Wednesday, December 15, 2004

What about Leviticus and Paul?

[NOTE: This is Part Two of an ongoing discussion of scripture and homosexuality, the first part of which can be found here; the text of Nathan Nelson's argument -- which I am responding to -- can be found here].

Argument 2: What About Leviticus and St. Paul?

Nathan concedes that the Church's teaching on homosexuality is neither solely or primarily based on the [alleged] misinterpretation of the destruction of Sodom, but appeals to the passages found in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and the writings of St. Paul (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) which he now critiques.

With regards to Leviticus, Nathan questions whether they refer to actual homosexual orientation or to homosexual behavior by those who are heterosexual (temple prostitution and other crimes). Furthermore, he argues, in light of the New Testament revelation such laws of ritual purity have been abrogated and their observance is nullified.

St. Paul's writings on homosexuality are, in their original Greek, difficult and ambiguous, and are often taken out of context. Just as St. Paul's writings were misused by Protestants in the promotion of erroneous doctrines justifying the persecution of Catholics, says Nathan, one may not be suprised that St. Paul is now employed by fundamentalists to persecute homosexuals, women, and other minorities.

Examples of such misinterpretations (according to Nathan) are presented, each allegation followed by my reply.

Leviticus and Christian dispensation from the "Laws of Ritual Purity"

Nathan contends that the reference to homosexuality in Leviticus is ambiguous: "it is unclear at best if Leviticus was referring to an actual homosexual orientation (doubtful), or to homosexual behavior by those who are heterosexual"; "The word "abomination" used in Leviticus connotes religious uncleanliness and/or idol worship -- it is part of the Levitical Holiness Code, which has been dispensed with by [and no longer applicable to] Christians."

On the contrary, Gordon J Wenham (The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality" Expository Times 102. 1991) makes a good case that the laws in Leviticus bans every type of homosexual intercourse, not just pederasty or homosexual rape by heterosexuals. This is indicated by the fact that a) Lev 20:13 applies the harshest punishment (the death penalty, on par with adultery) against both individuals and refers to the culpability of both parties:

"the use of the term 'lie' (here and in Lev 18:22) without any qualifying verb, e.g. 'seize and (lie)', and the equal punishment shows that consent to intercourse is assumed between the partners. Comparison with the laws on adultery shows that if it were a question of homosexual rape only the rapist would have been executed (cf. Deut 22:22, 23, 25). In other words the Old Testament bans every type of homosexual intercourse, not just forcible as the Assyrians did, or with youths (so the Egyptians). Homosexual intercourse where both parties consent is also condemned.

Wenham demonstrates that Israel's general condemnation of homosexuality far surpassed its neighbors ("saw homosexual acts as quite acceptable provided they were not incestuous or forcible"), and that such a prohibition was rooted in the interpretation of the Genesis account:

When Genesis comes to man's creation, it states that God deliberately created mankind in two sexes in order that he should 'be fruitful and multiply'. This is the first command given to man and is repeated after the flood; contrast the gods of Babylon who introduced various devices to curtail man's reproduction. In that homosexual acts are not even potentially procreative, they have no place in the thinking of Gen 1. Nor do they fit in with Gen 2. There the lonely Adam is provided not with a second Adam, but with Eve. She is the helper who corresponds to him. She is the one with whom he can relate in total intimacy and become one flesh.

It therefore 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. Woman was man's perfect companion, like man created in the divine image. To allow the legitimacy of homosexual acts would frustrate the divine purpose and deny the perfection of God's provision of two sexes to support and complement one another. St Paul's comment that homosexual acts are 'contrary to nature' (Rom 1:26) is thus probably very close to the thinking of the Old Testament writers.

Suffice to say Christianity's rejection of the "laws of ritual purity" are of an entirely different order than its rejection of homosexuality. In light of the unification of Jew and Gentile under Christ, the Church believed the provisional laws of Judaism were superceded. Nevertheless, the early Church continued to assert the permanence of the moral law of the Torah, including prohibitions of those acts which frustrated the proper orientation of sex towards procreation.

