SocraticGadfly: Yes, the bible is anti-gay, contra deniers

March 04, 2015

Yes, the bible is anti-gay, contra deniers

Updated to note that Jesus' silence about homosexuality issues as an alleged mark of liberality actually doesn't necessarily mean that. See italicized section below for details.

There are several passages in both Old Testament/Tanakh and New Testament that have commonly been cited by Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, and Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox Jews (on the Tanakh side) as strongly condemning homosexuality.

Two similar and interconnected but not identical questions arise:
1. Are the passages that clear about what they're condemning?
2. Are they condemning homosexual desires/status/inclination or "just" individual acts of homosexual sex? (That's assuming the two are that delinkable.)

More on both of these, with a passage-by-passage overview of the biggies, below.

Now, I can understand liberal Christians (and to a lesser degree, liberal Jews against less animosity on the issue) wanting to say, no the bible doesn't say that. For liberal Christians, I can definitely understand them wanting to say the New Testament with Jesus, love, and other pablum, wanting to say that. (That ignores the fiery Jesus of Revelation, the Jesus of "I came to bring a sword, not peace," and other things.)

I can less understand a certain strand of atheists, whether gay or straight, who try to defend the Judeo-Christian scriptures. In fact, having read nonsense by one such person, defended by another on Facebook, that's the primary trigger for this post. (I refuse to link to the post, especially since its defender hauled back down the Facebook post that linked to the original blog post. If you can't stand the debate, while attacking me, you don't deserve or get the PR.)

Working in order of appearance, we'll start with Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. On the surface, this appears to be their destruction for wanting gay sex with the angels in disguise. However, with Genesis 18 as background, we learn that they've already been marked for destruction and Yahweh has not specified for what sin or sins. Therefore, I'm in agreement that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (which the blogger above didn't cite, anyway) is not about anti-gay issues.

The biggies, on the Old Testament side, though, are Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20, two similar passages that list a range of prohibited sexual activities, most of which either explicitly or by implication are deemed worthy of death.

Leviticus 18:22 says: "Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."

Leviticus 20:13 says: "If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."

Now, here's where our atheist blogger starts to get fun and funky. 

First, trotting out a German phrase from biblical scholarship, "Sitz im Leben," he claims that the priestly writer can't have been condemning homosexuality because it was never so condemned, and never singled out for condemnation, anywhere in the ancient Near East.

Well, "Sitz in Leben" just means "community setting." And, yes, religious books are written to particular communities in particular settings. However, the entire ancient Near East was NOT the SiL for Leviticus! To claim such makes a mockery of the whole idea.

Also, to claim that religious scriptures can never talk about an idea de novo, even for a true SiL, not a red herring one, is false. I cited for said blogger the example of Buddhism discussing new ideas, and old ideas in vastly new ways, as compared to the proto-Hinduism contemporary with the start of Buddhism.

Said blogger was obtuse enough to not grasp that one can list two separate and independent lines of logical argument in attack on the same point, first of all. Second of all, he appeared to simply not grasp what I said about Buddhism.

Second, in the same response to my comment on his blog, he claimed that the male-male sex in Leviticus was about forcible sex only!!!

That was an easy one to shoot down. In a second comment, I noted that none of the other passages implied force, just sexual acts, period. (I said I wasn't going to return to see his response.)

The person who posted his blog post to a Facebook group then made the claim that Orthodox Judaism has never had the same opposition to being gay (or lesbian), just opposition to actual acts, kind of like some Christian denominations, or Catholics on priests and acts. 

That said, beyond the lack of forcibility, the context of both Leviticus chapters, for all the forbidden acts, at least leaves open the possibility of interpreting them as ongoing relationships. And, overall, are sexual acts really that separable from sexual orientation, inclination, or "status"? Only if one expects gays to be celibate.

Beyond that, at the time of Jesus, many a Pharisee (while not rejecting the idea of unclean foods) would have agreed with him that what came out of the heart was the ultimate definer of purity, an idea Jesus also stresses in the Sermon on the Mount. That, too, would point at sexual inclination, not just individual acts.

