Cult heard part of word heaven's gate showed esteem for the bible, selectively

April 06, 1997|By Joseph Gallagher

Did Jesus recommend self-castration? Some of the 39 Heaven's Gate members who began committing suicide a fortnight ago seem to have thought so.

Autopsies have revealed that eight of the 18 male suicides, including the cult leader, had indeed been castrated.

On the Internet, the cult cited the 12th verse of the 19th chapter of Matthew's Gospel where Jesus is quoted as saying: "There are eunuchs who are born so from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who are made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let him accept it who can."

The word "eunuch" comes from the Greek language and literally means a "bed guardian." Men with harems at times chose to have them watched over by males who were incapable of impregnating the women. Such an arrangement would presumably eliminate any question as to who was the father of any of the children.

Although the San Diego cult was anti-church, members seemed to esteem Jesus and the Bible, at least selectively. This fact has a bearing on two crucial subjects besides self-castration -- namely self-destruction and the end of the world.

Curiously, there were surreal churchy overtones to the story of cult's demise. In San Diego County (named after the Apostle St. James), the cult headquarters was in Rancho Santa Fe (named after the Holy Faith of Catholicism).

The deaths took place during Holy Week, when the church focuses on Christ's death and resurrection. The bodies were covered with a purple cloth, just as -- up until recent liturgical changes -- statues and crosses in Catholic churches were covered with purple shrouds during Holy Week.

In the Roman litany in honor of Christ's mother, she is called Porta Coeli -- Heaven's Gate. These are also the words over the entrance to the Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Baltimore, at Maryland Avenue and Preston Street.

There is no evidence that Jesus was ever married or had children, and there has never been any serious claim that he was a eunuch. His recommendation that those who were up to the sacrifice should make themselves eunuchs for the sake of kingdom -- that is, for spiritual advancement -- has never been taken literally by mainstream Christianity.

(Nor have his severe admonitions about hating your father or mother, or plucking out your eye if it is a source of sin).

Especially in early Christianity, there were some individual Christians and even some sects who took literally their master's blessing on self-mutilation. As recently as the last century, a Christian sect in Russia practiced self-castration.

Rasputin seems to have been inspired by another sect, one that endorsed free love. (Sin so that you can experience God's forgiveness -- hence, "the holiness of sin.")

The most famous Christian self-castrater was the great Egyptian theologian Origen (c.185-c.255). He doesn't mention this personal event in any of his voluminous writings that survive, but it was widely known by contemporaries. Origen does comment on Matthew 19: 12 in a way that suggests he came to believe that a literal interpretation was wrong.

The most famous Christian made a eunuch by other men was another eminent theologian -- Peter Abelard (1079-1142) who was forcibly castrated as punishment for what began as an illicit love affair.

Abelard, who was a live-in teacher in Paris, had an affair with a young student named Heloise. The woman's uncle was her guardian and a priest. He arranged for a group of thugs to castrate Abelard. When some of Abelard's students learned what had happened, they were outraged and castrated the uncle.

Abelard eventually became a priest, though by church law a eunuch should not have been admitted to the priesthood.

Apparently, an exception was made in Abelard's case.

Meant literally or not, the words of Jesus about self-eunuch-ization no doubt startled his disciples. (It is interesting that only one of the four Gospels preserves this saying.)

For Jews of Jesus' time, the divine command to increase and multiply was a serious matter. To have a sexually inadequate body or have no children was a grievous misfortune. (By way of unorthodox exception, the small Jewish sect that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls idealized celibacy.)

In fact, the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, decreed that "no one whose testicles have been crushed or whose penis has been cut off may be admitted into the community of the Lord" (23: 2).

Later on, in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, a new and more generous dispensation is announced. In verse 3 of the 56th chapter, the Lord says: "To the eunuchs who observe my sabbaths and choose what is pleasing to me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give in my house a monument and a name. Better than sons and daughters, an eternal, imperishable name will I give them."

The Hebrews words translated as "a monument and a name" are Yad Vashem -- the name chosen for the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem!

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