Of Monks and Monsters: "Voluntary Eunuchs" and the Project of Male Celibacy in the Fifth Century

Lindsey Carol Mercer, Fordham University


Beginning in the second century CE, Christians began to interpret Jesus’s reference to “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12) as an endorsement of celibacy and to describe themselves as metaphorical “eunuchs.” At the same time, they perpetuated derogatory stereotypes of castrated men found in Greek and Roman literature. I argue that Christian authors used this double strategy to displace the problems of lust and gender instability that characterized every celibate male onto the monstrous figure of the literal eunuch. Meanwhile, they claimed the supposed benefits of castration—most notably, sexual incapacity—for themselves, positing the superiority of figurative castration over physical castration. My analysis begins with a survey of references to eunuchs found in Greek and Roman literature prior to the fifth century with an emphasis on the variety of perspectives taken and how those perspectives evolved over time. I then provide focused studies of how the symbol of the eunuch functioned in the works of three Christians active at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth: Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome, and John Cassian. These studies suggest that the deployment of the eunuch as a symbol for celibacy was not an entirely stable undertaking, but instead rendered visible ambiguity and insecurity in each thinker’s conceptions of the body and the Church.

Subject Area

Theology|History|Gender studies

Recommended Citation

Mercer, Lindsey Carol, "Of Monks and Monsters: "Voluntary Eunuchs" and the Project of Male Celibacy in the Fifth Century" (2018). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10814279.