Theologian argues for Anglican ordination of women because Jesus might have been a hermaphrodite

March 7, 2012 • 6:29 am

While women still can’t become priests in the Catholic Church, they can in many provinces (the “dioceses”) of the Anglican church.  But not all of them, which has led to schisms in the Anglican church and breakaway sects that limit the position of bishops, priests, or even deacons, to men.  This discrimination against women is based on the tradition of Jesus having chosen only male apostles.

How do you argue against that discrimination? The simplest way is on moral grounds: it’s unfair to have a church hierarchy dominated by one sex, and there’s no moral reason why women shouldn’t be allowed equal access to the priesthood.  Those, I think, are the reasons why many Anglican provinces allow ordination of women.

The worst way to do it is to argue that there isn’t a strong distinction between the male and female gender, that Christ could have been a hermaphrodite or intersex, and therefore that drawing sharp gender distinctions for the priesthood is unjustified.

But sadly, that’s the way that Susannah Cornwall argues. She’sa postdoctoral research associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute of the University of Manchester—the university of my pinch-blogger Matthew Cobb (Matthew: what are they putting in the water there?).  The argument, reported in many places (the Telegraph and HuffPo, for example), is that a dichotomous model of sex and gender is not adequate to deal with this theological problem.  Ergo, we need female priests. Cornwall supports her argument by vetting the possibility that Jesus, born of a virgin, could have been of ambiguous sex.

Her paper, “Intersex and Ontology: A response to The Church, Women Bishops and Provision” (download a pdf from that link) is a response to a previous paper by the Latimer Trust (a theological think tank) arguing that, “In this debate, there is finally no middle ground. We will argue that it is not possible to affirm gender distinctions and, at the same time, implement complete interchangeability of gender functions.”

Cornwall says there is a middle ground: intersex individuals whose gender is ambiguous.  And Jesus could have been one of them! As she notes:

But in actual fact, it is not possible to assert with any degree of certainty that Jesus was male as we now define maleness. There is no way of knowing for sure that Jesus did not have one of the intersex conditions which would give him a body which appeared externally to be unremarkably male, but which might nonetheless have had some “hidden” female physical features. He might have had ovarian as well as testicular tissue in his body. He might, in common with many people who are unaware of the fact, have had a mixture of XX and XY cells. Indeed, as several scholars have pointed out with their tongues both in and out of their cheeks, if the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is taken as scientific fact, then Jesus certainly had no male human element to introduce a Y chromosome into his DNA, and all his genetic material would have been identical with that of his mother (that is, female) (see e.g. Mollenkott 2002, 2007: 115-7). There is simply no way of telling at this juncture whether Jesus was an unremarkably male human being, or someone with an intersex condition who had a male morphology as far as the eye could see but may or may not also have had XX chromosomes or some female internal anatomy. The fact that, as far as we know, Jesus never married, fathered children or engaged in sexual intercourse, of course, makes his “undisputable” maleness even less certain.

The point is whether all this conjecture and appeal to statistical improbability “from below” matters. I would argue that it does matter if Jesus’ undisputed maleness is deemed crucial to his Christness, to his sacerdotal function and the sacerdotal function of the priestsand bishops who minister in his stead – which the authors of The Church, Women Bishops and Provision insist is the case. But that Jesus was male is simply a best guess – a kind of sexual docetism on which ecclesiological truth and essentialist ontology is now being madeto rest. It is no accident, maintain the authors, that Jesus was male: his authority required (and bishops’ authority continues to require) physical maleness (Beckwith et al 2011: 45), because of the “creation order” in which it is given to males to have governance over what is taught. However, since we cannot know for sure that Jesus was male – since we do not have a body to examine and analyze – it can only be that Jesus’ masculine gender role, rather than his male sex, is having to bear the weight of all this authority.

Genetically, if Jesus was born of a virgin, he would have either had to be produced parthenogentically (from a nonreduced gamete of Mary), in which case he’d be a normal XX female—a clone of Mary.  Alternatively, if he was produced by a haploid egg that was unfertilized, then he would have been inviable—no Jesus at all!  If you analyzed the Bible in the light of modern genetics, there’s no way that Jesus could have been male. (There are some XX hermaphrodites who appear male but have  ambiguous genitalia, but those—victims of de la Chapelle syndrome—require a corporeal father who contributes an X chromosome carrying a bit of his Y).