One thing the blogger did not do with Leviticus, though I've seen it elsewhere, is claim that because only a male-male sexual act is mentioned, that means that the Old Testament is not anti-homosexual.


Every sexual act in Leviticus is mentioned only from a male-initiator point of view. The reason lesbian sex isn't mentioned in Leviticus is because Leviticus is sexist in general.

Update, March 4, 2015: Now, per the update, what about Jesus? Details below the fold.

Anybody who talks about how Jesus didn't condemn gay behavior (lesbians were women, so didn't get considered in the bible in general) is making an argument from silence, and such arguments are usually dicey, if not (I think they are) logically fallacious. (Jesus denialists, take note, if you will, even though I know you won't.)

Jesus did reportedly say he had not come to set aside the law, as noted in Matthew 5 and elsewhere. Presumably that included not setting aside certain passages in Leviticus.

On a related issue, Jesus of course opposed divorce in general. Whether that was better for women than the Torah, or not, is questionable. But it should also at least partially put "paid" to the idea that Jesus was sexually liberal-minded.

He may have been, or he may not have been. Yes, one person can talk about how Jesus said that all the Law and Prophets is summed up in his saying that loving God above all else and loving one's neighbor like one's self is the fulfilling of the law, while another can quote Jesus saying he came to bring not peace but a sword.

I updated this based on a visit to New York Mets spring training by Major League Baseball's new "Ambassador of Inclusion," Billy Bean, which drew a response from conservative Christian player Daniel Harvey. Bean has responded back, in thoughtful comments. That said, several people on two posts at NBC's baseball blog, Hardball Talk, about Harvey's comments and about Bean's response, invoked the "argument from silence" claim. It's the same thing that Mark Carrier and a few other "Jesus denialists" among Gnu Atheists use to claim, as one of a few lines of attack, that Jesus never existed, which should tell you just how fallacious it is.

I mean, there are 613 divarim in the Torah, and Jesus didn't explicitly comment on a lot of them, particularly a number of prohibitions from Leviticus. He never said that he opposed a ban on getting drunk in the temple, for example. So, liberal Christians, is it OK to do that? Get drunk at church? 

This is also why most fundamentalists are funny, when not sad or irritating.

Just about no Christian fundamentalists (except, perhaps, Reconstructionists) will pass on eating pork or shellfish. They'll use euphemisms like Ceremonial Law and Civil Law, as distinct from Moral Law, per my Lutheran background, to dodge having to directly reject such things as binding law. (This isn't to mention German Lutherans eating blood sausage, and Scottish Presbyterians eating blood pudding, despite the fact that Acts said that per pre-Israelite Noah, this command applied to Gentiles as well as Jews.)

Meanwhile, on to what the New Testament directly says.

Romans 1 is the New Testament passage that most clearly writes about homosexuality. 

Here, our blogger has another tack. But, a wrong one, again On Romans 1, it's a red herring to focus on the Greek for "unnatural relations." In talking about men, Paul says "men... burned in their lust one toward another." That, even more, would seem to talk about inclination, too. There, you're not the first atheists I've seen to make this claim. I know Chris Stedman said similar. Well, he was wrong too.

Let's look at Romans 1:24-27 for a bit of context:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
So what about this "unnatural ones"? Is it really that obscure? Is it something more narrow than gay sex in general, like 1 Corinthians 6

Classical, pre-fundamentalist Christian exegesis says, per Wikipedia, it's not a blanket condemnation. Some scholars, citing 1:24 and 26, say it's god inflicting homosexual behavior as a punishment for other sins. As for lesbian sex, others say that's not what 1:26b means.

And, we have to add in that Paul was likely writing to an audience of primarily Gentiles, who had a somewhat different take on homosexuality than did Jews. (Especially if you follow the line of reasoning of me and many others about Leviticus.)

However, said Gentiles would often have been "god-fearers" and had knowledge of some sort about Jewish scriptures.

