From The Church and the Homosexual
by John J. McNeill, SJ. pp. 37-66.
Published by Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977.
The Use of Scripture
There are two methodological questions in moral theology which are important for a discussion of the morality of homosexuality. The first of these has to do with the use and place of Scripture in moral theology, and the second with the use and place of the human sciences. Since a Christian ethics as such reflects on human reality within the context of Christian revelation, it is obvious that scriptural sources have a role to play: “Biblical ethics contributes data to Christian ethics, but it remains only one aspect, albeit a privileged aspect, of the total data of ethical theology,” Father Curran notes. There are, however, two limitations to the use of biblical data. First, the Scriptures are “historically and culturally limited,” so that one cannot merely transpose a text of Scripture to the contemporary circumstances of life. Secondly, no thesis would be acceptable which would develop its argument only in terms of individual texts taken out of their context.
When Curran makes use of scriptural data concerning homosexuality, however, he does not seem to apply adequately the criteria he himself set down for a legitimate use of such data. Referring to those passages in the Old and New Testaments which have been traditionally translated as dealing with homosexuality, he acknowledges that “possibly erroneous interpretations seem to have overemphasized the heinousness of homosexual acts.” He accepts D. Sherwin Bailey’s account of the Sodom story of Genesis 19:4-11, granting that the sin of the Sodomites “does not necessarily involve a sexual connotation but could be interpreted as a violation of hospitality.”’, This is a very important concession, since the centuriesold tradition in the Christian world of extreme condemnation of homosexuality always had its primary basis in the interpretation of this text of Genesis as indicating an extreme divine judgment of condemnation on homosexual behavior. He continues to accept, however, what he believes to be a general condemnation of homosexuality in the Old Testament. His primary evidence for this is the references to homosexuality in the Holiness Code (Lev. 18:22; 20:13 ), where it is referred to as a major crime punishable by death.
Indicating three direct references to homosexuality in the New Testament, all in the epistles of St. Paul (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10; Rom. 1:26-27), Curran concludes: “Paul obviously regards homosexual acts as wrong and a perversion of human existence willed by God.” He acknowledges, however, Thielicke’s contention that Paul’s consideration of homo-, sexuality appears “only in the context of a more central theological affirmation that disorder in the vertical dimension of man’s relation with God is matched by disorder in the horizontal dimension.” Consequently, Paul never considers homo-, sexuality in itself, but “only as illustrative of the central theological point that man’s relationship with God affects all his other relationships. ”
Curran concludes from this brief consideration of biblical data that it “indicates that the biblical authors in their cultural and historical circumstances deemed homosexual acts wrong and attached a generic gravity to such acts, but there appears to be no reason for attaching a special heinousness or gravity to these acts.” In all these considerations, however, he omits a central question. Can one merely accept what is referred to in English translations of the Bible as homosexuality as representing in the mind of the biblical authors what we refer to today by the same term?
We would do well to recall here the words of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council dealing with the interpretation of sacred Scripture:
Since God speaks in sacred Scripture through men in a human fashion, the interpreter of sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words. (No. 12)
This cautious investigation of the intention of the human author is especially called for in dealing with biblical passages which traditionally have been accepted as dealing with homosexual activity.
The Need for a Definition of Homosexuality
Unfortunately, Curran never attempts to define exactly what he means by the term homosexual. As a result he feels free to assume that what is usually translated in the biblical texts by the same term as that used today actually refers to the same condition. It can, however, be argued (1) that what is referred to, especially in the New Testament, under the rubric of homosexuality is not the same reality at all or (2) that the biblical authors do not manifest the same understanding of that reality as we have today. Further, it can be seriously questioned whether what is understood today as the true homosexual and his or her activity is ever the object of explicit moral condemnation in Scripture.
The prefix “homo” in the word homosexual is derived from the Greek root meaning “same,” and not from the Latin word for “man.” Consequently, it designates anyone who is sexually attracted to someone of the same sex and includes both male and female homosexuals, or lesbians. Most human beings are capable of either homosexual or heterosexual activity, independent of the question of their own psychological sexual orientation. Many homosexuals marry and have children, frequently in an effort to conceal their sexual orientation. On the other hand, there is no necessary connection between overt homosexual behavior and the permanent psychological condition of homosexuality. Many people have had homosexual experiences who do not have a predominantly homosexual orientation but are definitely heterosexually inclined. Consequently, it is important for the moralist to keep the distinction between homosexual activity and the homosexual condition clearly in mind. For there is an important difference in the moral judgment to be passed on a heterosexual indulging in homosexual activity and a true homosexual indulging in the same behavior as an expression of his or her love.
Kinsey limited himself exclusively to objective behavior in the scientific study he made of sexual mores in the United States, leaving aside the subjective question of the sexual orientation of his respondents. According to Kinsey, as much as thirty-seven percent of the male population had some overt homosexual experience .29 In the majority of cases, however, these experiences seemed to involve little more than transitory experimentation which did not inhibit a later satisfactory heterosexual adjustment. There are many other forms of contingent homosexual practice which can be called situational and which do not indicate a true homosexual psychological condition. When, for example, men are isolated together for long periods of time and separated from the companionship of women-as in prisons or at sea-many will adopt homosexual behavior; but most of them normally discard their homosexual behavior and resume a heterosexual orientation once withdrawn from their segregated situation. Still other forms of conditional homosexual behavior, which do not necessarily indicate a homosexual condition, can be called variational, e.g. heterosexuals who occasionally take part in homosexual activity out of curiosity or as an easy means of sexual indulgence. Still one other form of conditional homosexual behavior should be mentioned; this category involves people who, although they are fundamentally heterosexually inclined, adopt homosexual behavior consequent upon some traumatic event or psychic disorder. If they are cured of their trauma or disorder, they will revert to their original heterosexual inclination.
