Same Sex Relations and the Jerusalem Council

Same Sex Relations and the Jerusalem Council December 5, 2013

The Butler Religionists club had a discussion about same-sex relations as viewed by a variety of religious traditions. I mentioned that Acts 15, with its depiction of a decision by Jewish Christians about what Gentiles needed to adopt from Jewish customs in order to make it possible for Jews and Gentiles to have fellowship, neglects to mention the topic, at least explicitly. While the Jerusalem council’s decision mentions the vague term “porneia” (itself missing in some manuscripts, although judged by most scholars to be original), it is not clear that that term covered same-sex relations in Jewish usage in this period (on this see the discussion in the blogosphere by Tobias Haller and Peter Carrell, as well as Kyle Harper’s JBL article).

It would certainly seem that those who understand arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 to denote people engaging in same-sex intercourse, would have to acknowledge that pornoi (i.e. those who engage in porneia), mentioned alongside the other term, does not cover same sex intercourse, since otherwise the additional term would be unnecessary.

And if any of the arguments about the meaning of porneia not covering same-sex relations are correct, then it is rather striking that this council did not demand rejection of same-sex relations as part of their requirement from Gentiles, given how common such relations were in the Greco-Roman world.

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  • Joshua Smith

    I’m still not totally convinced that arsenokoitai = “same-sex intercourse,” especially given its appearance elsewhere (e.g. the Syballine Oracles) in vice lists containing sins of a more pecuniary nature. Dale Martin has done some good work on this subject with Sex and the Single Savior (WJK, 2006).

    Either way, this post could lead readers to some misleading conclusions regarding the acceptance/rejection of same-sex intercourse in the early church. Just because Acts 15 depicts Jewish Christian leaders “leaving out” the morality of same-sex intercourse in their letter to the Gentile Christians does not imply that they felt particularly strongly about it one way or the other, does it?

    • I agree that the question of the term’s meaning is far from settled – my point was that, if one is of the view that Paul mentions same-sex relations negatively, then one ought to accept that Acts does not do so in a context which was precisely about what distinctive Jewish scruples would be required of Gentile Christians. And so neglecting to mention something that was normative in the Greco-Roman world and often viewed negatively among Jews would be very significant indeed, if only to indicate that they didn’t feel particularly strongly about it one way or the other, unlike many conservative Christians today.

      • Joshua Smith

        That is definitely curious. Maybe it deserves a paper?

    • newenglandsun

      That I’d agree with. I’m largely not convinced by arsenokoitai either.

  • Herro

    I mentioned that Acts 15, with is depiction of a decision by Jewish Christians about what Gentiles needed to adopt from Jewish customs in order to make it possible for Jews and Gentiles to have fellowship.

    Isn’t there something missing in this sentence? :S

    …it is rather striking that this council did not demand rejection of same-sex relations as part of their requirement from Gentiles, given how common such relations were in the Greco-Roman world.

    Is it really? Do you think there was a debate in those circles about the morality of same-sex relations? I just think that it goes without mention, just like they don’t mention incest.

    • Do you have evidence that incest was widely practiced among Greeks and Romans and thus needed to be addressed?

      (Thanks – I fixed the sentence)

      • Herro

        No. My point would be that Acts 15 is dealing with differences between jewish Christians and non-jewish Christians. They would probably both agree that about lots of moral commands, so that wouldn’t come up in a council like this.

        Just to be clear: are you seriously suggesting that the council members would not consider same-sex relations to be sinful? :S

        • I am suggesting that the author of Acts may not have. Whether there was a historical Jerusalem council is a much-debated issue. Paul’s letters show no knowledge of such an occurrence.

          • newenglandsun

            “Whether there was a historical Jerusalem council is a much-debated issue. Paul’s letters show no knowledge of such an occurrence.”
            argumentum e silentio

          • It is appropriate to note someone’s failure to mention something that the could reasonably be expected to mention if it had occurred and they were aware of it.

