Visions of Daniel

Homosexuality and the Bible
Everything You Need to Know in Two Dense Pages


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Not only was the Bible not addressing our current questions; except for male-male anal sex and for reasons relevant only to Orthodox Jews, the Bible did not even forbid same-sex behaviors in its own day: A summary of historical research about the original meaning of the biblical texts based on Daniel's What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.

The Key Issue is not what the Bible says, but how one interprets what it says. Every reading implies some interpretation, including the supposed "literal reading," the Fundamentalist approach. Mainstream Christian Churches follow historical-critical method. It determines a text's meaning by understanding the text within its original historical and cultural context. Once understood, its lesson still needs to be applied to today, a different historical and cultural situation. Interpreted in this way, the Bible texts that treat homosexual behavior are only five and do not mean what a "literal reading" would suggest.

In general, our understanding of homosexuality as a fixed, core aspect of a person and current concern for loving, adult, homosexual relationships raise questions the biblical authors never imagined. So it is not to be expected that the biblical texts provide answers to those questions. A text by text analysis supports this general expectation.

A Pseudo-homosexual Text: Genesis 19:1-11: The sin of Sodom was inhospitality. The Bible itself gives this interpretation in Ezekiel 16:48-49, Wisdom 9:13-14, Matthew 10:5-15. The sodomites' desire "to know" the visitors means to have sex with them. Thus, the inhospitality and gross abuse in question here include rape—which is a very different thing from gay sex in general. Lot's offering his two virgin daughters to the intended rapists and a comparison with the parallel account of a heterosexual rape in Judges 19 show that ancient Israel had no concern about hetero- versus homosexual activity per se. Indeed, that ethics was obviously very different from our own.

The Jewish Testament Text: Leviticus 18:22: "You shall not lie with a male the lyings of a woman; it is an abomination." (Leviticus 20:13 prescribes the death penalty. Cursing one's parents, adultery, incest, and bestiality merit the same punishment.) The literary context is the Holiness Code for Israel. Its intent is religious. Its stipulations are to keep the Jews "set apart," "holy," "clean." Practices like mixing of kinds (different seeds in the same field, different fibers in one cloth) defile. Sea creatures are to have scales. Land animals with cleft hoofs are to chew the cud. Likewise, sexually men are to penetrate, women are to be penetrated. So sexual penetration of another male (to experience with a male the sexual receptivity, the "lyings," that a woman offers) mixes kinds and is unclean—but not other kinds of male-male nor female-female sex. As in the “Clinton defense,” so also for the ancient Hebrews, only penetration counts as real sex. The concern of Leviticus was not the nature of sex or even homosexuality, but a cultural taboo. It takes on religious implications when cultural practices are used to set the Jews apart, make them “holy,” in comparison with other peoples. * The term abomination occurs throughout the Code and means nothing worse than uncleanness, impurity. * The use of the Hebrew term toevah (impurity, abomination, taboo) instead of zimah (injustice, wrongdoing) and, in the 300-150 B.C.E. Greek translation, use of the term bdelygma (impurity, uncleanness), instead of anomia (injustice), poneria (evil), or asebeia (ungodliness), which are used to translate toevah elsewhere, confirm this interpretation. * Talmudic commentary (Olyan, 1994) does so lucidly, as well. Conclusion: For the Jewish Testament penetrative male-male sex acts are a matter of ritual impurity or religious taboo, not a matter of sexual ethics or of the nature of sex. Betrayal of Judaism, not a sex act, is condemned.

Jesus on Purity Issues: Jesus and the Christian Testament abrogate all purity concerns. What matters is "purity of the heart": justice, honesty, compassion, peace-making. See Matthew 5:8, 15:11, 18-20; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 5:6; Romans 2:29, 14:14, etc. * Matthew 8 and Luke 7 present parallel accounts of Jesus' curing the centurion's "servant." The Greek reads pais (boy, slave) and contrasts in the passages with the term that refers to the other slaves doulos (servant, slave). Luke also notes that the boy was "dear" to the evidently wealthy centurion. Not the cost of a slave nor a mere youth's experience and skill, but only emotional attachment would explain “dear.” In extra-biblical usage, pais was sometimes used to refer to a man's male lover. Very likely, the boy was the centurion's lover. Jesus cured the boy, restoring the relationship and commending the centurion's faith. Also strikingly, the evangelists made no issue of the supposed sexual situation. * In the man Jesus loved Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., makes a credible argument that Jesus himself may have been gay.

