The Bible & Same Sex Relationships

The U.S. Supreme Court has now heard oral arguments on two cases about same sex marriage. Rulings on both are expected by late June 2013.

For Christians and non-Christians, much of the debate swirls around competing perceptions of ethical, moral and religious values with respect to sex and marriage. Despite much talk about the religious angle, there is widespread confusion about what the Bible says (and doesn’t say) on this topic.

So, the question addressed by this blog is: What does the Bible have to say about same sex relationships and marriage? The answer may surprise.

While both the Old and New Testaments have something to say, what they say is not enough to make a strong biblical case either for or against same gay marriage.

There may be good reasons to either support or object to gay marriage. But the reasons will need to be found somewhere else than in God’s revealed word.

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And about the headliner photo with this blog – a mosaic of Amazons (lesbians?) at Sepphoris – just four miles from Jesus hometown of Nazareth. Sepphoris was destroyed about the time of Jesus’ birth after an uprising following the death of Herod the Great. Sepphoris was rebuilt by son Antipas as the capitol city of Galilee while Jesus was growing up. Did Joseph the carpenter (and possibly his son as apprentice) contribute to the rebuilding? One can only speculate.

Old Testament Accounts. So here we go. The earliest clear biblical reference to an attempted same sex relationship occurs in Genesis as the first book of the Bible. A person named Lot is the nephew of a man named Abraham who happens to be the spiritual patriarch of Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Lot is visited by two strangers (angels it appears) who arouse the sexual spirits of the men in the town of Sodom. They surround Lot’s house and call out: “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.”

In an effort to protect his guests, Lot offers up his two virgin daughters instead. In the end, the two male angels end up protecting Lot and his daughters but tell him to leave quickly as God will destroy the city.

Looking out to the Dead Sea from Masada ... Is Sodom out there somewhere?

Looking out to the Dead Sea from Masada … Is Sodom out there somewhere?

Today, the act of anal penetration is known by the name of Lot’s home town as sodomy. However, it is noted that the real sin of the men of Sodom was less about same sex intercourse and more about forcible intercourse, i.e., rape.

A similar and, in many ways, even more bizarre case of attempted same sex action replaced by a raped female substitute is recorded in Judges 19. There are also several instances of what appears to be male cultic prostitution reported in 1 Kings 14, 15 and 22 and in 2 Kings 23.

A more specific prohibition is given by Moses to Hebrew men in Leviticus 18: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. ‘Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion.”

In Leviticus 20, this prohibition is repeated but with the additional sanction of death for violators. The same death penalty is also prescribed for those involved in adultery with another man’s wife, or for those who mate with an animal.

New Testament Testimony. Moving to the New Testament, the first thing to note is that Jesus is not recorded by any of the four gospels as having anything to say about same sex relations.

On matters of sexuality, what Jesus has to say is directed at heterosexuals. And his warnings are stern. He stipulates clearly that any man who even “looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If you think Jesus is kidding, the next words out of his mouth warn of judgment: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

In danger of hell-fire?! And all for just one longing gaze at a comely babe. Even pure-as-the-driven-snow former President Jimmy Carter stands condemned.

Jesus doesn’t stop there, but goes on to observe that “whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Well, that’s it for the roughly half of so-called American Christian adults who have divorced.

Admittedly, whether or not Jesus had ever desired or consummated sexual relations has long been a matter of some speculation at the margins of Christianity. The most persistent rumor (not without foundation) is that Jesus had a relationship with or perhaps even married Mary Magdalene. In recent years, this story was given added prominence by the Dan Brown novel The DaVinci Code.

An entirely different perspective in recent years has come about as a result of the supposed post-World War II discovery of a Secret Gospel of Mark suggesting a possible sexual relationship between Jesus and Lazarus. This fragmentary and disputed manuscript posits a same sex relationship between Jesus and Lazarus occurring in conjunction with the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. The account states that:

“Then Jesus went up and rolled the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. He went right in where the young man was, stuck out his hand, grabbed him by the hand, and raised him up. The young man looked at Jesus, loved him, and began to beg to be with him. Then they left the tomb and went into the young man’s house. (Incidentally, he was rich). Six days later Jesus gave him an order; and when evening had come, the young man went to him, dressed only in a linen cloth. He spent that night with him, because Jesus taught him the mystery of God’s domain. From there <Jesus> got up and returned to the other side of the Jordan.”

