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Intersexed Jesus

Posted on: May 26, 2019

Category: Theology

Quest Thoughts: Intersexed Jesus

When we think of a typical image of Jesus, likely most of us, most of the time, think of a male, somewhat muscular, probably suffering on a cross, with a beard. It is less likely that we would think of a soft-featured, curly-haired, boy who occasionally passes as a girl. We probably would never or rarely imagine a man-woman or woman-man intersexed figure who never has a beard, usually has long hair, and occasionally has breasts. Also, if pressed, we might think that any intersexed image of Jesus is a postmodern deconstruction (of some sort) designed to provoke and disrespect, whereas a manly, bearded Jesus surely is the most ancient of representations.

Remarkably, for ancient Christians, the common image of Jesus above is not just wrong but completely wrong. The image of Jesus as a long-haired, bearded man is the legacy of the Middle Ages, but ancient Christian art takes exception. To ancient Christians, Jesus should be imagined as a "happy go lucky" boy. Sometimes his image mixes male and female features. Jesus can even appear like a Muse, a female deity, filled with grace, gentleness, and dignity. And while Peter and Paul invariably have beards to signify their masculinity, Jesus is never bearded. Why would Jesus appear more like a boy in earliest Christian art, with little or no emphasis on his suffering, and with the ability to hold or signify a female identity?

The question about Jesus appearing intersexed is answered in two interesting ways. First, it is answered in a foundational way. Christianity arose with a highly inclusive understanding: "In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female" (Gal 3:28). If there is neither male nor female, then there is also (logically) both male and female in equal proportion. In the rise of Christianity, the first communities held to the sense of a youthful, happy Jesus who could pass for either gender because he included both genders. Jesus, like other pagan gods, more or less transcended gender to include both aspects of our humanity. His long hair, in early Christian art contrasted with Peter and Paul's short hair, remains an ancient female feature of Jesus we no longer notice today.

If the first reason for early depictions of a sexually ambiguous Jesus relates to Christian origins, the second reason relates to early Christian practices. Here again, observing early Christian art helps. Very commonly early Christian art depicts hand-raised women leading prayer. Often, women hold censers (incense burning vessels). In art dating to the fifth and sixth centuries, Mary is depicted as a priest and a bishop, either wearing an episcopal pallium (indicating she is a bishop) and/or holding a Lidov (a handkerchief used in performing the Eucharist). A mosaic uncovered in the San Venantius Chapel, Rome, demonstrates an example of Mary wearing a pallium. Finally, Christian art depicts both male and female officiants of the Eucharist (both a woman and a man at the communion table blessing the elements). An example of gender parity at the table is a fresco found in the Callistus Catacomb in Rome (dated to the third century). Often in the earliest practices of Christianity, women served women and men served men. Women baptized women, and men baptized men. The fresco at Rome very likely assumes that a woman and a man should be at the table blessing the elements with the woman distributing the elements to women and the man distributing the elements to men. This would be gender parity, ancient style. Jesus, when depicted in art, represented this parity.

It is unfortunate that the church, as it rose in the Western and Eastern traditions, slowly adopted the normal Roman customs of gender privilege in which families and identities remained focussed on males. In the Western tradition, the identity of God became exclusively male, the necessity of Jesus being male became normal, and the privileges of men to perform rituals and hold authority became an assumption. Today, when it is possible to understand the story of Christianity with greater detail and subtlety, it is possible to understand how the tradition shifted from its first expressions of parity to its later expressions of power.

It is possible also to admit to this shift and to seek to re-set Christianity on its natural foundations of inclusion, equality, and impartiality. It is possible to resurrect an intersexed Jesus, and even possible to focus on happiness rather than suffering as the main emphasis of the faith. History, though, is heavy. It can weigh deeply on the conscience and place guilt upon acts of liberation. It takes ruthless courage to break through guilt, and it takes unrelenting hope to deliver a new era.

©By David Galston

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