Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 210: Sidnie White Crawford – What You Really Need to Know about the Dead Sea Scrolls

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Dr. Sidnie White Crawford joins Pete and Jared to discuss the most important manuscript find in Hebrew Bible studies and how it impacts the New Testament. Together, they explore the following questions: 

  • What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? 
  • Why was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls so significant? 
  • What would have been the earliest written form of the Hebrew scriptures we had prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls? 
  • Why did the community at Qumran exist and what were they doing sticking their writings in caves? 
  • I have heard of Pharisees and Sadducees…but who were the Essenes? 
  • How have the groups of manuscripts from the DSS revolutionized aspects of our study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity? 
  • What influence does paleography have on the way manuscripts are dated? 
  • Were scholars surprised by anything particular upon discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls and comparing them to previously discovered manuscripts from the Middle Ages?
  • In what ways would the scribes who were copying the DSS by hand update and make edits as they went along? 
  • As we go further back in time, do biblical manuscripts become more uniform or more fluid and diverse? 
  • Was the sole job of a scribe to copy down text? 
  • What textual evidence was present in the DSS for the book of Jeremiah? 
  • Why are there two Hebrew versions of the book of Jeremiah? How terribly inconvenient. 


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Sidnie White Crawford you can share: 

  • “The Dead Sea Scrolls…overlap with the lifetime of Jesus and then the beginnings of the early church. So, it’s hard to overestimate their importance.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “We sometimes forget that the Bible is a collection of books, and each book has a different history.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “The biblical books…their texts were still fluid. They had the shape that we recognize. The details of the words were not fixed as they are now, people had to wrap their heads around that. [The further back we go in time] we get messier and messier.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “There was no author of Deuteronomy or Genesis, there was oral tradition…and that’s how it was passed on. We can’t say there was an author who wrote it; we can say there were scribes who shaped it over a long period of time.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “The scribes had enormous respect for the tradition, and saw themselves as passing along the tradition, making it a living tradition for their own time. Not a dead letter from the past, but a living tradition for their own time.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “The Dead Sea Scrolls have more copies of Enoch and Jubilees than they do of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. So, what did they think of those books? I don’t think you can say for sure that they thought of them as scripture.” – Sidnie White Crawford
  • “At the time the scrolls were copied, the Bible the way we think of it didn’t exist. These scrolls were all separate books. You could put them on a shelf, you could mix them up, you read them separately. It wasn’t in this fixed form, that we think of it as.” – Sidnie White Crawford

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


And I’m Jared Byas.

 [Jaunty intro music]


Welcome, everyone to this episode of the podcast.


Before we get started, just a reminder, folks, Jonah for Normal People is out and you need to read this and buy it and give it to everybody you know.


That’s right. You can just go to Amazon, wherever you get books, and get Jonah for Normal People.


It’s part of our series.


It’s part of our series. So, we have Genesis out, we have Exodus Out, and now it’s Jonah.




And yeah, but I think it was, it’s fun. Jonah is, again, one of my favorite books. And I try to bring in critical scholarship and some of the understandings but also a personal spin on it. Because I think, as you’ll see in the book of Jonah itself, I think it invites personal response, discussion, conversation, argument, and so I tried to bring some of that in as well.




Today, you’re in for a real treat. We’re talking about the most juicy topic.




“What You Really Need to Know about the Dead Sea Scrolls.”




The Dead Sea Scrolls, yeah. And then we have with us, no one better to talk about it than Sidnie White Crawford.


Yeah, she’s wonderful. Sidnie spent most of her teaching career at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and her main area is Dead Sea Scrolls. Also, like Second Temple Judaism, of course, because that’s part of it and like Hebrew language and things like that. But her area that she’s focused on is Dead Sea Scrolls.


Which you can tell by how she talks about it. She knows her stuff.


