Matthew 19:3–12 records this conversation of Jesus, first with some Pharisees, then with his disciples:
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”
He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?”
He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Traditional Christians, especially Catholic clergy, commonly point to this passage as proof that it is better to be celibate than married.
But Jesus didn’t say that.
This common misinterpretation is built on a basic error in reading Jesus’ words. It also confuses celibacy with being a eunuch. The two are not the same.
We’ll save Jesus’ words about divorce for a future article. For now, let’s take a closer look at what Jesus did and didn’t say about marriage in Matthew 19:3–12.
Celibates are not eunuchs
First, let’s point out the obvious:
Celibates and eunuchs are not the same thing.
Celibacy (from Latin, cælibatus) is the state of voluntarily being unmarried, sexually abstinent, or both, usually for religious reasons. It is often in association with the role of a religious official or devotee. In its narrow sense, the term celibacy is applied only to those for whom the unmarried state is the result of a sacred vow, act of renunciation, or religious conviction. In a wider sense, it is commonly understood to only mean abstinence from sexual activity.
Yes, celibacy is sometimes used loosely to mean simply not having sex. But its primary meaning is a commitment, usually through a religious vow, not to get married or have sex. That is how it is used in religious circles in discussions of celibacy vs. marriage.
The term eunuch (/ˈjuːnək/; Greek: εὐνοῦχος) generally refers to a man who has been castrated, typically early enough in his life for this change to have major hormonal consequences. In Latin, the words eunuchus, spado (Greek: σπάδων spadon), and castratus were used to denote eunuchs.
To read the Greek word εὐνοῦχος (eunouchos) that Jesus used in Matthew 19:12 as referring to voluntary abstention from marriage, as some Bible interpreters do, is to ignore the basic meaning of the term, which is to be castrated. This term became associated with chamberlains and harem guards because in ancient times monarchs didn’t consider eunuchs a threat to their throne, nor could eunuchs impregnate the monarch’s wives.
It is true that in some religions men who take religious vows are castrated as part of their vows. But in ancient Jewish religion, castrated men were not even allowed to enter the Temple:
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1)
In ancient Hebrew society men did sometimes take vows that included temporarily abstaining from sex. But getting castrated and becoming a eunuch was contrary to Hebrew religion and culture. In fact, one of the disasters prophesied against the ancient Jewish king Hezekiah was that some of his sons would become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon (see 2 Kings 20:16–18; Isaiah 39:5–7).
Perhaps it is based on the commandment in Deuteronomy 23:1 that in traditional Christian practice, men who have taken vows of celibacy are not castrated as part of their vows. They simply abstain from sex and marriage (assuming they are faithful to their vows).
In short, eunuchs and celibates simply are not the same thing.
So right out of the gate, it’s a major stretch to think that when Jesus spoke of “eunuchs,” he was referring to celibacy as that is practiced in some Christian religious orders.
Becoming a eunuch was prohibited for religiously observant Jews. Any Jewish male who was castrated was not even allowed to enter the Temple—which was the focal point of Jewish religious life. So Jesus could only have been referring to eunuchs in the pagan world. And his disciples, who were Jews themselves, would have understood that this was a negative reference.
What “teaching” is Jesus referring to?
There is another basic error involved in reading Jesus’ words as saying that it is better to be celibate than married.
After Jesus tells the Pharisees that marriage was originally created by God, that humans should not separate what God has joined together, and that any man who divorces a wife who has been faithful to him and marries another woman is committing adultery, Jesus’ disciples say to him:
If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.
Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. . . . Let anyone accept this who can.
Since the disciples’ words come right before Jesus’ reply, it’s easy to get sloppy in our reading, and assume that when Jesus says not everyone can accept “this teaching” (Greek: λόγον logon: “word, discourse, teaching”) he is referring to what the disciples have just said: that it is better not to marry.
But what the disciples said is not a teaching. At least, it’s not anything that Jesus taught. Rather, it is the disciples’ opinion in response to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is referring to the teaching that he himself has just given about the divine origin and inviolability of marriage, not to the disciples’ anti-marriage opinion in response to it.
The bottom line is that Jesus simply didn’t say that it is better to be celibate than married.
Jesus never said anything at all about celibacy. Rather, in response to his disciples’ opinion that if a man can’t divorce his wife it is better not to marry at all, he gave examples of people who, unfortunately, cannot accept his teaching about marriage.
Would Jesus really recommend that people render themselves or others incapable of accepting and practicing his teaching? That would be contradictory and ridiculous.
