Tag Archives: clobber texts

To Christians arguing ‘no’ on marriage equality: the Bible is not decisive

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Christians who call on the Bible to support their arguments against marriage equality are on shaky ground. Shutterstock/The Conversation

Robyn J. Whitaker, University of Divinity

As Australia faces a postal plebiscite on same-sex marriage, we are seeing a steady stream of articles arguing the “yes” or “no” case. Many on the “no” side are prone to citing the Bible or appealing to “biblical values”. But what does the Bible actually say about human sexuality and homosexuality in particular?

What follows represents a summary of critical biblical scholarship on the issue. Critical biblical scholarship draws on a range academic disciplines including literary criticism, archaeology, history, philology, and social science to offer the most plausible, historically grounded interpretation of the Bible. It is not simply a matter of personal belief or citing official church doctrine.

Australian scholars are among leaders in the field when it comes to sexuality and the Bible. William Loader has written several books on the matter and this Anglican collection of essays is also excellent.

When it comes to homosexuality there are, at most, six passages of the Bible that are relevant. So what do these passages say?

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is well known. This is where the terms “sodomite” and “sodomy” originate, and it has long been associated with biblical condemnation of male homosexual sex. It is, however, actually about gang-rape.

In this story, the men of Sodom seek to rape two visitors (who are actually angels). Their host, Lot, defends them and offers them protection in his house, but offers his virgin daughters to be raped in their place.

It is a deeply problematic and complex story that warrants an article of its own, but what is clear is that sexual violence and rape is harshly condemned, and so God destroys the town with sulphur and fire. Despite the linguistic history of the word “sodomite”, Genesis 19 has nothing to say about homosexuality or mutually consenting adults of the same gender expressing their desire and love.

Two of the laws of Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) seem more pertinent. They call a man lying with another man instead of his wife an “abomination”.

We should note first that the imagined scenario is a married man committing adultery with another male. It is not describing what we would understand to be a sexual orientation. We might also note the inherent sexism here: women apparently don’t have the same desire or their sexuality is deemed too insignificant to be worthy of comment.

Again, we need some context. Yes, this verse clearly condemns adulterous homosexual sex in calling it an “abomination” (to’ebah), but here some of the other things also called an “abomination” in the Bible:

  • Egyptians eating with Hebrews;
  • having an image of another god in your house;
  • sacrificing your child to the god Molech;
  • having sex with your wife when she is menstruating;
  • taking your wife’s sister as a second wife; and
  • eating pork.

Banned likewise is wearing mixed-fabric clothing, interbreeding animals of different species, tattoos, mocking the blind by putting obstacles in their way, and trimming your beard.

As you can see, there is quite an assortment of ancient laws, some of which seem to make good sense (such as no child sacrifice) and others of which the majority of Christians no longer keep (such as eating pork and wearing a wool-silk blend).

To claim one set as timeless truths while ignoring the others is patently hypocritical and goes against the grain of the text itself.

These two verses in Leviticus are the sum total of what the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) says about same-sex activities. The remainder of the biblical references occur in the New Testament, written between approximately 50 and 110 CE in the context of the Roman Empire.

The attitudes and norms of Graeco-Roman culture are critical in understanding these texts. In Graeco-Roman society, there was an acceptance that men might be attracted to other men. Even if married (to a woman) and often prior to marriage, a wealthy man might have a young male lover or male partner.

In educational settings, several ancient authors comment on the male-male mentoring that often included pederasty (sex with boys). The main ancient objection to male-male sexual activity was that one partner had to take the “woman’s role” of being penetrated.

In a patriarchal society, to be masculine was to be the active partner, whereas to be passive was deemed feminine and shameful.

These attitudes find their way into the New Testament in various forms. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10 list a wide group of people who will not “inherit the Kingdom” without changing. Paul is using a standard list of vices here to make a wider rhetorical point.

Where some English translations might include “homosexuality” on this list, the translation is not that simple, which is why various English words are used (adulterer, immoral persons, prostitutes).

