Saturday, December 18, 2004

Leviticus and St. Paul, Revisited.

[NOTE: This is another in an ongoing discussion of scripture and homosexuality between myself and a 'liberal Catholic' blogger Nathan Nelson. Our correspondence has been divided into three subjects: 1) "The Sin of Sodom"; 2) "Leviticus and St. Paul"; 3) "Homosexuality & Natural Law". This is a continuation of the second.

I am addressing Nathan's response to my post "What about Leviticus and Paul?".

Is the Levitical Holiness Code Still Binding?

Responding to what I had believed to be a rather clear presentation of what Leviticus meant by its prohibition of homosexuality, Nathan repeats his argument:

"My argument is that one cannot tell the difference between the moral laws of Leviticus and the laws of ritual purity. The use of the word abomination is used throughout Leviticus to describe actions that violate the laws of ritual purity [such as eating forbidden foods] . . . The use of the word abomination ties the law prohibiting homosexual behavior to the laws of ritual purity, laws which have been abrogated by the Christian Church. They are no longer binding upon Christians."

In The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues", Robert A. Gagnon explains why we can't discount the laws of Leviticus:

The prohibitions against same-sex intercourse occur in the context of other types of sexual activity that the church today still largely regards as illegitimate: incest, adultery and bestiality.

The strong prohibitions against these forms of sexual activity represent the closest analogues to the prohibition of same-sex intercourse. This is particularly true of the incest prohibition which, like the prohibition of same-sex intercourse, rejects intercourse between two beings that are too much alike. Leviticus refers pejoratively to sex with a family member as sex with "one's own flesh" (Lev 18:16-17; 20:19). Bestiality is wrong for the opposite reason: it is sex between two beings that are too much unlike. 

Nathan is treading on thin ice if this is his argument. Joe Dallas carries the argument to its logical conclusion: "if the practices in Leviticus 18 & 20 are condemned because of their association with idolatry, it logically followed that they would be permissable if committed apart from adultery." Homosexuality is mentioned in the same context as incest, adultery, bestiality and child sacrifice -- to suggest that these can be discarded because they are 'merely' laws of ritual purity abrogated by the Church is simply preposterous.

Nathan tries a different strategy:

"If the law regarding homosexual behavior in Leviticus is still to be respected, should we also follow the penalty attached to it? If the answer is yes, how does that relate to Catholic teaching regarding the dignity of human life? If the answer is no, how does one retain this so-called moral law of Leviticus but abrogate its penalty? When the penalty is tied to the law, how can one be retained and the other abrogated?"

The moral tradition of Christianity retained the prescriptions against other sins mentioned in Leviticus as well (adultery, incest, beastiality) -- the fact that the Church no longer applies or recommends he penalties doesn't negate the fact that it regards such practices as immmoral.

Nathan again reiterates:

"It's clear that the Levitical Holiness Code cannot be used to justify the Church's teaching on homosexuality, because the Levitical laws have been abrogated. If one tries to use the Levitical law against homosexual behavior, one would also have to reinstate the law against unclean foods -- the two laws are described using the exact same language."

The Holiness Code of Leviticus specifies a variety of laws governing a wide range of behavior, not all of which is on the same level. Israel's reason for prohibiting homosexuality along with other acts of sexual immorality transcend the relationship to idolatry, paganism, or ritual cleanliness. As Gordon J. Wenham had shown ("The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality"): "it seems most likely that Israel's repudiation of homosexual intercourse arises out of its doctrine of creation. God created humanity in two sexes, so that they could be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth."

Sexual complementarity and teleological purpose according to Genesis carry more weight here than Nathan acknowledges. This is the basis for both the Jewish and Christian objection to homosexuality. But we'll get into that in my final post.

Do the Letters of St. Paul Prohibit Homosexual Behavior?

Regarding the proper interpretation of Romans 1:27-27, Nathan responds by quoting a rather lengthy passage from Dr. Rembert Truluck (Six Bible Passages).

