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Walter Bauer

"Matth. 19.12 und die alten Christen" in: Neutestamentliche Studien Georg Heinrici zu seinem 70. Geburtstag (14. März 1914) dargebracht. Chapter 7. Leipzig: J.C. Hinrick'sche Buchhandlung, 1914, pp. 235-244.

Chapter VII. On the History of Exegesis

24. Matthew 19:12 and the Ancient Christians

It is with gratitude in our hearts that we offer Georg Heinrici our congratulations on the occasion of his 70th birthday, moved by a strong feeling for what he has given to science and to ourselves through his tireless efforts. Even more than usual, and even in one who never sat in Heinrici's lecture hall, the sense of being his pupil stirs more vigorously and drives me to show the master that I acknowledge my debt to him for rich instruction and varied inspiration. One of Heinrici's greatest gifts was his edition of the Explanation of St. Matthew's Gospel by Petrus of Laodicea (1908). In this edition, he expressed the wish that "it might inspire collaboration in the scarcely tilled field of the history of scripture interpretation" (pp. XLV-XLVI). The following modest article intends to show that this suggestion has not fallen on unreceptive ground. Given the space that I have to work within, I have chosen a verse that is represented in only one of the gospels, which can thus be treated without reference to the others or to the interpretations devoted to them. Likewise, one can generally refrain, without too much harm, from considering the broader context in which the saying is found. Only 19:11 had to be considered to some extent along with it, because Jesus's statement here not only forms the introduction to the saying but also comes very close in content to the last words of verse 12 and therefore is often acknowledged to be associated with that subsequent verse (see, for example, Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 3.6.50; Cyprian, Testim. 3.32). On the other hand, Matthew 19:12 also appears in isolation and as such has had effects and has been given interpretations that are not without interest.

When is our saying first found outside the New Testament? It is not mentioned by the Apostolic Fathers. Ignatius of Antiochia, who once cites the words "he who can grasp it, let him grasp it" in a completely different thought context (Ad Smyrn. 6.1) does not belong here any more than do the many later ones who also cite these words. Among the apologetic writers, Athenagoras calls the unmarried state eunouchía, and the unmarried man eunuoûchos (Suppl. 33-34) - a use of language that is not otherwise infrequent (Polycrates to Victor about Melito of Sardes in Eusebius, Church History 5.24.5; Julius Cassian in Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 3.13.91; Clement himself in Stromateis 3.1.4; Pseudo-Cyprian in De singularitate clericorum 31, 37 and much more frequently). However, whether he is inspired by Matthew 19:12 cannot be determined. On the other hand, Justin cited our saying, in Apol. 1.15. He does not go into its content. But by his assigning it to a group of similarly directed sayings that all call for soofrosúne,1 he shows clearly that in his view those "who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" are those who live chastely.

The heretic Basilides had occupied himself with Matthew 19:12 a bit earlier still. For what Clement of Alexandria relates about the Basilidians in Stromateis 3.1.1 is probably derived from [Basilides'] Exegetica.2 According to his interpretation, only the first class of eunuchs are predetermined toward their behavior by their constitutional make-up: they are those who by nature have an aversion to the female. Those mentioned second in the gospel - Basilides calls them eunoûchoi ex anágkees for short - are the showy ascetics who practice abstention for the sake of vainglory. Finally, those who emasculate themselves for the sake of the eternal kingdom avoid marriage in order not to be distracted from higher things by worries about making a living. - While Basilides refrains from all unhealthy hyperbole, and in fact uses words of blame against them, other heretics of the 2nd century have used Matthew 19:12 as a basis of their demand for absolute sexual abstention.3 The saying is supposed to underscore a reference to the fact that Jesus himself remains unmarried (see Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 3.6.49-50).4 Clement himself of course does not accept this use of the gospel citation. If it recommends singleness, then, according to the entire context, only for the particular case in which a man, after dismissing his adulterous wife, wanted to marry again. In fact, the idea that Matthew 19:12 would be portraying auto-castration as a desirable thing is completely averse to this church father. For eunoûchos aleetheès ouch ho meè dunámenos, all' ho meè boulómenos fileedeîn (Paed. 3.4.26) - a thought that recurs in many variations in the treatment of Matthew 19:12. "To mutilate oneself for the kingdom's sake" means "cutting off all desire" (Stromateis 3.7.59), thus becoming entirely free from sin (3.14.99).

