Thursday, September 28, 2006

did Jesus have a penis, II

Over on the newly resurrected kendallball (does this make .com the virtual heavenly body as compared to the old earthly .net?) there is an interesting post entitled "did Jesus have a penis?"

In the midst of quite a lot of male discussion about masturbation (how surprising) I commented that the interesting angle to this question was soteriological. I was asked to explain myself and rather lamely put the clarification as "can women relate to a male savior?"

Now, that's just not at all what I really meant to say, so it's been bugging me. And the conversation at that point seemed to flag and I thought that no one was interested in pursuing the female point of view on the Jesus' penis question. Except for me, so I decided to blog about it here.

But lo and behold, the newly appellated Hermit Scott did ask me to elaborate, perhaps even in my own blog post. Which makes me feel happy. Especially since I intend to at least partially make good on a promise I made months ago over on Gay Restorationist, and talk about whether men and women are ontologically different (in my opinion).

What I really meant to say was, if Gregory of Nazianzus is right, and "what is not assumed cannot be healed," does it matter that the human flesh Jesus assumed was male and not female? Are women left out of the significance of the Incarnation? (Luckily for me, as an aside in the Wednesday TH 222 lecture, this point was phrased exactly thus, and I shamelessly borrow it here.)

Because the answer to the question is, yes, of course Jesus had a penis. The real question is how does this matter.

John Calvin dispenses with this with a curt, "Why, even children know that women are included under the term 'men'!" (Institutes, vol. I, 479. The immediate question Calvin is addressing is why Jesus can be accounted the Son of David when Matthew's genealogy is the line of Joseph rather than Mary...but his reasoning in answering this little dilemma is clearly germane to our question here).

This of course is less than satisfactory for me.

Whether or not it matters that Jesus had a penis and not a vagina, theologically speaking, depends on whether or not you consider men and women to be ontologically different beings. If you do, then the fact that Jesus was male means that he assumed maleness but not femaleness, and the question of whether Jesus can save women becomes critical. This might explain why, in the Christian tradition, women were often considered partial, or defective, males; and the gnostic Gospel of Thomas deals with this problem by teaching that women who are saved will actually become men.

This of course is less than satisfactory for me.

But the idea that men and women are ontologically distinct is a pretty common one. It is at the basis of all forms of "complementarianism," whether explicitly heirarchical or not. It is one of the bedrock convictions that goes unexamined in all churches that teach that women have a different (silent, invisible) role in the church than men.

I used to argue this with Brent a lot when we were first married; he has always held a much more "unisex" version of feminism than I have. But in the course of these discussions I have come to realize that what I really think is that the difference between male and female is not ontological, but simply biological. And while that biological difference is clearly formative, and perhaps could be called foundational to one's identity, it lies in the plane of physical contingency and not ontological being.

So, did Jesus have a penis? Sure. (Otherwise, how could we possibly have the relic of the Holy Prepuce?) Does it mean that he only assumed maleness, instead of assuming humanity? It all depends on whether you consider male and female to be so different that being one means completely excluding the other.


Anonymous said...

I've always wanted to engage this in some form but never really knew how to broach the topic. Along these same lines and perhaps this is the same question asked another way: Is Jesus' gender important at all? Outside of the historical contextual interactions with men and women that we read about in the gospels, does the fact that Jesus was male make any difference?

Does the fact that Jesus grew up in an age without TiVo, suicide bombings, global capitalism and internet pornography mean that he doesn't fully share the human experience that we experience? I guess what I'm trying to get at is, is it necessary for Jesus to truly be "tempted in every way" in order for his life to be adequately salvific? Or is it more along the lines that Jesus can relate in general to human frailty while not necessarily being able to share in the experiential spectrum of contemporary temptation?

If you've not seen the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode that addresses this you need to check out season 5. A great quote from Larry David:

"I can see worshipping Jesus if he were a girl. Like if God had a daughter... Jane. I'd worship a Jane."

Unknown said...


Excellent thoughts. Sadly, not exactly (or .net) material. It would get lost in the shouting.

I guess I find myself in the ontological sameness/biological difference camp. I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but I somehow sense that it is important.

I know I will never experience the fullness of humanity (I think) because I will never give birth to a child, or breastfeed, or any of the other activities associated with biological females. But, this of course assumes humanness is something bigger than both genders, but something in which both genders share.

My brain hurts now. I'm going back to my place, where thinking is secondary to shouting.

JTB said...

GKB, just for that I am adding you to my links. I's about damn time, right?

Brian said...


I've tried to raise this same question several times in discussions with people about homosexuality. Usually after they've brought up the creation story(ies) in Genesis to point out that God "made them male and female." You stated the question much more elegantly than I ever did, of course.

