On May 30, 1593, the playwright and poet Christopher “Kit” Marlowe was found brutally murdered. According to an autopsy report and several eyewitness reports, Marlowe had spent the day at the house of Mrs. Eleanor Bull in Deptford, South London, before being fatally stabbed in the eye. The dagger struck slightly above his right eye and drove two inches into his brain. Though he was not even 30, Marlowe had already made his impression on the English literati with his Doctor Faustus. His exclamation “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” lives on in literary and pop-cultural folklore even today.
So, who would want to kill him?
Quite a few people, as it turned out, and conspiracy theories abound. One explanation is that Marlowe’s atheism and his scandalous belief that Jesus was in a homosexual relationship with the disciple John played a role in his demise. If correct, this would make Marlowe one of a cluster of individuals who have faced strong, sometimes fatal, opposition for asking questions about the sexuality of Jesus.
The more conventional-yet-iconoclastic theory about Jesus’s romantic life is that he was in a relationship with Mary Magdalene. Some say they were even married. This theory is most famously articulated in the bestselling Da Vinci Code but there are some academics who have made similar claims. One man, Walter Fritz, even forged an ancient document to try to add weight to the claim that Jesus and Mary were married. There is some good evidence for thinking that the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus was played down by later Christian authors, but there’s nothing in the earliest tradition that concretely suggests their relationship was romantic.
What this popular conspiracy theory conveniently overlooks is the intensity of Jesus’s relationships with his core group of disciples. The close relationship of Jesus and the “Beloved Disciple” (traditionally identified as John the Evangelist) has led some to suggest that their relationship was homoerotic. The evidence is suggestive; after all there is a disciple who is repeatedly described as a person whom Jesus “loves.” There’s a conversation between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him and, when Peter responds, asks him to care for his flock (John 21:15-17). A man who spends most of his personal time alone with 12 other men? You might say that there’s something incredibly heteronormative about thinking that Jesus was interested in Mary Magdalene.
While these scriptural texts sound quite suggestive in English, the eroticism evaporates out of the conversation when you read it in the original Greek. Greek has multiple words to describe different kinds of love. And, as Ismo Dunderberg, a professor of New Testament at the University of Helsinki, has shown, the Greek does not suggest erotic relationships. In John 21 the word Jesus uses is “agape” a word that connotes broad affection and care for others. The word for sexual love or desire is “eros” (from which we get the English word “erotic”), but that language is never used to describe Jesus’ love for any of his companions.
But if just spending time together is enough to build a whole theory about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, then certainly the argument Jesus was in sexual relationships with other men has at least as much plausibility? For Marlowe, an outspoken critic of Elizabethan England’s strong prohibitions against homosexuality (it was a capital crime), there was sufficient evidence of homoeroticism. The same month that Marlowe died a police informant and on-and off-spy Richard Baines compiled a document of Kit’s “monstrous opinions.” The point of the Baines note, as historian and author Charles Nicholl has written, was “to incriminate Marlowe.” According to Baines, Marlowe was an atheist who doubted the existence of God, thought the Bible was “filthily [i.e. poorly] written,” and believed that the sacrament of communion would be greatly improved if the bread and wine was replaced with a tobacco pipe. His most shocking statement, however, was that “St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodom.” The figurative language of leaning into the bosom is actually ancient and is used in the writings of the fourth century church historian Eusebius who described John as “the one who lay on [Jesus’] breast.” In ancient texts this is an image for non-sexual intimacy, but you can see what Marlowe was getting at.
