Comments on the Scriptures

[Ed. note: The following two discussion postings are from the More Light Presbyterian e-mail list serve.]

My friend Adam <> responded to posts by others:

The church's preoccupation (and I speak of all churches, not just the Presbyterian) with genitalia and what people do with them is a smokescreen, it seems to me, to enable the churches to avoid real issues of justice, mercy, and peace -- issues which are a lot more difficult to address.  Yet those are the issues that are scriptural.
In my e-conversation with pastors on this topic, I replied to this:
I believe the Christian scriptures are clear on the perversions of homosexuality and lebianism.
I feel certain you know there are scriptures that speak out against homosexuality.
Nevertheless, it is not up to us to undo what God has said. Not up to us to change what is right and what is wrong because of changing social mores.
Yet, this is exactly what many Christians have done, and are doing, in translating and interpreting the Bible.

I have yet to read or hear of a classical or paleographical scholar who has related finding the concept of "homosexuality" in any early literature.  This would be so because the ancients did not conceive of "sexuality" as we do, nor did they dichotomize it into two "sexual orientations".  In fact, these concepts did not arise in human thought until the latter half of the nineteenth century, from the work of such scholars as Freud and Adler.  Our error is the reading of our present-day ideas back into the minds of the ancient peoples.  To decide to use the concept of "homosexuality" in the translation and interpretion of the Bible, therefore, is an unscholarly, egregious and untenable perversion of the sacred text, its meaning, and God's intent.

Obviously, Christian and Jewish persons do not wish to engage in the wanton, deliberate corruption of God's Holy Word. Then why do they do so?  I think it traces back to a common and basic human foible: the desire, the drive, for control.  The battle over homosexuality is a control issue, just as the justification of slavery, prohibition, and the submission of women.  It is evident in the fight against Christians in eastern cultures, in every-day politics, in family life, and in the meetings of church governing bodies.  The Church has lost its battles for slavery and against alcohol, and many are in vivid fear of losing their struggle for domination over women.  So they have retreated to a "last resort": the suppression of homosexual persons.

Is not the sin, in God's eyes, on the part of those who desire and demand control over other people?  That was not Jesus' way.  How are we to follow Him?  May God's Spirit lead us to know the truth, so that we may be made free of the sin of control.  "Let go,  and let God."

Phil Gilman

A pastor in our "group" responded to my prior note; my replies are interspersed therein.
I cannot agree with your argument that the concept of homosexuality does not exist in classical literature.  Now I will admit that I am no expert and have only a limited exposure to ancient writings, but in my understanding of Plato the concept does exist.
The knowledge that two men (and two women: cf. Sappho's writings) can love each other to the point of sexual contact was certainly known to Plato and long before.  But note-- as in the quote below-- that this was thought of and spoken/written about in terms of "love", not "sexuality".   And the distinction between what we call homo- and hetero- was made on the basis (at least here in Plato's _apologia_, mainly for himself) of "heavenly" and "common" forms of love.  So I think my statement about the lack of a concept of two sexualities holds.
In fact, in Plato's _Symposium_, a man's love for another male is regarded as the highest form of love.  The speech of Pausanias, two different loves are described.  The common love is said to be the love of fools.  Common love does not discriminate and is apt to love women as well as men.  It is the love of a body only for sexual pleasure and not of the soul. In describing the heavenly love, Plato writes:*
"But the offspring of the heavenly Aphrodite is derived from a mother in whose birth the female has no part, -- she is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths, and the goddess being older, there is nothing of wantonness in her.  Those who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature; any one may recognise the pure enthusiasts in the very character of their attachments."
The speech concludes with a complicated description of how a man expressing this heavenly love for the soul of another male may then honorably have sexual relations with him.  This is in contrast to dishonorable sexual relations exhibited by common love.

Here, it seems to me, Plato's true colors, his bias, shows through.

Now if your point was to say that the terms homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual as our culture defines them today would have little meaning in Plato's world, I can agree with you.
I would not go so far as to say that they would not have comprehended them, had they occurred to them.
Greek sexual practices were not so clearly defined as our culture tries to define them today.  And thus I would concede to you also that the Bible doesn't refer to these terms by today's definitions.
And this is precisely why I hold that the use of the term, "homosexual", in Bible translation and interpretation, is anachronistic, unjustified and unjustifiable.
On the other hand, to say that the concept of men having sex with other men did not exist in classical literature is in error.  And thus we do find the Bible on a number of occasions referring to the sexual practice of men having sex with men.  The difference between Plato and the Bible is that the Bible never speaks positively of the practice.
Which says volumes about Plato's purpose in writing. And yet, I recall being told, elsewhere Plato vigorously defends his desire for women.  Or was it someone else? In any case, the Greek society of his day largely accepted male-male liaisons, esp. those of an older (thus well-established) married man as patron of a younger man (upper teens - early twenties).  That is two heterosexual males, primarily.

