Content uploaded by Oluseun Akinpelu
All content in this area was uploaded by Oluseun Akinpelu on Oct 16, 2020
Content may be subject to copyright.
THE BORN-EUNUCH DISCOURSE OF MATTHEW 19:12 IN THE
Oluseun Abel Akinpelu
Religious Studies Department
Babcock University, Ilisan Remo, Nigeria.
A lot of commentaries have been written regarding the three categories of eunuchs
in the Jesus’ eunuch-statement found in Matthew 19:12. Contemporary scholarly
discussions have been weighed side by side early church fathers’ discourses on
the issue especially about the eunuchs born from their mothers’ womb. The
eunuchs born from their mother’s womb, those made by men and those who made
themselves such for the kingdom’s sake have being interpreted variously as a
literal, spiritual and or a metaphoric statement. The possibility of each
interpretative understanding has been exposed in this paper. A literature review
has been carried out on what scholars have to say. The study recognizes the use of
metaphors in some of Jesus’ other sayings in the scripture that a literal
interpretation will be difficult to suggest vis a vis its theological implication. This
suggests that a translation of Matthew 19:12 metaphorically presents an
understanding void of theological heresy and presents Jesus intention to impress
upon his hearers the seriousness of adhering to the law protecting marriage from
KEYWORDS: Born Eunuchs, Divorce, Metaphor
Biblical scholars, over the centuries have hotly debated the Jesus eunuch
statement in Matthew 19:12 where he responded to a sort of cynical suggestive comment
made by His disciples1 after His response to the issue of the lawfulness of divorce (verse
3), upon which He came to the summary that divorce could not occur “except it be for
1 Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids,
MI: Zondervan, 2004), 645. He suggested that the disciples might have privately
expressed their misunderstanding of Jesus’ responses about divorce after the Pharisees
and others might have left (cf.13:10). They concluded that marriage is a sort of torturous
fornication” (verse 9). Though, Jesus listed three categories of eunuchs possible in this
hard saying (verse 11) which includes, “eunuchs who were who were born thus from their
mothers’ womb… eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and … eunuchs who have
made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (verse 12), this study is
focused on the first of the categories.
This study is aimed at providing a review of possible discussions on the meaning
of Christ’s statement about eunuchs which were so born from their mothers’ womb, and
their possible implication on contemporary discourses and theological application.
Review of thoughts on the text is considered from the early church fathers, medieval
period, reformation period and modern scholars who have written on this issue.
Early Church Fathers
The early church fathers pervaded the Christian world with their writings and
literature after few years of Christ’s apostles established the Christian church. Their
writings help build upon the doctrinal foundations already established by Christ. Their
works were written mainly in Greek, Latin and Syriac languages and written between
c.100 AD and c.400 AD which provides an insight into the theological challenges that
existed during these early Christian periods. These early church fathers could also be
categorized under apologist, Gnostics, Apocryphal and Apostolic writers.2
Few of them who wrote on the issue of study shall be considered in this
discussion; and they include Jerome, Ambrose, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria.
2 Frances Young, Lewis Ayres, and Andrew Louth, The Cambridge History of
Early Christian Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2004), i.
He was born c. 347 at Stridon, Italy and died 420 AD. He was a Roman Catholic
priest, confessor, theologian, and historian and became a Doctor of the Catholic Church.
He was known to have executed the Vulgate, the translation of the Bible into Latin.
In his commentaries on Matthew 19:12, Jerome categorized the three kinds of
eunuchs. Those born that way and those made by men, according to him are held in
captivity or for pleasuring older women are referred to as canal. They are not promised
any reward from God because chastity from sexual relationship was not as a result of
their willingness to be so but of necessity. The eunuchs who made themselves so for
God’s kingdom he referred to as spiritual and have been promised a reward because they
were the ones who cuts off sexual impurity and seek after chastity for the kingdom sake.
According to Jerome, the eunuchs that are born eunuchs he referred to as
“eunuchs from birth who are of a rather rigid nature and not inclined to lust.” According
to him, because they are canal, they are not receptive to the kingdom of God in their
disposition.3 Jerome categorized the first two groups; those born eunuchs from mothers’
wombs and those made so by men, as canal, while those who made themselves eunuchs
for the kingdom’s sake he sees as spiritual who will be rewarded by God.
Aurelius Ambrosius (c. 340 – 4 April, 397), also known as The Bishop of Milan
was one of the early Christian fathers. “Ambrose’s earliest writings date from the years
377–8 and include a pair of treatises on virginity (De virginibus and De virginitate), a
discourse on widows (De viduis), and a pair of funeral orations for his brother Satyrus
3 Manlio Simonetti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 14-28,
New Testament 1b (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 94-95.
