Recently a student, Joshua Heath, a Cambridge University fellow, preached a sermon that has Cambridge students as well as conservative evangelicals and their associates up in arms. Perhaps making the sermon even more controversial was the fact that the dean, Dr. Michael Banner, has come out in support of the student.
Heath was quoted as saying:
“In Christ’s simultaneously masculine and feminine body in these works, if the body of Christ as these works suggest the body of all bodies, then his body is also the trans body”
In response to the media outcry the dean was quoted as saying:
“I think that speculation was legitimate, whether or not you or I or anyone else disagrees with the interpretation, says something else about that artistic tradition, or resists its application to contemporary questions around transsexualism.”
In essence, Mr. Heath was using ancient art that depicts the body of Jesus as containing both feminine and masculine characteristics. Mr. Heath went on to challenge the student body to consider that based on these images Jesus might have been transgender. He went on to use theological examples to bolster his case. Such examples included the non-binary identity of God and extrapolations upon that to which he then drew conclusions about the nature of Jesus.
The University has since come out and stated that they support explorations in theology, especially those that deal with contemporary issues. They want to be clear, that neither the student nor the University made any claim that stated Jesus was transgender. It was simply theological exploration.
An Analysis of Heath’s Argument
Although I have not read or listened to Heath’s sermon in its entirety, I have read enough to have a pretty good idea as to what his overall argument is. The argument is as follows:
- The ancient art that is presented to the world imagines Jesus’ appearance as both containing feminine and masculine attributes.
- In addition to the artistic representations and given the non-binary nature of God, it makes sense to think that Jesus might be non-binary in his humanity. Or, it is possible that Jesus was intersex. This would be his biological response to equally representing both men and women.
- Jesus could have been transgender.
Whether or not Heath is correct in his conclusion depends on the nature of his overall argument. From a strictly logical presentation, Heath’s argument is consistent and does not contain any flaws in reasoning. In other words, this is a logical conclusion based on the premise.
The question then arises. Is his premise correct?
One strange argument that Heath makes is that the art that depicts the wound of Jesus very much looks like a vagina. Unfortunately, not having a transcript of the actual sermon makes it difficult to understand how he reasoned through this conclusion, but based upon the statement in and of itself it’s not possible to draw the conclusion he made simply upon that premise alone.
In general, the “argument from art” as I am calling it cannot render the conclusion that Heath claims it can make. First, for Heath’s argument to be true, the artist would have to have some inside or personal information that would warrant this conclusion. Not just 1 artist, but several of them have depicted Jesus in this way would need to have this information. This is highly unlikely.
Second, it is important to understand that ancient art did not care as much about capturing the exact image of a subject (like a photograph), as much as it was to make a statement about something else. Moreover, since none of the artists were present during the life of Jesus, their renditions are creations of the cultural consciousness. It seems unlikely to me that these artists were creating vaginas on the side of Christ to express some deep dark secret that Jesus was intersex.
I will address Heath’s theological assertions in the next section, but as of right now, his argument -though logical, is based upon a faulty premise and is likely untrue. In fact, his premise is so illogical that it is surprising to me that an academic would create such an argument and call it scholarship.
Could Jesus have been Intersex?
First, I struggle with the overall use of the term transgender as it applies to Jesus. It seems to me that it is the incorrect term to describe what Heath is attempting to argue for. It seems to me that intersex is the more appropriate way of describing what he is attempting to argue for. Transgender refers to the incongruity between one’s identity (what the individual understands themselves to be) and their physical characteristics. I don’t think this applies to what Heath is attempting to argue. Instead, Heath seems to be arguing more towards Jesus being intersex or for a homogenization of both sexes.
Even though I disagreed with Heath’s “argument from art” conclusion, I do think he raises some valid theological questions that I too have addressed in my recent book, UNenlightenment. Despite how history has imagined what God looks like, the bottom line is that God is neither male nor female. I have argued that gender is a limitation that God, as the greatest possible being, cannot contain. Instead, I have argued that God must be non-binary.
The traditional understanding of God and gender are largely based upon two factors. First, God created “man” in “his” image. Since man was the first created and he is a man reflecting the nature of God in some way, then it must be the case that God is also a man. However, this is foolish reasoning because the concept of the image of God is largely understood as being a non-physical representation of God instead of a physical one. Also, one must be careful in drawing ontological conclusions based upon the use of gender-specific language. Most language suffers from the inability to be neutral in their language and it certainly was not the case that the ancient Hebrews cared about doing such things.
The second argument revolves around the fact that Jesus came as a man. The problem with this argument is that Jesus did not come as a man because it says something about God’s “maleness” instead, he came as a man to be a Jewish Rabbi. Jesus had to take upon himself the same limitations that humans have, which include things like gender.
First, we know that Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day as was customary for Jews of the time. Also, modesty was a much different thing in ancient times than it is today. Things like public nudity were very common in Jewish and Roman culture. For example, it would not be uncommon in the heat of the day for men to relieve themselves of their clothing while in the fields or fishing.
John 21:7 where the disciples are fishing.
“When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.”
And no doubt Jesus was crucified naked upon the cross as was a common way to add to the humility of crucifixion.
I say this to argue that if Jesus was intersex people would have known about it. It would have no doubt become part of at least the oral tradition. However, no hint of this exists anywhere.
Some Final Thoughts
I am always suspicious when someone makes a statement about God that is brought about because of some contemporary issue. To me, it seems as though people who make these types of arguments are doing the same thing that fundamentalists do when they interpret history. That is, drawing conclusions or making statements based upon an anachronistic understanding of history. The only difference is that they are applying contemporary cultural issues instead of theological ones.
Therefore, at least right now, there is neither any evidence nor is there any logical reasoning that should lead anyone to believe that Jesus was anything other than a typical Jewish man.
You can purchase the book UNenlightenment HERE.