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Tears in God's Wineskin: A Theology of Hospitality

Part 2: Eunuchs


Eunuchs in the New Testament

Jesus and Eunuchs

In both Rabbinical Literature [1] and Roman Law [2] by the time of Jesus, there was a clear differentiation between the eunuch who was a castrated male and the natural eunuch, who was understood to be a fully intact man without any sexual attraction for women and sexually involved with other men. Societal attitude towards both kinds of eunuchs leaned towards respect for the positions of power some of them achieved, admiration and physical desire, but also scorn for being different and they were occasionally ridiculed by satirists such as Herodotus and later by Lucian and Juvenal. We can determine, from available literature that the differences between the castrated eunuch, who was predominantly heterosexual, and the natural eunuch, who was homosexual, were common knowledge and generally understood.

Jesus’ straightforward yet enigmatic statement concerning different types of eunuchs in Mt. 19:12 suggests that the term ‘eunuch’ may carry far wider symbolic meaning than might first be considered, as John McNeill notes, and includes gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. [3] Jesus speaks of those men who do not marry, leading on from a discussion of divorce and how the only time a man can divorce his wife is if she is guilty of consensual sex outside of marriage. Jesus states that if a man divorces for any other reason and then remarries, he is guilty of adultery, and if someone else marries the divorced wife, he also is guilty of adultery (Mt. 19:9). Commenting on this, his disciples lament, “If that is the case, then it is better not to marry.” (Mt.19:10).

The Discussion turns to non-marriage and Jesus gives three reasons for non-marriage, commenting that his teaching is difficult, “Not everyone can receive this teaching, only those to whom it has been given” (Mt.19:11) and limiting the discussion to eunuchs. “For there are some eunuchs born that way from their mother’s womb, some are made by man and some become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” (Mt.19:12). In short, Jesus refers to fully intact natural eunuchs or eunuchs of the sun, castrated eunuchs, and those who choose celibacy in order to fully serve God. Interestingly, those who abstain from sex for religious reasons are generally fully intact but Jesus refers to them as eunuchs because they refrain from marriage and sex with women. It is significant that Jesus does not condemn the practise of castration, perhaps in keeping with his habit of instilling principles rather than dealing in denunciations and judgements (cf. Jn. 3:17; 8:11), or perhaps because he was mindful, firstly of Isaiah’s prophecy and the grace poured out by God through that prophecy and secondly, that Jewish ancestry was littered with Jewish eunuchs due to enemy conquests.

How Origen allegedly misunderstood this text and castrated himself is well known, as Eusebius comments [4] and while the story is not well evidenced, it was accepted as true during the Middle Ages and cited by the likes of Peter Abelard. [5] Origen is not the only example of literal interpretation [6] and the Council of Nicea felt it necessary to deal with the danger of self-castration as did the 2nd Council of Aries and the Apos Canons (circa 21 C.E.). [7]

A.E. Harvey in his work, Promise or Pretence? A Christian Guide to Sexual Morals, suggests that Jesus’ intention behind this teaching is to restore dignity to those incapable of marriage and who were generally, “treated as inferior to full citizens.” He considers Jesus is taking ‘eunuch’ as a negative term, in order to teach that celibacy is just as acceptable before God as marriage and observes, “The startling character of his language reinforced his startling conclusion: incapacity for marriage or free renunciation of marriage may offer an honourable passport to the kingdom of heaven.” [8] Had Jesus used only the term ‘eunuch’ and had it been widely regarded in a negative sense, Harvey’s point would be plausible. However, ‘eunuch’ was not generally a negative term at that time and given that Jesus makes the differentiation between castrated eunuchs and natural eunuchs, there is greater significance in his words beyond a validation of celibacy being as justifiable as marriage.

Some scholars, such as Francis Moloney, Donald Trautman and Ulrich Luz [9] suggest Jesus’ teaching is a retort against comments regarding why he and most of his disciples were not married, transforming what was intended as an insult into admiration for complete dedication to God. Robert Gundry goes so far as to suggest the text was actually composed by the Gospel author in order to promote unmarried men as acceptable for church leadership. [10] Other scholars such as Christopher West consider the term ‘natural eunuchs’ in Matthew as referring to those born with genital defects. [11] Their point is that ‘natural eunuch’ has nothing to do with homosexuality but rather refers to men with undescended testicles or who have suffered abuse and therefore avoid sex by foregoing marriage. In short, some scholars simply recoil at the idea of a natural eunuch being anything other than a functioning eunuch and do not accept any reference to homosexuality. Such points might be considered valid if, on the one hand, such conditions were directly stated in the context of speaking about natural eunuchs or, on the other, were implied by the language used. However, careful attention to available literature concerning natural eunuchs reveals no reference to genital defect or abuse, but considerable allusion to effeminacy, female characteristics and the concept of a person being male outwardly while inwardly having a female soul – dialogue that one would easily consider in modern parlance to be stereotyping a gay man.