We'll address the topic of natural law -- Nathan's third argument -- in the next post, but again, to reiterate Thomas Schmidt: "The proper starting point for a consideration of homosexuality is not a list of prohibition texts but an understanding of what the bible affirms in heterosexual monogamy."

St. Paul's reference to homosexuality and idol worship in Romans 1:26-27

Understood in context, says Nathan, Romans 1:26-27 is not condemning homosexuality per se, but rather "a form of homosexuality, but as it pertains to idolatry. Indeed, all of Romans 1:18 to 2:4 is all about idolatry and pagan worship."

As with the Leviticus accounts, Paul's condemnation of homosexuality in Romans is rooted in the Jewish understanding of the Hebrew creation account. David E. Malick notes in "The Condemnation of Homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27," Bibliotheca Sacra 150: 599 (1993): 327-340. [.pdf format]: "Romans 1:26 bears the idea of a natural constitution as established by God in the creation of the human race."

Romans is replete with references to God's creation, and to actions which essentially violate the natural order and purpose of creation. Malick concludes:

Therefore there seems to be no hard evidence to indicate that in Romans 1 Paul addressed homosexual activity from the perspective of Jewish customs and rules that no longer apply today. On the contrary, Paul addressed same-sex relations from the transcultural perspective of God’s created order.

Nathan's argument that it is solely related to idolatry fails on account that it ignores the relationship of the punishment to sin ("God gave them over"): God specifically punishes mankind for idolatry by handing over mankind to sin -- homosexuality clearly identified as sin, and is understood to be such in relation to the created order. Richard B. Hays: "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." ("Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to J. Boswells Exegesis of Romans 1," Journal of Religious Ethics 14 Spring 1986). (See Malick's article for further refutation of these kinds of arguments).

St. Paul's use of arsenokoites and malakoi

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor malakoi nor arsenokoitai nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. [1 Corinthians 6:9]

. . . the lawless and unruly, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane, those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the unchaste, arsenokoites, kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is opposed to sound teaching. [1 Timothy 1:10]

Nathan contends that St. Paul's use of the term arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 -- translated as homosexual or sodomite -- is wholly ambiguous in origin and meaning, has not been found anywhere else in the Bible or contemporary Greek of Paul's time, and most likely "refers to male prostitutes with female customers. Likewise, the Greek word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9, taken to mean effeminate in modern translations, is properly translated as "soft" or "vulnerable" (as in reference to clothing in Luke 7:25 or illness in Matthew 4:23); or citing Dr. Rembert Truluck, "[malakoi] refers to someone who is 'soft,' 'pliable,' 'unreliable,' or 'without courage or stability.'" In short, arsenokoites refers to the Hellenic practice of pederasty or temple prostitution and not to homosexual practice per se, while malakoi properly translated carries no hint of sexual orientation.

As Thomas E. Schmidt observes in Straight & Narrow?: Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate (pp. 95-96):

All of this interesting speculation is designed to create a very interesting category of sinners whom we can then reject without rejecting homosexuality. Such intentions were dealt a simple and decisive blow by David Wright's demonstration * in 1984 that arsenokoites was a term coined by Hellenistic Jews, and perhaps by Paul himself, taken directly from the Greek Old Testament books of Leviticus:
    meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten gynaikos (Lev 18:22)
    Literally: with a man do not lie [as one] lies [with a] woman
    hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gynaikos (Lev 20:13)
    Literally: whoever lies with a man as one lies [with a] woman
The origin of the compound word arsenokoites is now obvious, and the finding is important in several respects. First, since the Leviticus passages make no distinction about particular forms of same-sex behavior, it is unlikely that the coiner or user of the compound word would make such a distinction. This of course is entirely consistent with Paul's extension of the logic of the prohibition of same-sex relations to females in Romans 1:26.

