Did Jesus Suffer Sexual Abuse?

Warning: This article may be triggering as it touches on the subjects of torture and sexual abuse.


Often, the prevailing imagery surrounding a distant event has since been distorted, deodorized, or cleaned up so that current beliefs about the event could be inaccurate or incomplete. We can find examples in several spheres of life, including church history. For example, what many churchgoers today believe about angels or what Jesus or even Satan looked like have been shaped more by other things along the way so that the beliefs, measured against what first-century Palestinians held, are dissimilar. The idea that angels, a term that is popularly erroneously used to refer to essentially all heavenly beings except God, are winged creatures derived from European literature, not the Bible. To be sure, the Bible does talk about heavenly beings like cherubs who have wings, but biblical angels are not winged beings. On this platform, we have already addressed the origins of the ahistorical White Jesus in previous blog posts. We also considered the complexities surrounding the identity of Satan, especially among Yoruba-speaking believers. The present article is another instance of correcting a distorted historical event. 

Seeing with the Right Lenses

One way that correctives typically come to erroneous beliefs is through relentless scholarship. In particular, the corrections sometimes come from appropriately equipped scholars. Let me illustrate what I mean. For centuries in the life of the male-dominated church, people have read such disturbing biblical accounts as those of Abraham and Hagar or those of David and Bathsheba without so much noticing how disturbing the stories are. It was not until female scholars began to engage with the texts that they unearthed the depth of the horror in the narratives. Hagar was a slave Egyptian girl who many scholars believe would have been a teenager. Abram was 86 years old. The narrative says that Sarai told her husband to “sleep with my slave” (Genesis 16:2). Being a slave, the only thing of value Hagar had to offer was her reproductive system. In today’s language, this was a case of rape. The fact that another woman orchestrated it and that Hagar might have been a minor only further heightens the visceral discomfort. And no, that the narrative also describes Hagar as a wife does not soften the grotesque. She became a wife, a term which meant a particular type of possession, precisely because of the sexual act.

The David and Bathsheba account is even worse. A woman’s husband is faithfully fighting a war for David’s kingdom while he sexually takes advantage of the man’s wife—and later has the man killed. In today’s more expansive use of the term, this would be another instance of rape. Both accounts agree on the all-too-familiar capacity of humans in power to grossly abuse their subjects.

Recently, I came across the work of a scholar, David Tombs, arguing that there was more to the crucifixion story than is often readily believed. Tombs researches the use of terror by states, ancient and modern. Of course, crucifixion was a rather unmistakable act of state terror. We generally have no trouble recognizing the physical and mental abuse that crucifixion exerts, perhaps because of the many media and movie portrayals. Indeed, a famous interdisciplinary article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986 detailing the physical and mental abuse, from the perspective of medicine, meted out to Jesus. Edwards et al. (1986) remind us that flogging or, more appropriately, scourging “was a legal preliminary” to Roman executions (1457). The Romans were no fans of fast and efficient executions. Indeed, they perfected crucifixion to extend as much as possible the pain felt by its victims. To that end, the short whip or flagellum (also called flagrum) used for scourging consisted of “several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals” (1457). The authors further note that victims were first stripped of their clothing and tied to a vertical post before being flogged (1457). Roman flogging aimed to exhaust the victim before the weakened victim would then carry his cross from the flogging site to the crucifixion site. It is worth repeating: Roman-style crucifixion was “a form of torture and capital punishment that was designed to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering” (1458). 

Edwards et al. (1986) summarized the ordeal and eventual death of Jesus in this way (1455):

 Jesus of Nazareth underwent Jewish and Roman trials, was flogged, and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. The scourging produced deep stripelike lacerations and appreciable blood loss, and it probably set the stage for hypovolemic shock, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus was too weakened to carry the crossbar (patibulum) to Golgotha. At the site of crucifixion, his wrists were nailed to the patibulum and, after the patibulum was lifted onto the upright post (stipes), his feet were nailed to the stipes. The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion was an interference with normal respirations. Accordingly death resulted primarily from hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Jesus’ death was ensured by the thrust of a soldier’s spear into his side. Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicate that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.

Such was the cruelty meted out to Jesus. Once again, many of us already know this much, especially if we saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie.

Sexual Abuse of Jesus

As David Tombs argues, however, there is another drawn-out form of pain simultaneously inflicted on Jesus: the pain of sexual abuse. Let me build up the case.

After Pilate failed to convince the Jewish accusers of Jesus’ innocence since he could not find any fault deserving of death in him, he finally gave in to the requests of the opposing Jews that Jesus be crucified. It is worth recalling that the Romans reserved crucifixion for the vilest and most detested of criminals, like armed insurgents and deserters. But the Jewish accusers’ call for crucifixion is not without its logic. In their worldview, the claimant of equality with the Danielic Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Yahweh (Mark 14:62), a claim that amounts to equality with Yahweh, was about the greatest conceivable sin if the claim was false. Understandably, they judged the sin deserving of death. Since the Jews had no legal power to carry out capital punishment because Romans ruled in the land, they appealed to a Roman authority to exert the most despicable form of execution it had on Jesus. Matthew continues the story:

26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified. 27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. 32 As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. – Matthew 27:26-35

We should first notice the difference between the Roman governor’s and the soldiers’ attitude towards Jesus. Whereas the former is convinced that the charges against Jesus are motivated by envy and tried to exculpate him, the soldiers could not care any less. They seemed just happy to have a crucifixion victim. So much so that “they gathered the whole battalion before him.” A Roman battalion or cohort consisted of from 600 to 1000 soldiers. That’s extraordinary for a “harmless” victim like Jesus. The soldiers were probably in town for extra security for the Jerusalem Passover festivities.

