The Androgyny of Jesus
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Originally published in Volume 2, Number 2 of Daughters of Sarah magazine. This was the March, 1976 issue.
This article illustrates how an author's ideas can evolve over many years. It assumes the truth of the binary gender construct, which Dr. Mollenkott has since repudiated in OMNIGENDER and other books and articles.
The Androgyny of Jesus
Radical feminist theologians feel that Christianity is so corruptly patriarchal that the entire system of thought must go. God the Father must be castrated; we must put an end to phallic morality, say our radical sisters. We must move beyond Christolatry to a world without models. Christ is "a male symbol" and therefore "does exclude the female.... This 'He' -- whether 'He' refers to the particular 'Jesus of the Gospels' or to the 'cosmic Christ' whatever else 'He' may be, is not female and not truly 'generic.'" 1
Biblical feminists cannot take these charges lightly. We share with our radical sisters a profound concern about the psychological effects of God-language plus a yearning for social justice and for the development to full potential of all human beings. We are stuck with a sexist language which has no singular pronoun to indicate that the individual may be either masculine or feminine or both. We are thus stuck with talking about God as either male, or female, or neuter. Neuter language (Ground of Being, the Structure of Reality, or God as a Verb) is very impersonal. Many of us feel dissatisfied without the warmly relational metaphors of God as Father, Mother, Friend, or Comforter. And we are stuck with referring to Jesus as "he" unless we prefer the somewhat illogical substitute of "she" or "it."
But we must set up constant reminders that all our language about God is metaphoric -- that, in other words, the Bible uses figures of speech which are accommodated to our human perceptions and limitations. "Trust in God -- She provides" has considerable shock value, but it no more tells the ultimate truth about God than does the masculine pronoun.
Feminist theologian Mary Daly has written: "Jesus was a feminist, but so what." She argues that his teachings and example don't matter to modern woman since no matter how affirming he was concerning women, civilization has paid no practical attention. And, after all he is male; so it is ultimately a put-down of women to claim that "in Christ there is neither male nor female." Everywhere else, certainly, there is male and female with a vengeance; and even in this relatively positive symbol, both male and female are subsumed into a male Savior.
So far biblical feminists have found no solution to the language problem: there is no androgynous singular pronoun. But the whole issue concerning modern woman's representation by and in Christ is solved by the realization that Jesus is clearly depicted in the Bible not as a male, but as an androgyne. That is, he is pictured as a human being in whom "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics are harmoniously mingled. He is Perfect Humanity. Although the sexism of the English language and male translators frequently picture Christ as Perfect Man, in the context of the whole Bible Christ is Perfect Person.
In the incarnation, God chose to take on human limitations, including human gender. There are only two organic genders, male and female. In order to create any impact on a patriarchal and deeply prejudiced society, Christ had to be male. (Women were shunned by their own husbands in public. No teaching introduced by a woman could have taken hold under such circumstances!) But the Bible never emphasizes the maleness of Christ. New Testament authors refer to him as anthropos, human, rather than as aner, male. It may well have been to deemphasize his maleness that Jesus never married. In first century Judaism, it was the religious responsibility of every male to marry, a responsibility incurred at 18. Yet Jesus did not marry in all of his 33 years. Instead, he traveled with both male and female disciples 2, sharing himself freely with all people as "the Word...made flesh" (John 1:14), Not male, mind you, but flesh. Human.
The more we learn about the culture into which Jesus was born, the more convinced we become that Jesus was certainly a feminist. The status of women was much lower in Christ's day that it had been in Old Testament times. For instance, when a woman was taken in the act of adultery (John 8), her accusers set the male partner free and intended to stone only the woman although the Old Testament law to which they referred dictated stoning for both the male and the female (Lev. 20: 10). Jesus, of course, insisted on a single standard of morality both in this instance and on the subject of divorce (Mat. 19: 3-9). And he repeatedly, deliberately, and publicly violated various dehumanizing rabbinical customs relating to women. 3
But that proves his feminism and his universal human concern, not his psychological androgyny. (For all we know, Jesus may even have been physically androgynous, in some miraculous and secret fashion possessing both male and female physical characteristics. But that is not revealed. Furthermore, it would make no difference to our case.) God was probably incarnated in a typical human body, biologically limited to one gender just as all normally developed human beings are limited to one gender. But although limited to a male body, he refused to be limited to "masculinization" to the fulfillment of only half of his human potential. He refused to be reduced to half a human being, as is anyone who is forced to be exclusively "masculine" or exclusively "feminine." He cooked for his disciples; he openly cried for his dead friend; he served food to crowds; he was gentle with children; he taught the so-called feminine virtue of submissiveness to males as well as females. He refused to define blessedness in terms of biological functions; he said his mother was blessed not because she bore and nourished the divine child, but because she heard the word of God and carried it out (Luke 11:27-28). When he healed the menstruous woman, he specified that the healing should be located not in a male Savior but rather within the woman's own faith (Luke 8:48). Thus he healed not only her issue of blood but her attitude about herself, and he demonstrated a selflessness which has not been part of male socialization.