The author of this text is tentatively identified as the second century Clement of Alexandria. This secret Gospel of Mark was reputedly discovered by Morton Smith, professor of ancient history at ColumbiaUniversity at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem in 1958. Unfortunately, the document has never been independently authenticated.

On to Paul. The one New Testament writer with definite opinions about homosexual activity is the Johnny-come-lately apostle Paul. In the opening paragraphs of his letter to the Romans, Paul goes on a rant about those whom God has given up to “vile passions,” stating that: “For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful…”

And to the denizens of Corinth, Paul writes about the unrighteous who will not inherit the kingdom of God, boldly proclaiming that:

“Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”

And to Timothy who he was mentoring, Paul writes that:” the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.”

Note two things with both of these Pauline passages. First, homosexuality is identified as a sin on a par with such other acts as fornication and adultery. Gay relationships may be viewed by Paul as not desired but they are no worse than sexual issues common to a broad cross-section of straight society.

Second, Paul notes (in his Corinthian letter) that, while a flaw, these and other sins are all subject to sanctification (or being made right) through Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit. In short, the kingdom of God is not necessarily closed even to those whom Paul would regard as guilty of ungodly behavior, no matter what the issue.

Back to Paul. Was Paul reacting primarily from his Jewish tradition? Was he attempting to reflect what Christ had taught? Or was taking a more nuanced course – distinguishing between what Jesus directly taught and his own personal interpretation? The evidence suggests that the latter is the case.

What is fairly clear is that homosexual contact was generally not considered appropriate within 1st century Judaism – though diverse opinions abounded with regard to matters of human sexuality. For example, the 1st century BCE Jewish philosopher Hillel clearly disapproved of polygamy. In contrast, his more conservative counterpart Shammai approved.

Homosexual activity was widely known and practiced in the Roman world. Julius Caesar was as renowned for his dalliances with comely men (or boys) as for his liaison with Cleopatra. In his biography of the Caesar, Suetonius observes that “he was every woman’s man, and every man’s woman.”

Lesbian relationships were also the stuff of both myth and reality in the Greco-Roman world. Amazon women found their way into mosaics just a stone’s throw from Jesus boyhood home in Nazareth. And Paul the apostle –  a man of Jewish heritage and Roman citizenship – was sophisticated enough to be aware of both male and female homosexual relationships. Paul operated in multiple worlds.

By legend, Amazons mated with men only by necessity to maintain an all-female warrior race. This mosaic is also from Sepphoris (or Tzippori), a 1st century principal city of Galilee situated only 4 miles from Nazareth.

By legend, Amazons mated with men only by necessity to maintain an all-female warrior race. This mosaic is also from Sepphoris (or Tzippori), a 1st century principal city of Galilee situated only 4 miles from Nazareth.

So while Paul claimed that much of his Christian teaching came from direct divine utterances, he does not claim this for his views related to same sex relations. In fact, Paul clearly distances himself from the other apostolic leaders of the early church who relied on what they had heard directly from Jesus. In a letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “But from those who seemed to be something (like Church leaders James, Peter and John) —whatever they were, it makes no difference to me.”

In effect, Paul’s antipathy toward anything smacking of same sex contact appears to be rooted in: a) his own personal views rather than anything Jesus explicitly taught; and b) his personal practice based on a lifetime of asceticism that favored remaining celibate over marriage, and then marriage over homosexual behavior.

As he wrote to the church in Corinth: “But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

What conclusions can we draw from this? Three are offered here:

  1. While same sex relationships may not be spoken of as favorably as those of the heterosexual variety by the Almighty, they clearly are not viewed any less favorably than other sexual activities – notably adultery and fornication – in which the majority of heterosexual and so-called American Christians have engaged. And there is evidence, particularly the testimony of Jesus, indicating that good old heterosexual issues like adultery were more pressing concerns to be addressed during his brief earthly ministry.
  2. Homosexuality is less the issue than the nature of the human-human relationship. Rape is rape – whether of the homosexual or heterosexual variety. The true nature of the crime committed by the Sodomites of old has been misrepresented. Forcible intercourse – whether attempted or actualized – is the true evil.
  3. There are undoubtedly arguments that can be made for and against gay marriage. But those arguments need to be made on grounds other than what is offered by Jewish and Christian scripture. Leave the Bible out of the gay marriage debate.

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