Was Jesus a victim of sexual abuse? According to new book, When Did We See You Naked?, edited by David Tombs, Jayme Reaves and Rocio Figueroa, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” While I plan to write an article in due course about the book itself, David Tombs’ 1999 article ‘Crucifixion, State Terror and Sexual Abuse’ forms the basis of every contributor’s a priori assumption that Jesus was indeed sexually abused. From Tombs’ paper springs forth all manner of theological ideas within the book. Before writing a paper engaging with the book itself, it seemed important to unpick the position taken by Tombs’ within his 1999 article, which forms the basis of the majority of arguments within When Did We See You Naked?.
As an expert in sexual violence, I have been working for over a decade with women who have been sexually abused by men. My work is now spent training practitioners from across the UK and beyond on how to work with those who have been abused. I am fully supportive of anyone who wants to ensure the church is a safer space for those who have been abused. Having spent many hours delivering lectures and training to ordinands, church leaders and others, I am keen to embrace any ideas which will work towards ensuring that churches and the wider Christian community understand and respond effectively to men’s violence towards women, children, and other men. However, the premise of Tombs’ article is only valid if Jesus was actually sexually abused. While I applaud the deep concern for people who have been abused, expressed within Tombs’ article, I will argue that Tombs’ approach is highly speculative, to the point that he ignores both historical and textual evidence. I will also suggest that the unintended consequences of his ideas could include greater harm being done, by Christians, to those who have been sexually abused. The potential damage that these ideas could generate means that engaging with them is a moral and professional imperative.
Given that liberation theology underpins Tombs’ article, it is useful to understand his location to the subject. He is originally from the UK, but is now based in New Zealand. He is a white, male professor who has a “longstanding interest in contextual and liberation theologies.” The context of Tombs’ 1999 article is that of state terror, specifically perpetrated in the 1960s and 1970s by military regimes in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. For Tombs, Roman crucifixion “fits the profile of public state torture very well” when examined in light of the abuses perpetrated by these Latin American regimes. Following a liberation theology method, he asserts that “biblical texts can be legitimately read with the social and political situations of contemporary cultures of oppression in mind.”
Defining sexual abuse
The questions Tombs seeks to answer within his article are 1) whether Jesus was sexually humiliated during the crucifixion and, b) whether Jesus could have been sexually assaulted in ways elided within the Gospel crucifixion accounts. Tombs does little to explicitly define what sexual abuse is; therefore before engaging with the article, I want to provide a definition of sexual abuse to ensure clarity in the ensuing discussion.
Within UK law, sexual abuse definitions differ slightly between nations. Broadly, rape is understood to be ‘when a person uses their penis without consent to penetrate the vagina, mouth, or anus of another person.’ Sexual assault includes a person being ‘coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or when a person, male or female, touches another person sexually without their consent.’ Child sexual abuse can involve ‘forcing or inciting a child to take part in sexual activity, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening’. It may include physical contact (rape, masturbation, kissing, rubbing, touching outside of clothing) and non-contact activities (looking at or producing sexual images, grooming a child in preparation for abuse). Owning or sharing indecent images of children is also a sexual offence. Within Scotland, the legislation adds that child sexual abuse ‘is any act that involves the child in any activity for the sexual gratification of another person.’
While these legally rooted definitions are important, feminists have long asserted that, “rape is a crime of violence, not sexuality”, rooted in the rapist’s desire for power over their victim. Some thinkers informed by this analysis assert that sexual abuse is about power and not sex. However, it is crucial to understand that this feminist analysis was borne within a context (the late 1970s – 1990s) when sexual violence was understood to be motivated by uncontrolled lust. Such an analysis of power and violence enabled women to reject being blamed for being sexually attractive or wearing sexual clothes. It placed the responsibility onto men. However, this power analysis ‘may not adequately appreciate the full nature or extent of the harm experienced by a victim of rape,’ because it marginalises the sexual motivation of abuse. Many studies have found that it is the perpetrators’ beliefs of sexual entitlement that bridge the gap between power/violence and sexuality within sexual abuse. The abuser’s belief of sexual entitlement drives his behaviour, legitimising his right to sexual access to women’s, children’s (and in some cases, men’s) bodies.
Rape Crisis England and Wales include female genital mutilation (FGM) within their definition of sexual violence because it intentionally alters or causes ‘injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’. As such, acts which injure the genitals or wider reproductive organs can be understood as sexual violence. This injuring of genitals is quite different to the Scottish definition of sexual abuse as occurring ‘for the sexual gratification of another person’; while the violence involves sexual organs, the act itself is not ‘to do with sexual activity’ but does have unbearably significant impact on victims’ future sexual activity.
While it may be difficult to offer a clear definition that combines these elements, these definitions suggest that sexual violence and sexual abuse may coalesce (e.g. forced penetration, coerced sexual acts). Some acts may be solely sexually violent (e.g. injuring of genitals) and others may be solely for another’s sexual gratification (e.g. masturbating to images of child sexual abuse). Within a feminist analysis, sexual abuse and sexual violence are both motivated by the perpetrator’s beliefs of sexual entitlement.
Having established this definition and clarified that sexual abuse and sexual violence can be separate and/or part of one act (or a series of acts), I move onto analysis of Tombs’ article. I will start by reviewing evidence within the article. Following this, I will discuss of some of the points raised, particularly focussing on the lived reality of those who have been sexually abused. I will go on to make some observations about Jesus’ solidarity with sexually abused people.
