Gregory of Nyssa on sex, gender and hermaphrodites (Greek and English)

Medieval and, to a lesser extent, early modern theologians surpringly often ‘discussed’ the possibility the Adam was created hermaphrodite. I say ‘discussed’ as the position was pretty much a straw man – there is very little evidence that medieval theologians ever encountered anyone holding this position, although it is not impossible that some of them had knowledge of Jewish exegetical tradition that indeed contained arguments in that direction. In most cases, however, I assume that Christian theologians in Latin Europe only knew the theory of the hermaphrodite Adam from St Augustine‘s rejection of this very position.

Things were indeed different in the first centuries of Christianity. Reading old (that is, pre-Jerome) Latin Bibles one could encounter a ‘male-cum-female Adam’ in the book of Genesis, and what was a straw man in the Middle Ages, was vividly dicussed among early Christian exegetes. One of the more prominent voices was that of Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca. 395), who developed an argument how the double nature of man as ‘rational animal’ could help to understand how man was created both in God’s likeness and ‘male and female’. The key passage is found in his De opificio hominum (to use the standard Latin title):

14th c. freso showing Gregory of Nyssa. Source: Public domain.

Gregory of Nyssa, De opificio hominum

Gregory of Nyssa, De op. hom. 16; the English translation by H.A. Wilson is taken from and

We must, then, examine the words carefully: for we find, if we do so, that that which was made “in the image” is one thing, and that which is now manifested in wretchedness is another. “God created man,” it says; “in the image of God created He him .” There is an end of the creation of that which was made “in the image”: then it makes a resumption of the account of creation, and says, “male and female created He them.” I presume that every one knows that this is a departure from the Prototype: for “in Christ Jesus,” as the apostle says, “there is neither male nor female .” Yet the phrase declares that man is thus divided.

Thus the creation of our nature is in a sense twofold: one made like to God, one divided according to this distinction: for something like this the passage darkly conveys by its arrangement, where it first says, “God created man, in the image of God created He him,” and then, adding to what has been said, “male and female created He them,” — a thing which is alien from our conceptions of God. I think that by these words Holy Scripture conveys to us a great and lofty doctrine; and the doctrine is this. While two natures –the Divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes– are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them: for in the compound nature of man we may behold a part of each of the natures I have mentioned,- of the Divine, the rational and intelligent element, which does not admit the distinction of male and female; of the irrational, our bodily form and structure, divided into male and female: for each of these elements is certainly to be found in all that partakes of human life. That the intellectual element, however, precedes the other, we learn as from one who gives in order an account of the making of man; and we learn also that his community and kindred with the irrational is for man a provision for reproduction. For he says first that “God created man in the image of God” (showing by these words, as the Apostle says, that in such a being there is no male or female): then he adds the peculiar attributes of human nature, “male and female created He them .”

Greek text (PG 44, 181) via and

Οὐκοῦν ἐξεταστέον μετ’ ἀκριβείας τὰ ῥήματα. Εὑρήσομεν γὰρ ὅτι ἕτερον μέν τι τὸ κατ’ εἰκόνα γενόμενον͵ ἕτερον δὲ τὸ νῦν ἐν ταλαιπωρίᾳ δεικνύμενον. Ἐποίησεν ὁ Θεός͵ φησί͵ τὸν ἄνθρωπον, κατ’ εἰκόνα Θεοῦ ἐποίησεν αὐτόν. Τέλος ἔχει ἡ τοῦ κατ’ εἰκόνα γεγενημένου κτίσις. Εἶτα ἐπανάληψιν ποιεῖται τοῦ κατὰ τὴν κατασκευὴν λόγου͵ καί φησιν, Ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς. Παντὶ γὰρ οἶμαι γνώριμον εἶναι͵ ὅτι ἔξω τοῦτο τοῦ πρωτοτύπου νοεῖται· Ἐν γὰρ Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ͵ καθώς φησιν ὁ Ἀπόστολος͵ οὔτε ἄῤῥεν οὔτε θῆλύ ἐστιν. Ἀλλὰ μὴν εἰς ταῦτα διῃρῆσθαι ὁ λόγος φησὶ τὸν ἄνθρωπον.

