Clearing up some misconceptions

There’s been quite a response to the Telegraph’s report about my paper, "Intersex and Ontology: A Response to The Church, Women Bishops and Provision". The Telegraph itself is carrying a blog post today written by Revd Dr Peter Mullen, a priest of the Church of England and former Rector of St Michael, Cornhill and St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in the City of London. It’s entitled “Jesus was a man: look at the evidence, Dr Cornwall”

Peter Mullen writes,
“Well, the gospels were written in Greek and they always use the male pronoun to refer to Jesus. Not once do they use the equally available feminine or neuter pronouns. So the gospel writers seem to have assumed that Jesus was a man. And if masculinity is recognised by particular characteristics, there is a pretty huge pile of circumstantial evidence. In the infancy stories, Jesus is referred to as a male child. On his ritual pilgrimage to the temple when he was twelve, he is described as a boy.”
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Dr Mullen has actually read my paper (which he describes as a “racy tract”), or he would know that I never argue that Jesus was not a boy and man. Indeed, that’s precisely part of my point.

In fact, I argue that we can’t know for certain that Jesus was male as we currently define maleness. This is an important distinction. Sex (biological, physical attributes of someone’s body) and gender (someone’s sense of being a man, a woman, or something else) are not the same thing.

Whilst most people who are biologically male also identify as men, and most people who identify as men are biologically male, this is not universal. For one thing, there are transgender people whose gender identity does not “match” their physical sex in the way we usually expect. For another thing – and this is the point I make in my paper – there are many people who identify as men but who have some intersex variation in their physical sex.

About 1 in every 2,500 people is born with an intersex condition which means that their body varies from the typical male or female pattern. Whilst some people have intersex conditions which manifest in genitals which look unusual, other intersex people have no external visible ambiguity. It’s therefore possible that Jesus – in common with many other people whose sex is never called in question – had a hidden or “invisible” intersex condition.

Dr Mullen is right to observe that those who met and interacted with Jesus seem to have had no doubt that he was a man – but, crucially, this is not the same as certainty that he was biologically male. Most of us will meet people on a regular basis who identify as completely unremarkable men or women, but who also have an intersex condition. There will hardly ever be any need for us to know about the specificities of someone else’s chromosomes, gonads, hormone levels or sex cells – but if we did, we might be surprised by the number of people whose physical sex varies in some way from what we consider “normal”.

Some of those who argue that women should not be consecrated as priests or bishops do so because they believe that there is something intrinsic to maleness which makes males able to govern and lead in a way females cannot. Others who oppose women priests and bishops argue that a priest or bishop somehow participates in Jesus’ own priesthood, standing in Jesus’ place, and that since Jesus was male, a female cannot take on this role.

However, I believe that most people who argue in this way never make the distinction between sex and gender which I have outlined above. They do not believe it is really possible that someone who identifies as and is recognized as a man can be anything other than biologically male. 

But, as I argue in my paper, the existence of intersex makes it abundantly clear that this is not the case. There are plenty of people – including priests – whose biological sex is not clearly and exclusively male or female, whether or not they ever know it.

It is therefore difficult to argue that priesthood – or the capacity to be legitimately consecrated as a bishop – rests in biological male sex. It might rest in being recognized socially as a man, but that is something different.

For a more accurate account of what I argue in the paper, see the Church Times article by Madeleine Davies, a journalist who has actually both read my paper and spoken to me about it (neither of which seem to be true of either Peter Mullen or of John Bingham, who wrote the original Telegraph article).

Other responses include:


  1. This premise is false and I have biblical proof. During the Crucifixion, the Roman guards took off all of his clothes and gambled over them. (Matthew 27:35, Psalms 22:18) Therefore, when he was on the Cross, he was fully naked so that everyone could see everything. If Jesus had some sort of biological imbalance, then it would have been documented at that point because his genitalia was in full view for everyone to see. However, there is no question that He was a man upon this earth.

    1. I see you never bothered read the actual paper either.

  2. coolestdwarfintheworld, thank you for your comment. Two things in response: first, you're right that no-one seems to have noticed anything unusual about Jesus' genitalia. However, not all intersex conditions manifest in visibly unusual genitalia. It's perfectly possible to have typically male or female external genitalia coupled with some more unusual features (e.g. a mixture of XX and XY chromosomes). I'm arguing that it's not impossible that this was the case for Jesus.

    Second, you're also right that, as far as we can tell, Jesus was recognized as a man on earth. However, to be recognized as a man and to interact with people as a man is not the same thing as being biologically male. In fact, it's highly likely that Jesus was indeed biologically male - we simply don't know for sure, and that's as strong a point as I'd want to make.

  3. Dear Susannah,

    I'm very interested in your article because I wrote a Dutch book on a intersex athlete (Foekje Dillema). I wonder how Jezus could have been interseks not having a Y-chromosome as you state as result of a virgin birth. And why is there no interest in Maria being interseks having both testes and ovaries. Maybe being the only person giving birth to a child without having intercourse.

  4. Thank you for your paper with a thoughtful presentation of the important idea of the intersex Christ. I've written about about the female Christ, gay Jesus, Bisexual/transgender Jesus in my books, but you are taking it to the next level. Bravo!

  5. Kittredge, thank you very much. I continue to value your work on the Jesus in Love blog and have used some of the queer Christ images you've archived there in my book Controversies in Queer Theology. Your site is a great resource.

  6. Max, thank you for your comment. In Britain at least, intersex is an umbrella term, so it refers to a range of conditions, some of which involve variant chromosomes, some of which involve variant genitals and so on. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott has explored the implications of the virgin birth for Jesus' bodily sex in a bit more detail. Others have also mused on the possibility of biological parthenogenesis as an explanation for the virgin birth. What kind of responses have you had to your work on Dillema?

  7. I’m so glad to know that queer Christ images posted on the Jesus in Love Blog have inspired you and are now reaching others through your book. I’m always on the look-out for new queer Christian art, so please let me know if you discover anything special.

  8. This is my answer for this post, Kittredge Cherry and everyone:
    *Colossians - chapter 2 -
    8 Do not let anyone fool you by his wise words. They are not true. They are what men say. They are the teachings of this world and not what Christ says.
    9 Christ has everything that God has.

    *2 Timothy - chapter 2 -
    16 Have no part in foolish talk that does not come from God. That kind of talk will take people farther and farther away from God.
    17 Their teaching will spread like bad sickness. Hymenaeus and Philetus are two like that.

    *2 Timothy - chapter 3 -
    13 Bad men and those who fool other people will grow worse and worse. They will fool other people, and other people will fool them.
    14 But you, Timothy, must keep on doing the things you have learned. You know they are right. You know who taught them to you.
    15 From the time you were a child you knew the holy writings. They showed you how to be saved by believing in Christ Jesus.

    *Matthew - chapter 15 -
    7 You are not true to yourselves! What Isaiah said about you was true. He said,
    8 "These people respect me with their mouth but their heart is far from me.
    9 They do not mean it in their hearts when they worship me. Their teachings are only the words of men."


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