Redefining sexual abuse
It is entirely plausible to state that both first century Judea and twentieth century Latin America were ruled by oppressive military regimes and that their torturous practices, designed to control and oppress, will have some similarities given that that there are only a finite number of ways to torture humans into submission. However, it is a leap for Tombs to then state that “the Latin American torture practices of the 1970s and 1980s can provide helpful insights into neglected aspects of crucifixion in Palestine [almost 2000 years previously].” Tombs does not explain why Latin America specifically offers this insight, rather than for instance, Western colonial torture in India, early modern torture of witches in England, or Nazi torture of Jews during the Holocaust.
Tombs evidences that Latin American torture practices included a “common sexual element”, detailing horrific practices including administering electric shocks to the genitals, forced nudity, penetration anally or vaginally with objects or animals, and soldiers mutilating murdered prisoners’ genitals or reproductive organs. After detailing these deeply disturbing torture techniques, Tombs introduces a hermeneutic of suspicion, asking “against this background, the crucifixion of Jesus may be viewed with a disturbing question in mind: to what extent did the torture and crucifixion of Jesus involve some form of sexual abuse?” Again, Tombs provides no explanation as to why this background, and not some other background, of state terror is of particular relevance to the crucifixion.
The torture techniques described are horrific. It seems that Tombs is assuming these acts constitute sexual abuse because they involve the victims’ sexual organs. However, as already established, such violent acts have very little to do with ‘sexual activity’ as found within UK definitions of sexual abuse. They are also unlikely to correspond with the Scottish understanding of acts for the ‘sexual gratification of another person’. In a similar way to female genital mutilation of girls and women or the castration of boys and men, the injury to sexual organs has huge sexual implications and deeply damages the sexuality of those who are mutilated; however, these violating acts are tangibly different to a perpetrator gaining sexual pleasure and arousal from violating another person. Of course there will be perpetrators of state terror who (disturbingly) will be sexually aroused while perpetrating these acts but, as with FGM and castration, the underlying motivation is generally about violence, genocide and inflicting pain, rather than about the perpetrators’ sexual gratification. With the exception of FGM, violent state torture is of a different typology to the forms of sexual violence perpetrated across most places in the world. Generally, those who have been sexually abused are unlikely to recognise injury to reproductive organs, outside of any wider sexualised context as like what was done to them.
In a separate paper, Tombs and Figueroa argue the well-worn feminist adage that “sexual abuse is best understood in terms of power and control expressed in sexualized ways.” Yet this is not the whole picture. Potential, or actual, damage to sexual organs is deeply traumatic; however, those who have been subjected to forms of sexual violence in which the perpetrator overtly, or even implicitly, gained sexual arousal and sexual pleasure from the abuse must reckon with significantly different trauma. Where the perpetrator has blamed the person they have abused (usually a child or woman), for “leading them on” or “asking for it”, this again produces different aspects of trauma to those subjected to genital injury within a context of torture.
A powerful resource for understanding the needs and strategies of traumatised people is the British Psychological Society’s ‘Power Threat Meaning Framework’. This model seeks to offer an alternative to medicalising distress via the psychiatric system, medication and diagnosis. Instead of asking “what is wrong with you?”, the Power Threat Meaning Framework asks, “what has happened to you?” Within this framework, a traumatised person is encouraged to consider 1) how power was taken away from them; 2) what was threatened when power was taken away; 3) what meaning they made of their life as a result of this; and 4) what they had to do to survive.
Such a model resists ‘the oppression of totalizing narratives as…played out in the stories we tell about ourselves’.The specificity of each person’s experiences is crucial. The man who has survived torture which included having his genitals electric shocked will identify the power that was taken away, what was threatened through that, the meanings he has made (and the new meanings he has the potential to make) and the ways he survived. These answers will be entirely different to the woman whose boyfriend raped her repeatedly, reproductively coercing her into three pregnancies. While both of their experiences are deeply traumatic and both include a sexualised element, what has been done to them is entirely different. This helps us to understand that broad categories of sexual abuse may be unhelpful and do not speak to people’s lived reality. As McCarroll explains, ‘it is in recovering smaller, more local and multiple narratives that the contours of hope can emerge as complexity that defies all totalizing attempts.’
This is why Tombs’ decision to categorise sexual abuse solely along lines that will further his own argument is problematic. For Tombs, sexual abuse can be sexual humiliation or sexual assault. Sexual humiliation occurs in two ways; as a sexual abuse perpetration tactic and as an inherent consequence of sexual abuse. A perpetrator may use explicitly sexually humiliating tactics (urinating or ejaculating on them, making them say family members’ names during sex, mocking their appearance, making them wash before sex). Separate to this, being subjected to sexualised harm is, in and of itself, humiliating. Even if the perpetrator’s tactics are not explicitly humiliating, sexualised harm is inherently humiliating, leaving the person subjected to it feeling ashamed. Being forced or manipulated into sexual activity, being blamed for the perpetrator’s abuse, being rejected by the perpetrator after the abuse, finding elements of the abuse physically arousing are just some of the ways sexual abuse is humiliating. In the same way that we would agree that bullying is always hurtful, while many bullies deliberately do hurtful things, sexual abuse is always humiliating while many sexual abusers deliberately do humiliating things. As such, sexual humiliation is not a special category in its own right and cannot be separated from sexual abuse. In a more recent publication, Tombs makes clear that:
Drawing this distinction between sexual humiliation and sexual assault for a reading of Jesus’ experience is therefore not intended to create a false hierarchy between the two forms of sexual abuse…we offer the distinction as a way to make clearer the sexual abuse which is explicit in the text (sexual humiliation), and to identify the further questions which might be asked of the text (in relation to sexual assault).
