It’s January 26th here in Australia, which means it’s Australia Day. What marks Australia Day in 2021 is controversy and it has done so for the last 10 years at least. It seems all those conversations that we need to have as Australians, which are repeatedly put on the back burner for most of the year, bubble up on Australia Day. These are conversations we really need to be having at length not just around one day in the year. One conversation that needs to happen is the relationship of Australians with our first nations – this is way overdue. I recommend the resources found at Common Grace as a place to start a journey of repair, but this is not what I want to consider today as it’s not in my area of expertise.

The other big controversy this year has been about the Australia Day honours list. Given that most of the recipients of this award since its inception have been white, wealthy males, the awards themselves seem tired and out of date. But the stand out controversy has been Margaret Courts’ induction in to the Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia – the highest award that can be given. Rev Court was a champion tennis player and represented Australia multiple times through the 1970’s and 80’s. She was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2007 for services to tennis and the community, but this too was marked by controversy. Since leaving tennis Rev Court has become a Pentecostal pastor. In her role she has expressed views about the LBGQT community, which Daniel Andrews, Victorian premier, has said do not accord with the views of most Australians. He, like many others, have spoken out against her Companion award because of her views on gender, gender and same-sex marriage. I think it is safe to say she has become well known for her views on same-sex marriage when she wrote an open letter to QANTAS explaining why she would not be flying with them because of their support of same-sex marriage. Because of her repeated statements about homosexuality and transgender people, quite a number of high profile Australians have returned their awards or declined to accept them this Australia Day.

The Problem- Idealised Marriage

Every time I read or hear the views that are similar to Margaret Courts’, I become pained as we Christians seem to be suffering from historical amnesia. Certain views about transgenderism seem to me to be at odds with what Christians have thought for millennia. Further, contemporary Christians view gender as binary and fixed, which they read into Genesis 1 and 2. This is problematic since once we get beyond Genesis chapter 3 gender becomes rather fluid (Lev 21:20; 2 Kings 20:18). We should be aware that discussions within Christianity about gender, sex and marriage have never been settled (see my article on Marriage, the Bible, and Social Change). Gender was considered fluid by Christians all the way up into the modern era.[1] It has only been recently, within Protestant circles, that marriage was become idealised and with it a solidifying of gender roles. However, the continued presence of celibate men and women within the Catholic church should alert us to the fact that marriage and fixed gender roles were not always considered the ideal Christian state.

So today I would like to take us beyond Genesis 2 and look at gender fluidity in Christian thought and the Bible.  This is a 2 part series. In this first part we will consider the views of Basil of Ancyra on the role Genesis plays in the Christian hope of a coming age.

Genesis the Text

Let’s begin at Genesis 2 since it regularly comes up as the foundation for views on gender and marriage.

Genesis 2:4b–7 (All text from NRSV)

“In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

Genesis 2:21b–25

 “but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,

‘This at last is bone of my bones

    and flesh of my flesh;

this one shall be called Woman,

    for out of Man this one was taken.’

24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”

Since we live in a society where most people marry and marriage has been until very recently between a man and a women, that Adam and Eve were married and sexually activity in Paradise. Now I’m not saying that this is an incorrect view but it might not be the view that Christians have had always.

Basil’s Interpretation of the Creation Story

Basil of Ancyra believed that the first person was an androgyne so that when God created Eve he divided the human to become man and woman.[2] Patristic scholar Teresa Shaw describes Basil’s view,

“Appealing to the image of an originally androgynous or genderless creation (found in Plato and common in Graeco-Roman literature), he writes that the creator fashioned the corporeal form of each living species, rational and irrational, and divided each form into male and female fragments. The creator ‘placed in the nature of each fragment a hidden longing for embrace with the other’. Instructing the first beings to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28), the creator made the act of sexual intercourse pleasurable to bodies and implanted affection for offspring. By these devices, then, the increase of living species through procreation was ensured.”[3]

Basil believed that the man did not have sexual relations with the woman, but this only came with the fall:

“After the fall, marriage and procreation are methods for restoring a form of ‘immortality by posterity’, and the bearing of successive generations of children is a kind of ‘consolation’ for the loss of immortality. It is God who mercifully devised this secondary immortality, and who contrived the physical attraction between male and female in order to encourage marriage, ‘so restoring the succession of their race to those who became mortal out of immortals … and saying on account of this:  ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’”[4]

Marriage not the Ideal State for Men and Women

As we’re starting to see, Basil did not think that marriage was the ideal human state, “Further, Christ (as a kind of second Adam) had reintroduced virginity and incorruptibility as features of the coming kingdom of God, which is, after all, a restoration of paradise. Just as Adam ‘became the seed of the present life through the pleasure of marriages’, so the ‘seed of the coming age’ is planted and comes into being through ‘the incorruptibility of virginity’. While preceding generations followed Adam out of paradise and into marriages, the virgin now follows Christ back into paradise.”

