Christ Crucified Makes Christ Feminine

Christ Crucified Makes Christ Feminine February 4, 2012

I’ve never been a radical feminist. I don’t believe in reading “against the grain” of the text because it is apparently oppressive to women. I don’t get artistic works that portray a crucified woman. I don’t believe that marriage is a form of legalized rape. You get the point.

However, I think it important to note the relationship between the language of violence and sex. For example, if a young man sees his girlfriend walk by and tells his buddy, “Oh, I can’t wait to hit that!” the language of striking someone is used as a euphemism for sex. What is more, it is used only by men, not by women.

In the ancient world, femininity was defined largely by way of being sexually penetrated. To be masculine was to sexually penetrate another persons regardless of their gender. To be feminine was to allow oneself to be penetrated. Julius Caesar’s legions in Asia Minor called him the “Queen of Bithynia” apparently because he was the feminine partner in a relationship with the King of Bithynia.

Notwithstanding the type of abuse Jesus suffered during his cruel beating by a cohort of Roman soldiers (and sexual abuse cannot be ruled out) the very fact that Jesus is “pierced” does have sexual connotations.  Humiliation is created by feminizing a person by piercing them in some form. It adds to their shame and victimization. It highlights the power of the piercer. Jesus Christ who was pierced for our transgressions is feminized by the act of crucifixion and it becomes the means of the redemptive power of God which frees us from the penalty of sin and powers of the cosmos. God’s victory is seen in the “feminine” Christ.

Update: Folks for those who think I’m off my rocker on this one, can I just point out that (1) the Hebrew word for “female” is Neqebah and the root means “pierced” with obvious sexual connotations; and (2) in Graeco-Roman culture  penetration defined the sexual act and being penetrated meant being the effeminate sexual partner. So “piercing” had sexual connotations. Doesn’t mean buying into a Freudian theory of sex and language, but language to do with violence can be sexualized, e.g., “Can’t wait to hit that”. That is my point.

Also I should have given a HT to my Ph.D student Daniel Christiansen of Multanomah University who is working on the language of gender and the Corinthian correspondence.



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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rob

    Very thought provoking post. I read a book a few years which ago discussed the ‘feminized Christ’ of Revelation (behold the Lamb who was slain). The author used the ‘penetration grid’ to identify various characters in the Apocalypse as masculine, feminine, or both (Christ is portrayed as both, according to his reading in “Spectacles of Empire). I had a further question though.

    Under this definition of humiliation as feminizing piercing, how does regular heterosexual intercourse not fall under the rubric of ‘humiliation?’ Does this definition apply only to symbolic piercings with instruments of violence? Or is this interpretation of humiliation solely an antique one, and one which you don’t think carries over universally?

  • ‘…the very fact that Jesus is “pierced” does have sexual connotations.’Is it possible that pierced just means a wound was made and nothing more?If I have to get an a flu jab say from the doctor does that mean I have been feminised in some way ?
    Im wondering if the feminising of Christ has more to do with our cultural biases than how Christ crucified was seen by his peers?
    ‘Humiliation is created by feminizing a person by piercing them in some form,…’I thought the cross was seen as a curse by itself,regardless if any piercing that may occurr?
    Im not too sure why but this whole idea doesn’t sit well with me

  • I’m not aware of any such interpretation of Christ crucified in the apostolic-prophetic writings that support this view. Have I missed something? The interpretation offered here is seems more like an eisegetical s-t-r-e-t-c-h of the imagination. (Not to mention the grotesque Sado-Masochistic undertones.) Yes, this is provocative, but it is not plausible. To suggest that Jesus was somehow feminized (treated like a woman) at the cross because he was “pierced” does nothing to explain the gospel or exalt Christ. But it does much to violate womanhood and the person and work of Jesus. This is provocative, and perverted.

    • Anonymous

      In all the writings of the early church (or anywhere in church history, for that matter) I have never come across anything to indicate the perspective presented in this post – and I’ve read quite a lot in my relatively short life.

      You would think if the culture of the time knew these hidden meanings that they would have commented on it, considering how enormous a collection of writings we have from Christians throughout the ages. I suppose if one wants to be provocative, the best way to do it is to overload the meaning of words.