Next, our blogger says that "unnatural acts" is open for debate. It is to some degree. However, unless one wants to go John Shelby Spong and claim Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was being gay (an idea I reject), one can't forget that Paul was a Jew.  Writing with knowledge of the Tanakh.

And, within this passage, we have support for "unnatural acts" being homosexual ones.

1:26b and 1:27 clearly talk about men having sex with other men, and implies that these, too are "unnatural acts," precisely because they are not "natural relations." In any case, in Greek as in English, the same phraseology is used about both men and women. 

Therefore, Paul seems to be condemning, in modern terms, lesbian sexual acts as well as gay ones. And, with the "inflamed with lust," he certainly seems to be talking about gay sex acts in 1:27. Nothing obscure there. So, our blogger fails again.

As for lesbian sex acts? Well, Sappho the Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, may not have been known about by the priestly author of Lesbos (on normal dating, she died before its final redaction) but Paul certainly would have heard something about her, and the island's, reputation.

Now, is Paul condemning just sex acts, or inclinations?

One could argue, at least, that "inflamed with lust" implies inclinations. One could also note my take on Orthodox Judaism's take on Leviticus, the Catholic Church on non-practicing gay priests, etc., and say that the issue of separating acts from inclinations is dicey.

Speaking of inclination vs. specific acts, and the Old Testament, and purity codes, maybe we could link that to pork-eating. Any ancient Jew frying himself up a pork chop or a rasher of bacon wasn't doing it as an individual act; he had a hankering for pork.

Next, though Rabbinic Judaism says Sodom and Gomorrah were punished for lack of hospitality, (an interpretation first developed in Ezekiel) Jude 1:6-7 relates it to gay behavior ... and, one could say, gay inclination.
And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
The apocryphal Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, per Wikipedia, has a similar take on Sodom and Gomorrah.

A number of liberal Christian scholars, like Prof. James McGrath, claim that actually Paul, in Romans 1:18-32, is quoting someone else's stance, only to say at the start of Romans 2 that all sinning is equal. McGrath, in various Facebook posts, links to several other scholars with similar stances. Even more, he links to a blog post claiming that this is a send-up of Wisdom of Solomon 12-14.

I have some biblical criticism problems here.

I know that Paul, in Galatians 2, criticizes the pro-circumcision stance of some opponents. But, that's the closest parallel I can find.

And, there, it's not at the beginning of the book, and the issue's already been discussed.

Here, WHAM!

There's an abrupt start, introducing an issue not discussed before. No indication of why Paul is taking this as a special sin worthy of setup as a straw man. 

And, AFAIK, critical commentaries mention nothing about homophobia as a special part of Sitz im Leben of early Roman Christians.

And, the vast differences on Romans 1 show more of what's wrong with Paul. If reading him the way McGrath suggests is close to right, it shows how little we know about the people to whom he's writing. McGrath counters that this would cause him to lose rhetorical value.

Perhaps. That said, this interpretation relies on the idea that early Roman Xns were that familiar with Wisdom 12-14 to know that this was the rhetorical argument Paul was making. 

The blogger to whom McGrath links notes that Paul does this rhetorical device in Romans 7, too, in his famous "sin abounds" passage. But there, Paul's not arguing with a generic opponent; he's arguing with misinterpretations of his own rhetoric in Romans 1-4.

So, I have to disagree with McGrath.

Update, June 22, 2019: Ed Talbot is also wrong (though not a scholarly liberal Xn, to my knowledge, as is a SkepticsTM person like Spoony Quine touting his claim. That said, the likes of Dan Fincke have done that before, and been called out by me before.

That all points to the issue of how bible interpretation evolves, is individualized, and therefore is often outside questions of rightness or wrongness to some degree. If our blogger wants to admit that this is HIS interpretation of the bible on homosexuality, rather than hide behind scholarship claims to try to say it's the correct interpretation, fine.

I understand why a Chris Stedman takes this line. It's part of his Faitheism marketing program. That still doesn't make it accurate or correct.

