Did Jesus Talk about Homosexuality?

One is no longer surprised to read in discussions about same-sex relations — in church or in society at large — that Jesus did not bring the matter to the surface. In fact, some have said he never said a word about it. Some, of course, draw a conclusion from this: Therefore, it was not important to him (and should not be to us). There is a case to be made for such a conclusion about Jesus but arguing from silence to what should be done today is a careless game to play.

But let’s dig back to the question: Did Jesus talk about homosexuality? I shall present today a mild case that in fact he possibly did.

Before we get started, it needs to be emphasized that Jesus never explicitly says anything about same-sex relations though there are three texts that could mention or imply same-sex relations. We are dealing here then with ancient texts, evidence, and historical probabilities. I will move from the least likely to the most likely — if he did talk about it. [I have a chp on this topic in A Fellowship of Differents, but there the discussion is about Paul with only a clipped footnote on Jesus, where I mention Matt 11:7, and left it at that … I could have gone on and on but it was a footnote.]

One more prefatory word. The most significant scholar in the world on this topic for biblical studies is William R. Loader, who has written more than a half a dozen books on this topic, and he has summarized all of his decade long studies in a short book called Making Sense of Sex. The more extensive one for New Testament studies is called The New Testament on Sexuality. His books are not reduced to discussions about same-sex relations but are about the breadth of Jewish beliefs about sexuality. Along with my commendation of his historical research must come this: (1) he thinks the Bible and Judaism of that time are uniformly and unequivocally against same-sex relations and (2) he is personally progressive about the topic, which means this: he thinks the Bible is against it but he thinks the Bible got this one wrong.

Now to the texts, one of which he brings up, and two of which I will draw our attention to.

First, Loader thinks it is possible when Jesus talked about scandalizing a child he could have been talking about pederasty and the all-too-common Roman empire practice of males having small boys around for sexual gratification. Yes, that’s right. Pederasty was not at all uncommon in the Roman world. A good read of Thomas K. Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents reveals the ubiquity (and sickness) of pederasty among Roman and Greek males.

Here is Mark’s account of the text:

Mark 9:42   “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble,  it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.  43 If your hand causes you to stumble,  cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell,  where the fire never goes out.   45 And if your foot causes you to stumble,  cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.   47 And if your eye causes you to stumble,  pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,  Mark 9:48 where “ ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 

Loader’s contention is that in the context of Mark himself this text would have been heard (possibly or more than possibly) as a reference to pederasty. Raymond Collins, whom he quotes on p. 122, puts it this way: Mark 9:42 “reflects the Near East’s abhorrence of pederasty.” The words in 9:43-48 could well mean sexual actions or organs (Loader, 123). His point is unremarkable: Mark 9:43-48 is sexually charged language. His point about 9:42 is possible. [Added: This short sketch on Mark 9:42 does not intend to suggest that all same-sex relations are pederastic or prostitutional. Merely that one form of same-sex relations among males in the Roman empire, brought to the fore in the recent book on Paul by Sarah Ruden, was pederasty — and if Jesus is talking about that in Mark 9:42, he would be commenting only on that form of same-sex relations, and he would be stating that it is wrong.]

Second, a text Loader does not mention, and I don’t know why for it at least deserves consideration in such a discussion. That text is Matthew 11:

Matt. 11:7      As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? [en malakois] No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

The term malakos could mean “soft, fine” or it could be a subtle piece of ridicule “dandy,” but it most often means the “receptive partner in male same-sex relations.” As in 1 Cor 6:9, from the NRSV: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes [malakoi], sodomites [arsenokoitai].” Thus, when Jesus said “a man dressed in fine clothes” he may well have been looking at Tiberias or Sepphoris, Roman established cities, and had the Roman male practice of recreational sex with other men or young boys in mind. He may have used their “soft” clothing as a metaphor or trope for their recreational sexual practices. I consider this text also possible.

Third, one term is both not explicit but (I now think) as close as it gets to thinking Jesus did have something to say about same-sex relations. The term is porneia. This term is used by Jesus in these texts:

Matt 5:32:  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 

Matt 15:19: For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 

Matt 19:9: I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.

Again, not explicit — that’s for sure. But what does porneia mean? There are two basic meanings: (1) sexual relations with a prostitute or, in a more general sense, (2) sexual immorality, which for a Jew refers to prohibited degrees of intercourse. When you double-click on the term porneia, then, it takes you to Leviticus 18.

A student, Derwin Gray, asked me this summer if I thought porneia included same-sex relations. I said, “Yes, in general” but I wasn’t sure it was explicit. I spent some time this winter working on this term and I would now sharpen this point to say when the term porneia is used in a general sexual immorality sense, it refers for the Jew to Leviticus 18, which means it includes same-sex relations as one kind of sexual relation prohibited. In other words, it can mean “sexual immorality” in general, with no particular boundaries in mind, but for a Jew it is more likely it has a Leviticus 18 context in mind. Here is my latest thinking on this term:

So, while porneia can be a sweeping generalizing term referring to any kind of sexual immorality, for the Jew there was an established list of what was meant. If one wants specifics, no better listing can be found than in Leviticus 18. In fact, the importance of this chapter for defining what porneia would have meant for a 1st Century Jew cannot be exaggerated. Leviticus 18 was for the Jewish world of Torah observance God’s covenant gift to the Israelites (18:1-2) that both clarified how to live and set them apart from pagans. Thus, the chapter overtly distances Israelites from the Egyptians and Canaanites (18:3, 24-28, 29-30) in prohibiting sexual relations with:

close relatives (18:6),
parents (18:7) and the spouses of parents (18:8),
siblings (18:9, 11),
spouses of one’s children or their children (18:10),
aunts [and uncles] or their spouses (18:12-14),
children by law (18:15),
sisters-in-law [and brothers-in-law](18:16),
a woman and her daughter and her children (18:17),
sister in law (18:18),
women during menstruation (18:19),
neighbor’s wife (18:20),
same-sex relations (18:22),
and animals (18:23).

The categories at work in what a Jew in the 1st Century meant by porneia were shaped by the Torah, and that means Leviticus 18.

For Jesus, then, there are no instances where a reference to same-sex relations is certain; there are two texts that are possible, but with the term porneia same-sex relations are undoubtedly entailed if the term is general and refers to Leviticus 18.

Did Jesus talk about homosexuality? What do you think? 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.