By JOE PEREZ
No film has ever depicted the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and John the Beloved with more beauty, sensitivity, or respect than The Passion of The Christ. John is the man tradition says is the "disciple that Jesus loved." He's also the man who Bible scholars say could have been Christ's gay lover.
Mel Gibson's controversial movie gives us the beloved disciple in the form of John, a handsome, goateed, raven-haired man who has a special, intimate place in Jesus' life.
From the garden of Gethsemane to the foot of the cross, John is rarely parted from his beloved.
John wept when Jesus was flogged. And when the body of the crucified Christ was taken down from the cross, John placed his hand upon his bloody thigh. As Jesus neared death, John stood with Jesus' mother and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross.
"Woman, behold your son," said Jesus at the film's unforgettable climax, speaking to his mother in reference to John. And Jesus also bid the disciple: "Behold your mother."
The significance of this moment cannot be properly understood without realizing that Jesus is bidding his mother to adopt his lover as her own son, and bidding his lover to adopt Jesus' mother as his own.
So says Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., speaking of the Gospel of John in The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament. Jennings is a Methodist clergyman and professor of biblical and constructive theology at Chicago Theological Seminary. His acclaimed book, published by The Pilgrim Press in 2003, has been nominated for a Lambda Literary award.
Imagine that Jesus had said to his mother in reference to Mary Magdalene: "Woman, behold your daughter." It was the custom in those times that upon the death of a family member, the surviving family would adopted the daughter-in-law. Had Jesus spoken these words of a woman, few would doubt that she was being identified as his lover.
However, Christians have not previously recognized the plain meaning of Jesus' words about his beloved, because his lover was a man. Given their erotophobic, homophobic and heterosexist theological assumptions, conservative Christians have traditionally ignored or twisted the actual meaning of the Bible texts.
If Jesus and the beloved disciple were merely good pals and not lovers, then Jesus' words to his mother and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross don't make sense, argues Jennings. Why would the mother of a deceased man adopt a man's "close platonic friend" as her own son, and the son accept the mother, if they were not in a relationship surpassing mere friendship?
Recognizing that Jesus and the beloved disciple were lovers is the most literal and least tortured interpretation of the scene at the foot of the cross, says Jennings. And remember the scene in The Passion of The Christ when Jesus is seen washing John's feet?
Here's how the rest of the scene plays out in the Gospel of John: "one of the disciples of Jesus--the one Jesus loved--was reclining in Jesus' lap.... Falling back thus upon the chest of Jesus, he said to him..."
Couldn't Jesus and John just have been really good fishing buddies? Not according to the plain meaning of the Bible texts, says Jennings. He observes that the text marks one disciple as "more than a friend," and in a relationship distinct from that of the other disciples by virtue of its physical closeness and bodily intimacy.
The simplest and most probable explanation, Jennings argues convincingly, is that their relationship is one between lovers. We shouldn't expect the Bible to specify that the two actually had sex, any more than we would expect it to describe the intimate relations between Peter and his wife, or between Mary and Joseph.
Doubt that the relationship was erotic? Read Jennings's book. Or simply take this challenge. Go with twelve of your closest friends to dinner. Your best guy friend lies next to you during supper, snuggling and laying across your lap with his head upon your breast. And then strip naked and wash his feet. If you can honestly say that isn't the least bit homoerotic, dinner's on me.
The portrayal of Jesus and John in The Passion of The Christ is perhaps the most evocative cinematic depiction yet of Jesus' intimate life, although the homoeroticism is only implied. Thus the movie offers a revolutionary gay-affirming vision of the Passion, though ironically this couldn't have been the intention of the film's ultra-conservative producers.
Of course, Jesus of Nazareth didn't sport a rainbow-colored tunic. Jennings warns that we should be careful about misreading our own culturally conditioned assumptions about modern gay identities into the Bible. Yet he also insists we should also avoid reading heterosexism and homophobia into the Bible when it isn't there.
Is it "blaspheme" to talk of Jesus' sexuality in a new way? Traditionalists say so. Those traditionalists are the modern-day Pharisees. The Passion of The Christ showed them accusing Jesus himself of "blaspheme" and chanting, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" Today, fear-mongers continue to attack all those who bring new ideas about God.
Jesus loved all his friends, but he loved one man in a special, physically intimate way. Gay men can deepen our spirituality by contemplating that Jesus' same-sex erotic love is worthy of the divine. Today we can hear Jesus speaking directly to us when he said to his lover and the other disciples, "Love one another, even as I have loved you."
"Soulfully Gay" is a bi-weekly column that explores spirituality and religion from a gay man’s perspective. Joe Perez has studied comparative religion at Harvard University and currently works as a writer in Seattle. Send feedback to [email protected]. Visit Joe’s blog on spirituality at http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm.