Eunuchs: Intersex or Infertile men? Responding to Preston Sprinkle

Thanks so much, Preston, for engaging my work both thoughtfully and respectfully. This speaks not only to the importance of discussing challenging and difficult topics but also our ability to do so with civility and Christian charity. Thank you for modeling that in both your first post and this second one to which I respond here.

Before I get to your question about the validity of using the Biblical category of the eunuch to speak of intersex, I would like to clear the air.

I must admit that as grateful as I am for your desire to have a fair and generous (but still critical) conversation, I was frustrated that you would prime your readers with a provocative theological thought experiment from chapter 6 which you admit has no bearing on the argument in this post; namely, thinking about whether Jesus could have fulfilled his Messianic mission if he were a eunuch or intersex. As I explain in that chapter, the Church Fathers insisted that Jesus took “his flesh from his mother” (as some ancients understood the process of conception – the father supplying the seed/soul/form and the mother the “matter,” the etymological root of “mother” in a number of languages). If they are correct that Jesus took all of his flesh from his mother then his chromosomes have to be XX (the typical female pattern). He could not have received a Y chromosome from his mother (unless of course she was intersex in having an extra Y chromosome XXY—but I digress). There is a kind of intersex which would make an XX person have a phallus large enough to pass the circumcision test—a strong form of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH). I am not saying that that Jesus was intersex but that our knowledge of sex development today bumps up against some theological constructions, past and present.

The point is: If you really want your readers to give my book a fair shake, why bring up an idea that is likely to shock people and distract them from the main point of the book and of this post, particularly if they haven’t been prepared for the discussion with the context of that chapter or by hearing you summarize the reasons that this is worth thinking about? I realize this does not get at the point of your argument in this blog post but that is my point. If we are to have a fair and fruitful discussion, using shock tactics to prime your readers to be suspicious of my arguments before they even hear them goes against your stated intent to give me (and help them give me) an unbiased reading. (This is the same tactic Matthew Lee Anderson used in his review inChristianity Today when he started his review with transwoman Caitlyn Jenner before even explaining intersex and then went on to misrepresent the point of thinking about Jesus through our knowledge of eunuchs and intersex. What I am doing in that chapter is making an argument about Christology and questioning the assumption that Jesus must be a “perfect” male.)

I’m grateful that you have not misrepresented my arguments (as he did) but the shock tactic isn’t helpful. Would you please try not to do this in future posts?

Now, to respond to your questions and arguments.

If I understand you correctly, you are not convinced that eunuchs should be viewed through the lens of intersex but understood as “sexually male.” You seem to want to limit the scope of eunuch in Isaiah 56 and Matthew 19 to infertility. I’ll address each of these in turn.

Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “sexually male” – do you mean their sexual orientation was toward women or that biologically they should be understood as male, but “different” or “defective males” rather than something in between male and female? Be careful not to confuse the terms sex, gender, and sexuality. If you are talking about erotic orientation, use “sexual” but if speaking of biology, use “sex.” When discussing social status and behaviors, use “gender.” We need these nuanced distinctions if we are to get anywhere in this conversation.

Since you don’t focus on eunuchs’ sexual abilities or lack thereof (other than fertility) I think you want to focus on the category of sex. The challenge is here is that sexed bodies fall on a spectrum so the question of where one draws the lines between male and intersex and intersex and female is highly subjective (doctors and intersex scholars debate this regularly, so, welcome to the club).

Since the Bible is not a science book which carefully explains how sex is different from gender and how many sexes and genders there are or should be, we have to weigh the evidence we have both in the Bible and in Christian and Jewish literature from related periods.

While we start with Genesis, we can’t stop there. I focus on the language of the eunuch because we find it in the Bible. But we have ample evidence that ancient Jews and Christians were familiar with many Differences of Sex Development (DSD is another term covering kinds of intersex) and that they had more than one term to describe persons who do not fit neatly into the categories of male and female as well as legal and religious laws governing these persons – laws that differed from those for men and those for women. Jewish commentators speak of at least 4 terms in the Talmud: saris[Hebrew for “eunuch”], aylonith, andogynos, and tumtumChurch Fathers, such as Augustine, recognize eunuchs and also testify to the language and legal status of Androgynes.*

John Hare, a physician and scholar, explains how the Rabbis wrestled with these realities:

“Faced with the dilemma that, on the one hand, the words of Genesis seemed clear that there were two sexes, clearly defined, and on the other hand that there were people who, from their external appearance, would not fit easily into either, the tanna’ic rabbis refined a diagnostic system that allowed some gradations between male and female and beyond female (87).”*

“the rabbis broke with the concept of the strictly sexually dichotomous society … what they put in place was a monolithic society with men at the pinnacle as the ideal perfect form, and a gradually declining scale of incompleteness and imperfection. Thus the saris khama [naturally born eunuch], the androginos, and the tumtum were given a place on the scale between men and women, and the aylonith put in a place below women. Rights, obligations, privileges, and protections all followed this (88).”*

(For those without access to this new book, here is a quick link which describes these categories. In chapter 3 of my book, I describe a similar gender scale in Greek and Roman understandings which influenced early Christian thinking on sex, gender and the image of God.)

