Bible Interpretation Fail

Recently witnessed, on a comment thread about the whole “Phil Robertson quotes Paul and that’s hatespeech” thing:

A male person, attracted to persons of the same sex and advocating sexual activities with them as not unlawful to Christians, proceeded to quote Jesus on “For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” — as making it okay for men to have gay sex with men.

First of all, this betrays a huuuuuuge misunderstanding of what a eunuch is. A eunuch is a man who has been castrated, which is to say that his testicles have been removed. If done in childhood, he will never fully mature sexually, and will be basically unable to have sex in the strict sense (with men or women) because his primary sexual organ won’t work. (We are told historically that there were ways to work around this, but that most eunuchs weren’t interested in anything spicier than combing people’s hair.)

Second, the whole point was that they couldn’t make women pregnant or have heirs, and were thus “safe” to have working inside the home of an Oriental king with a big harem. The passage is basically saying that the two God-approved ways to live are that either you marry, or you are a “safe” person to be around, one who never has sex with anybody else and does not threaten the chastity of other people’s marriages or other unmarried people.

Thirdly, Jesus’ eunuch remarks come in the context of his remarks on the fact that having an indissoluble marriage between one man and one woman was what God intended from the beginning of the world; and that if you couldn’t take that, you had the further choice of never marrying and never having sex at all, and thus being like a eunuch or a child.

Let us quote, beginning at Mt. 19:3 —

And there came to him the Pharisees tempting him, and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?”

He, answering, said to them, “Have ye not read, that he who made man from the beginning, made them male and female?” And he said, “For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh.
Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

They say to him, “Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorce, and to put away?”

He says to them, “Because Moses, by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives; but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, commits adultery.”

His disciples say unto him, “If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry.”

He said to them, “All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it.”

Then were little children presented to him, that he should impose hands upon them and pray. And the disciples rebuked them.

But Jesus said to them, “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such.” And when he had imposed hands upon them, he departed from thence.

A man who is a eunuch “born so from” his “mother’s womb” is a person born without testicles, or with one or more undescended testicles that will never descend. This is a fairly common birth defect among many kinds of animals as well as among male human beings. There are also other birth defects which prevent testicles from developing correctly, or prevent puberty altogether.* You might also argue that men who do not have any particular sexual feelings or urges (the so-called asexual men) are also born eunuchs. Further, you could extend this to women who have birth defects preventing puberty or actual sex or sexual feelings and urges.

Being a eunuch from birth and from the womb is not anything like being a man (or woman) interested in his own sex. That is a case where the person is either glorifying and acting upon their sexual urges and feelings, or remaining chaste in spite of their sexual urges and feelings. It is certainly not a case in which one is powerless to have or want sex with anyone.

Judaism always taught that it was wrong to castrate boys or men, and Christianity has generally followed that (barring the unfortunate Byzantine craze for eunuch bureaucrats and choir members, which managed to migrate to Italy and survive for a couple centuries after Constantinople’s fall). Being a literal eunuch (born or made by men) was generally held to bar one from both the Jewish and Christian priesthood (which was why Origen was accused of having castrated himself) as well as from marriage, but eunuchs could otherwise participate fully in Christian and Jewish life. Eunuchs appear fairly frequently in the Bible in courts outside Israel (both as good guys and bad guys, but more often good guys), and of course Acts tells us about the miraculous sending of an apostle to teach and baptize the Ethiopian eunuch going home from Jerusalem to Sheba.

In Greco-Roman times, the commonest interpretation difficulty with this eunuchs passage was that some literal-minded young men (mostly Egyptians, for some reason) interpreted “eunuchs who make themselves so for the kingdom of heaven” as a call to be castrated as adults, rather than interpreting it in the traditional Christian way — as a call for all adults who didn’t marry, to remain celibate for eternal life’s sake. (It is traditional to quote this verse about celibate priests and monks, for instance.) Nobody that I can recall ever interpreted it as being a call to homosexual sex or homosexual marriage — not even the weirder heretical sects.

So yes, this is a particularly un-useful quote for homosexual activists to use, unless they are advocating chaste celibacy for everyone with same-sex attractions.

* Many of these birth defects and conditions are treatable today with surgery, hormones, etc. And before anybody asks, it is perfectly permissible for Christians to be treated for such things.

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