(De excess fratris).”4 Ambrose however has a matter of lifelong preoccupation, he wrote
extensively on the promotion of the ascetic and virginal life of believers. His later work,
De institutione virginis (c. AD 391) and Exhortatio virginitatis (c. AD 393) attest to this
In his commentary, Ambrose taught about the interpretation of Christ’s eunuchs-
statement. He clearly sees the eunuchs-statement as a counsel and not as a command. He
sees the issue from a literal perspective and thus condemns those who makes themselves
such since neither Christ nor the Apostles set themselves as such. He believed that the
marriage vow is not to blame for any challenge as the disciples’ cynical comment in verse
10 suggests, rather, what Christ intends to teach is the principle of chastity and
continence. According to Ambrose, the eunuchs born from their mothers’ womb are those
“in whom exists a natural necessity, not the virtue of chastity.”6
4 Young, Ayres, and Louth, The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature,
309. He was one of the most prominent and prolific of the later Latin writers. In AD 374,
he was acclaimed a bishop, even when he had not be baptized as a Christian.
6 Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene
Fathers of the Christian Church: The Seven Ecumenical Councils. 1900 (Christian
literature Company, 1900), 404. He focused his arguments most emphatically against the
second category of eunuchs which were made eunuchs by men, i.e. castrated or
mutilated. He believes they have no reward from God and confesses that it is not the
issue of self-mutilation that overcomes the fleshy desire, as some people have thought to
be in order for them to be for God, but a matter of a spiritual experience.
Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220) a Montanist (a later experience) and a prolific
Christian writer in Carthage in Roman province of Africa,7 believes in the usage of
allegory in interpreting the teachings and saying of Jesus including the issue of Christ’s
eunuchs-statement. While he did not address the context of Matthew 19, he nevertheless
allegorized that the reference to saints who have not defile their cloth with women in
John’s Revelation are virgins who he referred to as eunuchs, especially those who
preserved their chastity for the kingdom of God’s sake.8 He believes also in the
mortification of the fleshy body upon which a self-made eunuch for the kingdom of God
represented.9 While he does not specifically spell out the various categorization of
Christ’s eunuch-statement, the few references in his writing represent a metaphorical
interpretation of the eunuchs-statement in the gospel of Matthew.
Clement of Alexandra
7Young, Ayres, and Louth, The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature.
133-4. With interesting, it is worth noting that all that was known about Tertullian did not
exist beyond his own writings and work. However, his thirty-one surviving treaties
reflected writings of Christian apologetic, and an anti-heretical writer. In his book
Apologeticum, with its careful organization, breadth of treatment, forceful arguments, and
oratorical flair, is the masterpiece of second-century apologies, Tertullian answers the
common accusations against Christians, launches an attack on the illegality of their trials,
and condemns the corruption and superstitions of pagan society. In his book, De
Praescriptione Haereticorum which was directed at heresy in general, Tertullian blames
heresy on philosophy and the insatiable curiosity it fosters. In opposition to the heretics’
cleverness in manipulating the Scriptures, he proposes faith in the fixed contents of the
‘rule of faith’.
8 Ernest Cushing Richardson and Bernhard Pick, The Ante-Nicene Fathers:
Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, vol. III (Grand Rapids, MI:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1978), 564.
9 Ibid, 715.
Another early Christian father, Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150-215)10 wrote
also regarding the blessedness of abstinence from marriage, especially to those with
whom this gift has been given (in reference to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:12). In one
of his works on marriage, he highlighted the arguments between the Valentinian11
believers who approved the act of marriage between a man and a woman as divine, and
the Basilides, on the other hands approved of singlehood from the principle in Matthew
19:12.12 Here, while aligning with Basilides, he believes that those born so from birth
have a “natural repulsion from a woman; and those who are naturally so constituted do
well not to marry.”13 In essence, he believes they have an “innate revulsion towards
10 Young, Ayres, and Louth, The Cambridge History of Early Christian
11 Bart D. Ehrman, After the New Testament, 100-300 C.E.: A Reader in Early
Christianity, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014). The group followed
after Valentinus, a proto-orthodox Christian born c. AD 100, who despite his aberrant
beliefs was still part of the Roman Catholic Church.
12 John Ernest Leonard Oulton, Alexandrian Christianity the Library of
Christian Classics Volume Ii - Primary Source Edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,
1954), 40. Clement had a positive disposition to Basilides than other early church fathers,
who often refer to his works as heretical.
