The New Testament and Homosexuality:
Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate
by Robin Scroggs
1 December 2004 book review
It would seem a tragic constant that many people define themselves by excluding others. When enough people fall for this kind of mental shorthand, it usually gets enshrined as the cultural "norm," or something which is "only natural," instead of being recognized as nothing more than bigotry. Facts aren't welcome in this sort of belief system -- join us in hating Them and feel the thrill, baby!
When it comes to unthinking cultural taboos, nothing justifies like fiery religious rhetoric. The poor Bible has borne up under this sort of abuse for millennia, and I suspect it will continue to do so for as long as there are those who call themselves Christian. Consequently, it's refreshing to find those true Christians who object to the misappropriation of scriptures for secular hatreds.
Over the last 40 or so years, our society's new "fringe-group-we-love-to-hate" has been homosexuals. Unsurprisingly they've been labeled "unnatural," "destroyers of civilization" and "against God" to justify their continued abuse by the unrepentantly bigoted. In all honesty, this particular ideological phantasm is getting a bit tattered. Research continues to pile up which demonstrates homosexuality is neither unnatural nor against God, and civilization continues to prosper just fine regardless of whether homosexuals are present or not.
Authorship & bigotry
However, never let it be said a religious bigot surrenders easily -- the biological and sociological data is usually primly ignored, while the Bible's pitiful handful of verses which even mention homosexuality at all are repeatedly and desperately trotted out to do yet another deceitful spin-job. Fortunately there have been several attempts to counter this theological misuse with some clear Biblical exegesis of what the scriptural authors actually meant.
For example, as early as 1955 D. S. Bailey wrote Homosexuality & the Western Tradition, while Victor Paul Furnish authored The Moral Teachings of Paul: Selected Issues in 1979. I have not read these two books, although they are much mentioned in both this book I'm reviewing, and another I've read: John Boswell's excellent 1980 tome Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.
Unfortunately at least one of these major theological authors are (or were) gay, and so their careful, extensive research is too often smugly dismissed with a disdainful, "Well, isn't that what you'd expect them to find?"
I suppose it's to be expected religious bigots will continue to poo-poo research which doesn't come to the conclusions they want to hear, although I always find myself wanting to ask them, "So, you have to attack the man because you couldn't refute the data?" (when I'm feeling truly snarky, I wonder sometimes just how many Catholic authors lambasting the "homosexual lifestyle" as being "against God's will" would be horrified to have their pederastic tendencies publicly exposed... but that's not very Christian of me, now, is it?)
As a consequence I was delighted to discover this author, Robin Scroggs, who in 1983 performed thorough, conscientious research on this issue in an attempt to honestly discover what the Bible meant. Perhaps to the dismay of some, he can't be dismissed with a simple ad hominem attack on his sexual preferences.
My only regret is knowing that those who do not care to live a religion of tolerance and love are simply dismissing him by quietly ignoring his excellent research. I wish I knew a way to get people like that to face reality.
Scroggs has done much the same as the other three authors mentioned above, regarding researching the actual, socially intended meaning of the relevant Biblical verses. He too objected to the misappropriation of the Bible for political/secular insecurities, and so he did some amazing, honest research into the cultural environment of the time in order to discern what precisely the Biblical authors really meant.
Scroggs has done a really amazing job in making his book clear and understandable, without dumbing it down. He starts by examining the various arguments used when appropriating the (very few) Bible texts to agitate for and against homosexuality. He then moves on to closely explore Greek and Roman culture during the time of the emergence of the Christ cult.
It's quite obvious, via the rigorousness of Scroggs' research, that the characteristic Greek conception of normal sexual behavior included a senior and a junior partner. Not only were marriages arranged between men and girls who were usually about 20 years younger than them, but the more socially approved sexual form of two males was almost invariably between a man and a boy as well.
What is described here is clearly not the homosexual relationship of today, with two consenting adults of about the same age. Instead, it refers to pederasty, and as such it unfortunately lends itself well to abuse, both emotional and physical.
Interestingly, in Greek society as in today's, "beauty" as a sexual concept is epitomized in what is socially considered the passive partner. Young, barely pubescent boys embodied beauty then; today doe-eyed female models parade boredly for the titillation of their audience. I was quite fascinated to read that the preferred Greek body type at that time was a boy with body contours much like those of a girl -- especially since studies have shown the most popular models today have a body type much like that of barely pubescent boys! The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems.
To be fair to the ancient Greeks, pederasty alone was not the goal. The literature of the time reveals a constant secondary goal of the man as teacher and mentor to the youth. As Plato noted, the proper role was for the mentor to combine the maturing youth's search for wisdom with his own sexual pleasure.
