Let’s talk about this, y’all. Since gender identity and fluidity are a big part of the national discourse lately, and also in the churches, it makes sense for us to consider the relationship between Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of the Word, and intersexuality.
First disclaimer: I write this with the full intention of supporting those of varying gender identities, and as a Christian am opposed on moral and theological grounds to discrimination against anyone based on their gender identity. That such discrimination is often couched in religious terms and perpetuated by the churches grieves me.
I think it’s important to look at Jesus as regards his gender because it can offer us some unique insights… so here goes.
What we know about Jesus’ gender is rather complicated. Clearly, Jesus represented as male (his phenotype). He was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Luke 2:21), and every indication we have during his earthly life was that he lived as and was understood as a man.
Since he was crucified naked, and there were many eye-witnesses to this, and his circumcision, and more, I think we can confidently conclude that Jesus was male as regards his phenotype.
But in terms of his genotype, frankly, we have no information. The Shroud of Turin notwithstanding, we do not have a DNA sample to work from. We do believe, based on the creeds, that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, so we can say confidently that the Word became flesh, took on a human genome, and lived among us.
But we do not know the structure of that genome. We only trust that God took on a genome.
Furthermore, we confess as a faith community that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. Okay, I admit, there is some discussion in the exegetical community about the origins of the term virgin to pertain to the mother of Jesus, because Matthew appropriates language from the Septuagint, Isaiah 7 in particular, which may actually be “young woman” rather than “virgin.”
But the broader New Testament witness, the narrative itself, as well as the theological tradition of the church catholic, holds to the virgin birth, so as a Christian and theologian I do also. Jesus was, as Scripture says, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, a virgin (Luke 1:34-35). There is no explanation of the how. It just is.
Well, we know a few more things about conception than they did back in the day. One thing we know: a woman provides the X chromosome, and the man provides a Y chromosome. In the case of parthenogenesis, an exceedingly rare occurrence among higher life forms, the chromosomal structure would typically be a duplicate of the X, or just a single X. The one thing that would not be present would be a Y.
Now, of course, if we are allowing that the conception by the Holy Spirit is a miracle, which it is, then of course God could provide a Y chromosome. But if it is a miracle, which it is, then just as easily God could have had Jesus be phenotypically male but genotypically female.
In the end, we don’t know. All we have is what we have: he was a man, he was born of a virgin, and God was involved in his conception.
Presumably, we can assume that God does not have DNA, or a Y chromosome, even if a lot of people wish God had a Y chromosome, and some others hope she didn’t.
Of peculiar interest for our not knowing about all of this is the fact that Jesus never married, and never had children, so the passing on of genetic material from one generation to the next did not happen in his case.
This is another way in which Jesus was transgressive. He didn’t procreate.
Lately, in a few circles, I have pondered the question with which I began this post, “Was Jesus Intersex?” I have been surprised by the confidence, and the vehemence, with which people say “No!” I think sometimes they say “No” because they know very little about intersexuality. Other times, I think it is simply very important to them that Jesus was a male both phenotypically and genotypically.
All of this leads me to believe that perhaps offering a more fluid, intersex Jesus offends some sensibilities because people like to put Jesus into safe categories. Perhaps they would much prefer that Jesus was a traditional, masculine, heterosexual, domestic contributor to society.
It’s quite a bother that Jesus wasn’t. Instead, Jesus was a-traditonal, strangely open in the way he related to men and women, single, unemployed and homeless.
He was even more transgressive than that, when it comes right down to it. He ended his life offering his body and blood for his followers to eat. He was taken up in theological tradition as the groom of the church, so he is married (eschatologically-speaking) to the Beloved Community.
He initiated a faith tradition that drowns the faithful in the waters of baptism that they might die to themselves in order to live, and he sent a life-giving Spirit to his followers so that he might no longer be just himself, the fully human one, but rather the entire community gathered up into God.
Which is to say something far more radical than Jesus as intersex. Christians actually think that all of us, corporately, ARE Jesus. Or married to him.
Why does this matter? Some people will argue that all of this is baseless conjecture, idle speculation. I argue that the things we already assume about Jesus’ gender identity are themselves idle speculation that most people now accept as fact. So re-considering some of our assumptions is a good thing.
It’s a particularly good thing to re-consider assumptions that keep Jesus from being as fully human as Jesus actually was. According to Hebrews, we have Jesus the high priest who is able to sympathize fully with the human condition (5:15). For those who are intersex, there may be great comfort in knowing that Jesus’ own genetic composition is potentially similar to their own.
At the very least, knowing that Jesus’ incarnation and life transgressed many of the preconceived boundaries is worth remembering. I’m reminded of this every time a non-Christian joins us for Christian worship, and they see us eating the flesh and blood of our Lord.
We’ve gotten so used to the transgressions we know, while living in fear of the trans-whatever we don’t know, or don’t understand.
We should also be reminded that Jesus himself taught about intersex people. In Matthew 19:12, he teaches about “eunuchs” who have been so since birth. This is to say, as much as some Christians like to emphasize Old Testament passages that see gender as binary, Jesus himself taught about and was aware of a greater level of gender fluidity.
This Jesus, rather than the rigid Jesus of binaries and dominance and control, is the Jesus I think it is worth contemplating whenever the topic of minority communities come up. One could only wish that more people who get their shorts in a knot over gender identity would first teach themselves a bit more about the gendered experience of intersex people, and not reify their own personal experience as the only or pure one.
This same Jesus who was aware of and sensitive to the existence of intersex people, deeply sympathetic to them, had a heart for the vulnerable. The very next thing he does in that gospel is welcome children and bless them. The disciples don’t get it, and immediately try to keep children from being brought forward, but Jesus sternly rebukes them, and says, “It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Such a transgressive Jesus is a bit hard to take. But it’s the only Jesus we’ve got, whatever his genome may have been.