Clement's student Origen is worthy of particular attention. For according to the testimony of Eusebius5 (Church History 8.1.2), Origen took Matthew 19:12 literally and emasculated himself in obedience to the Lord. While there was dispute earlier about what measure Origen actually took to achieve his end - Epiphanius in Haer. 64.3 already leaves open several alternatives - in recent times there has been a tendency to discard the statement of Eusebius as erroneous. The reasons given do not seem convincing to me. Origen, who later was so great in sensing deep and true meaning, in his youth took more than one saying quite literally and drew the logical conclusion (Eusebius 6.3.10). At a more mature age, however, when explaining St. Matthew's gospel, he expressed himself differently: tom. XV, 1-5 perì diaforâs eunoûchoon (ed. Lomm. III, p. 327ff.). He argues forcefully against those who take all three categories of eunuch literally and have castrated themselves, thereby doing harm both to non-Christians and to the insightful among the believers. If there were not grounds to fear that fools would be inspired to imitate their example, Origen would not have devoted much time toward refuting them. But also the other interpretation - only ever put forth by a few - which takes the first two literally and and the last one as a metaphor for those for those who have separated themselves from fleshly desires - is not satisfactory. Working methodically, one can only understand all the categories figuratively or none of them. And since the third leaves no choice, then all three are compelled to have a spiritual interpretation. The first class contains the eunoûchoi ek kataskeueês; those castrated by people are those who have let themselves be persuaded toward abstinence by human teachings, like those of the philosophers or even of the heretics; the third group, finally, surrender themselves to the effects of the Word of God, the "doubled-edged sharp sword" (Hebrews 4:12).6

The practical behavior of the young Origen is not unique, but neither has the spiritualizing exegesis of his later years lacked followers. In the former case, it should be recalled that we can document self-mutilation, or at least the yearning to do it, among Christians in sources as far back as the middle of the 2nd century: Justin, Apol. 1.29.7 Athanasius relates in Historia Arianorum ad monachos, Chapter 28, and otherwise frequently about an Arian presbyter Leontios, who harmed himself. In the Vita Sabae per Cyrill. Scythopolit. 41 (Cotelerius, Eccles. graecae monumenta III, 1686, pp. 284ff.) we hear the name of a monk Jacob from the great Laura in Syria. But these are not isolated cases. Epiphanius reports without a word of censure that not a few monks castrated themselves (Expos. fidei 13, p. 1095). The rules of the Canones in particular, which touch on this point again and again, give pause: Canones apost. 21-23 (=17), of the Council of Nicaea I, or the second synod of Arles 7 (hos qui se carnali vitio repugnare nescientes abscidunt, ad clerum pervenire non possunt); cf. the instruction of Pope Gelasius I to the bishops of Lucania (Migne, Latin Series LIX, col. 53). Vehement polemics against the eunuchs are contained in a letter from Basil the Great to the heretic Simplicia (No. 115 or 87, Maurin Edition III, 1730, p. 87; cf. John Damascenus, Sacra parallel. 5.27 perì eunoúchoon) and a fragment of Cyril of Alexandria against those who emasculate themselves and thereby fully and completely pervert the divine work of the pneumatikeè eunouchía (Nova patrum bibliotheca II, 1844, pp. 494-497). Admittedly, in all these cases, Matthew 19:12 is not mentioned, so that it may remain doubtful whether and to what extent we are dealing here with effects originating in our saying. As for Epiphanius in Haer. 58, relating about the Arabian Valesians that they mutilated themselves and others in order thus to create "eunuchs for the kingdom's sake," while this does quote Matthew 19:12, it does so in a context that engenders a great deal of mistrust. But if we observe how the church fathers from Origen on agitate again and again against those who take a knife in hand based on a false understanding of the Matthew verse, we will scarcely be tempted to exonerate the verse of all guilt. Cf. Basil of Ancyra, De virginitate (among the writings of Basil the Great, III, pp. 589ff.) 61; Chrysostomus, on the verse and In ep. ad Gal. Maurin Edition X, p. 717, and also Hom. on John 5:19 Section 2 t. VI, p. 258; Jerome, Epist. 65; Ambrose, De viduis 13; see also Isho'dad on this verse ed. M.D. Gibson = Horae Semiticae VI and V, 1911.

