Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch: Strategies of Ambiguity in Acts, 2013

Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch: Strategies of Ambiguity in Acts by Sean D. Burke was a surprise winner for me. I stumbled on this book as I was doing an internet search for something else. I went on to cite Dr. Burke’s work in four chapters (4, 11, 15, and 20) of OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation.

Like Megan DeFranza’s work, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch is an academic work exploring eunuchs in the ancient world. Expect “socio-rhetorical analysis,” “postmodern theory,” and tons of footnotes.

Dr. Burke offered several critical insights that helped to shape OtherWise Christian. He explores the common assertion that eunuchs were often non-castrated court officials:

[T]he evidence does not support the repeated assertion of some scholars that in antiquity the word eunuchos could be used to refer to a noncastrated court official. (Burke, page 38)

Dr. Burke also elaborates on the “men vs unmen” distinction in the ancient world as well as details the gender location of the eunuch:

In some discourses, eunuchs are gendered as not-men, effeminate males, or half-men/half-males (semiviri/semimares). In others, eunuchs are gendered as girls (puellae), or as beings that have actually changed, or are in the process of changing, from male to female. In still others, eunuchs are gendered as hybrids of male and female, or as neither male nor female. In yet other discourses, eunuchs are defined by the loss of masculinity or manhood, or even the loss of humanity itself. (Burke, page 107).

Finally, he also develops the race, class, and nationality aspects of eunuch identity:

[T]wo constituent elements of ancient constructions of eunuchs were slavery and foreignness; in fact, the discourse of foreignness of eunuchs was so powerful that castration could turn a citizen/native into a (fictive) foreigner. (Burke, page 129)

Whether you want to dig through all of the details or not, these three aspects of Dr. Burke’s work are major developments in our efforts to construct a picture of what it meant to be a eunuch in the ancient world.

Preview Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch

Sean D. Burke is a professor at Luther College.

MORE RESOURCES: Transgender and the (Christian) Bible

ALSO Transgender Christian (auto)Biographies

ALSO Transgender Christian Oral Histories

Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige on July 1, 2019.

Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have corrections or are able to contribute further context or reflections.

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