Thursday, January 22, 2015

Chasing Eunouchos and Saris

I have a writing on Jesus' interaction with gender-odd people, that I have started and given up/bogged down on three times now. Trying to talk about early Jewish ideas about gender-odd people, or Greek ideas about gender-odd people have similar issues. It's all very complicated, and there is a lot of evidence that is suggestive, but very little that is particularly decisive. And there are so many methodological problems. And so many assumptions that might be challengeable, or might not … I keep hoping for a bright grad student to spend months and months sorting it all out for me … Or maybe a scholar already has somewhere, and I just haven't found it. … So rather than giving answers I'm going to try to share some of my frustrations …

One of the first basic issue is this. At Matthew 19, Jesus talks about three kinds of “eunuchs.” The Greek here is “eunouchos” which the Septuagint regularly uses for the Aramaic term “saris.” So did Jesus actually say the Greek word “eunouchos” or the Aramaic/Hebrew word “saris” (or something else?), and the author of Matthew just chose the Greek work “eunouchos” to render whatever Jesus said into Greek? Well, it probably depends on just how bilingual you think Jesus was, which is controversial, and has lots of suggestive evidence. Moreover what did “eunouchos” mean in Greek at the time? Was it a term specifically for males who had been castrated and typically served as royal servants? Or was is a broader category for a variety of gender-odd people in Greek thought, including but not limited to castrated male royal servants? I can find suggestive evidence for each side and people advancing that interpretation. Certainly the broader notion comes into use by the next century. What about “saris”? Again it looks like castrated male royal servants are the main meaning in the Hebrew and Aramaic of a century or two earlier. But the Hebrew of a century of two later, seems to treat “saris” as a much broader category. So what did it mean in Jesus' day? In Jesus' mouth? In this specific context? It completely shifts the meaning of passage as a whole, how you take these terms … There is lots of reason to think that several different traditions and cultures worth of understanding of the castrated and gender-odd were colliding in the Roman Empire around this time, the Greek, the Phyrigian, the Roman, the Jewish, the Persian, the Egyptian, the Mesopotamian Semitic, etc. The idea the “eunuch” in English specifically means castrated male seems pretty entrenched, but it's not that hard to find people who use the term otherwise, so there are lots and lots of problems with interpretation.

1) Cultural Imperialism vs Overly Uniquifying the Modern

So the smart scholar I've been corresponding with puts the first worry this way.

“I'm not saying that there weren't always people who felt different or who felt that they did not fit into the binary gender system. I just wonder whether they thought about themselves in the same terms we do today... whether they could actually conceive of a third or intermediate or indeterminate gender as being a suitable label to embrace, because the idea simply hadn't been floated yet. It makes me think a little of the situation with gay/lesbian sexual identity. You have to wait until the 19th century to find the intellectual underpinnings of what we now think of as sexual identity. There were always gay people, but the idea of a non-heterosexual identity just wasn't there until the modern period. So I think we have to be careful not to get into "cultural imperialism," imposing our modern way of thinking onto the past.”

2nd Century Gallus Priest
Well, first, Rome officially adopted Cybele as a State Goddess in 204BCE, and her priesthood coming out the Phyrigian tradition, were “galli.” They wore women's costumes, mostly yellow in color, and a sort of turban, together with pendants and ear-rings, wore heavy make-up, and wore their hair long a bleached. They typically castrated themselves. They were a familiar sight in Rome, and other parts of the Greco-Roman world. And Romans used phrases like “medium genus” and “tertium sexus” to describe them (“middle kind of people” or “third sex.”) So yeah, the ancients definitely at least had the idea or concept of a third or intermediate gender or sex, as an available possibility, whatever they thought of that possibility.  And whether that was their usual way of thinking about gender-odd folks or not. And yes the Galli were routinely called “eunouchos” in Greek. And don't get me started on India, and how much cultural interaction there was between India and the Greco-Roman world.