Although all of the above groups have had some homosexual experience, none of them are what could be called “true” homosexuals. Today we use the word homosexual primarily to refer to the psychic condition of the individual, and not just to occasional behavior. Bailey defines homosexuality as “a condition characterized by an emotional and physicosexual propensity toward others of the same sex.” D. W. Cory defines the homosexual as “any person who feels a most urgent sexual desire which in the main is directed toward gratification with the same sex. ” The Dutch Cathechism uses the term to refer to those “whose eroticism cannot be directed to the other sex, but apparently only to the same sex to which they themselves belong.” As John Cavanaugh remarks, “It is important to accept the concept that homosexuality is a way of thinking and feeling, not merely a way of acting. The performance of homosexual acts is, therefore, not in itself evidence of homosexuality.” Christopher Isherwood indicates the subjective norm for knowing oneself to be a homosexual when he writes: “You first know you are a homosexual when you fall in love with another man.”
As Bailey observes, strictly speaking neither the Bible nor Christian tradition knew anything of homosexuality as such; both were concerned solely with the commission of homosexual acts. Homosexuality is not, as commonly supposed, a kind of conduct, but a psychological condition. It is important to understand that the genuine homosexual condition-or inversion, as it is often termed-is something for which the subject can in no way be held responsible. In itself it is morally neutral. Like the condition of heterosexuality, however, it tends to find expression in specific sexual acts; and such acts are subject to moral judgment. We must distinguish, then, between the invert and the pervert. The pervert is not a genuine homosexual; rather, he is a heterosexual who engages in homosexual practices, or a homosexual who engages in heterosexual practices. This distinction between the condition of inversion and the behavior of perversion is indispensable for a correct interpretation of biblical and traditional sources.
The real moral problem of homosexuality has to do with judging the moral value of sexual activity between genuine homosexuals who seek to express their love for one another in a sexual gesture. Scripture can be understood as clearly and explicitly condemning true homosexual activity only if it can be interpreted as condemning the activity of a true invert. To such situations, however, it can hardly be said that the Bible addresses itself, since the condition of inversion with all its special problems was quite unknown at the, time. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that in most instances where Scripture deals with homosexuality the author probably had in mind what today we would call perversion, namely, the indulgence in homosexual activity on the part of those who were by nature heterosexually inclined.
The Sodom and Gomorrah Story in Genesis
Perhaps the single most important factor in the Western Christian tradition condemning homosexual practices is the interpretation given to the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis 19:4-The Church taught, and people universally believed on what they held to be excellent authority, that homosexual practices had brought a terrible divine vengeance upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and that the repetition of such “offences against nature” had from time to time provoked similar visitations of divine wrath in the form of earthquakes, floods, famines, outbreaks of pestilence, etc. It was taken for granted, therefore, that by means of both Church discipline and the restraints and penalties of civil law steps should be taken to ward off the wrath of God from the community. It was also taken for granted that the sin for which the cities of the plain were destroyed was that of the habitual indulgence of perverse homosexual practices among men. Consequently, the question must be posed: To what extent is this tradition truly founded in Scripture? What was the meaning of the encounter of Lot and his angelic visitors with the angry inhabitants of Sodom as recorded by the Yahwist author of Genesis 19? Finally, what grounds, if any, are there for the persistent belief that the inhabitants of the city were addicted to male homosexual practices and were punished accordingly?
As D. S. Bailey points out, the attribution of homosexual practices is based usually on the demand the Sodomites are recorded to have made of Lot: “Bring them [Lot’s visitors] out unto us, that we may know them.” The Hebrew word “to know” yãdhá can mean “engage in coitus.” However, Bailey argues this is not necessarily the meaning of the word in this passage. The Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament notes that of the 943 uses of yãdhá it is used only 10 times without qualification, apart from this text in Genesis and its derivative in Judges 19:22, to denote sexual coitus. And, again with the possible exception of this text, it always refers to heterosexual coitus. The word normally used in the Old Testament for both homosexual coitus and bestiality is shãkhabh. G. A. Barton concludes from this evidence that “there is no actual necessity to interpret ‘know’ in Gen. xix, 5 as equivalent with ‘to have coitus with.’ It may mean no more than ‘get acquainted with.”
Bailey argues further that the passage can be interpreted as implying that Lot, who was a ger or resident alien in Sodom, may have exceeded his rights by receiving and entertaining two foreigners whose intentions might have been, hostile and whose credentials, it seems, had not been examined. This explanation provides a natural and sufficient reason for the demand: “Where are the men who came to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them.”
What, then, Bailey asks, was the nature of the sinfulness of Sodom and Gomorrah? We are told in the passage itself in Genesis that these cities were wicked and grievously sinful, but the writer does not specify the nature of this iniquity more exactly. However, Bailey argues, only on a priori grounds can it be assumed that it was an iniquity solely or even predominantly sexual in character. There is no evidence elsewhere in the passage or in the Old Testament to show that homosexual behavior was particularly prevalent in these cities. Lot’s offer to surrender his daughters in place of the strangers is sometimes interpreted as an offer of heterosexual in lieu of homosexual satisfaction, in order to divert the lust of the Sodomites into less inordinate channels. However, Bailey claims, this episode can be reasonably explained as simply the most tempting bribe Lot could offer at the spur of the moment to appease a hostile crowd.
