Eunuchs – the old version of the gay question?
April 21, 2013
What do we do with the eunuchs? This was a real question that the holy fathers of the Church wrestled with for several centuries in late antiquity. In reading about this historical topic I could not help but draw a parallel with the a question that numerous theologians, members of the clergy and lay people in Christianity in general, and in the Orthodox Church in particular, are perplexed with – what do we do with the gay people?
Eunuchs were not unknown in the world of the Old Testament. The Roman Empire viewed eunuchs as a separate social entity which necessitated specific laws governing them. Usually men became eunuchs because they were castrated as a result of being captured as foreigners and became slaves. Isaiah 56 (verses 3 and 4) brings together the concept of eunuchs as foreigners and slaves. Jesus Christ mentions eunuchs and states that some were born eunuchs and some were made so by others. (Matthew 19:12) In the Byzantine era the term eunuch appears to have been used to refer to those who were castrated as well as to describe those men who refused to marry and procreate, in other words, homosexual men. While eunuchs were able to have sexual contact it was widely assumed in Roman society, probably erroneously, that they were incapable of any affection. Perhaps for this reason emperors in the early Byzantine court widely used eunuchs to help them with daily bathing and dressing and other domestic rituals and responsibilities, yet by the time of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century a eunuch, Narses, served as a general in the army of the empire.* Narses was so highly prized, and the fact that he was a eunuch was either overlooked or accepted, that he was charged with protecting the emperor and the Byzantine empire. Therefore eunuchs went from being prisoners and slaves to serving in respected positions of authority in the imperial court.
Historically as the number of eunuchs and their responsibilities in the Byzantine court increased, societal and ecclesiastical views of those castrated also developed and softened. Writing in the fourth century St. Basil of Caesarea wrote that the eunuch was “damned by the knife”. St. John Chrysostom in the same century remarks that eunuchs are the result of the devil’s work. By the tenth century views about eunuchs in the Church changed from “damned and diabolically created” to acceptance. St. Simeon Metaphrastes commented that the prophet Daniel of the Old Testament was a eunuch. In the eleventh century the venerable bishop of Ochrid, Theophylact defended eunuchs because they were able to live chaste lives with greater ease. Bishop Theophylact even defended the intentional castration of boys, with the permission of the boys’ parents, as “fulfilling God’s plan”. What Orthodox bishop or theologian today would defend the voluntary castration of young boys in order to “fulfill God’s plan”? By the twelfth century there were examples of eunuchs holding positions of authority in the court of the Byzantine emperor. One example of a eunuch holding a high office was Symeon the Sanctified who served the emperor as the president of the imperial tribunal (droungarios). Those who were damned and the handwork of the devil became honorable and trusted enough to serve the absolute ruler of divine origin, the Byzantine emperor. The views about eunuchs, those made so and those born so, changed.
What changed from the fourth to the twelfth century that so altered the views of many regarding eunuchs? Did the politics of the day change the view of the Church? Did the demands of the Byzantine court change the view of the Church? Did a greater understanding of eunuchs change the view of the Church? Did people, and in particular those with moral and spiritual authority simply become more comfortable around those who couldn’t or refused to procreate? The answers to these social-historical questions are difficult to answer. Perhaps the views of the Church changed because the holy fathers finally listened to the words of Christ concerning eunuchs that “some were born this way” (Matthew 19:12). What is certain is that the Church and official society changed its views and accepted a class of people previously viewed as damned.
What strikes me is that a similar change has taken place in society, within the last generation, surrounding the question of homosexuality. LGBT persons, in most of the Western world, are widely accepted as a normal and even integral part of modern life. Today chances are more than likely that you know someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. We are your sons and daughters, your neighbors and co-workers, your bosses and quite possibly your friend. We serve in respected positions and are an integral part of everyday modern life. In the past this was not always the case.
I hope that the modern day question of “what do we do with gay people” will someday soon become as anachronistic for the Orthodox Church as the question of “what do we do with the eunuchs”. As more theologians begin to seriously investigate modern biology and psychology and apply the sciences to Christian thought, the “official views” of the Church concerning LGBT persons will hopefully also change. The question “what do we do with the gay people?” has a very simple answer. “They were born this way” – so love them, minister to them, administer the mysteries to them, accept their choices of life partners, and accept them as created in the image of God with the ability and desire to love and be loved.
* Concerning Narses see The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 14: Late Antiquity
**For more about eunuchs see “Passing the test of sanctity: denial of sexuality and involuntary castration.” Desire and Denial in Byzantium. By Kathryn M. Ringrose. Excerpt from Desire and Denial in Byzantium. Ed. Liz James. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999.
The Perfect Servant. Eunuch as the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium by Kathryn M. Ringrose. University of Chicago Press, 2003.