While the terms we use today are fairly new, transgender and other gender variant individuals have existed for as long as humanity has. The Bible highlights several notable gender variant characters, some of whom might have been considered transgender today. In some cases, their gender variant traits were obscured through imprecise translation.
These people were used by God in the Old Testament and acknowledged and affirmed by Jesus in the New Testament – reassuring us that trans and gender variant individuals have always had a place in God’s creation.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. – Psalm 139:113-14 (ESV)
Gender identity is a core component of a person’s personality and is therefore part and parcel of God’s purpose for each of us.
The following passages provide an overview of how the Bible reaffirms this. We provide references for follow-up should you wish to delve deeper into the original text.
1. Genesis 37: Joseph’s Princess Robe
The Hebrew phrase used for Joseph’s coat is “ketonet passim”. This was first translated as “Coat of Many Colours” in the King James Bible. Ketonet passim appears in scripture only one other time, in 2 Samuel 13:18, which describes ketonet passim as a richly ornamented robe worn by the virgin daughters of the King: “[Tamar] was wearing a ketonet passim, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore.” (NIV) “… for thus were the virgin daughters of the king dressed.” (ESV) “…for with such robes were the king’s daughters that were virgins apparelled.” (KJV)
It is inconclusive if the term refers to a gendered garment for princesses, or if it was merely a colourful robe worn by royalty. It remains that Joseph’s doting father made him this ornate robe, stirring in his brothers a jealous rage.
It is interesting to note that some Jewish rabbis’ exegesis of the text in 300-500 A.D. said that Joseph “pencils his eyes, lifts his heels, curls his hair” (Bereishit Rabbah 84:7); “Twirling, hugging himself”; “Joseph is the image of his beautiful mother”. These suggest an ancient conception of an effeminate, gender-variant Joseph gleaned by those early commentators, who were much closer culturally and chronologically to the original texts than we are today, and who had additional sources from Jewish tradition to draw from.
Other Rabbis from the same time spoke of Joseph’s seeming lack of attraction to women:
“When Joseph went forth to rule over Egypt, daughters of kings used to look at him through the lattices and throw bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and finger rings to him, so that he might lift up his eyes and look at them; yet he did not look at them…” (Bereshit Rabbah 98:18)
Whether it was a result of transphobia, homophobia, or simply having their father lavish his favours on a less than manly brother who was a “dreamer” and did not labour as his brothers did, Joseph’s brothers beat him up to teach him a lesson and sold him into slavery. Notably, the very first thing they did was to strip him of his robe. They later tore this robe and stained it with goat’s blood to convince their father Isaac that Joseph had been killed by wild animals.
Despite the gender variance that Joseph exhibited, God’s favour remained with him. Joseph likewise remains faithful to God’s ways despite the suffering he endures – such as being thrown into jail for a crime he did not commit. He showed grace and mercy to his brothers, forgiving them for their deeds. Through exhibiting a spirit of excellence and integrity, Joseph is eventually promoted to the position of Egypt’s prime minister, or Vizier to the Pharaoh.
Overview of other translations of “Ketonet Passim”, some which are gender variant: https://lp.israelbiblicalstudies.com/lp_iibs_dhb_josephs_tunic-en.html?AffiliateWizID=4045&SubAffiliateID=&utm_source=affiliates&utm_medium=&utm_campaign=
Sermon from United Church of Christ: https://sermons.faithlife.com/sermons/176583-about-that-coat
2. Mark 14:13-15 / Luke 22:9-11 The Queer Water Carrier
And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” – Mark 14:13-15 (ESV)
In ancient Israel, fetching water was a woman’s job. The sight of a man carrying a water jar would have stood out as very unusual and certainly did not fall within the gender norms of their day. But it is for that very reason that Jesus’ disciples would have been able to notice him and follow him down the streets to the upper room. His difference made him visible in the Passover crowd. Had Jesus instead asked them to look for a woman carrying a water jar, they would have had no way to know which woman they were to follow.
It is not clear if this person was transgender, gender non-conforming, or temporarily taking on a gender atypical duty for some reason. Either way, God worked through this water carrier to lead the disciples to the room where Jesus would host His last supper. God also led the master of that household – someone who evidently accepted his male servant or relative doing “women’s work” – to furnish and prepare the room for the Passover meal.