Bailey believes that for an understanding of the development of the Sodom and Gomorrah story it is important to place it in the context of the legends of a similar character in the folklore of the surrounding cultures. Many of these legends tell of a stranger (sometimes a divine being in disguise) who visits a prosperous city and is refused hospitality. He eventually finds a lodging, often with poor outcasts. Consequently, he helps his hosts escape before the city and its inhabitants are destroyed. The most famous of these legends is Ovid’s account of Philemon and Baucis.32 These legends may account for the particular form the Sodom story itself assumed during its course of oral transmission prior to being written down. In the legend, as in the same Yahwist author’s Tower of Babel narrative in Genesis 11:9, the conduct which brings judgment upon the offending community and leads to its destruction is never sexual, but always wickedness in general, and in particular pride and inhospitality.
There are several other aspects to the narrative, besides those Bailey mentions, which tend to indicate that in the mind of the Yahwist author of the narrative the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was primarily one of inhospitality to strangers. For example, when the angelic visitors come as strangers to Abraham’s tent, the quality of Abraham as a good man is dramatically established by an emphasis on his hospitable reception of the strangers.
Raising his eyes he saw three men standing near him. On seeing them, he ran from the door of his tent to meet them, and bowing to the ground said; “Oh sirs, if perchance I find favor with you, please do not pass by without stopping with your servant. Let a little water be brought to wash your feet, and stretch yourselves out under the tree, while I fetch a bit of food that you may refresh yourselves. Afterwards you may proceed on your way, since you will then have paid your servant a visit.” (Gen. 18:15) 33
Similarly the quality of Lot as a good man worthy of God’s favor is established in contrast to the other inhabitants of Sodom by his hospitality to the same strangers in terms strongly reminiscent of the story of the disciples of Emmaus in the New Testament:
The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening while Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them, bowing his face to the ground, and saying: “If you please, sirs, come over to your servant’s house to pass the night and wash your feet; in the morning you may rise early, and go on your way.” But they said: “No, we will pass the night in the open.” He pressed them so strongly, however, that they went over to his house, where he prepared a feast for them, and baked unleavened bread for them to eat. (Gen. 19:1-3)
A confirmation of the interpretation of the primary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as inhospitality occurs in the New Testament where Christ is recorded as discussing the problem of the inhospitable reception of his disciples:
But whenever you come to a town and they do not welcome you, go out into the open streets and say: “The very dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off in protest. But understand this: The Kingdom of God is at hand” I tell you, on that day Sodom will fare better than that town. (Lk. 10:10-13)
Throughout the Old Testament Sodom is referred to as a symbol of utter destruction occasioned by sins of such magnitude as to merit exemplary punishment.” However, nowhere in the Old Testament is that sin identified explicitly with homosexual behavior. In Ezekiel 16:49-50, for example, we read: “Behold, this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters lived in pride, plenty, and thoughtless ease; they supported not the poor and needy; they grew haughty, and committed abomination before me; so I swept them away, as you have seen.” Isaiah stresses lack of justice, Jeremiah cites moral and ethical laxity. The Deuterocanonical books usually identify the sin as one of pride and inhospitality. Wisdom (19:1314 ), for example, clearly identifies the sin as one of inhospitality: “. . . whereas the men of Sodom received not the strangers when they came among them; the Egyptians made slaves of the guests who were their benefactors.” Ecclesiasticus (16:8) in turn identifies the sin as pride: “He did not spare the people among whom Lot was living, whom he detested for their pride.” Only the late New Testament books, 2 Peter and Jude, find the sin of Sodom connected in any way with sexual practices; but these books, as we shall discuss later, seem to understand the sin as a “transgression of orders” between human and angelic beings.
A further confirmation that in biblical times the sin of Sodom was not connected with homosexual practices as such is to be found in the fact that none of the biblical passages, either in the Old or New Testament, traditionally understood as condemning these practices makes any mention of the Sodom story. Yet such a reference would have been obvious if the sin of Sodom was understood as involving these practices.
It would seem fairly certain, then, that the sin of Sodom was understood in biblical times as primarily one of inhospitality. However, Bailey may perhaps have overstated his case in maintaining that there is no reference at all to sexual mistreatment of the strangers as one aspect of the crime of inhospitality. There is a hint of this in the fact that the same Hebrew word yãdhá is used again by Lot in verse 7 when he offers his daughters to the inhabitants, and here it clearly and unambiguously implies sexual knowledge:
Please my friends, be not so depraved. I have two daughters who have never had intercourse (yãdhá) with a man, let me bring them out to you that you may do with them what you will; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof. (Gen. 19:7-8)
It remains possible, however, that the Yahwist author was deliberately playing on the ambiguity of the term, using it in two different meanings.
