Homosexuality and the Bible
Copyright © 1995, Rev. Clay Witt
Holy Redeemer M. C. C.
This paper was originally written in 1995 for a human sexuality seminar at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.
This is a truly fascinating area of study. Every time I prepare to teach a class on the subject, I lean more. Particularly, I am just beginning to realize what a huge impact sexual practices in pagan fertility cults had on early Jewish and Christian people and how an association between homosexuality and the worship of pagan idols developed in their minds -- an association that "poisoned the well" and produced centuries of needless suffering for gay and lesbian people. I hope to find the time to update this document with more on that as time goes on.
A list of sources consulted in the preparation of this paper is included at the end. The original paper was extensively footnoted. The footnoting was lost in converting the file to html. If you want the fully footnoted document, e-mail me and I will send you the word-processing file in rich-text format.
Here is the paper. I hope that it will add to your understanding.
In his book Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality John Shelby Spong speaks of a Southern pastor who wrote to him in opposition to his support for the blessing of committed gay and lesbian relationships. He relates that the pastor wrote "urging that I be in repentance and sorrow for the anti-scriptural stand on sexuality you have taken. The thought of blessing the very same perversions that have scripturally been promised due penalty is abhorrent to the very mind of Christ."
The pastors view is, of course, not unusual. The idea that the Bible (and therefore God) is unalterably opposed to any form of sexual expression between those of the same gender is deeply held by many Christians. This is the first and strongest barrier encountered by gay and lesbian people who are attempting to affirm their self worth and their Christianity in our culture.
I begin by noting my bias is in favor of Spong. I know first hand, from my own experience and that of many others, the pain and suffering the unnamed Southern pastors views cause. Lives are ruined, people are separated from their families, andworst of allpeople are separated from the assurance that they are loved by God. Some who now hold such views are not open to dialogue, but some are. I think that it is important for Christians to realize that the Bibles reputed position against the physical expression of love between two people of the same gender, particularly between those in committed relationships, is not nearly as clear cut as they may have been taught.
Toward Understanding the Biblical Position
First of all, something needs to be said about terms. As Furnish points out, "homosexuality" is a fairly modern term and there are no Hebrew or ancient Greek equivalents. The word was not even coined until the second half of the nineteenth century. Even then, it was coined by a Hungarian writer. It did not come into English usage until toward the end of that century. "In fact, the first use of the term "homosexuals" in an English Bible did not come until 1946, with the publication of the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament." Certainly, there was no understanding of the term in the modern sense, informed by careful scientific study, of a person whose inherent sexual orientation is toward another of his or her own gender. Many of the writers on the subject of "homosexuality" and the Bible use the term loosely to mean same-sex genital activity in some context. Various quotations in this paper should be understood in that light. I have also used the term in that sense in some places as a matter of convenience.
It is also important at the beginning to place the topic in prospective. Victor Paul Furnish, Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology, recounts having received an urgent telephone call from a television host scheduled to interview a "gay rights leader." The host wanted to confront the leader with biblical injunctions against homosexuality, but had been unable to find any. Furnish states that "[t]hat interviewer had already discovered something important although he scarcely realized it: Homosexuality is not a prominent biblical concern." Another author says it this way: "The first point that must be made is that the current intense interest in the issue of homosexuality and the Bible is our interest; it does not reflect the biblical priorities."
Out of the thousands of passages in the Bible, only a handful are usually used by those espousing biblical condemnation of homosexuality. The prophets, whos office often involves cataloging sin, do not condemn same-gender sexual relations. At least in recorded Scripture, Jesus said nothing at all on the subject. There is not one mention of same-gender sexual relations in any of the gospels. While one must be cautious about arguing from silence, I agree with Spong that this "does suggest that those who consider this the most heinous sin must be terribly disturbed that our Lord appears either to have ignored it completely or to have said so little on the subject that no part of what he said was remembered or recorded."
