“Our Savior was no pale, thin, wispy-looking man. He was strong. He was muscular.” A line from Greg Laurie’s 1993 book Every Day with Jesus brings it all back: the Evangelical obsession with gender performance. We were raised to think that being “a man” is the key to it all.
If you’re a girl, you‘re to look to such “men” as standard-bearers, their divine gender being the measure of everything. Then I realized: Jesus was hardly a masculine figure. He’s a bit girly.
From weeping to being a “mother hen” (Matt. 23:37–39; Luke 13:34), from washing feet to cooking, from his female disciples to his love of children, he is not checking many ‘manly’ stereotypes.
Then there’s that hair . . .
For Jesus, androgyny is kind of a family thing. Note Genesis 1:27:
And God created man in his image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.
Let’s follow the connections: If man is created male and female—in God’s image—then God’s image is . . . male and female.
“The one God manifests attributes of both genders, for he both fathers and mothers his children,” as John D. Garr notes in God and Women.
I was surprised to learn how often God, in the Bible, is understood in feminine terms. In the New Testament, early religious instruction is often discussed as breastfeeding (cf. 1 Pt 2:2–3; 1 Thess 2:7–8; 1 Cor 3:1–3; Heb 5:12–13, etc.).
This is God the mother, nursing her children.
In Isaiah 42:14, God is the speaker: “Like a woman in labor I groan; I pant and gasp.” In 46:3, God is a mother ‘carrying’ the family of Jacob, which is to say, Israel. God speaks in 49:15: “Can a woman forget her baby who nurses at her breast?”
There are different aspects of God—Christians like to call it the “Trinity”—and Jesus fuses it all together. Paul refers to “Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). These are male and female designations: power is male, wisdom is female.
Jesus is both, male and female, together.
Hanna Wolff, the theologian and psychologist, called Jesus “androgynous” and a model of psychic totality, the first “anima-integrated male in world history . . .”
For all their love of wearing dresses, I’m not sure many Christian clergy really followed in this tradition.
An 1898 essay, “The Feminine Ideal of Christianity,” George Matheson, the cleric and hymn-writer, notes the obvious design of biblical narrative.
“It was the choosing of the weak in preference to the strong. It was the passing of the powerful and crushing strength of Ishmael for the gentle and unobtrusive character of Isaac. It was, in short, the selection of the feminine instead of the masculine type.”
The ideal figure is both. From the weeping Joseph to the maternal Moses, the biblical hero is hardly ‘patriarchal’. He’s feminine! Then women get in on the act, becoming more male—Yael, Esther, and so on—becoming the perfect fusion, the divine whole.
That’s where Paul points in Galatians 3:28, when he says “there is neither male nor female . . .” We become both, together.
Paul himself is “all things to all people” in 1 Corinthians 9:22 — an example of radical possibility, in which his gender often shifts. In Galatians 4:19, he calls himself a woman in labor. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, he’s a nurse weaning a child, and in 1 Corinthians 3:2, a weaning mother.
“With only a few exceptions this striking ‘transgendering’ Pauline self-description in terms of symbolic birth-labor has been ignored — it does not fit into any of the standard Pauline interpretations and stereotypes,” notes Brigitte Kahl.
How often have Evangelicals insisted on the “importance of fathers in the home.” They don’t get it from the Bible. Jesus doesn’t have a human father, either physically or psychologically. As Brittany Wilson notes, Joseph never even speaks.
Luke only mentions Joseph a total of three times, in comparison to Mary’s twelve appearances, and he appears in tandem with Mary as a secondary character of lesser importance (cf. Matt 1:18–2:23). Luke also takes pains to demonstrate that Joseph is not Jesus’ actual father, insisting instead that God is Jesus’ father (e.g., Luke 2:41–51; 3:23). Luke is not alone with this insistence, for all the evangelists redefine Jesus’ paternity in this manner (e.g., Matt 3:17; 12:50; 17:5; Mark 14:36; John 5:19–30; 14:1–31). For Jesus and those who follow in his footsteps, God alone is the true parental figure.
“Jesus should be seen as someone who grew up fatherless,” says Andries G. van Aarde, in a useful study, Fatherless in Galilee.
In this ancient world this was a deep stigma. As van Aarde notes, “his compassion towards ill-fated people came from his own experience of being ostracized.”
