As we prepare to remember the Passion Story, David Tombs invites us to consider the stripping of Jesus as a form of sexual violence at the hands of his captors …


[Content warning: Sexual violence]

Torture reports from recent decades make clear that strippings and forced nudity are a common form of abuse for prisoners detained for political reasons. In some reports stripping and nudity are so common that they might be mentioned only in passing, as if they are seen as so normal that they barely merit further comment. The United Nations and other agencies recognise forced nudity as a form of sexual violence.

During Lent, there are opportunities to read the Passion narratives with this in mind. All four canonical gospels indicate that Jesus was stripped at the cross and none of them mention a loincloth. The evidence from ancient non-Christian writings, and from early non-Christian images of the cross, indicates that the Romans crucified their victims fully naked. Early Christians—including Paul and Augustine, as well as less well-known figures like Melito of Sardis—suggest this was also the case for Jesus.

Many Christians have heard this at some point or other, but they have rarely been encouraged to give it much attention or see it as significant. It can therefore be confronting when an article like ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’ (1999), or a book like The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross (2023), describes the stripping and nudity as intentional humiliation and names it as a form of ‘sexual abuse’ or ‘sexual violence’.

For some Christians, after the initial surprise, a new and more accurate understanding of the cross follows. What has been hidden in plain sight emerges into clearer view. A new awareness follows about why crucifixion was seen as not just painful but scandalous. Christopher Greenough’s chapter on Jesus in his book The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men (2021) helps to explain the cultural background for this abuse, as does the podcast by Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan (2022).

Tenth Station of the Cross, ‘Jesus is naked and bitter’, panel of tiles outside shrine at Fatimah, Portugal.
© Photo Zacarias Pereira Da Mata | Dreamstime.com

Some Christians even remark that it is strange that at one level they have known about the stripping for a long time, but they have never heard it called sexual abuse or sexual violence. Hearing words put to Jesus’ experience invites them to think in new ways. Because victim-blaming is so common, some survivors have found it helpful at a personal level to reflect on Jesus’ innocence. One reader emailed:

I wanted to let you know how deeply this has helped me, I have been healing from my own childhood events that were traumatic and I have never been able to feel innocent or understood. I have held shame for so long, I am forty now. Reading what you wrote about Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse and realising that He is blameless even though He was violated in this way has healed a deep part of me almost suddenly. Some areas that I have been working on in therapy for years have been clarified and it’s like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle has fitted into place. I haven’t stopped crying at how much I know He understands me as well as what happened to Him. I can’t adequately express my gratitude to you here for your work. I’m going to reflect on it a lot more and read it again. [Used with permission]

Another survivor told us that in seeing Jesus’ innocence she saw her own innocence (Figueroa and Tombs 2021).

For other Christians, the idea that Jesus was treated like other prisoners, and subjected to the humiliation of stripping and forced nudity is too confronting to accept. In 2021, Jayme Reaves, Rocío Figueroa, and I published a volume of essays When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Violence (SCM). It was featured in a short article in The Church Times by Rosie Dawson (2021). Dawson’s article was read by a Brazilian journalist, Márvio dos Anjos, who was initially sceptical of the idea. He suspected it was probably a misguided attempt by academics to make Jesus seem relevant in the era of #MeToo. Yet, despite initial scepticism and caution, Dos Anjos was sufficiently curious to investigate further. As he read more, he became convinced that seeing Jesus’ mistreatment as a form of sexual abuse was not only historically accurate but also important for the church in our current times. Somehow this part of the Passion had gone almost completely unacknowledged.

On 10 April 2022 (Palm Sunday) Dos Anjos published an article on Jesus and the cross in the colour supplement of the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo. As expected, it prompted strong responses. A former Brazilian culture secretary described the newspaper as a ‘criminal organisation’ and threatened a lawsuit on the article. Others dismissed it as a disgraceful attack on their faith. The then First Lady, Michelle Bolsonaro, denounced the article on social media as ‘Insanity, Christophobia, and [showing] a lack of scruples’. Other people called it an attack on Christianity, heresy, blasphemy, absurdity, and demonic.

It is understandable that people who are new to the idea that Jesus experienced sexual violence find the idea challenging. It is not always wise to dwell on confronting or traumatic experiences and some may prefer to leave this element of Jesus’ mistreatment aside. However, the suggestion that honestly acknowledging Jesus’ experience is ‘Christophobia’ because it names sexual abuse is troubling.

Why is it appropriate to preach on Jesus’ physical suffering, Passion, and crucifixion, but considered ‘Christophobia’ to acknowledge that this suffering included sexual violence? What negative assumptions about those who are subjected to sexual violence are implied in such attitudes? A survivor is blameless for sexual violence, but many survivors feel they are judged negatively by others in the church. Most Christians will deny that they have these negative attitudes, but Bolsonaro’s reaction to the article supports what survivors themselves say when they report that they are often looked down on in the church.