The Greek word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 means “soft” or “effeminate” and captures the Graeco-Roman distaste at a man taking a “female” role. In the Bible it is commonly used to describe fancy clothing, and outside the Bible was a term for cult prostitutes.

The word arsenokoites is rarer. Scholars have debated whether it refers to male prostitution or pederasty or something else. To translate it “homosexual” is problematic for two reasons: it is unlikely Paul had any concept of sexual orientation and he was certainly not describing a committed adult relationship.

In Romans 1:26-27, Paul condemns people swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender. He claims this is a result of idolatry and uses is as part of his argument for why one should only follow (his) God.

It is typical of the strong “them and us” rhetoric of the ancient world, serving a larger argument and is not a statement on sexuality per se. As New Testament scholar Sean Winter summarises:

Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity, but is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation.

We need to put all this in perspective. These are six verses out of more than 31,000 verses or roughly 0.016% of the text. In contrast, the Bible contains more than 2,000 verses about money (and related issues of greed, wealth, loans, and property), and more than 100 specifically on one’s obligation to care for widows.

In other words, monitoring and proscribing human (homo)sexual activity is not a particular concern of the Bible when compared to the overarching demand for justice, economic equality, and the fair treatment of foreigners and strangers. For certain Christian groups to make this the decisive Christian issue is simply a misreading of biblical values.

Lest readers think the Bible is against sexuality generally, there is an entire biblical book devoted to celebrating human sexual desire. Written in the style of a Mesopotamian love poem, the Song of Songs (sometimes called Song of Solomon), speaks positively of both female and male sexual yearning.

Serious Christians cannot ignore the Bible. They can, however, make sure that they interpret it with all the tools available to them, that they examine their own biases, and stop over-simplifying the issues.

The Bible offers a wide variety of marriage arrangements, many of which we no longer condone. It never condemns same-sex marriage, partly because it simply does not address the issue directly.

It does, however, give us an ethic to guide how we treat one another: an ethic based upon God’s generous love and a profound concern for justice.

Robyn J. Whitaker, Bromby Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Trinity College, University of Divinity

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

“Catamites and Sodomites” (Again).

A reader has alerted me to the inclusion in today’s Mass readings of some superficially nasty lines from Corinthians. She writes:

Thank God I’ve been pre-warned in a homily that Tuesday’s readings apparently condemn catamites and sodomites, so will miss Mass for once, as this terrible translation needs explanation by a competent priest.

I’m no priest, but based on my extensive reading of several eminent bible scholars, I’ll do my best.

Let’s begin with final paragraph of the text, as it appears in “Universalis, Mass readings for today” , and taken from the Jerusalem bible.

 You know perfectly well that people who do wrong will not inherit the kingdom of God: people of immoral lives, idolaters, adulterers, catamites, sodomites, thieves, usurers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers will never inherit the kingdom of God. These are the sort of people some of you were once, but now you have been washed clean, and sanctified, and justified through the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and through the Spirit of our God.

Other translations vary. These are the relevant lines from the lectionary at the USCCB site:

neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves

There’s “sodomites” again, but catamites has become “boy prostitutes”. (That reference to commercial sex is important, to which I’ll return later).

The details vary between translations, but the general sense appears to be clear – men who have sex with men are included in this list of reprobates. We must remember though, that none of these are the words that Paul actually wrote: he was writing in Greek, and we are looking at translations through a filter of 2000 years. The New International Version attempts to explain, with this translation and its footnote:

Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlerswill inherit the kingdom of God.

  1. 1 Corinthians 6:9 The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.

That seems to settle it. The attempt however, is deceptive, because it is not at all clear that the “two Greek words” referred to, “malakoi” and “arsenekotoi” really should be translated in the way described. That may well be the most common translation in modern bibles, but it has not always been so, and is not the onlly reading, as many professional biblical scholars are beginning to acknowledge.

Dr Renato Lings is not only a biblical scholar, but also a linguist, In “Love Lost in Translation”, he examines minutely the various translations, and how they came about. Modern translations have been heavily influenced by earlier English versions,such as the King James and Geneva Bibles.

The King James Version (1611) has

neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

In the Geneva Bible (1599), we find

neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor wantons, nor buggerers,

10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God.

