Homosexuality and the Bible

Preface

What you see here is the first draft of a resource on this topic for my students and anyone else interested in scholarly perspectives on it.  I often considered creating such a page, but reactions to my 2015 letter in the Springfield News Leader on the subject of Paul and homosexuality finally moved me to action.  At first this page will be very incomplete and probably always visually unappealing. I encourage readers to check back from time to time for improvements.  Also, as I always tell my students, "consider the source."  Who is Dr. Mark Given and what does he know about the Bible?  Go to the bottom of the page for some answers.

My letter criticized an influential local mega-church pastor for not appearing to be conversant with competent historical scholarship on the issue of homosexuality and the Bible.  His views were expressed publicly in the course of attempting to overturn the city council's recently passed SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) amendment protecting LGBT people from discrimination.  The attempt succeeded.  Although I wrote the letter a week before the vote, it wasn't published until well after.  The reader comments on the letter were depressing.  While some were supportive, most were dismissive at best and vicious at worst.  As a Christian, I wondered how many of these commenters considered themselves Christians and thought what they were doing was a good witness.  Some condemned me as one of the false prophets of the end times and others were uglier and more personal.  Clearly for some, the mere suggestion that a historical approach to the issue might be more complicated than the pastor had said was out of bounds.  More disturbingly, one senses that for others, anyone who said anything that could be construed as supportive of the LGBT community must certainly not be a Christian.  The pastor's response to my letter demonstrated that he misunderstood my point.  I responded to him and linked my second letter to this page.

Many of the reader comments also revealed a misunderstanding of what a religious studies professor in a state university does.  We study religion.  We don't try to make converts to any particular faith or try to create agnostics or atheists.  MSU's Religious Studies Department is among the finest in the Midwest, nationally and internationally known for the quality of its faculty.  MSU has a Public Affairs Mission built around the three pillars of Ethical Leadership, Cultural Competence, and Community Engagement.  Within the framework of this mission, I do challenge students to "articulate their value systems and act ethically within the context of a democratic society," "recognize and respect multiple perspectives and cultures," "recognize the importance of contributing their knowledge and experiences to their own community and the broader society," and "recognize the importance of scientific principles in the generation of sound public policy."  Clearly the study of religion relates to these goals, as does this particular chapter in the social and political history of Springfield, MO.

A Matter of Interpretation

Before turning to the topic, it's important to be aware of the interpretive landscape.  The vast majority of "biblical scholarship" is done by believing Jews and Christians from a wide variety of theological perspectives.  I happen to be a Christian, but one who teaches in a state university.  In that context, I'm especially aware of how improper it would be for me to impose my theological biases, be they liberal, moderate, conservative or fundamentalist, on my students.  I operate primarily as a historian in this context and a "religious studies" scholar.  I'm a member of both the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion.  My doctoral training was in a state university religious studies department where my specialization was early Christianity understood in the context of other ancient Mediterranean religions and philosophies.  In my letter, I referred to "historical scholarship" on the issue of homosexuality and the Bible.  Actually, as extreme as it sounds, there actually is very little strictly historical scholarship on homosexuality and the Bible.  Most of the scholarship is produced by biblical scholars and theologians in confessional environments where it is perfectly acceptable, even expected, to research and write as an intriguing blend of theologian and historian.  And someone with a good theological education can often see how a scholar's theological predilections are influencing their interpretations of history. 

It is also important to be aware of the necessity of hermeneutics (i.e., the art and science of interpretation).  I am trained in "exegesis" and I require learning some basic principles of it in lower level courses and practicing it in upper level courses.  Exegesis is "bringing out" the meaning of the text while eisegesis is "bringing in" one's own meaning.  As a scholar conversant with and sympathetic to postmodern hermeneutics, I appreciate the problematic nature of such straightforward statements about interpretation, but I'm still convinced that learning the basics of exegesis teaches students many essential lessons about bad interpretations.  I use Michael Gorman's exegesis textbook and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn to read the Bible more accurately and do theology responsibly.