But, the bigger point about “cultural imperialism” is a real worry, but a complex one. The terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are from the 19th century, it's true. Earlier people carved up the complex domain of gender, sexuality, attraction, identity and so on, in different ways with different terms and idioms, and often different ideologies as well. There were lots of ways of talking and thinking about sexual identities other than heterosexual ones long before the 19th century though, and this was something that interested many people in many time periods. Plato in the symposium, for instance has Aristophanes talking about male-male lovers as “people of the sun,” female-female lovers as “people of the earth” and male-female lovers as “people of the moon.” Clearly, Aristophanes speech is intended to explore the rhetorical possibilities of humor and satire, but it is also advancing a picture of preferences and identity. The topic of homosexuality in the Ancient world is a complex and fairly well explored one, and it is very much a mistake to project modern categories like “homosexual” onto them, but the ancients certainly used plenty of intellectual categories of their own, and made lots of distinctions in attraction and identity. They just carved the space differently. The distinction between penetrating and being penetrated, and what kind of motive one had for being penetrated was crucial, whereas whether one preferred penetrating males or females was often considered minor. And if we look at other pre-modern contexts, say medieval China, or Shakespearean England, we are going to find different terms, idioms, and concepts, and none are going to be exactly like the 19th and 20th century idea of “homosexuality” but neither are they going to lack the intellectual underpinnings to think and talk about sexual identity in their own idioms and categories.

There is definitely a danger of “cultural imperialism” of overly using our own intellectual categories to think about other times and cultures. But there is an opposite danger too. We can over-emphasize the uniqueness of the modern, by refusing to look at similarities to other times or cultures. Maybe we want to flatter ourselves that our culture is “advanced” or “special” or “distinctive” and it really is in some ways, but it is easy to want to exaggerate this. Or maybe we want to portray our society as “fallen” in some important ways, and want to dismiss or under-emphasize ways in which other societies struggled with similar issues.

There is LOTS of evidence that various cultures of the ancient world struggled with the gender binary in various ways. Sometimes scholars just assumed that gender wasn't binary. Sometimes people assumed binaryness, but there were rebels. Sometimes gender binaries were really about trying to suppress the power of women culturally or politically, other times that motive seems less central. A good history of the gender binary in the West, and resistance to it, would be a long hard, (valuable) project, and if someone has done it and I haven't seen it, I'd love to know.

Certainly there were people in the Mediterranean in Jesus' time who were thought of as non-binary by their contemporaries. But how many? Of what kinds? How did people think or talk about them? What were concepts employed? Did Jesus know or say anything about them?

2) Fine details in terms and concepts and the limits of evidence

Galen uses the term “eunouchos” to include people who are born with ambiguous genitalia, and for people who have male genitalia but are impotent or heavily feminized, as well as for people who have had male genitalia removed. Lucian in the 2nd century, says that someone who has intact genitals but is unable to penetrate a woman is also a eunuch.  Is that usage more common, or limited to the 2nd century only, or what?  Aristotle and Hippocrates both mention that men unable to procreate from birth even with a full set of genitals are "eunouchos."  The Septuagint uses “eunouchos” to translate a discussion of a merely infertile male at Wisdom 3:14, and that's like 3rd century BCE, so the word was used for more than just castrated-folks even before Jesus. Latin uses the terms castratus, eunuchus, and spado, (as well as eviratio vs. castratio). Are there important distinctions between them? Probably. (OK I learned more, the Pandicts, 6th cent Roman laws clarify this quite a bit, the wikipedia on eunuch is more helpful than my Latin dictionaries here.  Spadones are folks who lack generative power, whether their genitals are intact or not, castrati have damaged or missing genitals.  Spadones are allowed to marry, adopt, and institute posthumous heirs, unless they are also castrati.  The Pandicts are clear that someone can be "eunuchus" and still even able to procreate.  Now how many of those distinctions are in place centuries earlier?).  The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon lists 9 different terms as meaning eunuch or chief eunuch (and from a bunch of different roots, including an Aramaic transliteration of the Greek term eunouchos, and the Hebrew tumtum isn't one of them). Were there important distinctions among these many terms? Probably.  NINE terms.  Are there other terms in Greek besides eunouchos that were near in meaning to it, but had important differences? Probably. There is a lot of dispute about the etymology of the Greek eunouchos, some tracing it to eune / bed in various ways, or to eunoein / good minded, or to eunis + okheuein / deprived of mating. And that plays into controversies on the words meaning. Is a gay man a eunuch? An impotent but intact heterosexual? A person with a micropenis? A trans-woman who has undergone genital surgery? A Catholic priest? A celibate woman? A non-binary person who is no longer fertile, but has kids and a marriage already (like ME)? If that seems like projecting OUR concerns into the past, notice that ancient Greek speakers seemed to disagree about the case of the impotent, or the infertile, or the uninterested in marriage, or the purposefully choosing not to engage in marriage despite it's attractions, or the potent but not with women. Who the hell counts as a eunuch?

