In 2017, I came out of the gay closet to one of my Christian friends in a coffee shop. I’d done all “the research” that would defuse homophobic approaches to Christianity. And, apparently my friend’s pastor had done a sermon series on the gays, concluding that the Bible only supports gay celibacy, and finally quoted Matthew 19:12 at me, which is what we’re going to address later. And, before skipping class so I could share my story with this dude (he didn’t budge change his mind), I told him, “oh, my professor used that same passage as a way of affirming gay people.” And, so, for the past few years, I’ve dismissed the passage as an anachronism: that a eunuch illuminated nothing about contemporary religious sexuality debates. That is, I dismissed it until yesterday. What follows is both a cathartic “heck you” to my friend, who maintained his homophobic reading in spite of several of his gay friends’ suggestions; and also a positive reading of the eunuch as a synecdoche for queer people, suggesting that Jesus would, in fact, include LGBTQ people in the church today.
Here, I would like to follow three lines of thought. First: a brief overview of the Matthew 19:12 passage itself (“itself,” as if any passage is ever by “itself”). Second (dealing with the ‘bad’ first): the “traditionalist” understanding of the passage, along with its own inconsistencies, biases, and implications. Third: a more historical-critical understanding of the passage, contextualized by the complexities of first century conceptions of gender.
From these three lines of thought, I’d like to trace the limitations of the traditionalist hermeneutic to demonstrate the techniques it uses to maintain an authoritative interpretation with an incomplete understanding of the text, rendering any alternative understandings unintelligible. And, finally, I’d like to suggest that Jesus, here, in spite of the traditionalist understanding, subverts a heteronormative, marital conception of sexuality, opening up space for queer sexualities to appear within the kingdom of heaven.
First, the text itself. Jesus says, after prohibiting divorce (except for sexual immorality), “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matt 19:11-12). Most, if not all scholars agree that a eunuch, here, is one who has been castrated; some are more specific about the technique, but the bare minimum is castration. Jesus, here, opens the possibility for gender, and implicitly, sexuality outside of marriage in the image of a eunuch.
The traditionalists run with this passage as a promotion of celibacy, with a particular literalist antagonism towards transgender and “homosexual” people. Reviewing their reading is like funneling my brain through an ideological sieve, lined with edges of a cheese grater, so I will summarize it as quickly as possible. Here, I take from answersingenesis.com and apologeticspress.org, which are two of the top google searches(on August 7th, with whatever bias my google search engine has) for this issue. Although they may not be entirely representative of all of the traditionalist perspectives, they are well-enough researched (although not necessarily academic) that I can address them as data points in the traditionalist perspective and move past them. Skip past this part if you like.
The article in Answers in Genesis is a response to a quickly-worded, almost-flippant Huffington Post article (they actually took the time to respond to Huffington Post, lol), where the author claims that the category of eunuch refers to intersex people, and, by extension, implicates transgendered people. Claiming that the Huffington post article is “biased” (ignoring that bias is inescapable) the Answers in Genesis article replies that eunuch does not denote a transgender person (ignoring that, today, the word might “connote” it); and that Jesus addresses marriageability, not gender identity (ignoring the co-implication of these concepts; also: why even insert the saying about the eunuch?); and affirms the Nashville Statement (I do not really care to read that). Already, we can see a hyper-literalistic reading of the passage, as if the author of the article put blinders on and refused to allow the eunuch to mean anything. The author decides to strain out a gnat while swallowing a camel.
The Answers in Genesis article continues (almost chaotically, for I have a headache, so I will quickly list the claims it makes), by questioning whether this verse relates to “same sex attraction” (a claim that nobody has yet made—so much for being “not biased”). And, where some authors (apparently “non-biblical”) acknowledge the instability of gender embodied in the eunuch, the author reverts back to Genesis to reject it: “scripture knows only two sexes/genders.” The article continues, arguing that the Old Testament is how we should interpret these passages, but then cites Acts (hint: not the Old Testament) to interpret the Matthean passage. And the article claims that the eunuch was neither sinful nor sexually transgressive, if you use Isaiah’s reference to a eunuch to ignore the Levitical/Deuteronomic categorizations of the eunuch. Further, although the author quotes a paper where eunuchs are (correctly) referred to as “not quite man,” the article rejects any associations between intersex and the eunuch because of a second/third century distinction between them; whereas the author rejects an third/fourth century association of eunuch with “gender-transgressive” person as “too late” (what qualifies as ‘too late’ when even just half a century can bring large shifts in the meaning of a word? And aren’t these distinctions, too, “non-biblical?”). And, sometimes the article describes eunuchs with intact sexual organs (as a palace guard, or as an asexual person cited in Philo’s description), but other times it claims that eunuchs normally have damaged or missing sexual organs (one that renders a metaphorical reading of the Matthean passage untenable). The author triumphs in the recognition that all eunuchs continue to be male (clearly the author assumes that this recognition rules out transgenderism as a category). And, finally, where it is “well-documented” that eunuchs engaged in “deviant” sexual behavior, the eunuch of scripture does not denote nor connote such behavior (I do not understand how he would determine that connotation—for the Bible cannot be a self-contained, unified whole, because it uses language always containing connotations from its surrounding culture). What can we make of all of this?
