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Halvor Moxnes

Halvor Moxnes is professor at the Department of Theology at the University of Oslo, Norway.


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Tidsskrift for kjønnsforskning no 3 2005.

Jesus in Gender Trouble1

The article’s theme is Jesus’ role in the construction of gender in Christian theology. Feminists have criticised male theologians for portraying Jesus as a model for “human” existence in purely masculine terms. This criticism is expanded upon from a queer perspective on Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:12, about Eunuchs as ideals in “the Kingdom of Heaven”, in a reading inspired by Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. From such a reading “eunuchs”, who represent a doubtful masculinity, are presented as a challenge to the masculine hegemony. “Eunuchs” can therefore be gainfully employed as an example of the possibility for identities that lend themselves to breaking down the traditional categories of gender.

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The topic of this essay is the role of Jesus Christ in the construction of gender in Christian theology. As the central figure in Christian faith Jesus Christ is regarded both as saviour and as a model for human existence. And for almost 1900 years the person of Jesus Christ and his significance for human existence has been discussed with little reference to gender. But theology and all other areas of knowledge and sciences were male dominated areas. This influenced language and structures of thought so that the ideal human was consciously or unconsciously imagined in the form of a man. This essay starts with the way in which feminist theologians have questioned this taken-for-granted relationship between Jesus and humanity understood as “manhood” in male dominated theological discourses. It is this male perspective that I want to question in the main part of this essay. I have been inspired by feminist criticism, but my own criticism comes from a queer perspective representing another marginal position in relation to a hegemonic masculinity. I undertake this criticism by way of discussing a problematic passage in the New Testament (Matthew’s Gospel 19:12) in which Jesus introduces eunuchs as ideals in “the Kingdom of Heaven”. And I raise the question of the implications of setting up as ideal a human being who was regarded as so to speak “between genders”, of questionable masculinity.

Feminist criticism and gender in theological discourse

Some years ago the American feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether raised an important question to the way Christian theology had spoken of salvation: “Can a male saviour redeem and save wo/men?”2 It sounded like an innocent question, one that could be raised by a child, but in reality it went to the centre of feminist criticism of the theological teaching on Jesus Christ (termed “Christology”) by (mostly) male theologians. It introduced the particular, that is, the question of gender, into an area that in Christian thought was considered to be universal: the belief in Jesus Christ as saviour for all of humanity. To raise the question as one of “wo/men” unmasked both “saviour” and “humanity” and revealed that these “universal” concepts in reality were gendered and had privileged the masculine.

This privileging of the male had been taken for granted not only in the praxis of the church and the world that was shaped by Christianity, but also in the very structure of language, philosophy and theology. Male domination is articulated in language and determines the way in which language labels and structures the world. In many languages “man” and other male categories are used to express “the human”. These expressions of power relations are not unique for Christian discourse, they are also found in ancient philosophy. But Ruether’s question focused on Christianity and its formulations of faith with regard to Jesus Christ and humanity and showed that they are gendered. And once it becomes visible that these terms are gendered, as “male saviour” and “wo/men”, it is impossible to return to a previous state of gender innocence. The net results of the criticism from Ruether and many other feminist theologians are far reaching. They have shown that gender is not just another issue to be added onto the list of issues to be discussed within ethics and theology, for instance ecology, pacifism and social justice. Since gender forms part of the underlying structure of how the world is understood, to bring gender up to a conscious level changes Christian reflection and discourse in a groundbreaking way.

It is against this context that one of the leading feminist theologians today, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, says that Christology is the most important issue in feminist theology in the 20th century (Schüssler Fiorenza 2000:148). Feminist theologians who have discussed the gender of Jesus/Christ in relations to wo/men have also participated in the discussion of women’s gender, personhood, identity in dialogue within literary, philosophical and psychological studies.3 As a result “women” in the original question, is no longer understood in an essentialist fashion, as a unified term. Rather, the differences and diversities in context and experience have become important, not least in terms of race and class, so that women speak with many different voices.4

