Sunday, November 22, 2009

What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Father Dr Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality is a short, much reprinted, book setting out for a lay audience current biblical scholarship about the passages in the Bible which are taken to condemn homosexuality.

Biblical interpretation is something of a nightmare of translation and context: particularly so for sexual terms, which tend to be highly colloquial and context-laden.

Some things are fairly clear. The sin of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-11) was rape, abuse, inhospitality and hard-heartedness, something that Jesus makes quite clear (Matthew 10:5-15), as do other passages ( Ezekiel 16:48-49, Wisdom 19:14, Isaiah 1:10-17 & 3:9, Jeremiah 23:14, Zephaniah 2:8-11). To use ‘sodomite’ to refer to male homosexuals, or to those who engage in anal intercourse, is based on a systematic misreading of the original story (it being better, given that rape was happening either way, that the men of Sodom rape Lot’s daughters than Lot allow an avoidable betrayal of the law of hospitality against the servants of God). Apart from the would-be rape of the angelic visitors, and the actual attempted rape of Lot’s daughters, in the Genesis passage, the only sexual sin mentioned in any of the above passages is adultery. There is also a reference to (promiscuity and) lusting after the flesh of angels (Jude 7).
The abomination of Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13 is male-male penetrative sex. It was a ritual violation of the Jewish Law’s notion of the distinction between male and female. Moreover, it is specifically about male-male anal intercourse and no more than that. But lots of things are abominations in Leviticus for reasons of ritual uncleanliness: it is rather a case of take one, take all, or pass on. Passing on being what Jesus said to do ( Matthew 15:10, 18-20). A sentiment echoed by the Apostle Peter ( Acts 10:11-15, 28, 34) and by St Paul (; 1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6, Romans 2:29 & 14:14).

The point where things get very tricky is over Romans 1:18-32, which contains what appears to be a clear condemnation of homogenital acts. What Helminiak argues is that Paul is attempting to bring together Jewish and Gentile Christians over the Jewish purity laws, so he says idolatry (the abandonment of God) leads to shameful and impure acts but it is their continuing abandonment of God which leads to genuine evils (what Christians should really be worried about). That is, he argues that Paul distinguishes shameful and unclean acts from genuinely evil acts. Their engagement in same-sex acts is unclean and shameful—an embarrassment and punishment in itself—but not a serious moral matter.

The interpretation is rather complex. The main thing it has going for it is that Paul’s list of things that should not be done doesn’t list any homogenital acts and the interpretation sits well with the aforementioned abandonment of the Jewish purity laws. But I doubt it would be persuasive to anyone who doesn’t want to be persuaded. It is certainly not the traditional interpretation.

Father Helminiak is on much stronger grounds with 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1Timothy 1:9-10 where the key words are obviously highly unclear in their meaning, as can be seen in their very varied translations.

The terms are malakoi and the even more obscure arsenokoitai. Malakoi has been translated as: catamites, the effeminate, boy prostitutes, sissies, masturbators, the self-indulgent. Take your pick (current scholarship favours the self-indulgent). Either way, it clearly is not a blanket condemnation of homogenital activity.

Arsenokoitai has been translated as: homosexuals, sodomites, child molesters, perverts, homosexual perverts, sexual perverts, people of infamous habits, practising homosexuals. Again, take your pick (current scholarship is still deeply divided—the term literally means man-penetrator but that does not help much: as Father Helminiak points out, ladykiller means neither a lady nor a murderer). Either way, the passages seem to be about exploitative relationships.

Arsenokoitai strikes me as evidence that St Paul was relying on the thinking of Philo of Alexandria in his use of the very un-Judaic concept of para physin, against nature. Arsenokoitai seems to have been a reference to language used in Leviticus in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures (arsenos koitén, “man who lies with”). St Paul’s phrasing in Romans 1:27:
Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion
is similar to Philo’s rhetoric that the same-sex active “waste away as to both their souls and bodies”, that such a person “adulterates the precious coinage of his nature”. While St Paul’s affirmation that long hair is the glory of a woman but an unnatural shame in a man (1 Corinthians 11:13-15) echoes Philo’s horror of men acting like women.

Either way, in the face of such uncertainty in meaning, Father Helminiak is clearly on strong grounds to argue these passages are simply not a reliable enough grounds to condemn folk—particularly not those in stable, loving relationships or who aspire to the same.

One of the strongest arguments is what is not in the Bible. Nowhere does Jesus condemn homogenital activity, or even mention it. It is clearly not a concern for Him. Indeed, in the only case that is arguably of a same-sex couple, Jesus is notably solicitous—when the centurion asks Him to heal his servant ( Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10).

There are also apparent same-sex relationships in the Bible that clearly do not get condemned. David and Jonathon ( 1 Samuel 20:41-42, 2 Samuel 1:26), Naomi and Ruth ( Ruth 1:16-17), Daniel and the Palace Master ( Daniel 1:9).