After becoming older, as we saw, Origen offered an interpretation of Matthew 19:12 which, in uncovering the meaning of the verse, completely refrains from assuming violent interventions into the human body. The exegesis of Basilides, who was also active in Alexandria, likewise moved in the same direction. But neither did Origen lack for emulators. The deciding factor in this case is the interpretation of the second group of eunuchs, since the metaphorical [sic] understanding of the third class is not particularly characteristic of these interpreters. Basil of Ancyra, in De virginitate 57, finds in Matthew 19:12, along with those whom nature has treated in a stepmotherly fashion, others who are driven to abstention through teaching and rearing received from human beings, and finally those who reject marriage in order to devote themselves totally to the tasks of the kingdom of God. Gregory Nazianzen, in the only speech about an evangelical text that we have from him, dealt with Matthew 19:1-12 (No. 37). In 17-21, he argues that the eunuchs are probably not to be understood literally at all, and recalls that the scripture was talking about sexual offences and adultery and thus meant disdain for the divine commandments. The eunuchs from their mother's womb are those who tend toward goodness by nature,8 those castrated by people are those who are cleared of their passions by the word being preached to them. Those, finally, who have emasculated themselves for the kingdom's sake are those not taught by any teacher, not their father or mother, not their presbyter or bishop, nor any other person called to provide instruction. They have submitted themselves on their own to the influence of the Word and have by their own free will eliminated the bodies of evil within themselves. Petrus of Laodicea on this verse distinguishes among hoi ek fúseoos échontes teèn soofrosúneen, then hoi di' anthroopíneen aréskeian soofroneîn nomizómenoi, and finally those who combat the carnal lusts through the practice of virtue and choose the state of angelicness (Luke 20:26).

Of the Greeks, Theophylactus belongs here, who in Enarr. in Ev. Matth. on this verse sees in the second kind of eunuchs those who have decided for abstinence based on human teaching. The castratus for the kingdom's sake is ho huf' heautoû didachtheìs kai automathoôs pròs soofosúnees apoklínas. Among the Latins, Jerome on this verse (Comm. in Matth. 3.19, ed. Vall. VII, pp. 146ff.) at least allows an interpretation to be considered that takes all three types figuratively. According to it, Matthew 19:12 refers to: 1. those of a cold nature, 2. those won by philosophy, driven toward abstinence by worship of false gods, or persuaded by heretics, 3. those qui cum possint esse viri, propter Christum eunuchi fiunt. The understanding of the third category seems to Jerome to be absolutely sure (cf. also Comm. in Js. 15.56, t. IV, p. 657). As examples of such eunuchism, in Adv. Jovinianum 1.12 he names the Ebedmelech of Jeremiah and the chamberlain of Queen Candace from the Acts of the Apostles. The latter [sic] was by no means physically mutilated; in fact the word is eunuchus vir Aethiops (Comm. in Sophon. proph. 1, t. VI, p. 674).9 Indeed, with regard to the third class, the literal interpretation has only ever been held by a minority. The overwhelming majority has always related it to the sexually abstinent, the virginal ones, the monks. And our saying is used not infrequently in this sense, when it is alluded to or cited and discussed fragmentarily or sometimes in full, but always in such a way that the accent falls on the third part; cf. Methodius of Olympus, Banquet Talk 1.1, 2.7; Chrysostomus, De virgin. 49; Epiphanius, Haer. 21.5; Tertullian, De monogamia 3, De pat. 13; Cyprian, De habitu virginum 4, Testim. 3.32; Ambrose, De viduis 13.75-76; Augustine, Contra advers. leg. et proph. 1.24, De adulterinis coniug. 18 (=19), Contra Faustum 6.30.4, Confession 2.2.3, 8.1.2, De sancta virginitate 23; letters under the name of Sulpicius Severus 2.2 (Werke im Wiener Corpus I, p. 226). The attempt is often made herein to justify the "castratus" by describing the purification process as a "severing of desires" or the like; cf. Clement of Alexandria 3.7.59; Origen, Comm. in Matth. 15.1; Eusebius, Dem. evang. 3.6.5; Chrysostomus, Hom. on John 5:19 Section 2 t. VI, p. 258; Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Haer. fab. 5.24; Euthymius, Comm. in Matth. on this verse; Augustine, Contra Faustum 6.30.4. Among the reasons given against the literal interpretation, the following two, which are closely related in content, are included over and over: 1) Jesus is praising the third class. Lack of ability, however, can never be praiseworthy. Thus these people must be characterized by a special exertion of the will; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Paed. 3.4.26; Ambrose, De viduis 13.75-76: voluntas facit, non infirmitas continentem; Hilarius, on this verse; Jerome, Adv. Jovinianum 1.12; Opus imperf. in Matth. (Chrys. Maurin Edition), p. CXXXVI; Isho'dad, on this verse; Euthymius, on this verse; 2) The eunuchs praised by Jesus cannot be people who have harmed themselves. For the mutilation does not bring them closer to God. Sin lives in the heart and it is present even if the body lacks the organ needed to act on it; cf. Basil of Ancyra, De virgin. 61; Chrysostomus, Hom. 62(63).3-4 in Matth.; John Dam., Sacra parallela 5.27 (originating from Nilus according to the margin note); Ambrose, De viduis 13.75-76; Opus imperf., ibid.

