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Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex:

Intertextuality and Gender in
Early Christian Legends of
Holy Women Disguised as Men


Early Christian legends of monastic women disguised as men have recently

been the object of psychological, literary, sociohistorical, anthropological, and
theological study. In this article, I will raise new questions about these legends
from the perspective of the poststructuralist theory of intertextuality. What are
the cultural “texts” that these legends “play upon”? What does this
intertextuality tell us about how such legends participated in late antique
cultural discourse on gender and the female body? Here, I examine five
cultural “texts” reworked in the legends: 1) the lives of earlier transvestite
saints like St. Thecla; 2) the Life of St. Antony; 3) late antique discourse about
eunuchs; 4) the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife from Genesis; and
5) the textual deconstruction and reconstitution of the female body in early
Christian literature. These “intertexts,” along with key christomimetic
elements in the legends, suggest how binary conceptions of gender identity
were ultimately destabilized in the figure of the transvestite saint.

This is an essay about the peculiar ways in which women’s identity and
piety were portrayed in late antique hagiographical texts. In early Chris-
tian saints’ lives, women are alternatively castigated as fallen daughters of
Eve and lauded as heroic models for pious imitation. On the one hand,
they are depicted by male writers as sources of temptation and objects of
lust; on the other hand, a select number of them are celebrated as some-
how having transcended the limitations of their sex. In light of these
conflicting images, how did the authors of saints’ lives seek to shape

Journal of Early Christian Studies 10:1, 1–36 © 2002 The Johns Hopkins University Press

ancient perceptions of women? How did they, in effect, help “construct”

women’s gender for early Christian readers?1
I will begin with a slight indiscretion—by eavesdropping on a conversa-
tion between a father and his daughter:
He therefore began to speak to her and said, “Child, what I am to do with
you? You are a female, and I desire to enter a monastery. How then can
you remain with me? For it is through the members of your sex that the
devil wages war on the servants of God.”

To which his daughter responded, “Not so, my lord, for I shall not enter
the monastery as you say, but I shall first cut off the hair of my head, and
clothe myself like a man, and then enter the monastery with you.”2

Coming away from this conversation, one might wonder what exactly is
going on here. Who are these people? When and where does this dialogue
take place? At first, this seems like it could be a peculiar variation on the
modern-day themes of parent-child conflict and teenage rebellion: “Child,
what am I to do with you?” After all, what is a father to do with a
daughter who won’t let him go off to become a monk in peace, but wants
to cut off her hair, dress in men’s clothes, and join a monastery with him?
In fact, this conversation is an ancient one. It comes from the spiritual
biography of a female saint from the early Byzantine era—the Life of St.
Mary/Marinos.3 This (fictionalized) interchange between Mary and her

1. Recent studies in the areas of gender and the human body have struggled with
the issue of how the discursive representation or cultural “construction” of gender
identity relates to “the emotional and experiential reality of inhabiting a body”
(Dominic Montserrat, “Introduction,” Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies
on the Human Body in Antiquity, ed. D. Montserrat [London: Routledge, 1998], 4;
cf. Gilbert Herdt, “Preface,” Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in
Culture and History [New York: Zone Books, 1996], esp. 17–19). This is an issue
with which postmodern sociologists and anthropologists continue to wrestle, and one
that I do not presume to resolve here. In this article, I use the terms “gender” and
“body” specifically to refer to the ways in which cultural discourses helped shape
ancient perceptions of what it meant to be “male,” or “female,” or (alternatively)
someone whose gender identity was not so easily classified according to the
traditional bipolar model. In the study of Christianity in late antiquity, it is certainly
important to recognize how these different gender identities were “embodied” in
terms of biological and genital experience, but my concern here is primarily on a
social and textual level: namely, how did the gendered discourses of early Christian
texts reshape and challenge previously held social assumptions?
2. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 3; tr. N. Constas, in Holy Women of Byzantium, ed.
Alice-Mary Talbot (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996), 7.
3. For the critical edition of the Greek text, see M. Richard, “La vie ancienne de
Sainte Marie surnommée Marinos,” in Corona Gratiarum: Miscellanea patristica,

father occurs near the beginning of her Life, right after the death of her
mother. It does not take long before the father is persuaded by his daughter’s
appeal: he himself cuts her hair, dresses her in men’s clothing, and changes
her name to Marinos. Then the two enroll in a men’s monastery together.
Mary/Marinos advances to sainthood, but not before she has to endure a
series of hardships: a false accusation of rape and paternity by a local
innkeeper’s daughter, her expulsion from the monastery as a result of that
charge, and finally the necessity of raising the abandoned orphan while
homeless and exposed to the elements. Throughout these difficulties, she
never reveals her identity in order to prove her innocence. After three
years, her endurance of suffering earns her (and her adopted son) re-
admission to the monastery, but it is not until after her death that her true
identity is revealed and her fellow monks recognize the depth of her
The story of Mary (a.k.a. Marinos) in many ways typifies the ambiva-
lent attitude of the early church toward women. At the beginning of the
story, Mary’s own father condemns her sex as an instrument of the
devil—the primary means by which “the devil wages war on the servants
of God.” And yet, by the end of her Life, the author counsels his readers
(both male and female) to emulate Mary’s patient endurance of suffering,
“so that on the day of judgment we may find mercy from our Lord Jesus
This same ambivalence toward women also is reflected in the manu-
script tradition of the Life of St. Mary/Marinos. Only three Greek manu-
scripts of the Life survive, all in the monastic libraries of Mount Athos in
northeastern Greece. Located on a small peninsula that juts out into the
Aegean Sea, Mount Athos has been regarded as the center of Greek
monasticism since at least the tenth century. Today, it is home to twenty
monastic houses. The monasteries at Mount Athos are especially known
for their rigidly exclusive policy toward women. No women are allowed
to set foot upon the peninsula—it is reserved for men only. This policy of
exclusion extends even to female members of animal species. It would
seem ironic then that the Life of St. Mary/Marinos—the story of a woman
who disguises herself as a monk in order to enter a male monastery—
should have been preserved and copied at monasteries that forbid the

historica et liturgica Eligio Dekkers O.S.B. XII Lustra complenti oblata, I (Brugge:
Sint Pietersabdej, 1975), 83–94. For a complete English translation of the Greek text,
see Holy Women of Byzantium, 7–12.
4. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 4 and 21; Richard, “Vie ancienne de Sainte Marie,”
88, 99.

presence of women. Why would the Greek monks at Mount Athos have
had an interest in this story? In such a setting, why would Mary, a
“crossdressing” female saint, have been lauded as an exemplary model
for the male monastic life? For a largely patriarchal (and often misogy-
nist) church, the image of the transvestite female saint was certainly full
of contradictions: a compelling sign of the hostility and yet at the same
time lurid fascination with which early Christian men viewed their female
The Life of St. Mary/Marinos is not the only legend of a transvestite
female saint that survives from early Christianity. In fact, during the late
fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, church writers produced a whole series
of monastic legends about women disguised as men: at least eleven vitae
of transvestite female saints were published during this period. Within
this group of texts may be included the vitae of Saints Anastasia
(Anastasios), Apolinaria (Dorotheos), Athanasia (wife of Andronikos),
Eugenia (Eugenios), Euphrosyne (Smaragdus), Hilaria (Hilarion), Mary
(Marinos), Matrona (Babylas), Pelagia (Pelagius), Susannah (John), and
Theodora (Theodoros).5
These Lives each exhibit subtle variations on the same theme. Some of
the heroines (Apolinaria, Eugenia, Euphrosyne, Hilaria) take on male
dress in order to escape their parents’ inflexible expectations of marriage
and to travel incognito to monastic areas. Others leave already existing
marriages, sometimes with their husbands’ consent (Athanasia), and some-
times against their husbands’ wishes (Matrona, Theodora). Still others,
like the prostitute Pelagia, disguise themselves as men in order to mark
their conversion to Christianity and the monastic life, and their break
from a sinful past. In all cases, the act of crossdressing enables the women
to enter the monastic life unhindered by binding familial or social prejudices.
As in the case of Mary, who endured a false accusation of rape and
paternity, most of these transvestite saints’ legends also involve a “com-
plication” that disrupts the monastic life of the heroine and poses the
threat of discovery. In the Life of Hilaria, after the heroine (disguised as

5. E. Patlagean (“L’histoire de la femme déguisée en moine et l’évolution de la

sainteté féminine à Byzance,” Studi Medievali, ser. 3, 17 [1976]: 600–602) lists and
catalogues twelve vitae of female transvestite saints: Anastasia Patricia, Anna/
Euphemianos, Apolinaria/Dorotheos, Athanasia (wife of Andronikos), Eugenia/
Eugenios, Euphrosyne/Smaragdus, Hilaria/Hilarion, Mary (1)/Marinos, Mary (2),
Matrona/Babylas, Pelagia/Pelagios, Theodora/Theodoros. However, two of these
legends clearly date later than the seventh century (Anna/Euphemianos, ninth; Mary
[2], eleventh or twelfth). To Patlagean’s list may be added the vita of St. Susannah/
John, also from the sixth or seventh century.

the monk Hilarion) is called upon to heal her demon-possessed sister, she
is questioned about her unusual “displays of affection” shown toward
her sister. In the Life of Apolinaria, the same scenario is complicated by
the demon-inspired illusion of pregnancy in the sister, for which Apolinaria
(disguised as the monk Dorotheos) is initially blamed. Other disguised
saints, like Eugenia, Susannah, and Theodora, resist the sexual advances
of female visitors, only to be accused by the women of initiating the
encounter and brought to court to defend themselves against the charges.
In the Life of Theodora, the female accuser becomes pregnant by another
man and accuses Theodora (Theodoros) of actually fathering the child, a
scenario reminiscent of the Life of St. Mary/Marinos. In some cases, such
accusations result in the public revelation of the saint’s sexual identity. In
other cases (like that of Mary), the saint’s identity remains secret until
after her death. Regardless of when the identity of the heroine is revealed,
this discovery invariably causes pious wonderment on the part of the
observers, and ultimately leads the hagiographer to celebrate and publi-
cize the woman’s secret sanctity.
This corpus of transvestite saints’ lives has attracted renewed interest
among scholars in the last few decades. These scholars have raised a
variety of questions regarding these hagiographical texts: What was the
social setting for the production of this literature? How does one account
for the literary and thematic crosscurrents within the corpus? How does
this body of literature relate to early Christian theology? And finally,
what do these legends tell us about ancient understandings of gender and
of women’s religiosity?



