Screengrab via Amazon.

Sex Scenes: Was Jesus Gay?

Scorsese's 'The Last Temptation of Christ' was picketed by protesters who were concerned about the film's sexual depiction of Jesus.

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23 December 2018, 10:53pm

Screengrab via Amazon.

In 1988, Martin Scorsese, patron saint of gangster films, made a big Jesus movie. The Last Temptation of Christ is an minimalistic epic starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus, with screenwriting by Paul Schrader and a rock-influenced soundtrack by Peter Gabriel. A (whitewashed) Jesus, Dafoe is moody, grim, questioning, frail, human… maybe somewhat sexy, but decidedly weird. Based on the novel of the same name by Niko Kazantzakis, the film tells the story of Jesus’ rise and fall as “messiah” with a focus on his struggles as a human and sexual being, and includes a fantasized sex scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (played by Barbara Hershey) which proved so controversial that the film was violently protested and banned.

Nonetheless, Scorsese's Jesus movie is serious and devout. He had wanted to make a Jesus film since he was a child (he’d once considered priesthood) and after the successes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, he’d earned himself a passion project—however, having a director associated with the macho glamorization of violence and vice proved difficult in bringing Scorsese's vision of Jesus to life.

There were problems before shooting even began. The film was originally put into production in 1983 for Paramount (with a budget of $23 million) but the plug was pulled before shooting began—there were budget issues, but the decision was also made partly because of a letter writing campaign put together by Fundamentalist Christians, who were convinced that Scorsese would portray Jesus as a gay man. Scorsese's Jesus is portrayed as straight, but this in no way stopped the controversy. (Neither will it stop me from reading the movie, or rather the story of Jesus, through a queer lens.)

Despite not having seen the film, heads of Christian groups denounced it so vociferously that many theaters refused to show it, with one Christian group gathering 600 protestors outside of Universal Studios’ parent company. It was the era of sex and money scandals in the Christian right, and Scorsese’s film was a polarizing topic to distract from Jim Bakker’s alleged rape and Jimmy Swaggart ‘s numerous alleged encoutners with sex workers. A right-wing Catholic group in France set fire to a theater showing the film, injuring 13 people. Blockbuster refused to carry the movie, and several countries banned the film entirely.

Yet for all of this, in the film, Jesus is celibate but sensual, a flawed human trying to come to terms with his divinity. Scorsese's Jesus improvises his preachings and calls into question his previous understanding of revelations—but what normal person wouldn’t doubt or reject one’s vocation as “messiah,” when it’s such an outlandish title? Dafoe plays Jesus bug-eyed, questioning and quick-tempered (using pupil dilating eye drops for effect, which would leave him blind for three days.) It’s a Kierkegaardian vision of Christ, where the question is about the loneliness of being called to live an exceptional life, and how for exceptional individuals the real temptation is not money or power, but that of normalcy.

This is the “temptation” of the title, that of living a normal life. It’s when Satan (in the appearance of a beautiful non-binary teen) tempts Jesus with a hallucination of normalcy that we get the Mary Magdalene sex scene. With incense burning, Mary washes Jesus’ bloody wounds from the cross and two two begin to kiss—then flash to Jesus kissing and writhing on top of Mary who whispers, “We could have a child”.

But what if the fervor about gay Jesus had been true? A secret tradition portraying a gay Jesus in a relationship with John has always existed and found expression as early as the 16th century, with Marlowe saying that Jesus and John were “bedfellows.” The Gospel of John makes reference to “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, who is present at the crucifiction along with Jesus’ mother, Mary. (Some argue the loved disciple is John; some argue it’s Mary Magdalene—maybe Jesus was bi and it was both.)

In Jesus, the Revelation of God, Bishop H. W. Montefiore believes that Jesus’s not having been married at age 30 is proof enough to start considering the possibility of him being gay. According to Montefiore, a gay Jesus would also be consistent with Jesus’s famous closeness with all sorts of outsiders, from criminals to beggars to sex workers. Montefiore states in J esus, the Revelation of God that “If Jesus were homosexual in nature (and this is the true explanation of his celibate state) then this would be further evidence of God’s self-identification with those who are unacceptable to the upholders of ‘The Establishment’ and social conventions.”

The Wedding scene at Cana, famous for the miracle where Jesus saves the party by turning water into wine, is an episode that has often been the backdrop for imagining the Jesus-and-John romance. Gerald Loughlin, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, tells us about a tradition in which John the Apostle is about to get married and Jesus crashes the wedding to convince John to follow him as a disciple instead. Loughlin describes a 12th-century miniature, “The Calling of St. John”, whose Latin text says to John: “Get up, leave the breast of your bride, and rest on the breast of the Lord Jesus. Writes Loughlin, “John leaves his betrothed to marry Jesus. It is Jesus and John who marry at Cana.”

In Scorsese’s film, Christ is celibate to the end, just like in the gospels, but he is living in a body that lusts and desires sex and intimacy. Defoe is helped in portraying this tension by the constant attention Scorsese pays to his body. Bleeding scratches from his labor mark his back; we see the nails of a heavy leather belt enter his flesh; we see him naked on the cross. Scene after scene reminds us that Jesus’s body is made to be touched and penetrated. Marcella Althaus-Reid remarks in her 2000 book Indecent Theology that there is an indecent excess of touching in the gospels: Jesus cures by touching, and beggars touch Jesus to attract his attention. Thomas had to feel with his finger the wound in his chest before he could believe the resurrection, and Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles. There is an eroticism in the gospels; a desire and openness to the possibility of intimacy with the other, that starts from a God who embodies love and becomes human not for his own pleasure, but to reach out to humanity. To the point that Christ is described as the bridegroom and his followers as the bride, there’s a consequent queering of gender that comes with an institution that can only be led by men.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.