But this is all nonsense, of course.  There was no virgin birth, and may well have been no Jesus.  And if there was an itinerant apocalyptic rabbi of that ilk, he would almost certainly have been male.  If you argue that he had some XX and some XY cells, then you are saying Jesus had a corporeal father, for only a real male father could have introduced a Y chromosome into Jesus’s genome.  And in that case there was no virgin birth, so why argue about this in the first place?

It’s even because, according to Cornwall, “It is estimated that about 1 in every 2,500 people is born with some kind of physical intersex condition.” So even if Jesus had a corporeal father (in which case he wasn’t divine), the odds are very strong that Jesus was a straight-up male.  (I doubt that the lack of Jesus’s kids adds probability to his intersexuality.)  Yes, it is formally possible that any itinerant rabbi who was the nucleus of the Jesus legend was a hermaphrodite, but I’d bet 2000-1 odds against it.  Sadly, there’s no way to decide.

This kind of theological hair-splitting is what Jews call pilpul.  Let’s not base questions of morality on assertions about reality which cannot be subject to empirical investigation, and indeed, are not even questions that are coherent in the first place.  Women should be ordained in the Anglican church simply because there is no moral basis for discriminating against them.  But, as Eric MacDonald has discovered, there’s not much reason to be an Anglican priest in the first place.

Like all theology, this navel-gazing and groundless speculation is a complete waste of time. Is there any reason for a secular university to have a school of theology, or hire even one theologian?


UPDATE:  Reader Kevin notes below that a peevish Anglican priest has responded in the Telegraph: the Rev. Dr. Peter Mullen angrily asserts, “Jesus was a man: look at the evidence, Dr Cornwall.”  It’s all hilarious: Mullen says that we know Jesus was a man because the Bible tells us so. But he’s ignoring genetic evidence, which tells us that Jesus must have been a woman!

h/t: Denise

93 thoughts on “Theologian argues for Anglican ordination of women because Jesus might have been a hermaphrodite

  1. This is another one of those “Look at me, look at me, I’m fashionably sexually confused” articles. It’s all about the author’s attention seeking, not about what any possible historical Jesus might have been.

  2. as several scholars have pointed out with their tongues both in and out of their cheeks,

    I give her a positive for at least recognizing this.

    [quoting her opposition]

    It is no accident, maintain the authors, that Jesus was male: his authority required (and bishops’ authority continues to require) physical maleness (Beckwith et al 2011: 45), because of the “creation order” in which it is given to males to have governance over what is taught.

    I would be amazed if they actually supported their own claim consistently. I expect in most cases the folks who front this argument are plain old hypocrites, and voice no objection to women serving as teachers outside of their club.

  3. “This discrimination against women is based on the tradition of Jesus having chosen only male apostles.”

    He also chose only Jewish apostles, but I don’t see the church following that rule.

  4. Fact is, we’ll never know. Everytime he/she was allegedly seen, even dead, he/she had his/her hands or shroud covering his/her genitals.

  5. Women should be ordained in the Anglican church simply because there is no moral basis for discriminating against them.

    Jerry, Jerry, Jerry. If religions did things based on what there was a “moral basis” for, then the arguments between atheists and theists really would be about philosophical hair-splitting (as many accomodationists would like everyone to believe).

    Religions don’t base their doctrine on what is moral. They base their morality on what their doctrine says is moral. Or, more to the point, what the believer thinks that their doctrine says is moral. If the believer wants to discriminate against women, he will find justification in it in his religion. If the believer wants to not discriminate against women, well, he/she will also find justification for that in religion.

    It’s how you could have staunchly religious people both on the slave-holding and the abolitionist sides of the Civil War. Religion is what you want it to be – it’s the “great” thing about having a moral code justified by divine revelation and tradition instead of reason or empirical reality.

  6. a theological think tank

    Ah yes, the sausage factory of religion.

    Taking their cue from military intelligence, bureaucratic efficiency and catholic morality.

  7. There is just as much evidence that Jesus was intersex as there is that he rose from the dead. In fact, I would argue it is a far more likely possibility: Intersex individuals, while rare, are born all the time. Risen-from-the-dead individuals? Not so much.

    Nobody who believes any of the more outlandish parts of the Jesus myth has any right to complain about Cornwall’s speculation.