These in turn were initially based on Jerome’s fourth century Vulgate, translated from the original Greek into Latin. Every translation risks some loss of accuracy of meaning, and that applies as much to the Vulgate as to the earliest English translations, more than a thousand years later. The further back we go, it seems, the less clear is the connection that is so widely taken for granted today – that “malakoi” and “arsenekotoi” refer to men who have sex with men.

“Malakoi” is the easier to deal with, translated in the Vulgate by the Latin adjective “mollis“, usually translated as “soft”, which also seems to be a reasonable view of the Greek “malakoi“. But how did this come to be written as “catamites”, or “boy prostitutes” in the English and American lectionaries, or even with Wycliffe’s 1388 translation as “lechers against kind”? As Lings notes, this is surprising, and we need to look for alternative translations for “mollis”. In Latin (but not in the Greek counterpart, which Paul used), these alternatives include “effeminate”, “womanish”, “unmanly” and “weak”. From a modern perspective, conscious of twentieth century stereotypes of homosexual men as “pansies”, we can see how the connection of “effeminate” and “passive homosexual” was made, but that was not the view of the Romans, and still less of the Greeks.

John Boswell, Dale B Martin and others have noted that for the Romans, “effeminate” could apply more readily to men with an excessive lust for women, as to passive homosexuals, for whom there was an alternative, much more widely used word – “cinaedus“. In addition to the sense of “effeminate”, there were also other senses for “mollis”, including an excessive devotion to luxury, indolence and sensual indulgence in general (calling to mind the description in Ezekiel of the nature of the real sin of Sodom). Lings also notes that 1 Corinthians 6 is not the only text in which “malakos / malakoi” occurs. It also crops up in Matthew 11.8.where it refers unambiguously to clothing, and so is translated as fine, delicate, or soft.

Yet another important further translation of “malakoi” is “weakling” – which is the word used by the first English translators (Tyndale, 1526, followed by Coverdale, 1535 and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568) before the Geneva and King James versions introduced the sexual connotations that later came to be taken for granted. Paul wrote “malakoi” in Corinthians in the mid first century, but it took a millenium and a half for that term to be construed as referring to male homosexuality, in any form.

If the link from “malakoi” to the standard modern translations is tenuous, that for “arsenekotoi” is even more so, because nobody knows just what the word meant. Paul’ usage here is the earliest recorded use, anywhere. It could be that he coined the word deliberately for his purpose, but we are unable to ask him what he meant. The modern interpretation as “sodomite” or “active homosexual”, rests on two based. One, is that it is paired with malakoi – so that if malakoi refers to passive homosexuals, then its counterpart as active partners is reasonable. But if, as shown above, that interpretation for malakoi is incorrect, then that for arsenekotoi will be, too. The other is based on a linguistic analysis which argues that as the two parts of the Greek word refer to “men”, and to “bed”, then the sense must be men who like to bed other men. That conclusion is shaky: it could equally refer simply to men who are too fond of sleeping, or if bed is accepted as euphemism for sex, to men who are too fond of sex, in any form.

An alternative modern interpretation, accepting “malakoi” as applying to boy prostitutes, rests on the pairing of the two terms, and irs proximity in this list and also in 1 Timothy 1:10, to assorted forms of pecuniary sin – frauds, swindlers and usurers. That reading suggests that just as “malakoi” refers to boys who are exploited sexually for commercial gain, then its counterpart “arsenekotoi” applies to those who exploit them, either as pimps, or as slave traders dealing in male slaves for sexual use.

The simple truth is that we just don’t know with any certainty just what these troubling words in 1 Corinthians 6 really refer to – but we can be fairly sure that they do not refer to equality – based, mutually loving and non- exploitative same – sex relationships as we know them today, because these simply did not exist in Paul’s day. Gay Christians and their allies are often accused of twisting the bible to suit our own ends, but the reality is the reverse. As Dale B Martin has argued, it’s the late translations that have read the words from a heterosexist perspective, imposing their own hostile reading on two Greek words which may have had nothing whatever to do with male sexual relationships.