While this is an understandable approach when using the hermeneutics of suspicion, grounded in Latin American state torture, it becomes untenable when making broader claims to separate out sexual abuse and sexual humiliation. Tombs (and others) have made parallels between Jesus’ crucifixion and the #metoo movement. The #metoo movement focusses primarily on men’s sexual abuse of women in Hollywood, and more broadly their abuse of women within intimate relationships, workplaces or nights out. However, in these cases, there is no delineation between humiliation and assault; they are one and the same. The perpetrator is motivated by sexual entitlement and seeks sexual gratification at his victim’s expense. When someone’s pain is the cause of another’s sexual pleasure, that in itself constitutes humiliation, and produces shame in those who have been abused. As writer Rana Awdish explains, ‘shame doesn’t strike like a fist. It rots its way in. Shame unravels us at our most fragile seams…It’s unique in its devastating ability to make us feel exposed and worthless.’ To make effective parallels regarding sexual abuse between the #metoo movement and Jesus’ crucifixion, Tombs’ analysis would need to work across both contexts which, given his distinction between sexual humiliation and sexual abuse, it does not.
The faulty analogy between Latin America and 1st Century Palestine
Returning to the 1999 article, various categorical assertions are made about crucifixion that seem to be less categorical when the sources (or lack of them) are individually investigated. Tombs states, “crucifixion in the ancient world appears to have carried a strongly sexual element and should be understood as a form of sexual abuse that involved sexual humiliation and sometimes sexual assault.” No evidence is provided for this statement.
While it is not impossible to make parallels between ancient and modern torture, it is also important to recognise that the purpose of modern torture in Latin America state torture, as Cavanaugh explains, is about producing the enemy, rather than punishing them:
We misunderstand modern torture, however, if we fail to see that enemies of the regime are not so much punished as produced in the torture chamber. Torture does not uncover and penalize a certain type of discourse, but rather creates a discourse of its own and uses it to realize the state’s claims to power over the bodies of its citizens.
This process seems at odds with the crucifixion narrative which includes a concerted effort by Pilate to avoid an innocent man being punished. It is worth noting that Romans rarely crucified Roman citizens, saving this brutal punishment for “slaves, disgraced soldiers, Christians and foreigners”. This suggests that while Latin American state torture was designed to terrorise citizens, within first century Palestine, crucifixion was a technique for ensuring Roman imperial hegemony and their grip on political power, rather than justifying the “state’s claim to power.” This also suggests that we must be cautious about attributing interpersonal sexualised motives to crucifixion, as is the case when offering parallels between Jesus’ crucifixion and the modern reality of sexual violence.
Tombs goes on to say, “In a patriarchal society in which men competed against each other to display virility in terms of sexual power over others, the public display of the naked victim by the ‘victors’…carried the message of sexual domination.” The reference for this statement is two stories from 1 Samuel. The first is of David bringing Saul two hundred Philistine foreskins in order him to be allowed to marry Saul’s daughter Michal (1 Samuel 18:20–26). This story is provided without comment to evidence that “emasculation and sexual assault were also recognised practices at an earlier time in Israel’s history”. The passage seems tangential to an argument that the public display of a naked victim carried a message of sexual domination. Second is Saul saying to his armour bearer to “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not thrust me through” (1 Samuel 31:4). Tombs argues that this shows a fear of sexual assault, again not evidence that displaying a naked victim carried a message of sexual domination. It also is not a fait accompli that the passage is about sexual assault. Stephen Holmes argues that the Hebrew translated “thrust” means “to pierce”, rendering it unconvincing to read this passage as a threat of sexual assault (rather than stabbed by a sword). While there may be some value in exploring the values of pre-Roman Semitic culture, its value in considering the Roman approach to crucifixion and the cultural coding of sexuality and humiliation warrants more caution.
Tombs states, “victims were crucified naked in what amounted to a ritualised form of sexual humiliation.” Evidence provided for this statement comes from a book edited by Tombs, in which Graham Ward describes Judas’ kiss, the Temple guard’s slap, the Romans scourging Jesus, nailing him to a cross and piercing his side as “manifestations of desire in conflict [that] are sexually charged.” His overall description is of these as “erotic and political power games.”  This is not an historically-rooted assertion about crucifixion generally, but rather a specific reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion, framing it as erotic and sexually charged. While someone is of course entitled to argue such a thing, many would instead locate these acts far from eroticism or sex. Given that Christians are exhorted to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” it seems a stretch for Ward to read erotic notions into Judas’ greeting, and thus for Tombs to rely on this interpretation in building his own argument.
Tombs goes on to argue, “depending on the position in which the victim was crucified, the display of the genitals could be specifically emphasised”. The source referenced in support of this (Y Yadin) does not mention an emphasis on the genitals; rather, he is disputing a previous assertion by Nicu Haas. Haas worked on the only known remains of a man crucified at the time of Jesus. Haas argued that the remains proved the man was crucified with his legs together, Yadin counters that the man was crucified upside, down with his legs apart. However, Zias and Sekeles have provided further evidence that both Yadin and Haas are wrong and that the man was likely positioned with legs nailed either side of the cross (with no specific emphasis on the genitals). In addition to this, Yadin explains, “the main object of the executioners was to increase the pain by deliberately setting the knees apart.” This position was not about emasculation, sexualisation or emphasising genital prominence; it was about increasing pain. Alongside this, a sample size of one is a rather small sample size to be using as the basis of any wider generalisations; one might even go so far as to say that the surviving evidence is simply too vague for us to make any sweeping statements of this sort, or to make any assumptions about common practices in Jesus’ Judaea.
