Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 1 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here: http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/?page_id=893

These are the sorts of debates and pamphleteering I don’t usually want to respond to in detail, as I feel they can be short-sighted. I am answering this one in part to illustrate a key frustration which prompted me to begin writing these blogs: a lack of follow-through in much thinking when it comes to religious positions and civil — social and political — life. This post is intended to interrogate the way several scriptural quotations were used by the former group in order to move the debate to a different ground. Because of the social issues — such as same-sex love, bodily union, and the institution of marriage — touched on in discussions of homosexuality, I hope to follow up this post with others treating topics of marriage, sex, eros, asceticism, and mysticism.

The Stephen Green article linked to above is the basis from which developed the principle homophobic positions during the radio interview. Therefore, an extended examination of its content is warranted here. After looking at the initial article and the arguments presented during the radio interview in February in parts one and two, the third post in this four-part series will take a linguistic analysis, using of Rabbinic principles for interpreting scripture, of the key text in Leviticus 18.22. I should note that typically in Judaism, arguing over how scripture should be interpreted and how its principles be applied to daily life is part and parcel of taking scripture seriously — as is the ability to recognise myriad interpretations and vet them for their wisdom. I therefore present only one of many possible interpretations, and my intent is to highlight the basic principles developed by Rabbi Ishmael and others at the close of the Second Temple period (first century CE) for elucidating the laws contained in the Torah. (‘Torah’ is usually translated as ‘nomos’ in Greek, and thus shows up in the New Testament writings under the English term ‘law’.) Following an examination of Jewish scripture from one Jewish and linguistic perspective, the fourth section will examine how Christians might approach interpreting the Hebrew scriptures, basing myself on principles elucidated in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, on the one hand, and taking up the arguments about political life developed in the 1940s by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

I. ‘The Abomination of Homosexuality’ Article.

Although the author, Stephen Green, divides the article into thirteen subheadings, the arrangement follows a much broader scheme. After positioning ‘The Abomination of Homosexuality’ article as a follow up to his July 2010 piece which treated the destruction of Sodom as recorded in the book of Genesis, Green takes up the next book of the Bible to treat (male) homosexual behaviour, the book of Leviticus. (In the July 2010 article, Green apparently equated the behaviour of the Sodomites with an essentialised view of homosexual behaviour in general, the better to contrast it with an equally essentialised view of ‘heterosexual love and marriage’ as upheld by Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew (ch. 19) and Mark (ch. 10). Curiously, the destruction of Gomorrah seems to have been ignored.) The current article then falls neatly into three parts: the purpose of the book of Leviticus and in particular those chapters which form what are called in academic Scriptural Studies the ‘holiness code’ (Green seems unaware of the general acceptance of this academic term, and prefers the descriptor ‘Moral Chapters’); a section on Canaanite religion, drawn from outdated and poorly referenced sources, designed to set up arguments for the third part, which responds to a pamphlet by Dr Mel White, founder of a ‘pro-gay group’ on what the Bible says and does not say about homosexuality. The piece ends with a brief peroration in which Green attempts to bolster his case through a ‘once stated is stated enough’ rationale. At the end of the piece, Green also presents the logic which underpins his method of Biblical interpretation: “If I don’t take every word as inspired and infallible, I set myself up to decide what is and is not true in the Bible, and I become by own god. It is just not tenable for a Christian to do that, so I shall believe the whole Bible, literally.”

Green’s argument is somewhat difficult to summarise, in part because he seems to be arguing against several different schools of thought. (It is a rhetorical, not an academic piece, after all.) Likewise, the article would seem to be a commentary or interpretation of the verses in Leviticus, and yet the author’s method of interpretation, which I would note is, despite his late protestation, not literal, draws on several unrelated and somewhat incompatible-when-applied-to-daily-life methodologies. Because of this incoherence, I will treat each of the thirteen subsections in some detail; here however, I want to discuss the faults present even in the broadest division of Green’s article.

If I were to attempt a summary of Green’s principle argument, it would be that the laws of Leviticus are meant for all people, regardless of nation, and that to do otherwise makes a civilisation the moral equivalent of ancient Canaan. I believe his subsidiary point is that these laws are predicated on an a respect for life, and heterosexual marriage (as defined in post-16th century Western Europe), but he fails to make the latter of these two points explicit through presentation of evidence. He does present evidence for respect of life, however much based on dubious scholarship regarding a timeless and generalised Canaanite religion and society as contrasted with the specifics of the Holiness Code in Leviticus (and not with the whole gamut of Israelite history, an unfortunately lopsided comparison).