At no point does Jesus comment or criticise this behaviour for subverting the gender roles of the day.
3. Judges 4-5: Deborah, the Gender Non-Conforming Judge
Deborah was the only female judge ever mentioned in the Bible. In ancient Israel, where women were treated like property and valued primarily by the number of children they could bear, Deborah was not only a judge but a prophetess (the only judge to be recorded as a prophet) and military leader.
Deborah is described as having a strong and fiery character, contrasting against her maternal roles as wife and mother. The Jewish tradition calls Deborah “Em Yisrael”, or “the mother of Israel”. A woman before her time, she embodies today’s woman who expertly juggles personal calling and the running of a household.
While operating in a patriarchal society, Deborah wielded considerable power and influence. As a judge, she summoned Barak, her General, to go into war as the Lord commanded. However, Barak said that he would only go into battle if she goes with him. She acknowledges both the gender hierarchy of her day, and how God uses her exceptionally, by responding “the road on which (he is) going will not lead to (his) glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Her military astuteness, which she attributed to God, gave Israel forty peaceful years.
The many roles of Deborah: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/deborah-in-the-bible/
4. Various Passages: Eunuchs, a third Gender
Eunuchs are mentioned in both the Old and New Testament. This includes some named eunuchs who played a prominent role in furthering God’s plans. While eunuchs are not synonymous with transgender people, they represent a marked deviation from the traditional gender roles and identities of male and female. The Bible portrays them as very much a part of God’s people and instrumental in carrying out God’s will, with no hint of condemnation for who they are.
Eunuchs are symbolically unifying for trans people of all genders. Eunuchs were born with typically male bodies and raised as boys before losing their male status in society with the removal of their genitalia – which bears similarities to what many trans women experience. They were not perceived or treated as fully men or women, effectively occupying a non-binary social role. Trans men can likewise identify with the experiences of eunuchs as men without male genitalia who have been made (sometimes against their desires) to live in social separation from other men, and who were considered “safe” to take on roles such as overseeing harems. However, the way they were accorded power and roles in ancient times is more in keeping with men than women; likewise, Biblical authors refer to and describe them with male pronouns.
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people” ; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (ESV)
In the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, eunuchs and foreigners were prohibited from joining temple worship (Deuteronomy 23:1-3; Leviticus 21:18-20). They were seen as “blemished” and thus unclean, similar to how “blemished” lambs were not acceptable for sacrifice.
However, during Israel’s exile, the Lord makes it clear in Isaiah that foreigners and eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and choose the things that please God will be richly blessed. The eunuch who had occupied the fringes of society and been denied a place among men or women would be given “a monument” and “a name better than sons and daughters”.
In the wilderness, without a temple, keeping the Sabbath was how the Israelites expressed their covenant with God. God’s message of grace for all humbles Israel in the midst of their exile and oppression, setting the stage for them to more easily welcome all as part of God’s chosen people.
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (ESV)
These verses show that Jesus was aware of the existence of eunuchs, as was his audience. He goes further to specify three different types of eunuchs: those born as such, those made thus by men, and those who chose that path.
Most people are familiar with those who are “made eunuchs by men” – those who were cruelly castrated for purposes such as attending to female royalty or managing harems, often while they were still young boys and against their will.
Those who have “made themselves eunuchs” likely refer to disciples like Paul, who chose to live celibate lives. Some early Christians went as far as to castrate themselves so as to remove all sexual temptation, mistakenly motivated by an overly literal interpretation of Jesus’ hyperbole that if a body part causes one to sin, one would be better off removing it. (Matthew 5:30)
What is insightful is that Jesus also brings up the existence of those who have been eunuchs from birth.
It is possible that Jesus was referring to what we know today as intersex, gay or transgender individuals, the latter of which might have had a different cultural expression in ancient Israel. Some descriptions of eunuchs from that time mention that not all eunuchs had been castrated, but describe their feminine physicality, mannerisms and lack of sexual attraction to women. The descriptions are suggestive of feminine gay men, intersex and transfeminine persons.
Regardless of who exactly he meant, what we can be sure of is that Jesus was speaking of a group of people who were not born normative men or women – and Jesus affirms their existence as part of God’s creation. He does not speak of any eunuch with condemnation. Instead, by recognising the different types of eunuchs, and espousing singlehood as a calling, Jesus points out that our choice of action should be linked to the gifts and circumstances that God has given to each person.
