an exegesis by Thomas C. Ziegert
“For there are eunuchs, that were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are eunuchs, that were made eunuchs by men: and there are eunuchs, that made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
The purpose of this paper is to perform an exegesis on the “Special Matthew” text of 19:12, the first of the conditions of being a eunuch, “those that were born from their mother’s womb,” and to add to the discussion of the text, by showing that another possible understanding, of the eunuchs in this text, is as predecessors to today’s homosexuals. With me come my experiences of having the Bible used against me–and others like me–by those who claim either that the Bible speaks against homosexuality, or that Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuals. This exegesis begs to differ with the latter and suggests that Jesus, at least in the gospel of Matthew, supports us.
In the first condition of the three condition statement of Mt.19:12, it has been generally assumed that these eunuchs were made such from birth,(castrated immediately) or were born impotent. I suggest that these readings are a result of a bias of the commentators and they mislead those who rely on their scholarship. The reading that centers on the assumption that so many males were born either deformed, without testicles or penises, or with undistended testicles ignores, what I call, the rule of using equivalent concepts (E.C.) within parallels in sentence structure; and, reveals a heterosexual-centrism of those commentators. The E.C. rule is: If the other two conditions of being a eunuch involved, not happenstance deformity but, intention for a greater purpose, then by what logic should the first condition be different than the other two conditions in the parallel?
Let’s look at another parallel in Matthew, that of the “Three Parables,” in order to explore this application of the E.C. rule in light of the “Eunuch Passage:”
“[1.] The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in the field; which a man found, and hid; and in his joy he goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. [2.] Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a merchant seeking goodly pearls: and having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it. [3.] Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but the bad they cast away. So shall it be in the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous,…”
In comparing this parallel and that of the eunuchs, I see the two sets of parallel triplets reflecting the treasures as a mirror. “Eunuchs born from their mother’s womb” is a reflection of [1.], “a treasure one found and hid and in his joy sells all he has and buys the field.” “Eunuchs made by men,” a reference to castrated slaves, is a reflection of [2.], “a merchant finds a treasure and buys it.” And, “self-made eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” or celibates, is a reflection of [3.], “a net thrown into the sea (that has fished out men) catching fish of every kind, keeping the good and discarding the bad.” In case the comparison of [1.] isn’t apparent, sexuality lies dormant within our field as a treasure, until we one day find it, if we are eunuchs from birth, therefore a castigated minority, we may have to sell all we have to till the ground the treasure is within. That we should do so joyfully is apparent to the writer of Matthew if not to all others. [2.] refers to the eunuch slaves purchased and highly prized. [3.] refers to the “especially good” who come from far and wide and wish to be caught in the net of the “kingdom of God” choosing to serve only God without familial ties and worldly concerns.
Consider Matthew’s intent of the pericope. According to Dennis Duling and Norman Perrin, a sufficient number of scholars (so as to make it an acceptable working premise) believe that the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew, wrote around 90 C.E. in or near Antioch, Syria when there was a growing influence of the Yavneh Academy which was in opposition to the evolving Christian community developing around the writer. It is to the telos of developing the Christian community within an atmosphere that was further marginalizing and confusing the Christians that the Matthean writer stresses the “Law and the Prophets” never the law alone when advocating adherence to the law. To the end of enlightening the Pharisees of Matthew’s time, Jesus speaks to them in his time with appropriate disdain and in double-entrende. Interestingly, the name Matthew, (Greek Matthaios from the Hebrew Mattiyah) means “gift of God.”