          • newenglandsun

            It’d be a valid point if he wasn’t writing letters to churches that had already heard about it most likely.

            “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15)

            Paul obviously doesn’t heckle with writing every single thing down that he could possibly tell the church. Apparently there’s also more letters of his that aren’t in the canon of scripture that he also wrote. We also note this from others of his writings.

            It is typical with a lot of modern scholars though to either misunderstand the Old Testament or the letters of Paul I’ve noticed. A lot feel the two are fundamentally opposed. Are you a new perspective on Paul adherent?

          • I do find the new perspective on Paul persuasive.

            Since Paul finds it necessary to mention other things related to sexuality in particular and morality in general, it really seems difficult to imagine that this never came up – unless Paul was not concerned about it in the way that some of his modern interpreters assume that he should and must have been.

          • newenglandsun

            This is because the sexual ethic is more built on the creation accounts than it is on anything that Paul says. Most scholarly opponents of homosexuality start off with the creation texts above all else because the interpretive hermeneutic at that point is more solidly based. It’s what Pope Leo XIII does in Arcanum.


            Which means when I look into Paul’s overall sexual ethic, it’s Ephesians 5 first (although its more debatable as to whether Paul wrote it).

          • newenglandsun

            Expounding though…
            Paul writes letters to the Churches of Rome, Galatia, Corinth, Colossos (possibly), Thessalonica, Philipi, and Ephesians (possibly).

            All of these Churches were founded in the book of Acts. Meaning they either presumably knew about the Jerusalem council already or knew what went on at the Jerusalem council already. Hence, there was no need for repeat information.

            Which means the argumentum e silentio against the Jerusalem council is baseless and should be thrown in the nearest trash compactor.

          • But Paul’s statements about the Law and about his relationship to the Jerusalem apostles also seem wholly unaware of such a council – it is not simply silence on his part, but his making of statements that suggest either he did not know about such a council, or did not accept it.

            Note that even within Acts, the author has James later tell Paul about what they had written to Gentile churches, as though Paul were learning about it for the first time.

            Your strident language simply shows that you haven’t wrestled with the details of the text in the way scholars have to. It does you no credit to adopt such a tone.

          • newenglandsun

            It’s still a bad argument.

            “Paul’s statements about the Law and about his relationship to the Jerusalem apostles also seem wholly unaware of such a council”

            Please expound. Then I’ll take you seriously.

            Strident language? It’s an argumentum e silentio. There’s no other base it stands on and you haven’t shown that.

          • Where does Paul anywhere make reference to the council’s decision? Where does he suggest that the details of what the council decided are binding upon his churches? How does his statement that all things are lawful fit with the council’s decision?

            You are not dealing with any of the relevant data, and yet you seem to think that merely making assertions is adequate.

          • newenglandsun

            “Where does Paul anywhere make reference to the council’s decision?”

            Where does he HAVE to do this?

          • What about in any of the places where he discusses whether the Torah is still binding? What about in the place where he discusses whether the Jerusalem apostles imposed anything upon him?

          • newenglandsun

            You’re assuming that Paul must write everything down on a piece of paper in order to prove that that something is an historical event.

            As I’ve already stated again and again, it needs to be demonstrated that the Churches were NOT INFORMED of the Council orally before you deduce that Paul’s silence about it is a valid argument.

            Since this cannot be done, the argument is a logical fallacy demonstrative of the argumentum e silentio.

            Paul’s silence about it can be because either he informed them orally or someone else informed them orally so he assumed that they were aware of it and saw no need to address it.

            1 Thess. 3:10 – Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

            This indicates that there was stuff still needed to be said and addressed. Paul wasn’t sola scriptura like you are. He was anti-sola scriptura like I am.

          • You aren’t addressing the fact that what Paul writes in his letters about the Jewish Law does not correspond to, nor is it compatible with, the stipulations of the Council. Paul’s statements about all food being clean if accepted with thanksgiving is different from the stance that things which are strangled or had blood in them could not be eaten.

