Homosexuality and the Bible, Part One
Updated: Aug 24
Data over Dogma is a popular podcast that features Bible scholar Dan McClellan and Atheist Dan Beecher interacting with biblical material with the goal of testing our unexamined dogmas to see if they actually hold up. Most of the time they don't, yet we continue to use dogma to harden our beliefs and opinions into self-evident fact.
Dogma: Doctrines, principles, opinions, maxims or conclusions that are declared by a perceived authority to be absolute fact, uncritically accepted as such by adherents to that authority source.
Predictable behaviors and attitudes result from acceptance of dogma. For example, if one's accepted dogma mandates the avoidance of being "stained" by "the world," that person might choose to forgo public water, sewer, electricity and other modern conveniences just to make sure they aren't dependent on outside sinners for anything. Staining might happen. We know them as the Amish.
In our day, dogma functions as a framing device that pre-determines the story into which all the details must fit, no matter how “creative” our interpretations have to be.
Dan and Dan "...team up to discover what the Bible actually says, what it decidedly doesn’t say (even if everyone thinks it does), and explore the history of the most popular book of all time."
Homosexuality in the Bible was the topic of a recent podcast and what follows is a summary of their comments on the topic, plus some additional commentary by the author.
The Dans first explored some important background information that is critical to understanding the alternatives to the common dogmas about homosexuality that evangelicalism has upheld.
1) In the ancient world, explanations of how the world works were immensely different from ours.
In our world, sciences like medicine, neurology, human physiology, psychology, genetics, sociology, ethology (The scientific study of animal behavior, especially as it occurs in a natural environment, and by extension, ethics) have informed our cultural norms about human sexuality through mass media and higher education to almost every corner of western society. The ancients did not have those kinds of underpinnings for their belief systems.
Reading biblical texts without this in mind guarantees distortions in interpretation and application; this is especially evident when we try to understand ancient norms for sexual behavior.
From broader studies of ancient beliefs about human sexuality, one guiding principle stands out as the primary driver of rules and boundaries that put sexual activity in its proper place: Social class.
2) Determining what was in or out of bounds in human relationships was not sexual orientation, but social class.
Social hierarchies were rigid in the ancient Mediterranean, and considered "natural," or a feature of the created order. In our day, while caste structures are still prevalent, we tend to idealize reciprocal, mutually satisfactory attitudes where love and care is expressed in both directions. Cross-caste relationships are even celebrated as repudiations of arbitrary boundaries; demonstrations of personal freedoms triumphing over oppressive and artificial social rules.
In the ancient world, both in Old and New Testament times, freeborn citizen men- especially landholders- occupied the top strata of honor and power. Male slaves, women, female slaves, children and animals found themselves in the lower echelons of agency. If anyone tried to move up or out of a well-defined category, it was considered a violation of the natural order, impure, immoral and just cause for labeling the attempt as deviant.
This is one reason why Jesus experienced so much resistance- he violated a number of caste-based norms as he gained his following. He was not anywhere near the top of the hierarchy with his Galilean small-town manner and middling economic status. He is shown in the gospels as being in constant battle to maintain his honor.
Ancient sources indicate that these social strictures extended even to sexual positions. The medieval Alphabet of Ben Sira (700-1000 CE) captures a tradition that has Adam's first wife Lilith leaving him and Eden because of his refusal to allow her to take an intimate position on top: "She said, 'I will not lie below.'” The name Lilith appears in Isaiah 34, so we can conclude that the legend had probably formed before the 700's BCE.
3) How did one determine if a sexual encounter was appropriate? Social class provided the first criterion, followed by gender and other factors. There was no concept of "sexual orientation."
A freeborn male of your ethnic group was afforded access to any person below their station, within reason. Women were automatically considered lower in status, but to head off social discord, restrictions formed around adultery. If a woman was already attached to a family group through her husband, she was usually off limits.
Prohibitions concerning male to male encounters had more to do with power and social domination. Sexual drive was integral to simply being male, and seeking an outlet was part of the natural order. Sex also was characterized as something one person does to another, in contrast to our modern notion of mutual consent where power is shared. Being on the receiving end (penetrated) if you were a social equal with the penetrator was a catastrophic social loss. Actively seeking the bottom role was also out of the question for social equals.
