I have observed the misery of my people . . . ;
I have heard their cry. . . .
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them (Exod 3:7f).
1. Jesus on Sex and Marriage
and Finding the Heart of God
Before one can begin to rely upon Jesus as having divine wisdom regarding sexuality, one must ask whether Jesus knew the human meaning of sexuality. Did he, consequently, experience sexual desire? This question needs to be raised today even if it causes some embarrassment since, in many Christian circles, the presumption is that holiness means immunity from sexual feelings. Jesus, consequently, as the model of perfect holiness, is often thought of as the model of perfect frigidity. Quite apart from this dubious notion of holiness, the danger here is that Jesus appears underdeveloped sexually or even might be asexual. Such a person, truth to say, could hardly be in a position to give guidance to those who are today wrestling with their personal identity as sexual persons.
Even when Jesus’ normal sexuality is presupposed as a starting point, one must inquire regarding the quality of Jesus’ relations with women. Did Jesus flee from women or did he find himself at ease in their company? More importantly, one must ask whether he relished emotional intimacy with any woman quite apart from a sexual encounter. But, then, if he relished such emotional intimacy, how can one account for the fact that he never married? Was this because he regarded marriage as a practical impediment to his holiness or to his mission? Or was it because he was so much of a “mama’s boy” that he never managed to break her apron strings. An unmarried man still living with his mother at the age of thirty would certainly raise eyebrows. On the other hand, is if possible that Jesus did desire marriage and family, but never managed to find the “right woman.”
Finally, relative to sexual activity, was Jesus embarrassed in this domain and hesitant to even speak of these things? Was he just plain prudish? How was he affected by nudity? Did he, like so many other men, blame women for the lust they feel? Did he subscribe to a double standard of sexual morality? How might he have regarded unwed mothers, adulterers, homosexuals?
Many contemporary Christians imagine that Jesus is divine is so far as he has a divine Father and that he is human in so far as he has a human mother. The orthodox Fathers of the Church would have cringed at this understanding because it smacks of the pagan myths whereby a god comes down from heaven to impregnate some human virgin on earth. In sharp contrast to this, orthodoxy wanted to affirm that the Fatherhood of God is derived from the timeless procession of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and not from the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. Furthermore, when the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke are examined, the Greek Fathers noted that the text repeatedly affirms that Jesus was “conceived of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18, 20) and that pneuma (“Spirit”) is a feminine noun in Greek–hardly the sort of thing that would allow the imagination to think of some divine penis impregnating a human virgin.
The original intent of the Apostles’ Creed when affirming that Jesus was “conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary” was to affirm the normality of the humanity of Jesus. The orthodox Fathers wanted to exclude any suggestion that the eternal Logos appeared among humans as some kind of extraterrestrial, e.g., as when angels took on the form of men in order to appear to Abraham (Gen 18:2ff). Nor did the Logos make himself known by a kind of divine possession wherein, as the counterpart to demonic possession, the human faculties of an already existing man were taken over by a superhuman, divine power.
Nor was Jesus like Superman, a pre-existing man from outer space (Kryptonite) who was rocketed to earth as an infant and later moved among men disguised like a human. Those who knew Clark Kent regarded him as an ordinary man, yet, his true identity came from his Kryptonite origins and his true powers had nothing in common with the limitations of normal men for he was “more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings by a single bound.”
Jesus, in contrast, does none of these marvelous things. Even his miracles, it must be remembered, were perceived by his contemporaries as due to the power of God who works miracles for his servants, the prophets. In effect, therefore, orthodox theology brutally excluded all “Superman” accounts of Jesus in favor of asserting that the Son of God assumed a quite vulnerable and entirely unremarkable human flesh by being formed in the womb of a human mother–just as we all are. Jesus was NOT “more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings by a single bound.”
The liturgical calendar of the church went on to reaffirm the normality of Jesus’ origins by allowing a full nine months between the Annunciation on March 25th and the birth on December 25th. According to the prevailing Jewish perspective, the work of the Holy Spirit was not finished at the moment of conception but continued through the next three trimesters as well. In this vein, Job asserts that he treated his slaves well precisely because the same God “who made me in the womb” also fashioned “them” (Job 31:15). The psalmist gives an even more elegant voice to this process:
O Lord you have searched me and known me. . . .
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb. . . .
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth (Ps 139:1, 13, 15).
Just as the sower scatters his seed upon the fertile earth and then might “sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how” (Mark 4:26); so, too, a man sows his human seed (Latin: semen) into the “fertile” womb (=earth) of his wife where, night and day, it mysteriously grows thanks to the creative Spirit that guides its development. Here one catches the agricultural model of embryonic development that prevailed in the ancient world. Here one also catches that truth that “conceived of the Holy Spirit” and, nine months later, being “born of the virgin Mary” were calculated to produce, in the minds of early believers, the abiding sense that Jesus was an “earthling” precisely because he was “of the earth (=womb).” In effect, therefore, Jesus’ origins have nothing to do with the extraterrestrial origins of a Superman.
Jesus’ Human Development
Now that one can safely put aside some of the common misunderstandings regarding the origins of Jesus, it becomes possible to speak of Jesus’ sexual development as part of his overall human development. For this to be possible, however, it must be allowed that Jesus did really experience infancy and childhood–and that he was not just a miniature adult feigning ignorance, hunger, weakness. Did the infant Jesus, for example, have to gradually learn to focus his eyes? Did he have to learn to recognize his mother’s face? Did the sounds his mother made strike his untrained ears as just a string of melodic noises–little different from the chirping of birds? Did he have to gradually discover that her lovely sounds encoded a language (Aramaic) which, over a period of a dozen years, he progressively mastered for himself? Did he have to learn to stand up? . . . to keep his balance? . . . to take his first steps? Did it take years before he was able to think conceptually? . . . to add numbers? . . . to know that the Lord was real even though he was not tangible like other things? Did Jesus learn by making mistakes: touching a hot poker, cutting a board too short, hurting a playmate in a pushing game? Did Jesus feel sleepy at times? Lazy? Angry? Was Jesus sometimes confused? . . . sometimes overconfident? . . . sometimes unsure of himself?
Questions such as these may appear intrusive or irreverent. In order to banish misleading notions of Jesus’ origins, however, they must be asked. Such questions provide a kind of reality testing. They allow us to perceive to what degree Jesus is truly human. By way of answering these questions, the Gospels give us little direct information. What they do offer, however, is offer us a series of indirect clues:
- Matthew presents Herod as intent upon destroying the Christ child. Joseph, on the other hand, is presented as the dreamer who safeguards his child by listening to his dreams (Matt 2:13, 19, 22), much as did the ancient Joseph. At no point does the story portray the Christ child as having telepathic powers enabling him to detect the threat posed by Herod and as communicating to Joseph a solution to such a threat. At every point, the story is told in such a way as to form the impression that the child was quite vulnerable and quite helpless. He was quite incapable of protecting himself or, for that matter, “all the children [killed] in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Matt 2:16).
- Luke, in contrast, presents Jesus as being born into a peaceful world in which no one threatens his life. Luke’s theme is that “the child [Jesus] grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40, 52). Luke finds no difficulty in drawing a parallel between Jesus and the child born to Zechariah and Elizabeth: “The child [John] grew and became strong in spirit” (Luke 1:80). Luke, consequently, feels no difficulty in presenting Jesus’ development in the same terms that he presents the development of John the Baptist.
One childhood narrative presents the parents of Jesus as losing him for a few days when they visited Jerusalem. The pious imagination has sometimes made the mistake of thinking that his parents later found Jesus “teaching in the temple.” When the text is carefully examined, however, Luke never says this. He says quite simply that the boy Jesus was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Luke, accordingly, gives the impression that the boy of twelve is not the teacher but the attentive pupil learning Torah by listening and asking questions–activities appropriate to his age. The remark that they were “amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47) must be read within this context as signaling that they were “amazed at his ability as a twelve-year old.” Clearly the text had no interest in suggesting that some of the teachers were so amazed that they stopped teaching and became his disciples. Not even his own parents took this event as a sign that they ought to turn the entire running of their household over to him because he was superior to them in these matters. Quite the contrary, Luke presents us with the closing note that the boy Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51). This conveys the notion that Jesus may have been a precocious child with a superior understanding of Torah for his age; yet, he still had a lot to learn and “obedience” was the proper attitude of a dutiful son who hoped to further assimilate the wisdom of his parents and teachers.
- The Letter to the Hebrews, stepping back from the whole life of Jesus, exalts Jesus while retaining a programmatic formula that relished his human descent:
For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God . . . (Heb 2:16-17).
