Jesus was fine with changing your gender

Back before the religious right in the USA accepted gay marriage was a reality, and decided they were better off focussing on the gender of plastic potato toys… there was a lot of proclamation that “one man and one woman” was the way the bible intended marriage. And if asked to cite this they might turn to the gospel of Matthew. Christ’s very own teaching on the subject!

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19:3-6

So, we have it on the good authority of evangelical Christians that Matthew 19 is very much the authentic teaching of God incarnate in his time on earth. “Marriage: one man, one woman” is what God intended.

Of course… the discourse between Jesus, his disciples and the pharisees continues, and you can’t help but notice that the context is a question about divorce that Jesus… didn’t really answer in that snippet.

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:7-9

Okay, well… considering the serial monogamy through marriage of some leaders of the political evangelical Christian community, that’s a little eyebrow raising. But not inconsistent with a very conservative argument for marriage. “Marriage: one man, one woman… once,” is what God intended. Still on good ground for the case being made.

In fact, the case doesn’t go away… but as you can tell from the title, I’m not here to rehash the “is gay marriage acceptable in the church?” But, I do need to observe, the scene in Matthew continues:

10 His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he 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 19:10-12

Huh. Well… that’s a diversion. So… what is Jesus talking about now? He’s giving us three categories of Eunuch: those who are made by others, those who have been so from birth, and those who make themselves eunuchs.

A eunuch is, today, defined as:

noun

a castrated man, especially one formerly employed by rulers in the Middle East and Asia as a harem guard or palace official.

Okay, so kids whos genitals were removed, so they could hold court positions. That would definitely capture the first group of Eunuchs “those who are made by others.” Parents, or Slave owners making eunuchs for themselves, so virile males aren’t a procreating problem in polygamous households. Jesus wasn’t teaching in Persia (the closest “Middle East” empire at the time the gospels were authored). Jesus was teaching in the Greco-Roman empire. But in context, they certainly weren’t unaware of the Babylonian, and Egyptian and Persian empire practices. The term “Eunuch” is mentioned in the books of Esther, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Kings II in the Jewish scriptures: multiple times in each one.

We also have an idea of who the second group of eunuchs Jesus it talking about (those who are made by others): those who are born intersex, either due to chromosomal irregularities, or in feto developmental issues. Not everyone who is born with XY chromosomes has genitals that meet the standard look of penis and scrotum. And, this happens to capture something else we know about the Greco-Romans: our term “hermaphrodite” is a portmanteau of two God’s names “Hermes-Aphrodite” and the child those two gods had was of ambiguous gender… so this was clearly something the context of Jesus was aware could exist.

Good on the gospels for having God incarnate recognize that not everyone is born with a clearly identifiable gender!

But… we come to that last group “and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

Well… there was a group of Eunuchs with whom Jesus and the authors of the gospels would have been very familiar. Cybele was a Greek/Phrygian earth-mother goddess whose cult had been spread throughout the Mediterranean by Republican, and then Rome. She was known as “Magna Mater” in Latin which literally translates as ‘Great Mother’ (a title that was later adopted for the Virgin Mary by the Christians)

The priests of Cybele were known as Galli. They were Eunuchs.

They castrated themselves in honor and recognition of Cybele’s son Attis who was castrated, and died from his wounds, but was buried, but then restored to life three days later… this happened every year at a spring festival of Megalesia around the equinox. You can look into the details on your own if this interests you.

But back to the Galli. We are told: As eunuchs, incapable of reproduction, the Galli were forbidden Roman citizenship and rights of inheritance; like their eastern counterparts, they were technically mendicants whose living depended on the pious generosity of others. For a few days of the year, during the Megalesia, Cybele’s laws allowed them to leave their quarters, located within the goddess’ temple complex, and roam the streets to beg for money. They were outsiders, marked out as Galli by their regalia, and their notoriously effeminate dress and demeanour, but as priests of a state cult, they were sacred and inviolate. From the start, they were objects of Roman fascination, scorn and religious awe.

What was the regalia and dress of the Galli? Well: The signs of their office have been described as a type of crown, possibly a laurel wreath, as well as a golden bracelet known as the occabus. They generally wore women’s clothing (often yellow), and a turban, pendants, and earrings. They bleached their hair and wore it long, and they wore heavy makeup. They wandered around with followers, begging for charity, in return for which they were prepared to tell fortunes.

What was the gender status of the Galli? A Hellenistic poet refers to Cybele’s priests in the feminine, as Gallai. The Roman poet Catullus refers to Attis in the masculine until his emasculation, and in the feminine thereafter. Various Roman sources refer to the Galli as a middle or third gender (medium genus or tertium sexus).  Firmicus Maternus said “they say they are not men…they want to pass as women.” He elaborated, “Animated by some sort of reverential feeling, they actually have made this element [air] into a woman [Caelestis, the goddess]. For, because air is an intermediary between sea and sky, they honor it through priests who have womanish voices.

Were Christians familiar with Galli? St. Augustine (354-430) a Doctor of the Church, observes in the City of God that he saw Galli “parading through the squares and streets of Carthage, with oiled hair and powdered faces, languid limbs and feminine gait, demanding even from the tradespeople the means of continuing to live in disgrace.” Centuries after the gospels were written.

All this makes me think, to Jesus, or at least the audience for the gospels… the idea of someone who had “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” would raise the image of a Priest of Cybele, born a man, mutilated through religious calling, and living as a woman. (incidently the plural neutral “themselves” is used to describe these eunuchs in the King James bible as well… so it’s not clear whether or not they have remained men, having altered their genitals.)

As for the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” It’s only used by one author in the bible: the gospel of Matthew. And overwhelmingly, that phrase unambiguously means “the kingdom ruled by God the Father.” Including 5 times in the beatitudes, authorizing Peter with the keys of heaven, helping the disciples understand who would be great in heaven, what was necessary to get into heaven… and this verse.

Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given12 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 19:12

All of which leads me to say: Jesus and his followers lived in a culture that recognized people were born with ambiguous genitals. And this did not exclude them from the Christian community, or the kingdom of heaven. Jesus and his followers lived in a culture that recognized people had their genitals removed against their will, or in circumstances beyond their control. And this did not exclude them from the Christian community, or the kingdom of heaven. And finally: Jesus called on those who took on his teachings… to recognize that there were those who chose to alter their own genitals, and live as if they belonged to a different gender… and not only does he not exclude them from his community of followers: he explicitly says they are doing this for the sake of the Kingdom God rules.

Jesus seems to have been ready to welcome transgender people to his table… without conditions.

Do you think it should be viewed as an expression of God’s teaching, when proclaimed Christians choose to hurt, and hate, and shame, and exclude the transgender?

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