Rob Gagnon's Response to Jennifer Knust on the Bible and Homosexuality

The following is Rob Gagnon’s CNN response to Jennifer Knust on what the Bible’s witness is about homosexuality and same sex relationships.  Reprinted here by kind permission of the author.


The Bible’s Surprisingly Consistent Message on a Male-Female Requirement for Marriage

by Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,

July 27, 2011

This article is a merging of my op-ed piece for the CNN Belief Blog (“My Take: The Bible really does condemn homosexuality” [Religion Editor’s title, not mine], Mar. 3, 2011) with my Addendum (“More on Knust’s Blunders…” also Mar. 3), with some minor editing.

In her Feb. 9, 2011 CNN Belief Blog post “The Bible’s surprisingly mixed messages on sexuality,” Jennifer Wright Knust claims that Christians can’t appeal to the Bible to justify opposition to homosexual practice because the Bible provides no clear witness on the subject and is too flawed to serve as a moral guide.

As a scholar who has written books and articles on the Bible and homosexual practice, I can say that the reality is the opposite of her claim. It’s shocking that in her editorial and even her book, “Unprotected Texts,” Knust ignores a mountain of evidence against her positions.

It raises a serious question: Does the Religious Left (i.e. persons generally dismissive of Scripture) read significant works that disagree with pro-gay interpretations of Scripture and choose to simply ignore them? I’m sure Prof. Knust is a nice person in other contexts but it is inexcusable to be so uninformed (and even condescendingly abrasive) about a subject on which she claims to be an expert.

Knust’s misuse of the gender-neutral human in Genesis

Knust’s lead argument is that sexual differentiation in Genesis, Jesus and Paul is nothing more than an “afterthought” because “God’s original intention for humanity was androgyny.”

It’s true that Genesis presents the first human (Hebrew adam, from adamah, ground: “earthling”) as originally sexually undifferentiated. (I have made this point myself, long before Knust.) But what Knust misses is that once something is “taken from” the human to form a woman, the human, now differentiated as a man, finds his sexual other half in that missing element, a woman.

That’s why Genesis speaks of the woman as a “counterpart” or “complement,” using a Hebrew expression neged, which means both “corresponding to” and “opposite.” She is similar as regards humanity but different in terms of gender. If sexual relations are to be had, they are to be had with a sexual counterpart or complement.

Knust cites the apostle Paul’s remark about “no ‘male and female’” in Galatians. Yet Paul applies this dictum to establishing the equal worth of men and women before God, not to eliminating a male-female prerequisite for sex. Applied to sexual relations, the phrase means “no sex,” not “acceptance of homosexual practice,” as is evident both from the consensus of the earliest interpreters of this phrase and from Jesus’ own sayings about marriage in this age and the next.

All the earliest interpreters agreed that “no ‘male and female,’” applied to sexual relations, meant “no sex.” That included Paul and the ascetic believers at Corinth in the mid-first century; and the church fathers and gnostics of the second to fourth centuries. Where they disagreed is over whether to postpone mandatory celibacy until the resurrection (the orthodox view) or to begin insisting on it now (the heretical view). Paul, as we shall see below, agreed with Jesus.

Jesus’ belief in a male-female dynamic as essential for sexual relations

According to Jesus, “when (people) rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels” (Mark 12:25). Sexual relations and differentiation had only penultimate significance. The unmediated access to God that resurrection bodies bring would make sex look dull by comparison.

At the same time Jesus regarded the male-female paradigm as essential if sexual relations were to be had in this present age. In rejecting a revolving door of divorce-and-remarriage and, implicitly, polygamy Jesus cited Genesis: “From the beginning of creation, ‘male and female he made them.’ ‘For this reason a man …will be joined to his woman and the two shall become one flesh’” (Mark 10:2-12; Matthew 19:3-12).

Jesus’ point was that God’s limiting of persons in a sexual union to two is evident in his creation of two (and only two) primary sexes: male and female, man and woman. The union of male and female completes the sexual spectrum, rendering a third partner both unnecessary and undesirable. The sectarian Jewish group known as the Essenes similarly rejected polygamy on the grounds that God made us “male and female,” two sexual complements designed for a union consisting only of two.

Knust insinuates that Jesus wouldn’t have opposed homosexual relationships. Yet Jesus’ interpretation of Genesis demonstrates that he regarded a male-female prerequisite for marriage as the foundation on which other sexual standards could be predicated, including monogamy. Obviously the foundation is more important than anything predicated on it.

Jesus developed a principle of interpretation that Knust ignores: God’s “from the beginning” creation of “male and female” trumps some sexual behaviors permitted in the Old Testament. So there’s nothing unorthodox about recognizing change in Scripture’s sexual ethics. But note the direction of the change: toward less sexual license and greater conformity to the logic of the male-female requirement in Genesis. Knust is traveling in the opposite direction.

It is not accurate to say, as Knust does, that Jesus “discouraged” marriage. He merely created the option for those like himself who “made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven” on pragmatic missionary grounds (Matthew 19:9-12). Foregoing marriage and thus all sexual relations was an option for those who wanted to proclaim the message about God’s kingdom with greater freedom of movement and risk than would otherwise be the case with a spouse and children.

A sidebar on the “intersexed”

In response to my rebuttal Knust might argue that the existence of hermaphroditic or “intersexed” persons in our society undermines Jesus’ argument that the creation of two primary sexes, “male and female,” is an indicator that God limits sexual unions to two persons. It doesn’t.

First, the phenomenon of the intersexed involves an amalgam of the two primary sexes, not distinct features of a third sex. Second, extreme sexual ambiguity is very rare, encompassing only a tiny fraction of one percent of the general population. Usually an allegedly intersexed person has a genital abnormality that does not significantly straddle the sexes; for example, females with a large clitoris or small vagina, or males with a small penis or one that does not allow a direct urinary stream. The extreme exception merely underscores the prevailing rule of foundational twoness.

Third, the category of the “intersexed” no more justifies an elimination of a two-sexes prerequisite than does the equally rare phenomenon of conjoined (‘Siamese’) twins justify the elimination of a monogamy principle; or than does some fuzziness around the edges of defining “close blood relations” and “children” justifies the elimination of standards against incest and pedophilia. Fourth, homosexual persons who seek to discard a binary model for sexual relations do not claim, for the most part, to be other than male or female. Thus they, at least, remain logically and naturally bound to a binary model for mate selection.

