Friday, May 11, 2007

Transsexuality and Early Christianity

Personal gender, it would seem, is something of a paradox in early Christian thought. On the one hand there seems to be a certain amount of equivocality with regards to sex and the human person as both men and women were created in the image of God and on the last day humanity will be like the angels, neither giving nor taking in marriage. But on the other hand there do seem to be prescribed roles for men and women that suggest differentiation between the sexes is very real. To my knowledge the topic of transsexuality is nowhere directly addressed in the Bible. There are however a few early Christian texts where transformation from one sex to another occurs. I know of three texts that directly address the topic: the Epistle ofBarnabas, the Gnostic glosses in the Gospel of Thomas and the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. The first of these gives an entirely negative view of transsexuality. The second gives implies that female to male transgenderism is necessary for women to attain salvation. The third is ambiguous.

The so called Epistle of Barnabas is a work written in either the late first century or the early second century of Christianity. For a time some portions of the Christian east may have put it on par with the Holy Scriptures. Tradition ascribes the epistle as being penned byBarnabas the companion of Saint Paul but the epistle does not make that claim for itself nor do the majority of scholars hold to that tradition.

The general point of the Epistle of Barnabas is to explain the Old Testament in terms of the Christian revelation. Rather than rejecting the Old Testament law, the author of the epistle seeks to find the true meaning that underlies the Law. Explaining why the Israelites were ordered by God to abstain from the flesh of Hyena, the author writes: ``Moreover, "You shall not eat the hyena." He means, "You shall not be an adulterer, nor a corrupter, nor be like to them that are such." Wherefore? Because that animal annually changes its sex, and is at one time male, and at another female'' [Barnabas, 10]. One can understand Barnabas' point in one of two ways. One interpretation would be that the act of transgenderfication itself makes a being ritually unpure, a ``corrupter.'' But one could also Barnabas' mistaken understanding of the biology of the Hyena implied that the hyena necessarily participated with multiple sexual partners. Being at various times male and at other times female, the hyena is biologically predisposed to be sexually infidelitous to its mate.

So in one interpretation, this passage may speak to the inherent uncleanliness in a being seeking to change from one sex to another. If the process of changing sex is itself a corruption, then it follows that a even a single change in sex consists of corruption. While a person seeking out a sex change would not be as corrupt as the hyena which continually wallows in this corruption, the act of changing sex itself is a corruption of the way that God made a particular person.

But in the Gnostic glosses to the Gospel of Thomas a different view is presented. The dating of the Gospel of Thomas is a matter of some dispute with some scholars arguing that it dates to the first half of the first century and other scholars arguing that it dates to the second half of the second century. Some scholars divide the work into two layers, an early `sayings' layer that was early and a later `narrative' layer that provides a Gnostic narrative that envelopes the sayings layer. Regardless of the date, the author has Jesus claiming that in order for women to be saved, they must become men:

Simon Peter said to Him, ``Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.''

Jesus said, ``I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'' [Thomas, 114]

Here we see the idea presented that women are in some way less than fully human. The point of the author is that there is something about distinct about maleness which is lacking in femaleness that confers full humanity part of which is the capacity to be saved. In such a view, transgenderism from female to male is required to become complete and whole in spirit. Transgenderism in the other direction, from male to female, would be an intentional evil, a deliberate seeking out of a greater state to a lesser state.

Lastly, we have the memoir of the martyr Perpetua written in the very earliest years of the third century. Perpetua relates a vision she had prior to being led into the coliseum to fight the gladiators. In this vision she is being prepared for battle and ``Also there came to me comely young men, my helpers and aiders. And I was stripped naked, and I became a man'' [The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, 10]. What sets this treatment apart from the earlier treatments is that it is something that happened entirely in a vision and is incidental to the point of the narrative. Aside from Perpetua's narration of her vision before her martyrdom are two accounts of the actual martyrdom neither of which happen exactly as Perpetua's vision. It seems clear that Perpetua's vision was an allegorical explanation which portrayed her struggle being not against flesh and blood gladiators but against the devil. Perpetua's maleness in the vision does not seem to play an important role either in the vision or the first hand accounts of her actual death.

