When I started to read Bible scholarship, I didn’t realize that I’d be seeing a different Jesus than the one I heard about in church. In a strict textual analysis it doesn’t even seem to be the same character. After awhile, I realized I liked this one better.
1. Jesus is funny
Growing up, I guess I had an image of Jesus from paintings or stained glass windows. Isn’t he distant, emaciated, in pain? But there he is in Luke 10:21—“full of joy.” This word, agalliaō, notes Robert H. Mounce, is “a very strong word depicting unrestrained joy.”
The pacing and tone of his speech seem to have been badly misread. Jesus jokes. He tells one in Luke 14:14–24 that is a bit sexual. The set-up is: three guys get invited to a party. All three say they can’t come. Karl Hand, in “A Wicked Sense of Humor,” maps out the connections:
The first declines because he has acquired land and needs to try it out, the second has acquired oxen and needs to try them out, the third because he has acquired a wife and needs to…decline the invitation. The pregnant pause allows the listeners to observe the sexual implications of the declined invitation — the unspoken ‘‘I must go and try her out . . .”
2. Jesus is very emotional
In church we had a favorite verse to memorize: “Jesus wept.” But that is quite a clue to Jesus experiencing waves of intense feelings. We see it a lot. He’s sorrowful, surprised! He mourns, weeps, is in conflict, in agony. He loves. “Jesus is profoundly marked by all that is human, by all human emotions,” notes Adriana Destro.
I was most surprised by the anger of Jesus, even as it was right there. “He looked around at them in anger,” says Mark 3:5. Or Mark 10:14: “When Jesus saw this, he was indignant.” And there were more examples too, concealed by translations tidying up the messy messiah.
“This is not the Jesus one would expect to find,” Bart Ehrman says in paper on Mark 1:41. The usual translations of this verse say Jesus was “moved with pity.” The NIV is bold to say: “Jesus was indignant…”
The word is actually ‘angry’. It says: Jesus was angry.
3. Jesus is gender-bending sexy
Growing up, I thought the messiah came off masculine and not too cute. A regular guy, was the idea. Isn’t that how men were supposed to be? The gospels don’t describe Jesus’ body, but the Old Testament prophet Isaiah does say the messiah will have “no form nor comeliness…no beauty…” (53:2)
That might refer to him having little social importance. As Joan E. Taylor explains in What Did Jesus Look Like? (2018), early Christians understood Jesus to be smoking hot—citing the messianic Psalm 45, a long praise of a beautiful man: “Youthful in beauty you are, beyond the sons of men; grace was poured on your lips.”
But this is the Bible, where heroes—from Joseph to David—tend to be a bit girly. If studying the clues to Jesus’ gender presentation, we don’t see that he’s too manly. As Aída Besançon Spencer notes: “Jesus never uses the Greek masculine term anēr (male) for self-description. Jesus always uses the generic or inclusive term anthrōpos (human).”
He calls himself the ‘son of Man’. “In Hebrew the phrase simply means ‘a human being’,” notes Walter Wink.
4. Jesus is seen as marriageable
For us in church, Jesus being divine meant he was not at all sexual. That isn’t what we find in the text. His marriageability might be a subtext of his chat with his mother at the Cana wedding in John 2:1–11.
Not long after, Jesus meets a woman in Samaria. “As many scholars have recognized, from an ancient Jewish perspective the Samaritan woman looks suspiciously like a potential bride,” notes Brant Pitre in Jesus the Bridegroom. The setting is a clue: this is Jacob’s well, the Bible’s great singles bar.
Calum Carmichael notes more clues: “Jesus is alone with her and one indication that we are meant to focus on the sexual nature of the encounter is the later reflection of the disciples that they ‘marveled that he talked with the woman’ (John 4:27).”
5. Jesus dances
When I was growing up, a little dancing was fine—if you were married. Otherwise? Not so much. Come to find out, the messiah was a bit of a party boy. “Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” So festive in Luke 7:34 (cf. Matt 11:19).
And he dances. He would at the Cana wedding. In “Dance and Gender in Ancient Jewish Sources,” Tal Ilan thinks it unlikely “that mixed dancing ever occurred. Yet it is equally suggestive that dancing had highly sexual overtones to it. It appears from all these traditions that women danced for men and men danced for women.”
How would we imagine Jesus dancing? As Ilan notes, “when men danced they continually leaped up and down, while women danced in circles.”