Further, Bailey’s interpretation makes it difficult to understand how the behavior of the inhabitants of Sodom confirmed the angels’ opinion that they were wicked enough to deserve divine punishment, if they only wished to examine their credentials. In the derivative account of the crime of Gibeah in the Book of judges (19:1-21:25 ), the identical request is made of the old man, who takes in the stranger for the night, by the inhabitants of Gibeah. In this instance, however, the stranger releases his female .consort to the crowd, and they so misuse her sexually that the stranger finds her dead on the threshold in the morning. At a consequent gathering of the tribes of Israel, the stranger makes clear what the crime of Gibeah was:
To Gibeah, which belongs to the Benjamin, I came with my consort to spend the night; but the citizens of Gibeah rose against me, and at night surrounded the house against me. Me they intended to kill, and my consort they ravished, so that she died. (Judg. 20: 4-s )
In the book of judges’ derivative, then, the crime of inhospitality included the design to murder the stranger. The obvious stress, once again, is not so much on the implied sexual contact with the stranger as on the right of the stranger to a hospitable reception. John McKenzie’s comment on the crime of Gibeah is equally applicable to the Sodom story:
They [the authors] here betray two convictions . . . the absolute sacredness of the guest and the absolute dignity of the male sex. The duty of the host to protect the guest we can understand, but not to the point where the honor and the life of the women of the family are regarded as expendable.
As we shall note later, the idea of “the absolute dignity of the male sex” was one of the factors underlying the Jewish hostility to male homosexual practices.
Peter Ellis, in his book The Yahwist: The Bible’s First Theologian, offers an interesting and suggestive thesis to explain the possible presence of the sexual element in the Sodom narrative. He points out that one of the Yahwist author’s principal themes was an attack against Canaanite nature worship directed to the fertility Gods. Speaking of the episode in Genesis concerning the “sons of God” lusting after the daughters of men, he writes:
The Yahwist’s audience would certainly recognize in the story an allusion to the ludicrous belief of the Canaanite religion that by means of sacred prostitution-sexual intercourse with male and female prostitutes at the Canaanite shrines-it was possible to enter into special relationship with the god or goddess repre sented by the sacred prostitute.
In the fertility-cult ritual, sacred prostitution climaxed the rite which hailed the return of the rains and fertility. “In the punishment which follows the fornication of the sons of God with the daughters of men the rains came with a vengeance. The floods cover the earth, and everything upon its fertile surface is swept away by cleansing waters.
Ellis suggests that the same polemic against the fertility rites is to be found in the Sodom narrative. “For their crimes, which the author indicates were the unnatural sexual vices the Canaanites had made part of their fertility rites, the Eve plain cities are wiped off the map.”38 The same connection between homosexual practices and idolatry which, as we shall see, is present in all the biblical passages is also present here. Again, the punishment is a “rain”; this time a rain of fire and brimstone, and the result is a barren earth on which nothing will ever grow: Even in this interpretation, the primary crime of Sodom is idolatry, and not homosexual practices as such but these practices as an expression of sacred prostitution.
We shall deal later, under the heading of tradition, with the gradual historical development which transformed the understanding of the sin of Sodom in Western Christian tradition from a sin primarily of inhospitality to the stranger to one of homosexual practices. At this point we can conclude, however, that the most important biblical basis for the traditional condemnation of homosexual practices as clearly against the express will of God proves on examination the most vulnerable. It has been accepted practically without question that God himself declared his judgment upon homosexual practices once and for all time by the destruction of the cities of the plains. But the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative possibly had nothing whatever to do with such practices. Even if one continues to hold that there is a suggestion of the presence of this sexual element, it does not constitute the essence of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather, the sin remains primarily one of inhospitality. And even if Ellis is correct, the homosexual practices are condemned not in themselves but as part of the idolatrous fertility cult of the Canaanites.
If this interpretation of the true sin of Sodom is correct, then we are dealing here with one of the supremely ironic paradoxes of history. For thousands of years in the Christian West the homosexual has been the victim of inhospitable treatment. Condemned by the Church, he has been the victim of persecution, torture, and even death. In the name of a mistaken understanding of the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah, the true crime of Sodom and Gomorrah has been and continues to be repeated every day. Before advancing to an examination of the Sodom story in tradition, let us first examine the other passages in the Old and New Testaments understood as condemning homosexual practices.
Problems of Translation
Two Greek words in 1 Cor. 6:9 are usually translated as having to do with homosexuality; they are malakói and ársenokóitai. The second term occurs again in 1 Tim. 1:10. There is a venerable tradition in English translations of the Bible to assume that these terms apply to homosexual activity. The King James version translates them as “neither the effeminate nor the abusers of themselves with mankind” and the Rheims-Douai version similarly speaks of the “effeminate” and “liers with mankind.” The first edition of the Revised Standard version translates both terms with the one word “homosexuals.” The only major variation of this tradition is to be found in the Jerusalem Bible, which uses the terms “calamites and sodomites,” and the Smith-Goodspeed (Chicago) Bible, which renders them as “sensual” and those “given to unnatural vices.” It is interesting to note that the Spanish version of the Jerusalem Bible uses “los homosexuales,” whereas the French version speaks of “depraves” and “gens de moeurs infames.” As John Boswell notes: “Cultural differences appear to exercise considerable influence over the translation of Biblical passages dealing with sexual morality.” Bailey particularly takes to task the translators of the Revised Standard version for their use of the single term “homosexuals”.
But the translation approved by those responsible for the American Revised Standard version is unfortunately both inaccurate and objectionable . . . it is most regrettable that the reviewers should have shown themselves unaware or unappreciative of the clear distinction which must be made between the homosexual condition (which is morally neutral) and homosexual practices. Use of the word “homosexuals” inevitably suggests the genuine invert, even though he be a man of irreproachable morals, is automatically branded as unrighteous and excluded from the kingdom of God, just as if he were the most depraved of sexual perverts.
