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Masculinities in the New Testament

Jesus as the Good Shepherd
Jesus as the Good Shepherd

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).

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    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.