Homosexuality and the Bible Part Three
Updated: Aug 24
Examples of misunderstood New Testament verses
First let's remind ourselves of the Greco-Roman-Jewish perspectives that are unique to the period, and completely foreign to our thinking today.
Two foundational philosophical schools that can be detected in Paul and other New Testament writers are Platonism and Stoicism. These and other Hellenistic viewpoints and ideas held sway in the near east for hundreds of years by the time Jesus and the early church brought their conversation to the table. As Jewish, Roman and Greek ideas met and mixed, new answers to the big questions appeared, not the least of which were questions about how to properly order society.
Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE) was a prime example of this amalgam of Hellenistic and Jewish thought in the Roman Empire as he sought to explain ancient Jewish beliefs in the conceptual framework of Hellenistic philosophy. In explaining how ancient Judaism fit the criteria set by Greek philosophy, Philo affirmed a platonic interpretation of the Torah as in this example: "Moses needed the presence of Aaron in order to obtain what he sought. Moses represents the metaphysical truth, Aaron its implementation in reality, akin to the two faces of logos: while the logos prophorikos is that of communication, the logos endiathetos is the internal world of thoughts, and each is impossible without the other."
Plato contributed the concept of ideal forms and the concept of eros which didn't require either participant to be particularly ideal in terms of appearance. In Symposium, eros is described as a force of nature, anthropomorphized as a "daimon," a sort of half divine, half mortal being. For Plato love was about possession of beauty, whether it was on a sublime, intellectual level (inner beauty) or on a more physical plane.
This emphasis on beauty as a virtue was "in the air" throughout the Hellenistic world of the first century.
Ancient Rome in her admiration of Greek culture held similar attitudes toward sexual attraction. Within strict social hierarchies, both men and women could be objects of desire. Outside of marriage, it was still accepted as normal for men to seek an outlet with a slave, a prostitute or a member of the infamia- a designation for those who were denied some of the advantages of Roman citizenship. This could occur by an event or by consequence of lower-class occupations such as executioners, entertainers and gladiators.
For women, since there was no real penetration going on, the rules were unclear. It seemed to be acceptable, but an aberration that didn't fit the model. Without question, it was social class that mattered more than gender when it came to propriety.
Taking Plato further, Stoicism lionized self-control. Mastering yourself and your desires was thought to lead the stoic toward an ideal life. The passions were to be overcome since our destiny was the eventual escape from the prison of our flesh into an ethereal (platonic) world of perfection. Stoicism happened to line up with the more conservative points of view held by many Jewish communities which reinforced a strong position tending toward sex-for-procreation-only.
In Matthew and Luke, we find Jesus doubling down on the prohibition on divorce. He also is depicted in Matthew 19 tipping his hat to those who choose celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God (see Part Two).
Paul is unmarried and expresses a wish that all would be so. He thinks that these kinds of passions can hinder his gospel and laser focus on the imminence of the Parousia. He expresses the idea that there's a lot of daily life that just doesn't matter because the apocalypse is coming any day now. He as much as says that celibacy is the ideal, but get married if you need to keep a lid on your passions. In 1 Corinthians 7 it's quite plain: "So then, he who marries his fiancée does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do better."
This passage is commonly misinterpreted and used to marginalize homosexual relationships. A couple of caveats for those who subscribe to this idea:
Paul did not think or write from a conceptual framework that even remotely approaches our modern concept of mutually committed and egalitarian same-sex relationships.
Sexual ethics were far more utilitarian than ours. Deviance boundaries were based on a complex set of rules based on one's social location more than on something inherent in same-sex intercourse.
For first century people, causes and effects were readily attributed to spiritual realities, for example, God can restrain passions, or he can allow the lid to blow off and let chaos reign as an act of direct judgement, especially when it came to Gentiles.
In Romans 1, there's a penalty that is clearly given for abandoning something. Paul has Hellenistic Gentiles in view here, as no Jew would think of worshipping images of created things. Because God took the restraints off, men gave up or abandoned what women are good for (Greek Chresin, use) and women gave up what men are good for. When desires boil over- see Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians- there's total chaos and violation of the natural order. Paul is using gentiles as an object lesson: "They refused God and look what happened to them!" And what are heterosexual relationships good for? What's the utility of male-female sexual relationships? Procreation!
There's not much overlap here with the social conventions we have in our day. First of all, we're not Hellenistic Jews with the same cultural horizons as Paul's. We don't necessarily attribute human behavior to spiritual causes like God taking off the restraints. For the Pharisee Paul, these were cold facts: genitals are mainly for procreation, and when used otherwise it indicated a violation of nature. Flip that around and you have Paul saying that if we are in a proper relationship with God, our passions are restrained by God resulting in only one natural use of sex, which is procreation. And ideally, God might completely remove all sexual desire for the sake of making disciples of all nations.
What is actually in view here in Romans? What problem is Paul addressing? It's the uncontrolled, unrestrained-by-God gentile passions that are in view, with sexual chaos serving as a classic Stoic example of how passions can overturn nature. This should bring up questions in the minds of critical, knowledgeable modern people. What do we know about nature that Paul didn't? How "natural" is homosexual behavior? We have an abundance of answers to these questions that were 2000 years in the future for Paul.
If Paul knew then what we know now, how would he think about people with same sex attraction from childhood, who are in long term, committed and monogamous relationships, with healthy children and a desire to know and honor God, giving thanks to God and living by faith? Many of them actually read Paul's texts in the New Testament for inspiration! Would Paul and the Roman Christians look at them and say, "Yes, those are the ones God has withdrawn all restraint, doomed them to the chaos of being out of control in their passions, and ultimately suffer the wrath of God?"
1 Corinthians 6:9
Recall how the ancient writers had extremely different thought-frameworks explaining their world than we do. This shows up perfectly in 1 Cor. 6:9. Paul has two- and only two- categories for male to male penetration: the active or insertive role and the submissive or receptive role. Both are frowned upon by conservative Jewish Paul as you would expect from his cultural background.
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
In this passage he's drawing a boundary around the kingdom of God defined by behaviors under the heading of wrongdoing (adikoi, meaning "not just or right"). The list of taboos include pornoi which actually does refer to a male who prostitutes himself to other men, eidololatrai (idolater), moichoi (adulterer), kleptai (thief), pleonektai (coveter), methysoi (drunkard), and Loidoroi (verbal abusers). It's not difficult to hear the rhythm in the list; when read aloud, the effect would be striking and memorable.
Paul uses two Greek words for his categories of "men who engage in illicit sex."
From Greek to English, without any translation or attempt at readability, reads:
"Not be deceived, neither male prostitutes, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor "malakoi," nor "arsenokoitai." nor thieves…"
Word number one is "malakoi," meaning literally "softie," and metaphorically, effeminate or delicate. It's translated into English as male prostitute, effeminate, or as in the NIV, translators simply collapse both terms into "men who have sex with men," revealing a leap from translation to interpretation. The Good News Translation renders both terms as "homosexual perverts." Yikes!
Word number two is "arsenokoitai" which in a literal sense is something like "Man-bedder." This indicates the active, initiator role, who as mentioned earlier could easily refer to a victimizer in search of another lower-caste male to dominate.
In our time and culture, we don't limit our concept of male homosexual encounters to manly, high status freeborn males with girlish, submissive (slave?) boys. Paul's ancient cultural framework doesn't allow for modern sensibilities that include a much wider range of possibilities. And what about women? Is lesbianism OK since it's not on the list? And what about the fact that Paul's list seems to indulge in more than a few stereotypes?
Stereotypes were important and widely used to quickly classify people as friend or foe. It has a bearing on this topic in the sense that our attitudes toward stereotyping has changed in the last two thousand years, but for Paul and other first century people, they were seen as valid and useful. See Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, notes on Matthew chapter 3.
Thanks to the rise of scientific inquiry, we have a much more detailed grasp on nature and human physiology than Paul did, and what we've found is that it's a lot less binary than he supposed. Human and animal psychological studies have shown that homosexual behavior is variable and prevalent. In our century, same-sex sexual behavior has been shown to occur in over 1500 different species, at significant per capita numbers.
Here in 1 Corinthians, Paul is prohibiting acts that were thought to take men out of their perceived God-ordained natural function. Victimizing a "softie" was bad, and accepting the role of softie was also disordered. The reason these "unjust fools" find themselves in the grip of such corrupt behavior, according to Paul, is because they ignored God. This triggered an act of God's judgement against them, namely, being "given over" to the desires of their hearts and to dishonorable passions.
In other words, what's being condemned is any behavior that violates proper social norms.
Foreign to Paul's world were the kinds of mutually respectful homosexual relationships we see in our society today, that show no signs of originating from out-of-control passions resulting from God removing some kind of moral restraint. Also alien to his thinking is our western value on personal freedom that helps maintain a distance between caste status and individual preferences regarding sexual practice. Our laws and policies generally discourage unequal or unwanted sexual advances (though it obviously still happens, we do have some legal protections against it).
Paul's ultra-conservative stance toward intimate relations and other issues has been soundly rejected by the modern world, for example, these statements in 1 Corinthians chapter 7:
"Yet those who marry will experience distress in the flesh, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…"
Not too many Christian marriage retreats mention the kinds of distractions and distresses that Paul is certain will derail men and women from escaping God's wrath on the imminent Last Day. If, according to many Christian teachers, we must consider all of Paul's writings to be God's inerrant word, that which informs our life, faith and practice as Christians, then it stands to reason that celibacy should play a much larger role in the church than it does, since Paul gives as much attention to that as anything else! Earlier in the chapter, Paul shoots straight with the Corinthians:
"To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion."
The real problem Paul attacks here is passion (here Paul uses the unusual word pyrothusai- to burn with intensity, to glow from heat). Passion is like a sickness that befalls the sufferer, or calamity that brings on emotions. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul uses the word pathei to discourage his audience from falling prey to these passions "…like the gentiles who do not know God."
Are we ready to go all in with Paul and say that passion has no place in our lives, married or not? When we look at committed non-heterosexual couples who demonstrate all the necessary and sufficient elements of what we believe to be healthy, positive, pro-social marriages, should we flatly consider them to be outside the boundary of the Kingdom of God? If we agree with Paul, we are obligated to believe that too much passion of any kind is a warning sign that God has withdrawn his restraints and given us over to the chaos of uncontrollable desires outside his authority.
1 Timothy 1:10
In a discussion of legitimate uses of law (nomos) in shaping the church, The author mentions that its primary purpose concerns the lawless, and goes on to give a number of examples of lawless behaviors. Included in the list are the pornois and our old friend arsenokoitai, or "man-bedder." This time it's not accompanied by malakoi, so there's no apparent condemnation of being on the receiving end. Neither is there any mention of any female version of this disqualifier.
If the author (not Paul*) is forming this list from what he or she knows about "the gospel," and there are four of them that say nothing about homosexuality. And indeed the writer affirms that the church should avoid "…whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I was entrusted." We're left with the mystery of where this list originated and why these particular behaviors were singled out. One answer to the conundrum is that the author's "gospel" includes a number of opinions that were attached later and not original to the texts we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
One possibility is that the author of 1 Timothy was familiar with Paul's writings and is echoing what he wrote. However the same author reverses some of Paul's earlier assertions on women in the Christian movement. In rather harsh terms, 1 Timothy rejects Paul's acceptance of women into the inner circles of leadership (see Junia and Phoebe in Romans 16, Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians, and "…there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" in Colossians 3).
In another about-face, the writer encourages his readers to pray for kings and authorities "…so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity." This is a departure from the frenetic energy of Paul trying to beat the clock ticking down to the end of the age. He also addresses specific directions concerning bishops and other leaders which are absent from the seven authentic letters of Paul.
The author of Jude, besides using a lot of deuterocanonical material from 1 Enoch and others, is probably referring to a debate in the early church about whether or not humans are sexually compatible with non-humans (angels). The phrase used in verse 7 is sarkos heteras, or "different (hetero) flesh (sarkos). Various English translations once again do some interpretive work based on their biases and beliefs by rendering the text as "unnatural lust," "sexual perversion," "lust of men for other men."
The violation then, is not about men with men, it's about men trying to dominate the supernatural beings in Lot's house in Genesis 19.
In order for a Christian community to embrace an inclusive stance toward people with a non-heterosexual orientation, it must first embrace an older view of the Bible. Our book of scriptures were not always perceived as a hardened divine finished product with every syllable a universal, absolute truth from the desk of God alone. For centuries, the Bible was interpreted allegorically, theologically or mystically. Treating it as a universal, univocal, transcendent source of unadulterated, capital-T truth robs the Bible of its richness and authenticity as a debate prompt instead of a debate killer.
For the literalist to maintain an overlap with our modern social mores, much original cultural context must be ignored or denied. Every generation of Christians has interpreted the Bible in such a way as to reinforce their particular power dynamics and moral systems. Even the Bible itself was not immune to spin by the compilers- any reader will recognize the familiar strains of exceptionalism and nationalism in Bible texts that express dreams of annihilating enemies and rising to the top of world political power. In some cases it gets close to propaganda.
We unwittingly map our preferences onto contextless biblical statements. When we translate texts from one language to another there is always static in the form of nonequivalent meanings, undetected social rules, unclear agendas and mistaken identification of usage and genre. Translation always requires interpretation, and therein lies a problem. An interpreter doing her level best to be objective and accurate still has a labyrinth of difficult decisions to make, and is limited by her native language and conceptual categories. This is not to say she can’t study the details of the culture in question, but even then it’s impossible to be certain enough to advise someone to obey it on a lifestyle level.
Most of the time, we can make informed guesses about original intent, based on scientifically gathered literary and archaeological evidence, scholars continue to live in probabilities and likelihoods. History is never clear enough to make definitively certain statements about anything.
