Queering Jesus

Queer” started as a slur against folks whose sexuality or gender “deviated” from the norm. In the late 1980s, various people and groups started embracing the word as a sort of self-identifier. A way of challenging mainstream society and its assumptions about what is “normal.” Today it is often used as a “catch all” for those who don’t identify with the dominant assumption that the “normal” way of being human is to be cisgender (a person whose gender identity conforms to the sex they were assigned at birth) and heterosexual.

Many people turn to the Bible to reinforce the idea that the only way of being properly human is to be born either male or female, to identify yourself as such, and to only engage romantically with folks of the opposite sex. After all, Genesis 1:27 says “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

There, in one of the key passages people look at to determine what it means to be human, we see a gender binary.

When we ask ourselves “what does it mean to be human” we often look to Genesis. Or, for Christians, we sometimes look to Jesus. And when Jesus shows up, he clearly shows up as a man. And there it is. Humanity is a binary. Male and Female. And, of course, folks point to Paul’s writings to underscore that being gay is bad.

But it isn’t as simple as all of that.

I’m not going to engage in a dissertation-length disarming of all of the anti-queer “gotcha” passages of Scripture. For now, I just want you to consider Adam and Jesus (who is called the Second Adam). The two people who we often look to when we ask “what does it mean to be human?”

Allow me to do a little bit of queering.

Adam wasn’t “male” until a rib was removed to make a “female.” Until his rib was removed, Adam was simply called “Adam”—which isn’t a name. It is simply a way of saying “the human.” After the rib-removal to create Eve, the scripture refers to them as man and woman.

Before Eve was formed, Adam was a species of one; he was likely both male and female while also being neither male nor female.

I believe it is a mistake to assume that Adam was male in both sex and gender. And that he was heterosexual. Those are assumptions we bring to the text.

We also assume Jesus was a male in every sense of that word. As though being “biologically male” is some simple binary. But biological sex is fraught with complexity, and there’s no one parameter that makes a person biologically male or female. And if you want to be very literal and orthodox about the Virgin Birth, Jesus was born solely of Mary’s genetic material. Sure, we can imagine that God placed a Y chromosome into the mix. Or we can recognize that a literal understanding of the Virgin birth leaves Jesus without the chromosome needed to make him conventionally “male.”

We simply cannot know the full picture of Jesus’ sex and gender.

However, as the “firstborn from the dead” (Rev 1:4), Jesus has a resurrected body that likely no longer conforms to any sort of biological sex as we know it. And though he was masculine-presenting as he walked among us, it is harder to argue the same for the risen Jesus.

Furthermore, since we read in Matthew 22:30 that “at the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” Jesus’ sexuality has become even queerer.

Jesus went from being single and possibly asexual to entering into a polyamorous relationship with the sum totality of the Body of Christ, his Bride, who is made up of every gender, sex, and sexual orientation.

In both the example of Adam and Jesus we see traits that deviate from our assumptions about what a “male” is “supposed” to be. And that makes them queer.

Adam was, at least initially, queer. And Jesus queerer still. And we, as the Body of Christ, participate in that queerness in all of its emerging glory.

* * *

When I posted the above on Facebook in July 2021 (and in the few times I or others have shared it again), a plethora of the comments was of the “this is stupid and you are stupid” variety.

Allow me to go a bit deeper by addressing some of the biggest complaints.

Complaint #1: This is newfangled nonsense! 

Literally nothing in this post is novel.

See that image above? It is from a 12th century illuminated manuscript that depicts Adam and Eve as sharing one body. This isn’t an accident.

Plato suggests in “The Symposium” that humans were originally created with two faces, four arms, and four legs. Zeus split the early humans into male and female.

Rabbis from Judaism’s classical period (the 4th to 6th centuries) discussed the original gender of Adam in ways many today would find shocking. In the Genesis Rabah (and other Midrash), it is suggested that Adam was created androgymous, containing both sexes, as a way of reconciling the two seperate human creation accounts: one in which Adam alone is created and one in which God creates “male and female.”

This understanding was echoed by Christian scholars like Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th Century.

When we get to the flowering of mysticism in the West, we find a number of accounts that sexuality and gender in relationship with the divine. St. Bernard of Clairvaux pushes the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the Church as Christ’s bride by suggesting that the individual soul of a man is “female” in relationship with Christ.