The Route Back to Paradise

Celibacy for Basil was the return route back into paradise. The control of sexual passions even within marriage was the goal.[5] Basil was just one of many church fathers who held this view. He and these other church fathers believed that diet was the key to controlling sexual passions and in doing so brought the Christian closer to being the angels they were destined to be,

“What is more, by her virginity and detachment from worldly passions and affairs, she already lives the life of the angels and anticipates the final resurrection of all flesh. Citing gospel passages that link the resurrection and the coming kingdom to the absence of death and marriage, Basil writes:

‘For if in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as angels [Matthew 22:30], and will become the children of God [Luke 20:36], those who practice virginity are angels, going about through human life in incorruptible flesh—and not some obscure angels, but exceedingly distinguished.’”[6]

“Much of Basil’s advice concerning diet and sexual function thus builds on concepts and models that would be familiar to his educated contemporaries, while his clear reliance on physiological analysis and his medical sensibilities regarding these practical issues seem to confirm his own specialized training. His specific warnings and prescriptions reflect the influence especially of Galen (c. 129–200) and the Galenic tradition of dietary theory and sexual physiology. To summarize briefly, Galen taught that foods have different faculties, effects, or powers in the body, and specific foods stimulate the production of different fluids or humors. The four main humors in the body are blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.”[7]

And right here we run into views about our created bodies that are totally unfamiliar. Certainly, the goals for the female virgin seem far removed from the “settle down and have 3 kids” ideal that seems to stalk a lot of Christian discourse about sex and marriage. The uncomfortable truth is that people in the ancient world had different ideas on how the body worked than we do.[8] The discussion about sex and marriage that we encounter in the Bible is framed by these views. And yes there is a discussion about sex, marriage and bodies in the pages of the Bible. There is not just one unassailable view that we must assent to. What there is is an invitation to enter into this conversation about what it means to be human. And we know this because church fathers like Basil pick up on it. We don’t have to agree with Basil about his goal for the Christian life, but we can pick up on his discussion. But this discussion will be informed by our own knowledge about the human body that our ancient forebears did not have access to. And in this our conversation about what it means to be created human beings who are sexual will be different from those in the past.

Eschatological Hope (what we can hope for in the future)

Theologically what we can discern in the church fathers such as Basil is an eschatological hope that is beyond anything you might encounter in most protestant churches. Listen to how Teresa Shaw describes Basil’s treatise on the purity of virginity,

“The treatise thus presents a particularly dramatic example of the extent to which the early Christian discourse on virginity weaves together medical and ethical theories, social and theological models of gender, physiognomic interpretation and eschatological vision. Throughout, rigorous physical discipline and ascetic training provide the essential foundation for enabling and protecting virginity. Basil’s language is wildly metaphorical: bodily asceticism is sacrifice, castration, dying, cauterizing; it is a cutting off, a closing up, a stamping down, a reining in; the ascetic body is a temple, a nuptial chamber, an unfeeling sculpture, a dead stump. But the virgin’s body is also the image of God, a glimpse of angelic purity; it is free, brilliant, sparkling, noble and pleasing.”[9]

What I want to pick up on here is the idea that the virgin is castrated because this corresponds to the male eunuch. Basil, says Shaw, described the virgin as earning “the honors promised (in Isaiah 56:4–5) to the eunuchs who ‘keep the Lord’s sabbath’, for her very body and passionless soul represent a ‘complete day of rest’.”[10]

What should really twig our interest here is the idea that the eunuch – the man stripped of his masculinity – is a figure for the coming new age: the “complete day of rest.” It seems for Basil, the eunuch represents humanity untroubled by sexual passion as he and she were before the fall. But our question is, what is the role of the eunuch and what place does he have in the thinking of Biblical writers? We’ll look at this in the next instalment.

In the meantime a question: How much do you know about the science of gender and sexuality? Try to find some reputable medical sources on these aspects of human existence.

*Feature Image from Mamama

[1] The castrati of Rome sang in the choirs of the Vatican up until the 19th century; Edmund Andrews, “The Oriental Eunuchs,” The Journal of American Medical Association 33.4 (1898): 173–77.

[2] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 268.

[3] Teresa M. Shaw, “Creation, Virginity and Diet in Fourth‐Century Christianity: Basil of Ancyra’s on the True Purity of Virginity.” Gender & History 9.3 (1997): 579-96.

[4] Ibid., 582.

[5] “Spiritual marriage” see David L. Eastman, “‘Epiphanius’ and Patristic Debates on the Marital Status of Peter and Paul,” Vigiliae Christianae 675 (2013): 499–516 (500); Elizabeth Castelli, “Virginity and Its Meaning for Women’s Sexuality in Early Christianity,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2.1 (1986): 61–88; Brown, The Body and Society, 99, 101; he also notes Augustine’s admiration for continence in marriage, 403–404.

[6] Shaw, “Creation, Virginity and Diet in Fourth‐Century Christianity,” 583.

[7] Ibid., 585; For a discussion on how church fathers relied on Galen and other Greek medical doctors to control bodily passions see Teresa M. Shaw, The Burden of the Flesh: Fasting and Sexuality in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 53–64.

[8] Lyn M. Kidson, “Fasting, Bodily Care, and the Widows of 1 Timothy 5:3–15,” Early Christianity 11.2 (2020): 191–205; Shaw, The Burden of the Flesh, passim.

[9] Shaw, “Creation, Virginity and Diet in Fourth‐Century Christianity,” 581.

[10] Ibid., 591.

© Lyn M. Kidson 2021

Other Resources by Lyn M. Kidson

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