Knust’s slavery analogy and avoidance of closer analogies

Knust argues that an appeal to the Bible for opposing homosexual practice is as morally unjustifiable as pre-Civil War appeals to the Bible for supporting slavery. The analogy is a bad one.

The best analogy will be the comparison that shares the most points of substantive correspondence with the item being compared. How much does the Bible’s treatment of slavery resemble its treatment of homosexual practice? Very little.

Scripture shows no vested interest in preserving the institution of slavery but it does show a strong vested interest from Genesis to Revelation in preserving a male-female prerequisite. Unlike its treatment of the institution of slavery, Scripture treats a male-female prerequisite for sex as a pre-Fall structure.

The Bible accommodates to social systems where sometimes the only alternative to starvation is enslavement. But it clearly shows a critical edge by specifying mandatory release dates and the right of kinship buyback; requiring that Israelites not be treated as slaves; and reminding Israelites that God had redeemed them from slavery in Egypt.

Paul urged enslaved believers to use an opportunity for freedom to maximize service to God and encouraged a Christian master (Philemon) to free his slave (Onesimus). Knust’s insinuation that Paul wouldn’t have cared if masters sexually abused their slaves is absurd, inasmuch as Paul rejected all sexual relations outside of marriage, to say nothing of coerced relations.

Relative to the slave economies of the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman Mediterranean basin the countercultural dynamic of ancient Israel and the early church appears quite liberating. The countercultural dynamic of Scripture with respect to homosexual practice moves decisively in the direction of equating liberation with freedom from enslavement to homoerotic impulses.  No culture in the ancient Near East or in the Greco-Roman world was more strongly opposed to homosexual practice than ancient Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity.

How can changing up on the Bible’s male-female prerequisite for sex be analogous to the church’s revision of the slavery issue if the Bible encourages critique of slavery but discourages critique of a male-female paradigm for sex?

Much closer analogies to the Bible’s rejection of homosexual practice are the Bible’s rejection of incest and the New Testament’s rejection of polyamory (polygamy). Homosexual practice, incest, and polyamory are all (1) forms of sexual behavior (2) able to be conducted as adult-committed relationships but (3) strongly proscribed because (4) they violate creation structures or natural law. Like same-sex intercourse, incest is sex between persons too much structurally alike, here as regards kinship rather than gender. Polyamory is a violation of the foundational “twoness” of the sexes.

The fact that Knust chooses a distant analogue (slavery) over more proximate analogues (incest, polyamory) shows that her analogical reasoning is driven more by ideological biases than by fair use of analogies.

David and Jonathan

Knust makes a mistake common to persons unfamiliar with ancient Near Eastern conventions when she discusses David’s relationship to Jonathan. She confuses non-erotic, covenant-kinship language with erotic love language.

All of the expressions that she takes as erotic in the David and Jonathan narrative have stronger Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern parallels with non-sexual relationships between close kin of the same sex. The narrator of the Succession Narrative (1 Samuel 16:14 to 2 Sam 5:10) legitimizes David’s succession of King Saul by showing that David was accepted by Jonathan into his father’s household as an older brother, not as Jonathan’s lover (see my book The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 146-54). For example:

  • Compare “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1; cf. 20:17) with “[Jacob’s] soul is bound up with [his son Benjamin’s] soul” (Gen 44:31) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18); compare it too with the language of covenant treaties, such as “You must love [him] as yourselves” (addressed to vassals of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal) and the reference in 1 Kings 5:1 to King Hiram of Tyre as David’s “lover.”
  • Compare Jonathan “delighted very much” in David (1 Sam 19:1) with (1) “The king [Saul] is delighted with you [David], and all his servants love you; now then, become the king’s son-in-law” (1 Sam 18:22); with (2) “Whoever delights in Joab, and whoever is for David, [let him follow] after Joab” (2 Sam 20:11); and with (3) the reference to God “delighting in” David (2 Sam 15:26; 22:20).

When David had to flee from Saul, David and Jonathan had a farewell meeting, in which David “bowed three times [to Jonathan], and they kissed each other, and wept with each other” (1 Samuel 20:41-42). Is this an erotic scene? Not likely. Only three out of twenty-seven occurrences of the Hebrew verb “to kiss” have an erotic dimension. Most refer to kissing between a father and a son or between brothers.

At one point in the narrative Saul lashes out at his son Jonathan: “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse [David] to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Samuel 20:30-34). Does this remark imply that David and Jonathan were in an erotic relationship? No, Saul here simply charges Jonathan with bringing shame on the mother who bore him by acquiescing to David’s claim on Saul’s throne (cf. 2 Samuel 19:5-6).

When David learns of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan he states of Jonathan: “You were very dear to me; your love to me was more wonderful to me than the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). The Hebrew verb for “were very dear to” is used in a sexual sense in the OT only two out of twenty-six occurrences. A related form is used just three verses earlier when David refers to Saul as “lovely”—hardly in an erotic sense. Jonathan’s giving up his place as royal heir and risking his life for David surpassed anything David had known from a committed erotic relationship with a woman. David is not referring to erotic lovemaking on the part of Jonathan. As Proverbs 18:24 states in a non-erotic context, “There is a lover/friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

The narrators’ willingness to speak of David’s vigorous heterosexual life (e.g., his lust for Bathsheba) puts in stark relief their complete silence about any sexual activity between David and Jonathan. Homosexual interpretations misunderstand the political overtones of the Succession Narrative in 1 Sam 16:14 – 2 Sam 5:10. Jonathan’s handing over his robe, armor, sword, bow, and belt to David was an act of political investiture (1 Sam 18:4) that transferred the office of heir apparent.

The point of emphasizing the close relationship between David and Jonathan was to establish the fact that David was not a rogue usurper to Saul’s throne. He was rather adopted by Jonathan into his father’s “house” (family, dynasty). He has become Jonathan’s beloved older brother. Neither the narrators of the Succession Narrative nor the author(s) of the Deuteronomistic History show concern about homosexual scandal. The reason for this is that in the context of ancient Near Eastern conventions, nothing in the narrative raised suspicions about a homosexual relationship.