Truluck begins by saying that "Romans 1:26-27 contains some words used only here by Paul. Familiar words are used here in unusual ways. The passage is very difficult to translate." I can only wonder: Difficulty translating for Truluck? or scripture scholars in general? -- Some of the scholars I've read, Robert A. Gagnon especially, demonstrates great proficiency at translation and interpretation of St. Paul. But I'll let you be the judge. First, let's look at the passage:

24 Therefore, God handed them over to impurity [akatharsia] through the lusts [epithymia] of their hearts 15 for the mutual degradation [atimazo] of their bodies. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions [pathos atimia]. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural [para physin], 27 and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned [ekkaio] with lust [orexis] for one another. Males did shameful [aschemosyne] things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity [plane]. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper.

Dr. Truluck asserts that verse 25 is a clear denunciation of idol worship, and that as Paul wrote from Corinth, he was probably referring to one of the more prominent of the thousand religions in that city at the time: the fertility cult of Aphrodite, worship of Apollo, or the Delphi Oracle across the bay. Then he gets down to business:

The word "passions" in 1:26 is the same word used to speak of the suffering and death of Jesus in Acts 1:3 and does not mean what we mean by "passion" today. Eros is the Greek word for romantic love, but eros is never used even once in the New Testament. "Passions" in 1:26 probably refers to the frenzied state of mind that many ancient mystery cults induced in worshipers by means of wine, drugs and music.

Truluck's argument is also made by William Countryman, who Thomas Schmidt critiques in Straight & Narrow:

This statement is technically true but actually quite misleading in light of pertinent occurences of the word. There are only two other instances of pathos in the New Testament. The first of these, 1 Thess 4:5 [Paul's commandment to believers to express their sexuality "not in lustful passion as do the Gentiles who do not know God"] clearly denotes sinful action. The other instance is a list of vices in Collosians 3:5. Countryman's reference to a "positive" sense for pathos must derive either from classical Greek, which has litle relevance for Paul, or from the related word pathema, which is often used in the New Testament to refer to the sufferings endured by believers or Christ. On the two occasions where pathema is used in an ethical context [Romans 7:5 and Galatians 5:24] the association with sin is unmistakable. Clearly the evidence, particularly from Paul's writings, constitutes a compelling case for the association of pathos with sin in Romans 1:26. [p. 73]

What about Truluck's claim that "We do not know the meaning of "burn" [ekkaio] in 1:27, because Paul never used this particular word anywhere else, and its origin is uncertain"? According to Schmidt, "this imagery has a sinful connotation that Paul employs similarly in 1 Corinthians 7:9 (by means of a different verb, pyroo)." Schmidt offers three other examples of association of fire imagery with self-destruction by sexual sin: two passages from Philo (De Gigantibus 34 and De Decalogo 49) and Sirach 23:16 ("For burning passion is a blazing fire, not to be quenched till it burns itself out"). So while Paul did not use the exact word, it is certainly not the first time fire-imagery has been used in relation to sexual desire, and taken in the context of the entire passage the meaning is clear.

Truluck, again:

The term "against nature" ["relations for unnatural [para physin", v. 26] is also strange here, since exactly the same term is used by Paul in Romans 11:21-24 to speak of God acting "against nature" by including the Gentiles with the Jews in the family of God ["For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated one, how much more will they who belong to it by nature be grafted back into their own olive tree." Rom. 11:21-24]. "Against nature" was used to speak of something that was not done in the usual way, but did not necessarily mean that something "against nature" was evil, since God also "acted against nature."

Like Truluck, William Countryman also argues for a neutral interpretation of "against nature" [para physin, in contrast to "with nature" kata physin]. According to Schmidt, although there are neutral uses of this term elsewhere in Paul, one can demonstrate that his terminology in Romans 1 fits with contemporary usage:

Diodorus Siculus (c. 50 B.C.) writes of a case of mistaken same-sex relations as as para physin, in which the "woman" received "unnatural [para physin] embraces." (History 32.10.8-11). Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 30 B.C.) refers to a coercive homosexual act as "doing violence to one's natural [kata physin] instincts (Roman Antiquities 16.4.2-3). Plutarch (c. A.D. 100) contrasts natural love between men and women to union contrary to nature [para physin with males," and a few lines later he repeats that those who consort to males "do so para physin (Erotikos 751 C, E). (Schmidt pp. 79-80).

