Neither Male Nor Female

Galatians 3:28 is certainly the most important biblical text in feminist and anti-feminist interpretation in the last century.  This text promises that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  The last pair in this list, male and female, has proven the most controversial.  While most comemntators accept relatively straightforwardly that social divisions between ethnicities and economic/legal categories have no place, the division between the sexes has proven more difficult to reconcile.  I offer a brief sketch of recent positions that have been taken on this text.

Traditional feminist scholarship has argued that just as the text is about “equality” between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, it is also about “equality” between men and women.  The phrase “in Christ” has been understood by some to mean that in the church there should be no division between the sexes.  This egalitarian reading is not restricted to the ecclesial sphere, but takes social significance as well.

This view has been challenged by more conservative, evangelical-identified scholars, who argue that “there is no male and female” only with respect to salvation.  That is, there is “equality” in this limited respect, but the teachings of hierarchy in the ecclesial, social and domestic spheres is still in force.  Taking on the same assumptions as the feminist reading that this text is about “equality,” but differing with respect to what “equality” means, this reading also assumes that the text is about how the different sexes should be treated.

Another strain of thought has argued that Gal 3:28 is not about “equality” at all, but about challenging the difference between the sexes.  In this view, when “there is no male and female” there is a return to the “primal androgyne” before the division of the sexes.  Before Adam’s “rib” or “side” was separated from him, the protological human being was both male and female.  While some have suggested that this view then implies an equality between the sexes, others note that the term “androgyne” is a bit of a misnomer.  In one of the classical texts on this topic, Jesus says to Mary “I will make her male” so that she may be saved (Gos. Thom. 114).  Ancient Christians read Gal 3:28 as the erasure of sexual difference and the elimination of sexuality and desire.  But the model for the “androgyne” is always already male, and the human being that is neither male nor female is really  just not female.

A final way of reading Gal 3:28 has picked up on these critiques, noting that this text is not about establishing “equality” between the sexes, but eliminating sexual dimorphism.  If there is “no male and female,” what are the numerous other possibilities that may be created?  The Christian must be in some way a mixture.  Only non-binary male and female genders are possible.  One cannot be either male or female, but neither male nor female, which troubles not only biological difference, but the very constructs of binary sexuality.

While the egalitarian and hierarchical readings of this text proceed on the assumption that sexual differences between male and females are stable, and that the text is about certain kinds of “equality,” other readings have challenged this basic understanding.  Rather than being about “equality,” the text is about troubling sexual difference, either in the sense of a primordial androgyne or a queered feminimascuperson.

8 Replies to “Neither Male Nor Female”

  1. I am curious about your citation of the Gospel of Thomas (GoT), to what extent do you think GoT’s views on maleness are reflected in Paul? As I understand it GoT does reflect the ancient view that women were men who were not fully developed because they lacked the musculature, genitals, and I assume rationality of males. However, does Paul also reflect this view? I ask this because in many areas I read Paul as being a radical at least in his historical context. Paul’s views on marriage tend to make me think he was supporting the first reading (the feminist reading).

  2. As pretty much an outsider, what does it mean that the “no longer male nor female” is in a sequence that also includes “no longer slave or free”? Are people trying to figure out what Paul thought this meant or are they trying to tweeze out some metaphysical truth from it? My albeit uncritical reading of Paul suggests that slavery wasn’t really contested in his Church, though slaves were Christian and consequently saved by Christ.

  3. David,
    In the discussion of the primal androgyne, the Gospel of Thomas is frequently brought up. All of the sayings about the “two becoming one” are thought to refer to this kind of teaching, and GTh actually has a saying about the male and female becoming one (logion 22, IIRC). When GTh 114 is brought in, it is generally to show that the primal androgyne is really a male figure, or at least more male than female.

    J. Stapley,
    It is a good question and one that is at the heart of the debate over this verse. In what sense are slave and free no longer significant categories “in Christ”? Does it mean that they are “equal” with respect to salvation, even though the hierarchies persist (which would be the implication of the evangelical view outlined above), or does it mean that slave and free should be treated equally (the implications of the feminist view), or should slave and free be erased altogether, which means that they are both really just “free” (the androgyne which is really just male)?
    The slavery debate in Paul is no less vast and complex than the feminist one, with serious scholarship saying both that both actively opposed slavery and that he thought it was an irrelevant issue given that the eschaton was just around the corner.
    The debates about Jew/Gentile is also significantly vast, and is one of the key issues in the New Perspective on Paul.
    That is just my way of saying that the male/female section of this passage isn’t really cleared up at all by recourse to the other dyads, unfortunately.
    As for the question about “truth” or “what Paul meant,” I think it depends on the commitments of the person who is doing the interpreting. However, the “history of interpretation” of the historical critical reading of this passage reveals quite a bit about the contemporary political issues at stake in its interpretation.

  4. I read this passage as expressing the paradox that we are equal to one another in Christ but not equal to Christ. I.e. we must serve in good faith and conscience those whom Providence has placed in a position of (Christ-like, divine-like) authority over us, whether in the Church or secular society (God or Caesar, apostle, husband or master); but, in Christ, those in authority are also to be our servants, just as Christ makes himself our servant: the master must become, in this sense, the servant of his slave; the husband is the servant of his wife (the male of the female); and the dominant ethnic groups must be the servants of the most marginalised.

    In other words, in the Christian life as lived out in the secular world, the social hierarchies and inequalities that belong to the present domain are themselves placed in the service of salvation: secular authority is transformed into an expression of and vehicle for the authority of Christ, and is exercised in service and obedience to Him; while obedience to secular authority is practiced out of obedience to Christ, whose ultimate submission to that authority, through his Cross, led to our whole salvation.

  5. has anyone considered the fact that the rate of unisex birth is growing rapidly?
    although i am not unisex,
    for every natural redhead you have ever met there is an equal amount of unisex. this is a fact
    1 in 2000 people are unisex in our current time.
    is it ” possible” this is what is being mentioned?

    although my personal belief through what was taught to me of the word “primal androgyne”
    is that in the beginning we were one male and female we were split. thats why we have an innate desire to find our soul mate or twin flame. and in the end we will become one with them again.

    i’m just curious of someone else’s thoughts on unisex becoming more and more common. . .

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