There are a number of books dealing with these few passages in considerable detail, some of which are cited in this paper. My intention here is to draw on a few of them which play prominently in the current debates and to touch on some of the significant exegetical questions which they raise.
Sodom and Gomorra
The first passage is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra in Genesis. The story really begins in Genesis 18. To summarize, three men appear before Abraham at the oaks of Mamre; apparently God and two angles. Abraham extends elaborate Middle Eastern hospitality to them. The men promise Abraham and Sarah, his wife, a child in their advanced old age. The men set out and Abraham accompanies them on the beginning of their journey. After a brief argument with "himself," God decides to take Abraham into "his" confidence. God reveals that there has been an outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and that God plans to investigate to see whether the complaints are well founded. The angels proceed on toward Sodom while Abraham stays behind and engages in some remarkable "horse trading" with God. He eventually gets God to agree not to destroy Sodom if even 10 righteous people can be found there.
Meanwhile, the two angels arrive at Sodom and are invited by Lot, Abrahams nephew, to stay the night at his house. All of the people of Sodom, "to the last man," surround the house and demand that the angels be brought out so that they may "know" them. Despite Lots offer of his two virgin daughters (something which gives the modern mind pause and which might in and of itself caution against using this story as a paradigm of sexual ethics), they persist and are struck blind by the angels. Lot and his family escape, although Lots wife is turned into salt for looking back contrary to the angels instructions. The cities are destroyed by sulfur and fire from heaven.
Without doubt, the people of Sodom were wicked, but it would be a gross distortion to claim (as many do without thinking) that their wickedness was grounded in a homosexual orientation. We are explicitly told in Ezekiel: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it."
Even the conservative Strongs Hebrew Dictionary notes that the Hebrew word interpreted here as "abominable things" is especially associated with idol worship. Lance makes the same point:
Jude does state that: "And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great Day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire." England asserts that this is a reference to a legend that the women of Sodom had intercourse with angles. That seems plausible, given the "in the same manner" language. Even if it is not the correct reading, however, it is worth observing that at best what was going on at Sodom in terms of the sexual aspects of the Genesis story was attempted rape. This is hardly a story of loving relationships. Rape is not to be condoned, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Lance observes that the Genesis 19 story and a somewhat similar story at Judges 19, in which a crowd satisfies itself by sexually assaulting and killing a Levites concubine after having been refused a chance to assault the Levite, "are not instructive about homosexuality per se. All rape is violent and to be condemned. The stories therefore are essentially irrelevant to the larger issue."
It is also worthy of note that all of the men of Sodom were involved in the attempt. Thus it is highly unlikely that all, or even most, of the people involved were homosexual as the term is now understood. A good many were likely heterosexuals who were indeed attempting to do something "unnatural" for them in order to harm or humiliate strangers in their midst, and angels at that. Lance is also helpful here.
Finally, it is important to note that, given such features as the bargaining that went on between God and Abraham, God apparently had the destruction of the cites in mind before the incident with the angels took place.
Furnish notes that Sodom did not become an unambiguous symbol of same-sex sexual relations until the second century C.E., that it then applied to the exploitation of a youth or young man by an older male, and that although there are some English translations which use the word "sodomite," "no Hebrew or Greek word formed on the name Sodom ever appears in the biblical manuscripts on which those versions are based. In every instance in the King James Version where the term sodomite is used, the reference is to male prostitutes associated with places of worship." "It is important to notice that our Old Testament texts attack the male prostitutes not because they engage in sexual relationships with other males; they, like the female prostitutes, are attacked because they serve alien gods."
The foregoing accounts for misleading translations like the King James versions rendition of Deuteronomy 23:17: "There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel," and similar mistranslations at I Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46 and II Kings 23:7. As one author points out, it is difficult to see how anyone could make this kind of mistake, since the words of Deuteronomy 23:17 translated as "whore" and "sodomite" are masculine and feminine forms of exactly the same Hebrew word. The New Revised Standard Edition uses the more accurate "temple prostitute" in these passages. Scroggs even suggests that it is a strong possibility that the male temple prostitutes spoken of here serviced females, rather than males.
