“The word ‘homosexual’ did not appear in any translation of the Christian Bible until 1946. There are words in Greek for same-sex sexual activities, yet they never appear in the original text of the New Testament.”
-The New York Press
“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
-Deuteronomy 11:18-19, NIV
As promised, I’d like to take some time and paper addressing the biblical perspective on homosexuality starting from the beginning, all the way back in Genesis.
Specifically Genesis 19, the account of Sodom and Gomorrah. For those who don’t quite remember the story or have never heard, two angels come to visit Lot in Sodom and he welcomes them, but then some neighbors come by and demand that Lot give them the two men (the neighbors don’t realize the visitors are angels) so that they can have their way with them. Lot refuses, offering up his two virgin daughters as a viable alternative, but the men only want the angels. The result of this encounter is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I find that it is usually people who have never actually read this account or only glanced over it that take it as proof that God condemns homosexuality. For though many in the church used to believe such (the term sodomite comes from this account), the more logical interpretation is that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their inhospitality, a sin considered truly heinous in ancient societies. In his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (a book I highly recommend) John Boswell suggests that the men of Sodom may not have even had sex on their mind at all: “The Hebrew verb ‘to know’ is very rarely used in a sexual sense in the Bible (despite popular opinion to the contrary): in only ten of its 943 occurrences in the Old Testament does it have the sense of carnal knowledge. The passage on Sodom is the only place in the Old Testament where it is generally believed to refer to homosexual relations.” (94) He goes on to point out that Jesus himself evidently refers to Sodom’s sin as one of inhospitality (Matt. 10:14-15, Luke 10:10-12) and that though Sodom is frequently referred to in the Bible as a symbol of sin, its sin is never specified as homosexuality. (94) Boswell goes on for pages about this story, but I think I’ll spare you his myriad of references and examples and move on to Leviticus.
Leviticus contains the only two explicit references to homosexual acts in the Old Testament: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination” and “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (Lev. 18:22, 20:13, KJV). Both passages certainly seem pretty cut and dry, but upon closer examination of the individual passages and the chapters that contain and surround them, I found that neither passage necessarily declares homosexuality a sin nor is either still necessarily a relevant law. Boswell explains, “The Hebrew word ‘toevah,’ here translated ‘abomination,’ does not usually signify something intrinsically evil, like rape or theft (discussed elsewhere in Leviticus), but something which is ritually unclean for Jews, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are prohibited in these same chapters. It is used throughout the Old Testament to designate those Jewish sins which involve ethnic contamination or idolatry and very frequently occurs as part of the stock phrase ‘toevah ha-goyim,’ ‘the uncleanness of the Gentiles’” (100). Thus it is entirely possible that the Jews did not think homosexual acts were necessarily immoral but simply ritualistically unclean.
And that should not be taken to mean that homosexual relations are in any way unsanitary or unhealthy, just as Christians now would not consider it unclean to wear clothes sewn of two fabrics or to eat meat with blood in it (Lev. 19:19, 26). The laws in chapters eighteen through twenty—though some of them certainly regard morally sinful acts—were written both/either to arbitrarily separate the Jews from the peoples who surrounded them (a purpose declared by God himself in each chapter) and/or to protect them from disease (the main purpose of the laws in several other chapters of Leviticus as well, i.e. chapters 11-15). The laws regarding homosexual acts as well as the law about eating blood fit into both categories: eating meat without blood separated the Jews from the people around them but also helped protect them from diseases animals carry. Likewise prohibiting homosexual acts would have been a distinction from surrounding peoples who frequently engaged in such acts regardless of sexual orientation (the sin here being of heterosexual people acting against their own sexuality). Prohibiting all homosexual activity would have also protected the Jews in ways that are no longer valid due to advances in sexual protection: restricting homosexual acts across the board would have prevented heterosexual men, fearful of getting any women pregnant, from stepping out on their wives with other men, and it would have also limited the spread of disease.
It does seem grossly unfair to have prohibited gays from being true to their sexual orientation if in fact I’m right and homosexuality is not a sin, but if you think about it, it also would have been incredibly difficult and perhaps impossible to try and explain the concept of sexual orientation and the factors that play into it at that time, especially considering that even now, thousands of years later, we’re still having trouble with the idea. Easier just to rule homosexuality out entirely, at least for the time being.
The laws that were used to separate and protect the Jewish people don’t apply to Christians because of Jesus. We’re allowed to eat blood, to plant two different crops in one field; maybe, just maybe, we’re allowed to be gay too. After all, the laws being discussed were originally enforced by polygamists, a marital situation I think most Christians would now agree is immoral. By bringing this up I’m not trying to insinuate that morals aren’t absolute; only that as a species, human beings aren’t bright enough to get everything down at once and God knows it. God let the polygamy stick around for a while and he staved off homosexuality for a while. I don’t think he ever intended for us to take his ignoring polygamy as meaning it’s a fine and dandy practice and I don’t think he intended us to take his (temporarily) outlawing homosexual acts as meaning homosexuality itself is sinful.
