Transgenderism in the Ancient World

As Clement looked around his cosmopolitan city, the open displays of transgenderism broke his heart. Grown men wore bleach-blonde feminine hairstyles, donned see-through women’s clothing, smelled of perfume, and had their bodies shaved in public salons where passersby could observe the spectacle. Though males biologically, these men “detest[ed] the bloom of manliness,” as Clement put it.[1]
world_missionsClement might well have lived in 21st-century London, Amsterdam, New York, or Los Angeles. But he didn’t. Clement was a theologian along the Egyptian coast during the second century AD, and his experience was not atypical. Though the term “transgenderism” was not coined until the 1960s,[2] the phenomenon has existed for millennia—individuals who feel drawn to present themselves as the opposite gender. At times such behavior in the ancient world was coupled with homosexual acts, and at other times it was practiced by those who would be described as bisexual today.[3] Yet from ancient Mesopotamia to the Greek and Roman Empires, instances of gender confusion are well documented.
During Old Testament times, the Mesopotamian text Erra and Ishum described men “who changed their masculinity into femininity” as part of worshiping the fertility goddess Ishtar.[4] In the intertestamental period, the Greek playwright Aristophanes dubbed one character in his play Women at Thesmophoria a “man-woman”—presumably reflective of people he had encountered in real life—and noted, “What contradictions his life shows! A lyre and a hair-net! A wrestling school oil flask and a girdle! What could be more contradictory? What relation has a mirror to a sword? And you yourself, who are you? Do you pretend to be a man?”
By the first century AD, the Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Egypt, could point to “men-women” who “altered the impression of their natural manly appearance into the resemblance of a woman” and were “willingly driven into the appearance and treatment of licentious women.”[5] The first- and second-century Roman satirist Juvenal spoke of “the effeminate,” who “in their homes put long fillets [hair ribbons] round their brows” and “swathe themselves with necklaces.” Some used “damp soot” as eye makeup and tied up “long locks” in hairnets.[6] Priests of the Roman cult of Cybele were initiated through a ceremony involving self-castration.[7]
The second-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus remarked to one young man, “Are you a man or a woman? A man. Then adorn yourself as a man, not as a woman.” He added that a “man to be seen who would rather be a woman” is “a scandalous show.”[8] Clement of Alexandria’s prescription for such behavior was representative of many Christian, Jewish, and pagan writers of his time: It “must be driven as far as possible from our society.”[9]
In light of these ancient sources, contemporary followers of Jesus should not be fooled by claims that transgenderism marks the advancement of society or the culmination of movements to celebrate diversity. Of course, some might turn this around and argue that being ancient makes the practice normative. Yet such an argument falls short logically and biblically, for murder and slavery were also ancient practices, and few would claim they are morally legitimate. Far from demonstrating the moral virtue of transgenderism, its ancient roots underscore the reality that with sin, there is truly nothing new under the sun. Since Old Testament times, some men and women have responded sinfully to a psychological struggle related to their gender. Just as in Clement of Alexandra’s day, Christians today should grieve over the spiritual and emotional brokenness of these people and compassionately invite them to repent and experience the renewing grace of Christ.
[1] Clement of Alexandria, Paedegogos 3.3.16, 21. Quoted in S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 290-91.
[2] See John F. Oliven, Sexual Hygiene and Pathology (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965), 514.
[3] Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 291.
[4] Erra and Ishum IV. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 234.
[5] Philo, Special Laws 1.325. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 286.
[6] Juvenal, Satire II, lines 82-99. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 288.
[7] Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 288.
[8] Epictetus, Discourses 3.1. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 290.
[9] Clement of Alexandria, Paedegogos 3.3.19. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 291.