Most scholars today believe that there is no concept of “homosexuality,” as we usually understand the term, in the Bible. That is, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, although clearly familiar with homoerotic sexual acts, do not know of the “homosexual,” a person who has an identity based on the gender of their sexual preferences.
Although there are remarkably few verses in the Bible devoted to homoerotic activities, there is an enormous scholarly literature on the topic, much of it driven by modern theological concerns. I worked on this topic fairly intensively some years ago, and even then I wondered if there is anything new to say.
It’s been a while since I thought about this, but an insight emerged the other day in discussion in my undergraduate class, “Religion and Sexuality” (syllabus here). I have not kept up with the literature so I’m not sure how new it is or whether it would hold up to more rigorous examination, but it is worth thinking about.
Leviticus 18:22 reads:
Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence
The verse is cryptic, leaving open at least four questions:
- What sex act is actually prohibited?
- Is this to be read narrowly as a prohibition against only an activity (or activities) between men, or is it to be extended to female homoerotic activities?
- What does “abhorrence” mean?
- More generally, what is the reason for the prohibition?
Now compare Paul’s primary statement on the topic, in Romans 1:26-27:
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged
natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
Paul, as many have noted, is here reflecting some of the attitudes found in his larger Graeco-Roman context sprinkled with a healthy dose of Jewish condemnation against such acts (seen also, for example, in Philo). But in class we were wondering if Paul should be taken more seriously in this passage as an exegete of Leviticus. That is, Paul seems to offer answers to the questions posed above, even if these answers are themselves a bit slippery:
- The “act” is to be read broadly (although still unspecifically) as “acts” between men;
- The prohibition is to be extended to women;
- “Abhorrence” means “shameless,” a social category;
- The verse comes to prohibit acts that are “against nature.”
Paul thus takes seriously and wrestles with the meaning of the verse in Leviticus, ultimately offering an expansive reading of the prohibition. In this way his reading mirrors that attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:27-30 which extends the narrow law of adultery found in the Hebrew Bible (where adultery is defined as sex between a married woman and a man who is not her husband) to simple lust. Both expand the scope of the sexual prohibitions.
Paul may not yet know the “homosexual”, but the comparision of his writing to the verse in Leviticus suggests that he is getting close. Paul may bring “nature” into the picture in order to answer an exegetical question, and he may mean it to refer only to physiology, but he opened a door. Later Jews reading only the Hebrew Bible would prohibit male homoerotic anal intercourse, but would be much vaguer and more wary of extending the prohibition, which floats without real rhyme or reason among many biblical prohibitions. Christians though, drawing on Paul, would develop a more robust anti-homoerotic/homosexual position.