Dancing is a regular theme in the Bible, and always positive. Jesus speaks of it in Luke 15:25. He has the disciples dance in a circle around him in a scene included in the so-called Acts of John. Jesus says everybody better join in! “Whoso danceth not, knoweth not what cometh to pass.”
6. There’s more Jesus than the four gospels
In Luke 1:1 we seem to have a reference to a variety of other ‘gospels’, and remarks by Jesus do circulate in other sources. He has ‘new’ remarks in alternate manuscripts of the Bible, like the Bezae Codex. He’s quoted in the early Christian sermon known as 2 Clement:
For the Lord himself, when he was asked by someone when his kingdom was going to come, said: “When the two shall be one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.” (12:2)
Variations of this remark are found in a variety of other texts, including the Gospel of Thomas. It’s not so clear such sources are disconnected from the ‘canon’. Note the apostle Paul using similar language in Galatians 3:28, with his “no male or female” talk that Christians don’t like very much.
For a glimpse of a broader ‘canon’, try Hal Taussig’s A New New Testament. Reading the early Christian texts he includes, I must say — I didn’t even recognize that form of Christianity, and I’d been to church a lot.
7. Jesus travels with women disciples
Back in church, I didn’t realize that Jesus is surrounded by women. In Luke 8:1–3, women like Joanna, Susanna and “many others” were “helping to support them out of their own means.” As Rob Bell writes. “This movement started with women not only being fully empowered participants but also bankrolling the work.”
His male disciples flee the crucifixion, but “many” women come, as in Matthew 27:55–56. As Larry Hurtado notes, at finding “many” women at the crucifixion, the reader “retroactively inserts them into the whole preceding account of Jesus’ activities.”
Then Joan E. Taylor notes the curious wording of Mark 6:7: “Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two . . .” As when Noah loads animals into the Ark ‘two by two’ in Genesis 6:21, this seems to mean the disciples were in pairs.
As God is ‘male and female’ in the Bible—from Genesis on—we might expect Him to be represented by a pairing of a man and woman.
8. Jesus talks about his divine Mother?
Jesus talks about his divine Father a lot, but it’s possible he talks about his Mom as well. The first gospel to be written was in Hebrew, and known by Bible scholars as the ‘Hebrew Gospel’. It’s a lost text, but quoted by early Christian writers. A few times, the Holy Spirit is here called his ‘mother’.
That’s not the view of traditional Christianity. But in the gospels, it’s not so clear. Ann Nyland explains: “The pronoun used to refer to the Holy Spirit in the original Hebrew language of Scripture is ‘she’, and the pronoun used to refer to the Holy Spirit in the Greek is ‘it’. In the English language, people choose to substitute ‘she’ and ‘it’ with the English pronoun ‘he’.”
Mimi Haddad notes: “Holy Spirit (in Hebrew is feminine, ruah; in Greek, neuter) is frequently associated with the birthing process (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7b; 5:1, 4,18).”
The ‘birthing process’ sort of looks—maternal?
9. Jesus was cool with the LGBT crowd
In the ancient world, bisexuality seems to have been the norm, as John Boswell had to remind Christians in his 1980 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. That created a new possibility: the Bible might’ve been talking about same-sex situations as ordinary.
Like in in Matthew 8:5–13, a Roman Centurion asks Jesus to heal a male slave with whom he has a touching relationship. Jesus is happy to help. See Erik Koepnick’s “The Historical Jesus and the Slave of the Centurion.”
We might have to re-read Jesus as liking and encouraging a freewheeling approach to gender. He does encourage his disciples to be like eunuchs, who are known for being—fabulous? As J. David Hester documents in “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus,” these were people who, as an ancient Jewish writer said dismissively, were “hybrids of man and woman continually strutting about . . .”
Good Christian advice? Strut!
10. Jesus was probably raped
When captured by the Roman soldiers, Jesus is subjected to horrific abuse. In a famous and very upsetting 1999 paper, “Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse,” David Tombs documents that this likely included rape, with clues like the gospels using the regular biblical word for rape, translated ‘mockery’ (cf. Mt 27:29, 31; Mk 15:20; Lk 23:36).
As he writes: “Both Gospels explicitly state that it was the whole cohort (spear) of Roman soldiers — between six hundred and one thousand men — that was assembled together to witness and participate in the ‘mockery.’”
In a follow-up paper, “#MeToo Jesus: Naming Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse,” Tombs points to a compelling suggestion. As a victim of sex abuse, Jesus continues to speak to every situation, and creates the grounds for Christian love and healing to counter every evil thing in this world.