Finally, I do consider the ethics of interpretation a crucial aspect of hermeneutics, religious or otherwise, and strongly related to MSU's Public Affairs Mission.  The Bible is a powerful and dangerous book.  Early Christian interpreters were aware of this.  Perhaps for this reason, Augustine said the following:

The fulfillment and end of scripture is the love of God and our neighbor.  . . . Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.

Some Christians, mainly Evangelicals, hold a doctrine of biblical inspiration that affirms that every word of Scripture is the Word of God.  As Evangelical biblical scholars know, this idea can create problems.  Does anyone really want to affirm that the following passage is the Word of God?

When a slave owner strikes a male slave or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished.  But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property (Exodus 21:20-21).

Read this and think carefully about the implications for human rights.  Slavery has always been a sticking point for such doctrines.  New Testament readers should also be disturbed by this:

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.  Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved (1 Tim 6:1-3).

Clearly this passage presumes the right of Christians to own Christians.  Again, Evangelical scholars are aware of the problem and some have even modified their doctrine of Scripture in response.  I highly recommend this article by an Evangelical scholar writing in the Evangelical Quarterly:

Kevin Giles, "The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics"

The article draws on many 19th cent. sources to show just how vociferously Southern conservative Evangelicals, including the much revered theologian Charles Hodge, defended the institution of slavery because the Bible plainly supported it.  In response to the position of some Evangelicals today that whatever the Bible uniformly supports or prohibits is good for all time, Giles uses this embarrassing episode to argue against using the Bible to support the subordination of women because slavery demonstrates that there are obviously some teachings of scripture that are culture bound.  One can easily imagine how the same insight could be applied to the homosexuality issue.  Some interpreters already have. In any case, from my perspective, Augustine's principle should still be our guide.  The example of slavery demonstrates that at least some matters of morality and ethics in the Bible are culture bound and that Christians cannot simply say that whatever the Bible teaches is valid for all time.  This realization should lead Bible interpreters of all kinds to take responsibility for their interpretations.  One cannot simply say "the Bible plainly says" and use this as a cover for what "we" want to say.

Scholarly Resources

The best scholarship on homosexuality and the Bible is informed by both thoroughgoing historical criticism and a familiarity with both ancient and modern theories of sexuality.  This is the only kind of historical or theological scholarship on this topic I consider responsible.  One must not only be aware of the variety of ways ancient cultures interpreted homosexuality, but also of the intellectual history of thinking about sexuality generally, and especially current theories of sex and gender.  Furthermore, sound historical scholarship on Paul recognizes that he was a multicultural person living in the Roman empire.  To understand him, one must certainly be aware that he was a Jew who loved the Scriptures.  However, one must also recognize that he was a Hellenistic Jew who grew up in the Diaspora, was quite possibly a Roman citizen, that he travelled widely and interacted with many Greek-speaking Gentiles, and that he was somewhat influenced by Greek philosophy.  All competent Paul scholars know that he occasionally uses Stoic ideas and most agree that he has some amount of education in Greek rhetoric.  Luke is probably accurate in presenting him as someone who could quote pagan poets to Athenian philosophers.  This multicultural Paul is not well represented in the some scholarship.  Instead, mainly Paul's Jewish culture is taken into account.  The following survey begins with scholarship that meets these requirements and then moves on to less satisfactory examples.

However, before turning to biblical topics, one would do well to start with a good general overview of the subject of homosexuality that pays attention to both history and theory:

"Homosexuality" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Also, on the broader topic of the Bible and sexuality, anything by William Loader is a good place to start.  For example,

William Loader, Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes to Sex in Early Jewish and Christian Literature. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2013.