Yeah, yeah. Just off the top of her head. So anyway, it was a great discussion about the implications of this monumental, transformative manuscript find, for our understanding of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, and indeed, to a certain extent, Christianity in its context in the 1st Century. 


And it’s surprising how recent it was. I mean, my Dad was born in 1947. The same year.


Really? Okay. My house was made in 1947.


Right. So, we’re talking, not, I mean, when we think about manuscripts and all of these things, we kind of think, well, all that got discovered a long time ago and now we’re building on all these things. But this is recent discoveries that, you know, Sidnie tells us at the end of the episode has only recently impacted English translations.


Exactly. Right. Yeah. And how profound they are, again, is this, when they were discovered, people said, We have to rethink a few things here that we thought we understood.” And who knows what the next manuscript pile is and where it’s going to be found, and how that might broaden our understanding. Let’s put it this way. It broadened our understanding, changing some things, but definitely broadened it. That’s what scholars love: broadening and understanding more.


All right, let’s hear from Sidnie.

[Music begins, plays in background]


We have to remember that all of these manuscripts were hand copied by trained scribes. And if you have enough of them, you can get within 50 years. We don’t have any dated text. But we can give these relative dates by the study of the handwriting.

[Music ends]


Well, yeah, okay, so I think it’s worthwhile giving the listeners just the quick scoop on okay…


What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?




The Dead Sea Scrolls referred to a collection of manuscripts that were found in various find sites around the Dead Sea from above Jericho all the way down to Masada. But what most people mean when they say that are the scrolls found in the 11 caves around the site of Qumran, which is in the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, south of Jericho. And these were the original scrolls that were found beginning in 1947. So, they’re on their 75th anniversary right now.


Happy birthday.


Yes, exactly. Happy birthday to the scrolls.


[Chuckles lightly, amused by his birthday wishes to an inanimate object]


And they are important because they are the largest group of Hebrew manuscripts, Jewish manuscripts, ever found in the Holy Land. I mean, really, except for the Qumran scrolls, all our finds of written material are very small. A lot of them are just inscriptions on ostraca or stone, potsherds or stone, and a lot of them are business documents, bills of sale and wills and, which are important for reconstructing life. But the Qumran scrolls are literary texts, both the literature of ancient Israel that we think of think of as the Bible, but also the literature of the Second Temple period, the period between the Babylonian exile and the fall of the Second Temple in the year 70 to the Romans.


So, for New Testament studies, these scrolls overlap with the lifetime of Jesus and then the beginnings of the early church. So, it’s hard to overestimate their importance.


If we can maybe situate this dating because I don’t know if people maybe understand the significance of that. Before 1947 and the discovery of these scrolls, what would have been the earliest written down form of the of the of the Hebrew Scriptures that we would have had?


We have the complete, in Hebrew, the complete manuscripts, the earliest are from the 9th century, the Aleppo Codex and the 10th century, the St. Petersburg Codex.


So that’s a difference of, the Dead Sea Scrolls are from what time period? Because I think that’s important to name that gap. That we really, we stretched a significant gap with the discovery of these scrolls.


We sure did. The earliest manuscripts, which are all biblical, come from the 3rd century BCE, so say, around 250. And the latest come from, say, between 50 and 75, CE or AD. So, it’s really almost 1000-year gap. We do have manuscripts in Greek of the Hebrew Bible that are from the 3rd and 4th centuries, but they’re in Greek. And so, this is the actual Hebrew texts that we now have.


Yeah, it’s taking us way, way back, not to the beginning, but you know, much closer than we had been back in the, you know, the medieval period. So, yeah, just briefly, like, why did this community at Qumran even exist? And what were they doing, sticking their writings in caves?


[Light laughter]

Well, most scholars identify the people who lived at Qumran with one of the kind of wings or movements within Judaism that are identified by the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Jewish philosopher Philo, who talk about the Pharisees well known from the New Testament, the Sadducees, also well known from the New Testament, and the Essenes not mentioned in the New Testament. But it looks like the people who own the scrolls, collected them, and stuck them in the caves were the Essenes. And we can be not ever 100% certain, but it’s the best identification given what the scrolls say about the movement, the Jewish movement, where they’re located and the lack of other kinds of literature.

