Jesus and gender in Revelation

Le-Christ-tenant-le-livre-aux-7-sceaux-et-les-7-étoiles-debout-devant-les-7-chandeliers-Vitrail-de-l-Apocalypse-Cathédrale-de-BourgesAt the Society of Biblical Literature annual conference in Atlanta last week, I attended several papers on the Book of Revelation. The one that I have continued to think about—and which provoked most merriment when I reported it on Facebook—looked at the question of whether Jesus has breasts in Revelation 1.13 (given by Sarah Shier from  Trinity College, Dublin). In case you have already switched off, please bear with me. Exploring this issue raises some central questions about what kind of text Revelation is, what it is doing, and how we read it. (I should say from the beginning that the title of this piece is wrong; the question is not so much Jesus ‘gender’ as masculine or feminine, but his ‘sex’ as male or female. But if I had ‘sex’ in the title it would be even more confusing.)

The verse in question is translated thus in English (TNIV):

…and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.

But the Greek for the last phrase is ‘periezosmenon pros tois mastois zonen chrusan‘, ‘wrapped-around at the breasts a-belt gold.’

The question is: how should we interpret the word mastoi, (from which we get the word ‘mastitis’ and ‘mastectomy’) meaning breasts or chest.

There are several places to look to explore this.

1. The etymology of the word comes from the verb masaomai which means ‘to gnaw’ or ‘to chew’.

2. Louw and Nida, the lexicon based on semantic domains of words (in contrast to traditional lexicons) comments:

the breast of both humans and animals, with special reference to the mammary glands — ‘breast.’

3. This is supported by the two other occurrences in the NT elsewhere:

‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and blessed are the breasts (mastoi) which you sucked’ (Luke 11.27; most ETs are rather more circumspect in their language).

For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts (mastoi) that never nursed!’ (Luke 23.29)

4. BDAG Lexicon does give examples of the use of ‘breast’ in relation to men and women, but one of the prominent examples is in fact Rev 1.13, so there is a danger here of circular reasoning.

5. Of the 37 occurrences of the word in the Greek OT (the Septuagint, LXX), all are used to refer to the breasts of women. This is important because word usage in the LXX is likely to have affected word usage in the NT.

6. The more common word for ‘chest’ is stethos from which we get ‘stethoscope’ and (in a roundabout way) ‘sternum’.

All this is fairly compelling evidence on the meaning of the word. It appears to have a similar semantic range to the English ‘breast’ which we can find used archaically to refer to men’s chests, but which predominantly refers to women. But there are further issues to consider.

First is the contrast with Rev 15.6, where seven angels emerge from the temple similarly clad, but in this case with the gold belts around their stephos and not their mastoi.

Second is to consider the origin of the vision in Rev 1. The meaning of Revelation is often highly contested, because the imagery comes from at least three different sources—the OT, first century culture, and John’s understanding of Jesus—and these are often intertwined and in some tension. In this case, the vision of Jesus in Rev 1 combines features of the vision of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7 and the vision of the encouraging angel in Daniel 10. In this way, John appears to be communicating that Jesus is both the messenger of God but the presence of God himself at the same time.

You can see how closely Rev 1 follows Dan 10 in particular:

Daniel’s vision (10:5-6)John’s vision (1:12-18)
Clothinglinen with a belt of goldlong robe with a belt of gold
Facelike lighteninglike the sun
Eyeslike flaming torcheslike a flame of fire
Legs/feetlike burnished bronzelike burnished bronze
Voicelike the sound of a multitudelike the sound of many waters
Seer’s reactionfell into a trance, face to the groundfell at his feet as though dead
Divine responsehand touched him and told him not to fearhand touched him and told him not to fear

But at Rev 1.13, the gold belt from Dan 10.5 has moved from the waist to the mastoi. In other words, this looks like a deliberate change and so a deliberate choice of word.

There is some debate about the significance of the use of the imagery from Daniel. Greg Beale argues that it portrays Jesus as both king and priest, but David Aune argues that the imagery is not at all that of a priest. In her paper, Shier notes (as Aune did some years ago) that Jesus in Revelation uses the language of pagan goddesses to describe himself; ‘I am coming quickly’ (Rev 2.16, 3.11, 22.7, 22.12) and ‘I have the keys to death and Hades’ (Rev 1.18) have been stolen from the cult of Hecate. Aune in fact notices in passing that Mithras is depicted in a similar way, but he does not make much of it. In other words, this is god/goddess imagery, and not priestly. If Jesus has breasts, then it is because part of the vision is that he takes the place of pagan goddesses, claiming to do what they do.

