Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality

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 applaud or deride 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 big question remains: What were these passages addressing? What did the passages originally mean to the author and 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 . . .

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About Alex Haiken

Born to a Jewish family in New York City, I came to faith in Christ in 1982 after trying to disprove the Bible. I found so much evidence in support of the claims of Jesus and the Bible that it required more faith to reject it than to believe it. I hold a Master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and among other things am a lecturer, teacher, blogger and conference speaker. I came out as gay at a young age but was taught when I came to faith that I could not be both Christian and gay. I served for a time as a leader of an ex-gay ministry but shifted my views after recognizing that when the few passages generally appealed to in this debate are examined more closely and in context, the traditional anti-gay interpretations do not hold up to scrutiny. I learned that the ex-gay route is a scripturally unsound mirage, a specious illusion that deceitfully draws people not to a life-giving oasis but to a deeper and deeper spiritual desert. Seeing the immense need for education in this area, I began to speak and write about my experience and new-found convictions. I am also passionate about helping the Church better understand her rich Jewish roots; helping other Jewish people understand Jesus as their Jewish Messiah; and helping other gay people integrate a theologically sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality. It is my hope that the reflections in this blog will prompt you to explore the paths they suggest, leading to your own more eloquent thinking, exploration and action. If you want, visit the “Contact” page and let me know what you think.
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12 Responses to Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality

  1. Richard W says:

    Intelligent, informative + honest, thank you.

  2. Andinho. says:

    Hey, man! I loved your view about this subject. It’s clear that the concern wasn’t about homosexuality, but as you said, “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.” And “They had words for theft, murder, adultery, lying and the like; they needed those words. But not homosexuality.” I quite agree with you! Thank you for commenting in my blog and giving this information!

    Thank you for your words. You helped me a lot.

  3. Alex Haiken says:

    Thank you for your kind words. I’m happy to know that you found the post helpful. But, of course, this means that contrary to the pleading of some gay apologists, and as ypu inferred on your own blog, Ruth and Naomi were not lesbians and David and Jonathan were not gay. The Bible is an empty closet and we have to be willing to give up our own prejudices and preconceptions, should they turn out to be untrue.

    I did address the Leviticus passage in my post: “A Good Life in the Closet?” Perhaps you would find it of interest. Until early in the 20th century, our knowledge of Canaanite religion and custom was limited to say the least. But that was to change substantially in 1929 with the discovery of the “Ras Shamra” or “Ugaritic” texts. From 1929 to the present, literally thousands of texts have been found at Ugarit. These texts have yielded much valuable historical information and are extremely valuable for our understanding of the Canaanite culture, for until the discovery of these texts we had no positive witness outside the Old Testament. But these texts have illuminated our understanding of obscure words and of pagan religious practices appearing not only in Leviticus but in other places in the Hebrew Scriptures as well.

    Remember that the purpose of exegesis is to avoid this misleading question: What does the Bible mean to me? That can be answered by anyone subjectively, and if you have twelve people you’ll end up with twelve different opinions, resulting in twleve different doctrines, every one of which may be wrong. The correct question is: What did this mean to the original author and original intended audience? Unless we have some idea of what the text meant THEN, we’re left to only guess at what it might mean for us NOW.

  4. tlhumphries says:

    I am reading, with interest, several of your blogs/articles. You are a very articulate writer and I appreciate your informed and studied perspective.

  5. Scott says:

    In the sense “homosexuality” is not mentioned in the Bible, is it perhaps because the idea of it should not apply? I mean, it does not mention “heterosexuality” either, right? It only gives one way, sex between a man and a woman. Perhaps in today’s world of doing “whatever we want to do” attitude, we have created this category that was never meant to be defined. Example, it is argued that Paul may have not known the word, but he was very familiar with people in same sex relationships, Nero, who married another guy, the greeks who had their lovers and their same sex unions. Would not Paul have been familiar with those accounts, and was speaking a generality that those activities were wrong?? He was not talking about “homosexuality” because it was not even an option of a lifestyle for a christian, he only gave two options, marriage with the opposite sex or to remain single.

    Just some thoughts to consider, i side with you on the gay issue, but i am faced with those arguments time and time again…

    • Alex Haiken says:

      Scott, I don’t subscribe to the do “whatever we want to do” attitude, but I do think we need to avoid reading things into the text that simply are not there.

      Where did you get the idea that Nero was “married to another guy”? Was Paul talking about “homosexuality,” as we know it, in Romans? Increasing numbers of Bible scholars and theologians say no; he was talking about pagan idolatry. In Romans, beginning with the pagan past, Paul reviews human rebellion against God and the associated wrath of God. This wrath is not well understood by people today. It’s not a heaven-sent hissy fit. The wrath of God is the wrath of God — God’s determinedly compassionate opposition to our killing ourselves with our idolatrous self-worship and pretentious self-righteousness over against the awe and gratitude that fits what we owe to God for our life and for God’s very Presence.

      Paul goes on to illustrate. Before being brought to faith in Christ, the Gentiles at Rome had bowed to idols that left them as empty as were the idols. Yet, in that experience of emptiness, God’s wrath graciously exposed their suppression of truth, revealing the folly of their relying on idols among which God had allowed them to wallow at will.

      This is what Paul was writing about. What he was not writing about and could not have been writing about, were “clobber” passages against what we now know as homosexual orientation and same-sex couples. Nobody in the ancient world could have imagined a loving same-gendered romance between social peers — let alone same-sex psychosexual orientation. N. T. Wright, no apologist for same-sex couples, nevertheless states: “Paul could not have envisioned … ‘monogamous’ same-sex relationships between persons of homosexual preference.”

