Gender non conforming people. In the Bible?!

It is always a problem for people who are not “something” to write about that “something”. I am not a transgender person and so I write about this with trepidation. However, I am not writing to explain what it means to be trans. I have no business doing that. But I can enter the conversation as someone with an education in theology and biology. It seems to me that cisgender people need to do some thinking about biology and theology. That’s what I am doing here. Mainly writing for other cisgender folks who may be quick to dismiss or discredit someone who is different citing theological or biological reasons.

Sometimes our understanding of a concept, is not the same understanding of the concept that people in the ancient world had. And this is true about gender. Gender, as we use the word- to mean a person is either a man or a woman- is not exactly how people in the ancient world thought about male.

They, of course, knew that there are men and woman. But how they thought about this was different.

“Studies in masculinity in the ancient world have shown that gender in antiquity “was mapped not as a binary of two fixed and “opposite” sexes – but rather as a dynamic spectrum or gradient of relative masculinities”. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the absence of the absolute binary of male and female, there was a permanent and significant concern for the ideal masculinity.

Martti i Nissinen  in Being a Man: Negotiating Ancient Constructs of Masculinity  Ilona Zsolnay, editor. Pg 222


There evidently was an “ideal” masculinity and then everyone else existed along an ordered hierarchy.

It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that the idea of two sexes male and female was common. Before then people believed there was a “single human nature or sex in which women existed as inferior versions of men” (Introduction, Adrian Thatcher, page 5, in The Oxford Dictionary of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed Adrian Thatcher,Oxford University Press)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

   We need to be careful as we read the Bible. Talking about “Biblical manhood” or “Biblical womanhood” is more complicated than we think. It is not easy to set aside our concepts of gender. It may not be possible. But we do need to recognize that our understanding of a text, or certain concepts may be quite different than the Biblical authors. 

By the same token, when Paul speaks of things being “natural” or “unnatural” he may not necessarily mean nature as in biological processes. He is talking about behaviors that are in line, or not, with cultural expectations. For example:

13 Judge for yourselves: Is it appropriate for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Doesn’t nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him; 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? This is because her long hair is given to her for a covering.   1 Cor 11:13-15 Common English Bible (CEB)

But, back to our topic. Are there gender non conforming people in the Bible?

Yes, eunuchs.  You may have been told that eunuchs are castrated males, and that is true. However the word “eunuch” may not only refer to castrated males.

In Roman literature, eunuchs signify someone  who did not uphold their proper gender role. Roman masculinity involved penetration of proper partners ( this refers to social status- free versus slave- not gender), masculine body features, the ability to employ reason, to control others,  and to control oneself . At the same time all this needed to appear  effortless, otherwise there were concerns about a “hidden lack of virtue”. while convincing others all this came naturally without expending too much effort.  Eunuchs signify  a destabilization of gender. *

Today, scholars may define eunuchs more broadly as gender non conforming persons. So the meaning of eunuch is not as narrow as we might have thought. Which then makes Biblical references to eunuchs more inclusive.

For example:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,  who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.   Isaiah 56:3-5 NRSV


11 But he [Jesus] said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”   Matthew 19:11-12 NRSV


26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[g] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”[h] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[i] baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.   Acts 8: 26-40


Each of these passages, in their own way, speaks for inclusion of eunuchs- gender non conforming people. How can the church not welcome and fully include trans folk?


* Christopher Michael Erlinger “How the Eunuch Works: Eunuchs as a Narrative Device in Greek and Roman Literature, 2016, Doctor of Philosophy, Ohio State University, Greek and Latin.







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