TOBY: The Torah doesn’t prohibit capital punishment.
RABBI GLASSMAN: No.
TOBY: It says, “An eye for an eye.”
RABBI GLASSMAN: You know what it also says? It says a rebellious child can be brought to the city gates and stoned to death. It says homosexuality is an abomination and punishable by death. It says men can be polygamous and slavery is acceptable. For all I know, that thinking reflected the best wisdom of its time—but it’s just plain wrong, by any modern standard. Society has a right to protect itself; but it doesn’t have a right to be vengeful. It has a right to punish; but it doesn’t have to kill.
This bit of dialogue comes from a fantastic episode of The West Wing, “Take This Sabbath Day.” In it, a man on death row is imminently set to be executed, and senior staff of the White House—many of whom are opposed to the death penalty—struggle with this, and consider using their personal friendships/relationships with the President (who of course has the power of granting a pardon) to appeal to have the execution stayed.
More than this, though, the heart of the episode is about individual religious voices trying to reach the President. In the scene quoted above, it is the rabbi of the synagogue that the White House Communications Director (Toby Ziegler) attends. In another scene, when the President himself expresses the same caveat about Old Testament justice that Toby did, a fellow Catholic responds “And Immanuel Kant said that the death penalty is a categorical imperative. But, Mr. President, those writings are from other centuries.”
In particular, the rabbi’s comments poignantly reveal a sort of inner tension, where the very foundations of his own revered religious tradition are at odds with what he considers to be a more substantive form of compassion and justice that he’s compelled toward. Yet still, here, these two impulses—the one toward piety, the other toward humanity—are not reconciled, harmonized; rather, they’re allowed to stand in tension—even to the point where the former is just plain wrong.
I wonder how much this frank, honest approach is lost in how many progressive Christians (and non-Christians, too!) approach the Biblical views on homoeroticism and homoerotic acts.¹
A couple of weeks ago, Patheos blogger Dan Wilkinson made a post titled “Clobbering the Confusion About 1 Corinthians 6:9-10“, a response to a reader’s question about a passage in the apostle Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians (6:9)—the translation of which is highly contentious, and has played a major part in debates over the early Christian attitudes toward homoeroticism:
In the [King James Version translation] of 1 Corinthians 6:9 it states that abusers . . . will not inherit the kingdom. I looked up [the word translated as] abusers and it said that abusers are sodomites/homosexuals, however the defination of a sodomite is a male cult member or prostitute. Can you please give me some insight on this confusion?
Wilkinson notes that there are actually two terms of contention in the passage—in the original Greek text, malakós and arsenokoítēs. Regarding the first term, malakós, Wilkinson writes that
given that this is just a list without any further context, no one knows for sure exactly what Paul had in mind when he included it in his list of immoral behaviors. It might be referring to weakness of character, or cowardice, or some other moral (but not necessarily sexual) shortcoming.
As for the second, arsenokoítēs, he discusses conjecture about its possible origin in the early Greek translation of the book of Leviticus; but in the end, he errs on the side of a measured agnosticism of sorts, and concludes that “[t]he only thing we can be fairly certain of is that [arsenokoítēs] is referring to some sort of immoral male sexual behavior.”
On one hand, Wilkinson hits upon some important and undoubtedly true points here. We don’t know exactly how Paul understood these terms—which sort of behaviors he meant to condemn by using them. On the other hand, however, all too often some of these ambiguities seem to be exploited as loopholes of sorts, where if we can’t be absolutely certain of the exact referents here, then we can’t really be certain that Paul condemned homoerotic/homosexual acts at all—at least not in a way that has relevance for modern Christian sexual ethics.
Before returning to that, it should be mentioned that Wilkinson has since written a more recent post on homoeroticism and the Bible, this one on a contentious passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. A translation of the relevant verses here reads
…God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (NRSV)
In his commentary on this, Wilkinson again points out much of value. Chief among this is his discussion of how the larger passage in which these verses appear is not really Paul’s own speech at all. Rather, in this passage, Paul is actually utilizing a literary technique known in the ancient world as prosopopoeia, wherein a “speaker or writer communicates to the audience by speaking as another person or object.” That is, here Paul seeks to portray the sort of standard moralizing speech of a certain type of Jewish interlocutor. In Wilkinson’s words, then, “Romans 1:18-32 is a rhetorical passage representing the voice of Hellenistic Judaism, and Romans 2 is Paul’s voice arguing against that viewpoint.”