I end with an extract from Gay Christian 101

The Remarkable Semantic Shift

The remarkable semantic shift in the meaning of malakoi, which by 1958, came to equate malakoi with homosexuality instead of softness, moral weakness or effeminacy, was not prompted by new linguistic evidence. Instead, cultural factors influenced modern translators to inject anti-homosexual bias into their translation.

In ancient times, the malakos word group never referred exclusively to homosexuals and lesbians. The malakos stem rarely, if ever, referred to homosexual behavior. In ancient times, it was sometimes used to refer to heterosexual men who followed the Greek custom of shaving the face daily.

For example: “Until Scipio Aemilianus (185-129 BC) made it fashionable, daily shaving was considered an affectation of the effeminate Greeks.” (The Immense Majesty, A History of Rome and the Roman Empire, Thomas W. Africa, 1991, Harlan Davidson, Inc, p. 148). How times have changed. Few these days regard daily shaving of facial hair as effeminate.


Romans 1:24 – 27, Part Two – Historical, Cultural Context.

I wrote recently about interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Romans as it affects LGBT Christians, pointing out that if we approach it with due consideration for the context of the full Chapter 1 and opening of Chapter 2, and not just the frequently quoted verses of 1:24 – 27, the sense of the passage changes substantially. This is not after all a condemnation of same – sex relationships as sinful. Paul does however, describe them as “shameful”. To appreciate more precisely what he means by this, and what it should mean for gay Christians today, we need to pay attention to another of the principles recommended for biblical interpretation by the Pontifical Biblical Commission: the need to consider the historical and cultural context appertaining at the time of writing.

I made a start on this in a previous post, where I argued that when the cultural context is considered for this passage, the real meaning is hiding in plain site: Paul was writing to the Romans, for whom sex in all its variety, was an even bigger part of daily life than in modern Western cities, with no general hostility to same – gender sexual practices.

Ithyphallic Tintinnabulum in British Museum (Source: Wikipedia)

Continue reading Romans 1:24 – 27, Part Two – Historical, Cultural Context.

Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?

Among the half dozen biblical clobber texts that appear, in modern interpretations, to condemn all same – sex relationships, perhaps the most difficult to counter is that in Romans 1:24-27. A reader, who in several comments recently has been critical of my posts about Mattew Vines and his book “God and the Gay Christian”, refers to this passage, asking:

How does Vines square his case for same-sex marriage with the New Testament condemnation of *all* sexual relationships outside of the male-female paradigm as unnatural in Romans 1:24-27?

I’ve already replied to my reader in the comments thread (here), with reference to Vines specifically, and with passing reference to some other useful commentary on the passage by others – but there’s much more to be said about this very badly misunderstood passage.RomanForum

Continue reading Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?

Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?

Among the half dozen biblical clobber texts that appear, in modern interpretations, to condemn all same – sex relationships, perhaps the most difficult to counter is that in Romans 1:24-27. A reader, who in several comments recently has been critical of my posts about Mattew Vines and his book “God and the Gay Christian”, refers to this passage, asking:

How does Vines square his case for same-sex marriage with the New Testament condemnation of *all* sexual relationships outside of the male-female paradigm as unnatural in Romans 1:24-27?

I’ve already replied to my reader in the comments thread (here), with reference to Vines specifically, and with passing reference to some other useful commentary on the passage by others – but there’s much more to be said about this very badly misunderstood passage.RomanForum

Continue reading Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?

Romans 1 – A Message of Inclusion for Gay Christians.

Conventionally, when people speak of “Romans 1” in the context of homosexuality, they are thinking in terms of the end of the chapter,verses 26 and 27,  with their apparent condemnation. of homoerotic acts. There are two basic flaws with this assumption. As James Alison and others have pointed out, the division of the text into chapters and verses is relatively modern, and arbitrary. It is inappropriate to read these verses in isolation, without consideration of the full context. Reading the whole of Chapter 1, immediately followed by chapter, gives quite a different perspective on the intended lesson – that the passage as a whole, as of the full letter to the Romans, is a condemnation of hypocrisy.in judging others.