We shouldn’t really be too worried about this flexibility of sex identity in Revelation. After all, the 144,000 apparently male martyr-warriors in chapter 14 (who were counted in chapter 7) are in fact (female) ‘virgins’ in Rev 14.4. More widely, we should remember that the NT is rather less bothered about the sex of Jesus than we often are. When Paul talks of Jesus as the first Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Cor 15, he must be referring to Jesus as the first human and not as the first male, since he clearly includes women amongst those who die because of sin and shall be made alive because of redemption. Similarly, in 2 Cor 11.3, Eve is an archetype for men as much as women of people who are deceived. (And, once more, the men as well as women are to be presented to husband Christ as a (female) virgin.) The depiction of Jesus as the personification of the woman wisdom from Proverbs 8 underlies much of the language of John 1, and we probably have an allusion to that in Rev 3.14 (‘the origin of creation’, compare Prov 8.22).

Perhaps the most striking example of female imagery for Jesus comes in 1 Peter 2.2-3:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,  now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Peter here is making a pun on Ps 34.8, ‘Taste and see that the LORD is good.’ Instead of calling God ‘good’ agathos, he calls him ‘kind’, chrestos, evoking the title of Jesus Christos. Be like babies at the breast of God, since the milk you have tasted from his breasts is the kindness we find in Jesus.

What do we learn from this in our reading of Revelation?

First, it is worth noting the importance of careful attention to the text itself, and what it actually says (mastoi) rather than what we think it says or what it ought to say (stethos). In that regard, feminist readings are particularly helpful, since they look again at things that we might have overlooked, especially if we are reading through male spectacles. Shier went on in her paper to suggest that, in some sense or other, the Jesus of chapter 1 ‘steals’ the breasts from frustrated mother goddess in ch 12, who now has no child to feed—which I found rather less convincing. Here the reading has moved from attention to the text to an ideological critique of the text from the perspective of the reader, which I find usually tells me more about the reader than anything else.

But noting the language here reminds us that John does not appear simply to be writing down something he saw as if it was like a picture before him. The language of ‘seeing’ has very broad connotations—’I see what you mean’, ‘I was blind but now I see’, or from Avatar ‘I see you’—and it is sometimes hard to pin down what is going on. What does it mean to ‘see’ something in a dream or vision? How does that compare with the mundane ‘seeing’ of everyday life? To imagine that John is describing to us an audio-visual presentation that passes before him is unnecessarily naive. Every term in his vision is laden with theological meaning. When he ‘sees’ one ‘like a son of man’, he is not seeing a human figure but is theologically understanding Jesus as the Son of Man from Daniel 7 who was handed over, crucified, and raised in vindication, now come on the clouds to the Ancient of Days and seated at his right hand (Acts 7.29). This vision of Jesus is a composite symbolic theology—a compelling picture using the rhetorical device of ekphrasis, the description of a real or imagined work of art.

Revelation is indeed a ‘strange’ book—but as we look closely and encounter its strangeness, we find new levels of meaning and significance. As we lean on these ancient doors of knowledge, we find they slowly ease open to reveal a sparkling treasury of wisdom.

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19 thoughts on “Jesus and gender in Revelation”

    • Quick off the mark Peter! Good morning/evening to you!

      Yes it might–I haven’t really thought that through. But I suppose that it does mean we need to be careful not to project our hopes of a gender (sex) binary on the future too much.

      For that reason, I am probably going to be giving the Tyndale NT lecture next July on ‘Are we sexed in heaven?’….

  1. LSJ notes usage for “the man’s breast”, and also the contrast with MAZOS (which is very relevant to weighing up the alternative reading in Alexandrinus – presumably this was discussed in the paper?).
    The MASTOI here are covered (?) by the golden sash/belt – what is the significance of that?

    • ‘presumably this was discussed in the paper?’ Gosh, I am impressed with the high expectations you have of a feminist reading of the text…!!

      Yes, LSJ notes a number of examples, which I suspect are similar to the ones in BDAG (don’t have it open just now). But

      . it notes that it is more frequently of women
      . LXX is universal in only using it of women
      . rest of NT uses stethos for men, as does Rev 15.6

      So it is a bit like me saying ‘Gosh, this jumper is a little tight around my breasts’. It is an odd usage, and calls attention.

      Then you add the fact that John has both changed Dan 10.5 and differentiated it from Rev 15.6, and placed it next to a claim of Jesus stolen from the goddess Hecate, and I think you have something.

      I am not sure their is any significance to the mastoi being ‘covered’ by the gold belt; here John is simply using the language from LXX. He is following Theodotion, which appears to be closer to the sense of the Hebrew than Old Greek is. The sense just appears to be ‘wrapped around’.

  2. Hmmm, so if there does turn out to be a god after all, and he’s an apparition of intersex loveliness, I just wonder if all the hatred and persecution endured by the LGBT community down the cenfuries might not be worrh it just for a glimpse of the pure horror and panic on the faces of conservative Christians as they grovel before the Throne.

