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All Are Welcome (On My Blog)

In my previous post, I made two key points: (i) (homo)sexuality is not a priority of the biblical writers; (ii) among all c. 23,000 verses in the Hebrew Bible, there are actually none which relate to what we would call ‘homosexuality’ today. In this post, I intend to show that the same can be said of the c. 8,000 verses in the New Testament. In order to demonstrate my case, three Clobber Verses (CVs) must be tackled, bearing in mind the same pitfalls we observed in my first post: contradictory manuscripts, contradictory authors, lack of contextual information, misinterpretation of the genre, language ambiguity, etc…

In Section 3, I shall also attempt to pre-empt the accusation that, by focusing on the five CVs, I am somehow cherry-picking and ignoring numerous implicit condemnations.

1. Romans 1:26-27

LGBT-affirming interpretations of the Apostle Paul largely began with John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.1 Anyone who is interested in seeking after truth should always be open to alternative perspectives and be prepared to change ones’ mind after weighing up the arguments. For a rebuttal of John Boswell’s view, for example, there is Richard B. Hays’s article ‘Relations Natural and Unnatural’ in the Journal of Christian Ethics.2

Why am I focusing in on Paul? Jesus never says a word on the topic; that’s why. The only three verses (out of 8,000) which may – or may not, as I’m attempting to persuade you – refer to homosexuality are penned by “Paul”. I will focus on Jesus’s apparent heteronormativity in Section 3.

Here is the passage from Romans in context:3

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The traditional interpretation of this passage is that it refers to ‘an illustration of human depravity’ and an ‘apocalyptic “long-view” which indicts fallen humanity as a whole’. Paul, in this view, writes with Genesis 3 in mind.4 (The familiar story of Adam, Eve and the talking snake!) Because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit – or “rebelled against God” at some time in the distant past – the natural world has been “broken”. Originally, male and female were designed by Yahweh / Elohim to be in a joyful heterosexual union. Homosexuality is part of the natural world – and it is part of the natural world – but only in the same way that earthquakes and hurricanes are. Homosexuality is not part of “God’s plan”, traditionalists argue.

We should not stereotype such a notion as inherently and intentionally “homophobic”; I used to hold this view myself and without any malice towards my LGBT friends. Those who are genuine would be quick to (in my view, misguidedly) state that people in a homosexual relationship are considered no more sinful than anyone else: ‘We are all under the same condemnation.’5 Sadly a great many do hold this perspective with an active hatred of homosexual and bisexual people. I am ignoring their bile in trying to counter this argument.6

Since Romans is the first of the Pauline Epistles in the New Testament and Romans is generally regarded as Paul’s theological masterpiece, most people would naturally accept at first glance that he must begin at the beginning, i.e. in Genesis.

A closer reading reveals, however, that Paul mentions none of the words he typically associates with Genesis: Adam, Eve, Eden or ‘the Fall’. In fact, Paul only begins to comment on such things in Romans 5:12. The notion that this is Paul laying out his account of how homosexuality is a by-product of ‘the Fall’ would do well to read some of the academic literature if they’re so inclined.7

The key contextual statement comes in verse 23.

23 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

The very next verses clearly carry this statement as their cause because Paul uses the connective word ‘therefore’ in verses 24 and 25.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity… 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed for ever!

Then, just to make his logic impeccably clear, he uses another linking phrase to introduce the CVs we are examining here.

26 For this reason God gave them up to their degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

So we’ve established that Paul’s chain of logic relates to worshipping idols. This is hardly surprising; he is writing to ‘Gentiles’, i.e. non-Jews. There were very few Jews in Rome at this time and the letter is addressed to ‘all God’s beloved in Rome’. When it came to deities and cults, Rome was the Tesco Extra of the day. His purpose in this passage is to give a non-specific narrative about the origins of polytheism and idolatry;8 it has nothing to do with either ‘nature’ – as we understand it – or homosexuality. After all, if this passage uses ‘natural’ in the same sense that we use it, then we should simply reject Paul’s words as ignorance; homosexuality is an unmistakeable part of animal behaviour. (As well as sex-swapping species, for those interested in sex, gender and nature.)

Paul uses ‘nature’ (physis) in different ways. In the below passage (1 Corinthians 11), it is to denote ‘human custom’ or ‘propriety’:

14 Does not nature [physis] itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

I mean, plenty of male animals naturally have long hair! Ever seen a male lion? One contextual factor which impacts on the way the above should be read is that priests of the Great Mother Cybele cult in Rome would literally castrate themselves (ouch!!!), dress as women and grow their hair long.9 Another usage of physis again highlights my point:

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth [physis] and not Gentile sinners;

While physis as a Greek concept was used to refer to what we call ‘nature’, its usage is broad and here it is clearest to translate it as ‘convention’ or ‘propriety’. As for all the sexual terms, as discussed last week, ancient polytheistic religions often had weird sexual rituals, which Paul, like all other Jews of the period, thought were morally (as well as ceremonially) impure. In the cult of Dionysus, the ‘required sexual actions, sometimes including rape, insured salvation, union with the gods, and immortality’.10 There are plenty of other examples if you are not prepared to believe me on first glance; feel at liberty to Google.

2. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

The next passage comes from 1 Corinthians:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

A similar “vice list” appears in 1 Timothy:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

Something worth noting is that the earliest manuscript for 1 Corinthians 6 comes from Codex Vaticanus (c. 325 CE), giving a 275-year gap for scribes to make word additions pertaining to their own theological agenda – which we wouldn’t know about – in a period filled with hotly contested theological debates. To prove my point, a hilarious corrective footnote in the margins of this codex from one later scribe reads: “Fool and knave, can’t you leave the old reading and not alter it!”11 The earliest for 1 Timothy 1 is Codex Sinaiticus (c. 345 CE), so the kinds of problems I described in my first post should be borne in mind. Homosexuality in the early Church was a contentious issue, as it still is today. Furthermore, the scholarly consensus is that the letter of 1 Timothy was not written by the Apostle Paul, despite claiming to be. This should be considered when anyone is interpreting the second “vices list”.

Related: Measuring Forgery in Early Christianity

1-corinthians-5-v12
Something That Paul Said (1 Corinthians 5:12)

The debate typically revolves around two Greek words used in the passage above: malakoi and arsenokoitai. Both terms are exclusively and unquestionably male;12 so we now have zero references in the entire bible to female homosexuality whatsoever.

Malakoi is etymologically connected to ‘softness’. Elsewhere, the term is used to denote moral weakness; Jesus uses it to describe ‘soft robes’ in order to attack the self-indulgence and idleness of the court of Herod Antipas.13 Elsewhere the term is used to mean ‘effeminate’ or ‘cowardly’, such as in Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics.14 For this reason, the word is translated ‘effeminate’ in the KJV and YLT, among others. A number of conservative commentators like to dwell on the surrounding “vices”, which are largely sexual in nature, though we cannot conclusively deduce that malakoi and arsenokoitai (in bold) are referring to something sexual here; other non-sexual vices appear in this list without any obvious pattern. Two out of the eight vices which surround the ones in question (in italics) are sexual, while the other six are not (in bold).

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

Arsenokoitai, as far as we know, is a word which the Apostle Paul himself came up with, combining ‘man’ with ‘bed’. It is not found in any works before him. Many scholars of all opinions have agreed that arsenokoitai is probably connected with the Greek translations of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which Paul would have been familiar with, since zakar miskebe in Masoretic Text Hebrew becomes arsenos koiten in Septuagint Greek.15 If that is so, as discussed last week, then whatever Paul is condemning has nothing to do with loving, mutually consensual, homosexual behaviour.

I am not the only person who reads the Torah in such a light. In fact, this was an ancient interpretation of the Law common among Greek-speaking Jews. Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Paul’s, writes in the context of the interpretation of Mosaic Law, that:16

(37) Moreover, another evil, much greater than that which we have already mentioned, has made its way among and been let loose upon cities, namely, the love of boys, which formerly was accounted a great infamy even to be spoken of, but which sin is a subject of boasting not only to those who practise it, but even to those who suffer it, and who, being accustomed to bearing the affliction of being treated like women, waste away as to both their souls and bodies, not bearing about them a single spark of a manly character to be kindled into a flame, but having even the hair of their heads conspicuously curled and adorned, and having their faces smeared with vermilion, and paint, and things of that kind, and having their eyes pencilled beneath, and having their skins anointed with fragrant perfumes (for in such persons as these a sweet smell is a most seductive quality), and being well appointed in everything that tends to beauty or elegance, are not ashamed to devote their constant study and endeavours to the task of changing their manly character into an effeminate one.

(38) And it is natural for those who obey the law to consider such persons worthy of death, since the law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption, not allowing him to live a single day, or even a single hour, as he is a disgrace to himself, and to his family, and to his country, and to the whole race of mankind.

(39) And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys submit to the same punishment, since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature, […], and moreover, being a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and effeminate lust, stripping young men of the flower of their beauty, and wasting their prime of life in effeminacy, which he ought rather on the other hand to train to vigour and acts of courage; and last of all, because, like a worthless husbandman, he allows fertile and productive lands to lie fallow, contriving that they shall continue barren, and labours night and day at cultivating that soil from which he never expects any produce at all.

(40) And I imagine that the cause of this is that among many nations there are actually rewards given for intemperance and effeminacy. At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres.