The variation in translations points to the fact that there is very little understanding of the precise meaning of Paul’s terms. What is needed is a contextual analysis and an examination of the same terms in other sources. It is truly surprising that despite the fact that the tradition of moral condemnation of homosexuality springs in large part from these biblical passages, little serious scholarly work has been produced concerning their exact meaning. Translations appear at times to be based on preconceptions rather than serious scholarship.
The immediate context itself gives little or no clue as to the precise meaning Paul intended by these words. In the Corinthian passage Paul lists the types of sinners who are to be excluded from the kingdom of God; and in the Timothy passage, those who have not received the law of God.
S. Wibbing argues that Paul derived these lists from the popular Stoic list of excesses contrary to reason .41 Both lists have been recognized by scholars as remarkably confusing, and the context is quite loose. Consequently we must turn to the use of the same terms in other sources to discover their meaning. The word malakós literally means soft (e.g., Luke 7:25; Mt. 11:8). In a moral context it is normally employed to signify loose, morally weak, or lacking in self-control. There is no justification for applying malakós specifically to homosexuality. In patristic Greek malakía usually referred to generally dissolute behavior and occasionally referred to specific sexual activity such as masturbation, but never to homosexuality as such. It could conceivably include that, but its normal use referred to any form of immorality. I need not stress the point here that the concept of “effeminacy” has no necessary connection with bomosexuality.
Before considering the second word, ársenokóitai, it is important to recall to mind that there was no word in classical, biblical, or patristic Greek with the same meaning as the English word homosexual. In those pre-Freudian days neither the Greeks nor the Romans recognized homosexuality as a psychological phenomenon or condition apart from general sexual behavior. There appears to be no consciousness of a dichotomy such as the modern homosexual versus heterosexual. There were names, however, for persons who practiced homosexual activity. They included, for example, paiderastês, pallakós , kínaidos, àrrenomanes and paidophthóros. If it were Paul’s intention to indicate general homosexual activity as such, it is probable that he would have selected one of these terms.
The word ársenokóitai, then, probably does not refer to general homosexual behavior. However, what Paul did mean by it is difficult to ascertain. The use of the noun in the plural does not occur in Greek literature before the Pauline text. Apart from a second-century use of the same word in the Apology of Aristides, where from the context it seems to mean “an obsessive corruptor of boys ”’43 the most important usage for the purpose of clearer definition occurs in the sixthcentury Penitentiale of Joanne’s jejunator, Patriarch of Constantinople in 586 under Mauritius.” Here it designates a specific sex act, most likely anal intercourse. Nor does this refer exclusively to homosexuality, since in a later passage use is made of the same term to refer to a sex act between men and women .
Some indication of what Paul might have meant by the term can be derived from his use of kóitai in the plural. For this usage appears to refer to excess in sexual behavior (cf. Rom. 13:13). It is possible that the author attached to the compound a meaning like “male prostitution. ” This interpretation is borne out by the Vulgate rendering masculi concubitores, that is, finale concubines. As we shall see, this interpretation will be strengthened by the more general context of the Old Testament where male prostitution was usually associated with the same context of idolatry.
The Interpretation of Romans 1:26
The strongest New Testament argument against homosexual activity as intrinsically immoral has been derived traditionally from ‘Romans 1:26, where this activity is indicted as parà phúsin. The normal English translation for this phrase has been “against nature.” As John Boswell notes: “The modern reader is apt to read into that phrase a wealth of associations derived from later philosophical developments, scholastic theology, Freudian psychology, social taboos, as well as personal misgivings.”” Once again it is difficult to ascertain what this phrase meant for Paul. The same phrase in Romans 4:18 is used to express the idea that God himself is acting parà phúsin in grafting a wild olive branch (the Gentiles) onto a cultivated tree (the inheritance of the Jews). This usage makes it clear that the phrase itself does not necessarily imply a moral judgment on the action as wrong.
From an examination of the seven uses of the word phúsis in the epistles of Paul, one can begin to understand what Paul meant by the word. Although it is most likely that Paul accepted the phrase from the popular Stoic philosophy of the day, he does not necessarily indicate an intrinsic nature or essence in the philosophical sense, such as would serve the basis of a natural-law judgment. Rather, it is always linked to religious and cultural heritage. The Jews are Jews “by; nature” (Gal. 2:15); and the Gentiles are uncircumcised “bynature” (Ram. 2:27). Although we are all “by nature” children of wrath (Epb. 2:3), the Gentiles can do ‘by nature”-i.e. by custom without hearing the word-the things of the law (Ram. 2:14). With the exception of Gal. 4:8, where reference. is made to men who “by nature” are not gods, the character referred to by phúsis does not necessarily represent something, that is innate, but could be a matter of training and social ‘ conditioning. This is evident, for example, in 1 Cor. 11:14:”Does not nature teach you that, if a man has long hair, it is a shame unto him?”
When he uses the word nature Paul does not make a sharp distinction between natural law and social custom. For example, in the phrase ten phusiken kresin (Rom. 1:26) Paul does not make the distinction between nature and custom which was common among educated Greeks of the time (e.g., Ignatius to the Trallians 1.1: “either against custom [kresin] or nature [phusin]”). Rather, he tends to fuse together the concepts of custom and essential character. There seems to be a parallel in Paul’s mind between what is parà phúsin and the Old Testament concept of toevah., i.e. what is not proper according to Jewish law and custom.
