By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
Hints in the Old Testament point to realities in the new. In Jesus’ days there were several Jewish sects: The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and the Zealots were the most famous. The publicans were not a sect as such, but just the practical-minded Jews that worked for the Romans as tax collectors. And yet there was another sect, less conspicuous in the land, who practiced celibacy: the Essenes.
The Jewish Virtual Library refers to the Essenes as “The Dead Sea Sect” and states that they had emerged out of disgust with the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Essenes believed that the others had corrupted the city and the Temple. They moved out of Jerusalem and lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.
The Essenes are particularly interesting to scholars because they are believed to be an offshoot of the group that lived in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd stumbled into a cave containing various ancient artifacts and jars containing manuscripts describing the beliefs of the sect and events of the time.
There is an interpretation that suggests that St. John the Baptist also lived with the Essenes in the desert. In fact, his lifestyle bears remarkable similarities with the Essenes. And St. John was a perfect model of the celibate prophet of the New Testament.
Here we have the first important hint of celibacy in the New Testament: the forerunner of the celibate Redeemer was also a celibate man.
Scripture tells us that St. John came in the spirit of Elias (Matt. 3:1-3; Mark 1:1-6; Luke 1:17; John 1:21), the great prophet who appeared alongside Moses on the day of the Transfiguration. Now Elias was the celibate prophet par excellence. He who brought fire from Heaven and who spoke to God on Mount Horeb, and who is honored with being the founder of the Order of the Carmelites — all celibates.
The Gospels speak little about the teachings of St. John the Baptist. We know that apart from what is written, he preached to the people many other things (Luke 3:18). Would it be a surprise if he preached chastity, continence, and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom to the people?
The second important hint in favor of celibacy in the New Testament is the Holy Family itself — the family perfect par excellence was composed of three celibates!
In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord explicitly taught: “Do not think that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets; I am come not to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The perfecting of the law was a necessary consequence of the perfecting of the priesthood. The move toward continence and chastity was seen by our Lord as perfection. We can see this in the Sermon on the Mount itself, when He perfected the Law of God on the Sixth Commandment, where He condemned adultery in the mind, and not only in the body:
“You have heard that it was said to them of old: thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you, that whoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).
He also affirmed the indissolubility of matrimony and abolished divorce and remarriage as adultery (Matt. 5:31-32).
He praised celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom: “There are eunuchs who were born so from their mothers’ womb; and there are eunuchs who were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take it, let him take it [understand]” (Matt. 19:12). This is no longer a hint of celibacy: It is a teaching from Our Lord Himself.
The perfection of the following of Jesus is well-known to all: Deny oneself, take up one’s cross daily and follow Him.
Remember the rich young man who asked, “What good shall I do that I may have life everlasting?” Jesus replied: “If you will enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” Jesus listed them. The young man added: “All these have I kept from my youth. What is wanting in me?” Jesus said: “If you will be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).
This exhortation of our Lord is most important for us to understand: First, He said “if” you will be perfect, that is, it was not a Commandment, it was a counsel. To keep the Commandments is a non-negotiable point to secure life everlasting, but to will to be perfect is an exhortation, a counsel, not an obligation.
Second, he should let go of his riches, that is, be poor of material things. Now to do this, he had to have been unmarried! Otherwise, how could Jesus tell him to give away everything he had, thus leaving his wife and children in the streets, joining the line of the poor who would benefit from the distribution of his goods? No, it would be unjust and uncharitable, and Jesus is the perfection of justice and charity. Therefore, since Jesus exhorted him to give his goods away, he must have been able to do so without harming anybody.
Third, Jesus said, “follow me.” It was a call to live a celibate, poor, and obedient life. The three vows lived by the religious: poverty, chastity and obedience. The young man declined. The eleven apostles accepted it.
When Jesus was challenged by the Sadducees about the hypothetical story of a woman who had married seven brothers and they asked Him about whose wife would she be in the resurrection, he replied, “You err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married, but shall be as the angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:29-30).
Celibacy here on earth enables one to imitate the lives of the angels of God in Heaven! And Jesus points out that those who understand that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven is a praiseworthy choice in life, in the figurative language of the eunuch.
We know that He exhorted the people in general: “Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) and for some, or many, we do not know, celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven was certainly among the choices.
Scripture mentioned St. Peter had been married, but his wife is never mentioned, only his mother-in-law. Most probably, he was a widower. Tradition tells us about the daughters of Philip, who led celibate lives themselves. St. John the Evangelist, the apostle for whom Jesus had a special predilection, to the point of allowing him to place his head next to His own chest, where he could hear the beatings of the Sacred Heart, was the virgin apostle par excellence.
There is no clear mention of the others being married, but if some of them were, they definitely counted on their wives’ agreement to live separate and meet again in the Kingdom of Heaven, since the apostles left Jerusalem to preach the Gospel in many countries. They could not have taken their wives in their trips, when they met martyrdom.
After the Resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days giving the apostles a total immersion crash course on evangelization and apologetics, about which we know nothing. Scripture is completely silent about it. St. John makes it clear that the teachings of Jesus that are committed to writing constitute only a very small part of that immense wealth of doctrine: “Many other signs also did Jesus in the sight of His disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30) and more precisely, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written everyone, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25).
Next article: St. Paul’s teaching on chastity and celibacy.
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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is: www.RaymondeSouza.com.)