Jesus & Homosexuality

Preston Sprinkle —  October 1, 2013 — 12 Comments
This entry is part 11 of 20 in the seriesHomosexuality in the Bible

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.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Jimn3d

    Leviticus 20:13 ASV
    American Standard Version
    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

  • Pingback: Jesus, Sexuality, & Same-Sex Love | Theology for Real Life()

  • Preston

    Ya, that’s a good question/observation, Julie. And I’m still wrestling with all this, so bear with me as I tease out some thoughts.

    As you said, the ancient world (during the time of Leviticus) didn’t have a category of “gay men,” so this would preclude Leviticus from assuming that the prohibitions in 18:22 and 20:13 exclude gay men. Once we get to Romans 1, it’s a bit trickier. The category of “gay men” still didn’t exists as such, but parallel categories did. Some men were desired to have sex (sometimes exclusively) with men, and women with women. So when Paul says what he does in Romans 1, it doesn’t seem like he would make any allowances for gay sex if the man happened to be oriented that way.

    But I’ll get to Romans 1 later!

    So back to Leviticus. The commands are unqualified and absolute, so at face value, I don’t think the author had any exceptions in mind.

    BTW, I wrote a couple blogs on Leviticus earlier. Check those out and see what you think!

    • Julie

      Yes, at face value, since it is written without qualification, one could possibly infer there were no exceptions in mind. But just because something is written without qualification doesn’t automatically mean there are no exceptions. For example, Paul says that he does not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man but to remain silent. If we take this at face value (written without qualification), then we need to stop all our female Sunday school teachers from teaching boys over the age of 13, since Paul gave this instruction at a time boys were considered men at the age of thirteen. I’m sure you can think of other (and better) biblical examples.

      Also, if the category “gay men” was non-existent at the time the Law was given, one would not expect to find that particular exception. So, to say it was written without this exception in mind would be a meaningless point (in this case). Wouldn’t it?

      So, like I said, I’d have to ask what makes us confident we can apply the Leviticus prohibition to gay men seeking monogamous relationships.

      Am I missing something here? I certainly could be.

      • Preston

        No, you’re not missing something, Julie. You’re offering very good pushback! Thanks for taking the time to discuss this.

        Ya, I see your point about “gay men” not being a category and therefore we would not expect it to be an except. I do think this works both ways, though. To say that Leviticus 18/20 would be overruled if the people were gay runs up against the same problem.

        Also, the only grounds for the prohibition (“as with a female”) may point to something more fundamental at work: upholding gender distinction.

        None of this is a slam dunk, to be sure!

        In any case, both Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 seem to allude to Lev 18/20 when they prohibit same sex intercourse, and the category of orientation DID exist in Paul’s first-century context.

        In short, I agree that Lev 18/20 in itself doesn’t offer the strongest proof against gay sex among married gay men. (I still see it as stronger than you do, I think.) But the correlation with Paul seems to strengthen the case.

        Of course, I haven’t blogged on Romans and Corinthians yet, so the jury is still out.

        • Julie

          Right, it works both ways—if the category was nonexistent at the time, Leviticus can’t be used to support or deny gay unions today.

          I’m not absolutely certain what Scripture is saying at this
          point. But I feel obligated to offer some pushback as if my conclusion was going to put either my relationship with God or my relationship with my life partner at stake.

          I am interested in reading your blog on Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6. When you come to that, I’d be interested in hearing how you think we can be certain Paul is writing without any possible exceptions in mind. I mean, even if he’s
          alluding to Lev 18/20, and Lev 18/20 has exceptions in mind (if the category existed at the time), then Paul, too, would have the same exceptions in mind. And even if no category existed at the time of Lev 18/20, that doesn’t mean Paul didn’t have any exceptions in mind. So, is there a way to be sure?

          Do you have any thoughts on why these prohibitions in Lev 18/20 are called “customs” that the men of Canaan “practiced,” as if these were statutes, as in something they were expected, or at least encouraged, to observe? When I look at the list, as a whole, it comes across as rampant, sexual indulgence at a completely unrestrained level. It’s as if the people of Canaan were saying, “Let’s see how far we can push this envelope!”

  • Julie

    Forgive me if you’ve covered this in a previous post, but even if the Leviticus prohibitions can’t be relegated to cult prostitution, rape or other forms of non-consensual sex, could it relegated to homosexual activities for straight men? In other words, you are not to “experiment” or crossover if you’re a straight man because straight men are meant to “sow their seed” in fertile ground. Such an activity disregards the man’s purpose and can even be deemed animalistic lust (cf. Romans 1:26-27) since the man deliberately strays outside of his natural tendencies. It’s hard to imagine that Leviticus is telling gay men that they can’t have sex. And I don’t think that’s what you’re saying either. I think you’re saying it’s simply addressing the activity of same-sex sexual relations and condemning it. I don’t think gay men are even in view in Leviticus.

    It sounds like Jewish tradition viewed homosexual acts as sin, but, again, it’s possible they may have straight men in view rather than gay men.

    So, I guess I’d have to ask what makes us confident that we can apply this prohibition to gay men.

  • I am enjoying this series tremendously.
    You are doing a wonderful job modeling how to do bible study right. Thank you!

    • Preston

      Thanks, Juan! Glad you’re enjoying the series.

  • I think this argument could be summed up by pointing out a simple logical fallacy: the argument from silence. It is extremely difficult, if not fallacious, to argue from silence (one way or another). In this case, it’s even doubly-so because (as you didn’t mention) it’s not entirely sure whether Jesus did or didn’t teach on this. We only know what was recorded in the four Gospels (which surely doesn’t even scratch the surface of his entire teaching ministry). So, there’s the argument from Jesus’s silence AND the argument from the Gospel writers’ silence. And the latter could actually militate against drawing any conclusions from the former.

    • Preston

      Thanks for bringing this up, David! I was wondering if someone was going to highlight this.

      Let me think about this a bit…I’ve got to run, so I only have a few seconds but I wanted to throw a couple things out there.

      By saying it’s an argument from silence, does this in itself mean it’s wrong? Or a bad argument?

      And is it really a total silence when Jesus’s Bible (which He…wrote) wasn’t silent on the issue?

      And if silence means we’re not sure what Jesus would have said about it (is this what you’re implying), then logically, it seems that we must also say that we’re not really sure if Jesus thought bestiality or incest was wrong. MAYBE he would have been against it, or maybe not. We just don’t know.

      Similarly, in all my teaching and preaching, I’ve never once mentioned nor condemned bestiality. Is the jury out on what I think about this?

      I agree that there are bad arguments made from silence, but I also think there are complex factors involved in other situations (like the current one) that give more merit to some arguments-from-silence than others.

      Thoughts?

      • Hey, brother Preston. I’ll shoot you an email with some thoughts. But in short: An argument from silence, or its cousin, the argument from ignorance, is usually considered an informal logical fallacy. That doesn’t automatically make it “bad” or “wrong” but it does kind of mean that it’s guilty until proven innocent. It may be that you’ve offered enough reasons to show that the silence is deafening, as they say, but the burden of proof is always on the one trying to use silence to make a positive case for something (in this case, that Jesus was for or against homosexual relationships). Anyway, I hope you read my push back (here and on FB) as constructive criticism rather than antagonistic. As you know, there are a lot of bad books on this topic from all perspectives; I don’t want your book to be one of those! Peace.