Was Jesus naked?
Tombs states that, “…the sexual violence against the [crucifixion] victim was sometimes taken to the most brutal extreme with crosses that impaled the genitals of the victim…[this] suggests the highly sexualised context of violence in which Roman crucifixion sometimes took place.” The evidence for a highly sexualised context comes from Josephus (War I) who describes Hasmonean Alexander Janneus impaling eight hundred prisoners forcing them to watch him kill their wives and children, “meanwhile cup in hand he reclined amidst his concubines and enjoyed the spectacle.” This seems weak evidence for such sweeping statement.
With regard to the impaling of genitals, in his second, extended edition of Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (published in 2019), Cook explicit states that Tombs is wrong in this analysis: “Tomb’s contention that crucifixion included rape by a sedile should be rejected.” He points out that such impalement would have caused immediate death due to blood loss. Contra Tombs’ who states that “crucifixion usually took place while the victim was naked”, Cook is not convinced:
The Greek word (γυμνıς gumnos) Artemidorus uses in his book on dream interpretation for crucified individuals (Onir. 2.53), does not necessarily mean “completely nude.” Felicity Harley-McGowan, following a contention of Christopher H. Hallett, writes that those depicted as nudus in ancient sources, usually “retained an undergarment, the perizoma” (περÛζωμα). In the Palatine graffito, the donkey man wears a short tunic that exposes part of his buttocks, but Alkimilla appears to be entirely nude in the graffito of Puteoli. One of the earliest surviving depictions of Christ crucified (preserved on the Pereire gem) shows him fully nude, and there is no surviving evidence to suggest that Jesus was depicted completely nude on the cross before the middle ages. Exposure on the cross, even in a loincloth, was presumably humiliating.
At various points Tombs states that the Gospels offer “clear indications” about the “high level of sexual humiliation” involved in Jesus’ crucifixion, and that the sexual abuse of Jesus is “unavoidable” within the text. Tombs assumes that in being stripped, Jesus’ nudity is inherently sexual. However, it is not clear that Jesus was stripped. Brown (who Tombs cites) points out that Jesus was clothed on his way to execution: “…the condemned would normally have been led naked to the place of execution; and so whether for the sake of Jesus, or of Jerusalem, or of the Jews, an exception has been made.” This suggests that even if one were to argue that forced nakedness is sexual abuse, Jesus was protected more than other crucifixion victims of his time. When asking whether Jesus would have hung naked on the cross, Brown states “…the evangelists are not specific and perhaps would not have known; all we can discuss is likelihoods.” While Tombs characterises Brown’s position as “cautious support for the likelihood of full nakedness”, Brown himself gives evidence both for and against Jesus’ nakedness, finally stating “I would judge that there is no way to settle the question even if the evidence favours complete despoliation.” If anything, Brown seems to be saying that regardless of the evidence, we cannot be confident that Jesus was naked during the crucifixion.
Tombs argues that “full nakedness would have been particularly shameful in the Jewish context.” To evidence this, he references a Bible passage and a historical anecdote. In 2 Samuel 10:4-5, David’s envoys have their beards half-shaved and cut off their garments “in the middle of their hips”. While their nakedness could be the main source of the shame, verse 5 tells us “when David was told about this, he sent messengers to meet the men, for they were greatly humiliated. The king said, “Stay at Jericho till your beards have grown, and then come back.”” As such, shaving the men’s beards seems to have been a core part of the humiliation. This suggests at least some caution should be exercised in contextualising humiliation, given that in a contemporary Western context, having a beard shaved would likely not provoke such a reaction of shame. Tombs also provides an anecdote from Josephus, in which a soldier was feared to cause a riot after he bent over, exposing himself to crowds while making “indecent noises”. While this provides a delightful mental image of a rude soldier, it seems fairly tangential in proving that “full nakedness would have been particularly shameful”. Josephus offering this detail does not necessarily illuminate the Jewish context, given that exposing genitals at people (while making indecent noises) is generally considered rude, regardless of who they are exposed to. The assumption that full nakedness would have been particularly shameful seems even less convincing within a Jewish context where ritualised and communal bathing was a religious requirement, and where Jesus would have been naked during his baptism. This is not to say that forced nakedness during crucifixion would not have been traumatic and designed to humiliate but, unlike the Western twentieth century context in which Tombs is writing, public nakedness cannot be assumed to be sexual.
Though not referenced by Tombs, Brown does mention Jewish issues with nudity.  These include 1) a reference from Jubilees that God’s requirement to Adam was to “cover his shame”, 2) a mention in the Sifre Devarim that “you’ll find no one in the world more degraded or pitiable than a person wandering naked in the streets”, and 3) another mention in Jubilees of an exhortation from Noah to his sons that they should “cover the shame of their flesh…and guard their souls from fornication and uncleanness and all iniquity.”
Although Noah’s exhortation to his sons relates to sexualised nakedness, the other two points refer to nakedness more generally. From these sources, it is possible to ascertain that nudity could be seen as shameful and/or disempowering, but that doesn’t suggest mean the nakedness was sexualised. It is quite possible to argue that the harm to Jesus of (possible) forced nakedness may have been greater given his cultural understanding of nudity, perhaps even argued to be shameful. But that does not mean it would have been sexual.
Was Jesus raped?
