Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Further Thoughts on Arsenokoites



Below is a debate I recently had with a friend over homosexuality in the Bible. The discussion follows on this previous post:


I've called my friend "Philo" so as to keep his identity private. Please note that in the last email of the series Philo provides me with a link to a discussion of this issue which I consider to be decisive and to offer better arguments than my own! So for convenience sake I will also post it here, and if you only have time to read that, skip this blog post and do so!!






Good thoughts, Matthias, but I do have one question:

Putting aside the issue of how difficult it often is to 'prove' the best translation of a specific word within an appropriate historical and cultural semantic domain, it would seem to me that we still have to come to terms with the best 'canonical' reading of the inter-related issues of sex and sexuality within the overarching narrative of scripture. With that in mind, and even if Paul is only referring to sex between unequals in the passage in question, there is still the broader story of 'biblical covenantal marriage' to contend with.

So my question is: why would Paul give two unmarried men tacit approval to engage in a sexual relationship outside of marriage, when it seems to me to be generally clear that the biblical witness reserves sexual relations for (ideally) marriage, or, in some cases, as the means by which a marriage is entered into?

I think one would first need to argue that Paul no longer considers marriage to be the appropriate place for a sexual relationship, in order to then make the argument for arsenokoitai as referring to sex between unequals.

Make sense?



Hi Philo

Thank you- good question!

I will try to formulate a brief answer- my head runs to a long one but I'm going to try for both our sakes!

I think my answer would take three parts:

1) my understanding is that the Torah forbids bestiality, incest, rape, adultery, and male homosexual intercourse (male anal sex). It allows polygamy and concubinage (the " peleg-ish" or half-wife who is faithful to the man but does not have the full rights of a wife.) This is the understanding even among Orthodox Rabbis who think that other prohibitions can be inferred in other ways than a literal reading of the text. But that's the pshat (literal law). Extra-marital sex is not explicitly forbidden in the Torah, though I think there is good historical-anthropological reason to believe it was strongly frowned upon if not effectively forbidden by social pressure.

The relationship between man and wife is definitely seen as spiritually significant and ontologically fundamental to humanity as expressed in Genesis. I don't see a clear demand for marital monogamy, however, and Jewish tradition did not outlaw polygamy fully until the 10th century in Europe and even more recently among Eastern Jews- a move generally agreed to be a response to the influence of Christian culture.

In Jewish law marriage is treated fundamentally as a financial and social agreement, not a sacred covenant. To be perhaps more clear: the marriage agreement is not any more sacred than other legal contracts, all of whom should be conducted according to Gods will.

Thus, though the bond and relation between man and woman is cosmically significant, marriage itself was not viewed in the way the Church came too- as a sacred covenant of a fundamentally distinct nature- until much later.

2) Paul probably felt, along with Jewish culture as it had developed, that sex should occur within marriage alone. There are good social and ethical reasons for this in most cultures (though not all- some tribal and small scale cultures have functioned without this restriction and seemingly without problems due to their particular forms of social organization).

Given that assumption Paul probably did not view same sex relations positively, or even necessarily imagine such a thing in the sense of an emotionally committed and responsible commitment between a same sex couple- though as I wrote I do not think he directly addresses the matter.

My feeling is that the important question is not what Paul thinks but what God intended in the Torah laws, my opinion on which you know.

I do feel it is likely God would be concerned with extra-marital reproductive sex because of the social and personal chaos and pain it can cause and the need for responsibility toward children, but I fail to see a strong reason why God would condemn extra marital same sex relations. And in fact I believe he did not- otherwise why is Lesbian sex allowed?

No, I think the strongest reading of the literal text is that the Torah addresses male anal sex because of the effects it had in the context- degradation- and is otherwise unconcerned with homosexual romance.

3) I think Paul's admonitions make sense in his context but must be treated with caution. I think Justin Cannon is right that Paul condemns orgies, prostitution, and exploitative homosexual acts (and I'm not sure he was capable of envisioning any other kind). All of these acts are crimes against the neighbour, unbefitting to a member of a holy people, and/or violations of Gods law.