The upshot of this focus upon human origins is to highlight the fact that “since he himself is beset with weakness” (Heb 5:2), he can be expected to “deal gently with the ignorant and the wayward” (Heb 5:2), The implied logic of this argument is that an angel, an extraterrestrial, or a Superman would be a bad candidate for God’s high priest since, by implication, such persons would be incapable of relating to and wrestling with ignorance and weakness.
An early Church Father, Irenaeus (d. 200 CE), developed this same theme more emphatically. He explained that Jesus had to pass through all the stages of human development by way of demonstrating that sanctification (deification) was possible for infants, children and adolescents as well as for adults:
Thus he [the incarnate Logos] passes through every age: having become an infant among the infants, he sanctifies the infants; as a little child among little children; he sanctifies those who are of that age . . . ; as a youth among youths, he becomes an example to youth, and sanctifies them in the Lord . . . (Adversus haereses 2.22.4).
From this vantage point, the comic book image of the two-year-old Superman listening to audio tapes while on route to earth in order to master all the known earth languages before arriving is the stuff of pious imagination. Irenaeus, however, would have to reject such a scheme out of hand as having nothing to do with presenting a fitting image of what human development might be like for a two-year-old earthling.
Jesus’ Sexual Development
Given the absence of baby formula in the first century, one can safely surmise that Jesus was breast-fed. Women today report that breast feeding serves not only to nourish their hungry child but that it nourishes the bond between mother and child. While breast feeding, mother and child touch each other. They play with each other. From time to time, modern women even report that breast feeding is mildly sexually stimulating. Infants, to be sure, enjoy the tactile warmth and softness of the female breast even before and after the time when they are actually feeding. If one allows that Mary and Jesus were full participants in this human drama, then one must allow that these experiences were part and parcel of their nursing moments as well.
Renaissance artists, unaffected by the prudery that entered into Western culture during the Victorian era, felt no hesitation to present the infant Jesus as sucking on the exposed breast of his mother. Such an image reinforced the intimate moments of communication that existed between mother and child. In all of these paintings, however, the viewer is not made to feel like a spy or an interloper. Nor is the mother presented as embarrassed or ashamed at being seen in this act of nursing. The sentiments guiding modern women to nurse their infants in private and to abhor nursing in church on Sundays, consequently, have little to do with the sentiments prevailing in an earlier age. Most of our contemporaries, accordingly, are completely unaware of the naturalness with which Mary breast fed Jesus during the first two or three years of his life.
We may even be slightly embarrassed by the woman in the crowd calling out to Jesus, “Blessed . . . are the breasts that nursed you” (Luke 11:27). I would wager that none of us would even think of using an expression like this today by way of praising someone we admired. In most polite circles today, any public and spontaneous reference to “breasts” would be frowned upon as “inappropriate.” Thus, the process of recovering the humanity of Jesus sometimes has the healthy side effect of correcting some of our prudishness left over from the Victorian era.
Pressing our reality testing even further, one might imagine that, as a young child, Jesus was routinely allowed to romp around naked in the courtyard of his parents’ home in Nazareth. In traditional Middle Eastern households (as well as in many places all over the world) today, this would be normal. Believe it or not, well over half the infants being born today never experience the modern diaper. Even in Renaissance paintings, it was usual to present the Virgin nursing or holding her stark-naked Child. In contrast, my circle of friends either burst into nervous laughter or blush and turn away when my three-year-old daughter bursts into the living room stark naked to announce to me that she has finished her bath. One would hardly have expected such a response on the part of Mary’s friends when Jesus would have done the same thing. Here again, therefore, the process of recovering the humanity of Jesus has the effect of enlarging our own sense of our own humanity.
Going even further, it would seem sensible to imagine that Jesus’ infancy was marked by the sexual dormancy normal for children. At the age of twelve or thirteen, however, one would expect that Jesus would have experienced a sexual awakening as he blossomed into adolescence. One can allow that he must have felt that confusing allure that normal adolescent boys experience when they discover “girls” for the first time. Even further, it would seem wise to allow that Jesus’ sexual awakening triggered his imagination and erupted from time to time in involuntary “wet dreams.” Such nocturnal emissions are not, in and of themselves, sinful; hence, even when Hebrews puts forward the general thesis that “he has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15), this would have nothing to do with the spontaneous sexual fantasies associated with “wet dreams.”
In point of fact, the Gospels say absolutely nothing about Jesus’ sexual awakening–neither affirming it or denying it. This silence should be interpreted as meaning that it was taken for granted along with so many other things proper to normal human development. Not to allow these things for Jesus is to flirt with the even more embarrassing suggestions: (a) that Jesus sexuality was somehow underdeveloped, (b) that he was “blissfully unaware of sexual attraction,” or (c) that sexuality cannot be sanctified and sanctifying. On the contrary, by allowing that the sexuality of Jesus was real and operative and holy enables one to affirm that he was fully human and that our own sexuality can be real, operative, and wholly harmonized with God’s desire for our sanctification. Here again, recovering a proper sense of Jesus’ sexuality enables us to recover a proper sense of our own sexuality as being a gift and a treasure and not some “dirty thing” that destroys our holiness and drags us down to hell.
Reflections on the Moral Structures Surrounding my own Adolescent Wet Dreams
When I was a boy of 14, I remember my first “sex talk” that I received during a retreat for the boys at St. Joseph Catholic High School. My Dad never spoke to me regarding sex or girls or dating. He never spoke to me regarding how to cultivate self-esteem or lasting friendships. We didn’t have a warm relationship; hence, I was not inclined to reveal to my father any of the cutting edge dimensions of my emotional or intellectual life. Brother Kuntz, on the other hand, projected an image that was much more attractive to me. Hence, when he gathered two dozen of us boys for our first “sex talk,” I was very much attentive to what he had to say.
Brother Kuntz began by defining “venereal pleasure.” I was both surprised and shocked by this phrase. I had never heard it spoken before or written about in print. He defined venereal pleasure as “the bodily and emotional satisfaction that accompanies any form of sexual excitement.” From there, he moved quickly to defining “wet dreams.” We were encouraged to discover that wet dreams were entirely normal for high school freshmen and that this was the divinely ordained natural process whereby excessive sperm formed in the scrotum was harmlessly dispelled in the middle of the night.
At this point in my life, I do remember having wet dreams every two or three weeks. The fantasy that flowed into my night dreams usually centered around my bravery in saving damsels in distress. The damsels were invariably cute girls with long, blond curls who threw themselves into my arms in gratitude after I had saved them from some sexual predator. I do not doubt that my fascination for heroics was stimulated by my long addiction to Superman comics.
Outside of these wet dreams, I had no sexual experience whatsoever. My second-hand experience was also in short supply. A few of my friends were dated girls with regularity, but they never demonstrated any relish in revealing what went on during or after their dates.
In the same vein, movies in the late 50s were definitely more discreet than they are today. The movie industry had cooperated with the National Legion of Decency and carefully maintained the “one foot on the floor rule” for all bedroom scenes. Acts of sexual intimacy were always off camera. You would see the two lovers kiss as they headed for the bedroom and then the whole scene dissolved into darkness. The next scene was flooded with sunlight as the two lovers were teasing each other during a delightful breakfast in their bath robes on the veranda. The only movie that I saw that caused me unwanted, disturbing sexual thoughts for some months was “House of Wax” which was given a A-II rating (for adults only) and climaxed in a brief display of frontal nudity.
Brother Kuntz didn’t speak of any of these things. He did not speak of Jesus and his sexuality, to be sure. Once wet dreams were understood, he moved directly to asking whether they were sinful. It went something like this:
Indirectly venereal actions are not sinful if a person has sufficient reason for starting or continuing them. Bodily needs of all kinds come under this category and may be summarily described as actions which it is reasonable to perform although sexual pleasure is expected or known to occur. This is an application of the principle of the twofold effect where arousal is permitted (but not indulged) for the sake of a proportionate good.
This included such things as the incidental venereal pleasure that might occur when taking a shower or when riding a bicycle with tight jeans. As for wet dreams, they were declared as both natural and non-sinful:
It cannot be overemphasized that venereal pleasure in itself is not sinful, otherwise married people could not indulge it and, in fact, have a sacrament instituted by Christ to regulate its enjoyment. Even in the unmarried, such pleasure is natural and responds to a divinely-implanted instinct whose purpose is the noble one of leading men and women to conceive and procreate children. It may last for hours without a shred of guilt. But for the unmarried it is wrong to yield to that pleasure in the sense of wanting it in the body by knowing it is there, consenting to its presence and enjoying the genital stimulation which it gives. All three elements must be verified to constitute sin for the unmarried. It is indifferent whether the pleasure is deliberately procured or arises spontaneously; what is forbidden is the intentional yielding to [or deliberately provoking] an excitation of the generative organs.