In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the few scholars who
studied these legends of transvestite saints tended to dismiss them as
merely romantic, edifying stories with little historical value—essentially
the pulp fiction of late antiquity.6 These conclusions reflected Victorian
assumptions about what constituted “serious” literature and what did
not. For historians of that time period, the miraculous elements of saints’
lives disqualified them for serious consideration as historical sources to be
studied in their own right. Instead, the hagiographical stories would only

6. H. Delehaye, Les legends hagiographiques (Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes,

1927), 177, 192.

be studied as derivative developments on earlier classical and mythologi-

cal themes. For example, one scholar in the late nineteenth century saw a
similarity between the names of the Christian transvestite saints and the
“nicknames” given to the goddess Aphrodite. Because of this, he argued
that these saints’ lives were, in fact, Christian developments on the legend
of the bisexual, bearded Aphrodite (renamed Aphroditos), who was wor-
shiped on the island of Cyprus.7 Another scholar suggested that these
transvestite saints’ lives derived from a different source—the ancient Greek
novel entitled Ephesiaca.8 In that novel, the heroine (named Thelxinoe)
disguises herself as a man in order to avoid an unwanted marriage and to
elope with her true lover. Others have since argued more broadly for the
influence of Greek novels on the theme of female crossdressing in early
Christian hagiography.9 However, despite the value of identifying classi-
cal antecedents for the legends of transvestite saints, these early attempts
were limited in that they ultimately devalued the significance of this image
in early Christianity.
The last forty years have seen renewed interest in this corpus of
hagiographical legends. Several articles have been published, approach-
ing this literature from various methodological perspectives: psychologi-
cal, literary, sociohistorical, anthropological, and theological. What has
unified these new studies has been a concerted effort to understand the
significance of these legends within the context of early Christian thought
and practice.
One of the first scholars to revisit the question of the early Christian
transvestite saint was Marie Delcourt in her book Hermaphrodite: Myths
and Rites of the Bisexual Figure in Classical Antiquity (1961). In the
appendix to that book (“Female Saints in Masculine Clothing”), Delcourt
approaches the issue of the transvestite saint from the perspective of
Freudian psychology.10 Specifically, what does the psychology of the hero-
ine tell us about the setting of these stories in early Christianity? Delcourt
argues that the heroine’s act of taking on male dress signifies a thorough

7. H. Usener, Legenden der heiligen Pelagia (Bonn: Adolph Marcus, 1879).

8. L. Radermacher, Hippolytos und Thekla: Studien zur Geschichte von Legende
und Kultus, Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Philosophisch-
historische Klasse, Sitzungsberichte 182.3 (Vienna: Alfred Hölder, 1916).
9. Rosa Söder, Die Apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und die romanhafte Literatur
der Antike (Stuttgart: S. Kohlhammer, 1932; repr. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche
Buchgesellschaft, 1969), 127–28; Gillian Clark, Women in Late Antiquity (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1993), 31.
10. M. Delcourt, Hermaphrodite: Myths and Rites of the Bisexual Figure in
Classical Antiquity (London: Studio Books, 1961), 84–102.

break with her “feminine past.” In the stories this “break” typically
manifests itself in two ways: the rejection of family and authority struc-
tures, and the renunciation of the sexual life. The heroine’s masculine
disguise is seen as an outward symbol of these social and familial ten-
sions. How did this symbol relate to its early Christian context? For
Delcourt, the “psyche” of the transvestite saint should not be located in
earlier Greek mythology; instead, it was rooted in the psychology of early
Christian asceticism, which in its most rigorous form “preached total
renunciation of material possessions and all sexual life.” In this context,
she identifies the female act of crossdressing as psychologically equivalent
to the male act of self-castration.11
John Anson was the next to take up the question of the transvestite
saint in his article, “The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism: The
Origins and Development of a Motif” (1974). In that article, he analyzes
the literary structure of these legends and argues that they were “products
of a monastic culture written by monks for monks.”12 Anson rejects the
possibility that the legends (at least potentially) reflected the psychology
of actual early Christian women, and instead treats the stories as just that,
stories. For Anson, the psychological significance of the legends is not
primarily to be found in the characterization of the heroine, but in the
literary structure and the social setting of their composition.
In his article, Anson identifies a grouping of six to eight transvestite
legends that share a common geographical and social setting in Egypt
(specifically the famous monastic settlement at Scetis, or the Wadi Natrun)
and a common plot structure. Because of this, he suggests that the works
may, in fact, have been a “literary cycle” that was “mass-produced by a
school of Egyptian scribes at a time when the desert of Scetis had become
the acknowledged center of the monastic movement.”13 Anson analyzes a
group of these legends according to their basic three-part plot structure:
1) flight from the world, 2) disguise and seclusion, and 3) discovery and
recognition. By showing how each of the legends offers variations on that
basic schema, Anson tries to describe an evolution of this hagiographical
“genre” within its monastic setting. In the end, he reads the legends as
evidence for early Christian monastic psychology, especially for the pal-
pable tensions between, on the one hand, monastic hostility toward women

11. Delcourt, Hermaphrodite, 96, 99–101.

12. J. Anson, “The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism: The Origin and
Development of a Motif,” Viator 5 (1974): 5.
13. Anson, “Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism,” 12–13; cf. E. Amélineau,
“Histoire des deux filles de l’empéreur Zenon,” Proceedings of the Society of Biblical
Archaeology 4.10 (1888): 181–206.

as the source of their sexual desire, and on the other, the monks’ sup-
pressed longing for female presence. The transvestite female saint is un-
derstood as the literary product of this tension—the product of the monks’
desire to raise up heroic examples of women’s piety to atone for female
guilt, as well as to atone for the guilt of the monks themselves.14
With the publication of Evelyne Patlagean’s article, “L’histoire de la
femme déguisée en moine et l’évolution de la sainteté féminine à Byzance”
(1976), the study of this hagiographical corpus took a new turn—away
from psychological readings, and toward a social-historical description of
how these legends reflected Christian thought and practice in late antiq-
uity. Cataloguing and dating relevant sources and manuscripts, Patlagean
tries to sketch the textual and historical development of this literature.
According to her analysis, the earliest versions of these legends (Mary,
Pelagia) date to the fifth century, while the full series of legends in Greek
was composed and collected in the sixth and early seventh centuries. This
group of works also began to be translated into other languages—into
Coptic and Syriac during the sixth century, and into Latin after the
seventh century. The production of these Lives waned in the eighth cen-
tury, but in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries there was a revival of
the genre: manuscript evidence from this period attests an increase in the
copying of earlier legends as well as the production of new Lives of
monastic women disguised as men.15
Patlagean, too, identifies a three-part structure to the legends (ascetic
retreat, transvestitism, revelation of sexual identity), but analyzes these
features according to the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist analy-
sis of myth.16 In particular, she tries to describe how the formal elements
of the stories would have functioned within the social context of early
Byzantine culture. For example, she argues that the central motif of
transvestitism would have challenged late antique social models of male
authority and female subjection. The image of the transvestite saint was

14. Anson, “Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism,” 13–30.

15. Patlagean, “Histoire de la femme déguisée en moine,” 600–604.
16. For an example of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ use of structuralist theory in linguistics
and anthropology, see his book, Structural Anthropology (Garden City: Doubleday,
1967), ch. 2. Patlagean’s article on transvestite saints’ lives was an extension of her
previous work in the structuralist study of early Byzantine hagiography in her article
“Ancienne hagiographie Byzantine et histoire sociale,” Annales 23 (1968): 106–26.
For an English translation of this article, see “Ancient Byzantine Hagiography and
Social History,” in Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore
and History, ed. Stephen Wilson, tr. J. Hodgkin (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1983), 101–21.

an image of female independence and autonomy: the act of taking on

male disguise allowed the women to travel and to live as monks without
being detected or observed. (Indeed, they often passed for male eunuchs,
whose presence within late antique society and within Byzantine monasti-
cism is well documented.) For Patlagean, the stories themselves present a
model of “transgressive sanctity” that challenges male authority in mar-
riage. As such, she locates these stories of holy women disguised as men
within the social and intellectual context of early Christian monasticism.
The attitude toward women in this literature reflects the monastic fear
that the female sex represented a fundamental obstacle to salvation. By
portraying heroines who “became male” both in dress and in physical
appearance, the monks were proposing a model of female sanctity in
which “the female” was negated (at least in part). While men could
theoretically flee the presence of women by entering the desert at an early
age, women for their part were called in this literature to flee their own
nature through ascetic practice.17
Patlagean’s study of the transvestite saint legends was significant not
just for her documentation of the sources and their historical develop-
ment, but also for the way that she began to apply sociological and
anthropological theory in her analysis of the legends. More recent studies
that propose alternative social or anthropological readings of early Chris-
tian transvestitism are in many ways indebted to her work. One example
is a recent article by Nicholas Constas (1996) where the author also
employs anthropological language to describe the basic plot of the trans-
vestite legends as a ritual of initiation and transformation, “a mysterious
rite of passage marked by three characteristics: separation, liminality, and
reaggregation.”18 For Constas, transvestite disguise is the focal point of
this ritual structure—it symbolizes the “liminal” or marginalized status of
the female monk as she moves from an old set of social values to a newly
defined role within a monastic setting. By producing this ritual of trans-
formation, early Christian monastic culture was defining itself as it tried
to resolve its own inconsistencies and ambivalence regarding the spiritual
status of women.

17. Patlagean, “Histoire de la femme déguisée en moine,” 610–16.

18. Nicholas Constas, “Life of St. Mary/Marinos,” in Holy Women of Byzantium,
4–5. For his analysis of the legends as “rites of passage,” Constas depends on the
anthropological work of A. Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, tr. M. B. Vizedom and
G. L. Caffee (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960). For an application of these
concepts to the study of Christian pilgrimage, see Victor and Edith Turner, Image and
Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1978).

In the past decade, other methods besides anthropological theory have

been applied to the study of transvestite saints’ lives. In particular, some
scholars have begun to reconsider the image of the transvestite saint in the
context of early Christian theology and ancient discourse on the female
body. In her article “Women in Early Byzantine Hagiography” (1990),
Susan Ashbrook Harvey argues that the transvestite saint functioned as a
theological symbol of “reversal” in late antiquity. In the stories, the
sanctification and redemption of the heroines take place in two stages:
first in their role as “men” (that is, in the guise of men), and only later
truly as women (the heroines are always granted sainthood as women).
The women’s bodies are “symbols of purity and perdition,” and as such,
they not only signify the human condition, but also reenact the drama of
humanity’s salvation. Viewed as fallen daughters of Eve, “women could
display this grace more than men because they deserved it less.” Thus, for
Harvey, the transvestite female saint ultimately embodies the theological
paradox of redemption.19
Two other recent studies have focused even more closely on how these
transvestite saints’ lives fit within the patterns of ancient discourse on the
female body. In her article “‘I Will Make Mary Male’” (1991), Elizabeth
Castelli argues that the acts of dressing in men’s clothing and cutting one’s
hair short functioned in this literature as “bodily signifiers”—signs of
how early Christian society was reevaluating (and destabilizing) tradi-
tional gender differences in the context of a theology that called for
personal and corporate transformation.20 Finally, Terry Wilfong (1998)
examines transvestite saints’ lives in the context of Coptic Christian con-
ceptions of the female body. In the Coptic legend of Saint Hilaria, the
heroine’s identity is hidden from observers not only because she wore
male monastic garb, but also because her body underwent radical, de-
feminizing physical changes as the result of her life in the desert:
For her breasts, too, were not as those of all (other) women: above all, she
was shrunken with ascetic practices and even her menstrual period had
stopped because of the deprivation.21

19. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Women in Early Byzantine Hagiography: Reversing

the Story,” in ‘That Gentle Strength’: Historical Perspectives on Women in Christian-
ity, ed. L. Coon, K. Haldane, and E. Sommer (Charlottesville: University Press of
Virginia, 1990) 36–59, esp. 45–51.
20. Elizabeth Castelli, “‘I Will Make Mary Male’: Pieties of the Body and Gender
Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity,” in Body Guards: The
Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, ed. J. Epstein and K. Straub (New York:
Routledge, 1991), 29–49, esp. 44–47.
21. Life of Hilaria, ed. J. Drescher, in Three Coptic Legends (Cairo: Imprimerie de
l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1947), 6. The translation here is by T.