The "Holiness Code"
There are two passages in the "Holiness Code" of Leviticus, at 18:22 and 20:13-14, which seem to be fairly clear-cut condemnations of same-gender sexual relations among males. Sexual relations between females is not mentioned here, or anywhere else in the Hebrew Testament.
The "Holiness Code" is a comprehensive series of ethical and ritual laws found in Leviticus at chapters 17 through 26. Holiness is a term in Hebrew "probably meaning separate from the ordinary or profane."
Spong notes that Israels call was to be different. They were to be a people distinct from the Canaanites among whom they settled. This uniqueness preserved them over the centuries in times of trial and exile and kept them from being absorbed by the peoples around them. It is in this setting of a need to be different from those around them that same-gender sexual activity is condemned, together with other sexual activities including having intercourse during menstruation.
Leviticus was also written during the Babylonian exile, a period when there was a passion to reproduce to guarantee the future of the nation. Spong notes as well that these passages reflect pre-modern understandings and prejudices. For example, other portions of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 21 forbid any person with a physical "blemish" from serving as a priest, reflecting a mentality that assumed that physical abnormalities were sign of Gods judgment and rejection.
England argues that these prohibitions should be seen as being directed against sexual practices of fertility cult worship. As with the earlier reference from Strongs, he notes that the word "abomination" used here is directly related to idolatry and idolatrous practices throughout the Hebrew Testament. Edwards makes a similar suggestion, observing that "the context of the two prohibition in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 suggest that what is opposed is not same-sex activity outside the cult, as in the modern secular sense, but within the cult identified as Canaanite."
England points out the implications of a patriarchal society in the identification of only males with the prohibition:
One might also call into question why certain archaic passages in Leviticus are given such emphasis by some who routinely ignore others. For example, the prescribed "cure" for mold or rot on the wall of a house ("a leprous disease in a house") was first to take out the stones in the area and scrape off all of the plaster. If that doesnt work, the house is to be torn down. If biblical literalists were literal about everything, a good many bathrooms would be in serious jeopardy. One might also ask such a person how many modern blended fiber garments they have in their wardrobe and call their attention to Leviticus 19:19s injunction against putting on a garment made of two different materials.
Far more important though is calling attention, as England does, to the Christians freedom from the law as set out at Romans 7:6, "But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit," and to the stern warning at Galations 5:4 that "[y]ou who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace."
The New Testament
Finally, we turn to three passages in the New Testament, Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9, and I Timothy 1:10.
Romans 1:26-27 reads as follows: "For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 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."
This is the only passage in the entire Bible which mentions sex between women. Scroggs notes that this is the major passage on our subject in the New Testament "(all two verses!)." Space does not permit a detailed recitation of his lengthy analysis of the passage and its context, but he makes these points:
Furnish also notes that Pauls condemnation of homosexual behavior is similar to that of non-Christian contemporaries, particularly Hellenistic Jews, and that it carries with it a presupposition of the day that one freely chooses to be homosexual. The words "exchanged" and "gave up" imply a conscious decision which Paul associates with insatiable lust.
Spong makes a similar point. He observes that for Paul, the sin was unfaithfulness. Homosexuality was not the sin, but the punishment.
Such ideas are contrary to my own experience and to findings of recent research, much in the news, which is beginning to uncover possible biological bases for a homosexual orientation. One of the better expressions I have found is the following:
Lance says it this way:
I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10
We may treat the other two New Testament passages, I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10, together, because the problem in both cases seems to be primarily one of translation of the same, or similar, terms.
Both of these passages are in the form of lists. Scroggs indicates that the form is one which scholars have nicknamed the "catalog of vices." It was a form popular in Greco-Roman literature of the day.
As to context, Scroggs points out that the specific intent of Paul is to attack practices he has heard are taking place in the Corinthian church and which he identifies in chapter 5 and 6. None of them have to do with homosexuality. They are a man living with his fathers former wife, church members going to civil courts against each other, and church member going to female prostitutes.