It's possible that from our beginnings as a species, a majority of humans experience a visceral revulsion to homosexual behavior, simply because inclinations that favored procreation were selected for. From that grew a wide variety of ways to label it as deviant. In ancient middle eastern cultures it developed along the lines of shame and honor. As urbanized, larger societies advanced, differing behaviors became familiar and accepted on a level that exceeded the tolerances of small town and village based groups. We still see that today in attitudes of rural and urban populations toward each other, see red and blue election maps.
We do find legislative prohibitions on certain sexual activities in ancient Mediterranean records, but the rationalizations behind them are rooted in maintaining rigid caste hierarchies rather than anything like an aversion to the idea of sexual orientation that modern people understand.
"Interestingly, the apparent mechanism that stood behind the intolerance toward adultery and rape was socioeconomic rather than purely moral. All the pertinent law collections are unanimous in this regard, and demonstrate that any given woman was ever under the authority of a male figure — either her father or her husband. Rape and adultery, therefore, were regarded as a wrongdoing committed against the woman’s legal owner, and the breaching of his right of property. The implications of deflowering a virgin girl are also to be understood in this light."
Ilan Peled, Gender and Sex Crimes in the Ancient Near East: Law and Custom
And here are Peled's conclusions about the legal status of male homosexual practice in the Bible:
"Modern research on this topic was heavily influenced by biblical studies, which may have resulted in a certain anachronistic bias. The Bible is very clear in its approach to same-sex relations: in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, these are severely condemned and appear to be punishable by death. This, however, was hardly the case in other parts of the ancient Near East. To begin with, all law collections are completely silent with regard to homosexuality."
A Moment on the Old Soapbox before we Go Further
When humans began to try to understand the gods they worshipped, it was only natural to apply known cognitive categories and vocabulary to the abstract notion of social contracts with deities they wished to appease. We don't know what happened in the mists of prehistory, but here we are with a religion-based bias against homosexuality in a society that no longer needs that bias to survive.
If we let the Bible speak for itself, we find that we can disagree with it and still profit much. Questions force us to examine our own beliefs about what’s true, and yet there are large and influential Christian constituencies for whom this questioning is off the table. “The Bible is very clear,” they say, “we have precisely what God always intended to say to humankind, without error.” Certainty can be safe, but it doesn’t get you closer to reality or basic human decency.
It’s completely understandable. If you are convinced that your beliefs are under attack, and that the world is disintegrating into chaos, you flee to safety. Deep down, we haven't changed all that much from the proto-humans we used to be. We feel the same stress and longings that the ancients felt when they sought a predictable, safe and abundant future. And they had different ways of structuring their society to make it possible (at least for the powerful).
There is another way. Can we allow each biblical author to speak from their own cultural matrix? It’s a better, more sensible way to read any ancient document. The alternative is to insist that any ancient cultural product can be mysteriously transcultural to the extent that modern societies like ours can import its truths without knowing anything about the culture that produced it. Many conservative Christian apologists argue that they do take ancient contexts seriously. But scratch the surface and you'll find a tendency to do so only when it supports their prior dogmatic commitments.
Ask any Bible translator about the complexity of establishing language meanings and then transporting those meanings to an alien culture. Inerrantists and others who downplay the impact of historical, cultural and political realities affecting the composition of the Old and New Testaments find themselves in a catch-22, solved only by yet more dogma: God divinely inspires our minds to understand his word, or God superintended every detail of the transition from Greek and Hebrew to English, and therefore, the devout can understand and apply the Bible with no problems. You don’t often hear them say something that scholars frequently admit: “The Greek phrase here is ambiguous and we can only make an educated guess at what it might mean in English.”
Christians say, “the Bible is God’s word.” Can we wrap our minds around the fact that this phrase has more than one meaning? It doesn’t have to mean that our English Bibles have arrived in our hands as the simple, pure, inerrant, infallible and inspired writings addressed from God to English-speaking Americans. Can we hold a paradox in our minds: that these are fully human documents that do their best to express what honoring God meant in their own time and place, and despite being saturated in ancient and foreign ways, it still- incredibly- speaks to us?
Next- Part Two: in which we address the Old Testament verses that are usually pulled into the debate, found in Genesis 2 and 19, Leviticus 18 and 22