The historical Jesus as men’s place

What were the forces that shaped male images of the historical Jesus and of Jesus Christ as a male saviour that feminist theologians protested against? Historical Jesus studies started in the 19th century as a white man’s study within the context of the growth of imperialism and nationalism in Europe. If one looks at historical Jesus studies 150 years later, it is still very much a white men's domain, now with its main centres in North America. In several books Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has proposed studies of Jesus from a feminist perspective (1994, 2000). She has highlighted some sayings of Jesus where he speaks of God in terms of Wisdom, which in Greek is the feminine word Sophia. In Judaism Wisdom was spoken of as one of the ways God used to express his activity in the world. When Jesus used this term to refer to himself as representing God he identified with a feminine aspect of God. But Schüssler Fiorenza has rightly complained that male scholars have not seriously engaged with her position. She has also pointed out how the latest phase of historical Jesus scholarship has emphasized that Jesus was part of a Jewish context.

This suggestion has identified him with traditional male Jewish positions in which man as a husband and a patriarch was the primary subject. Thus the woman had a secondary position, complementing her husband but also subordinate to him. This subordination becomes visible in the form and structure of many studies on New Testament topics. After discussions of topics that are regarded as general or universal; for instance Jesus’ relations to his disciples, to the village crowds, to the sinners, his proclamation of the Kingdom etc.; “women” are often added as a particular issue. This might be the case also in studies that present Jesus as a feminist who gives equal rights to women.

Male theologians have shown little awareness of gender issues in discussions of the humanity of Jesus/Christ. A few scholars, mostly from within a liberal, white male theological establishment, have tried to accommodate the criticism against a “male Jesus” within a paradigm of gender complementarity where binary oppositions of male and female are taken for granted. These scholars have emphasised that biologically, Jesus’ maleness is a “sexual fact” (something also accepted by many feminist theologians), but they are willing to read his personhood or his individuality as “gender”, that is, as culturally constructed. Jesus is portrayed as integrating both masculine and feminine character traits.5 However, since his male sex is not questioned, this use of a binary gender system serves to emphasize both the masculine priority in personhood and its heterosexual normativity. This picture of Jesus has its parallel in modern representations of the “new father” (or “new man”), who integrates (motherly) care concerns in his relations to children, while at the same time preserving his pre-eminent masculine position. Thus, by integrating female characteristics the heterosexual role pattern is confirmed.6

From white man’s place to shifting geographies

A search in the catalogue of a theological library will show that a large number of recent books on Jesus Christ are written by scholars from Africa, Latin America and Asia. These attempts to locate Jesus/Christ in particular contexts represent the most challenging forms of historical and hermeneutical studies today. These studies present a criticism of the “universal” personhood of a similar kind of the feminist criticism, but from the perspective of race, class and power. As Latin Americans, South Africans or Indians the authors represent “the others”. From the position of the dominant, Western theological paradigms they are characterized as “contextual”, i.e. theologians of the “particular”, not of the “universally” human. However, these theologians have unmasked the “universal” theology and anthropology as one that expropriated the title “universal” for white, Western theology.7 They have turned anthropology on its head: Jesus is placed among and identified not with men in a dominant position, but the victims, the oppressed, even as the crucified among the many crucified ones (Sobrino 2000). But in a similar way as much white feminism has been blind to the issue of race (Armour 1999:7-44), much of this predominantly male liberation theology has been blind to the issue of gender and sexuality. In many cases there is not even the representation of women as “the other” or the “particular,” they simply are an absence in the texts. A feminist theologian from Latin America, Maria Pilar Aquino, states this explicitly:

“[…] the christology done by male theologians […] Has failed to give the relationship between Jesus and oppressed women the importance it should have in liberation hermeneutics and which is present in the gospel itself. This means that systematic work on christology today is not automatic inclusive: it is necessary that the person doing it consciously choose that it should be so.” (1993:140)

Ma(i)nly anxieties?

So far most male theologians have not made this conscious choice. The attempts by feminist scholars to dislocate Jesus and man from the position of a “personhood” where the masculine and the universal are conflated and taken for granted, have so far been met mostly by silence. When the challenge has accepted, the response has often been to include women and to give them a “place” within the existing structure. There has been little willingness to question the way in which the heterosexual and masculine order of the world has been naturalised and taken for granted as “the way things are”. It is also striking for the way in which women are made invisible that within the other great challenges to the traditional, dominant paradigm of “universal humanity”, from the position of race, class and power, gender is mostly left out as that which is unrepresented. Moreover, the representations of Jesus as Black, as mestizo, as Native American etc., appears to be much less threatening to white, Western theologians than the challenges to the masculine Jesus. It may be that the Western global supremacy is still so strong that the African, Asian, mestizo “faces of Jesus” can be regarded as “local”, “particular”, to be treated with a benign tolerance.

