Does Jesus’ Reference to Eunuchs Affirm Transgender People?
by A. Philip Brown, II on December 1, 2017
Huffington Post author Mark Olmstead claims that Jesus’ statement regarding congenital eunuchs in Matthew 19:12 legitimates transgender persons and behavior. This article analyzes the use of eunuch in ancient Greek and Jewish literature, briefly reviews the background and context of Matthew 19:12, and argues that 1) the term eunuch was not used to denote transgender persons, 2) Jesus’ comments about eunuchs were addressing marriageability, not gender identity, and 3) the Nashville Statement is a faithful articulation of Scripture’s teaching about gender, sex, and marriage. The article concludes that the image of God, not sexual preferences or practices, should be determinative for human identity.
- The word eunuch is never used to denote a person with intact sexual organs who is intersex, transgender, or engages in homosexual behavior.
- In the Old Testament, being a eunuch was not sinful and did not connote sexual or gender transgressive behavior.
- Intertestamental references speak of eunuchs experiencing heterosexual, not homosexual, desire.
- Jesus does not affirm that eunuchs constitute a third gender option or an exception to maleness and femaleness.
- God’s proscriptions are always a function of the goodness of his creative design and of his desire for our best interest.
- The Nashville Statement is well-crafted, doctrinally sound, irenic, and worthy of support.
In a recent Huffington Post article,1 Mark Olmstead claims that, according to Jesus, some people are born transgender and that expressing transgender identity behaviorally is no big deal.2 In Olmstead’s view, people who panic, demonize, or make a fuss about nontraditional categories of gender expression should just “get over it.”3 To justify his claim, Olmstead appeals to Jesus’ statement regarding eunuchs in Matthew 19:12 (NASB).4Specifically, he asserts that the phrase “eunuchs, who were born so from their mother’s womb” may legitimately be understood to include traditional eunuchs, intersex persons, and transgender persons.5
Olmstead concludes from the final phrase of Matthew 19:12that, “However [transgender persons] get [here], Jesus clearly has the same suggestion in how to treat them: ‘He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.’”6 In other words,
from the mouth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ himself, no less … [t]here it is in black and white. People who don’t fit into traditional categories of anatomy and gender expression are simply people who don’t fit into traditional categories of anatomy and gender expression. No need for panic. No need for demonization. No need, really, to make a fuss.7
Along the way, Olmstead manages a drive-by shooting at the recently published Nashville Statement as “the same old [expletive deleted] appropriation of the Bible to justify modern tribal prejudices.”8 Olmstead, himself an LGBTQ advocate who lives a homosexual lifestyle, explicitly states that he views the Bible as a “sweeping work of historical fiction,” which he normally rejects as a basis for justifying anything.9 But his reading of Jesus’ words, in his mind, gives him warrant to use the Bible against evangelicals whom he regards as misusing it.
- Did the Greek word translated eunuch refer to transgender or homosexual persons, whether they were born with same sex attraction or not?
- Does Jesus’ statement, “He who is able to accept this, let him accept it,” mean that his followers should regard the nontraditional gender expressions of transgender persons as acceptable?
- Is there any validity to the charge that the Nashville Statement is an appropriation of the Bible to justify modern tribal prejudices?
The Meaning of Eunuch in First Century Literature
In order to determine whether eunuch can refer to transgender persons, one must do more than imagine that it could refer to such persons. One should consult all the standard reference works on Greek word meanings, and then, preferably, review all the lexical evidence from Greek sources first hand. A consulation of all the standard Classical, NT, and Patristic Greek lexicographers reveals that they unanimously identify the primary senses of the Greek word translated eunuch (eunouchos) as either 1) a male person lacking the ability to beget children, whether through castration (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 5.2.28), accident (Leviticus 21:20), or congenital defect (Matthew 19:12) or 2) a male palace official whether castrated (Esther 2:3) or not (Genesis 39:1, 40:2, 7).11 No Greek lexicon lists hermaphrodyte, androgyne, or any other term related to intersex, transgender, or homosexual persons for the term eunuch. An inductive survey of all occurrences of eunouchos in extant Greek literature prior to and shortly after the time of Jesus confirmed the conclusion of the lexicographers. Specifically, the Greek term eunouchos is never used to denote a person with intact sexual organs who is intersex, transgender, or engages in homosexual behavior.
THE GREEK TERM EUNOUCHOS IS NEVER USED TO DENOTE A PERSON WITH INTACT SEXUAL ORGANS WHO IS INTERSEX, TRANSGENDER, OR ENGAGES IN HOMOSEXUAL BEHAVIOR.
