Archives For Homosexuality in the Bible

This entry is part 6 of 20 in the seriesHomosexuality in the Bible

In a previous post, I listed what I have found to be the five strongest arguments against seeing Leviticus 18 and 20 as prohibiting same-sex intercourse. In this post and the next, I’ll work through each of these

arguments and offer a counter argument. I’ll begin with the last argument first and work my way up.

5. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 don’t refer to all forms of same sex intercourse, but male-cult prostitution.

If this is true, then Leviticus does not speak to same sex attraction leading to consensual, monogamous sex. But I don’t find this argument convincing for two reasons.

First, there is little evidence that such cultic prostitution existed in the ancient world, let alone in Israel. In the past, scholars assumed that cultic prostitution was alive and well in the ancient world. But more recent scholars have shown that there is little evidence that it actually existed. There is no mention of it, for instance, in Babylonian, Ugarit, or Akkadian literature, and the Hebrew words (qadesh, qadeshah, qadeshim) often translated “[male] cult prostitute” (or “sodomite”) do not mean that. Translating these Hebrew words as “cult prostitute” or “male cult prostitute” assumes the existence of “male cult prostitution” in the ancient world, but there is little evidence that it did. There’s been a lot of scholarly literature written about this in the last 10-15 years, and most of it argues against the existence of male cult prostitution in the ancient world.

I could say much more about this, but we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. In any case, if you think Leviticus 18 and 20 refers to male cult prostitution, you need to first swim upstream and prove that there was such a thing in Israel.

Second, even if you did prove (against the opinion of most ancient near east scholars) that qadesh does mean “male cult prostitution,” Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 don’t use this word. When the Bible outlaws the qadashim in, say, Deut 23:18, it does so explicitly: “You shall not bring the wages of a qadesh into the house of the LORD.” But Leviticus 18 and 20 don’t mention the qadeshim. They prohibit a male having sex with another male. There is no evidence in the text or from history that this prohibition only had male cult prostitution in view.


4. The underlying logic of Leviticus 18 and 20 is that females are inferior to males.

Such is implied by the prohibition of lying with a male “as with a woman.” So, if we are to obey the prohibition do we also need to view women as inferior?

This is actually a good argument and needs to be carefully considered. However, I still think it reads too much into the text. After all, Leviticus says that men shouldn’t lie with men “as with a woman” but it doesn’t

explain why it’s wrong for a man to act like a woman. And I don’t think we can simply assume that it’s wrong because women were viewed as socially lower than men.

Here are a couple responses:

First, it could be wrong for men to act like women, not because women are inferior to men, but because men and women were created with divinely intended differences. Robert Gagnon (a scholar who defends the traditional view) says: “At issue was not so much status differentiation as sexual differentiation” (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 142). In other words, same-sex intercourse violates the natural pairing of sexual differences; it doesn’t just demean male honor (i.e. acting like a woman). After all, the Hebrew Bible, though patriarchal to some extent, elevated the status of women much higher than in many surrounding cultures (see, e.g. Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?).

Second, in other ancient law codes, the only one who was shamed in the act of same-sex intercourse was the one who “played the female.” But—and this is key—Leviticus 20:13 gives the death penalty for both partners in male-male intercourse. If social status was a concern for Leviticus, then it would not have condemned the active and the passive partner.

The commands in Leviticus 18 and 20 are unqualified and absolute. That is, they don’t show the same concern for social status that other ancient laws about homosexual intercourse do. In contrast to other ancient laws, social status seems to be irrelevant for the prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.


3. Homosexual sex is called “an abomination” in Leviticus 18 and 20 but so are a lot of practices that Christians have no problem engaging in.

For instance, dietary restrictions such as eating pork—so the argument goes—is also called an abomination.

This argument has been used by many recent interpreters who say that Bible doesn’t (clearly) prohibit same sex intercourse. Daniel Helminiak says that many things are outlawed as “an abomination” in Leviticus including eating unclean birds and fish (What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality). Justin Lee says something similar in his excellent book, Torn. I’m pretty sure both of these interpreters draw from the monumental work of John Boswell, who in 1980 said that the word “abomination” in Leviticus does not signify something that is “intrinsically evil” but is “used throughout the Old Testament

to designate those Jewish sins which involve ethnic contamination” such as eating pork or weaving together different fabrics (Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Kindle loc. 2775).

This argument sounds devastating for conservative interpreters who love bacon and poly-cotton blends. But there’s one problem with the argument: It’s wrong.

Boswell and his later readers seem to be looking at the English word “abomination” and not the Hebrew word toevah. (Boswell looks at the Hebrew term, but misrepresents the evidence.) The word toevah is only used 6 times in Leviticus: 4 times in the plural, “abominations,” to refer broadly to all sins (mostly sexual) of Leviticus 18:6-29 (incest, bestiality, child sacrifice, and homosexual sex). But toevah only occurs 2 times in the singular—“an abomination”—in Leviticus: 18:22 and 20:13. In both occasions, it refers to (and only to) male-male sex.