Maybe we could sort some of this out with a lot of footwork, but probably there is enough subtlety to the terms and their shifts over time, and uses in different polemic contexts, that many of the maddening questions are going to be unanswerable.

3) Axes to grind

Even apart from worries about cultural imperialism, I clearly have an axe to grind here. I'm non-binary and trans and looking for places that ancient thought dealt with non-binary people or trans people, or whatever the closest equivalents they could frame in their own idioms were. And there is a sense in which I'm working on this largely to try to make sense of Matt 19. (Other ideas like androgynos, or hermaphoditus, or galli, or the myth of Tiresias, or Hercules' crossdressing, become important if we are trying to understand more Pagan understandings of ancient non-binary and trans -like people)

But there are plenty of gay scholars, who think, plausibly of eunouchos as a term for men so gay that they were unwilling or unable to procreate with women, despite social pressure to do so.  They see in Matt 19, Jesus discussing something like homosexuality, but in pre-modern terms. And there are plenty of conservative scholars who think of eunouchos as a term for people who choose celibacy, like the priesthood that is eventually started in Jesus' name, and see Matt 19 very much in terms of the celibacy of the priesthood.

That means that this isn't just a term from another culture, or a term we have suggestive but sketchy evidence on, but a term that is itself a thing to be fought over in the modern world. Sigh. Each scholar and each translation has to be viewed with a certain kind of suspicion, even ourselves, because it is so easy for agenda to take the lead over evidence …

4) Lack of Personal Resources

My Aramaic scholar friend-of-a-friend gave me over a dozen great leads to find things that smart people might already have written on this quagmire.  If I were still a grad student in Bloomington, I'd go round them up from the excellent University library there, read them at my carroll, look for more, and start composing. But I don't have access to a university library anymore, and none of this is going to be in our little public library, and only bits and pieces are on the web. And I don't really have the time. And I don't really have sufficient expertise in the relevant languages, just a sorta broad base in ancient cultures, gender theory, and such.   This topic deserves a long and serious scholarly treatment by a real scholar, but I am just scholar enough to yearn for one, and not scholar enough anymore to deliver one.

* * *

I WANT to say, hey Christian or ex-Christian gender-odd folk, this is what Jesus actually says about gender-odd folks, regardless of what the conservative Christians in your life want to say about people who don't fit perfectly into the right boxes …

What I actually have to say, is here's my take with a huge dose of perhaps, and waffle, and complexity. The bigots speak a simple message, ignore problematic details that call their narrative into question, and trust people like me to be full of doubts and caveats, and easy to shout down. And so I am, and don't know how to fix it …

Maybe I'll write that commentary on Jesus and the Gender-Odd folks one day, but for now, all I can do is complain about how hard it is … sigh.


  1. Okay, I'm trying to get my brain wrapped around your first point about cultural imperialism (I think I've got my feet under me on the remainder of the post). If I'm getting this right, the question that we *want* to ask is what Jesus actually thought of transgender people, specifically a non-binary transperson. But this question can't be asked until we can get clear on what he was referring to by using certain terminology in the passage from Matthew. And besides all of the standard translation/transliteration/recording problems with this, there's another backoff problem, which is to what extent we are importing our own understanding of concepts like "transgender" or "gender binary" etc. back onto them. And so the discussion here has to do with both (1) whether or not they had the concept of "gender" in the same sort of way that we do, and (2) if they did, how they used it to chop up the world (which may have been substantially different from how we chop up the world). So if I've got all that correct, then *your* point is that there seems to be clear linguistic evidence that they did have a somewhat robust notion of gender, and it's a matter of clearing up how they used it to describe the world?


