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Natural Eunuchs

Most modern readers assume a eunuch was a castrated man. However, in the ancient world, there were two categories of eunuchs, man-made eunuchs and natural eunuchs.

In this article, we quote sources from Roman Law, Jewish Law, first century literature and early Christianity to explain how the word eunuch was used in ancient times, and we discuss the implications of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:12.

Matthew 19:10-12

In Matthew 19, Jesus foiled a test posed by the Pharisees, avoiding the “culture war” between the two leading Rabbinical schools of the day. By pointing them to passages of Scripture that trumped their rabbinical traditions, Jesus dodged becoming embroiled in their conservative versus progressive arguments.

The disciples were sobered by Jesus’ words and the following interchange took place:

“His disciples said to Him, ‘If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ 

But He said to them, ‘All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: 

For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. 

He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.’”

(Matthew 19:10-12)

Jesus referred to the two categories of eunuchs His audience knew well and then added a third:

  • eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb
  • eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men
  • eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake

The third category refers to those who, like Jesus and Paul, chose a life of singleness to fulfil their sense of personal call and purpose in God.

But what did the first two categories mean?

What Does “Eunuch” Mean?

In ancient times, the word eunuch referred to two categories of people.

On the one hand, this term referred to those who were castrated, or to quote Jesus: “made eunuchs by men”. This barbaric practice served a warped social function in ancient times. Those serving royal and prominent people were castrated to make them more reliable servants—they would have no family of their own to distract them, they would prove no sexual threat to the wives or concubines of the ruler or prominent man, and unable to produce offspring, they would have no claim to a private dynasty.

On the other hand, this term referred to “natural eunuchs”, or in Jesus’ words: “eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb”.

Importantly, Jesus wasn’t making up these terms. He was referring to known and accepted social classes of people, specifically “sexual minorities”, in the ancient world.

While the modern reader often assumes that all eunuchs were castrated, these two distinct categories of natural and man-made eunuchs co-existed in ancient society for at least 1,500 years, and both Roman Law and the Jewish Talmud legally differentiated between the two.

In other words, modern readers cannot read into this phrase, “eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb” whatever they please. Natural eunuchs were recognized legally by ancient society. And Jesus affirms these groups by recognizing their existence, by exempting them from the male-female marriage model and by including them in the same breath as those who choose a life of singleness for the kingdom’s sake.

That may be a lot to stomach for some. So, let’s unpack this further by first noting a primary source from both Roman and Jewish Law.

Roman & Jewish Law

What Does “Natural Eunuch” Mean?

So, it should be clear. In the ancient world, the term eunuch referred to two categories of people: man-made eunuchs and natural eunuchs. Jesus referenced and affirmed these two social classes of people; He did not make up terms that we can define as we like today.

While a man-made eunuch is a concept we generally understand, what then was a natural eunuch?

It seems that natural eunuchs included three subsets of people, the first of which were those thought to be impotent (infertile).

Those Born Impotent

Marriage in the ancient world was largely concerned with status and procreation, and marriages were typically by arrangement. Impotence was, obviously, something feared and marriage to an impotent person was something to avoid. The problem, of course, is that sterility is only confirmed after the fact—when it’s too late.

The Rabbis, for example, tried to develop ways of determining impotency before marriage. Here are some of the ways, as discussed in the Talmud’s Yebamoth:

Any person who is twenty years of age and has not produced two pubic hairs … He has no beard, his hair is lank, and his skin is smooth … Any person whose urine produces no froth; some say: He who urinates without forming an arch; some say: He whose semen is watery; and some say: He whose urine does not ferment. Others say: He whose body does not steam after bathing in the winter season … He whose voice is abnormal so that one cannot distinguish whether it is that of a man or of a woman.

And they had similar tests for women:

Any woman who is twenty years of age and has not produced two pubic hairs … She has no breasts … One who has no mons veneris like other women … One whose voice is deep so that one cannot distinguish whether it is that of a man or of a woman.

While many of the deductions are absurd, some of the observations unmistakeably identify intersex people (those with undeveloped genitalia and those with mixed genitalia), and the effeminate man and the masculine woman.

While we will dig into this in the next section, the important point here is that the Talmud defined a natural eunuch as one “incapable of procreation”—note: not one incapable of sex itself. To put it bluntly, their equipment still worked.

And the Talmud attributed this incapacity to procreate as “an act of heaven”; that is, one was born this way.

Those Born Intersex

The second subset of natural eunuchs were those born intersex.

The Talmud recognized Six Sexes. Along with male and female, they labelled those with an obvious mix of genitalia, Androgynous, and those with indeterminate genitalia, Tumtum. They called the castrated male, Saris Adam, and the “congenital saris” (natural eunuch), Saris Chama, and the female version Ay’lonit. This was all largely based on “eye evidence”.

