Jesus of Nazareth was not a man.
That is, though male, he was not really a man–at least not by the criteria of his culture.
To use today’s (imprecise and still evolving) terminology, Jesus was not cisgender. This is so, for at least two interrelated reasons, but we’ll explore only one, because it has to do with his birth, which Christians celebrate at the conclusion of the Advent season.
From his birth throughout his entire life, he would have had to carry this gender stigma with him. Unavoidably.
In the small village of Nazareth, it would have been an occasion for ridicule from other children, as well as an easy topic of gossip all his life. When he came of age to marry, only the most desperate father would have given his daughter to Jesus, precisely because he was not really a man.
Jesus’ gender non-conformity would have cast a shadow over his access to the temple. And it would certainly have called into question his fitness as a “teacher.”
In short, Jesus knew what it was like to be excluded on account of the gender norms of the (immediate) dominant culture.
It was due to the scandal surrounding his birth.
Recall that his mother “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child . . .”–so says Matthew’s gospel.
Traditionally, in the Christian re-telling of Jesus’ birth at Christmas, emphasis has been given to the shame that Mary, as well as Joseph (and their respective families), would have experienced because of this scandal.
Less frequently are the implications for Jesus himself spelled out.
To a modern Western individualistic meritocracy, it would be difficult to overstate the role that one’s genealogy played in determining one’s identity, to include one’s gender identity. But for the majority of the world for the majority of history, one’s genealogy was (and still is) crucial: it communicated a person’s allegiances and affiliations and their status and rank within their tribe or people.
Immediately preceding the above-quoted verse about how “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph” the Gospel of Matthew has given us–that’s right–a genealogy of Jesus.
The underlying rationale for using genealogy as a major source for one’s identity is simple. It is not unlike the rationale presupposed in the following aphorisms:
“The apple never falls far from the tree.”
“He’s a chip off the old block.”
“Like father, like son.”
When we are born, we are born into a larger story, and our role in that story–our allegiances, affections, predispositions, hostilities, etc.–are largely determined for us.
For example, I grew up a Clark: we liked Ford trucks (vs. Chevys), voted for Republicans (vs. Democrats), loved America (vs. the former U.S.S.R.), hiking (vs. e.g., surfing), etc., etc. I don’t recall ever choosing these preferences; it’s just who we were.
(There is actually a somewhat similar logic at play when persons talk of “privilege” or systemic or generational racism.)
And so, if one’s genealogy played a vital role in determining one’s identity, it’s not hard to see why any suspicion or ambiguity regarding the legitimacy of one’s birth would be highly problematic: to be–or simply to be publicly suspected as–an illegitimate child would be disastrous, especially for a male (here patriarchalism did a male no favors, quite the opposite).
Even a man’s name usually involved a reference to his father–e.g., James son of Zebedee, Levi son of Alpheus, or consider the name Bartimaeus, which means (as Mark 10.46 explains) “son of Timaeus” (with bar meaning “son” in Aramaic).
Jesus, then, would have been known as “Jesus son of . . .um . . . well, Jesus . . . of Nazareth.” (Several much later Jewish traditions referred to Jesus as “Jesus son of Pandera” with Pandera (or Panthera) possibly being a soldier with whom Mary had an illicit relationship and thereby conceived Jesus–or so says the Babylonian Talmud, recorded as well in the 2nd-century anti-Christian Platonic philosopher Celsus).
In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus returns to his hometown, the townspeople take offense at the idea that Jesus is someone of significance, probably insulting him by calling attention to his illegitimate birth: “Is this not the son of Mary?”
Importantly, Jesus was never formally or publically established as an illegitimate child (called a mamzer). But neither was he ever cleared of being an illegitimate child. And this ambiguous situation was even worse: he was neither legitimate nor illegitimate.
That is, his culture had no category for him.
In fact, whereas a mamzer could marry another mamzer, it was forbidden for a mamzer to marry someone who hadn’t formally been determined to be illegitimate.
When it came to his gender–and all the vast social consequences that gender entails, Jesus was damaged goods, plain and simple.
And so it is that Jesus, whose birth we will soon celebrate, was not a “real” man.
And so by this means, too, we gaze in wonder and worship at the One who came down–all the way down, humbling himself to be among–indeed, to actually become–the forgotten, the nameless, those whose dominant culture had evolved no terms for their existence whatsoever.
This is Power. And this is Love.
And this is our God.
And He claims to be among the forgotten and nameless still. Have you seen Him there?
The above does not begin to pretend to be a sufficient word on what Jesus or ancient Scripture has to say about gender. But I hope it is a potential first word. And it is certainly, as the title claims, an Advent word. Historically, on the first Sunday following Epiphany (January 6th), the church has celebrated Jesus’ baptism, at which our Lord heard the following thunderous words from rent heavens: “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” I hope to take the opportunity then to write more about this very crucial, intimate and intricate matter. As with any matter, Jesus is unapologetically countercultural and infuriatingly counterintuitive in a very costly way, having the gall to ask every last one of us to die, precisely in order that we might live. Little wonder, then, that he was crucified.