Part of a Syriac ms of Paul's letter to the Romans (source, Wikipedia)
Part of a Syriac ms of Paul’s letter to the Romans (source, Wikipedia)

Continue reading Romans 1 – A Message of Inclusion for Gay Christians.

Biblical Love – Lost in Translation?

The dangers inherent in translating texts are obvious to anyone who has attempted to use Google Translate. Professional linguists and translators fo better, but difficulties remain, especially with literary and biblical texts. For LGBT people, the consequences have been profoundly damaging.

The widely held belief that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality underpins both religious and secular opposition, but this belief is unfounded. The word does not exist in the original text, for the simple reason that in Biblical times, the word and concept as we understand them, were unknown. What we have, is a set of modern interpretations of a series of translations from what are now dead languages. It is now widely recognized, for instance, that the Greek words “malakoi” and “arsenokotoi” that occur in Corinthians, do not in fact simply refer to “homosexuals”, as some translations imply. There has been less attention paid to the Hebrew texts of the First Testament.

Love Lost in Translation, front cover

In a new book, “Love Lost in Translation“, the biblical scholar and linguistic specialist  Renato Lings argues convincingly that in fact, all of the damaging texts of terror that have been so widely used to object to homoerotic relationships have been similarly distorted, with their original sense badly corrupted. In a fascinating opening chapter, he describes how these difficulties have affected not only modern translators, but even the writers of the Gospels and Pauline letters, in their understanding of the Jewish scriptures.  These were written in a classical Hebrew over hundreds of years, so that by the time of the Second Testament, it was no longer the common speech, having been replaced by Aramaic and Greek. To make the Hebrew bible more widely accessible, it had been translated from classical Hebrew into Greek (the version known as the Septuagint).  The Second Testament itself was written directly in Greek – and for its quotations and  references to the Hebrew prophets, depended on the Greek translations in the Septuagint. A few centuries later, the Greek bible, both Septuagint and Second Testament writings, were themselves translated into what had since become the common language of the people – Latin, in Jerome’s Vulgate version. Continue reading Biblical Love – Lost in Translation?

"Clobber Texts": Resource Page

When I first began to grapple seriously with the tensions between life as a practicing Catholic, and living honestly and with integrity as a gay man in a committed, stable partnership, one of the discoveries that helped me enormously was a Quest pamphlet given to me by a Catholic priest, which showed me for the first time that far from being “obviously” against homosexuality, the Bible includes only a half dozen verses that even appear to be critical, and that the relevance of even these half dozen is seriously disputed by many modern scholars. That was twenty years ago:  since then, many more scholars and theologians have been revising their views on the biblical take on same – sex relationships – and coming down on the side of acceptance.

So when I began to write at Queering the Church, in an attempt to share with readers the ideas and materials that had helped me, one of the first subjects I tackled was this question of the “clobber texts”, in a basic introductory post. Conscious of its limitations, for a long time I intended  to return to the subject, with more detailed reflections on each of these troublesome texts, drawing on and summarising the key arguments about them – but held back, feeling intimidated and inadequate to the task. Later, as my own knowledge matured, I became less interested in the defensive approach to the texts of terror, and more interested in identifying the far more numerous supportive and affirmative passages, both those featuring specific peoples that LGBT Christians could identify with (David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, the “Beloved Disciple”),  and the more general passages emphasising love and inclusion, and warning against legalism or passing judgement on others . So, as I began to expand my back pages at the site into a collection of resource pages, for the pages on scripture I have added extensive links to material on the affirmative texts – but added very little on defence against the nasties.

It was always my intention though, to include as many links to useable posts elsewhere on these clobber texts,  as I could find.  Earlier this week, I was asked by a reader for some help in this area, and as I did not yet have the summary of links that I have planned but not put together, I was forced to do some digging about from scratch. In the process, I finally began the process of adding an extensive list of links to my “Defence Against the Clobber Texts” page (a subpage of the “Rainbow Bible” section, in the navigation bar above). It’s still not exhaustive – I know that I have seen many more on-line articlues on these than I have included. These are just the ones that I was able to track down in the short time that was then available to me.  I will continue to add to it – and would welcome any further suggestions from readers.

