This post, written on a dodgy connection in the middle of Texas on the Sunset Limited train, is an overdue promise to Michael Carden, since I said I would continue our chat with Jim West over homosexuality and the Bible.
Apart from asking whether Jim dances, our last interesting moment was when I asked Jim why he is opposed to homosexuality (or, as it turned out, any sex outside a heterosexual marriage). He replied by quoting Paul in Romans 1: 24-5 – in Greek.
διότι γνόντες τὸν θεὸν οὐχ ὡς θεὸν ἐδόξασαν ἢ ηὐχαρίστησαν, ἀλλʼ ἐματαιώθησαν ἐν τοῖς διαλογισμοῖς αὐτῶν καὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ἡ ἀσύνετος αὐτῶν καρδία. φάσκοντες εἶναι σοφοὶ ἐμωράνθησαν καὶ ἤλλαξαν τὴν δόξαν τοῦ ἀφθάρτου θεοῦ ἐν ὁμοιώματι εἰκόνος φθαρτοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ πετεινῶν καὶ τετραπόδων καὶ ἑρπετῶν. Διὸ παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς ἐν ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις τῶν καρδιῶν αὐτῶν εἰς ἀκαθαρσίαν τοῦ ἀτιμάζεσθαι τὰ σώματα αὐτῶν ἐν αὐτοῖς· 25 οἵτινες μετήλλαξαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν τῷ ψεύδει καὶ ἐσεβάσθησαν καὶ ἐλάτρευσαν τῇ κτίσει παρὰ τὸν κτίσαντα, ὅς ἐστιν εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν.
To which Michael Carden responded:
So are basing your case on Romans 1:24-25 alone in which case I donlt understand or are we meant to assume verses 26-29 are also meant to as well?
If the first then I find no reference to homosexuality, homoeroticism, same sex love in these two verse.
But I’ll assume that you mean us to read this as an abbreviated version, inferring the following verses. In which case I answer, Paul is wrong. I accept he’s referring to male homoeroticism of some form here – it’s not clear what though, presumably he and his audience had a shared suite of references that we don’t possess, even if it’s just a prejudice based on the Levitical proscriptions. I will also add that I regard this as the only clear reference to male homoeroticism in the whole New Testament as we have it today. But there is no clear reference to female homoeroticism in this text (or anywhere in any bible canon). It would be several centuries before Ambrosiaster and John Chrysostom, in the West an East respectively, would be the first to make that move.
But I still say Paul is wrong, just as he’s wrong in his instruction to women re preaching and hair covering etc. Furthermore, I think 26-28 really serve a rhetorical purpose to set up Paul’s Jewish audience for the sting in the tail that comes in 2.1 So to turn a rhetorical use of a popular prejudice into the cornerstone of a sexual morality that condemns people as depraved simply because of their sexual orientation, might even be missing the point of Romans, and taking a very minor filament of Paul’s argument and turning it into a rod to break the backs of countless people, to victimise them, to persecute them, to spread heartbreak and hatred and in doing so to associate Jesus with persecution, misery, pain and despair. I think that’s something probably bordering on blasphemy.
So I say Paul is wrong and if it comes down to a choice between Paul and Jesus I’ll take Jesus before Paul.
On the terms of this debate, both Jim and Michael opt for that well-tried canon within the canon approach, preferring some texts over others. Obviously, any position one wants to take on the Bible has to follow such an approach, since the Bible is such a various and contradictory collection of texts. As Michael points out, you can find homophile texts (Jesus and John, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi etc) and those opposed (Leviticus, for example).
The same applies to politics. We don’t even have to go outside Paul’s letters, since he was a thoroughly contradictory thinker, writing letters on the run, making things up as he went along, never quite clear where he stood. (I’ve argued in my Irreligious Criticism that Paul’s contradictions are actually a desperate effort to make sense of thoroughly contradictory and tension-ridden social and economic situation, but that’s another argument.) For example, the biblical text from Galatians, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither make nor female; for you are all one in Christ’, finds its immediate counter in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, ‘Every one should remain in the state in which he was called’ (1 Corinthians 7: 20), namely that ‘the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is her husband’ (1 Corinthians 11:3 ). Or the same person who wrote ‘not under the law, but under grace’ (Romans 6: 14 and 15) and ‘now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive’ (Romans 7: 6) also wrote, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities … anyone who resist the authorities resists what God has appointed’ (Romans 13: 1). I would suggest that this approach is ultimately self-defeating, since the Bible becomes the terrain for other struggles.
But to pursue the issue of Paul and homosexuality, let me throw in a spoiler (suggested by Jorunn Økland) and ask why Timothy’s ‘thorn’ was right behind Paul at nearly every step of the way.
As for me, I’m looking forward to giving Jim a big hug and a kiss when I meet him for the first time in New Orleans, since I love the guy.