Some recent articles published in scholarly journals have attempted to use extra-biblical materials from Greco-Roman contexts to interpret the New Testament’s use of the term eunuch as a gender-transgressive person.12However, most of these materials are too late (AD 200–400s) to legitimately inform the background of Jesus’ use of the term. It is true that some ancient authors believed eunuchs were neither male nor female but somewhere between or something else altogether (e.g., Philo, Lucian).13 However, these beliefs were rooted in nonbiblical beliefs about what constitutes male and female. Scripture knows of only two created genders/sexes: male and female (Matthew 19:4). Instead of later Greco-Roman materials, the most natural background for Jesus’ meaning in Matthew 19:12 would be the OT and intertestamental Jewish literature.
In the Old Testament, being a eunuch was not sinful and did not connote sexual or gender transgressive behavior. In fact, eunuchs could be described as pleasing the Lord (Isaiah 56:4; cf. Jeremiah 38:7, 39:16–18). The exclusion of eunuchs from the Old Testament priesthood (Leviticus 21:20) and from the assembly (Deuteronomy 23:1) must be read in concert with God’s promise to give righteous eunuchs a monument and a name in his house better than children (Isaiah 56:3–5). Most likely, the physical wholeness required by God’s holiness and the messianic typology embedded in the Old Testament’s tabernacle-priesthood-sacrifice complex were the basis for the exclusion of eunuchs.14 While there are relatively few intertestamental references to eunuchs, those that do exist say nothing about sexual desire,15 but speak of eunuchs experiencing heterosexual, not homosexual, desire.16
Beyond references to eunuchs in Greek, Jewish literature from the second to third centuries AD distinguished eunuchs from persons whose gender was confused due to the development of both male and female sexual features (intersex) or whose gender was uncertain due to other physical reasons (androgyne). This distinction is made without exception and in multiple places.17 The rabbis further divided eunuchs into two classes: eunuchs by birth and eunuchs by man.18
That eunuchs in the ancient world were known to engage in deviant sexual behavior is well-documented.19However, the term eunuch itself neither denotes nor connotes such sexual behavior or proclivities in Scripture. Rather, it normally denotes a male with damaged or missing sexual organs. All eunuchs were considered a subset of males by Scripture, despite the absence of generative capacity. Contrary to Olmstead’s claim, Jesus’ statement has no reference to transgender or homosexual persons.
The Context and Meaning of Matthew 19:12
How should we understand the implication of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:12: “He who is able to accept this, let him accept it?” As always, any text of Scripture must be interpreted in context. In the preceding nine verses (19:1–9), Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ question about marriage and divorce. He says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples are shocked. They respond that in that case, it’s better not to get married at all (Matthew 19:10)! Jesus moderates their conclusion with “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it is given” (Matthew 19:11). The saying which “not all men can receive” is the disciples’ statement, “It is better not to marry.” In other words, Jesus affirms that only some will be able not to marry.
Jesus’ statement naturally raises the question, “To whom has it been given not to marry?” He answers this implicit question in the following verse: “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:12).
JESUS IS NOT AFFIRMING THAT EUNUCHS CONSTITUTE A THIRD GENDER OPTION OR AN EXCEPTION TO MALENESS AND FEMALENESS.
Jesus is not affirming that eunuchs constitute a third gender option or an exception to maleness and femaleness. In context he is addressing marriage not gender. Jesus highlights eunuchs because, as a rule, they didn’t marry. His point is that celibacy may be the result of congenital defect, castration, or may be chosen by individuals who restrict themselves for the sake of the kingdom. Although some early Christians (e.g., Origen) literally made themselves eunuchs, the overwhelming majority of Christians have understood Jesus to be talking about choosing not to marry to allow greater focus on gospel ministry.
Jesus’ final statement in verse 12, “He who is able to accept this, let him accept it,” is a repetition of what he said in verse 10. It affirms that not all men can abstain from marriage (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:7–9). The statement has no direct reference to the status of transgender persons. In other words, the fact that some men are born without reproductive organs and thus are incapable of heterosexual reproduction has no bearing on whether transgender behavioral expressions are acceptable. Since the Fall, all humans are born suffering spiritual and physical deformities due to sin’s ravages. We are all broken in one way or another. Scripture does not condemn or prohibit such brokenness. Rather, Scripture prohibits expressing our brokenness in ways that are contrary to God’s creative design. Such expressions, as with all forms of sexual immorality, are prohibited precisely because God wants it to be well with his people (Deuteronomy 6:18). God’s proscriptions are always a function of the goodness of his creative design and of his desire for our best interest. Contrary to Olmstead’s claim, Jesus does not agree with Lady Gaga.20
The Nashville Statement: Its Scriptural Basis and Significance
Is there any validity to the charge that the Nashville Statement is an appropriation of the Bible to justify “modern tribal prejudices?” In short, no, there is not. There is nothing modern about the Nashville Statement’s affirmation of traditional Christian values on sexuality and gender roles.21 In fact, it is refreshingly reflective of the ancient Judeo-Christian Scriptures. The Nashville Statement accurately reflects Scripture’s positive view of human sexuality and marriage and its negative view of all sexual behavior outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage (see especially Articles 6 and 9). It affirms that intersex persons are made in God’s image and may live fruitful lives in obedience to Christ. It also addresses how Christians should express Christ’s love to those who suffer from same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. Inasmuch as the statement articulates God’s perspective, it can hardly be called a “modern tribal prejudice.” The statement itself is well-crafted, doctrinally sound, irenic, and worthy of support.
