Review of The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross. David Tombs, Routledge, 2023 (open access).
The idea that Jesus was a victim of sexual violence will be novel and startling to many. Professor David Tombs opens his monograph The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross by observing that contemporary Christians are unlikely to fully appreciate the shame and degradation involved in first-century Roman crucifixions. Indeed, popular perceptions of the crucifixion draw more on centuries of sanitised artistic representation than on any in-depth interrogation of the sparsely detailed texts of the Gospels. Countless Christians over the centuries have encountered the theology and language of the cross on a daily basis without being confronted and haunted by its torturous, bloody, and excruciatingly humiliating reality.
This is a challenging subject to engage with, but one which is well-worth the effort and which, arguably, has significant implications for the future health of the church. The shift in thinking required to accommodate Tombs’ suggestion that Jesus was sexually abused relies on understanding that crucifixion was a practice designed to utterly degrade and humiliate those subjected to it. It was a highly political act and Jesus was, from the time of his arrest, a political prisoner. The torture, humiliation and cruelty involved in Roman crucifixions constituted a deliberate political strategy, designed to invoke profound revulsion and terror in onlookers and to thereby ensure compliance with Roman rule.
The first three chapters of this insightful study examine accounts of recent and ancient torture and execution practices, including Greco-Roman crucifixions, to shed light on the probability that sexual violence was integral to the torture endured by Jesus at the hands of Roman soldiers. Tombs makes the case that the stripping of Jesus (both implicit and explicit in the Gospel accounts) was itself a form of sexual violence, as anyone who has been subjected to such a practice will likely agree. Next, he argues that, while we cannot know for sure whether Jesus was subjected to further sexual violence, there is significant evidence from both recent and ancient accounts of torture and execution practices to suggest that this was highly likely.
Tombs’ earlier work on this theme has provoked mixed reactions. As a fellow author on hard subjects, I empathise with Tombs’ observation that this book was difficult to write. In researching sexual violence, we encounter the distressing, the disturbing, the utterly barbaric. We read accounts that can never be unread, we amass a mental archive of images that can never be unseen. Many, even when prompted, will not want to front up to this subject. Tombs recognises that his hypothesis has been challenged in the past and this has prompted him to make his case thoroughly. He is clear that this book will be difficult to read. Indeed, he cautions readers at several points in the book that they may prefer to skip some of the more distressing content in the first three chapters. So why write it? Why do any of us confront the degradation and pain of sexual violence? Why do we not leave it under the centuries-old carpet where it has traditionally been swept? Why, moreover, do we not keep the crucifixion respectable?
Tombs writes this challenging book for two very sound reasons: because the Bible matters, and because confronting violence and sexual violence matters. He offers this book ‘with the hope that a reading of Jesus’ experience which is attentive to sexualised violence can contribute to better responses to sexual violence.’ In so doing, he is lifting this ‘unspeakable violence’ out of ‘shame, stigma and silence’ (p. 2). This is a powerful motivation. Arguably, it is only by speaking the unspeakable – by voicing the violation of the divine – that the sexual violence that continues to plague the church will diminish.
Well-versed in liberation theology and its demand that Christians recognise the suffering of the cross in the lives of the oppressed and are thereby called to action, it was on reading the account of the sexualised torture and execution of a woman in El Salvador and in the context of increasing public awareness of sexual violence as a tool of conflict and genocide in the 1990s that Tombs identified a gap in liberation theology. There was little reference to sexual violence in torture and none to the sexual violence of the cross. ‘How,’ Tombs asked, ‘were those who suffered sexualised violence to be helped down from the cross? How was this possible if the form of crucifixion they experienced was never spoken about?’ (p. 4). Tombs’ subsequent study of the torture practices and abuses of authoritarian Latin American regimes informed his developing theology of the cross as a locus of sexual violence, leading him to propose two things: that public crucifixions were a deliberate strategy of state terror and that forced nudity and sexual violence were integral to this.
Tombs utilises accounts of recent and ancient torture, including assertions by Seneca (first century CE) that some crucifixions involved extreme sexual violence, to inform his hypothesis that it is highly likely that Jesus was sexually violated (in addition to the strippings, which themselves constitute abuse) during the deliberately dehumanising public spectacle of torture and execution. It is in the first three chapters that Tombs’ lays out the groundwork for his assertions, before turning, in chapter 4 to the ongoing issues which accompany sexual violence – victim blaming and stigma – and, crucially, to the recovery of human dignity which is Tombs’ ultimate aim.
Drawing on Tombs’ earlier work and more recent research, chapters 1-3 follow the crucifixion narratives to address, in turn, the stripping, mocking and crucifixion of Jesus that are explicit in the texts. The forced nudity of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and discussion of biblical, Jewish, Greek, and Roman attitudes to nudity inform chapter 1. Chapter 2 examines recent reports of abuse of detainees and ancient accounts of the widespread practice of rape during war to support his view of the likelihood that Jesus was further abused after being stripped naked, a possibility supported by evidence that, in the practice of torture, stripping is generally a precursor to additional acts of sexual violence. While we do not know for sure what Jesus endured in the praetorium, we do know that he endured it at the hands of a ‘cohort’ of soldiers: some 500 men primed to participate in a violent and bloody spectacle. Chapter 3 contrasts the portrayal of the crucifixion in Christian art with the sparse details of the Gospel texts before exploring the development of Roman crucifixion in relation to earlier impalement punishments and suspension executions, again viewing this information through the lens of more recent events.