What would render somewhat unfit for the Kingdom of God? Violations of love of neighbour or love of God. I grant that someone who believes that God forbade all homosexuality and nevertheless indulges would be a sinner. But what of someone who does not believe that, has never been told that, or lives in a culture that permits it? What is inherently sinful about it if it does not injure another person in some way?

4) One might argue that Gods laws are not particular to ancient Israel's context but are universal. I agree and don't agree. I think the form is particular but the spirit, or lesson, is universal.

An example: the cities of refuge. Should we enact his law in Canada today? Obviously there is no need. It is a response to Middle Eastern blood vengeance culture. The spirit though is to promote justice and actively protect from unjust violence, which stands today.

Or more out on a limb: kosher law. I suspect that kosher law served two functions: one was separation from other cultures. This is no longer desirable for messianic Jews which was one reason I believe the early Jewish Church clearly dropped kashrut even if they observed other laws. A second reason I've heard defended well is that eating those animals disrupted Middle Eastern ecologies. If that is true than kashrut was only really intended for Jews in Israel and observing it in the diaspora is unneeded. In fact this fits the text, since kashrut was only commanded to Israel before they came in to Canaan to build a nation and not to the Patriarchs. Also the Torah never reinforces kashrut observance for exiles.

If that is true than also here the form would be better dropped but the spirit- live in harmony with the ecological needs- would still apply.

So what about male homosexual sex? Is the law universal or a response to Middle Eastern ethos around anal sex?

Friedmans explanation demonstrates that anally penetrating another man was an act of personal and social violence against him in most cultures surrounding Israel. Therefore it is a crime against the neighbour and so against God.

But what about today? Can we demonstrate that it is today an act of violence against the neighbour?

I would like to hear more about the covenental marriage teaching you see in Scripture. I will be honest- I currently suspect at least aspects of it to be philosophical or speculative as opposed to scriptural in nature.

Sorry- not short at all!

Best wishes and thanks for the provocative and helpful debate


Ps: did you know that the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly has allowed same sex marriages but forbids male anal sex? Another interesting twist on the debate.



Hi Matthias

Lots to think about! Thanks for your reply.

A couple of quick thoughts:

1. On polygamy and concubinage, I remember hearing a few years back that although polygamy etc., was not expressly forbidden, the Scriptures typically paint it (in the the narrative parts of the Scriptures) in a negative light: especially for the women and children. That is to say, it is present, yes, but it is seen as an 'evil', sometimes a necessary one for sure - i.e., for the sake/security of women without a husband to provide for them, young widows, and the like, but not in any way ideal.

2. On the issue of extra-marital sex and marriage, my understanding is there were essentially two ways to get married in ancient Israel: by the socially acceptable way - betrothal/familial arrangement, or by sexual intercourse. I'm not sure that the second option was 'mandated', but expected, see Exodus 22:16, for example. Lev 22 also seems to suggest in fairly strong terms, that a women pledged to be married must be a virgin. It also seems that in such cases where a man did not 'do his duty' and marry a woman he had lain with or raped, and it was discovered, the woman was consigned to 'desolation' (if not stoned to death). Eg., Amnon and Tamar. Not sure how to square all this, it certainly doesn't seem fair to the women involved...! Nevertheless, there appears to be a very high value placed on remaining chaste prior to marriage. I don't know if this includes same-sex intercourse, however.

3. You said: "In Jewish law marriage is treated fundamentally as a financial and social agreement, not a sacred covenant. To be perhaps more clear: the marriage agreement is not any more sacred than other legal contracts, all of whom should be conducted according to Gods will." Interesting that you frame it this way, because it seems to me that it is exactly this state of affairs/understanding of marriage that Jesus strongly criticizes in Matthew 19. To the Pharisees, marriage is a contractual arrangement that can be entered into, or concluded (by the men) via a "certificate of divorce", as often as is necessary, as per Moses' command. Jesus is quite clear that this should not be the case, that marriage should be treated very differently to other 'business arrangements', precisely because it is deemed sacred ("what God has brought together") from the very beginning in creation. As far as Jesus is concerned, apart from "sexual immorality" (oh the ink spilled on what this means!), divorce is therefore out of the question, despite Moses' permission. He is also specific that this is between a man and a woman, and further, that apart from this arrangement it appears the only other option is celibacy (which likely rules out same-sex intercourse, as well, even among consenting adults).

So to briefly answer your inquiry regarding where I see marriage as a sacred covenant in Scripture, I would say the following:

Putting aside Paul for a moment, it would seem to me that the Christian view of marriage as a sacred covenant between a man and a woman is primarily based in the teachings of Jesus, which itself appeals to Genesis, and also both reinterprets and critiques the Torah on the issue - especially regarding divorce, though the larger issue is of course the 'low/contractual' view of marriage held by the religious leaders at the time.

Jesus also addresses these issues in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, though more briefly, including the meaning of 'adultery'.

That's it for now, must hit the hay.

Let's catch up next week- I'm certainly enjoying this exchange!


Hello Philo

Excellent response, thank you! Much to think about here as well.

1. I am not convinced that the narratives critique polygamy per se, though some Rabbis also hold that view.

The narratives critique bad behaviour in many contexts, including familial, but I don't see polygamy itself as a clear target. For example, the problem with Hagar is not concubinage but lack of patient faith in Gods promise. If there were any narratives of monogamy which were portrayed positively, or the great heroes like David and Abraham were monogamous- but they are not portrayed so.

I am not aware of evidence that polygamy and concubinage were intended as ways to alleviate social ills like widowhood, though that's an interesting idea.

2. As for premarital sex, yes sexual intercourse can constitute the act of koneh or "acquisition". Giving the bride a valuable object is the other alternative, and generally the families must agree. I agree that virginity was sometimes promised and a false promise was considered unethical (as claiming falsely a false promise) as in Deuteronomy 22. Virginity, anthropologically speaking, is usually particularly valued in higher class marriages. Virginity is not a requirement for Jewish marriages in ancient Jewish law, however, and I don't see clear evidence that it was Biblically- though a princess not a virgin (as Amnon and Tamar) might indeed be in deep trouble.

That said I'm sure virginity was highly desirable and I'm not saying that premarital sex was widely acceptable. It is not, however, singled out as explicitly forbidden in the Torah itself.

3. Here we come to the real meaty argument. It seems clear that Jesus, and therefore God, sees marriage as a sacred commitment and Jewish tradition as an accommodation which needed to be corrected.

The disciples reaction is interesting and even humorous! "What! If divorce is not allowed, who would marry at all!" Jesus says if you are not ready for this than be celibate.

This is indeed a "hard saying" for me, as coming from a Jewish background where divorce is permissible but discouraged (and divorce rates are famously low) I struggle with what seems to me an extreme view coming from the mouth of The Lord. It definitely fits with Jesus' general aversion to legalistic interpretation which evades internal purity.

The only way I can think of to square this statement with the conclusions I have so far reached and argued is that Jesus was speaking both to his elect disciples in private and within his social context, one in which there was already established a general aversion to homosexuality among Jews. As for it being his close disciples he was speaking too- which teaching is only for those able to accept it? The teaching on marriage, or on celibacy, or both?

As for the anti- homosexual implication I don't think his point (how seriously he takes the marital commitment) would have been as well made by saying, "Well, engage in homosexual dalliance like the Romans, then". Aside from such advice departing from the tenor and goal of his teaching at that moment, if the apostles had done so their credibility among Jews would have been zilch. I don't think my reflections here are at all conclusive. I also don't feel in my gut that this teaching, which addresses a different issue than homosexuality and in a very specific context with specific people, is decisive as a general legal or ethical ruling on homosexuality. It will, however, be continued food for thought for me on the issue- thank you.

Best wishes on the move!

With esteem


Ps: I would also like to say that however highly I regard scripture it is not the only basis for ethical decision making in my eyes- reason and experience also play a role.

It seems clear to me that heterosexual love is the norm and sacred paradigm and monogamous heterosexual marriage the ideal. The problem is that there are people who inescapably desire homosexual love. An orthodox Rabbi who tried to "reform" them for decades once told me it was impossible and damaging to do so and he had given it up and advises gay men not to marry heterosexually because of the pain and ruined lives he has seen this cause. He advises celibacy or if they must have sex advises other Jews to accept them as sinners no different from others who cannot fulfill the whole law.

Fine and good, but viewing them as sinners troubles me when I have met ethically conjoined gay men who deeply love eachother and seem no less fully human in their own way than heteros- and who I believe do not choose to be homosexually oriented!

It is because of this reason and experience that I approach scripture on this issue with great searching and caution.


Hi Matthias,

Yes I am sympathetic to these things as well, I hope that I'm not coming across hard-nosed, I am simply seeking to understand as well.

A while back a friend and I spent a whole year praying with and counselling a woman who believed she was transgender. In the end, after much struggling with it, I came to the understanding that given our sinful condition it of course makes sense that some do experience a 'broken' sense of their sexual identity, where biology does not necessarily match with identity. Does this mean they must continue to identify with their biology because they are Christians and this is the body God gave them? I don't think it is that simple. Should they rush straight into gender realignment therapy? Surgery? Hormone replacement? It's a minefield, especially now that we have the medical technology to 'fix' these folks.

And of course, the same sets of issues stand for sexual attraction. Is it nature, nurture, the will of God? Who knows? I don't, and the Scriptures do not give us clear answers on these things. Except to say that all of us are broken and sinners, and fall short of the glory of God. Our sexuality is broken: even the so called 'straight' among us - we're just as twisted as anyone. Rape, the sexualisation of children, pornography, adultery, raunch culture, misogyny: we any better? Nevertheless, does this mean we rush ahead and affirm gay marriage and let gay couples adopt and raise children? I'm still not all the way there on that Matthew, especially once children are involved. But does this mean gay folks should be excluded from a loving sexual relationship? Well, I'm not comfortable with that idea either, I don't think that is just at all. Why should they suffer if they cannot accept celibacy, if that is what Jesus commands? Ah! It is vey hard.

So yes, I agree with you, we must move forward with humility and grace. Affirming the ideal, but making room for those who cannot live up to it.

Likewise, I am of a similar mind in regard to how we approach the scriptures, with one exception: I take the words and commands of Jesus as the 'hermeneutical centre and governing principle' by which I interpret the rest of it.

In all other matters, well in most, but especially those that are unclear in the scriptures themselves, such as the topic at hand, I apply what is known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral:

Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience - in that order:


Bless you




Hi Philo

No, you definitely don't come across as hard-nosed, don't worry. I read recently about the quadrilateral ( I am slowly making my way through what seems to me to be the excellent "responsible grace"- an overview of Wesley's theology). It seems a very good hermeneutic to me.

I struggled with the apparent Jewish law against homosexuality for years before discovering Friedman. When I came away from reading his chapter on Homosexuality in "The Bible Now" my faith in the Word was increased and I felt for the first time that the law in Leviticus was actually brilliant, not problematic.

This was at the same time that I read Berman and Hazony- who I very much recommend to you and to read together if you are craving some Torah study time at some point.

Reflecting on Jesus' words in Matthew I am struck by the simple fact that he was speaking to heterosexual men. For them - pious Jewish males- the only option other than marriage would have been celibacy. I would still therefore hesitate to see a universal statement about homosexuality implied clearly here. Especially in concert with the fact that the very detailed sexual laws of the Torah, and therefore of Jesus, are not concerned with female homosexual sex. Anyway, I think I've belaboured my argument enough!

I appreciate the struggle of anyone who sincerely struggles with these issues, and yes- with transgender issues now as well it is a minefield indeed. And I agree of course with your assertion of Jesus as the hermeneutic centre of the Torah.

I've enjoyed this conversation! May many more follow on it :)

The peace of Christ be with you.



Hi Matthias

I've been doing more reading on the GLBT stuff we've been discussing, and came across this blog, which has a long series of posts on the various related passages and the hermeneutical issues involved in interpreting them. There's an especially thought provoking one on the Matthew passage we were looking at.

The author comes very close to your own interpretation on several points. I must say it has me feeling very challenged about my own reading of these passages and the assumptions/presuppositions I bring to the question!




Hi Philo

Thank you so much for this excellent series of posts! Fascinating and provocative to read, and helped to expand and clarify my thinking. Also, though I already respect you highly your continuing examination of this question and your sharing with me this golden load of argumentation which supports the view I was arguing and you were challenging increases my respect for you yet more!


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