I think the evidence we find in the Bible does point to understanding eunuchs as something other than “fully” male or as more than simply infertile males. As I explain in chapter 2, eunuch is a broad term which covers a number of bodily differences so it is difficult to know with certainty which aspects of eunuch are intended in a particular passage.

We know that boys castrated at young ages developed distinct physical traits that share similarities to descriptions of naturally born eunuchs or intersex, such as Klinefelter’s Syndrome. Persons with Klinefelter’s have XXY or XXYY chromosomes and lower than typical levels of male hormones—coming closer to the range of testosterone which circulates in typical female bodies. While both developed penises, the testes were either removed, crushed, naturally smaller than average, or producing lower levels of testosterone than what is typical for males. Many develop small breasts. A number suffer from osteoporosis in old age. They are described in ancient literature as walking differently, beardless, with narrower than the average shoulders, and distinct facial structure. These physiological traits go well beyond infertility. In chapter 1, I share the story of Cameron who has Klinefelter’s and says he “always felt caught between the sexes” but when he came to understand Klinefelter’s he finally understood why.

We know that eunuchs were treated differently than men and not on account of infertility. Legally, eunuchs represented a third category—both in Jewish religious law and in Greco-Roman law. They could not testify (like women) because their testes were either missing or defective – that part of the body which Jewish males sometimes covered when making oaths [“placing a hand under the thigh” cf. Gen. 24:1-3) and incidentally the etymological root of a “last will and testament”].

Castrated or crushed Eunuchs were not permitted in the assembly of the LORD whereas other Jewish men were permitted (Deut. 23:1). I have found no evidence that infertile men were similarly excluded from worship in Ancient Israel. Of course, the ancients usually blamed infertility on women, so the bible is not particularly helpful in addressing this more nuanced, medically accurate question.

Eunuchs were religious outsiders which is why I find the passage in Isaiah 56 so compelling. God hears the complaints of these historically marginalized persons and says, “I have things even better for you” (“better than sons and daughters” “a place within my temple” “an everlasting name”). Note that it is not only the passing on of the male name because YHWH refers not only sons but also daughters – those who could not pass on the name. God is blessing eunuchs in a unique way— a way different from how God typically blessed Jewish men.

I think the evidence which I present on eunuchs as a third gender in the Christian East is also compelling – evidence you do not recount (probably for lack of space). Nevertheless, Kathryn Ringrose has persuasively shown that eunuchs were a third gender in the Byzantine East and that the category, while populated mostly by castrated eunuchs, also made legal and social space for naturally born eunuchs.

Eunuchs were connected with (and sometimes confused with) angels (in stories, dreams, and iconography) because they were considered sexually other, not “sexually male”.

To be completely honest, neither one of us has a slam dunk argument that can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that eunuchs were considered “male” or “not male” in the minds of biblical authors but that is the way it often goes when excavating ancient texts from ancient contexts so different from our own. We must weigh the evidence and arguments. This is why I would invite your readers to weigh for themselves all of the evidence I present in chapter 2 (and in the sources I cite) to see what they think. They may just end up agreeing with the 4th century poet Claudius Mamertinus that, in the ancient world, “eunuchs [were] exiles from the society of the human race, belonging neither to one sex nor the other.”

It is this background on the marginalized status of eunuchs that makes me love the words of Jesus in Matthew 19 so much more! Jesus does not make fun of eunuchs for their differences as other rabbis did. Jesus does not speak of them as “proof of that fall” as some theologians have. We have no record of Jesus healing a eunuch in order to bring one back into the “divinely intended” category of male. (Nor does Phillip heal the eunuch before baptizing him in Acts 8.) Rather, Jesus uses common knowledge about eunuchs to point to a kind of radical discipleship—a willingness to give up male privilege, the status associated with a clear gendered place in the world, a willingness to become “aliens and strangers” because of one’s allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. This is classic Jesus…                         challenging the privileged, gathering in the exiles, welcoming all of us home.

4 For thus says the LORD, “To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,                           and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant,                                              5 To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,                                And a name better than that of sons and daughters;                                                        I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.                                           6 “Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him,                  and to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants,                                               every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath, And holds fast My covenant;                 7 Even those I will bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar;              For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”                         8 The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares,                           “Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.”        Isaiah 56:4-8

Thanks be to God!

And Peace to you,


*John Hare, “Hermaphrodites, Eunuchs, and Intersex People: The Witness of Medical Science in Biblical Times and Today,” in Intersex, Theology and the Bible: Troubling Bodies in Church, Text, and Society, Palgrave, 2015, p. 87-88. (I recommend this excellent book which includes essays from a number of theologians and scholars of intersex but I should warn you that it is expensive so if funds are an obstacle I would encourage you to ask your library to purchase it so you can check it out from there.)