"born that way"? Says who?

As I pondered the comments to an earlier post about transsexualism and added one of my own, I remembered a snarky remark I heard yesterday about the religious aspect of the issue. A man making a speech cited Jesus Christ as being in support of his view that transsexualism is wrong. I thought that was odd, because the closest Jesus ever came to the subject was in his puzzling mention of eunuchs during what seems like a condemnation of divorce:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" 4 "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,'[a] 5 and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'[a]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

7 "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"

8 Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

10 The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry."

11 Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage[a]because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."

In the ancient world, there were plenty of man-made eunuchs, and I guess Jesus considered them incapable of marriage (and probably not bound by whatever restrictions might be placed on divorce). But what can he have meant by those who are "eunuchs because they were born that way"?

This has generated a lot of debate, and predictably, it has been postulated that Jesus might have been referencing exclusively homosexual men, or possibly intersexed people. The "third sex," perhaps? Hermaphroditism is hardly modern, and many ancient definitions of "eunuch" were broad enough to include a variety of categories considered less than fully male.

So, the meaning would probably depend on the typical and commonly understood usage of the word "eunuch" in his day. Being no biblical scholar, I can't offer any kind of authoritative opinion.

But I think it's interesting that Jesus would say that people who were "born that way" are not subject to what he was saying about marriage and divorce. Born what way? Born without actual testicles? (That is such a rare medical condition that it seems unlikely as an interpretation.) Perhaps he meant born with an innate inability to consummate marriage. Was Jesus saying it was possible to be born with intact male genitalia yet unable to consummate marriage? Because of something occurring before birth?

The King James Version does not say "born that way," but puts it a little differently:

But he said unto them, All [men] cannot receive this saying, save [they] to whom it is given.

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].

It's hard to know exactly what is meant. And while it's not a major point, I'm hardly seeing the strong condemnation of transsexuals or intersexed persons said to emanate from Jesus.

I guess these things are always subject to interpretation.

(Especially the comparison of divorce to adultery!)

posted by Eric on 08.29.10 at 01:55 PM


Odd. A friend of mine and his partner marched in a gay pride parade carrying a sign citing that verse to say that Jesus said gay people were born that way, and thus homosexual behavior is OK. That about as strange as the speaker's interpretation you mentioned.

Jesus' statement doesn't touch on the morality or otherwise of these states or behaviors. He makes the point that some don't marry because of some inability they're born with, presumably the inability to consummate a marriage. Any interpretation beyond that is an attempt to get Jesus to support our views.

If you want direct comment on the moral status of homosexual behavior, you can't beat the Apostle Paul in his famous rant in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans. Some biblical scholars to the contrary, Paul is not a fan of the gay life.

notaclue   ·  August 29, 2010 9:49 PM

Someday, the courts will be forced to rule whether someone with 4 penises and 3 vaginas can use the women's restroom.

I suspect priests will have long before thrown up their hands in despair.

TallDave   ·  August 30, 2010 12:09 PM

Okay TallDave, I have to ask.

What do you do with the extra penis?

Veeshir   ·  August 30, 2010 2:45 PM

Dave I think the penises and vaginas will have to take a vote on that one.

As to Paul, I am aware of his condemnation of homosexuality (which in Romans 1 he conflated with pagan practices), but I don't see any mention of transsexuals.


Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.


Paul seems to be saying that God punished his pagan contemporaries by making them into homosexuals.

Regardless of whether Paul was correct or whether his statements have modern application, I'm just not seeing any reference to transsexualism (which is of course a different phenomenon than homosexuality).

Eric Scheie   ·  August 30, 2010 3:10 PM

There are clearly people who have no interest or ability to consummate a marriage. It is not common, but I doubt that it was unknown in Jesus' time, and I think that's what he is talking about.

There is a big difference between that and someone who has surgeons rearrange his or her plumbing. I'm very skeptical that there are actually many people with such a need who aren't fundamentally very confused--and I understand that doctors in the U.S. who used to do such reassignments are increasingly unwilling to do so. Britain has lots of people who have gone through the procedure--and then gone back, because they still were not happy.

Clayton E. Cramer   ·  August 31, 2010 6:39 PM

No, Eric, Paul isn't saying God made the pagans homosexuals.

Paul isn't difficult to read if you read what the words say rather than trying to tease out implied meanings, which will usually steer you wrong. Throughout, he is big on free will PROVIDED THAT the consequences are accepted. You cook it, you eat it, and he spends a good bit of his ministry describing the flavors and gastroentestinal effects resulting from various recipes, good and bad.

Some people want things they shouldn't -- "to do what ought not to be done" -- because the side-effects of getting them are terrible. God allows that because men have free will, but He doesn't soften the consequences afterward. In the case Paul describes, the homosexuality and the paganism are part and parcel of one another, yielding to an impulse to do what ought not to be done. God permits it, but permission isn't approval, and His ministers are sent to tell the misbehavers so.


Ric Locke   ·  August 31, 2010 7:30 PM

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