The New Testament view of the Sodom story

Citing Jude 7 Knust alleges that “from the perspective of the New Testament” the Sodom story was about “the near rape of angels, not sex between men.” She misinterprets Jude 7. Understood in relation to leading first-century Jewish commentators (Philo and Josephus), Jude 7 should be read as a rhetorical figure known as hendiadys (literally, “one by two”): By attempting to commit sexual immorality (men with males), the men of Sodom got more than they bargained for: nearly having sex with angels (compare the parallel in 2 Peter 2:7, 10). For further discussion of Jude 7 see pp. 9-13 of an online article here.

There is no tradition in early Judaism that the men of Sodom were even aware that the visitors were angels (on the contrary, compare Hebrews 13:2: “… entertained angels unawares”). Furthermore, Paul’s indictment of homosexual practice in Romans 1:24-27 has multiple echoes in its context to the Sodom story, with no hint of an offense toward angels. The New Testament witness does indeed understand a key element in the judgment of Sodom to be attempted man-male intercourse.

The canard that only a few Bible texts reject homosexual practice

Knust dismisses the texts that reject homosexual practice as “few.” But limited explicit mention can be an indication of an irreducible minimum in sexual ethics that doesn’t need to be talked about extensively. Bestiality, an offense worse than homosexual practice, is mentioned even less in the Bible; and sex with one’s parent receives a comparable amount of attention to homosexual practice.

The Bible’s attention to homosexual practice is also not as limited as Knust pretends it to be. Knust leaves out some texts that have to do with homosexual practice. A case in point are the repeated references in Deuteronomy through 2 Kings to the “abomination” of the qedeshim (so-called “sacred ones”), cult figures who engage in consensual sex with other males, also echoed in the Book of Revelation (22:15; 21:8).

Even more importantly, every biblical narrative, law, proverb, exhortation, metaphor, and poetry in the Bible that has anything to do with sexual relationships presumes a male-female prerequisite – no exceptions. A more consistent ethical position in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation could hardly be found. This is not, as Knust claims, “a very particular and narrow interpretation of a few biblical passages.”

Knust’s claim that the Bible doesn’t reject homosexual practice absolutely

Knust claims that texts like Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and Paul’s indictment of homosexual practice in Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 are not absolute indictments of all homosexual acts for all time. She makes a number of sloppy allegations.

She states that the Levitical prohibitions applied only to Jews living in Palestine. However, the laws in Leviticus 17-18 apply also to non-Jews living in Israel. By the period of the New Testament they make up the “Noahide laws” that Jews thought were binding on Gentiles (see, for example, the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25). Both Jews living outside Palestine and “God-fearing” Gentiles attracted to the Jewish religion understood the prohibitions of incest, adultery, man-male intercourse, and bestiality in Leviticus 18 and 20 as morally binding on them.

Knust states that the prohibitions address only male homosexual practice but this is true only in a pedantic sense. Lesbianism isn’t mentioned in Leviticus because such behavior was largely unknown to men in the ancient Near East where society tightly regulated women’s sexual lives (it goes virtually unmentioned elsewhere). The first-century Greco-Roman world did know about lesbianism so it is not surprising that Paul explicitly rejected it in Romans 1:26, in keeping with the normative Jewish view of his time.

Knust states that “biblical patriarchs and kings violate nearly every one of these commandments.” It is true that some of the close kin marriages forbidden by Levitical incest law are practiced by the patriarchs. Nevertheless, this exemption is withdrawn for later generations by biblical narrators – and the worst forms of consensual incest are never accepted in the Bible. As with Jesus’ rejection of concurrent and serial polygamy, an earlier permission in sexual ethics is retracted.

Knust says: “Paul’s letters urge followers of Christ to remain celibate.” Like Jesus, Paul commends to converts a celibate life, but on pragmatic missionary grounds, not because sexual relations in the context of marriage are a bad thing. Like Jesus, he insists that marriage is no sin and a necessary institution for those who would otherwise drift into immorality. Not that this was the only value of marriage for Jesus and Paul. Neither person was known to be an ascetic. Jesus was accused of being “a glutton and drunkard” (Matthew 11:19) and Paul boasted that he knew how to be content both in lack and in abundance (Philippians 4:12).

Knust adds to her indictment of Paul that he “blames all Gentiles in general for their poor sexual standards.” I’m not sure what her point is here. Relative to the sexual morality of Jews, Gentile sexual morality on the whole was indeed in very bad shape. Read the graffiti found in the ruins of first-century Pompeii to get a sense of how bad things were. Homosexual practice was a case in point but so too the widespread sex with prostitutes, adultery, and fornication.

Paul’s indictment of homosexual practice in Romans 1:24-27 is clearly absolute. This is indicated by multiple layers of evidence, including: the strong echoes to Genesis 1:26-27 in Romans 1:23-27; the nature argument based on the material structures of creation (compare Romans 1:26-27 with 1:20); the indictment of lesbianism, not known for exploitative practices; the emphasis on mutuality (“inflamed with their desire on one another,” 1:27); Jewish and Christian texts from the second and third centuries rejecting same-sex marriage; and the broader Greco-Roman context where some moralists and physicians condemn as “against nature” even loving forms of homosexual practice by persons congenitally predisposed to same-sex attractions.

After her skewed assessment of what Scripture has to say about homosexual practice, Knust asks: “So why are we pretending that the Bible is dictating our sexual morals?” There is no pretending. The Bible’s witness against homosexual practice is consistent, strong, absolute, and countercultural, as any informed stance will recognize.

The contribution of philosophical reasoning and science

The notion that Scripture provides firm and clear moral guidelines against homosexual practice is all too obvious. Although Knust intimates that the only arguments that could be used against societal endorsement of homosexual unions are (invalid) scriptural ones, there are other reasons drawn from reason and science. These include good philosophical arguments, where it is reasonable to view as inherently self-dishonoring and self-degrading sexual arousal for what one already is and has as a sexual being – males for essential maleness, females for essential femaleness – and the attendant effort at reuniting with a sexual same as though one’s sexual other half.