So, they were Essenes. The Essenes seem to have lived all up and down Judea. Both Philo and Josephus say there were about 4000 of them. Certainly, they weren’t all living at Qumran, but Qumran seems to be a kind of central location for them for collecting and storing their precious manuscripts. Why they chose Qumran is kind of a mystery, because we don’t know who owned the property, who gave it to them, you know, that kind of question. But they arrived somewhere between 100 and 75 BCE, and they built a settlement there that lasted until it was destroyed by the Romans in 68 CE. And their main occupation there seems to have been collecting, copying studying the literature of their sect which included the biblical literature.


Okay, so they were, the Essenes were a sect. I guess we can say that, and this Qumran community, sect is not a bad word, by the way. So, they were a division, you know, of the time and this community at Qumran, they were… Is it fair to say they were separatists, from, let’s say mainstream Judaism?


Yeah, they put up boundaries between themselves and other parts of Judaism. And I think that it’s really important to realize that the arguments that they were engaged in with other movements within Judaism were all about how to obey the precepts of the Torah. And the Pharisees had one set of traditions the Sadducees had another and the Essenes had yet another.



And of course, they overlap. Nobody disagreed that you should observe the Sabbath. But what that meant, and how you were to fulfill that commandment could become an area of controversy, as it can in Judaism today. So that seems to be, that’s the main reason that they put up these boundary markers, because they didn’t think that other Jews were fulfilling the Torah as they should be.


Alright, so let’s get into the manuscripts a little bit, because that’s what this community is known for, this copying of manuscripts that take us back 1000 years before, you know, the earliest complete Bibles we had in the medieval period. So how, let’s just talk about some of them. There are manuscripts of the Bible, there are some other manuscripts that are too. They also have commentaries on the Bible. And maybe we can just tease out some information about those groups of manuscripts and how they have impacted, and in some cases, actually, I think it’s fair to say, wouldn’t you agree, revolutionized aspects of our study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.


Absolutely. I when I think of when I started working on the scrolls, and I won’t say how long ago that was, but it’s not 75 years. But in any case, the difference in how we look at things like the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible, and the process of forming the canon of Scripture has really changed enormously. And it’s owing to what we’ve learned from the scrolls. So just as you know, a kind of overview: about 25% of the Qumran manuscripts are biblical, and there are about 900 manuscripts overall, so 25% of that. They were found in all the caves where manuscripts were found. So, in caves, 1, 2, 3, etc. They were found in, mainly in the Hebrew language, but in what we call Aramaic square script, which is the script that if you study the Bible today, and you’re using a printed Bible, that’s the script you see. But they also had it in what’s called paleo Hebrew script, which is a kind of descendant of ancient Israelite script, and they had it in Greek, too.

So they were serious biblical scholars, these people. The manuscripts of the Bible range in age from the 3rd century BCE, about 250, to between 50 and 75 AD. And the most popular books were the Psalms and Deuteronomy. So, the worship life of the community and the study of the Torah, I think, is the best way to think about that.


How do you date manuscripts? I mean, you mentioned the dates and, and those are agreed upon dates in the academic community. But you know, when you’re staring at an old manuscript you got out of a cave. How can you tell?


Right, right. Well, the first thing is to say that, we have to remember, that all of these manuscripts were hand copied. Right? That seems kind of obvious, but that’s the first statement you need to make. And then they were hand copied by trained scribes. So, people who literally went to school to learn to write, and so they had beautiful handwriting, and they had very uniform handwriting that only changed slowly. And so, by the way, they form their letters and the shape of the letters, you can establish a typology of scripts that you can say this script is older than, script A is older than script B, which is older than script C. And if you have enough of them, you can get within 50 years.



