Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 125- Big Ideas that Shaped Biblical Scholarship: Julius Wellhausen and the Pentateuch

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete discusses the legacy of Julius Wellhausen in biblical scholarship as he explores the following questions:

  • Who is Julius Wellhausen and why was he so controversial?
  • When did Wellhausen date the Law of Moses?
  • What is the difference between the Law of Moses and the Pentateuch?
  • What evidence did Wellhausen use to support his dating? 
  • What did scholars notice that caused them to question the historicity of some of the Bible’s claims?
  • What is the documentary hypothesis? 
  • Who is Jean Astruc and why is he important?
  • What idea of Astruc’s is still influential to biblical studies today?
  • Why do our Bibles say LORD in stead of the divine name?
  • What is the significance of Israel’s worship location in the dating the Pentateuch?
  • Why did the priestly source write about the tabernacle?
  • What are some characteristics of the J, E, P, and D sources?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete you can share. 

  • “It’s quite revealing to see how little a presence the detailed regulations of the Law of Moses has [in the prophets and book about Israel’s monarchy].” @peteenns
  • “Jeremiah says that God never said what the Law of Moses said He said, and that’s at least worth thinking about.” @peteenns
  • “Wellhausen and others read the Bible carefully and they saw inconsistencies.” @peteenns
  • “It just strains credulity that this divinely commanded system for worship would have no controlling function for Israel’s worship when they settled in the land.” @peteenns
  • “There probably was no Tabernacle, at least not one as elaborate, with a fully functioning and highly organized system as the one we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.” @peteenns
  • “The way the priestly editors present the story in the Bible by putting their stuff at the beginning, actually obscures Israel’s actual history.” @peteenns

Mentioned in This Episode

Recommendations for Further Reading

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Read the transcript



Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Pete: Hello everyone, welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well, you know there certainly are a lot of important things happening in our world at the moment and you know, things far more important than a podcast episode, but I want to thank you for listening. You know, we’re all carrying on as we’re isolating and that goes for me and everybody else, so, here we are. Right, well, let’s get started.  

As you know, we’re committed to bringing other people’s big ideas to you, and especially the best of biblical scholarship down to earth for normal people, which brings me to today’s podcast. Today’s topic is a little different from others, but it’s something that we’ve been thinking about for a while. Now, you may have noticed that all of our guests thus far, over four seasons, have something in common. They’re all present voices. Well, beginning today and wherever else I might, in the months and years to come, feel like it, I’d like to switch gears and talk about voices from the past. So, you know, biblical scholarship has had a rich history with towering figures with big ideas who have asked perceptive questions about the Bible and given answers that have, you know, influenced generations of scholars, even shaped and redirected the entire discipline. Figures that our academic guests are familiar with, but that many normal people have never really heard of, so let’s fix that shall we? Yes, let’s do that. 

Our first guest from the past is a good one to start with because he is, without question, the most influential, and probably controversial, and in some circles demonized Old Testament scholar of the modern period. His name is Julius Wellhausen and he was born in 1844 and he died in 1918, the year of the flu pandemic by the way, not to bring that up. He also lived in an era, the late 19th to early 20th centuries where other controversial, big ideas were challenging conventional thinking. You know this is the same era roughly as Charles Darwin who forced a conversation about human origins that’s still with us today or Sigmund Freud who said most of our actions are not under our rational control but directed by the subconscious. And no need to mention people like Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. Profound shifts in knowledge were happening all over the place and Wellhausen fit right into the spirit of the time. He also turned things upside down in the field of biblical studies and specifically what he did was he flipped the history of Israel on its head. What was thought to be first is actually last and fleshing that highly influential idea out is the topic of this podcast. 

So, what did he do? Well, in 1898, he wrote this long book Prolegomena to the History of Israel. It always starts with somebody writing a book. We’ll come back to the title later, because it’s revealing, but for now it’s enough to know that it’s six hundred pages long and really detailed, because he’s German, but thankfully, in literally the first two sentences he tells you exactly where all of this is going and I just want to paraphrase. See, his focus is on the law of Moses, the law that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, right? That stuff that’s found in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. So, here’s what he said, here’s how he flipped the history of Israel around. The law of Moses isn’t from Moses, rather it came from a much later time. Hundreds of years after Moses. Okay, that’s crazy. You know, what kind of a nutso theory is that? Has he never read the Bible? Well, he did, and his six-hundred-page book is the results of what he found. See, he argues – this is the thing – he argues that the biblical evidence itself drives him to his conclusion. Well, how can that be? We all know, don’t we, just from reading the Old Testament that Moses received the law from God on Mount Sinai early on in the story. Halfway through the second book, the second of thirty-nine Old Testament books in the Book of Exodus, and then continuing through the third book, Leviticus, most of the fourth book, Numbers, and then at the end of Moses life, in the fifth book, we have Deuteronomy where Moses just sort of reiterates what he received years earlier.


By the way, those four books plus the first one, Genesis, together are called the Pentateuch. Not everyone is familiar with that term, so that’s what it is, the Pentateuch, which means Five Scrolls or Five Books. In Judaism it’s called Torah, which means something like instruction or teaching, and sometimes those five books are simply called the Law even though there’s more than law in it, or the Law of Moses. I just bring that up in part because I use the word Pentateuch all the way through, but when Wellhausen says Law of Moses, what he means isn’t the whole Pentateuch, he means the laws, specifically the laws given at Mount Sinai, the actual laws found in the Pentateuch. Again, I just say that in case all these terms might get confusing. I’m using Law of Moses in Wellhausen sense, to mean those laws given on Mount Sinai which begins in the Book of Exodus. Alright? 

Any who, the Law of Moses is frontloaded in the Bible. We all notice that, you know, over four of the first five books. And it’s clearly a big deal because it’s, it’s the foundation of Israel’s entire story. I mean, what could be more obvious? But, ya know, Wellhausen, this is his thing, he saw it differently. He said, you know sure, on the surface, okay, that’s how the story goes, but if you paid close attention to the details, because he’s German, it’s pretty clear that the Law of Moses is late. How late? Well, pretty darn late. Specifically, from at least the time of the Babylonian exile, which lasted from 586 to 539 BCE, if not later. Now, the time of Moses, depending on whom you ask, was somewhere between the 15th and 13th centuries, so if you’re doing the math, that means the Law of Moses, according to Wellhausen, did not appear until at least 700 years after Moses. And so, we can see why Wellhausen’s idea might have caused some problems.   

Okay, to sum up the Law of Moses, it’s not chronologically first in Israel’s history, but basically last. It’s not the foundation for Israel’s history, but a later development, and not a very positive one for Wellhausen, we’ll come back to that a little bit later. But, you know, if Wellhausen is right, if the law is late, he just flipped the main storyline of the Bible front to back. It’s like saying the Declaration of Independence doesn’t stem from the 18th century but was written much later in the 20th century after the Vietnam War, that would take some getting used to. 

Okay, so that’s the gist. Now, it sounds weird, I know, and I said he’s the most influential Old Testament scholar of the modern period, because he is, but I didn’t say that everyone agreed with him. I didn’t say he was right about everything. But I am saying this big idea shifted the field of biblical scholarship, and no scholar since, including today, who deals with the Pentateuch has been able to simply ignore him, because his work has stood the test of time pretty well. Not all of it, there are some problems, but the main idea. You know, I’ve heard it said, I was in graduate school and the professor said that the modern study of the Old Testament since Wellhausen is basically, simply, footnoting Wellhausen. And that’s an exaggeration, but you know, think about it, you still have to be a pretty big deal to get an exaggeration like that. So, Wellhausen was something. 

Anyway, what exactly is the biblical evidence that the biblical storyline is wrong, which is Wellhausen’s point. And that’s exactly what the six hundred pages are for, but let me give you just two relatively brief concrete examples that I think will help us get a sense of why he thinks the Law of Moses was late. Okay?  

Well the first, is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived right around the beginning of the Babylonian exile, around 600-ish BCE and he was not a popular figure. He found himself butting heads with the people and the leaders. The Babylonians were coming, and it was assumed the sacrifices that they made would appease God and keep the Babylonians off their backs. Spoiler alert – it didn’t. See, Jeremiah really leans into this idea that gee, sacrifices should just appease God.  