In his review of the edited volume When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse, Robin Gill appears to have overlooked the fact that Tombs treats the stripping and the possibility of further sexual violence separately as, respectively, fact and well-informed supposition. The Gospel accounts are clear that the stripping occurred and this Tombs correctly, in my opinion, describes as sexual abuse. Because we are not told the detail of what happened at the praetorium, Tombs is careful to note that any further sexual violence was possible, indeed likely, but that we cannot know for sure. I find his argument indisputably compelling. Human beings have the capacity for indescribable violence, especially when they are seeking to maintain power. Philip Zimbardo demonstrated in his analysis of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib how readily many of us become bystanders, if not active collaborators, in the perpetration of gross injustice and harm if the conditions support it.
This book will, and arguably should, be hugely disturbing for all who brave its pages. Some readers will undoubtedly find it triggering and may, as Tombs suggests, choose to avoid the more explicitly violent material. However, it is a book that theologians and church leaders would do well to engage with in full if they are able to. For those for whom the accounts of violence necessary to establish Tombs’ argument will be too hard to read, a gentler approach might be to consider the crucifixion narratives through Bible study, such as the one designed by Tombs in the Open Access resource Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches (ed. Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth, The Shiloh Project, 2022). Tombs also includes a contextual Bible study in chapter 4 of this book.
Some will regard Tombs’ arguments with abhorrence. In the culture of toxic masculinity and homophobia that still persists in the church, the notion that the male saviour was sexually violated will be anathema – ‘real men’ don’t get raped. Additionally, reminders of both sex and death heighten our own innate mortality salience, arousing in us a terrifying awareness of our human fragility – which is arguably why images of the crucifixion over the centuries have been sanitised – and Tombs will be taking some readers beyond their comfort zones in this respect. A crucified God who was also sexually violated will shake the foundations for some.
In chapter 4, ‘Resurrection,’ Tombs outlines the value of this difficult work. Hostility to the idea of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse is indicative, Tombs notes, of the way in which those people may perceive victims of sexual harm. Historically, churches have sought hide abuse within faith-based settings and to stigmatise and shame victims. Change in this regard is slow. Jesus’ experience ‘invites churches to develop a more serious theological conversation on sexual violence and upholding human dignity.’ In making the theological connections between Jesus’ suffering as a victim of sexual as well as physical harm and unspeakable public humiliation, those who struggle with this concept or who are prone to victim-blaming may be helped to reassess their beliefs and consequently to take a more informed and compassionate approach to the issue of sexual harm, and churches may be brought to an awareness of the damage caused by secondary victimisation (the harm caused when victims are not believed or are stigmatised). Theological reflection on Jesus as a victim of sexual violation invites churches towards both repentance and redress. This chapter is arguably the most powerful and I find Tombs’ theology of the cross and resurrection (albeit necessarily brief in this focus series) more exciting, more grounded, and more credible than any I have encountered before now.
The notion that Jesus, too, suffered sexual violence will not resonate with everyone who has experienced sexual harm (see p. 76). One survivor of church-based abuse I spoke to felt that Jesus had not experienced the harm that comes from being abused in secret, of having to maintain the secret, and of being disbelieved and stigmatised for eventually speaking out. For others, Tombs’ hypothesis may be of comfort, and if one survivor of sexual violence is helped by the idea that Jesus understood, from painful personal experience, what she too has been through, then Tombs has done his job. But more than this, if this work enables churches – congregations and church leaders – to recognise that even Jesus suffered sexual harm – it follows that they must take a more compassionate, a more informed, and a more responsible approach to the scourge that is sexual violence in the church. If Jesus suffered sexual harm, the stigma begins to fall away. If, conversely, Christians cannot accept the possibility that Jesus too, was a victim of sexual violence, then they have not truly understood the incarnation.
Feature image: “Cross Church 03,” courtesy of JoLynne Martinez on Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/2gpbXAV)
 In his review of When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (ed. Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocío Figueroa, London: SCM Press, 2021) for the Church Times (‘What the Soldiers Did,’23 July 2021) Robin Gill commented that while some readers supported Tombs’ suggestion that Jesus was sexually abused as a ‘natural corollary’ of the strippings mentioned in the Gospels, others ‘felt that it directed attention away from the sheer barbarity of Roman crucifixion or that it trivialised the experience of powerless women who have been brutally raped and/or genitally mutilated.’ This statement strikes me as somewhat anomalous in two respects. First, in its inference that the abusive act of stripping a person naked in the presence of a hostile crowd is not, in itself, barbaric, and second, in its assertion that Jesus being sexually violated and humiliated by a cohort of soldiers in the lead-up to a drawn-out public execution in some way detracts from the experiences of women who have been raped or mutilated.
 Edited by Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocío Figueroa, London: SCM Press, 2021.
 Gill, ‘What the Soldiers did.’
 Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, New York: Random House, 2007.