This becomes dangerous when people don’t realize this reality applies to the Bible as well as any other ancient documents. Placing the Bible in a special literary category is the only way to justify a claim to certainty. Presenting it as the result of a miraculous process of God’s preservation works as long as you don’t understand much about how our Bibles came to be. In the hands of those with axes to grind or positions to maintain, the Bible suddenly becomes as crystal clear as if it was written in English by an American last week. By mapping our own biases onto these ancient works we too easily make God say what we want Him to say.
Those who claim to have clarity on how to apply biblical texts to our everyday lives have the unenviable task of deciding which parts of the Old Testament to use as propositional truth and which to ignore. If you expect twenty-first century American Christians to live by ancient Levitical standards, by all means, study the Law and make it happen. Avoid dead things, forget sushi, and start ordering grasshoppers and locusts from Whole Foods. Forget it if your beard is itchy- no dermatologist for you, go to a priest who will sequester you for seven days. The situations that “defile” a person are numerous and specific. And mostly unique to that time and place.
And yet, there are those that insist on an interpretation and application of defilement rules as if they are somehow critically important or relevant to modern Christians. Condemning one behavior "because the Bible clearly says so," means that you must then justify why you don’t condemn others that are just as “clear.” Let's take a quick look at polygamy- why is it wrong for us when it's "clearly" represented in the Bible as perfectly fine and certainly not defiling?
Rewind about 350,000 years, to a time when Homo Sapiens was emerging out of a number of other hominin species. Natural selection heavily favors heterosexual attraction, so those that didn't pass on their genes through heterosexual reproduction met with oblivion instead of posterity. And yet, we still have members of Homo Sapiens and many other animal species expressing a preference for same-sex pairing. And we also have majorities in those species that abhor the very idea, especially in highly socially cooperative species like ours.
One theory (not the only one) that explains our bias against same sex attraction holds that it originated in the survival instincts of small bands of hunter-gatherers who depended on heterosexual fertility to keep the tribe going; the larger the tribe, the greater the chances of survival. If you didn't produce your share of new tribe members, your status would plummet, and the group would work to either shun or rehabilitate you.
Shouldn't natural selection have pressured homosexuality out of existence? Yet here we are in a population in which it is still going strong.
If homosexuality is a natural feature that produces some minority percentage of any species, human or otherwise, with a same-sex attraction, then it probably isn’t intrinsically “defiling.” If we must be binary about it that’s what our choice is: homosexuality is either intrinsically evil or it’s a changeable, socially defined rule on par with appropriate clothing or traffic laws. Even if some cultures react to this reality by outlawing it, that doesn’t mean that we must do the same. We have the freedom to use our amazing gifts of self control and social dynamics to allow it a place in our culture. We do this with other behaviors, like impulses to hurt, kill, lie, steal, etc., because we know that doing so makes our entire society better.
If we're going to bring any bias into our understanding of the Bible, why not bring our bias in favor of democratic social liberty to the Bible, remembering that strict and inescapable hierarchies have been our fate for thousands of years- including the times in which the Bible was crafted?
Maintaining a position that excludes some percentage of human beings because of their sexual preferences assumes that your interpretation of this set of complex ancient documents is exactly what God intends for an ideal society. Congratulations- you have finally unlocked the absolute, certain truth about God and what constitutes a worthwhile existence. There are no more mysteries remaining, no surprises or serendipitous discoveries. You have God right where you want him: In a box made of a strange alloy of both modern and ancient cultural rules.
Questions for You
How do these approaches to the Bible affect other texts that we use to support various dogmas in the church?
What would happen in a church that decided to work toward being inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people?
Status concerns were also of the highest importance. Given that only free men had full status, women and male slaves were not problematic sexual partners. Sex between freemen, however, was problematic for status. The central distinction in ancient Greek sexual relations was between taking an active or insertive role, versus a passive or penetrated one. The passive role was acceptable only for inferiors, such as women, slaves, or male youths who were not yet citizens. Hence the cultural ideal of a same-sex relationship was between an older man, probably in his 20s or 30s, known as the erastes, and a boy whose beard had not yet begun to grow, the eromenos or paidika. In this relationship there was a courtship ritual, involving gifts (such as a rooster), and other norms. The erastes had to show that he had nobler interests in the boy, rather than a purely sexual concern. The boy was not to submit too easily, and if pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the more noble one. There is also evidence that penetration was often avoided by having the erastes face his beloved and place his penis between the thighs of the eromenos, which is known as intercrural sex. The relationship was to be temporary and should end upon the boy reaching adulthood (Dover, 1989)
*Collins, Raymond F. (2004). 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 4. ISBN 0-664-22247-1. By the end of the twentieth century New Testament scholarship was virtually unanimous in affirming that the Pastoral Epistles were written some time after Paul's death. As always some scholars dissent from the consensus view. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Epistle_to_Timothy#cite_note-7