Homosexuality and the Bible: An Unequivocal Condemnation?

One type of question I often encounter surrounds homosexuality and the bible. In episode 7 of the show I went over some of the reasons I do not think Leviticus chapters 18 and 20 are referring to homosexuality as a defined sexual orientation so I’ll just briefly outline those reasons here; essentially they simply couldn’t have since Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture did not make any such distinction. So we need to ask ourselves what is this most likely referring to if it is not homosexuality as a defined sexual orientation? Moreover, why are both to be put to death in chapter 20? First question first! What does “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman” sound like that we know was practiced in the ANE? This seems to be acknowledging only the occasional act of male anal intercourse, usually as an act of force associated with humiliation, revenge, or subjugation since we know this went on in the ANE and still does today. Think Gaddafi’s capture (remember the footage of the guy shoving things into Gaddafi’s backside?). So it couldn’t possibly be talking about homosexuality as we understand it today since no distinction existed (or at least we have no evidence of such a distinction being made).

And so why is this a capital offence? See the trouble is both the person using male anal intercourse as an act of subjugation and the victim of this act, are commanded to be put to death. This would seem, on the face of it, a slam dunk for homosexuality but it isn’t. Especially considering the Holiness code-writer (H-writer) considers any sexual act that does not result in procreation as an abhorrence and worthy of death. Yes, it is absolutely barbaric that a person being violated in this way was not treated as a victim; they were considered a part of the problem! Though I remind you the H-writer is not concerned with whether or not it was consensual sex; he just sees it as a sexual act not capable of producing offspring and so they are both tainted and need to be killed. This much is clear. For one we know they understood the difference between consensual and nonconsensual sex; we have laws in the Torah that condemn rape and demand recompense should a female be the victim of rape (most people are just shocked at how lenient the punishment is for the rapist and the means by which the women proves it was rape). Just a few verses earlier we’re told that if a man or a woman commits bestiality then both the person and the animal are to be put to death. This would parallel the treatment of the victim in Leviticus 20 where they’re also to receive death; yes, just for being the victim of an act of subjugation they commanded the death penalty. It doesn’t matter that it was non-consensual, an animal cannot give consent and they knew this. All that matters is that it was a sexual act that could not have resulted in offspring and so it tainted two individuals that then would have to be executed. We must also ask ourselves why this command to not “… lie with a male as one lies with a woman” is not also commanded of women? Well for good reason, women cannot use male anal intercourse as an act of subjugation; this is no coincidence, they don’t have the necessary appendages and good luck trying to wrestle a male into submission.

As for the New Testament? I think it is far from clear that any passages in here are referring to homosexuality as a defined sexual orientation. Let’s start with 1 Timothy 1:8—11 that should say:

“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 unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomoites, slave traders, 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.”

Sometimes you will see “sodomites” translated as “homosexual” but keep in mind there is no Greek or Hebrew word for homosexual, and so where you read “homosexual” what you’re seeing is a heavy anti-gay agenda influencing a translation committee.  Even “sodomite” is a poor translation though it’s one of the better ones we have. The Greek here being translated as “homosexual” or “sodomite” is very important. Where you read “sodomites”, the Greek is actually “αρσενοκοιταις” (arsenokoitais, “male” (arsēn) and “bed” (koitē)). In Greek, it is important to note the meaning of a compound word does not necessarily add up to the sum of its parts and in fact this compound word could easily mean “a man who sleeps around” from an etymological perspective. There is much debate surrounding the meaning of “arsenokoitais” and there’s a good reason why so much debate surrounds it but here i think the situation is neatly summed up by Jeramy Townsley:

“This word is found in no extant Greek literature prior to Paul’s use here, which complicates our understanding of the word… The strongest argument that leads one to believe that Paul was referring specifically to general homosexuality is the possibility that Paul coined this term himself (on a side note I think this is a real probability). If this is the case, then he probably created this compound word from the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) translation of Leviticus 20:13 (kai hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten). However, this passage refers specifically to the holiness codes and thus probably implies some kind of ritual uncleanness. Moreover, one wonders why, if Paul is going to go to the extent of creating a novel word to prohibit male homosexual behaviour, why doesn’t he, in the same verse, create a complementary word prohibiting female homosexual behaviour. The conspicuous absence of such a prohibition implies that if Paul is using the term arsenokoitai to refer to homosexual behaviour at all, he is not prohibiting all homosexual behaviour, only some type of male homosexual behaviour that produced ritual uncleanness in the mind of the first century church, most likely a Canaanite sacred sex ritual in any other Greek literature, which makes one question why they are translated that way here.”

