Was Christ sexually assaulted?

Catholic blogger, Mary Pezzulo stirred up a bit of controversy this Lent when she published, Was Jesus Really Sexually Abused? 

I must admit, it was a question that hadn’t even crossed my mind before.

Pezzulo’s basis for raising it comes from both a reading of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion as well as historical research into the torturous methods of the Romans.

Pezzulo wrote, “The ancient Romans were, as a culture, sadistic. They got off on hurting and humiliating people. And a gang of sadistic Roman soldiers ripped a Man’s clothes off and whipped Him while He was stark naked, then they forcibly dressed Him in a humiliating costume, beat Him up again, ripped the costume off, and threw His own clothes back on Him. That’s sexual abuse.”

Some of her readers pushed back on this. They agreed it was abusive behavior, but questioned whether his forced public nakedness constituted sexual abuse.

Pezzulo countered with, “Pretend it’s the first time you’ve heard that story.”

And when you do try to imagine encountering it for the first time, being forcibly disrobed and mocked certainly has the elements of a sexual assault.

But Mary Pezzulo lost a lot of readers when she pushed her argument even further, speculating on what she claimed was standard operating procedure for those brutish Romans.

She began by explaining that the Romans always crucified their victims naked. But more than that, she claims the crucified invariably got erections, which “can result when a grown man is hung by the arms like that.”

Furthermore, the Romans violated their victims with poles or stakes while they were prone to the cross.

Indeed, she pictures the crucifixion in particularly gruesome ways: “That’s how Christ died: naked, possibly with an erection, with the leaders of His people staring and laughing at Him.”

But there’s more.

Pezzulo points out that historians say the Romans routinely raped their victims prior to crucifying them.

“To me,” Pezzulo writes, “it’s not only likely that Jesus was literally raped at some point during His passion – it would be surprising if He wasn’t.”

Many of Mary Pezzulo’s readers were aghast.

“Utter blasphemy. Horrific, scurrilous, monstrous blasphemy,” commented one reader.

Look, I have concerns about her argument from silence. There’s simply nothing in the Gospels about violation with stakes, erections, or rape. Just because Roman torture was known to occur in a particular way doesn’t mean it happened that way to Christ. And while I was okay about her speculating whether sexual abuse had occurred, I grew less comfortable with her increased certainty as the article went on.

But possibly even more concerning was the fact that some of her readers couldn’t even countenance the possibility of Christ being violated, as if being a victim of sexual assault was itself a sin. It’s not!

The idea that Christ’s divinity would be diminished or compromised in some way if such an assault took place says something about the dreadful stigma that still attaches itself to victims.

 

Pezzulo’s final sentence is, “Of course Jesus was sexually abused: because He knew some of us would be.” She writes as a survivor of sexual abuse and takes comfort in the belief that Christ knows her suffering, that he was victimized, that he too was abused by powerful people.

That’s an important consideration here. Pezzulo does us a service to remind us that a survivor is not sinful as a consequence of their assault. Christ might have been sexually abused. He was certainly stripped naked and humiliated in public. But being so victimized doesn’t affect his sinlessness.

Where I would take issue with Pezzulo, though, is her assumption that Jesus had to experience every possible form of abuse in order to understand the horrors of abuse. He doesn’t need to have been sexually assaulted in order to give dignity to sexual assault survivors any more than he needed to lose a child in order to be a comfort to a grieving parent.

He was victimized. And tortured. Betrayed. Humiliated. He suffered an agonizing death. As the Scriptures say, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” (Isa 53:3)

In so doing, he not only gives dignity to the victims of many forms of suffering and abuse, he offers a full and total redemption for all our suffering.

This Lenten season I’ve been reflecting on Andrea Mantegna’s painting, The Lamentation of the Christ. You can read my previous reflections here and here. In light of Mary Pezzulo’s article I was contemplating the jar that Mantegna placed beside the dead Christ’s head.

It’s presumably a jar of ointment or perfume, part of the hurried embalming process Jesus’ followers undertook prior to his interment in Joseph’s tomb. Or it might just be an ancient form of air freshener, placed there to off-set the encroaching stench of death and decay.