The naming of the Gospel writer as “Gift of God” is meaningful in that much can be read into the Gospel as what is the gift. In 19:1-2, what Mark wrote as Jesus taught them has become in Matthew, Jesus healed them. Heal(ing) or healed is used eighteen more times in the Matthew Gospel compared to its use five times in the Mark Gospel. Teach and taught is used seven times in Matthew compared to thirteen times in Mark. It is the “healing” ministry of Christ so that the afflicted may enter into the Kingdom of Heaven as well-minded or “well” beings that the gift is being presented, and represented as the church community in the time of the Matthean writing. In contrast to the Duling and Perrin textbook, where it talks about Jesus not only “teaching the new revelation” but “being the new revelation,” the very fulfillment of “the law and the prophets,” it is more clear in this example that Jesus is the healer of those abused by the laws misused by the Pharisees and Sadducees. In Matthew they will be healed by Jesus who has come to fulfill the “Law and the Prophets.” It is the healing of those wounds that is of primary concern to Jesus as he ministers to those enslaved again, this time (in both His and Matthew’s time) by those self-empowered by the laws (without the Prophets), rather than enslaved by the Egyptians, as were their fore parents. This healing ministry to those enslaved by those self-justified by the law is significant as we look back on what was happening as Jesus, that is as Jesus is presented in Matthew’s Gospel, and as Jesus, in retrospect, applies to social conditions today. The healing ministry of Jesus is the first such gift.
The recognition that Matthew was “written in Greek, in the Hebrew manner” as the meaning of what Papias meant, when he wrote regarding Matthew, has meaning for this discussion in so far as the Duling and Perrin textbook says that, “Matthew likes parallelisms characteristic of Hebrew poetry, and he stresses the numbers two… three… and seven… His style is meant for teaching: It is very tightly focused, and is characterized by formulas, leading words, leading and concluding verses or sections that frame his materials, and ‘chiasms.” Verse 12 is such a parallelism, eunuchs made [by God (implied)], eunuchs made by others, and eunuchs made by the self. However, I would argue that Matthew’s style is meant for healing.
In his writings in “Book V of Matthew (19:1-26:1) – Matt 19:1-20:16: Various States of Life Under The Cross,” John P. Meier writes:
“Sexuality, marriage, and monogamy all come from the Creator’s will at the beginning of history… Jesus concludes the argument with an authoritative pronouncement…this time cast in the form of casuistic law… Once again Jesus shows himself capable of revoking a major institution of the Torah…simply on his own authority… When the Mosaic Law permits something contrary to God’s will, the Mosaic Law must give way, simply because Jesus says so. The eschatological age Jesus brings restores the blessings and order of paradise, and so any intervening order meant for the age of sin must give way.”
In continuation of this line of thought toward the idea of the “gift of God,” Paul Minear writes regarding the paragraph following the Pharisaic scribes query and Jesus’ answer, “It is only in the next paragraph (19:11f.), that Jesus addressed the disciples as scribes of the new community. Here the question became an issue not of expediency, but of gift and calling. ‘Those to whom it is given’ should be able to receive and to observe this simple truth.” Thus, sexuality and its attendant conditions is the second gift.
Further direction is given this dialogue by Wolfgang Trilling in his discussion of 19:10-12, where he says:
“This objection (referring to the disciples exclamation), inspired by the primitive thinking of the man in the street, leads to another saying of Jesus which opens up another way. Significantly, it is introduced by the remark that not all understand the discourse. Only those to whom it is granted are able to grasp it. This too is a ‘mystery of the kingdom of heaven’ which is given from on high. Man does not attain it by his own powers, but because it is given him by God (see 13:11).”
Interestingly, Mt 19:3-12 follows Mk 10:2-12 faithfully except that Matthew has added “except for unchastity” at 19:9j, and the entire monologue regarding the eunuchs 19:12. There is no reference to the eunuch pericope anywhere else. The only other New Testament reference directly to a “eunuch,” is in Acts 8:27-39, regarding the Ethiopian eunuch that Phillip baptizes.
Why then, did the Matthean writer choose inclusion of this statement into this text at this point. Some theologians, as exemplified by J. Enoch Powell, suggest “The query of the disciples and the reply to it, both omitted by Luke and Mark, are perverse: prohibition of divorce is not an argument in favor of celibacy, and the conclusion that celibacy, if practicable, is to be preferred does not follow from the foregoing. The embarrassment and vagueness of the question…suggest that the opportunity was taken to annex to the dialogue on divorce a dictum in favor of celibacy.” This argument of the pericope being annexed is successfully defeated by Quentin Quesnell of Marquette University in an exegesis he makes on Mt 19:12. He dismissively says “eunuchs from birth,” are deformed or castrated. More thoughtfully, though, he does make us understand that “celibacy” certainly isn’t the object of the set-up of 19:3-10. If he hadn’t ignored one-third of the pericope, perhaps he would have accurately seen the relevance.