Marlowe wasn’t the only Renaissance-era figure to ask questions about the relationship between Jesus and John. Just 40 years earlier a young Venetian friar named Francesco Calcagno was executed for blasphemy for claiming that John was Jesus’ catamite (a pubescent boy who engaged in a sexual relationship with an older man). For Calcagno, like Marlowe, his beliefs about Jesus’ sexuality are connected to a particular form of 16th century atheism that focused on the idea that Jesus was human. He apparently said that Christ “was merely human, and that he often had carnal knowledge of St. John,” that he had more confidence in the Latin poet Ovid than the Bible, and “that he would rather worship a pretty little boy in the flesh than God.” One of Calcagno’s acquaintances testified at his trial that Calcagno slept with a boy “almost every night” but it’s unclear if this was slander. In 1550, at the age of 22, Calcagno was interrogated in Brescia, and was executed in Venice two days before Christmas.
More than one New Testament scholar has shared Marlowe and Calcagno’s view that the Gospel of John is ripe for homoerotic readings. Sjef von Tilborg, for example, has written that “according to modern discourse” the Fourth Gospel is “positively attuned to the development of possibly homosexual behavior.” But these kinds of scholarly confirmations pale next to Columbia ancient historian Morton Smith’s explosive 1960 announcement that he had discovered a “Secret Gospel of Mark.” Two years earlier, Smith claimed, he had discovered a previously unknown letter written by the late second/early third century theologian and teacher Clement of Alexandria in the Greek Orthodox Mar Saba monastery, 20 kilometers to the south-east of Jerusalem. Smith photographed the letter and published his study of the text in 1973.
What shocked the world was the contents of the letter which Clement of Alexandria described as an extended version of the Gospel of Mark. In this version Jesus raises a young man from the dead and things get interesting from there on. Quoting word for word, the secret Gospel reads: “But the youth, looking upon [Jesus], loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.” There’s nothing explicit about a sexual encounter between Jesus and the young man, but the reader doesn’t get the impression that they spent the night just chatting, either.
As you might imagine, the discovery of this Secret Gospel shocked the world and divided academics. Some believed that Smith had forged the document, and others defended Smith’s impeccable reputation as a scholar. Some of the accusations of forgery turned personal with some accusing Smith, himself a gay man, of forging the letter himself. The most suggestive evidence was that the original letter, photographed by Smith, had been lost (for almost 60 years now!) and without that document there is no way to test its authenticity using scientific means. The weight of the current evidence suggests that it is a forgery, as scholar Stephen Carlson clearly argued in his The Gospel Hoax, but for many the jury is still out. If he didn’t forge the text in what Peter Jeffrey calls “an astoundingly daring act of creative rebellion” then this enormously erudite and distinguished scholar was called a forger purely on the basis of his personal life.
What’s interesting about the attacks on those who have questioned the presumptive heterosexuality of Jesus is how quickly they are connected to the personal lives of those asking questions. The sex lives of Calcagno, Marlowe, and Smith have entered the conversation in ways that the sexual orientation of those who think Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married has not. To my knowledge, no one has ever said that Dan Brown is biased because he’s heterosexually partnered. In New Testament scholarship there’s an almost clichéd observation that every scholar sees themselves in Jesus: if you’re a liberal Jesus is a liberal, if you’re a feminist Jesus is a feminist, and so on. “But,” as Taylor Petrey an associate professor of early Christianity at Kalamazoo College, told The Daily Beast, “When it comes to Jesus’s sexuality the scholars who argue for a non-normative Jesus have been punished especially harshly, while those who argue that Jesus lived a conventional life of marriage have been treated as dispassionate observers.”
The reason for this, Petrey observed, is that “Jesus’s sexuality is more than just a historical question. It supposedly authorizes or unauthorizes certain kinds of relationships and sexual expressions.” For religious leaders, especially those in denominations that see homosexuality as a sin or “intrinsically disordered,” the assumed heterosexuality of Jesus is easy to explain: incarnate goodness cannot be disordered. But it’s not so clear why others assume that Jesus was heterosexual, especially when scriptural evidence describes only his celibacy and not his sexual orientation. In truth, as Petrey says, “the ambiguity of the evidence of Jesus’s sexuality is enticing to speculate about not just because it is an unanswerable mystery, but because we tend to think that the answer unlocks some great truth about religion, sex, and ourselves.”