Tag Archives: texts of terror

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

A Key to Romans 1 – Hiding in Plain Sight

At Bible – thumping Liberal, the straight ally and evangelical Christian Ron Goetz asks a crucially important question:

HOW DO I RECONCILE PAUL WITH MY SUPPORT FOR LGBT FOLKS?

August 27, 2013

I just got an email from Harold, one of my PFLAG friends. He asked the following question.

“How do you reconcile Paul’s words and yet support LGBTs?”

There are several good ways of approaching this question. One way looks at Paul’s specific words, what they mean and don’t mean, and then discover that Paul is not as anti-homosexual as fundamentalists make him out to be. Another way is to look at Paul as a man who was working out his theology, literally, as he went along. Another way is to see how Paul treated other issues of some disagreement, that have been puzzling or unclear to us. Finally, we can look at some of Paul’s own attitudes and interactions, and adopt some of them as our own.

-more at  Bible-Thumping Liberal.

This is important, because Paul’s words in Romans and in Corinthians are the most disturbing of all the Biblical clobber texts for lesbian and gay Christians. The story of Sodom in Genesis should not be troubling at all, as the Bible itself makes clear that the infamous “sin of Sodom” is about injustice, and pride, and has nothing whatever to do with homoeroticism. There are numerous responses to the verses in Leviticus, but the simplest one is just to note that these are part of the Jewish purity laws, like the dietary restrictions, the prohibition on clothing of mixed fibres and shaving one’s beard, and the obligation of male circumcision. As such, they simply do not apply to Christians – as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. The letters of Paul are another matter, less easy to reconcile with our experience of a same – sex affectional orientation.

So, how can we do so? In his post, Goetz goes on, to elaborate on each of these ways of looking at Paul. There is also another, simpler still: the words simply do not mean what they are popularly supposed to mean. I’ve already discussed how this is so for Corinthians, where the Greek words “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai” have been mistranslated as referring to homosexuals. (They don’t). For Romans 1, I suggest that the key is simpler still, hiding in plain sight – in the title. 

This is the letter to the Romans after all.

Hadrian and Antinous
Roman Emperor Hadrian and His Beloved, Antinous

Paul himself was a Roman citizen, and would surely have understood something of how his words would be interpreted. So let’s look at them: Continue reading A Key to Romans 1 – Hiding in Plain Sight

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“)

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General: Overview

For a general discussion of these “Texts of Terror”, see Countering the Clobber Texts here at QTC,

and also:

The Bible and Homosexuality, ByRev. MonaWest,Ph.D. (at Metropolitan Community Church), with the sub-headings:

  • Sexuality in the Mediterranean World
  • The Story of Sodom in Genesis 19
  • Leviticus
  • The Writings of the Apostle Paul
  • Romans 1:26 ‐ 27
  • Issues of Biblical Authority

Also at MCC,

At Bridges Across the Divide, Homosexuality and the Bible  by Walter Wink

For more detailed discussions on each, see:

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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