What does Jesus mean about eunuchs?
Eunuchs cannot accept Jesus’ teaching about marriage because in general, castrated men have little or no interest in sex and marriage. That, together with their inability to impregnate a woman, was why they were commonly trusted servants in the royal courts of kings in the cultures that surrounded—and in the time of Jesus ruled—the Jewish people.
It helps to know that the Greek word χωρέω (chōreō), “to accept, receive,” that Jesus uses in Matthew 19:11 has the sense of “having space for.” Jesus was not talking about people who can’t intellectually accept what he has just taught about marriage. He was talking about people who have no space in their character for marriage.
Quite simply, then, Jesus was giving examples of people who could not put his teaching about marriage into practice. Eunuchs were seen as being incapable of marriage.
The common, mistaken idea among some traditional Christians that Jesus was talking about celibacy comes especially from his final example: “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” This makes it sound as if Jesus is recommending celibacy over marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
But once again, Jesus simply doesn’t say that. These people who “have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” are still among the people who can’t accept (put into practice) Jesus’ teaching about the divine origin and permanence of marriage.
Eunuchs did not have a positive connotation in the ears of Jesus’ Jewish listeners. In Jewish culture, there was no practice of making oneself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of God, nor was it considered positive to be born sterile, or to be made into a eunuch by someone else. Even in the surrounding cultures, men were most commonly made into eunuchs (castrated) against their will. It greatly reduced their social standing, and of course, prevented them from fathering children and heirs.
In some non-Jewish cultures, however, a man might voluntarily undergo castration as part of a religious rite of dedicating his life exclusively to God. Jesus didn’t endorse this practice. He simply used it as an example of people who can’t accept (“have no space for”) his teaching about marriage.
In short, Jesus was not advocating that men be castrated for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He was rebuking his disciples for their knee-jerk rejection of his teaching about marriage, using the negative example of eunuchs who, even if they may have the best of intentions, render themselves incapable of living by that teaching.
The irony is that Christian priests, monks, and nuns who erroneously think that Jesus is recommending celibacy in Matthew 19:3–12 are associating themselves with a group of people who, according to Jesus Christ himself, are incapable of accepting his teaching about marriage.
Jesus was not celibate
Christians who believe that celibacy is superior to marriage commonly say, “Jesus was celibate!”
But Jesus was not celibate. Jesus was unmarried. There’s a difference.
Celibacy in the proper sense, especially in religious usage, means making a commitment and vow to remain unmarried and abstain from sex. This is usually based on a belief that celibacy is spiritually superior to marriage. But there is no record anywhere in the Gospels of Jesus making such a vow, and nowhere does he say that celibacy is superior to marriage. The Gospels simply present him as being single.
There are many people who have never married or even had sex who would much prefer to be married. These people are not celibate. They have made no personal or religious commitment to abstain from sex and marriage. They are simply single, often for reasons beyond their control.
In the same way, there is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus was celibate. The most we can say, based on the Gospel accounts, is that he remained single all his life.
Meanwhile, his teachings show that he placed a very high value on marriage, considering it a sacred and inviolable relationship that was created and commanded by God right from the beginning. Yes, it was unusual for a Jewish man in those times to remain single right into his thirties as Jesus did. But Jesus’ teachings about marriage fully support what is presented in the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians know as the Old Testament: that based on God’s law and intention for humanity, marriage is the preferred and ideal state for priests and laypeople alike.
What Jesus said
Here is a brief recap of what Jesus actually did say about marriage and divorce in Matthew 19:3–12:
- God created man and woman from the beginning so that the two could join together as one.
- If God has joined a man and woman in marriage, humans should not break it up.
- The law of Moses allowing a man to divorce his wife for any cause was merely an accommodation to the people’s hard-heartedness; a man was not to divorce his wife unless she committed adultery.
- Not everyone can accept this teaching about marriage; eunuchs of various types are examples of people who can’t put it into practice.
In no way, shape, or form did Jesus say that celibacy is better than marriage. Quite the contrary. He said that right from the beginning, man and woman were created by God to be united in marriage.
If, as Jesus taught, marriage was God’s original intention for us, then marriage, not celibacy, is the highest and most spiritual state and relationship that we humans can aspire to.
For further reading:
- How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?
- Didn’t Jesus Say There’s No Marriage in Heaven?
- Marriage in the Resurrection: The Deeper Meaning
- What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?
- Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis
- Can you Fall in Love in Heaven if you Haven’t Found Someone on Earth?