          • newenglandsun


            They are unclean for the strong and clean for the week. There is no contradiction between Paul’s stance and what the Council decreed.

            There are many Churches that still maintain strict dietary laws. Seventh Day Adventists, The Restored Church of God, and to some extent, the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches are also strict as well with fasting but try not to be legalistic (elder people and weaker physically people are not strictly required to adhere as much as others).

            I’m still getting the nag of fasting by the way.

          • newenglandsun

            “There is an increasing trend among scholars toward considering the Jerusalem Council as historical event. An overwhelming majority identifies the reference to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 with Paul’s account in Gal. 2.1-10, and this accord is not just limited to the historicity of the gathering alone but extends also to the authenticity of the arguments deriving from the Jerusalem church itself.” (Philip, The Origins of Pauline Pneumatology, 205)

          • I don’t think that Philip Finny would like your claiming that the name of the publisher is the name of the author. 🙁

          • newenglandsun

            Whoops. I’ll correct that.

          • newenglandsun

            It’s Finny Philip by the way. >:(

          • Indeed it is, and since I know him, albeit not well (we both studied at Durham), it is even less forgivable. Sorry Finny!

          • newenglandsun

            Expensive book by the way. Glad it’s on googlebooks.

      • I do think Herro brings up a good and often neglected point. We shouldn’t expect a community to address an issue (condoning or condemning) unless they saw it as a question needing to be addressed. In other words, silence does not equal acceptance. It likely means that for that community the matter was settled (one way or the other, we cannot tell which).

        For example, to keep with the theme of sexual immorality, how often in medieval documents is homosexuality condemned? I would guess (and it is only a guess) that it is not addressed frequently if at all because it was already determined that it was a sin.

        An argument from silence is just that, silence.

        • Indeed, I think we need to be cautious when it comes to arguments from silence. But it seems to me that it is also appropriate to take note when someone fails to mention something that we would have expected them to. And so if same-sex relations were a point of disagreement between Greeks and Jews in this period, and if Acts were advocating the acceptance of Jewish morality on this point rather than what was accepted among the Greeks, then surely we would expect it to come up in precisely that place where the Jewish customs to be adopted by Gentile Christians is discussed, would we not?

          • newenglandsun

            I don’t think that it was unanimous among the Greeks. Epciurus, despite his entire animal philosophy, rejected homosexuality as legitimate.


            I think the Platonic school mostly shuns all types of sex. Correct me if I’m wrong though.

          • The Platonic school shuns all types of sex? I’m not sure what gave you that impression. There were certainly Greco-Roman critics of same-sex relations. But they had to be explicit if they wanted to make that case, precisely because of the fact that they were not merely common but normative in that culture.

          • newenglandsun

            Again, it’s still debatable but the Jerusalem council does include sexual morals and this cannot be dismissed. Porneia as you point out. In the Catholic Catechism, porneia includes ALL the different types of sexual sin (masturbation, adultery, homosexuality, lust, etc.).

          • That the later church defined the term as covering these things is not the issue. The issue is what the term meant when used in Acts, prior to such specifications.

          • newenglandsun

            “That the later church defined the term as covering these things is not the issue.”

            The later Church was trained by the apostles themselves. You’re saying people closer in time to the apostles had no clue what they were saying? Expect more “strident language” from me because such argument is really…err…laughable.

          • What I am suggesting is what historical scholars uniformly conclude, namely that reading later developments back into earlier texts is inappropriate. You offered no specific date for your claim about the later church’s definition. If the pope today defines something a particular way, a historian simply cannot assume that that reflects the meaning the relevant terms had two millennia earlier.

            If this seems laughable to you, the problem is on your end.

          • newenglandsun

            “If this seems laughable to you, the problem is on your end.”

            I think the problem is on the liberal end. It was the Protestants that came up with Biblical criticism at first. While a lot of it is perfectly acceptable it is laughable of the liberal Protestants to simply sweep the apostolic trained Church fathers away in the first place.