14 Daniel F. Caner, “The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early
Christianity,” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 4 (November 1, 1997): 404.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/1583869. Accessed: 25-06-2015.
Richard C. H. Lenki (1864-1936), a Lutheran scholar and writer commented on
the issue surrounding the eunuchs-statement by Jesus. He believed Christ would be
contradicting Himself considering the principle of divine creation of marriage established
in the beginning. He considers the state of celibacy as not being a freely given gift by
God’s grace to certain men but that the eunuch status mentioned by Christ was intended
for all believers. He believes Christ, in Matthew 19:12 was “speaking of the believer’s
γκράτειαἐ (or continence), his self-mastery, self-control as far as sexual desires are
concerned. Some men, he says, are born eunuchs, are physically so constituted that they
are free from sexual appetite.”15 Lenski believes that those born eunuchs and those made
eunuchs by men – through the process of castration – could be categorized as constituting
a special class and exceptions. He considered that Christ mentioned the first two in order
to make his point on the third class, which involved those who became eunuchs for the
kingdom of God’s sake. While according to him, the first two describes literal realities
while the third He describes in a spiritual sense. He therefore categorized the believers in
the third class of eunuchs.16
Another clergy cum scholar, John Albert Bengel however categorizes the first two
eunuchs’ kinds as treated by Jesus indirectly while the third category (those who made
themselves so for the kingdom of God’s sake) are treated directly. He believes those who
are born eunuchs are simply made so by nature. 17
15 Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, 738-9.
17 Johann Albrecht Bengel, Bengel’s New Testament Commentary, vol. 1
Matthew-Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1981), 233. Here, Bengel
distinguished between the eunuchs born from their mothers’ womb and those made so by
men different from those who made themselves so in the sense that the former were
physically incapacitated from enjoying marital alignment, while those who made
themselves so had no physical impairment – they were physically fit for marriage but
Craig S. Keener, a Baptist Evangelical scholar’s18 perspective on Jesus’ eunuch-
statement is based on the premise that the first two kinds of eunuch addressed were a
prelude to the third, which had to do with eunuchs for the kingdom of God’s sake.
Literally, a eunuch is recognized as ‘half man’ – an incomplete man because of his
impotency and effeminacy. According to him, the eunuchs who were born as such were
basically those whose mothers gave birth to them without sexual organs. He pointed to
the fact that Jesus’ usage of the eunuch-imagery in describing the state of singleness (or
celibacy) was for the sole purpose of making them unmarried for their effectiveness in
serving the kingdom of God.19 He argues from the viewpoint of the Jewish nation who
views unmarried status as shameful, in contrast to the mainstream Jewish notion that
marriage and childbearing are social responsibility. He argues that metaphorically, Jesus
presented the eunuch issue in order to emphasize the shame and sacrifice that is
demanded to obtain the worthiness of the kingdom of God.20
Thomas Hale, Jr., while commenting on the eunuchs of Matthew 19:12 describes
those born from their mothers’ womb as simply as, “few people… born with some bodily
defect that makes it impossible for them to have sexual intercourse.”21 He however failed
decided otherwise for the kingdom’s sake. The former, he argues did not receive the law
concerning marriage while the latter received it, and were given the ability to hold off
marital relationship by God.
18 Robert K Mclver, “The Problem of Synoptic Relationships in the Development
and the Testing of a Methodology for the Reconstruction of the Mathean Community,”
(Ann Arbor, MI: Andrews University, 1989).
19 Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 471-72.
21 Tom Hale and Stephen Thorson, The Applied New Testament Commentary
(Eastbourne, UK: Kingsway Publication, 1996), 112. His conclusion could be based on
the perspective of his profession and career experience as a medical physician.
to provide any details regarding the specifics of the bodily defect that hinders sexual
intercourse, which are termed born from the mother’s womb.
