Jesus Was a Jew: Understanding Jesus and Same-Sex Marriages in His 1st Century Jewish (Not Our 21st Century Western) Context

The following is the full manuscript of a paper I’m presenting (like, right now) at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting in Atlanta (Wed, Nov 18th at 3:10pm EST). My paper is the first of four papers that discuss “Methodological Approaches to a Theology of Marriage.” The other presenters are Drs. Megan DeFranza (Boston University), Stephen Holmes (University of St. Andrews), and David Gushee (Mercer University). This paper represents a summary of what I discuss more broadly in my book People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is not just an Issue (Zondervan, 2015)especially chapters 3-5. 

Introduction

My talk on Jesus’s view of same-sex marriage could be a rather quick one. After all, Jesus never directly mentions same-sex relations. But before we close in prayer and hit the pub, I want to explore Jesus’s context to see if we can reconstruct what Jesus might have said about same-sex marriages, had he been asked. In particular, I will consider Jesus’s statements about sex, sexuality and marriage in light of what his Jewish contemporaries said about same-sex relations.

Now, situating Jesus in his Jewish context is no simple task. It’s actually quite complicated for the one basic reason: There was no such thing as a monolithic religion called Judaism in Jesus’s day, but an array of diverse Judaisms. When it came to ethical questions, Jesus’s Judaism or Judaisms disagreed just as much as they agreed.

Take messianic violence, for example. The Hebrew Bible itself anticipates a conquering King who will smash the nations with a rod of iron, and a suffering servant who will give his “back to those who strike, and [his] cheeks to those who pull out the beard” (Isa 50:6). Will Israel beat their swords into plowshares (Isa 2)? Or will they beat their plowshares into swords (Joel 3)? There’s a tension in the Hebrew Bible.

Early Jewish writers picked up on this tension, which is why we find many different strands of messianic expectation. The Psalms of Solomon (chs. 17-18) anticipate a conquering, political, Davidic ruler. 1 Enoch looks forward to a heavenly Son of Man (Epistles of Enoch). The large first-century book Biblical Antiquities (or Pseudo-Philo) appears to endorse a non-messianic deliverance: God will simply unilaterally preserve and deliver Israel with no messianic agency.

Within Judaism—or Judaisms—there was much diversity.

Diversity in Sexual Ethics

We also see diversity in Judaisms regarding sexual ethics; like with divorce. According to tradition, Hillel took a rather liberal view of divorce, believing that a man could divorce his wife for all sorts of reasons, including cooking a bad meal, while Shammai argued that divorce is permissible only if the wife has been sexually unfaithful (b.Git. 90a).

The historical reliability of the famed dispute between Hillel and Shammai is suspect (see Loader, Sexuality, 62). But there’s evidence of similar diversity in Judaisms regarding divorce. The roots of such disagreement can be found in the different possible interpretations of Deuteronomy 24, which seems to express some measure of leniency with divorce. The different textual traditions that stem from the well-known “God hates divorce” passage in Malachi 2 has also spawned different views of divorce. While the Masoretic Text has God saying “I hate divorce,” the Qumran version 4QMinorProphets (4Q76) preserves a rather different rendering: “if you hate her, send her away.” It’s no surprise, then, that Josephus and Ben Sirach hold to a rather liberal view of divorce (Sir 25:26; cf. 7:26; 42:9), while Pseudo-Phocylides appears to be more strict (Ps.-Phoc. 205-206.

The role of sexual desire was also disputed (Loader, Sexuality, 37-41. Some Jews celebrated romantic and sexual love apart from procreation (Jos. As.; Jub.), while other Jews believed that procreation was the sole purpose of sex. On the “sex for pleasure” side, Jubilees speaks very positively of sex and doesn’t always connect sexual pleasure to procreation. In fact, in Jubilees 3, where the creation account of Genesis 1 is paraphrased, the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is completely left out—a striking omission in an otherwise procreation-happy Judaism.

Other Jews believed that sexual pleasure was good because it played a vital role in the procreative process (Philo Opif. 161; cf. Abr. 102; Wis 7:2): the stronger the orgasm, the stronger the chances of getting pregnant. Still others believed that procreation was the only reason for sex (Apoc. Mos.). Once you stop making babies, you should also stop making whoopee.

Again, with regard to sex, sexual pleasure, and procreation—there was diversity.

And there was diversity in other areas of sexual ethics including intermarriage (LAB; Philo [against] versus Jos. As. [for]), sex with female slaves (Philo QG 3.21; Ios. 51; Spec. 3.69; 4Q270 4 13-19 [for] versus Sir 41:22 MS B [against]), and the role of sex and procreation in the new age (Philo Praem. 98-105; Wis 3:13 [for] versus Apoc. Mos. 28:4; 37:5; Sib. Or. 2:238 [against]).

Suffice it to say, when Jesus walked out of his front door and into his Jewish world, he encountered a vast array of ethical opinions related to sexual ethics.

Judaisms on Same-Sex Relations

This is why it is rather striking that Jesus’s Judaisms—in the midst of their diverse views on messianic violence, sexual ethics, and many other questions related to the temple, the calendar, and the afterlife—displayed remarkable uniformity regarding same-sex behavior. Whenever same-sex relations were addressed, they were prohibited.

Now, Palestinian Jewish writers rarely mentioned same-sex relations, probably because it was considered a Gentile practice, which hadn’t made its way into Palestinian Judaism (see 4Q270 1 ii.16b-18; Loader, Sexuality, 32). But Jewish writers of the diaspora uniformly condemned same-sex relations. We see extensive critiques in the writings of Josephus and Philo (Ant. 1.200-201; Ag. Apion 2.273-275; Philo, Laws 3:37-42; Contemplative Life, 59-60), along with references in Pseudo-Phocylides (3, 190-192, 213-214), Sibylline Oracles (3.184-187; 5.166), the Letter of Aristeas (152), 2 Enoch (34:1-2), as well as in later rabbinic literature (m. San. 7:4; t. Abodah Zarah 2:1; 3:2). In a Jewish world where various matters of sexuality were debated, same-sex relations weren’t one of them.

This is all pretty well-known. There’s no question about whether early Judaism was for or against same-sex relations. There are some important questions, though, about what kind and why? That is, what kind of same-sex relations did the Jewish people condemn, and why did they condemn them?

What kind and why?

For the most part, Jewish writers condemned pederasty (older men having sexual relations with teenagers). After all, pederasty was the most common type of same-sex relation. The widespread Jewish condemnation of pederasty should come as no shock.

However, we do find some Jewish references that mention same-sex behavior (or desire) and do not mention pederasty. In the Letter of Aristeas 152, the author refers to same-sex behavior with no reference to pederasty or any other type of exploitation. Pseudo-Phocylides 3 warns against “rousing homosexual passion,” which would perceivably apply to all forms of same-sex lust or desire. Josephus raises the question, “What are our laws about marriage?” And his answer is: “The law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which [is] according to nature (kata physin)” (Ag. Apion 2.199). Notice that Josephus is not talking about rape, prostitution, or men having sex with boys. He condemns same-sex relations categorically, and he does so in the context of marriage. The late first-century work 2 Enoch appears to describe same-status homosexual behavior with the phrase “friend with friend in the anus” (34:1-2 MS P). No pederastic or master-slave same-sex relation would consider both partners to be “friends.” The relationship depicted is mutual and between equals.

So, while Jewish writers often condemned pederasty, they also prohibited same-sex relations categorically.

Plus, we should at least acknowledge (though we don’t have time to unpack) that the types of same-sex relations that existed in the Greco-Roman period were somewhat diverse. While pederasty and other exploitative relations (prostitution, master-slave) were the most common, we do see evidence of adult consenting relations, especially among women prior to, during, and after the first-century A.D. (see my book, People to be Loved, chs. 3 and 5).

But why did our Jewish writers condemn same-sex relations? Some argue that all forms of same-sex relations in the ancient world were exploitative—an older man on a younger boy—and therefore the Jewish disdain for such behavior had to do with exploitation and not the biological sex. That is, according to this argument, the Jews condemned pederasty because an older person shouldn’t exploit a younger person.

But this doesn’t make sense. After all, such age distinction was common in male-female relations in the Jewish world. It was typical, actually, that a 30 year old man would have sexual relations with a 15 year old girl. Unlike today, ancient Jews considered teenagers to be young adults rather than over grown children. It’s unlikely, therefore, that Jews condemned pederasty because of age distinction and not biological sex.

Others argue that pederasty wasn’t consensual and that’s why it was condmened. But again, I ask the question: were heterosexual relations only valid in Judaism if they were consensual? Arranged marriages, where there was little to no consent among the married partners (especially the woman), were common in heterosexual relations, yet the Jews had no problem with this. Lack of consensuality was probably not the main reason why same-sex relations were prohibited.

What about the lack of procreative potential? Some argue that the Jews believed sex was designed for procreation and not for pleasure. Therefore, homosexual unions are struck down right out of the gate.

But again, as we’ve seen, the Judaisms of Jesus’s day actually displayed some degree of diversity on the relationship among sex, pleasure, and procreation. (It doesn’t appear that the authors of Jubilees or Joseph and Asenath wouldn’t have much of a problem with a non-procreative marriage relationship.) Now, it is true, some Jews (Josephus and Philo) explicitly condemn same-sex relations because they lacked procreative potential. But this appears to be one of several reasons why same-sex relations were prohibited. Blurring gender distinctions, using your body in a way it wasn’t designed, and forcing another man to act like a woman, were among other reasons (Philo, Laws, 3.37-39 mentions all of these [and other!] reasons). Or in some cases, there was no reason other than “God said so.” After all, first-century Jews were much more reluctant than 21st century Americans to question the Creator’s life-giving instructions.

In sum, as we situate Jesus in his Jewish context, we can affirm three basic points. First, while Judaism displayed much diversity on sexual ethics, they were remarkably uniform in their prohibition of same-sex relations. Second, these prohibitions often focused on pederasty, but can’t be limited to pederasty or other exploitative forms of same-sex relations. Third, there were several reasons why Jewish writers prohibited same-sex relations. Lack of procreation was only one of them.

Now—enter Jesus

Jesus

It’s well known that Jesus never explicitly mentions same-sex relations. However, he does discuss other issues related to sexual ethics; namely divorce, remarriage, lust, fornication, and adultery. It’s fascinating that in every instance, Jesus takes a stricter—more Shammaite—view of sexual behavior.

For instance, Jesus not only forbids adultery, but says that lust is on par with adultery (Matt 5). While many Jews were lenient on divorce, Jesus ruled it out except in cases of sexual immorality. Even though Jesus never explicitly mentions same-sex relations, we see him taking a consistently stricter view of other laws related to sexual ethics. The question should be raised therefore: Did Jesus hold to a more lenient view of same-sex relations, in spite of the fact that his Jewish world uniformly condemned them and he himself endorsed an otherwise strict view of sexual ethics? The trajectory on which we find Jesus’s sexual ethics would suggest no. There’s no historical evidence that Jesus was headed in a different, more progressive, ethical direction than the Hebrew Bible and his Jewish contemporaries.

Porneia

Moreover, Jesus’s use of the word porneia to refer to sexual misconduct in general would probably include all forms of same-sex relations. Now, there’s a good deal of dispute about the meaning of porneia. It’s certainly an umbrella term for sexual sin, but how far that umbrella extends is debated. But I don’t think we need a very large umbrella to conclude that porneia encompassed same-sex relations. After all, as we’ve seen, every single Jew in Jesus’s world believed that same-sex relations were sin. It wasn’t one of the disputed matters of sexual misconduct. Every Jew would have considered same-sex relations to be sexual misconduct; therefore, on what basis could we say that the umbrella term porneia, which refers to sexual misconduct in general, would not have included same-sex relations?

Matthew 19

Along with Jesus’s strict sexual ethic and his use of porneia, we can also add his statements about sex difference in the context of marriage in Matt 19 (par Mark 10). In an argument against the Pharisees about divorce, Jesus cites Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to say that divorce is wrong. He says:

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning “made them male and female” (Gen 1:27) and said “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24)? (Matt 19:4-5).

What’s remarkable about Jesus’s use of Scripture is that in order to confront divorce, all he needed to do is cite Genesis 2:24: “the two shall become one flesh.” And indeed, the one flesh unity is the point Jesus draws out in his explanation of Genesis: “they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 19:6).

But why does he cite the “male and female” bit from Genesis 1:27? It’s rather irrelevant for the divorce question. If marriage is between two consenting people regardless of sex difference, then bringing in Genesis 1:27 is a waste of messianic time. The reference to sex difference—“male and female”—is superfluous and unnecessary for Jesus’s point about divorce; that is, if sex difference makes no difference in Jesus’s understanding of marriage.

Now, some people say that Jesus simply assumed the normativity of heterosexual marriages, since that’s all he knew. Marriage for Jesus was simply between a man and woman because as a first-century Jew, male/female marriage was all that was known in Judaism. If this is true, then Jesus is only assuming rather than validating and promoting sex-difference in marriage. But my previous question still stands: If both Jesus and his audience simply assumed sex-difference in marriage, then why mention it here? Why cite the statement about created sex-difference from Genesis 1, when the only point necessary for his divorce argument is the text from Genesis 2?

It seems probable that Jesus affirmed sex difference in marriage because he believed that sex difference—male and female—is part of what marriage is.

Summary

As we think about “Methodological Approaches to Marriage” and the role that Jesus plays in this discussion, we need to pay close attention to Jesus’s statements about sexuality and marriage, in light of his own Jewish context. When we do, we will find good historical evidence that Jesus conforms to Judaisms’ uniform perspective on same-sex relation.

However, I do believe that we find some blistering disagreement between Jesus and his Jewish brothers and sisters; namely, in how he related to and loved those who violated a Jewish sexual ethic.

Unlike his contemporaries, Jesus embraced those who were shunned by the religious elite—those who did not conform to Jewish or biblical standards. And here, we find great continuity between the first-century context and our own. Understanding Jesus in light of his first-century context means we also understand and imitate his scandalous welcome and shocking embrace of those who weren’t living according to a Judeo-Christian sexual ethic.

Following Jesus goes far beyond following Jesus’s rules. Yes, we adhere to Jesus’s sexual ethic, but we also treat people—all people—as more than just issues. Following Jesus means we stand against gay bullying in order to echo the rhythm of Jesus with the woman in John 8. It means we dine with those whom the religious elite shunned, like Jesus did with Zacchaeus in Luke 19. We wash the feet of neighbor and enemy alike. Well give up our time, resources, and reputation in order to heal the ½ dead man in the ditch, regardless of his sexual orientation. Jesus had very few religious friends. He was so chummy with those “sinners over there” that people thought he was one (Matt 11).

The suicide and homeless rate among gay teens is horrendous. And this, I believe, is the church’s problem—a problem that we should eagerly and aggressively bear. When 92% of Christians are viewed as being “anti-gay” (Kinnaman and Lyons, Unchristian)—we not only fail to represent Jesus, but we fuel the suicide rate among gay teens, some of whom are worshiping with us on Sundays.

Luke 15 says that people shunned by religious leaders “were all drawing near to hear” Jesus. Yet I don’t think they walked away wanting to kill themselves.

Until the unchurched LGBTQ community is drawing near to Christians, flooding our sanctuaries and desiring our love and relationship, I suggest that we are not imitating the Lord as we ought.

Jesus promoted a strict sexual ethic, yet this ethic includes giving our lives for those who, like all of us, fall short of that sexual ethic. We are all, indeed, beggars showing other beggars where to find bread (D.T. Niles).

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