How many times have we heard that claim that “Jesus never spoke one word on homosexual behavior”? I would argue that yes, he did. We find that word on his list of sins that defile the human heart in Mark 7:22-23, where Jesus names not only adultery and heterosexual sex outside of marriage, but also the sin of aselgeia.
Aselgeia is a term that is usually translated “lewdness,” “licentiousness,” or “lasciviousness,” but it appears to be the Greek word used by first century Jews to refer to sexual behavior that goes beyond mere fornication or adultery.
Before I go any further, you may wonder, “Is Jesus anti-gay?” That’s a very different question than to ask, “Does Jesus think sex is OK between members of the same sex?” If we presume that Jesus hates all people who do stuff that he names on this sin list, then Jesus must hate everybody! No, that’s the wrong way to read Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is not labeling same-sex attraction as sin. The issue is not our desires, but how we handle those desires.
I have made the argument that aselgeia is Jesus’ veiled term for homosexual behavior and other similar sexual offenses forbidden in the Torah in my journal article “Aselgeia in Mark 7:22.” The scholar’s version may be found at https://www.bsw.org/filologia-neotestamentaria/vol-21-2008/-7936-963-941-955-947-949-953-945-in-mark-7-22/523/. The layperson’s version may be found in Appendix Two of my book, What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?
The basic meaning of this word in Greek is shocking behavior that goes way over the line. It can include outrageous insults. Plutarch uses the word for men who deliberately vomited at dinner and pooped on their chairs, while Demosthenes uses it for men who dumped chamberpots on their host. But the word is more often used for shocking sexual behavior, including a man who has sex with his slave in public at a party, a Roman soldier who waves his penis at a crowd in Jerusalem, and “a single young man who through aselgeia has become the lover of an entire city” (Heraclitus, Epistle 7.5). In the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Jews use the word for not only unrestrained fornication, but also incest, pederasty, and bestiality.
The word aselgeia is used ten times in the New Testament. Second Peter, which uses the word three times (2:2, 2:7, 2:18), links it clearly to the sin of Sodom. Jude 4 describes those “who twist the grace of our God into aselgeia.” The word appears in Paul’s famous list of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19. It also tops the list of objectionable pagan behaviors in 1 Peter 4:3. In Ephesians 4:19, Paul says that pagans “have given themselves up to aselgeia, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness.” (See also Romans 13:13 and 2 Corinthians 12:21.) The word is never used in any book where Paul’s specific word for homosexual, arsenokoitēs (1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10), is used.
Outside of the New Testament, aselgeia often occurs in a standard trio of sexual vices alongside fornication and adultery, in the same spot in the trio often occupied by arsenokoitēs or paiderastia (molestation of boys). An example is Melito’s sermon On the Passover, where aselgeia is used in the trio of vices, and then the speaker describes as the ultimate degree of aselgeia cases where “father cohabits with his child, and son with his mother, and brother with sister, and male with male, and each man neighing after the wife of his neighbor.”
How did the earliest Christians translate this word? Syriac is the closest language to Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. Our Syriac versions use a word that means licentiousness or lewdness. This Syriac word comes from an Aramaic word that conveys a terrible stench. The specific Aramaic word that Jesus probably used never appears in print, which leads me to wonder whether it was unprintable (!) due to Jewish reluctance to talk about the subject unless absolutely necessary.
According to both the Oxford Latin Dictionary and Craig Williams, author of Roman Homosexuality, the translation used in the Old Latin versions, impudicitia, points strongly to homosexual behavior in men. Suetonius says about Julius Caesar, “Lest there be any doubt in anyone’s mind that he was notorious indeed both for his impudicitia and his adulteries, the elder Curio called him in one of his speeches ‘every woman’s man and every man’s woman.’” It is this sense of impudicitia that is arguably the meaning behind Mark’s use of aselgeia in transmitting the words of Jesus in Mark 7:22.
The likelihood that aselgeia is Jesus’ term for homosexual behavior is strengthened by his clear overarching teaching on marriage in Matthew 19:1-6 (= Mark 10:1-9). As I wrote in a previous post, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tomhobson/2017/09/gods-sex-mandate-two-shall-become-one-flesh/, Genesis, Jesus, and Paul all teach God’s central teaching on sex: it belongs only in a lifelong one-flesh relationship between a man and a woman. Jesus only endorses celibacy and committed heterosexual marriage. And Jesus was enough of a non-conformist that if he had believed in same-sex relationships, he would have said so.
Does this sin list in Mark really comes from Jesus, or did the early church make it up? Jesus scholar John Meier believes that the list reads like a catechism for Gentiles who need the basics of morality spelled out for them. I would counter that every rabbi had his own halakah (code of conduct) for his followers; here, we have Jesus’ halakah, given right when he has just set aside the kosher food laws. And despite Meier’s skepticism about whether Jesus spoke these actual words, Meier writes in volume 3 of his book A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus:
“On sexual matters, Jesus and the Essenes tend in the same direction: stringent standards and prohibitions…In a sense, one could call both Jesus and the Essenes extreme conservatives…apart from the two special cases of divorce and celibacy, where he diverged from mainstream Judaism, his views were those of mainstream Judaism. Hence there was no pressing need for him to issue or for the earliest Christian Jews to enshrine moral pronouncements about matters on which all Law-abiding Jews agreed.”
Underneath the reality of same-sex desire is the God-given need all of us have for love and affirmation from our own gender. The road to healing seems to lie in meeting that need in non-sexual ways. Christians need to be the ones God uses to extend that kind of love to those who experience same-sex desire. That’s the heart I see behind what Jesus says: to set us free from anything that harms us. That’s the ultimate purpose in Jesus’ list of warnings of what throws the human heart off track. Mark gives us a tantalizing one-word clue as to what Jesus thinks on this subject.