For Wilfong, such descriptions were part of a larger cultural and hagio-
graphical discourse on the female body. In that discourse, the female
body—often a source of worry and concern to male authors—was in
various ways deconstructed, obscured, disjointed, and fragmented.22
As I have shown, the study of early Christian transvestite saints’ lives
has moved considerably in the past century from the relatively naïve
search for historical “sources” to the more critical application of social,
anthropological, theological, and (some) discourse theory. In this article, I
want to take the study of these texts a step further. While my interest will
still be on understanding this literature in the context of ancient discourse
on gender and the female body, I will be asking new questions of the texts
from the perspective of poststructuralist theory and the study of
intertextuality. But first, I need to define these terms.


In the past few decades, scholars who study early Christian texts have
increasingly turned to the fields of literary criticism and discourse analysis
for alternative ways of reading history. Yet, during this time period, the
discipline of literary studies itself has undergone radical changes, as rela-
tively recent theories have been challenged and replaced by newer critical
methods. Such is the case with poststructuralism, a body of recent theory
that has challenged conclusions drawn by earlier structuralist theorists.
The theory of structuralism itself arose during the early part of the
twentieth century as a critique of prevailing liberal humanist views about
the nature of language and meaning. Previously in the study of literature,
it had been assumed that both language and meaning were direct prod-
ucts of an author’s mind. Structuralist theorists like Saussure in the field
of comparative linguistics and Lévi-Strauss in the field of anthropology
challenged this assumption.23 They argued that the source of meaning in

Wilfong, “Reading the Disjointed Body in Coptic: From Physical Modification to

Textual Fragmentation,” in Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings, 127.
22. Wilfong, “Reading the Disjointed Body in Coptic,” 116–36, esp. 127–30. For
other examples of the textual fragmentation of the female body in Christian
literature, see C. W. Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and
the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books; Cambridge: MIT
Press, 1991), 11–26, 181–238.
23. Ferdinand de Saussure, Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics
(1910–1911) (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1993); Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural An-

language and texts was not the author; instead, they proposed that mean-
ing be understood as the product of preexisting, universal structures
within language itself. Lévi-Strauss defined this shift in focus as one away
from “conscious linguistic phenomena” (e.g., the intent of the author) to
“their unconscious infrastructure”—that is, the “system” and “general
laws” that govern speech and language.24 Thus, structuralists typically
seek to analyze all narratives as variations on universal narrative pat-
terns.25 While literary structuralism reached its heyday in the 1960s, it
was not until the 1970s and early 1980s that a number of scholars began
to apply structuralist theory to the study of the New Testament and other
early Christian literature.26 Indeed, it was in the midst of this upsurge in
structuralist criticism of early Christian texts that Evelyne Patlagean wrote
her 1976 article on the history of early Christian women disguised as men
(see above).
However, during the 1960s and 1970s, other philosophers and literary
theorists had already begun challenging certain assumptions of structur-
alism. This critical challenge heralded the rise of “poststructuralism”—a
term that describes an assortment of theories unified by their common
critique of structuralism’s universalizing tendencies. While structuralists
have insisted that all language has at its core a basic, universal structure
that generates meaning, poststructuralists argue that this core, this basic
structure, is illusory—it is only a false “trace” or façade, the result of
language’s attempts to hide its own contradictions and incompleteness.27
Take for example, the binary structures that exist in language—light/
dark, good/evil, black/white, etc. For the poststructuralist, each element
in these pairs can only be understood in terms of the other. One can only
understand “light” if one already knows what “dark” is. However, by the
same token, one can only understand “dark” through a prior acquain-
tance with the concept of “light.” In this way, these binary structures of
language (identified by structuralists as the building blocks of meaning)
are exposed as circular and ultimately self-contradictory. Thus, for some
poststructuralist theorists, like Jacques Derrida, language can ultimately
be said to “deconstruct” itself. A text is not simply “a finished corpus of

24. Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, ch. 2.

25. Mary Klages, “Structuralism/Poststructuralism,” available at http://www (17 September 1997).
26. On the application of structuralism to biblical studies, see The Postmodern
Bible: The Bible and Culture Collective, ed. G. Aichele, F. Burnett, E. Castelli, et al.
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), ch. 2, esp. 82–83.
27. Aichele et al., Postmodern Bible, 120.

writing . . . but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly

to something other than itself.”28
This notion of texts as contingent and interdependent gave rise to the
poststructuralist theory of intertextuality. At its most basic level, inter-
textuality can simply refer to how authors quote or allude to earlier
sources in writing their own texts. However, as it was coined by the
French philosopher Julia Kristeva and later developed by the literary
theorist Roland Barthes, the poststructuralist concept of “intertextuality”
also embraces a larger philosophy of how language works.29 This philoso-
phy specifically critiques the structuralist claim that individual texts are
“discrete, closed-off entities,”30 and instead argues that any particular
text can only be read within the context of prior texts and larger cultural
discourses that give it meaning. As one theorist put it: “[E]ach text be-
comes itself in relation to other texts, no text is self-contained.”31 Texts,
by their very nature, play upon other texts.
Ever fond of word play, poststructuralist theorists have mined the
etymology of the word “text”—“a tissue, something woven”—for a meta-
phor to describe the phenomenon of intertextuality. Thus, the text has
been compared to a piece of fabric woven together by many different
strands. It is the interpreter’s job not so much to unravel those strands,
but to examine the texture of that fabric, “the interlacing of codes,
formulae, and signifiers.”32 Ultimately, by tracing the texture of this fab-
ric, the interpreter can begin to see how a text has reworked prior texts
and thereby participated in an ongoing cultural discourse.33
Poststructuralist (or postmodern) literary theory is often bewildering to
the uninitiated. Its radical questioning of objectivity in the search for
meaning poses enormous challenges to traditional conceptions of theol-
ogy and history. Theologians and biblical scholars have only relatively

28. Derrida, “Living On: Border Lines,” tr. J. Holbert, in Deconstruction and
Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom, et al. (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 83–84; cf.
Derrida, Of Grammatology, tr. G. C. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1976), ch. 2.
29. For a history of this term and its theoretical application, see Graham Allen’s
recent publication Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2000).
30. David Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners, available at http://www.argyroneta
.com/s4b/sem09.html, last revised 19 April 1999.
31. Mark Taylor, “Deconstruction: What’s the Difference?” Soundings 66 (1983):
32. Roland Barthes, “Theory of the Text,” in Untying the Text: A Post-
Structuralist Reader, ed. Robert Young (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 39.
33. Jonathan Culler, “Presupposition and Intertextuality,” in The Pursuit of Signs:
Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 101–3.

recently begun to apply poststructuralist insights to their own disciplines;34

historians of early Christianity have noticeably dragged their feet, lagging
behind their colleagues. How can this body of theory be applied fruitfully
in the study of early Christian texts? In this article, I propose to make a
foray into this area, as I reevaluate early Christian transvestite legends
from the perspective of intertextuality and poststructuralist discourse
In particular, I want to argue that the typical structure of these trans-
vestite saint legends—ascetic retreat, transvestitism, revelation of sexual
identity—is more variable (less consistent) than structuralist interpreters
like Patlagean and Anson have suggested. Especially given the significant
variations observed from legend to legend, this structure should not be
considered a fundamental or universal feature of the texts, but rather the
result of interpreters’ attempts to impose upon the texts a structural unity
where one does not necessarily exist. Thus, instead of viewing the legends
primarily in terms of these structural elements, I want to shift the focus to
how the texts themselves—their plots and their characterizations of the
heroines—are in fact composites of intertextual references. In this sense,
the structural elements of ascetic retreat, transvestitism, and revelation of
sexual identity may be included in a larger set of cultural signs, allusions,
and echoes that shift, change, and replay from one legend to the next.
What are the “texts” that these legends “play upon”? And finally, what
does this intertextual play tell us about how this group of legends partici-
pated in late antique cultural discourse on gender and the female body?
These two questions will guide my steps through the rest of this essay.



In reading the legends of female saints disguised as men in intertextual

terms, I want to argue that the characterization of these saints is not
cohesive, not coherent, and, ultimately, not unified. That is, the character-
ization of these women does not stand on its own, but rather is composed
of bits and pieces of prior cultural texts, images, and discourses. One
might compare the characterization of the transvestite saint to an image
seen through a kaleidoscope—as we “turn” the text, different fragments
of cultural data merge, are diffracted, recombine, and separate once

34. The best introduction to the use of poststructuralism in biblical study is

Stephen D. Moore’s Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

again. The transvestite female saint was (quite literally) the embodiment
of various oblique cultural discourses—an intertextually constructed body.
Thus, for the late antique reader, intertextual allusions—the fragments of
various cultural discourses—would have offered clues for understanding
the enigmatic figure of the female transvestite saint.
What were the primary cultural discourses at work in the figure of the
holy woman disguised as a man? How did the transvestite saint legends
rework and re-present earlier texts in the characterization of their hero-
ines? Here, I will identify five cultural “texts” (or groups of “texts”)
reworked in the legends—five key intertextual elements that impinge
upon the characterization of the female saint: 1) the lives of earlier trans-
vestite saints in the church, especially St. Thecla; 2) the lives of famous
early Christian holy men like St. Antony; 3) late antique cultural dis-
course about eunuchs, including the story of Philip and the Ethiopian
eunuch in Acts; 4) the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife from Genesis,
and other later variations on the theme of the spurned female temptress;
and finally, 5) early Christian discourse on the female body, in particular,
its textual fragmentation and intertextual reconstitution in the context of
wo/men’s community. I do not mean to present these five elements as a
new structural basis for understanding the legends—they are far too
variable to fulfill such a function. In fact, no single legend in the corpus
contains all five elements. Instead, I want to portray the characterization
of the transvestite female saint within the larger corpus as a ragged
patchwork of these intertextual elements. The saint’s body is effectively
clothed in this patchwork, a patchwork of texts and images that present
her in sexually ambiguous or male terms—the female saint who is not
female, and yet still is.