Οὐκοῦν διπλῆ τίς ἐστιν ἡ τῆς φύσεως ἡμῶν κατασκευή͵ ἥ τε πρὸς τὸ Θεῖον ὡμοιωμένη͵ ἥ τε πρὸς τὴν διαφορὰν ταύτην διῃρημένη. Τοιοῦτον γάρ τι ὁ λόγος ἐκ τῆς συντάξεως τῶν γεγραμμένων αἰνίττεται͵ πρῶτον μὲν εἰπὼν ὅτι Ἐποίησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον͵ κατ’ εἰκόνα Θεοῦ ἐποίησεν αὐτόν, πάλιν δὲ τοῖς εἰρημένοις ἐπαγαγὼν ὅτι Ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς͵ ὅπερ ἀλλότριον τῶν περὶ Θεοῦ νοουμένων ἐστίν

Οἶμαι γὰρ ἐγὼ δόγμα τι μέγα καὶ ὑψηλὸν διὰ τῶν εἰρημένων ὑπὸ τῆς θείας Γραφῆς παραδίδοσθαι. Τὸ δὲ δόγμα τοιοῦτόν ἐστι· Δύο τινῶν κατὰ τὸ ἀκρότατον πρὸς ἄλληλα διεστηκότων͵ μέσον ἐστὶ τὸ ἀνθρώπινον͵ τῆς τε θείας καὶ ἀσωμάτου φύσεως καὶ τῆς ἀλόγου καὶ κτηνώδους ζωῆς. Ἔξεστι γὰρ ἑκατέρου τῶν εἰρημένων ἐν τῷ ἀνθρωπίνῳ συγκρίματι θεωρῆσαι τὴν μοῖραν, τοῦ μὲν θείου τὸ λογικόν τε καὶ διανοητικόν͵ ὃ τὴν κατὰ τὸ ἄῤῥεν καὶ θῆλυ διαφορὰν οὐ προσίεται, τοῦ δὲ ἀλόγου τὴν σωματικὴν κατασκευὴν καὶ διάπλασιν εἰς ἄῤῥεν τε καὶ θῆλυ μεμερισμένην. Ἑκάτερον γὰρ τούτων ἐστὶ πάντως ἐν παντὶ τῷ μετέχοντι τῆς ἀνθρωπίνης ζωῆς. Ἀλλὰ προτερεύειν τὸ νοερόν͵ καθὼς παρὰ τοῦ τὴν ἀνθρωπογονίαν ἐν τάξει διεξελθόντος ἐμάθομεν͵ ἐπιγεννηματικὴν δὲ εἶναι τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ τὴν πρὸς τὸ ἄλογον κοινωνίαν τε καὶ συγγένειαν. Πρῶτον μὲν γάρ φησιν͵ ὅτι Ἐποίησεν ὁ Θεὸς κατ’ εἰκόνα τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν ἄνθρωπον͵ δεικνὺς διὰ τῶν εἰρημένων͵ καθώς φησιν ὁ Ἀπόστολος͵ ὅτι ἐν τῷ τοιούτῳ ἄῤῥεν καὶ θῆλυ οὐκ ἔστιν. Εἶτα ἐπάγει τῆς ἀνθρωπίνης φύσεως τὰ ἰδιώματα͵ ὅτι Ἄῤῥεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς.

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Christof Rolker (2018, 22. März). Gregory of Nyssa on sex, gender and hermaphrodites (Greek and English). Männlich-weiblich-zwischen. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von

Christof Rolker

Christof Rolker is a historian interested in the Middle Ages, esp. canon law, kinship, family, sex and gender, and the use of symbolic goods (names, coats of arms etc).

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Christof Rolker

Christof Rolker is a historian interested in the Middle Ages, esp. canon law, kinship, family, sex and gender, and the use of symbolic goods (names, coats of arms etc).

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