In the Matthean passage, Jesus does not state anything about genital defect or abuse nor implies that natural eunuchs become so through a conscious choice. Instead, he draws a simple distinction between natural eunuchs and those eunuchs who have been physically castrated. West further considers that Jesus is calling both natural and castrated eunuchs to be celibate but again, this is not a declaration made by Jesus. Rather, he distinguishes between natural eunuchs and eunuchs who choose to abstain from sexual relationships for religious purposes, implying that natural eunuchs are not required to abstain from sexual relationships even if considered exempt from a heterosexual marriage paradigm. A reading of contemporary Roman law establishes the widespread understanding that a natural eunuch (being fully intact) was entirely separate from a castrated eunuch and might even be taken by a woman as a husband:

“Where a woman marries a eunuch, I think that a distinction must be drawn between a man who has been castrated and one who has not, so that if he has been castrated, you may say that there cannot be a dowry; but where a man has not been castrated, there can be a dowry and an action for it, because a marriage can take place here.” [12]

While the question might be raised regarding why a natural eunuch, if he is a homosexual, would marry a woman, we must remember that the majority of eunuchs and natural eunuchs were slaves and had no say in their purchase or purpose. A woman might wish to marry a eunuch for the same reason many women today enjoy the frequent company of gay men as friends – women feel safe with gay men and take enjoyment in their ‘honorary sisters’. A natural eunuch who was a free man and wealthy enough, might wish to marry for the same reason many gay men have married over the centuries – to feel fully accepted by society, and to have children. There is, of course, a further possibility if we accept the fluidity of sexuality that a heterosexual woman and a gay man might actually marry out of deep friendship and love for each other.    

Reading a prohibition of committed same-sex relationship in the Matthean passage is, at best, eisogetic since the text indicates that Jesus did not expect natural eunuchs to abstain from same-sex relationships that observed Torah principles. Quite contrary, it is possible to argue for same-sex marriage based on Jesus’ intentional differentiation between natural eunuchs and those voluntarily choosing to be eunuchs for religious reasons and thus abstaining from marriage. Abstinence from sexual relationships describes those refraining from intimate relationships in order to fully concentrate on a spiritual life and relates in certain ways to castrated eunuchs who do not generally marry, but it does not relate to natural eunuchs, who Jesus refers to as being born that way. He understands that some people will reject this particular teaching, stating as much, and the irony should not be lost that those who most passionately reject this teaching today are generally heteronormative Christians. The text implies that Jesus does not receive full acceptance of his teaching, but his point is simply that this situation is a fact of life and what is so in Jesus’ time remains so today, reflected in the often heard chant at Gay Pride marches, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

Roman history and law describes natural eunuchs in much the same way as people describe gay men today and it is fascinating that where, currently, there is a passionate desire on the part of many to finally confirm a genetic code for homosexuality, Jesus pronounces natural eunuchs to have been born that way. In this regard, while not an academic argument, it is nevertheless worth noting that if Jesus, “through whom all things were created,” (John 1:3) states that natural eunuchs are born that way from their mother’s womb, and the spiritually minded regard what is within the womb as God-created, then non-heterosexuals whom overtly conservative Christians condemn are in truth creations of God. Perhaps this suggests the possibility that God created homosexuals to test the rest of heterosexual humanity where acceptance and hospitality are concerned.


Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

In Acts 8:26–40, where God receives an Ethiopian eunuch as a follower of Christ into the new Church, we find a documented fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The eunuch may have been a Jewish proselyte, or perhaps a ‘God-fearing’ Gentile attracted to Jewish belief and practice, but not a convert. Pontius, a deacon in Carthage, thought him a Jew, [13] an understanding shared by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, who considered, “For nothing else [but baptism] was wanting to him who had been already instructed by the prophets: he was not ignorant of God the Father, nor of the rules as to the [proper] manner of life, but was merely ignorant of the advent of the Son of God . . . Philip had no great labour to go through with regard to this man, because he was already prepared in the fear of God by the prophets.” [14] Ephraim of Syria concluded simply that the eunuch must have been a gentile since he was an Ethiopian. [15] Given his status as a eunuch it is unlikely he was either a converted Jew or had been accepted as a proselyte, due to the on-going observance of Mosaic laws forbidding eunuchs to participate in worship, as C. Barrett, Justo González and F. Scott Spencer point out. [16]   Whatever his religious leanings, that God included this eunuch in the family of the church is a dramatic event in Christian history. The early church consisted primarily of Jews maintaining Torah observance and continuing to argue about keeping the law, as recorded in Acts 15. It would be another two decades before the Letter to the Ephesians related how Jews and Gentiles would be one body in Christ. [17]