The next three passages commonly cited as evidence that God condemns homosexuality all occur in the writings of Paul in the New Testament and are the only passages in the New Testament that make mention of homosexuality. The first of these is Romans 1:18-32. Though Paul does not specify a time or place in this passage, he is talking about people that “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21, NIV). Paul carries on about how evil and depraved such people are for over twenty verses but refers to their homosexual acts in only verses twenty-six and seven: “Because of this God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even the women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another” (NIV). Paul’s meaning in these verses may appear obvious at first glance, but it’s not all that simple: The exchanging of “natural” sexual relations for “unnatural” ones could very well be an allegory for the exchange of the knowledge of God for the rejection of Him—the sin already cited as the foremost crime of the people being discussed.
Such an interpretation would make much more sense than the only other logical interpretation: God turns people who deny him into homosexuals. But even if the latter interpretation is the correct one—whether it is true of all people who deny God and/or who are gay or just some—the passage does not necessarily declare that homosexuality is sinful, only that “unnatural” sexual relations are. Boswell makes an interesting point on this note: “The concept of ‘natural law’ was not fully developed until more than a millennium after Paul’s death, and it is anachronistic to read it into his words. For Paul, ‘nature’ was not a question of universal law or truth but, rather, a matter of the character of some person or group of persons. […] A possessive is always understood with ‘nature’ in Pauline writings: it is not ‘nature’ in the abstract but someone’s ‘nature’.” (111) Many conservative Christians believe that “natural” sexual relations can only occur between a man and a woman, but if a person is homosexual by nature (as many of those same conservative Christians believe most homosexuals are), I see no reason to believe that homosexual love is somehow not natural for that person.
Consider this: it is natural for me to favor my left hand and I am a minority in that respect (about as small of a minority as homosexuals are), and there are people who believe that my using my left hand instead of my right is sinful (the Latin word for left is sinister), places where I could get my hand cut off for using it in public. Are these people right (pun intended) in believing that my difference is sinful? Should I be forced to change so that I fit the accepted perception of natural? Is my left-handedness against God’s plan? against His will because it is different than what is natural for the majority? Perhaps it’s a silly comparison, but perhaps not.
The other two passages in which Paul supposedly addresses homosexuality are actually simple mistranslations that changed Paul’s original meaning as the churches perception of homosexuality grew less favorable. (Most of Boswell’s book is actually devoted to tracking this shift which occurred primarily in the middle ages—before that homosexuals were for the most part accepted by the church. An appendix even has some gay literature written by a few different popes and Catholic saints.) Boswell discusses these mistranslations as follows:
“Two words in I Corinthians 6:9 and one in I Timothy 1:10 have been taken at least since the early twentieth century to indicate that ‘homosexuals’ will be excluded from the kingdom of heaven. The first of the two, ‘μαλακός’ (basically ‘soft’), is an extremely common Greek word; it occurs elsewhere in the New Testament with the meaning ‘sick’ and in patristic writings with senses as varied as ‘liquid,’ ‘cowardly,’ ‘refined,’ ‘weak willed,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘gentle,’ and ‘debauched.’ In a specifically moral context it very frequently means ‘licentious,’ ‘loose,’ or ‘wanting in self-control.’ At a broad level, it might be translated as either ‘unrestrained’ or ‘wanton,’ but to assume that either of these concepts necessarily applies to gay people is wholly gratuitous. The word is never used in Greek to designate gay people as a group or even in reference to homosexual acts generically, and it often occurs in writings contemporary with the Pauline epistles in reference to heterosexual persons or activities. […] The second word ‘άρσενοκοϊται,’ is quite rare, and its application to homosexuality in particular is more understandable. The best evidence, however, suggests very strongly that it did not connote homosexuality to Paul or his contemporaries but meant “male prostitute” until well into the fourth century, after which it became confused with a variety of words for disapproved sexual activity and was often equated with homosexuality.” (106-107)
All of this information does not prove that homosexuality is not a sin. I’m sure there are many acts not explicitly listed as sins in the Bible that dishonor God and homosexuality could be one of them. But all of this research, analysis, and questioning does prove that it is at least possible that homosexuality is not a sin. On its own this information isn’t enough, but when combined with scientific studies, personal experience, gut feelings, and the innumerable passages of both the Old and New Testaments calling us to love above all else, I find no reason why homosexual love should be any less cherished and celebrated than heterosexual love and certainly no reason in heaven or in hell to call such love a sin.
Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.