Transvestitism as Intertextual Sign:

Re-presenting St. Thecla and Her Sisters
The act of transvestitism—taking off women’s clothing and putting on
men’s—is the unmistakable “sign” or image that links this group of
hagiographical narratives, and as such, it often prompts the most ques-
tions from the modern critical reader. What is the narrative function of
this act for the heroine? What would it have signified for an ancient
community of readers? For those looking for satisfying answers to these
questions, the texts themselves are not very forthcoming. In many of these
Lives the heroine’s change of dress is virtually left unexplained. The Life
of Susannah is a typical example. In that legend, after Susannah is bap-
tized a Christian, she begins to resist her parents’ plan for her to marry. In
order to escape their expectations, she suddenly leaves her home by night,

releases her servants, gives her money to the poor, cuts her hair short, and
dresses herself in men’s clothes. The last two actions are narrated with no
special commentary or explanation.35 As a result, within the text, the act
of transvestitism has no explicit signification other than a straightfor-
ward, pragmatic one—to facilitate the heroine’s desire to escape the no-
tice of her family and (eventually) enter a male monastery without being
The absence of interpretation offered within the Life of Susannah and
other legends of female saints disguised as men would have prompted the
ancient reader to look elsewhere for the significance of this act. This
absence of interpretation may even suggest that the hagiographers actu-
ally presumed that their ancient readers were already acquainted with
other “texts”—other discourses—that would have helped make sense of
the transvestite motif within these saints’ lives. If so, what were these
other “texts” and how would the act of transvestitism have been read
One of the legends, the Life of Eugenia, provides us with an answer to
this question. In that account, Eugenia’s act of disguising herself as a man
is modeled after St. Thecla, the most popular female saint in the early
church after the Virgin Mary. St. Thecla is also recognized as the first
transvestite saint in early Christianity. The second-century Acts of Paul
and Thecla,36 the basis of Thecla’s legend, portrays her as a disciple of the
apostle Paul in Asia Minor. Persecuted by her family and society for
leaving her fiancé in order to follow Paul, Thecla survives two martyr
trials, the first by fire and the second by beasts in the arena. During the
second martyr trial, she baptizes herself; and then, after her release, she
dresses herself like a man and begins to travel and teach the gospel she
had learned from Paul.
The Life of Eugenia and the other transvestite saint legends written
three or four centuries after the Acts of Paul and Thecla were hagiographical
attempts to reappropriate Thecla’s story in a new context. However,
unlike in the other legends, where the connection with Thecla remains
implicit, this “reappropriation” in the Life of Eugenia is explicit and
purposeful.37 In the story, Eugenia, the wealthy daughter of a Roman

35. Life of Susannah 3–4, AASS, September 4: 154.

36. For the most comprehensive critical edition of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, see
Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha, ed. Richard A. Lipsius and M. Bonnet (Leipzig:
Hermann Mendelssohn, 1891), 235–72.
37. Portions of the following analysis of the Life of Eugenia have been adapted
from chapter four of my book, The Cult of Saint Thecla (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2001), and a previous article, “Pilgrimage and the Cult of Saint Thecla,” in

governor assigned to Alexandria, actually obtains a copy of the Acts of

Paul and Thecla (“the book of the story of the discipleship of Thecla the
holy virgin, and of Paul the Apostle”).38 One day, while traveling in a litter
outside Alexandria, she studies passages from this “book of Thecla.”39
Eugenia’s reading has an immediate effect on her: imitating Thecla’s
example, she cuts her hair and dresses herself like a man. (In the Acts of
Paul and Thecla, even before her change of dress, Thecla had offered to
cut her hair short as a sign of her commitment to Paul’s ministry.)
This intertextual connection with Thecla is reinforced later after Eugenia
has abandoned the litter and secretly joined a monastery. Eugenia’s ab-
sence causes an uproar in her family, and the author describes their
reaction by borrowing a turn of phrase from the Acts of Paul and Thecla:
“For her parents were mourning for their daughter; and her brothers for
their sister; and her servants for their mistress.”40 In the Acts, it is Thecla’s
family (her mother, fiancé, and maidservants) who mourn a similar loss.41
These allusions to the Acts of Paul and Thecla provide the reader with an
intertextual context for understanding Eugenia’s own actions. Just as in
the case of Thecla, Eugenia’s change of appearance facilitates her break
from her family and pursuit of an ascetic vocation.

Pilgrimage in Late Antique Egypt, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 303–
38. Life of Eugenia 2; tr. Agnes Smith Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women,
Studia Sinaitica 10 (London: C. J. Clay; New York: Macmillan, 1900), 2 (fol. 22a);
see also the Armenian version edited by F. C. Conybeare, The Apology and Acts of
Apollonius and Other Monuments of Early Christianity (London: Swan Sonnenschein;
New York: Macmillan, 1894), 158. The mention of Acts of Paul and Thecla appears
only in the Syriac and Armenian versions; the Latin substitutes “the teaching of that
most blessed Apostle Paul” (eius beatissimi Pauli apostoli doctrina; PL 59:607B). In
fact, the Latin omits any and all references to the female saint. In this context, the
textual tradition seems to support the hypothesis that the Syriac and Armenian
versions offer an earlier reading. Given the apocryphal reputation of the Acts of Paul
and Thecla in the Latin church, it is more likely that Thecla would have been deleted
from the original text, rather than added to it at a later time.
39. Life of Eugenia 3; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women, 3 (fol. 22b); cf.
Conybeare, Apology and Acts, 158. In the Latin version, Eugenia travels out to the
suburbs of Alexandria for the express purpose of mingling with the Christians (PL
40. Life of Eugenia 8; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women, 12 (fol. 31b); cf.
Conybeare, Apology and Acts, 168. The Latin and Greek editors retain this reading:
lugebant universi confusi: parentes filiam, sororem fratres, servi dominam (PL
73:610D–611A); §pebo«nto pikr«w, ofl pat°rew thn yugat°ra, ofl édelfoi thn gnhs¤an,
ofl doËloi thn d°spoinan (PG 116:624B); cf. Acts of Paul and Thecla 10.
41. Acts of Paul and Thecla 10: “And they wept bitterly, Thamyris missing his
betrothed, Theocleia her child, the maidservants their mistress” (kai ofl men ¶klaion
dein«w, Yãmuriw men gunaikow éstox«n, Yeokle¤a de t°knou, afl de paid¤skai kur¤aw).

The Acts of Paul and Thecla was not the only basis for this intertextual
bond between Eugenia and Thecla. The author of the Life also had access
to other nonliterary “texts” connected with the cult of St. Thecla in late
antiquity—a reservoir of visual artifacts that could also be utilized for
intertextual ends. Later in the Life, Eugenia is forced to go to court in
order to defend herself against a false accusation of sexual assault. This
accusation was brought against her by a woman whom Eugenia had
earlier healed of disease. Brought to the court in chains, Eugenia decides
that she must confess her identity—that she must reveal her biological
gender—in order to protect the reputation of the Egyptian monks. First,
she explains, “I became a man for a short time, being emulous and
imitating my teacher Thecla: she who despised and rejected the desires of
this world, and became worthy of the good things of heaven by means of
her chastity and her life.”42 Then, as visible proof of her sex, Eugenia rips
open her garment to reveal her breasts to the crowd.43
In the story, this act exonerates Eugenia from the woman’s false accusa-
tion. However, given her explicit self-identification with Thecla, Eugenia’s
act would also have had other associations for readers—especially Egyp-
tian readers—in late antiquity. According to the text, she “rent the gar-
ment which she wore from the top as far as her girdle . . . and the chaste
breasts which were upon the bosom of a pure virgin were seen”44 (my
italics). Here, the Life of Eugenia presents a visual tableau that conforms
remarkably to the iconography of pilgrim flasks associated with Thecla’s
cult in Egypt.45 On these flasks Thecla appears stripped naked to the
waist, with the curves of her breasts revealed. Her hands are tied behind
her back and she is flanked by two bulls, a bear, and a lion. The scene
represents a conflation of martyr scenes from the life of Thecla, incorpo-

42. Life of Eugenia 15; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women, 20 (fol. 39a);
cf. Conybeare, Apology and Acts, 176–77.
43. A similar scene appears in the Acts of Apolinaria where Apolinaria (disguised
as a monk named Dorotheos) reveals her breasts to her parents in order to prove to
them that she is their daughter, and to defend herself against a false charge of
paternity (Acts of Apolinaria, f. 218 v.; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends, 159).
44. Life of Eugenia 15; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women, 21 (fol. 39b);
cf. Conybeare, Apology and Acts, 177; PL 59:614D.
45. The date and provenance of these flasks and the Life of Eugenia are almost
identical. The flasks were produced in the vicinity of Alexandria during the late fifth
and sixth centuries (Zsolt Kiss, Les ampoules de Saint Ménas découvertes à Kôm el-
Dikka (1961–1981) [Varsovie: PWN-Éditions scientifiques de Pologne, 1989], 14–
18). The Life of Eugenia also seems to have been originally written in or around
Alexandria during the sixth century (Anson, “Female Transvestite in Early Monasti-
cism,” 12).

rating images most notably from Thecla’s second martyr trial in the
In the Life of Eugenia, the verbal imagery describing Eugenia’s own
trial at court evokes this scene. It is as if the image of Thecla stamped in
clay has actually imprinted itself on the bodily posture of Eugenia. Here
we see how the writer of the Life has used not only the Acts of Paul and
Thecla as a subtext, but also the discourses and practices—the art and
artifacts—associated with her pilgrimage cult. While Eugenia’s disguise as
a male monk is to be read in terms of Thecla’s transvestitism in the Acts,
the undoing of that disguise is to be read in terms of Thecla’s cultic
iconography (an iconography that itself was an intertextual reading of
Thecla’s martyr trials in the Acts).
In this way, the undoing of Eugenia’s transvestite disguise is synony-
mous with the narrative “undoing” (or deconstruction) of the Acts of
Paul and Thecla through multiple layers of intertextual rereading. In the
Acts, Thecla survives martyr trials and then dresses as a man (thereby
“undoing” her status as a woman) in order to travel as an itinerant
apostle. In the Life of Eugenia, this plot movement is reversed. Having
traveled to the outskirts of Alexandria, Eugenia disguises herself as a man
and enters a male monastery; later, she is forced to reveal her identity
(thereby reestablishing her identity as a woman, i.e. “undoing” what was
earlier undone) in a trial before the Roman governor. The image of
Eugenia’s revealed and exonerated body functions as an icon to St. Thecla;
yet, at the same time, in this image the texts and discourses of Thecla’s
cult have been subverted—subtly “undone” through a process of inter-
textual revision.
Despite their importance, the literature and art associated with St.
Thecla were not the only subtexts for the early Christian legends of
monastic women disguised as men, nor was the act of transvestitism the
only locus for such intertextual play. In these legends, other stereotypical
elements in the characterization of the heroines also betray traces of

