John Corvino opens Bible, reads what it says — why would ‘conservatives’ disagree?

“The Sodom and Gomorrah story may be the biblical passage most frequently cited against homosexuality,” John Corvino says in the video below. “It may also be the least relevant, because it’s not clear it has much to do with homosexuality at all.”

“Don’t take my word for it,” Corvino says. “Let’s look at the relevant text.”

“The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” by John Martin (1852)

And that’s what he does. He opens the Bible and reads the relevant text, sticking to what it actually says.

I appreciate that conservative defenders of the authority of the literal reading of an inerrant Bible won’t like John Corvino’s playful tone in this lecture. He’s needling them lightheartedly — aiming perhaps to goad more than to persuade.

But set aside Corvino’s tone and just consider the substance of his exegesis here. I don’t see anything “liberal” in what he’s doing with this passage. He reads the text and accurately, without spin or interpretation, conveys what it says. It’s a straightforward, face-value reading of the text without any radical criticism or deconstruction or appeals to any esoteric scholarly theories. It’s just the kind of “common-sense” Bible study that conservative evangelicals profess to practice.

So I’m curious as to what the “conservative” Christians who cite the story of Sodom as a clobber-text against homosexuality make of this. They’re accustomed to approaching this story through the lens of preconceptions and expectations of what it supposedly teaches. Corvino dismisses those expectations, but he does not dismiss the story itself. He’s not dismissing the Bible, just reading what it actually says.

My guess is that Corvino’s reading will still be rejected as “liberal” — not because he takes any liberties with the text, but because he refuses to do so. His determination not to impose outside ideas onto the story, to stick with the text itself, means that he is unable to come to the officially sanctioned conclusions about what this story supposedly teaches.

That’s interesting. A conservative approach to the text doesn’t produce the expected “conservative” conclusion. Maybe that conclusion isn’t really all that “conservative” after all.

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  • Alix

    You should check them out

    I definitely will. :)

  • Alix

    Are there any particular howlers you’d care to discuss from military history?

    Well, there’s the perennial problem of reported numbers. According to Herodotus, for example, the Greeks fought off what was apparently the population of half the world at the time at Thermopylae. (I’m exaggerating. But not by much.)

    The one battle I’ve done the most reconstruction work on is the battle of Kadesh circa 1274 BCE, between the Hittites and the Egyptians – what drew my attention to it is that we not only have the relatively famous Egyptian accounts, from Ramesses II, but a few from the Hittites, too.

    Ramesses takes great pains to make sure you know that he totally knew that two spies were leading him on, and it was all part of his great plan, really. And he was an incredible badass who fought off the entire Hittite army singlehandedly when they routed the rest of his men with a surprise attack. And he totally won that battle, despite the fact that he actually never succeeded in capturing the city and left post-haste for Egypt.

    The Hittite accounts are much less bombastic and essentially “haha we totally tricked Ramesses. Oh, and we won, so there.”

    It’s … pretty clear that Ramesses was tricked, and screwed up badly by basically marching straight into the Hittite army, and obviously he lived, so there probably really was a desperate scramble until the rest of his divisions arrived. But his account is incredibly bombastic, and really kind of funny, especially because he tries so hard to minimize his screw-up, but still has to admit it anyway, because, apparently, everyone knew of it.

    …In addition to all this, there are problems with the geographic locators – specifically, we know Ramesses fought across and drove the Hittites back into some body of water – but not the main river, ’cause it doesn’t fit the description and he’d already forded it anyway, and apparently not the tributary, because this river was in front of the city. So either the city is not quite where we (and, well, archaeology) think it was, or there was a pretty damn big canal in front of the city that we don’t have much evidence for. We have no idea what body of water Ramesses meant, and in fact there’s been serious speculation that he managed to get entirely turned around and basically re-forded the river he’d already crossed, then re-forded it again when he figured it out to go harass the city itself.

    …It’s fun stuff. XD Especially because so much is assumed – it’s assumed that everyone knows Kadesh’s geography, when things can change quite a lot over thousands of years, and it’s assumed that we know how chariots were used, though there’s a lot of debate over that. So it’s damn hard to work out what really happened, despite the battle being one of the best-recorded battles in the ancient near east.

  • Alix

    I have nothing to say but “word to all that.” :)

    …Actually, I lie, I have one thing to say, which is that I sometimes wish we were a bit more fluid in our own definitions of “true”. I mean, we sort of are – we understand that philosophical truth and historical/scientific truth are two different things – but we seem a bit more rigid, and in a way that’s not always helpful.

    Like the whole thing about the “literal truth” of the Bible. I … often want to bang Biblical literalists (Christian or not) over the head and say, dear, it’s okay for it to be mythology. It doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate, and Jesus doesn’t have to have been a historical person, for it to still be true. But that’s the “mythic” mode of truth, for lack of a better term, and people seem to have more or less lost the concept that something can be factually false and still true.

  • Christopher Goetzke

    “I’m a mashup of pagan and heretic.”

    I’m totally stealing that description.

  • Keep in mind, though, that the way the ancient Greeks did theater was “A succession of guys in masks come out and shout monologues at the audience about things that happened off-stage”.

  • If my memory serves me correctly, Froissart’s chronicle of the hundred year’s war is a fun one, because he wrote it three times for three different patrons, and there are considerable differences in the versions based on what the respective patrons wanted to hear about their respective kinsmen.

    There’s also a pretty common thing in military history especially where military historians tend to have a lot of contemporary knowledge of military procedure and tactics that they use to fill in the gaps in their sources. Alfred Burne is heavily criticized for essentially this: he came up with the concept of “inherent military probability”, which basically means “When writing military history, if the sources aren’t clear on what happened, assume that what happened is what a trained 20th century military commander would have done,” which is all well and good from a consistency standpoint, but you end up writing history books where medieval generals think like World War 2 generals.

  • arcseconds

    by some strange coincidence, I happened by this today (from McGrath’s ‘interesting links’)

    Ehrman seems to have a strong argument that pseudepigraphy (a new word for me!) wasn’t actually tolerated in the ancient world. It’s just that lots of people did it and got away with it. Burrows, the blog author, agrees, but thinks Ehrman is being too black-and-white with his notion of fiction.

  • arcseconds

    Yeah, alright, I’m probably going too far in saying it’d would be impossible or incredibly difficult to stage the dialogues, even the ones that have the real discussion highly nested.

    I just kind of threw out the Greek theatre does 60s American-TV style flashbacks because I thought it was funny :]

    I still think a non-nested dialogue is a more obvious target for staging than a nested one, though, and the fact that many of them are heavily nested tends to make me think they weren’t really intended to be read out (in a dramatic way

  • Alix

    Ooh, thanks for the link! That post is interesting.

    That actually makes some sense, and the point about “copyright curses,” for lack of a better term, is really interesting. I imagine that people were, by and large, not generally any happier with the notion that people might go around abusing their name and ideas then than we are today, and it’s not like stuff today doesn’t ever get misattributed, sometimes deliberately. We’ve just got more ability, in a purely practical/logistical sense, to catch out and call out this stuff.

    The whole argument about pseudepigraphy makes me really wonder if it’s a much more complicated issue than we’d like – that maybe some people did see it as acceptable at some times, and others really didn’t. It would be interesting to see if we could map, even roughly, when and where “copyright curses” were used, and when and where pseudepigrapha appeared, and if there’s any trend or correlation in the points.

    …It always boils down to maps somehow, for me. XD

  • Nick Gotts

    “something can be factually false and still true”


  • Nick Gotts

    Or are there actually more people biologically inclined to homosexuality in modern societies? (I know of no reason why there would be, but it’s another possibility.)

  • Alix

    It can be philosophically true, or emotionally true, etc.

    It’s like how fiction isn’t really true or false – it’s outside that argument.

  • Nick

    Yeah, I’m not sure its answerable either.

  • Parasum

    That was most impressive. Gen. 19.1-29 (AKA the Sodom story) is a very important – and immensely interesting – passage. The human attempts to copulate with heavenly beings carries on the theme, found several times in Genesis, of “crossing boundaries”. Gen.6.1-4 is one such story: the “sons of God/the gods” marry “the daughters of men”: the result – the Nephilim AKA the giants. (Stories in which male divine beings have intercourse with mortal women are very widespread; for some reason, it is dangerous to men for goddesses to have intercourse with them).

    Gen.6.1-4 comes directly before the account(s) of the Flood – and both narratives, one very short, the other extending over chapters 6.5-8.22, are echoed in the Sodom story. The destruction of Sodom is in effect a Flood by fire, on a small scale. And it follows an attempt by men to have intercourse with divine beings: in that respect, it is an inversion of 6.1-4. Genesis 19.30-38 echoes the story of the drunkenness of Noah in Gen.9 – Lot is made drunk, and his daughters have sons by him; a Noah-related story, though not a Flood-story.

    As to the hospitality motif – it’s present, and is v. important. Lot plays the part of the one person in a town of inhospitable people to give a welcome to guests who are – in fact – divine beings. His reward is to be spared the destruction that falls on them – just as in the Greek & Latin myths of the same kind. The reason for the presence of the divine beings, is that there has a been a rumour of the wickedness of the community that ends up being destroyed – and the equivalent of that detail is found in Genesis 11, when God “goes down” to the building of the “Tower of Babel”. Hospitality was of immense importance in the kind of society reflected in the “Abraham cycle” of which Gen. 19.1-29 forms part. Refusal of it, or the abuse of it, would have been met with a strength of condemnation that we urbanised & industrialised modern Westerners may find very hard to imagine. There is what seems to be a subversion of the motif of the Visit by Heavenly Beings, in Acts 14, when the people of Lystra mistake Paul & Barnabas for Hermes & Zeus, & try to sacrifice to them, to the horror of those Apostles.

    About the passage in Jude – it may rely on & refer to the account in 1 Enoch of how some angels (as the “sons of God” had become by then, in the course of Jewish & Christian tradition) lay with women. What makes this seem likely is that Jude verses 14-15 quotes 1 Enoch.

    The significance of the Sodom story is probably not “gay-friendly” – the main theme in the Abraham-cycle is the promise of a son for Abraham, and this promise is itself a realisation of the blessing of fertility in Genesis 1. The two stories in Genesis 19 seem to be intended as stories about uses of sexuality that do not result in fertility; and Gen 38 may be another of the same kind, in part at least. The quotation from Ezekiel 16 shows the Sodom story was important in the 6th BC – no Biblical story is referred to so often within the Biblical books; but Ezekiel gives us Ezekiel’s use of the story; it is not a guide to what the author(s) of Genesis thought.

  • Job 36:14? “They die in their youth, among male prostitutes of the shrines.” (NIV)

  • EllieMurasaki

    Job wasn’t written in Greek, though.

  • True, I was just thinking that the concept isn’t that huge of a stretch if the Bible itself acknowledges the concept.

  • Although I remain convinced that the Bible explicitly condemns male homosexuality, I agree that this man makes some good points about tying gang rape to zenophobia and public humiliation. I’ve read that aversion to male homosexuality in the West Indies is largely due to the long, sad history of plantation foremen “sodomizing” slaves as a way of degrading them and making them submissive workers.