At this time, and contrasting to the Old Testament Temple, a partition with warning signs segregated Gentiles from the Israelite section of the outer court of the Temple for purity reasons. [18] Women were similarly considered less pure than men. [19] Concern for the sanctity of the outer court and for the worship of the Gentiles perhaps formed part of Jesus’ objection to the current Temple order when he formed a whip and turned over the tables of the money changers. [20] That the author of Matthew’s Gospel (21:13) deletes the words “for all nations,” unlike Mark and Luke (Mk. 11:17; Lk. 19:46) quoting Isaiah 56:7, suggests that he wishes to emphasise God’s declaration in Jeremiah, “Has this house, which bears my name, become a den of robbers to you?” (Jer. 7:11), rather than God’s inclusion of all peoples for worship.

Some modern biblical translations, like the New International Version entitles the narrative “Philip and the Ethiopian,” encouraging a disregard of the sexual minority aspect of the text. [21] At this point in Luke's narrative, gentiles were not yet accepted in the church, so the Ethiopian eunuch, like the Samaritan woman in John 4, represents a startling breakthrough in tradition. Philip’s baptism policy of non-discrimination against sexual minorities such as eunuchs resulted in Christianity spreading to Ethiopia, where the church still endures today and, similarly, an apparently despised woman who had had 5 husbands was chosen to pioneer evangelism in Samaria (John 4). Jesus’ contemporaries had ample legal grounds for banning him under Deuteronomy’s law regarding “bastard” children (John 8:41; cf. Dt.23:2), so it is no surprise that he had a propensity for siding with sexual minorities of the day and their struggles for justice and human dignity. Like the prophet Isaiah, Jesus longed to see God’s Temple become a ‘house of prayer for all nations,’ rather than a stronghold for the dominant elite, or a bastion of phobias and chauvinism.

Most early Christian commentary on the text seems to agree that the eunuch was a castrated male, with Jerome, Irenaeus and Arator each stating this was the case. [22] The earliest commentaries suggesting he was not a castrated male are those of Theodore, the archbishop of Canterbury (d. 690) and Hadrian, an abbot in Canterbury (d. 710), although they also refer to the ancient Persians and Romans, noting that in general all eunuchs were castrates. [23] Calvin claimed that the Ethiopian had to be a fully intact male and that ‘eunuch’ was simply an official title, basing his argument on the presence of the term ‘man’ in the text and how the Near Eastern practise of rulers to place castrated males in positions of power resulted in the title ‘eunuch’ being used indiscriminately and applied even to those who were ‘fully men’ and not castrated males. [24] Others have argued for the total ambiguity of the Ethiopian’s physical condition, such as Henry Cadbury and Bullough, [25] with a few even challenging the existence of separate terms for castrated males who were eunuchs and natural eunuchs. [26]

It is possible that the eunuch’s physical status had no significance for Philip, but that is unlikely, since it would be another 20 years before Paul’s revelation that we are “not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14), so Philip was operating under Deuteronomic Law and the forbiddance of entry by castrated eunuchs into the Jewish congregation (Deut. 23:1; Jer. 34:15-19; Yeb. 81a) was certainly extended over the centuries to include natural eunuchs who were fully intact but had no interest in women. However, he may have fully understood and accepted the prophecies of Isaiah concerning the foreigner and the eunuch, so once the Ethiopian eunuch expressed faith in Jesus Christ and requested baptism, Philip neither questioned him nor forbade baptism but rather willingly baptized him. Consequently, whether the eunuch was a castrated male or a natural eunuch, Philip would not have ignored Mosaic Law but rather strictly observed the prohibition. However, he could act with the virtue of hospitality as a response to the prophecy of Isaiah and his knowledge of Christ, and this is precisely what he seems to do.

Society was under Roman occupation and Roman law, which covered a great deal about castrated eunuchs and natural eunuchs, governed people in the known world; similarly, the Babylonian Talmud and Mishnah were possibly available to Philip, so it is highly unlikely he did not know the difference between a castrated eunuch and a natural eunuch. Jesus had used both terms as if they were commonplace (Mt.19:12) and Philip would have certainly understood that a natural eunuch was a gay man.  