The Call to Be a Holy Man: Overhearing Scripture

with St. Antony
In the Coptic Life of Hilaria,47 the heroine is raised in Constantinople as
the daughter of the emperor Zeno; and yet, despite the comfort of her

46. Acts of Paul and Thecla 28, 33, 35.

47. The Coptic Life of Hilaria has been edited and translated by James Drescher, in
Three Coptic Legends, 1–13, 69–82.

upbringing, she yearns for a life of monastic renunciation. Her sense of

monastic calling is reinforced by a visit to church, where, having asked
God to “let me hear from the scripture-lessons readings suited to my
aim,” she hears a series of scriptural readings disparaging the trappings of
worldly wealth.48 Because her royal status effectively bars her from pursu-
ing this calling, she disguises herself as a knight and flees by boat to
Alexandria. There, entering the church of St. Mark, she again asks the
Lord to direct her through the words of Scripture. And again, she hears a
series of readings advocating the renunciation of family and riches for the
sake of the gospel. Immediately after this, she resolves to travel to Scetis
(the ancient Wadi Natrun) and join one of the monastic settlements in
that region. There she quickly earns renown for her ascetic endurance and
The calling to the monastic life that Hilaria experiences would have
been familiar to literate Christians in late antiquity, especially in the
Egyptian context. Her overhearing of Scripture passages that seem to
speak directly to her situation evokes the famous monastic calling of St.
Antony, narrated in Athanasius’ spiritual biography, the Life of Antony.
After the death of his parents, Antony finds himself walking to church
reflecting on “how the Apostles left everything and followed the Savior”
(Matt 19.27). Arriving at church, he hears another verse from Matthew
19 being read—the words Jesus says to the rich man who asked him how
he might obtain eternal life: “If you would be perfect, go, sell all of your
possessions, and give them to the poor; and come, follow me, and you
will have treasure in heaven” (19.21). In response to these words, Antony
gives his land away, sells most of his possessions, and distributes the
money to the poor. However, it is only when he returns to the church
again, and hears another passage from Matthew (“Do not be anxious for
the morrow” [6.34]) that he makes a total break from his former life: he
gives the rest of his possessions away to the poor, places his sister in a
nunnery, and enters the desert to pursue the monastic life.49
This account of Antony’s monastic calling serves as the subtext for
Hilaria’s own call.50 Like Antony, she visits the church on two occasions,

48. Life of Hilaria; tr. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends, 2–3, 70–71.
49. Athanasius, Life of Antony 2–3; PG 26:841–45.
50. The use of Antony’s call as a model for spiritual conversion and monastic
commitment is found elsewhere in early Christian literature, most notably in Book 8
of Augustine’s Confessions. There, Augustine recalls how, in a state of spiritual
turmoil, he was compelled to open his Bible and read the first chapter he encountered
there, in much the same way that Antony, “accidentally coming in whilst the gospel

and each time hears passages of Scripture read that confirm her desire for
monastic renunciation. Hilaria’s very act of “overhearing” Scripture ac-
centuates the intertextual character of the narrative at this point: it is
interesting that, while Antony hears only one verse each time he visits the
church, Hilaria receives a surplus of biblical teaching—six passages on
each occasion. The connection between Hilaria and Antony is also subtly
reinforced by the final verse she hears during her visit to the church of St.
Mark in Alexandria. The verse is from Matthew 19.29—Jesus’ summary
of his teaching to the rich man: “Ye who have left house and wife and
child, in the generation to come ye shall receive them manifold and ye
shall inherit life everlasting.” For a late antique reader well-versed in
Scripture, this verse would have sent him or her on an intertextual path-
way that would have led, first to the larger context of Matthew 19 and
then inevitably to the famous citation of that context in the Life of
Antony. Through such an intertextual reading, Hilaria was presented as a
new Antony, a new holy wo/man of the desert.
In effect, by portraying the Hilaria as heir to the monastic calling of St.
Antony, the Life of Hilaria subtly presents the transvestite saint in male
gendered terms. In late antiquity, while female saints were often privi-
leged as models for women, male heroes and saints were frequently
invoked as models for men. In the Life of Antony itself, Athanasius
remarks that, “for monks, the life of Antony is a worthy model for the
ascetic life.”51 Thus, in retracing the footsteps of her intertextual model
Antony, Hilaria is understood to be actualizing a distinctively male piety.

A Third Gender? Becoming Eunuchs

for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven
I have already highlighted the ambiguity of the transvestite saints’ gender
status. This ambiguity is nowhere more evident than in their association
with eunuchs in the legends. In late antiquity, eunuchs occupied a unique
social position—one that was culturally constructed as a “third gender.”52
Their status as a “third gender” was established not only on the basis of
their physiological differentiation from men and women and their exclusion

was being read . . . received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to
him” (Augustine, Confessions 8.29; tr. J. G. Pilkington, NPNF, 1st ser., 1:127).
51. Athanasius, Life of Antony, Prologue; PG 26:837. See also the Life of Antony,
chapter 7, where Antony himself identifies the prophet Elijah as his own ascetic role
model, “a mirror in which to study his own life” (PG 26:853).
52. Kathryn M. Ringrose, “Living in the Shadows: Eunuchs and Gender in
Byzantium,” in Third Sex, Third Gender, 85–109, esp. 94ff.

from procreative functions, but also on the basis of acculturated behav-

iors, mannerisms, and social roles. Eunuchs were often identified because
of their distinctive dress and their stereotyped speech patterns and body
language. They also performed particular social functions, especially ones
that involved mediation across social boundaries. In this way, eunuchs
were really liminal figures in ancient society. This perception of eunuchs
extended to the early church as well. Both Clement of Alexandria and
Gregory of Nazianzus classify them as a third category apart from men
and women. In the words of Gregory, eunuchs are “of dubious sex.”53
Given the ancient perception of eunuchs as liminal figures, it is signifi-
cant that, in their legends, transvestite female saints are often mistaken
for eunuchs during their life as monks. After many years as a desert
solitary, the transvestite holy woman Apolinaria is invited to join Abba
Macarius’ monastic community in Scetis because she is thought to be a
eunuch.54 In the Life of St. Mary/Marinos (the story with which I intro-
duced this article), Mary is mistaken for a eunuch because “she was
beardless and of delicate voice.”55 In the Life of Hilaria, Hilaria’s fellow
monks likewise assume that she is a eunuch because she has no beard.56
Finally, the former prostitute Pelagia, after she is converted to Christian-
ity by the bishop Nonnus, dresses herself in Nonnus’ spare clothes and
flees to Palestine to become a monastic hermit; there the church commu-
nity in Jerusalem comes to know her as Pelagius the eunuch.57
In other legends, the heroines intentionally cultivate the impression
that they are eunuchs. For example, the transvestite saint Euphrosyne
schemes to enter a male monastery outside Alexandria disguised as “a

53. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.15 (ed. Otto Stählin and Ludwig Früchtel,
in Stromata 1–4 [Berlin: Akademie, 1985], 97–99); Gregory of Nazianzus, In Praise
of Athanasius (PG 35:1106). For other similar early Christian attitudes toward
eunuchs, see Ringrose, “Living in the Shadows,” 89.
54. Life of Apolinaria, f. 216 v.–217 r.; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends, 157.
55. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 5; ed. Richard, “Vie ancienne de Sainte Marie
surnommée Marinos,” 88, line 37; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium, 8.
56. Life of Hilaria; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends, 6, 75. This scenario
corresponds to ancient social realities. A lack of facial hair and other secondary male
sexual traits (body hair, fully developed masculine musculature, deep vocal range) was
characteristic of eunuchs who were castrated before puberty (Ringrose, “Living in the
Shadows,” 91). Many such eunuchs were dedicated to monasteries as young boys.
57. Life of Pelagia 12–13; tr. Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: A Study of
Repentance in Early Monastic Sources (London: Mowbray, 1987), 73. Ward makes
her translation from the Latin text (PL 73:663–72). The Syriac text of the Life of
Pelagia has been translated by Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Holy
Women of the Syrian Orient, updated edition (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1998), 40–62.

eunuch from the palace.”58 In the Life of Matrona, Matrona cuts her hair
and actually dresses herself “as a eunuch” before she enrolls in a male
monastery.59 Later, her assumed identity as a eunuch holds her in good
stead when one of her fellow monks asks her why both of her ears were
pierced. In response, she explains that, in her former life as a eunuch, she
used to be in the employ of a woman who would adorn her “so that many
of those who saw me said that I was a girl.”60 Pierced ears were, in fact, a
common form of self-adornment for eunuchs.61 In any case, Matrona’s
cover story worked and her true identity as a woman was kept secret (at
least for the time being). This association of the female transvestite saint
with eunuchs comes to a very different expression in the Life of Eugenia.
In that work, Eugenia leaves her home accompanied by two eunuchs, and
after cutting her hair and dressing as a man, she presents herself at a local
monastery as one of their brothers.62 The implication for the reader is that
Eugenia, too, is to be viewed as a eunuch—as one whose piety is no longer
“female” (nor, for that matter, fully “male”).
This representation of Eugenia as a eunuch is reinforced by intertextual
elements in the story. As I discussed earlier, Eugenia’s reading of the Acts
of Paul and Thecla while being transported in her litter prompted her call
to the monastic life. In the text, Eugenia’s act of reading is set off—
bracketed—by an inclusio that emphasizes the presence of the eunuchs
who were accompanying her on her journey.
Now there went with her many eunuchs and servants for her honour.
Now as the litter in which she was sitting with the pomp of noble women
was going along, Eugenia was reading within it the book of Thecla, and
was meditating on a passage in it.
And she said to the two eunuchs who were with her. . . . 63

58. Life of Euphrosyne 9; AASS, February 2:538 (Latin text). For an English
translation made from a Syriac manuscript of the Life of Euphrosyne, see Lewis,
Select Narratives of Holy Women, 46–59. During the Byzantine era, eunuchs were
regularly employed as advisors and confidantes in the imperial court: Shaun Tougher,
“Byzantine Eunuchs: An Overview, with Special Reference to their Creation and
Origin,” in Women, Men and Eunuchs (London: Routledge, 1997), 168–84, esp.
59. Life of Matrona 4; AASS, November 3:792; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women of
Byzantium, 22.
60. Life of Matrona 5; AASS, November 3:792–93; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women
of Byzantium, 23–24.
61. Ringrose, “Living in the Shadows,” 95.
62. Life of Eugenia, f. 30a; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women, 11.
63. Life of Eugenia, f. 22b; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women, 3 (my