Left out of Green’s argument is the follow-through: Aside from neglecting to address the punishments laid out for transgression each law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, if these laws are meant for all people, to govern personal behaviour, and these laws are without the need to be interpreted, 1) why do they continue to be debated; and 2) how then are they to be enforced and applied? If the laws of Leviticus govern personal behaviour, what need is there for authority figures to legislate for or against an action in civil law, if conscientious individuals are educated to take responsibility for their own behaviour? If the laws are clear, why were guidelines for the elucidation of scripture developed by rabbis two thousand years ago? Why did Jesus and Paul talk about searching out the ‘spirit’ of the law? Why was it recorded that Peter, James, and John, debated with Paul over what laws Gentile converts should follow (recorded in Acts of the Apostles, and referenced in one of Paul’s letters (Galatians))?

This lack of historical perspective, on the one hand, and lack of follow-through on the other, is what makes the political debates around same-sex unions so acrimonious. A larger debate seems to go unaddressed: what is the place of faith in legislative life? This is a different question from the more common ‘What is the place of faith in political and civil life?’ Of course, the question can be inverted as well, more pointedly, to ask, ‘What is the place of civil legislation (particularly regarding sexuality) in religious life?’

Regardless of the larger context of these debates, Green only asserts, but does not make a case, that the laws of Israel are meant for other peoples. Indeed, Green doesn’t even seem to be aware that Orthodox Jews continue to observe the commandments laid out in Leviticus (including prohibitions against ‘weird haircuts’ and ‘mixed fibres’), but both Rabbinic and Karaite Jews acknowledge that some phrases and laws in the Torah need to be interpreted. While this is not the place to re-examine seventh century CE debates within Judaism, the third post of this series will revisit the first and second century CE debates within Judaism and the emerging sect of Gentile Christianity. The early Christian debates underscore the issues of how Jewish law is to be applied to converts from other nations, and to what extent Jewish law (i.e. Torah) should be taken literally in lieu of interpretation to uncover the ‘spirit’ behind the law (Torah). Those debates can then be placed together with the Hashmonean revolt in the second century BCE and the legalisation of Christianity in 313 CE, to illustrate the issues raised in how ethno-religious law relates to a wider multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

Without going into detail, several more faults can be seen in the broad division of Green’s article. I will take these objections in order, before moving on to the thirteen subheadings. First, no terms are defined. What is meant by ‘heterosexual love’, ‘[heterosexual] marriage’, or even ‘sodomy’, is left undefined. Not defining what is meant by heterosexual love and heterosexual marriage seems to be a rather shocking oversight in the exposition of a text in which polygamy is accepted and acceptable, to an audience for whom monogamy is the current norm of heterosexual marriage. Likewise, the notion of ‘sodomy’ as having one unequivocal meaning cannot be sustained — as the US Supreme Court determined in 2003. Finally, male and female homosexual activity is not distinguished, although the verses Green discusses explicitly relate to men; their application to women can only be inferred.

Second, Green’s own assumptions are left unexamined. This comes through especially in the diverse sources he used to interpret — or rationalise — scripture. Green relies on four chief sources to support his position (Unger 1964, Halley 1964, Spriggs, Wilkinson), only two of which are cited in full enough form that their authority to speak to the issues can be assumed, though unlike the four authors against whom Green writes (Pittenger 1969, Arthur 1982, Alexander 1993, White 2003), the background of these sources is not introduced. Noteworthy is the fact that these sources are used primary to illustrate the depravity of Canaanite culture, a digression apparently undertaken by Green in an effort to rouse shock in the reader and convince the reader that if homosexuality was part of such a depraved culture, surely depravity must be part of a culture which permits homosexuality. To anyone unfamiliar with the scholarly literature surrounding the cultures of ancient Canaan and Israel, such illustrations would seem to be convincing. To anyone familiar with the current literature, they are anything but.