    There you were expecting a beardy Gandalf and what do you get? Caitlyn Jenner instead!

    If I ever get to witness that, thank god I’ll already be dead because otherwise I’d just keel over. What mortal man’s heart could possibly stand the strain of that much Schadenfreude?

    • Disappointed in this rather cheap shot Etienne—not up to your usual standard!

      It is only an ‘apparition of intersex loveliness’ if you take sex as literal and as fundamental to identity, and of course the scriptures do neither.

      Literalising the text is something that plagues feminist and gender-studies readings of Revelation, and it is a basic mistake. It is in fact a problem with all reader-centred approaches; they fail to take the text seriously in its own term, but instead impose the prejudices of the reader (hence my passing comment about this near the end.)

  3. It’s interesting to contrast this vision with that of Stephen Hawking, who supports the recent Breakthrough Initiatives commitment of $100 million to search the universe for hitherto undiscovered communications from aliens.

    There is also a complementary Breakthough Message initiative to study the ethics of communicating with hitherto undiscovered alien life.

    A prize pot of $1 million to digital message that could be transmitted from Earth to a hitherto undiscovered extraterrestrial civilization.

    Just don’t tell the atheists, like Stephen Hawking, that, after Voyager and SETI, ‘hitherto undiscovered’ is a euphemism for means non-existent. It would destroy their faith!

  4. Looking at some lexicons including BDAG and a few commentaries on Reveltion (Aune in Word being one of them) it seems like stethos and mastos are nearly interchangeable in fairly contemporary literature with both being translated as either chest or breast. Aune does exactly that with 15:6 in his discussion of 1:13, “their breasts girded with golden girdles.” BDAG lists several extrabiblical texts where mastos is used in a male sense so there is linguistic support for this.

    “First, it is worth noting the importance of careful attention to the text itself, and what it actually says (mastoi) rather than what we think it says or what it ought to say (stethos).”

    Against what I am saying is the LXX that seems to be pretty unanimous so you may have a point. Just thinking this through a bit. I hope that makes sense.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Matt. By way of brief response:

      1. I am not sure that the lexicons support the idea of their interchangeability. Louw and Nida, looking at semantic domains, are quite clear that mastos has female breasts in view (if you will pardon the expression).

      2. I don’t want to succumb to the ‘genetic fallacy’, but we can hardly *ignore* the etymology of the word.

      3. Both these points are supported very strongly by the differentiated use in both NT and LXX. These are culturally much closer than the classical examples in e.g. BADG, so are arguably more relevant.

      4. I am unclear how well the commentaries support this. On what grounds does Aune choose not to discriminate between the two phrases in 1.13 and 15.6—other than laziness or carelessness?

      5. To ignore John’s amendment of the text in Dan 10.5 and the differentiation from 15.6, you would need to argue that John is careless in his choice of words—and there isn’t much evidence to support that thesis!

  5. Isaiah 60:16 says: “You will also suck the milk of nations and suck the breast of kings” (NASB)

    I have always regarded that as purely metaphorical and doesn’t imply that gentile kings will one day be female and will literally exude milk from their nipples. I think it just means that kings and mighty nations will provide you with the choicest of their goods to satisfy your every need; you will be provided for as amply and richly as a child drinking milk from its mother. I don’t see anything more is implied about the Lord Jesus in Rev.1:13 than that he is the source of all our spiritual life and nourishment. Some of the imagery in Revelation is impossible to visualise because John blends contradictory features without being embarrassed by his illogicality, eg. the Lion of the tribe of Judah who is also a Lamb, and the saints washing their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.

    One question that crosses my mind is, independently of the particular Greek word John used to refer to Jesus’ chest/breast, what is the significance of anyone wearing a sash around that part of the body rather than the waist? Was it an exclusively feminine mode of attire?

    • Phil, that is a fascinating verse—thanks very much. It is a great parallel to this one—and it does make me wonder why some of my friends get so upset at this kind of symbolic imagery.

      I entirely agree with you about aspects of Revelation being impossible to visualise, and I do feel frustrated when readers continue to insist that John simply wrote down what he saw as if he were walking around the National Gallery describing actual pictures. The simple remedy to that in conversation is to ask the group if any of them have had a vision, and ask them to recount it.

      I think that wearing a belt or sash around the breasts is quite common for goddesses—I seem to remember this on statues of Athena. But it is not unique to them. A quick image search for Mithra reveals the same for him, and this is the example that Aune notes.

    • Phil, I agree that Revelations is not literal in the sense of simple observation (and with Ian’s analogy of observing the National Gallery), but I wonder whether the category of “pure metaphor” is helpful here. While few people would think of heavenly beings as having a physicality which is exactly like those of mammals, I think both masculine and feminine languages and images concerning heavenly beings can point to important beliefs and truths, beyond mere metaphor.