A Christian Testament Text on Homosexuality: Romans 1:18-32 (especially 26-27: "Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men.") * "Unnatural" mistranslates the term para physin, which in Paul's usage means rather "atypical," "beyond what is ordinary or usual." There can be no moral condemnation implied in this term because, in 11:24, Paul says God acts para physin. * Likewise, the other two Greek terms applied in this context to same-sex acts (atimia = ill-reputed; aschemosyne = uncomely) imply social unacceptability, not moral judgment, as attested by Paul's every other use of these terms. Paul is appealing to Jewish purity sensitivities, announced in verse. 24: "God gave them up…to impurity." In contrast, terms implying real wrongdoing, unethical behavior (asebeia = godlessness; poneria = evil; adikia = wickedness, injustice, wrongdoing), occur in vs. 18-19 and 28-31, before and after the section on same-sex acts. The contrast must be intentional. * Paul's point is that the idolatry of the Gentiles resulted not only in real wrongdoing but also in "dirty" behaviors. * Why bring up purity issues, which Jesus disqualified? To echo the prejudices and gain the sympathy of the Roman Jewish Christians, who took pride in keeping the Law. The structure of Romans shows an initial appeal to Jewish self-righteousness ( 1:18 -32), then a turn of the tables by which Paul shows the Jews themselves to be sinful (2:1, 17), then a shift to a Gentile perspective (9:3), and finally insistence that the Gentiles also respect the Jews (11:13). Romans 14:14 makes clear that Paul raised a purity issue only to make his point: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself." Paul's concern is to keep the community from splintering (see 12:4-8). * Why use same-sex acts as the purity issue? Because it would work. Penetrative male-male sex was an obvious issue, known clearly on the basis of Leviticus 18:22 as a purity concern among the Jews, evidently not a bone of contention like circumcision and the dietary laws, and not likely to offend the Gentiles, who knew the Jews' peculiarity in this matter and Paul's status as "apostle of the Gentiles." * If verse 26 refers to homosexual acts, it would be the sole biblical reference to lesbianism—very unlikely. Lesbianism, unlike male-male sex, is not mentioned in the Hebrew Testament as an uncleanness, so it does not fit Paul's announced topic, impurity (verse 24). So para physin in verse 26 could refer to any sexual activity forbidden as unclean, like sex during menstruation or with an uncircumcised man. Conclusion : Attention to Pauline terminology, structural analysis, and the overall rhetorical thrust of the letter show that Romans presents male same-sex acts only as a purity issue. No ethical judgment against same-sex acts is at stake here. Rather, the epistle mentions them precisely to counter Jewish-Christian self-righteousness and to make the point that supposed "impurities" among the Gentile Christians have no importance in Christ.

Two Obscure Texts: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:8-10. The meaning of these texts, said to exclude homosexual people from the Kingdom of God, hinges on the meaning of two Greek terms, malakoi and arsenokotai. Throughout history these terms have been translated variably (masturbators, practicers of heterosexual anal sex, sodomites, catamites). Suggested translations today still vary (morally loose, masturbators who waste their property, pederasts and their boy partners, male temple prostitutes serving men and women, gold-digging male hustlers who pursue the elderly). No one really knows what these terms mean. * Arsenokoitai clearly involves men (but not women), sexual penetration of some kind, and probably foul play around money. This word might refer to some form of prostitution or to abusive and/or pederastic male-male sex trade, which was widely berated in the first-century Roman empire . Conclusion: there is no good reason to suppose that these texts apply to consensual, respectful, homosexual acts per se, especially since such an interpretation would conflict with all the rest of the Bible.

Adam and Eve: The fact that the creation stories speak of a heterosexual couple allows no valid conclusion about homosexuality (argumentum ad ignorantiam). Nothing in those accounts suggests an intended lesson on sexual orientation. Similarly, the fact that the Bible speaks frequently of dogs but never of cats does not mean the Bible condemns cats. Besides, in the Bible's explicit teaching about same-sex acts, there is no condemnation of homosexuality per se. Besides, the stories of Jonathan and David, Ruth and Naomi, Daniel and the palace master, and Jesus' cure of the centurion's servant likely also provide positive biblical instances of same-sex relationships. 


John Boswell (1980). Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bernadette Brooten (1996). Love Between Women. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

L William Countryman (1988). Dirt, Greed, and Sex. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Daniel Boyarin (1995). "Are There Any Jews in 'The History of Sexuality'?" Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5, 333-355.

Victor Paul Furnish (1994). "The Bible and Homosexuality: Reading the Text in Context." In J. S. Siker (Ed.), Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (pp. 18-35). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Dale B. Martin (1996). " Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences." In R. L. Browley (Ed.), Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture (pp. 115-136). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

James E. Miller (1995). "The Centurion and His Slave Boy" (unpublished manuscript).

Saul M. Olyan (1994). "'And with a Male You Shall not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman': On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13." Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5, 179-206.

Robin Scroggs (1983). The New Testament and Homosexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.