And in chapter 7, in verses 21 – 23, Jeremiah says something you can’t pass over, and he’s a little sarcastic too. This is what he says, he goes, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, eat the flesh,” it’s like ‘go ahead, knock yourselves out, it’s not going to make a hill of beans worth of difference.’ Then he continues, “for in the day that I,”… this is, you know, the prophet speaking for God, right, so he uses ‘I’, so this is technically God speaking, “for in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt,” right? That’s the time of Moses, right? “For in the day I brought your ancestors out of the Land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Hmm. “But this command I gave them, obey my voice and I will be your God and you shall be my people. And walk only in the way that I command you so that it may be well with you.” 

Hmm. You hear that? See, whatever those commands were that they were supposed to obey, they apparently didn’t include commands about sacrifices and offerings, which God says through Jeremiah, “I never commanded.” Which is hard to accept if you’ve read the story of Moses. And yet, incidentally, I mean, not to dwell on this, but if you have the Bible on your computer with a search engine and maybe a couple of hours on your hands, type in words like ‘law’ or ‘Moses’ or ‘Law of Moses’ and see where they occur in the books of the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all that kind of stuff and the books that cover Israel’s monarchy, mainly 1 and 2 Kings. They don’t occur nearly as often as you might think. See, even without this passage in Jeremiah, it’s quite revealing to see how little a presence the detailed regulations of the Law of Moses has in these books. There are implications to that, we’ll get to it in a minute. And even when we see a phrase like Law of Moses or something similar, it’s either in books written later or maybe around or after the exile or the phrase in context Law of Moses clearly doesn’t refer to the whole Law of Moses, but part of it. Namely Deuteronomy or maybe even just some early version of Deuteronomy. Now listen, I know that’s a lot and maybe that’s more detailed than necessary, so, just listen, the bottom line – Jeremiah says that God never said what the Law of Moses said He said, and that’s at least worth thinking about.  

Another example comes from the book of Exodus, chapter 20. Here God gives the Israelites instructions on how to build an altar for offering sacrifices. You know, they’re sort of being prepped to enter the Promised Land, so here is the blueprint. They are to build it out of earth or stone, and if stone, for some reason, they weren’t to use any tools. Okay, so what? Exodus 20:24 is the key. After telling them all this stuff about building an altar out of earth or stone, but not using tools if you’re going to build it out of stone, after all that, God says, “in every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you.” In every place, which means multiple places. Hence, multiple places for building altars for sacrificing. And wherever God’s name is remembered, basically means honored like this, God will show up and bless them.  

Alright, Pete, you’re boring me. What’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal, this command in Exodus 20, given by God through Moses, runs up against later commands likewise given by God through Moses where sacrifice is restricted to one central place, namely Jerusalem. And the classic passage in the Pentateuch to see this is Deuteronomy chapter 12 where Moses says to the Israelites, “you shall not worship the Lord your God in such ways,” meaning like Canaanite ways, where there are altars all over the place, “but you shall seek the place out of all your tribes as His habitation to put his name there.” In Deuteronomy that’s all code for Jerusalem. 


You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes, and your donations, your votive offerings, your free will offerings, the firstborn of your herds and flocks, etc., etc. And that’s Deuteronomy 12, that’s verses 4 to 6 if you’d want to look at it later.

Okay. So, why would God give two commands to Moses? One saying I will bless you wherever you sacrifice, and the other restricting sacrifice to a central location? That’s a good question, and my point here is just that Wellhausen noticed things like this, like inconsistencies, contradictions, the presence of different voices in the Bible, and he treated those moments not, maybe the way we might be tempted to. He didn’t treat them as problems, but as clues, clues to a mystery. They revealed something under the surface about how the Bible came to be.  

Now, I realize that this is a lot to take in, especially in a podcast where you might be driving or working out in your basement gym. So, to bring this down to earth, let me just give a hypothetical but entirely plausible example from my always exciting life as a college professor. Imagine a college student in a Bible class who hands in a twenty-page paper that he says he wrote. Okay? I’m always suspicious about that, but he says he wrote it. So, you read it carefully and you notice, in this paragraph he speaks in the first person, he says I, and then for a few lines he switches to the second person, you, and then back to first person. He does that later too. Okay, maybe he’s a lousy writer and doesn’t know how English works, but just something seems off. Did someone help him? Here’s my theory, maybe his smart friend did research for him and she kept writing you addressing him, and he’s a bit of a dolt, and just forgot to change the you’s to I’s, if you follow me. Anyway, you’re not sure, so you keep reading and you get to a part where he refers to David as the greatest king, but a paragraph or two later, he calls David an abysmal king, only to switch back a page later to David was the best. And then you notice, because you’re reading carefully, that the David is great parts, they line up really nicely with the first-person parts. And the David is abysmal parts, they line up with the second-person parts really nicely. Hmm. I’m sorry, something is going on.  

And then a few pages later, you’re greeted later with a sentence you just know that he didn’t write. I mean, up to this point, he seems semi-literate. “The temple was a big building, and it was beautiful. It was in Jerusalem. I think the temple is way important and I think everyone should know more about the temple.” Okay. But the next sentence goes like this. “It goes without saying, of course, that the socio-culture milieu of Israelite temple architecture, to which we have already referred, is hidden behind the dark veil of antiquity, and yet the influence of Phoenician and Canaanite exemplars cannot be ruled out.” Alright, listen, this isn’t Agatha Christie, it’s pretty obvious this student did something weird, some pointing and clicking and cutting and pasting. So, now you’re on the alert. See, no way, no how, was this paper the creation of one person. He clearly edited together, badly, information from multiple sources, let’s call them, at least two, his friend and the internet, and not including himself. And these sources are signaled to me the reader, or to you the reader, by these abrupt changes in style and contradictions and inconsistencies.  

Now, of course, that’s just an analogy. The Pentateuch is frankly a beautiful piece of literature. It’s much longer and more complicated and far better written than a half-hearted college paper, but the analogy still basically holds. See, Wellhausen and others read the bible carefully and they saw inconsistencies.  


Tensions that jumped out at them and they wanted to explain them and the explanation at the time, was that the Pentateuch, as we have it in front of us, must have come from earlier independent sources. Now that explanation is called the documentary hypothesis. The hypothesis, it’s not proven, but the hypothesis that the Pentateuch was made up of previously existing documents, four to be exact, and those four documents were different versions of the same stories that an editor stitched together. And when you stitch things together, it leaves traces, what scholars call seams. You know, the unevenness, inconsistencies, contradictions, and some awkward transitions.  

You know, I can’t help but think about the kitchen counter we had installed a few years ago. They had to do it in two pieces, and they did an amazing job of connecting the two, but the seam is there. All you have to do is run your fingers over the countertop and you know exactly where the seam is. Seams stand out. You can’t hide seams. So anyway, the student paper had seams, and so does the Pentateuch. Even though it’s incomparable to a student paper in terms of its value and its literary quality, it still has a lot of seams. And so, the documentary hypothesis is proposed by Wellhausen as an explanation for why the Pentateuch has these rough spots.  

Alright, I just mentioned four sources and I just sort of dumped that on you, but I need to explain that just a little bit. Wellhausen did not come up with this idea; it was actually about a hundred years old by the time Wellhausen got a hold of it. The first person who came up with the idea, that there were these sources that make up the Pentateuch, is a rather unlikely figure, he’s a Frenchman by the name of Jean Astruc who died in 1766. Now, Astruc, he was, listen to this guy, he was a French professor of medicine and a physician to Louis XV, and I think, ya know, a busy guy by most people’s standards. But he apparently had enough spare time to more or less invent modern Biblical scholarship without even knowing it. See, he wasn’t a biblical scholar, but he knew Hebrew, of course he did, it was the old days, who didn’t know Hebrew? And he noticed that Genesis chapter 1 and chapter 2, right, the seven days of creation, that’s chapter 1, and the creation of Adam, that’s chapter 2. He said these are two very different creation stories. For a lot of reasons, but one difference that really grabbed him was the different names they used for God. In Genesis 1, it’s simply God, Elohim in Hebrew, begins with the letter E. In the Adam story, God’s personal name is used, Yahweh. Which I’m sure many of you have heard that name Yahweh before, but just a little sidebar and you may thank me. Don’t go looking for that name, Yahweh, in the Bible. You won’t find it anywhere because it’s always written as Lord, specifically where the Lord, the ‘o-r-d’ are in small capital letters. Okay, so why do our Bibles say Lord instead of Yahweh? Well, this follows Jewish tradition for showing reverence for the divine name, so much so that you don’t utter it. And to be safe, just hide it, just say Lord. 

