This may strike some as an odd question, but it has now been raised by feminist theologian Suzannah Cornwall, who proposed the possibility in response to the Episcopal Church’s debates on women’s ordination.
Many of an evangelical bent will simply see the title, roll their eyes, and move on with their lives, but the issue is a important one, upon which my thoughts have turned from time to time.
Now, it must be stressed, as Cornwall’s critics have, that in the Greek Jesus is always referred to and spoken of in the masculine, and never in the feminine or neuter. Likewise, that he was circumcised on the eighth day, and that he is described as a “boy” when lost in Jerusalem. The question of whether Jesus was physically an hermaphrodite is a relatively simple one: no, He wasn’t.
But this is not the end of the story. What interests me is the possibility that Jesus served as a sort of “alchemical” or “philosophical” hermaphrodite. By this is meant that a person is able to re-integrate the divided pieces of the cosmos into themselves. One can remain physically male or female but transcend such divisions within the soul and spirit. It is the idea of the “wedding of contraries,” referred to as the “alchemical marriage.” Many alchemists saw Christ as the great “philosophical orphan,” the “philosopher’s stone” itself, in His person.
But to back up for a moment, it is important to see that the presentation of creation in Genesis is one of division and the establishment of contraries. God begins by making “Heaven” and “earth.” He continues separating the world into contraries; night and day, land and water, waters above and waters below, the field and the land, etc. Other contraries are created later, like the distinction between Jew and Gentile. Later, he makes a single person, Adam, and then separates humanity into male and female. In this sense, it can be said that before the creation of Eve, Adam was himself a “philosophical hermaphrodite,” containing both male and female traits. The characteristics of the feminine were then extracted when God fashioned woman out of Adam’s rib. But they are brought back together again in marriage; the division of male and female is broken down and they become “one” in a glorified way.
A number of theologians have observed that the book of Revelation resolves the contraries established in Genesis. Heaven and earth is spanned by the enthroned Incarnation, the division between them overcome. The land and the waters are reunited, the night and day, waters above and waters below. Jew and Gentile is broken down, as are slave and free, male and female, etc. All of the “barriers” between elements are thrown down in Christ and the contraries resolved. So in this way it can be said that the story of Scripture is one of overcoming the divisions of the world in various ways.
Christ is the linchpin of all this resolution of divisions. He spans heaven and earth, He produces the elixir of life (salvation). He speaks to the powerful and the slave in the same way, and the Church has always insisted that the rich adn the poor be treated the same. In His earthly life He is not beset by the same problems communicating with and dealing with women. Remember, one of the key problems in the Bible is of men dealing with women. The men of the Old Testament, however godly and righteous, still didn’t really know how to approach and deal with women; they married a bunch of them, they laughed at them, raped them, sold them. Only Jesus actually seems to understand women, which is why they flocked to Him. He is the point from which all of the contraries of the world begin (ever so slowly) to be resolved and reconciled. He broke down the barrier between Jew and Gentile.
So in a very real sense, we can say that He contained within Himself, all of the resolved contraries of the cosmos. He is, in this very carefully qualified sense, an alchemical, or philosophical, hermaphrodite, having resolved within his person the contraries of male and female, slave and free, rich and poor, heaven and earth. He is the philosopher’s stone.