This directory of links is permanently housed at the page on “Clobber Texts“, a subdivision of the “Rainbow Bible” pages but as an introduction and for convenience , here it is, as it stands today. (For balance, also see the far more extensive pages on “LGBT Affirmative Scriptures“)


Continue reading "Clobber Texts": Resource Page

Secrets & Lies: Uncovering the Truth

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!”

(James 3:5)


Indeed, this small member has potential for great damage – but also carries with it the potential to counter and repair the damage.  It is this potential for recovering truth that interests me more, but first, we must review the nature of the problem. There are many kinds of lies: outright falsehoods, lies of selective truth, and lies of omission among them.  For us as lesbian & gay Christians, some examples of each are well-known.ttongue

Perhaps the most egregious of the downright falsehoods is that the destruction of Sodom was God’s vengeance on the homosexual sins of its populace.  As many modern scholars have shown, there is absolutely no basis for this. The true sin of Sodom were pride, indulgence and sloth, which motivated the visit of the angelic messengers.

“As I live, saith the Lord God, Sodom thy sister hath not done…. as thou hast done….. Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and her daughters,  neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.”

(Ezek 16:48-49, KJV)

The direct trigger for the destruction, was either the refusal of the inhabitants to show proper hospitality to  travellers, or the threat of violent rape of the angels. There is no indication, anywhere, that it had anything do do with consensual same sex relationships. .

A good example of lies by selection are the often quoted verses from Leviticus, noting that for men to lie with men is an “abomination” – without noting at the same time that this is part of an extended list of  ”abominations” in the Jewish purity code, which also includes such other well-known abominations as cutting one’s beard, eating shellfish and rabbits, or wearing clothing of mixed fibres.  Nor do the people quoting from Leviticus remind us that in the Acts of the Apostles, it is made clear that the old Jewish purity laws no longer apply to gentiles – or to modern Christians .

And by the third type of lie, I mean the simple fact that our opponents steadfastly ignore what to me are the most important parts of Scripture – the message of love, inclusion for all, and redemption in Christ – for all. For those willing to look, there are also many passages in Scripture that endorse or support same sex relationships – passages conveniently ignored by our opponents.  But all these examples of lies in talking about Scripture and same sex relationships are well known, and have been extensively dealt with elsewhere.

I am more interested in other lies, less well recognised and discussed.  In investigating these, I should make clear that my starting point is the Catholic Church, with its strong emphasis on “tradition” and Magisterium.  This is my own particular branch of Christianity, but in practice many of the assertions I discuss are made explicitly by the Catholics, and assumed implicitly by many others.

Let us start with the most fundamental:

On homosexuality, the catechism of the catholic Church states plainly,

“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”  They are contrary to the natural law”

Now, these seem to be well-known and uncontroversial, but contain two direct falsehoods.  The medieval scholar Mark D Jordan has noted that the standard rhetorical device of the Vatican is not to attempt reasoned debate, but to simply repeat endlessly its own assertion until its opponents are bludgeoned into submission.  This is what is going on here.  We are so used to hearing that the Christian church has “always” opposed  homosexuality, that we assume it to be true, just as for so long we assumed the truth of traditional interpretations of the clobber texts.

In fact, Christians have not always been against us:  the historian John Boswell has clearly shown how in the early church, Christian emperors not only tolerated but even taxed homosexual prostitution; revered churchmen like Paulinus, 4th Century Bishop of Nola, wrote notably erotic love poems to his boyfriend;  and others revered as saints are known to have same sex lovers – some in celibate relationships, others not.  As late as  1098, the church consecrated as Bishop of Orleans a man who was known to be the lover of another Bishop, Ralph of Tours, and to have been previously the lover of other bishops. There was strong opposition to this appointment (on the grounds of his youth, not his sexuality) , but the Pope of the day did not stop the consecration, nor did his successor attempt to overturn the it.