My top recommendation for a book on the Bible and homosexuality that lives up to being a mostly historical and not heavily theological treatment of the topic is

Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective. Fortress, 1998. (Click here for a review)

This is an award winning book, and for good reason.  It is a thorough and accurate survey and assessment of homoerotic relationships in the ancient world.  Nissinen shows that sexuality in general was construed much differently than today.  Once a reader grasps this, they can see how these differences complicate "plain sense" readings of the few biblical passages pertaining to homosexuality.  His treatments of the relevant passages in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are judicious and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand these passages.  His work on the Hebrew Bible passages is equally as good since he is a Hebrew Bible specialist.  Nissinen's work is also valuable because he is summarizing and/or drawing on the best peer reviewed scholarship on the biblical passages.  In the case of Paul, one comes away not feeling like "I've been told the correct way to read the passage," but rather realizing how difficult it is to say authoritatively what Paul meant.  Knowledge and hermeneutical awareness changes things.  Only in the final brief chapter does Nissinen provide some theological reflections on the results of his research.  The tone is reflective, not heavy-handed, and emphasizes the Christian imperative to seek a loving response to all people.

The following book is a mixed bag as measured by the criteria given above.  It is a useful historical resource, but it is also has a pervasive theological agenda:

Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (click here for reviews; [Unfortunately, these are now accessed by subscription])

Both the linked reviews appeared soon after the book's publication.  The second reviewer, Amador, seems genuinely appreciative of the author's thoroughness and his successful challenging of some pro-homosexuality interpretations of the relevant biblical texts.  However, he then goes on to discuss the book in the context of the broader investigation of sex and gender and exposes the author's exceedingly myopic view of the topic.  He also notices, as many have, the pervasive heterosexist bias running through the whole work.  This is really not mainly a work of historical but rather of theological scholarship.  The other reviewer is much more negative toward Gagnon's obvious biases.

I must say in passing that it is somewhat ironic to me when conservative Evangelicals who reject historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship invoke Gagnon so approvingly on this issue.  Gagnon is a well-trained critical scholar.  In his book, he makes distinctions between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the Gospels, and he distinguishes between the authentic letters of Paul and the Deutero-Paulines, i.e., those writings most critical scholars consider pseudonymous (written by others in Paul's name).  Richard Hays (see below) assumes the same distinctions.

What if one wanted a book on this topic that 1) takes seriously and does the kind of historical scholarship found in Nissinen; 2) digs even deeper in some areas; 3) expands the discussion to heterosexuality as well, but 4) often uses this knowledge to problematize fundamentalist and foundationalist interpretations of sexuality and the Bible?  This is the book:

Dale Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Click here for a review)

Dale (now chair of Religious Studies at Yale) was one of my teachers at the doctoral level, and a member of my dissertation committee.  This book is a collection of mostly previously published essays.  For those who are consulting this page mainly with an interest in Paul and homosexuality, the two most relevant essays are "Arsenokoités and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences" and "Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Rom 1:18-32."  To me, the most brilliant essay is the second. However, one can see the first online (Arsenokoités and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences).  This book is not narrowly focused on homosexuality or sexuality generally.  Perhaps of even greater importance is his brilliant hermeneutical insights about the weaknesses of biblical "foundationalism," a simplistic way of reading the Bible that always presumes it can answer all our questions.  These insights are changing the way even some Evangelical scholars interpret issues of sexuality.

Finally, at least for now, I mention the following book, even though it is not a work dedicated to the topic:

Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Click here for Martin's review [subscription necessary] and here for others)

Richard, a Duke Divinity School professor, was also one of my teachers at the doctoral level and a member of my dissertation committee.  This book is his magnum opus on New Testament ethics and one can certainly learn a lot from it.  However, it has received mixed reviews.  Read Martin's review to see a discussion of its internal methodological weaknesses and contradictions.  Also, note Luke Timothy Johnson's criticisms in the first review found by following the second link.  Other reviews gathered there are more appreciative.  While I am grateful to Richard for what he taught me about Paul and Scripture, this book was a great disappointment to me.  My fundamental problem with it is the choice not to make the love commandment and the concept of love the center of New Testament ethics.  On pp. 200-203 he explains in some detail why he finds love an inadequate basis for Christian ethics.  It's not that Richard is an unloving person.  Far from it!  However, I think when Christians don't keep love at the center of their ethical reflections, problems are likely to follow.  If I get time, I'll expand this section and explain how his reasoning relates to homosexuality, but for now I'll simply say that it is self-evident to me that the organizing principle of Christian ethics should be love.  Both Jesus and Paul taught love of God and love of neighbor as the fulfillment of the law of God, both explicitly or implicitly taught the golden rule, both occasionally propounded teaching on these bases that traditionally minded people found troubling, and both embodied their love principles in sacrificial living for others.