(41) And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes […]

(42) But if there was a general indignation against those who venture to do such things, such as was felt by our lawgiver, and if such men were destroyed without any chance of escape as the common curse and pollution of their country, then many other persons would be warned and corrected by their example […]

Given the evident influence of Philo’s concept of the Logos on the Johannine community (i.e. Jesus as the pre-existent ‘Word’ of God), it is not unlikely that a fellow highly educated Jew living in a Hellenistic era and setting, i.e. Saul / Paul of Tarsus, might have shared the same approach?

In case anyone thinks I am being horrendously biased and I don’t read widely enough, the long and somewhat tedious debate over arsenokoitai goes roughly as follows:

(1) John Boswell (1980) suggests that arsenokoitai means “active male prostitutes”, yet using a very narrow evidence range. His expertise is in medieval history and, unfortunately, his argument is rather flawed as a result of this.17

(2) David Wright (1984) correctly – yet redundantly – points out that later Syriac and Greek sources suggest that arsenokoitai refers to homosexuality more broadly.18

(3) Dale Martin (1996) notes that whenever arsenokoitai appears in “vice lists”, it is frequently connected with exploitative or violent “vices”, e.g. ‘murderers’ and ‘slave traders’ in 1 Timothy 1.19

(4) Brian Rosner (1998) argues, without reference to the disputed verse 9, that 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 concerns temple prostitution. This should definitely have an impact on the understanding of the preceding verses, though I am seemingly the only person who has made this connection; I do like being original.20

There have been lots of articles post-1998, yet I am not going to bore you, as my cherished reader, with detailing them too, especially since they largely regurgitate existing content.

Hopefully, at the very least, I have convinced you that the CVs are nowhere near as clear-cut as they would need to be in order to serve as anti-LGBT ‘proof texts’. If there is a huge literature on the topic, there is language ambiguity.

3. The Bigger Picture

Now I ought to rescue myself from the inevitable charge that I have been unfair by limiting the scope of our discussion to the five CVs. There are many verses describing and celebrating the complementarity of male and female throughout the Bible. After all, one of the 66 books of the Protestant canon is devoted to the subject: Song of Songs. It celebrates the love between a female ‘beloved’ and a male ‘lover’. (Contrary to conservative views, there is no mention of this couple being married – shocking, I know!)21

While one would be daft to deny there is a theme of male and female complementarity in the Bible, performing a similar search exercise to what was done previously, only 50 results for ‘male and female’ actually come up (NRSV), many of which are to do with ‘male and female slaves’. For ‘man and woman’, there are 65 results,22 while for ‘husband and wife’ there is a pitiful total of 26 references. Combined, the complementarity-related total wouldn’t make the top 250 words. As demonstrated last week, writing about men was far more important than writing about women at a rather crude ratio of 23 to 1. As for matrimonial references: ‘husband(s)’ (169), ‘wife/wives’ (404), ‘married’ (80), ‘marriage’ (62), ‘marry/marries/marrying’ (63), ‘wed/weds/wedding’ (37). The combined total (815) here would make the top 250 words, unlike the total for sex-related words; this is hardly unsurprising given the huge importance of marrying, having children and ensuring inheritance in ancient society, none of which could be done within homosexual relationships.

In 2015, the ONS estimated the UK proportion of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people in our society at 1.7%. While the true number is likely to be higher, it still extremely roughly implies that 98.3% of people are straight (or ‘pansexual’). There was as much homophobia in ancient times as there is today, especially for the ‘receptive’ partner in male-male intercourse.23 This was due to patriarchal perceptions of penetration as ‘superior’ and ‘masculine’ while being penetrated was ‘inferior’ and ‘feminine’. This stigmatisation would seriously inhibit open displays of homosexuality, giving another reason why the biblical authors would only focus on heterosexual eros, as it were.

Lastly, the many heteronormative references of Jesus, which have been taken by some to be an implicit condemnation of homosexuality, are simply a reflection of the times. For example, in Mark 10, Jesus says:

But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh.

This passage talks about divorce, not homosexuality. In the ancient world, there was no way to legally recognise a homosexual marriage, like in many countries today, so it is no surprise that Jesus’s remarks here assume marriage is between a man and a woman only. Any use of this passage, or similar ones, proves nothing. Jesus still doesn’t provide any meaningful evidence which could be used to prop up an anti-LGBT reading of Christian scriptures.

It is often said, ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ Many apologists frequently trot this saying out to defend poor logic. However, I’m going to correctly employ it here: absence of evidence is evidence of absence if one’s claim suggests that evidence should be abundant. In light of the above, we should not realistically expect biblical authors to write much about homosexuality on naturalistic grounds. However, if the claim is that Bible is some kind of universal and timeless moral authority from an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity, is it not possible for that deity to have provided both greater quantity and quality of scriptural evidence?