Today, we know that biological sex is more than just about genitalia; it’s about genital ducts, gonads, gametes and genes, including the most fundamental distinction of all: XX and XY chromosomes. There’s no doubt that many less obvious cases of intersex (malformed and undeveloped genitalia) were simply included in the “congenital saris” (natural eunuch) and Ay’lonit categories.

In the Genesis Rabbah, a Jewish commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, the commenter proposed the idea that Adam was created by God as an Androgynous. And only when Eve was fashioned from him, were the sexes separated into male and female. While this is obviously just speculation offered by the commenter, it does show how accepted the term was in Hebrew understanding.

In the Greco-Roman world, those born intersex were called Hermaphrodites, a term derived from Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. In Greek mythology, Hermes was fused with a female nymph becoming one individual with both male and female sex characteristics.

(It’s worth noting that today, the term is inappropriate, as those born intersex do not typically have fully functioning male and female reproductive organs. Thus, the term is often considered derogatory, and the term intersex is preferred.)

In his famous book, The City of God, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430), one of the most revered and frequently quoted early church leaders, wrote this about those born intersex:

As for the Androgyni, or Hermaphrodites, as they are called, though they are rare, yet from time to time there appears persons of sex so doubtful, that it remains uncertain from which sex they take their name; though it is customary to give them a masculine name, as the more worthy.

While Augustine refers matter-of-factly to this group of people, he does not condemn them. In fact, interestingly, he states that it was custom to give intersex people a masculine status, considered at the time, “more worthy”. In other words, those born intersex were accepted and given a privileged status in Augustine’s day.

All this goes to show that the ancient world recognized and largely accepted people born intersex, categorizing them as a subset of natural eunuchs.

The podcast on The Bible and Intersex Believers featuring theologian Megan DeFranza is excellent on this subject. Megan’s website is also a fantastic resource.

We now come to the third and final category of those born natural eunuchs.

Those Born Gay

For the Rabbis, if there was even a hint of impotency, one was deemed less than marriage material, and not fully male or female. Plus, because marriage was primarily about status and procreation, the idea of same-sex unions were foreign to them.

However, as Greco-Roman culture influenced Judaism from the translation of the Septuagint in the third century BC, the lines get blurred. That is to say, the phrase “natural eunuch” that Matthew used to quote Jesus in Matthew 19:12 was unquestionably colored by the Greco-Roman view. He didn’t use the Jewish term Saris as he did in the case of Gehenna, for example. Rather, Matthew used the Greek word for “eunuch”—so the Greco-Roman view must be understood, as it would have certainly framed the mind of the audience he addressed in his Gospel.

In Greco-Roman times, it was socially acceptable, even praised, for men to have sex with any partner they wanted (male, female, intersex people), as long as they took the active role. Mastery over one’s own body was considered crucial to a citizen’s political liberty (libertas). Using one’s body to give pleasure to others as ”the passive”—in either heterosexual or homosexual relations—was considered servile and for men, an abdication of their status. (This was about status and power, not gender or sexual orientation, and as such, an egregious abuse of privilege and power. Along with idolatry and pagan-ritualized prostitution, it was this abuse of power that framed Paul’s Vice Lists: 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10 and 1 Timothy 1:9, 10).

In other words, the distinguishing characteristic between straight and gay men in ancient times was not an attraction for men, but a lack of attraction for women.

Let’s look at two sources from a period of time after Judaism held any sway over Christianity and before Imperial Rome fully sunk its teeth into the apostolic faith.

Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215)

In his writings called the Stromata, Clement of Alexandria compared different perspectives on marriage in his day. He quoted one particular group, referring to their interpretation of Matthew 19:12.

The followers of Basilides, on the other hand, say that when the apostles asked whether it was not better not to marry, the Lord replied: “Not all can receive this saying; there are some eunuchs who are so from their birth, others are so of necessity.” And their explanation of this saying is roughly as follows: Some men, from their birth, have a natural sense of repulsion from a woman; and those who are naturally so constituted do well not to marry.

To be clear, the Basilidians were gnostic not orthodox believers. Regardless of whether Clement was partial to their interpretation of Matthew 19:12 or not, his commentary highlights that there were innately gay men, having “a natural sense of repulsion from a woman”, who found status among the eunuch class.

Gregory of Nazianzos (AD 329-390)

In his Oration 37, a detailed discussion on male-female marriage and Matthew 19, Gregory of Nazianzos gives natural eunuch believers instructions in points XVI and XVII.

