Gender Crossing In Early Christianity
Carrie Piccinati

The ancient Greeks told of a certain Teiresias, a legendary blind seer, born a man, who was miraculously transformed into a woman, returning to his male form only after having lived eight years as a woman. Later, according to the story, the divine royal couple, Zeus and Hera turned to Teiresias to help them settle an argument. Each of them, it seemed, claimed that the other derived more pleasure from sex. Since Teiresias had the benefit of experience in both sexes, they asked his opinion. Without a moment's hesitation, Teiresias answered that a woman obtained far more pleasure from sexual relations than did a man. Hera was angered at this disclosure and punished Teiresias by blinding him; but Zeus compensated Teiresias by imparting the power of prophecy and by granting Teiresias a life lasting seven generations. For the Greeks, Teiresias' sex change was quite apart from Zeus' intervention, the clue to his miraculous gifts and in time, he came to be described as the "greatest of the mythical seers."(Cohen 77-97)

The story of Teiresias is not the only example, however. On the contrary, the idea of gender reversal or gender crossing frequently occurs in ancient religion and mythology, as well as in ancient rituals, and has recurred in diverse societies in every era. But the significance attached to gender reversal varies greatly, depending on the context, the specific form of the reversal, and the given gender culture. In this paper I will attempt to describe and define the aspects of gender crossing in early Christianity.

Roman and Greek societies, from the first through the fifth century, are responsible for determining gender crossing within early Christianity through the patterns of gender relations and gender expectations. Both societies defined their prototype of maleness using his role as warrior or statesman-citizen whether of war or politics whether or not the quest for honor was an important factor to masculinity. In public places where you could find men congregated such as athletic fields, the assemble, the courts and the town square as well as on the battlefield, acknowledgment to male honor could be staked out along with being wither won or lost. The quest for honor was cynical. Every interaction between equals that was viewed by others could be looked at as a sort of contest for honor. These contests included that of something as simple as a dinner invitation or as complex as an arranged marriage. The winner of this honor was the opinion of the public. Ritualized recognition of honor could be secured through military duties, public trials, participating in debates, holding public office and participating in assemblies.

Honor is both public and masculine. The aggressive search for honor and the willingness to compete for it along with the determination to avenge dishonor onto another came to be the definition of a masculine character. Because the ideas of masculinity evolved from the notions of warfare, the military virtues of courage and loyalty and the search for honor and victory became the characteristics of masculinity. Not surprisingly, those traits that defined masculinity - aggressiveness, dominance, a desire for precedence, and a willingness to defend one's reputation - were the traits needed for success in the battle for honor.

These rules which were defined by the quest for honor became know as a set of virtues which guided men in their civic duties. For the Greeks, these virtues consisted of courage, justice and self-control. The Romans added prudence to their list. Although, writers considered these set of virtues the universal code of virtue, they were still rendered masculine due to the origination of the practices they were associated with. Due to all of the codes of virtue being masculine, no language for female achievement ever originated among the Greeks and Romans. Because of this, any influential Greek or Roman matron of political authority was deemed having "manly" virtues of courage and self-control or having a masculine mind.

The aspect of femaleness did not preoccupy Greek and Roman intellectuals. It was to the extent that femininity was the exact opposite to masculinity. A woman was looked at as being domestic along with the activities and domain having a private setting. This was to ensure that women were set apart from any public activities. Feminine virtues were described with chastity, silence and obedience. "Since women were defined by their sexual roles as wives and mothers, the principle virtue of womanhood was chastity; it alone constituted the foundation for a woman's honor."(Aristotle 113)

Although a woman's honor was determined by her chastity, it was not an honor that could be enhanced or advanced. This form of honor was passive and must be protected. To protect her honor, a woman would find herself focused on the preservation of sexual reputation. Since a woman's chastity was not easy to judge by the public, it was depicted by the dress, grooming, makeup and how often she was seen in public. Young girls were often taught to retain a feminine personality, to be discreet, shy, restrained and timid, all qualities which depicted a socially chase woman.

It was also a version of honor for a woman to have a sense of shame. A woman without any sense of shame reflected that she had no concern for her reputation and therefore lost any public honor that she at one time might have possessed. The foundation for having this shame was based on the woman suppressing her sexuality and having the sense of inferiority, the basis of her subordination to her husband. Although, courage is commended by both men and women. The difference thought is, men show it by commanding a woman and by a woman obeying. A virtuous woman was depicted by her serving and obeying her husband along with wanting to please him. The virtue of silence was also a measure of a woman's subordination but more importantly, a method of denying participation in social events. "The defining qualities of womanhood, chastity, passivity, and subordination, could be sustained only as long as women were circumscribed within the world of the household."(Torjesen 81)

The female virtues of chastity, passivity, silence and obedience did not allow fo the aggressive quest for honor. This posed a dilemma for the Romans and Christians by inhibiting praise of women for heroic achievements. "The only form in which women's stories have been preserved is in the lives of martyrs and ascetics, written to honor and praise these women of suffering for the faith and renouncing the world."(Torjesen 81)

An example of this might be the martyrdom of saints Perpetua and her slave Felicity. This is a rare story because it was written by a woman. It is said that Vibia Perpetua was a young woman of noble birth. She kept a journal of her trial and the days in prison. Later an eyewitness added an account of her death. According to this journal, shortly before her execution was to take place, Perpetua received a vision interpreting her anticipated death in the amphitheater where she would be stripped naked and thrown to the wild animals before a crowd. In her vision, her clothes were stripped off, her body became male and her assistants began to rub her down with olive oil; she had become a gladiator. Her opponent, "an Egyptian of vicious appearance," came out to fight her fiercely and hand to hand. She demolished his face until he was weakened, and then she placed him in a headlock. When he finally fell, she placed her foot upon his chest declaring victory. The trainer then awarded her the green branch of victory and "she walked in triumph toward the gate of life."