Schmidt goes on to cite related passages from Philo (the men of Sodom "threw off from their necks the law of nature (De Abrahamo 135) to mount males, "not respecting the common nature physin with which the active partner acts upon the passive") and the Jewish historian Josephus, who makes reference to the same-sex relations of the citizens of Elis and Thebes as para physin.

The point is that Paul's use of para physin in the particular context of Romans 1 is consistent here with that of his contemporaries, and in such cases it always has negative connotations. As mentioned in my previous post, Paul's point is that "Gentile sin, including homosexual sin, is a result of humanity's corporate rebellion against the Creator." The traditional interpretation of this passage stands: "God's judgment allows the irony of sin to play itself out; the creature's original impulse towards self-glorification ends in self-destruction. The refusal to acknowledge God as creator ends in blind distortion of the creation" (Richard B. Hays ("Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to J. Boswells Exegesis of Romans 1," Journal of Religious Ethics 14 Spring 1986).

What about the meaning of "commmitting indecent acts" in 1:27 ("committing shameful things" in the USCCB's version cited above?) Truluck contends that this is merely the term for indecency, as in 1 Corinthians 12:23 ("those parts of the body that we consider less honorable [indecent] we surround with greater honor") or 1 Corinthians 13:5 ("love does not behave indecently"). Truluck notes that in Deuteronomy 24:1 it has more serious connotations, providing grounds for divorce (if a man finds within his wife "something indecent"), but when Jesus commented on it "he did not define the term." Consequently:

Paul was certainly aware of the variety of ways that the teachers interpreted the word "indecency," and he used it in a variety of ways himself. To read into "indecent acts" a whole world of homosexual ideas . . . cannot be supported by the meaning of the word or by Paul's use of it elsewhere.

The word for "indecency" in Rom: 1:27 in original Greek is aschemosyne; The Hebrew word for "indecency" is ervah, has multiple uses (nakedness, uncleanliness, improper behavior, exposed or undefended). When placed in the same context as the other terms in Romans 1: "sexual uncleanness" (akatharsia), "dishonorable/degrading passions" (pathe atimias), "contrary to nature" (para physin), the connotations are clear. In his condemnation of various sexual practices in the New Testament, Paul had in mind the prohibitions of Leviticus and the Jewish moral code. Robert Gagnon asserts: "That Paul had the Levitical prohibitions partly in view is evident from intertextual echoes to Lev 18 and 20 in Rom 1:24-32." And in a footnote to this comments:

Paul's word for "nakedness, indecent exposure, indecency" (aschemosyne) in Rom 1:27 is used 24 times in the Septuagint translation of Lev 18:6-19; 20:11, 17-21. Paul's word for "uncleanness, impurity" (akatharsia) in Rom 1:24 appears in the Septuagint rendering of Lev 18:19; 20:21, 25. ["A Comprehensive and Critical Review Essay of Homosexuality, Science, and the 'Plain Sense' of Scripture Pt. 2" .pdf format].

Having addressed Truluck's reading of Romans 1:26-27, I recommmend that Nathan re-think his conclusion that "St. Paul was describing something which would have been the logical result of the idolatry that he was observing around him" [and that] the passage does not seem to have a sexual connotation when examining the original Greek" -- and his motivation for appealing to such a conclusion.

Paul's use of the word arsenokoites and malakoi

As I mentioned in my previous post, the explanation for the rare use of the term arsenokoites in the New Testament (and that it cannot be found in the Greek of St. Paul's time) is because evidence suggests he coined the term himself, referring to the the prohibition against homosexual behavior in Leviticus. This has been aptly demonstrated by a number of scholars, although the discovery is attributed to David Wright.

Nathan responds:

"[Even if St. Paul coined the term], we still do not know what it means. The use of these two words in Leviticus does not necessarily mean that they refer to homosexual behavior. The two words which are joined together by St. Paul here are "male" and "bed." They could refer to a number of sexual sins -- and the sin that Dr. Truluck and many other scholars cite is the sin of male prostitution with female customers. . . .

It is interesting to note that when later Christian preachers had something to say about homosexuality, they did not use arsenokoites. This includes, for instance, St. John Chrysostom [who was fluent in Greek].