There was of course some opposition – the Magisterium traces this back through Augustine, Alain de Lille, Peter Damian, and Thomas Aquinas, claiming this as support for the argument that the church has “always” opposed  us.  What they neglect to say, though, is that in their own day, all of these were minority views. Peter Damian in particular was notable for an impassioned plea to the Vatican for harsh penalties against clergy who indulged in homosexual acts (for he saw it as primarily a sin amongst the clergy), but his request to the Pope was firmly rejected. It was not until the 3rd Lateran Council, in the 12th century, that the church as a whole took a stand against homosexuality.

It would seem then that the opposition of the church as a whole goes back only eight  centuries – a long time, but a far cry from the two millenia implied by the Catechism word “always”.

The second outright lie often promulgated during the heated debates on marriage equality is that marriage has “always ” and “everywhere” been between opposite sex couples.  This is not a specifically religious argument, but can in fact be refuted on both religious and secular grounds.

The simple historical fact is that same sex marriages were contracted, and formalised in law, in Rome (by the emperors Nero and Elegabalus among others), in parts of classical Greece, among Egyptians, Assyrians, and Mesopotamians.  Some Greeks also reported that same sex partners were taken by the Celts, Gauls and Germans. In later history, and outside Europe, the native American berdaches, men who took on female roles and married male partners,  had an honoured place in society.  Same sex unions have also been recognised in Japan, in China, and in many other non-Western societies.  The claim that marriage was “always” between men and women is simply without foundation.

Nor is the claim true for the Christian church.  John Boswell and Alan Bray have both written of the existence of liturgical rites for church blessing of committed relationships between same sex couples. In the Eastern church, this was known as “adelphopoeisis“, or rite of “making brothers”,in the Western church it was known as “ordo ad fratres faciendum“, known as the “order of sworn brothers”.  Now, both writers are careful not to call these relationships “marriage”. Boswell calls them simply “same-sex unions”, and Bray is even more cautious, simply calling them “friendships”.  He notes that there could be three distinct reasons for entering such a commitment – they could be political,between heads of state or others in Royal families; they could be commercial arrangements to protect property; or they could be erotically based.

However:  I see no reason to assume that any single relationship need have only a single motivation, nor that one motivation applied universally – that between Edward II and Piers Gaveston was certainly erotic, as was that between James I and Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham.  Other nobles may have combined erotic attraction with affairs of state, those lower down the scale may have combined eroticism with property considerations.

We must also remember that if it is inappropriate to think of these same sex unions as directly comparable to modern marriage – the same must be said of opposite sex unions at the time.  Marriage as we know it, as the culmination of romantic love, is a modern invention.  In earlier times, marriage for the rich and powerful was about protecting property and commercial affiliations, or uniting royal dynasties. For the poor, often marriage simply did not exist – it was not considered a sacrament of the church until late.  Although same sex unions in the early church and medieval times clearly did not resemble modern marriage, they have resembled more closely opposite sex unions of the same period.

Nor are the lies and half truths confined to those against us as lesbians and gay men.  The church’s denial of ordination of to women is based on the claim that this has “always” been the practice of the church? This too is at best a half truth.  The womenpriests movement has pointed to evidence supporting the claim that in the early church, there were indeed female deacons, preists and bishops.  The church does acknowledge the existence of female abbesses – but is entirely quiet on the power they wielded in the medieval church, power which frequently rivalled that of bishops. This is a clear example of lies by omission. Worse, there is some suggestion that there may have been lying by outright falsification of the evidence.  Bernadette Brooten has written about Junia, who would appear from teh earliest evidence to have been female.  But it seems that later editors of the text have amended it to make it appear that Junia was a masculine name.

“Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7): To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”

John Chrysostom (344/54-407)(2)

How, then, do we counter these lies, how do we uncover, or recover the truth?  Fortunately, for lying tongues to do their damage, they need to be partnered by listening ears.  As we open our ears to hear, we have the choice to open them also to other tongues, the tongues of history, enabling us to hear again some of  the truth. For centuries, voices from the distant past were buried. Official church history, forming the basis of the Magisterium of the Catholic church, and accepted without question by many others, was compiled only by clerical scholars selectively producing evidence in support only of their own preconceptions.