These images of Jesus may be regarded as part of a long history of acculturation, that is, attempts especially within Christian missions to accommodate local cultural forms.
Why is a challenge to a masculine Jesus more difficult to accept and why does it meet with such protests? It may be that it strikes closer to home for heterosexual men who identify with Jesus as a male role model. Therefore challenges to the masculinity of Jesus also appear to challenge the masculinity of Christian men. That anxiety about sex and masculinity is more deeply located in the male subject than the anxiety about race may have a long history. For instance, the apostle Paul claimed that “in Christ” there is neither “Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female”; a thesis for integrated Christian communities. But while he offered strong arguments for the breaking down of boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, “neither male nor female” remained a slogan, with little supporting argumentation (Moxnes 1989). This anxiety about masculinity may have been an undercurrent in male writings about sex and gender through history. From a modern period, when studies have focused on this issue, we find that the anxiety about masculinity surfaced parallel to the history of the emancipation of women in the 19th century. Writings by British authors about “the manliness of Christ” and “muscular Christianity” provide illuminating examples (Hall 1994). Maybe as a reaction to the “new (soft) man” images in response to the feminism of late 20th century, men’s movements like the American Promise Keepers bear witness to a very different response with their strong defence of “traditional” masculinity (Clausen 2000). The Promise Keepers is a group of conservative, mostly evangelical Christians, many from the Southern states of the US. One would have expected them also to express ideas of white hegemony, but in order to defend masculinity they are willing to combine heightened masculinity with racial plurality (Hill 2004:75-133). The Promise Keepers provide a parallel from church life to the response by male theologians mentioned above, and suggests that the anxiety about masculinity represents an underlying deep structure to many arguments.

There are no “natural” male/female places

Feminine criticism has questioned the underlying presupposition of male Christology, namely that the binary division of genders represents a “natural fact”, or a metaphysical essence that is “given”. Schüssler Fiorenza (2000:149) claims that it has a much more practical reason, “the notion of the two sexes is a sociocultural construct for maintaining wo/men’s second class citizenship rather than a biological given or innate essence.”8 The social, political and economic consequences of this predominance of the heterosexual, masculine paradigm are enormous, easily visible both in the work places and in homes. But these consequences are often hidden under a web of culture and ideology. On the political and religious right the ideology of heterosexuality and masculinity is cloaked in terms of “values”. The discussion in the US Congress of a proposed amendment to the US Constitution in 2004 is an illuminating example. The Republicans wanted to have included in the Constitution (the parallel to the Norwegian “Grunnlov”) a statement to the effect that marriage is a union exclusively between a man and a woman. Most of the Democratic opposition did not want to (or dare to) openly defend the right to same-sex marriage. Instead they voiced their opposition to the amendment in a circumspect way. They argued that this issue was not something that ought to be included in the Constitution as part of a federal law, that is, binding to all 50 US states. Instead it was a question that should be left to the individual states to decide. As a result the question of equal rights for gay and lesbians to marry was hidden under a discussion of the rights of states in a federal system. The proposed amendment failed to pass in Congress, as a majority of representatives agreed that this was not an issue that ought to be included in the Constitution. But President Bush, who voiced his support for the amendment, succeeded with this “symbol politics”. Defence of traditional “family values” and opposition to gay marriages turned out to be decisive factors for many voters in the presidential election in November 2004, who also seemed to accept a macho image of US going to war in Iraq.