The picture of Eugenia riding in her litter and reading a sacred text, along
with the narrative’s emphasis on the presence of eunuchs, would have
called to mind for an early Christian reader the biblical story of Philip and
the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.26–40. In that story, the Ethiopian eunuch
sits in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah, when the apostle Philip
approaches and explains the meaning of the scripture to him. After being
instructed in the faith by Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch gets down from his
chariot and is baptized by Philip.
In the Life of Eugenia, Eugenia is placed intertextually in the role of the
Ethiopian eunuch. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, Eugenia’s act of reading
initiates a series of events that lead to her conversion to Christianity. After
dressing herself like a man (and thereby taking on the appearance of a
eunuch), she ends up meeting the bishop Helenus, who instructs her in the
faith and eventually baptizes her and her companions. Helenus, a surro-
gate for the apostle Philip, is featured in another episode that confirms
Acts 8 as a key intertext for Eugenia’s spiritual biography. When Eugenia
first encounters Helenus, she is told a story about his recent encounter
with a magician named Iraus, “who approached the people of the Chris-
tians with the wicked artifice of his magic.”64 The apostle Philip has a
similar encounter in Acts 8.9–25 with a magician named Simon who
“amazed [the people] with his magic.” Significantly, this story of Simon
the magician immediately precedes that of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts.
As intertexts for the Life of Eugenia, these stories from Acts subtly
reinforce Eugenia’s characterization as one who has attained the status of
eunuch for the kingdom of heaven. Eugenia, in her path toward conver-
sion and a life of monastic renunciation, dramatizes the biblical model of
“eunuchhood,” and, in the process, enables herself to overcome the limi-
tations of her sex. Eugenia later tries to describe this process in terms of a
(temporary) shift in gender from female to male: “And being a woman by
nature, in order that I might gain everlasting life, I became a man for a
short time. . . .”65 Ultimately, however, the intertextual representation of
Eugenia as a eunuch undermines such bipolar (male-female) descriptions
of gender categories, highlighting the ambiguity of Eugenia’s status as a
transvestite saint.

64. Life of Eugenia, f. 26a; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women, 6.
65. Life of Eugenia, f. 39a; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women, 20.

The Androgynous Hero: Inverting the Story of

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife
Another prominent intertextual feature in several of the transvestite saint
legends involves the false accusation of sexual impropriety, a theme in-
spired by the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife from Genesis 39.66 In the
biblical story, Joseph spurns the sexual advances of his master’s wife only
to have her accuse him of trying to seduce her. His master, Potiphar, then
has Joseph thrown into prison on the basis of this false charge. The
legends of Eugenia, Susannah, and Theodora all feature a similar sce-
nario, with the subtle twist that the female transvestite saints are cast in
the role of Joseph.
In the Life of Eugenia, the wife of a prominent senator asks Eugenia
(who is in the guise of a monk named Eugenius) to heal her from the
effects of a lingering fever. Eugenia complies, and then returns quickly to
her monastery. However, the woman (Melania), attracted by Eugenia’s
appearance, calls her back on several occasions and tries to convince her
to abandon her commitment to sexual chastity and enjoy “the good
things of this world.” Later, Melania visits Eugenia at the monastery,
hoping “to embrace her secretly.” When Eugenia spurns her advances,
Melania flies into a rage and goes to the Alexandrian governor with the
charge that the monk Eugenia had tried to seduce her with “shameful and
vile words” and then tried to rape her.67 It is this charge that eventually
leads Eugenia to reveal herself and her identity before the Alexandrian
court. The Life of Susannah, perhaps derived from Eugenia’s legend,
records an almost identical encounter with a female temptress.68
In the Life of Theodora,69 one can observe a very different variation on
the Joseph and Potiphar’s wife motif. At the beginning of the story,
Theodora, a married woman living in Alexandria, is misled and seduced
by a rich man living in Alexandria. As a result of her sin, Theodora
grieves the loss of her soul. Wracked with guilt, she cuts off her hair,
dresses like a man, and flees to a monastery eighteen miles west of Alex-
andria. There she lives a life of piety for many years. One day, returning
to the monastery after an errand to the city, she meets a woman on the
road who approaches her and tries to seduce her. While Theodora rejects

66. Anson, “Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism,” 17ff.

67. Life of Eugenia, f. 34a–37b; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women, 15–
68. Life of Susannah; AASS, September 4:151–60, esp. 155ff.; Anson, “Female
Transvestite in Early Monasticism,” 25–26.
69. Life of Theodora; PG 115:665–89.

her advances, shortly thereafter the woman becomes pregnant and takes
the opportunity to accuse Theodora of fathering the child. However, in
contrast to the legends of Eugenia and Susannah, Theodora does not
respond by revealing her identity, nor does she try to defend herself
against the accusation in any other way. The child is left with her and she
is cast out of the monastery. For seven years, she raises the child in the
wild before her fellow monks, satisfied by her penance, finally welcome
her back into the community. Theodora’s innocence is only ascertained
after her death, when her identity as a woman is discovered.
Theodora’s story closely resembles that of Mary/Marinos. In the Life of
St. Mary/Marinos, the transvestite saint is accused of impregnating a local
innkeeper’s daughter—the only difference is that this accusation is not
prompted by an act of sexual rejection. The innkeeper’s daughter is
simply portrayed as a wayward young woman who, having been “de-
flowered” by a soldier, pins the blame for her pregnancy on the monk
Marinos. The rest of Mary/Marinos’ legend follows according to form.
Refusing to defend herself against the false accusation, Mary is thrown
out of her monastery and left to raise the child on her own. Readmitted to
the monastery after three years, she keeps her true identity (and her
innocence) secret until her death.70
Similar false accusations of sexual impropriety and/or paternity appear
in other transvestite saint legends as well, instances where the Joseph and
Potiphar’s wife motif has been adopted in abbreviated or modified form.
In the Life of Apolinaria, the heroine (disguised as the monk Dorotheos)
heals her sister of demon-possession; however, when the sister returns
home the devil makes it appear as if she is pregnant and causes her to
accuse Apolinaria of fathering the child.71 A similar episode in the Life of
Hilaria (without the simulated pregnancy) has Hilaria under suspicion
for unseemly sexual behavior toward her sister.72 In the Egyptian legend
of St. Margaret, when a nun becomes pregnant, Margaret is accused and
is put out of her monastery. She is only exonerated on her deathbed, when
she writes a letter to the abbot revealing her identity.73

70. Life of St. Mary/Marinos; Richard, “Vie ancienne de Sainte Marie surnommée
Marinos,” 83–94; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium, 7–12. For other examples
of false charges of paternity in hagiographical literature, see Paul Canart, “Le
nouveau-né qui dénonce son père. Les avatars d’un conte populaire dans la littérature
hagiographique,” AB 84 (1966): 309–33.
71. Life of Apolinaria, f. 218 r.; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends, 158–59.
72. Life of Hilaria; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends, 79ff.
73. Life of Margaret; AASS, July 4:287; Anson, “Female Transvestite in Early
Monasticism,” 11. The date of Margaret’s legend is uncertain.

What do these variations on the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife tell
us about the intertextual construction of gender in these legends? At first
glance, the identification of the female transvestite saint with Joseph
would simply seem to be yet another way to emphasize the saint’s assimi-
lation of male virtues: by resisting the seduction of the female temptress,
the female monk was understood to be vanquishing her own female
weakness. However, a study of late antique traditions about Joseph sug-
gests that his reputation was more complex than this: as a result, the
intertextual characterization of the transvestite saint as Joseph has more
ambiguous consequences for the reading of gender in the legends.
Joseph was the subject of much commentary in early Christian, Jewish,
and Islamic tradition, and some of this commentary focuses on his an-
drogynous reputation. The biblical narrative (Gen 39.6) and subsequent
commentaries on that narrative emphasize Joseph’s physical beauty, a
beauty that seems to cross gender lines. The Hebrew term used to de-
scribe Joseph’s beauty (yafeh / yafah) is, in fact, applied to women more
often than to men (see, for example, Song of Songs 4.1).74 Jewish Midrashic
writers and early Muslim commentators compare Joseph’s beauty to that
of his mother Rachel.75 Indeed, Joseph’s fair appearance is often described
in feminine terms: in several sources, he even is said to have adapted an
affected gait, coifed his hair, and applied make-up to enhance the natural
beauty of his eyes.76 The androgynous characterization of Joseph extends
to ancient legends about his sexual attractiveness not only to women but
to men as well. The church father Jerome claims that Potiphar himself
was sexually attracted to Joseph;77 a similar tradition is preserved in the
Babylonian Talmud.78 This tradition of same-sex attraction connected

74. Shalom Goldman, The Wiles of Women/The Wiles of Men: Joseph and
Potiphar’s Wife in Ancient New Eastern, Jewish, and Islamic Folklore (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1995), 79–90.
75. Genesis Rabbah 86:6; tr. H. Freedman and M. Simon, Midrash Rabbah, 3rd ed.
(London: Soncino Press, 1983), 2:805. Among the Muslim writers who suggest that
Joseph inherited his beauty from his mother Rachel are al-Tabari, Ta’rikh al-rusul
wa’l-muluk (The History of al-Tabari), SUNY Series in Near Eastern Studies (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1987), 2:148, and al-Tha‘labi, Qisas al-Anbiya’
(‘Ara’is al-majalis) (Cairo: Shirkat al-Shamarli, 1994), 109–11.
76. Genesis Rabbah 84.7; tr. H. Freedman and M. Simon, Midrash Rabbah, 2:774;
cf. Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication
Society of America, 1909–38/1937–66), 2:44 and 5:338 n. 106; and S. Goldman,
Wiles of Women, 82.
77. Jerome, On Genesis 37.36 (CCL 72:45).
78. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 13b: “And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s bought
him, Rab said: ‘He bought him for himself; but Gabriel came and castrated him, and
then Gabriel came and mutilated him [pera`], for originally his name is written

with Joseph provides a fascinating intertextual context for reading the

transvestite saint legends, where the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is
effectively inverted and reenacted as the attempted seduction of one woman
(disguised as a man) by another. For a late antique or Byzantine reader
(especially in Egypt where the Joseph cult was most active), these tradi-
tions of androgyny and same-sex attraction would undoubtedly have
resonated in the intertextual portrayal of the female transvestite saint as

