Back in January, a fellow Christian blogger, Chuck McKnight, wrote a post considering whether Jesus could have been intersex. The gist of the argument is that if Jesus were conceived from a virgin woman, he would’ve developed with only XX chromosomes. As McKnight wrote, “When virgin births occur in nature, they usually result in a child that is either female or intersex.”
The Intersex Society of North America defines intersex as “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”
When McKnight shared his post on Facebook, several comments were outright dismissive of the idea, and one person called it a “silly little article.” I haven’t gotten those words “silly little article” out of my head since.
What angered me in reading that comment (and others) on McKnight’s post, was the refusal — whether conscious or subconscious — to consider what it might mean to intersex people not only if Jesus were intersex, but to even entertain the notion that he could be.
Why must it be silly to imagine that an embodied version of God could be anything other than a cis-gendered man?
For centuries, Christians and religious scholars have debated whether there was a literal Garden of Eden or a virgin birth. Did God or an angel of God truly come down and wrestle with Jacob? Dare I even consider whether Jesus (or even Lazarus) truly rose from the dead? Churches have split over these questions, and non-Christians laugh at religious naiveté.
God has always spoken just as much, if not more, through the human imagination — through dreams, fantasies, and possibilities — than through any solid encounter.
Imagination is one of the most important aspects of faith itself — the ability to ask what if.
What if God cares about our suffering? What if God actually hears me? What if there’s something more than the reality I see around me?
I’m currently reading James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. One of Cone’s central arguments is that it takes theological imagination, rooted in empathy, to imagine the suffering of others and how it relates to one’s faith. This is especially true of the connection between the suffering of African Americans via lynching, and the suffering of Jesus via the cross. Cone writes:
The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.
What could seeing Jesus’s suffering in others accomplish? If Christians had seen this connection in the heyday of the American lynching practice, perhaps they would have been more likely to take seriously the acute and always present threat to black lives.
Perhaps, as well, white Christians could’ve imagined a black Christ, not a figure that merited pity or needed saving, but a leader and redeemer. Such a thought sends white supremacy in a tailspin.
The same imagination, rooted in empathy, is needed when it comes to understanding the experience of intersex individuals.
Amnesty International reports that an estimated 1.7% of children across the world are born with variations of sex characteristics:
Many of these children undergo surgery in an effort to ‘normalise’ them, despite the fact that these interventions are often not emergency-driven, invasive and irreversible. These children are too young to consent at the time of the intervention and their parents are often not given adequate information and support to make an informed decision about what is best for their children. Such practices can constitute gross violations of their human rights.
These surgeries and early gender assignment can lead to “serious emotional and physical trauma to the individual, and often results in significantly reducing sexual sensitivity. It can also very often result in the loss of fertility, and can in some cases cause urinary tract problems.”
But you should really hear about this from them.
What is needed to improve the rights of intersex individuals is first-off an acceptance of individuals who are born and/or identify outside of the gender binary. For some, this acceptance might require a leap of imagination. A leap of compassion and love. And then, act.
The question of whether Jesus could be intersex has been a question posed within queer theology for the past two decades. Is it “silly little queer theology” as well?
Theologian Susannah Cornwall wrote that considering an intersex Jesus raises questions about the way that his maleness is woven through our faith.
Challenging his cis-gender would mean reconsidering the foundational argument of why Roman Catholic and Orthodox priests can only be men, as well as reconceptualizing Jesus’s role as the bridegroom. Cornwall quoted a submission to the Church of England House of Bishops’ 2011 working party on women in the episcopate:
In presiding at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Mass, the priest, acting in persona Christi, sacramentally re-enacts the saving sacrifice of Calvary … At the altar, the priest represents Christ the bridegroom, and this sacramental sign is lost entirely when the celebrant is female.
Is it lost, or do we get to reimagine it in a way that’s more empowering to women, to queer and intersex individuals?
A similar question: what gets added to the metaphor of the church and Christ as bride and groom when we consider the power of lifelong unions between people other than cis-gendered men and women?
So could Jesus have been intersex?
Edward Kessel, emeritus professor of biology at U of San Francisco was possibly the first to propose Jesus was intersex in his paper for the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation in 1983.
If Jesus was born from a virgin mother, he would have been conceived with two X chromosomes and been born a chromosomal female. To have been born a male, then, would require a sex reversal in the womb — something not out of the question according to Kessel. However, his explanation of how and why sex reversal occurs, which has to do with a gene known as the H-Y gene, goes over my head.
Kessel also looks at the plausibility of a virgin birth by explaining the history and commonality of parthenogenesis: unisex reproduction, which occurs in many species across the animal kingdom. Occurrences have even been found in mammals as spontaneous anomalies, although none of the reported cases were carried to full-term.
Depending on your definition of far-stretched, his theory of the virgin birth may not be: “If Mary’s conception of Jesus was parthenogenetic, the Holy Spirit may have provided by some natural means the triggering environmental stimulus, e.g., simple cold shock that worked so well in animal studies.”
Kessel makes a mistake, however, by summarizing Jesus as a perfect human being because he lacks what Kessel refers to as “physical or psychological imperfections.” These imperfections are the biological and psychological traits of intersex and bisexual individuals. By completing a perfect sex reversal and by being seen as heterosexual, Jesus still fit into what Kessel considered a proper societal role.
Kessel himself lacked the theological imagination to consider how a bisexual or hermaphroditic Christ might actually be more perfect.
Without genetic evidence, we can’t know the biological gender of Christ. However, we must continue to ask this and other questions that are impossible to answer. That is the essence of an active, imaginative, and inclusive faith.