Why our blogger of yesterday believes this, and gets more tendentious with his scholarship, I don't know. With last night's discussion and now this post, I've wasted enough time on him and his now-blocked Facebook supporter. A Facebook supporter who, after implying I was intellectually lazy and other things, then hauled down the Facebook post linking the blog, after not being able to get in an unopposed last word.

As I've said before, atheism is no guarantor of morality. I add that it's no guarantor of intellectual rigor. 

Meanwhile, off topic from this blogger, yet more weirdness on some people's take on the bible and gays.

Some claim that the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts was actually a gay male? Wow, all sorts of people can misinterpret religious writings like the bible in all sorts of ways, I guess.

Now, per the header for this post, the Bible is not as anti-gay as modern Christian fundamentalists claim. Gays aren't seen as lurking under every bush. Of course, if you were threatened with being stoned to death, you probably kept a very low profile in the first place. 

Update, April 3, 2014: No, the centurion's servant that Jesus healed was NOT his lover, contra the claims of a "Bible loves gay" blogger at Puff Hoes. Let's deflate his nutgraf claims:
Now, could pais really just mean "servant"? There are several reasons why this makes no sense. First, one would not expect a Roman centurion to intercede, let alone "beg" (parakaloon), on behalf of a mere servant or slave. Second, while Luke refers to the young man as a doulos (slave), the centurion himself specifically calls him a pais; this strongly suggests that the distinction is important. Third, we know that the erastes-pais intimate relationship was common practice among Roman soldiers, who were not allowed to take wives, and whose life was patterned on the Greek model of soldier-lovers. If pais just means "servant," none of this makes any sense.
Why not, on the begging? Slaves and freedmen ran the Roman imperial bureaucracy. Second, Luke's "doulos" is just the use of a synonym. Third, if pederasty was as common as you claim among Roman soldiers, where's a link? Yes, it was practiced, but the "common"? Roman soldiers could use prostitutes, rape either male of female prisoners of war, use slaves for sex and more. And, by the later Roman Republic, let alone imperial times, male-male sexual relationships were often more like "homosexuality" of today, and not like Greek pederasty. And in the earlier Republic, as well as in Greek city-states, pederastic relationships were NOT about social equality between the two partners.

"Pais" CAN mean what Michaelson claims, but, if it really DID mean it, why not use the actual Greek term "paiderastes"? So, Michaelson is all wet.

And, once again, intellectual honesty falls by the wayside. Hey, liberal Christians and Jews? (And Muslims?) Especially gay or LGBT-supportive ones? Admit your scriptures have at least some degree of anti-gay bias and you're radically reinterpreting them. Form new denominations, or even movements, like Unitarianism. 

Rather, what you're doing right now is a form of quasi-fundamentalism. 

Oh, and per what started this all? If you're an Xn-friendly atheist, in my opinion, this is going to far to help Christians, or other liberally religious, out of their own jam. 

Meanwhile, this link has yet more on gay issues, and homophobia, in the New Testament. At the same time, we should remember that the NT was a product of its times; outside of carefully prescribed pederasty, the Greeks weren't "pro-gay" or close to it, for example.


joshuaism said...

Jesus also said marriage after a no-fault divorce is adultery. Christians welcome these shameless adulterers among their ranks so there's not much point in taking a stance on whether the bible is anti-homosexual or not because modern Christians pick and choose which parts to follow anyway.

No doubt within the next 50-100 years, homosexuals will be just as accepted as divorcees in Christian circles. Modern Christians are more influenced by contemporary culture than they would like to think.

Gadfly said...

The success gospel and conservative Xns today is one example.

Another? Warnke and his backward masking obsession of the early 80s, just before Xn rock took off and Xns suddenly didn't hate rock music so much.

Or, the organ! Played in the Coliseum and other Roman entertainment sites before entering the church.

danielg said...

As an evangelical pastor, I agree with you on one point - the Bible most certainly does condemn homosexuality in all its forms, and those trying to make it teach something else are lying to themselves.

Regarding Sodom, I somewhat agree, and wrote this post:

5 Possible reasons Sodom was destroyed