So, we don’t have any dated texts where it says, you know, in the fifth year of the reign of Herod the Great, we don’t have anything like that. But we can give these relative dates by the study of the handwriting, which is called paleography. In addition, some of the scrolls have been Carbon-14 dated, and the Carbon-14 dates match the paleography dates closely. And so, we can be sure, if I say, a manuscript was written around 250 BCE, it could have been written in 250. It could have been written in 225, it could have been written in 200…I can’t be that exact. So, these are approximate dates. But I can certainly look at a manuscript and know if it’s a third century manuscript or a first century manuscript.


So, I think I might ask the obvious question, because if someone’s hearing this, and they’re thinking, okay, before 1947, our earliest manuscripts were from the medieval period. And then we find these scrolls in a cave that have text from 1000 years earlier, of the biblical text. Were there any surprises in terms of differences? Or was the manuscript that we had in the Middle Ages, fairly faithful and consistent with what was written down 1000 years before?


It depends on the book, because we sometimes forget that the Bible is a collection of books. And so, each book has a different history. So, let me take Psalms as an example, right? We think of Psalms as a book in the Bible with 150 Psalms in a certain order. But when we look at the manuscripts from Qumran, what we see is that that order of Psalms wasn’t yet finally established. And the number of Psalms wasn’t quite finally established. So that among the 36 Psalms manuscripts that we have, you have different orders, some, what people might think of as extra Psalms. So, it hadn’t gelled or solidified into the form that we know it now. And so that tells us that at this time, the 3rd to the 1st centuries BCE, the book of Psalms hadn’t reached its final form, it was still a kind of work in progress. So, that’s an example. And it was a surprise, right? No one expected that.

Another example is the question of variants in manuscripts and variants simply means differences between different copies. And when you have handwritten manuscripts, of course, you’re gonna get errors, right? I mean, if you think about when you copy something by hand, which no one does anymore, but when you used to, you would make a mistake, and maybe you would erase the mistake and correct it, or you missed the mistake, and it was there. So, you get mistakes. But you also get things like updating where it would be like if we wanted to update the language of Shakespeare and make it more comprehensible, or the way that Bible translations will update language. So, in the King James Version, where it says in John 1, “the darkness comprehendeth it not,” and it really means encompassed or overcome, but we think comprehend means know. So, that language needed to be updated. They would do the same thing, substitute a more common word for a less common word, put in explanatory notes. Sometimes material would drop out, and suddenly we find manuscripts that have longer texts. So, all of this is new. And we, the word that we use to think about this is that the Bible, the biblical books, their texts were still fluid. They had the shape that we recognize. So, if you think of Genesis, it starts with creation, it ends with the Joseph narratives, and in between you have all the patriarchal narratives, that shape was set by the time we have the Qumran manuscripts, but the details of the words were not fixed as they are now, people had to wrap their heads around that. And it took a while.



I think some people, perhaps more than others, I mean, not trying to be funny, but many people are committed to a very early and fixed cannon. And to hear that there was something very close to the time of Jesus and probably extending into Jesus’s lifetime, that exhibits this fluidity of the texts. And I always found that fascinating teaching seminary students many years ago trying to explain that and watching their eyes pop out of their heads.




That’s why, I mean, it gave us, in other words, you know, the further back we go, this is the assumption. The further back we go in time, the more uniformity we’re going to see. And the more sort of a perfection of the text because we’re getting closer to the original author. But the exact opposite happened, in a sense, we see more diversity.


That’s right. We get messier and messier. And we’ve really stopped thinking about an author. Like there was no author of Deuteronomy or Genesis, there was oral tradition, that’s all texts, you know…in literacy, the rate of literacy in the ancient world was very low. Maybe 3-5%, if that. And so, people had much better memorization skills than they do now. And that’s how the cultural tradition was passed on. And then as it began to be written, these texts took shape. But we can’t say there was an author who wrote it, we can say there were scribes who shaped it-


Over a long period of time.