In effect participants in homosexual practice treat their individual sex as only half intact, not in relation to the other sex but in relation to their own sex. If the logic of a heterosexual union is that the two halves of the sexual spectrum, male and female, unite to re-form a single sexual whole, the logic of a homosexual union is that two half-males unite to form a whole male, two half-females unite to form a whole female.

Finally, there are good scientific arguments against affirming homosexual practice, including the disproportionately high rate of measurable harms associated with it. These harms correspond to gender differences between males and females: for homosexually active males, higher numbers of sex partners lifetime and STIs; for homosexually active females, shorter-term unions and mental health issues (even relative to homosexually active males). These gender-type harms are not surprising since in a homosexual union the extremes of a given sex are not being moderated, nor the gaps filled, by a true sexual counterpart.

Condemnation, love, and grace

Knust caricatures the moderate view of the Bible on homosexual intercourse as “the Bible forces me to condemn them” (i.e. “gay people”). Augustine put it better in explaining his dictum “Love and do what you want”: “Let love be fervent to correct, to amend. . . . Love not in the person his error, but the person; for the person God made, the error the person himself made.”

Ironically, it is Knust who brings condemnation on persons who engage in homosexual practice in a serial-unrepentant manner. She acts as judge and jury, substituting God’s judgment for her own by acquitting persons of behavior that the Bible’s authors view as endangering their inheritance of eternal life.

Which set of parents is loving? Parents who are negligent in preventing their young children from touching a hot stove (or, worse, give assurance that no harm will come) or parents who strenuously warn their children to avoid such behavior? Much more is at stake in affirming homosexual behavior than any burn that comes from touching a hot stove.

Judgment and grace are the opposite of what Knust portrays them to be. In Romans 1:18-32, which includes Paul’s searing indictment of homosexual practice (1:24-27), Paul depicts God’s wrath as God stepping away from moral intervention, thereby allowing people to gratify themselves in impure, degrading, and indecent behavior. As a consequence, offenders heap up their sins and bring upon themselves cataclysmic judgment at the End. By contrast, Paul presents God’s grace in Romans 6:14-23 as God through Christ actively stepping back into the lives of believers in order to destroy the rule of sin and put a stop to impure and shameful practices.

I welcome further dialogue or debate with Prof. Knust in print, radio, or television. It is disturbing to read what passes nowadays for expert “liberal” reflections on what the Bible says about homosexual practice.

  • BW16

    Thank you, BWIII, for posting this.

    There are some interesting points raised by a close reading of the text and I am impressed at the detail of refutation, although I have a few quibbles. Out of interest, are you endorsing what Gagnon has argued here? I find it intriguing given our previous discussion where you expressed sympathy towards objective queer Bible criticism, if done not in the interests of any modern agenda but in the service of pure historical investigation of the ancient texts (for example, like in your new book which critically discusses the oratory art of Paul on the Philippians).

    Anywho, I wonder if Gagnon is correct when he asserts that: “Jesus regarded the male-female paradigm as essential if sexual relations were to be had in this present age,” which he supports with a few proof-texts, when in fact we can find a few examples that might dispute such a claim. The calling to discipleship narratives, for example, appear to be very sexualized and potentially homoerotic. Jesus cruises the seashore looking for young, male disciples to join his cohort of men. Upon witnessing Jesus they drop their fishing apparatus (rods?) and follow him. Jesus then suggests they all go fishing for men together (Mk 1:16-20). If anything, these verses appear to be paradigmatic for the ordering of male relationships (master/subject; active/passive) and should perhaps be seen as a counter-balance to Mt 10:2-12.

    Similarly, there are relations between Jesus and Judas that are described in detail in Mk (14:43-52). As you write in your own Socio-Rhetorical commentary on Mark (2001), the verb kataphileō used in verse 45 means “to kiss with every show of affection.” But also, Judas and Jesus are engaging in a practice that was common among Rabbi’s and their pupils as a sign of respect. Of course, the kiss is a cynical device to make sure the crowd arrests the right man – but surely the more intimate the kiss, the more treacherous the betrayal becomes. Again, this would suggest that kissing other men with “every show of affection” is an acceptable behavior for those who share an intimate bond.

    I look forward to your response.
    Warm regards,

  • Dan Wells

    Hey BW16!

    Upon reading your response to the given article, I think you may be stepping out of context with your given examples. For instance, you cite that Jesus’ calling of the disciples could be viewed as a homoerotic paradigm. I find this reference to be quite the stretch, for if you read ANY TEXT and try to work in sexual innuendo its actually rather easy. Could the story of David and Goliath be a romance tale of two homosexual men disagreeing with each other? Consider when Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, is that the end result of a sexually driven feud? Or would you go as far to say that Jesus being nailed to a cross by physically fit and domineering Roman Centurions is a literary device pointing to a homosexual ideal? I don’t think so! I think what we see in the narrative of Mark 1:16-20 is a display of the radical nature of call of the disciples (dropping nets not rods, leaving all behind) coupled with the contextual relationship between a religious teacher, and the pupils that were ready to learn and take up the yoke of their rabbi (and the very rabbi that would usher in the kingdom of God).

  • Dan Wells

    PART 2 (to avoid getting labeled as spam)

    Second, you make reference to Mark’s employment of kataphileo. This use in no way subscribes to erotic love, but is rather rooted in the more frequently used phileo and is a contextual marker (as you point out) as a sign of love and respect. Though today, kissing a man in our North American culture may be taken as homosexual, in the biblical context, no such homosexual motivation would have been present. For instance, today in India it is common for men to hold hands in public as a sign of respect and friendship. Or my father just kissed me goodbye yesterday as we were finishing a visit. Do these signs endorse a homosexual agenda? Do they give grounds for sexually expressing “every show of affection?” I don’t think they do and the point you are trying to make by using this is rather flawed. We must properly analyze these cultural gestures and take them for what they are in the context of the common held understanding of the day!

    All in all, I found Gagnon’s response to be rather thorough, well written, and well researched throughout. Definitely a good read!

    In His Love,
    -Dan Wells

  • BW16

    Thank you Dan Wells for engaging with my comment. I enjoyed reading your response and I agree with many of the points you make.

