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The Identity of Un-castrated Eunuchs

Anyone who studies ancient eunuchs must puzzle over the eunuchs who were not circumsized but played the same roles as their castrated counterparts. The purity of the lineage of a king was, after the king's own life, the highest priority of the kingdom. It was this issue that plunged nearly plunged Israel into civil war at the death of King David. A king could take no risk and had to find someone trustworthy. This is was a trust surpassing righteousness; Joseph was righteous but his privileged access to Potiphar's wife ended in disaster. Joseph's story, for all its unusually great detail, ommitts ever calling him a eunuch. Hebrew has separate words for "eunuch" and "chamberlain." The verse from Esther above demonstrates that "eunuch" and "chamberlain" are not synonyms. The Hebrew equivalent of "chamberlain" refers to a position while "eunuch" refers to the person. So what do castrated eunuchs and non-castrated eunuchs have in common, besides often being chamberlains, that would put both groups in the same term? The only sensible solution for this puzzle introduce in academia so far is this: An uncastrated eunuch could guarantee his sexual loyalty by admitting he had no sexual desire for women. It is tempting to call this kind of person gay, but "gay" is a modern category which had no historical understanding, just as "eunuch" is a ancient category that has no (accurate) modern understanding. We can, however, roughly translate the ancient categories into modern ones:

  • Homosexual, non-bisexual male: Bisexual males must be excluded because they could, and would, still marry
  • Androphilic male-to-female transexual: These males are only attracted to men, but for different reasons than gay males
  • Asexual male: Asexuals are not attracted to women or men
The defining, common trait is that all these people are males who are not attracted to women. For brevity, I'll call them non-gynephilic. Many Christians are offended by this idea - that Scripture mentions gay men. I can't understand why. They have no problem asserting that Scripture mentions gay men in other verses. Perhaps they object because eunuchs are not prompted condemned as sinners. Yet these are not males who have sex with men - they are celibate. Supposedly anti-gay Christians believe celibacy is a good choice for lesbians and gays, but this response makes me suspicious that they're hypocritical on the issue.

Scripture can give us several more hints that the un-castrated are non-gynephilic. Consider the response of Jesus, after a dialog with the Pharisees on the grave responsibility of marriage.

The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry." But he said to them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 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 19:11-12, RSV)

Let's break down the three categories of eunuchs that Jesus uses. First and most important is the last category, "eunuchs for the sake of kingdom." This category is the whole point of the statement and the climax of the previous 12 verses. Understand that in Hebrew culture, children were the greatest prerogative of life; in the Old Testament, having children is equated with receiving eternal life. The disciples' statement was probably a rhetorical question because no one would question that all men should marry. Yet Jesus does just that, stating the Kingdom of God is more important than even marriage and children. Understanding these points, we see Jesus mentions the first two categories simply to prepare for the third.

The second category, "eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men," is the stereotypical category we are comfortable with. Were Jesus to only mention these last two categories, we would easily agree that Jesus is repeating the well-used pattern of taking a concept the people understand, a castrated eunuch, to illustrate a concept they don't understand, a virile man who does not marry. The castrated eunuch is the literal eunuch and the voluntary eunuch is the figurative or symbolic eunuch. Jesus elsewhere teaches about the Kingdom using fish, coins, and sheep.

I posit the first category, the born-eunuch, functions in the same way the castrated eunuch. Whereas Jesus' exemplary eunuch chooses his celibacy, the others are forced into it. The method of force is inconsequential. This isn't controversial. What is controversial is the identity of those "eunuchs who have been so since birth" though it does not change the meaning of Jesus' words. In fact, I believe it matters for context only to illuminate what we know about gender variant people as they were erceived in the first century. Regardless of their identity, it means only that they existed, not that Jesus is giving any instruction to them. Of the few Christians that engage the question, most will identity them as physically unable to have intercourse or are sterile. Sterility is out of the question because sterility could only be discovered after marriage and eunuchs are unmarried and because infertility was always blamed on the wife, never the husband. In that patriarchal culture, the fertility of men was never in doubt. A male physically unable to have sex is physically non-existent; Bible scholars who propose this are utterly unfamiliar with sexual dysfunctions and assume such a thing exists; it does not. Even today you cannot judge fertility by the outward appearance of male genitals, much less two thousand years ago. Here are some similar but failing configurations:

  • Micropenis - Micropenis is visible but does not affect fertility. Ejaculation at the near (even outside!) the entrance of the vagina can still lead to conception
  • Botched circumcision (see David Reimer) - This would fall into the "made eunuchs by men" category, not "from birth" but 8 days after birth
  • A male who cannot ejaculate - Men would not know they could not ejaculate until marriage and consummation because pre-marital sex and masturbation where prohibited. With sex being so taboo, I question how many unmarried men knew of ejaculation. If they did know something was amiss, the shame it would bring would keep them from sharing it publicly. Also, the inability to ejaculate is extremely rare. Jesus would not bother including such a microscopic segment of the population which would confuse, rather than educate, listeners
  • Intersex (non-specified) - Intersex people are nearly always assigned to be women, but eunuchs were never assigned to be women. They were either men or a third sex. People Klinefelter's Syndrome are assigned to be men, but their condition is not visible.
By process of elimination, Jesus could only have referred to non-gynephiles. Only non-gynephiles would be recognizeable (by their admission) that they won't marry a woman.

The next hint that some eunuchs were non-gynephilic, specifically transexual, is bound up in God's promise for eunuchs.