Friday, June 22, 2012

What Does The Bible Say About Homosexuality?

Introduction and Motivations

It goes without saying that the topic of homosexuality is an important and well-publicized issue in our country right now. It speaks to the very fundamentals of peoples' beliefs, not only religiously but scientifically and morally as well. It is a vast and contentious topic about which entire books are written and long discussions should be held. For these reasons, it is extremely important that I severely limit the scope of this writing to one very specific aspect of it all, the one which I believe is actually at the heart of it; what does the Bible say about homosexuality? I will address this question to the exclusion of others, such as regard the natural or unnatural origins of the phenomenon or the morality of those who engage in it. I am not qualified to give expert testimony on those facets of the issue, and so I simply will not.

A treatise such as this which I am about to write cannot and must not be considered or interpreted without a view towards the motivations and prejudices of the author. Insofar as it is possible, I approach the subject with genuine curiosity and impartiality. I am not a member of any church, nor running for political office, nor even trying to cause a significant shift in the opinions of others on the subject. I merely see and hear so regularly that people cite the Bible as proof or justification that homosexuality is immoral and an anathema to divinity that I felt the need to investigate the matter for myself. To reiterate, I have undertaken this journey of discovery simply because I did not know the answer to the question and felt that it was within my grasp to ascertain a better understanding for myself about the Bible and homosexuality. I've decided to write and publish my efforts for two reasons. First, I enjoy writing; second, I feel that this is an important question and sincerely hope that it will give any reader a renewed interest in pursuing inquiry on this topic. That is to say, I do not hope that people will read this and change their opinions, but rather change the way they think and ask questions about the beliefs which they already hold.

Qualifications and a Disclaimer

Since this is being published and available to the masses across the vast expanses of the internet, a word on my qualifications (and likewise unqualifications.) I am not a biblical scholar. I am not, I suppose, actually a scholar of any sort, depending on how strictly one defines a scholar. I hold degrees in Classical studies from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maryland, where I completed my undergraduate and graduate work respectively. I read and write competently in Latin and Ancient Greek and am thoroughly versed in the art of translation as well as ancient history and culture. I am not able to read Hebrew or Aramaic, as I know very little about the Semitic language family, ancient or modern. I assert that this background makes me not as qualified as some, but certainly more qualified than most to undertake this inquiry.

As I have already stated, the fundamental goal of these efforts is my own edification. I do sincerely hope that my observations and conclusions will be a catalyst for discussion and debate, which I will welcome happily. If, however, your views are such that the Bible is the absolute and unquestionable word of God and beyond analysis, scrutiny, or interpretation, please do not comment on the information contained in this article. There can be no discussion unless one is willing to consider viewpoints alternate to one's own, and in the same way that I am not preaching to anyone else, I will not tolerate others preaching to me or to other readers of this article. If you are unwilling to think independently and make a thorough test of your beliefs, there is nothing in this publication for you. I say this without contempt or condescension; your time will be better spent reading something else.

The First Problem with the Question - Translation

With those initial remarks out of the way, we can now dive into the heart of the question. Before looking directly at the passages themselves, which I will certainly do, there are a few matters of far-reaching importance that will cloud this entire discussion, or indeed any discussion of text or scripture. The first of these matters is that of translation.

Translation is a necessary part of communication in a world in which people speak thousands of languages rather than one. Without translation, for example, I couldn't read Camus' The Stranger, one of my favorite novels, because I don't read French. Indeed it was St. Jerome's Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible which made Christianity far more accessible to the world and greatly facilitated the dissemination of its teachings.