In XVI, he wrote:

For there are eunuchs which were made eunuchs from their mother’s womb, etc. I should very much like to be able to say something bold about eunuchs. Be not proud, you who are eunuchs by nature. For, in point of self-restraint, this is perhaps unwilling. For it has not come to the test, nor has your self-restraint been proved by trial. For the good which is by nature is not a subject of merit; that which is the result of purpose is laudable. What merit has fire for burning, for it is its nature to burn? What merit has water for falling, a property given to it by its Maker? What thanks does the snow get for its coldness, or the sun for its shining? It shines even if it does not wish. Claim merit if you please by willing the better things.

Gregory addressed “eunuchs by nature” who were believers and urged them not to boast in their show of self-control—their lack of sexual arousal for the opposite sex—since by nature they had none. Clearly, he had the innately gay person in mind.

In XVII, he wrote:

Since then, natural chastity is not meritorious, I demand something else from the eunuchs. Do not go a whoring in respect of the Godhead. Having been wedded to Christ, do not dishonour Christ.

While this section seems to address idolatry—in the ancient world, idolatry often involved ritual prostitution—Gregory’s use of “whoring” may well have invoked the language of 1 Corinthians 6:15-17; thus, urging them to shun ritual prostitution. 

It seems that among the eunuch believers Gregory addressed, there were those both able and willing to participate in sexual activity—including virile, innately gay believers. While these eunuchs had “natural chastity” around the opposite sex, Gregory reminded them to refrain from promiscuity as followers of Jesus.

What’s also notable about these instructions is what Gregory didn’t say. At no point did he condemn them for being gay.

It goes without saying that none of the above is to claim that gay people were called eunuchs in ancient society. However, it does suggest that natural eunuchs included gay men and that gay men found acceptance in the status offered to eunuchs.

To sum up then, a natural eunuch included three subsets of people: those thought to be impotent, those born intersex and those born with no inherent attraction to women.

What Did Jesus Say About Eunuchs?

In Matthew 19:12, Jesus answered the disciples’ statement, presumably voiced by the unmarried men among them, that it was better not to marry a woman.

In His response, Jesus implied that both getting married or not getting married was a personal choice to be viewed as a gift from God. Paul also likened this choice as a gift from God (1 Corinthians 7:1-7).

Jesus then gave examples of those exempt from the male-female marriage model, mentioning the three categories of eunuchs. Only one of the three—the man-made eunuchs—were prohibited from male-female marriage by law. Like those choosing singleness for kingdom reasons, the decision to refrain from the male-female marriage model was a matter of personal choice for natural eunuchs.

All natural eunuchs: those thought to be impotent, those who were obviously intersex, those who were unsure what sex they were, and those with no inherent attraction for the opposite sex.

If being homosexual was a sin, surely Jesus would have qualified Himself at this point, either mentioning only those born impotent or intersex, or condemning gay natural eunuchs. He doesn’t do either of these two things.

Rather, Jesus did two things. Firstly, He exempted natural eunuchs from the male-female marriage model, specifically saying that only those who are “able to accept” male-female marriage should “accept it.”

Secondly, Jesus affirmed natural eunuchs. He affirmed their existence and status.

Aren’t Eunuchs Then Supposed to Live a Life of Singleness and Celibacy?

Asked another way, If Jesus equated choosing singleness for Kingdom reasons to eunuchs, aren’t eunuchs then also called to singleness and celibacy?

No, Jesus likened choosing singleness for Kingdom reasons to the class of eunuchs, not the other way around. That is, He related Kingdom singleness to some characteristic unique to the eunuch class: exemption from the male-female marriage model. He didn’t redefine the eunuch class, obliging them to now abide by the choice of singleness and celibacy some chose for Kingdom reasons.

You cannot draw conclusions about a category from a subcategory. The category defines the subcategory, not the other way around.

For example, if I remind you that 2 x 3 x 4 = 24, you can’t draw definitive conclusions on the nature of prime numbers 2 and 3 from the answer 24, which isn’t a prime number.

Or said another way, because seedless grapes (the subcategory) stem from grapes (the category), you cannot deduce that all grapes must be seedless.

To claim that eunuchs are supposed to settle for a life of singleness and celibacy would be to misinterpret what Jesus said and claim something He did not.

A Beautiful Promise

The affirmation Jesus provided in this passage can be joined to Isaiah’s beautiful promise to all eunuchs:

“Do not let the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD speak, saying, ‘The LORD has utterly separated me from His people’; nor let the eunuch say, ‘Here I am, a dry tree.’

For thus says the LORD: ‘To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, even to them I will give in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’”

(Isaiah 56:3-5)

If you are a follower of Jesus and a natural eunuch, born impotent, born intersex or born gay, receive this beautiful promise from Father God.

God gives you a place and a name even better than that of sons and daughters.

You are not cut off.

Father God loves you. He welcomes and affirms you … just as you are, just as He made you.