On the other hand, the eyewitness tells a different story. Due to the fact that Perpetua and Felicity refused to wear the robes of priestesses, they were stripped naked, placed in a net and left to be eaten by two wild heifers. Because the naked woman's body symbolizes weakness and vulnerability, even the on lookers were "horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl." The two women were then removed from the arena and had tunics placed upon them. Although Perpetua was badly wounded, she was still alive. She was taken from the arena and taken to the executioner's sword and died there for the faith she believed in. The idea of Perpetua's gender crossing lies in her vision of herself as a gladiator in the arena reverses the meaning of her being thrown to the beasts. Although both accounts were staged for the pleasure of an audience, the gender of her body either male or female changes the meaning of each event. It is true that both Perpetua and Felicity lay in the arena naked and helpless. But due to Perpetua's vision of becoming a gladiator, fighting for victory. She possessed courage, strength and skill to overcome her opponent. A naked female body depicts a passive victim not an active athlete but a naked male body suggests courage, power and strength as Perpetua had possessed in her vision.

Perpetua is both shamed and honored in this account of her execution. She was viciously stripped naked and thrown in to the arena with the wild heifers disheveling her hair in the process. Both nakedness and uncontrolled hair resembles a woman unable to preserve her sexual fidelity therefore possessing shame. But, Perpetua as a gladiator, possesses honor through her victory. She is given the branch of victory and led through the gate of life, an act only capable of a man. (The Acts of the Christian Martyrs 108-31)

"By seeing herself as male gladiator, athlete and contestant - an identity only possible in a male body - Perpetua takes the measure of the physical courage and strength she will need for the very physical spectacle that will play out in the arena. It is the very physicality of the experience of the martyrs, the brutal forms of torture during interrogation and the physical suffering of their slow deaths that call forth such masculine imagery." (Tilley 472)

The gender reversal of her vision makes it possible for the meaning of her execution to be reversed. She is a warrior not a victim; she is honored, not shamed; she is victorious rather than executed. To imprint such meanings onto her experience as a martyr she needs a male body. "Women martyrs often reinterpret the meaning of their nakedness, they refuse the shame society attempts to inscribe on their bodies and they use the body itself as a visible symbol of their spiritual power." (Torjesen 82)

Gender crossing is also found in writings of early Christianity such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. However, this type of gender crossing is called cosmic gender crossing due to the use of gendered imagery to express notions of sin and salvation. In some of the earliest versions of Christianity, salvation was expressed as the overcoming of sexual difference. This can be seen when Peter makes it obvious that Mary Magdalene's rights to be counted among the apostles are void due to her womanhood by saying, "Let Mary leave us because women are not worthy of life." Jesus responds with, "Behold, I myself will lead her so as to make her male that she may become a living spirit like you males, for every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." (Gospel of Thomas 130) Peter is making obvious the hierarchy of men over women. Women are socially inferior, making them unrealistic candidates for the spiritual teachings. Jesus acknowledges, contests and reframes this notion of gender. His view is that women are indeed worthy of life because the social identity as a woman does not transfer to the spiritual identity. "Social femaleness is drastically different from that of cosmic femaleness. It is the belief, that both men and women are symbolically female until they have entered a state of salvation.(Torjesen 83)

Femaleness here signifies a spiritual state in which gender has not yet been overcome. Unity is symbolized by perfection while multiplicity and gender difference is understood as an inferior way of being. Becoming a male signifies the realization of a spiritual state in which gender difference is overcome and unity is restored as stated in the Gospel of Thomas. "When you make the two into one, when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner...and when you make the male and the female into a single one so that the male will not be male and the female will not be female, then you will enter the kingdom."(Gospel of Thomas 121)

To the extent that generic human being is male, that is rational soul, every description of the Christian process of salvation is a form of gender crossing for women. To be saved out of the world of body, flesh, and sexuality to become an incorporeal, rational soul is to become symbolically male. In the light of these traditional notions of salvation, the cosmology of a female founder of Gnostic school, Phoumene, is quite striking. She declares that in the original creation souls were already gendered. Since gender distinctions exist on the cosmic level, the rational soul cannot be gendered masculine in the symbolic order, as it is in Greek philosophy and early Christian theology. Since it was masculine and feminine souls that fell into bodies, the process of salvation will restore men and women to their primal gendered identity. Only in her system of thought can a woman be saved without undergoing symbolically some form of gender crossing.(Torjesen 89)


Aristotle. On politics. pp. 113 & 198

Brittain, Alfred and Mitchell Carroll. Women Of Early Christianity. Philadelphia: George Barrie & Sons, Publishers

Cohen, David. Law, Sexuality and Society: the Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1991 pp. 70-97

Gospel of Thomas. Logion 114 in The Nag Hammadi Library. Ed. James Robinson. San Francisco: Harper. 1978 pp. 121 & 130

Tilley, Maureen A. "The Ascetic Body and the (Un)Making of the World of the Martyr." Journal of the American Academy of Religion vol. 59, No. 3 (Fall 1991) pp.467-79

Torjesen, Karen Jo. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and historical perspectives. Ed. Sabrina Petra Ramet. New York: Routledge. 1996 pp. 79-89

© Экклесия 2004 Все права защищены.
Напишите нам: ecclesia@list.ru