There is, sadly, one drawback in the process of translation, and it's a very large and complicated one: bias. Whenever a word, a phrase, a sentence, a book is translated from one language into another, the information contained in the ideas represented by the earlier text can never be rendered perfectly with absolute, 100% authenticity and faithfulness to the original. Sometimes this is the conscious intention of the translator, other times it is merely an eventuality inherent in the process. Take any two languages you can think of and examples confirming this will become apparent. There are invariably words, phrases, concepts which exist in one language for which there is not necessarily a word or phrase in another which expresses the idea completely. To cite a Classical example which any Latin student will recall, the Trojan hero Aeneas, mythical founder of the race of people who would eventually become the Romans, is praised for and driven by his pietas. We have borrowed this word in English as "piety," but the word to us has an exclusively religious connotation, whereas in Latin it simply means a sense of devotion or duty to a great many things: oneself, country, family, gods, obligations, et cetera. To translate pietas as "piety" for example would be to color Aeneas as more concerned with religion (to the exclusion of other responsibilities) than he actually was.
(What happens when there are too many links between the initial text and you?)

To look beyond single words to entire phrases and sentences, one need only examine several different translations of the same passage by different translators (especially if those people were writing in different centuries) to see even more evidence of this phenomenon. Some translations differ so drastically as to raise the question of whether the translators were looking at the same text, which, depending on the fragmentation of the manuscript tradition of the work, they may not have been. (I do not intend to discuss the manuscript history of the Bible, as I am certainly unqualified, and as after a mere glance into the matter it is apparent that it is nightmarishly convoluted, incongruous, and problematic.) The point is that it is simply impossible to translate a work from one language into another without altering the meaning in some way. Even when taking great care to be as literal and faithful to the original text as possible, the process requires a human being, and human beings are not machines. We have our own beliefs, prejudices, and agendas, and these things can and will, consciously or not, tinge our interpretation of a text. This ties in nicely with the second problem which must also be considered in these matters.

The Second Problem with the Question - Cultural Context

This is not so much a separate matter itself as it is a subset of the first problem, something inherent in the interpretation of language. Language does not exist in a vacuum. Interpretation of language is not a cold, calculated, robotic activity, as a mathematical equation is. In the expression 4x = 12, for example, x must equal 3 (hopefully I've conceived an equation simple enough that I can solve it correctly without needing third-party verification.) There isn't any room for interpretation or discussion. It doesn't really matter if you believe that x really equals 5, or a million, or a smiley face; by the established and universally accepted rules of mathematics, it simply does not. 

Language, however, cannot be evaluated as a mathematical expression. Someone will invariably read this blog entry and conclude that I was saying this thing, while another will conclude that I actually meant this other thing. Both could be correct and incorrect simultaneously, as the author is the only one completely certain of the intended meaning of his words. When we interpret language, we as interpreters are the sum total of our cultural experience. Everything we hear or read is colored by the world we live in, by the beliefs we hold, by the values we have. I'm not speaking of linguistic determinism here but rather simply that we can only evaluate language and ideas through the lens of our own experiences; as we each have different life experiences, we each interpret language differently. (As you realize that all translators are human beings, the link between these two concepts should now be cemented if it was heretofore unclear.)

The verses in question, those which purportedly speak out against homosexual behavior as sinful, must be considered in their cultural context. I have not specifically studied the cultural beliefs regarding sexuality of the ancient Hebrews. I do, however, have a thorough understanding of the ancient Greek and Roman attitudes regarding sexuality, and there is a point to be made in discussing those (particularly when one remembers that the New Testament of the Christian Bible was written natively in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic.) 

In the ancient Mediterranean world, the concept of homosexuality as we understand it today simply did not exist. Whereas we define a sexual relationship by the gender of each person involved, the ancient Greeks and Romans defined the relationship through the active or passive role of the participants. This can be a very difficult concept to understand, as it is fundamentally different from our own. In this view of sexuality, however, it becomes apparent that the distinction of homosexual versus heterosexual cannot exist; indeed, neither Greek nor Latin has these words. (The word homosexuality is actually a Greek/Latin hodgepodge which didn't even appear in English until 1892, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.) An ancient Greek would have had a difficult time understanding why it was perfectly fine for him to bend his wife over their living room couch but not one of his young male pupils. (Another common misconception is that Greek men sodomized boys. They did not. Look up the phrase inter-crural for a clearer picture of what went on.)