Speaking to men, Jesus points to women and outsiders, over and over, as the guide (eg. Matthew 21:31; Mark 12:41–44, etc.).
He is working to correct a gender imbalance. The female, he insists, is a spiritual mode.
In two scenes intended to model Christian leadership, Jesus bathes feet (John 13:1–17), and cooks (John 21:12–13). In the Bible, as in life, cooking is regularly considered a female activity (cf. Lev 26:26; 1 Sam 8:13, etc.).
Washing feet is, even more particularly, the work of a wife (cf. 1 Samuel 25:41). Done between men, it’s widely seen as a tool of humiliation.
In Matthew 23:8–12, Jesus disallows leadership hierarchies, and says those who try to ‘exalt’ themselves will be disciplined. A central teacher of a spiritual community, like a modern idea of ‘pastor’, isn’t envisioned or allowed (cf. Col 3:16; 1 Cor 14:26; Rom 15:14, etc.).
Along the way, we learn to be everything. In Matthew 12:50, Jesus says, “ For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” We learn to be all three.
The balance between them is feminine. We are the ‘Bride’ of Christ. That is a female identity. But the female in the Bible is powerful, as in the ‘hymn to the good wife’ in Proverbs 31:10–31—active, engaged, businesslike.
As Jesus is God, so himself “male and female,” then his spouse must complete him by being herself . . . male and female.
Matthew 19:12 was a problem for traditional Christianity. Jesus praises the eunuch, one of the most despised categories of the ancient world.
For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others — and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
Christianity thought about this, and decided it meant being non-sexual.
What a lie! The eunuch has never been non-sexual. J. David Hester lays it all out in “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19.12 and Transgressive Sexualities.”
Eunuchs, he notes, were “widely perceived as neither chaste nor celibate, but highly sexual and sexed beings.” He adds “The eunuch is a figure that not only violates the heterosexual binary dualism, but cannot participate in it at all. Even as a figure of celibacy, it renounces the forms and practices at the heart of binary paradigm.”
This is the example Jesus encourages, and the one, presumably, he would therefore model. The eunuch is not focused on family and lineage. The eunuch is in a state of service, and performance. The Jewish sage Philo, sniffing with distain, recalls them out on the streets:
Certainly you may see these hybrids of man and woman continually
strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at
the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things . . .
Men enforce boundaries. Men love walls. But Jesus tears them down.
“And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” he says in Matthew 5:47. He adds: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
‘Perfect’ doesn’t mean ‘flawless’. In the Bible, it means full, complete. As we meet more people, as they become part of us, we become more the ‘oneness’ that Jesus and the early Christians are constantly praising.
Note 1 Corinthians 12:12: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…”
“One body” can not be sexually differentiated.
Jesus has no wife or children. The world is his family. His followers are to have no other family, except the family of each other (Matt 19:29; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 18:29-30).
He doesn’t guard his body. It’s available freely. I love the scene in Matt 3:13–17, when he’s baptized. Coming out of the water, he sees the Spirit of God as a dove coming upon him, and a voice, “This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight.”
If he’s ‘just’ coming out of the water, Jesus hasn’t re-clothed. The dove descends. The approval of God is spoken on a naked son.
There’s no protections with Jesus. He is totally present with you, or as much as you can take. With some, that isn’t much. But when he’s around a really engaged human, he’s revealed—as to the Samaritan woman.
“Nowhere in the fourth gospel is there a dialogue of such theological depth and intensity,” notes Sandra M. Schneiders. “She is a genuine theological dialogue partner gradually experiencing Jesus’ self-revelation even as she reveals herself to him.”
Even the crucifixion becomes an act of giving that is . . . un-masculine.
David Tombs argued, in a 1999 paper, “Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse,” that Jesus was probably raped.
“Victims were crucified naked in what amounted to a ritualized form of public sexual humiliation,” he notes. The flogging would have been naked, then Jesus is handed over to the Roman guard, and taken away to where no Jew could go.
“Both Gospels explicitly state that it was the whole cohort (spear) of Roman soldiers — between six hundred and one thousand men — that was assembled together to witness and participate in the ‘mockery.’”
The Jews later had a famous joke that Jesus had been fathered through rape by a Roman soldier. Which must mean, notes Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., “the assault of Israelite women by Roman soldiers was a well-known phenomenon.”
These were a raped people. And yet gave to the world the profound example of a being who was utterly giving and open—opening up the space that is simply . . . human?