Priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite has come back into open discussion due to the Pan-Amazon synod. Some voices are asking whether the ordination of married men might be the answer to the sacramental shortage in the region, whereas other voices — including Pope Francis and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the head of the Congregation for Bishops — have expressed skepticism that this is the answer.

Regardless, the time seems right to give some thought to the historical origins of priestly celibacy — the origins of  which include the living testimony of the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents dating back possibly as early as the first century A.D. and unearthed in a series of archaeological finds beginning in 1946.

Growing up as a Protestant, I had a very dim view of celibacy. No one practices celibacy in Protestantism — despite the fact that Jesus recommends it (Matthew 19:12), as does St. Paul (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). But Protestants typically spend no time reflecting on these passages.

I was accustomed in my youth to hearing celibacy criticized as “unbiblical,” and various theories were proposed for its origin in Catholicism, including the idea that the Pope made all priests single in the Middle Ages so that he could inherit their property rather than having it go to their sons.

None of that is true, of course. Celibacy is a way of life practiced by some of the ancient Israelite prophets — such as Elijah, Elisha and Jeremiah — and was embraced also by John the Baptist, John the Apostle and St. Paul — and, of course, Our Lord himself! I always cringe when I hear people criticizing as “unbiblical” or “unnatural” the very lifestyle Jesus himself chose to live for our salvation!

There are also non-biblical sources that offer a remarkable witness to the value of celibacy. My research on the Dead Sea Scrolls led me to many interesting discoveries about the practice of celibacy in Judaism at the time of Our Lord. For example, when I was younger, this saying of Jesus always puzzled me:

“He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’ The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it’” (Matthew 19:8-12 — emphasis added ).

I understood well enough that “eunuchs who have been so from birth” must mean men born with a condition such that they cannot have children, and I also knew what “eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men” meant: It was common practice for kings in the ancient Near East to employ eunuchs to watch over the royal harems as well as serve in other offices in the palace, so much so that in some ancient languages the word for “eunuch” and “royal officer” are often the same. (For example, in Hebrew, the term sarîs covers both concepts, e.g., Genesis 39:1; Isaiah 56:3-4.) But what puzzled me was the phrase “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

I knew that kind of eunuch had to refer to men who voluntarily accepted celibacy for religious reasons. But who was doing this in Jesus’ day?

After all, he does not say, “There will be men who will make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom,” but “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” So clearly, in using the present tense here, Jesus is speaking about celibate men of his own day, who are celibate for “the kingdom of heaven.”

In the course of my doctoral work, I discovered that Jesus is speaking here of the Jewish sect known as the Essenes (ESS-eenz), who along with the Pharisees and Sadducees made up the three major schools of thought and religious practice in the time of Our Lord.

The Essenes practiced celibacy and founded monasteries where Jewish men lived in community, praying, working and worshipping while they awaited the coming of the Messiah (or Messiahs, as they expected both a priestly and a royal Messiah). The Essenes had a monastery on the shores of the Dead Sea. They hid their library in the caves around their settlement out of fear of Roman attack in the A.D. 60s, and the remains of that library are what we know as the celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls.

Why be celibate? Celibacy was rooted in concepts of prophethood and priesthood. Sometimes a prophet remained single as a sign that now was not the time to raise a family, because God was bringing an awful punishment on the people. But there was also the practical reason that the demanding lifestyle of a prophet was incompatible with both the responsibilities and pleasures of family life. So there was a certain tradition of prophetic celibacy.

For the priests, too, there was a kind of periodic celibacy. According to the Law of Moses, marital relations rendered one unclean for at least a day, and so a priest on continuous duty in the sanctuary could not engage in relations with his wife (see Leviticus 15:18, 22:1-6). Priests thus had to remain “celibate” for stretches of time when they were on duty at the Temple, and the opportunity to conceive a child was limited to those times when they were “off duty,” so to speak — that is, they had a stretch of days when they were not required to serve.

The Essenes regarded themselves as the heirs of both the prophets and the priesthood, and their practice of celibacy was one of the most notable features of their religious lifestyle.

All the classical scholars that describe the Essenes remark on their celibacy. For example, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History:

“The solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is remarkable beyond all the other tribes of the whole world, as it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire ...”

The Essenes referred to this monastic lifestyle as living “perfect holiness.” Since the Law of Moses declares that marital relations render the spouses unclean, abstaining from relations meant the Essene monks could be perpetually clean in a ritual sense and always able to engage in worship. That was extremely important to them.

Like the Essenes, and unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, the young Church also had great respect for the celibate state, although for different reasons. For the Essenes, celibacy was part of the larger effort to live a life of perfect ritual cleanliness. For Christians, the issue was not ritual cleanliness, but a freedom from the obligations of family life in order to be wholly dedicated to the Lord. This is reflected in Jesus’ own teaching, when he insists that celibacy for a spiritual goal was a noble state and those that were able to live it should (Matthew 19:12).

St. Paul, too, in his long discussion of marriage in his letters to Corinth, emphasizes the value of celibacy, which he himself practiced: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman. … I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. … Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. … I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:1-35, excerpted).

The point, then, of Christian celibacy was not ritual cleanliness but “undivided devotion to the Lord.” But we shouldn’t draw the contrast between Essenes and Christians too starkly, because in Essenism, the concern for ritual cleanliness was not for its own sake, but rather for the sake of always being able to worship, which uncleanness prevented. So for the Essenes, too, celibacy was ultimately for the sake of “undivided devotion” to the Lord God of Israel.

In the early Church, this “undivided devotion” was expected especially of clergy, and some early Church councils record that celibacy for the leaders of the Church was a tradition going back to the apostles. At the Council of Carthage in 390, Bishop Genethlius offers definitive testimony to the value of celibacy — testimony that was ratified by the members of the council:

“It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites [deacons], that is, those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavor to keep. … It pleases us all that bishop, priest, and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from [conjugal intercourse] with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity” (emphasis added).

Celibacy in the Latin Rite is not a negative thing, a prohibition about what cannot be done. Rather, it is a rule of freedom, because it has enabled Catholic clergy to give themselves to the Church and to the mission of evangelizing the world in a way rarely seen in other Christian communions. The enormous missionary outreach of Catholicism in Europe, the New World and the Far East has only been possible by the selflessness of so many men willing to take Jesus at his word and embrace Jesus’ lifestyle.

John Bergsma, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

His latest book is  Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity (Penguin Random House, 2019).