Not That Kind of Homosexuality?

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The Bible has nothing good to say about homosexual practice.

That may sound like a harsh conclusion, but it’s not all that controversial. Even the gay Dutch scholar Pim Pronk has concluded that “wherever homosexual intercourse is mentioned in Scripture, it is condemned. With reference to it the New Testament adds no new arguments to those of the Old. Rejection is a foregone conclusion; the assessment of it nowhere constitutes a problem.”[1] There is simply no positive case to be made from the Bible for homoerotic behavior.

Revisionist arguments in favor of same-sex unions do not rest on gay affirming exegetical conclusions as much as they try to show that traditional interpretations of Scripture are unwarranted. That is to say, the only way revisionist arguments make sense is if they can show that there is an impassable distance between the world of the Bible and our world.

Of all the arguments in favor of same-sex behavior, the cultural distance argument is the most foundational and the most common (at least among those for whom biblical authority is still important). Although the Mosaic Law and Paul’s letter to the Romans and the vice lists of the New Testament speak uniformly against same-sex behavior, these texts (it is said) were addressing a different kind of same-sex behavior. The ancient world had no concept of sexual orientation, no understanding of egalitarian, loving, committed, monogamous, covenantal same-sex unions.

The issue was not gender (whether the lovers were male or female), but gender roles (whether a man was overly feminized and acting like a woman).

The issue was not men having sex with men, but men having sex with boys.

The issue was not consensual same-sex intercourse, but gang rape, power imbalances, and systemic oppression.

The revisionist case can take many forms, but central to most of them is the “not that kind of homosexuality!” argument. We can safely set aside the scriptural prohibitions against homosexual behavior because we are comparing apples and oranges: we are talking in our day about committed, consensual, lifelong partnerships, something the biblical authors in their day knew nothing about.

Despite its superficial plausibility, there are at least two major problems with this line of thinking.

Silence Is Not Always Golden

For starters, the cultural distance argument is an argument from silence. The Bible nowhere limits its rejection of homosexuality to exploitative or pederastic (man-boy) forms of same-sex intimacy. Leviticus forbids a male lying with a male as with a woman (Lev. 18:22; 20:13). The text says nothing about temple prostitution, effeminate men, or sexual domination. The prohibition is against men doing with men what ought to be done with women. Similarly, the same-sex sin condemned in Romans 1 is not simply out-of-control passion or the insatiable male libido that desires men in addition to women. According to Paul, the fundamental problem with homosexual behavior is that men and women exchange sexual intercourse with the opposite sex for unnatural relations with persons of the same sex (Rom. 1:26-27; cf. 22, 25). If the biblical authors meant to frown upon only certain kinds of homosexual arrangements, they wouldn’t have condemned the same-sex act itself in such absolute terms.

Because the Bible never limits its rejection of homosexual behavior to pederasty or exploitation, those wanting to affirm homosexual behavior can only make an argument from silence. That’s why you will often read in the revisionist literature that the biblical author was only thinking of man-boy love or that an exploitative relationship would have been assumed in the minds of the original audience. The logic usually goes like this:

  • There were many bad example of homosexual behavior in the ancient world.
  • For example, here are ancient sources describing pederasty, master-slave encounters, and wild promiscuity.
  • Therefore, when the Bible condemns same-sex intimacy, it had these bad examples in mind.

This reasoning can look impressive, especially when it comes at you with a half dozen quotations from ancient sources that most readers are not familiar with. But the last step in the syllogism is an assumption more than an argument. How can we be sure Paul had these bad examples in mind? If he did, why didn’t he use the Greek word for pederasty? Why didn’t he warn masters against forcing themselves upon slaves? Why does the Bible talk about men lying with men and the exchange of what is natural for unnatural if it wasn’t thinking about the created order and only had in mind predatory sex and promiscuous liaisons? If the biblical authors expected us to know what they really had in mind—and no one figured this out for two millennia—it appears that they came up with a remarkably ineffective way of getting their point across.

What Do the Texts Say?

The second reason the distance argument fails is because it is an argument against the evidence. The line of reasoning traced above would be more compelling if it could be demonstrated that the only kinds of homosexuality known in the ancient world were based on pederasty, victimization, and exploitation. On the face of it, it’s strange that progressive voices would want us to reach this conclusion. For it would mean that committed, consensual, lifelong partnerships were completely unknown and untried in the ancient world. It seems demeaning to suggest that until very recently in the history of the world there were no examples of warm, loving, committed homosexual relationships. This is probably why Matthew Vines in using the cultural distance argument to make a biblical case for same-sex relationships admits, “This isn’t to say no one [in the Greco-Roman world] pursued only same-sex relationships, or that no same-sex unions were marked by long-term commitment and love.”[2] But of course, once we recognize that the type of same-sex unions progressives want to bless today were in fact present in the ancient world, it’s only special pleading which makes us think the biblical prohibitions couldn’t be talking about those kinds of relationships.