Acts 8:26-40: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
In this account, an angel told Philip to head to a road in a desert. The Spirit led him to an Ethiopian eunuch who was a court official of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. He was returning from worshipping at Jerusalem, and was reading the book of Isaiah. Philip was prompted to share the Gospel with him. When they passed by a body of water, the eunuch asked to be baptised and Philip immediately agreed. Some Biblical scholars consider this story as an instruction to include eunuchs within the Church.
5. Deuteronomy 22:5: On Cross-Dressing
A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this. (NIV)
This is often used as a clobber passage against cross-dressers in particular. However, biblical scholars agree that the prohibitions were aimed at preserving specific social and religious norms in ancient civilisation. This included keeping women in their place as property, protecting their traditions from foreign practices where anti-Semite priests donned the garments of female deities, or prohibiting the wearing of a garment made from several fabrics. In the strongly sex-segregated societies of the time, dressing as women was also one way that men were able to sneak into female areas for sexual liaisons.
Contrary to how the verse appears in English, the terms for “man” and “woman” are not mirrored here. The common Hebrew terms for “man” and “woman” are iysh and ishshah respectively. However, while the word “woman” in this verse was originally ishshah, the word translated as “man” is not iysh, but geber.
While it also means “man”, the word geber appears much more sparingly in the Bible compared to iysh. When it does, it is typically in a military context in reference to warriors, or as part of a headcount (e.g. they numbered a hundred men), or with allusions to male strength and valour.
Furthermore, the Hebrew word for the first instance of “clothing” in this verse is keli. The term appears a total of 325 times in the bible and is only translated as “clothing” in this single instance. Elsewhere, it has been translated as “vessel”, “weapon”, “armour”, or just “stuff”. When seen in conjunction with geber, however, one possible translation might read: “A woman shall not wear the armour of a male warrior…”
Likewise, the second word translated as “clothing” is not in fact the same as the first. This one is simlah, which refers to a large covering garment such as a cloak: “…nor shall a male warrior wear a woman’s cloak …”
If the intention of this verse was in fact to prohibit cross-dressing for men and women, it would have made more sense for it to read: “An ishshah must not wear iysh’s simlah, nor an iysh wear an ishshah’s simlah.”
Instead, the different words used result in a lack of symmetry in the prohibitions. This asymmetry is more visible in certain translations. For example, the ESV translates this as: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak… “, suggesting that it would be acceptable for a man to wear any article of female clothing that is not a cloak.
If so, this prohibition becomes less about cross-dressing and more about a woman pretending to be a male warrior (which would not have been acceptable for the time), or for a male warrior to deceive others by disguising his sex within the confines of a woman’s cloak. This dynamic translation fits into the context of Deuteronomy 22 as a set of rules for neighbourliness.
In 1 Samuel 16:7, we are encouraged by how God views and sees us: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (ESV) If the expression of cross-dressers and transgender people is an authentic outpouring of themselves according to their understanding of who God created them to be, then God does not condemn them.
Article from MCC: https://www.stjohnsmcc.org/freed-from-guilt/cross-dressing.html
In depth article showing possible readings of Deuteronomy. To note that the social systems perpetuating such rules are not contextually relevant in a modern society: https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-prohibition-of-cross-dressing
6. Galatians 3:25-29: God’s Equitable World
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (ESV)
Paul’s exhortations here to the Galatians were highly controversial for his day – a time when Jews still believed that Gentiles were not part of God’s chosen people, and some Galatians believers were urging new Christian Galatians to adhere to Jewish laws, including circumcision. In the passage, Paul recognises the dilemma between the institutions supporting slave ownership and its incompatibility with Christian teachings.
Seeking to push towards an equitable world, Paul walks a tightrope in Ephesians 6:5-9 with his instructions to Christian slaves and masters. We see him working within the structure of dominant powers of his day to guide Christian living towards the values of Christ. He further speaks against the gender hierarchy made by Jewish law and Greco-Roman social separations of male and female, in support of gender equality.
For women of Paul’s time, whose self-worth was dependent on their husband and children, it must have been empowering to read that they were no longer under a guardian, and through their faith they were elevated to the status of children of God, equal with men.