Masculinities in the New Testament by Brittany E. Wilson

When we look at the New Testament, we find that there is no one view of what it means to “be a man.” Instead, the New Testament depicts various models of masculinity or various “masculinities.”

What masculinities do we find in the New Testament?

In some parts of the New Testament, masculinity is constructed according to elite standards that were prevalent at the time. Paul’s disputed letters—or letters that lack a scholarly consensus as to whether Paul actually wrote them or not—exemplify this type of masculinity in particular. Ephesians and Colossians, for instance, reflect hierarchal family structures that were typical among the elite when they provide instructions to members of the traditional household (Eph 5:21-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1). These instructions, known as “household codes,” address different members of the elite family, including the husband, wife, children, and slaves and assume that the husband is the head of the household.

This portrayal of masculine propriety, however, conflicts with portrayals that we find elsewhere in the New Testament. For one, Paul’s undisputed letters—or the letters that scholars agree were written by Paul—do not promote the traditional household. In 1 Corinthians, Paul prefers that Christians follow his example and remain unmarried (1Cor 7:8). Marriage is the default for Christians who are too weak to avoid the desires of the flesh (1Cor 7:9), and it can divide a man’s focus on pleasing God (1Cor 7:32-35). As Paul writes, “he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1Cor 7:38).

The four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) also present a different picture of masculinity, especially in how they depict Jesus. Like Paul, Jesus is an unmarried man. He leaves his hometown around the age of thirty (Luke 3:23)—the age when most men would get married—and begins his itinerant ministry with a band of women and men who have also left their families and hometowns behind. Jesus, then, fails to conform to elite masculine norms on this front. What is more, Jesus dies a shameful death when he is crucified. A man’s ability to protect his bodily boundaries was a cardinal rule of elite masculinity in the ancient world, yet Jesus violates this rule when he is nailed to a cross. The gospels, in other words, present an alternative version of masculinity in the person of Jesus that looks different from many elite ideals that were standard fare at the time.

Within the gospels, though, Jesus’s own masculinity varies depending on which gospel we read. The Gospels of Mark and John, for example, depict Jesus’s death in very different terms. Mark dwells more on Jesus’s bodily violation and lack of self-control, to the point where Jesus cries out in despair from the cross, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; cf. Matt 27:46). John, on the other hand, emphasizes that Jesus is in control of his death and that he endures his crucifixion without emotion or regret.

Yet to complicate matters even more, the same New Testament text can portray Jesus’s masculinity in different—and even conflicting—ways. The Gospel of John, for instance, presents Jesus more in accordance with elite standards, but this Jesus is also flogged, forced to wear a crown of thorns, and pierced in the side with a spear (John 19:1-5, John 19:34-37). In a similar vein, the book of Revelation likewise includes contradictory images of Jesus’s masculinity, for Jesus is portrayed both as a conquering hero and as a slaughtered lamb (e.g., Rev 5:6-14; Rev 19:11-16).

Brittany E. Wilson , "Masculinities in the New Testament", n.p. [cited 14 Nov 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/masculinities-in-the-new-testament

Contributors

wilson-brittany

Brittany E. Wilson
Assistant Professor of New Testament , Duke University Divinity School

Brittany E. Wilson is assistant professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. She is the author of Unmanly Men: Refigurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), as well as a number of articles on gender, masculinity, and the body in the New Testament.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Sets of instructions, most prominent in Ephesians and Colossians, that gave guidelines for behavior at home to different groups of people (e.g. husbands, wives, slaves, and masters).

Moving from place to place; lacking a permanent location.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

Eph 5:21-6:9

The Christian Household
21Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.22Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.23For the husband is ... View more

Col 3:18-4:1

Rules for Christian Households
18Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.19Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.20Childr ... View more

1Cor 7:8

8To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.

1Cor 7:9

9But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

1Cor 7:32-35

32I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord;33but the married man is anxious abou ... View more

1Cor 7:38

38So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

Luke 3:23

The Ancestors of Jesus
23Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli,

Mark 15:34

34At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matt 27:46

46And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

John 19:1-5

1Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.2And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe.3They kept co ... View more

John 19:34-37

34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe ... View more

Rev 5:6-14

6Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven ey ... View more

Rev 19:11-16

The Rider on the White Horse
11Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and ... View more

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