LGBT History Month in the UK: The Bible comes out
In 1992, while serving as a Campus Minister at the University of Minnesota with the single remit of “working with under-represented and traditionally-excluded students, faculty, and staff addressing issues of oppression,” I decided to research what Scripture really has to say on the topic of “homosexuality.” I confess to you, if the Bible treated “homosexuality” like it does the topics of “women” and “slavery,” I was prepared to deal with it similarly, that is, take a “that was then – this is now” approach.
To my surprise, I found Scripture does not address “homosexuality” much less condemn it. (This is where I differ from some other liberal folks who use “women” and “slavery” as analogies to “homosexuality.”)
In 2007 I refreshed my research, reading up on the latest exegeses and commentaries. Again, I was unsure about what I might find; perhaps the exponential growth over the past fifteen years in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies; Gay Liberation Theology; and Biblical Studies from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender perspectives would reveal a different conclusion. And again, I was willing to go where the research led me and have my mind changed by new knowledge about ancient texts. Lo and behold, I found more bases offering greater precision that Scripture does not, in fact, deal with “homosexuality.”
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:1-11 (from which we get the English word “sodomy” which can refer to heterosexual activity, including that between a husband and a wife) is about the threat of gang rape and mob violence and the extreme limits to which the Biblical code of hospitality—welcoming and sheltering a stranger or foreigner—is to be practiced.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are part of the Holiness Code which condemns Hebrew men for “wasting their seed.” In order to be fruitful and multiply as the covenant people of God, and to survive as a distinct religious group in a harsh desert land, Israelite men—who were thought to contain a finite number of miniature human seeds inside their testicles, a misconception common among ancient peoples—were not to “sow their seed” in any ways other than by planting them in certain prescribed females (for example, a Hebrew wife, or multiple wives especially as one wife might be barren as in the story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, or a slave as in the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar) only when the woman was impregnable, that is, no sex during menstruation, no masturbation or coitus interruptus (“onanism,” from the story of Onan in Genesis 38), and no sex with animals or with various proscribed types of people –male and female. Rather than conserve this ancient Israelite context (ignorant of human reproduction though it is), the New Living Translation (1996, 2004) chooses to state: “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.” (Leviticus 20:13)
The English word “sodomite” was inserted into the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible in 1611, in Deuteronomy 23:17, I Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46, and 2 Kings 23:7. “Sodomite” was used to translate a Hebrew word qadesh which means, literally, “holy” and implies in these verses “holy temple prostitute” (or “cult prostitute” or “sacred prostitute”). As with all forms of sexual exploitation, gender is not the issue; prostituting children or adults—regardless of the gender of the prostitutor or the gender of the victim—is wrong. It is important to note that The Living Bible Paraphrased (1971) decided to stick “homosexual” and “homosexuality” in the first two of these passages, but now its successor, the New Living Translation (1996, 2004), uses “temple prostitute” and “shrine prostitutes”—male and female.
In the New Testament, Paul discusses the major issue of monotheism and polytheism in his letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 1:26-27, he uses, in an analogy, the Greek phrase para phusin which gets incorrectly translated as “unnatural” or “against nature.” The word para (same as the English prefix “para”) means “exceptional,” “different,” or “beyond the usual.” Modern English examples are “paramedic” and “paralegal”: a paralegal secretary working in a lawyer's office is not “against the law” or “illicit,” and a paramedic working for an ambulance service is not “against medicine,” or “unhealthy.”
Paul uses in this passage the Greek phrases pathe atimias (“passions of dishonor” or “degrading passions” or (KJV) “vile affections”) and orexis (“passion,” “yearning,” or (KJV) “lust”). In 1 Corinthians 7:9, Paul again refers to “passion”: “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn” (KJV). For Paul, sex is not the problem—passion is—so much so that marital sex acts are judged by him to be the cure of last resort! Paul felt all passions were “dishonorable” and urged Roman Christians to believe “naturally” in one God, rather than “exceptionally” in more than one God, that is, polytheism—which is not “against belief” or “atheism.”
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, Paul lists a variety of sins, two of which get mistranslated as “homosexuals.” (The Good News Bible (1976, 1994, 2004) prefers “homosexual perverts.”) In the Corinthians list, the Greek word malakos means “soft” or “gentle.” The KJV translated it as “effeminate.” If we suppose Paul's intended audience was male, he is saying men should not appear “feminine” or act “lady-like.” Regardless of whether we talk about the 1st century Roman world or the 21st century world, there are “straight” men who are feminine in style and personality, and there are “gay” men who are masculine and quite manly. One's primary personal demeanor does not have anything to do with the primary gender one finds most attractive.
As for the Greek word arsenokoitai, no one knows nowadays what it really meant during Paul's time. It only exists in Scripture in these two vice lists, and there are few contemporary examples to go by. Thus to assume it means “homosexuals” (the Today’s New International Version (2004) opts for “practicing homosexuals” in the Corinthians list and “those practicing homosexuality” in the Timothy list) is faulty scholarship and extremely discriminatory. Where this word is included in extra-Biblical ancient lists, the other words in the lists are not related to sexual activity but rather to economic injustice and exploitation. So it is fair to assume Paul is referring to some kind of economic exploitation, like slavery or prostitution. But we simply don't know for sure. As with all forms of exploitation—sexual, financial, physical, etc.—gender is not the issue.
To insert into the Bible the word “homosexual”—a term coined in the late 1800's by schools of psychology and sociology to designate a person who is attracted to another person of the same gender—is both anachronistic and unfounded.
Any group of translators, editors, and publishers—including Bible Societies!—who permit the word “homosexual” to replace Biblical Hebrew and Greek words or phrases that mean other things, or whose original meanings are long lost, cause a scandal to the Gospel. This is not about linguistic nuance or academic parlance: this is about manipulating The Good Book to underwrite hate crimes and witch hunts against all of us who are identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender—including my Roman Catholic colleagues who dare to lend a sympathetic ear and offer compassionate advice to anyone struggling with anything remotely queer.
Providentially, two English language Bibles have done a fair job of revision. The New Revised Standard Version (published under the auspices of the National Council of Churches in 1989) does not retain the word “homosexuals” printed in the Revised Standard Version (published by the NCC in 1946). The Revised English Bible (published by the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge in 1989) does not retain the phrase “homosexual perversion” printed in the New English Bible (published by same in 1961).
To my knowledge, the word “homosexual” does not appear in The Message, a paraphrase by Eugene H. Peterson (1993, 1994, 1995).