|How literal is Matthew 19:12?|
Matthew 19:12 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.
"Jesus encouraged castration," one Skeptic says of this verse. Of course in a position where sacrifice of physical pleasure for a spiritual purpose would be meaningless, this is a natural response. In a religious context, it might not be.
At the heart of his remark is an overtly begged question, namely, that there is no Kingdom of God worth castrating one's self (or in any way sacrificing one's self) over.
With that said, does the verse indeed encourage castration?
Hardly, even on the surface -- what is made is a statement of fact and observation: some are born this way; some have made themselves this way for men; some have made themselves that way for spiritual purposes, and those who can accept this, let them do so -- it is not saying, "Go out and castrate yourself" or giving directions to the nearest medical facility. There is no opinion rendered either way.
However, looking more deeply into the context, we see that this refers not exclusively to castration, but to celibacy as well. We know that the Jews were horrified by castration (cf. Josephus, Against Apion 2.270-1; though eunuchs were well-respected, and trusted, in some Ancient Near Eastern societies). Indeed, how could someone have been "castrated" from their mother's womb? And how would a response dealing with castration relate to a question as to whether or not it is better to marry (19:10), said in relation to putting away one's wife in v. 9 -- which is the "it" to receive that Jesus refers back to?
Some add that Origen, the church father, castrated himself in response to this verse when he took it literally, and that an "omniscient deity should have known what Origen had in mind when he was inspired by Matthew 19:12 to pick up that knife."
Asuming for the sake of argument that this is true -- an alert reader has indicated that the story may have been invented by writers hostile to Origen -- the implication, again, is merely the begged question that what Origen did was (by Barker's contextual thinking) a meaningless act. In our view, if what Origen did to himself made him a better person, a greater servant, then it was worth it -- any interpretation of Matthew 19:12 notwithstanding.
Another site (now defunct) summed it up this way: "It was to remove any hint of scandal as he taught young women their catechism that Origen castrated himself, literally following Matthew 19:12. He later came to see his action as ill-advised and not to be taken as an example."
Ask yourself: If the Kingdom of God is real, is it not worth giving up any part of yourself?
I think so. Don't expect atheists to agree, though.