      In coming to conclusions concerning meanings of biblical texts, it’s often, imho, not a choice between one or the other. A rich variety of meanings and realities can be indexed in mystical texts.

  6. Thank you Ian for your answer. And I agree this is a stimulating exercise, not only because of the light it throws on Rev.1:13 but also because it demonstrates a principle of hermeneutics that is applicable to other parts of the Bible.

    Not sure if this is relevant but Exodus 28:29 says: “Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment over his heart when he enters the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually” (NASB). John Gill’s commentary says that according to Josephus, the high priest’s garment was girt about the breast, a little below the arm holes. Gill continues: “As a priest, Christ’s girdle is the girdle of love; it is that which has constrained him to put himself in the room and stead of his people, to assume their nature, give himself a sacrifice for them, and intercede on their behalf… It is said to be a girdle about the paps, near where is the heart, the seat of love; and this may also denote the … readiness of Christ to assist and help his churches in every time of need.”

    That may be a little fanciful and slightly contradicts the scholarly findings of Aune etc. But I just wanted to keep this intellectual discussion bathed in worship of our wonderful Saviour.

  7. Thank you, Ian, for a fascinating post. I’ve been interested for some time in the question as to whether breasts are ascribed to El Shaddai/Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures, though the case has yet to be put convincingly either way.

  8. Perhaps varying Phil McCheddar’s second comment a bit: could 1:13 be (for whatever reason) ‘location specific’? The first (school) dictionary within reach refers to Xenophon’s Anabasis, 4,3,5, which I assume is what is translated “At this point the Hellenes endeavoured to cross, but on their making the attempt the water proved to be more than breast-deep” by Dakyns. (And, is ‘mastoi’ more ‘location specific’ than ‘stethos’?)

  9. Very interesting post! And the discussion is thought provoking. Taking a bit of a look forward in biblical reception history, St. Hippolytus, in his commentary On the Song of Songs, does a nice bit of interpretive cross gendering for Jesus in the interpretation of the “mastoi” of the male lover. The Hebrew text, of course has “dodim,” (love making), whereas the LXX reads “dadim” (breasts). So, in commenting on the Song 1:1, 2 he says: “I have loved your breasts more than wine.” Not that [wine] that is mixed by Christ, but the [wine] that of old made Noah slow witted by intoxication, and which deceived Lot, “more than this wine do we love your fountains of milk,” for the breasts through Christ were the two commandments. It makes one joyful, but not in order to make one confused. Indeed (lit. also) for this very reason the apostle says, “Do not be drinking too much wine to the point of intoxication.” So, Hippolytus is very explicit that the breasts of Jesus are fountains of milk. It would be a mistake, however, to consider such androgyny in human, sexual terms. Rather, the image of the philosophical
    teacher as “wet nurse,” well known from the New Testament, is more likely the idea. The philosophical teacher often presented himself as an emissary from heaven. They called their followers to adopt a dramatically different way of life from their fellows.

    The Christian use of graphic representations of Christ with androgynous, Dionysiac or Apollonian characteristics has beenlong documented. Christ appears in representations with protruding breasts and long, curly hair in images of fourth and fifth century iconography, leading some scholars to think such representations were depictions of women in some cases. Irenaeus, reports that such images were used by at least one type of Christian group in Rome from the late second century at the latest. Some scholars have suggested that this type of image emerged in heterodox circles. Nevertheless, as Clement of Alexandria illustrates, the image of the androgyne had a an honored place in Christian teaching, appearing as an important symbol, both of the gentleness of Christ as teacher, as previously seen, and of the restoration of original humanity in Christ, beginning with Paul and the Pauline churches (Gal 3:25–27). Specifically here, as Jensen summarizes: “Apollo and Dionysus iconographic types … share feminine attributes seen in … youthful Jesus images, including the round shoulders, small but obvious breasts, wide hips, and full cheeks of the nearly hermaphroditic figures described by Euripides, Ovid, Diodorus, and Seneca or portrayed in classical iconography.” As Robin Jensen suggests, androgynous representations of Jesus were consistent with the portraiture of savior deities in the Hellenistic mystery cults. Hippolytus’ depiction of Christ in such terms might represent his attempt at relevance for his audience. And, I think there is ample first century evidence in domestic iconography to say that John was likely reaching for relevance to his context as well in hinting at an androgynous Christ. However, he was also likely borrowing from well-known iconography and hallowed philosophical and pastoral tradition. Such iconography in domestic contexts would have been an impressive link with both Revelation and the Song—read in Greek—to the believers who had been religiously nurtured in paganism. John and Hippolytus made use of such images to co-opt the divine attributes of familiar deities and other cultural forms, transforming them into attributes of Christ and even of themselves as a church leaders who represented Christ to the people.


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