Over a long period of time. Exactly.


And that’s, again, not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but that is what scribes do. Right? They don’t just copy. There’s always, there’s an evolution or development of these texts over time, which was not antithetical to a respect for the tradition.


Absolutely. In fact, the scribes had enormous respect for the tradition, and saw themselves as passing along the tradition, making it a living tradition for their own time. Not a dead letter from the past, but a living tradition for their own time. And I think that that’s really important to realize. In some ways, you know, today with electronic texts, and things like wikis and things that can be changed, we’re in a period that’s more similar to the ancient world than we were when there was just the printing press.


Yes. [Light laughter]


I do think that’s important, because in certain religious traditions, exactly what we said was, we’re afraid of more diversity in the past. And we have this idea that the most faithful or respectful way to handle the Bible is to crystallize it, make no change. There is no evolution, there’s no development, and that just hasn’t always historically been the case. That for scribes, it actually was part of respect. It was part of what the sacred responsibility was to pass it along, almost like a midwife to the next generation.


That’s right. That’s a really nice phrase, Jared, sacred responsibility. And I think they felt that very strongly. And sometimes you do get a sense of the scribes working with the text and trying to, not perfect it, because that that would be wrong, but trying to, to make it more accessible or to make sure that people looking at the text would or people who were hearing it, for the most part, would hear it in all its glory, really.


So, okay, while we’re on this topic, I’d love for you to talk a bit about the textual evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls for two books in particular. Or just pick one: Isaiah and/or Jeremiah.


Well, Jeremiah is kind of the easiest to talk about, because it’s so clear. There were in the ancient world, prior to the fall of the temples, so in the lifetime of Jesus, two forms of the book of Jeremiah in circulation.



And we knew this prior to the discovery of the scrolls, because one form is found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scripture that for centuries was the Bible of Christians. And the other form in the Masoretic text, the Hebrew texts that is the heir of the rabbinic Bible. And so, the canonical text in Judaism.


And for our English Bibles too. 


Yes, yes. Now, so that the Masoretic text of Jeremiah is about 5% longer than the Greek text, and the chapters are in a different order. And I had a funny experience with this once in a classroom. We were reading Jeremiah and I had a student who was Greek Orthodox. And so, he had an English Bible that was an Orthodox Bible, a translation of the Septuagint. And I asked him to read a certain chapter, and he started in and everybody’s looking around, because that wasn’t the chapter. And I realized what had happened. So, it was a wonderful lesson right there to explain, you know, even in the at that time, I think it was the 20th century, maybe the early 21st, but in any case, what was going on. And the interesting thing about these Jeremiah manuscripts is that they’re all in Hebrew and they all were found in cave 4, so they’re side by side. So, they’re not saying, “Oh, this is the real Jeremiah, and this is the fake one.” They’re saying, these are both forms of Jeremiah that we can read and benefit from.


So just to be clear, at Qumran was found two Hebrew versions of Jeremiah, exactly right, one of which was used probably to translate it into Greek. That’s one tradition. And the other one that became this Masoretic text, this more official text of Judaism, which is still with us, you know, 2000 years later?


That’s exactly right.


That’s inconvenient. Why would they have two?


I gather they didn’t think that. And I think that’s one of the things that we had to get our minds around. They didn’t think it was inconvenient, they probably thought it was great that you could read and benefit from different forms of the sacred text and learn different things. And that’s one of the things that they did that, again, would make us kind of nervous, they would take what we might think of as the classical literature of ancient Israel, the stuff that they inherited from their ancestors, and they would take it and create whole new works. That, you know, sometimes lengthened some themes and built on them and changed things. And this was especially true of the narratives found in the Pentateuch, the ancestral narratives, the Exodus narratives, even in the legal sections, that they would do this. And we have a lot of manuscripts from the scrolls that do this, the book of Enoch, the book of Jubilees, the temple scroll, and they’re all what would have been called rewritten Bible. That’s kind of awkward, but we, we think of it as rewriting this classical literature to create new works.