To bring this back more closely to the discussion at-hand, if one lives in a culture and society in which these distinctions between hetero/homosexuality are the norm, then it will be impossible to read and interpret any text discussing sexuality without thinking about it in these terms. Likewise someone from a culture in which these distinctions do not matter will by necessity interpret the same text in a different way, as his cultural experience has been different. When I assert that cultural context is vital in reading ancient texts like the Bible, I mean that it is important to try to understand what the words meant to the people who wrote them, and take care not to force our existing worldview on words that were written millennia ago.

Biblical Passages About/Against Homosexuality

Alright then, now we can actually begin to examine the words of the Bible. A cursory Google search pointed me to several different websites which reference the same verses as evidence of God's revilement of homosexual behavior, so those are the ones I'll look at. For each verse, my sources are those which I have as texts at my disposal: the Latin Vulgate (dating to circa 400 AD/CE) and the Greek Septuagint (dating to as far back as the 4th century BC/BCE) as well as various English translations.

The first couple come from Leviticus, specifically verses 18:22 and 20:13.

Leviticus 18:22 reads, in Latin and Greek respectively,
cum masculo non commisceberis coitu femineo quia abominatio est

μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν

From the onset it's very obvious that the Latin is a direct translation of the Greek; it's nearly word-for-word actually. They both basically read you will not lie in bed with a male in womanly intercourse in the first clause. The important word is abominatio/
βδέλυγμα, which describes what such an action is. Obviously we get the word abomination from the Latin; Liddell and Scott's first entry for βδέλυγμα is "abomination" and cites the Septuagint almost exclusively in usage. The noun is connected with the verb βδελυρευσομαι, which means "to behave in a loathsome manner." Seems that both the Greek and Latin are pointing to the idea of "abomination," so we should investigate that word in English. Etymologically, it comes from Latin ab (away from) and omen, ominis (omen). It is NOT connected with the word homo, hominis (man), as folk etymology suggests; thus the connotation of beastly, uncivilized is wrongly read into this word. In modern English, abomination generally refers to things that are detestable, reviled, et cetera.

I don't think there's a lot of room for interpretation here that God says "if you're a dude, don't sleep with another dude, because it's gross." What I don't necessarily read in this verse, however, is the connotation that the act is immoral or categorically sinful, i.e. "wrong." The word really only implies that the act is offensive. The text does say "you will not" do it and "it grosses me out" but whether it means "it is wrong to do" is up for interpretation. I would think most people would find abortion (i.e. the act of terminating a fetus in utero) to be abominable, for example, but not everyone agrees on the ethics of the issue.

Here are some different translations into English of this verse:
It is disgusting for a man to have sex with another man. (CEV)Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. (ASV/KJV)Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. (NIV)

Note that they all render the important word slightly differently: disgusting, abomination, detestable.
None of them calls it "sinful," nor do the old manuscripts.

Leviticus 20:13

qui dormierit cum masculo coitu femineo uterque operati sunt nefas morte moriantur sit sanguis eorum super eos

ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα ἐποίησαν ἀμφότεροι θανατούσθωσαν ἔνοχοί εἰσιν

Again, the Latin is basically a word-for-word translation of the Greek, and we see the same vocabulary used in 18:22. One important difference here in the Latin is that the Greek
βδέλυγμα is translated as nefas, which is a stronger word than abominatio. Nefas is a very old word literally meaning "unspeakable," and it does carry a sense of "morally wrong" in its connotation. Interestingly there is no analogue in the Greek for the Latin sit sanguis eorum super eos, "may their blood be on them." This passage says that anyone who sleeps with a male in womanly intercourse should be put to death (moriantur/θανατούσθωσαν).I find this verse to be a stronger condemnation of homosexual intercourse than 18:22, because of the use of nefas and the expressed punishment - "may they both die." The language of this verse is speaking specifically about man-on-man action; girl-on-girl isn't addressed here. The words are gender-specific; if we replace masculo/ἄρσενος with homine/ανθρώπου it would apply to both genders, not just males, but that's not what we have in the text.

In English, as rendered in many commonly-read versions:
If a man has sexual intercourse with a man as he would with a woman, the two of them have done something detestable. They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads. (CEB)
And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (ASV/KJV)If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. (NIV)

These readings must not come from the Greek manuscript tradition, as they all translate the Latin sit sanguis eorum super eos.