Furthermore, while we can see evidence that sexuality was a “gift of God,” and thus to be accepted by those to whom it was given, as the understanding and covenantal responsibility was also given, then as the gift relates to the first condition of being a eunuch, as well, Jesus hereby revokes the curse of eunuchs as being “cut off,” as promised in Isaiah 56:4-5:
“For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” 
The intent, then, of 19:12, is to heal the condition of being cut off, for Jesus claims that the time has come for eunuchs to claim their place in the kingdom of heaven with Him. Can it be reasonably maintained that the “only” or even the “intended benefactors” of this pericope did not include specifically the latter day homosexuals? We must question Quentin Quesnell’s assumption that “For just as we see about us men physically incapable of marriage, men born eunuchs or made eunuchs,” referring here to deformed or castrated men. We must question Daniel Patte’s assumption of “being made a eunuch by a birth defect,” referring to descended testicles, or being without testicles or a penis. Under “Eunuch,” the Anchor Bible Dictionary says, “Eunuch. See Palestine, Administration of Post-exilic Judean Officials” and Eunuch, Ethiopian. See Ethiopian Eunuch:”
4.saris – Eunuch. Its Akkadian origin is sa-resi, “he who is chief.” In 1 Kings 22:9 the saris is exactly the kind of official for minor errands which concerns us here. But he is usually a much higher and foreign official: as in Genesis 37-38; Ester 1:10-11; and 2 Kings 18:17. Though such an official was often called “eunuch” in the Orient, BDB is rather outdated in assigning this as its principal meaning and relating it to admittedly demonstrative verbs for castrate in Syriac, Aramaic and Arabic. Hence, it will prove relevant to the long-standing debate as to whether Nehemiah (1:1) was really a “eunuch,” this term, like our “chamber- lain,” may have really signified some administrative office. If so, it would seem to have been of a higher and more privileged rank than the local officials being discussed here.
Even here, eunuch is not relegated to the deformed or defected. More important to our discussion, though, is the Greek concept of eunuch. If Matthew was written in Antioch, Syria, a city founded by the Greeks and still heavily influenced in Hellenistic tradition, a city full of foreigners in an east meets west fashion, then the Greek concept would apply to any audience in that city, particularly gentile. Easton’s Bible Dictionary explicitly states that the eunuch was “…not necessarily in all cases one who was mutilated.” I accept this as a euphemism for “not castrated.” Even, if “eunuchs” was applied to those who were mutilated, if one were going to speak of a group of people who did not propagate, where else might they find a word that could be so easily re-applied? Aristophanes, a fifth century Greek poet, in his work, “The Acharnians,” writes these words:
“These fellows nod in pure Hellenic style: I do believe they come from hereabouts. Aye, to be sure; why, one of these two eunuchs is Cleisthenes, Sibyrtius’s son! O thou young shaver of the hot-souled rump, with such a beard, thou monkey, dost thou come tricked out among us in a eunuch’s guise? And who’s this other chap? Not Straton surely?”
In the text, the fellows, are the “two eunuchs” in attendance on Pseudo-Artabas. The translator describes Cleisthenes, as the text portrays him, by citing the reference made to other Greek contemporaries of Aristophanes. The translator says, “Di (the speaker), hurls against the effeminate youth two lines parodied, the first from Euripides, the second from Archilochus.” And Straton is recognized as “another beardless effeminate.” The point here is that Aristophanes may be using “eunuchs” in a fashion contemporary to his culture as a euphamism for the characteristics implied by being male and effeminate. In “The Wasps,” Cleisthenes is one of some men being sent on special missions (e.g. to the Olympic games) as representatives of the State. They went in great splendor and were usually men of distinction. Finally, in “The Knights,” referring to Straton and Cleisthenes first, then in comparison to himself, Demus says, “I’ll make them all give up their politics, and go a-hunting with their hounds instead. Then on these terms accept this folding-stool; and here’s a boy to carry it behind you. No eunuch he.” It becomes more obvious that the use of eunuch with such terms, as being “[a] shaver of the hot-souled rump,” or as regards effeminate young men of distinction who were sent off to such missions as the Olympics, is in reference to sexually active (albeit in a passive role), un-mutilated, youth. One would not castrate a man of a distinguished family.
