Back to issue

In Intimate Jesus, Andy Angel takes a look at the question of the incarnation from the perspective of sexuality in the Gospel of John. The theological aspects of the question provide the impetus for the exegesis of the narrative. It is John who writes of “the Word made flesh,” and Angel finds much within the Gospel which alludes to, plays on, and indeed subverts conventional first-century understandings of sexuality. The book is an honest and open approach to a question rarely tackled by pious preachers or prudish professors. The final words of his introduction read: “I apologize in advance to any who might find this material offensive” (p. xv).

The first chapter introduces the theme and places the text of John’s Gospel within its historical context. Angel posits that the Gospel was indeed written by an eyewitness, who was the beloved disciple, who was John, son of Zebedee. Yet none of the observations or arguments depends necessarily on the idea of the beloved disciple as the author or witness behind the Gospel.

The prologue proclaims that the word became “flesh” (John 1:14), a term which covers all of humanity, both male and female. Yet flesh is not merely a gender-neutral term for humanity, but often a euphemism for the sexual dimension of human experience. Indeed, in just the previous verse the prologue speaks of those born “of the will of the flesh” (John 1:13). Thus John, “intends his audience to hear in that statement that God experienced human sexuality including sexual desire in Jesus” (p. 30). Yet the story of the incarnation (with its implied experience of human sexuality) is not all that can be said about the Son, who also enjoys a filial intimacy at the breast of the Father (John 1:18): “[B]y using an image of physical closeness, John intends his audience to hear from the outset that the relationship of the Father and the Son is marked by intimacy” (p. 15).

The scene in John which has most often been linked to Jesus’s (subversion of) sexuality is the encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4), which Angel entitles: “A Samaritan bride and her Jewish groom” (p. 31). Angel notes that the bridegroom motif has already appeared at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1–11) and in the teaching of John the Baptist (John 3:29). In the former episode Jesus usurped the role of the bridegroom by providing the wine; in the latter case, Angel quotes b. Ketub. 7b–8a and concludes that the voice/sound/noise (φωνή) of the bridegroom to which the Baptist is alluding is “his ecstatic moaning or shouting during sex” (p. 35). But Jesus has no bride, and so the tension rises with the appearance of a possible candidate at the well. A watering-hole was a place to seek out a bride in Hebrew literature (Gen 24:1–27; 29:1–12; Exod 2:15–21; cf. also Prot. Jas. 11:1). The passage is overflowing with motifs linked to marriage and sexuality: Jesus arrives at a well in a foreign country, there is no-one else present (John 4:8), the term δωρεά is often linked to wedding presents, the woman explains that she is single (John 4:17), and the disciples are astonished but dare not ask what Jesus is up to (John 4:27)! Angel is less keen on reading sexual imagery into the well and bucket of John 4:11 (see p. 126 n. 63), but suggests that given Jesus’s reference to “living water,” it is understandable that “the woman might suspect Jesus of flirting with her” (p. 41). Thus both the Samaritan woman and the disciples thought of Jesus in terms of sexuality: “Jesus comes across to them as every bit as sexual as the next man” (p. 58). For Angel, the incarnation means that Jesus experienced not only thirst and tiredness (John 4:6–7), but also human sexuality, over which he exercised self-control, so that the anticipated climax of the scene never comes, as the two go their separate ways (pp. 59–60).

Angel then considers “male intimacy” (p. 61), as John introduces a disciple with a particularly close connection to Jesus (John 13:23, 25; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20). This disciple shares a similar intimacy with Jesus as the Son does with the Father, lying at his breast. Angel now examines the topic of love in John 13 and at ancient Greek symposia. He then highlights the erotic role of the teacher’s favourite, with particular reference to Encolpius in Petronius’s Satyricon (pp. 68–71). Yet in all of this, John is “redefining” male intimacy, and while he “risks misunderstanding” he “challenges the status quo” (pp. 79–83). John is prepared to risk it all: “But the idea that God so loved the world that men could share this level of intimacy with one another physically, spiritually and emotionally was worth it all for John” (p. 83).

The next to be considered are the Marys. Mary Magdalene is first, of whom it can be concluded that, “John presents Mary as Jesus’ disciple, not his lover” (p. 87). This is not as clear-cut for Mary of Bethany: “John seems to hint that she is attracted to him [Jesus], and that he is aware of this” (p. 87). The allusions in John 12:3 include Mary’s interest in Jesus’s feet (whether his actual feet or a common euphemism for genitals), the perfume of nard, and her loose, uncovered hair (p. 89). Finally, Jesus is moved to tears by Mary’s sorrow (John 11:32–36), which the Jews interpret as love for Lazarus, but from which Angel infers, “John suggests that Jesus has a soft spot for Mary” (p. 91). If there is any hint of heterosexual romance for John’s Jesus, it is here with this Mary (p. 97). Angel is critical of Dale Martin (Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006]) with respect to Martin’s claim that there are homoerotic undertones in John’s portrayal of Jesus’s relationships with Lazarus, Thomas, Judas, and Peter (pp. 91–94). Chapter 5 concludes with a brief discussion of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11), a parallel to the Samaritan woman in that in both cases Jesus refuses judgement(alism).

In his conclusion, Angel proposes a hesitant disciple transformed into a confident evangelist: “John too had a mental barrier separating sex from the sacred, but by the time he came to write the story, he understood that God had taken down this barrier in the incarnation” (p. 98). Angel then must admit that due to his incarnation as a man, Jesus could only experience male sexuality, but appeals to the fact that John speaks of the word becoming “flesh” (not “man”) as warrant for his claim that “Jesus can identify with all of us, male and female, in the frailty of our sexual desire” (p. 99).

In his closing remarks, Angel states, “Initial reactions to the book suggest that some may find its subject matter, arguments and conclusions controversial. This I fully accept” (p. 102). Yet one cannot deny Jesus’s human sexuality without denying the incarnation and committing an ancient heresy (p. 102). Whatever one’s views on the theological significance of a sexual Jesus, one is forced, having read Angel’s book, to accept that John did not shy from such topics, but embraced them, toyed with them and denied them the expected climax. John’s Jesus is a sexual Jesus.

The book is well-written and very readable, with around 100 pages of main text, copious end-notes, a scholarly bibliography and indices of ancient sources, modern authors and subjects. At times it may prove too pious for liberal exegetes, too provocative for conservative readers and too timid for postmodern interpreters. But in his fine attention to the Gospel of John and ancient motifs of sexuality, Angel has provided a sensible and accessible resource for the discussion of sexuality in the New Testament and Christian life.

J. Andrew Doole
University of Innsbruck
Innsbruck, Austria