Here are some other significant scholarly resources:

Robert L. Brawley, ed. Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture

Michael Coogan, God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says

 

Helpful Books for a Popular Audience

Affirming

Mark Achtemeier, The Bible's Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical's Change of Heart. Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

Disaffirming

Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? Crossway, 2015.

Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Zondervan, 2010.

Balanced

Jeffrey Siker, ed. Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Dan O. Via and Robert A. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views.

Via is affirming and Gagnon is, of course, disaffirming.  I was fortunate to have had a class in hermeneutics with Dan Via in graduate school.

 

Websites and Web Articles

Affirming

William Loader, "What does the Bible say on Homosexuality?"

Luke Timothy Johnson, "Homosexuality and the Church: Scripture and Experience" (Commonweal, 2007)

MatthewVines.com

Disaffirming

Robert A. J. Gagnon Home

Balanced

Christianity and sexual orientation

Does God Affirm Homosexuality? (A debate between James White and Graeme Codrington)

GayChristian.net

LGBTQ Rights and Religious Freedom: Seeking Balance Between Equality and Sanctity

 

Dr. Mark Given

I grew up in central West Virginia.  Much of who I was then could be summed up by the words "Baptist" and "musician."  My earliest memories were of church at least three times a week.  My parents loved Bible reading and so did I.  We often wiled away the evenings playing a game called Bible Trivia.  I count myself fortunate that the pastor of our church was college educated, a school principal.  Not only was the text of the Bible (KJV) engrained in me, but also the importance of understanding the Bible in its historical contexts.  Furthermore, since my mom saw education as the key to escaping the poverty endemic to my home state, she encouraged me to read anything and everything.  I loved science books and science fiction.  Having a college educated and intelligent pastor also saved me from trying to read the Bible as a science textbook or a perfect history book, and that perspective probably prepared me for later having no problem realizing that some of the advice in the Bible was culture bound and should not be rigidly applied to life today.

I attended an American Baptist liberal arts college (Alderson Broaddus, '83) on full scholarship as a music performance major, but I got hooked on religion and philosophy courses.  These helped make up my mind that I wanted to become a "theologian," so I entered Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina in 1985.  My wife Janet also attended.  I graduated with a Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages and she graduated with an Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages and Church Music.  However, our seminary experience ended painfully.  The fundamentalist faction in the Southern Baptist Convention got control of the denomination and started trying to force the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration on all faculty.  I could elaborate extensively about this, but let's just say that I became disenchanted with theology.  I turned to history and was accepted into the Religious Studies program at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989. I graduated in '98.  My doctoral advisor was a new faculty member named Bart Ehrman--who wasn't an agnostic yet.  :-)   Some of my other teachers were Paul Meyer (retired from Princeton Theological Seminary) and, from Duke, Richard Hays, Dale Martin, and E. P. Sanders.  Dale had the greatest influence on the way I understand the Bible and sexuality.  However, I've never been obsessed with this topic.  I'm mainly known as an expert on the comparatively tame topic of the rhetoric of Paul in its Greco-Roman context.

Books I've published:

Mark Given, Paul's True Rhetoric: Ambiguity Cunning and Deception in Greece and Rome.

Mark Given, ed., Paul Unbound: Other Perspectives on the Apostle.

Books I'm working on:

Mark Given, ed. The Oxford Handbook of New Testament Rhetoric.

Mark Given, To What End? Rhetorical and Theological Goals in the Letters of Paul.

A recent essay:

Mark Given, "Parenesis and Peroration: The Rhetorical Function of Romans 12:1–15:13" in Paul and Ancient Rhetoric (Cambridge University Press. 2016).