Earlier in the week, I wrote that some Bible stories are so familiar, we do not stop to consider their significance. I could also add, that some others are so familiar, we do not stop to ask if they are accurate. A case in point is that of today’s feast of the Epiphany, which we routinely celebrate as the visit of the three kings of the East to the infant Jesus – but the Gospel text does not specify that there were three, nor that they were kings.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
It is the term “magi” that has been traditionally adapted to “wise men”, or corrupted in popular imagination to “kings”. Astrologer-magicians, in the Zoroastrian religion, would be a more accurate translation. (Note the obvious linguistic connection between “magus” and “magic”). Kittredge quotes Nancy Wilson and Virginia Mollenkott, to suggest that the Magi were probably either eunuchs, or trans.
They were Zoroastrian priests, astrologers, magicians, ancient shamans from the courts of ancient Persia. They were the equivalent of Merlin of Britain. They were sorcerers, high-ranking officials, but not kings—definitely not kings. But quite possibly, they were queens. We’ve always pictured them with elaborate, exotic, unusual clothing—quite festive, highly decorated and accessorized! …Also, the wise eunuchs, shamans, holy men were the only ones who had the forethought to go shopping before they visited the baby Jesus!
They also have shamanistic dreams. They deceive evil King Herod and actually play the precise role that many other prominent eunuchs play in the Bible: they rescue the prophet, this time the Messiah of God, and foil the evil royal plot against God’s anointed.
The reflection at Jesus in Love also considers two other unconventional thoughts on the Epiphany, from two striking artworks. One is an image showing a multiracial group of three wise women, reflecting the importance of the outsider in the nativity story, and another showing Saints Francis and Aloysius bringing as gifts people with AIDS, possibly gay men. You can read Kitt’s full reflection at Jesus in Love. Here, I want to stay with the eunuch/trans theme.Are Wilson and Mollenkott correct in their hypothesese? I find both plausible. (In many Middle Eastern religions, the practitioners of religious magic, the shamans, were typically cross-dressers, eunuchs, or those whom today would be called gay or lesbian). However, I don’t think it really matters. For me, it is sufficient that the might be, as this forces us to recognize how easily we fall into the trap of accepting without question the standard hetero assumptions behind the usual interpretations of scripture. If there is no definite proof that the Magi were in any sense queer, is there any compelling evidence that they were not – that is, do we know for certain that they were what we would call heterosexual, biological males?
There is a great deal to think about in this. First off, in the modern world we easily forget how commonplace eunuchs and cross-dressing were throughout the Mediterranean world, in Biblical times and beyond. (Two further signs of this are that in the Orthodox Church, yesterday was the feast day of St Apollinaria /Dorotheos, one of the group of Eastern cross-dressing monastic women, and on Christmas Eve was the feast of SS Protus and Hyacinthus, eunuch slaves who were crucified alongside their mistress St Eugenia / Eugenios – another of the cross-dressing female monks). Other notable eunuchs in scripture include Daniel the prophet and Ashpenaz, the chief eunuch who controlled him; Daniel’s three companions, renowned for their ordeal in the burning fiery furnace; the prophet Nehemiah, who returned to Jerusalem to rebuild God’s temple; possibly Potiphar, who bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites who took him from his brothers; and in the New Testament, Philip the Ethiopian, who received the assurance that “all are welcome”.
Even in reading of “eunuchs”, we make assumptions. There is some good evidence that of the 45 references to eunuchs in the Old Testament, not all refer to those who had been physically castrated, as we would interpret the word. In this view, the word includes those that simply are sexually attracted exclusively to other men – people the modern world would describe as gay. (See Faris Malik, Eunuchs are Gay Men, for an extended discussion).
When we read scripture without questioning those assumptions, we simply assume that the stories we read can be interpreted as if they were set in modern conditions. They cannot. To the people who object that we are making scandalous assumptions when we give them queer readings, the simple response is that the standard hetero interpretations may have even less sure foundation in historical evidence.
As I reflected on Kitt’s post and pictures, I remembered that beyond the liturgical sense, there is another meaning to the word “epiphany”: this refers in common parlance to a new insight, a new way of seeing things. When we read Scripture and church history with a deliberate effort to set aside the unwarranted assumptions that underlie the usual heteronormative, we can find in them fresh insights – in short, new “epiphanies” of understanding.
Later, I had yet another thought on the Magi: what every school child knows about these is that they came “bearing gifts”. If we think of them as queer, in any sense, let us also consider the lesson that contains. We as gay men, lesbian and trans Christians in faith have distinctive spiritual gifts to share with the church. Instead of hiding in shame and fear, we need to be out, proud, and celebrating those gifts.
Goss, Robert (ed): Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey: Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach
Wilson, Nancy: Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus and the Bible