Randolph O. Yeager expatiated on the implication of Christ’s eunuch statement in
its relation to the disciples’ cynical comment. He believes the eunuch imagery by Jesus
was in response to the fact that there are exceptions in the marriage status at creation. He
believes eunuchs are those who have been given the gift of continence and abstinence
regarding sexual relationship and could go through life without it. While he interpreted
the eunuchs in its physical literal meaning for those born from their mother’s womb and
those made so by men, he metaphorically translated the meaning of eunuchs for the third
category as simply those who did so for kingdom’s sake. He therefore concluded that
those born eunuchs “may be genetically incapacitated for sex.” They are “born without
sufficient sex drive to make marriage attractive to them. For this genetically determined
eunuch, the decision to remain single involved little if any sacrifice.”22 He concluded that
it is only those who falls into the third category of eunuchs’ status are referred to in the
last part of Matthew 19:12 that he who is able to receive it should do so. He therefore
excludes the last statement regarding the first two categories of eunuchs. He also pointed
to the fact that Jesus was in no way encouraging his hearers to embrace Essenism or the
ascetic lifestyle that grew out of it as it had been misinterpreted by many.23
Heinrich Meyer sees the eunuchs-statement of Jesus as simply an explicative
illustration (or analogy) in response to the disciples’ inquisitive remark. He gave the
statement in order to teach the principles of sexual continence for the sake of the
22 Yeager Randolph Dr, The Renaissance New Testament Volume 3: Matthew 19-
29 (Kentucky, USA: Renaissance Press, 1978), 16-18
kingdom of God. Christ simply categorized the disciples’ statement in verse 10 as a
proposition, which He replied that it is not something everyone can accept, including the
disciples themselves, except those “endowed with special moral capabilities.”24 While
explaining the meaning of those eunuchs given the ability to be chaste, he sees the three
categorization under the umbrella of one meaning;
[Christ] does not understand literal eunuchs, whether born such or made
such by men, but those who, for the sake of the Messiah’s kingdom, have
made themselves such so far as their moral dispositions are concerned, i.e.
who had suppressed all sexual desires as effectively as though they were
actual eunuchs, in order that they might devote themselves entirely to the
(approaching) Messianic Kingdom as their highest interest and aim (to
labor in promoting it).25
To Heinrich Meyer, the issue of Christ’s word on eunuchs is simply not literal but
rather metaphorically said in illustrating the exceptions of staying singles that serving
God might require. For example, he referred to those eunuchs that made themselves such
as “ethical self-castration” or “voluntary chastity.” He also sees Jesus not contemplating
the Essenic celibacy as an option, as they (Essenes) believe marriage as an impurity.26
Jerry Falwell in his commentary believes Christ’s response in verse 11 to the
disciples’ comment in verse 10, that it is not all men that can receive this saying is an
indication that God has called some to be married and to remain married, and that those
who cannot receive this are called to be single and never to be married. He believes
anyone God calls to be unmarried will He enable to remain single and unmarried.
However, he interprets the meaning of the eunuchs who were born so from their mothers’
24 Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Hand-Book to the
Gospel of Matthew (Winona Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, 1979), 340.
25 Ibid, 341.
womb as those who are single (and unmarried) “due to physical or mental deficiency.”27
He believes that the misunderstanding of the meaning of Jesus’ statement concerning
eunuchs as single status made some people in early centuries to believe that being single
makes one more spiritual than being married. This, he said metamorphosed into a general
principle held by the Roman Catholic church and became forced upon certain category of
believers into becoming celibate.28
Walter Elwell seems to believe that Christ’s statement in Matthew 19:12 was
rather a command to as many as can accept it to abstain from marriage. He argues along
the premise that the Genesis’ marriage command for marriage was actually meant for
some people rather than a general principle for humanity. And since Christ was single
(He stood as example to those who received it), some are called to be as well. He simply
took the interpretation of the eunuchs literarily that he categorized all the three kinds as
real eunuchs, who will be accepted into the fellowship of God’s people, as against their
exclusion from the assembly (Deut.23:1). This, he emphasized that Christ was re-echoing
the dawning of His grace upon the once castigated. He therefore sees a separation
between verse 11 (here, Christ made reference to the issue of verse 10, i.e. those who
cannot accepting getting married should be like Him, while those who can cope with the
task of marriage should do likewise) and verse 12 (a command for those literal eunuchs
who were once castaways to be united like other believers into the body of Christ).29
27 Jerry Falwell, Liberty Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Inc.
Publishers, 1978), 66, 67.
29 Walter Elwell, Baker Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker
Publishing Group, 1989), 746.
