Let me begin with an exegetical problem: what did Jesus mean when he recommended to his followers that they "make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven"?
For most, the solution seems simple enough: self-castration here means avoidance of marriage, particularly, the sexual aspects of marriage.
I'm not sure that there is enough to go on, to really make sense of this passage.
So let's turn to the historical context, to the Roman Empire and the place of eunuchs in it, as discussed in my book.
The Matthean community obviously remembered a frankly spoken Jesus.
What I am going to argue today, using my skills as a historian, is that early Christians — many? — understood the passage literally, and castrated themselves as followers of Jesus, because they understood it as a religious imperative: a difficult one, a radical one, but an urgent one nonetheless.
"Let anyone accept this who can."Beyond that simple historial argument, I will try to demonstrate three additional things.
ormation for this paper was taken from my book, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago, 2001).
For notes on sources and further detailed discussions, please refer to the book, especially chapter 8.