    On the one hand, I had never thought about the story of David and Goliath as a feud between lovers before but I am definitely interested in teasing out your reading a bit. Usually interpreters suggest there was something going on between David and Jonathan, but I much prefer your suggestion. In the ancient world, war often had phallic connotations and the Israelites regularly showed disdain towards the Philistines for being an uncircumcised race (eg: 1 Sam 31.4). As such, there is something to be said for David’s peculiar action of cutting off Goliath’s “head.” It is almost as if David intends it as a symbolic act of castration. What might Goliath have done to deserve such an emasculating death? Was this a fitting punishment for a previous personal incident that the text is silent about?

    On the other hand, I have often thought about Jesus’ penetration upon the cross and you are right to observe multiple layers of sexual innuendo. I think the idea of long and hard nails penetrating into Jesus’ delicate, soft skin makes an excellent illustration of the exhibitionism of Roman power, asserting its masculine dominance over and into the passivity of Jesus. Crucifixion is a lot like gang-rape in the sense that it is intended to humiliate its victim whilst also assert the mascline prowess of the perpetrators.

  • BW16

    #Part 2#
    Secondly, it is interesting that you think the verb kataphilio in no way carries any erotic overtones. I think this could be a case of wishful thinking? From my reading of Witherington’s commentary, “every show of affection” would include the erotic. I find it strange, then, that you want to compartmentalize what is included/excluded. How do we distinguish between genuine non-sexual same-sex affection and the dirty homoerotic lustful stuff? On a personal level, it is difficult to know where I should draw the line when engaging in displays of affection with my attractive male friends. For example, if I kissed my male counterpart to show my (non-sexual) love for him in a completely innocent way, but I (or he) was accidently aroused by such an action, would we be endorsing a homosexual agenda? I surely hope not!

    Once again, thanks for your comments, I found them most fascinating and they have given me a lot to ponder over.
    Yours truly

  • consulscipio236

    Reading this is infuriating, and makes it all too clear why Christians have a bad name in parts of the western world.

    The author’s arrogance is extreme. I love how he dismisses the writings on slavery was merely part of the culture, yet told the writings on homosexuality was timeless (they are both specific to their culture). What of divorce? Few things are more thoroughly condemned in the entire bible.

    Certainly many arguments could (easily) be used against this author’s claims, but instead he should reread the first half of 1 Corinthians. The fight had emerged over certain “strong Christians” arrogantly asserting that they knew better than the “weak Christians”. The issue was over meat sacrificed to pagan gods, and the “strong Christians” said they could eat it because those god’s didn’t exist. Paul clearly agrees with them in principle but berates them for their arrogance, certainty that they are right about something they may well not be, and the fact that their actions might lead the “weak Christians” to slip back into paganism.

    The author is the same as those “strong Christians” Paul berates. He really doesn’t know what he is talking about, and is doing Satan’s work for him by scarying people away from Christianity.

  • Dan Wells

    Hey BW16,

    I’m glad we have some dialogue going here and I’m hoping that it is able to shed some light on the original issue at hand. I want to say first that in NO way, shape, or form, do I actually believe that innuendo is present within the mentioned Bible stories (David, Joseph, Jesus’ crucifixion). I just don’t see it in the literary and historical context! Rather, I cited those instances at random to display just how easy it is to read one’s ideals into the text! For instance, if I wanted to say that the majority of the biblical text points to a presence of ancient astronauts and a mere man with a messiah complex, I could do that too! The point is, is that we must be as objective as possible as we look to the context of the given accounts, and not read-in our own personal agendas when doing so!

    On another note, I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into the use of kataphileo within Mark 14. I am FAR from an expert in Greek study, but I have never understood this use to have erotic undertones that are often present in the use of the Greek word eros. I have yet to read Dr. Witherington’s commentary on the matter, therefore I don’t feel at liberty to discuss the quotation that you provided. Hopefully Dr. Witherington can help us out!

    Grace and Peace,
    Dan Wells

  • BW16

    Dear Dan Wells,
    I am confused. I thought that I was being completely objective in my analysis. I have no ideals that I am reading into the text other than pure and disinterested ones. But I think that you are reading in your ideals of an anti-homosexual agenda! Oh dear…
    I too hope that Dr Ben Witherington III can shed ‘expert’ light on these important issues!
    With countless blessings,

  • Dan Wells


    Let me be clear. In my response, no where have I insinuated that I hold a specific position. Please point out where I did for it is apparent that you see it somewhere. My initial response only questioned the presence of said “sexualized and potentially homoerotic” narrative that you propose may discount Gagnon’s argument! Even further, as we make an appeal to the general consensus of biblical commentary and historical orthodoxy, I am having trouble finding just where the argument for innuendo is coming from. That is why I began to question if this was a result of some extrabiblical influence being read into the text!

    Dan Wells

  • Cunnudda

    divorce is not condemned throughout the Bible, but only by Jesus in the NT. Of course divorce is way overused and overtolerated by the church, but how does that change what Gagnon says about a totally different topic?

  • consulscipio236

    Divorce is condemned more by Jesus than anywhere else in the bible, true, although that would seem to reenforce my point. Jesus says nothing about homosexuality, and the claim here that you can infer a position from silence is a bit amusing.

    The point on divorce illlustrates how selective Gagnon (and everyone else who uses the bible to criticize gays or gay marriage) is on using the bible as a guide on ethics. I need not even get into all of the behaviors and consequences mandated in the OT (like killing your kid if he disrespects you).

    The simple fact is that if you are going to use the bible to criticize gays, you can use it to criticize just about everyone else. But the greater evil is that this kind of talk scares marginal Christians away by making them think Christians are intolerant, bigoted, and hypocritical.

    Presumably Jesus and Paul would be bothered more by people turning away from Jesus than by people holding certain doctrinal views.

  • Jemima

    And there was I thinking that the David vs Goliath story was a polemic against vegetarianism …

    (1) David is a shepherd, a keeper of flocks, an eater of meat;

    (2) Goliath is a giant, naturally making the reader think of the Green Giant, the Green Man of ancient paganism;

    (3) There is also an intertextual connection with the VeggieTales DVD — Goliath was a “giant pickle”;

    (4) After slaying Goliath, David cuts off his head. Lettuce’s have heads (as do artichokes). David is implicitly slaying the vegetarian.