Deuteronomy 23:17

non erit meretrix de filiabus Israhel neque scortator de filiis Israhel

οὐκ ἔσται πόρνη ἀπὸ θυγατέρων Iσραηλ καὶ οὐκ ἔσται πορνεύων ἀπὸ υἱῶν Iσραηλ οὐκ ἔσται τελεσφόρος ἀπὸ θυγατέρων Iσραηλ καὶ οὐκ ἔσται τελισκόμενος ἀπὸ υἱῶν Iσραηλ

Actually the Septuagint has this as 23:18, not 17; I'm not sure whence the discrepancy arises. The second part of the Greek verse (with
τελεσφόρος and τελισκόμενος) is omitted entirely in the Latin and in the English versions. The important words here are meretrix/πόρνη "prostitute" and scortator/πορνεύων "fornicator." The verse says "there will not be a prostitute from the daughters of Israel nor a fornicator from the sons of Israel." People have tied this verse to the issue of homosexuality by interpreting scortator/πορνεύων as "sodomite." The Latin word does not have that connotation at all; scortator is formed from the verb scortari, which simply means "to be a prostitute" or "to have sex with a prostitute." Perhaps one would be more likely to engage in sodomy with a prostitute (as it was considered fairly demeaning even to the ancients) but the Latin word scarcely applies exclusively to homosexual relations of any sort. I do not believe this verse has anything to say about homosexuality specifically.

In English:
No Israelite daughter is allowed to be a consecrated worker [prostitute]. Neither is any Israelite son allowed to be a consecrated worker. (CEB)
There shall be no prostitute of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a sodomite of the sons of Israel.
Israelite man
 or woman is to become a shrine prostitute. (NIV)

This is one of the more interesting verses in translation, because the ASV/KJV use the very specific word sodomite where the other translations simply render meretrix/scortator as basically synonymous. I would be inclined to say that the ASV/KJV translation here has introduced a nuance of meaning into the text which was not originally there, hence a less faithful rendering of the original text, whichever manuscript the translator was consulting.

Romans 1:26-28

propterea tradidit illos Deus in passiones ignominiae nam feminae eorum inmutaverunt naturalem usum in eum usum qui est contra naturam similiter autem et masculi relicto naturali usu feminae exarserunt in desideriis suis in invicem masculi in masculos turpitudinem operantes et mercedem quam oportuit erroris sui in semet ipsis recipientes et sicut non probaverunt Deum habere in notitia tradidit eos Deus in reprobum sensum ut faciant quae non conveniunt
Διὰ τοῦτο παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς εἰς πάθη ἀτιμίας: αἵ τε γὰρ θήλειαι αὐτῶν μετήλλαξαν τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν εἰς τὴν παρὰ φύσιν, ὁμοίως τε καὶ οἱ ἄρσενες ἀφέντες τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν τῆς θηλείας ἐξεκαύθησαν ἐν τῇ ὀρέξει αὐτῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους ἄρσενες ἐν ἄρσεσιν, τὴν ἀσχημοσύνην κατεργαζόμενοι καὶ τὴν ἀντιμισθίαν ἣν ἔδει τῆς πλάνης αὐτῶν ἐν αὑτοῖς ἀπολαμβάνοντες.
Καὶ καθὼς οὐκ ἐδοκίμασαν τὸν θεὸν ἔχειν ἐν ἐπιγνώσει, παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς εἰς ἀδόκιμον νοῦν, ποιεῖν τὰ μὴ καθήκοντα

This is the first example from the New Testament, which was written in Greek natively and not Aramaic or Hebrew. In this particular passage, Paul describes the wrath of God (ira Dei) against men who have decided to worship other things besides God. My translation, being fairly literal: "On account of this God handed those men over to passions of disgrace, for their women changed their natural use into that use which is against nature; similarly however the men, with the natural use of women abandoned, burned in their desires for each other, men performing a shameful act on men, and receiving the reward which was fitting for their mistakes, and just as they did not try to have God in their notice, God handed them over to base thoughts so that they might do what is unfitting."