Complaint #2: This is wanton anachronism!

To be fair, these things aren’t the the same as saying “the writer(s) of Genesis believed Adam was intersex” or “the Apostle Paul believed that everyone’s soul is essentially femme in relationship to Christ” or that “medieval rabbis and Christian mystics embraced queerness.”

It is indeed anachronistic to assume that these writers from antiquity and the middle ages were proponents of queer theory.

However, it is also anachronistic to suggest that the Bible affirms cisgender heterosexuality. Or to say it opposes homosexuality. These too are modern constructs.

The charge of anachronism usually comes up whenever someone is proposing an interpretation that deviates from long-standing convention. Yet, it is a mistake to assume that the past is always a more severe version of today’s conservativism. As though our modern concepts of “heterosexuality” or “monogamy” or “gender binary” or “gender essentialism” can be reflected backwards into antiquity.

If I said: “Jesus was probably heterosexual and not transgender at all.” Few would argue. I wouldn’t be accused of eisegesis or anachronism because our society has thoroughly embraced assumption that these are the default human experiences.

Engaging Scripture in such a way that we reflect upon our own modern experiences is valid. And to bring our modern experiences to Scripture in a way that helps us compare and contrast modern sensibilities, categories, and cultural assumptions with those found in the text is likewise valid.

By our modern understanding, the Bible is a lot queerer than we’d like to think. That’s an unnerving (to some) but entirely valid point. After all, at the root of things, queerness is largely a term that means “deviating from dominant norms of gender and sexuality.”

In short, it is fair to say Jesus is queer, at least as a sort of metaphor. If you believe it isn’t fair to say that, it is because you have a moralistic hang-up against queerness.

Complaint #3: This is all playing too fast-and-lose with Scripture! Who do you think you are?

I will admit, I feel way more comfortable “playing” with Scripture than most Christians. But, to me, this isn’t the same thing as disrespecting Jesus or mocking God. Somehow, folks have gotten it into their skulls that arguing with Scripture or intentionally applying a queer lens to Scripture is mocking God. Which is strange to me, especially when we look at how the prophets related to God.

A quick tangent (this ties in, I promise). I’ve noticed that whenever I speak about Jesus in the present tense, evangelicals in particular (but far from exclusively) respond as though Jesus only exists in the past tense. Which is ironic as hell, given their emphasis on “personal relationship with Jesus.”

It is funny to me that I, someone who would be rejected from most evangelical spaces, take my present and personal relationship with a living Jesus more seriously than they do. Apparently, what they mean by “personal relationship” means “Biblical fidelity.” It is like some strange fanboy obsessively reading every post Arianna Grande writes on social media and then assuming that makes her his girlfriend.

Complaint #4: Why even engage this ancient superstition at all? You’re playing right into the hands of fundamentalists!

Finally, some folks have expressed frustration with my playing with myths this way at all. They feel like I am playing into the regressive hands of fundamentalism, which treats such superstitious nonsense as though it were real.

When folks talk like this, they draw a line between proper rationalist Enlightenment thinking over-and-against dumb mystical thinking of the past, as though folks like the Apostles were fundamentalist literalists. Rather than recognizing that they were riffing off of the deep narratives, stories, and myths of their past in creative and generative ways.

Paul talking about Jesus as the “Second Adam” is an example of that. The Gospel writers placing Jesus in the genealogy of the Patriarchs does that. Or having Jesus born of a Virgin with a star in the sky announcing his coming as a divine act of subverting imperial tropes.

I think the authors of the New Testament were knowingly creative. That doesn’t mean they were simply making shit up or that they didn’t see their work as serious and consequential. That sort of bifurcation is a relatively modern thing. Modern scholars want to erase the mythic bits and only assert historically verifiable things are the only truth that mattes.

In other words, I’m doing what the authors of the New Testament were doing. I feel just as justified to do so as they did. I don’t buy into the controlling narrative that God ordained a certain number of writings to become Holy and then decided “I’ve communicated enough now; time for a vacation.”

As arrogant as it might sound, I don’t believe that Jesus was more interested in communicating with the Apostle Paul in the first century than he is with me now.

And if all of this mystical talk frustrates the hell out of you, and you feel compelled to bring a post-Enlightenment project of demythologizing the text, have at it. But I’m not interested in that. That is thin gruel gruel and I’m interested in a mystical feast.

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