Tombs then moves from what the Gospels explicit state, and uses a hermeneutic of suspicion to assert “whilst the testimonies from Latin America do nothing to establish directly the historical facts of crucifixion in Palestine, they are highly suggestive for what may have happened within the closed walls of the praetorium.” Tombs suggests that the Gospel writers may have omitted this abuse due to not knowing about it, because they saw it as shameful, or because “…the Gospels are usually seen as notably biased in excusing the Romans for Jesus’ trial and death.” Given that the whole cohort of soldiers were assembled to mock Jesus in the praetorium, Tombs uses this context of a large group of men being gathered together (including some “Syrian auxiliaries who might have viewed their Jewish neighbours with particular hostility”), to infer that Jesus may have been gang raped: “In view of the testimonies of gang rapes that are given by victims detained by security forces in the clandestine torture centres of Latin America this detail of overwhelming and hostile military power sounds a particularly disturbing note.”
Based purely on speculation, there is barely any historical evidence from first century Palestine to justify the heinous and violent assertion that Jesus was raped. Tombs cites Trexler in suggesting that a Roman master may have his slaves rape his adulterous wife’s paramour and Josephus’ claims (the historicity of which Tombs acknowledges, “cannot be taken for granted”), that besieged Jewish militants used plants or sharp objects to anally or vaginally violate those potentially in possession of food. The context of an adulterous wife or desperate besieged militants is totally different to around a thousand men mocking a condemned man. The contemporary example Tombs uses is that of a woman being raped by soldiers in Guatemala, again a rather different (though equally horrific) context instead of the condemned Jesus surrounded by up to a thousand men.
In support of his hypothesis, Tombs uses Plato’s description in Gorgias of a hypothetical crucifixion to explain that this “…indicates that castration may have taken place prior to crucifixion in some parts of the ancient world.” Plato’s description goes:
“How do you mean? If a man is caught while unjustly plotting [to make himself] a tyrant, and when he has been caught and tortured, castrated, had the eyes burnt out, and after many other grievous torments of every kind have been inflicted on him, and seeing them inflicted on his kids and wife, [he is] finally suspended [ἀνασταυρωθῇ] or tarred and burnt; will this man be happier than if he escapes and appoints [himself] as tyrant…”
Samuelsson explains that the term asserted by Tombs as meaning “crucifixion”, but translated by him as “suspended” is not clear, “It is not possible to fully determine in what way Plato uses the rare ἀνασταυρωθῇ… etymology can be notoriously misleading.” It seems less than certain that the passage is about crucifixion, and within context, Plato’s dialogue does not offer historical evidence about crucifixion, but more a hypothetical list of torture techniques designed by Polus within the dialogue to dramatically argue against Socrates’ assertion that a wrongdoer will be “less wretched if he pays the penalty and meets with requital from gods and men.” For Polus, this is a ridiculous idea and to prove so he lists as many awful things as he can think of that could be done to a tyrant to prove that, actually, the tyrant who goes unpunished will indeed be less wretched. This is about as historically accurate as future historians claiming the Human Centipede film is an accurate portrayal of human torture in the early 2000s.
Tombs references Trexler’s Sex and Conquest at various points to evidence the use of male rape in the ancient world. However, in citing Trexler to demonstrate that anal rape of male captives “was notoriously rife in the ancient world”, Tombs neglects to mention that Trexler’s comments apply to prisoners of war. Beyond war, Trexler explains that, “male homosexual activity was a punishment ancient Mediterranean and European men might inflict on those who violated their female property.” The other use of male-on-male rape, according to Trexler, related to patronage type systems whereby adolescent boys start as passive recipients of men’s sexual attention, eventually graduating to their own “active status”. Classicist Liz Gloyn explains that while we would understand this as statutory rape, the ancient Greek frames them as agents with the ability to grant or withhold their sexual favours, “elite Athenians would not have seen forcing the desired boy into sexual activity as acceptable; a significant part of the relationship dynamic involved persuading him to give in to your advances despite his initial resistance. This is, of course, sounding very much like grooming in contemporary terms, but for the Athenians this was a normalised part of the practice of pederasty, and not understood as sexual violence.” No mention is made by Trexler within the texts Tombs’ references to the rape of criminals more generally. Tombs speculates that in view of this background (rape of male prisoners of war, rape of male paramours and rape of adolescent boys in a patronage system) we should consider whether Judas’ kiss might have “set events in motion that led to some form of sexual assault in the praetorium of Pilate.” The background suggested seems of little relevance to the arrest of a religious leader and political dissident in first century Palestine, and this is an infirm basis for speculation.
Tombs’ suggests that dressing Jesus in bright clothing may have been a “prelude to sexual assault”. This seems related to Trexler mentioning that “military history is studded not only with dandified captured prisoners, but with gorgeously dressed domestic soldiers who attended the likes of rulers such as Darius III, William Rufus of England and Henry III of France.” This mention of dress seems far removed from first century Palestine and the crucifixion of Jesus. As Trexler is careful to point out, “differences not only in space but in time can be massive: fifth century Greeks had a positive attitude toward the male body, yet in the Hellenistic (323 – 31 BC) period that attitude is said to have been superseded by an ascetic, even negative disposition toward the flesh.”
As other theologians have noted, placing Jesus in a purple robe relates to the wider narrative mocking claims of him being the “King of the Jews”. As Myers explains,
They ridicule Jesus by dressing him in purple…Mark may mean here one of their own Roman cloaks – symbol of everything their prisoner rejects: the military option and imperial power. Alternatively, it may connote a royal cape, such as the rebel leader Simon bar Giora donned when he surrendered to the Romans as defeated king.