David Malick examines these passages and counters the interpretations of the revisionists in great detail in "The Condemnation of Homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9" Bibliotheca Sacra 150: 600 (1993): 479-492. [.pdf format]. He also cites Josephus (ca. A.D. 37-100) as another example of one who, when referring to the laws of Leviticus, "retained the general terms found in the Septuagint ('male with male') and not the Hellenistic practice of pederasty." Subsequent writers such as Eusebius (ca. A.D. 260-339) and the Sibylline Oracles (30 B.C-A.D. 250) "allow for the broader, Pauline sense of homosexual activity."

Regarding the use of malakoi, Malick cites P. Michael Ukleja ("The Bible and Homosexuality, Part 2: Homosexuality in the New Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 140 (October-December 1983): 351.):

"It is not beyond reason to see the word representing the passive parties in homosexual intercourse. This is even more reasonable when it is in juxtaposition with arsenokoitai which does imply an active homosexual role."

Finally, that numerous scholars believe this word to be coined by St. Paul himself would probably explain its limited use in Scripture and Greek literature.

Nathan thus concludes:

In light of the fact that most of Romans 1 and 2 deal with idolatrous worship, and in light of the fact that 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are based on possible mistranslations, it seems to put the church or individual on shaky ground who decides to base a teaching that affects so many lives and hurts so many people upon flimsy interpretation of three ambiguous verses from St. Paul's letters. Given that Catholics have been so injured by misinterpretation of St. Paul's letters, it follows that Catholics should be more careful not to misinterpret them.

On the contrary, based on my research it would be seem to me that the traditional interpretation stands on solid ground, and the "burden of proof" is not on those who maintain the traditional reading of scripture but on the revisionists.

* * *

Just to cover all the bases, Nathan contends that -- in the event St. Paul's words aren't a mistranslation -- and he really intended to condemn homosexuality, "it may have nothing to do with homosexuality as we understand it today."

According to Nathan, in St. Paul's time it was assumed that homosexuality was a matter of personal choice, a common form of sexual release by soldiers in time of warfare, or used in idolatrous worship of pagan gods. In light of which, it is understanable how such behavior might appear unchaste. Fortunately, says Nathan, we live in more enlightened times, when homosexuality is understood to be "[genuine attraction] to people of the same sex, who have no attraction to those of the opposite sex, because of genetic and/or environmental and developmental factors beyond their control, not because of a conscious choice." Thus:

St. Paul didn't know any of that, and it is both ignorant and unjust to apply his ambiguous teachings to homosexuals today. When the economic situation changed in the world, the Church's teaching on usury did not change; but because the economic situation had changed so drastically, and because charging interest now meant something different than it had originally, the Church permitted the charging of interest. The situation has changed regarding homosexuality since the first century, it means something different now than it did to St. Paul. What are we to do?

I would respond that economics is a wholly different field than sexual morality. That the Church has modified its position with respect to economic issues (capitalism, the free market, democracy) is understandable and to be expected.

However, given the Church's understanding of the Hebrew creation accounts in Genesis -- reiterated by Our Lord in Mark 10:6-7 -- and the essential purpose of sexuality towards procreation, one honestly cannot expect the Church to repeal the prohibition on homosexuality without taking the radical position that the Church is fundamentally wrong with respect to its understanding of sexuality and marriage itself.

* On Wright's discovery of the origin of arsenokoitai: David F. Wright, "Homosexuals or Prostitutes: The Meaning of Arsenokoitai (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10)," Vigiliae Christianae 38 (1984): 126-29. [David Malick observes:] "It is significant that this connection was actually first made by E. A. Sophocles, Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods (from B.C. 146 to A.D. 1100), 2 vols. (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1887). Even Scroggs notes the correlation before Wright, but he discounts its revelance because of his focus on the Hellenization of the Jews (The New Testament and Homosexuality, 108).


  • Nathan has posted his reaction here.
  • My response, and last post on Paul & Leviticus, is here.

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