Not canonical work, so to speak.


No, but interestingly, Enoch and Jubilees are canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.


Right. We have to keep remembering that there are different… [unintelligible].


Well, I wanted to ask a question about that. Because, again, we maybe make the distinction. I’m not sure if there was anything like this at Qumran where, I feel like there’s this like, where the Bible was sort of in this glass case, and it can’t be touched, and it’s what it is. And then, sure, we have these other, we have these other books outside of that. But in Qumran when we have these, you said only 20, 25% of the of the scrolls were made up of biblical texts and then you had all these other texts. Was there any sense in which do we know if they sort of kept the “biblical books” that we think of as separate and more sacred than these other texts? Or were they all just kind of in there together? And there wasn’t this idea of, well, these are the primary ones and then we’re creating secondary works based on these and they’re not as important as these other ones. Was there any kind of hierarchy?


I’d say, actually, it’s kind of somewhere in the middle. It’s really clear that the five books of the Pentateuch, the Torah, were “the Word,” the sacred texts, bar none.



That was, and then you had the profits, and they were scripture. But then in the writings, Ruth, we have in two copies, there’s no indication that they thought Ruth was special in any way. Like, it’s a nice story. But they didn’t treat it in any way that indicates they thought, this is scripture. They have more copies of Enoch and Jubilees than they do of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. So, what did they think of those books? I don’t think you can say for sure that they thought of them as scripture, as “the Bible.” Well, they may have thought of Enoch and Jubilees as scripture.


It’s interesting though, that the Jewish Bible we have, like if you go get a Jewish Bible off the bookshelf, say, at Barnes and Noble, the Tanakh. And you have it that it’s already still situated, or it’s still situated in that same way, where you have the Torah, and then the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim. They have the first five books, then they have the prophets, then they have the writings to end it out. It’s almost like they’ve preserved this almost concentric circle. And I don’t know if a lot of Jewish readers today would say, well, the Ketuvim, the writings are less important than the Torah. But I think in some circles, they might say that where it is almost this concentric circle tradition.


Right. I’m not sure they would say it’s less, I mean, I don’t think they would use that language. But they would say that the Torah is central to our understanding of ourselves as Jews, and that means the Torah and all the interpretation that goes along with it—Mishnah, Talmud, Tosefta—everything else so that Torah in Judaism is more of a living, growing tradition than a fixed set of books. The fixed set of books are there, but it is a little different. Christianity, I think maybe we can blame Martin Luther, who said sola scriptura. And so, while Christians clearly do interpret the biblical text, sometimes they almost don’t want to admit it. Right? They just open it and read it.


Yeah, true. Well, let’s, you know, to sum up, I guess, the manuscript evidence of Qumran at the very least, it brings to the table, questions of canon, and questions of just the state of texts in the ancient world.




And the bottom line is that it’s not more clear, it’s from our point of view, from our expectations as modern people, it’s less clear. But maybe we need to think about it just in a different way, not about, not transferring, rather, our concerns or questions onto an ancient people, but just say, listen, here’s the way that it was, maybe they weren’t so hung up on things like we are.


Right, let’s let the scrolls speak. And I think one way that this is really difficult for us to do is to remember that at the time the scrolls were copied, the Bible the way we think of it didn’t exist, even in its physical form of a bound book, codex. These scrolls were all separate books, right? You could put them on a shelf, you could mix them up and have them in different orders. You read them separately. I mean, then they obviously knew all of this literature, but they, it wasn’t in this fixed form, that that we think of it as. We shelve our Bibles in libraries separately than we shelve commentaries, for example.


Right, right. Well, let’s, I want to make sure we get to this a little bit too. Another group of writings among the Dead Sea community are these commentaries. We have a few of them on biblical books, like maybe the most, the best known as the commentary on Habakkuk. And these, these bring to light other kinds of issues. I mean, maybe we can say hermeneutical issues, but also things that might help us see something about maybe the rise of Christianity. That might be more than we can say from some of these writings. But let’s talk about these commentaries that are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.


