I never suggest anything controversial on this blog, do I? Well, I want to preface this article with the disclaimer that I am presenting an idea for consideration and conversation. I am not yet 100% sold on it myself, and I’m certainly not trying to lay out a thorough argument proving it to be true. Until we can actually ask Jesus in person, we cannot possibly know this for certain. But speculation is fun, and if done graciously, it can also be valuable.
In short, I’m suggesting that Jesus, in his humanity, may have been biologically intersex. That is, his physical anatomy was neither distinctly male nor distinctly female.1
So, why do I think Jesus may have been intersex?
It is imperative, theologically speaking, that Jesus assumed all of humanity. The heart of orthodox Christian theology is theosis—the idea that “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54). And crucially, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved” (Gregory Nazianzen, “Letter to Cledonius”).
So if Jesus assumed the male sex only, and not other sexes, then those of other sexes remain unhealed and without salvation. That’s not to say that Jesus could not have assumed all sexes with a distinctly male body—this has long been the standard teaching, and I’m not arguing that it could not work. But I do think it makes more sense for Jesus to have assumed all of humanity—including all sexes and genders—with a body that was simply human, but neither more male than female nor more female than male.
Furthermore, Jesus not only assumed humanity, but he also stands as humanity’s representative and as the perfect human for all to imitate. So if we’re not careful, we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that humanity is best represented by maleness. Or we could imagine that maleness presents a more perfect version of humanity than that of other sexes.
Not only could we fall into these errors, but much of the church has historically fallen into these errors, often implicitly and at times explicitly. The gnostic Gospel of Thomas even suggests that a woman can only enter the kingdom of heaven by making herself a male! A carefully articulated orthodox theology can avoid these problems, even with a biologically male Jesus, but a biologically intersex Jesus would make such matters far less problematic in the first place.
God is neither male nor female. And the Word of God has been neither male nor female from eternity past. So it just makes sense that when the Word of God became incarnate as Jesus, he too would be neither male nor female.
A biological consideration
When virgin births occur in nature, they usually result in a child that is either female or intersex. Kyle Roberts explained this in his recent post, “Was Jesus Intersex or Was Mary?” His intention, as I understand it, was to use this as an argument against a literal virgin birth (though I’ve not yet read his book from which his post derives, so I could be wrong about his ultimate conclusions).
But what if Mary really did humanly conceive as a virgin? A miracle is not necessarily bound to normal biological processes, so I don’t believe that a biologically male Jesus would invalidate the idea of a literal virgin birth. But surely an intersex Jesus would strengthen the possibility.
The Jesus presented in the canonical Gospels exemplified an androgynous lifestyle. Leonard Swidler has argued this extensively in his book, Jesus Was a Feminist. He concludes as follows:
The model of how to live an authentically human life [that Jesus] presents is not one that fits the masculine stereotype, which automatically relegates the “softer,” “feminine” traits to women as being beneath the male—nor indeed is it the opposite stereotype. … the same message that [Jesus] taught in his words and dealings with women, namely, egalitarianism between women and men, was also taught by his own androgynous lifestyle. (§25)
Swidler only argues that Jesus was androgynous in lifestyle, but I would suggest that this lends further credence to the possibility of his being biologically androgynous—or intersex—as well.
Additionally, I’ve often heard the claim that Jewish males of Jesus’ day, and especially rabbis, would almost always be married. This claim usually accompanies the suggestion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
On the one hand, I don’t personally think it much matters whether Jesus married. The arguments I’ve heard against it are not, in my opinion, very conclusive. But on the other hand, Christian tradition does assert that Jesus was celibate, and none of the canonical Gospels record anything about his having a wife. (For that matter, none of the gnostic gospels actually say he was married either. The lines which might possibly suggest his marriage are tenuous at best.)
Anyway, if the claim is true that Jewish rabbis of Jesus’ day were expected to be married, and if Christian tradition is correct that Jesus was not married, then his being intersex would provide a pretty good explanation as to why that might have been. This, of course, is not to suggest that intesex people cannot marry. They can and often do. But it may have provided Jesus with one reason to choose celibacy for himself.
Finally, if Jesus was intersex, then it would shed some light on a saying of his that, on its own, seems a rather odd fact to bring up:
His disciples said to him, “If that’s the way things are between a man and his wife, then it’s better not to marry.”
He replied, “Not everybody can accept this teaching, but only those who have received the ability to accept it. For there are eunuchs who have been eunuchs from birth. And there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by other people. And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven. Those who can accept it should accept it.” (Matthew 19:10–12, CEB)
I’ve often wondered at why Jesus launched into this discussion about eunuchs, particularly mentioning those who had been such from birth. Those who are born eunuchs are not, as far as I’m aware, very common. So what point was Jesus trying to make by bringing up such an obscure fact?
But what if Jesus was actually relaying a bit of his own story? What if Jesus was subtly hinting that he had himself been a eunuch from birth? What if Jesus was intersex?
1 I’d like to add note about my language choices in this article. I’m choosing to speak of Jesus in the past tense, even though I believe he is physically resurrected today. It’s just easiest that way. I’m also choosing to refer to Jesus with male pronouns, even though I’m suggesting that he was neither male nor female. This is because Jesus, regardless of his biological sex, seems to have chosen to present as male during his earthly ministry, so I will honor his assumed pronoun choice until I hear from him otherwise.