What Jesus said and did when he was alive is, quite clearly, a subject of great interest to Christians today. And the New Testament tells us a great deal about some of the details of Jesus’ life: he was circumcised, he was rude to his parents, he walked around (sometimes on water), he rode donkeys, he cried, he got angry, and he shared meals with his followers. The Bible says absolutely nothing about Jesus’ sex life (although Dan Brown has hypothesized quite enough about that already), but it’s equally silent on the question of digestion. Everybody poops, but did Jesus?
If you’re thinking, “Yes, he was a human being, But oh my G-o-d why are you bringing this up? Talking about Jesus’ bowel movements is like discussing my parent’s sex life,” then that’s understandable. But if it seems like we at The Daily Beast have jumped the shark this week, then you’ll be interested to know that this was a centuries-long debate among the Church Fathers, for whom digestion was often a much more important question than sex.
In the second century a popular Christian teacher named Valentinus wrote in a letter to a man called Agathopous that Jesus “was continent, enduring all things. (The risen) Jesus digested divinity: he ate and drank in a special way without excreting his solids. He had such a great capacity for continence that the nourishment within him was not corrupted, for he did not experience corruption.” In other words Jesus was special and never defecated although, as scholar Christoph Markschies has written, Valentinus was talking about Jesus after his resurrection so we are already in “special” territory.
At the time Valentinus was a priest and a teacher in Rome. At one point he even came close to being elected the bishop of Rome (you know, the role of the pope). Later, at the insistence of those who disagreed with him, he would be removed from his position and, later still, condemned as a heretic. For many, though, as Dr. Stephen Young of Appalachian State University told The Daily Beast, he was “a popular Christian teacher who offered one among several competing ‘deeper’ understandings of Jesus and God… [a bit] like contemporary Christian teachers who aren't so much pastors of specific churches but … who attract the interest of Christians from all sorts of different Evangelical churches or denominations.” It’s not really fair to dismiss him out of hand as a heretic.
Still, you’re thinking, Valentinus turned out to be a heretic, so maybe his opinion doesn’t count? Perhaps, but there were other “orthodox” Christians who agreed with Valentinus on this point. Ismo Dunderberg, a professor at the University of Helsinki and author of Beyond Gnosticism, pointed out that the orthodox Christian philosopher and teacher Clement of Alexandria (now a saint, if that matters to you), agreed: “The one point that Clement agreed with Valentinus on was that Jesus didn’t do number two.” Clement also wrote that Jesus being divine didn’t have to eat but he did so to avoid giving the impression that he wasn’t human.
Why is everyone talking about this? Well there’s a lot at stake here. Much of early Christian theological debate is taken up with the issue of how Jesus is both a god and a human being. Early on there were some early Christians who thought that Jesus only “seemed” to have a human body but in reality was a god. You can see why Christians who held this position thought Jesus never went to the bathroom. This position, which is known as Doceticism, would come to be rejected as heresy, but those who wanted to argue that Jesus was truly human have to explain how the combination of humanity and divinity works. While they are doing that they are also trying to avoid the idea that the divinity in Jesus is somehow defiled by or corrupted by all the disgusting aspects of human bodies. Excrement, in particular, was just the kind of disgusting thing that people wanted to avoid.
As late as the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., a period when pretty much all Christians agree that Jesus had a real human body, Christians are still debating the poop question. Epiphanius, a late fourth century monk and bishop who spent a great deal of his time denouncing heretics, denies that Jesus ever eliminated solid waste (Panarion 77). Kelley Spoerl, a professor at St. Anselm College and the author of several important articles on this subject, told me that what’s interesting is the context in which Epiphanius does this. During this section of the Panarion he was fighting with a group of Christians known as Apollinarians. Apollinarians believed that Jesus did not have a rational human soul and Epiphanius (and all modern Christians) strongly rejected this idea. Where Epiphanius was willing to agree with the Apollinarians was on the question of bathroom visits. As Spoerl told me: “Epiphanius agrees with those Apollinarians who think Jesus did not excrete solid waste even though he disagrees with their other theories about Jesus’s lack of a rational human soul or the claim that Jesus’s body/flesh is somehow different from ours.” So once again you have theologians who disagree on other points of this issue ‘reaching across the aisle’ on the question of digestion.
What’s uniting these conversations about Jesus’ digestion, Spoerl told me “is a clear desire to affirm the historical, physical reality of Jesus’s body—but, in Epiphanius’s case, to avoid the perceived defilement that the body brings”
In order to make his case Epiphanius appeals to another well-known case in which people may not have excreted, namely, the Moses-led Israelites who wandered in the wilderness eating manna supplied by God. Rabbinic interpretations of what happened in the wilderness maintained that as the Israelites were eating “the bread of angels” (manna) they didn’t excrete it because it was “bread that is absorbed in the limbs” (Sifré to Numbers 88). Though Epiphanius doesn’t mention them, there were ancient Greeks who were also rumoured never to have gone to the bathroom. Dunderberg mentioned that two philosophers discussed in the ancient compilation Lives of the Philosophers never excreted solid waste either.
In part this conversation reflects a cultural abhorrence of excrement. It’s not so pleasant. Early Christian descriptions of hell describe people buried up to their necks in piles of the stuff. You can see why people don’t want to associate it with an incarnate deity.
Simultaneously, there are some serious medical underpinnings to the debate. Ancient medical thought about how digestion works seems to have been driving a lot of this conversation. Claire Bubb, a medical historian at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU, told me that most ancient theories of digestion relied on the concept of heat and the individual capacity to produce it. “Aristotle, in whose theories heat plays a critical role in general, leans particularly hard into this correlation. Heat for him is unambiguously what turns ingested food into nourishment suitable for the body. Further, he believes that the degree of heat is variable in different individuals, but that some are closer to perfect than others.”
Because digestion is so individual, Bubb said, “It would not be hard for someone working within the Aristotelian tradition to take this claim to the next level and argue that a person with the most perfect degree of heat would be capable of most perfectly digesting his foods.” For anyone who subscribed to this system of thought the claim that Jesus never digested food wasn’t a denial of his humanity; it was an endorsement of his perfect body.
At the same time, not everyone agreed. Some people, Bubb said, thought that digestion was about crushing and grinding, not heat. The Roman era doctor Galen argued that “the quantity of waste products [depends on] the nature of foods consumed.” For Galen “radishes… are barely food at all and most of their substance is simply not suitable for assimilation, with the result that almost as much as is consumed must be excreted. Even a perfectly constructed body could not avoid this.” So you can see why other Christians would have disagreed with Valentinus and Epiphanius about the issue of excrement.
Of course modern theories of digestion are more Galenic than Aristotelian. If you want to say that Jesus was truly human, you have to admit that he used the bathroom. For the pragmatically minded there’s the issue of nutrition: Jesus lived on a high-fibre ancient Mediterranean diet; we have to imagine that life-long constipation was the least of his problems.
Today there’s really no ‘official’ position on Jesus’ bathroom habits. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, following the statements of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE , that Jesus is “truly man and truly God” and is “like us in all things but sin.” As excretion is a normal part of being human, Jesus would have passed solid waste just like everyone else.