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Celibacy (2)

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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CELIBACY.—According to the ordinary Jewish view, marriage was of universal obligation (cf. for instance, Yebamoth vi. 6; Kethuboth v. 6, 7; Gittin iv. 5). There does not appear to be evidence whether exceptions were recognized as possible because of some special vocation, as that to particular forms of the prophetic office. In the time of Christ the Essenes in general eschewed marriage, though one section of them practised it (Josephus, Ant. xviii. i. 5; BJ ii. viii. 2). The teaching of Christ does not contain any explicit reference to this difference between the Essene practice and the ordinary Jewish view. His teaching about divorce and His reassertion of the primitive law of marriage (Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:1-12, Luke 16:18) imply not only that He was dealing with marriage as an existing Jewish institution, but also that He contemplated it as a permanent element in Christian life. It is not unnatural to draw a similar inference from His presence at the marriage at Cana (John 2:1-11).

St. Matthew records a saying of Christ in which it is contemplated that by a special vocation some are called to celibacy. Christ’s prohibition of divorce led the disciples to say that, without freedom to divorce, ‘it is not expedient to many.’ Our Lord in His reply recognized that there are some for whom this ‘saying’ of the disciples is true, but only those ‘to whom it is given.’ He explained that there were three classes who might be regarded as having the vocation to celibacy:—(1) ‘Eunuchs which were so born from their mother’s womb,’ i.e. those whose physical constitution unfitted them for marriage; (2) ‘eunuchs which were made eunuchs by men,’ i.e. those ‘who by actual physical deprivation or compulsion from men are prevented from marrying’ (Alford); (3) ‘eunuchs which made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,’ i.e. those who by voluntary self-sacrifice abstained from marriage in order that they might be (a) more faithful citizens of the kingdom of heaven in their own personal life, or (b) more effective instruments for the strengthening or expansion of the kingdom of heaven. He then repeated in a different form, ‘He that is able to receive it, let him receive it’ (Matthew 19:10-12), the previous statement that the ‘saying’ of the disciples, to which He had thus given a higher and deeper meaning, was not a maxim for all His followers, but only for those who, having the Divine call to the celibate life, had with it the Divine gift of power to obey the call. This particular saying is not recorded by any of the Evangelists except St. Matthew. There is a connected line of thought, however, in words recorded by St. Luke; for in Luke 18:29-30 (also in TR [Note: R Textus Receptus.] and (Revised Version margin) of Matthew 19:29 and in TR [Note: R Textus Receptus.] of Mark 10:29) a wife is mentioned among those relatives whom Christ contemplates His disciples as leaving for the sake of the kingdom of God (Lk.), or for His name’s sake (Mt.), or for His sake and the sake of the gospel (Mk.); and it is promised that those who make such acts of self-sacrifice shall receive great rewards in the present time and shall hereafter inherit eternal life. In Matthew 19:30 and Mark 10:31 the warning that ‘many that are first shall be last; and the last first’ is associated with this promise; and in Matthew 20:1-16 the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard is added to illustrate that maxim.

It is a mistake to interpret Matthew 5:28 (‘Every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart’) as a condemnation of marriage; the context shows the meaning to be that to cherish the desire for fornication or adultery is the same thing as committing those sins in the heart. Nor is there any disparagement of marriage in the words, ‘They that are accounted worthy to attain to that world and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’ (Luke 20:35); the meaning is shown by the context to be that the physical accompaniments of marriage belong to the present world, not to the future life, which, as it has not death, has not birth. Luke 14:26 (‘If any man cometh unto me, and hateth not his own … wife, … yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple’) refers not to celibacy, but to the general law that a Christian must be prepared to surrender everything human for the sake of Christ, if called by God to do so, or if such surrender be necessitated by faithfulness to the obligations of the Christian religion.

On the whole, then, the teaching of Christ may be summarized to the effect that (1) marriage is a good state, contemplated as the usual lot, in ordinary Christian life, of those who have not received some special call; (2) celibacy is the subject of a distinct vocation involving dangers and having attached to it high promises. It is probable that the regard paid to celibacy in the Christian Church was based partly on the references to it in the teaching of Christ, and partly on inferences connected with the fact of His birth from a virgin. Clement of Alexandria (Strom. iii. xv. 97) quotes as a saying of Christ, with the introduction ‘The Lord says,’ the following: ‘He who is married, let him not put away his wife; and he who is not married, let him not marry; he who with purpose of chastity has agreed not to marry, let him remain unmarried.’ Some have thought this saying to be a reminiscence of 1 Corinthians 7:8 to 1 Corinthians 11:27 ascribed to Christ because of the words ‘not I, but the Lord’ in 7:10; but Clement apparently has our Lords words in Matthew 19:12 in view, for a little later in the same chapter he says, ‘They who have made themselves eunuchs from all sin for the kingdom of heaven’s sake, these are blessed, they who fast from the world.’

Clement of Alexandria also refers to a conversation between our Lord and Salome mentioned in the lost ‘Gospel according to the Egyptians’ (Strom. iii. vi. 45, ix. 63, 64, 66, xiii. 92; Exc. Theod. [Note: Theodotion.] 67). Our Lord is there reported to have said that death would have power ‘as long as ye women bear children’; that He ‘came to destroy the works of the female’; and that the kingdom of God would come ‘when ye shall have trodden down the garment of shame, and when the two shall he one, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.’ Part of this last quotation is also in pseudo-Clement of Rome, 12: ‘The Lord Himself, being asked by one when His kingdom should come, said, When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.’ In interpreting these savings, notice must be taken of Clement of Alexandria’s comment that our Lord spoke in condemnation not of marriage, but of sins of the flesh and the mind, and to show the natural connexion between death and birth; and of the further words of Salome, ‘Theo I did well in not bearing children,’ with our Lord’s reply, ‘Eat every herb, but that which hath bitterness do not eat.’ It is possible that in these passages the ‘Gospel according to the Egyptians’ preserved an echo of Matthew 19:12, or some saying of our Lord unrecorded in the NT. It is not likely that the actual words were spoken by Him, since, as Lightfoot (Apostolic Fathers, i. ii. 237) pointed out, they differ in character from the utterances recorded in the authentic Gospels, and the reference to Salome as childless contradicts facts, though, as regards this last point, ‘Then I did well in not bearing’ might easily be a copyist’s mistake for ‘Then I should have done well if I had not borne’ (καλῶς οὖν ἐτοίησα for καλῶς οὖν ἁν ἐτοίησα)

Literature.—Neander, Life of Jesus Christ, § 224; Lange, Life of the Lord Jesus Christ, ii. 473, 474; Stier, Words of the Lord Jesus, iii. 13–18; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, ii. 335, 336; Dalman, Words of Jesus, pp. 122, 123; Alford on Matthew 19:11-12; Knabenbaner on Matthew 19:12; Dykes, Manifesto of the King, p. 245 ff.; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, i. 352 ff., ii. 73 ff.; Martensen, Christian Ethics, iii. 7–46.

Darwell Stone.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Celibacy (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​c/celibacy-2.html. 1906-1918.