The topic of Jesus’ sexual life has been, shall we say, a frequent topic of hushed conversation throughout the life of the church. Since Paul, and heightened by medieval monasticism, Christianity has tended towards notions of dualism and asceticism. Therefore, it seems incongruous for mainstream theology to ponder the savior’s sexual life. Sex in general is perceived as “dirty” or at least subordinate to matters of the Divine. It’s hard to reconcile a fully enfleshed, sexual Jesus with a world-view that says it’s better to control one’s sexual urges, that the spirit is superior to the body.
At the same time, the Chalcedonian creed affirms we believe that Jesus was “truly God and truly [human].” Most of us, as humans, experience sexual desires. (And, in a great irony of modern Christianity, asexual folks who don’t experience those sexual desires that Paul warned about are also viewed with suspicion.) So we assume that Jesus, fully human, did as well. Popular imagination has supplied Jesus with several possible female lovers: Mary Magdalene chief among them, but also Mary and/or Martha, Lazarus’ sisters. Heteronormativity leads us to think only about Jesus’ potential partners as women.
If Christianity were to suppose that sexuality is not incompatible with sinlessness, then no reason in principle can be supplied for rejecting erotic attachments for Jesus.Ted Jennings, The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament
In Ted Jennings’ book The Man Jesus Loved, he lays out a compelling argument for Jesus being queer. Jesus certainly seems to form close male friendships — Lazarus, Peter, the “disciple Jesus loved,” all of the apostles. Comparatively, women play a much lesser role in his story; this probably has origins in patriarchal social structures, as well as hinting at Jesus’ possible orientation. After all, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob all lived in strictly patriarchal structures, but their wives play a role in the narrative. One would expect Jesus’ spouse, if he had one, to do the same. Jennings dives into John’s depictions of “the disciple Jesus loved,” as well as other gospel passages, to investigate whether these texts may be about Jesus’ significant other. He also examines Jesus’ teachings about gender, the family, and marriage, exposing how Jesus often complicated cultural understandings rooted in heteronormativity and patriarchy.
There is theological significance to whether Jesus was gay. Jesus’ life says a lot about what he — and by extension, we can assume, God — valued. Putting aside the question of whether it is a choice to be queer, at least it was a choice for Jesus whether or not to take a sexual/romantic partner. If he chose to have a male lover, that tells us something about his envisioned “reign of heaven.”
If Jesus had embodied erotic experiences (sexual or not), then such embodied eroticism is permitted, perhaps even blessed, in our own lives. It should not be feared or put aside, as Paul advocated and the church has tried to do (with greater or lesser success) over the years. Further, a Jesus who had embodied same-sex erotic experiences permits (or even blesses) those particular expressions of love. Within the context of Jesus’ time, an emphasis on same-sex love (romantic or otherwise) might also indicate a desire for mutual love. Strict patriarchal structures of love and marriage, as existed during Jesus’ day, automatically imposed a power dynamic in cross-sex relationships. That power dynamic may be missing from same-sex relationships (though not entirely, as we see in the ancient Greek practice of pederasty). Jesus, by pursuing the love of another man, was at least in part pursuing a relationship of equals that he could not have gotten from Mary Magdalene.
Queerness also positions Jesus differently in relationship to power. Jennings says: “Feminist theologians have asked the question: Can a male Christ save women? We might ask as well: Can a gay Christ save ‘straights’?” I think Jennings’ question is a misreading of the first, but it serves as an interesting discussion point. Feminists ask if a male Christ can save women, not because men are different from women, but because men have power over women. As we have seen with recent racial uprisings and corresponding backlash, salvation rarely (if ever) comes from those currently in power. It is difficult indeed to stand in solidarity with someone when your societal foot is on their neck. But someone who is not in that position of power, who has their own experiences with marginalization, can collaborate more effectively. (This assuming that the person in question has the desire to uproot all systems of oppression, not — as many white women and gay men do —to cling to what little structural power they have.) So, perhaps, a gay male Christ can save women (and “straights”) in a way that a straight male Christ could not.
Further, portrayals of Jesus as contrary to common sexual values serve to highlight the new “reign of heaven” he initiated. Jennings points out the many ways in which the gospel of Matthew shows Jesus subverting common expectations about who is “in” and “out.” Sorcerer magi foreigners are the first to pay tribute to Jesus. He heals those outside of Jewish society, even outside of Jewish morality. He eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus’ life is good news for all, not just the ones who are deemed worthy by cultural standards.
And in Jesus’ story, we do indeed find good news for all. Many times throughout Jesus’ ministry, he experienced people trying to define him, trying to figure out exactly who he was, if he was who he said. That process of re-defining yourself, over and over, holding fast to your own sense of identity in the face of orthodox doubters, is incredibly queer — even if Jesus himself wasn’t. Jesus placed himself on the margins, perhaps sexually as well as in other ways. From the margins, he spoke truth to power, and that is what we are also called to do, no matter our social position.