For as much as the figurative interpretation for the third kind of eunuch is widely adopted, this is not true at all for the other two kinds. Before developing the metaphorical interpretation as a possibility, Jerome had declared: triplex genus est eunuchorum, duorum carnalium et tertii spiritualis (cf. also Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 37.16 in contrast to 37.17ff.). This opinion is shared by many. And even if in Origen's time it truly was expressed by only a few (see p. 4), it nonetheless eventually surpassed the view adopted in the main by this scholar. Cf. Chrysostomus, Hom. 62(63).3-4 in Matth.; Epipanius, Haer. 56.3.4; Euthymius, on this verse; Hilarius, on this verse; Opus imperf., on this verse; Isho'dad, on this verse. The last-named takes a somewhat unique position in that he understands those castrated by people as those who mutilate themselves out of vain desire for human honor.

Finally, it should be stated that Matthew 19:12 is mentioned only very rarely. Except for the speech by Gregory Nazianzen, the saying is treated in detail only where the entire gospel is treated verse by verse. And even here there are exceptions. In the commentary by Pseudo-Theophilus or in the Quaestiones Vet. et Novi Test. of Pseudo-Augustine, for example, our verse is ignored. And even more significantly, the writings with an expressly ascetic tendency, specifically our sources for knowledge of monasticism and sainthood, make extremely sparing use of this saying. It is also scarcely used to justify the demand for the celibacy of clergy. I believe I have had enough contact with the literature to make that statement, and I will spare the reader a listing of the relevant documents in which I searched in vain for Matthew 19:12. If this is not a result of coincidence, then an explanation of the fact should at least be attempted. For one, it seems to have caused a certain uneasiness that Jesus used words like "eunuch." According to Augustine, in Contra advers. leg. et proph. 1.24, the obscoenitas of the expression was criticized. Gregory Nazianzen, in Oration 37.20, declares the literal understanding to be petty, very weak, and undignified. He considers it his duty, epinoeêsaí ti toû pneúmatos áxion, and guided by this hermeneutic principle, he shifts to a figurative interpretation.

