Book Review: Intimate Jesus by Andy Angel
2017; SPCK; 160pp
I have been waiting for this book to come out for at least a year now, having sat in the author’s New Testament lectures in theological college, and I was not disappointed. The book sets out to answer the question “how did God experience human sexuality?” With immensely popular books such as Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci code’ propagating the myth that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, the responses of orthodox Christians could often lead one to think that Jesus did not experience any form of sexuality whatsoever. Angel seeks to dispel this notion by way of examination of passages from the Gospel of John. However, the tendency of modern culture could lead someone to grab the idea that Jesus experienced sexuality and run with it in licentiousness, so Angel is careful to demonstrate just how Jesus experienced sexuality. He recognises that the idea of God experiencing human sexuality may prove controversial or even uncomfortable for some, but posits that the truth of the incarnation is too precious to allow our own presuppositions to dictate what Jesus could and could not have experienced.
The first chapter, entitled ‘Asking the question’, sets the scene from the woman at the well in John 4. After making much of the unasked question on the mind of the disciples in John 4:27, which the author translates “What are you after?”, he comments that, “it becomes very difficult to believe that John could possibly have described Jesus as the Word become flesh without realising that others would naturally hear this in terms of Jesus’ physicality and sexuality.” This sets the tone for the rest of the book; here we have the assertion that Jesus did experience human sexuality, the rest of the book explores how that worked out in practice. There is an extended discussion of the historical context of Graeco-Roman baths, with which the Apostle John would have been familiar, in order to build up a picture of the kind of physicality and sexuality John’s readers would have assumed was being evoked. While the length of this discussion was perhaps unnecessary, it was helpful in terms of context.
Chapter two, ‘Word became flesh’, is a discussion primarily of the Christology behind the author’s thesis; “if we are to understand how John pictures Jesus’ sexuality, we need to see it as part of his wider portrait of Jesus: God made human, word made flesh.” Angel begins with a discussion of what it meant for Jesus to be described as the Word, and shows that in the context of Ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, this would have included a sexual component. The tracing of these ancient perspectives on wisdom and the following discussion of the relationship between the Father and the Son is meticulous and extensive. However, if the author had not included the above quote about needing to understand the wider Christology, one would be left to wonder what relevance this had to the topic at hand. After this discussion of the deity of Christ, there is discussion of His humanity. Here we have the assertion that “John presents Jesus as having a normal human body with normal human needs”, and this is again meticulously traced and accounted-for. Finally there is a discussion of the implications of ‘the Word became flesh’, in John 1:14. This is set in the context of John 1:13, wherein sarx (flesh) appears to be referring to sexual desire (and reference is made to interpreters from church history, such as Calvin, to substantiate this). The chapter rises to a climax in discussing the remainder of 1:14 and the glory of God; “Given the connotations of sarx in this context, making Jesus the place where people see God’s glory suggests that the glory of God is visible in the way Jesus lives out his sexuality – as part of his life and works more generally.” There is an acknowledgement that this would have been controversial to any Second Temple Jewish readers, who sought to keep the Temple free from sexual defilement, with a discussion of the role of sex and wisdom in Second Temple literature. This is an incredibly dense chapter, with much reference made to ancient literature and writers. However, the light it sheds on the incarnation and glory of God make it worth the read.
The third chapter, ‘A Samaritan bride and her Jewish groom’, expands greatly on the discussion of the woman at the well from John 4. This chapter was the highlight of the book for me, as it sought to demonstrate just how Jesus glorified God in the exercise (or non-exercise) of his sexuality. We are told that “John uses a standard plot which was familiar to ancient Jewish audiences, namely ‘guy meets girl at well and they get married’, to tell the story of the God who woos humanity back into relationship with him.” The author is (simplistically) describing a Betrothal Narrative, perhaps the purest form of which in Scripture can be found in the story of Issac and Rebekah. The chapter opens by establishing Jesus as the Bridegroom, from the wedding at Cana in John 2, and John the Baptist’s exaltation of Christ in John 3. In this context of a Bridegroom and a betrothal narrative, there is exploration of “the divine marriage of God and the people he calls into relationship with himself.” There is extended exploration of the narrative of John 4, detailing how everyone involved (namely the woman and the disciples) appear to have interpreted Jesus as having sexual motives (“the disciples read Jesus as having the same sexual desires as the next man”), whereas Jesus clearly had salvific motives. These salvific motives become important when we see how broken the Samaritan woman was as a result of her sexual history. Angel posits that it would have been easy for Jesus to take advantage of the woman, as one would expect from a Graeco-Roman hero or god. However, “he chooses not to, and acts in a way that avoids either of them doing anything they could (or should) regret. He puts her long-term spiritual need before any short-term physical desire he might have.” This, asserts Angel, is how Jesus displayed the glory of God in his sexuality: “Jesus preferred to bring healing to the sexual life of another rather than seeking pleasure for himself in fulfilment of his own desires.” Angel is adamant that the self-control Jesus exercised over his sexuality in no way diminishes that sexuality. Rather, it shows the way of true sexuality.