Was Jesus sexually assaulted? I don’t think it’s likely. At least not in the way we normally understand that phrase. But he was tortured to death and his corpse would have smelled of blood and sweat and who knows what else. Even after being washed, that jar of ointment was placed there to ward off the fug of death.

What can’t be so easily covered up was the fact that Christ took upon himself the sins of the world and bore the brunt of oppression, cruelty and hatred, so others who are also tortured, oppressed and hated might find dignity in friendship with God.

 

 

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15 thoughts on “Was Christ sexually assaulted?

  1. Christ – victim and victor.

    Knowing that Ms Pezzulo acknowledges herself as a victim of sexual abuse reminds me that we all reach out to Jesus who carries our personal pain and suffering.

    In seminary, I was introduced to the Isenheim Altarpiece which depicts Jesus ravaged by sores – symptoms of the plague, and emaciated, while hanging on the cross.

    Is sexual abuse our black plague?

  2. Quite a provocative subject. I took a moment to pop over to read Mary Pezzulo’s text. And while I sympathize that abuse survivors want to imagine Christ actually personally suffered every abuse as they did, it seems that they miss that (at least in my reading) scripture tells us he has seen every abuse we suffer, faced every temptation, and took on the punishment for every sin, but I don’t read that he experienced every abuse.

    Moreover, her piece asks us to, “Pretend it’s the first time you heard that story.” — to have us imagine the abuse Christ suffered today in our context. But ours is not the world of first century Rome. Our democratic, sanitized, self-righteousness existence is so out of touch with the Roman world. Were we to re-enter the world Christ lived in, the smells alone would have us vomiting for hours. Let alone witnessing the human abuse – slavery, prostitution, beastiality, poverty, starvation, and the physical filth of the entire environment redefines any idea we have of basic human dignity. Nakedness was common. Physical abuse by Roman soldiers was common. What Christ suffered was “normal” for a prisoner in that world. The semantics of calling that “sexual abuse” is a bit of a stretch.

    I would not wholly throw out her thought experiment though. In our clean, first-world experience, all of those nasty things are pushed to the back, out of view. We live in our imaginary shell of safety. Mary is asking us to pierce the shell. Whether Christ was actually sexually abused or just beaten and humiliated like all Roman prisoners really doesn’t matter does it? Christ commands us to open our eyes to the brokenness of sexual abuse survivors and have His own compassion and love for all of the broken people we would otherwise avoid. That point always merits re emphasis.

    1. I agree to an extent with what you are saying but would challenge your reasoning.

      Because something is commonplace does not mean it wasn’t abuse or doesn’t carry the same ramifications for the victim or even the perpetrators. Sexual abuse often has a motivation of power which comes of stripping a victim of their innate dignity. Whether the act performed is common to the times or not. This is exactly what the Roman guards were doing is it not?

  3. I read the blog … I’m preparing to preach a sermon entitled” #youtoo? Finding healing from trauma”…As a human rights lawyer and a former prosecutor of crimes against women and children, I found the perspective challenging, and parenthetically agree with her premise. I’ve read hundreds of war crime reports, and note that particularly male victims and family members refuse to report sexual crime… it would not be surprising if the authors of the gospels didn’t either. But it is today’s reaction to the mere suggestion , that tells us so much…by His stripes we are healed… may the Holy Spirit inspire us with words and actions that convey His great love.

    1. I too am in deep reflection of the PASSION. I answer with a question: IF CHRIST WERE TO TRULY KNOW AND CARRY THE BURDEN OF ALL SIN: He must have been raped in all its awful, deepest, unmentionable ways: for it is Him to know us and to show us the way to forgive. Only He knows of our deepest pain and suffering. To acknowledge Christ had not suffered TOTALLY is to not fully understand His PASSION. Pray to Him on this.

    2. I had a dream today. They raped him. They pinned him down with stakes and raped him. And draped like a women. Because the women loved him. They made a head dress to crown him. God my heart aches.

  4. “as if being a victim of sexual assault was itself a sin”

    Oh thank you for writing that Michael – as a survivor I hadn’t got much past your opening paragraph before feeling as if those who were the most aghast at the idea, did in fact see that having been abused is some sort of evil that it is impossible for Christ to have suffered.

    I also felt comfort at the idea that yes, my Lord and savior could very well have experienced abuse like I did.