This is an example of how pervasive the heterosexual and masculine paradigm is, so much so that one can speak of a “hetero-normativity”. It is visible in the extreme in the US, where it combines many central images of American identity (the military hero, the lonely fighter in frontier territory, the family patriarch) and plays an important political role. An example from another cultural context is the violent protest from African Anglican bishops against the ordination of gay priests and bishops within English and North-American Anglican/Episcopal dioceses. The Anglican Communion consists of churches that have their origin in the Anglican Church of England, and who attempt to reach unity in doctrinal and ethical issues. The conservatives in the English and US churches have found support among African bishops. They violently denounce sex in terms of homosexuality as immoral within a Christian context. Moreover, they also claim that from the perspective of African culture it is a taboo. In this way they “essentialise” African culture as hegemonically heterosexual and male patriarchal. So far, only the Anglican Church in South Africa has differing voices, for instance archbishop Tutu who sees a parallel between the oppression of blacks under apartheid and the oppression of homosexuals.

Ruether’s question wherewith we started pointed out that to speak of Jesus as a biological man implicates him in a web of presuppositions about masculinity and hetero-normativity. We may translate her explicitly Christological question “can a male saviour redeem and save wo/men?” into more general terms of discourse and representation: “How can wo/men identify with an image of a male saviour? And can such an image be formative for lives that have not been represented in a masculine oriented discourse?”

Reading and re-reading masculinities

It was from a position of non-representation or absence from the dominant discourse that Judith Butler wrote her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble. Here she suggests how this web of culture and gender ideology is formed and why it is so dominant: “To the extent that gender norms ([…] heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity […]) establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered to be “real,” they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expression.” (Butler 1999:xxiii). Butler self-consciously wrote her book exactly to provide trouble for the way in which these gender norms exert control and even perform violence. Thus, she considers it a normative task of her book, “[…] to insist upon the extension of this legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal and unintelligible.” (ibid.)

For Christians the Bible and its interpretation represent an important source of gender norms, both with regards to sexuality and to specific male and female roles in society, in homes and in the church. Biblical scholars have long recognized that most of these norms are similar to those found in surrounding cultures, particularly with regard to marriage and family systems. But does biblical scriptures or the history of Early Christianity also contain material that breaks with these norms? That is, was Christianity in any way counter-cultural? I suggest we find such an example of “gender trouble”, of questioning gender norms in a word by Jesus in Matthew 19:12. That is a strange saying on “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” that definitely is “off centre” with regard to male ideals both in Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures in antiquity and among readers in Western modernity. However, I think that starting at the margins will reveal what ideas one holds of ”normal” and “normative” masculinity. I will propose a “deconstructive” reading of Matthew 19:3-12 inspired by Butler, and suggest that the passage presents a questioning of a heterosexual, masculine definition of personhood.

First let me briefly introduce Matthew’s gospel where we find this text. Written ca. 80-90 AD this gospel emphasizes Jesus’ relations to Judaism and Jewish tradition and authorities. In many sections Jesus is presented in opposition to Jewish religious leaders, who are described as hypocrites and as men who do not follow the will of God. In contrast Jesus is portrayed as the one who proclaims the true meaning of God’s will. He goes behind the letter of the Law of Moses to God’s intentions with the laws. This is characteristic of the large Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where we find sayings that contrast traditional interpretations of the law with the original intention of God that is now revealed by Jesus (“You have heard that is said […], But I say to you […]). We find the same structure in the passage that provides the context for the saying about the eunuch, Matthew 19:3-12:

3And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” 4He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh'? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
10The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, 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 men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this, receive it.



Eunuchs and “a man’s place is in the home”

The text in Matt 19:3-9 represents one of those foundational texts within the Christian tradition that has the function of “gender norm” as described by Butler. It presents heterosexual complementarity of bodies, it portrays ideals and gives rules for proper and improper masculinity; in short, it establishes the “ontological field” for what is possible and what is not possible. Jesus’ opponents are the Pharisees, a leading group of strict interpreters of the Law in 1st century Palestine. They proceed from the accepted right of divorce in Jewish society and raise a question exclusively from the side of the husband: are there rules, i.e. restrictions on his right to divorce his wife (19:3)? In his riposte Jesus presents his opponents with a position based on the creation narrative in Genesis chapter 2 that speaks of the complementarity of male and female and their union into “one body”. This unity created by God prohibits humans, i.e. husbands to divorce their wives (19:4-6). But Jesus’ opponents counter this position with a reference to the divorce procedures proscribed for husbands by Moses (19:7). In his second riposte Jesus attributes this right “for you to divorce your wives” to the hardness of their hearts (19:8), that is, not part of the original intention of God (“from the beginning it was not so”). From this creation of humans as male and female, and upon the union created by God, Jesus draws the conclusion that a man is not allowed to divorce his wife at will. Many have seen this as Jesus’ defence of women’s rights within a heterosexual system of complementarity. However, 19:9 puts the woman in the position of blame: a woman’s porneia is valid reason for divorce. Read in modernity as a “foundational text” it confirms all the feminists’ descriptions of a (Christian) male gender system: The masculine dominance in marriage is taken for granted, although circumscribed in various ways. Moreover, what we would speak of as a normative heterosexual structure is presented not only as a given, but as part of a cosmological system. And the male/female complementarity that is introduced, is limited by a male superiority that puts the blame on the woman as “the sinner” (19:9).