      • Muscat

        I have reservations about Bird’s perspective, at least as presented, but this counterpoint is also problematic. The misogynist elements of many of the writings of the early church seem to me to make it unlikely there would be any overt discussion of a feminized Christ. But, perhaps more to the point and more in the realm of familiarity for me, there are many well-known depictions of a feminized Christ in medieval times, including artistic depictions of Christ’s wounds as vaginal and “giving birth” to the Church through the wounds.

  • Danieljdoleys

    Dr. Bird,
    I am a bit skeptical along with the other commenters. Do you have any examples from the Greco roman world where being pierced outside of a explicitly sexual relationship is viewed in this way?

  • Peter G.

    Add my vote to the skeptical, Mike. I know many people who dread being stabbed… because of the humiliation it brings! But sexualizing Isaiah 53 is certainly creative (or silly).

  • T. E. Hanna

    “Humiliation is created by feminizing a person by piercing them in some form. It adds to their shame and victimization.”

    In addition to the aforementioned eisegetical stretch contributing to my skepticism, I am also concerned about the implications of such a view. What does the concept that femininity is a source of “shame and victimization” imply about womanhood? There is a noted difference between emasculating a victim and feminizing one. Emasculation strips one of identity, thereby becoming a source of humiliation. Feminization, however, adds to identity by equating the individual with an alternative identity. In the case of what you propose, the implication is that the individual is victimized by virtue of being equated with a shameful identity – in this case, the female gender. I am not comfortable with the way this suggests that women be ashamed of their own femininity.

    Additionally, one has to ask how this then applies to the idea of body piercings in ancient Israel. By deuteronomic law, a bondservant who has fulfilled his debt and set free, yet wishes to remain to serve his master, would signify such a lifelong commitment by piercing his left ear with an awl. This was viewed as an honorable decision, and elevated the servant almost to the point of family. By the view portrayed in this post, would not that bondservant also be willfully feminizing himself? By extension, does that not make the very act shameful? Why would scripture seem to value the choice to victimize and humiliate one’s self by equating commitment with an apparently inferior gender? I’m sorry, the logic just doesn’t play.

    • Muscat

      It seems like Bird’s argument (at least as stated here) is perhaps more useful in terms of understanding possible cultural connotations of a crucified Christ than as a positive theological connection of Christ and femininity, per se. However, if I wanted to read it as the latter it would be that what is intended by the powers that be as “shame and victimization” is inverted by Christ’s ultimate victory. In other words, just as crucifixion is meant to represent ultimate defeat, Christ inverts it into ultimate victory, while Christ’s feminization is meant as shaming and victimizing, Christ inverts it into…well, something elevating.

      Reading it this way, I don’t think your example of the bondservant is necessarily a good counterpoint. Piercing as an indication that a servant chooses to remain in submission to his master is a feminizing act within the cultural context. That this was not viewed as shameful or humiliating could be said to be a presaging of Christ’s victory-in-submission.

      In any case, I don’t buy your argument that there is a clear “noted difference” between emasculation and feminization. I think the common cultural understanding (during the historical period in question and in today’s culture) is that how one becomes emasculated is through being (made) more feminine. (But, again, I think Bird’s argument – or at least my reading of it – problematizes the assumptions behind this set of cultural beliefs.)

  • I kind of agree with most of what has been said here; that is, the image of Christ pierced does buy into the idea of being penetrated and sexually humiliated and emasculated from the point of view of Greco-Roman culture, but also, it is very close to the bone to bring it up for theological reflection, mainly because the Gospels don’t dwell on the violence as violence in their descriptions of the crucifixion.
    The point I would add to what has been commented though, is that if we accept that Christ was humiliated by the powers-that-be, why should sexual abuse and/or feminisation represent the boundary of acceptable humiliation that we mustn’t cross in our reflections? Good taste aside, it is very easy to get used to certain images of humiliation; and let’s not forget that he would have been crucified with no clothes on as an extra humiliation, which is hardly ever depicted. We need to think carefully about which images of humiliation we find acceptable, and why.

    • Anonymous

      The reason we ‘shouldn’t’ is because there is nothing outside of the term ‘pierced’ in this post that indicates we should, and if that term accurately reflected the reality of the situation and not some additional hidden meaning intended by the authors but never described anywhere in their most important written work, we should not read it into the text. Overloading terms does nothing to help the proper understanding of a passage.

