The Bible and the 'Gay Marriage' Question (Part 1)

(This is part one in a three-part series)

What does the Bible actually say about “gay marriage”? That question is the title of a a recent op-ed piece in the Huffington Post written by Lee Jefferson, a visiting assistant professor of religion at Centre College. According to Jefferson the answer is: “Nothing,” or at least “Nothing negative.”

Jefferson used the recent passage of “gay marriage” by the New York legislature as a springboard from which to denigrate appeals to the Bible against homosexual practice. I will use Jefferson’s article as a springboard from which to answer the question that he and many others have raised.

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It is of relevance that, though Jefferson gives the appearance of speaking with authority on the question, he has not (to my knowledge) published any academic work on the issue of the Bible and homosexual practice. His expertise is not in the Bible but in Christian art of Late Antiquity. Jefferson also shows little or no awareness in his article of the array of strong arguments against his claims.

In addition, Jefferson exhibits an unfortunate tendentiousness in his characterizations. He speaks glowingly of the “enlightening progress in our culture concerning the LGBT community.” Those who disagree represent a “cacophonous opposition” that uses religion as “a bruising hammer” and lobs “textual grenades”-as if the homosexualist advocacy groups have not been even louder and more belligerent and strident. The fact that the media is overwhelmingly on the side of promoting homosexual unions is not enough for Jefferson. He bemoans the fact that the media reports any dissent to this party line.

It should go without saying that upholding a male-female requirement for marriage can and should be a product of a loving desire to avoid the degradation of the gendered self that comes from engaging in homosexual practice. That it does not go without saying is due in large part to today’s charged political atmosphere where hateful characterizations of persons who disapprove of homosexual unions are commonplace among proponents of such unions.

This hateful reaction stems largely from a comparison of such persons to racists and sexists. Yet such a comparison begs the question of whether the comparison is accurate. If opposition to gay marriage is more like opposition to marriage between close kin and to marriage between three or more persons, than one arrives at very different conclusions about what constitutes love.

And now on to Jefferson’s arguments.

The ancient world and homosexual orientation

A linchpin of Jefferson’s case is his claim that no one in the Greco-Roman world had any knowledge of something akin to “same-sex orientation.” Jefferson ironically makes this claim while insisting on the importance of understanding the ancient context behind the biblical text.

The fact is that in the Greco-Roman world theories existed that posited at least some congenital basis for some forms of homosexual attraction, particularly on the part of males desiring to be penetrated. These theories derived from Platonic, Aristotelian, Hippocratic, and even astrological sources. They included: a creation splitting of male-male or female-female binary humans; a particular mix of male and female sperm elements at conception; a chronic disease of the mind or soul influenced indirectly by biological factors and made hard to resist by socialization; an inherited disease analogous to a mutated gene; sperm ducts leading to the anus; and the particular alignment of heavenly constellations at the time of one’s birth.

Some of the ancient theories are obviously closer to modern theories than others. What matters, though, is that many in the ancient world attributed one or more forms of homosexual practice to an interplay of nature and nurture. Many viewed same-sex attractions for some persons as exclusive and very resistant to change.

Jefferson gives no indication that he is aware of the literature that contravenes his claim. Contrast Jefferson’s remarks with the observation of Thomas K. Hubbard, a classicist at the University of Texas (Austin), in his magisterial book, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (University of California Press, 2003): “Homosexuality in this era [i.e., of the early imperial age of Rome] 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” (p. 386). Hubbard also points to a series of later texts from the second to fourth centuries that “reflect the perception that sexual orientation is something fixed and incurable” (p. 446).

Contrast it too with this assessment by Bernadette J. Brooten, professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis University and a self-avowed lesbian, in her important work, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (University of Chicago Press, 1996):

Paul could have believed that tribades [the active female partners in a female homosexual bond], the ancient kinaidoi [the passive male partners in a male homosexual bond], and other sexually unorthodox persons were born that way and yet still condemn them as unnatural and shameful. . . . I see Paul as condemning all forms of homoeroticism as the unnatural acts of people who had turned away from God. (p. 446)

Other scholars who have written major works on the Bible and homosexuality make similar points, such as William Schoedel, professor emeritus of classics and early Christianity from the University of Illinois, and Martti Nissinen, professor of Old Testament at the University of Helsinki. Note too that all these scholars have written from a stance supportive of homosexual unions.

Although it is usually assumed that Paul in Rom 1:24-27 treats homosexual attraction solely as a chosen condition of constitutional heterosexuals, nothing in the wording of the text substantiates such an assumption. The expressions “exchanged” and “leaving behind” in 1.26-27 do not refer to a willful exchange of heterosexual desire for homosexual desire. Rather, they refer to a choice of gratifying innate homoerotic desires instead of complying with the evidence of male-female complementarity transparent in material creation or nature.

Furthermore, as with Philo of Alexandria (a first-century Jewish philosopher), Paul was probably aware of the existence of a lifelong homoerotic proclivity at least among the “soft men” (malakoi) who, even as adults, feminized their appearance to attract male sex partners (1 Cor 6:9). Paul viewed sin as an innate impulse, passed on by a foundational ancestor, running through the members of the human body, and never entirely within human control (see his discussion in Romans 7:7-23). So any theory positing congenital influences on homosexual development would obviously have made little difference to Paul’s opposition to all same-sex intercourse.

The evidence indicates that some Greco-Roman moralists and physicians, operating within a culture that tolerated and at times endorsed at least some homosexual practice, could reject even committed homosexual unions entered into by those with a biological predisposition toward such unions. What, then, is the likelihood that the apostle Paul, operating out of a Jewish subculture that was more strongly opposed to homosexual practice than any other known culture in the Mediterranean Basin or ancient Near East, would have embraced such unions?

It is important to bear in mind also that semi-official marriages between men and between women were well known in the Greco-Roman world (even the rabbis were aware of such things, as also Church Fathers). The notion that adult-committed homosexual relationships first originated in the modern era is historically indefensible. Consequently, it cannot be used as a “new knowledge” argument for dismissing the biblical witness. Even Louis Crompton, an historian and self-avowed “gay” man, has drawn the proper conclusion from this historical data in his highly acclaimed book, Homosexuality and Civilization (Harvard University Press, 2003):

According to [one] 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 circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew or early Christian. (p. 114)

Read Part 2

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