If we simply follow what Jesus said about same-sex relationships, we’re going to be a bit disappointed. In all of His commands about how we should live or not live, many of which included sexual behavior, one thing is unambiguously clear: Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. He neither condemned it nor affirmed it.
But why? And what does Jesus’s silence on the issue mean for the contemporary debate?
For some interpreters, this means that Jesus at the very least was indifferent towards same sex relationships. At the most, He must have been okay with them. In fact, we all know that Jesus rejected the purity laws of the Old Testament (Mark 7; Matt 15), and since prohibitions against same-sex (male) intercourse were part of these purity laws, we can assume that Jesus would have rejected laws against same-sex intercourse as well.
We also know that Jesus reached out to the marginalized and outcasts. And since the LGBT community are today’s outcasts, Jesus would have reached out to them with unconditional love, as he did with the prostitutes and tax collectors in His day. The life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus, therefore, launches us on a trajectory that enables—or compels—us to celebrate same-sex monogamous relationships centered on Christ. Or so the argument goes.
As I sum up this argument, some of you are cheering while others may be angry. But regardless of how you feel about it, you need to do more than just agree or disagree. Disagreement, for instance, isn’t the same as refutation; you must do the hard work of the latter in order to convincingly accomplish the former.
So where do I stand? Well, wherever I stand I need to have a lot of evidence under my feet. So this post may feel a little thick with information, but I believe it’s necessary for such an important issue.
Let’s first unpack Jesus’s silence on homosexuality. Does this mean that He was indifferent (at the least) or affirming (at the most)?
No. And quite honestly—regardless of where you or I stand on the broader issue of homosexuality—this is a terrible argument. It’s about as bad as conservatives using the Sodom story to argue against homosexuality. Put simply: Jesus was silent on issues that were well established in his Jewish context, ones which both He and His contemporaries agreed upon. If Jesus departed from His Jewish tradition, He usually makes this very clear.
So what does Jesus’s Jewish tradition say? Here’s a brief summary.
In the Torah, the only reference to same-sex intercourse (Lev 18:22; 20:13) prohibits it. And for reasons given in previous posts, I don’t think these prohibitions can be relegated to cult prostitution, rape, or other forms of non-consensual sex.
Jewish tradition between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 seems to agree with this reading of the sacred Torah. Both Philo and Josephus clearly prohibit same-sex intercourse (Philo, Contempl. Life, 59-62; Abr. 135-136; Josephus, Ant. 1.200; Against Apion 2.199; 2.275). On at least one occasion, Philo cites Lev 18:22 and 20:13 in support (Laws 3:37-42). Josephus goes so far as to prohibit not just same-sex intercourse, but same-sex marriage (Against Apion 2.199).
Other Jewish writers agree. The second century (B.C.) book, The Letter of Aristeas, views homosexual acts as sin (Arist. 152), and the first-century (A.D.) work Pseudo-Phocylides prohibits same-sex intercourse on several occasions (Ps. Phoc. 3, 190-91, 213-14) and even includes same-sex relations among women (Ps. Phoc. 192), which was rarely talked about in the ancient world. Other references to Jewish prohibition of same-sex intercourse are scattered throughout ancient literature (Sib. Or. 3.596-600; T.Levi 17:11).
All of these texts are from “early Jewish” literature; that is, pre-rabbinic texts written before A.D. 200. These early Jewish texts were written right around the time when Jesus lived so they are the best witnesses to the Judaism of Jesus’s day. Now, beginning in A.D. 200, Jewish rabbis began to write down their own traditions, and this has been codified in various works known as the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Tosefta, and many others. Throughout these later works, male-male sex continues to be condemned with the same clarity (m. Sanhedrin 7:4; b. Sanhedrin 54ab; t. Abodah Zarah 2:1; 3:2; and many others), while lesbian sex is prohibited but with less severity (b. Yebam. 76a; Sabb. 65a-b; y. Gittin 8:10, 49c). This probably has to do with the primacy of the male organ, but I’ll save you the details.
There is no evidence in 500 years of Jewish tradition on either side of Jesus suggesting that homosexual sex was up for debate. Rather, Jesus’s Jewish worldview—testified by many diverse sources, written by different authors living in different geographical regions, some of whom actually saw many positive things in the Greco-Roman worldview (e.g. Philo, Pseudo-Phocylides)—prohibited it.
So that’s a long way of pointing out that Jesus didn’t mention same-sex intercourse because He didn’t need to. Within Judaism, there was no debate; there was unanimous agreement; no one was wondering whether or not same-sex intercourse was okay.
Likewise, Jesus’s silence regarding bestiality doesn’t mean that He’s fine with men mounting sheep.
Jesus’s silence regarding incest doesn’t mean that He’d affirm hooking up with your mom as long as it was confined to a monogamous, consensual, Christ-centered marriage.
Jesus didn’t preach to the choir. He didn’t address issues where He and His contemporary Jews agreed. So, based on what seems to be a historically logical conclusion, I don’t think that Jesus’s silence regarding same-sex love means He affirmed it.
But this is only one part of the argument! What about Jesus’s disregard for purity laws (washing hands, eating pork, etc.) and His radical, counterintuitive outreach to the outcasts? Should this nudge the church to embrace the LGBT community?
Maybe it should. We’ll see in the next post.