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So, if you want to know the details, Google is your friend, but if I may add a little comment here, you know, especially for people who are learning about the Bible, like college students for example. You know, I really respect the reverent reasons for doing this, for using Lord instead of Yahweh, but it’s sort of a shame that when the Bible uses God’s personal name, all we see is a title, Lord, and we lose something. I think God becomes a bit detached and distant. I feel a big difference between “the Lord is my shepherd” and “Yahweh is my shepherd.” Maybe that’s another podcast, but anyway, the Elohim/Yahweh thing in Genesis 1 and 2 isn’t exactly a cliffhanger, it’s right there and people have noticed. And, by the way, if you want to see that first appears in Genesis 2:4. But you see, here’s what Astruc did that kicked off modern Biblical studies, he didn’t just notice this stuff, he offered an explanation for why they are different. Why do we even have this situation? Sort of like questions we might ask of that student paper. Why does it look like this? Well, long story short, Astruc theorized, and with this, modern biblical scholarship is born, that these two very different stories that use different names for God, that are sitting right here in Genesis, two creation stories right next to each other. He said they were originally two separate documents written by different, anonymous people at some point or points in the past. Moses didn’t write either one, but he played the role of editor, tying them together and in doing so he left a seam, the change in God’s name from chapter one to chapter two. 

 Now, Astruc called the first hypothetical document, the one that uses Elohim, that’s in Genesis 1, he called that A. And the second in Genesis 2 that uses Yahweh, he called, wait for it, B. Not the most creative effort, but it is what it is. See that’s Astruc’s big idea. But yeah, he had some doubts about it. He wasn’t a biblical scholar. Not terribly confident he was right, so he didn’t really try to publish it, but he passed it around to some scholars, and lo and behold, guess what? They jumped all over it like he cracked the code, and the theory got expanded.  

Now, we had to do all this, we have to jump back to Wellhausen now. See, by his time, these two hypothetical documents had become four hypothetical documents or sources as they were called. And they were all referred to by a letter and not A and B. One of these came to be called P, hmmm, meaning the priestly document. Why? Well, remember the student paper again, because there seemed to be a distinct language and a distinct style that was shared by certain portions of the Bible that dealt with priestly things like, well priests, and sacrifice, and laws of all sorts like not to eat pork. Just think of the book of Leviticus, the third one, the one we never read, and you’re basically in P territory. And P, by the way was Astruc’s A, so Genesis 1 is P according to Wellhausen. Okay, Astruc’s B document, the one that uses the name Yahweh, came to be called, and please hang with me here folks, it came to be called J. Not Y, but J. Why J? Because Germans don’t make the “yuh” sound with the Y but with the J. Hence, the source that prefers Yahweh over Elohim is forever referred to as the J source and its hypothetical author as the Yahwist. The two other sources, just quickly here, they came to be called E and D. The E source is called E because this author liked referring to God as Elohim, just like P does but without all that priestly stuff that we see in P. E contains a lot of stories and narratives, and some laws too, but mainly stories and narratives. And then D, that’s basically the book of Deuteronomy. So, you have these four sources: P, J, E, and D. And Wellhausen, see, he was down with all this. He couldn’t agree more. But had Wellhausen just said, yeah, this is cool, we wouldn’t be talking about him. See, for him, talking about sources was just the first step, it led to a far bigger, sweeping, and somewhat mind-bending conclusion for Wellhausen, and that’s the big idea we looked at, at the very beginning. Namely, the law of Moses is not from Moses, but from a much later time. And to see this, I think it’s best to go to another example.


Straight from Wellhausen’s book, in fact, it’s the example that he opens with. Okay, so Wellhausen begins his book by making, you know, a casual observation. He says, like, you know, in the Pentateuch you can’t help but notice chapter after chapter of specific, binding, unyielding regulations about offering sacrifices to God and the worship of God. It’s all structured, controlled, centralized, not free-floating, there are definitely rules. But have you ever noticed that when you turn to the next books, especially like Judges and Samuel, what do you see? Well, you see unregulated sacrifices offered on altars, plural, all over the place without a moment’s hesitation like it’s just a thing. You know in places like Shechem, or Bethel, or Hebron, or Beersheba, or Gibeon, Gilgal, Shiloh – you’ve got all these sacred sites and altars, like it’s just normal.

So Wellhausen said, how interesting. It seems to me that the only way to make sense of this is to say that Judges and Samuel had never heard of all these regulations. Now, of course, at this point in time, we’re talking about the time of Judges and Samuel, before you have a monarchy and all that kind of stuff. Now of course at this point, the time of Judges and Samuel before the monarchy, at this point there’s no temple. That won’t be built until Solomon’s time, hundreds of years later. So, maybe we can forgive books like Judges and Samuel for not having a centralized worship location, and that’s a fair point, but, they did have the Tabernacle constructed under Moses, that portable sanctuary they had for forty years in the wilderness and Wellhausen raises this point and he asks, and frankly it’s a good one, he says, what happened to it? What happened to the Tabernacle? See, its presence isn’t felt in these books. It seems to have dropped out of the story, like, what happened? Is it in the attic? Did they just misplace it? Did they forget about it? What happened? I mean, surely, they could have set it up someplace and carried through with what they had been doing those forty years in the desert. It just seems odd that the commands of God which had supposedly been followed for forty years would get tabled, forgotten so completely, and so quickly. It just strains credulity that this divinely commanded system for worship would have like, no controlling function for Israel’s worship when they settled in the land. That’s Wellhausen’s observation, you know, and it’s a pretty good one. And he launches a book with it.  

So, you might be wondering, oh yeah, where is the Tabernacle? Never thought about it before. Well, Wellhausen argued, and this is a common academic view still, that there, hold on to your seats, there probably was no Tabernacle. At least not one as elaborate, with a fully functioning and highly organized system as the one we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. A simple tent of some sort perhaps, okay. But a Tabernacle? And that’s not such a crazy idea, I mean, think about it, the Tabernacle, you have to admit, just read Exodus 25-31. The Tabernacle is a pretty elaborate structure. It’s made of twisted linen of various colors and embroidering along with all sorts of like high-end furnishings made of gold and silver. Hmm. Now I know, the Book of Exodus mentions that the Israelites left Egypt with gold and silver, sort of an act of plundering, but still. Smelting and weaving and all that stuff, it just seems like a huge task for a mass of humans moving from place to place in the wilderness for four decades.  

And Wellhausen brings up another issue about the Tabernacle, he says when Solomon built the temple, and that’s in 1 Kings, it’s a pretty quick episode first of all, but you’d think he would’ve built it according to the predetermined design, according to the blueprint of the sacred tabernacle, the heavenly pattern as it’s called in Exodus, a design given by God Himself, it seems important. But the Tabernacle isn’t mentioned, not a word about how the temple is the permanent continuation of that temporary sanctuary. And Solomon actually seems to be so out of his element in building a sanctuary like this that he needed to hire people from neighboring Tyre, a Phoenician city, to do the work. And even some of the furnishings that are built for the temple, like the bronze basin for washing, Wellhausen points out this was made from scratch by Solomon rather than just, sort of taking it from the Tabernacle.  


Wellhausen concluded, after all this, that the ancient elaborate Tabernacle didn’t exist, but was a, like a literary creation, more fitting a description for a temple than a portable shrine. In other words, the temple was written into the early parts of the story as a portable sanctuary. Now, that’s the theory, right? So, who’s responsible for this literary creation? Wellhausen said, well, it’s those priests who gave us the priestly source, the P source. And, this is really the crucial point, since Judges and Samuel and the temple building episode with Solomon clearly never heard of any of these regulations, Wellhausen concluded that the P source, did not yet exist. Right? The Law of Moses, the P source, did not yet exist, it was later. Which leads to a follow-up question: why did these priestly writers do this? Why did they create a tabernacle with an elaborate religious system around it on paper and then put it in Moses’s time?  

And now we’re getting to the really uncomfortable part. They did it, the priests did it to legitimate the religious system with its complex, centralized sanctuary under their tight control. See, what we do is legit because it goes way back to the time of Moses. Now, we’ve all seen this sort of thing in our day, this kind of an argument. And, think of certain Evangelical Christians, not all, but definitely some, who claim that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were basically Republican, Bible-believing, church-going, prayer-in-school Evangelicals and if that’s how our country started, by golly and dagnabbit, that’s how it should be today. Our beliefs go back to the beginning, and therefore, we have history on our side. And if you’re against us, you’re against our founders and you’re against our very nation.  

Now, I do think those Evangelicals who think that way are often times sincere. They just can’t imagine any other way. So, they read their way back into history, perhaps the ancient priests, by putting their beliefs into ancient times were likewise not deceptive, but simply unable to comprehend a time when there was any other way of worshipping God.  