Tombs asserts that as there were up to a thousand men being present in the praetorium, this would make sexual violence more likely because of the “awkward inner tension of omnipotence and powerlessness” experienced by Roman soldiers. He asserts that an “instinctive response to such powerlessness is to impose one’s own power forcefully on those who are even less powerful.” The assertion that the tensions of a military professional army are directly applicable to Roman military of the first century AD seems problematic. Tombs’ suggestion that abuse is an instinctive response to powerlessness is pervasive idea, but it is inaccurate.
Women (who across the world experience powerlessness at much greater rates than men) do not generally have an instinctive response of sexually violating children or others who are less powerful than them. And for men like Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Saville, Bill Cosby, Ravi Zacharius and John Howard Yoder, their powerfulness was utilised to sexually abuse women and girls. It is, as mentioned previously, sexual entitlement that motivates sexual abusers.
Attributing sexual violence to a sense of powerlessness is a deeply pervasive and damaging myth which makes it more difficult to effectively addressing men’s sexual violence. It has also been held by some of the most crucial liberatory thinkers For instance, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed locates as the oppressed a peasant, who “shouts at his children, beats them and despairs. He complains about his wife and thinks everything is dreadful. He doesn’t let off steam with the boss because he thinks the boss is a superior being.” Freire does not consider the peasant to also be an oppressor; no attention is paid to the impact on the peasant’s children or wife, because it is power and not entitlement which is centred within his analysis. As Freire illustrates, this powerlessness myth can lead to undeserved empathy being given to the rapist (i.e. he’s a victim of powerlessness himself), something philosopher Kate Manne refers to as “himpathy”. It turns out that addressing men’s powerlessness does nothing to stop them sexually violating and raping women, children and other men.
Belo offers an alternative reading of how the Roman soldiers’ relative powerlessness within the military hierarchy can be understood within the Gospel narratives. Belo sticks much more closely than Tombs to what is described by the Gospel writers, while also bringing in contemporary abuse of political prisoners:
Throughout this scene (in which the body of Jesus is dressed and undressed at the whim of the soldiers, thus calling attention to its powerlessness in this space that is dominated by the force of arms) we have a parody, a carnival…This scene shows people being unleashed who have been subject to a constricting military discipline, and who now take advantage of a conquered adversary who might have forced them to fight and possibly even be killed. This sort of thing is often shown in the ferocity lower-rank police officials demonstrate when dealing with political prisoners.
It is this analysis of Jesus as a political prisoner that is ironically lost as Tombs focusses purely on sexual abuse. Jesus was crucified largely because he threatened the hegemonic systems of power, for example in His repeated preaching about another Kingdom with different priorities and rules. His crucifixion functioned as a warning to others that such resistance was futile.
Tombs’ survey of the Biblical and historical evidence leads him to assert that “Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse in the sexual humiliation he underwent and he may even have been a victim of sexual assault.” His very brief theological reflections on what he views as Jesus being sexually abuse, he states that such an analysis “can give new dignity and self-respect to those who continue to struggle with the stigma and other consequences of sexual abuse.” He suggests that Jesus can become identified with them in line with Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus explains that when we neglect the hungry, thirsty, unwelcomed, unclothed, sick or those in prison, we neglect Jesus Himself. Tombs also asserts that “an a priori judgement that Jesus did not and could not suffer sexual abuse may accompany an unexamined assumption that Jesus was not fully human”, going on to label this a form of docetic heresy.
Tombs’ argument that Jesus was sexually abused requires two things to be true: that Jesus was naked at points during the crucifixion, and that Jesus’ forced nakedness was a form of sexual abuse. Tombs’ broader assertion is that, based on torture techniques in Latin America in the late 20th century, it is likely that in the praetorium Jesus was raped.
With regards to Jesus’ nakedness during the crucifixion, I have shown that much of Tombs’ evidence is disputed. Trexler does not state that rape was a normative part of first century Palestine’s treatment of criminals. Brown does not offer confident assertions that Jesus was naked on the cross, with the Gospels suggesting that if anything, Jesus was protected from being led naked to the cross, unlike other prisoners (Matthew 27:31, Mark 15:20, Luke 22:11). However, even if we were to accept Tombs’ evidence, is it accurate to describe forced nakedness as sexual abuse? Or is “sexual abuse” more complex?
If a small child has a high temperature, they may feel cold, but be overheating. In this instance, adults may forcibly strip the child to cool her down. Would that stripping be sexually abuse? No, because the intention of the adults involved is to protect the child’s health. However, if the child was forcibly stripped as a punishment for not doing as she was told, this would be abuse, but would it constitute sexual abuse? It would probably depend on the intention of the perpetrator (did they have sexualised intentions or want to cause sexual harm?) and how the child experienced the abuse (i.e. did they feel, either in the present or at a later date, as if they had been sexually violated?). It would also depend on how nakedness (and sexuality) was culturally coded within the child’s context. This may seem like “picking hairs” when what matters is that the child has been hurt, but when an assertion is made that something is sexual abuse, within a context of severe violence and murder (Jesus’ crucifixion), these are the types of questions that emerge.