(For those who are interested, a Google search using the terms ‘Timothy Wilkinson Canaan’ revealed two likely sources: tswilkinson.blogspot.com/2011/02/gezer-calendar.html and
eternalthronechronicles.wordpress.com/category/canaanite/ A similar search for Julian Spriggs revealed a faculty member by that name at King’s Evangelical Divinity School http://www.kingsdivinity.org/about/faculty-julian-spriggs and returned the likely source http://www.julianspriggs.com/ )

The four authors against whom Green writes are all associated with a ‘pro-gay’ stance, and their works are referenced at the end of Green’s article, so do not bear repeating here. I would highlight that Green appears to take the position that any hint of a pro-gay stance compromises the theological integrity of whatever academic works were published in association with these men. Thus, because Pittenger uses the academic term ‘Holiness Code’ to refer to the central chapters of Leviticus, and because Pittenger was pro-gay, the term ‘Holiness Code’ is now suspect and should be replaced. (If I personally were to critique Pittinger, it would be on the basis of his stance regarding process theology, but that is another matter.)

Another more important unexamined assumption is his method of elucidating scripture. I choose the term ‘elucidating’ to respect Green’s position that he does not interpret scripture, and I will leave the debates in literary criticism and anthropology about what constitutes ‘interpretation’ aside for the moment. What sources does Green seem to permit as valid for elucidating, that is, shedding light on scripture?

1. Historical-Archaeological: Green attempts to use evidence from the archaeological record to demonstrate that Israelite culture was moral and Canaanite culture immoral. Granted, Hebrew scripture, with its narrative focus on the people of Israel, does not give much of an insider’s view of Canaanite culture. Thus brining in archaeological evidence to fill out the Biblical account through cross-cultural referencing seems warranted. However, both ‘Canaanite culture’ and the date of the books of the Bible are left in a timeless vacuum by Green, undercutting this approach. Additionally, given that the standards set out in Hebrew scripture are the basis by which Christians, and to an extent secular Westerners, tend to make moral judgements, this seems a disingenuous demonstration.

2. Anthropological: Green does not explicitly refer to any anthropologists, but taken as a whole, his presentation of Leviticus in its cultural context owes much to Mary Douglas’ work, Purity and Danger. Anthropology and Comparative Religion, of course, share much the same genealogy, and both attempted in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries, to find an Ursprung des religion, a proto-religion which preserved the authenticity of humanity’s primal contact with the divine. Failing that, the study of cultures which still invoked notions of clean and unclean, taboo and permitted, could help shed light on what ancient Israelites might have understood by these terms; Rabbinic understandings, whether textual or contemporary, were ignored. The social use of anthropological findings when applied to the religious arena have thus tended to serve a Pauline and supercessionist approach to scripture, in which the ‘spirit’ of the law is sought, at the expense of examining how various communities who actually hand-copy the said scriptural passages have interpreted, developed, and applied those laws throughout their history. The anthropological approach is tentatively compatible with the notion of revealed scripture; it harmonises more easily with a secular view of scripture as the product of living communities in historical context, a very human, and thus very temporally-circumscribed product. It is therefore a theoretical tool, and not usually amenable to clear application in religious life today.

3. Evangelical (Pauline). As mentioned, a Pauline approach seeks the ‘spirit’ of the law, following Paul’s theology of ‘grace’ as opposed to ‘law’ as set forth particularly in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. This approach is consonant with the idea that Scripture is God’s revelation, and that at the time of Jesus, at least, its literal application had been misunderstood (e.g. ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’; ‘He who is without sin let him cast the first stone [to enact the Torah’s punishment for adultery]’). As a result, the point or premise of the law is to be sought — which necessitates some degree of interpretation. Green subscribes to this view when he states the point of several laws, e.g. ‘having sex with menstruating women is dirty.’ When this is the base approach, it harmonises nicely with anthropological and archaeological contextual cues, because those cues shed light on how a law functions, how it can be corrupted in practice, and how ‘it might have been’ understood ‘originally’. It has an intent to apply the lessons learned through this approach to contemporary situations.

4. Linguistic. This approach asks, ‘what do the words mean?’ It often utilises a comparison of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek terms used in the various editions of Scripture. (When the New Testament is being discussed, other languages which attest to early textual variants are also used: Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Ge’ez, Syriac.) When a term is looked at strictly within a Hebrew context, the three-letter roots of the word, alternate vocalisations (vowels are not written into the text of the Torah; we supply the vowels when we read the text), and contexts in which a phrase is used are all taken into account. For those working with translations, the point of linguistic analysis is to further clarify the meaning of the text-in-translation; the English is not the literal scripture, but a derivative interpretation which at best approximates what God meant (if we are working with the ‘Scripture is revealed’ position), or an author intended (if we are working with a literary theory ‘authorial intent’ position). Unfortunately, Green proceeds in backwards fashion, and looks up how English words are translated into Hebrew to make his case, rather than seek out the range of meanings a particular word has.