Thus the enjoyment of a wet dream was natural and good only when it was not deliberately provoked. But as soon as one wakes up (usually due to the sensation of wetness resulting from an ejaculation), then one must not mentally dwell upon the fantasy or touch oneself deliberately in order to prolong or heighten the venereal pleasure. If one fails in this, then one has to confess this mortal sin to a priest as soon as possible. Not to confess out of shame or fear was to endanger one’s immortal soul and to risk an eternity in hell.
Brother Kuntz, in this brief hour-long talk, emotionally distanced me from my own sexual development and mildly traumatized me by tarnishing such involuntary innocent events such as “wet dreams” with the bad name of being “near occasions of serious sin.” From here it was downhill. Every sexual enjoyment, from that moment forward, was surrounded by the barbed wire fear of eternal hellfire. Gone was the opportunity to grow into my sexuality with a healthy sense of gratitude, wonder, playfulness, imagination, and experimentation. My ability to become more than an average lover and, somewhere in the future, maybe even to become a red-hot sexual partner was already being severely eaten away by the caustic moral fundamentalism of this man. And, to make matters worse, it was my own spontaneous respect for Brother Kuntz that enabled me to take this, my first sex talk, with such absolute seriousness. I believed that he had “saved my soul from the horrors of hell.” In addition, I naively believed that my friends had taken this experience with the same unbridled seriousness that had gripped my soul. Hence, there was no need to discuss it later in a safe place where we could weigh our reservations. [
Are there any sexual sins? You better believe there are. Sex without love is always to some degree destructive. Even marital sex that is driven by self-absorption, fueled by domination, or intent upon inflicting pain is sinful—it erodes the well-being and humanity of both partners. Hence, even in marriage, one never arrives at a no-holds-barred stage where sex “may last for hours without a shred of guilt.” Rather sex must be mutual, just, loving, generous, forgiving.
Sr. Margaret A. Farley recently wrote a very popular pioneering book on this kind of sex. She gave it the title, Just Love:A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (2007). The U.S. Catholic Bishops condemned this book primarily because it does not give full endorsement to the current norms of the Vatican. Rev. A.W. Richard Sipe, on the other hand, gave this book a glowing review precisely because it went beyond the Vatican norms:
This book is a gigantic contribution to the discourse and understanding of human sexuality. It is monumental. It turns the entrenched dictates of the Vatican on their head. It is a perspective that unclogs the tangle of non-credible pronouncements from Rome, opens the subject of sex to rational discourse by Christian people, and acknowledges the direction from which the source of light comes—reason and science informed by just love open to all—not prohibitions anchored in archaic and irrational power plays.
For those, like myself, who were spell-bound by the likes of a Brother Kuntz, this is a remedy to recover your souls and reexamine your sex life without fear. [For details on this point, go to “Facing Up to Spiritual Abuse.“]
The Last Temptation of Christ
While most Christians would be willing to allow that Jesus must have had normal sexual responses as an adolescent, many would protest when faced with the suggestion that Jesus may have had “sexual feelings” for particular women as an adult. We may allow these experiences for ourselves; yet, due to our upbringing, we are embarrassed by them, keep them quiet, and never imagine that Jesus could have ever shared such an experience. When Martin Scorsese produced Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, some Fundamentalist groups were so irate at the content that they tried to buy all rights to the film in order to suppress it. When this failed, these same groups organized themselves to pressure theater owners not to show the film. During that period, a local Catholic priest wrote to his congregation that, even without seeing the film, he wanted to soundly condemn it because “it shows Christ, already hanging on the cross, as dreaming or imagining that he is married to Mary Magdalene and makes love to her.”
This response needs examination. What convinced this pastor and other like-minded Christians that Jesus cannot be allowed to even imagine these things? The pastor explained himself:
Jesus Christ is a true man, but, because he is also God, HE IS NO ORDINARY MAN. He is like us in all things except sin, but he is also unlike us in that his human nature is hypostatically united to the Word of God . . . .
So far so good. The assertion that he is “no ordinary man” because “he is God” might be misleading and a slide toward unorthodoxy; yet, not necessarily. From this starting point, the pastor went on to show how different Jesus was from ordinary humans. His recital followed suggestions that he received while previously studying the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. First, “Jesus’ soul had the immediate vision of God from the first moment of his conception.” Second, “Jesus’ human knowledge was free of all ignorance and error.” Then, the final and critical note:
The next step in our consideration of Christ is to examine his will . . . . Sin, or rebellion against God, resides in the will. With this in mind we ask: Did Christ ever sin? Was he capable of sinning? We would reply instinctively, “No.” That answer is perfectly correct.
In point of fact, this answer is not perfectly correct. To say that Christ did not sin conforms to the thought of St. Thomas and to the Scriptures as well. To say that Christ was not capable of sinning, however, would be tantamount to suggesting that Jesus’ lacked either the freedom or the opportunity to sin. To be human means to be capable of sin. The Catholic tradition never wanted to undermine Jesus’ freedom but, on the contrary, to assert that Jesus wholeheartedly used his freedom to serve his Father. What is truly remarkable about Jesus, consequently, was that he could have sinned but did not. This pastor, so taken up with Jesus’ difference from us, ends up making the critical error of calling into question the very ground that makes Jesus important for us—namely, his freedom.
When one examines the Summa Theologica closely, one discovers that St. Thomas argued not only that it was fitting for Christ to be tempted but that these temptations extended to all the seven deadly sins, lust included. To support his argument, Thomas cited Scripture: “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb 4:15).
At this point, some reality testing is called for. If the temptations of Christ were only mock struggles wherein Jesus, by virtue of his unity with the eternal Son of God, was invincible, then it cannot be claimed that he was tempted as we are. Hebrews, it will be remembered, does not hesitate to emphasize the vulnerability of “the pioneer of our salvation” (Heb 2:10) by relating that “he himself is beset with weakness” (Heb 5:2) and “has been tempted as we are” (Heb 4:15).
Can it be said that sexual temptations are included here? The Scriptures do not specifically address this question. They do, however, presuppose it. How so? Jesus, it will be remembered, took note that a man “who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). A child cannot experience what it means “to look at a woman lustfully” and hence cannot properly understand these words when they are read in the churches. An adult, however, does know ‑‑ not by virtue of having committed adultery but by virtue of having felt those organic desires that lure “the heart” in that direction. The very words on the lips of Jesus, therefore, presupposes that he knew of what he was speaking for he himself had struggled with and had resisted such desires.
Sexual desires and sexual sins are easily confused. Without the existence of sexual desire, the bonding between the sexes would be strictly Platonic and the erection necessary for procreation would seemingly have to arise from some other stimulus. Desire, and specifically sexual desire, is what God designed to allow boys to begin to ignore their buddies and to take an interest in girls. This same desire, enriched with complex feelings of romantic love, leads a young man to woo his beloved and to propose marriage. Even after years of marriage, this same desire ebbs and flows as a providential barometer and as a sacramental sign of the effective and affective unity that the couple creates for each other on a day to day basis. Far from there being any sin in this, sexual desires are the providential source of blessings and grace from the very moment of their adolescent awakening.
Yet, sexuality can go wrong. These desires, good in themselves, can be turned away from the mutual blessings that they were intended to produce. Then one finds a host of disorders: sexually abused children, date rape, prostitution, voyeurism, sex‑without‑love in marriage, adultery. But this is decidedly not the content of Jesus’ “Last Temptation.” While dying on the cross, Kazantzakis presents Jesus “dreaming or imagining that he is married to Mary Magdalene and makes love to her.” Quite independent of the artistic merits of Kazantzakis’ novel and of Scorsese’s film, one might expect that orthodox Christians would welcome the fact that Jesus would have imagined such things for himself. In fact, a Jesus who did not imagine such things cannot be the Lord of my life and the source of my salvation.
It is one thing to imagine that Jesus is the paragon of perfection because he embraced his sexuality and providentially harmonized it with his divine calling. It is quite another thing to imagine that Jesus is perfect because he repressed or denied his sexual feelings or because, quite simply, he had no such feelings whatsoever. In these later cases, Jesus himself would be suspected of being psychologically or physically “abnormal.” It might be suspected that he was frozen in a pre-adolescent phase. As such, his guidance in matters of sexuality would be tainted as “inadequate” or “uninformed.” Thus, from this vantage point, one can see that the Catholic pastor’s feverish objection to Kazantzakis’ Jesus as “dreaming or imagining that he is married to Mary Magdalene” is what must be judged as “abnormal” and “heretical.” To assume that Jesus had the “gift of celibacy” is one thing; to assume that he is plagued with “sexual frigidity” is quite another. It is for this reason that an orthodox Christian can say quite forcefully that a Jesus who did not so dream or imagine cannot be the Lord of my life and the source of my salvation.