Amusingly, the boy's granting of his body for sexual favors to the mentoring man was known as charidesthai (noun form: charis) -- the same verb used by Paul to note God's gracious granting of salvation via the death of the body of his son, Jesus. Obviously the ancient Greek form of pederasty was quite commonly known and accepted in the culture, if the term describing it was also acceptable to describe other acts of personal gifting as well.
Sexual power differentials
As I've already mentioned above, any sexual relationship with one weak and one powerful partner leaves itself open for abuse. Thus, perhaps unsurprisingly there does exist a significant amount of Greco-Roman literature speaking out against pederasty, and for that very reason.
Unfortunately, two cultural facts acted against any resolution of this routine sexual inequity. First, even if a Greek man had wanted a sexual peer, the only other option open to him was another free Greek male; women were regarded as only slightly higher in status or intelligence than slaves. Secondly, "normal" sex was supposed to be between an active and a passive partner -- no free Greek male could have seen it otherwise, and still maintained his public reputation. To be penetrated was to be submissive; a slave.
Plutarch was unfortunately a lone voice crying out in the wilderness when he asserted,
There can be no greater pleasures derived from others nor more continuous services conferred on others than those found in marriage, nor can the beauty of another friendship be so highly esteemed or so enviable as when a man and wife keep house in perfect harmony.The closest we get to this sensitive viewpoint is a few irritated authors claiming pederasty would cause the Greek race to die out. Every other text Scroggs was able to find considered platonic love between friends to be the ideal form of love, with sexual love of a beautiful boy a close second. Loving one's wife or another woman (as opposed to simply having sex on her) would have been very roughly approximate to loving a cow -- i.e. perverse and unnatural.
After extensive research, Scroggs concludes the ancient Greeks performed pederasty, but did not display any homophobia -- a great deal of misogyny, but no homophobia as we know it today. Their concerns regarding pederasty were with the potential degradation and humiliation the boys could suffer. Scroggs dryly notes in conclusion,
The great debate was between men who disagreed with each other but were rational enough not to try to legislate the other out of existence.
He then goes on to examine the few Old Testament verses (within the context of the cultural environment of the time) which appear to be against homosexuality. He notes the two main groups of Jews existing then: the Palestinian Jew living in what we'd now refer to as Israel (or thereabouts) and speaking Aramaic; and the Hellenistic Jew, who lived amongst the Gentiles and normally spoke and wrote in Greek. Interestingly, Scroggs discovers the Palestinian, Aramaic-speaking Jewish patriarchs didn't even have a word for what they were discussing -- which admittedly makes it a bit difficult to discuss.
There aren't very many Old Testament verses which concern themselves with males lying with males, and none regarding females lying with females. If anything, the patriarchs seem to have somewhat smugly concluded this issue was merely a problem "those foreigners" had. As a single example, examination of the midrash concerning Sodom reveals no homophobia in the Jewish scholars -- only warnings against the sins of pride, arrogance, greed, and so on. Far more of their religious wrath is saved for idolatry, with lists of the disgusting habits of idolaters (including pederasty as well as [again] greed, arrogance, and pride among them) to demonstrate how far they've fallen.
The few, the proudly misinterpreted
It would appear all the Old Testament references we thought were against homosexuality are in actuality directed against pederasty. They are against it not because it is against God's will, but because it is a vice of the pagans, it denies procreation as the divinely appointed goal of intercourse, and there is too much potential for abuse of the boy. This is therefore the cultural viewpoint informing the (only three) contested New Testament texts. Scroggs concludes convincingly that once again, it is pederasty and not homosexuality which the fledgling cult of christianity addressed, and from the paucity of relevant texts, it wasn't really an issue for them.
Scroggs then continues to examine the issue through modern eyes, to determine if these verses can have any impact on our interpretation of homosexuality today. Are these three short New Testament verses consonant with what lies at the heart of ethical theological interpretation of both Scriptures and the historical church? Is the context we use for interpretation today within the parameters of meaning intended by the original Scriptural authors?
His answer is (unsurprisingly) no. Both the Old and New Testament verses are most often ambiguous regarding what they're truly condemning, and don't even refer to modern homosexuality. As Scroggs notes,
Deut. 23:17-18 is an example. It may still be seen as a rule applicable for today, but if exegesis demonstrates that it does not pertain to homosexuality, then it immediately becomes irrelevant for our purposes. Paul's judgments may thus be eternally valid but can, nevertheless, be valid only against what he opposed [italics his].
Again, to be absolutely clear, I quote Scroggs, who emphasized this sentence himself:
Thus what the New Testament was against was the image of homosexuality as pederasty and primarily here its more sordid and dehumanizing dimensions.