But what shall we then make of the continuation of the story? The disciples seem to despair at the problems that a man may enter into by marrying, and propose that it may be preferable to remain unmarried. To this suggestion Jesus gives his strange response: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”
What is the meaning of this saying about the eunuchs? Eunuchs were well known in the ancient Middle East and Roman empire, in all the forms described in the saying by Jesus. Castration of slaves, particularly young ones, was a common practice, and in various cults for Oriental goddesses like Cybele and Dea Syria there were men who castrated themselves and banded in groups of followers with special tasks for the goddess. So what could have been implied by the description of those who had “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”? Did it even refer to physical castration?

This saying has caused difficulties to exegetes throughout history, not just with the rise of modern biblical scholarship, but also in antiquity.9 Rather than going into details of these interpretations, I suggest a discussion in light of the passage from Butler presented above. One alternative is to read the saying along with Matt 19:3-9, viz. a reading within the established ontological fields of heterosexuality, marriage and masculinity. The other alternative is to read it in contrast to that established ontology, in Butler’s words, as a saying that causes “gender trouble” by extending legitimacy to “ […] bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal or unintelligible.” (Butler 1999:xiii).

The overwhelming majority of interpreters have chosen the first alternative, to read the eunuch saying together with the previous passage (19:3-9) dealing with marriage between man and woman, and with divorce and remarriage. In this reading, the norms of “marriage” within a heterosexual paradigm become the context for the interpretation of “eunuch”. The eunuch represents the contrast in the form of “non-marriage”, and the only possible interpretation of “eunuch” is somebody who does not enter into (heterosexual) marriage. Typically, modern interpreters say that those who “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” are not to be understood in a literal sense. They say that the saying “of course” refers to those who make a decision for an unmarried state or for sexual asceticism (Luz 1997:103-11). The term “of course” gives away the presuppositions of these interpreters. The normative structure of heterosexual marriage is naturalized and taken for granted. Therefore, to “make oneself a eunuch” must refer to a voluntary decision not to enter into marriage, not to castration. The latter act would remove a man from the context of marriage altogether, as totally unfit to fill that role. This interpretation is not just the majority position among exegetes; it has also worked itself into many modern Bible translations that take marriage as the “obvious” context for the eunuch passage.10 Understood in this way the saying places eunuchs outside of marriage, but it actually confirms marriage as the ideal ontological structure.11

“A man’s place” and a eunuch misplaced

Within the context of the normative structure of marriage in Matt 19:3-9 we noticed the androcentric focus on the husband and his rights. In modern terms we might say that heterosexuality goes together with masculinity and that masculinity is even more important than marriage. This emphasis upon masculinity was a characteristic aspect of the interpretation of “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” among male theologians in the early church (Kuefler 2001), and it is still pervasive among male theologians. A recent interpretation by an American scholar, Dale C. Allison, illustrates this concern for masculinity. That eunuchs were men who voluntarily abstained from marriage is again “naturalized” as “the plain meaning of Mt 19:12.” (Allison 1998:2002). But then his explanation turns to the masculine character that this decision represented:

The eunuchs that Jesus defended were those who, as heralds of the coming kingdom, had as little time for marriage as for business. To leave all for the sake of the grand cause was to leave behind the world and its attendant affairs once and for all. If the discipline of the Spartans was to prepare for war, and if the exercises of the Greek athlete were to prepare him for the athletic contest, the asceticism of the pre-Easter Jesus movement was similarly a strategy to meet a specific goal (ibid.).