You have also raised a very important point which is much overlooked, swept under the rug or out-right denied: the topic of men having sex with men.  It should not take much imagination by any sincere, thinking adult to realize that men, hetero- as well as homo-, can and do have sex with other men. Jail wardens and navy captains staunchly deny it, but I think most people can see through to their motivations.  Men are notoriously sexual animals (I am speaking in general; raising your hand is not required, guys :-).  They know what they want, and they are going to get it, one way or another.  So where a total lack of female companions exists, they have sex with other men.  And these are not homosexual persons in the main.

In ancient times, it was not unheard for the victorious army to strip and sodomize those vanquished who remained alive. This was done to break or destroy the losers' (here this term has real meaning) pride and prepare them for slavery.  And these were not homosexual persons in the main.

Deut. 23: 18 speaks about male prostitutes.  Paul's letters to the Corinthians (perhaps also elsewhere) hint at such practices.  I have read descriptions of temple doings that I would not write even to this group.  But I think we may be sure that the male prostitutes did not serve a female clientele. And these were not homosexual persons in the main.

Yes, the Bible does speak against male same-sex practices, such as were commonly known and practiced in the ancient world.  Lev. 18: 22--  You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (NRSV)

That is clear enough; no argument here.  But if you believe that Scripture is inspired by God (in whatever way or degree; I do), and if you believe that God's Word is logical and rational (I do), then look at the surrounding verses.  Who is being spoken to?  The homosexual members of Israel, or all the sons of Israel?  Is there any indication that this one verse is intended for any other audience?  No.  Then the question arises: Why did God (or the Spirit-inspired writer) lay this prohibition on the shoulders of all the (mostly heterosexual) sons of Israel? Simply because they were all prone to engage in the rituals and cultic practices of their Canaanite, et. al., neighbors.  It seems to me that this particular set of prohibitions rose in response to-- after the fact-- what was actually going on; this was not "preventive medicine".

There remains the question of Romans 1.  Perhaps by now you have some idea of what Paul was speaking against. He had visited the pagan temples of Ephesus, Corinth and Athens, and he well knew what went on inside.  You and I would probably be equally disgusted.  In terms of the entire Pauline corpus, one concept is seen to rouse him mightily: idolatry.  This included much more than the sexual practices that went on in the temples, of course; and so his "diatribe" against those practices does not occupy a large portion of his words.

Look carefully at that short passage.  It consists primarily of three cause and effect statements.  I have yet to see a translation that sets the paragraphs in accordance with its logical structure.  So I offer my version (using the NRSV):

  •     Introduction (may begin earlier):



    16-17  For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."

  •     Premise; the basic violation:



    18  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. [What "truth" does he mean? (See 16-17)]

  •     First cause:



    19-23  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.  So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. [Note, he is speaking of "Greeks" in general, and of pagan temple practices in the specifics.]

  •     First effect:



    24  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves,  [For "degrading of bodies", read the story of Elijah and the Priests of Baal, 1Ki. 18.]

  •    Second cause:



    25  because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

  •    Second effect:



    26-27  For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. [Note that he is speaking of "straight" people.]

  •     Third cause:



    28a  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God,

  •    Third effect:



    28b-31 God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.  Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. [This is clearly not against homosexuals.]

  •     Summation:



    32  They know God's decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die-- yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. [What "things" is he talking about here?]

  •    Conclusion (which continues beyond):



    2:1  Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. [Does this mean that Paul considers all his intended audience-- the Church at Rome-- to be "practicing" homosexuals?]

"Whoever you are," I think God expects you to read and interpret the Bible in a logical and rational manner, and not to insert anachronisms or to otherwise bend and twist Scripture to defend human opinions, teachings and/or social taboos. That's my sermon.

Thank-you for your cordial letter (somewhat of a rarity in discussions on this topic) and for making me think these things through.  I hope they seem reasonable and are helpful.

* The writer noted: This was quoted from the following web site:

Peace and Love in Jesus,
Phil Gilman