Philip is instructed by the Holy Spirit to wait by the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot, where he hears the Ethiopian reading aloud a scroll of Isaiah. The scroll is Isaiah 53:7-8, which to the eunuch may have sounded like the Servant in the text had been castrated:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

Philip asks the Ethiopian if he understands the text and when he replies that he does not know who the prophet is speaking of Philip explains the passage as referring to Jesus Christ. Journeying together in the eunuch’s chariot, they reach water and the eunuch requests baptism, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” Philip willingly baptises the man as a new Christian.

Philip does not instruct the eunuch to stop being a eunuch, nor does he question the man’s sexuality or consider healing him, although Philip had the gift of healing (Acts 8:6-7). We do not know for certain whether the Ethiopian was a castrate or a natural eunuch, but from Philip’s interaction with him it is clear that his sexuality gave no cause for forbidding his baptism or his becoming a new follower of Christ. It is likely that Philip accepted that if the Ethiopian was a fully intact, natural eunuch and born as such, this was wholly acceptable to God; perhaps he had even heard the matter-of-fact words of Jesus concerning eunuchs. While this path of reasoning does not prove the Ethiopian eunuch was homosexual, it is no less plausible than the possibility of a Spirit-filled evangelist, believing he was under Mosaic Law, intentionally violating the Law out of preference for Isaiah’s prophecy and allowing a physically castrated eunuch to enter the Christian congregation.

If we understand that the Ethiopian eunuch was indeed a gay man, the story becomes crucial in that it confirms God’s love for homosexuals and heterosexuals equally, without difference or demand for change. Philip gives no command from God instructing the eunuch that after salvation he must renounce his sexual orientation and stop being who he is; he is not told he can no longer be a eunuch. The story becomes one of a Spirit-filled follower of Christ being specifically directed by God to leave an active revival in order to offer Christ’s salvation to a gay man, without any compulsion to change his sexual orientation. Luke simply ends his account by stating that, after the eunuch believed with all his heart and was baptized, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away and “the eunuch saw him no more” (Acts 8:39).

Today, a considerable number of conservative evangelicals continue to instruct gay men and lesbians to repent of their innate sexual orientation because it is a chosen fleshly sin that can equally be un-chosen. While good intentions may be behind their actions, it does not alter the issue that they act out of ignorance of scripture when they give such instruction as if it comes from God. In this regard, the account of the Ethiopian eunuch is of paramount importance, confirming that after receiving salvation he remained a eunuch; his sins were forgiven but his sexual orientation (were he a gay man) did not change, reflecting an understanding that Christ died for humanity’s sins, not humanity’s sexualities.



[1] See Israel W. Slotki [Tr.], I Epstein [ed.], The Soncino Babylonian Talmud (NJ: Talmudic Books, 2012): Mishnah Tractate Yebamoth 8:79b-80b, concerning eunuchs and natural eunuchs, their differences, how a natural eunuch might be identified and whether or not a natural eunuch might be healed from his ‘condition.’ The rabbinical conversations here clearly denote that ‘natural eunuch’ (or ‘eunuch of the Sun’) is the term used for a homosexual, rather than a castrated man.

[2] See the collected laws of the foremost Roman Legal Experts, Papinian, Ulpian, Paulus and Julian in the Digest of Justinian (483-565 C.E.), where slavery laws covering the buying and selling of eunuchs and the legal rights of eunuchs who wish to marry are discussed. Differentiation is presented concerning the castrated eunuch and the natural eunuch who is a homosexual.

[3] John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976), pp. 64-66.

[4] Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, VI, 8:1 (New Advent, Church Fathers), Available Online at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250106.htm “. . . while Origen was conducting catechetical instruction at Alexandria, a deed was done by him which evidenced an immature and youthful mind, but at the same time gave the highest proof of faith and continence. For he took the words, ‘There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake,’ [Matthew 19:12] in too literal and extreme a sense. And in order to fulfil the Saviour's word . . . he carried out in action the word of the Saviour.”

[5] Peter Abelard, Historia Calamitatum: A Story of my Misfortunes (Montana, Kessinger Publishing, 2010), p.36.

[6] Compare Babylonian Talmud: Shabbath 152a.17-18, “O eunuch, O eunuch,” he retorted, “you have enumerated three things to me, [and now] you will hear three things: the glory of a face is its beard; the rejoicing of one’s heart is a wife; the heritage of the Lord is children;  blessed be the Omnipresent, who has denied you all these!” “O quarrelsome baldhead,” he jeered at him. “A castrated buck and [you will] reprove!”; also Midrash on Ecclesiastes 10:7, “I have seen servants upon horses . . . and princes walking as servants upon the earth; degraded from their honour; banished from their thrones and palaces, or obliged to leave them, and reduced to the lowest state and condition: so David, when his son rebelled against him, and he was forced to flee from him, and walk on foot; Alshech thinks it may be a prophecy of the captivity of Israel, when they walked as servants on the earth, and the Gentiles rode on horses.”

