Androgyny, from Greek andr- (man) + gynē (woman), designates the shared presence of male and female characteristics in one person. Plato presented one of the earliest written uses of the term “androgyny” as a designation of a primordial unity between male and female prior to their splitting, thus explaining the mutual lust between men and women in heterosexual love (Symposium, 189c–193d). The term “hermaphroditism” also has its linguistic origin in Greek. Greek myths narrate how the love between the gods Hermes and Aphrodite resulted in the birth of a son by the name of Hermaphroditos. The Roman poet Ovid elaborated on the myth by portraying the nymph Salmacis’ devouring love for Hermaphroditos that caused her female body to be fused with his male body and to what Ovid describes as a problematic effeminization of someone’s male identity (Metamorphoses IV, 285–390). The two terms, androgyny and hermaphroditism, will be used indiscriminately in this entry, but only to signify the phenomenon that has been addressed as such in the historical sources. For real human beings with intersex characteristics, I shall apply the modern designation “intersexed people.”

Different positions on androgyny/hermaphroditism across times and cultures as well as the testimony of intersexed people have provided gender theoreticians and activists with strong arguments against dominant models of sex/gender. In short, intersexuality challenges the dominant two-sex model and its embeddedness in often theologically sanctioned ideals of reproduction. Judaism and Christianity, however, also include sources that consider gender a construction, allowing for deviations from the two-sex model and related reproductive ideals. Accordingly, the purpose of this entry is to offer modern Bible interpreters a platform for rethinking sex/gender in light of the differing positions on androgyny/hermaphroditism in the history of Judaism and Christianity as well as in gender studies.

The history of religion knows of two basic positions on androgyny/hermaphroditism depending on whether the religion in focus is oriented toward this-worldly blessings or toward otherworldly salvation (Doniger O’Flaherty 1980). In religions oriented toward this-worldly blessings, androgyny/hermaphroditism typically appears as a phenomenon in myths on how a benign cosmocrator creates order out of a primordial chaos by means of separation and the creation of clear-cut boundaries and categories, including the splitting of a primordial androgyne into a distinct male and female. Such myths often have the aetiological function of explaining heteronormative desire. Sexual attraction between a male and a female is taken to refer to a primordial union between them, to which both male and female long to return but cannot because their separation is the foundation of human reproduction and thereby life on earth. Such myths support discourses on the importance of securing reproduction. They are present in the Hinduistic “Purusha Sukta/Hymn to Man” (Rig Veda 10.90); Plato’s abovementioned elaboration on androgyny; and the Anatolian myth about the androgynous monster known as Agdistis, later associated with Cybele (Pausanias VII, 17,10–12). In the biblical book of Genesis, the young Adam connotes androgyny in that it is the dissection of Eve from Adam’s side that allowed for the emergence of an identifiable female, just as this partition of Adam explained the origin of heterosexual desire and linked it to human reproduction (Gen 2:21–3:16).

With regard to intersexed people in cultures oriented toward this-worldly blessings, both hostile and appreciative attitudes are detectable. Hostile attitudes generally testify to the conviction that the absence of distinct male and female genitalia ominously augurs a reversal of the premises of reproduction. The hostility has included the killing of intersexed infants as in archaic Roman culture (Corbeill 2015) and surgical intervention as recommended by Aristotle who likens an extra set of genitals to a tumor (Generation of Animals IV, 4:772b–773a). In early Christianity, “hermaphrodites” were not to be ordained “on account of deformity and monstrosity” (Decretum Gratiani 4:2–3). Similarly, the juridico-legal system guarded the established order by insisting that androgynes/hermaphrodites had to be registered as a univocal male or female largely with corresponding rights and responsibilities. Sometimes the dominance of either male or female outer genitalia determined a person’s legal gender (Thomas 1992, 84–87; Nederman and True 1996); at other times the father or godfather decided on a provisional gender for the infant about to be baptized. This individual could then alter h/er gender at the onset of adulthood to allow h/er to marry heterosexually (Foucault 1980, vii-viii). In late antique Judaism, the majority opinion of the rabbis established “androgynes” as legally male (bShabbat 134b–135a). Yet the bodily blurring of genitalia troubled the medieval rabbis who feared that their lack of clear sight would bereave God of the proper worship from an androgynous/hermaphroditic person. Concerned more about God than the intersexed person, Maimonides ruled that the intersexed person should be doubly burdened and perform the commandments as they pertained to both men and women (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 12:4).

Appreciation of intersexed people within cultures oriented toward this-worldly blessings are rare. Such cultures typically perceived the intersexed as symbols of latent fertility that might be activated when treated correctly. The best-known case derives from the North American Navaho tribe where intersexed people were appointed heads of their families, put in charge of property and given the privilege of choosing freely between men and women as sexual partners (Edgerton 1964, 1290).

Cultures oriented toward otherworldly salvation often have considered androgyny/hermaphroditism a reflection of the salvific ideal of merging male and female characteristics or disowning them to renounce this-worldly concerns. Examples of this approach appear from late antiquity onward. Philo encouraged male and female ascetics to strive to unify at a contemplative level because of an assumed androgynous constituency of the proto-human being (On the Contemplative Life, 83–84). Paul explained how gender no longer conditions people’s access to salvation (Gal 3:28). R. Jeremiah considered God androgynous together with the first human being, arguing that both supersede the degree of perfection in differentiated males and females (Genesis Rabbah 8:1). Similarly, the Gnostic Apocryphon of John described the first emanation of God as androgynous in whose image the primordial human was molded. Both God and the primordial human were considered to possess a higher level of gnosis than creator gods and differentiated males and females. Accordingly, such writers rendered androgyny/hermaphroditism an ideal (Cahana 2011).