Next, notice that the soldiers multiply stripped Jesus en route to his crucifixion location. Between verses 26 and 35, Jesus was arguably stripped four times:

  1. It is well-attested that Roman scourging happens with the victims stripped, as the Journal of the American Medical Association article quoted above notes.
  2. The passage explicitly mentions two occasions of stripping involving taking off Jesus’ clothes and putting them back on.
  3. Verse 35 says the soldiers present after the crucifixion divided his clothes, implying that he was stripped again before the crucifixion.

Even in a liberal modern society, it is one thing for a person to choose to move about naked or be naked at a beach. It is another thing for the same person to be stripped by another or the state. This is sexual humiliation, especially when we consider relevant details to follow. (Notice also that the repeated stripping would have reopened the wounds on his body and prolonged the pain felt.)

In popular imagination, Jesus was crucified with a loincloth covering his genitals. This is the doing of later Christian arts, not reliable historical sources. Romans crucified their victims naked. David Tombs notes a second-century AD source, Artemidorus Daldianus’ Oneirocritika 2.53, attesting to the practice (8). Furthermore, the first source of the idea that Jesus wore a loincloth came some 400 years after the crucifixion in an apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. The idea fails to grasp the depth of what Roman crucifixion was about. Tombs reminds us (10): 

Crucifixion was intended to be more than the ending of life. Prior to actual death it sought to reduce the victim to something less than human in the eyes of society. Displaying the victim to onlookers during public floggings and crucifixions was part of ritualised torture that needs to be understood in gendered and sexualized terms that were set in the cultural context of Roman imperial power and Roman sexual politics.

Jewish cultural sensitivity to nakedness would have more likely inclined the ill-disposed soldiers to expose Jesus’ nakedness completely as he hung on the cross for eyes to penetrate. 

As it was then, so it is now. There is a plethora of contemporary sources on the sexual abuse soldiers typically exert on their victims, even with relatively modern measures like the Geneva Conventions. Whether it is the US Army and the CIA in Abu Ghraib, the Hamas military movement, or Boko Haram militants, sexual abuse of victims is prevalent. It often begins with stripping, and anything can follow: verbal sexual mockery, sexual touching, mutilation, rape, impalement, and so on. Even if forced stripping were all that happened to Jesus, it still would be sexual abuse.

But Jesus might have been sexually abused beyond stripping. As already noted, Jesus was stripped four times between the scourging and the actual crucifixion. Consider the relevant text again:

And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.

A deodorized way of reading this passage suggests that the soldiers merely mocked Jesus as a king—and this may very well be the official report. However, there are a few problems in the narrative. First, the event happened inside “the governor’s headquarters” (27:27) or praetorium. In other words, it was away from the public eye. Second, “the whole battalion” (27:27), consisting of at least 600 soldiers, was gathered around Jesus before being stripped. What might over 600 ill-disposed soldiers be needed for at that moment? If the point was to dress Jesus up as a king for mockery, the scarlet royal robe could have been placed atop his clothing so that stripping would be unnecessary. Whatever the point might have been, the very real sexual danger of being watched by hundreds of soldiers as Jesus was stripped should not be trivialized. Ultimately, we may never know what happened in the praetorium. But considering the incongruent details, including the well-known Rome’s hyper-sexual idea of performing masculinity and soldiers’ propensity for sexual abuse of victims, it is more likely than not that Jesus endured other forms of sexual abuse in the praetorium.

All for Redemption?

The second chapter of Hebrews stresses the need for Jesus to be human to be wholly and appropriately able to redeem humanity: “It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10). The “perfect through suffering” language seems to suppose that experiencing human ordeals in its grotesque fullness—something an unembodied being, including God, cannot do—was necessary for the task ahead. Indeed, the writer states that Jesus had to become human “in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (Hebrews 2:17). So, among other things, Jesus can effectively minister to victims of sexual abuse because he too was a victim. 

Hebrews 2:14-15 further states:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

Jesus destroyed the one who has the power of death through his crucifixion and, more importantly, resurrection. The glorified Jesus tells John he has “the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18). The imagery here is of a prison. Jesus can deliver the prisoners of Death and Hades; death no longer has the final say. Of course, all this is possible only because Jesus, after his crucifixion, did not himself remain a prisoner of death. He rose in power and will never die again. He became an experience-informed high priest in the service of God to all humans, including the victims of sexual abuse. I can join Apostle Paul in saying:

I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 Works Cited

Edwards WD, Gabel WJ, Hosmer FE. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” JAMA. 1986;255(11):1455–1463. doi:10.1001/jama.1986.03370110077025

Tombs, David. “Prisoner Abuse: From Abu Ghraib to The Passion of The Christ” in Linda Hogan and Dylan Lehrke (eds.), Religions and the Politics of Peace and Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 2009), pp. 175-201. ISBN 978-1-55635067-2 and ISBN 1-55635-067-8. Citations are from the manuscript at Otago University Research Archive, https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz.

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