If men and women are so radically different (ontologically, as you put it), then how could Jesus be a Savior for women? And how could he serve as a model for Christian women? Surely Christ is the perfect example for all of humanity; or are women left with his Mother as their example?

My own thought is that the point in Genesis is not how different men and women are, but how much they are the same. None of the other of God's creations were suitable as a companion for Adam. But Adam saw that Eve was "flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone."

Little Light said...

I used to tell people in college that if they believed "everything but" wasn't having sex, they might as well be lesbians. But that's completely off topic.

R-Liz said...

It's good to have some more posts on genitalia over here. Seriously. Your vagina posts are still some of my favorites.

One thing kb's thread reveals is how many different interpretations people have of this question. There are many folks who simply can't get beyond the fact that Jesus came as a male. What fascinates me most about these folks is that they want to really highlight the gender of Jesus while simultaneously putting the kabosh on the idea his penis was used for anything more than urination and the undergoings of circumcision. Jesus is a MAN in so much as it furthers their agenda/paradigm, but lets not talk about his penis.

As a woman, this discussion reminds me of the song"Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar. It reveals the struggle a woman, who's accustomed to getting used by men, may have when she comes face-to-face with a Savior (who comes in the form of a man) that loves her purely, unconditionally. I guess culture as well as past baggage has a lot to do with how we initially perceive our Savior, who also has a penis.

You've got me thinking here for sure because the "complimentary" POV of men and women is so pervasive. I heard one speaker talk about this, and when he talked about women he'd call them "pink," and men he called “blue.” He said when they come together they make "purple"-- the color of God, the color of royalty. I actually think the complimentary view has been used as a (hopefully) progressive step for gender equality in the church, revealing that God’s nature is by no means personified in men alone. But your point about ontological difference or sameness in men and women knocks the legs out from under this theory.

Anyhow, thanks for getting the wheels turning today.

pat said...

I've never thought about this before. My thoughts around Jesus are based on his humaness, not his maleness. As a 51 year old woman who has grown up in churches of Christ, I never had much of an issue with the gender thing. When men in the church would refuse to let women do something, I just wrote them off as stupid, and didn't think any more about it. And then, I'd go on with God, knowing that he knows I'm every bit as equal as anyone else, even if no one else knew it.

JTB said...

Krister, we put Curb Your Enthusiasm on our Netflix queue because of your recommendation. Can't wait to get to the Jane episode.

GKB: you experience humanity fully, you just don't get to experience the female capacity for childbirth. I do regret that for all you male types, honestly. It's pretty amazing. If you're really feeling the lack I can always email you my account of Clare's birth...

Brian, I read Genesis exactly the same as you do. The point of that passage is to underscore the uniqueness of humanity in opposition to the rest of the animal creation. I have some issues with this, typically preferring to think of us in continuity with animals rather than opposition, but still, the belonging-ness of Adam and Eve together is a function of their ontological sameness in these verses.

R-Liz, "pink and blue make purple" and God is now bi-sexed? Did he really mean to say that?

ba said...

If one's soul, as contrast to one's body, is genderless, it is rather irrelevant to talk about Jesus gender.

However, if one's soul is so different from one's body, how can on ensure that one is the same person / soul after one dies and, presumably, faces God?

As an atheist, I believe, we are all embodied. I was born as a male, live as a male and will die as a male. Anything else is rather irrelevant to me.

JJT said...

hi Wilhelm--

funnily enough, I just talked about this precise thing in an essay recently for a volume on transhumanism...

I absolutely agree with you. I think that there is definitely a strand of dualistic theological anthropology that would associate gender with body, leaving the soul, as the essential self, essentially genderless. But that's ridiculous on any number of levels--among which, as you point out, is a huge theological/philosophical problem to negotiate in the form of ensuring personal identity and continuity.

Thankfully, the recent turn toward notions of embodiment in Christian theological anthropology helps quite a bit in resisting that sort of problematic articulation. (I'm thinking particularly of feminist and poco and queer theology here.) At least, it's helpful to know that there are other ways of constructing theological anthropology that don't depend on problematic dualism and notions of soul. :)

Thanks for commenting!

Stephen said...

It's irrelevant is the point when all are One. Perhaps it's the prime test to break down prejudice. For in a sense, woman was birthed from man, it's all just letters that form words. For He who has no name and only he knows what it is in Truth said there is no reason to have marriage in heaven. On earth man are strong in the flesh, woman are strong in the heart (mothers)..hence the birth of ourselves occurs before realization awaits to be found and we become lost and love our own thoughts even if they destroy ourselves.


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