      Our responsibility, Scott, is to try and draw out from the text what it ORIGINALLY meant to the author and to the ORIGINAL intended audience, without reading into it the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it.

  6. Mandy says:

    So, I am looking for proof saying that being gay and/or imitating women in Christianity is forbidden. I want biblical proof. Thank you.

    • Alex Haiken says:

      Mandy, you won’t find any biblical “proof” saying that being gay is forbidden because you won’t find any passages in the Bible that discuss being gay. Moreover, the comments addressing what you refer to “imitating women” are made in context to pagan rites and pagan religious practices.

      One of the most prominent and pervasive themes weaving its way through virtually every book of the Bible is that of paganism and the constant call to turn from it. We find a continuous call to turn from the worshiping of the false or pagan gods of the day and to turn instead to the one true living God, Yahweh. In connection with this is the admonition to turn from participating in a myriad of pagan rituals. Both the OT and NT spend page after page condemning these pagan cult practices. But most of us have no idea what these practices were since they’re now extinct and therefore totally foreign to our contemporary thinking. But in 1929, all of that that changed with the discovery of what is called the “Ras Shamra” texts. (Ras Shamra is a place on the northern coast of Syria, where the remains of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit have been unearthed.)

      The passages you refer to are about pagan cultic rites that were marked by gruesome sex exchanges. Sex reversal was a specific distinctive of the pagan cults of the day and was considered to be indispensable to their religion.

      For more on this, you may wish to refer to the posts titled, “Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?” and “Leviticus 18: What Was The Abomination?” Links to these may be found on the “Archives” page.

  7. Ailetha says:

    It is very nice to read all your thoughtful articles on here. I never had anything to say to it but i always felt like those verses were being taken out of context, but i never had any logical words to put to it. These verses make about 100% more sense when placed in context. I am considered by my family to be godless (even though i am and have been Christian since i was a child) because i simply could not think an all-powerful God would be so petty. He is much better than that, much smarter, much more complex, and i have a lot more respect for God than to think that about Him. I feel very strongly that he is much more loving than that. i have not a lot of logic for that other than, i feel God’s love is so great it couldn’t possibly exclude “homosexuals”.

    And for context, i’m straight and married, have been for 10 years, and they think i am a godless person because of my belief about this one particular subject. God has bigger and worse “problems” to deal with in my mind than “homosexuality” (which of course is not a problem whatsoever except in a bigot’s mind where it is defined as a problem). Well, i really appreciate this. Thanks. Keep it up. I feel so good to be able to speak logically about it now.

    My cousin is gay and my father and stepmom look down on her so often and talk behind her back like she has a mental disease. They act like she is mentally ill and everything is just wrapped up in a nice little bow of black and white, easy for them. It is really hard to be quiet or not know what to say (other than that it’s wrong) when my father and much younger brother joke about equating homosexuality to sex with animals (or further gay marriage to marriage with animals). i certainly can’t keep the disgusted look off my face at their behavior because i think it’s just mean and bullying. And i feel doubly bad because I’m probably one of the very few exposures my younger brother (20 years younger) would have to an alternative opinion. And my father is four times married.

    Context is everything! That is a truth of life. i really appreciate you giving that to me. Now i know what to say when confronted with this vile attitude. i feel like i can do more now when confronted rather than just slinking away quietly and ignoring it when it happens.

    Thanks again.

    • Alex Haiken says:

      Ailetha,

      You are correct that context is everything. The old radio teacher, Dr. J. Vernon Magee, was famous was saying, “A text without a context is a pretext.” The dictionary defines a pretext as, “an effort or strategy intended to conceal something.” In other words, unless we consider the context of Scripture and that means the entire context including the historical setting we are, purposely or not, engaging in a strategy to conceal the teachings of the Bible.

      -Alex

  8. josh says:

    They knew the acts though. Didn’t have a word for heterosexuality either. Very intellectually dishonest and deceitful.

    • Alex Haiken says:

      Yes, Josh, they did know the “acts,” but these acts were prohibited for specific reasons. To use an analogy, the Bible also speaks quite negatively of tax collectors. But we realize it’s not talking about modern IRS agents. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were frequently corrupt and cheated people out of more money than they owed. So when the Bible talks about tax collectors we know it’s not condemning all tax collectors for all time, rather it’s condemning the specific behaviors of the tax collectors at that time.

      I would submit that it’s actually you, Josh, who is being “intellectually dishonest and deceitful.” It may be unintentional, but it’s dishonest and irresponsible nonetheless. Responsible exegesis requires that we seek to draw out from the text what it originally meant to the author and to the original intended audience (exegesis), without reading into the text the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it (eisegesis). Exegesis is reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying. Eisegesis, on the other hand, is reading one’s own ideas or prejudices back into the Bible.

      The only forms or expressions of same-sex “acts” cited in the Bible — and I would argue were even known in the ancient and biblical world — are the following three:
      (1) Pagan cult idolatry and temple prostitution, as temples across the ancient Near East employed (or enslaved) both male and female prostitutes.
      (2) Male-on-male rape, as men and kings of conquered tribes were often raped by the invading army as the ultimate symbol of defeat and humiliation. This was a way for victors to accentuate the subjection of captive enemies and foes and a way of humiliating visitors and strangers.
      (3) An exploitative form of pederasty that was popular in the ancient and Greco-Roman world. These man-boy interactions ceased when the boys began to sprout facial hair and other indications of emerging masculinity.

      I’m sorry Josh, but we don’t get to rip passages from their ancient context and replace them in another age for the sake of convenience.

      -Alex

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