I’m not a scholar of the ancient world, neither are most of the authors writing on the revisionist side. As a pastor I can read Greek, but I’m no expert in Plato, Plutarch, or Aristides. Most people reading this are not scholars either. Thankfully, almost all of the important ancient texts on homosexuality are readily available. It doesn’t make for fun reading (especially if you think homosexual behavior is wrong), but anyone can explore the primary sources in Homosexuality In Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. This 558-page book is edited by the non-Christian classics professor Thomas K Hubbard. What you’ll find in the sourcebook is not surprising given the diversity and complexity of the ancient world: Homosexual behavior was not reducible to any single pattern and moral judgment did not fall into neat categories. There was no more consensus about homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome than we see today.[3]

From a Christian point of view, there are plenty of examples of “bad” homosexuality in the ancient world, but there is also plenty of evidence to prove that homosexual activity was not restricted to man-boy pairs. Some homosexual lovers swore continued attraction well into their loved one’s adulthood, and some gay lovers were lifelong companions.[4] By the first century AD, the Roman world was increasingly divided on the issue of homosexuality. As public displays of same-sex indulgence grew, so did the moral condemnation of homosexual behavior.[5] Every kind of homosexual relationship was known in the first century, from lesbianism, to origiastic behavior, to gender-bending “marriage,” to lifelong same-sex companionship. Hubbard’s summary of early imperial Rome is important:

The coincidence of such severity on the part of moralistic writers with the flagrant and open display of every form of homosexual behavior by Nero and other practitioners indicates a culture in which attitude about this issue increasingly defined one’s ideological and moral position. In other words, homosexuality in this era may have ceased to be merely another practice of personal pleasure and began to be viewed as an essential and central category of personal identity, exclusive of and antithetical to heterosexual orientation.

If in the ancient world not only had a category for committed same-sex relationships but also some understanding of homosexual orientation (to use our phrase), there is no reason to think the New Testament’s prohibitions against same-sex behavior were only thinking of pederasty and exploitation.

Hubbard is not the only scholar to see the full range of homosexual expression in the ancient world. William Loader, who has written eight significant books on sexuality in Judaism and early Christianity and is himself a strong proponent of same-sex marriage, points to examples of same-sex adult partnerships in the ancient world.[6] Even more telling, Loader sees evidence for nascent ideas about orientation in the Greco-Roman era:

It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand, as does Philo after reporting Aristophanes’ bizarre aetiology [i.e., the study of causation] of human sexuality.[7]

Loader’s statement about Aristophanes is a reference to Plato’s Symposium (c. 385-370 B.C.), a series of speeches on Love (Eros) given by famous men at a drinking party in 416 B.C.. At this party we meet Pausanias who was a lover of the host Agathon, both grown men. Pausanias applauds the naturalness and longevity of same-sex love. In the fourth speech we meet the comic poet Aristophanes who proposes a convoluted theory, including notions of genetic causation, about why some men and women are attracted to persons of the same sex. Even if the speech is meant to be satire, it only works as satire by playing off the positive view of homosexual practice common in antiquity.[8]

To suggest that only certain kinds of homosexual practice (the bad kinds) were known in the ancient world is a claim that flies in the face of many Greek texts. Here, for example, is N.T. Wright’s informed conclusion:

As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato. The idea that in Paul’s day it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever . . . of course there was plenty of that then, as there is today, but it was by no means the only thing. They knew about the whole range of options there.[9]

And then there is this paragraph from the late Louis Crompton, a gay man and pioneer in queer studies, in his massive book Homosexuality and Civilization:

Some interpreters, seeking to mitigate Paul’s harshness, have read the passage [in Romans 1] as condemning not homosexuals generally but only heterosexual men and women who experimented with homosexuality. According to this interpretation, Paul’s words were not directed at “bona fide” homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstances. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any Jew or early Christian.[10]

I know it is poor form to pile up block quotes from other authors, but in this case it proves a point. Scholars all of different stripes have said the same thing: the cultural distance argument will not work. There is nothing in the biblical text to suggest Paul or Moses or anyone else meant to limit the Scriptural condemnation of homosexual behavior. Likewise, there is no good reason to think from the thousands of homosexuality-related texts found in the Greco-Roman period that the blanket rejection of homosexual behavior found in the Bible can be redeemed by postulating an impassable cultural distance between our world and the ancient world. There is simply no positive case for homosexual practice in the Bible and no historical background that will allow us to set aside what has been the plain reading of Scripture for twenty centuries. The only way to think the Bible is talking about every other kind of homosexuality except the kind our culture wants to affirm is to be less than honest with the texts or less than honest with ourselves.

 

NOTES

[1] Pim Pronk, Against Nature? Types of Moral Argumentation Regarding Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) ,279.

[2] Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (New York: Convergent Books, 2014), 104.

[3] Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 7-8.

[4] Ibid., 5-6.

[5] Ibid., 383.

[6] William Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 2012), 84.

[7] Ibid., 323-24, 496.

[8] See Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 350-54.

[9] John L. Allen Jr., “Interview with Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England,” National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004, http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/word/wright.htm (accessed November 11, 2014).

[10] Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003), 114.

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