Clement of Alexandria, in his text, “On Marriage,” says about the followers of Basilides, “their explanation of [Matthew 19:11f] is 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.” This is the crux of my point, as represented by the works of Aristophanes and the followers of Basilides. A eunuch from birth certainly could have been other, given some understandings closer to the time that the texts were written and the original words spoken, than deformed and mutant humans. To not consider this alternative is to take a more narrow position than the evidence would bare out.
In addition, why should one assume that the writer of Matthew was heterosexual? Let me suggest that the writer was an educated, Greek literate, Jew, who knew the Law and was involved in the discussions between the Jewish and Christian communities. And, the old law from Leviticus, claimed that eunuchs could not enter the temple. If the writer of Matthew was a toll collector, a much maligned position, then we should question why a nice upstanding educated Jew would choose such a job; unless, he were already marginalized by some other aspect of his being. The writer evidences his pain and the healing he feels from Jesus’ ministry. The pain comes from the Pharisees and their law. He places prostitutes and toll collectors ahead of them for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. He alludes to other people who have great faith and purpose who would not be seen as anything but eunuchs to someone with my eyes to see. They are the Centurion who is greatly unworthy with the beloved slave boy (8:5-13), the certain man (26:18), who, in Mark14:13, is carrying a jug of water through the city (a man with a woman in the household would not be doing woman’s work), and who provides a refuge for Jesus for the Passover supper at a time when Jesus needs to go underground to bide his capture until the proper time. Reverend Nancy Wilson, of the MCC Church, writes pastorally, about “healing our tribal wounds.” Like the writer of Matthew, she sees how so many of us have been hurt deeply and Jesus’ message is one of healing those wounds. Her passion for us to be healed is Matthean.
Finally, let’s look at the idea of the fig tree that didn’t bear fruit for Jesus (21:18), and its connection to the eunuch pericopy. Even though, it was a fig tree that could not bear fruit since it was out of season, Jesus still cursed it because it would not bear what fruit it could for Him. In Isaiah 56:3-4, we read: Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” All of us can bear fruit for Christ. There are no “dry trees.” Progeny are not our only fruit, only the fruit of our loins. Thus it is for 19:12, remembering what we already read in Isaiah 56:4-5, all must bear fruit for Jesus, and abide by their covenants, 19:9-11, and each has been given his own gift from God. Let him receive it.
In conclusion, let us look at the blade that inflicted the wound, Leviticus 18:22, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” and 20:13, “And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” The law was set. It speaks very clearly if read plainly. And, although, much can be said about “abomination,” and what may have been actually meant by “lying with mankind,” no matter what variance can be made to specifics, basically these texts proscribe male-male penetration. Such an act would certainly violate any sense of the cleanliness laws of that era in that culture. And, such acts would provide sexual satisfaction without propagation, a dominant responsibility for this culture. There was a great need to populate Israel. It was the responsibility of each Israelite to “be fruitful and multiply.”
But then, we have Isaiah 56:3-5, which we read earlier, and the promise from Isaiah of God, that one day the Eunuchs will be given entry to the Kingdom of God whereby God will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And finally, we have Jesus fulfilling that promise in Matthew 19:12. Jesus lists in Matthew all those who have been given entry by, His authority, into the Kingdom of God. As marriage and covenants are the subject of Matthew 19, marriage being a covenant by which blood lines are legitimized through “fruit of the loins,” this is an appropriate place to speak of “fruitless” covenants such that all may bear fruit for God by keeping His Sabbath, from the laws and the prophets. Thus this verse blesses eunuchs, whether made so by God, other men, or one’s own higher ideal. Where we were cut off under the old law, Jesus has repealed the law and granted us His blessing, the third gift of God in Matthew.*
Duling, Dennis C., and Norman Perrin. The New Testament: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History. Third Edition. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.