    Of course, we have that right 😉

  8. Human gamete cells, eggs and sperm, do not simply contain half the genetic material for the offspring. They also contain sex specific epigenetic marks – cytosine methylation and histone marks – that are required for the correct development of the embryo.
    These marks are placed on the sperm and egg cells during gametogenesis. The requirement for gender specific epigenetic marks for correct development means some interesting things for theological biology(!)
    It means that the virgin Mary would have to have had both male and female sex organs in order for her to produce the required epigenetic marks on the sex cells that combined to produce Jesus.
    This sort of hemaphroditic Virgin Mary is not going to be a standard XX female. I guess she could be a XX/XY chimera, produced by the joining of two separate fertilization events into a single embryo (although I’m not sure if this sort of self fertilizing chimeric hemaphrodite has ever been described in the scientific literature.)
    There is, however, no obvious mechanism for Jesus to have inherited the condition.

      1. I don’t think we’ve explained the immaculate conception just yet. Remember, the catholic church defines the immaculate conception as the conception of the virgin Mary, NOT the conception of Jesus.
        The conception of Mary is immaculate, not because it occurred from only one gamete – or from one gamete and an angel – but because it “occurred without the stain of original sin”.
        What the hell that means I have no idea since the church states that the conception happened the normal way just “without original sin”!

        1. Gee Sig, have you no Bio-theological imagination? In your very own earlier posting you described “The requirement for gender specific epigenetic marks for correct development …”

          Clearly one of those “marks” is the one that transmits Original Sin across the generations (like a quantum virtual particle mediating forces!) and then during the IC the OS Mark was suppressed.

          Piece of cake!

        2. The immaculate conception is not a prescribed doctrine of the Anglican Communion. The birth of JC to a virgin is.
          What’s the problem about a virgin birth? Fecundatio ab extra with hymen intact does occur, albeit exceeding rarely.

        3. Yes that was precisely my point. If Mary was conceived immaculately then you would expect something to be strange about her genes. How else could she lack the original sin gene?

          1. Perhaps Original Sin involved methylation of the pre-existing Evil Gene. Thus saints because saintly when their naturally-occuring Evil Gene is silenced via Holy Methylation. (Perhaps that’s also how Catholic Confession works.)

        4. What the hell that means I have no idea since the church states that the conception happened the normal way just “without original sin”!

          Hmmm…how about this. God gave a kama-sutra-like guide to Adam and Eve. In it were a lot of positions marked “sinless style.” Mary’s parents redisovered it. But either they lost it, or the current owners aren’t letting anyone see it. 🙂

  9. I always thought the argument that ‘Jesus chose only male apostles — and therefore only men can be ordained’ to be hogwash anyway. You can make better arguments against women’s ordination from (pseudo) Paul’s misogynistic letters. In fact, you pretty well have to ignore those to argue for it.

    The fact that people are still arguing about it shows that Christianity can never create moral progress – it can only be dragged reluctantly along by secular forces.

    The ‘trans-sexual’ Jesus argument is pretty lame.

  10. I suppose she’s just guilty of the same thing as a lot of Christians in trying to hammer Jesus into her preconceptions. Which is fair enough for a fictional character!

    1. Indeed! I imagine religious folks getting all huffy about this one:

      Well, Jesus is the second Adam, and it’s “Adam and Eve”, not “Adam/Eve”!

  11. Evidence once again that, when faced with a an unpleasant conclusion from scriptural authority, theologians (professional or otherwise) just make things up to support their prefered temporal outcome. If you are going to argue a case without evidence, wouldn’t it be easier to say that Jesus might not have minded female apostles, but for one special-pleading-reason or another wound up with twelve men. This is no different than cherry-picking from Leviticus, and runs into the same problem: How do you know when to ignore and when to invent?

    1. Hume addressed this problem:

      “(…)that the Christian religion not only was first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which, subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.”

  12. I don’t see the problem.
    If you believe in God, then God can do anything.
    Including putting the Y in the fetus.

    Either you accept that God is all powerful and can do anything, or she isn’t!!

    It is, indeed, pilpul, and sort of how many angels can dance on the end of a pin, when you don’t believe in angels.

    1. Agreed. Jerry writes:

      If you argue that he had some XX and some XY cells, then you are saying Jesus had a corporeal father, for only a real male father could have introduced a Y chromosome into Jesus’s genome.

      “Only a real male father”?

      This God thing is capable of creating the universe, drowning almost all of humanity in a massive flood, stopping the sun in the sky, obliterating cities with fire and brimstone, imposing bizarre plagues on recalcitrant Egyptians, and performing He-knows-how-many other massive feats… but getting a Y-chromosomed sperm, or some functional equivalent, into a particular woman’s fallopian tubes is beyond His power? Come on!

      Surely “miracle” is, and always has been, a Get Out Of Actually-thinking-about-this Free card.