Consequently, two interpretations can be justified concerning what Paul meant by the phrase. It could refer to the individual pagan, who goes beyond his own sexual appetites in order to indulge in new sexual pleasures. A strong argument .for this interpretation is the explicit reference to the pagans having “abandoned” the “natural uses” of their sexuality for that which is “beyond nature.” The use here of the aorist participle (aphéntes) considerably strengthens the image of a conscious choice of a type of activity contrary to their normal inclinations. Paul apparently refers only to homosexual acts indulged in by those he considered to be otherwise heterosexually inclined; acts which represent a voluntary choice to act contrary to their ordinary sexual appetite. William G. Thompson, S.J., is inclined to agree with this interpretation:
Concerning the Pauline material, you have come to the same conclusions I have concerning the meaning of “homosexual.” Let me quote Fr. Fitzmyer’s comments on Romans 1:26: “The contrast between ‘females’ and ‘males’ (1:27) makes it clear that the .sexual perversion of which Paul speaks is homosexuality (specifically Lesbianism). The depravity of the perversion is the merited consequence of pagan impiety; having exchanged their true God for a false one (1:25), pagans inevitably exchanged their true natural functions for perverted ones . . . (Jerome Biblical Commentary, Article 53, Number 26) .” It seems clear that the situation is one of perversion rather than inversion, as you indicate. Hence the passage does not touch the contemporary issue of homosexuality understood as inversion. Paul simply does not speak to that question.
The second possibility is that phúsis refers to the “nature” of the chosen people who were forbidden by Levitical law to have homosexual relations. Paul can be understood as arguing that the recognition of the true God necessarily involves acceptance of the Levitical law. Both interpretations are probably valid. Paul seems to be implying that the Gentiles, having known the truth of God and rejecting it, as a result reject their true nature as regards their sexual appetites, going beyond what was natural to them (heterosexual activity) and what was approved for the Jews.
Consequently, the Pauline epistles do not explicitly treat of the problem of homosexual activity between persons who share the homosexual condition, and as such cannot be read as explicitly condemning such behavior. Neither the malakói nor the ársenokóitai were necessarily homosexuals; the former were simply debauched individuals and the latter were probably male prostitutes or those given to anal intercourse, which is not necessarily nor exclusively an homosexual activity. The persons referred to in Romans 1:26 are probably not homosexuals-i.e. those who are psychologically inclined toward their own sex-since they are portrayed as “abandoning their natural customs.” Moreover, the ambiguity of Paul’s use of the word phúsis as including what is customary precludes an interpretation of the passage as condemning homosexual activity as intrinsically evil independent of the actor’s condition and his social laws and customs.
The Old Testament Context
Because of his Jewish background Paul obviously found the rampant homosexuality he observed in Greece very shocking. His main point was always that the prevalance of homosexual activity was a sign of alienation from God. He obviously had in mind the Old Testament prohibition of homosexual activity. Consequently, we must note the context of the texts within the Old Testament in which the question of homosexual activity is treated. Homosexual activity was definitely connected in Jewish consciousness with idolatry. An example of this is to be found in Deuteronomy 23:17:
None of the Israelite women shall become a temple-prostitute, nor shall any of the Israelite men become a temple-prostitute. You shall never bring the gains of a harlot or the earnings of a male prostitute as a votive offering to the temple of the Lord your God; for both are abominable to the Lord your God.
It was a practice among some of Israel’s neighbors to use both sexes as part of the fertility rites in temple services. Since the Gods were understood as sexual, they were to be worshiped in overt sexual acts. Whenever homosexual activity is mentioned in the Old Testament, the author usually has in mind the use male worshipers made of male prostitutes provided by the temple authorities.
Paul was well aware of this context from the Old Testament. In reading Paul, it is important to keep in mind what Thielicke refers to as Paul’s “central concern” in the text dealing with homosexual activity, especially Romans 1:26. Paul obviously believed that homosexual activity, as far as he understood it, was the result of idolatry. As Wood points out, one must remember the sequence of events as Paul portrays them in Romans.” One is not idolatrous because he is a homosexual; he is, however, involved in homosexual activities because he is idolatrous. God punished the idolater by delivering him over to his selfishness and passions. It would appear, then, that Paul treats of homosexual activities only within the context of idol worship. The Holiness Code (Lev. 18:22, 20:13) origi nally established the connection between idolatry and homosexual activity. The Code specifically warns the Israelites against accepting the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites. One of the provisions of the Code is that homosexual activity is punishable by death.
Several other cultural and historical circumstances ought also to be considered. One must keep in mind the pro-fertility bent of the Old Testament authors due to underpopulation, with the result that any willful destruction of viable human seed was regarded as a serious crime. Another factor influencing the Old Testament attitude on homosexual activity was the strong Hebrew stress on preserving the family name through progeny. In fact, participation in God’s covenant with the chosen people depended on having children. One of the worst curses which could befall a Jewish male was that of sterility.
Still another contextual factor has to do with the common use in biblical times of the act of sodomy as an expression of domination, contempt, and scorn. According to J. Edgar Brun, the ultimate “why” of the wrongness of homosexual activity in Israelite eyes can best be discerned in the account of Noah and his sons after the flood (Gen. 9:18-27) . The second part of the story has obviously been expurgated and revised. The Hebrew makes it quite clear that Ham did not merely look at his father but actually did something to him. Yet whereas Ham is the wrongdoer, Canaan, ,his son, is the person cursed. Brun believes the story was undoubtedly an anti-Egyptian polemic and searches to reconstruct it with an episode in the Egyptian epic entitled The Contending of Horus and Seth(X1:3-4)
Horus was the posthumous son and heir of the god Osiris, the primordial king and giver of life. He was invited by his uncle, Seth, to spend a day. Seth’s real motive was not to show him hospitality but to disqualify him from inheriting his father’s royal power. To this end, while Horus slept Seth committed an act of sodomy upon him. Since sodomy was inflicted as a punishment on a defeated enemy and was a symbol of domination, Seth could then claim that he had conquered Horus and demand the kingship in his place. Brun claims that the original biblical story followed the same line: “By committing sodomy upon his father, who was the ancestor of all men after the flood . . . Ham (Egypt) could also claim the right to dominate all mankind.”’ The revision, which omits any explicit reference to a sexual act and makes Canaan the recipient of Noah’s curse, was prompted by the fact that the Canaanites had become the immediate threat to Israel’s political and religious survival.