Easton, M.G. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Hiawatha, Ohio: Parson’s Technology CD-Rom Series, 1995.
Freedman, David Noel. ed. in chief. Anchor Bible Dictionary. First Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Heth, William A. “Unmarried ‘For The Sake Of The Kingdom’ (Matthew 19:12) In The Early Church.” Grace Theological Journal, 8.1. Winona Lake, Ind: Grace Theological Seminary, 1987: 55-88.
Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. London: Marshall, Morgan, & Scott, 1972
Kadish, Gerald E. “Eunuchs In Ancient Egypt?” Studies In Honor of John A. Wilson, September 12, 1969. No. 35. of Studies In Ancient Oriental Civilization. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969: 55-62.
Meier, John P. The Vision of Matthew, “Christ, Church, and Morality in the First Gospel.” Toronto: Paulist Press, 1979.
Meyers, Ched. Binding The Strong Man. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988.
Minear, Paul S. Matthew “The Teachers Gospel.” New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982.
Oulton, John Ernest Leonard, and Henry Chadwick. ed. Alexandrian Christianity, Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954
Patte, Daniel. The Gospel According to Matthew. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.
Powell, J. Enoch. The Evolution of the Gospel, “A New Translation of the 1st. Gospel with Commentary and Introduction Essay.” New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1994.
Quesnell, Quentin. “Made Themselves Eunuchs For the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 19,12). The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 30: 335-358, 1968.
Rogers, Benjamin Bickley, ed. Aristophanes. Vol.1. London: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Schweizer, Edward. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1977.
Strong, James. The New Strong’s exhaustive concordance of the Bible. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, 1986.
Trilling, Wolfgang. The Gospel According to Matthew, Vol. 2. New York: Herder & Herder, 1969.
Wilson, Nancy. Our Tribe. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.
American Standard Version, Matthew 19:12.
as one example see: Daniel Patte The Gospel According to Matthew, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987) p. 267-268.
as an example see: David Hill The Gospel of Matthew, (London: Marshall, Morgan, & Scott, 1972) p. 279-282.
Dennis C. Duling & Norman Perrin The New Testament: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History Third Edition (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994) p. 329-360.
4:23,24; 8:7,8,13,16; 9:35; 10:1,8; 12:10,15,22; 13:15; 14:14,36; 15:28,30; 19:2; & 21:14
Strong’s Concordance, 2132, eunoeo, under eunuchs and eunoia, words with the same root and genealogy, to be well minded, i.e. reconcile:–agree.
Duling and Perrin, p. 356.
Duling and Perrin, p. 330.
ibid., p. 339.
John P. Meier The Vision of Matthew, Christ, Church, and Morality in the First Gospel (Toronto: Paulist Press, 1979), p. 136-139.
Paul S. Minear Matthew “The Teachers Gospel” (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982), Chapter VII, p. 104-105.
Wolfgang Trilling The Gospel According to Matthew, Volume 2 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969) p. 111-112.
J. Enoch Powell The Evolution of the Gospel, “A New Translation of the 1st. Gospel with Commentary and Introduction Essay” (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1994) p. 160.
Quentin Quesnell, S.J. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, “Made Themselves Eunuchs For the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 19,12), 30:335-358, 1968.
 “cut-off” meaning without life in the form of children or memory as the ancient Hebrews believed since there was no soul.
Quesnell, p. 355.
Patte, p. 267.
Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, p. 670.
Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, p. 87.
Benjamin Bickley Rogers (translator), Aristophanes, Vol.1, (London: Harvard University Press, 1967) p. 17
ibid., p. 521.
John Ernest Leonard Oulton & Henry Chadwick (translators), Alexandrian Christianity, Vol. 2, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954) p. 40.
Ched Myers, Binding The Strong Man, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988) p. 360-361.
Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe, (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995) ch. 1.
Genesis 1:28, 8:17, 9:1, 35:11, Jeremiah 23:3
*Thomas Ziegert is a Master of Divinity student at Claremont School of Theology and can be reached at 760-367-7277. His address is 6771 Alpine Avenue, Twentynine Palms, California 92277. E-mail address is TZdla@aol.com