Yeah, they are very interesting. We call them pesharim, from the Hebrew word pesher.



Because the way these commentaries were set up, they would quote a verse from the biblical text and then they would say, pesh rêy, “its interpretation is,” and then they would give a very contemporary interpretation. So that they weren’t, you know, I think Pete, when you teach or I teach, one of the things we emphasize is what was the original context? What was the historical context of this writing? They weren’t interested in that. They were interested in what, how, they believe that the scriptural text spoke about specific events in the life of their community, and that’s what they were interested in. And they interpreted these prophets in that way. And they, it’s funny, it’s they’re very, what we would think of as minor books, Habakkuk, Nahum, books like that. I mean, usually we don’t go and read Nahum very often. But they did. And they will use, they’ll use kind of fake names for figures, they talk about the wicked priest, and the teacher of righteousness, and the wrathful lion. And it’s been like a big puzzle for scholars to try and figure out who they’re talking about.


And the liar. Somebody called the liar. 


A liar, yes. This founder of lies. [Laughter]


Now, give us a little bit more context, because, like, why did they interpret these biblical texts in terms of their own community? Were they somewhat of an apocalyptic eschatological kind of community?


They certainly seem to be from what the kind of texts they were reading. They’re very fond of Daniel, for example, and that they were producing, they have texts called “The War Rules” that talk about the final battle at the end of days. They have visionary texts, like the visions of Amram, the father of Moses, that talk about the last days. So, in a sense, they are in the same kind of basic milieu as the early Christians were, because early Christians were convinced they were living in the last days as well. And you can see that in books in the New Testament, the example, of course, is Revelation. Now, I want to say that there’s no indication in the scrolls of any New Testament books. So whatever fertilization there was, it was a more indirect fertilization than any kind of direct fertilization.


But in some ways, I think that’s more important, because again, a lot of Christian traditions, or I would just speak for mine growing up, there was no sense that the New Testament had a context. If anything, the context of the New Testament was just the Old Testament, and you just skipped over all this intertestamental period. And it made the New Testament feel really unique, like it was saying really unique things because it was quite different than maybe the language and things of the Old Testament. But things like these scrolls at Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and then of course, other intertestamental things. Second Temple Period literature, really, I think, opened up for I mean, scholarship, but then it’s beginning to trickle down for everyday people, by having people like Sidnie Crawford on podcasts. But would you say, then, that the New Testament, while it’s indirectly related  and that sort of thing, we can see the connections of the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament where they would have come from the same world.


Absolutely, absolutely. They come from the same world. They have the same issues of dealing with the Roman Empire, of being a people living under foreign domination. They have questions about how to fulfill the law. You know, I think that we forget that when Jesus is debating with the Pharisees in the gospels, it’s often on questions of how do you fulfill the law? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Is it not? These are questions that were that were animating all Jews at the time and with the Dead Sea Scrolls, now we can see those kinds of questions in real life, you know, not kind of filtered through through the Gospels, which are written after the time of Jesus. These are these are contemporary with Jesus.



Yeah, I think what freaked people out, at least some people out, was how, again, just reiterate the point, how much of the New Testament breathes the same air as something that is outside of the New Testament, indeed, in many respects prior to it. Which raised the question, which you already answered whether the New Testament sort of gets it from this community. And if I remember, I don’t remember specifically the literature, Sidnie, but I think some popular treatments of this sort of argued that the Gospel was directly dependent on the Dead Sea community. But you’re saying that’s not the case. But there is still an indirect connection?


Right, I think that the phrase “the air they breathe,” is the right one. Because how could you not be concerned about living under the Roman Empire? Right? The Roman Empire was everywhere. Everyone was concerned about that. You know, and of course, for the early Christians, it was the Roman Empire that crucified Jesus. And so, that was part of the reality for all of these groups, and how to live that way. And what did it mean that God was allowing the Roman Empire to dominate the world? And how do we handle that?