      1. Yeah… what sort of mythology are we authoring here for crying out loud. The made up deity can do anything. PERIOD.

        1. Atheists are stuck on the first stage of grief–denial.

          I SEE A LOT of nervous laughter on this website. I SEE a lot of preaching to the choir–to comforting, to placating, to make absolutely sure your not wrong. Your all so afraid–terrified. You’ve done the deed of laughing at God and now you know your toast. At this point…nothing can turn you back –as you’ve gone too far. You’re the OJ Simpson jury…you’re a murderers mother…you wont even consider Logic here because it results in your destruction.

          First, the overwhelming amount of Christians believe God used some sort of evolution to create intelligent life and everything else.
          You guys use the ultimate straw man to knock down so you feel better but you’ll never escape the impossibility of our universe.
          Here we have a group that is actually claiming the infinitesimal odds of a “first cell” out of lifeless matter gave rise to a trillion other insurmountable actions that ended in our consciousness. Yet they seem to ignore, also, the Cosmos which has NO theory of natural selection faces much greater improbabilities than even unguided evolution.

          As you travel back in time you clearly see that even the Atoms cohesion is beyond improbable. There is a list of things from Particles being able to clump together in such a vast space, to the universal constants of which mathematicians say it is actually more probable that a Rooster should just pop in and out of existence than our complex universe–yet we dont see such absurdities.

          So we have a group that has forgone all logic and reason for only one sole purpose—so they can not be judged by God for their constant assault on Him.
          They are fighting for their lives in denial.

          Any reasonable person knows our consciousness did not assemble in a random explosion of particles and yet we have the fools of the universe proclaiming there is no need for a God. They’re scared little children who actually proclaim with confidence that a trillion trillion billion zillion 7’s could all be rolled in a row–yet only in regards to avoiding God–Not for Anything else.
          Yet rolling even 15 7’s in row is something no human could ever hope to see even if the result meant nothing.
          So to the most important thing required for existence–it happened…but in your living room right now …you couldnt even roll 10 in a row for absolutely no reason.

          Yet, for the life of you you cant see why the majority of all humans that ever lived see there’s a Creator in all of 3 seconds of rational thought?

          Now, you’ll huff and puff, gather together and proclaim my stupidity and that of the whole world–claim that 10 to the power of 50 are decent odds, maybe revert to multiverses or some other absurdity so you can sleep tonight–but the fact remains–You will not have the last laugh and feel the doom approaching. Otherwise, you would not speak a word about this topic. Yet it consumes your very being every second of every day and that alone should be enough for you to consider your psychological state.
          This is the state of the atheistic mind. It can scarcely even be called a mind as it doesn’t really function anymore because of Bias.

          1. As Eliot said, “Imbecility that is not even meek, ceases to be pitiable, and becomes simply odious.”

            You remind me of the Catholic priest who, after throwing down his cap and apostrophizing it as Luther, turned to his audience and said,”You see this heretical fellow has not a word to say for himself.”

          2. I SEE a lot of preaching to the choir–to comforting, to placating, to make absolutely sure your not wrong.

            Ironic instance of kettle calling the pot black… to the infinite degree. Was it the word MYTHOLOGY that struck your nerve?

          3. Good to see that your religion has made you happy, tolerant and even-tempered, James; you must make so many converts, my religiose Muttley.

  13. In my experience the C of E called female deacons deaconesses, but female priests were never called Priestesses! If there is a god it really has it in for women, so it seems from various religious books. Better to acknowledge a simple truth – this is all made up nonsense designed to keep women in subjection…

  14. Yeesh – this paper was the result of an unholy union between theology and dodgy feminism.

    Reversing the “women cannot be priests” doctrine should not pose deep theological issues. The religious could maintain that Jesus’ decision to only have male apostles was motivated completely by the limitations of his audience and the time and place that he was working in. They could point out that there does not seem to be any explicit prohibition of female priests (at least in the NT), and they could note that there is evidence that the early Christian Church had female leadership.

    1. It should not pose any issues on pragmatic grounds either.

      The church simultaneously recognizes the value and goodness of poverty but controls $millions in assets in order to forward the mission. The church simultaneously recognizes just war theology while supporting ‘turn the other cheek’ at an individual level.

      They have been aruging that the church as an organization is justified in doing things that would be sins for individuals to do for centuries. FFS, a “just teaching” policy should be a lot less offensive and christian than a “just war” policy.