    I could go on. This is what happens when you have no controls on your reading. You might also like:

  • Joel Morgan


    I disagree. Gagnon writes confidently and with the authority of a well-trained and well-read Bible Scholar. Let’s not mistake this for arrogance.


  • Joel Morgan


    I would like to agree here:

    “The simple fact is that if you are going to use the bible to criticize gays, you can use it to criticize just about everyone else. But the greater evil is that this kind of talk scares marginal Christians away by making them think Christians are intolerant, bigoted, and hypocritical.”

    We are broken, sinful people. Jesus came to (among other reasons) show us a perfect life and therefore, compared to his life, all of our lives are up for criticism. I also agree that the nature of much of our (church as a whole) talk about this issue is angry, scared, and not at all loving. It does scare people off unnecessarily.

    However, presumably the majority of readers of BWIII’s blog are not marginal Christians. While some may be and others may struggle with homosexuality, I think this is a fair arena for discussion.

    Lastly, in response to:
    “Presumably Jesus and Paul would be bothered more by people turning away from Jesus than by people holding certain doctrinal views.”

    Jesus was certainly not scared of people turning away from him. Read John 6:25-71. People who “believed” and followed Jesus left him here because his teachings were hard and difficult. In one sense, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are one in the same.


  • ben

    Alrighty then, nice discussion brewing.

    A few points. Lots of rabbis called disciples. Jesus even had female disciples as followers who were fishers of human beings. In regard to that last phrase it involves the term anthropos not aner. In other words it should never be translated fishers of males. We are talking people in general, including women as Luke 8.1-3 says. Secondly Mt. 19 is clear enough that celibacy in singleness and fidelity in heterosexual marriage are the only two options Jesus offers. There is not a third choice in his view. The great danger of ‘queer studies’ is reading the Bible entirely anachronistically, which is to say reading our own modern interests into it, such as our obsessions with all sorts of sexual expressions. What we know about early Jews who wrote on the subject is that they were universally opposed to same sex sexual activity. There are no exceptions to this in the OT or in non-canonical early Jewish literature, nor in the NT.


  • ben

    Lastly, the kiss of peace was common between all kinds of ancient persons, and was not an expression of any sort of sexual orientation whatsoever. This is precisely why Paul calls is a holy kiss.

  • Grupetti

    Gagnon wrote:

    “It raises a serious question: Does the Religious Left (i.e. persons generally dismissive of Scripture)…”

    Wow. That’s terribly wrong. His own dismissiveness raises a serious question of whether he can really engage his opponent.

  • BW16

    Thanks Dr3 for shedding light on the discussion. I am finding this whole conversation very interesting and am learning a lot.

    Could you please tell me where in the gospels I might find “female disciples who were fishers of human beings”? Because in my reading of the text Jesus appears only to call four men. Is there another fishing for disciples text that I have missed? Lk 8:1-3 doesn’t mention fishing, and fishing was (exclusively?) an occupation for men, so I wonder if it would be strange to find women fishermen fishing for people in the first century Galilee.

    Given this, your translation of anthropos in the gender-inclusive form might also be anachronistic. According to most lexicons, the term can mean “humanity” generally or “man/husband” in particular (L&S; Thayer; BDAG). So even though it could be taken generally, as you point out, given the hyper-masculine context of the pericope, it would seem better in this case to translate the clause as “fishing for men.” As you know, the rise of gender-inclusive Bible translations is the result of feminist criticism which reads the Bible in light of modern interests. But the Bible was originally penned in a patriarchal society and so in order to avoid potential anachronism I think in this case we should go with the gender-exclusive rendering. I’m sure you agree!

  • bw16

    I accept your point about kataphilio as a kiss of peace which was not an expression of sexual orientation. But I still wonder about accidental arousal as a result of (same-sex) kissing. Obviously, regardless of its supposed holiness, a kiss is still an intimate act and so it can function as an erotic stimulant. I know that I have sometimes unwittingly been turned on when sharing an intimate embrace with my kindred. What are your thoughts on such a dilemna?

  • BW16

    Lastly, regarding your point about what we know about early Jews who “were universally opposed to same sex sexual activity.” There is an interesting article by Michael Satlow in which he argues that “Rabbis of Roman Palestine… shared similar assumptions and values about male sexual passivity with contemporary Greek and Roman authors.” So while you might be right about them “universally” condemning man-on-man action, this was due to wider cultural assumptions about gender roles: It was feminizing for a man to be penetrated and so was thus seen as unnatural. This is different to orientation. But it also complements my point about Jesus’ feminization on the cross.


  • Steven Kick

    There are some serious problems with Gagnon’s polemic. Perhaps we are dealing with someone who needs to look at the log in his own eye. For instance, Gagnon writes: ‘Does the Religious Left (i.e. persons generally dismissive of Scripture) read significant works that disagree with pro-gay interpretations of Scripture and choose to simply ignore them? I’m sure Prof. Knust is a nice person in other contexts but it is inexcusable to be so uninformed (and even condescendingly abrasive) about a subject on which she claims to be an expert.’ Is this fair? I’m sure Gagnon is a nice person in other contexts too but is he being informed in what he says about the Religious Left? Really?

    There is also something disturbing about claiming the moral high ground on expertise. Take this example: ‘Relative to the slave economies of the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman Mediterranean basin the countercultural dynamic of ancient Israel and the early church appears quite liberating. The countercultural dynamic of Scripture with respect to homosexual practice moves decisively in the direction of equating liberation with freedom from enslavement to homoerotic impulses…’ This is Bible/Christianity, good, ANE/Mediterranean (very big areas!), bad, no? Gagnon criticizes Knust when he claims ‘it is inexcusable to be so uninformed (and even condescendingly abrasive) about a subject on which she claims to be an expert.’ Gagnon is an associate prof. in NT studies but repeats an antiquated Orientalist paradigm which has been repeatedly attacked in NT scholarship over the past 10-20 years. Whether he knows it or not, I think he is imposing later politicized categories onto the texts and arguments whilst seemingly unaware of important scholarly work.

    Oh, and objectivity and modern concerns. Isn’t that what EVERYONE does when engaging with the Bible on issues like (the modern categorization) ‘homosexuality’? How can we not??



  • chris van allsburg


    Gagnon did nothing except interact with his opponent and do sound exegesis.