The same observations hold true for the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, but for a different reason. In this rock opera, Mary Magdalene is presented as a very attractive woman who is both smitten and dumbfounded by Jesus. Her song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” presents her dilemma dramatically. Many Christians were disturbed by this image of Mary as romantically attracted to Jesus. On the other hand, these same Christians might be more horrified to contemplate a Jesus who was repulsive or inaccessible to women. Such a Jesus would be prone to act like those men in our society who use and abuse women (or children) for their own selfish purposes. Thus, a Jesus that no woman found attractive would stand out as a danger and a menace to all women. Hence, the creators of the rock opera have correctly honored Jesus in allowing that at least one woman was romantically attracted to Jesus and yet unsettled by the unmanipulative love he offered her. In what follows, this will be pursued further.
Jesus’ Marital Status
If Jesus had a normal sexual awakening and had a healthy sexual imagination, why didn’t he ever marry? If Jesus had known emotional intimacy with women, why didn’t he desire to have a lifelong sexual intimacy with anyone? Presuming, for the moment that Jesus was never married, three reasons have to be dismissed by way of explaining his choice. Which three?
(1) That Jesus hated or, at the very least, distrusted women – The Gospels retain the memory that Jesus displayed a profound openness to women’s issues and women’s experiences in his deeds and in his teaching. On the other hand, while both the church and the synagogue of the first century embraced traditions that tended to blame and discredit women for the temptations of men, Jesus is remembered for never having indulged in any such ploys (as we will soon see). In effect, therefore, given Jesus’ enormous sensitivity to women, it becomes puzzling that he would not have embraced marriage as a dynamic example of how well husband and wife could exemplify the Genesis ideal of being “helpmates” for each other.
(2) That Jesus regarded sexuality as incompatible with God’s plan ‑- Here again, Jesus’ immersion in Judaism made it abundantly clear that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). More importantly, within his Jewish upbringing, it was tantamount to a religious obligation that humans “created in the image of God, male and female” should “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:27f). Within the Jewish tradition, therefore, marriage and the sexual procreation of children were perceived as the providential divine directives. Jesus himself, it will be remembered, appealed to this Genesis tradition by way of upholding the centrality of marital fidelity (Matt 19:4-6). Furthermore, in contrast to the early church and to pagan philosophers, Jesus is never remembered to have said a single word to disparage marriage or marital sexuality. In effect, therefore, far from finding sexuality “incompatible” with God’s plan, it remains puzzling that Jesus himself did not embrace sexual bonding as a providential aspect of God’s plan for him.
(3) That Jesus renounced marriage by way of anticipating the Kingdom of God ‑- Within the tradition of the church that later favored celibacy, two sayings of Jesus were interpreted as advocating celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Given the grave risks of overlooking Jesus’ normal acceptance of his sexuality, these texts need careful attention. This can be found in the box below. Readers not especially interested in the issue of celibacy might do well to skip ahead three pages to the continued discussion of Jesus’ sexuality following the box.
“It is better not to marry”
The first text is Matt 19:10-13 (no parallels). The disciples note that “it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:10) and Jesus responds that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:13). This has been interpreted as implying (a) that “Jesus here commends the unmarried state to those who are fitted for it and whose ‘call’ demands it” and/or (b) that “the intensity of their mission rendered them ineligible for marriage.”
This tidy interpretation breaks down, however, once Matt 19:10-13 is interpreted within its original context. The discussion at hand is not about whether one should or should not marry. Nor is Jesus addressing the near expectation of the Kingdom of Heaven nor the rigorous demands of the mission to which the disciples are called. Rather, the issue at hand is the Pharisaic ruling allowing for easy divorce. Jesus opposed the Pharisaic interpretation of the decree of Moses (Matt 19:7) that allowed a man to divorce his wife “for any cause” (Matt 19:1 but not Mark). Jesus supported his interpretation by citing the text of Genesis as expressing the will of the “the one who made them in the beginning” (Matt 19:4). Jesus then gave his conclusion:
It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt 19:8-9).
Matthew, it will be noted omits Mark 10:12 wherein the case of women divorcing their husbands is also included. Matthew seemingly aligns himself closer with the Jewish tradition that made no provision for a woman to divorce her husband. Matthew also adds to Mark, “except for unchastity”‑-a clause that aligns Jesus closer to the Judaism of his day wherein an adulterous wife had to be dismissed lest the husband participate in her dishonor and raise children conceived by her sin. Despite these Matthean attempts to harmonize Jesus’ declaration with Jewish practice, the force of Jesus’ setting aside the male privilege of discretionary divorce remains.
Following this confrontation of the Pharisaic interpretation, it is not the Pharisees but the disciples of Jesus who register their shock: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:10). At this point, one must remember that Jewish men routinely entered into marriages arranged for them by their parents. Such marriages were expected to last by virtue of the harmony, understanding, and love that emerged following the wedding ceremony. What the disciples are picking up on is the fact that limiting the right of a man to divorce his wife “for any reason” effectively denies men the possibility of sending an unsatisfactory wife back to her parents where she originally came. The disciples’ rebuttal is tinged with a heavy dose of sarcasm: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:10).
When seen in this context, one quickly discovers that Jesus is definitely not proposing that either he or his disciples should avoid marriage. Had Jesus done that, his disciples would have objected that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18) for humans were “created in the image of God, male and female” such that they would “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:27f). But, in this case, the disciples clearly understood that Jesus was not opposing marriage for himself or for his disciples.
In response to their sarcasm, Jesus adds some of his own. Those who “can accept this teaching” (Matt 19:11) must live as “eunuchs” (Matt 19:12) should they divorce their wives for anything other than unchastity. In effect, the husband is to bear the burden of his wife’s shame at being sent packing. Why so? Does Jesus want the husband to take stock, to accept their responsibility, and to move toward an eventual reconciliation. One cannot tell. What is beyond dispute, however, is that a husband may not threaten or intimidate his wife by holding his unilateral power of divorce over her for, as the Creator intended, those married, both the male and the female, are yoked together in one flesh before God. Any disciple of Jesus, consequently, who divorces his wife must, “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:12), live celibatly as would be the case for a man sexually undeveloped “from birth” (Matt 19:12 following Deut 23:2) or a man castrated “by others” (Matt 19:12). Nothing in the context favors understanding the passage in terms of freedom from marital cares for the sake of evangelistic endeavor, or because of an eschatological crisis, or for considerations of ceremonial purity or asceticism.
“They neither marry nor are given in marriage”
The second text that has been used to support Jesus’ determination not to marry is less obvious. In this instance, Jesus is contending with the Sadducees regarding the expectation of the general resurrection of the dead in the Last Days. Jesus upholds the resurrection saying:
You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven (Matt 22:30, Mark 12:25, Luke 20:35f).
Some authors have used this text to argue that Jesus himself understood his celibacy as an anticipation of the world to come where no one will be married.
As in the case above, the intent of Jesus must be gathered from considering his words in their original context. Here, one finds Sadducees “saying there is no resurrection” (Matt 22:23 and par.) based on the hypothetical case of seven brothers who, by Jewish tradition, had a serial marriage with a single women (Matt 22:24-26 following Deut 25:5) in the attempt to raise up offspring. On the basis of this extreme case, the Sadducees posed the dilemma: “At the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her” (Matt 22:27). The implied logic of this case is that God would face an impossible situation at the final resurrections since each of the seven brothers had the right to claim the women as his wife.
The clever responder might suggest that each husband might have the women one day a week. Each day, however, six of the brothers would be deprived of their wife‑-a condition hardly acceptable in the kingdom of God. Or, again, maybe God, at the general resurrection, would clone the woman such that each brother would have her as his full-time wife. The bible, however, says nothing of cloning and one has no reason to believe that God anticipates cloning by way of solving certain problems. Could God then take six women who never married and to transform their appearance such that they looked like the women that was married to the seven brothers? And so it goes. . . . Endless bad proposals and the final sense that maybe, in view of real cases like this, there will not be a resurrection.
So what does Jesus propose by way of unraveling this tale? The logic of Jesus’ rebuttal is that the Sadducees underestimate “the power of God” (Matt 22:29) when they imagine that the world to come will be organized according to the social codes found in the Hebrew Scriptures. More to the point, Jesus postulates that, in the world to come, there will be “no marriage” but all will live in community “like the angels” (Matt 22:30). Living “like the angels” does not mean that Jesus envisions that human existence will involve disembodied spirits. Such a proposition would deny the bodily resurrection of the dead and forfeit the argument to the Sadducees. Rather, the argument is simply that the angels live quite well in community without pairing off as marriage partners and that, in the future, humans will get on quite well doing the same. This argument says absolutely nothing either favorable or unfavorable about resurrected bodies being asexual or incapable of sexually functioning. On the contrary, the argument appears to be that “immortality will make procreation needless.” Luke favors this interpretation when he adds to the text of Mark “for they cannot die any more” (Luke 20:36).