In this interpretation the eunuchs of Jesus’ sayings have their parallels and counterparts in the warriors of Sparta and Greek athletes, regarded as champions of masculinity in the ancient world. Thus, eunuchs are included within the “[…] ideals […] of proper masculinity”, ideals that “[…] establish what will […] be intelligibly human.” (ibid.). But can this pass as an explanation of eunuchs? Being castrated, they hade lost the very sign of their masculinity, their sexual virility, and therefore they could not fill the masculine role within the heterosexual system of family, property and descent. One can virtually see how Allison here fights the idea that Jesus’ set up ideal forms of behaviour and identity that represented “improper masculinity”, that which “will not be intelligibly human”, that which could not have “legitimate expression” within the established ontological field.

In this first alternative, “eunuch” is interpreted in light of the marriage and divorce passage in Matthew 19:3-9, and he has the strength to renounce marriage. This strength and determination makes him into a masculine ideal, but he does not question the masculine role of the man who chooses marriage, and who is presented in his heteronormative role as superior to women.

Eunuchs outside men’s place

But let us now look at the other possibility, to read the eunuch saying not in context of the heterosexual marriage/ non-marriage pattern of the preceding verses (19:3-12), but as a total contrast to that pattern. In this reading the words of Jesus about eunuchs illustrate Butler’s purpose in Gender Trouble, they extend legitimacy even “to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal and unintelligible” within the established ontological field.

Are there any indications that this is a plausible way to read these words of Jesus? It is possible that the saying about the eunuchs originally was not part of the discussion with the Pharisees about divorce 19:3-9. The conversation with the disciples in 19:10-11 may have been added to provide a link between the discussion of divorce and the saying about the eunuchs. It is well known in New Testament scholarship that the gospels are results of collections of sayings and stories about Jesus, and that the “authors” of the various gospels combined written and oral sources. Therefore it seems plausible that the words about the eunuchs may have been an independent saying of Jesus. The original context may have been a slanderous accusation against Jesus and his disciples by his critics: “You are just a bunch of eunuchs!”12 Such a challenge in sexual terms to their male honour was of a type well known in Mediterranean cultures. That such accusations were voiced did of course not imply that what they claimed was true, it was a way of accusing their addressees of not being “real men”. And in terms of traditional norms of masculinity they had a point. Jesus and at least some of his followers had left their households, their responsibilities as men, their male places in society as upholders of traditions, family loyalties and access to power. In terms of sexuality and male social roles and power they had left their “male place” – just as eunuchs had. To unsympathetic critics Jesus and his group might have just enough in common with the groups of male castrates, galli, associated with Oriental cults of goddesses like Dea Syria and Cybele for the accusation to stick. These galli roamed the countryside, begging and proclaiming the goddess. So did Jesus in his response deliberately take up the accusation and turn it around, presenting the eunuch as an ideal figure for the Kingdom?

I am not arguing that Jesus and some of his disciples were eunuchs, i.e. castrated. If that were the case I think there would have been much more controversy around the issue in other early Christian texts. But the saying is one that causes “gender trouble” because it presents a challenge to the masculine role taken for granted by most interpreters. In the Greco-Roman world the eunuch was an ambiguous person. He represented sexual renunciation, but at the same time also a renunciation of masculinity, and that made it difficult to find a defined place for eunuchs. Critics found it difficult to ascribe to them an “essence” or identity, they were described as that which they were not: they were not “real men”, but semi-vir (“half-men”). And when they were described as “soft” or “feminine”, they were actually compared to another identity that they were not, namely women. In Butler’s terms, eunuchs were not “real”, since they had no fixed identity, and they were outside “[…] the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expressions.” (Butler 1999:xiii)

Eunuchs as models of the Kingdom of Heaven

So in what way did Jesus’ saying extend legitimacy to bodies that had been regarded as false, unreal and unintelligible? I suggest that it was by describing “becoming eunuchs” as acts “for the sake of the Kingdom”. “Kingdom of Heaven” is the central metaphor in Jesus’ proclamations. Many of the Kingdom sayings start with images well known from every day situations in a peasant world, but then turn them “upside down” so that they present an alternative or counter-cultural pattern (Crossan 1973). For instance, the tiny seed of the mustard plant turns into a large cedar tree. Or when a man is struck down by robbers and left helpless along the road, it is not the ideal figures of Jewish society, the priest or the Levite who come to his aid, it is the despised half-Jew who becomes “the Good Samaritan”.