By "other scholars" Nathan is alluding to the late John Boswell, in whom they find their source (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality). Boswell's treatment of arsenokoites is summarized by Guenther Has of Redeemer College, Ontario ("Hermeneutical Issues in the Use of the Bible to Justify Acceptance of Homosexual Practice" Global Journal of Classical Theology Vol. 1, No. 2. February 1999). I'm going to repeat it in full, since it clarifies somewhat better than Truluck does how they arrive at the notion that St. Paul could have been referring to "prostitutes" in Corinthians 6:9 and Timothy 1:10:

Boswell's argument involves two components. The first entails the exact meaning of this term. Since examples of its usage are difficult to find prior to Paul, the meaning of the compound word must be determined from the two parts of the compound and the way they function together. These are: arsen and koitai. The first part, arsen is generally agreed as referring to males. The second part, koitai, refers to sleeping. Boswell argues that the second part stresses the coarseness and active licentiousness of the sleeping denoted, and is equivalent to the coarse English word, "fuc**r," that is, the one who takes an active role in intercourse. He also maintains that in no compound words with the prefix arseno- is it ever used as an object of the second half of the compound. It always has an adjectival sense, denoting the gender of the second half of the compound. This understanding leads Boswell to conclude that arsenokoitai refers to "active male prostitutes." The term says nothing about the sex of those served by the prostitutes; they could be either male or female.

The second component of Boswell's argument entails the usage of arsenokoitai in the first two or three centuries of the church. He contends that this term is never used by the patristic Greek writers of the early church. He supports this with the further claim that from the time of the apostle Paul in the first century until Aquinas in the thirteenth century I Cor. 6:9 and I Tim. 1:10 played no role in the development of Christian European attitudes toward homosexuality.

David F. Wright critiqued Boswell's argument in "Homosexuals or Prostitutes: The Meaning of Arsenokoitai (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10)," Vigiliae Christianae 38 (1984): 126-29). As the article is not available online, I will rely again on the summary of Guenther Has:

[Wright] points out that in all other similar compounds ending in -koites the first half specifies the object of the sleeping, or its scene or sphere. That is, the first part always functions in an adverbial sense.  This is because koites has a verbal force, in most not all instances, arseno denotes the object. Hence, the compound word refers to those who sleep with males, and denotes "'male homosexual activity' without qualification."

Wright also surveys the use of arsenokoites, as well as arsenokoiteo and arsenokoitia, in the patristic literature. Not only does his survey find that church fathers from Eusebius to Chrysostom use these terms to condemn male homosexual activity, but he also discovers numerous appeals to I Cor. 6:9 and I Tim. 1:10 for the same purposes.  This certainly undermines Boswell's claims concerning the early church. And it calls into question his scholarly ability, if not his scholarly integrity.

Dr. Gagnon addresses Boswell's charge in "On Boswell and "Men who lie with a male" in 1 Corinthians 6:9", in which he points out: "Boswell's arguments have not persuaded most New Testament scholars. Even a number of those supportive of homosexual practice (e.g., Dan Via, William Schoedel) accept that the terms malakoi (not malachoi, as Harwood and Porter incorrectly transliterate) and arsenokoitai collectively designate a general condemnation of male-male intercourse."

Forgive me for reiterating Wright's discovery here, but it appears Nathan has not entirely ingested it -- again, Has's summary of Wright:

Another element in Boswell's argument is his claim that no early Christian writers appealed to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as having authority in condemning homosexual acts.  Wright points out that it is precisely this claim that prevents Boswell from seeing the Septuagint translation of these two verses as the probably source of arsenokites and related terms.  The Septuagint translates the Hebrew as follows:
Lev. 18:22 - meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten gunaikos
Lev. 20:13 - hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gunaikos

The use of the terms arsenos and koiten in both verses, especially their juxtaposition in 20:13, presents an obvious parallel to Paul's use of arsenokoitai. Since it is clear that the Hellenistic Jews condemned the homosexuality they encountered in the Greek world, the reasonable conclusion is that arsenokoitai came into use in the intertestamental period, under the influence of the Septuagint of Leviticus, to designate that homoerotic activity the Jews condemned. The plausible conclusion is that the verses in Leviticus not only encouraged the formation of the term but also informed its meaning.

