Rock Me, Sexy Jesus: The Simmering Cinematic Sexuality of Christ
Rock-hard, washboard abs covered in sun-kissed, often dirt-sprinkled skin. Shoulder-length chestnut waves straight out of a Pantene commercial. A slightly scruffy hipster beard. Sandals, robes, and blue eyes the color of Heaven.
That’s right, it’s Hollywood Jesus.
Or Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’d be forgiven for confusing the two.
Hollywood has a long history of sexualizing everything, and the Son of God is no exception. Besides making him as conventionally attractive as possible, movies have also fetishized Christ. Some films explore the possibility of him having a sexual side, while others fixate on his purity.
While it’s not difficult to see why most of the men cast as Christ have been good-looking, they do all fit a bizarrely Anglo mold. John Drew Barrymore, Robert Powell, Liam Neeson, Chris Sarandon, Willem Dafoe, Christian Bale, Jim Caviezel, Rodrigo Santoro, Joaquin Phoenix, and even Ewan McGregor/Obi-Wan himself have all played Jesus of Nazareth. With few exceptions, they are all the kinds of young men your average grandmother would find handsome, with shredded bods the likes of Marvel superheroes. The trope has gained enough notoriety to inspire gags in several comedies, including the song “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” in Hamlet 2 (2008).
Where did blue-eyed, surfer-bro Jesus come from? Did Jesus have a sexuality? Was Jesus hot? Or is it simply a matter of sex selling – even in movies about the Son of God?
The Temptation of Christ
The most obvious place to look for evidence of Christ’s sexuality is during his temptation by Satan during the 40 days he fasted in the desert. Told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Temptation of Christ details three times that Satan tested Jesus – with hedonism, egoism, and materialism. Hedonism includes all kinds of physical satisfaction, including sexual. Many filmmakers gloss over the sexual aspect of his temptation, using imagery or allegory to depict it instead.
In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), Jesus (Jim Caviezel) struggles in the wilderness when he is tempted by Satan in the form of an androgynous figure. Gibson’s Satan is eerily beautiful, and the temptation it offers is a simple one – for Christ to give up his suffering. Abandoning his ministry and living a human life would offer him pleasure and joy, and that’s the bait Satan dangles. Gibson doesn’t flesh the idea out much further, but Satan’s androgyny (and female casting) adds a layer of forbidden sexuality to the concept of evil.
Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert (2015) focuses entirely on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Ewan McGregor plays Yeshua as he resists the devil’s temptations. The Devil in Garcia’s film is also portrayed by McGregor, implying interesting things about how sin is a reflective mechanism. In order to sin, you must understand that you have sinned. Yeshua’s trials in Last Days in the Desert deal with daddy issues and desires for individuality, exploring similar themes to the temptation in The Passion of the Christ.
The most infamous example of Christ’s attempted seduction by Satan appears in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). In Last Temptation, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is told by a little girl that she is his guardian angel, God is pleased with him, and he doesn’t have to carry through with the crucifixion. Given God’s track record with Abraham and Isaac, a last minute “gotcha” doesn’t seem that far-fetched to Jesus, who marries Mary Magdalene. She dies and he remarries, taking Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, as wives. They have many children and he lives happily ever after… until he’s an old man and sees the destruction of all mankind because of his failure to sacrifice himself.
Scorsese’s Christ isn’t just tempted by independence and a free life; he’s tempted by sex and love as well. He ends up overcoming his “last temptation” of having a wife and family and dies on the cross as was intended. It’s haunting to imagine the struggle of any martyr, let alone one who believes/knows they are truly the child of God.
It’s worth noting that nearly all depictions of Christ’s temptation have him resisting a desire for individuality. Christ’s greatest temptation is being allowed to be his own person. Instead of being God embodied as a man, he wishes to simply be a man.
The Possible Partners of Christ
Scorsese’s Last Temptation posits romance between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, even before his final confrontation with the devil. Following Mary Magdalene’s sudden death, he marries both Mary and Martha of Bethany. Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are often conflated in popular culture. Biblically, Mary Magdalene is not the prostitute who washed Christ’s feet in John 12:1-8, but rather a woman of independent wealth who accompanies Christ and his disciples. The Mary who anoints Christ’s feet when he visits their home is Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany. (Lazarus is the man who Christ raises from the dead as the seventh miracle that points to his ascension as the son of God.)
