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If the Shroud of Turin is to be believed as the authentic burial shroud of Jesus, then “the son of God” was most definitely a “son.” A recently published investigation into the shroud has actually identified the scrotum and right thumb of the man whose outline appears on the piece of cloth. Then again, some scholars believe the Turin Shroud is actually a forgery created in the Middle Ages. Asking the question of whether Jesus was male or female — or somewhere in between — most likely seems like an odd one; if we’re to believe (nearly) all of Western artwork and media, of course he was male. But believe it or not, as a recent story by the Daily Beast points out, some scholars are questioning the notion that anyone can be certain about the gender of Jesus.
As this new story by Candida Moss points out, the reason why it’s imperative to think about the gender of Jesus has to do with the church. As a millennia-old institution, the church has been justified in its male domination by the gender of Jesus himself. If he were not actually male, the justification of all-male priesthoods for Roman Catholics and the Orthodox would be severely undercut.
If Western art and Mel Gibson films are to be believed, Jesus had light-colored skin and eyes — something we can verifiably say makes no sense. As Moss states, “archaeological evidence and, shucks, common sense maintain that he had much darker features.” So how can we be certain about his gender? To be blunt, how can we be certain that Jesus had a penis?
The concept of intersex deities is hardly a novel one. Many of the world’s religions and philosophies — from the Ancient Greeks to Hindus — have featured gods and goddesses that are neither specifically male nor specifically female. According to the Kabbalah, in fact — a sect of Jewish mysticism — Adam was not “a man” but both male and female, possessing both sex organs and vertically divided. And if Adam was created in the vision of God himself, does that mean God is a hermaphrodite as well?
Dr. Susannah Cornwall, a professor at the University of Exeter, is one of the scholars interested in asking the question of Jesus’s gender. Despite how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels — as a man — she wrote an article claiming the gender of Jesus is little more than a guess. “It is not possible to assert with any degree of certainty that Jesus was male as we now define maleness,” she says. Her article was written at the same time the Church of England was debating the allowing of female bishops.
“We do not have a body to examine and analyze,” Cornwall says. Furthermore, he had no earthly family — no husband, no wife, no children. “There is no way of knowing for sure that Jesus did not have one of the intersex conditions which would give him a body which appeared externally to be unremarkably male, but which might nonetheless have had some ‘hidden’ female physical features.”
Moss points out that there are feminized portrayals of Jesus, as in Quirizio of Murano’s The Saviour, in which Jesus is shown to be a nursing mother. As a circumcised infant, the foreskin of Jesus would be proof of his male-ness, but it does not exist, despite the fact that foreskin relics were actually ‘a thing.’
The arguments made by Cornwall of course received pushback by the religious community and some of her fellow scholars. But as Moss points out, Cornwall’s article cannot simply be written off as hogwash. “Dr. Cornwall is an established scholar and one of the global leaders in the theology of intersex,” Moss says. “Her observations reveal a great deal about our own assumptions.”
One thing is for certain: The notion of Jesus’s gender is an interesting thing to contemplate.