Also the fear that a destructive insanity might find new nourishment from the recollection of Matthew 19:12 may explain the reticence to a certain degree. Much more important, certainly, was another thing. One might give the saying an interpretation in which the virginal state is not only the better condition, but also the only valid one. Clement of Alexandria already had to defend against heretics who justified their radical rejection of marriage in this way. And for all its preference for sexual abstainers, the church has always respected marriage as a divine institution. Thus we find it strongly emphasized, wherever Matthew 19:12 cannot be summarily skipped over, that Jesus is by no means demanding virginality, but rather he entrusted the decision to the will of the individual. The following phrases in the text were exploited for this purpose: "he who can grasp it, let him grasp it" and: "not all can grasp this saying, but only they to whom it is given"; cf. Chrysostomus, on this verse, and De virgin. 36; Isidore of Pelusium, Epist. 4.165; Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Haer. fab. 5.24; Maximus in the Nicetascatena on Matthew ed. Corderius 1647; John Dam., De fide orthod. 4.24; Petrus of Laodicea; the commentary on the gospels published by Marksi [Markfi?] (Codex graecus quatuor evang.); Euthymius; Theophylactus; Jerome, In Is. 15.56 (ed. Vall. IV, 657); Isho'dad. Here, at last, something that is proven by all work in this field becomes especially evident again: the great power of the element of tradition in interpretation. For the persons cited here not only share ideas with one another, often the wording itself is so similar that there can be little doubt of literary dependency in most cases. This article can probably refrain from demonstrating this in detail. It was only a consistent continuation of this practice when the commentators of the Middle Ages from Beda Venerabilis onward, like Rabanus Maurus, Paschasius Radbert, Walafried Strabo, Thomas Aquinas, etc., deliberately refrained from putting forward ideas of their own and considered their task complete once the views of the church fathers had been recorded more or less completely. Unfortunately, they do not provide us any knowledge from older exegesis regarding Matthew 19:12 that we did not already know from the writings of the ancients that we still have.


1  As part of a collection of sayings, Matthew 19:12 is also found in Cyprian, Test. 3.32. Augustine, Speculum LXXX. Maximus Confessor, 3rd sermo per excepta ed. Combesis [Combefis?] 1675 t II, p. 536. John Damascenus, Sacra parallela 5.27.

2  See proof in Th. Zahn, Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons I, 1888/9, pp. 767-769. A. Hilgenfeld, Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristentums, 1884, pp. 215-218, would like to attribute it to the son Isidore.

3  Even Theodoret, Haer. fab. 5.24, is still fighting such heretics.

4  If, in his writing Perì egkrateías eè perì eunouchías, Julius Cassian specifically recalls that God emakárisen toùs eunoúchous (Clem. Al., Stromateis 3.13.91), then one should probably not think of Matthew 19:12, but rather of Isaiah 56.4ff., as the following text shows. Cassian, in Conlatio 22.6, also cites this verse from the prophets as a proof that blessedness is promised to eunuchs, while ignoring Matthew 19:12.

5  I limit myself here, as in similar cases hereafter, to citing only the earliest source known to me.

6  Origen also comes out in favor of spiritual understanding of Matthew 19:12 in Comm. in ep. ad Rom. 1. 2.13, ed. Lomm. VI, p. 133 and 141. The Catena on Matthew published by P. Possinus in 1646 attributes a wordplay to him: eunoûchos estin ho teèn eúnoian fuláttoon toôi oikeíooi despóteei kaì basileúoon toôn idíoon pathoôn. These words are found at the end of the explanation of Matthew 19:12 in the text of the Commentary of Petrus of Laodicea used by Heinrici under the siglum Me. Page 213 of apparatus.

7  Other writers of apologetics polemicize against self-emasculation in the contemporary pagan cults: Minucius Felix, Oct. 24.4. Here we find the double-edged [i.e. ambiguous] sentence: If God had wanted eunuchs, He would have made them.

8  In the Catena on Matthew publiched by P. Possinus in 1646, one finds the following scholion under the name Apollinaris: ou pántes, feesi, chooroûsi tòn lógon, all' hoîs dédotai, tó dè "hoîs dédotai" charismátoon fusikoôn estì deelootikón, kaì tò "apò genéseoos" eufuías eis tò teês soofrosúnees katórthooma.

9  In Euseb., CH 5.24.5, Rufin makes a propter regnum dei eunuchus out of the eunoûchos Melito. On the other hand, in Eus. 7.32.3, the presbyter Dorotheus of Antiochia is called teèn fúsin eunoûchos, hoútoo pefukoòs ex auteês genéseoos.