  • Joe

    You sexualized the work of atonement. I’m not even sure what to say to that.. much comes to mind, but nothing worth posting. Shame on you, truly.

  • Patrick

    Good post Mike, I think there are definitely some areas where feminist criticism can help biblical scholarship (though I too am not at all on board with reading against the grain … I think the same thing of deconstruction). To all of the commenters, the problem that I see you running up against is the perspective of (21st Century Western) sexuality that you are bringing to the text. Each comment seems to stem from a basic misunderstanding of what feminine and masculine meant in the Greco-Roman empire. The emperor, through the imperial cult, was the only ‘truly’ masculine person in the empire. Everyone else was feminine to him. What made him masculine was his ‘Genius’ which was the object of worship in the imperial cult. This was expressed through the ability to penetrate. So, the hierarchy was such that everyone was feminine to the emperor, but slaves (even male slaves) were feminine to their female dominas. It wasn’t necessarily a sexual thing, but it was expressed using sexual terms because the ‘Genius’ was the central focus of the imperial cult. I think Price talks about this a bit, but I know Graddel does (on the Roman side) and Castelli does as well (in Martyrdom and memory) … then you have the totally loopy readings that come from Tina Pippin … blah.

    I am presenting a paper at the International SBL (Greco-Roman category with the EABS) that will touch a little on this as it regards slaves in the imperial cult and the way by which Pauline slavery metaphors operate as a Foucauldian power play to release slaves, while working within the bounds of empire.


    • Anonymous

      Is it ‘projecting my 21st Century Western perspective’ on the issue to suggest that the last thing on the minds of those watching people being brutally killed in crucifixian was gender issues?

      • Patrick

        No, it is not. But what we do need to do is ask why particular language was employed by the authors of the gospel (not at the actual event per se, but the language employed to recount the event years later), and we must ask how that language would have been perceived by a Greco-Roman audience, that is all.

        Penetration, puncture, piercing, etc, were used to substantiated power and power was verbalized and understood in a gender hierarchy. This is where I find Bird’s post helpful. I would disagree with him that it is sexual, because in my estimation gender power wasn’t always sexually charged. This is where I find Foucault helpful (I should have clarified), NOT on his gender studies (I think he is way off here) but on his understanding of the meshes of power.

        So it looks something like this — Jesus is pierced by Empire, as everyone expected, Empire gets the last word. But that’s not it! In His humility on the cross and accepting the powers that be, He was raised from the dead, vindicated, and made to be King of kings to set up the new basileia of God.

        • Anonymous

          So, would there have been a way for the NT authors to describe the event without sexualizing it? It sounds like if they choose to use the only words capable of doing it and we applied the process indicated in this post, we would have to read additional things into it and there would be no escaping it. I don’t buy that. The most humiliating thing about the cross was the suffering and mockery! Being ‘pierced’ by a spear confirmed his death.

          I don’t believe that makes any sense, especially in light of Scriptures reverence for what sexuality really is and how it treats its misapplication.

  • Jeremy

    Maybe Mike just trying to poke feminist interpretations of the crucifixion/atonement with this post even as he says he is not?

    • Rob

      Are you reading Mike’s post ‘against the grain?’

  • Allen Browne

    That’s perverse, Michael.
    You could make an argument that Jesus faced injustice and abuse, even that his suffering contained some of the same elements that make sexual abuse so evil. But to argue that this makes him feminine is to *agree* with the perpetrators instead of seeing Jesus as liberating humanity (male and female) from evil abusers by taking the evil upon himself (an act that is outrageously loving, but neither masculine nor feminine).

  • Anonymous

    Sometimes a spear is just a spear….

    Seriously, though, I think there is something to this, but not necessarily for the reasons you mention. To approach this issue from the opposite direction, I think the cross in general (piercing or no) is a stumbling block for those (mostly men) who revel in violence (actively or vicariously). Accordingly, efforts like those of Mark Driscoll and John Piper to “masculinize” the church are actually moving the church *away* from the suffering Jesus rather than towards him.

