What does the Bible say about homosexuality? To ask the question, of course, is to presume that homosexuality, as we know it today, is actually addressed in scripture. Fact is increasing numbers of evangelical Bible scholars, who have closely examined the passages that get appealed to in this discussion, conclude that it’s not.
As minister Gray Temple aptly put it in his book, Gay Unions: in the Light of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, if we could stand Moses and Paul before us — the only two biblical authors who have been attributed as having said anything pertaining to or about homosexuality — and commend or ridicule them for their condemnation of homosexuality, they would almost certainly stare at us in blank incomprehension. Why? Because homosexuality per se simply isn’t anything they’d ever been aware of. No kidding.
It may well take time to get used to seeing this in ancient writings — and none of us assimilates this notion on the first pass — but like it or not, this understanding operates in biblical interpretation and more and more bible scholars working in good faith and out in the open find this reality necessary for grasping what the biblical writers were talking about when they were treating something sexual.
Perhaps even more startling, in the biblical world and in their schema of sexual understanding, there was no such thing as “heterosexuality” either. In fact, we only had clinical words for “gay” and “straight” as of 1869, and those were only heard in German for several years. Harper’s Bible Dictionary says of homosexuality:
“A word for which there is no specific equivalent in the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament, since the concept itself as well as the English word originated only in the 19th century.”
The human race did not divide into gender identities or orientations of “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” Readers are often misinformed and encouraged to believe something that is untrue, that the Bible condemns “homosexuality.” The truth is that the Bible cannot condemn homosexuality since no such concept as homosexual orientation existed at the time of the Bible’s writing.
Now let’s stay with what that means for a moment. Why did no one in the Old Testament, New Testament, classical Greece, ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, or anywhere else around the eastern Mediterranean have a word for homosexuality, homosexual, heterosexuality or heterosexual? They had plenty of sexual words. Whole lexica have been assembled of their “dirty” talk. And they knew a number of crimes committed with the genitalia, principally penises. But no collective word. Why not? Because there was no sense that the various activities and crimes employing penises formed a collective category. Our biblical and classical ancestors did not see homosexuality as a unitary phenomenon. To phrase it differently, they felt no pressure to represent the various misdoings a penis made possible into something called homosexuality. They simply felt no need for the term. They had words for theft, murder, adultery, lying and the like; they needed those words. But not homosexuality. It was not something they were aware of as a description. It was not a class of action or of persons. To the extent that we superimpose our reified and imparted view of homosexuality or heterosexuality onto the Bible’s pages, we will almost certainly miss the point of the passages we so violate. Those passages are talking about something quite specific and we evade them by reducing them to generality.
Therefore, when we read a passage that gets wielded against our gay brothers and sisters, we must always ask the text: What is the specific crime here? It is never enough to say, “Um, its homosexual, that settles it, let’s move on.” That distances us from God, the writer and the text. It may indeed be something bad — and likely is — but it’s something other than homosexuality per se.
If it’s true that homosexuality, as we know it today, is not addressed in scripture — and responsible exegesis does not allow us to tear a passage from its context to replace it in another age for convenience — then the looming question remains: What were these passages addressing? What did the passages originally mean to the author and to the original intended audience? I’ll begin to address this in the next post. Careful study can begin to open these meanings up to us — if we’re humble enough to not presume we already know. Stay tuned . . .