As I mentioned earlier, our conversation about adultery has broadened into a more general discussion of sexuality, and I want to ask you about the concept of celibacy. Jesus says, "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this let him receive it" (Matthew 19:12). I am one who cannot receive it.
A eunuch is a castrated male. The word comes from the Greek meaning “bedroom guards” so it is clear these men were castrated by the fathers or husbands of the women whose bedrooms they were guarding. Judaism, however, prohibits castration of both men and animals. Leviticus 21:20 even prohibits men with crushed or mutilated testicles from entering the assembly of the Lord, and Leviticus 22:24 prohibits castrating animals and the use of castrated animals in Temple sacrifice. So what are we to make of Jesus’ celebration of castration?
I have been told that I am taking the text too literally, and Jesus is really referring to celibacy. But this, too, is troubling from a Jewish point of view. Every time God established a covenant in the Torah— with Adam (Genesis 1:28), with Noah (Genesis 9:1), with Jacob (Genesis 35:10-12), and with Moses (Leviticus 26:9)— God called them to be “fruitful and multiply.” From the Jewish point of view celibacy violates God’s plan.
There is, however, the exception of the apocalyptic Jewish sect of the Essenes. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, and Josephus, the Jewish historian, mention celibacy as an Essene practice. Philo writes, “[Essenes] repudiate marriage; and at the same time they practice continence in an eminent degree...” (Hypothetica 11:14).
And Josephus writes, “These Essenes reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue. They neglect wedlock... They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of mankind thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.” (Jewish War 2.8.2)
The Essenes expected the End of Days was at hand, and for that reason they had no need to be fruitful and multiply. And they believed that woman were by nature promiscuous, which would make it all the more difficult for men to abstain from sex if marriage were allowed. Do you think it was Jesus’ apocalyptic tendencies that had him celebrate celibacy (while in no way denigrating women)?
Do you think this kind of thinking influenced the Apostle Paul with he wrote, “To the unmarried and the widows it is better to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (I Corinthians 7: 8-9)?
And what of the Essene “rejecting pleasures as an evil”? Again the Essenes were in no sense mainstream. Judaism sees pleasure and sexual pleasure in particular as a gift of God. We are even taught that when we die we are brought before God not to explain the evils we have done but to explain why we rejected any of the legitimate pleasures that God offered us while alive (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12); including sexual pleasure.
So, assuming Jesus said what Matthew says he said, this is one example of Jesus making a clear break with the normative Judaism of his day. Because Jesus’ position is not normative in Judaism, the issue for us Jews is mute, but I don’t understand celibacy, and I cannot help wonder what impact it has had and continues to have on Christianity (in all its forms). What does it do to a faith when for centuries its spiritual formation was in the hands of celibate and often misogynist men?