Bodies and Communities: Textual Fragmentation and

Intertextual Re-collection
In the transvestite saint legends that I have been discussing, the body of
the transvestite saint is contested space—the locus of competing intertextual
discourses that vie for the reader’s notice. The result of these competing
discourses is, in effect, the intertextual fragmentation and defeminization
of the saint’s body: she is alternately cast as a “female man” in the image
of St. Thecla, a holy man of the desert who follows the call of St. Antony,
a holy eunuch like that of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, and a chaste,
androgynous hero modeled after Joseph.
The intertextual fragmentation and defeminization of the transvestite
saint is frequently mirrored in the actual physical deterioration of the
saint’s body through ascetic practice. While the woman’s body is ob-
scured—elided—by the act of transvestitism, it is often physically decon-
structed through the rigors of asceticism. Thus, one reads in the Life of
Hilaria that her breasts became “shrunken with ascetic practices” and her
menstrual flow dried up.79 Apolinaria’s body turns hard and rough like
the hide of a tortoise: the narrator describes her body as having “melted
away” through self-renunciation.80 Recounting a visit to Pelagia’s cell, her
hagiographer recalls that her face had become “emaciated by fasting”

Potiphar, but afterwards Potiphera” (tr. I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud; Seder
Nashim [London: Soncino Press, 1935], 3:69–70; for other sources that preserve this
tradition of Potiphar’s desire for Joseph, see Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 2:43 and
5:337–38 n. 101). A number of early Jewish commentaries interpret Potiphar’s title of
saris as indicating that he was a eunuch, and therefore of elastic sexual proclivities
(Goldman, Wiles of Women, 84–85). The writers of Jubilees and The Testament of
the Twelve Patriarchs also identify Potiphar with Potiphera, named in Gen 41.45 as
the parent of Asenath, Joseph’s future wife (Jubilees 40.10 and The Testament of the
Twelve Patriarchs, Joseph 18.3; ed. and tr. R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and
Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913], 2:71, 352).
79. Life of Hilaria; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends, 6, 75.
80. Life of Apolinaria, f. 216 v.; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends, 157.

and her eyes “had sunk inwards like a great pit.”81 In these descriptions,
one observes what Terry Wilfong has termed the “textual fragmentation”
of the female body in late antique hagiography.82
The physical transformation that the saints’ bodies undergo in the
legends (along with the intertextual strategy of linking these female saints
with male or gender-ambiguous prototypes) contributes to the disjointed,
defeminized image of the transvestite saint. At the same time, however,
the legends themselves never quite allow their readers to forget that the
transvestite saint is still a woman by nature. This is exemplified in the Life
of Susannah, where the saint’s body is mutilated through torture, but then
is miraculously restored. That legend, set in the era of the martyrs, de-
scribes how Susannah, after living a heroically faithful life in the guise of
a male monk, is persecuted on account of her faith by a pagan prefect
named Alexander, who subjects her to a series of lurid tortures, including
having her breasts slashed off and thrown to the birds.83 While this act
clearly plays into the larger narrative strategy of defeminizing the saint,
the act is immediately “undone” when an angel recovers Susannah’s
breasts and restores them to her body. In this case, the fragmented body
of the saint is reassembled and the saint herself is reinscribed as “female.”
This process of reinscribing the female identity of the transvestite saint
could also take place on an intertextual level: the Life of Matrona is a
prime example.
As in the other transvestite saint legends, various intertextual elements
in the Life of Matrona represent the heroine in male or gender-ambiguous
terms. After Matrona flees her abusive husband, disguises herself as a
eunuch named Babylas, and enrolls in a male monastery in Constantinople,
she is said to have been “completely transformed into a man,” and is

81. Life of Pelagia 14; tr. Ward, Harlots of the Desert, 74. For a recent treatment
of this passage that emphasizes its reworking of biblical subtexts, see Lynda L. Coon,
Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 82–83.
82. Wilfong, “Reading the Disjointed Body in Coptic,” 116–36.
83. Life of Susannah 13; AASS, September 4:158. This episode in the Life of
Susannah closely resembles the Coptic Martyrdom of SS. Paese and Thecla, where
Thecla—an Egyptian namesake of the more famous Greek Thecla—suffers similar
tortures (having her breasts cut off, having burning oil poured down her throat:
Martyrdom of SS. Paese and Thecla 75 R i.20ff.; ed. E. A. E. Reymond and J. W. B.
Barns, Four Martyrdoms from the Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices [Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1973], 64ff.). The similarities between the two accounts may suggest
an intertextual connection between the Life of Susannah and the Martyrdom. The
Martyrdom of SS. Paese and Thecla itself is intertextually dependent on the Acts of
Paul and Thecla (Davis, Cult of Saint Thecla, 177–90).

compared to exemplary holy men like her adopted namesake St. Babylas
of Nikomedeia, and the Maccabean martyr Eleazar.84 The deconstruction
of Matrona’s female identity continues in a later episode that suggests
intertextual connections with the Acts of Paul and Thecla. When Matrona’s
abusive husband interrogates one of her friends about her whereabouts,
the friend answers: “Who this woman is of whom you speak, I know not
(ÉEg≈, t¤w §stin ≤ gunØ ¥nper l°geiw, oÈk o‰da).”85 These words echo the
apostle Paul’s response when questioned about Thecla in the Acts: “I do
not know the woman of whom you speak (OÈk o‰da t‹n guna›ka ∂n
l°geiw).”86 In each case, while the response is intended to dissimulate, it
also alludes to the fact that, within the context of the narrative, the
heroine’s identity as a woman has been (at least temporarily) erased from
memory. Cast as a “holy man” like St. Babylas and Eleazar, identified
with the transvestite St. Thecla, and rhetorically denied her status as a
“woman,” Matrona’s character is intertextually fragmented; her gendered
identity is dislocated, displaced.
And yet, throughout the Life of Matrona, this defeminizing agenda is
offset by a competing intertextual agenda in which Matrona is increas-
ingly defined within the context of women’s community. Early in the
narrative, two female friends named Eugenia and Susannah support
Matrona’s monastic aspirations. Eugenia brings Matrona to the male
monastery headed by the monk Bassianos and enrolls her there disguised
as a eunuch.87 Susannah provides Matrona safe haven from her abusive
husband, and later takes custody of Matrona’s infant son so that Matrona
can freely pursue her monastic calling.88
Within the context of Matrona’s legend, the names of these two friends—
Eugenia and Susannah—recall the traditions of the two famous transves-
tite saints who bore the same names.89 In this way, the Life intertextually

84. Life of Matrona 4; AASS, November 3:792; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women of
Byzantium, 22–23.
85. Life of Matrona 10; AASS, November 3:795; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women of
Byzantium, 29.
86. Acts of Paul and Thecla 26; Lipsius and Bonnet, Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha,
87. Life of Matrona 4; AASS, November 3:792; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women of
Byzantium, 22.
88. Life of Matrona 3; AASS, November 3:791–92; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women
of Byzantium, 21.
89. Eva Catafygiotu Topping, “St. Matrona and Her Friends: Sisterhood in
Byzantium,” in KAYHGHTRIA: Essays Presented to Joan Hussey, ed. J. Chrysostomides
(Camberley: Porphyrogenitus, 1988), 215 n. 28; C. Mango, “Life of St. Matrona of
Perge,” in Holy Women of Byzantium, 20–21 nn. 29 and 32.

links Matrona with other legends of holy women disguised as men. This
theme is reinforced later when Matrona travels to Syria and resides at the
monastery of “the blessed Hilara”—probably an oblique reference to the
Syrian tradition connected with the transvestite saint Hilaria.90 Through
these allusions, Matrona’s piety is framed by the intertextual presence of
a larger “community” of female transvestite saints.
This emphasis on women’s community in the Life of Matrona is later
expressed as an eschatological hope in Matrona’s vision of a heavenly
mansion and garden where she converses with a group of women, “mar-
velous in their attire and appearance.”91 This vision alludes not only to
New Testament teachings comparing heaven to a “house with many
rooms” (John 14.2), but also to Methodius’ Symposium (ca. 300 c.e.), an
ascetic work in which the author details his own vision of a heavenly
banquet held in honor of a choir of female virgins with St. Thecla at their
head.92 This eschatological vision of women’s community is finally real-
ized for Matrona in the foundation of her monastery in Constantinople,
where she served as head of a group of nuns who dressed in male monas-
tic garb. According to the author of the Life, it was this community that
initially preserved Matrona’s memory and recorded the events of her
life.93 On more than one level, both intertextually and extratextually, the
fragments of Matrona’s identity were re-collected within the context of a
women’s community (albeit a crossdressing one). Thus, at the same time
that it calls her female status into question, the Life reinscribes Matrona
as a female saint.



The creative tension in the transvestite saint legends between “manly”

piety and female sexual identity is consistently fostered on an intertextual

90. Life of Matrona 11; AASS, November 3:796; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women of
Byzantium, 30–31. The Syriac version of Hilaria’s life has been edited by A. J.
Wensinck, The Legend of Hilaria, vol. 2 of Legends of Eastern Saints (Leiden: Brill,
1913), 9–89.
91. Life of Matrona 49; AASS, November 3:811; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women of
Byzantium, 61–62.
92. For a critical edition of Methodius’ Symposium, see the text edited by Herbert
Musurillo, SC 95.
93. The author of the Life reports that it was a nun named Eulogia from Matrona’s
monastery who originally recorded the details of Matrona’s life (Life of Matrona 50;
AASS, November 3:812; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women of Byzantium, 62).

level by the interplay of competing cultural discourses about gender—

discourses that operate simultaneously, but function at cross purposes.94
Thus, in the case of Matrona, the transvestite saint can be compared to
the household woman in Jesus’ parable who “hid three measures of meal
till the whole was leavened” (Luke 13.21), and yet later in the same work
can be said to function in the public male role of “overseer” or “bishop”
(§p¤skopow) for her community of female monks.95 While these two dis-
courses “cross,” they do not cancel each other out. As a result, the bipolar
view of human gender—while tacitly endorsed—is ultimately destabilized.
Perhaps nowhere is this ironic subversion of gender categories more
evident than in a scene from the Life of St. Mary/Marinos (the story with
which I began). When the superior of the monastery comes to Mary/
Marinos with the accusation that s/he deflowered the innkeeper’s daugh-
ter, we are told that “Marinos fell upon his face, saying, ‘Forgive me,
father, for I have sinned as a man.’”96 Mary/Marinos would seem to be
falsely confessing a sin s/he did not commit, but the reader is left to
detangle a snarl of logic hidden behind this apparent lie. If Mary/Marinos
did not sin, did s/he “not sin” as a man, or as a woman—or both? For the
transvestite saint, which gender identity (male or female) is the real “lie”?
Or do both options somehow fall short of the truth? The cryptic charac-
ter of Mary/Marinos’ “double-voiced” confession illustrates again how
the transvestite saint legends destabilize conventional (bipolar) gender
The destabilization of gender categories in the text is further high-
lighted by contemporary readings and misreadings of a later scene in the
Life of St. Mary/Marinos where the monks discover the saint’s female
identity and are said to “shriek” in surprise.98 The English translators of
the vita originally suggested that the Greek (§yroÆyhsan) ought to be