The important words to examine here are ignominiae/ἀτιμίας, contra naturam/παρὰ φύσιν, and turpitudinem/ἀσχημοσύνην. The first pair, ignominiae/ἀτιμίας, mean something which is dishonorable or shameful. Likewise the last pair, turpitudinem/ἀσχημοσύνην, mean something that is unseemly, ugly, or awkward. Probably the most contentious and studied phrase in these verses is contra naturam/παρὰ φύσιν, "against nature." Both the Latin and Greek phrases express the idea of "that which is contrary to what one observes in the natural world," and so I don't see much latitude in interpretation here; homosexuality is unnatural, this verse says. I won't even begin to make suppositions about the ancients' ability to determine what is natural and unnatural; obviously the NT regards homosexuality as a matter of nature and not culture. (Incidentally, this is the only thing I've found even slightly resembling an explanation for why homosexuality is wrong. The Old Testament verses basically say "it's gross don't do it or you'll be killed" without ever explaining why.)

More interesting to me here is the severity of the vocabulary, which I find to be less threatening and damning than, say, the verses in Leviticus. The words ἀτιμία and ἀσχημοσύνη are not particularly strong. They connote things which are certainly unsavory and dishonorable, but there is no sense of condemnation. In fact, homosexuality was the punishment in this particular case; men who were not worshiping God were punished by having their desires turned around so that they wanted to do with each other that which they normally want to do with their women. Reading ahead to verse 32, it does mention that people engaging in this behavior ἄξιοι θανάτου εἰσίν "are worthy of death," but it's included in a laundry list of just about every kind of bad behavior imaginable, not singled out.

1 Timothy 1:9-10
(honk if you love the Dative!) reads

sciens hoc quia iusto lex non est posita sed iniustis et non subditis impiis et peccatoribus sceleratis et contaminatis patricidis et matricidis homicidis fornicariis masculorum concubitoribus plagiariis mendacibus periuris et si quid aliud sanae doctrinae adversatur
εἰδὼς τοῦτο ὅτι δικαίῳ νόμος οὐ κεῖται, ἀνόμοις δὲ καὶ ἀνυποτάκτοις, ἀσεβέσι καὶ ἁμαρτωλοῖς, ἀνοσίοις καὶ βεβήλοις, πατρολῴαις καὶ μητρολῴαις, ἀνδροφόνοις, πόρνοις, ἀρσενοκοίταις, ἀνδραποδισταῖς, ψεύσταις, ἐπιόρκοις, καὶ εἴ τι ἕτερον τῇ ὑγιαινούσῃ διδασκαλίᾳ ἀντίκειται

The important word here is masculorum concubitoribus/ἀρσενοκοίταις, which is actually translated in some versions of the Bible in English as "homosexual." You might recall earlier I mentioned that neither Greek nor Latin had a word for the concept; these words are not really counterexamples. Concubitor literally means someone with whom you sleep. It can have a sexual connotation, but not a homosexual connotation; this is why it is paired with masculorum. The Greek ἀρσενοκοίταις is basically the same as the Latin phrase, just combined in one word rather than expressed in two, as the Greek language prefers compounds to periphrasis. Both terms highlight the fact that the Greek and Latin languages were ill-equipped to express this different view of sexuality.

In English, the NIV renders concubitoribus/ἀρσενοκοίταις as "those practicing homosexuality;" the CEB uses "people who have intercourse with the same sex;" the ASV "abusers of themselves with men." Different versions in Italian render the word as "pervertiti," "sodomiti," and "omosessuali," all fairly transparent terms even if your Italian is not so good.