To read Jesus’ words about those who made themselves eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom in light of this counter-cultural pattern does not suggest that we should read it as a confirmation of the existing ontological fields of sex and gender. It appears more plausible as a reversal of structures and an opening up of fields. Matthew’s gospel itself suggests as much when it combines the eunuch saying with the following story of how Jesus reverses the position of children (19:13-15): “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of heaven.” (19:14). This is also a story in which Jesus criticizes the normative patterns of his society. This time it is the role of the adults with children in a subordinate position, a normative system that the disciples upheld when they wanted to protect Jesus against children. But Jesus again turned the ideals and norms of household and society upside down with his reference to Kingdom of heaven as the superior norm. It was not the disciples as adult males who were the keepers of the kingdom. The roles are reversed and the Kingdom is for children.

Read within the ontological field of the passage about the children and the kingdom (19:13-15), a saying about the place in the kingdom for males without an acceptable masculine identity makes good sense. Not just eunuchs, but also children cause trouble for male prerogatives. And there are other examples of similar reversals of gender roles in Jesus’ sayings. In another example of breaking of boundaries Jesus blesses the “barren women,” (Luke 23:29; Gos. Thom 70). A barren woman was a pitied figure in Jewish scriptures; she did not conform to the ideal of the childbearing mother in the patriarchal family, securing the continuity of the household group. She was a feminine parallel to the eunuch, living in shame. Jesus’ words about barren women and eunuchs therefore amounts to, again in Butler’s terms: extending legitimacy to bodies that were previously regarded as unreal and unintelligible.

With his sayings Jesus gave a picture of people and life in the Kingdom that was very different from the ideal patriarchal household. The male world in which “everybody know their place” is turned upside down, the eunuch, the barren woman and the child without status are all lifted up. It is those least valued, those of little status, “the others” who are lifted up, blessed and accepted into the Kingdom.

Gender trouble as possibility

What is the gain of reading the Jesus-saying that links “eunuchs” and “Kingdom of God” against the grain, unmasking the hegemony of heterosexual and masculine gender? Does it in any way contribute to a response to the question wherewith we started: “Can a male saviour redeem and save wo/men?” Can a woman more easily identify with an image of Jesus Christ as a eunuch than with a virile, powerful man? This is difficult for me to say,13 but in addition to Butler, another queer critic has been helpful for my reflections on the implications of this Jesus’ saying. The literary critic Lee Edelman discusses the rhetoric used by the Queer movement protesting against the discrimination of gays and lesbians in the US in the wake of AIDS, i.e. a situation where understandings of gender and sexuality came into play. Edelman says that this movement did not choose a consistent form of politics, rather, “its vigorous and unmethodical dislocations of ‘identity’ create “[...] a zone of possibilities in which the embodiment of the subject might be experienced otherwise” (Edelman 1994:114). I find this statement useful since it seems to run parallel to what the Jesus’ eunuch saying performs. Thus, if we substitute Jesus for the Queer movement, we might say that his “[…] vigorous and unmethodical dislocations of (masculine) ‘identity’ create [...] a zone of possibilities in which the embodiment of the subject might be experienced otherwise (even as an eunuch).”

In analogy with the Queer movement this image of Jesus creates a “zone of possibilities” for those who belonged to positions that were not in power. This includes not only gender and sex, but also race, class and ethnicity. For Butler, too, “possibilities” is a key word when she describes the aim of her text in Gender Trouble. It was “[…] to open up the field of possibility of gender without dictating which kind of possibilities ought to be realized.” (Butler 1999:viii) Butler notes that some might find this vague and ask what “opening up possibilities” actually means. Her response sounds similar to Jesus’ cry after the eunuch saying: “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Matt 19:12d). She refers to the experiences of those who have met with closures in their lives, they will know the answer: “[…] no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is ‘impossible’, illegible, unrealisable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.” (Butler 1999:xiii)

