Would the historical Jesus approve of marriage equality?

Would the historical Jesus approve of marriage equality? July 14, 2015

Since the Supreme Court voted to legalize marriage equality in the U.S., on June 26th, there has been numerous religious articles and opinions circulating in the media. Among them are writings on whether Jesus of Nazareth would approve of the decision, and even whether Jesus, himself, was a gay man.

In a Huffington Post interview, several individuals, among them Reza Aslan, a Catholic University of America PhD student Brantly Millegan, and evangelical pastor Mark Tidd, weighed in on the topic and argued whether Jesus, in either the divine or human figure that he is known by, would be okay with it. Among the views shared, Aslan informs the audience that Jesus never talks about homosexuality. An important, if not the most important, point to make. However, the other side, which the PhD student raises, is that Jesus, in his historical context, was part of a conservative, Jewish movement that would not have tolerated homosexuality.

While these are all important ideas, coming from important questions, as religion still plays a huge role in some people’s decisions on ethical and moral issues, it ignores a rather large point. Namely, it ignores that marriage is done differently today than it was during the time Jesus would have walked the earth.

Marriage today can be done, in most societies, out of romantic interest. In antiquity, it was done out of economic, and sometimes political, necessity. It was not until the last few hundred years that love became a major factor in the decision to marry.

In antiquity, even among the poorest of families, marriage was essential for bringing families together, expanding their wealth and land (even if it was a meager amount), and having offspring, as it was necessary for families to have five children just to maintain the population due to death during childbirth. Marriage was done in order to avoid becoming utterly impoverished and keep the species alive, but that does not mean same-sex marriage did not happen.

In John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, we find accounts of same-sex marriage occurring. Elagabalus, a Roman emperor in the third century, married a male athlete and told athletes if they wanted to advance in the Imperial court, they needed to have a husband or pretend they did. Juvenal and Martial, first and second century writers, both wrote about public marriages with same-sex couples; including dowries, the families of the couples, and legal niceties given to heterosexual couples in marriage. Nero even presided over same sex marriages [1].

More than anything else, being in a same-sex relationship, and even marrying, meant breaking away from the material and societal norms; it meant being so financially secure that you need not worry about providing offspring or needing to have extra income or property. And, frankly, this seems like something Jesus could get into.

Jesus of Nazareth, historically, would have absolutely been a conservative Jewish apocalyptic preacher. More relevant to the discussion is how he was an ascetic; he was someone that gave up, and encouraged others, to give up material possessions. And it was done in the context of assuming the world was coming to an end. Mark 9:1 has Jesus saying

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

In the story of Jesus and the Rich Man (Mark 10:17-31), Jesus is approached by a wealthy follower who wants to know what he can do to be a good follower. Jesus tells him,

You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me…[to his disciples] How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!… It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Luke’s gospel (8:1-3) also talks about how women provided finances for Jesus and his disciples,

The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

And let’s not forget that Jesus called on the disciples, while they were working, to give up everything and follow him (Mark 1:16-34, Matthew 4:18-22, Luke 5:1-11). The sons of Zebedee (John and James) even left their father.

All this is to emphasize that, in the context of the culture Jesus lived in, what marriage, or even a relationship, to someone of the same gender meant, and what his personal convictions were (namely to give up everything because the end of the world as they knew it was coming), it is safe to assume Jesus was okay with it.

There may also be implications that Jesus, himself, was a gay man. Again, this might make sense given his convictions of the end times, but consider some passages from the Bible. In Mark’s gospel, chapter 14, when Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, something rather odd occurs;

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

Bizarre. What is more bizarre is that the linen garment, actually translated from the Greek sindona, was a garment worn by young boys that held the role of kinaidos, or (ahem) boy prostitutes. The kinaidos would wrap themselves loosely in the linen to entice prospective clients [2]. So, it could be suggested, Jesus was doing more than praying in the garden before his capture.

Also something to consider is the “beloved” disciple, in John’s gospel. If we look to antiquity, specifically the figure of Ganymede, the son of the King of Troy that was taken by Jove to be a cupbearer in heaven, we learn that the title refers to someone, specifically a young male, who played the passive role in a homoerotic relationship. Ganymede was referred to as the “beloved” of Jove [3].

So, when we learn of the disciple closest to Jesus, who rest his head on Jesus’ breast during the last supper, and watched him suffer and die on the cross, would it be wrong to assume that “beloved” has a homoerotic context?

In his historical context, though Jesus may have been a conservative Jewish apocalypticist, would it be completely implausible that he was okay with same-sex relationships?

1. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1980, pg. 82
2. .Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., the Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament, the Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, OH, 2003, pg. 109-110
3. Boswell, Christianity, pg. 251

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