Orientation toward otherworldly salvation paved the way for critiques of religious normativity, including body norms, which may explain a few late antique attempts at rethinking androgyny/hermaphroditism. The second-century CE scientist Galen from Pergamon questioned the adequacy of the dominant two-sex model to reflect the complexities of corporeal materiality. He argued that androgyny/hermaphroditism was natural and evidence that sex should be understood as a continuum. In the third-century CE Jewish tractate Tosefta, R. José suggested that intersexed people embody a third sex which contradicted the majority opinion of his contemporaries. In the Middle Ages, the eleventh-century Christian pseudo-Galenic treatise De Spermate presented androgyny/hermaphroditism as a third gender. Catholic Canon Law from the twelfth century distinguished between three sexes; that is, male, female, and hermaphrodite, and even accepted all three into the order of apostolic ministry (Decretum Gratiani 4:2–3).

Modern medical and scientific understandings of intersexed people have discarded the mythological connotations of androgyny/hermaphroditism yet still debate if the two-sex model is adequate. In 1869 pathologist Theodor A. E. Klebs introduced a differentiation between “true hermaphrodites,” “male pseudo-hermaphrodites,” and “female pseudo-hermaphrodites” (Klebs 1869, 723), reflecting his conviction that the gonads are seminal for identifying a person’s true sex as either male or female. His terminology with its underlying two-sex model dominated medical science until 2006, even though both biologist Richard Goldschmidt (1923, 138) and physician Alexander Cawadias (1946, 2) reintroduced the Galenic idea of sex as a continuum by suggesting the term “intersex” to designate ambiguous genitalia in animals and humans (Cawadias 1946, 2). Contemporary medical scientists introduced “Disorders of Sexual Development/Differentiation” in 2006 because it enabled the designation of the multiple kinds of known diverting conditions relative to the reproductive system, occurring in around 1 in 1,500 live births (Warne and Raza 2008, 227–228; Blackless et al. 2000, 161). However, because the term “disorders of sexual development/differentiation” implies the reproductive potential as a norm and depends upon distinct male and female characteristics, it still advocates a two-sex model of the human where deviations are signified as pathological given the underlying endocrine disturbances and subsequent infertility. This tendency to conceive of sex/gender as primarily bound to the reproductive system and to consider intersex a matter of infertility testifies to a contemporary aspect of what historian of ideas Michel Foucault would explain as state-sponsored investments in examining the sex of its citizens. The greater purpose of such gathering of knowledge would be to regulate reproduction to secure the survival of bourgeois society by pathologizing inter alia “oddities of sex” (Foucault 1978, 38; 44; 53).

Within the humanities, the stigmatizing effects of the two-sex model for people with intersex characteristics and alternative sexualities led American philosopher Judith Butler to argue that our genders become intelligible through our performances (Butler 1999 (1990), xx). Following Foucault, Butler considers gender construction a contested field, where different cultural discourses persuade people to perform their genders according to cultural interests. Should people refuse or be unable, given their deviating bodies, to perform according to expectations, cultural violence would strike in ways that explain the alarming statistics about depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts among 19 percent of people with intersex traits (Jones et al. 2016, 121), not to mention the 41 percent suicide attempts among transgender people (Haas et al. 2014, 2).

Butler’s theory of performativity in the field of gender studies initiated a wave of challenges to forced conformity to the two-sex model. These challenges also included critical reflection on the violent implications of the terms “androgyny” and “hermaphroditism” (e.g., Dreger et al. 2005). More fundamentally, intersex representative Cheryl Chase, founder of the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) and author of the seminal article “Hermaphrodites with Attitude” from 1998 (2003), voiced h/er protest against how modern nation-states have authorized mutilating surgical intervention including forced sterilization on largely well-functioning bodies. Her protest was later buttressed by Butler who argued that legislative, therapeutic, and/or surgical attempts at making people of ambiguous gender intelligible as either male or female should be considered matters of cultural violence and as such ethically untenable (2001). Psychologist Suzanne J. Kessler (1990; 1998) and philosopher of science Alice D. Dreger (1998) added important knowledge to these protests.

Today the World Health Organization and human rights organizations also question the ethical soundness of medical terminology and the practice of performing normalizing surgery on infants with intersex characteristics. Increasingly aware of intersexed people’s misthriving, as reflected in the statistics mentioned above, Jewish and Christian ethicists now encourage theological rethinking of their respective models of sex/gender, cf. e.g., Cornwall 2015; DeFranza 2015.

Judaism and Christianity have no single position on androgyny/hermaphroditism. Scriptural and theological support can be found for both excluding and including the intersexed. Bible interpreters are furthermore challenged by modern insights into the medical complexities of sex, cultural expectations to human bodies and their reproductive potential, and evidence of acute misthriving among intersexed people.


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Marianne Schleicher