In sum, one finds nothing in either the first or second text to explain why Jesus would not happily and conscientiously choose to marry and to raise a family. The solution to Jesus’ marital status must thus be studied from a different direction.
Whether Jesus Was Married
William Phipps made a very careful investigation of Jesus’ marital status against the background of Jewish tradition. By way of conclusion, Phipps argued that Jesus had been married prior to his public ministry but that his wife died and, as a consequence, never showed up in the Gospel. Phipps’ argument is based upon his reconstruction of the Jewish tradition whereby (a) all male Jews were expected to marry in order “to be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) and (b) no rabbinic teacher was allowed to gather disciples who was not already married. Since the Pharisees criticize Jesus for many things but never see fit to call him on the carpet for not having been married, they must have known that he had been married.
Upon reflection, however, I believe that whether Jesus was ever married seems beside the point in today’s culture. Many unmarried man have healthy sexual identities and an enormous sensitivity to women. Meanwhile, many married men have distorted sexual identities leading them to use sex as a means to control or to punish their wives. Some married men even sexually abuse their own children. Whether Jesus was married, therefore, is not especially relevant. What, then, must be looked for?
Whether Jesus Had a Distinctive View of Sexuality
Various authors have endeavored to search for the critical point wherein Jesus’ view of sexuality is distinctive. Some have claimed that Judaism had reduced marriage to the exercise of property rights by the husband and that Jesus, by appealing to Genesis, showed that marriage was intended by God “as a relationship in which the two come together to form a whole new reality.” Still others look to Paul and herald his notion of mutuality in marriage (1 Cor 7) as socially revolutionary–something that must have stemmed from Jesus. For myself, I’m hesitant to place too much weight on such studies. The danger is that modern notions of marriage are being read back into ancient texts that supported ideals of married life considerable different from our own. Likewise, such studies may be suspect in so far as they represent another form of tacit triumphalism in which Christians are prone to elevate Jesus at the expense of downgrading Judaism.
Speaking for myself, I find it refreshing that Jesus has so little to say about regulating women and their sexuality. Insecure men, petrified by the prospect of their self-surrender to a woman, often compensate for their insecurity by redoubling their efforts to control the sexuality of women. This tendency was rampant in the Christianity of my youth that had an unhealthy obsession with naming and dissecting the variety of “sexual sins.” Furthermore, I find it refreshing that, when Jesus does put forward guidelines regarding sexuality, he does so without resorting to the notion that sex is “dirty” or that women are “the source of temptation” and “the devil’s gateway” dragging otherwise virtuous men to their destruction.
Consider, for example, how Jesus puts forward the basic Jewish prohibition against adultery found in the Mosaic Torah and then expands upon it with his own commentary:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ [Exod 20:14]. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt 5:27-30).
What is evident here is that Jesus addresses adultery as a problem located within the hearts of men. This, in itself, is unusual since, for the most part, traditional manuals produced by men have been so heavily bent upon discovering, exposing, and punishing the sexual crimes of women. Adultery, moreover, in the first century, was traditionally regarded as the crime to which women were exposed. The double standard was entirely in effect (see below). At first glance, therefore, I note that Jesus refused to fall into the male trap of treating sexuality as having to do with men regulating the lust of women for the common good (i.e., women’s sexuality must be made to fit neatly into a man’s world).
Shifting the onus of “adultery” away from women, Jesus turns his attention to the men and invites each man to look “into his heart” (Matt 5:28). If “in his heart,” he “looks at a woman lustfully,” he has “already committed adultery” (Matt 5:28). One has to be careful here. The “heart” is Jewish anthropology is the organ of “deliberation” and not the symbol of “romantic feelings” as it has become in modern Western society. Thus, Jesus is talking about “calculated plans” directed toward another man’s wife and not “romantic love.” Alternately, since the Greek verb (epithymêsai) here is the same as the verb used in the tenth commandment in the Septuagint, Jesus, more probably, is addressing “coveting,” the intention to take for himself another man’s wife. This then, for Jesus, is the root of adultery.
In like fashion, since the “right eye” is the symbol for “just judgment,” Jesus advises men acting out of their lust to “tear it out and throw it away” (Matt 5:29). In parallel terms, since the “right hand” is the symbol for “the power to grasp,” Jesus advises a man intending to grasp another man’s wife to “cut it off and throw it away” (Matt 5:30). Within society today, one sometimes hears a man say that he forced himself upon his date or that he sexually fondled a child “because he couldn’t help himself.” This is akin to a man acknowledging that “his right eye leads him to sin.” So, too, when one hears today about soldiers (in Bosnia, in El Salvador, in Vietnam) raping women prisoners and of owners (be they masters, pimps, or husbands) forcing sexual favors from “their women,” this is a case of “the right hand causing them to sin.” The “right hand” is the hand of power and, instead of protecting and safeguarding the weak, it exploits the weak for its selfish purposes.
Where does Jesus make any real contribution to sexuality? For starters, we have discovered that Jesus does not get caught up in denigrating sex or in controlling and blaming women. Rather, each man is called upon to check out what his “right eye” and his “right hand” are doing. But, even here, Jesus does not get trapped into some superhuman ideal of complete control. In fact, what is refreshing about Jesus is that he enables men to take action to direct their own sexuality and to give up their obsessive need to control women.
The Double Standard for Adultery
When the bible speaks of “adultery,” we may be inclined to imagine that we know what is meant by this term because the prohibition against “adultery” continues down to our present day. Within different social structures, however, “adultery” is perceived differently. For example, Marco Polo, when traveling though Asia visited certain communities where the men generously welcomed visitors and gave them accommodations within their private homes with the intent of encouraging them to be sexually intimate with their wives.In the mountains of Tibet, he encountered yet another form of sexual morality:
No man [here] will marry a virgin on the grounds that if a woman has not had several lovers she must be undesirable to men and unloved by the gods. So when foreigners or strangers pitch their tents in the area, as many as forty young girls may be brought by their mothers from the village and offered to them. The more attractive girls are welcomed and the others go sadly home. A traveler many keep a girl with him as long as he stays in the village, and when he leaves he must give the girl a jewel to prove she has had a lover. If a girl has twenty jewels, she has had as many lovers. The girls with the most jewels are then chosen as wives [for the local men] because, by common accord, they must be the loveliest. Once they are married their husbands cherish them and regard it as a great sin to touch another man’s wife.
What is evident here is that this socially sanctioned behavior may appear as “fornication” or “adultery” to outsiders; yet, within its context, those practicing it clearly regarded it as a form of “hospitality” and as a “necessary stage” toward a sanctioned marriage. This practice, in turn, may have originally developed as a strategy for village survival. How so? Marauding soldiers may have resorted to rape and pillage when deprived of women. Accordingly, this practice may have developed of having the non-menacing mothers offer their unmarried daughters to these potentially aggressive outsiders. No matter what the origins, however, this case make clear that every “foreigner or stranger” was to be offered the virgins for their purposes. Once accepted, however, they were obliged to reciprocate by giving the girl a gem upon departing. The local men, in turn, choose those girls with the most gems and, in the end, “their husbands cherish them and regard it as a great sin to touch another man’s wife.”
Thus, for this, it can be seen that local traditions were everywhere used to decide how girls enter into stable marriages. L. William Countryman has carefully studied the social character of first-century Christianity against its Jewish background just for this purpose. At the end of his study, he concluded as follows:
Among us[today], sexual activity outside the marriage on the part of either partner is understood as adultery; in antiquity, only such activity on the part of the wife (or the betrothed woman) qualified as adultery. The husband could commit adultery only by having intercourse with the wife (or betrothed) of another man; if he had sexual relations with a slave, a prostitute, a concubine, or a divorced or widowed woman, this did not constitute adultery. . . . Again, our own explanations of what is wrong in adultery usually focus on the betrayal of trust and of formal commitments between spouses, whereas the ancient understanding of adultery assumes rather that it is a violation of another’s property. What for us is analogous to betrayal was for them a species of theft.
Adultery, consequently, was interpreted according to the double standard and functioned in order to protect the property rights of men. Countryman poignantly illustrates this by making reference to the Book of Job. According to Job, a fitting calamity should follow upon every sin. Should he close his hands against the poor or raise his hand to strike the orphan, then “let my arm be broken from its socket” (Job 31:22).
Yet, in the case of adultery, he [Job] suggests that an appropriate punishment would be for his wife to become another man’s household servant and be used sexually, like a prostitute, by a number of men [Job 31:9f]. This curse becomes intelligible only when we note that it is parallel to others in the chapter which deal with property offenses: if Job has practiced deceit, let his own crops be rooted out (31:5-8); if he has taken another’s land, let his own grow weeds instead of good crops (31:38-40). If he has taken another man’s wife, let another take his. The wife was a form of property; adultery was violation of the property of another and should therefore be punished with violation of one’s own property.
All in all, therefore, adultery had to do with property rights held by men. A man could be thus assured that his seed and his seed alone would grow within the fertile womb of his wife.
With this in mind, it made sense that the Lord-God required that a violation of these rights should be punished. It also made sense that men were reluctant to marry a woman who was not a virgin and that, in the case of young girls, they were expected to be able to demonstrate their virginity on their wedding night by the blood of the broken hymen on the sheets or else to be stoned to death (Deut 22:13-21). It is for this reason that, in rural areas of North Africa today, I discovered that certain women are charged with carrying the blood-stained sheets through the village in the name of the bride after her wedding night as a badge of honor. The fact that I along with most Westerners instinctively reacted to this gesture with anything from mild discomfort to repulsion only indicates how far our socially sanctioned instincts surrounding sexuality have changed.
Within ancient Roman tradition, a similar double standard prevailed when it came to adultery: “[Emperor] Augustus declared adultery a public offense only in women.”Fathers had the right to kill a promiscuous daughter. The husband, on the other hand, had more limited powers: “the husband was obliged to divorce his wife, and he or someone else was to bring her to trial.” If convicted, the woman lost half of her dowry and both parties to the adultery were forced into exile. Jerome describes in detail the inhumane tortures inflicted by the Roman State upon a woman refusing to disclose the name of her suspected lover (Letter 1). By these means, an injured father or husband was able to recapture his lost honor. Meanwhile, one fails to find fathers taking any action against sons visiting the quarters of household slaves in the middle of the night. Likewise one fails to find wives divorcing their husbands due to their sexual infidelity. Among Stoics, on the other hand, every form of sexual intercourse was suspect because their ideal was to act without passion. Hence, for Roman Stoics, marital intercourse alone was permitted, not for pleasure, but exclusively for procreation (TDNT 6.583).
When Love Gets Confused with the Need to Control
In the parking lot of a local high school, I recently came upon a disturbing scene. A robust young man wearing a school football jacket was verbally humiliating his girlfriend, repeatedly calling her a “slut,” grabbing her hair, forcing her down on her knees, and holding her in that position until she confessed that she was “sorry and would never do it again.” What had she done? From the fragments I heard, it would appear that she had agreed to collaborate with another boy in solving some extra-credit trig problems?
This whole scene was disturbing. This young man had got it into his head that men love women by controlling them. The young woman was being sent the loud and clear message that “loving him” meant “being available for him” at any time and in any place. Even when he was out drinking with the boys on Friday nights, he expected her to wait for him at home so that he could visit her on his way home. Already, years before their marriage, this woman was being punished because she might have an interest in a project or in a person or in a social life that somehow diminished her availability for him. “If you need to do someone’s homework,” he growled, “DO MINE! And don’t ever let me see you talking with that punk again.”
Jesus, in his day, was also faced with men who presumed that it was their natural right and duty to control women. Jesus challenged this culturally sanctioned presumption, as we have already seen, by refusing to treat adultery as a problem of men losing control over their women. Rather, Jesus trained men to consider adultery as a problem of their own hearts and artfully refocused their attention upon controlling themselves. In other areas as well, one finds Jesus vigorously challenging men exercising their control over women. In the Gospels, the men whom Jesus challenges are most often his own disciples. Let’s examine three cases that make this point:
- In the first instance, Mark’s Gospel records that “people were bringing little children to him” (Mark 10:13 and par.) and that “the disciples spoke sternly to them” (Mark 10:13) so as to hinder their approach. In this instance, one can presume that one has mothers bringing their little children to him. Mark’s text leaves it unclear whether the disciples spoke sternly to the mothers or to the children. According to Luke’s Gospel, the “little children” have been replaced by “infants” (Luke 18:15). In this instance, it is patently clear that the disciples are rebuking the mothers themselves.
In all probability, the disciples were thinking of themselves as the power brokers surrounding Jesus. It is for them to decide who was worthy to have contact with Jesus and who was not. The possibility of this interpretation is enforced by the fact that it follows upon the text wherein Jesus takes on the case of divorce wherein, as shown above, Jesus directly challenges a man’s prerogative “to divorce his wife for any cause” (Matt 19:3). In both cases, Jesus is “indigent” (Mark 10:14) with men regulating women and children in order to satisfy their excessive need to control relationships. In this case, Jesus stops his own disciples from controlling the mothers by requiring his disciples to regard them differently: “it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).
There is nothing in the text to suggest that Jesus was tired and that the disciples wanted to allow him to rest. Nor does the text hint that Jesus had some romantic notion of the innocence or purity of children. Furthermore, the point of the text was decidedly not to demonstrate that Jesus had a soft spot for children because he always wanted to have children of his own. The truth is that children break out in tears of frustration when they are not being fed fast enough, and they reach out with their grubby hands to grab the shiny earrings that shimmer in the sunlight. In a word, they act with unrestrained spontaneity and abandonment. Control destroys this. Hence, Jesus pointedly challenges his disciples saying, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).
In truth, the Synoptic writers could have allowed Jesus to make this point without vilifying the disciples in the process. But they did not. And the reason they did not is that the point of the narrative is that Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem, found his disciples to be increasingly at odds with him over many things.The crux of this story is that the disciples were spontaneously given over to controlling women and children while Jesus was not. Those who heard the Gospel, consequently, were being given permission by Jesus to challenge the need for excessive control that men (even pastors) often exercised as though it was their natural prerogative. This will become clearer in the narratives that follow.
- At another point on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus discovers that his disciples have been “arguing with one another [as to] who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). Just a bit later, James and John manage to get Jesus off to the side in order to pull rank by asking him to grant them the right “to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). Jesus, unlike the modern entrepreneur, has no patience with such jostling for power and for position. For Jesus, those who follow him are to get to the back of the line and be “servants” (9:35, 10:44).
Interestingly enough, this is precisely the service role that the women who followed Jesus took up so naturally. Jesus undoubtedly was more comfortable with the women who followed him because they were not preoccupied with where they stood in the social hierarchy. Moreover, the very structure of the Gospels signal the fact that, near the end, the women in Jesus’ life were the only ones who stayed with him by the cross, the only ones willing to prepare his body for burial, the only ones able to discover the meaning of the empty tomb. Thus, when the Gospels are read closely, they signal the bankruptcy of male aspirations and of male bravado in favor of honoring the servant leadership of the women. This message, to be sure, has until our day received only faint attention from the pulpit. The majority of men who preach naturally think that they are not like the controlling and power grabbing disciples portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels. It never occurs to them, consequently, that the Gospels are inviting them to become like women and children.
- As Jerusalem comes very close, Jesus and his disciples arrive “at Bethany at the house of Simon the leper” (Mark 14:3 and par.). In this household, an unnamed woman takes it upon herself to use a costly perfumed oil to “anoint” (Mark 14:3, 8) Jesus. Clearly Jesus was comfortable with this initiative taking the initiative to touch him. The disciples of Jesus, on the other hand, feel that something was wrong here. Jesus had already displayed and made known his comfort with strange women touching him; hence, they could not find fault on this ground. They thus scold the woman on ideological grounds: “This anointment might have been sold for three hundred denarii [=a year’s earnings for a laborer], and given to the poor” (Mark 14:5).
In effect, the disciples here are shown exercising their patriarchal prerogative to correct or to hinder the actions of someone below them in social status, namely, women and children. Their ideological rebuke, meanwhile, is undoubtedly also addressed to Jesus who, due to his supposed superior status, they cannot directly challenge. Jesus, in response, stands up for the woman and forces his disciples to back down saying, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me” (Mark 14:8). In Jesus’ day, as in our own, men conspire to agree and to support each other when challenged. In the case of Jesus, however, he was willing to stand down all the men in favor of allowing a single woman to take the initiative, even when her initiative might be, from some point of view, partially flawed. The disciples again displayed the culturally sanctioned pattern of patriarchy whereby men are spontaneously given over to regulating women. And, yet another time, Jesus forces them to back off.
Here again, the Gospel writers could have made Jesus’ point that “you always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7 and par.) without portraying the disciples as thinking and acting at odds with Jesus. Even Jesus saying, “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (Mark 14:8 and par.) is a stinging rebuke to the disciples. In the Middle East, a dead body was anointed with aromatic oils to disguise the stench of decay. In the Gospels, the women go to the burial site on Sunday morning with “spices so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16:1 and par.). Hence, at first glance, the preparation for burial argument must appear as pious nonsense. But then it must be recognized that the disciples of Jesus were unable and unwilling to accept what Jesus had been telling them all along, namely, “that the Son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33, and par.). The point of Jesus saying to his disciples, “She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (Mark 14:8 and par.) is to reinforce that his death is close at hand. Jesus, consequently, not only defends the lone woman in the company of men, he goes on to shame his disciples in the process because they, given all their time with Jesus, fail to understand what this woman has immediately grasped. Jesus then climaxes his turning the tables on the men by saying, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mark 14:9 and par.).
