In Women and the Gender of God, author Amy Peeler points out that Jesus, born of Mary, is a human male. We’re comfortable with his humanness. In times of struggle and suffering we cry out to Jesus. It is his very humanity that gives us courage, as humans ourselves, to approach him in prayer. After all, the Hebrew writer argues that we have a Great High Priest, Jesus, who sympathizes with our every struggle even though he was perfectly obedient and sinless (Heb 4:14-15).
Peeler boldly asks questions regarding what this means for the universal church. Since Jesus’s “male embodiment was unlike any other naturally conceived male” (p 140), what significance is there in recognizing that Jesus “is male but unlike every other male” (p 144, my italics)? 1
I think most of the Christians in my small world would have no trouble accepting Peeler’s assertion: Jesus’s conception as Matthew and Luke attest, was unlike that of any other male’s conception, before or after that momentous time in the first century. So this adds nothing new to the gospel story we learned and continue to teach in our believing communities.
But the more I pondered Peeler’s work the more unsettled I became. I realized I knew little about the doctrine of the Incarnation – that moment when Jesus, the Son of God entered into time and history. I honestly hadn’t given it much thought because I just believed it – and that my friends, is a mistake!
Learning from Doctrine
The word doctrine itself raises the hair on the back of my neck. I often detect a sneer when it is spoken by others or written among certain scholars I’ve encountered. None of us, especially me, like to be told what to believe or think!
Doctrine invokes certainty, rules, authoritative teaching, hierarchical systems. Only the few who adhere to the doctrines are its warranted prophets and teachers. We enlightened ones – having shrugged off the idea of doctrine for the sake of free thought, self-expression, and the right to interpret written texts, such as Scripture as we desire – find ourselves reinventing the wheel, so to speak. That is a burdensome task!
By tossing out doctrine, for a fleeting sense of freedom in the expression of our faith, we failed to anticipate a time that would require a trek through the history of events, ideas, arguments, and resolutions that formed the very doctrines in the first place.
What I’m trying to say is that when studied with a critical eye and aided with Scripture study, the very doctrines of the past may be the very place to look for resolutions to the concerns of our day and age. Note my emphasis on may be.
We may discover to our dismay that it is the very doctrines of the past that have contributed to the problems we face today. If so, this requires a commitment on our part, in my mind at least, to review what is a faulty way of thinking in hopes of constructing a more sound, holistic, and truer-to-the Biblical-text interpretation – all the while holding our own work and viewpoints with an open hand with genuine humility in our heart.
In the Flesh
History proves Jesus was a real person who lived and died around 33 AD. That is an undisputed fact. For Christians it is his incarnation and resurrection – bookends of his story – that makes Jesus exceedingly more than just a person from the past that we honor and worship.
We acknowledge Jesus is unique by virtue of his unconventional, albeit, miraculous conception. If asked about this, we nod our head, admitting there are serious concerns as to how this miracle took place, but we’re taught it’s a mystery. With a gentle, paternal pat on the head, we’re told not to trouble our little minds over this. Just leave it at that. Trust your teachers, believe it, and trust it is so.
Throughout my reading on the subject of the incarnation I am surprised to find suggestions that our focus on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus comes at a great detriment to our understanding of the incarnation. Sermons abound on the death and resurrection of Jesus. So why might there be less attention to the incarnation?
Is it because the incarnation involves the subject of sex, women’s bodies, the messiness of birthing, the uncleanness of a woman’s body? Shame and sin? Is it because the incarnation takes us deep into the hidden world of pregnancy and midwifery, a place uncomfortable to most men? Or is it because the human male seed was unnecessary in the gospel story when Jesus is conceived? There’s plenty to think about and explore.
Too often I think, we are satisfied to dwell on the fact that Jesus is a human male just like every other human male, and we leave it at that. Except – Scripture teaches, and history reveals – this human male is unlike every male any of us have ever met or read about.
