In all the kerfuffle within the church about LGBT issues which shows no sign of going away any time soon, it is strange that the thoughts of Jesus on castration tend to be neglected:
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
What can Jesus have meant? The usual answer is that he was not talking about actual physical mutilation of one’s genitals – heaven forfend – but he was speaking symbolically: castration in this context means abstinence from sexual activity. No problem then. Understood like this, it becomes a key text justifying the celibacy of Catholic priests, and offers homosexual Christians like the Reverend Richard Cole a way out of their dilemmas. But is this right? On the face of it, Jesus does seem to be talking about actual physical castration. If not, what does he mean by ‘eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men’? Enforced celibacy is a strange concept – but enforced castration has been a feature of many – even most – civilisations over the ages. The ‘castrati’ – boys castrated by the church to preserve their youthful singing voices – were not symbolically castrated; their testicles were forcibly removed in painful actuality.
In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear to some scholars that when Jesus spoke approvingly of voluntary eunuchs, he was speaking literally. The focus of society generally on LGBT issues in recent decades has led to a re-examination of those issues throughout history and a rediscovery of the fact that ritual religious castration was very common in the Mediterranean from the earliest times. Priestly devotees of the practice were known as ‘galli’ and often emasculated themselves with their own hands. It seems clear now that whoever put these words into Jesus’ mouth was influenced by this common pagan practice. And whatever its origins, a number of Church Fathers took it literally: Valentinus, Julius Cassianus, Basilides, Leontios of Antiochia, Melito “the Eunuch”, Hilarion, Marcarius, and most famously, Origen are among the thousands that chose ritual castration as route to salvation. The cloisters of Egypt and Syria were centres of castration, and Coptic monasteries continued to perform the operation well into the Islamic period. Clearly, modern day fundamentalists have been misled by more conservative Christian thinking on this point. Jesus was in favour of self-castration for the really committed Christian: ‘He that is able to receive it, let him receive it’. In these days of impending apocalypse, surely we should expect fundamentalists to take this ultimate step of Christian faith and witness, if only to ensure their place in the imminent Kingdom of God. As ever, women (being only God’s afterthought) need not participate – but come on guys – put your knife where your mouth is!