Jude 7 reads

sicut Sodoma et Gomorra et finitimae civitates simili modo exfornicatae et abeuntes post carnem alteram factae sunt exemplum ignis aeterni poenam sustinentes
ὡς Σόδομα καὶ Γόμορρα καὶ αἱ περὶ αὐτὰς πόλεις, τὸν ὅμοιον τρόπον τούτοις ἐκπορνεύσασαι καὶ ἀπελθοῦσαι ὀπίσω σαρκὸς ἑτέρας, πρόκεινται δεῖγμα πυρὸς αἰωνίου δίκην ὑπέχουσαι

"Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, having given themselves to fornication in a similar manner and going after another flesh, were made an example, receiving the punishment of eternal fire," I interpret. Again, exfornicatae/ἐκπορνεύσασαι
are basically fabricated words to describe the sort of perversion that was apparently going on in these famous towns. (I know what the people in Sodom were doing, but in Gomorrah?) They amount to something like "slutting out," or perhaps "corn-holing out" if you're a Sodomite. Neither word pertains specifically to homosexuality except in the context of those specific cities, where apparently that sort of thing was all the rage. (I suppose Jude would write Sanctus Franciscus civitas exfornicata if composing today.)

Conclusions and Observations

As I mentioned at the onset, my motivation for doing this little investigation was simply so that I could be better educated on the topic, because like most people, I haven't read too much of the Bible. I didn't expect to make any ground-breaking revelations, and I don't believe that I have. It is obvious that the Bible has a negative view of homosexuality and expresses that in both the old and new testaments. It certainly does not, as far as I have seen, say anything as plainly and strongly as "God hates fags." The passage using nefas in Latin is probably the strongest condemnation of it, but remember the same Greek word was also translated as abominatio in another verse.

People may be tempted to cite the severity of the punishment (i.e. death) as evidence of God's hatred of homosexuals. This is extremely misguided, because the Bible says that the punishment for all sin is death (Romans 6:23). In our society, we have a hierarchy of crimes and corresponding punishments which we portion out according to the severity of the infraction. God, however, does not have this same spectrum of offense and punishment. If you sin, you die. All sins require capital punishment, from homosexuality to cursing your parents. God doesn't care if you spent your afternoon having gay sex or worshiping Molech; you're committing sin. We as a society latch on to certain crimes or behaviors and condemn them as more sinful than others, more wrong or immoral than others. This is a reflection of our societal mores, not of the moral code of the Bible.

One of the biggest problems with citing the Bible as evidence of anything is that people extract the parts which support their views and repeat them entirely out of context. This is disingenuous and unacceptable as a mode of argumentation. The passages in Leviticus, for example, mention homosexual behavior in the context of general sins of perversion. If a man commits adultery, has sex with his mother, his daughter-in-law, his mother-in-law, his wife during her period (!), his sister, his brother's wife, or an animal, he is to be put to death, along with the offending woman (or animal.) No special attention is paid to homosexuality; it is merely one of a great many perversions which God deems sinful and punishable by death. To mention or emphasize one part of a book or verse and omit the rest is deceitful and prejudicial.

What we see today is a great number of people who use the Bible to support their bigoted and hateful views which probably did not originate in the scriptures. There is a lot to be learned by reading the Bible, whether one is religious or not. I encourage everyone who wants to have a discussion about morality, mythology, theology, or any other such topic to be familiar with the actual content of the Bible. Do not rely on the opinions or sermons of others to give you information about what God thinks or loves or hates. That information is readily available to you; you do not need an interpreter or pastor to guide you. It is my sincere hope that anyone who reads this will take greater care in forming and expressing arguments which cite in any way, for or against, the content of the Bible or any other sacred text. In such important debates about such weighty matters it is of the highest importance that our opinions have strong foundations in truth.

I encourage anyone who is able to read the Bible in Greek, Latin, or Hebrew, or at least to consult different translations if reading in a modern language. Consider also the cultural context of the authors who wrote it so long ago, and how our world now is vastly different in many ways. Responsible study of text is indispensable in the forming of cogent arguments and valid opinions about anything.


Bible Gateway - A brilliant database of dozens of different translations of the Bible in many languages

Septuaginta - Online text of the Greek Septuagint (Old and New Testaments) with parsing information for many of the words
The Latin Vulgate - Online text of the Latin Vulgate, with available English and Greek texts for comparison

I've also consulted the Oxford English and Latin dictionaries and Liddell and Scott's Greek lexicon for definitive definitions of the words in question.

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