Either way, whether they meant it or they couldn’t imagine some other way, regardless of how it happened, the result, as Wellhausen argued, is that history was obscured and that priestly take on Israel’s history, it stuck, that’s the one that stuck because, again, as Wellhausen argued, the learned priestly class was largely responsible for shaping the Pentateuch and really the entire Old Testament as we know it. They were the final editors, the editors-in-chief so to speak. That’s the heart of Wellhausen’s very challenging idea. You know, you pay close attention to the seams of the Pentateuch that just jump out at you and that are evidence of these four documents, these four voices, and furthermore, if you pay attention, you’ll also understand what order the four sources need to be in.  

So, for Wellhausen, the data, as he saw the data, P had to be last. So, you have these four sources and the order is very important: J, E, D, and P. In that order, P is last. Wellhausen even assigned dates to these four documents. J and E, basically and long-story short, nerds please do not email me, okay? You promise? Good. J and E stem from somewhere between, let’s say, the tenth and eighth centuries. They contain some laws, but they are mainly the stories we read about in Genesis and elsewhere. And then came the D source in the seventh century with laws and as we’ve seen, and very importantly, the first hint of centralized worship. Right? Not altars anywhere like J and E say. D is a move toward organization, toward institutionalized worship. Alright, remember Deuteronomy chapter 12.  

And then, finally, P with all those endless strict and detailed laws about sacrifice, clean and unclean foods, pure and impure activities, how priests should dress, etc., sort of bureaucracy gone amuck. Again, in putting it that way, I’m sort of channeling Wellhausen, but see, his real legacy comes in taking that idea, P is last, a step further by being very explicit about the implications of P being late. And that gets us back to the title of his book which says it all – Prolegomena to the History of Israel


Prolegomena, not a word you use every day, it’s a fancy word for a long and necessary introduction, something you need to grasp first before you move onto something else. And for Wellhausen, seeing four sources and putting P last, well, that was the prolegomena, that was the Prolegomena to the History of Israel. See, the Bible demands that you put P last, right, that’s his point, and when you do that, it’s clear that the way the Bible presents the story on the surface, where P is early, that that’s wrong. The complex system of sacrifice we see in Exodus through Numbers is presented as early, but it’s really late. But when we put P, the Law of Moses, last as it needs to be, we see that Israel’s worship evolved. Maybe not the best choice of words, but it’ll work. Evolved from simple, J and E, to more complex D, to highly regulated P. The way the priestly editors present the story in the Bible by putting their stuff at the beginning, actually obscures Israel’s actual history. The real history is seen only when you put the sources in their proper order, not giving the priestly source, the priestly editor, the final say.  

Now the example of the student paper that we used before, it’s got a flaw. It doesn’t account for the passage of time that we see in the four sources that span, you know, four to five hundred years. All those sources the student used were contemporary. A better analogy would include sources that are actually chronologically distinct, so here’s a better analogy: the history of baseball. And indulge me here people, please? The 2020 season might not happen, so this might be it for me. Alright, so a history of baseball written in 1940 before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier would likely not address at all the racism in baseball that’s been there since the beginning. Ken Burns’ monumental PBS series from 1994, which is also a big book by the way, it made racism one of its central themes. Okay? Two different perspectives written at two different times. Now imagine weaving these stories together, and because you’re entirely sympathetic to Burns’ narrative of racism, you open your book with a scene that communicates the cruelty of racism that was, you know, part of baseball life from the beginning and you pass judgement on it. It’s very clear what your opinion is. And then as you continue, you weave together as best as you can, scenes from both sources, resulting, now and then, perhaps in some awkward transitions. Later, not only could someone come along and read your book and pick out the different perspectives, the different voices, but they could also take a really good stab at which came first. A history of baseball that you wrote that you edited together that begins with the scene that is fully-aware of the problem of racism is probably written around the time, or after the time of Jackie Robinson, definitely not in the 1860’s. And actually, it could’ve been written much later than the time of Jackie Robinson, we don’t know simply from that comment that’s, you know, condemning of racism, you don’t know exactly when it was written, but it wasn’t before Jackie Robinson and it wasn’t in the 1860’s when baseball more or less began, that’s for sure. And the editor, that would be me or you or whoever, has also obscured history by placing that later perspective first. To find the actual history of baseball, one would need to take that first story and put it where it belongs. Now, an editor might have a very good reason for doing what she or he did, like the need to stress the ever-present problem of racism at the time, and that motive is great, but a true history hasn’t been produced. If you want to know what really happened, which by the way, was like a rallying cry in Wellhausen’s day. To know what really happened, you need to follow the clues.  

Alright, well this has been a lot to take in, I know that, though you might be interested in knowing that I’m leaving a lot of stuff out. But, if we had time, we could talk about something that a lot of people talk about with Wellhausen, which is his anti-Semitism.  


You know, he thought the law of Moses, you know, courtesy of P, was a distortion of Israel’s simple religion, and that needed correcting. See, in fact, for Wellhausen, the gospel was essentially a correction of the P theology with all its rules and likewise a celebration of J and E, you know, a simple religion of the heart. Well, I mean Jews would and have begged to differ, you know the Law of Moses is central to their faith tradition. And now, you know, especially after the Holocaust, Gentile biblical scholars have been very careful to be more self-aware and not to repeat some of this rhetoric, but Wellhausen’s anti-Semitism so engrained in German culture and had been for centuries, it certainly had an effect on his handling of the evidence and people have pointed that out, and they’re right.  

Also, if we had more time, we could talk about the various theories that spun out of Wellhausen’s scholarship, some that supported his view, others that nuanced it and maybe took it different directions, and some that rejected it. But you see, in a way that’s the point. When you’re taken seriously enough to engage a century after your death, I mean, that is a legacy. So, we began by seeing Wellhausen as part of his cultural moment as well as other movers and shakers like Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, and just know that you know, no evolutionary biologist today is Darwinian, I actually hate that term, is Darwinian, a disciple of Darwin. But there are still evolutionary biologists who stand in a scientific trajectory, let’s say, that Darwin began. And psychoanalysis has also grown and adapted to new data, but there are still psychoanalysts. You know, Einstein was flat out wrong about quantum physics, but that doesn’t erase his being one of the most influential humans of the 20th century.

Likewise, the field of biblical scholarship has changed in some rather dramatic ways since Wellhausen. In some respects its changed in ways that only experts care about, and in other ways that have sort of exposed Wellhausen’s blind spots, but the idea that the Pentateuch grew in stages, with the priestly stage being relatively late, not early, but also probably not quite as late as Wellhausen insisted or as negative a move as he thought it was, well that idea is still, I would say with confidence, foundational to any serious academic study of the Pentateuch that’s interested in answering the question: why does it do this? Why does it look the way that it does? And if you’ve read the Pentateuch and you’ve noticed things, these tensions or inconsistencies or whatever and if that’s your question, why does it look like this? Why does it do this? Then you are entering the legacy of Julius Wellhausen.  

[Music begins] 

Pete: Okay folks, well that’s it. Thanks for listening and please keep listening. Consider supporting us on Patreon, we would love to have you on board. We have a list of projects we want to get moving on and your support is just so huge for that. And as always, thanks to our team, Dave Gerhart, our audio-engineer; Reed Lively, our community champion; Megan Cammack, our podcast producer; Stephanie Speight, our podcast transcriber. See you next time, when we return with real, live guests. Thanks folks! 

[Music ends] 

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The Bible and Intersex Believers with Megan DeFranza

Interview with Megan DeFranza: The Bible and Intersex Believers

September 11, 2017

On this episode of the Bible For Normal People, Pete and Jared talk with theologian Megan DeFranza (actually, Megan educates Pete and Jared) on a topic that affects deeply the lives of many, but that few Christians even know is a topic. And Megan might surprise you about what the Bible and church history have to say about it.

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Pete:  You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet.  Serious talk about the sacred book.  I’m Pete Enns.

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas. 

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Pete:  Hello everybody!  Welcome to the Bible for Normal People podcast.  Our topic today is the Bible and Intersex Believers and our guest is Megan DeFranza.  She is a theologian and she’s currently serving as a visiting researcher at Boston University School of Theology.  That’s pretty impressive, folks.  Don’t know if I have to tell you that, but it is.

She’s written a wonderful book to sex difference in Christian theology.  This topic, the Bible and Intersex Believers, what does that even mean?  Megan’s gonna help us understand that.  I know I can speak for myself and for Jared a little bit.  I’m 56 years old.  When I was in high school, this wasn’t even on the radar.

