Promiscuous Jesus
By Bernard Brandon Scott | 10/5/2018

Promiscuous and Jesus are two words not normally associated. We might think of them as opposites. But I was recently reminded that they belong together.

Following the publication of my blog “Burying my Son,” one part of which dealt with the offensive closed communion at the funeral mass, an old friend and Westar Fellow, himself a Roman Catholic, responded by remarking how he could not understand this considering Jesus’ promiscuous behavior in welcoming others.

That got me thinking about just how true his comment was.

In most current English usage promiscuous means having many sexual partners with a negative connotation. But in older usage it meant breaking normal boundaries or standards, a synonym of indiscriminate. This older usage has no negative connotation. The Latin promiscuus means without distinction. Miscere in Latin means to mix.

My friend, of course, was using promiscuous about Jesus in this older sense. His observation raises the question, in just what sense was Jesus promiscuous?

Mark 7:14-20 is a good place to start. This pericope concerns what makes one unclean and so the Jewish purity code is under discussion. Before we head off in a self-righteous Christian direction, we should acknowledge that all religions, all cultures, have purity codes. There is no escaping them.

Purity codes are not primarily about morality but what is clean and unclean. In the USA because of our Puritan heritage we constantly confuse purity and morality. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is not a quote from the Bible, but was first used by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.

What is the difference between dirt and soil? Place!! Dirt is in the house and unclean; soil is outside and is fertile. But they are really the same thing; it’s place that makes the difference.

A purity code is about putting things in their correct place. The first creation story in Genesis is a good example of a purity code in action. God, like a compulsive housecleaner, goes about straightening everything up, putting everything in its proper place.
God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
God saw the light: that it was good.
God separated the light from the darkness (Gen 1:3-4 
Fox translation).

When each task is finished, when each thing is put in its proper place, God pronounces it good. That’s how a good purity code works, everything is in its proper place. Thus, purity codes are all about boundaries. And Jesus radically transgresses boundaries.

The construction of the story in Mark 7 is straightforward. First Jesus speaks to the crowd.
Once again he summoned the crowd and would say to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand. What goes into you can’t defile you; what comes out of you can. If anyone here has two good ears, use them!” (7:14-16 SV)

Then Jesus interprets the parable, or better the riddle, for the disciples.
When he entered a house away from the crowd, his disciples started questioning him about the riddle. And he says to them, “Are you as dim-witted as the rest? Don’t you realize that nothing from outside can defile by going into a person, because it doesn’t get to the heart but passes into the stomach, and comes out in the outhouse?” (7:17-19 SV)

Finally, the narrator, the author, whoever that might be, makes a comment, which modern translations enclose in parentheses. The ancients did not have parentheses.
“(Thus he pronounced everything we eat is clean.)” (7:19, my translation)

The author of Mark’s Gospel created this three-part construction which is also used with the parable or riddle of the sower in Mark 4. The saying in verse 15 is probably from Jesus (pink in The Five Gospels), while the interpretation given to the disciples is from the later community (grey in The Five Gospels), and certainly, the final comment is from the author (black in The Five Gospels).

The continuance of the same question through three levels of tradition—Jesus, the community, and the author—indicates that the issue of what is clean and unclean continued to be a major issue in the early Christian communities. The Gospel of Mark uses Jesus to side with those who want to break down the boundaries created by purity codes.

The gospels abound in the stories of Jesus transgressing boundaries.
In Mark 2:15 Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, scandalizing the Pharisees, who correctly see this as wrong.
In Mark 5:25-34 he heals a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years. In this story there is a triple transgression of boundaries.

  • A woman touches Jesus. Transgression number 1.
  • The woman is bleeding. Transgression number 2.
  • Jesus speaks to her and acknowledges the touch. Transgression number 3.

Again in Mark 7:25-30 there is the exorcism of the Syrophoenician’s daughter. She is a non-Jew and a female child. The mother acknowledges her unclean status: “even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.”

Then there is the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus:
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; I came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a crony of toll collectors and sinners!' (Mat 11:18-19 SV)

The gospels are full of these stories. The early communities preserved such stories because they were typical of Jesus; that was what he was about. They also used these stories as the communities reached out to others that were considered outside the boundaries. This was especially important when they moved beyond the Jewish boundaries into the Roman, non-Jewish world.

Jesus and much of early Christianity were certainly boundary breakers and such boundary breaking was part of the self-understanding of these folks.

While Jesus was clearly promiscuous when it comes to boundaries, such boundary breaking was not without cost to Jesus and his followers. In the ancient world, to associate with the unclean makes one unclean. We tend to think it worked the other way around. Because Jesus was holy, his association with the unholy made them holy. But that’s not the way it worked.

In some ways, we still think this way. My mother constantly warned me that I would be known by the company I kept. And then there’s the famous saying of Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”

Boundary breaking in the ancient world came at a cost. It cost Jesus his reputation. They thought he was a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! It also cost his followers their reputation. Celsus’ accusation against Christians in the second century was that it is the religion of women, the ignorant, and the poor.

The view of Christians as boundary breakers persists in art.

This image of a praying woman (Orans) from the catacomb of Priscilla is characteristic of pre-Constantinian Christian art. Recently restored (click herefor article in Reuters), the fresco is of a woman praying. The image, found often in the Roman Catacombs, is distinctly Christian

The significance of this image is debated. Because it only appears in art and is not referred to in ancient Christian writings, it is difficult to determine its exact meaning. Some have recently maintained that she is an early Christian priest. This is hardly likely since there is little evidence at this period for male Christian priests, much less female ones. Others have argued that she is a pious wife praying for her husband. While plausible, two things argue against this interpretation. The image often occurs outside the family setting, and in non-Christian art such a figure, while not in the praying mode, is a muse. The praying woman most likely represents the Christian. This is who they, both males and females, thought they were. As such, the image is a complete rejection of the male, hierarchical values of the Roman empire.

There is a reason Romans perceived Christians as dangerous. They were. The Romans accused them of being promiscuous. In Marcus Minucius Felix’s late second century dialog Octavius between a pagan and a Christian, the pagan accuses Christians of cannibalism, gross immortality, especially incest, and they belong to the poor and lower classes. The final charge strikes us as even stranger. Christians were accused of atheism and novelty. In the dialog, the Christian attempts to refute the pagan’s accusations, all except the charge of atheism.

A promiscuous Jesus is an interesting charge.

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.