Responding to the claim that there is "scant" evidence for Paul's opposition to same-sex intercourse, Dr. Gagnon mentions a list of "pro-gay" scholars who concede to the obvious, including "Gay and Lesbian Studies" author Louis Compton:

According to [one] interpretation, Paul's words were not directed at "bona fide" homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew or early Christian. [p. 114]

Are St. Paul's Letters Even Relevant?

Nathan had suggested that the Church's teaching on homosexuality should be revised, just as the Church revised its teaching on usury. I responded that economics was an entirely different field than sexual morality. Nathan concedes, but responds:

One could also point to the Church's teaching on slavery, which also developed as the Church acquired new understanding of the practice of slavery. In fact, there are a number of teachings which have developed based on new understanding, including the teaching on contraception, which is a matter of sexual morality. Prior to Humanae Vitae, it was never permissible for a Catholic to use any means of contraception, including Natural Family Planning, because of the procreative purpose behind marriage. That doctrine developed as new understanding of both marriage's purpose and natural birth control came to light.

Nathan's point betrays an ignorance of contraception and natural family planning, but that's a whole different issue and one capably handled by Prof. Janet Smith or Christopher West's explication of John Paul II. But I've dealt with this in the first part of our discussion of "homosexuality and natural law".

Likewise, Robert Gagnon lists some difficulties with the analogy of homosexuality to slavery:

  • There is no scriptural mandate to enslave others, nor does one incur a penalty for releasing slaves.
  • Slavery is not grounded in pre-Fall structures.
  • Israelite law put various restrictions on enslaving fellow Israelites (mandatory release dates, the right of near-kin redemption, treating as hired laborers rather than as slaves, no returning runaway slaves), while Paul in 1 Cor 7:21 and Philemon 16 regarded liberation from slavery as at least a penultimate good. The highest good, of course, is having your moral purpose in place, and nobody can take that away from you, whatever condition in life you happen to be in. It is all the better if you can be released from slavery, because then you have more free choices in your use of time -- not to do whatever you want, but to be enslaved all the more to Christ.
  • In relation to the cultures of their day, the biblical stance on slavery pushed in the direction of its curtailment and eradication; as regards the biblical stance on same-sex intercourse a reverse situation was in effect, pushing in the direction of expanding and deepening the ban on same-sex intercourse. those divorced against their will -- the number of divorces and remarriages would decline dramatically, especially divorces and remarriages initiated by the husband. This is Jesus' teaching, a teaching that Jesus had to think long and hard about since it bucked the entire cultural trend, not only in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean basin generally but also in the Israel of his day. To Jesus sex mattered. The view going around today that sex did not matter for the various authors of Scripture and for Jesus has no basis in Scripture itself. In both Testaments it matters, and it matters significantly, along with idolatry and economic exploitation, a formal triad.

Nathan, again:

The fact is that St. Paul did not have the understanding of homosexuality that we have today, so even if he did condemn homosexual behavior, that doesn't mean that the Church's teaching on homosexuality cannot still develop. In fact, it already has. The teaching that a homosexual orientation is not to be regarded as sinful, but that homosexual behavior is to be regarded as sinful, is a development of this teaching since St. Paul would not have been able to distinguish between the homosexual orientation and homosexual behavior in his time period. In light of this, the Church's teaching can develop beyond the teaching of St. Paul with a new understanding of homosexuality, and it has.

One can feel a "natural" inclination to do all kinds of things. Heterosexuals may feel "naturally-inclined" to seek out more than one partner. But the focus of Paul's criticism of homosexuality, as that of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is on actions, and it judges those actions to be contrary to God's vision of sexuality and the created order as articulated in Genesis.

* * *

So that ends my discussion of Leviticus and Paul (and the interpretation of the destruction of Sodom).

I'm not an expert -- as you see, I'm reliant upon the teaching and knowledge of others. I've learned a great deal about what the Jewish and Christian traditions have to say in the process.

At this point Nathan may be tempted to investigate the works of other biblical revisionists in hopes of bolstering his stance. If he does so, I would encourage him to take up Gagnon's The Bible and Homosexual Practice, which I discovered in the course of writing these posts, and -- assuming he identifies himself as a Catholic -- keep his mind open to the teaching of the Magisterium and the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment