis disagree on this issue, with the Shammai school forbidding a woman to marry a priest if she and another woman have ‘rubbed’ each other, and the school of Hillel allowing the marriage to go ahead. (Gittin 8:10, 49c).

In the Talmud, the distinction between natural eunuchs and castrated eunuchs was substantive as in Roman law although the castrated eunuch seemed entitled to more privileges than the natural eunuch, for example, being entitled to have a child produced in his name by his brother if he died childless. The natural eunuch was discouraged from marrying in the first place, being considered generally unfit and exempt from levirate marriage while the castrated eunuch was not, strongly implying that the natural eunuch was understood to be a gay man. However, what is most significant is Rabbi Eliezer’s comment about the natural eunuch possibly being cured, not unlike the assertion by some today, particularly evangelical Christians, who promote alleged cures for homosexuality.

For the Amoraim rabbis who composed the the Gemara or commentary to the Mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud, as related in Tractate Yebamoth 8: 79b-80b, identifying a ‘eunuch of the sun’ presented a problem and their musings of the possible means of identification are fascinating. None of the rabbis suggest looking for defects in the reproductive organs, but rather characteristics similar to Aristotle’s thoughts on the coldness of the eunuch’s body. These included the absence of pubic hair at the age of twenty (a mark of puberty under Roman law), lank hair and smooth skin, absence of froth in urine, urine which does not ferment and inability to form an arch when urinating, watery semen or absence of steam from the body after a winter bath (both denoting feminine coldness), and an abnormally high-pitched voice, indistinguishable as male or female. The rabbis further suggest that natural eunuchism was caused when an expectant mother drank strong beer and baked bread at noon, implying that the condition arose from a combination of alcohol and exposure to heat during pregnancy. It also provides an alternative explanation for the term ‘eunuch of the sun,’ indicating a premature ‘burn-out’ relating to male heat.

From the language used in both Roman law and Rabbinical literature when referring to the natural eunuch it is impossible to imagine what else is being referred to other than a gay man. It is clearly not a reference to a man born with genital defects, otherwise rabbis would not debate the possibility of a cure that was no less physically miraculous than a cure for a castrated male. It should also be remembered that until the 19th century the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘homosexuality’ simply did not exist, so it is the language, accounts and context in available literature that confirm the natural eunuch as a homosexual.


[1] Emperor Justinian’s legal commission edited approximately fourteen hundred years of Roman law. More than two thousand ancient law books were consulted to produce The Digest of Justinian, the English translation of which is some four thousand pages long. Ulpian’s legal commentaries were among the books consulted by Justinian’s scholars and provide the basis of one third of the digest. Ulpian was an outstanding expert on Roman law and his legal opinions carried evidentiary weight that was respected and consistently referred to.

[2] Alan Watson [trans.], The Digest of Justinian, Vol. IV: Book 50, 128 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), p.458.

[3] Watson, The Digest of Justinian, Vol.2, Book XXIII: 39, p.217 (see my previous reference in Jesus and Eunuchs).

[4] While accepted as part of an integrated society, nevertheless castrated eunuchs and natural eunuchs were a target for the satirists of the day, such as Juvenal who observed, “When a soft eunuch takes to matrimony . . . it is hard not to write satire.” The Satires 1:22.

[5] Watson, The Digest of Justinian, Vol.1, Book XXI: 7, p.144.

[6] Watson, The Digest of Justinian, Vol.1, Book XXI: 7, p.144.

[7] Watson, The Digest of Justinian, Vol.1: Book XXI: 8, p.145

[8] Watson, The Digest of Justinian, Vol.1: Book XXI: 9, p.145

[9] Watson, The Digest of Justinian, Vol.1: Book XXI: 6, p.146.

[10] Mary Tighe and Hudson Gurney [trans.], The Works of Apuleius: Comprising the Metamorphoses or Golden Ass, the God of Socrates, the Florida and his Defence or A Discourse on Magic, (London: Bell, 1878), pp.163-65.

[11] “Man is the only creature in which the testes are ever broken, either accidentally or by some natural malady; those who are thus afflicted form a third class of half men, in addition to hermaphrodites and eunuchs.” John Bostock [trans.], Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 11:110, (Perseus Digital Library), Available Online at: (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D11%3Achapter%3D110

[12] William S. Anderson [ed.], Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books I-V, (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), pp.453-54.

[13] Tertullian calls eunuchs “tertium sexus” a third sex: “Indeed, you have a third kind of being, though not a third mode [of behaviour] but a third sex, more fittingly mocked by men and women than counted among either of them.”   Quoted in Stephen O. Murray, Homosexualities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p.301.

[14] J. C. Rolf [trans.], Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum – Divus Titus, c. 110 C.E. (Fordham University Ancient History Sourcebook), Available Online at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suet-titus-rolfe.asp

[15] Theodore Jennings Jnr, Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York and London: Continuum, 2005), p.12, referring to David F. Greenberg, Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp.110-16.

[16] Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), p.96 & 301.

[17] Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticicism in the Biblical World: A Historic Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), p.67.

[18] Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, p.87.

[19] Stephen D. Moore,‘Of Men and Unmen’ in, God’s beauty Parlour and Other Queer Spaces in and Around the Bible (Stamford CA: Stamford University Press, 2001) p.135-146.

[20] See Craig A. Wiliams: Roman Homosexuality (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) pp.197-203. See also John J.Winkler, The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece (New York: Routledge, 1990) p.42-43.

[21] Bernadette J. Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1996), p.241-52, relating to Brooten’s commentary on Romans 1:26.

[22] Stephen D. Moore, God’s Beauty Parlour, p.149 – referring to Judith P. Hallett, Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in, Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner [Eds.] Roman Sexualities   (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p.255-72.

[23] See for example, Christine Downing, Myths and Mysteries of Same-sex Love (New York, Continuum 1989) p.146-67; also W.A. Percy III, Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archive Greece (Urbona, Univ of Illanois Press, 1996) p.53-58.

[24] See Michael Foucault. History of Sexuality, Vol.2 The Use of Pleasure (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), pp187-214; also Dover, Greek Homosexuality. P.4-15; also Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), pp 4-15.

[25] Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol.2, p.187.

[26] Israel Slotki [trans.], I Epstein [ed.], The Soncino Babylonian Talmud: Mishnah Tractate Yebamoth 8:80b.

[27] Rabbi Dr H. Freedman [trans.], I. Epstein [ed.], The Soncino Babylonian Talmud: Mishnah Tractate Shabbath 111a.

[28] According to Deuteronomy 25:5-10, when a man dies childless, it is his brother's responsibility to marry the widow and produce a child in his brother's name. The ceremony of chalitzah was instituted to enable the widow and brother-in-law to refuse this responsibility and avoid marriage. The ceremony involved the widow removing one of her brother-in-law’s shoes and spitting in his face, releasing them both from further obligation to each other.

[29] Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), p.98.

[30] Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World. P.140.