First Adam: A human like no other
Does the account of Jesus’s incarnation contain the clues to understanding our humanity? So who is this male – a male unlike any other male – and to whom can he be compared? Apostle Paul draws upon Adam as the one to whom he compares Jesus.
Before turning to the Pauline passages let’s take a look at this Adam from Genesis.
Scripture names this first man Adam. Adam is created like no other human after him. He is the only human crafted by God’s hands from dust of the newly created earth. The first woman, later called Eve, like Adam, comes into existence unlike all other females after her. All humans conceived and birthed after the first couple eventually die, returning to dust at death – except for Enoch, Elijah, and perhaps Melchizedek.
The first created being we call adam. The word used in the Hebrew text indicates humankind, a living being. The Septuagint (LXX) uses the Greek word anthrōpŏs, from which anthropology, the study of humanity/humankind comes. From Genesis 1 we learn that God’s plan is to create a humankind comprised of males and females with the end goal for all humanity to be in, or live as, God’s image, depending on which way we translate the text. The work begins with the first human pair – male and female (Gen 1:26-27).
Not until Gen 2:7 do we learn how this takes place. The first adam is fashioned – molded by hand from the dust, the stuff of the earth – into an object. Only after receiving the breath of life did the adam, fashioned from the ground, become a “living being” (Gen 2:7; 1 Cor 15:45a). 2 Some suggest adam possessed a material, physical body prone to decay even while in Eden. That’s not my concern here.
In Genesis we read of two accounts for the origins of humanity (Gen 1:27; 2:7; 2:21-22). In the first, a being – male/female – is created in the Creator’s image (Gen 1:27). In the second account, a being, formed from the dust of the ground, becomes alive after the ‘breath of life’ from the Creator filled his nostrils (Gen 2:7). Does the author of Genesis imagine the Creator with his mouth pressed tightly over the mouth of the inanimate object breathing life into the lump of clay? Or did he blow gently into the face of the created thing until it gasped, gulping in the breath of life?
Now alive, the first being is put into a deep sleep in order that woman can be drawn from his living being. In an odd twist a male gives birth to the first female. I know, that’s a bit uncomfortable to contemplate! We can blame our skittishness in this matter to birthing stories or recognize it’s our dogged determination to read the text in an ultra-literal way.
What the Genesis text helps us perceive is that the Jewish concept of God brings God close and personal, so close in fact that the first human experiences God’s presence when taking his first breath! God’s face is the first Adam sees. God’s face is the first Eve sees. What a beautiful picture of bonding and attachment of the first male and female to their Creator right after the moment of their birth! 3
We must repeatedly remind ourselves of this: God is neither male or female, nor is God human. Therefore we must recognize something sacred, profound, and mysterious is taking place. Maybe the account is teaching much more than what we dare (or even care) to think about.
Sandra Richter shows that Isaiah imagines the idol-making industry, and rightly so. But what we also see here is God performing the patient and arduous task of a midwife. The midwife’s tender fingers remove the mucous from the mouth and nostrils of the newly born. With a brisk swat to the bottom, she rejoices when the first gasp deeply inhales that first gulp of air necessary for life.
Clearly, this God is unlike all other gods!
Second Adam: A human like no other
The second Adam however came from heaven and not from the dust of the ground, being formed by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb (Matt 1:20; Luke 1:35, 1 Cor 15:47b). The closest thing to physical matter, to the dust of the earth for Jesus was Mary’s womb.
So here we note that Jesus’s birth – the means of his coming into earthly existence – is radically other than our way of entering into our earthly presence.
Paul looks back through the ancient mytho-historical account in Genesis in order to compare the first human being Adam (anthrōpŏs) with Jesus, the second Adam. 4 In his discourse about the origin of death through the first Adam’s sin (Rom 5:12) Paul’s use of the Genesis 3 account reveals his view that sin entered into our physical, material world through the first Adam’s (anthropos) disobedience, thus setting the first anthrōpŏs uniquely different, and in opposition to the second anthrōpŏs, Jesus Christ.
