A TRANS READING OF SALVATION HISTORY: IS IT POSSIBLE? by Kevin Elphick

EDITOR’S NOTE: We publish the present thought experiment as part of Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s commitment to the well-being of transgender Orthodox Christians and to their full inclusion in the Church’s life. This does not mean that we agree with the author’s exegesis, in whole or in part, but that we consider it vital to hear a diversity of voices in the conversation surrounding the theological, spiritual, and pastoral question of transgender identities.
In observance of Pride Month, we welcome other contributions on the subject of sexual and gender variance in human nature and its place in ecclesial life.

Does the Judeo-Christian tradition contain anything that resembles gender transition? Do our Scriptures record anything akin to recognizing a valid gender experience other than the gender one is assigned at birth? A kneejerk reaction to these questions would immediately suggest an answer of “no.” But is another perspective possible upon further reflection?

What of the Genesis account of the creation of Adam and Eve?

So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. (Gen 2:21)

Here God takes the male flesh of Adam and transforms it into a woman. Flesh which was previously male is now fully female. How might our transgender sisters and brothers hear this creation narrative? Does it speak to them? We did not have to go far to find a gender transition; it is right there in the second chapter of Genesis.

And while the sleep which God cast upon Adam might sound like prep for reconstructive surgery, genital alteration was not involved in this story. Genital reconstruction is part of the contemporary transgender experience. Is anything like this found in Scripture? In this same first book of the Bible, we find God entering into the Covenant of Circumcision with Abram (Gen 17:10). Surgical alteration to the phallus of every male is required with this biblical covenant. Anthropologists have long observed that circumcision is found in various cultures throughout the world. They note that the ritual often connotes a feminization of the recipient. Female genitalia bleed monthly; with circumcision, the phallus ritually bleeds also. The importance of this ritual bleeding is emphasized in the Exodus text in which the wife of Moses circumcises their son. “But Zipporah took a piece of flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and, touching his feet, she said, ‘Surely you are a spouse of blood to me.’” (Ex 4:25)

We will recall also that Jesus himself was circumcised. (Lk 2:21) It was required that the phallus of the Incarnate One should be ritually altered by a surgical act. The shedding of this blood is frequently referred to as a beginning of humanity’s redemption, pointing ultimately to the redeeming blood-shedding on the Cross.

What also of the Incarnation itself? The Nicene Creed attests that the second Person of the Trinity “for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” What was the contribution of the Virgin Mary here? She consensually contributed her female flesh. The power of the Most High overshadowed her (Lk 1:35) and the Incarnation was effected. Mary’s contribution of female flesh “was made man.” In order that Christ might be fully human, biologically human flesh is contributed by the Ever-Virgin Mary. Inescapably, she has only female flesh to offer. In the Incarnation, God accepts her fiat and contribution, transitioning her gift of female flesh into a male Child.

With modern science, we can also come to a new understanding of the Virgin Mary as well. Modern genetics has determined that “fetal cells migrate all over a mother’s body, becoming part of the heart, the brain, and blood.” (See Your Baby’s Leftover DNA Is Making You Stronger, The Atlantic, October 20, 2014.) For mothers of male children, some of their sons’ genetically male (XY) cells remain in the mother’s body. Even after the Nativity, the Blessed Virgin continues then to be a tabernacle of Christ’s male flesh (given that being fully human, Jesus and Mary’s relationship resembles all other mother-son biological relationships). The holy Theotokos remains a temple of Christ’s male flesh even after his birth.

How then might it influence our theology when we consider that pivotal events of salvation history can also be heard as moments of gender transition? The creation of humankind, the establishment of the covenant, and the Incarnation can each be understood to involve elements of gender change in their corresponding narratives. Can these stories of our salvation history be newly heard from this perspective? How might our transgender brothers and sisters hear these stories anew? For our own salvation and glorification, it is essential to find ourselves included in the narrative of salvation history. It can be lifesaving for our transgender siblings to newly discover themselves in the stories of salvation history.

Can we begin this dialogue?

Image: The Creation of Eve. 14th century. Niccolò di Giacomo da Bologna.
See the Sexuality and Gender section in our Archives 2017-19 and Archives 2020-21.

Kevin Elphick is a Roman Catholic who holds a DMin from Graduate Theological Foundation with a concentration in ecumenism. Earlier he obtained an MA in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University and an MA in Religious Studies from Loyola University in conjunction with a joint studies program at Spertus College of Judaica. He is a Companion of New Skete, and works as a supervisor with a suicide prevention hotline serving veterans and active duty members. He has chapters published on the Franciscan mystic, Mother Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534) in the recently published Franciscan Women: Female Identities and Religious Culture, Medieval and Beyond and Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography. One of our first guest authors at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, he has written several times for us. Follow him on Twitter @KevinElphick1.

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