That Paul seems to have invented this word for a specific purpose and the context of passage sheds no light on what he might have meant by it is also my biggest problem. This makes it one of the toughest terms to define, it has no precedence and so we’re really driven by context here which is not so helpful. If Paul did get this from the LXX where it appears uncompounded then we must also take into account the context of Leviticus and what it probably meant to Paul, a former Jew. If he did use the LXX i think it is reasonable he means something other than all homosexual behaviour. Whatever the case is, using the term “homosexual” in 1 Timothy here is utterly irresponsible as it implies everything we think of as homosexuality today that did not exist in 1st century Palestine.

1 Cor 6 suffers the same problem (where the Greek translated as homosexual is also “αρσενοκοιταις”) though the Greek for effeminate here is “malakoi” (μαλακοι) and does not mean homosexuality. This word does not suffer the same problem “αρσενοκοιταις” does, in that it has precedence in other Greek literature. In previous literature it is used to mean effeminate (literally malakoi means “soft” in this sense it is translated as malleable, cowardly, sickly, lacking self-control or morally weak); we also see “μαλακοι” in previous literature to mean male prostitute or catamite (a boy who was the intimate companion of a young man; see Herodotus, Histories 7.153 and 13.51; Aristophanes Wasps 1455, Plutus 488; Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1150a:33; Plato, Republic 556 etc.) It is found several other times in the bible, being translated as soft or fine referring to clothing in Matt 11:8 and Luke 7:25; infirmity or malady in Matt 4:23, 9:35, and 10:1 and none of them have homosexual connotations. So 1 Cor 6 again is not a reference to a defined sexual orientation but just in case it was, we need to ask ourselves, where it takes two to tango why are not both parties condemned?

Here are my personal thoughts that are original to me as far as i am aware; “αρσενοκοιταις” is in the dative plural case (i.e. it express direction towards an indirect object in this case “κοιτη” or bed) where “κοιτη” implies sexual lust or desire and so “αρσενοκοιταις” could mean something like a man who lusts for another man in bed that is to say, a man who lusts for another man. The vice of lusting is where one would be at fault here and this would certainly match the context of the other sexual immorals mentioned in this passage.

So with that out of the way, the strongest case for the prohibition of homosexuality in the NT is in Romans 1:26—27. I find it difficult to reason against it being a reference to something other than some-type of homosexual act but it is very ambiguous and much debate surrounds the meaning of the phrase “exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones”. On saying that some decent cases have been made.

So the term here that you see as “natural” in Greek is “phusikos” literally it means “physical” but by implication it refers to instinctual actions. “Phusikos” is from the root word “phusis” meaning “growth” like in germination or an expansion. When we see “unnatural” here it is the same word “phusikos” only it is preceded by “para” (i.e. para phusikos) which in this context means “beside nature” and so can be easily rendered something like “besides what was instinctual”. In this case it is better understood as that which is against one’s instincts rather than as a perversion.

That is how i prefer to read it but i will happily admit i am biased (not because i am gay) but because a very literal rendering matches what i hope for and in other cases i might not be so rigidly literal. But whatever the case is I want everyone to take away two things from this; 1) there is no ancient Greek or ancient Hebrew word for homosexual/ity, 2) none of the scriptures used by many Christians (and atheists) to condemn homosexuality are clear-cut condemnations of homosexuality; in fact in most cases a very strong case can be made to show they are almost certainly referring to something other than homosexuality as a defined sexual orientation.

NJ

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2 Comments

Filed under Homosexuality and the Bible

2 Responses to Homosexuality and the Bible: An Unequivocal Condemnation?

  1. SocraticGadfly

    The idea that ancient Near Eastern culture made no such distinction may well be true, but it’s also irrelevant. Religious movements regularly develop new ideas, or at a minimum, regularly reinvigorate long dormant ones. A number of Buddhist ideas have no counterpart in proto-Hinduism of the same era.

    Now, to the biblical passages.

    I disagree. Paul in Romans, talking about both men and women giving themselves over to “unnatural desires” sounds pretty clear. Christians or unbelievers alike who try to claim different shouldn’t. And Leviticus is quite clear. Lying with someone of the same sex is a stonable offense. Doesn’t matter if there’s no actual word; the concept is there in both testaments. Oy.

    • njaybe

      Hi Soc, thanks for your comments.

      That you say it is not irrelevant and then immediately give examples of religions that developed new ideas would almost seem an entire non-sequitur to 8th century ANE religion and the treatment of this passage by Jews in first century Palestine. Sitz im Leben dictates that the meaning of the text is bound up with its function in the community, social setting, other basic contextualizations, etc. and it is far from clear any of these passages i dealt with do indeed deal with homosexuality as a defined sexual orientation. One would have also thought logic dictated that they could not have written against a particular concept, in this case homosexuality, if they made no such distinction.

      The rest of your comment does not engage with the arguments i mounted against those passages from the Greek. Tell me why the Greek is wrong. You’re treating the bible as though it was written in English and should be understood as rigidly literal as possible, Greek just does not work like that.

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