The article raises all of this fuss to say that the passage has no direct reference to the status of transgender people. No duh; it seems like the author of the article would require Jesus to literally say “transgender” in order for the author to consider that Jesus would support them. We will look at the inconsistencies later, in order to follow their hermeneutic, but first, we will address the apologetics press article.
The apologetics press article uses “logic,” apparently. Combatting another article that suggests that eunuchs were, in many circumstances, also “homosexuals,” the apologetics press article says that eunuchs were not always homosexuals. So, clearly, arguing from a form of agnosticism, a eunuch is not a homosexual (although, reasonably, we could conclude from this article that a eunuch would probably be a “homosexual”). The apologetic press article requires nothing less than certainty.
Here, very quickly, I’d like to parse the hermeneutical suppositions of the traditionalists in these articles by exploring the strategies the authors employ. In a first strategy, we notice how the first author covers up the evidence that disagrees with his points, rather than allowing it to stand: non-biblical authors are used when they are convenient and rejected when they are not; Genesis is cited as if it can clear up the gendered ambiguity in the eunuch (raising the question: why should we use Genesis to define something beyond the reach of the Genesis passage?); a particular definition of a eunuch is cited when it is convenient, and ignored when it is not—especially against the Biblical text that regards three types of eunuchs (think: sometimes a eunuch has intact sexual organs, like when the biblical text is read metaphorically; other times a eunuch has no intact sexual organs). The supposition here is that the eunuch cannot possibly refer to anything that destabilizes the conceptions of gender/sexuality that the authors already believe (under the guise of “biblical”).
The second strategy, linked to the first, is an intense, naïve literalism that dismisses broader meanings of the word “eunuch.” We see this especially in the second article, where there is no possibility that a biblical eunuch engaged in “homosexual” behavior, because eunuchs were not always “homosexuals.” Therefore, according to the author, a eunuch is only one who is castrated, and nothing more, because any further association cannot be proven. The burden of proof is incredibly high for this author, and he cannot deal with probability. We continue to see this approach in the first article, where the author argues that a transgender person is not “denoted” in the text (ignoring connotation); that the passage is purely about marriageability and not gender/sexuality caught up in the constitution of marriageability (though he walks back on this later); that “deviant” sexual behaviors are not denoted nor connoted by the term “eunuch” (although there is a high probability that those who engaged in “deviant” sexual behaviors would be included by the term); and that a eunuch continues to be male in spite of his own castration (refusing to see how this might bend gender).
The final strategy concerns an obsession with the “homosexual” in a passage that makes no direct reference to the “homosexual” (which is a modern construction anyways!!), found in the first article. While the discourse surrounding the eunuch, especially that to which the article responds, is most often associated with “transgender,” the first article brings “homosexual” into the mix, while also implicating sexual desires (which, apparently, are only worth noting if they are “homosexual”). They confuse gender and sexuality, demonstrating an implicit association of cisgender and heteronormative assumptions. Remember: they said that the passage was only about marriagability!
The hermeneutical suppositions marked by strategies of blatant inconsistency and literalism to support a totalizing heteronormative matrix, at the expense of seeing those on the margins, would not be so bad if the authors at least admitted them: admitted that they were biased against those queer folks who are trying to connect with Jesus through the Biblical text and understood that their readings leave no space for marginalized queer readers. And maybe they’d admit that their readings might, in fact, be very un-Christian, as a form of stale bigotry hiding behind the authority of a text that cannot support it.
Finally, I’d like to suggest something that the authors are missing, before moving on to the arguments that are better researched, academic, and leave room for the eunuch to be a synecdoche for queer. If, as the first author suggests, a male continues to be male after their castration, or in spite of their status as a eunuch (where sexual organs are missing or damaged), then we must imagine a gender no longer determined by sexual organs. A man can be a man without a penis, sure. It’s an interesting scenario to contrast some gender-essentialisms.
If you’ve skipped that whole portion, then here’s where I think it gets interesting. Most authors with their brains turned on have identified eunuchs more broadly than just those “castrated,” which corresponds well with the non-castrated, metaphorical classification of eunuchs.
(I am still writing because there’s a bit of research to do! Come back later!)