Trans in Scripture

The Ethiopian Eunuch is our most famous trancestor. However, there are many more scattered through the Bible, both visible and invisible. We shall meet many more later.

-Lewis Reay

The Many Eunuchs Hidden in Scripture

There are numerous trans themes and characters in Scripture. If these are not immediately familiar to us, this is because often, they are simply hidden in plain sight – invisible unless we take the trouble to open our eyes and look. However, I do not wish to reflect too deeply on an experience which is not my own. Instead, I simply share with you some more extracts from a piece byLewis Reay, “Towards a Transgendered Theology: Que(e)rying the Eunuchs, printed in “Trans/formations” (edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood).
First, I wish to consider Jesus’ extraordinary saying in Matthew 19 (v 12 -13) about different types of eunuchs.  To my transgender ears and eyes the meaning of this text is plain …… I would suggest that the Matthew 19 verses are the clearest statement that Jesus makes about the inclusivity of the new realm. This is a realm where no-one is excluded, even the most marginal outsider.
To see the hidden trans people in Scripture, we need to be sensitive to the words as understood when they were written – not as we use them today. A key word here is “chamberlain”, which to modern ears, refers to a senior political or government official. This ignores the significance of the first part of the word – “chamber-“. Reay elaborates:
The Greek word eunocoi comes from the root eune, a bed, and the verb achein, to hold: thus a eunuch is a “bed-keeper”, or more literally a “bed-companion” or “chamberlain” who was responsible for taking care of a monarch’s numerous wives. It also appears as a court “official”. The secondary meaning of the word is an emasculated man, or one naturally emasculated from marriage or having children, or one who voluntarily abstains from marriage.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word çârîyç or saris means “to castrate”l it also means a eunuch or official. The word appears 13 times translated as “chamberlain”, 17 times as “eunuch” and 12 times as “officer”.

And so, many of the trans people in the Bible are hidden behind descriptors like “chamberlain”, or (as other writers have explained) “cupbearer” – which includes Nehemiah.

Let me introduce you to some of my spiritual trancestors – Carcas the severe, Mehuman, the faithful. Hegai, the eunuch, Zethar, the star, Harbona, the ass-driver, Abagtha, the God-given, and Biztha, the booty, all eunuchs of King Xerxes (see the book of Esther).
Ebed – Melech, the servant of the king, an Ethiopian eunuch in the service of King Zedekiah, through whose interference Jeremiah was released from prison; Ashpenaz, the chief eunuch of King Nebuchanezzer, Teresh, the strict, who plotted to kill King Xerxes, Sarsechim, the prince among eunuchs, and Shaashgaz, the servant of the beautiful.
Meet some rabsaris, chief eunuchs and high-ranking Babylonian officials: Hatach, the truthful, Bigthan, the juicy, and Bigtha, the juiciest.
And, not least, the famous Daniel, and his three friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, and the defiant Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego (see the Book of Daniel). Finally, our Ethiopian cousin, from Acts, who opens up the possibility of full inclusion into Jesus’ realm to all, not simply the Jewish world.
Most of these transectors named by Reay are minor characters, bit parts in the Biblical story. That’s not the case with his main argument.

The Genderqueer Jesus

Mollenkott (“Omnigender”) proposes that Jesus was chromosomally female (because of the virgin birth) …….. but phenotypically male. Mollenkott ties this in to the Genesis narrative of a God who is both male and female an neither, and therefore a Jesus who is equally both and neither, encompasing the breadth of “natural” human gender and sex diverstity….it is intersex people or female-to male trans-people who come closest to a physical resemblance to Jesus, being  chromosomally female and socially male.
Moxness (“Putting Jesus in His Place”) suggests that Jesus occupied queer space by virtue of his social location and th he location of his followers. Jesus’ followers put themselves outside the norms of society by leaving their homes and and their social gender roles to follow Jesus. By leaving their place in the household, ..they rendered themselves liable to the accusation of being eunuchs – their very gender identity was put into question for upsetting the gender norms of their time.
Jesus’ queer identity is not simply to be read in terms of sexuality, but he is truly gender queer. Jesus is our own trancestor: the challenge of eunuchs was that they could not be securely placed, they were in a position of ‘betwixt and between’, in a permanent liminal position (Moxnes).”
Moxnes’ discussion of the famous passage from Matthew 19 observes that in Jesus’ day, the word “eunuch” may have been used as a term of abuse (rather like “queer” or “faggot” today). This puts a special light on Jesus’ response.
Bohache argues (“The Queer Bible Commentary”) that if, as Moxnes suggests, the term”eunuch” was used as a slur against Jesus and his disciples, then we have hit upon an essential concept for a queer understanding of Jesus:  today there are many for whom the term “queer” is a volatile word, since it originated as a slur among our opponents, but activists and others ahve reclaimed the word and used it proudly.

Isaiah’s Welcome For All.

The Promise of “a house of prayer for all people”  in Isaiah is not simply a promise that eunuchs would be allowed. Rather, it is an unrestrained revolution to the existing order of who can approach God. 
Koch (in “The Queer Bible Commentary”) suggests that the last chapters of Isaiah commencing at chapter 56 present many instances of gender dissent and social queerness. 
The Matthean eunuch verses are a mirror to the Isaiah 56 passage which extends the kingdom of God to eunuchs with a special place greater than that of sons or daughters. …These verses encapsulate the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ message – there is no one who is marginalised in God’s eyes, all are included.