Imago Dei, Not Sexual Behavior, Determines Identity
While his argument from Matthew 19:12 is specious, Olmstead, like all who identify as LGBTQ, is a person bearing the image of his Creator, a person for whom Christ died, and is, therefore, the object of God’s redemptive love. While he yet lives, there is opportunity for him to turn from his sin and trust in Christ who alone can heal his heart and grant him eternal life. We should reject our culture’s narrative that a person’s identity is determined by their sexual orientation or practice. Terms such as gay, lesbian, and transgendershould be used to describe behaviors not identities. Reducing people’s identity to their sexual practices or preferences implicitly strips them of their status as bearers of God’s image, objects of God’s love, and persons for whom Christ died so they might become members of his kingdom.22 Followers of Jesus must model both Jesus’ compassion for the brokenness of lost humanity and his uncompromising truth-telling. Workers of iniquity, regardless of the nature of the sin, will be rejected by Christ as those whom he has never known (Matthew 7:23). Those who do the will of the Father will be welcomed by Christ as those whom his grace has redeemed and transformed (Matthew 7:21).
- Mark Olmstead, “When Jesus Agreed With Lady Gaga: What The Bible Says About Transgender Persons,” Huffington Post, August 31, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/when-jesus-agreed-with-lady-gaga-what-the-bible-says_us_59a813cce4b096fd8876c0d1#. Olmstead is presumably referring to the LGBTQ-affirming lyrics of her 2011 song “Born This Way.”
- A transgender person is defined as a person whose internal sense of gender is different from their biological sex.
- Ibid., “No need for panic. No need for demonization. No need, really, to make a fuss. In other words, to paraphrase Jesus: “GET OVER IT.” (Capitalization original)
- All following biblical references come from the New American Standard Bible.
- Ibid., “One can assume [Jesus] was certainly referring to the biologically intersexed (previously known as hermaphrodites). But it is not remotely a stretch to conclude that he cast a much wider net. After all, the transgendered have always been with us—treated differently according to local culture, for sure, in the same way that boys who liked boys (and girls who liked girls) raised eyebrows in some places, and caused no one to blink in others.”
- Ibid., “However they get there, Jesus clearly has the same suggestion in how to treat them. ‘He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.’” (Italicized in original).
- Ibid., “The ‘Nashville Statement’ issued by evangelicals this week is the same old . . . appropriation of the Bible to justify modern tribal prejudices.”
- Ibid., “Normally, I reject the very notion of using this sweeping work of historical fiction to justify anything—but in this case, I’m gladly raising their Leviticus with a Matthew—and from the mouth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ himself, no less.”
- See, for example, Kapya Kaoma, “Beyond Adam and Eve: Jesus, Sexual Minorities and Sexual Politics in the Church in Africa.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 153 (2015): 7–28, and his bibliography.
- Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones, and Robert McKenzie, A Greek English Lexicon (LSJM), 9th rev. ed., Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996; J. Lust, E. Eynikel, and K. Hauspie, Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint (LEH), rev. ed., Stuttgart, Germany: German Bible Society, 2003; Frederick William Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), 3rd ed., Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000–2002; Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, Baker’s Greek New Testament Library, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000; G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1969; Moisés Silva, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDNTTE), Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014; Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament(TDNT), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–1976; Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.
- For example, J. David Hester, “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19.12 and Transgressive Sexualities,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28, no. 1 (2005): 13–40; Brittany E. Wilson, “‘Neither Male nor Female’: The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8.26-40,” New Testament Studies 60, no. 3 (2014): 403–422.
- Philo, De Somniis 2:184; De Ebrietate 1:210–11; Lucian, The Eunuch, 6; cf. Historia Augusta, Severus Alexander 23.7.
- Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 307; Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy, ed. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 247.
- Esther 1.1.13 (LXX); Judith 12:11; Wisdom of Solomon 3:14; P.Cair.Zen. I 159076.
- Sirach 20:4; 30:20.
- The Mishna makes these distinctions in m. Nidda 3.5; m. Nidda 5:9; and m. Para 12.10.
- See, for example, m. Zabim 2.1; m. Yeb. 8.4–6. So also Sarra L. Lev, “They Treat Him as a Man and See Him as a Woman: The Tannaitic Understanding of the Congenital Eunuch,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 17, no. 3 (2010): 213–243.
- Hester, “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus,” 21–22; Wilson, “Neither Male nor Female,” 407.
- Olmstead, “When Jesus Agreed with Lady Gaga.”
- Nashville Statement, https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement/.
- For a helpful engagement with the relationship of sexual sin and identity, see Butterfield, Rosaria Champagne. Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ. Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2015.