I must admit, it was a question that hadn’t even crossed my mind before.
Pezzulo’s basis for raising it comes from both a reading of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion as well as historical research into the torturous methods of the Romans.
Pezzulo wrote, “The ancient Romans were, as a culture, sadistic. They got off on hurting and humiliating people. And a gang of sadistic Roman soldiers ripped a Man’s clothes off and whipped Him while He was stark naked, then they forcibly dressed Him in a humiliating costume, beat Him up again, ripped the costume off, and threw His own clothes back on Him. That’s sexual abuse.”
Some of her readers pushed back on this. They agreed it was abusive behavior, but questioned whether his forced public nakedness constituted sexual abuse.
Pezzulo countered with, “Pretend it’s the first time you’ve heard that story.”
And when you do try to imagine encountering it for the first time, being forcibly disrobed and mocked certainly has the elements of a sexual assault.
But Mary Pezzulo lost a lot of readers when she pushed her argument even further, speculating on what she claimed was standard operating procedure for those brutish Romans.
She began by explaining that the Romans always crucified their victims naked. But more than that, she claims the crucified invariably got erections, which “can result when a grown man is hung by the arms like that.”
Furthermore, the Romans violated their victims with poles or stakes while they were prone to the cross.
Indeed, she pictures the crucifixion in particularly gruesome ways: “That’s how Christ died: naked, possibly with an erection, with the leaders of His people staring and laughing at Him.”
But there’s more.
Pezzulo points out that historians say the Romans routinely raped their victims prior to crucifying them.
“To me,” Pezzulo writes, “it’s not only likely that Jesus was literally raped at some point during His passion – it would be surprising if He wasn’t.”
Many of Mary Pezzulo’s readers were aghast.
“Utter blasphemy. Horrific, scurrilous, monstrous blasphemy,” commented one reader.
Look, I have concerns about her argument from silence. There’s simply nothing in the Gospels about violation with stakes, erections, or rape. Just because Roman torture was known to occur in a particular way doesn’t mean it happened that way to Christ. And while I was okay about her speculating whether sexual abuse had occurred, I grew less comfortable with her increased certainty as the article went on.
But possibly even more concerning was the fact that some of her readers couldn’t even countenance the possibility of Christ being violated, as if being a victim of sexual assault was itself a sin. It’s not!
The idea that Christ’s divinity would be diminished or compromised in some way if such an assault took place says something about the dreadful stigma that still attaches itself to victims.
Pezzulo’s final sentence is, “Of course Jesus was sexually abused: because He knew some of us would be.” She writes as a survivor of sexual abuse and takes comfort in the belief that Christ knows her suffering, that he was victimized, that he too was abused by powerful people.
That’s an important consideration here. Pezzulo does us a service to remind us that a survivor is not sinful as a consequence of their assault. Christ might have been sexually abused. He was certainly stripped naked and humiliated in public. But being so victimized doesn’t affect his sinlessness.
Where I would take issue with Pezzulo, though, is her assumption that Jesus had to experience every possible form of abuse in order to understand the horrors of abuse. He doesn’t need to have been sexually assaulted in order to give dignity to sexual assault survivors any more than he needed to lose a child in order to be a comfort to a grieving parent.
He was victimized. And tortured. Betrayed. Humiliated. He suffered an agonizing death. As the Scriptures say, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” (Isa 53:3)
In so doing, he not only gives dignity to the victims of many forms of suffering and abuse, he offers a full and total redemption for all our suffering.
This Lenten season I’ve been reflecting on Andrea Mantegna’s painting, The Lamentation of the Christ. You can read my previous reflections here and here. In light of Mary Pezzulo’s article I was contemplating the jar that Mantegna placed beside the dead Christ’s head.
It’s presumably a jar of ointment or perfume, part of the hurried embalming process Jesus’ followers undertook prior to his interment in Joseph’s tomb. Or it might just be an ancient form of air freshener, placed there to off-set the encroaching stench of death and decay.
Was Jesus sexually assaulted? I don’t think it’s likely. At least not in the way we normally understand that phrase. But he was tortured to death and his corpse would have smelled of blood and sweat and who knows what else. Even after being washed, that jar of ointment was placed there to ward off the fug of death.
What can’t be so easily covered up was the fact that Christ took upon himself the sins of the world and bore the brunt of oppression, cruelty and hatred, so others who are also tortured, oppressed and hated might find dignity in friendship with God.
Michael Frost is a recognised missiologist and one of the leading voices in the missional church movement. Frost is the Vice Principal of Morling College and the founding Director of the Tinsley Institute, a mission study centre located at Morling College in Sydney, Australia.
He is the author or editor of fourteen popular Christian books.