But one crucial oversight here is that Paul is not “arguing against that viewpoint” as such. While we can never be sure if (and where) Paul really did agree or disagree with specific things that were said in this “speech,” Paul’s subsequent criticism is not of the content or viewpoint of the speech, as such, but rather of the hypocrisy of the one speaking—the one who would moralize and yet at the same time is “doing the very same things” (Romans 2:1).
Further, back to malakós and arsenokoítēs in 1 Corinthians: there’s a substantial sense—or several senses—in which the forest is being missed for the trees here; especially when, say, the “might be referring to weakness of character, or cowardice, or some other moral (but not necessarily sexual) shortcoming” aspect is overemphasized.
In an article that I’m preparing for submission, I’ve adopted a unique approach to the translation of these words in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which I (humbly) think captures their import better than any translation has so far. As for malakós: taking into account the use of this word both as a technical term of sorts referring to an actual (semi-)formal profession, but also—and more importantly—in its informal and indeed pejorative uses, I’ve suggested that in the interest of accuracy—and in line with what we can infer about Paul’s likely intentions here—we should forego the usual translational inclination toward brevity, and in fact gloss this single Greek word with multiple English words. As a provisional translation, I’ve offered the plural of malakós here as “bottoms, boytoys, sissies, pretty boys, pleasure-whores (whoring themselves out)…” That is to say, here Paul is not necessarily condemning a specific behavior, but more so a class of (related) behaviors.
Somewhat the same can be done for arsenokoítēs. There’s no doubt at all that the origin of this word is the Greek translation of Leviticus (18:22; 20:13), which famously forbids male homoerotic acts. Of course, the world that Paul lived in was far different from the world in which Leviticus was written; and his interpretation of this term would not have simply carried over the connotations that it had in the world of Leviticus, but would undoubtedly be channeled through those of his own culture.
So while on one hand, we might cautiously suggest “those males involved in same-sex penetration” as a translation here; but if, on the other hand Paul also intended to refer to a particular class of those who specifically take an active role in same-sex penetration—as I think is likely—we could add something like “tops, dominants, pederasts” to this. This translation would acknowledge that pederasty was a common source of same-sex penetration in Paul’s culture, while not precluding a more general referent, too. (This is further warranted in the fact that arsenokoítēs here would also cover roles that malakós would not cover, which often suggests more passive roles—though not exclusively so.)
Yet I think there’s also some unity between the terms; and as such I’ve leaned toward a translation which connects the two a bit more (and which, again, preserves the pejorative aspect of the first term): “…bottoms, boytoys, sissies, pretty boys, pleasure-whores (whoring themselves out), and all those males involved in same-sex penetration”; though again, we might tack on a parenthetical “tops, dominants, pederasts” at the end here.
One of the figures who’s emerged as a sort of figurehead in the debate on Christianity and homosexuality (and early Christian views on homoeroticism) is Matthew Vines, author of the recent, immensely popular book God and the Gay Christian.
Vines’ is an honest and heartfelt attempt to find room for a gay-affirming Christianity, both in the wider arc of Biblical theology and in the (re)interpretation of traditional understandings of the same sort of Biblical passages that Wilkinson covered. On the former point, there’s much to commend about this. Wilkinson in his post also expresses this nicely, that even despite the contested passages, “we still have the Bible as a whole to provide us with God’s message — a message that doesn’t hinge upon dictionary definitions of obscure Greek words, but instead centers on God’s love for humanity as embodied by Jesus.”
Something of the same is also poignantly expressed in an oft-quoted passage by Biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who nonetheless also forcefully cautions against uncritical analysis here:
I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says . . . I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order. (“Homosexuality and the Church” in Commonweal [June 15, 2007])
Indeed, as the fictional Rabbi Glassman from The West Wing suggested, the Biblical world was a different one—one often red in tooth and claw, and rife with prejudice, sexism, and misunderstanding. We shouldn’t be surprised that even someone like the apostle Paul would find himself with conflicting sympathies, torn as he was between the New and the Old, between Jews and Gentiles, love and judgment.
For gay Christians and their Christian allies, finding a wider affirming arc in Christianity may be the most logical and sensible path to take; and perhaps even a necessity, for those who can’t quite stomach the idea of dismissing the Biblical witness, if only in part. For the rest of us, though, we do not need the Bible; and I think we’re making a mistake if we feel compelled to stand with progressive/affirming Christians when they search for a Bible that’s safer for modernity, when this ends up distorting its original context.
There’s much more work to be done, to be sure; but I think LGBT rights and affirmation will do just as well without the Bible as with it.
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 I use “homoeroticism” in place of “homosexuality” to more clearly suggest that I’m referring to actual sexual acts here, rather than sexual identity.