Last year, this wasn’t on my radar screen.  It wasn’t until Megan came to speak at Eastern University where I teach, where she’s talking and I was like, “Oh.  I didn’t know any of this.  It’s really interesting.  It affects people’s lives in ways that I can’t even imagine.”

Jared:  After she spoke at Eastern, Pete was telling me about it over dinner and I had to talk with her.  I got on the phone right after that and said, “What is this that you’re doing [laughter]?  I don’t understand.”  It is just very fascinating, so I was just really excited to have her on the podcast and just explain it, even for me to better understand.

Pete:  Right.  It’s one of these issues that is all around us in the sense that it can be somewhat unsettling and uncomfortable and even divisive among people because you have to engage the Bible at some point.  That’s exactly what Megan does.  All she does is engage the Bible and the history of the interpretation of the Bible and theology and all those—

Jared:  The ancient church.

Pete: —the ancient church and ancient readings of biblical text to show a rather surprising story that intersex is not a new issue.  People have been thinking about that and commenting on it for a long time. 

For us, today, people like me and Jared, for who it’s new, where we’ve been, we were never taught this in seminary.  I never really thought through it and never had to, because it wasn’t brought to my attention. 

This is an issue, like other issues (for example, gender equality or same-sex marriage), it’s so potentially volatile, it actually forces you to go back and re-examine your own thinking, your own theology and the biblical text.  You actually can’t get around that once you start listening to people who actually know the topic, how much there is in the Bible that can help us think through some of these kinds of issues that sometimes lay buried or sidelined, because it’s not where we are.

We come at the Bible with our questions already premade.  What these issues do is they force us to ask different kinds of questions we would never have thought up on our own.

Jared:  And unearths our assumptions.  I appreciate how when you look at the Bible through a particular lens, it helps you understand that you’ve been making assumptions all along that you didn’t even know.

Pete:  Right.  Right.

Jared:  Good.  Let’s have this conversation with Megan.

[Jaunty Music]

Megan:  We’ve done our theological reflection.  We’ve done our biblical study, only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female.  That’s not good enough.  We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.

We haven’t done that yet.  Let’s start a new conversation.

Jared:  Welcome to the podcast, Megan.  It’s very nice to have you.

Megan:  Thanks so much for having me.

Jared:  The topic today is the Bible and the Intersex Believer.  This term, neither Pete nor I had ever really come into contact with that term before we met you, Megan, last year or a few years ago.

Bring us up to speed on what it is we’re talking about—

Pete:  If we don’t know what it is, nobody knows about this—

Jared:  Clearly.  Clearly—

Pete:  That’s the way I look at it.  Enlighten us all—

Megan:  That’s really common.  The reason it’s new is because it’s a fairly new term for a very old phenomenon.  Intersex is just a broad umbrella term that talk about bodies that don’t fit the medical definitions of male and female.  There’s a mix of male and female characteristics in the same body and that can happen in a lot of different ways.

Jared:  What would be some common things, just concrete examples of—

Megan:  Sure.

Jared:  —where this term might be appropriate for people?


Megan:  Yeah.  One of the most common kinds of intersex is something called androgen insensitivity.  You have a baby that’s born with XY chromosomes, which is your typical male pattern and they make the gonads, which are neutral in the first few weeks of gestation, go and become testes and starts secreting the typical level of male hormones.

But, at the cellular level, the cells can’t process those male hormones.  The body defaults to female.  On the inside, it looks like male anatomy and on the outside, it looks like female anatomy.  That’s a fairly common kind of intersex.

You can also have the opposite with XX chromosomes and ovaries, with extra production, or higher-than-typical production of androgens that can make a female body look more masculine or anywhere in-between.  Something called congenital adrenal hyperplasia.  All these fancy medical terms, which is why we use the generic “intersex” most of the time.

Pete:  Thank you.  [laughter] Yeah.

That’s very helpful to distinguish intersex from other terms that float around like—

Megan:  Yup.

Pete:  —the alphabet soup.  Right?

Megan:  Mm-hmm.

Pete:  This is something that is a new term that people are maybe beginning to see and maybe come to terms with, for the sake of a population that probably feels, I would imagine, rather isolated and misunderstood.

Megan:  An older term would be hermaphrodite or androgyne.  But those are mythological creatures that have full sets of male and female anatomy, which is humanly impossible, which is one of the reasons we’ve moved away from that language towards stuff that’s more precise, to the particular variations of individual people.

Pete:  You’ve written a wonderful and tremendously scholarly and well-researched book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology, and you have a website that is just very informative.  It’s a wonderful thing to visit if people—if you want to know anything, folks, that’s where you go.

To me, it raises a question of curiosity.  What is it in your life that is driving you to be passionate and supportive of the intersex community?

Megan:  I started this work because I grew up in a very conservative church, where being a woman with a mind was a problem.  I started studying gender and sex difference and biblical scholarship and history and all of that, to try and figure out how I could serve God and not sin, because I happened to have a female body.

That led me to research, to talk about, that there are not just male and female in the world, that there are all these intersex variations as well. 

It was hearing those stories, the stories of individuals, particularly recent medical history, where with our advanced technology, we here in the United States and Europe and elsewhere, have tried to fix intersex.  Doctors come in to a baby that is born with ambiguous genitalia.  They’ll say, “We can figure this out.”  They’ll do plastic surgery on the genitals of a child to make them look more typically male and female.

These surgeries have lasting harm, pain for life, for many many people.  Hearing their stories of physical pain, of feeling unsafe to share their stories in their own faith communities, pastors saying, “Thanks for telling me, but please don’t tell anybody else,” really drove me to realize that my questions about gender and my frustrations as a woman in the church were small in comparison with my intersex siblings in Christ, who had all of these added complications.

It was really hearing their stories that led me to say, “We’ve got to do something about this.”

Jared:  As we get into the topic, it’s just interesting to me the contrast that some of our listeners will have where you’re using lots of medical terms and you’re talking about the technology and the science of a lot of things here. 

How does that connect with the Bible for Normal People?  Say more about how your story coincides as you became aware of all of this within the church community.  When did you start thinking about how the Bible fits into all this?


Megan:  For me, the Bible was the place I started.  Reading scriptures about women’s place in the church led me to go back and look at history and realize that in Christian history, we’ve thought about gender differences very differently over the last 2,000 years, since the birth of Christ. 

Getting into that history, the history of biblical interpretation, really was the thing that moved me to say, “Wait a minute.  If we’ve thought about this differently in the past, that gives us opportunity to think differently and maybe in fresh ways in the present about differences that, actually, the ancient church was quite familiar with, but we’ve lost that language and knowledge, even though our science is more sophisticated.”

Pete:  Can you give an example or two?  I can imagine people listening, saying, “What are you talking about [laughter]—

Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  —we’re just having this conversation about gender and we thought what we think today is what people have always thought,” which is a typical response, “what I think is what the church has always thought.”

You’re saying it’s more diverse and very early on—

Megan:  St. Augustine, in the City of God, talks about hermaphrodites.  He says, “As for hermaphrodites, also called androgynes, they’re certain very rare, but every culture has people that they don’t know how to classify as male or female.  In our culture, we call them by the better sex.  We call them men.”

Pete:  Hmm.

Megan:  Here’s Augustine saying, “Oh yeah.  Everybody knows about hermaphrodites.  We assign them on the masculine side.”  In the ancient world in Rome and Greece, there were laws for men and laws for women and laws for hermaphrodites and laws for other categories of people that we’ll talk about as we continue here.

Pete:  With Augustine, for example, he lived around when?

Megan:  He lives in the third, fourth century in the Christian Era.

Pete:  That’s a long time ago, right—

Megan:  It is.

Pete:  Was there a tone of judgment in reading Augustine about what we call intersex or was he just matter-of-fact about it?

Megan:  In that passage, he’s very matter-of-fact, actually—

Pete:  Okay.

Megan:  —just stating a fact that everyone’s aware of.

Pete:  Not freaked about it.

Megan:  Not freaked out.  He’s much more concerned about castrated eunuchs and their place and pagan religious cults.  He speaks very harshly of them.  But he’s very matter-of-fact and fairly neutral when it comes to hermaphrodites—

Jared:  You say “neutral.”  It’s interesting to me—what I heard you say and maybe I misheard—“we have this category of people and we as a community assign them to the male side of things.”  Actually, it seems like there’s some social consequences to that.  It would be a more of a place of privilege at that point.

