Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 9/22 Post

Thanks for the excellent overview of the Pharisaic debate and it's possible application to Matthew 19:3ff. Your description of the matter accords well with that of many modern Christian scholars.

That being said, let's spend a little time on the matters of marriage, celibacy and "eunuch's for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."

With regard to marriage, Jesus teaches that the dissolution of a marriage should never be taken lightly. I think we have to admit the School of Hillel's position potentially lent itself to such an abuse. Whatever else we might conclude, Jesus' position brings a dose of sobriety to the matter.

In the first century context, Jesus' teaching represents a large step forward for women, in that he appears to treat both male and female as equals even as he reins in supposed male perogatives.

What about the exception clause? Some manuscripts do not include it, though the consensus of textual scholars appears to be that it belongs in the original text. Let's assume this to be the case. The followers of Jesus began to wrestle with the teaching within the first generation of the movement. We see this is the response of the disciples. We also find Paul (1 Corinthians 7)suggesting a believing spouse is not to be held accountable if an unbelieving spouse seeks divorce. In the past century of so, many Christians have concluded that spouse or child abuse should be added to the list of exception clauses. In the West, at least, most Christians recognize that when all efforts at reconciliation have been exhausted, divorce may become the only realistic option available to one. Here, I think, we see the living church and the Spirit of God working to interpret the teachings of Jesus in settings quite different from the first century world.

To summarize, it seems to me that Jesus taught that marriage is meant to be an unbreakable union, that both partners bear responsibility for the success of the union, that it must not be lightly ended, and that divorce entails considerable consequences. At the same time, Jesus teachings on the grace of God, coupled with the writings of Paul and subsequent developments in Christian thinking, make it clear that forgiveness and a new beginning are always possible.

Now, with regard to "eunuchs" for the kingdom of heaven, a small segment with the early church (second century and following) took the matter quite literally. This has never been the interpretation of most Christians. Most ancient and modern commentators argue Jesus taught that a minority of people might be gifted to embrace celibacy, so that they might focus solely on knowing and serving God. To put it another way, the strongly pro-marriage Jesus made space in his world-view for kingdom-dedicated singles.

Western Christianity, in my opinion, misapplied the teaching when it made celibacy a requirement for the priesthood and often devalued the spiritual possibilities within marriage. On the other hand, Protestant Christianity, in reaction to medieval excesses, went too far in the other direction, in effect creating a religious culture that is often uncomfortable with celibant Christians.

Jesus took a different tack. He taught if we enter into marriage, we then are called to do all in our power to make it work well. In much the same manner, if we choose celibacy, we are do so in order to devote ourselves the kingdom of heaven. In either case, we should make decisions in light of our particular gifts.

One last thought: the account of Philip and the Eunuch (Acts 8:26ff)demonstrates that the primitive church attempted to remove the stigma attached to eunuchs. With his baptism, the eunuch was admitted to the church with all the responsiblities and rights of any other person. At the very least, Jesus' teaching opened the door into the Christian community for such persons.

OK, Rami. I've written a more length than is usual for me. Back to you.


Karen said...

Isn't there a difference between being a eunuch and being celibate? How did these two become interchangeable? My understanding is that one who is a eunuch is definitely celibate, but one who is celibate isn't necessarily a eunuch.

Also, I'm interested in learning more about the leveling of the playing field between men and women that I think Rabbi Rami might have mentioned in a previous post. Is it possible that, as the New Testament was being put together over 300-500 years and went through various translations, the roles of women in marriage and divorce were omitted?

Thank you for the opportunity to read the postings on this blog!

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Mike. Yes, there is a difference. A eunuch, whether by choice or the decisions of others, is a neutered male. Celibacy, on the other hand, is a choice and requires no physical mutilation.

In the New Testament, though, the term eunuch may be used as a metaphor for voluntary celibacy.

The New Testament came together a little more rapidly than you indicate. Still, over the course of its development, there is little doubt that the early position of Christianity (in which mena and women often enjoyed a considerable degree of equality) was eroded. Such erosion, I think, represented early Christianity's accomodation to culture. Throughout Christian history, segments of Christians have rediscovered this radical dimension of early Christianity.