In the Jerome Bible Commentary, single status is equated with the state of
celibacy. The first category of eunuchs who were born from the mother’s womb was
interpreted to mean those who “live without marriage by reason of a natal defect or
surgery.”30 This saying of Jesus is therefore taken literally though it is asserted that the
reasons for the eunuchs-statement within the context of Matthew 19 is not specified by
Jesus and besides it does not have any antecedent in Judaism. Hence, it is concluded that
the reason for the statement is for a call to renunciation of the world or flesh for the sake
of God’s kingdom, even as Christ’s statement afterwards – “he that is able to receive it,
let him receive it” – portrays the awareness of the challenge for all men to abide with this
principle. It submitted that if the Christian vocation can so divide a family, it could also
detach one from forming his own family.31
In the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the three kinds of eunuchs of Matthew 19:12
were interpreted variously different from each other. It generally referred to Christ’s
usage of eunuchs representing “virginity”. To those born eunuchs are those distinguished
as virgins in the broad sense as ‘naturally impotent ones’; to those who were made so by
men it distinguished as virgins in the strict sense (castrated) and those who became
eunuchs for the kingdom of God’s sake it distinguished as virgins in the figurative
sense.32 This commentary emphasized on the importance of the state of ‘virginity’ as
represented in Christ’s eunuch-statement. First, the state of virginity becomes a witness to
30 Raymond Edward Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland Edmund Murphy,
The Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol. 1–2 (Englewood Cliffs, Kentucky: Prentice-Hall,
32 John P Whalen, New Catholic Encyclopedia: Ead-Foy, vol. V (Washington,
DC: The Catholic University of America, 1967), 631.
realized eschatology and (or) secondly, “because they find God everywhere and in
everyone, so that they cannot limit themselves to the exclusive relationship of
Adam Clarke, a British Methodist theologian, in a commentary he edited
describes a eunuch born from the mother’s womb as “such as are naturally incapable of
marriage, and consequently should not contract any.”34 Since they are incapable (though
the full meaning of the word ‘incapable’ was not been expressed) for marriage, their
inability to contract marriage will therefore be very natural. While he describes the state
of those born eunuchs as a gift that comes from God, he nevertheless referred to the
remaining two categorizations of eunuchs as a self-willed decision to be as such by men
or for the sake of God’s kingdom.35
Allen W. believes Christ’s statement in Matthew 19:12 highlights two major
categorization of eunuchs; namely physical eunuchs and spiritual eunuchs. He argued that
the disciples rather than receive an explanation to the difficulty they have encountered on
the issue of restriction on marriage, they received a commendation even if only they
could remain single. He believes verses 10-12 was intended to increase the respect for
those who renounce marriage. He concludes that while the physical eunuchs include
those born eunuchs and those who were made by men, the third category was classified
as spiritual eunuchs. In his understanding, the born eunuchs are those who had natural
34 Adam Clarke, The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: The
Common English Version, vol. V Matthew - Acts (Nashville, TN: American Bible Union,
infirmity and therefore made ‘better not to marry’ (verse 10) a necessary option.36 He
believes this whole section in Matthew 19 suffers from inconsistency due to literary
revision and compilation. This could be because verse 3-9 exalts the original marriage
standard and its indissolubility while verses 10-12, though not depreciating it, yet spoke
about an unmarried status in some circumstances.37
The various commentaries reviewed could classify the interpretation of the three
categorizes of eunuchs from three major perspectives, including physical, spiritual and
metaphoric interpretations. The first two were often categorized to be interpreted as a
literal saying while the third category as a metaphor. Some believed that Jesus’ focus was
simply on the third class which was about those who became eunuchs of their own
volition for the kingdom of God’s sake. Some as well categorized the first two classes as
a carnal kind of eunuchs while the third was simply categorized as spiritual eunuchs.
Meanwhile, the interpretation for those who were born eunuchs from their
mother’s womb ranged from those who were physically defective from birth, having no
natural and emotional desire for marriage or sexual relationships, or whose testicles and
manhood cease to exist from birth. This argument is defective in the sense that Jesus was
not in any way referring to the medical or natural condition of such men, since the term
36 Willoughby C. Allen, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel
According to St Matthew, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1912), 205-6.
eunuch suggestively portrays men’s wicked act of oppression upon their fellow men.
Neither would Christ trying to spiritualize the term in relation to the issue of divorce in
marriage. It is suggestive to conclude that the Jesus statement on those born eunuchs was
intended to be symbolic, in order to impress in the minds of his hearers the importance of
heeding to the command not to divorce.
Jesus is quoted in many other instances metaphorically passing the truth to his
hearers. Matthew 18:8, 9 refers to Jesus talking about self-mutilation which include the
cutting of a hand or foot and the removal of the eye if they act as causes to sin. In verse 6
of the same Matthew 18, he recommended that a millstone be hung around the neck and
be drown of such who will hinder a child to come to the kingdom of God. All of these
taken literally would have presented Jesus as recommending a human solution to
implementing his divine plan and making a nonsense of his perfect plan of redemption
for our salvation.