Right, right. And they both felt that, again, to use maybe the contemporary expression, they were living in the last days. 




It’s happening, or it’s about to happen. And, you know, we have this righteous teacher or teacher of righteousness among the Dead Sea Scrolls, who I guess probably was their leader?


In some way. We’re not entirely sure. But, but clearly a really important figure. I guess you don’t call someone a righteous teacher unless you think that. [Light laughter]


Who also, I think, interpreted the texts for the community.




Which is a very Jesus-y thing.


Exactly. And it mentions in pesher Habakkuk, the teacher of righteousness’ interpretive activity, and, you know, the teaching function, what does the text mean? How do we understand it? You know?


And that’s about us.




I mean, just to maybe not to be too on the nose. But I think tying to when Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” that is, that what you’re talking about in terms of that kind of somewhat interpretive function. That would maybe be the language of that we would maybe find in that world of saying, “Well, you’ve heard of this interpretation, I’m going to give you this other interpretation. And if you’re believing my authority, you’re going to kind of follow my lead in terms of how I’m reading these texts.”


Yes, exactly. Exactly. And in fact, there’s one passage in Matthew, and I don’t have chapter and verse in my head, but Jared, you brought it to mind that where Jesus says, “You have heard it said, You shall love your friend and hate your enemy. But I say to you love your enemies.” And it’s like, where did anybody say this? Well, the Dead Sea Scrolls, say things like that, right? You know, you love your fellow, your fellow community member, but you hate those outside the community. And how literally, they took that is an open question, but certainly, that’s the language.


Well, I guess you know, what we’re looking at here. And we’re coming to the end of our time here, Sidnie, unfortunately. But it seems like one of the big lessons that we gain, let’s just limit it to the Christian world, Christians today, becoming familiar with these discoveries that are now 75 years old, that take us back, you know, over 2000 years. They are giving us a broader context within which to understand things like just the nature of the Bible. And also for Christians, something of the context where maybe the Gospel makes some sense. The Jesus movement makes some sense in that world, even if it wasn’t, you know, they’re not duplicating each other. They’re not consciously even aware of each other, probably, unless John the Baptist was an Essene.


Which, I don’t I think, he sounds like he was a pretty lone figure and these Essenes, they lived in community. That was really important to them, as it was to the early Christians. So that’s another way in which, you know, we see that same kind of milieu.





But I think you’re, I think that that’s a very fair way to put it. And especially now, in the world of Bible translations. You do see the biblical scrolls have a lot of influence in the latest update of the New Revised Standard Version for example, a lot of emphasis was placed on scroll manuscript readings.


Right, right. Okay, well, let’s leave with this. I’m going to put you on the spot. If you were talking to somebody who was just starting to study the Dead Sea Scrolls, what one bit of wisdom would you give them about the study of the scrolls and the importance of digging into it? Because people are listening to this, there’s a reason for this, people are listening to this saying, “Oh, crap. Another thing I have to learn that’s going to ruin my life.” So how would you, as a professor, you know, and as a Christian, how might you just encourage them to move forward?


I would say, first of all, find a good translation, Geza Vermes’ translation of the scrolls, is very readable with good introductions, and then sort of see how they feel. They will feel very alien at first, right? It’s a different language, it’s a different world. And to get a good introductory text is also very helpful. But to persevere, just to keep at it and learning and I think it’s very rewarding to do that. But that, it’s really important. Good translation.


Alright, Sidnie. Well, listen, thank you so so much for taking the time to talk with us about I think what is a very central topic for Christians who want to educate themselves about Scripture and about their own faith and just 1000 thanks for you being here.


Thank you.


Well, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.


You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by reading the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you’d like to help support the podcast, you can head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.


Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Director, Savannah Locke; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.

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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.