Fortunately, in the modern world we also have secular scholars delving into history, and thereby allowing fresh new tongues to speak.

Let us open our ears to hear them.


earsBoswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality

Bray, Alan:  The Friend

Jordan, Mark D. : The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology

Jordan, Mark D. : The Silence of Sodom

Nissinen, Marti : Homoeroticism in the Biblical World.

Clobber Texts: A New Reading of Leviticus

As I continue to investigate the issues around faith and sexuality, I am constantly in search of reliable information and analyses to set against the misinformation, selective quotations and misinterpretations that masquerade as the conventional wisdom on the subject. Recently, I was delighted when three different readers brought my attention to two useful sources, which between them contain some important, thoughtful material that deserves to be taken seriously.

The first of these that I want to introduce to you is an article by Renato Lings called “The Lyings of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22”, in the peer review journal “Theology and Sexuality”. This journal, edited by the renowned theologians Gerald Loughlin and Elizabeth Stuart, carries an impressive range of scholarly articles, many in the fields of gay and lesbian theology, and of queer theology. (A second article in the same issue is on “Queer Worship”, which I have scheduled for publication tomorrow).

It was the well known and highly respected theologian James Alison, (who writes “from a perspective Catholic and gay) who referred me to “The Lyings of a Woman.” He wrote to me that he considered it an important article, and suggested that I get a suitable person to write a full review of it, for publishing here at QTC. I agreed fully with his assessment, and plan to publish a couple of such reviews shortly – one by John McNeill, and one by an Old Testament specialist from the Pacific Centre for Religion. I will publish these commentaries as soon as I receive them) .

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Many people in the past have assumed that these two verses from Leviticus present a clear condemnation of all forms of homosexual activity. More recently, more careful analyses have shown variously that the passage is situated in the context of the Jewish purity laws, and so represent not so much a statement of sin as of transgressions of Jewish ritual purity, with only limited relevance to Christians; or refer only to sexual penetration, with no wider application to other forms of erotic activity; that the intended meaning is not against homoerotic relationships, but is tied up with the practice of male cult (or temple) prostitution; and apply only to males.

Lings’ analysis, based on close study of the specific Hebrew words and the broader context of the passage, argues that the apparent agreement among the standard translations hides the complexity and opacity of the original Hebrew. Specifically,he suggests that the translators have erred with the phrase “as with a woman”, which is central to the conventional modern understanding. He states that there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text to the words “as with”, which distort the original meaning. To recover some sense of what that original meaning might be, he provides a close analysis of the specific Hebrew words as used elsewhere, and of the more extended context of the two verses in the full chapters that contain them.

These two chapters, he shows, are about different forms of incest. The conclusion that follows, is that the sexual activity that is prohibited is sexual relationships with males who are close relatives ! Two possible translations he suggests are:

(a) You shall not lie with close relatives, whether male or female;

(b) With a male relative you shall not engage in sexual relationships prohibited with female relatives.

Concluding, Ling paraphrases these as

You shall not commit incest with any close relative, male or female.

I hope this has whet your appetite. Look out for more formal evaluation later, from commentators better qualified than I. However, the article as a whole deserves to be read in full. Unfortunately, it is not possible to carry it here, so you would need to get hold of a copy of Theology & Sexuality from the publishers.

Remember, in all of the Old Testament, there are precisely three texts which even appear to condemn homoerotic relationships. The passage from Genesis 19, telling the story of Sodom, quite clearly has nothing to do with sexual relationships, which leaves only these two twin texts from Leviticus, 18:22 and 20:13. Lings’ analysis, combined with the other modern interpretations as described above, at the very least shows that whatever else the precise words may mean, they do no exclude all forms of loving relationships between men – as long as they are not incestuous, not done as part of temple or cult rituals, non-penetrative, and not between Jews.

That leaves open quite a lot of possibilities, then

See also:

For a Quaker view of this paper, see the discussion at Friends World Committee on Consultation

Recommended Books:

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Countryman, William : Dirt Greed & Sex

Rogers, Jack Bartlett: Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Revised and Expanded Edition: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church

Helminiak, Daniel What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality