Tuesday, 27 May 2014



A good friend recently pointed me to the above post, as another perspective on Paul's discussion of homosexuality which differs from the one I personally subscribe to. The perspective I find compelling is best represented in the writings of the Jewish scholar Richard Elliot Friedman (The Bible Now) and Reverend Justin Cannon (Homosexuality Christianity and the Bible). A brief summary of a take on these views can be found on the following Jewish blog: http://mgindin.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/all-a-horrible-mistake-the-bibles-supposed-condemnation-of-homosexuality/

I would like to post a brief critique of Belgau's piece linked above. I think he raises good questions about how to interpret Paul's writings on homosexuality correctly and his piece is intelligent and worth thinking through. That said I think he is asking the wrong question, namely, "why did Paul prohibit homosexuality?" 

First of all it must be said that Paul did not "prohibit homosexuality". He severely criticized certain sexual practices whose identity is debated but clearly refer to some types of homosexual practices. Even if we agree that the object of his criticism is any and all homosexual romance (which I don't) he is not the source of the prohibition, the Torah is. 

I think it is clear that Paul criticized certain sexual practices, at least one of which (arsenokoites) is the same practice prohibited to Israel in Mosaic law. I think it is most reasonable to assume that Paul did not condemn arsenokoites on the basis of his own sensibilities but on the basis of the Jewish sentiments which take as their historical basis the Torah prohibition and it's original logic. Therefore I think Belgau is on the wrong trail when he tries to argue on the basis of a reconstruction of Pauls personal sentiments. The important question is: "What did the Torah condemn with the word arsenokoites and why?" 

The Septuagint translates the Levitical prohibition as "arsenokoites". It is translating the phrase "to lay with a man as laying with a woman". I believe that the Torah prohibition refers specifically to sexual intercourse between men. "Laying" is a euphemism for sex. "Like a woman" narrows the focus to penetrating another man like he was a woman. Those who argue that the Torah is antagonistic towards homosexuality per se must explain why Lesbian sex is not prohibited despite the careful and bi-gendered nature of Torah prohibitions regarding sex. There is something about sexual intercourse between Israelite men that the Torah finds specifically repulsive. 

What is it? Friedman extensively documents the fact that in Israel's ancient near eastern context anal penetration humiliated, feminized, and degraded the penetrated. A fundamental aspect of Mosaic law was its creation of a free and equal society before God which was in direct and pointed contradiction to the hierarchical slave states of Egypt and other surrounding cultures (to understand this in full please read the excellent Created Equal by Joshua Berman and The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony). Practices in which Israelite men degraded and humiliated eachother would need to be mandated against. 

The concern with homosexual intercourse is not unique to the Torah- several other Middle Eastern law codes and literatures addressed it as an issue. As is consistent with other examples of the Torah giving its opinion on typical legal issues dealt with in other codes, so the Torah here gives it's unique opinion on male homosexual intercourse. 

As a final note, there is a suggestion that the Torah's aversion to male homosexuality as a form of degradation and injustice lives on in Paul's phrasing. Justin Cannon argues persuasively that "pornoi, arsenokotai, andrapadistoi" in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is best translated as something like "male prostitutes, those who use them (arsenokotai) and the sex traffickers who enslave them". 

I don't think that the arguments I've outlined or referenced above are certain. I do find them the most compelling interpretations, but recognize they still may be wrong. I think that the ambiguity here demands humility and I hope that these arguments will at the least convince those who think the bible plainly condemns homosexuality that humility is justly required of them as well. 

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