In the account of the creation, if it is so that the first female is birthed from the first male, as noted above, we might wonder if Paul has both male and female in mind? I’ll save that for another time.
In looking at the Genesis account of the origin of humanity, we note a similarity between the two. By comparing the first Adam with Jesus, the second Adam, we discover both Adams come into their earthly and historical existence in extraordinarily, unique ways from the rest of all humanity before or after them.
The similarity ends there and the contrasts begin.
One disobeyed. The other perfectly obeyed. One brought death to all and died after 930 years, returning to the dust of the ground (Romans 5:12). This second lived a short life, suffered a brutal death at a young age, only to be resurrected into an incorruptible body for all eternity.
Our Priest: A priest like no other
I’m a female who is committed to following the Second Adam, who is Jesus Christ. Yet, if I’m honest, I sense more of a kinship with the first adam than I do with the second adam. I’m more attached to my humanity than I care to admit. My earthly nature is slowly being replaced by the one inherited from Christ. I long to know the One from above while doggedly seeking to shun the one from below.
How is it possible, then, that the second Adam – a male born from above so perfect and whole, who sits at the right hand of the Father as our High Priest – is able to relate to my femaleness as the Hebrew writer claims he does?
Peeler’s assertion: Jesus is a male unlike every other male compels me to think deeper, to ask more questions regarding the teachings and doctrines of incarnation. How could this Jesus born of a woman be truly human if not conceived and born human like you and I?
Jesus is human and male through a means distinctly different than that of the first adam in Genesis two. And for certain, he is radically different than every other human born thereafter. No doubt there are clues yet to be uncovered. But here again is my conundrum.
Human: like the rest of us
I’m struck again with how this begs another important question. We humans have tried repeatedly, and it seems unsatisfactorily to answer it. What do we mean by the word human? Who is human? What is a human? We are having a tough time determining who we are and what it means to be humans.
Ironically, some of my internet encounters reveal that something is out there – this non-living entity, this non-human thing – and it (not it’s non-humanness!) is more adept at detecting if a real human is accessing their program. When it determines I’m un-human, it locks me out of the system! I’m really curious what criteria it uses to sift the real from the bogus human trying to access the program!
So, who might be the first, real human? We’ve learned of the first and second Adams, both uniquely born. So, could it be that the first human being who was conceived as we are – via male and female copulation and delivered through the birth canal – is the one called Cain, the first recorded and named male conceived and born outside of Eden with Yahweh’s help, a picture of God’s presence out in the world east of Eden (Gen 4:1)?
Does the account of Cain given above hint that entering the world via the female birth canal is what it takes to qualify being genuinely human? It’s worth considering.
What kind of human was Cain? He is the first to murder, the first to be exiled farther from God’s presence than even his parents. Could Cain, who murdered his younger brother (Gen 4:1-8), be a truer representative of historical humanity than even that of his father Adam?
Can a human – who is unlike the rest of us everyday, common humans – function as our perfect high priest? The author of Hebrews argues that this is precisely why we needed a new High priest. All other humans failed – either by dying or by corruption.
I’m not sure I’ve wrapped my head around the profundity of this. But this one thing I know, the doctrine of incarnation matters more than I realized.
Hopefully by studying the works of those who wrestled with this subject in the past will reveal insights into how better to understand Jesus’s humanity in light of his divinity for today.
- See Amy Peeler, Women and the Gender of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2022).
- Several OT and Ancient Near Eastern scholars claim this story of the shaping of the human to be similar to the methods used in the manufacturing of idols. Take time to watch Sandra Richter’s, “The Servant, the Idol, & the Image of God: Isaiah’s Conversation with the Creation Account.”
- The Biblical text says no one has seen the face of God and lived, yet this origin story seems to reveal someone has. There could be clues deep within in this mytho-history that will help us work out what it means to be human. But that is not for this short essay.
- See Part 2, pages 35-204 in William Lane Craig’s book, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration,” (Eerdmans, 2021) in order to understand how the concept of mytho-history gives insight into interpreting the first 11 chapters of Genesis.