In sum, if there is a unique vantage point to be found in the sexual orientation of Jesus, it would appear to be that Jesus was always ready to abandon himself to the initiative of women while the men surrounding him were spontaneously bent upon controlling women. How did Jesus come to this? One might suppose that he partially learned this within his own early family life. Maybe Joseph was his role model. One might even suppose that he learned this from the wife his parents had chosen for him. Whatever the case, the Gospels make clear that the men closest to Jesus, in sharp contrast, never learned this lesson. They were bent upon regulating women and children and sadly confusing control with pastoral leadership or with Christian love. In effect, they were doing just what patriarchal men have been doing down through the centuries. Jesus stops them cold in their tracks and models another way to love and to be loved. As in the case of the high school boy who was punishing his girlfriend in the parking lot, men (both inside and outside of the church) have been very slow to understand that there are other ways to be a man and that controlling women has nothing to do with God’s divinely sanctioned role of men in this world and in the world to come. Needless to say, very few men are able to hear this message within the Gospels. In fact, very few men are able to hear this message, period. Being a man means taking charge. To give up taking charge or to surrender to a woman would be tantamount to losing their manhood. The sexual orientation of Jesus portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels is unavailable to them. For them, Jesus appears to be into power and domination just as they are. They revel in the fact that he is Lord of Lord and King of Kings. They never notice that Jesus backs down his own disciples in order to making a breathing space for the women.
Q & A Regarding the Distrustful Attitude toward Women and Sexuality Within the early Church
Q1. If Jesus had such a positive appreciation of women and of sexuality, how is it that the Christian church took upon itself the course of controlling sexuality and characterizing women negatively?
A1. To answer this in a few lines is impossible. Peter Brown, however, in his masterful treatise, The Body and Society, has shown how, against the backdrop of Jewish and Roman society, church pastors gradually took for themselves the distrustful stance toward women and sexuality that prevailed among those pagans who were converted to the way of Jesus. The first beginnings of this distrustful attitude can be found in 1 Cor 7:
It was not Paul’s concern to praise marriage; he strove, rather, to point out that marriage was safer than unconsidered celibacy. Much of the letter, therefore, consisted of blocking moves. Married couples should not renounce intercourse for fear that something worse might happen–“because of the temptation of immorality” (1 Cor 7:2). . . . After protracted bouts of abstinence . . . , husbands and wives must resume intercourse, “lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control” (1 Cor 7:5). It was no sin for the hot young to marry: “for it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7:9).
What is noticeably lacking here is any positive valuation of sexuality. Marriage is uniquely seen as a safe release of sexual passions that, otherwise, might lead to frightful sins:
By this essentially negative, even alarmist, strategy, Paul left a fatal legacy to future ages. An argument of allowing the younger generation to continue to have children slid imperceptibly into an attitude that viewed marriage itself as no more than a defense against desire. In the future, a sense of the presence of “Satan” . . . lay like a heavy shadow in the corner of every Christian church.
Q2. Did Paul, then, bring the ideal of virginity into the Christian message?
A2. Not directly. Paul was quite moderate. He allows, for example, that men who have been formerly engaged and wish to honor their commitments to their betrothed “do well” (1 Cor 7:38) when they marry. Even widows, who traditionally entered into their first marriages to men nearly twice their ages, were told that they were “free to be married [again]” (1 Cor 7:39). In each case, however, Paul makes plain that the man who “refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Cor 7:38) and the widow “in my judgment is happier if she remains as she is” (1 Cor 7:40). In effect, Paul is inclined toward celibacy on quite practical grounds: “the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife” (1 Cor 7:33).
Paul openly acknowledges that “concerning virgins, I have no command from the Lord” (1 Cor 7:25). This is telling. It means that, to Paul’s knowledge, Jesus was entirely silent on the issue and never used his own personal status, whether it was as a celibate or as a widower, as an ideal to be followed by all his disciples. Paul, however, does put forward his own personal choice as his preferred wish for everyone, but without presuming to impose it on anyone (1 Cor 7:7).
While Paul goes beyond Jesus, it should be noted that, at no point, did Paul take steps to elevate virginity over marriage as a general rule. Peter Brown, in his study, details how the ideal of virginity emerged only during the second century. During this period, church leaders took the Stoic ideal of self-mastery and gradually projected this upon Jesus thereby making him the paradigm of perfection by virtue of his stilling (once and for all) all strong passions (especially sexuality). By the end of the second century, Clement of Alexander was able to tell his congregation that “the human ideal of continence . . . teaches one to resist passion” while “our ideal is not to experience passion at all.” Pastors within the Christian church, consequently, began to claim that virginity (especially in its weaker members, the women) constituted a public moral victory whereby Christ demonstrated to the world that his followers had entirely overcome bodily desires. Evidently this played well to the masses and aided the churches to recruit new members. The perfection within the church during the third century more and more centered around an ideal of virginity, not for practical purposes, but as a way of quieting and putting to sleep all sexual feelings.
Q3. Did this ideal of virginity, therefore, come to be understood as the special gift of Christ to his church?
A3 Decidedly. And since neither Jesus nor Paul were absolutely plain regarding the mystique of self-control and of virginity, enterprising members of the church created new literature that heralded this ideal. One can see this portrayed in the legendary Acts of Paul and Thecla (c. 180). Read, for example, how Paul’s modified version of the beatitudes is now shot through with a Christian version of the Stoic ideal:
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).
Blessed are those who keep their bodies chaste, for they shall be
the temples of God.
Blessed are the continent, for to them God shall speak.
Blessed are they who have renounced the world, for they shall be
well pleasing to God.
Blessed are those who have wives as though they had them not, for
they shall be the inheritors of God (Acts of Paul and Thecla 5).
Here, Paul’s message has been piously twisted such that sexual control is at the center of the Christian quest for holiness. Notice that, even for those married, this ideal is put into practice by renouncing sexual contact between spouses.
According to the Acts, “a virgin (named) Thecla” overhears “this word of the virgin life as it was spoken by Paul” and ponders it joyfully in her heart. Moreover, the text continues, “when she saw many women and virgins going in to Paul, she desired to be counted worthy herself to stand in Paul’s presence and hear the word of Christ” (Acts of Paul and Thecla 7). The rest of the novelette describes in detail the various trials Thecla had to suffer in order to liberate herself from the designs of her fiancé, her family, and her society in order to be free to follow after Paul and live the virginal life. By her preaching, Thecla formed households of women and maidens devoted entirely to Paul’s Gospel of virginity and to doing good works. One has here, therefore, the first intimation of the celibate monastic life working itself out in practice. Even prior to the Desert Fathers of the late third century, one finds consecrated virgins forming households within the local churches.
Q4. How did this mystique of virginity manage to override the healthy image of sexuality that Christianity took over from Judaism and how did the church ever arrive at the point where it presented sexual feelings as being, in some fundamental way, incompatible with holiness?
A4. The legendary Acts of Paul and Thecla (c. 180) indicate the message increasingly heard from the pulpits and operative within the church body during the third and fourth centuries (see Peter Brown for details). The radicalization of this message and the origins of a decidedly negative view of sexuality, however, owe much to the influence of St. Augustine (d. 430).
For a number of years, Augustine had lived with a concubine and even fathered a son by her. Following his conversion, Augustine was disgusted by his former sexual alliances and came to despise even his own penis because it failed to exemplify the absolute control over his body that he demanded: “it [my penis] sometimes refuses to act [i.e., to achieve an erection] when the mind wills, while often it acts against its will [e.g., during a wet dream]” (On marriage and concupiscence 2.5).
Augustine, playing the amateur ethnologist with a Manichean streak, theorized that humans covered their genitals and married couples sought private and dark places for sexual intercourse because they were ashamed of their sexuality. Accordingly, it was Augustine who enforced the view that Christians ought to “detest these [sexual] members as adultery is detested” (Against Julian 5.8). Even within marriage, therefore, Augustine regarded every act of intercourse as intrinsically disordered, and he counseled married couples that even when they coupled solely for the purpose of procreating children these acts were still venially sinful (De bono coniugali 11). Despite his pastoral genius in so many other areas, Augustine seduced Christianity toward an ideal wherein virginity was equated with spiritual power and marriage was doomed to spiritual mediocrity. In the process, Augustine stigmatized even marital sexuality as shameful and as always more or less sinful depending upon how much the partners enjoyed it. With this step, sexuality, and more especially, sexual enjoyment, became sinful and “dirty.”
Q5. How did this effect the Christian practice of marital sexuality and the quest for holiness by those who were married?