And so, I conclude with the celebrated and important words of Isaiah 56:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to minister to him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”

Books

Guest, Deryn et al (eds): The Queer Bible Commentary
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey: Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach


Related Posts at QTC:

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Three Queers of the East: Thoughts for the Feast of the Epiphany

Earlier in the week, I wrote that some Bible stories are so familiar, we do not stop to consider their significance. I could also add, that some others are so familiar, we do not stop to ask if they are accurate. A case in point is that of today’s feast of the Epiphany, which we routinely celebrate as the visit of the three kings of the East to the infant Jesus – but the Gospel text does not specify that there were three, nor that they were kings.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
 
It is the term “magi” that has been traditionally adapted to “wise men”, or corrupted in popular imagination to “kings”. Astrologer-magicians, in the Zoroastrian religion, would be a more accurate translation. (Note the obvious linguistic connection between “magus” and “magic”). Kittredge quotes Nancy Wilson and Virginia Mollenkott, to suggest that the Magi were probably either eunuchs, or trans.

They were Zoroastrian priests, astrologers, magicians, ancient shamans from the courts of ancient Persia. They were the equivalent of Merlin of Britain. They were sorcerers, high-ranking officials, but not kings—definitely not kings. But quite possibly, they were queens. We’ve always pictured them with elaborate, exotic, unusual clothing—quite festive, highly decorated and accessorized! …Also, the wise eunuchs, shamans, holy men were the only ones who had the forethought to go shopping before they visited the baby Jesus!

They also have shamanistic dreams. They deceive evil King Herod and actually play the precise role that many other prominent eunuchs play in the Bible: they rescue the prophet, this time the Messiah of God, and foil the evil royal plot against God’s anointed.

-Wilson

My guess is that they were people who today would be termed transwomen
-Mollenkott

The reflection at Jesus in Love also considers two other unconventional thoughts on the Epiphany, from two striking artworks. One is an image showing a multiracial group of three wise women, reflecting the importance of the outsider in the nativity story, and another showing Saints Francis and Aloysius bringing as gifts people with AIDS, possibly gay men. You can read Kitt’s full reflection at Jesus in Love. Here, I want to stay with the eunuch/trans theme.

Are Wilson and Mollenkott correct in their hypothesese? I find both plausible. (In many Middle Eastern religions, the practitioners of religious magic, the shamans, were typically cross-dressers, eunuchs, or those whom today would be called gay or lesbian). However, I don’t think it really matters. For me, it is sufficient that the might be, as this forces us to recognize how easily we fall into the trap of accepting without question the standard hetero assumptions behind the usual interpretations of scripture. If there is no definite proof that the Magi were in any sense queer, is there any compelling evidence that they were not – that is, do we know for certain that they were what we would call  heterosexual, biological males?

There is a great deal to think about in this. First off, in the modern world we easily forget how commonplace eunuchs and cross-dressing were throughout the Mediterranean world, in Biblical times and beyond. (Two further signs of this are that in the Orthodox Church, yesterday was the feast day of St Apollinaria /Dorotheos, one of the group of Eastern cross-dressing monastic women, and on Christmas Eve was the feast of SS Protus and Hyacinthus, eunuch slaves who were crucified alongside their mistress St Eugenia / Eugenios – another of the cross-dressing female monks). Other notable eunuchs in scripture include Daniel the prophet and Ashpenaz, the chief eunuch who controlled him; Daniel’s three companions, renowned for their ordeal in the burning fiery furnace; the prophet Nehemiah, who returned to Jerusalem to rebuild God’s temple; possibly Potiphar, who bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites who took him from his brothers; and in the New Testament,  Philip the Ethiopian, who received the assurance that “all are welcome”.

Even in reading of “eunuchs”, we make assumptions. There is some good evidence that of the 45 references to eunuchs in the Old Testament, not all refer to those who had been physically castrated, as we would interpret the word. In this view, the word includes those that simply are sexually attracted exclusively to other men – people the modern world would describe as gay. (See Faris Malik, Eunuchs are Gay Men, for an extended discussion).

When we read scripture without questioning those assumptions, we simply assume that the stories we read can be interpreted as if they were set in modern conditions. They cannot. To the people who object that we are making scandalous assumptions when we give them queer readings, the simple response is that the standard hetero interpretations may have even less sure foundation in historical evidence.

As I reflected on Kitt’s post and pictures, I remembered that beyond the liturgical sense, there is another meaning to the word “epiphany”: this refers in common parlance to a new insight, a new way of seeing things. When we read Scripture and church history with a deliberate effort to set aside the unwarranted assumptions that underlie the usual heteronormative, we can find in them fresh insights – in short, new “epiphanies” of understanding.

Later, I had yet another thought on the Magi: what every school child knows about these is that they came “bearing gifts”. If we think of them as queer, in any sense, let us also consider the lesson that contains. We as gay men, lesbian and trans Christians in faith have distinctive spiritual gifts to share with the church. Instead of hiding in shame and fear, we need to be out, proud, and celebrating those gifts.

Recommended Books:
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey:  Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach
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