As a teenage girl, when I was surrounded by older adults, one of the men penetrated me vaginally, causing me significant pain. I cried and asked him to stop, but he insisted he had to continue for a bit longer. Without any wider context, it is possible to read this account and presume that I was being sexually assaulted; however, the context was that I was pregnant with my daughter and there were concerns for mine and her health. The doctor did an internal examination with a speculum, in which it felt like some internal tissue was caught in the hinge of the speculum. It was incredibly painful. While I would articulate the experience as harmful and painful, it was not sexual abuse. In order to manage being a pregnant teenager, I had to psychologically detach nakedness from sex. At 18 years old, I had to be internally examined multiple times and then, when giving birth, had to endure numerous professionals looking at and touching my genitals. In order to breastfeed my daughter, I had to find a way to view my breasts as hers for feeding, rather than as sexual organs. This was crucial for me to manage the many invasions to my body that came with the many normalised medical procedures that come with being pregnant. That my pregnancy occurred within a context of sexual violence (including reproductive coercion) has made my ability to delineate between sexual and non-sexual harm important in making sense of what was done to me and enabling me to be a capable mother to my children.
In my extensive work supporting women who have been sexually abused (and in processing the sexual abuse I was subjected to), I have found that one of the first barriers to healing from sexual abuse is an inability to recognise that what has been done to us is abuse. It is rarely the case that we do not understand the abuse to be sexual. There is something about sexuality that, while often inarticulable, is nevertheless intuitively known when it is experienced. As a child, being sexually groomed, I knew the comments the adult man made about my body were not okay, that the way he touched me felt different than other people. Long before I had any conscious awareness of my sexuality, I knew what he was doing wasn’t right. It took until another of his victims explicitly told me to stay away from him because he had sexually abused her that I had a language to describe what he was doing to me.
One of the most brutal elements of sexual abuse is knowing that someone has gained sexual pleasure from hurting us. It is why rape is about sex and power. It does something deeply scarring to the soul, to have that beautiful gift of intimacy and grace defiled when the abuser gains sexual pleasure from coercing, hurting or violating us. It is one of the deeply painful realities for women and children whose sexual abuse has been filmed or photographed: that the abuse never ends while men (and it usually is men) continue to be sexually aroused and sexually gratified by masturbating to the abuse that they were subjected to. It is why men taking upskirt photos of women or secretly filming them in toilets is so sexually violating, not because the woman was doing anything sexual herself, but because the man is sexually active and aroused, violating her ability to exist in the world on her own terms.
Mutilation of sexual organs or forced nakedness are brutal, traumatic and deeply harmful, but when perpetrated by someone who is not motivated by sexual arousal, this separates those horrifying experiences from those for whom the perpetrator gains sexual pleasure. This is not to say that both are not deeply harmful, but the assumption that one can be lumped in with another because they both involve sexual organs or nakedness is problematic and misunderstands how sexual abuse functions. If the starting point is Latin American state torture, it is possible to see how the end point can be “Jesus was sexually abused”, because both twentieth century Latin America and first century Palestine provide contexts of state torture. However, liberation theology (which is Tombs’ broad methodology) starts with the concerns of an oppressed population and seeks what the Gospel will say to them; a reading of Jesus’ crucifixion must start with the lived experience of those who have been abused. While When Did We See You Naked?, the 2021 book edited by Tombs, Figueroa and Reaves includes contributors who have been sexually abused and a chapter of interviews with five nuns who had been sexually abused, every chapter in the book starts with Tombs’ 1999 article and not the experiences of sexually abused people. It cannot be that one cohort’s experiences becomes universalised for all sexually abused people. To make sweeping statements about sexual abuse outside of contexts of state torture, in relation to what Jesus was subjected to, does not centre the experiences of sexually abused people, but instead centres a paper by David Tombs, written in 1999. If as Tombs states, “biblical texts can be legitimately read with the social and political situations of contemporary cultures of oppression in mind,” this would suggest that each sexually abused person (and others with similar experiences) should be reading the biblical text with their own experiences in mind, rather than the experiences of Latin American torture survivors mediated through Tombs’ theological ideas.
No one can know what took place in the praetorium; however, the historical evidence Tombs provides is weak. His argument more or less depends upon whether Latin American torture techniques are likely to have occurred in first century Palestine, and Cook explicitly debunks Tombs’ assertion of anal rape being used within crucifixion. Tombs suggests that the assumption that Jesus was not or could not have been sexually abused may stem from attachment to a form of docetism. However, that defence assumes that the only motivation for disputing Jesus was sexually abused is an inability to accept the possibility that Jesus could have had that done to Him. However, if one does not find Tombs’ argument convincing, it is not succumbing to docetism to state that Jesus was not sexually abused. It is asserting the truth that, while what was done to Jesus was horrific, there is no factual basis to categorise him as a victim of sexual abuse.
Some may ask, “Why does that matter?” If this analysis helps people, then surely the veracity of the claims is less important? Do made-up claims of sexual abuse against Jesus damage anyone? Yes, they do. One of the rallying cries of the #metoo movement has been “believe women”. This is because so often, when women disclose that men have sexually abused them, they are disbelieved. Freud renounced his initial views that women’s hysteria was caused by men’s sexual violence when he realised how harmful such a view was to polite society. The Netflix series Unbelievable recounts the true story of a young woman who is charged with filing a false rape report; the man who raped her perpetrated numerous other rapes. Men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were only brought to justice on the testimony of many women, and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh showed clearly how deep disbelief of women goes. It does beg the question, if it was a woman telling us that Jesus was sexually abused, would we automatically believe her? It does theology and those who have been sexually abused no good to categorically state that Jesus was sexually abused. There is enough explicit and well-evidenced sexual abuse perpetrated throughout the Bible for theological dialogue and development, without the need to invent it in the crucifixion of Jesus. If we are to ask the Church to believe those who have been sexually abused, it is crucially important that we do not undermine that message by inventing sexual abuse where there is none.
