May 28, 2012

Sacred Sex, Celibacy and the New Testament Part 1: Matthew 19:3–12

Jesus Christ taught about divorce, marriage, and celibacy in Matthew 19:3–12. Jewish leaders called Pharisees challenged Christ about divorce laws. Christ responded with a powerful teaching about marriage and sex:

[3] Some Pharisees came to him [Jesus], and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" [4] He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' [5] and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? [6] So they are no longer two, but one flesh." Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.'' [7] They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?" [8] He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. [9] And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery."

[10] His disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." [11] But he said to them, "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. [12] For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can." (Matthew 19:3–12)
During the days of Christ, Jews debated about the two rabbinical views of divorce taught in the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. Hillel taught that a Jewish husband could divorce his wife for any reason and Shammai taught a husband could divorce his wife only in the case of a sexually immorality. Likewise, in the case of divorce, Christ sided with the school of Shammai.

Christ also used this opportunity to teach about marriage. He referred to Genesis 1:27 and said that God made humans both male and female. Then he referred to Genesis 2:24 and said a man should leave his parents and join his wife to become one flesh, which refers to marriage and sexual union between a husband and wife. Based on these precedences, Christ proclaimed that nobody should divorce.

The Pharisees then asked why Moses commanded to give certificates of divorce. Christ replied that the biblical law about certificates of divorce was written for the hard-hearted Israelites. That biblical law was an accommodation apart from the biblical model taught in Genesis 1—2. Christ then clarified that nobody should divorce his spouse except for a severe violation such as adultery. Christ also taught that remarriage after divorce for a non-severe violation was adultery. For example, a no-fault divorce is invalid in the eyes of God while God requires such a divorcee to remain faithful to his spouse.

This strictness alarmed Christ's disciples. They suggested to Christ that abstinence from marriage was better than the risks of a disappointing marriage. Christ then taught about the option of deliberate lifelong celibacy while referring to three types of eunuchs: (1) males born as eunuchs, (2) males involuntarily made into eunuchs by castration, and (3) males choosing the life of a eunuch for God's kingdom.

The term "eunuch" in ancient Jewish tradition referred to (1) pagan males castrated in childhood to later to serve in harems without sexual temptation, (2) males with presumed congenital infertility, and (3) various governmental officials who could enjoy marriage.1 Christ first referred to males born as eunuchs: that is, males with presumed congenital infertility. He second referred to castrated males. He third figuratively referred to normal males deliberately choosing lifelong celibacy to fully serve in God's kingdom.

Christ's discussion of eunuchs focused on normal males who choose lifelong celibacy to fully serve in God's kingdom. Given the ancient context that Jews prohibited castration,2 Christ never suggested the concept of literal self-castration. Instead, he referred to Jews who choose lifelong celibacy to fully serve God.3

Christ taught paradoxes about marriage. First, divorce is impermissible because God made the husband and wife one that should never separate, but extreme violations make divorce permissible. Second, God commands humans to leave their parents and marry, but lifelong celibacy is also an option from God. What is more, Christ chose lifelong celibacy.
1. "Eunuch," accessed May 28, 2012,
2. "Castration," accessed May 28, 2012,
3. For example, the Jewish sect called the Essenes avoided marriage as much as possible. See "Essenes," accessed May 28, 2012,

Copyright © 2012 James Edward Goetz

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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