5. Scriptural. This approach harmonises with both secular and religious views of scripture, in that it draws together several verses to shed light on one another. However, in a religious context, Scripture is taken as a whole, with any part of the Scriptures (including the Oral Torah in Judaism) acting as a valid counterpoint. In a secular methodology, only those elements from the same chronological (and sometimes geographical) frame are allowed; other uses can demonstrate how the meaning of a term has changed. A limited religious approach takes only other portions of the Torah itself — the first five books of the Bible — as eligible for this cross-positioning of ideas; other scripture (Prophets, Writings) is of lesser utility.

6. Logical-legal. This approach adds to the verses at hand through making inferences, either moving from specifics to generalities, or generalities to specifics. It is used to include lesbians in the verses which are understood to forbid men from engaging in same-sex activity. It is a method of interpretation. It is even mentioned by Rabbi Ishmael in his thirteen principles for elucidating the Torah. The approach typically implies the individual takes the text as revelation given to humans to understand and enact according to (collective?) judgement.

7. Tradition. This is what I am calling the unquestioning literalist vein of interpretation. It is not ‘tradition’ in the sense of Catholic or Byzantine Orthodox ‘traditio’, which would be understood by both those confessions to be part and parcel of the Scriptural method of interpretation — a Christian variant of the Rabbinic ‘Written and Oral Torah’. Rather, by ‘tradition’ I mean the interpretation of a verse according to the moral norms of the reader’s own time, with little input from recent historical changes (to say nothing of longer centuries old changes in interpretation, translation, and application). In its extreme form, this is the sort of method which states the King James Version is the be all and end all of Scriptural texts. In more attenuated forms, it approaches a verse only with the most narrow value-contexts of a particular community, and limits debate and alternative understandings as questioning the foundation of that community. (This is different from allowing extended debate over various interpretations and rejecting some as either insufficiently thought through, or as not being consonant with the historical and international understandings of a community’s tradition. I would argue the debates surrounding creating the canon of scripture in the New Testament, and the process of writing the Nicene Creed at the ecumenical councils, are examples of this latter sort of debate.) It is strictly application-oriented, and tends to eschew the theoretical as dangerous to the purity of Scriptural intent.

When each of these approaches should be taken, or how the insights gained from each approach are to be integrated with one another, is not addressed. As a result, Green’s overall scheme proceeds in piecemeal fashion and never comes across as one strongly reasoned, coherent argument. The above approaches can be difficult to reconcile, mainly in terms of their logical starting and end points — taking Scripture as revelation implies a certain use for it that taking scripture as a human and historical product does not; likewise, applying a revelation to daily life is different from applying existential or experiential historical situated-ness together with its rationales as it was then, to life today. This discrepancy is something Green does not seem to recognise in his article.

Of course, why, if scripture is so plain and literal, it needs elucidation, is not explained when at the end of the article Green states his position on scripture as inspired and infallible. Historically, of course, scripture was interpreted in both Christianity and medieval Judaism according to four modes: Historico-literal, allegorical, tropological or moral, and anagogical. The historical teaches what happened literally, but allegory teaches what you should believe, the moral what you should do, and the anagogical what is in store. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 118). In Judaism, the four senses are plain, rational, homiletic, and mystical.

The third and most important objection, from an academic standpoint, is twofold: the curious method of back-translating the English term ‘abomination’ into Hebrew to demonstrate what the Hebrew term ‘to’evah’ means, despite not having examined the more complex linguistic issues present in the first half of the verse (see section 11), and a reliance on interpretations of Canaanite religion which do not stand up to current scholarship (see sections 7 and 12, below).

Finally, I have already noted that Green’s article is presented more for rhetorical effect than academic or critical analysis of the verses at hand. As such, I should make allowances for the many value positions with which he asserts his argument. After all, if his entire goal is to present rationale based on emotional appeal, rather than scholarship or pastoral care, in an effort to fill out the position of Christian Voice that…’all homosexual relationships are disordered and that the act of sodomy is an act of violence and abuse’, he’s managed to do that.


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