For those who previously had been without possibilities, such possibilities are presented as an “opening,” an experience that can be “otherwise”. It is not closed into another dogmatic scheme, but genuinely open. It conjures up the very idea of something that can be expected, that spurs fantasy and imagination as something different from that which is known and experienced in the now. Thus, it has some of the same imaginative qualities as Jesus’ Kingdom sayings: they never explain what the Kingdom “is”, they shatter preconceived notions and understandings of existence, they represent the “other” in contrast to that which is known. Other interpretations of Jesus include images that like the eunuch breaks with the “natural” and “given” in attempts to get at the non-fixed, non-definable characteristics of Jesus. Eleanor McLaughlin tries to explain this quality about Jesus by means of the hermeneutics of “cross-dressing”, and she concludes with a description of space that also serves as an image of the Kingdom: “This ‘transvestite’ Jesus makes a human space where no one is out of place because the notion of place and gender has been transformed.” McLaughlin 1993:144).

I think this is a good response to the initial question “can a male saviour redeem and save women?” Also the saviour must be saved from the place of heteronormative maleness. In my view it is Jesus’ use of the figure of the eunuch that has created this inclusive space. The eunuch represents a male person in a non-hegemonic position, that is, in a position similar to that of most women. If the eunuch saying in Matthew 19:12 identifies Jesus with the image of the eunuch it destabilizes all male images of Jesus Christ. This affects not only images that expressly refer to power, as “king”, “ruler” and “saviour”, but also to those that refer to “ordinary” masculinity, virility and strength. Is it possible to find a modern terminology that does not identify Jesus with the hegemonically masculine and the heteronormative male, but that instead uses images that represents a non-hegemonic position, sharing a location with many women and children? McLaughlin plays with the word “cross-dresser”; I will suggest queer as a term that breaks with definitive binary oppositions and clear definitions, and that questions established identities (Turner 2000:1-35). Thus, I will use the term in a broader sense than referring to sexuality, but extending it to social, ideological and political arenas as well. It is in this sense I find “queer” to be the most adequate way to translate “eunuch” in the present situation. As “eunuch” in its time, it is a term that questions gender stereotypes and that causes “gender trouble” in our time. That is, it creates gender trouble with the purpose of opening up possibilities that fixed gender divisions had closed.


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1. This essay is a revised version of an essay first printed in Cross Currents’ 2004 , and reprinted with permission.
2. This question is raised in many of her works, see for instance Ruether 1993.
3. See e.g. the works by Schüssler Fiorenza 1994, 2000 and Ruether 1993; among younger scholars e.g. Armour 1999 and Jones 2000.
4. For a brief overview of different feminist voices see Bond 1999:75-107.
5. A very early example is Carl Ullmann, who in 1828 wrote a book titled Die Sündlosigkeit Jesu. More recently, see Klinger 2000.
6. I have this insight from Arnfinn J. Andersen 2003, especially from page 70-72.
7. See the illuminating study by a young male scholar from Tanzania, Ng’weshemi 2002.
8. Likewise Armour, who refers to Butler: “The sexual binary reflects not attention to nature, but the interests of a heterosexist and phallocentric culture.” (1999:32)
9. For a discussion of the historical context and the history of interpretation of Matt 19:12 in the Early Church, see Moxnes 2003:72-90; for interpretation in Antiquity, see Clark, 1999. The attempt to read the text in light of Butler is new to this essay.
10. Notice Bible translations that introduce this meaning (, for instance New International version: 12”For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Contemporary English version: 12”Some people are unable to marry because of birth defects or because of what someone has done to their bodies. Others stay single for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who can accept this teaching should do so.”
11. In some instances the meaning of the passage is totally turned on its head in defence of marriage, cf. especially the translation of the exhortation in v. 12d in an American translation by an individual scholar, The Message: 12 “Some, from birth seemingly, never give marriage a thought. Others never get asked--or accepted. And some decide not to get married for kingdom reasons. But if you're capable of growing into the largeness of marriage, do it.”
12. First argued by J. Blinzler, “Eisin eunochoi”, Zeitschrift fúr die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 48 (1957), 254-70.
13. It is possible to contemplate this, see C. Léon, “Simone de Beauvoir’s woman: eunuch or male,” Ultimate Reality and Meaning 11 (1988), 196-211.

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Published: 29.05.2008
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