    On point #2, does the aramaic lexicon give dates/eras that the words were used in?

    Side question, cause I'm really not very familiar with the Bible: does Jesus (or anywhere in the Bible really) discuss people who purposely switch gender roles anywhere else? Any discussion of men behaving like women, or women behaving like men, etc., whether or not any gender terms were being applied?

    Certainly one of the nice features of a guy like Jesus is that even in the absence of specific pronouncements about gender, one can always fall back on his teachings about things like "being nice to each other" and "judge not" etc. =)

  2. The Greeks and Romans definitely had a notion of gender and a notion of gender identity, and while it isn't widely known they definitely had the idea that some people didn't exactly fit into the categories male or female, at least in the case of galli.

    Did they have a notion of something like "transgender"? Well they had myths that involved people changing genders, but did they think it actually happened nowadays? It's not real clear. When a man was castrated, did they cease to be a man and become some other thing? Or did they just become a special kind of man a castrated one? It's not clear. Indeed exactly what was meant by a eunuch, and who was included or not gets murkier when you look at it. Were eunuchs in general considered to be outside of male and female, or just galli in specific? Many eunuchs were forcibly castrated against their will as slaves, and might have wanted to continue to think of themselves as males, just as injured males. Much as a male in our culture who gets injured in the genitalia is unlikely to change their gender identity over it, (unless maybe it happens very young, and even then it's so controversial I'm in the middle of a hard philosophy book, partly inspired by that case). But the galli, in particular, castrated themselves, in a religious ritual, because they WANTED to, and wanted to be treated as neither-male-nor-female. Heck, Roman law forbid citizens to be castrated, until the time of Claudius, to repealed that prohibition. And then Domitian made it illegal again. So the question of whether it was appropriate to choose to have oneself castrated probably an open political question for Romans, and their were probably Roman citizens lobbying for the right to have themselves castrated.

    Also they has the notion of androgynos, people who combined male and female qualities. Some of the art and statuary looks pretty damn realistic, and gets details right, that makes it seem like at least occasionally they encountered people with intact male genitalia, but heavily feminized bodies and hormone structures. How did they think about that? Were there other categories of people that coded as somehow between the genders to Greeks or Romans? Folks born with ambiguous genitalia maybe, or infertile women (or maybe a special subsection of infertile women), or infertile men (or some subsection). Were there any analogs of genderfluidity, or crossdressing outside of the stage? I don't know. The Greco-Romans had widespread tradition of prostitution both sacred and secular, and lots of competing attitudes about it. Were their prostitutes who specialized in gender-bending of various kinds? Plausible, but I don't know for sure.

    As for what the Bible says on people who purposely switch gender roles ... like I say, I keep starting that article and not finishing it. Certainly, Matt 19 is one biggie, I read mark 14/Luke 22 as having something to say here. I am not alone in wondering if it might be an issue at Matt 4:22.

    Certainly Deuteronomy 22:5, and 1 cor 11, deal with men behaving like women or vice versa, and some read Paul as expressing opinions on it at 1 Cor 6 (with the malakos),or Rom 1-24-8. If we cast our nets wide enough many, many other passages might look like discussions of the appropriate differences in roles and duties between men and women, even if they aren't focusing specifically on people who choose to flout the usual constructions of those roles. It's just a very big topic.

    As for dates/eras on the Aramaic Lexicon, the lexicon covers 9th cent BCE to 13th century CE - individual entries often have more hints about time-frame or dialect, or at least some places the term is found, for instance - gwz/gwz' is Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, whereas mqzz is Galilean Aramaic, etc. But we are quickly outside of my competence zone here ...

  3. Huh, actually Jesus uses "malakos" at Luke 7:25 and Matt 11:8 too, I never noticed that before. The context isn't really particularly disapproving though, more like contrasting a king's court with the wilderness ...