While many films have postulated on Mary Magdalene’s role in Christ’s life, few gained the notoriety of The DaVinci Code (2006). Ron Howard’s mystery-thriller argued that the Holy Grail was a euphemism for Mary herself, and that she was the wife of Jesus. The film (and its source novel) were banned in at least 10 countries. Scholars continue to argue the possibility of Mary being Christ’s wife, though most view it to be entirely apocryphal.
There is another, even more controversial theory about Christ’s sexuality that has only been obliquely teased in cinema: that Christ was romantically and sexually involved with one of his disciples, namely the “disciple He loved.” This figure, referenced only in the Gospels of John, is one of Christ’s closest confidantes. This disciple was the first to reach his empty tomb after the ascension, the one to ask about Judas’ eventual betrayal, and the one to recite the gospels of John. There are two primary candidates for Christ’s most beloved disciple: John the Apostle and Lazarus of Bethany.
Given Scorsese’s take on Christ’s relationship with Martha and Mary of Bethany, it’s not a stretch to imagine a similar relationship between Jesus and Lazarus. After all, love would compel a man to raise someone from the dead. In The Mystery of the Beloved Disciple: New Evidence, Complete Answer, theologian Frederick W. Baltz argues that Lazarus is the beloved disciple, and that the John who penned the gospels was Lazarus nephew, the son of Martha.
The more common consensus, argued since the second century CE, is that John the Apostle was Christ’s beloved disciple. Many argue that because John is often depicted resting his head on Christ’s breast, the two were much closer than Christ was with any of his other disciples. Famed 16th-century dramatist Christopher Marlowe stated that "St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ…and that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma.” Marlowe was eventually tried for his perceived blasphemy, as well as his own homosexual behavior, before being mysteriously murdered.
Regardless of who Jesus took as a lover, it’s worth contemplating Jesus as having a sexuality at all. Western puritanism has so often portrayed him as completely celibate and void of desire that imagining a Jesus with human sexual desires might make some uncomfortable. Despite wanting a celibate, sexually pure Christ figure, there’s still a strange tendency to make him conventionally attractive.
Christ as a Man
Despite being the central figure of the entire New Testament, Christ’s physical description is scant in Biblical texts. Besides a description of his appearance during Revelations (complete with eyes of fire), the only description of Jesus’ looks isn’t exactly inspiring:
He hath no form nor comeliness,
And when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
Isaiah 53:2 (King James Version)
There is a mention of the fairness of the people of the Nazarene, but that’s not a good enough excuse for the menagerie of blue-eyed, wavy-haired white men who have portrayed him. If we consider Jesus as a historical figure, he would likely look like other Jewish men from the region. He most likely had features that Americans associate with the Middle East, including darker skin, eyes, and hair. If the biblical description is to be taken at face value, he was not handsome in any way.
Where then did this hyper-sexualized but still virginal version of white boy Christ come from?
The earliest depictions of Christ as a figure of beauty come from 12th and 13th-century painters. Following these early renditions of a more realistic looking Christ figure (as opposed to a flat icon), Renaissance painters developed their own view of Jesus that led to the iconography of today.
The painters of the Renaissance were among the first to depict Christ nude or nearly nude, with flowing hair, a trimmed beard, and pale flesh. Michelangelo, Bouguereau, Bronzino (painting pictured) and others were heavily criticized for their attractive depictions of God’s son during their lives. However, these paintings became the inspiration for our modern interpretation of Christ’s appearance, for better or worse. These are our first thirsty depictions of the Lord, and they call into question our own desires. If these painters were condemned for painting Jesus in such a sexualized way, then the argument that Hollywood Jesus is hot only because sex sells is debunked. Instead, it seems, we’ve always been a little thirsty for Jesus.
It’s not just his rockin’ bod and gorgeous hair we’re attracted to, either. It’s the idea of a person who accepts us for who we are and loves us, unconditionally. Just like every preteen girl with a crush on Christ, we all long for that kind of acceptance.
According to scripture, Christ was God made mortal, the Holy Spirit incarnate in a man’s body. Jesus is the answer to the question “What if God was one of us?” and that means He can have a sexual identity and be accepted, too.
Danielle Ryan is a freelance writer with a passion for things that make people uncomfortable. A cinephile before she could walk, she writes for /Film, Daily Grindhouse, Birth.Movies.Death, and others. She also occasionally guests on podcasts, where you can hear just how fluently she swears. Her current obsession is how horror cinema allows us to examine race, gender, and sexuality and understand viewpoints quite different from our own. You can find her on twitter @danirat.