Calling attention then to the common practice, especially of the Egyptians, of inflicting sodomy as a punishment upon a defeated male enemy as a symbol of domination, Brun suggests that the principal reason the Israelites regarded homosexual practices as an abomination was that they too viewed sodomy as an expression of scorn; and in a society where the dignity of the male was a primary consideration, voluntary acts of a homosexual nature could not be tolerated. Both parties would then be undermining the very foundations of a patriarchal society; the one because he uses another as a woman; the other because he allows himself to be used as a woman. The dignity of the male is dishonored by both.
We have already seen McKenzie’s comment that one of the aims of the narrator of the crime of Gibeah was to establish the absolute dignity of the male. It is interesting to note that the Holiness Code only condemns male homosexuality; no mention is made of female homosexual practices, but there is a condemnation under penalty of death of any woman who has sexual relations with an animal.
As Herman van de Spijker notes in his summary of biblical teaching concerning homosexual activities: both in the Old and the New Testaments, wherever the Bible clearly seems to refer to homosexual activity, we must recognize a judgment of condemnation. However, every text dealing with homosexual activity also refers to aggravating circumstances such as idolatry, sacred prostitution, promiscuity, violent rape, seduction of children, and violation of guests’ rights. As a result one can never be sure to what extent the condemnation is of homosexual activities as such or only of homosexual activities under these circumstances: “Nowhere is there a specific text which explicitly rejects all homosexual activities as such independent of the circumstances.” Van de Spijker is nevertheless of the opinion that such an objective universal condemnation can be deduced from these texts taken in conjunction with the biblical image of mankind in the creation account of Genesis; he concludes that “all homosexual relationships, even when they are true expressions of an Ithou relationship,, areobjectively contrary to nature as the order of creation.”
The Creation Account in Genesis
There are two accounts in Genesis of the creation of human sexuality. The first account, a version dated around 550-500: B.C., is from the Priestly tradition: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” This account clearly indicates’, that the divine purpose in creating sexual differentiation was’ procreation. Consequently, the first covenant between God’ and humanity was a procreative covenant. “And God blessed them and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it . . . .”’
However, according to scholars the second account, at tributed to the Yahwist author, is much more ancient,’ date 950 B.C. In this account God’s purpose in creating sexual differentiation is not associated with procreation; rather, the purpose was companionship and a cure for loneliness: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Thus mutual love and fulfillment is equally a biblical norm for human sexuality. Many moralists seem to ignore the significance of the Yahwist’s account of creation and assume that procreation is the only biblical norm.
There is, then, another and, perhaps, more important reason apart from individual texts why some moralists believe that all homosexual activity is condemned in Scripture as contrary to the will of God for man. This reason has to do with the interpretation they give to the creation account in Genesis. As Neale Secor argues, many Christian ethicists read a condemnation of all homosexual activity into the texts dealing specifically with that question because they are reading these particular texts with a basic assumption. The assumption is that the homosexual condition is the result of man’s fall and is a deviation from the God-willed state of heterosexuality as expressed in the creation. Under this assumption sexual differentiation is not only normative for human relations; it assumes a metaphysical significance in the very constitution of what is essentially human. “To be human becomes by hypothesis to be purely male or female. Only in monogamous marriage desirous of reproduction is this essential duality held in balance.” In the Priestly tradition in the Old Testament, the human male apart from the human female was not considered a-full human being. As Rabbi El’azar put it: “Any Jew who has no wife is no man.”
Curran appears to be in agreement with this position. As he sees it, human sexuality derives its meaning exclusively “in terms of a relationship of male and female in a procreative union of love.” To defend this position he makes a general appeal to scriptural data. “The scriptural data undoubtedly points in this direction, even to the possible extent that the likeness to God is precisely in terms of the sexuality by which men and women are able to enter into a covenant of love with one another.” In the opinion of Karl Barth, “man and woman-in the relationship conditioned by this irreversible order-are the human creatures of God and as such the image of God and likeness of the covenant of grace.”54 Since man’s likeness to God is to be found in his power to love, some moralists find it necessary to read into that love relationship the specific reality of heterosexual love, almost to the exclusion of all other forms of human community and human love. They tend to identify the biblical concept of person with heterosexual orientation and find in that orientation the divine image in man.
In contrast with this understanding of the scriptural data is T. C. DeKruijf’s study, The Bible on Sexuality. DeKruijf concludes his survey of Old Testament texts concerning sexual morality by pointing out that the primary message of the Old Testament concerning sexual morality was that love, including sexual love, requires respect for the other person; and the sin which man can commit in his sexual conduct with another consists in dishonoring the person of a fellow human being. “If one does not acknowledge the only true personal God, it follows unavoidably that one will also not acknowledge one’s fellow man as a person who has a value of his own.”” As we have seen, J. Edgar Brun found an identical reason for the condemnation of homosexual activities, since in the cultural and historical context of the Old Testament such activities could only be envisaged as expressions of hatred and scorn. The essential evil of homosexual activities appeared to be the dishonoring of a fellow human being.