4. Conclusion

the-gay-friendly-church
Don’t Be Like This

Okay, maybe you disagree with what I’ve written. Great! Tell me why you disagree in the comments, though please bear in mind my Three Commandments. The message I would most like you, as my reader, to reflect on is this: the Bible at most refers to homosexuality in five sets of verses, out of a total of thirty-one thousand verses. “Bible-believing” friends of mine will gain much respect from all people if they apportion their time between addressing poverty and homosexuality in the same proportions as the biblical authors chose to do.

If you’ve enjoyed these two posts, then please comment, subscribe via the button below or like The Book of Amos on Facebook! If not – still do all these three things; I’d love to know why you disagree with what I’ve presented here.

Footnotes:

 


  1.  Boswell, John (1980). Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  2. Hays, Richard B. (1986). ‘Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans 1’. Journal of Christian Ethics. vol. 14. pp. 184-215. 
  3. Emphasis mine. If you see italics in any biblical quotations here, it is safe to presume that they were not present in the biblical text! 
  4. Hays, Richard B. Ibid. pp. 191, 200. 
  5. Thielicke, Helmut (1964). The Ethics of Sex. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 282-283; see also Kimball-Jones, H. (1966). Toward a Christian Understanding of the Homosexual. London: SCM Press. p. 77. 
  6. That said, it is somewhat sad once you realise that unintentional homophobia is implied by the argument; people in loving homosexual relationships are viewed as part of the ‘human depravity’ along with: ‘wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice… envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness’ among others. On a purely personal level, do you think this comparison makes sense? 
  7. Martin, Dale B. (1995). ‘Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32’. Biblical Interpretation. 3/3. pp. 332-355; Stowers, Stanley K. (1994). A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 86-94. 
  8. Paul is in good company: many contemporary Jewish writers wrote similar passages, generally putting the blame for paganism and idolatry with one of two biblical characters: Kenan or Enosh. Ginzberg, Louis (7 vols., 1909-66). Legends of the Jews. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. vols. I (pp. 123-124); IV (p. 306); and V (pp. 150-151). 
  9. Clark, Anna (2008). Desire: A History of European Sexuality. New York: Routledge. p. 28. 
  10. Kroeger, Catherine. (1987). ‘The Apostle Paul and the Greco-Roman Cults of Women’. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 30/1. p. 36; see also: Clement of Alexandria (c. 195 CE). Protrepticus. 2:17-18. 
  11. Metzger, Bruce M. (1992). The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 195; the text is Hebrews 1:3, which is a vital proof text for many Christians of the Trinity
  12. Richie, Cristina (2010). ‘An Argument Against the Use of the Word “Homosexual” in English Translations of the Bible’. The Heythrop Journal. 50/5. p. 726. 
  13. Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:25
  14. Aristotle. Eudemian Ethics. Book III. Section 1229b. The quote is: ‘Hence some people who are even very soft about certain things are brave, and some who are hard and enduring are also cowardly.’ 
  15. Smith, Mark D. (1996). ‘Ancient Bisexuality and the Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27’. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 64/2. p. 247; Scroggs, Robin (1983). The New Testament and Homosexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress. pp. 106-107. 
  16. Philo of Alexandria (Born: c. 20-25CE | Died: c. 50-55 CE). The Special Laws. III.vii.37-42. [Link
  17. Boswell, John (1980). Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  18. Wright, David. (1984). ‘Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of Arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10)’. Vigiliae Christianae. 38/2. pp. 125-53. 
  19. Martin, Dale (1996). ‘Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences’ in Brawley, Robert L. (ed.). Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 
  20. Rosner, Brian S. (1998). ‘Temple Prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20’. Novum Testamentum. 40/4. pp. 336-351. 
  21. Coogan, Michael (2016). ‘Sex in the Song of Songs’. Available at: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/sex-in-the-song-of-songs. This observation is made in many other places, however. Michael Coogan is a lecturer in Divinity at Harvard; his books are brilliant. I use ‘Song of Songs’ because I accept the argument(s) for non-Solomonic authorship. The Song of Songs is fascinating for many things, especially its central voice as a vivacious sexually-charged female. 
  22. If one searches for ‘man woman’, only a further 27 results are returned. 
  23. Newheiser, David (2015). ‘Sexuality and Christian Tradition: Innovation and Fidelity, Ancient and Modern’. Journal of Religious Ethics. 43/1. pp. 128-130; Walsh, Jerome T. (2001). ‘Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who is Doing What to Whom?’. Journal of Biblical Literature. 120/2. p. 208; Gagnon, Robert A. J. (2001). The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Text and Hermeneutics. pp. 52-54; Bailey, Derrick S. (1955). Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. pp. 30-32. 
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