    I imagine that those who argue most vehemently against this argument may well be more caught up in the divinity of Christ against his humanity; God wouldn’t have had a public erection!

  5. Thanks for this blog and your reflections
    Wow. Very reflection inducing.
    My reaction was immediate and so was my awareness of it and need to explore my reaction.
    My immediate reaction was ‘no – not that – not to Him!’
    It was the added degradation that is involved in being raped.
    And yet on reflection the question remains ‘if it were in fact so, then why not to Him?’
    The price He paid was higher than we can imagine.
    The cost was real.
    Thanks for posting this.

  6. It’s extremely likely that Jesus was raped by the Romans. There’s a time he disappeared into their clutches (before and after the scourging) when they were taking His clothes on and off and there were no eyewitnesses to see what else they did to Him. I have wondered the same thing for years.

    1. They couldn’t do anything they wanted to HIM. GOD IS IN CONTROL read in the HOLY BIBLE in John 19:10-11 kjv: Then saith Pilate unto HIM, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? JESUS answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

  7. Without speculating as to whether Jesus was raped or not, Michael Trainor draws the same conclusion from his reading of the stripping in Matthew’s account “Matthew’s Jesus is now a victim of sexual abuse. The exposure of Jesus’ penis, the symbol of sexual power and identity, is the ultimate act of shaming and abuse. The forced removal of his clothes is an act that erases his social identity. He is now without any cultural, social, religious, political and sexual identity.” Forced stripping for the gratification of the viewer has long been acknowledged as a form of sexual violence against victims. Sexual abuse is a far wider activity than just those acts that involve touch or penetration.

  8. Well, this was an eye-opener.
    It reminded me of a post over on WIT: https://womenintheology.org/2018/09/28/metoo-and-the-jesus-movement/
    To quote from the above post,

    “simply by being crucified, Jesus experienced and assumed a feminized vulnerability to sexual violence. Although the gospels do not include sexual violence in their Passion narratives, historians note that in ancient Rome, crucified criminals were sexually violated routinely. Even Jesus’ nudity both on the cross and on the way to it qualify as forms of sexual degradation and abuse.
    On Good Friday, Jesus’ body also was penetrated, by spears and nails. This matters because, in his historical context, truly male bodies were supposed to penetrate; they were not penetrated. They inflicted violence upon and inside of other bodies; they did not receive such violence in their own.

    The crucifixion thus exposes our gendered expectations of violence precisely by refusing to abide by them. Jesus is not in control of his body; he cannot say “no;” he has no consent to give. His powerless is used against him, evidence of his shamefulness and ignominy.

    Jesus was put to death in shame at the hands of male crucifiers, but he rose in glory in the presence of a female companion.”

    This echoes a point Mike made in this post,
    “But possibly even more concerning was the fact that some of her readers couldn’t even countenance the possibility of Christ being violated, as if being a victim of sexual assault was itself a sin. It’s not!”

    I agree with Mike that the truth of this matter is less important than the reaction to it.
    Because the reaction is a mirror to how we think about and treat victims of sexual assault.
    And honestly? The reaction is illuminating. We still have stigmas against victims of sexual assault, as opposed to victims of other pain and abuse.

    I think part of the reason why people say “No” to the question of, “Was Christ sexually assaulted?” comes from 2 points.

    1. Christ is divine, both human and God, and there exists this idea that you lose something of yourself, or are somehow weakened by being a victim, esp. a victim of sexual assault, and since God is God, and all powerful, Creator of everything we know, this idea that God can also be a victim is impossible.
    And yet being the victim is, in a sense, the whole purpose of Christ.
    Sacrifice & victim both have many parallels.

    It reminds me of a quote from Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book, Heart of the World,

    “[…] and as a dead of his supreme strength, this weakness would be so great that it would far surpass and sustain in itself the world’s pitiful feebleness. He alone would henceforth be the measure and thus all the meaning of all impotence. He wanted to sink so low that in the future all falling would be a falling into him […]
    No fighter is more divine than one who can achieve victory through defeat. In the instant when he receives the deadly wound, his opponent falls to the ground, himself struck a final blow. For he strikes love and is thus himself struck by love.
    And by letting itself be struck, love proves what had to be proven: that it is indeed love. Once stuck, the hate-filled opponent recognizes his bounders and understands: behave as he pleases, nevertheless he is bounded on every side by a love that is greater than he.”