Chapter four, ‘Male intimacy’, explores Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, especially John, the beloved disciple. There is much discussion of the position of the beloved disciple at the Last Supper, laying in the breast/lap (kolpos) of Christ; “this disciple is portrayed in the strongest possible terms as being intimate with Jesus.” This is set within the context of the discussion of the relations between Father and Son seen in Chapter 1, and the assertion made here is that the beloved disciple shows us that humanity is invited to share the kind of intimacy seen between the Father and the Son. Following this is a lengthy discussion setting the Supper in the context of an ancient Greek symposium. While it is interesting to read that Greek teachers would have their favourite pupils (Socrates and Plato being a prime example), it was occasionally difficult to see the direct relevance of this discussion to the matter at hand, other than to note that Greek teachers had sex with their favourite pupils, and Jesus didn’t have sex with John the beloved. Angel acknowledges that the relationship between Jesus and John the beloved has often been misconstrued as homosexual, and the Greek context may not help in that matter. Angel laments that our modern culture has lost any idea of this kind of close intimacy shared between two men without assuming there must be some sexual component. The standout quote of the chapter was, “This love which the Father and the Son share is too good not to talk about it. Arguably the whole Gospel is about this love. If the intimacy of passionate sexuality is the only image which gives adequate expression to it depths (even if this love does not express itself sexually), then John seems to have been willing to take the risk of disapproval in order to tell the world about it.” I greatly appreciated this conclusion, even if I didn’t always follow along with how the author got there.
The fifth (and final full) chapter, entitled ‘Peter, Mary and the woman caught in adultery’, explores mainly the ways in which Jesus did not exercise his sexuality, by examining the stories of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the woman caught in adultery. These appear to have been chosen mainly due to the fact that there has been rife speculation throughout the centuries as to the nature of their relationship with Christ. I appreciated how adamant Angel was that there is no textual support for a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. However, the chapter continues; “While there may be nothing in John to suggest there was ever anything between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the same cannot be said for Jesus and Mary of Bethany.” Angel then goes on to detail some of the sexual tension (or “frisson”, to use his term) he sees between Jesus and Mary of Bethany, especially in the anointing of Jesus’ feet and the scene at Lazarus’ tomb. This was certainly an interesting proposition, and put a new spin on a familiar story. Following this is a discussion of Jesus’ relationship with Peter, and the latter’s apparent envy of the beloved disciple. While this is all solid material, it’s unclear why it wasn’t dealt with in chapter four. Finally the chapter discuss the notorious story of the woman caught in adultery. While brief mention is made of the arguments surrounding the canonicity of this story, these arguments are not why Angel has included it. While the story does not address Jesus’ sexuality directly, Angel posits that it tells us rather a lit about Jesus’ attitudes towards sexuality, namely that Jesus offers a second chance to those who have made mistakes in their sex lives, but he expects obedience as a result; “Jesus may not condemn her but he certainly instructs her to live life in obedience to his commands.” All-in-all this was an enjoyable chapter, but it felt a bit more disjointed than the others.
The sixth chapter, ‘Intimate Jesus’, serves as a helpful conclusion to the whole work. The importance of recognising how Jesus exercised his sexuality, according to Angel, is thus;
“Those of us for whom questions about faith, sex and sexuality arise from our experience can heave a sigh of relief: the God whose commands we struggle with, and to whom we pray in and about our difficulties, understands sexual desire from experience. He is not only ‘gentle and humble in heart’ as he disciples us, but he has more than a rough idea of what we are going through.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this work. It demonstrates both an orthodox understanding of sexuality and a commitment to the biblical text under consideration. Angel refuses to countenance and argument if there is no textual warrant for it. However, he is unafraid to explore uncomfortable or controversial avenues and conclusions if that’s where he feels the text is leading. This is a book for anyone who has ever wondered how their sexuality fits into their spirituality.