Tombs references Matthew 25:31-46 to suggest that if Jesus had been sexually abused then that would enable Him to more fully identify with those who have been sexually abused. Yet the power in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is not that Jesus has been hungry, thirsty, a stranger, in need of clothes, sick or in prison, but that Jesus is to be found in those who have been oppressed and neglected. It is in our care for them that we love Jesus. We do not care for sexually abused people because Jesus was sexually abused; in caring for sexually abused people, and indeed as we care for any people who are marginalised, oppressed or neglected, we care for Jesus.
The potential unintended negative consequences of asserting that Jesus was sexually abused are vast. Women have been encouraged to return to a violent or abusive husband with exhortations that, “Christ suffered for you, the least you can do is suffer for your marriage.” If it becomes accepted that Jesus was sexually abused, it is incredibly likely there will be perpetrators who will use this to demand their victims endure silently, ‘just as Jesus did’. There may be demands from churches and Christians for sexually abused people to forgive those who abused them. There may be those who assert that the rapists, the child abusers ‘do not know what they are doing’. Tombs and others argue that understanding Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse could be a pathway to healing for those who have been sexually abused, to overcome stigma and address harmful pastoral practice. However, these harmful pastoral practices have remained present even as all the red letters of the Gospels cry out on behalf of the powerless and abused. It is not a new victim we need, but ongoing challenging of Christian faith communities.
The stigmatisation of those who have been sexually abused exists to keep everyone else psychologically safe: “if they brought this on themselves, then I can prevent my loved ones being hurt by ensuring they make good choices and keep myself safe by making good choices too.” Theology is used as a weapon to beat sexually abused people not because we haven’t yet discovered Jesus as the perfect victim of sexual abuse, but because societies and individuals do not want to face the evil of abuse. Adding new theology will not change that; it will simply add to the arsenal of weapons already used against those subjected to abuse and in collusion with sexual abusers.
This is a much more profound and powerful argument for why pastoral care with sexually abused people matters so much. Jesus doesn’t say “I was abused, therefore I am as broken as you.” Instead, Jesus says, “in your very person, people can meet with me. Because I am found in you.” To root Jesus’ solidarity in a shared subjection to sexual abuse makes our relationship with Jesus significant through the unwanted acts done to us all. That is a solidarity rooted in the abusers’ actions. Instead, Jesus says to the sexually abused person, “You are how people meet with me; by loving you, they find me.” In our shame, pain, woundedness and injury, Jesus says, “I am found in you”. It is not a shared experience of abuse that binds us with Jesus, but the experience of being cared for and loved. Jesus not being raped does not mean Jesus cannot be in solidarity with me in the rapes I was subjected to. It simply means that his solidarity with me is not found in rape but in His love for me, and for that I am incredibly glad.
Although liberation theology offers a hermeneutic of suspicion to consider the possibility that Jesus was sexually abused, on examining the historical evidence presented by David Tombs, there is little substance to the claims. His article relies on decontextualised historical accounts of sexual violence towards men, asserting now debunked ideas about crucifixion and rape, with no clear evidence provided that Jesus was naked during the crucifixion. The totalizing of sexual violence in ways that do not pay attention to the specific contexts of those who have been subjected to sexual abuse leads him to universalise torture practices involving sexual harm as relevant to all those who have been sexually abused. This seems contrary to the underlying principles of liberation theology, which seek to contextualise theology within lived experience.
The theological implications for asserting Jesus was sexually abused, given the poor evidence base, are concerning. The potential for this theological idea to be used to hold those who have been sexually abused to the standard of a silent suffering Jesus could result in even more inadequate and damaging pastoral care. Those who have been sexually abused, and Jesus Himself, deserve better than a fabricated account of sexual abuse, regardless of the incredibly positive intentions with which the idea has been created.
These positive intentions are also held by the twenty-two contributors to When Did We See You Naked?, who trust the accuracy in David Tombs’ analysis in ‘Crucifixion, State Terror and Sexual Abuse’. Along with Jayme Reaves, in the introduction to the book, Tombs argues that ‘silence around the unspeakable’ is what leaves people unwilling to see Jesus as a sexually abused person. In fact, the book’s title alludes to an assumption that we have all missed Jesus being sexually abused because we were unwilling to look unflinchingly at the trauma Jesus was subjected to. If, as I argue, Jesus was not sexually abused, this is not the case. In fact, we have not seen this sexual abuse because it is a fabrication. In a future article, I will examine the book itself in more detail, informed by the critiques I have discussed here.
As feminist theologians have long argued, Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed is not rooted in His suffering, but in the power of good to triumph over evil, in love overcoming oppression. Even the most fatalistic feminist theologians place traumatised people (including those who have been sexually abused) in Holy Saturday and not Good Friday. Jesus’ solidarity with those who have been sexually abused does not come through His having been similarly sexually abused, but in His identification with oppressed people and His beautiful assertion that loving Him is done through loving those who have been abused, neglected and hurt. It is in love, and not abuse, that Jesus stands with those who have been sexually abused.
I am so grateful to those who have read through this article as it has developed. Mark Hewerdine gave me loads of good ideas, Sarah Williams gave me suggestions about format, Lucy Peppiatt pointed out how my arguments could be clearer, Liz Gloyn strengthened my writing and helped me feel confident in the historicity of what I have argued.
The Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence are running a symposium with David Tombs, Jayme Reaves, Elaine Storkey and Valerie Hobbs on 15th June, for those interested in further engagement with the subject. CLICK HERE to book in.
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