[7] See Joseph Bingham, Origines Ecclesiasticae: Or the Antiquities of the Christian Church and Other Works Vol. IV:9 (Online: Forgotten Books, 2012), pp.202-03.

[8] A.E. Harvey, Promise or Pretence? A Christian Guide to Sexual Morals (London: SCM, 1994), p.109.

[9] Francis J. Moloney, Matthew 19:3-12 and Celibacy: A Redactional and Form Critical Study, in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 2 (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1979), pp42-60; Donald W. Trautman, The Eunuch Logion of Matthew 19,12: Historical and Exegetical Dimensions as Related to Celibacy (Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1966); Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, Vol.3: Mt.18-25 (Zürich: Benziger Verlag, 1985), pp.103-12.

[10] Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), pp.382-83.

[11] Christopher West, Celibacy for the Kingdom and the Fulfilment of Human Sexuality (Catholic Education Organisation), Available Online at: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/sexuality/se0114.html

[12] The Digest of Justinian, Vol. IV, Alan Watson [trans.], (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), p.217.

[13] Roy Joseph Defarri [ed.], Pontius, Life of St. Cyprian, in Early Christian Biographies, Fathers of the Church Series (New York: Catholic university of America Press, 2003) p.8.

[14] Irenaeus, AgainstHerasies Book IV:23. 2 (The Gnostic society Library), Available Online at: http://gnosis.org/library/advh4.htm

[15] Ephraim of Syria, The Pearl: Seven Hymns On the Faith, Hymn 3:2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), p.9, Available Online at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ephraim/pearl/pearl.html

[16] C.K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Part 1: International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1994), pp.421-22; Justo L. González, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), pp.115-17; F. Scott Spencer, The Portrait of Philip in Acts: A Study of Roles and Relations, in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series 67 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), pp160-72.

[17] Traditionally the Letter to the Ephesians has been credited to Paul, although there is debate concerning its authenticity. It is possible the letter was written in Paul’s name by a later author strongly influenced by Paul’s thought. Barth questioned Paul’s authorship as do scholars such as F.F. Bruce and C.L. Mitten.

[18] Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, V:194; and VI:124-26; also The Antiquities of the Jews, XV:417 (Project Gutenberg), Available Online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm

[19] Consider also 11 Q Temple Scroll 3, on purity at Qumran; see for example Joseph A. Fitzmyer, s.j., A Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008)

[20] Ed Parish Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), pp.67-68. Ed Sanders produces some insightful references regarding Jesus’ concern for the Gentile Court belonging God’s house of prayer for all nations.

[21] Compare with, for example, the Jerusalem Bible where the reference is ‘Philip and the Eunuch.’

[22] Jerome, Against Jovinianus 1:12 (New Advent: Church Fathers), Available Online at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/30091.htm; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:12, 8 (The Gnostic society Library), Available Online at: http://gnosis.org/library/advh3.htm; Richard Hillier, Arator On the Acts of the Apostles: A Baptismal Commentary, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1993), pp.93-94.

[23] Theodore and Hadrian, First Commentary on the Pentateuch: Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, Vol.10 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p.206.

[24] John Calvin, Acts of the Apostles, Corpus Reformatorum, Vol. 67, Guilielmus Baum, Eduardus Cunitz, and Eduardus Reuss [eds.], (Brunsvigae: C. A. Schwetschke et Filium, 1889), pp.188-92.

[25] Henry J. Cadbury, Book of Acts in History (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1955), p.16; Sebastian Bullough, Church in the New Testament, Scripture Text-Books for Catholic Schools (London: Bums, Oates, Macmillan, 1961), pp.92-93.

[26] See for example Keith H. Reeves, The Ethiopian Eunuch: A Key Transition from Hellenistic to Gentile Mission: Acts 8:26-40, in Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig [eds.], Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004) p.114-22; also Janet Everhart, Hidden Eunuchs of the Hebrew Bible, in Society of Biblical Literature 2002 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), pp.149-51; and Andreas Lindemann, Der Äthiopische Eunuch und die Anfänge der Mission unter den Völkern nach Apg 8-11, in Die Apostelgeschichte und die Hellenistische Geschichtsschreibung: Festschrift Fur Eckhard Pliimacher zu Seinem 65, Geburtstag (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004), p.120.