Jesus on Eunuchs and Marriage

“Most people looked down on eunuchs for their impotence or effeminity”, but Jesus uses them as a metaphor to teach “some would indeed be better off not marrying”:

> If… we read the text [Matthew 19:1-12] in sequence, the disciples are concerned about the danger of marrying without an escape clause, and Jesus responds to their question (Carson 1984b: 418–19; France 1985: 282). Ancient marriage contracts typically included arrangements in case of divorce (e.g., P. Ryl. 154.28–33), though this was normally expressed as a “just in case”; it was naturally not the outcome for which parties entering a marriage hoped (cf. P. Oxy. 1273.25, A.D. 260). If a marriage did not work, divorce was a relatively simple option (Terence Lady of Andros 567–69; Keener 1991a: 50–52). Many sages considered it a duty to divorce a “bad” wife (e.g., Sir. 25:26; b. ʿErub. 41b; Yebam. 63b; p. Ketub. 11:3, §2; Gen. Rab. 17:3; Lev. Rab. 34:14); Plutarch ridiculed a man who failed to divorce such a wife as cowardly (Plut. Virtue and Vice 2, Mor. 100E). Parents arranged marriages, and according to tradition, in Galilee at least, one could not spend time alone with one’s prospective spouse until after the wedding (Safrai 1974/76b: 756–57; Finkelstein 1962: 1:45); one could not always know in advance what one’s spouse would turn out to be like. To marry without the possibility of divorce in a painful marriage seemed worse than not marrying at all! Responding to this objection, Jesus replied that some would indeed be better off not marrying; perhaps because of the intensity of their callings, it would be difficult for true disciples to find compatible spouses who would share their commitment (cf. the story of Crates and Hipparchia in Keener 1991a: 64; cf. Mt 10:35–37).

> Jesus’ remark about celibacy is graphic and would certainly seize the attention of Jewish listeners; the first two eunuch images prepare the reader for the “eunuch for the kingdom” (Malina 1981: 5–6). Jewish teachers could distinguish those who were born without sexual organs and those on whom an operation was performed (Manson 1979: 215; cf., e.g., t. Yebam. 10:3; Sifre Deut. 247.1.1–3; p. Yebam. 8:5, §1), but Jewish people were horrified by castration (e.g., Test. Jud. 23:4; Ps-Phocyl. 187; Jos. Apion 2.270–71; p. Yebam. 8:1, §11), and those who “made themselves eunuchs” were viewed as morally depraved (Jos. Ant. 4.290). Most people looked down on eunuchs for their impotence or effeminity (cf., e.g., Juv. Sat. 1.22; Epict. Disc. 3.1.31; Ps-Lucian Affairs of Heart §21; Babrius 54.4; Lucan C.W. 10.133–34; Jos. Ant. 4.290–91) and recognized that their desires would never be fulfilled (Sir 20:4; 30:20); some recognized that eunuchs were at a disadvantage (Phaedrus 3.11.4–5) but through no fault of their own (Phaedrus 3.11.6–7; cf. Aul. Gel. 4.2.6–8). “Eunuch” (lit. “half-man”) could function as an insult (Virg. Aen. 12.99). Whereas some Gentiles equated Jewish circumcision with a form of castration (cf., e.g., Herr 1978; Pesiq. Rab Kah. 3:6), Jewish people did not allow eunuchs into the covenant, based on Deuteronomy 23:1 (though cf. Is 56:4–5).

> The figurative sense of celibacy in which Jesus means the language (cf., e.g., Ach. Tat. 5.22.5; 6.21.3) would have been less jarring, but nonetheless offensive, to most of his contemporaries (see especially Tannehill 1975: 136–37). Although some pietists in the wilderness may have preferred celibacy (Jos. Life 11; War 2.120; Ant. 18.21; Philo Hypothetica 11.14; Pliny of such shame and sacrifice testifies to the value of the kingdom of God for which anyone would pay such a price (Tannehill 1975: 138–40); by embracing both shame and self-control, Joseph to a lesser extent models the nature of this demand (1:25).

Keener, C. S. (2009). The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (471-472). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.