A silly comedy from Brazil about Jesus and his boyfriend coming home for Christmas, now on Netflix, has Christians in a whirl. As I write, a petition has been signed by nearly two million people, calling for the “banning,” “retraction” and “removal” of The First Temptation of Christ, since it has “seriously offended Christians.”
Is this an ad campaign? It seems like the perfect way to promote the film.
Then I wonder: is it shocking to suggest Jesus was gay?
The idea has come up before.
For a truly funny comedy, try Christianity?—the religious tradition that wants to be a rule of heterosexual sex, regulated society, celebrating wealth, class, marriage and children.
The gag is that it has to work off some old stories about a single guy who wandered around with his friends, loving outsiders and weirdos, but telling everybody to . . . love each other.
But Christianity, with a lot of work, massaged everything into place. It dealt with the problem of Jesus’ sexuality by asserting he didn’t have one.
As Jesus ate and did all other human functions, this would be a rare blind spot in his human incarnation. But being sinless, the religion reasoned, he obviously had no interest in touching anyone.
There were, however, problems—even in the biblical books that Christianity would acknowledge. Several times, Jesus “loved” a particular young man.
The Christian scholars worked hard to smooth it all out. The CEV translation, the ‘Bible for Today’s Family’, translates John 13:23 as: “Jesus’ favorite disciple was sitting next to him at the meal…”
The scholar Elizabeth E. Platt, noting the effort by many translations to distance the men, offers a literal rendition: “There was reclining, one, from among his disciples, in the bosom of Jesus, whom Jesus loved.”
Fast forward to 1593, when the gay playwright Christopher Marlowe thought he was getting cozy with a guy who turned out to be a police informant. The report includes notes on Marlowe’s remarks: “That Saint John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom; that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma.”
Marlowe was a serious Protestant theologian. But I suspect, here, that he’s trying to be funny with a man he’s picked up, and talking dirty to overcome any religious objections to being sexual.
Ten years later, James I, the king of England, advocates the same theory in a meeting with his advisors.
I wish to speak in my own behalf, and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had His John and I have my George.
James I became eternally famous for the King James Bible, received as a sacred text by the Christian tradition that persecuted homosexuals unrelentingly. Life is funny that way.
The existing texts of the gospels might be thought to evidence some kind of tampering. What’s going on with that naked man in Mark 14:51–52? Who is he, and why is he there?
Answers came into view in 1958 with the discovery of a document in a monastery outside Jerusalem, which suggested that the sexuality of Jesus might’ve been an issue early on in Christian history.
The document was a copy of a letter by a late 2nd century Christian named Clement of Alexandria, writing in response to a question about the gospel of Mark being altered—a few verses being removed.
That scene of Jesus and Lazarus, Clement explained, had been misleading, so they kept it private. But a sect of Christians had gotten the idea that Jesus believed in sexual freedom, and they’d managed to get a hold of the original text of Mark.
Yes, Clement says, Jesus and Lazarus—who here seems to be the ‘Beloved Disciple’—did go away together for a week, as Jesus “taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God.”
But, Clement adds, the phrase “‘naked man with naked man’ and the other things about which you wrote, are not found.”
What any of that means is unclear. But Christianity decided it meant that “Secret Mark” was a hoax.
Christianity has long had great difficulty keeping Jesus as masculine as he should be. The image of Jesus that became popular among Protestants in the latter 20th century disappointed many. In 1958, a theology professor rages in Christianity Today:
In Sallman’s Head of Christ we have a pretty picture of a woman with a curling beard who has just come from the beauty parlor with a Halo shampoo, but we do not have the Lord who died and rose again!
A rather effeminate Jesus is implicit in the work of many celebrated artists, from Michelangelo to Handel to Whitman. We’d even find the opposite, a gay caricature, in Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ, a tableau of “repressed homoerotic fantasies,” as Christopher Hitchens noted.
But the first writer to explain that Jesus might, in fact, have be gay appears to be Jeremy Bentham, the 18th century English philosopher.
He was also the first person to formulate the ‘modern person’ and key aspects of modern statehood. His interest in sex and homosexuality seems to have been key to helping humanity leaving the Dark Ages.
Bentham’s writings on sex were long suppressed. But in a book written around 1819 and published after his death, Bentham suggested that Jesus and the ‘Beloved Disciple’ were curiously close.
Edward Carpenter, the Anglican cleric and perhaps the first gay activist, held out Jesus as the prototype of the ‘Urianian’—a person who can love or be loved by either sex. He writes in 1902 in a poem: “Thy Woman-soul within a Man’s form dwelling . . .”
With Jesus, indeed, gender is tricky. As, thinking it over, I find it tricky to imagine him sexless. He kept saying he was the “Bridegroom,” after all, as his followers would be his “Bride.” That includes men?
In 1967, Hugh Montefiore, an Anglican vicar, seems to have been the first to cause a splash by discussing the sexuality of Jesus. “Women were his friends, but it is man He is said to have loved,” he said, to international furor.
The Archbishop of Canturbury issued a stern reprimand: “Christians believe that Christ’s dealings with both men and women were those of a perfect man.”
The gay Bible scholar John Boswell kept up the suggestion in his 1980 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. For him, Jesus was celibate, but noting “the only persons with whom the Gospels suggest he had any special relationship were men . . .”
In 1998, the gay playwright Terence McNally really startled the horses with Corpus Cristi, a play about a very, very gay Jesus.
“Jesus Christ belongs to all of us because He is all of us,” McNally writes. “Unfortunately, not everyone believes that.”
In 2003, the Bible scholar Theodore Jennings, Jr., in his 2003 book The Man Jesus Loved, made the case Jesus and the ‘Beloved Disciple’ had, he writes, “a homoerotic relationship.”
I love the review by the Evangelical Albert Mohler: “Just when you think you’ve encountered just about every possible heresy, along comes something so shocking that it demands painful attention.”
Mohler doesn’t refute evidence that Jennings cites, only repeats, over and over, that the Bible is anti-gay.
Paul Oestreicher, an Anglican priest, discussed the sexuality of Jesus in 2012, in the liberal Guardian newspaper.
He writes: “The idea that he had a romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene is the stuff of fiction, based on no biblical evidence. The evidence, on the other hand, that he may have been what we today call gay is very strong. But even gay rights campaigners in the church have been reluctant to suggest it.”
In 2014, The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision, paintings by Douglas Blanchard and text by Kittredge Cherry, couldn’t be advertised, she notes, as it was flagged as violent porn.
I might note the gay fashion photographer Francois Rousseau’s Amor Causa, a 2007 enactment of a Jesus-like setting, using Brazilian models. He intended no offense in presenting the biblical figures as beautiful men in states of undress. “My mission, in fact, was to portray acts of love performed by wonderful people.”
Would that be a possible model for sexuality? To engage in acts of love with wonderful people. Like Jesus.