The New Revised Standard Version translation of the I Corinthians 6:9-10 list is: "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes [malakoi], sodomites [arsenokoitai], thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbersnone of these will inherit the kingdom of God."
The Timothy passage is part of a unit that runs from verse 8 through verse 11: "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, fornicators [pornoi], sodomites [arsenokoitai], slave traders [andrapodistai], liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me."
The words primarily at issue are forms of the Greek words "arsenokoites" and "malakos." England notes that "[o]ne way for translators to surmise an unknown words meaning is from the context of a sentence. A series of words in a list, however, does not lend itself well to this kind of educated guess." He also indicates that "translators are uncertain about the actual definitions of a number of words in the list in 1 Corinthians because the words are adjectives used in noun form and do not appear in this form elsewhere." The result in these cases is a wide variety of translations. Hardly any translations are the same and, as noted by both England and Furnish, the confusion is compounded because some translate Pauls two distinct nouns as one. Lance, quite literally, puts this graphically.
England relates that "malakee" is a noun form of the root adjective "malakos" which literally means "soft." At Matthew 11:18, it is used as an adjective to describe clothing. A subsidiary meaning came to be "effeminate." This is the translation used in the King James version. It did not imply a homosexual person in Greek. Writings of the "Church Fathers," according to England, do not use this word for "effeminate." "Malakos" was used for general moral weakness, or sometimes as a reference to masturbation. In later writing of the "Church Fathers," "malakos" came to mean dissolute and abandoned behaviorsometimes with a sexual definition, but never as homosexual. England feels that this is Pauls meaning.
Scroggs agrees with the primary meaning (soft) and the secondary meaning (effeminate). Based on usage in other texts, he feels that the term here refers to a particularly detested form of pederasty involving "call-boys" who consciously imitated feminine styles and ways. Furnish reaches a similar conclusion.
"Arsenokoites" is more problematic. It is made up of words meaning "male" and "bed." The later, according to Scroggs, came to mean marriage bed and then sexual intercourse in general. Scroggs states that, as far as he can determine, its use in I Cor. 6:10 is the earliest extant occurrence of the term. There is therefore no recoverable history of the use of the term prior to Pauls use of it to draw on as an aid in translation.
Scroggs reports that Boswell argues that the first word in the compound is the subject, rather than the object, and the definition is "a male lying"that is a fornicator or a male prostitute who services women and/or men. Scroggs himself feels that the term may be an attempt to translate a rabbinical quasi-legal term used to describe male homosexuality into understandable Greek and that in this context it refers to the active partner who keeps or hires the "malakos." Thus the list denounces both partners in this form of pederasty. "Seen in this way, the list shares the disapproval of this form of pederasty in agreement with the entire literature of the Greco-Roman world on the topic!" Again, Furnish basically agrees.
Scroggs similarly feels that it is no accident that pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistai are grouped together in the Timothy passage. He asserts that pornos means "male prostitute" in normal Greek usage and that it functions in its relationship to arsenokoites the same way that malakos does in 1 Corinthians. Andropodistes means either "kidnapper" or "slave dealer." He feels that this third person completes the picture. It is a kidnapper or slave dealer who is involved in the "sexual profession;" the one "ultimately responsible for the pornos, who is used by arsenokoites. The three words would thus fit together and could be translated: male prostitutes, males who lie [with them], and slave dealers [who procure them]." Spong agrees with this interpretation.
Spong concludes his chapter on this subject in this way:
I would add a loud "Amen!" I would also add that to get bogged down in a few isolated texts risks not being able to see the forest for the trees. Too many occupy themselves with "proof-texting" and never see the Bible as a whole. There are overarching biblical principles of Gods love and grace and the goodness of Gods creation that are good news for lesbians and gays, just as they are for the rest of Gods children. I would argue that the kingdom is advanced by spreading this good news, not by usurping Gods role of judge and alienating Gods people from their savior.