  • Denny Burk

    Mike, are you suggesting that that any particular New Testament author MEANT to liken Jesus’ wounds to sexual penetration? What text(s)? What does the Hebrew word for “female” have to do with interpreting the New Testament authors’ depiction of Christ’s death?

    I love you, bro, but that is as far-fetched a thing as I have ever heard.

    • Mbird

      Thanks Denny. I know that not everyone will agree or get this. I’m not into Freud or Foucault, but I do think that language often carries a genderized connotation within a culture. I think “pierced” does have the sense of being made to be the submissive person in a violent act. I don’t think this is necessarily what was denoted by the biblical authors, but within a cultural-linguistic system of meaning (now it’s technical) this kind of thing might be connoted.

  • JohnC

    Have you become a Moravian, Mike? One recent book about the 18thC Moravian ‘theology of the wounds’ is entitled ‘Jesus is Female’. They had a very intense and sexualised spirituality focussed on the crucifixion.

  • One of the best talks about Good Friday that I’ve ever heard was one by John Barclay at Durham Cathedral on crucifixion in the ancient world. His jist was that in a world where masculinity was associated with power, crucifixion was a way to emasculate men, that is make them more feminine. And if Barclay says something then it must be true.

  • To clarify: is νύσσω (Jn 19:34) used within sexual contexts or is it restricted to talking about violence simpliciter? Further, when John glosses this event three verses later (using ἐκκεντέω), he references Zech 12:10, which in all likelihood is about the Messiah. The language seems to be associated with violence more than sex.

    Aside from my ham-fisted attempts at arguing with a NT scholar, I understand how violence and sex are intermingled in more crude terminology and perhaps in the ancient world. Therefore, I can see your point in a cultural-linguistic scheme, but not in *canonical-linguistic* scheme. A major difference between those, as you well know, is over whether the Spirit or the community’s use has priority.

    I’m willing to hear your point, but I don’t think it’s substantiated.

  • Jonathan Shumate

    I would say that Jesus’ crucifixion is less about feminizing him than it is about redefining masculinity. Paul follows this same logic when he says that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. In other words the crucifixion is about self-sacrifice. It can also be argued that whereas the Romans might have thought of crucifixion as a feminizing act (if so likely subconsciously) because of the way it humiliated and subjugated a person (this is assuming the desires of fallen man to tyrant over women), Christ never seem to see it in such a light (at least I cannot recall one verse to indicate even remotely that he did). Which makes sense because to do so would have been to be complicit in a pagan understanding of gender.

  • EdM01

    For those who didn’t like what Mr. Bird had to say, just take a peek at what the Romans actually did to people when they crucified them. There are extant graffiti that show the Roman crux cross was very much a male execution device, whereas the crosses present in the churches todat were a cross of a different sort — a tropaeum.

    Three of the earliest four extant images of a crux cross we have today are two Italian graffiti, one found near Rome (AD 250) and the other one in Pozzuoli (AD 100), and an Egyptian amulet (AD 200). The fourth, Vivat Crux, is visible in grayscale if you download and view offline the first two images offline with a suitable graphics or image viewer program (like MS Paint).

    Pozzuoli Graffito (AD 100) – cross has a sedile / cornu assembly. Victim usually interpreted as female but could be male:

    Alexamenos Worship God (Jesus or Typhon-Seth) (AD 250) – only example of possible nonpenetrative crucifixion and it is obviously intended by the tagger to be fictitious:

    Egyptian Amulet (AD 200) – crucifixion of Jesus Christ evoking direct impalement via the fundament:

    Miniature tropaion (AD 0-100) – note its frame is a cross.

    On edit: line and paragraph breaks

  • Andrew J. Schmutzer

    This interpretation actually distracts from grander significance of Jesus’ willing sacrifice–importing contemporary infatuations with gender, power, and (sexual) dominance. “Taking the form of a servant…being found in HUMAN form” (Phil 2:7,8), rightly places emphasis on his self-giving sacrifice, not the existential drama of gender roles.

    Because he actually died, a naked man–mocked as king–I’d rather claim that Jesus illustrates what a man’s sacrifice ought to be willing to do! Regardless, it was redemption for HUMANITY. So significant was this sacrifice that Revelation 5 culminates with a slain lamb…gender is not the issue.

    BTW, please warn survivors of rape and the sexually abused before you preach such views.