Trolling the Bible for Gender Transgressors

Recently I received an email from a student at a major divinity school asking the following question,

I would like to do a queer reading of the fourth gospel (John). As the foremost – that is, only – person I know of who works extensively with gender non-conformity in Biblical texts, I was wondering if there were any resources for this that you were aware of that I shouldn’t miss. Articles, books, etc.

I have to admit that John is my least favorite of the Gospels. I prefer the action and starkness of Mark’s gospel. Perhaps that is because I am an actor and have much more action to play with. John’s gospel is wordy, lots of teachings and lessons that appear no where else in the other gospels. Also, the resurrection gets so campy and divine compared to the chaos of Mark. I prefer chaos.

In my play, Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible, I reference Thomas’ Gospel.
<Simon Peter said, 'Make Mary leave us because women are not worthy of life.' Jesus said, "Look I shall take Mary and make her male, so that she too may be a living spirit.

Simon Peter said, ‘Make Mary leave us because women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, “Look I shall take Mary and make her male, so that she too may be a living spirit.

Now likely this closing statement was a tag on used as a swipe to women with too much power in the church, particularly the camp of Mary Magdalene. I instead use it as a transgender narrative saying perhaps that this Mary would feel more alive living as male. I then reference Luke and John’s Gospel, and the stories of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

I love how in Luke’s Gospel the character Mary takes the role of a male disciple, learning at Jesus’ feet and affirmed by Jesus for doing so. I think there is something there in that narrative and the resurrection of Lazarus in John (especially when looking at the Secret gospel of Mark) A Very queer family. Martha is the take charge head of the family not afraid to confront Jesus, standing up to the rabbi. Lazarus, the young man who Jesus loves enough to bring back to life. And Mary who perhaps would be happier as male. These are just a few of my thoughts about these characters. See John Henson’s book, The Gay Disciple for more.

Sadly there are not a lot of resources out there yet about gender transgressors in the Bible. It is a growing field. For too long It’s all been about gay defensive theology and somewhat dodgy speculative queer theology about who might be gay in the Bible. I like to look at stories where we have more to go on–gender transgression in particular.

If you look at the recent anthology, Gender Outlaws, The Next Generation (edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman) I have a piece called Transgressing Gender at Passover. It is a midras about the “man with the pitcher of water” who appears in Mark and Luke (and as a certain man in Matthew’s Gospel.) I also blend this narrative with that of a woman who transition from male but hadn’t seen her family for a long time and decided to come out to them as a woman at Thanksgiving dinner. She said she cleared that room. Men carrying water in gospel times was a rare gender (and class) transgressive act. Only women, children, and slaves carried water. The gospel account refers specifically to a man carrying a pitcher of water. We do not know why, but when they needed a room, they turned to a gender non-conformist for help. John’s gospel of course does not have this story. I see it more as propaganda ladden fan fiction than a proper gospel. (again I don’t like John lol)

No doubt, John is beautiful. The sweeping teachings and metaphors, but it is such a disembodied text. It is concerned with so many spiritual matters that it ends up ignoring the body. I like Gospel stories that get us right in the mess of human bodies. Example: Mark chapter five. I love that passage–so much human body action in it with Jesus being pulled and tugged by nameless people and their needs and desires.

Another great resource to consider is The Anarchist Reverend. He is a queer trans* theologian who writes about many of these issues.

Also, check out The Queer Bible Commentary edited by Deryn Guest and others. And if you are in Chicago on November 18, check out my presentation at the Society for Biblical Literature Conference when my scholarship will be peer reviewed (terrifying!) Here is my schedule with the details.

Good luck on your presentation!

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This post has 3 Comments

  1. Simon Braybrook on September 10, 2012 at 9:54 am Reply

    I love the Gospel of St John. Such depth, sweeping narrative, depth of characterisation, beautiful poetry and exposition. I am surprised you don’t like it. Still, each to there own.

    I am surprised that you focus so much on the Gospel of St Thomas. I mean it is an interesting “queer” gospel (by which I mean one that takes a very left field view on spirituality and, as you say, gender and challenges the norm) but it says very little about Jesus. After all, it was penned years after Jesus from a theological perspective unlike any at Jesus’ time. Valuable as it is to know what a group of first and second century Gnostics think about things, it hardly enlightens our understanding of Christ.

    I do recommend the “Queer Bible Commentary”. Much of the contained essays do need to be taken with a pinch of salt (accordig to its author, the chapter on Revelation suggests almost every verse in revelation contains a phallic reference!) but an interesting read nonetheless.

    • p2son on September 10, 2012 at 10:48 am Reply

      My very very favorite is Mark, as I said above. Thomas is interesting because it is a “Sayings Gospels” with many sayings of Jesus that are familiar to those found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke some sayings very unfamiliar and intriguing and bizarre. John’s gospel is believed by most scholars to be the oldest of all the four gospels. Scholars are uncertain to when Thomas was written. It may well have been before John or about the same time, but the jury is still out according to the most recent scholarship.

      We can get into a discussion about the meaning of gnostics and which of the gospels are or are not. Some say that John is more gnostic than Thomas, but I am not interested in that discussion. I am more interested in the clues we get about the bodies of people in the texts that we have. My theology is one of the body and in looking at these clues they can unlock meaning to the texts. This excites me.

      What are some of your favorite Bible stories? Why?

  2. Regrateful on September 10, 2012 at 9:55 am Reply

    Did you just call the Gospel of John fanfiction? *Swoons.* You are so awesome! Thanks for this. It really made my day!

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