At 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)|
|Clothing||linen with a belt of gold||long robe with a belt of gold|
|Face||like lightening||like the sun|
|Eyes||like flaming torches||like a flame of fire|
|Legs/feet||like burnished bronze||like burnished bronze|
|Voice||like the sound of a multitude||like the sound of many waters|
|Seer’s reaction||fell into a trance, face to the ground||fell at his feet as though dead|
|Divine response||hand touched him and told him not to fear||hand 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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