Father Helminiak dismisses other apparent references to homogenital acts as mistranslations wrongly using the words sodomite or unnatural. In particular, translations of the story of Sodom which use unnatural when the reference is to lusting after angels and translations of the Hebrew qadheshim or 'devoted ones' where the reference is to sacred prostitution.

I did have one very clear quibble with Father Helminiak’s text. To claim that Edward II was assassinated for his gay relationship with Hugh le Despenser (p.23) is to do some violence to the historical record: Edward was killed because deposed kings were a threat (James II, who fled, was the first deposed English king not to be killed). Edward was deposed, not because he had male favourites, but because he sacrificed his kingship to his gonads. All kings had favourites of one sort or another: folk only seriously complained about them if they were incompetent, rapacious or narrowly monopolised all office and preferment. His Queen was mightily annoyed at his humiliation and neglect of her, but if he had been a competent king that would have meant little.

Father Helminiak notes that it was the Stoics who developed the idea that the only proper purpose of sex was procreation—the when-God-made-sex-fun-even-when-the-woman-is-not-fertile-he-didn’t-really-mean-it argument, an argument philosophically pioneered in Plato’s The Laws (through the voice of “the Athenian”). It was reading into the Bible (and translating with those presumptions) a restrictive theory of sex and a narrow version of ‘natural’—one that is clearly simply not based on how either other species or humans actually are but how they are allegedly supposed to be—that generated the blanket condemnation of homogenital activity.

Though, given that all the monotheist traditions condemn same-sex activities (something polytheist and animist traditions are much less inclined to do), I suspect the sexual logic of monotheism encourages such readings. Since monotheism is the worship of the One God, sexuality is not part of the divine (unlike in polytheism or animism). So sex becomes what differentiates, and thus separates, us from God, from the divine. The only way sex connects us to the divine, to God-the-Creator, is via procreation, so only procreative sex (or, at least, sex between procreators) is acceptable.

Even so, homosexuality is simply not a major Biblical concern. Jesus, the Apostles and the Prophets are much more concerned with other issues, which makes the saliency of homosexuality for contemporary political Christianity even sadder. Particularly as the condemnation and persecution of homosexuality—with its hangings, burnings, burials alive, gaolings, floggings, humiliations, poisoning of lives, dividing of families, wasting of talent—has caused far more evil than homosexuality itself (precisely how many same-sex orgasms "equals" one person dying in pyrotechnic agony?)

What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality is a short, highly readable and informative book.


  1. I generally agree with your comments on Father Helminiak’s book. While the Bible does prohibit sex between men (homosexuality), it can nevertheless be shown that the prohibition does not apply today when the sexual activity causes no harm. Also the prohibition does not apply today because it applied only to the ancient Israelite and Roman cultures. The Bible criticizes, but does not prohibit, sex between women. Full reasons for these conclusions are given on the Gay and Christian website (

  2. Useful website, thanks for pointing me to it.

    It is significant that the only reference to female-female sex is in Romans, which clearly shows the influence of natural law thinking on St Paul. Contemporary rabbis considered the issue of female-female sex and decided such sex was of no moment: reflecting the concern with male ritual purity. (Possibly in part motivated by revulsion at anal rape by enemy soldiers.)

  3. Matthew 8:5-10 (the faithful Centurion) is a good one from a gay perspective, too, Lorenzo. The Greek word used in that text is 'pais', which is translated 'servant' in pretty much every edition of the NT, but that's not what it means. It means 'boy', as in 'dear boy'. [Source: every single Oxford classicist I've spoken to].

    The Roman army had very different fraternization policies to modern militaries, deliberately sending unmarried men into the provinces with the understanding that they would find a woman there, making a citizen out of her and their children. Enlisted men could not marry (coniubium), so the women stayed in the 'vicus'; if their man were killed in action, they and any children became citizens (a considerable leg-up in antiquity) and experienced a very smooth transfer of property (soldiers enjoyed streamlined will-making procedures). Otherwise they became citizens when the man was discharged.

    Centurions, however, were permitted to have their woman in their quarters (one of the perks of the job mentioned in all the sources), and there is evidence that sometimes men were kept in the same way (see Sara Phang on this).

    This explains why the Roman officer was a bit funny about having a Jewish Rabbi in his quarters. He knew what the locals thought of him and his predilections, but he'd heard on the grapevine that this Yeshua character was handy in the miracle working department...

  4. Thanks for the elaboration -- though I did actually refer to the passage :).

    Thanks also for the Sara Phang reference. The Sifra complains that pagans let men marry men and women marry women.

  5. Yes -- saw that too late, alas (sometimes your expansion button plays me up). Hope the context was useful, at least ;)