94. My emphasis on intertextuality in the legends prioritizes synchronic readings

over diachronic ones: indeed, as one theorist has put it, the phenomenon of
intertextuality “introduces a new way of reading that destroys the linearity of the
text” (Laurent Jenny, “The Strategy of Forms,” in French Literary Theory Today: A
Reader, ed. T. Todorov [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982], 44).
95. Life of Matrona 6 and 51; AASS, November 3:793–94, 812; tr. Featherstone,
Holy Women of Byzantium, 26, 63.
96. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 11; Richard, “Vie ancienne de Sainte Marie
surnommée Marinos,” 90, lines 89–90; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium, 9.
97. The concepts of “double-voiced” discourse and “polyphony” originated in the
work of the Russian literary theorist M. M. Bakhtin. For a cogent analysis of
Bakhtin’s thought and its implications for theories of intertextuality, see Graham
Allen, Intertextuality, 14–30, 159–73.
98. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 18; Richard, “Vie ancienne de Sainte Marie
surnommée Marinos,” 93, line 145; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium, 11.

translated, “they shrieked like women,” a reading that would have high-
lighted the “double-voiced” gender reversal implicit in the scene. How-
ever, the editors of the volume rejected this translation: they told the
translators it was redundant since “only women shriek anyway[!]”99 The
translators (and we) are left to ask, “Who is represented as “male” and
who is represented as “female” in this scene?” Does the revelation of the
Mary’s identity as a woman somehow reshape the monks into a sympa-
thetic, female chorus (who cry out in a single voice, “Lord, have mercy!”)?
Or, by way of contrast, is this depiction of the monks’ “female” reaction
subtly meant to reinscribe Mary’s true “male” piety after all? Is the
textual revelation of Mary’s female identity itself finally textually decon-
structed? At the end of the narrative, the reader seems to be left in a whirl
of unanswered questions, caught in a tangled web of ancient (and mod-
ern) assumptions about gender identity.
This modern tale of misreading finally raises the question of how the
transvestite saint legends would have been read in late antiquity. What
function would stories like that of Mary/Marinos have had for early
Christian readers? Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey have
argued that all early Christian hagiography was ultimately grounded in
the life and death of Christ and was motivated by an ethic of imitation.100
Were ancient readers called to seek out the example of Christ in the lives
of transvestite saints?
The Life of St. Mary/Marinos, at least, gives us hints of such a christo-
mimetic function. At the very end of her Life, the hagiographer calls the
reader to “emulate the blessed Mary” and thereby to “find mercy from
our Lord Jesus Christ.”101 At first glance, this christological reference
would simply seem to be formulaic, but in fact it would have called the
reader’s attention back to the scene at the beginning of the narrative when
Mary was trying to persuade her father not to abandon her in his desire to
enter a monastery. In the midst of admonishing him, she appeals specifically
to Christ’s example, “Do you not know what the Lord says? That the
good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep? [John 10.11].”102 These are
the only two explicit references to Christ in the entire vita; however, given

99. I am indebted to one of the external readers for JECS for this anecdote, which
illustrates the deconstructive perils of modern publishing (per litt., May 2, 2001).
100. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 14; cf. Harvey,
“Women in Early Byzantine Hagiography,” 17.
101. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 21; Richard, “Vie ancienne de Sainte Marie
surnommée Marinos,” 94, lines 174–78; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium,
102. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 2; Richard, “Vie ancienne de Sainte Marie
surnommée Marinos,” 87, lines 13–15; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium, 7.

their placement at the beginning and end of the Life, they function as a
rhetorical inclusio that focuses the reader’s attention on how the actions
of Mary/Marinos reenact Christ’s Passion. In the narrative, Mary quotes
the teaching about the good shepherd as an exhortation to her father, but
it functions intertextually as a christological paradigm for Mary’s own
life and sufferings: like Christ, she takes on the crimes of another; and like
Christ, her identity is fully revealed only after her death (on “the third
day”).103 These themes are common to many of the transvestite saint
legends, where other intertextual elements (especially the allusions to the
lives of Antony and Joseph) reinforce this christological undercurrent—
the Life of Antony itself was one of the first works to present the monastic
life as an expression of imitatio Christi, and Joseph was viewed by vari-
ous Christian writers as a type of Christ and his Passion.104
How then does this christomimeticism function in relation to the vari-
ous gender discourses in the Lives? In antiquity, the discourse of imitation
had a political function—namely, the “valorization of sameness” and the
“repression of difference” within communities.105 Is the gospel of Christ
(writ large) to be viewed then as an intertextual trump card—a kind of
meta-narrative into which all other narratives are subsumed? Does the
call to imitate Christ homogenize the various gender discourses in the
To the contrary, I would suggest that the intertextual presentation of
Christ as a mimetic model actually contributes to the destabilization of
bipolar gender categories in the representation of the transvestite saint. At
the same time that the ethic of imitation tries to inculcate “sameness,” it
takes as its presupposition the prior existence of difference.106 In this case,

103. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 18; Richard, “Vie ancienne de Sainte Marie
surnommée Marinos,” 92, line 136; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium, 11.
Again, I must thank the external reader for JECS for suggesting that I explore the
intertextual dimensions of christology in the legends.
104. J. Quasten, Patrology, (Utrecht: Spectrum, 1950), 3:43; Robert C. Gregg,
“Introduction,” in Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus
(New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 4–5. For an interpretation of the Life of Antony as
a mythic story of the Incarnate Word, see David Brakke, Athanasius and Asceticism
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 216ff. In early Christianity,
Joseph was referred to widely as a type of Christ: see, for example, Justin Martyr,
Dialogue with Trypho 91; Cyprian, Epistle 54 and Treatises 9 and 12; John
Chrysostom, Homily 84 on Matthew 26:51–54 and Homily 16 on Acts 7:6–7;
Athanasius, Festal Letter 10.4 (338 c.e.); Jerome, Letter 48.4–5 and Letter 145 (on
the imitation of Joseph as a way of taking up Christ’s cross).
105. Elizabeth A. Castelli, Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power (Louisville:
Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 124.
106. Ibid., 126.

the attempt to present Christ’s life and death as a (unified) paradigm

cannot fully suppress the divergent discourses about Christ’s identity in
late antiquity. Such discourses are evident not only in the christological
debates about his divine and human nature, but also in representations of
Christ’s body. Among different early Christian communities, Christ was
viewed as an androgynous or gender-ambiguous figure: he was variously
identified as the incarnation of the female, divine Wisdom,107 pictured in
eschatological visions as a woman,108 and depicted in early Christian art
in the form of Orpheus, the androgynous figure of Greek myth.109 Vir-
ginia Burrus has also recently called attention to the sexually ambiguous
representation of Christ in two fifth- and sixth-century mosaics in Thessa-
lonica and Ravenna, where the figure of Christ in each case manifests “a
manhood that has already incorporated the feminine.”110
In the legends of monastic women disguised as men, the intertextual
play on the Passion of Christ is particularly embodied in the transvestite
gesture itself. Here, the act of changing garments evokes another christo-
logical intertext, the Pauline baptismal formula of Galatians 3.27–28:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves
with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or
free, there is no longer male and female; for you all one in Christ Jesus”
(NRSV). When read in light of this intertext, the female saint’s crossdressing

107. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad,

1983), 230–40.
108. Epiphanius (Panarion 49.1) describes a vision experienced by the Montanist
prophetess Quintilla, in which Christ appeared to her in female form; for a discussion
of this vision, see Christine Trevett, Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New
Prophecy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 167–70.
109. On the depiction of Orpheus as a type for Christ in early Christian art, see
Henri Leclercq, “Orphée,” in Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie 12.2
(Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ané, 1936), 2735–55. One of the more famous examples
is a fourth-century wall painting in the Catacomb of Domitilla (the cubiculum of
Orpheus): Umberto Maria Fasola B., Die Domitilla-Katacombe und die Basilika der
Märtyrer Nereus und Achilleus, 3rd ed., Römische und italienische Katakomben 1
(Vatican City: Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra, 1989), 63–64. The
typological connection between Orpheus and Christ was made by both pagan and
Christian authors in late antiquity: see, for example, Origen, Against Celsus 7.53
(where the Greek philosopher Celsus draws a parallel between Orpheus and Christ as
two divinely inspired men who both died a violent death) and Eusebius, Life of
Constantine 4.14 (where Orpheus’ ability to charm ferocious beasts with his lyre is
compared with how the divine Word used human nature as an “instrument” to soothe
and heal the passions of the human soul). Finally, for a discussion of Orpheus as an
androgynous figure, see Delcourt, Hermaphrodite, 67–72.
110. Virginia Burrus, “Begotten, Not Made”: Conceiving Manhood in Late
Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 190–92.

would seem to function as a metaphor for her being “one in Christ

Jesus.” However, at the same time that Galatians 3.28 envisions a “unifi-
cation of opposites” in Christ,111 its language ultimately subverts that
vision and suggests a complete overturning of the traditional binary con-
ception of gender identity. At the same time that Paul’s language
deconstructs the division of humanity into “male (on the one hand) and
female (on the other),” it also deconstructs the unification of those oppo-
sites: “there is no longer male and female (conceived as a unit)”. The
Pauline intertext itself turns out to be “double-voiced.” Thus, the figure
of the transvestite saint does not simply undo human sexual division and
reinscribe the primal, bisexual prototype of Genesis 1.27 (“he created
them male and female”),112 rather, as the intertextual embodiment of “no
longer male and female,” the figure of the transvestite saint actually
destabilizes binary gender categories by undermining even the fundamen-
tal opposition of sexual division/nondivision itself.
In the place of this binary opposition, the reader is left with an eclectic
array of competing intertextual discourses that bob and weave through-
out the texts, a multiplicity of mimetic models for conceptualizing and
embodying gender in late antiquity. Thus, my poststructuralist reading of
early Christian transvestite saint legends ultimately reasserts the polyphony
of gender discourses in the texts—a fugal chorus of competing voices that
echo in the ear of the reader.113 In the person of the transvestite saint,
cultural discourses collide and coalesce; fragments of previous “texts” are
re-collected and reconfigured. As I have suggested, contemporary theories
of intertextuality provide a form-fitted model for analyzing the enigmatic

Stephen J. Davis is Professor of New Testament and Early Church

History at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo

111. As argued by Wayne Meeks, “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a
Symbol in Earliest Christianity,” History of Religions 13.3 (1974): esp. 165–66.
112. Ibid., 185ff.
113. Describing the interplay of discourses within a text, Roland Barthes also
adopts a musical metaphor: “The plural of the Text depends . . . on what might be
called the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifiers” (Image–Music–Text, tr.
Stephen Heath [London: Fontana, 1977], 159).