DeKruijf points out, however, a very important difference between the treatment of sexuality in the Old and the New Testament. Marriage no longer plays the same role in the New Testament that it did in the Old. In the Old Testament “contact with God was connected with their being the people of God, because in this chosen people God dealt with man. Therefore it was important for every man and woman in Israel to receive this life and pass it on in marriage.” To understand the difference of viewpoint in the New Testament it is important to remember that the new people of God are no longer bound by blood relationship; membership in the new people of God is no longer a question of human descent. Consequently, marriage no longer occupies the central place it had in Israel. “In the New Covenant it is given to anyone to be fertile in the new people of God through a love which surpasses even marital love in value and therefore in fertility.” This new understanding of love lies at the origin of other vocational choices besides marriage, such as a life of sexual abstinence, and other forms of human community, such as the celibate community. One can no longer identify the love between humans that makes them the likeness of God univocally with the heterosexual relationship in marriage.
Another important difference between the Old and New Testaments concerning human sexuality has to do with the belief in personal immortality. For the most part in the Old Testament there was little stress on personal immortality; rather, stress was placed on the survival of the “people” and one’s own survival in and through one’s children. However, the New Testament emphasis on resurrection carried with it the belief in personal immortality and, consequently, freed the individual from the necessity of marrying and bearing children in order to achieve a form of survival beyond the grave. This change of emphasis is of particular interest vis a vis the homosexual, since, as many psychologists point out, one of the most profound roots of homophobia is the connection, unconscious for the most part, between homosexuality, barrenness, and death.
Nowhere is this new attitude concerning human sexuality more evident than in the account of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-39) . The Lucan author had as his purpose to depict the work of the Holy Spirit in the formation of the first Christian community and how that community differed from its predecessor. He stresses that people who were considered outcasts by Israel for various reasons were to be included in the new community. The first group are the Samaritans. The second group, symbolized by the eunuch, are those who for sexual reasons were excluded from the Old Testament community. “No one who has had his testicles crushed or his penis cut off shall marry into the Lord’s community” (Deut. 23:1) . However, in Isaiah 56:2-8 there is an explicit prophecy that with the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of the new covenant the eunuch, who was formerly excluded from the community of God, will be given a special place in the Lord’s house and an immortal value:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say: “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say: “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me, and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off . . . these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel; I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.
The application of this prophecy to the homosexual can be defended, because the term “eunuch” in the New Testament is used not only in its literal sense – i.e., those who have been physically castrated – but also in a symbolic sense for all those who for various reasons do not marry and bear children. For example, in Matthew 19:12 Jesus, discussing marriage and divorce, says to his apostles: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”,
The first category – those eunuchs who have been so from birth – is the closest description we have in the Bible of what we understand today as a homosexual. It should come as no surprise, then, that the first group of outcasts of Israel that the Holy Spirit includes within the new covenant community is symbolized by the Ethiopian eunuch. It is the Spirit who takes the initiative by leading Philip to the encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch of the court of Candace. The eunuch believes in Christ as the Messiah and receives baptism and the Spirit and rides on into history “full of joy.” The symbolism of the passage is quite obvious. The Holy Spirit takes the initiative in leading the new Christian community to include among its members those who were excluded for sexual reasons from the Old Testament community.
Later, when we consider natural law ethics, we will also consider whether, in the light of recent psycho-sexual discoveries; heterosexual images of what it means to be a man or a woman derived from the Bible can be uncritically accepted as God-given aspects of creation or whether it must be determined to what extent they are human creations open to serious theological criticism and possible change and development. We can conclude at this point, however, that a general consideration of human sexuality in the Bible leads to only one certain conclusion: those sexual relations can be justified morally which are a true expression of human love. Consequently, once all the cultural and historical circumstances are kept in mind, the only condemnation of homosexual activity to be found with certainty in Scripture is a condemnation of perverse homosexual activity indulged in by otherwise truly heterosexual individuals as an expression of contempt or self-centered lust and usually associated with some form of idol worship. In the Old Testament an attempt was made to desacralize human sexuality by removing it from the realm of the mysterious and impersonal forces of nature. In the New Testament an attempt was made to resacralize human sexuality by integrating it into the ideal context of free, interpersonal human love.
The positive ideal concerning the use of human sexuality proposed in the New Testament is the need all human beings are under to struggle to integrate their sexual powers into their total personality, so that their sexual drive can be totally at the disposition of their desire to achieve union in love with their fellow human beings and with God. There is a considerable body of evidence-the Hooker, Shofield and Weinberg and Williams studies, for example, which,we will discuss further onthat many homosexuals have avoided the traps of promiscuity and depersonalized sex by entering into mature homosexual relationships with one partner with the intention of fidelity and mutual support. By means of this relationship they have not only escaped promiscuity but have grown as human beings. They have learned to integrate their sexual powers in a positive way into their personality, with the result that these impulses become no longer a negative, compulsive and destructive force, but an instrument within their control for the expression of human love. There does not seem to be a clear condemnation of such a relationship in Scripture; yet under these circumstances a homosexual relationship could possibly be interpreted as fulfilling the positive ideals of Scripture.”’
See also: Chapter 3, Tradition and Homosexuality, which also looks into the homosexual interpretation of the Sodom story.