A5. This is a very intricate topic. The overall effect, however, of how far Christianity had removed itself from its Jewish roots can be glimpsed by comparing how Christians prepared themselves for the Lord’s Day. Christians in the fifth century, by way of preparing to approach the Eucharistic table, were advised, and later required, to abstain from sexual relations for a day in advance. The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century officially increased this to two days. The pious Jew in the fifth century, meanwhile, was advised to celebrate each Sabbath (an anticipation of the Kingdom of God) by expressing love with his wife. For those less imaginative, the rabbis in the Talmud advised that a husband spend the Sabbath evening reading from the love poetry of the Song of Song to his wife–presumably so as to arouse her interest and his own as well. The tradition of the Zohar (13th cen.) went so far as to specify that every Sabbath was a mystical wedding wherein, when the two become one, the holy Presence descends upon the face of the earth.
These practices have been cherished and retained by Jews:
- In his book, Kosher Sex, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach explains that sex is meant to be the fire that creates union, closeness and intimacy in life.
“Judaism has argued from its inception that sex is the holiest experience and undertaking known to man.”
- In their book, Heavenly Sex, Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition, Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer and Jonathan Mark explore sexuality within Jewish religion and culture.
“In the Jewish marriage ceremony, sexual satisfaction is part of the contract. Under the wedding canopy, a groom promises his bride that he will provide her with comfortable standards of food, shelter, and sexual gratification. The holiest men are required to marry.”
- According to the Zohar, sexual union is the proleptic anticipation of the forthcoming Kingdom of God on earth. Here is a rabbinic master addressing his disciple:
Therefore, my dear son, you must pay special attention to your wife and home on Friday, with added understanding, for this is an important and holy time, more than the other weekdays since the sixth day of the week is the “Yesod” which leads the way to Shabbat. By hallowing Friday, you sanctify the “lower Shechinah [=divine presence]” which is your wife. Therefore, you are called upon to speak with your wife in a calm and pleasing manner, and be especially tolerant with her on Friday. . . . By relating to her in this manner your house will be filled with contentment and joy, and this will draw down a wealth of Divine blessings on your home and family.
Stemming from this, when you engage in the marital union on the night of Shabbat [Note that this is here taken for granted.], it will be crowned with all of the blessings that are written in our holy Torah. Love and true friendship will grace your coupling, and this will bring great contentment to our Father in Heaven, just as a father is pleased with the happiness of his children. And this will hasten the day when love and peace will grace all of the holy Jewish Nation with the coming of our Mashiach [=Messiah], may it be soon. [This, in effect, marital union hastens the arrival of the Kingdom of God.] (source)
In brief, while Jews were finding themselves mystically enveloped by God precisely due to their active sexual arousal and mutual sexual fulfillment, Christians were finding themselves closer to God to the degree that they distanced themselves entirely from sexuality. The sharpness of this contrast between these two visions of sexuality could not be more glaring.
Q6. How does the recovery of Jesus challenge both the anti-sexuality of the church as well as the hedonistic sexuality of sectors of modern society?
A6. For starters, the Jesus and Mary of the Gospels don’t come across as though their whole life purpose stands or falls on the basis of their virginity. Jesus, in particular, demonstrates a solid grasp of his masculinity that embraces sensitivity to women and to women’s concerns. Jesus remains the man who is able to act in public anger (e.g., the temple shut-down) and to act in public tears (e.g., at the death of Lazarus). At the same time, Jesus wears his masculinity without imagining that men have some God-given right to control women.
While it cannot be supposed that Jesus envisioned either a celibate or a married clergy, one can say, with near absolute certainty, that virginity played no role whatsoever in the life of Jesus and that the image of Jesus as the “celibate priest” was created, in part, by the mystique of virginity and the denigration of married sexuality that went on during the early centuries (as noted above). If the church is going to effectively address both the anti-sexuality within the church and the hedonistic sexuality within society, then Christians need to become much more open to exploring the sexuality of Jesus (as illustrated in the essay above).
Someone scandalized at the Last Temptation of Christ because “it shows Christ, already hanging on the cross, as dreaming or imagining that he is married to Mary Magdalene and makes love to her,” cannot be relied upon to find holiness integrated within a healthy sexual identity. Distorting ones sexuality in the name of Christ is more pernicious than distorting ones sexuality in the name of Hugh Hefner. The former has a divine mandate that sickens both body and soul; the latter has a privileged rich man’s life style as its foundation that can be easily exposed as defective.
The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience will continue to function within religious communities dedicated to a prophetic living of the Gospel way of life. I myself lived these vows within the Society of Mary (Marianists) as a Brother for a dozen years. Chastity had a practical function making such community life possible. One can be an effective and affective “brother” to many men and women when one is not possessed by or in possession of one other person exclusively. I firmly believe that the value and the holiness of this life can be endorsed without denigrating marital existence and without pretending that Jesus found virginity the end all and be all of his mission before God.
God does not want anyone to sacrifice his/her human sexuality or to pretend to live now “as the angels do.” Our Father wants to bring his Kingdom among us. There are many paths and many callings for doing this. When living and acting in prophetic service of the Kingdom is seen as foremost, then this is what constitutes the imitation of Christ. Uplifting ones poverty, chastity, or obedience as ones sacrifice to God or as ones imitation of Jesus runs the danger of falling into a hollow holiness and a distorted sexuality. I can unequivocally say, therefore, that just as my calling to holiness in religious life was “of God,” so too my calling out of religious life into an abundant life overflowing with sexual intimacy was likewise “of God.”
As for Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Gospels have no investment in presenting her holiness as contingent upon her vow of perpetual chastity. Furthermore, Hispanic Catholics and Protestant believers are much closer to the mark when they agree among themselves that, while Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit prior to Mary’s marriage, following her marriage, she enjoyed a loving sexual union with her youthful Joseph and bore at least six more children, some of whom are named in the Gospels (Mark 6:3 and par.). Even the cautious biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, notes that all the attempts to read Mary’s vow of virginity into the biblical records are without compelling merit.The strongest commendation of Mary is found in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus, learning that his mother and brothers have come to see him, says to his disciples, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). In brief, the Gospels offer us no instance in which Mary was a model of holiness because of her virginity (or because of her motherhood, for that matter). Only after the Gospels were read by those far removed from the Jewish background of the Gospels would Mary’s virginity rise to the surface as the highest commendation applied to her. In the face of both the anti-sexuality tradition within the church and the hedonistic sexuality within secular society, there are strong pastoral reasons to knowingly and deliberately abandon this emphasis in order to return to a healthy Jewish sexuality as a remedy for both aberrations.
Q7. What does one make of the failures of the disciples in their dealing with women?
A7. In some ways, the disciples represent the mistaken ideal wherein men exert their masculinity by controlling women. Recall the case where the disciples berate the unnamed woman anointing Jesus with an expensive perfume. Had a man been doing this, they would have presumed they had no right to interfere. Because a woman was involved, however, they spontaneously figured they had the right to judge and to correct her. Jesus shames his disciples in favor of standing for the right of this woman to act on her own insights and initiative.
Jesus shows both ancient and modern men how to recover a healthy sexual identity that exposes both the anti-sexuality espoused by church leaders and the hedonistic sexuality espoused by Hugh Hefner. Both of these positions, it should be noted, are virulently and dangerously patriarchal. Women suffer in both camps. For the men, a life lived without spontaneity and surrender leads to ulcers, to hypertension, and to burnout. Karl Stern, a leading psychoanalyst, describes in his classic, The Flight from Woman, the character neurosis that plagues modern ambitious men as follows:
The character neurosis of frenzied activism is not difficult to spot. There is an air of restlessness about such men . . . an air of endless drive and ambition for which one once used the term, “flight into work.” On getting to know these persons more intimately, one notices an extraordinary denial of feeling, a shying away from tenderness, and a fear of dependence or passivity. Not to want to be dependent or passive is in itself healthy. . . . The kind of individual that I am talking about here is really in terror of dependence. The very possibility of being in the least dependent or protected, or even being loved, amounts to nothing less than a fantasy of mutilation or destruction.
Sam Keen and Robert Bly have endeavored to bring self-revelation and poetry and ritual back into the lives of men rendered sterile by the neurosis of frenzied activism and ruthless competition. A long-time pastor who found his rebirth in the men’s movement known as The Mankind Project confessed to me, “The sadness is that self-transformative processes are so rare for men in our society and that they are all but absent in our churches.”
Who Eats at the Lord’s Table?
by Fr. Peter Day
Bravely Searching for a Spirituality of Sexual Intimacy
by Marysia (22 November 2013)
Facing An Ultimatum from Rome, Curran Fights for his Right to Dissent
by Montgomery Brower (07 April 1986)
THE MARRIAGE COVENANT: A BIBLICAL STUDY ON MARRIAGE
by Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
What God Has Joined: What does the Bible really teach about divorce?
by David Instone-Brewer (October 5, 2007) Protestant scholar/pastor