Megan:  Right. For hermaphrodites, Augustine is giving them the male privilege, whereas, it’s interesting—castrated men, men who had their testes or crushed or cut off or birth and who developed differently or who maybe did that later on in life, he says of them, that they are “no longer men,” even though they were born whole.

Pete:  That’s confusing.

Megan:  Yeah.  Sure is.  [laughter]

Pete:  Just to fill things out for the benefit of people listening, can you point to something else that might be instructive for us, another example or two from this ancient church period or from other cultures, perhaps?

Megan:  Certainly, in the Jewish culture, there was a recognition of more than male or female.  The ancient rabbis came up with four additional categories between male and female.

One was a naturally-born eunuch, which they classified more on the masculine side, but not all the way over to the male.

They have another term, called the ilonite (SP?), which was toward the feminine side, but not always to the edge.

They also used the term androgenos for someone whose right in the middle.  They didn’t know how to classify them one way or the other.

They had a fourth term, which was really something they said, “We’re not sure what we’re dealing with now, but we’re pretty sure their sex will become clear over time.”

They developed laws and rituals, religious laws to govern these various persons and would debate those throughout the centuries.

Jared:  Tying it to the Bible itself; we have the ancient church and we have this Jewish tradition, where Augustine and the rabbis recognized different categories, often the argument or the conversation when it comes to the Bible goes back to Genesis.

Megan:  Right.


Jared:  It is “God created them male and female.” 

Megan:  Right.

Jared:  How does that square with this conversation?

Megan:  That’s where we all start, right?  This is where it’s important to recognize that the Bible’s a big book and that Genesis is not the whole of the story. 

Certainly, we have the beginning.  God creates them male and female in God’s image and blesses them that way.  But does that mean that’s all God created or all God intended?

Now that we have this other language that I just mentioned from the ancient rabbis, we can look for other language in Scripture and that’s what I was so delighted to find in my research is actually none other than Jesus speaks about intersex people with one of these categories that the rabbis mention in Matthew Chapter 19, verse 12, where he’s being asked about whether or not, you can divorce your wife if she burns the toast. 

He’s being asked to weigh in on this ancient debate about how bad does the infraction have to be for you to divorce your wife.

Jesus quotes Genesis 1.  He says, “Don’t you remember God made them male and female.”  He quotes Genesis 2, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Then his disciples say, “Well, if we can’t get out of marriage, maybe we shouldn’t get into it, since our parents are typically choosing a spouse for us.”

Jesus says, “No.  No.  No.  You’re not understanding what I’m saying.  There are those who’ve been eunuchs from birth.  There are those who’ve been made eunuchs by others.  There are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can.”

I like to say, “Let anyone accept this who has any idea what Jesus is talking about.”  [laughter]

The church has debated, “What does this mean?  What did it mean to make oneself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom?”

We know a lot about the second category.  That’s the castrated men that I just mentioned, very common slaves and very expensive slaves, luxury items, status symbols and sometimes even sex slaves in the ancient world.  Castrati were very very common.  We know a lot about that.

This first category, the eunuch from birth, Jesus’ is drawing on this ancient rabbinic of the eunuch, of the sun as it is in Hebrew, from the day the sun first shone upon the child, we knew this one is different.

Here’s Jesus, in the context of talking about divorce and certainly affirming Genesis, he throws in these other categories and he doesn’t do it with any criticism and he doesn’t say, “But God didn’t mean for it to be this way.”  He just lays it out there.

That pushed me to think, “How do we take Genesis and give it its place in the cannon at the beginning, but also recognize that we have to find a way to read Genesis in a way that fits with these words of Jesus?”  So how do we do that?

That’s what I was—

Pete:  This is beyond, then, that all parts of the Bible are equally ultimate and we read verses and they tell you what to think.  You’re actually describing a dynamism in the Bible that we have to take all this into account somehow and make, not to put words in your mouth, but to make theological decisions on the basis of this grand conversation that’s happening in the Bible.  Is that a fair way of putting it?

Megan:  The theological decisions are how to interpret the description that God made male and female.  It doesn’t say, “God made male and female and anything else is a result of the fall.”  Yet, that’s a very quick theological move that many Christians make.  “If there’s not male and female, then anything else must be a result of sin.” 

Jesus doesn’t do that in Matthew Chapter 19.  The text doesn’t tell us that.  That’s a theological reading we’re bringing to the passage.  Does it say that?

I asked, “Are there ways that we can read Genesis that make it fit with the words of Jesus and with the larger canon all together?”  I think that there are ways that we can.  We could read Adam and Eve as the parents at the beginning of the story, rather than the pattern for all people.

We could read them as the statistical majority.  Most people are clearly male or clearly female.  But just because they are the statistical majority doesn’t mean they are the exclusive model or the only way that God allows humans to be born.


When we look at other parts of Genesis 1, we recognize that there are all sorts of things that aren’t named in the creation account.  There are three different types of animals.  There are the “fish of the sea, the birds of the air and the creatures that crawl upon the earth.”

These are the three categories of animals that God creates.  But we all know that there are creatures that don’t fit into those categories.  Penguins are birds that don’t fly.  There are other things in the sea other than fish.  There are things that crawl, but they live in the water.  There are amphibians that are both water and land animals.

But I’ve never heard an Old Testament scholar like yourself, Pete, say, “Hey look.  Frogs.  They’re proof of the fall,”  [laughter] because they don’t fit into the three categories of creatures—

Pete:  Hey.  That’s my next blog post.  That’s my next blog post.  [unintelligible]—

Megan:  You’re welcome.

Pete:  What you’re saying is exactly right.  I think the response would be, “In the Old Testament, in the Pentateuch, when you have clean and unclean animals, some of these in-between things, “You don’t eat lobster.”  They’re sea animals, but they also have legs.  They don’t fit.  They’re unclean.  You don’t eat them.

This is something I can imagine people, as sort of a counterpoint to what you’re saying, to draw on that.  How might you navigate that particular issue?

Megan:  The canon gives us the way to do that too.  Even if we see them as outsiders.  Lobsters are outsiders.  Bees are outsiders.  Frogs are outsiders.  Maybe this other category of people who don’t fit into male and female.  Certainly, in the Old Testament, we have, laws for men and laws for women and it doesn’t leave a lot of place for anyone who doesn’t fit those categories.

But fast-forward up to the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 56, he talks about two categories of outsiders, one being the eunuch and the other being foreigners, Gentiles.  They’re complaining, “Hey God, it’s not all that easy to be a eunuch or a Gentile and live in ancient Israel.  The system isn’t set up for us.” 

God says, through the prophet Isaiah to them, in Isaiah 56, “Don’t let the eunuchs complain that I’m only a dry tree.  For to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath and obey me,” and there’s a long list of things, “I will give to them within my house a name, an everlasting name that’s better than sons and daughters, a name that will not be cutoff.” 

Then he speaks to the foreigners and says that they’re offerings will be accepted on his altar for “my house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples, “ (Isaiah 56:8), which we’re much more familiar with.  That’s in the context of God folding in outsiders, who didn’t fit in earlier chapters of the story.

But God is saying, “Don’t worry.  I’m going to give you a place.”  He doesn’t say to the eunuch, “I’m going to heal you and make you into the categories I intended, either male and female.”  He says, “I’m going to give you something better than sons and daughters.  I’m going to bless you in a way that a Jewish man or a Jewish woman could ever imagine being blessed.  I’m going to give you an everlasting name.”

Pete:  No talk about eunuchs being a product of the fall any more than foreigners would be—

Megan:  Right.

Pete:  —a product of the fall.  There’s nothing in Isaiah—I’m just curious now because I haven’t studied this as closely as you have—but there’s no indication there of how they came to be eunuchs.

Megan:  Nope.

Pete:  Okay.

Megan:  That’s the challenge is that intersex is this broad umbrella term for many different bodily variations. This term eunuch was an umbrella term for many different things.  Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.  Does this mean a castrated eunuch?  Does this mean a natural eunuch?  Is this a position in the court?  We have to do careful scholarship to see what they’re talking about.  It’s not particularly clear in Isaiah and yet, [MUSIC STARTS] there is this idea that however these people came to be eunuchs, God’s blessing them as they are, not requiring them to become something they’re not and healing them into some creational category that we find in Genesis Chapter One and Two.

Jared:  That’s a really good point.  One thing I’m thinking as you guys are talking about the categories and we keep coming back to the words and how that there’s different variations—I want to make sure that we’re being clear—how is intersex different than say transgender which is becoming more and more a conversation, politically and otherwise?  What’s the difference and where does that fit in this conversation?

Megan:  Sure.  Right now, the only difference between intersex and transgender people is that transgender people cannot point to a medical diagnosis.  I know trans people who have said, “I wish I were intersex, because then people wouldn’t think I’m crazy.”  They would be able to say, “Oh no.  Some of their cells are XY.  Some of their cells have just one X.  No wonder they’re body is developing differently or their gender identity is developing differently.”  They don’t have that luxury.

There are some intersex people whose experience is like that of a trans person.  I work with LeeAnn Simon, who’s a wonderful Christian woman and author and she has what I just described.  Some of her cells are XY.  Some have just one X.  Her gonads are part ovarian tissue, part testicular tissue.

At puberty, she didn’t develop one way or the other and chose to, though she was identified as a boy at birth, it wasn’t a fit for her, as an adult, chose to identify as female and to live, to transition.  Her experience is intersex, but it also could be understood as transgender.  That’s not the majority of intersex experiences. 

Sometimes, these terms overlap and sometimes, they don’t.  We have to be [unintelligible]—

Jared:  Where they don’t, what I hear you saying is there’s not a chromosomal or biological thing that you can pinpoint.

Megan:  At this point, where our science is.  It may be that as neuroscience advances, we will be able to pinpoint other things, but we can’t at this point.

Jared:  Good.  I think that’s an important piece of the conversation, that we don’t—

Megan:  Sure.

Jared:  [unintelligible] It’s kind of a Venn Diagram overlap.

Megan:  Yup.

Pete:  Megan, you’ve thought so much about this.  We’ve talked about Augustine a little bit and rabbis and Jesus’ own words.  And Genesis and how that all fits into this.  And Isaiah.   People still come back to Genesis.  Because it’s first, it’s therefore determinative of everything else.

Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  You don’t think that.  Help people walk through why it’s okay not to think that.  It’s at the beginning of the Bible.

Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  You get this wrong, you get everything else wrong.  Plus, it’s all good.

Megan:  Right.  Exactly.  It is important and it does set the stage for the beginning of God’s great redemptive story.  But it’s not the whole of the story.  I see its pride of place is as the opening chapters.  But, at the end of the story, we find a vision of heaven in the book of Revelation where people are included in the worshipping community who don’t fit in the garden.

Here I’m thinking of Revelation Chapter 7, where there’s a great multitude worshipping before the Lamb from every tribe, and nation and language, people group.  If we think about Genesis, we don’t have multiple tribes.  We don’t have racial difference in the Garden of Eden.  We don’t have different languages represented at the beginning.  There are many ways in which this story that starts with these two ends up in full, moving through Adam and Noah and Abraham and all the way through and then folding in the Gentiles and folding in others.

It’s a story that gets bigger and wider and God’s redemptive love goes out.  He blesses the Israelites so that they could be a blessing to all the nations.  It’s this narrow story through these few for the benefit of all, which is why I think we see many things in the book of Revelation that echo things in the Garden. 

There are trees in the beginning and at the end.  But they are not the same trees.  It’s important that we don’t think that we’re trying to get back to the Garden of Eden.  Yes.  It has pride of place at the beginning of God’s story.  But it seems like God’s story gets bigger and more complicated, but also more beautiful and more welcoming than what it is in the first chapters.

Pete:  It’s like the Garden reimagined at the end of the Bible—

Megan:  Yeah.  It is.

Pete:  You’re not actually returning to the Garden.  It’s metaphorical language anyway.

Megan:  Right.


Pete:  It’s something that is meant to evoke those memories, but then also to go beyond that to something that—

Megan:  It’s called new, right?  It’s called new creation—

Pete:   It’s new.  Right.  Right.

Megan:  It’s not paradise lost and regained, like we’re trying to get back.  It’s a new—God is doing something new at the end of this grand story that is going to have some continuity with what came before and some differences.

Jared:  I appreciate, Megan, what you said about the—you talk about Isaiah and as the story unfolds, it’s interesting that we may start with a garden, but this narrative of inclusivity, of folding more and more people in, really starts just a few chapters later with the start of Israel, with Abraham’s story.

Megan:  Right.

Jared:  Then, from there, we just start including more.  I just appreciated the point about how Israel was then adopted to be a blessing.  Through that, the blessing is this inclusivity.  It’s interesting, in this conversation, that early on in the prophetic literature of Isaiah, that the eunuchs are included pretty early in on that conversation before even—

Megan:  You know what’s even more radical than that?  If we look at Acts Chapter 8, at the first foreigner whose baptized?

Pete:  You took the words right out of my mouth.  Go ahead.  [laughter] Let’s talk about the Ethiopian eunuch—

Megan:  Yeah.  Exactly.  This is the Ethiopian who is a eunuch, who is the very fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, that as the gospel is going out from Judea, through Samaria to the utter ends of the earth, as Jesus said to His disciples at the end of the book of Matthew, and we see these significant baptisms in the book of Acts.  The first foreigner whose baptized is an Ethiopian eunuch, whose made this many-hundred-mile trek to Jerusalem to worship.  Even though he’s an outsider on many levels, he knows there’s only so close he can get to God. 

There’s the Holy of Holies.  There’s the Court of Men.  Outside of that is the Court of Women.  Outside of that, is the Court of Gentiles.  There’s only so close you can get to God as a Gentile and as a eunuch.  He knows that, but he goes anyway.

As he’s reading the prophet, Isaiah, God sends Phillip to him to interpret the Scriptures, to open them and to share with them the good news of Jesus.  This Ethiopian eunuch says to Phillip, “Look, here’s water.  Is there anything preventing me from being baptized?”

I have read that passage my whole life, but until I studied the place of eunuchs in the ancient world, I never understood the significance of that question.

Pete:  Right.  Right.

Megan:  Here he’s asking, “What’s my place gonna be if I follow this rabbi Jesus?

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  Am I gonna be a second-class citizen like I am as a non-Jewish believer?

Pete:  Mm-hmm.

Megan:  Is there a place for me in this new community?  I’m just so frustrated that we don’t have the answer given to Acts.  [laughter] We don’t know what Phillip said.  But we know that one of them commanded the chariot to stop.  They both got out of the chariot and Phillip baptized him.

Pete:  I’ve always read that instinctively, “Is anything preventing me from getting baptized?” as “We’ve got some time on our hands.  Let’s just do this now.”  Not like they’re actually socio-cultural-religious—there’s a matrix there of this. 

Maybe the Bible’s surprisingly not uptight.  [laughter] Go figure.

Megan:  God does tend to surprise us at every turn.

Jared:  I’m wondering—I was just thinking about this connection, this phrase of “foreigners and eunuchs” and how that goes throughout the Bible.  In some ways, do you feel like “foreigners” is clearly throughout the Bible representative of the marginalized throughout, as we get to the Gentiles and others.  Is “eunuchs” also—I’m channeling my upbringing where I want to take that literally, “I’m willing to—you raise some good points, Megan—I’m gonna allow for eunuchs as part of this, but now, I’m going to still exclude others, because it doesn’t say it literally and specifically.

Is there a case to be made in terms of reading and how we read the Bible for taking foreigners and eunuchs as almost representative of this is a narrative of inclusion.  You can’t really accept the eunuchs and exclude transgender people.  You can’t really take this group and exclude that group, because it’s really representative of this radical inclusion. 

What would you say?


Megan:  First, I would say that in some ways, Gentle or foreigner is not category of the marginalized, if you think just statistically. 

Jared:  Right.  Right.

Megan:  Everyone who’s not a Jew is a foreigner.

Jared:  They’re usually the majority. 

Megan:  Right.  Throughout Israel’s history, they were oppressed by these majority—

Jared:  Yeah.

Megan: —communities, so they were the minority.  You could really read that two different ways.  But definitely, with the eunuchs, we’re talking about people who have been oppressed in many different ways and excluded in many different ways.

Even though the rabbis made space for naturally-born eunuchs, castrated eunuchs couldn’t go to worship in ancient Israel.  Naturally-born eunuchs could.  But they, in some ways, had a double religious duty, because the rabbis are pulling from the laws for men and the laws for women and wanting to make sure all of their bases are covered.

They are this minority group has more to do and it’s harder for them.  I do think that category is one that certainly stands for the outside and the marginalized and those have been excluded, whose voices haven’t been heard, who’ve been considered unclean and not welcome in the worshipping community.