  • Graham Veale

    Somebody needs to Google “troll”. Quickly. Because there is mischief making afoot, and horrendous blasphemy masquerading as interested dialogue.
    Gentle as doves, yes, but a little more subtlety is needed at times.

    Graham Veale

  • Graham Veale

    On a separate point, Gagnon is not noted for his diplomacy!
    Gagnon tends to be, um, robust in his criticisms. But what people will tolerate in an academic forum is not necessarily what they’ll tolerate in private conversation or in public dialogue.
    However, his research checks out, and his arguments are worth taking seriously. Revisionism tends to look a bit silly when he’s finished.


  • Graham Veale

    Yes, that means I don’t like his tone, and when I agree with him (which is a lot) I wish he’d turn the volume down.
    I see this “how can ‘x’ make such an ill-informed claim about ‘y’” a lot in scholarship. It is a rhetorical move with absolutely no evidential force whatsoever.
    I don’t like it when Maurice Casey does it to evangelicals; to be consistent I can’t like it when conservatives do it to liberals. I actually put NT Wright’s book on “Justification” down, because the preface started with claims that ran something like “conservative evangelical interpretations of Paul are like Japanese soldiers fighting on, unaware that the emperor has surrendered”. So, to be bright agree with Wright.
    Just politely point out the mistake, and move on to the next topic please. Leave the rhetoric to the politicians.


  • Graham Veale

    So, Gagnon’s tone aside, what do we make of his arguments? It does seem that there is a fairly consistent ethic at work in Scripture, and that it isn’t so easy to deconstruct. (And sorry to break my post up, but the spam-bot was a little trigger happy this evening)!


  • Dan Wells

    Thanks Dr. Witherington!

  • Carole

    Very interesting reading as well as good dynamics on the discussion.I noted the mention of polygamy in the article.It has, for a while, seemed to me to be an increasing cultural acceptance of polygamy in additional to the increasing acceptance of homosexuality.I find it all very disturbing [especially since so many Christians appear to ignore the practice]& somewhat disheartening.It is also a struggle for me in my understanding of what the Bible says since I have known persons in loving, committed same sex relationships that put to shame a lot of heterosexual ones.

  • stephen

    Let’s not overanalyze things! Scripture is clear! “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) You have to do a lot of “scholarly” interpretational gymnastics to change the meaning of that! Tone? tone this: REPENT you pharisaical twisters of God’s word!!!

  • Saint Benedict

    Alright I’m convinced. So by which method should we put them all to death?

  • Craig

    I wrote something similar to this a number of years ago. I’m surprised Gagnon didn’t cite me.

  • BW16
  • ben

    Just a couple of points. As the lists in Mark show, Jesus had more than the four men as disciples who were meant to recruit disciples. In fact he had 12 men, and as Lk. 8.1-3 shows, a good number of women. See my discussion in Women and the Ministry of Jesus.


  • ben

    Secondly, the Greek word anthropos is not used to specify the sex of a person though there are times when it can refer to a group of men. By this I mean if you wanted to refer to maleness you would use ‘aner. See Gal. 3.28 for example. Anthropos is more generic always than that, even when it refers only to some men, for it is never a term simply limited to men. So ‘fishers of human beings’ as a translation is correct, as it has nothing to do with imposing modern categories on ancient concepts.


  • BW16

    And what of my kataphieo dilemma?

  • Graham Veale

    Yip, that link did not reassure me at all. Be careful folks.

  • Graham Veale

    I’m not making an accusations, I’m just suggesting that folks be careful, given very similar experience on other blogs.

    I do have to say that the post on the sexuality of the crucifixion was blasphemous, and therefore intrinsically evil and spiritually dangerous. Whoever wrote it is playing with fire, and should be warned of the dangers – however absurd these warnings sound in an academic context. Even if they wrote with good intentions, and made an honest mistake, the evil of the statement and the spiritual danger remain. It was not grounds for “dialogue” in any possible world.

    Now I don’t want to create any more tension so I’ll step aside. I won’t read any more comments on this thread, or make any comments myself. That way no one will feel that I’m out to make trouble for them, or that I’m reading their posts with an aim to vindicate my suspicions. Some people do genuinely hold to very eccentric ideas, and I might be misjudging the situation.

    I hope that some constructive conversation does follow. As I have said Dr Gagnon tends to be very blunt, but his points have substance and are worth discussing. Put the rhetoric aside and there is a lot of substance in the article that Dr Witherington has quoted.


  • BW16

    Creating tension is what you do best, Mr Veale!
    Labeling a dialogue partner as “blasphemous” is a surefire way to kill any genuine discussion ad hominem. I meant my remarks earnestly and in full seriousness and will stand by them as an objective illustration of the queerness of the crucifixion of Jesus.

    I have fully appreciated Dr Ben’s contribution to the discussion, even if it has been rather piecemeal. However, I do fear that he is guided by interested modern categories (“feminism” and “homosexuality”) that he masks with a rhetoric of disinterest, but is all too quick to accuse others of doing the same (for instance, responding to my objective queer Bible criticism as anachronistic!) I have also enjoyed the engagement from Dan Wells and the solid academic contribution of Stephen Kick who has unfortunately been thoroughly ignored by other commenters.

    All the best,

  • Ben Witherington

    Kata-phileo does not mean kata-eros! The terms involving brother and sister love are talking about Platonic relationships, and in the first instance relationships between blood kin. Phileo in any case has a different semantic field than eros. There are in fact 5-6 different words for different sorts of loves in the NT, and alas, English is greatly impoverished by contrast. We can’t even distinguish between love and lust so mixed up is our culture. So often young people say ‘we are in love” but unfortunately the reality is this means “we are in heat”.


  • Bernadette

    I thought the so-called four loves as distinguished by C.S. Lewis had been shown to be false? The semantic distinctions between the different Greek words isn’t is clear cut as once thought.

  • Ben Witherington

    Bernadette there is no meaningful overlap between phileo and eros, which is the issue here. And in the case of storge— this seems to always mean family love.


  • Grupetti

    chris van allsburg wrote:

    “Gagnon did nothing except interact with his opponent and do sound exegesis.”

    I pointed out a clear insult.

  • Bernadette

    Eros doesn’t even appear in the New Testament… How can you justify such distinctions between the slipperiness of language?