So we are left wondering just what that aspect of Perpetua's vision meant. Was becoming male in her case simply a side effect of being portrayed in the vision as a gladiator? Was it a condescension so that she would retain her modesty when being attended to by the youths who aided her while she was naked in the vision? Whatever the point of her transgenderfication in the vision was, it does not seem relevant to either her salvation or the actual events of her subsequent martyrdom. The only conclusion I can draw is that it seems to have been an image that comforted Perpetua. When faced with the prospect of death by physical combat in the area, Perpetua was comforted by the idea of having the physique of the man during the challenge.

There is an important question not being addressed here. The reader will probably have observed that I've assumed that gender and sex are identical with regards to biology. In doing so, I have somewhat begged an important question. To seriously examine the issue, it is necessary to address is the question of whether or not the early Christians saw a distinction between gender and sex. Linguistically speaking, they most likely did. The Greek word patria (heritage on the father's side of the family) has a female gender. The notion of a father anything having a female gender implies such a distinction. But it is unclear whether this distinction applies to biology, especially human biology. A rigorous assessment of this question could very well pull out greater meaning from the early Christian texts cited above.

Another question that I did not address is what it means to be male and what it means to be female outside of what it means to be human. It would appear that while sex is essential part of what it means to be human, neither maleness itself nor femaleness itself is. I base this statement on the incarnational theology of Irenaeus of Lyons.

He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be "the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence," the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all. [Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies Book II. Chapter XXX.]

Irenaeus says that by becoming a child, Christ sanctified the children. He changed the very nature of what it means to be a human child. The Irenaean view of incarnational theology leaves us with three alternatives. Christ was a both male and female. The author of the Gospel was Thomas was correct in stating that females need to become males in order to be saved. Neither maleness nor femaleness is itself essential to what makes us human.

While there is a medieval Jewish tradition that God created the first man an woman as hermaphrodites based on the verbiage of the Genesis story (male and female he created them), it is not clear to me just how ancient this view is. Further, I know of no acceptance of this notion by any Christian group in either antiquity or modernity. Consequently, I think it fair to reject this the proposition of Jesus being a Hermaphrodite as being outside of the Christian tradition.

The Gospel of Thomas, as mentioned above, is a Gnostic work. Throughout Christian history, Gnosticism has been a minority view and a view condemned as heretical by the balance of Christianity. Ireneus' work usually referred to as Against Heresies was actually titled The Refutation of Knowledge (Gnosis) Falsely So Called and was a lengthy treatise aimed squarely at refuting the various Gnostic understandings of Christianity. I think it fair to say, then, that Irenaeus' incarnational theology rejects the notion that females must become males in order to be saved.

Which leaves us with the conclusion that what it means to be male and what it means to be female is not essential to humanity. While sex is an essential human characteristic, whether a particular human person is male or female is accidental rather than substantial. While it is part of our makeup and determines who we are as a being, it does not determine what we are as a human. There is no scriptural basis that I am aware of for arguing that the male of the species is more (or less) human than the female of the species.

But this conclusion does not help us in our quest to know what the early Christians would have thought about the topic of transgenderfication. While we have an example of one (heretical) Christian group thinking transsexuality was necessary for women to achieve salvation, it is clear that this position was certainly in the minority. We also know that at least one early author held most likely, but not necessarily, held that transsexuality itself was corruption. But then there is the ambiguity of Saint Perpetua's reported vision where a saint of the early Church found comfort in the vision of becoming male on the eve of her martyrdom where the transgenderfication was neither necessary nor literal. The student of ancient texts, it seems to me, is left in a state of aporia wondering just what to make of it all.


chet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chet said...

I enjoyed your thoughtful and well-written post. During your discussion of the hyena I wanted to point out that you were perhaps making an assumption that you didn't realize. Assuming that the author knew that hyena's change sex seems to me to be an assumption. Who gets that close to hyena's except the scientists who study them? Certainly not a people prohibited form eating them.