Why is this important? As Scroggs notes:
Theological or ethical assertions without adequate rationale are not liable to be convincing except to people already convinced.If you are dubious about my assertions concerning this book, I strongly encourage you to read it. I had already determined to my own satisfaction that homosexuality isn't an issue for me, since my interpretation of Jesus' message was that his people should embrace all who wanted to come to him -- not just the socially acceptable. However, this book has straightforwardly and honestly examined the issue through clear, accurate cultural exegesis of the few Biblical texts which supposedly address homosexuality.
Furthermore, even if we accept the few unambiguously anti-pederasty verses as actually being against modern homosexuality, doesn't Jesus' message override them? Luther's tenet of the "analogy of faith" would certainly apply here. As he noted, the heart of the Bible is its central message, which must be decided on by the Biblical reader. If other more specific or less essential parts of the Scriptures aren't consonant with the central message, Luther believes they can be ignored or judged inferior. Most important is not isolating or violating the central theological affirmations of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Of course, the weak link in Luther's analogy of faith is the interpreter. Still, even if we decide Jesus' message of tolerance, forgiveness, love, and kindness doesn't override the fiery Old Testament thunderings about pederasty, the truly honest religious reader of the Bible must also acknowledge all the other Levitican laws. Do those who wish to see all homosexuals banned or stoned to death also believe and abide by the other laws? No divorce, no living under any but Jewish laws, no eating shellfish, no disobedience to one's parents, no working on the Sabbath...?
Didn't think so.
The modern secularist
For those who don't care about any religious angle regarding their violent reactions to homosexuals, I would suggest more study of undamaged human sexuality, and less anxiety about their gender role (or, perhaps, a good spanking and more roughage in their diet ;-). Scruggs quotes Devereux in this matter,
The adolescent -- and especially the pubescent -- is not yet heterosexual or homosexual; he is simply sexual [italics his].Mutually respectful sexual exploration is perfectly fine human behavior. The bigot attacking anyone that deviates from his sexual preferences is not -- vicious acts like that polarize the issue. The bigot is, in fact, performing exactly the sort of humiliation and abuse of the young and/or weak which the ancient Greek and Christian authors decried.
Dispensing with hierarchy
This culture tends to view modern homosexual liaisons with titillated horror or disdain; as somehow inferior to a "real" heterosexual relationship. However, the ideal of adult homosexual Christians today is of a caring and mutual relationship between consenting adults. If this is so, then it would seem the modern heterosexual Christian relationship is inferior to a homosexual one, since far too many Christians seem to believe a truly "Christian" marriage consists of a stronger, "active" male partner and a weaker, "passive" female partner.
Isn't it curious to see heterosexual, so-called Christians attempting to imitate the perverse power structure of ancient Greek pederastic relationships? Shouldn't this maybe show us we need to stop arrogantly and pridefully assuming our own correctness, and try to maybe seek out and listen to the actual teachings of Jesus, instead of simply using the Bible as a bludgeon of self-righteousness?
11.29.04: Jim's thoughts
(and my replies)
"any sexual relationship with one weak and one powerful partner leaves itself open for abuse" You mean most marriages prior to the 1950s?
Mmm... no comment, as I'm not a fan of marriage as it is currently constituted. ;)
Frankly, this book is pointless only because it has little/no power to change the minds of the bigots.
Oh, au contraire, Jim! Good research is never pointless, any more than eternally searching for truth is pointless. Having excellent, careful research to study when one is exploring an issue is invaluable.
11.29.04: Jonathan's thoughts
(and my replies)
What's rather interesting -- and makes some sense -- is the Aramaic Jews complaining about pederasty and not homosexuality per se. Much of Jewish mysticism is tied up in the concepts of balance -- balance between Severity and Mercy, balance between life and death, balance between man and woman. (The actual practice of this balance can be debated, though like much of traditional Judaism there are links to the earlier, pre-monotheistic roots of the culture, even in niddah, or the condition of uncleanliness that a woman is in during menstruation.)
That the Aramaic Jews regarded pederasty as an imbalance in the 'natural order' of things would match, from a mystic point of view, the complaints by the Greeks themselves that pederasty would result in the 'dying out' of their people.
I would think that the Aramaic Jews would have something against homosexuality and pederasty. (Important to note that these are two very separate things under consideration here.) It is, in mysticism, imbalanced. However, the degree to which they were against it would depend, as you note, on the language. Is homosexuality a sin because it's outside a balanced marriage? or is it "just another thing those crazy pagans do?" However, looking at it culturally, if their closest neighbors were the pagan Greeks who were really into pederasty, then it's possible the Aramaic Jews were vociferous in it because it was a 'pagan thing.' This is, frankly, something I've not studied, and would have to take scholars' words for anyway since I can't read Aramaic!
Yes, actually, they did consider it "a pagan thing" -- sorry I didn't make that clearer in the book review.