            “If the pope today defines something a particular way, a historian simply cannot assume that that reflects the meaning the relevant terms had two millennia earlier.”

            If this is your attitude toward the Catholic Church, then you are extraordinarily bereft of any Church history whatsoever. From what I can tell, condemnation of homosexuality stretches as far back as Chrysostom at worst.


            Sorry that you reject historic Christianity. Most who do so seem to me to be left out angry-ranters.

          • newenglandsun

            You might find interesting criticism of the historical-critical method here.


          • Not at all. My point is that what “we might expect” is irrelevant. It is purely a question of what they were dealing with and concerned about and we do not have enough data to say that anything with certainly about specific sex acts.

            At the same time, we are ignoring the whole discussion that the general term “porneia” may well have been viewed as all encompassing. I.e., the use of that term might have been understood as covering all specific forms of sexually deviant behavior, as they understood such concepts.

            Thus I think the best and most reasoned position one can take from Acts is “we don’t know.” All other discussion reveals much about us, but little about first century Jewish Christians.

          • Well, I am not quite as pessimistic about whether discussing this can potentially reveal some things about first century Jewish Christians. But the discussion definitely says more about us. And while I did indicate the issue of what the term porneia denotes is an important one in my original post, you are quite right that it would need to be discussed properly in a fuller treatment of the topic.

    • Joshua Smith

      Well, the problem is the way it is presented in the text. Acts 15 depicts the Jewish Christians essentially distilling the fundamentals of Christian ethics for the Gentiles. One would think that if it were indeed important it would have at least warranted a mention.

      • newenglandsun

        Actually, it was the fundamentals of Jewish ethics and even then that’s not clear.

        The Midrash is really the fullness of the Jewish ethics and it embraces multiple understandings of any given single text.

        This is why we have Reformed, Orthodox, and Conservative Jews. They can’t agree on how to even interpret the Midrash or where to close the tradition.

        Most liberal and fundamentalist Protestants say the tradition of the Church closed with the New Testament and the canon of the Protestant Bible. This is also why we see multiple different Christian denominations. Because they can’t agree on where to close the tradition either.

        But following that, because all liberal Protestants (despite their protesting to the contrary) and all fundamentalist Protestants (despite their protesting to the contrary) follow the heretical doctrine of sola scriptura (which means the person reading the Bible is the one who decides what is “orthodox” and what is not).

        Reducing Christianity to a primarily, prideful intellectual movement, fundamentalists assert everyone else is wrong because no one agrees with their lies and liberals go into an historically based movement attempting to change it to suit (as Karl Marx would say) their opium.

        Having established this, the most oldest traditions of Christianity (Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, The Assyrian Church of the East, and the Catholic Church) all consider homosexual intercourse to be sinful. Which tells us either A) the Jerusalem Council did not address this but another later agreement said no to it due to a response to heresy or B) the Jerusalem Council, by including a discussion of porneia, indicated that Levitical moral values in relation to sexual ethics should in fact still stand.

        *Note: most liberal Protestants or pro-homosexual-intercourse Protestants do generally contend that bestiality is still sinful but the only place it is ever mentioned is in Levticus 18 and 20 which are the same places where homosexuality is explicitly mentioned in the Bible as well. One could argue it was brought up in Jude 1:7 but he is more likely referring to the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs which condemns interfaith marriage that led to prostitution.

        My overall opinion, I think the liberal and pro-gay-intercourse Christians have severe exegetical and historical issues to overcome before they can successfully convince others of the orthodoxy of their position but to quote St. Hildegard of Bingen, “a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in My sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one in this evil deed” (Scivias).

  • newenglandsun

    Most Christians it seems base their understanding of sexual ethics on how Jesus interprets Genesis 2 as well as how Paul interprets the same verse in Ephesians 5. The unbroken tradition of the Church is a lot more explicit on the issue.