Image attribution: 10th Station of the Cross – Jesus is stripped of His garments, St Peter Church in Zagreb, Croatia. © Zatletic. Used under licence Dreamstime.com

Another social media respondent replied to Folha, ‘God would never allow this. Never!!’. This is probably a well-intentioned reaction but again the assumptions behind a response along these lines need to be examined. Why would God be expected to prevent sexual violence against Jesus when sexual violence against other people is not prevented? It seems that Jesus’ full humanity is not being taken seriously if it is assumed he would have been immune because of his divinity. If it is inconceivable that Jesus could experience sexual violence, it suggests that he is not being viewed as a real person. Equally, if it is believed that God would have intervened against sexual violence, but not intervened over other suffering, what is this saying about a loving God, and God’s lack of intervention when others are subjected to sexual violence?

A bible study for group discussion can help to explore these questions further (Tombs 2022). These are conversations that churches should engage in, and Jesus’ experience described in the gospels can be a powerful starting point for challenging outdated attitudes and thinking more about victim-blaming.

None of this is to suggest that the only message to preach at Easter is that Jesus experienced sexual violence, or that a message on sexual violence is appropriate to all ages and in all situations.  But if the sexual aspect of crucifixion has never been mentioned in a church, Lent can be a good time to give it attention. As the email quoted above shows, understanding the connection between Jesus as blameless and other survivors as blameless is a powerful way to find new meaning in the cross.


David Tombs is an Anglican lay theologian and the Howard Paterson Chair Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand. His work focusses on liberation theologies, theologies of reconciliation, and the cross. He also writes on how churches can make better responses to spiritual and sexual abuses. His research has pioneered the study of crucifixion as a form of torture, an instrument of state terror, and an open opportunity for sexual harm. His most recent book is The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross (Routledge 2023). Read more at www.david-tombs.com.


Further resources

Blyth, Caroline and Emily Colgan. ‘#HeToo – Sexual Violence Against Biblical Men’, Bloody Bible Podcast (6 July 2022);https://www.bloodybiblepodcast.com/episodes/blog-post-title-four-ma4yw-a66t4-4bkf3-wsr96
Centre for Study of the Bible and Violence, ‘When Did We See You Naked?’, Symposium (15 June 2021); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkGCAWQ2ShY
Dawson, Rosie. ‘Was Jesus sexually abused?’ Church Times (1 April 2021)https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/1-april/features/features/was-jesus-sexually-abused.
—- ‘Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse’, Shiloh Project podcast interview with David Tombs (24 March 2021); https://open.spotify.com/episode/6098pBFuFSrQA2r1eufdoI?nd=1
Edwards, Katie B., and David Tombs. ‘#HimToo – why Jesus should be recognised as a victim of sexual violence’. The Conversation (23 March 2018); https://theconversation.com/himtoo-why-jesus-should-be-recognised-as-a-victim-of-sexual-violence-93677
Figueroa, Rocío, and David Tombs. ‘Seeing His Innocence, I See My Innocence’, in Jayme R. Reaves, Rocío Figueroa Alvear, and David Tombs. eds. When Did We See You Naked?’: Acknowledging Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse. London: SCM Press, 2021, pp.  287-312; https://scmpress.hymnsam.co.uk/media/75046/print_ch-17_whendidweseeyounaked.pdf
Greenough, Chris. The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men (London: Routledge, 2021).
Heim, Erin. ‘David Tombs – The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross’,OnScript podcast (6 March 2024); https://onscript.study/podcast/david-tombs-the-crucifixion-of-jesus-torture-sexual-abuse-and-the-scandal-of-the-cross/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=david-tombs-the-crucifixion-of-jesus-torture-sexual-abuse-and-the-scandal-of-the-cross
Reaves, Jayme R. David Tombs and Rocío Figueroa, eds. When Did We See You Naked?’: Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (London: SCM Press, 2021).
Tombs, David. ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 53 (Autumn 1999), pp. 89-109; https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-wypm-vt48.
—- ‘The Stripping of Jesus (Matthew 27:26-31)’ in Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth (eds), Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for the Churches (Shiloh Project: 2022) pp. 46-51; https://doi.org/10.48785/100/127.
—- The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross (London: Routledge, 2023); https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429289750.
—- ‘Alone and Naked: Reading the Torture of Jesus alongside the Torture of Miriam Leitão’, International Journal of Public Theology 17 (4) (2023), pp. 537-557; https://doi.org/10.1163/15697320-20230102



As always, guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.

Preaching the Passion
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