  15. Possibly a mix of Swyer syndrome interacting with Klinefelter’s? (Eh; all I know is what I read on Wikipedia.)

  16. When Jesus heard about the woman taken in adultery she rushed off to the stoning ground to save her but stopped off first in the market to get a beard.

  17. Mary Magdalene was a disciple. The church tried to bury the evidence by condemning her as a prostitute (something it recently apologised for) and burn’t all (it thought)copies of pseudopigraphia texts along with libraries and heretics. So there women can be priests and more, but why would they want to be?

  18. this is all nonsense

    Kenneth Miller already answered this question for us, so why are you raising it again?! Miller: “Miracles, by definition, do not have to make scientific sense.” The Bible said it, Christians believe it, and that settles it!

    What can science say about a miracle? Nothing. By definition, the miraculous is beyond explanation, beyond our understanding, beyond science. This does not mean that miracles do not occur. A key doctrine in my own faith is that Jesus was born of a virgin, even though it makes no scientific sense—there is the matter of Jesus’s Y—there is the matter of Jesus’s Y-chromosomechromosome to account for. But that is the point. Miracles, by definition, do not have to make scientific sense. They are specific acts of God, designed in most cases to get a message across. Their very rarity is what makes them remarkable.
    —Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, pp. 239–240

    Other than Jesus Haploid Christ, here are some other possibilities.

    Jesus Hybridization Christ: An XXX male resulting from paternal X-Y interchange and maternal X-X nondisjunction

    Jesus Klinefelter Christ: A 47,XXY female with unusual genitalia

    A 47,XXY karyotype was found in a 6-year-old girl. The patient had female external genitalia, clitoromegaly, remnants of the ductus mesonephricus, uterus, and gonads in the labia majora which were determined to be testes by histology.

    Maybe “immaculate conception” is a theologians way of saying that Mary was a 47,XXY karyotype.

  19. Could he have read my “mosaic hermaphrodite” comment here, a couple weeks ago or so? I think he stole my idea! Cheater!

  20. Isn’t the Anglican Communion wonderful. You can believe more or less anything you want to and they will fall over themselves to accommodate you and put in place special arrangements. I sense a time not too distant when Lambeth will be having earnest dialogue (and no doubt, prayer) with those who do not believe in God but wish to remain members of the Church!!

  21. Another possibility for Jesus being female is the Yentl Hypothesis*. Imagine a girl in that time in place who was interested in her culture’s religion and wanted to be a preacher or rabbi. The only way for her to do this would have been to dress up as a man.

    It would also explain why it’s never mentioned that Jesus married or had children.

    *Made up by me, 5 minutes ago.

  22. This is another example of how religion poisons rational thought. She wants to argue the Jesus might have been intersex because she knows that some people accept the idea that the the priesthood should be limited to men because Jesus was a man. But why accept that principle at all? Maybe Jesus had brown eyes. Should we restrict the priesthood to the brown-eyed? It’s a bizarre assumption.

    Finally, as to why Jesus didn’t marry, the plausible answer is that he was simply too poor to marry. Men who were unable to support a household would not have been good marriage prospects. While Peter is said to have a mother-in-law, the other Apostles seem to have been unattached young men, just the sort of people who would be open to chucking it all and following Jesus.

    1. And… maybe Jesus did marry, but it was just kept a secret. Galileo Galilei may have known something.

  23. “as several scholars have pointed out with their tongues both in and out of their cheeks”

    Schroedinger’s cat got your tongue?

    1. You win this thread. The Jury appreciates the novelty of thought you present while staying strictly on the topic of theological biology.

  24. Is there any reason for a secular university to have a school of theology, or hire even one theologian?

    It’s so ineffably annoying that people actually get paid for making stuff up and passing it off as “scholarship.”

    1. Would you say the same of University Music Composition quartets with their novel compositions?
      Or Literary departments, with theirs?

      Or Politics departments with their apparently necessary utter fantasies?
      Or Economics departments (especially)?

      (I’d better stop here, for fear of enraging those valid academic fabricators versus the apparently earnest bullshit parasites.)

  25. Would you say the same of University Music Composition quartets with their novel compositions?
    Or Literary departments, with theirs?

    In these two cases to point of the exercise is to make stuff up and nobody pretends otherwise.

  26. If nothing else, at least this proves once and for all that Brian was definitely *not* supposed to represent Jesus, for Brian was unambiguously a man. Not only did he have a beard and shag Judith, but as the opening song tells us:

    Things started to grow
    On young Brian and show
    He was certainly no
    Girl called Brian!
    Not a girl called Brian!

    Case closed!

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