Pete:  Let me ask you a question here, Megan.  I want to try to articulate this clearly.  Following on what Jared just said about eunuchs and the poor and the oppressed, marginalized peoples, you see in Isaiah and then in the New Testament in Matthew 19 and Acts 8, you see a hint, a trajectory of—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  I want to ask you if you agree with this.  If yes, great.  If not, fine.  Tell me why.  It seems like the New Testament itself is not the end of the story.  It’s trajectories.  That’s an important thing to talk about for people who take the Bible seriously.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  The Bible, even the New Testament, does not settle all these questions for us, but is itself part of a moment—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —that is also moving, right?  And so—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  I gather you’re agreeing with that, so regalias on your opinion [laughter].

Megan:  It’s not—I was helped in this regard.  I remember in seminary reading N.T. Wright’s book, The New Testament and the People of God, where he likens the Bible to five acts in a Shakespearean play, where the fifth act is unfinished.  He sees creation as Act One; the fall as Act Two; Israel, Act Three; Jesus is Act Four; and the Act Five is the Church.

We have only the first few pages of the script in the New Testament, but we are not—we are called to finish the story.  We’re called to live our parts.  We’re not called to be First Century Christians in Rome or in Corinth or in Ephesus.  We’re called to be 21st Century Christians living where we live.

We’re not trying to get back to Ancient Israel.  He keeps saying, “If we’re going to put on this play,” back to the analogy with Shakespeare, “we’re not just going to repeat lines from an earlier part of the story.  We’re going to study the whole story.  We’re going to see the direction it’s going.  We’re going to pick up on those hints that you just mentioned.  If we’re going to put on this play, we’re going to have to improv.”  He uses this term, “faithful improvisation,” where we’re trying to see where the story is going and how do we live in—

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  —our part faithfully, yet without a script.

Pete:  I would add to that Fifth Act, analogously, is that you see that in the Bible anyway because people are winging it.  [laughter]

That’s not a bad way of putting it.  In the Old Testament, you have shifts and changes and new perspectives on things.  It seems inescapable.  To help people to say, “It’s okay to think responsibly and theologically and biblically today about an issue that maybe we have to address in different ways than previous generations.”


Megan:  We’re so afraid of doing something wrong that oftentimes, we do nothing.  We give the apostles permission to think creatively.  We give Calvin and Luther permission to think creatively, to do something different.  But we rarely give ourselves permission—

Pete:  Why is that?  What are we afraid of—

Megan:  —to do what they did.

Pete:  We should get a therapist [laughter].  What do you think?  You’ve experienced these things.  What—

Jared:  [unintelligible]

Pete:  —are people afraid of?

Jared:  In the congregations that you’re teaching and educating people—

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  —what are fears that you find?

Megan:  There’s so much censure in our communities, right?  If you put a toe out of line, there’s shame that’s brought on by the community.  There’s exclusion.  All of these things.  We don’t want that.  We don’t want to put on the outside.  We don’t want to be cast out like these outsiders.  We better keep in line.  We better follow the script.  We better recite the confession in whatever version it’s in and dare not think differently lest we become an outsider.  I think we’re afraid of becoming outsiders ourselves to our very community—

Pete:  Yeah.  Maybe you’re putting the nail on the head there.  The head on the nail rather.  [laughter] Who wants to be an outsider?

Megan:  It’s hard.

Pete:  Yeah—

Jared:  I was going to say—and not to be too theological, but it seems like that’s exactly what solidarity is about, right, is taking that step in saying, “I’m willing to risk becoming an outsider in order to be in community with the outsiders.”

Megan:  Yeah.  It’s hard.  You don’t get to have it both ways.  You don’t get to have solidarity with the marginalized and popularity with the powerful.  It doesn’t work like that.

Jared:  That’s a good phrase—

Pete:  Which brings me to the entire New Testament—

Megan:  [laughter] That’s a good place to go.

Pete:  —which has a thing or two to say and we could throw the prophets in there as well.  It strikes me, Megan, that this issue is one of several issues that the Church is either dealing with or going to have to deal with that really raises to the forefront—I don’t want to put it negatively, but the complexity even in the ambiguity sometimes of theological decisions.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  It’s not easy—

Megan:  It’s not.

Pete:  Living life is hard enough.  [laughter] To think you have to have all the right answers all the time makes it that much harder, but the life of faith may be not as clear as we think and we’re doing the best that we can, and for some people, and you’re one of them, and I think Jared and I are the same, if we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of people and lives and their experiences and not a system that we think is immovable and unchanging, because oddly enough, the system, which comes from the Bible, is itself a changing, moving thing—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —which is a good model for us.  It’s not going to give us the answers to any particular question, but it is going to drive us to think about—you don’t get off the hook by quoting Bible passages.  Life ain’t like that—

Megan:  But you do have to study them and see where they’re pointing—

Pete:  Yup.  Right.  Exactly right—

Jared:  Which is that faithful improvisation, which is a nice connecting.  The faithful is that rootedness—

Megan:  Yeah.

Jared:  —within the text, which your articulation today—I appreciate this conversation of rooting it in these texts and then still saying—but there is still some creativity that has to happen, some improvisation.  That fifth act is up to us on how we’re going to be faithful to that.

Megan:  I don’t have it all figured out, but what I’m trying to do in my book and in my work is to say, “Okay.  We’ve done our theological reflection.  We’ve done our biblical study only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female.  That’s not good enough.  We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.”  We haven’t done that yet.  Let’s start a new conversation where we let more voices come and be at the table and it means voices that have been at the table need to be quiet for a while and listen and see if there’s something new to be learned, new perspectives to be had.

Pete:  Right.  Being quiet.  That’s hard.

Megan:  It is hard. 

Pete:  [laughter] Megan, I appreciate the way you put that.  That’s very well put.  Unfortunately, we could talk for hours about all this.  [laughter] So much stuff.  We’re just handling the Bible.  That always comes up in these kinds of conversations.  We’re coming to the end of our time.

In closing, tell us where people can people find you on the worldwide interwebs.  What projects are you involved in, if you are writing another book?  Make sure you tell us about the book that you have written and make sure people know what that is.


Megan:  Thanks.  You can find me at www.megandefranza.com, pretty easy to find.  You can see the books that I’ve written there, chapters, and other books.  The main one we’ve been talking about today is Sex Difference in Christian Theology.  The subtitle is Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God, where we spend lot more time talking about all these things. 

You can find me there.  One of the things I’m most passionate about is that I just started a non-profit with my colleague, Leann Simon, who I mentioned earlier and we have a website, www.intersexandfaith.org, where we’re working to educate faith communities about intersex, provide support for intersex people of faith and advocate for the inclusion of all God’s people.

One of the things we’re doing, what I’m really excited about, is we’re in the process of making a documentary film, which right now is entitled Stories of Intersex and Faith, where people of faith—right now, we have Christians and Jews sharing their stories about being intersex and being people of faith and the good parts of that, the helpful parts of that and the difficult parts of being intersex and in a faith community. 

We’re hoping to create that as a full-length documentary.  But I’d also like to use that footage to create a series for churches that will be an educational curriculum, that’s video interviews and others, so that we can have better conversations in our communities.  Because as you said, if we’re not already having these conversations in our churches, you will be next year, or the year after that.

Pete:  Or your kids will force them.

Megan:  Right.

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  I want to help provide some resources for churches having these conversations. 

Pete:  Some video clips are on your website, already, of—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —you hope to have the longer documentary eventually.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  Okay.  That’s good.

Megan:  Thanks.

Pete:  Listen, Megan, thank you so much.  We had a great time talking to you.  Very informative.  Let’s do this again sometime.

Megan:  Thanks for doing what you do.  Appreciate you inviting me.

Jared:  Absolutely.  Bye.

Megan:  Take care.

[Jaunty Exit Music]

Jared:  You’ve spent another chunk of time with us here on the Bible for Normal People and we’re grateful for that.  Again, if this conversation with Megan DeFranza was meaningful for you, please Google her, look at her website, the subtitle for which is “theology, identity and faithfulness in a changing world.”  That’s at www.megandefranza.com

She’s doing work as a researcher with Boston University School of Theology.

Just look at all the things that she’s doing and support her in the work that she’s doing if this is a topic that connects with you.

We also want to thank everyone who has supported us on Patreon and highlight that there is a growing community there:  www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where we have the ability to connect on Slack which is an app, really kind of a chatboard.

One of the subtopics connecting here with Megan is sexuality.  There’s also “talking to your kids about the Bible.”  There’s “science and faith.”  There are all kinds of people there talking about these topics.

We really want to create a safe place where you can explore your questions, your doubts, topics, get advice, get recommendations, share your stories.   You can check that out and more at www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.

Thanks again for everyone who has supported us so far.