During his earthly lifetime Jesus referred to all three persons of the trinity in feminine terms. He pictured the First Person as a woman seeking her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10); he pictured himself as a hen yearning to gather her chicks under her wing (Matthew 23: 37); and he pictured the Holy Spirit as giving birth (John 3:5-8). This is not to deny that he also used male terminology concerning the godhead. The point is that he was not afraid to picture God as both male and female since after all he well knew that God is a spirit (John 4:24) which either is androgynous or transcends human sexual dichotomy. He knew that both male and female are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and he used that knowledge to emphasize the essential similarities of the human male and female since in marriage they become one flesh (Mat. 19:4-6; cf. Gen. 2:23-24).
He prayed that the human race would become one in the same way that the persons of the trinity are one (John 17). Part of that unity is the unity of the "masculine" and "feminine" components within and among these fully harmonious persons.
The most outstanding evidence for the androgyny of Jesus comes in the identification of Jesus as the Logos (Word) with the feminine personification of Wisdom in the Old Testament. Proverbs 8 explains that Wisdom was the very beginning of God's works, born long before earth itself. Wisdom was present, in fact, when the heavens and earth were made. Wisdom was at the side of God each day, "His darling and delight." Wisdom came to earth and her delight was "in mankind." Whoever finds Wisdom finds life. Proverbs 9 goes on to say that Wisdom has spread her table and has sent out her messengers to bring fools and simpletons to her feast.
The parallels to Christ are overwhelming. Wisdom, a woman, is the Old Testament equivalent of the New Testament Word which was in the beginning with God, by whom all things were made, which subsequently became flesh and lived among human beings (John 1:1-14). Female Wisdom links with male Logos to form Christ the androgyne.
What are the implications of the fact that the Bible pictures Jesus not as masculine, but as androgynous? First, surely, that we need not fear to develop whatever traits or gifts we possess no matter what sexual stereotyping society happens to do. Because Jesus was psychologically androgynous, Christian men can feel encouraged to develop Christ-like submissiveness and tenderness; Christian women can feel encouraged to develop Christ-like dignity, assertiveness, and leadership skills.
In all of this, we have the support of the whole New Testament, not just of the nature and behavior of Jesus. Paul taught males as well as females that "the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5.22, NEB) -- virtues society has labeled feminine. Paul also taught females as well as males to "instruct and admonish" other Christians and to put their whole hearts into whatever they were doing (Col. 3-16, 23) -- virtues society has labelled masculine. The family of God has no room for sex role stereotyping. Our activities are based on spiritual gifts, not on biology (Eph. 4:6-13).
It is because Jesus reveals the God who made both male and female in his own image -- it is precisely because Jesus is androgynous -- that in Christ there is no male or female.
People seem terrified that psychological androgyny will lead to increased homosexual activity. But the opposite is far more likely. Genesis, and Jesus in reference to Genesis, both emphasize that male and female are far more similar to each other than to anything else in the universe. Because man and woman were made by God in God's own image from the same materials, woman being bone from man's bone and flesh from man's flesh, the marriage bond is possible. By elaborating enormous differences between the sexes, adding numerous psychic differences to the obvious biological ones, society has caused men and women to think of each other as the Totally Other. Such alienation makes friendship difficult, so we speak of the war of the sexes. Huge role and psycho-sexual differentiations drive many sensitive people into homosexual relations because they seek to enjoy sexual intimacy with a like-minded partner rather than with someone who is Totally Other. Relief from psychosexual dualism will therefore make heterosexual experience possible for those persons who are capable of heterosexual feeling but who have chosen homosexuality in preference to the stereotyped roles assigned to their particular gender.
Others seem to be afraid that psychological androgyny will drive us all into unisex. But all evidence indicates that freeing persons to fulfill their whole human potential will create more abundant variety rather than greater conformity. Each person will be free to become himself or herself through development of whatever talents or attributes have been granted by God the Creator.
Ultimately, if we manage to do away completely with sex role stereotypes, we will no longer need to speak of androgyny. Although we will remain biologically male or female, we will behave simply like human beings, all one in Christ. But in the meantime, recognition of Jesus as the androgynous ideal leads us in two paradoxical but interrelated directions: toward becoming more distinctly individual on the one hand, and toward a stronger sense of community on the other. Because we need not shy away from attributes which society has assigned only to the opposite sex, we will become more fully defined by God, who is within us as well as through us and above us (Eph71:7). And because internal definition and purpose liberate psychic energy which was formerly absorbed in repression, we will be able to reach out to others in joy and love. For "Christ is like a single body with its many limbs and organs, which, many as they are, together make up one body" (1 Cor. 12: 12, NEB). This union of many in one takes place not because of a male Savior, but because of a human Savior, the androgynous Jesus.
1-- Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), p. 80. (back to article)
2-- The female disciples are mentioned in Luke 8-1-3. Jesus could not have chosen any females among the 12 apostles for two reasons. The practical reason was that in a patriarchal culture, not only would the women's word be ignored, but the physical risks would have been greater than for males -- and the danger to the male apostles was considerable (Mat. 10:5-24). The theoretical reason was that the 12 were intended to provide symbolic continuity with the rulers of Israel's 12 tribes (Luke 22: 30, Matt. 12: 28; cf. Ezek. 48). Hence they had to be Jewish and they had to be male. (back to article).
3-- For details, see Leonard Swidler, "Jesus Was a Feminist," The Catholic World, Jan. 1971, pp. 177-183; Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, All We're Meant to Be (Waco: Word 1974); Paul Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975); Rachel Conrad Wahlberg, Jesus According to a Woman (New York: Paulist, 1975), etc. (back to article)