IN THE images accompanying the Tenth Station of the Cross, in which Jesus is stripped of his garments, there is sometimes a suggestion of violence: brush-strokes convey movement, the unravelling of loincloth.
More familiar are the pictures where a passive Jesus is almost courteously helped to undress by Roman soldiers, the robes falling from his shoulders. Few portray the final stage of the act; and the historical certainty that Jesus was crucified naked, in line with Roman practice, has been literally covered up by centuries of Christian art.
“The stripping at the cross is not the first stripping,” Dr Jayme Reaves, a public theologian at Sarum College, Salisbury, says. “Jesus was publicly stripped three times. We don’t see it. What else happened to Jesus that we aren’t willing to see? What are the things that are happening at the moment in plain sight which we aren’t seeing?”
When Did We See You Naked? (SCM Press), which Reaves has co-edited with her one-time supervisor David Tombs, and Rocio Figueroa, is a bombshell of a book.
Its argument that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse raises the question what constitutes sexual abuse, and whether his stripping, however violent and degrading, amounted to sexual violence.
“My first response to the suggestion was ‘Wh-a-a-t!” says Reaves, herself an abuse survivor. “But later it just made complete sense to me.”
Natalie Collins, a gender-justice specialist, disagrees. “As someone who works with many women who have been sexually assaulted by men, and as someone who has been raped, I am deeply opposed to such a reading of the crucifixion narrative.”
TOMBS, now a professor at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, came to his research area through engaging with liberation theology. After spending some time studying under James Cone at Union Theological Seminary, New York, he travelled through Central America.
It was the late 1980s, and Tombs was struck by the theologian Jon Sobrino’s use of the term the “crucified people” — referring both to those who died slowly from the crucifixion of grinding poverty, and those who died quickly, killed as a result of their resistance to an oppressive military regime.
Ten years later, Tombs came across a particular report that proved to be the catalyst for his future research. It told of how the Salvadorean military had abducted a worker from a medical centre for refugees near San Salvador. After torturing and raping her, they brought her to the town square and killed her in a graphically sexualised way.
“I didn’t understand the silence that seemed to surround it in the liberation theology I was reading. Why did a theology that was attentive to a crucified people not focus on a full picture of how that crucifixion worked?”
The task of UN-appointed Salvadorean Commission on the Truth for El Salvador 1992-93 was to find and tell the truth of what had happened. But it barely referred to the sexual violence that was carried out against both women and men.
Tombs reports that the commission didn’t see rape as part of the political violence. “But my reading of reports, not only from El Salvador but from Chile, Argentina, and Guatemala, testifies to the fact that sexual violence was not an incidental part of the torture and state punishments used by these regimes, but integral to them.”
TOMBS wanted to explore how the practices of state torture in Central America compared with those of imperial Rome.
He argues that the public nature of crucifixion of itself amounted to a ritualised form of sexual humiliation. This would have been particularly the case for Jews, whose attitudes towards nakedness set them apart from their Gentile neighbours.
Most scholars consider the Jewish historian Josephus a key source on crucifixion in Jesus’s day. Writing of the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, he describes how rebels were “scourged and subjected before death to every torture. They were finally crucified in view of the wall.” Tombs also cites evidence from Seneca the Younger (4 BC- AD 65) that crucifixion frequently included more explicit sexual abuse.
Of Christ’s stripping in the Gospel accounts, Tombs says: “It became hard for me not to recognise it as an obvious and overt form of sexual abuse. It is clear to me from the text. But in most torture reports I have read, the abuse doesn’t stop with stripping, and that raises for me the disturbing question of what else may have happened to Jesus which we don’t read about.”
Tombs first presented his research to the Society for Biblical Literature in 1999. It reached a wider audience in subsequent years in the light of the increased attention scholars began giving to the sexual abuse and the presence of sexual violence in the Bible.
In 2018, Tombs wrote an article with Katie Edwards, then co-director of the Shiloh project at Sheffield University, asking whether Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse. It was criticised by Janet Street-Porter, among others, who wrote in The Independent that “including Jesus in the #MeToo movement is a step too far.”
She found their suggestion “offensive and trivialising. . . Crucifixion was a disgusting form of torture and nothing to do with sex.”
There has been a mixed reception from survivors. One, known as Gilo and co-author of Letters to a Broken Church, agrees with the thesis. “It had already occurred to me that Jesus must have been [sexually abused],” he says. “We may not know the extent of the ridicule and mocking and physical manhandling that accompanied it, but I do equate the stripping prior to his execution with sexual abuse.
“It resonates directly with my own experience. It’s an act of humiliation, and of power over the individual, which many survivors have experienced.”
NATALIE COLLINS disagrees. She argues that equating the stripping of Jesus with an act of sexual violence misunderstands what sexual violence is. “It ignores the sexual intention of perpetrators. The stripping of Jesus was not motivated by such intention. It was a by-product of the broader humiliation of a convict on the way to crucifixion.
“To compare this element of Jesus’s crucifixion to sexual assault is to diminish the multifaceted, destructive reality of sexual assault.”
Collins says she would be concerned if discussion about the possible sexual abuse of Jesus filtered into the pastoral care offered to survivors. “I can understand that it might be helpful to some people, but the suffering of Jesus does not need to have included sexual assault for it to speak to the suffering of those who have been sexually assaulted.
“Jesus does not join us in our suffering because our suffering is the same. God’s presence and witnessing to my suffering can be enough.”
Tombs and Figueroa conducted detailed interviews with small groups of male and female survivors of sexual abuse, to find out whether they found their work helpful. Half the men and three out of the five women interviewed found it helpful to make a connection between the experience of Jesus and their own experience. “Seeing his innocence, I see my innocence,” one said.
“The Church hasn’t done a good job of responding to victims of abuse,” Jayme Reaves says, “and seeing Jesus as a victim should make us think about how we respond to them, because we still stigmatise and blame them.”
“I certainly don’t think we should necessarily talk about sexual violence every time we think about the cross,” Tombs says. He suggests that the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday might be an appropriate time to reflect on the stripping of Jesus.
More generally, he says, “the Church, as the Body of Christ, needs to understand more fully what happened to the body of Christ.”
When Did We See You Naked? is published by SCM Press at £35 (Church Times Bookshop £25); 978-0-334-06032-1.