    (If anyone is interested, I first found this in this blog post here: https://mageinabarrel.com/2017/02/12/a-christological-interpretation-of-power-in-medaka-box/)

    2. People in general still have an issue with a man being a victim of sexual assault (I think). It’s changing.

    In the end, it might help to remember that if Christ was a victim of sexual assault or not is unknowable.
    It’s speculation at best, since the primary text, The Bible, gives no indication of this happening.

    However, whatever your reaction, it might do some good to think about WHY you have that reaction.

    Christ is Christ, whether he was sexually abused or not.

    I myself agree with Nicky Lock that the forced stripping could be viewed as a form of sexual abuse, however, since there’s no indication of anything else in Scripture, that’s as far as I’ll take it.

  9. ‘Was Jesus Really Sexually Abused?’ ‘I must admit, it was a question that hadn’t even crossed my mind before.’ Don’t let it bother you, Mike Frost. In what kind of mind would such a question bubble up through the grey mist from the deep dark murk of the Id? Mayhaps some poor soul who has been traumatized by our mad porn times. Sweet Mary Pezzulo might some relief by taking a cold bath. That was a priestly suggested remedy in the 1950s. Cheers!

  10. I don’t believe that such a thing happened at all because of the following reasons.
    1. Romans usually were told to respect some religions if those religions were considered ‘legal’ . Judaism was considered :legal’ by Augustus Caesar so the legions and treyarchs etc had to follow some rules of such religions to prevent civil unrest or protests leading to instability.
    2.Roman soldiers were not much similar to their Greek counterparts and didn’t have sex with each and every living creature as much as Greeks did and so to some extent were not as much as same sex doing people.
    3.The entirety of Jesus being the lamb of God was God’s way of displaying His love for us and to what extent He was willing to sacrifice for us. The crucifixion of Christ can be seen as the greatest display of sacrifice from God for us this in this way we can see that it is an act which uplifts the reputation of God as a loving and caring God. I do believe that Christ was stripped of His clothes but that was mainly for public humiliation. God would never ever want anything to lower His own reputation and as anyone would , God would also want all His plans to go perfectly. And God’s main goal was to have a great impact on the world in order to save it from sin . If Jesus was raped then this would have led to Him having not as great as an impact for Christianity as society won’t be able to accept some parts of it plus God Himself wouldn’t want this to happen as it would tarnish His reputation . And therefore God would not have allowed any such thing as it would lead to His plan not having as great as an impact as it has had . And the Romans use to make rumours of Christ to reduce the faith of Christians and if it was so then they would have used this reason as well but evidently it hasn’t . Therefore in conclusion the God of the Bible from the destruction of Sodom to the building of Israel would always let His plan go accordingly and perfectly for maximum impact on people thus I now hope that you are convinced that such a thing didn’t happen with Christ . Jesus has had His share of His pain already enough but also understands the pain you and I have as well because after all His creation . Just as a computer engineer knows what’s going on with his software.( Example)

  11. I clicked on this article because curiosity killed the cat. Jesus did not have to experience EVERY SINGLE PAINFUL EVENT in order to know what that pain felt like. Did he have to commit each and every sin in order to become that sin?? No. (There are some painful experiences that he could not have experienced personally.)He carried each and every burden, including the ones of victims, to the Cross. And he alone was able to do that. We could not, because we were not spotless, but also because as humans we could not have endured the burdens of the whole world. When we argue and debate whether or not Christ was raped, we miss the forest for the trees folks. If you are a victim of abuse, you can take your burdens and lay them at the feet of Jesus and be truly healed! And we, as sinners, can also be redeemed thru Jesus. That should be the REAL take away from anything that Jesus suffered. Put your focus back on him regardless of what you are or where you have been and you will get to be with him for eternity. I have suffered abuse in various forms, from various people. If I hang on to my pain then I am not free. And my abusers get to keep a chain around my neck. But, because I can go to Christ with my pain and leave it to him, and I can also forgive those who sought to do evil against me, I am truly free. Because of JESUS. Find a way to heal and forgive and I can promise you that you will find peace like you have never known! May God be with every person who reads this.

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