Sexual violence is commonplace in the biblical narrative. It is perhaps most X-rated in Jesus’s recommendations for mutilation of the male anatomy in castration and emasculation. As a young boy, I was terrified when I heard Jesus’s suggestions that I mutilate myself in order to avoid the sin of having sexual fantasies. My Lord’s teachings tormented me for years in the form of terrifying intrusive flash visualizations of violent dismemberment. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, the historical Jesus hints at cutting it off (not so subtly) as a sexual repression strategy for men: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30, NIV). In a single paragraph, Jesus links sexual fantasy, hellfire torture, and sexual mutilation together. This is a rather ingenious (and sadistic) way to scare people out of sex and into obedience to God’s law. I have never heard a more extreme or terrifying teaching about sex.
Did Jesus teach literal castration and emasculation, or did he mean it as a metaphor for extreme psychological repression? Either meaning is disturbing, but Jesus leaves the interpretation ambiguous, and men have taken it literally throughout church history. For modern readers, a literal interpretation of sexual mutilation sounds unthinkable. But we forgot that in Jesus’s day, it was common to mutilate males as eunuchs. Sexual mutilation ensured that the eunuchs would be submissive slaves who would not sleep with a noble’s concubines. We see this understanding reflected in another teaching of Jesus: “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:11-12, NASB). Jesus suggests voluntarily making oneself a eunuch (annihilating any possibility of sex) as a means of radical devotion to God.
These teaching of Jesus are not the only mentions of castration and emasculation in the Bible, but they are the most explicit. The Bible has also partly accomplished literal emasculation in many millions of men through the sexual violence of circumcision. In this radically invasive “medical procedure” performed on trusting infants, a highly specialized portion of the penis is violently removed without any anesthesia or consent. In the Bible, this mutilation is a symbol of God’s ownership of a man’s body and soul. Is this still an appropriate symbol of religious devotion in modern society?
Jesus taught sexual mutilation as a means of temptation avoidance and radical devotion to God. Whether or not he advocated literal or metaphorical mutilation is an open question. Either interpretation is cruel and barbaric. Any such teaching is not the words of a God and does not belong in a Holy Book. No child (or human) should ever be subject to this sexual violence in church or anywhere else.