  • BW16

    Dear Dr BWIII,
    You appear to have misunderstood my question about the use of kataphileo. I never claimed that kata-phileo means the same (or near to the same) as kata-eros. However, I wonder about the possibility of potentially accidental arousal occurring during a peaceful non-sexual kiss between two men. I gave a couple of hypothetical examples that you ignored.

    I am not as confident as Bernadette with regards to the different Greek words for love, but I am fairly certain there are not “5-6 different words for different sorts of loves in the NT” as you so claim (unless you count twice for their respective verb and noun forms). At best there are three: stergos – which appears in its negative form (astergos) to denote unnatural affection (Rom 1:32; 2 Tim 3:3); philea – which denotes a general kind of love, friendly and affectionate, and is used 40 something times; agape – denoting a love of the heart and occurring over 300 times in the NT.

    The distinction between philia and agape is interesting. Dr Kenneth Wuest writes that “the former is a love of pleasure, the latter a love of preciousness”. This means that in the NT itself we have exchanges of “love of pleasure” between consenting male adults. Surely this would subvert some of Gagnon’s claims about the Bible’s apparent homophobia?

    I fear that you and Dan Well’s want to read in modern Evangelical understandings of the compartmentalization of kissing into the ancient texts! A more objective investigation into this topic is required…

    Non-sexual blessings,

  • Majida

    Dear Brethen,
    It is nice and blessed to visit your website. I am Majida Saleem from Pakistan ( a christian believer). I do translation of Biblical documents and I request you to have the Urdu translation of whole of your material. I can translate it in low rates and can distribute in my local churches.
    In Jesus

  • Robert A

    Perhaps I’m dense, but I don’t understand how, through a thorough application of a queer hermeneutic, everything we do has to be viewed primarily as sexual or with sexual intent.

    When I hug my father there isn’t a sexual intent. When I embrace, kiss the cheeks, and shake the hands of male friends from across the world there isn’t a sexual excitement. Why is it that all of these actions suddenly become suspicious?

    I just don’t accept that this has been the predominate view from the inception of history.

  • Jeremy

    @ Robert A
    Excellent point, I have often wondered why so many people tend to read sex into everything. I have become convinced that it is people so obsessed with sex, that they can only see things in sexual terms.
    Likewise with much of modern understanding, people seem unable to comprehend that there is something other than a 21C Western paradigm.
    The middle East still greet each other with kisses, does any one think there are sexual overtones when PLO officials greet Jordanian officials in front of the news camera?

  • BW16

    Interesting points raised by Robert A and Jeremy.
    While I would not deny that I am obsessed with sex, there are more legitimate reasons for the application of an objective Queer Bible hermeneutic.

    One of the reasons is because so much of the Christian world still possesses certain Victorian (& other) cultural hang-ups that are often used to justify the subjugation of certain groups of people, whether through imperialism/colonialism, classism, homophobia, and so on. These categorizations of sexuality are unbiblical & also unjust. The late Marcella Althaus-Reid writes: “The point of departure is the understanding that every theology implies a conscious or unconscious sexual or political praxis, based on reflections and actions from certain accepted social codifications. These are codifications which configure our Christian visions of life and mystical projections relating human experience to the sacred.”

  • BW16

    While many people would understand gender and sexuality as fixed, she argues that “Sex may be perceived as potentially chaotic, as the field of ambiguities and unruly life and theology has to struggle to put sex into tidy compartments, each one with a name, a color, a function, and a positive or negative symbol at the door. If theology discovers that in reality there are more sexual behaviors than compartments, identities are essentialised.”

    The assertion of outrageous claims that shock and mock normative gender stereotypes (not to mention “hard-core” Christians) are intended to bring to our consciousness the ways in which society constructs the world in ways that are not natural and fixed.

    In defense, I think it is unfair to suggest that my reading of the Judas kiss is informed by a “Western 21C Paradigm,” for I am dealing primarily with what the text says, in other words, an objective reading. Moreover, this is absurd given that most modern readers choose NOT to read the story Queerly! If anything I am reading against the grain of contemporary culture.

    In offense, I would question Jeremy & others to defend why they want to exclude the objectively Queer from everyday analysis? Why is it taboo, off-limits, & why must it be safely compartmentalized?


  • Bob

    [Thanks, TBAC, for info galore. Saw this info on the net. Bob]

    The Jesus-Predicted Steamroller

    Jesus warned that just before His return as Judge, there will be a strange, spontaneous, mind-twisting fad – a global steamroller notable for its speed, boldness, violence, and impudent in-your-face openness. In Luke 17 He called this worldwide craze the repetition of the “days of Lot” (see Genesis 19 for details). By helping to fulfill this worldwide mania quietly coordinated by unseen spirit beings, gays are actually hurrying up Christ’s return to earth! What’s really scary is the phrase “reprobate mind” found in Romans 1:28. One can ignore one’s conscience so much that God finally turns that person over to the “reprobate mind” of the most diabolical leader of evil in the universe. When this happens it’s almost as if the brainwashed human being has signed a statement saying “I don’t ever want God and don’t care if I end up in Hell!” The entire first chapter of Romans explains why God is forced to eventually and sorrowfully abandon certain individuals who constantly choose evil over good and ignore their conscience! If you’re laughing at this message, you may have almost reached the point of no return. Be sure to keep on laughing when God allows entire cities to be suddenly destroyed. Revelation 16:18-19 describes the greatest earthquake of all time which will level the “cities of the nations” – a quake that’s never achieved this in the past. There’s only one thing that can destroy America – no matter who becomes President – and that’s a four-letter word: EVIL. Change the letters and you can become totally VILE (and thus do your part to force God to send America even more disasters). Or better yet, you can turn to Christ (He’s the “Creator” that America’s founders referred to). And He’s alive (after having been killed) and promises to reveal Himself to you if you will just pray to Him in your own words and tell Him what you need! If you decide to partner with Him, He can change the letters in EVIL and show you how you can really LIVE – and you’ll kick yourself for not checking Him out sooner! Remember, He loves EVERY person and can forgive and erase from His records ANY sin – even murder – since He’s the only Saviour who can do this! I write this in the spirit of love because I care for the part of you that will live forever in either Heaven or Hell!