Toevah is never used in Leviticus to refer to dietary laws.

In the rest of the Old Testament, it’s most often used to refer to acts that are intrinsically evil: murder (Jer 7:9), oppressing the poor (Ezek 18:7), robbery (Ezek 18:7-8), adultery (Ezek 22:11), among other sins. There may be instances where toevah is used in the way Boswell claims (e.g. Deut 14:3) but these are rare. And, most importantly, they are not used as such in Leviticus.

Same sex intercourse among males does not seem to belong in the same category as other dietary laws that are done away with in the New Testament. This feeds into the next and probably the most important argument against seeing Leviticus 18 and 20 as relevant. But let’s stop here to give you some time to digest.

Again, none of my thoughts here are written in stone, and I certainly don’t think I’ve understood all the complexities of homosexuality by doing a few word studies on Leviticus 18. But in order to faithfully and compassionately bring the Bible to bear on the current debate, I need to understand those debated passages that explicitly mention homosexual intercourse. If at any place you see that my interpretation or reasoning is wrong, or if you believe my argument is unclear, I genuinely invite you to critique me. I’ll do my best not to be offended, even if you respond offensively. After all, my goal is not to prove a certain presupposed view to be true, but to understand Scripture in order to bring its truth and love to bear on a broken world.

We’ll come back in the next post and cover the last two arguments.

This entry is part 7 of 20 in the seriesHomosexuality in the Bible

In my last post, I answered 3 of my 5 “devil’s advocate” arguments against the so-called traditional view of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the only two Old Testament texts that explicitly forbid male-male intercourse. We’ll carry on our discussion in this post by addressing the last 2 of those 5 arguments.

2. Prohibitions against male-male sex in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 are time-bound and culture-bound purity laws that were intended to keep Israel separate from the surrounding nations.

Hebrew BibleThe implication of this of course is that they are no longer binding on believers. We can eat catfish, sand lizards, mole rats, and have sex with people of the same gender—so goes the argument. Prohibitions of these in the OT belong to the purity laws that kept Israel distinct from their Canaanite and Egyptian neighbors. To cite Daniel Helminiak again:

…the Leviticus code is irrelevant for deciding whether gay sex is right or wrong. Though the Hebrew Testament certainly did forbid penetrative male-male sex, its reason for forbidding it have no bearing on today’s discussion of homosexuality (Helminiak, 56).

I think this is the strongest argument against seeing Leviticus 18 and 20 as relevant for Christians. But I still see three problems with such reasoning.

First, male-male sex is called “an abomination” (Lev 18:22; 20:13). And as stated in the previous post, Leviticus never refers to purity laws, such as not frying up sea gulls, as an abomination.

Second, most people would consider all the other practices prohibited in Leviticus 18 as still relevant. For instance, Leviticus 18 condemns incest (18:6-18), adultery (18:20), child sacrifice (18:21), bestiality (18:23), and male-male intercourse (18:22). The only one that may be classified as an out-dated “purity” law is the prohibition of having sex during menstruation (18:19). This last one often throws interpreters a curve ball, but I wonder: are we sure this law shouldn’t be upheld by Christians? I’ll let Rachel Held Evans address that one. She’s good at the nitty-gritty.

Even if sex during menstruation is a purity law that’s no longer valid, it does not receive the same severe punishment as male-male sex. For instance, if a man has sex with a woman during menstruation, he is unclean for 7 days but does not receive the death penalty (or expulsion; Lev 15:24). But homosexual intercourse does incur the death penalty (20:13).

Third, I’m not sure if it’s that easy to distinguish purity laws from moral laws. “The Old Testament…makes no systematic distinction between ritual law and moral law,” writes Richard Hays (Moral Vision, 382). The best way to see if an OT law is still relevant for believers is, of course, to look to the New Testament. When we look at the New Testament—and this the most important counterargument—not only does the New Testament still prohibit same-sex intercourse, but it draws upon Leviticus 18 and 20 to do so.

Romans 1:18-32 is probably the most important text in the debate, with its well-known reference to gay and lesbian sex in 1:25-27. It probably has at least two allusions to Leviticus 18 and 20. First, Romans 1:32 says that these sins are revealed in God’s law and are “worthy of death,” which probably refers to Lev 20:13 where the death penalty is prescribed for same-sex intercourse. Second, the word translated “shameless acts” (asxemosunen) is used throughout Leviticus 18:6-19 and 20:11, 17-21 (“you shall not uncover the nakedness of…”). In fact, more than half of the OT uses of this Greek word occur in Leviticus 18 and 20 to refer to sexual sins. It’s very likely that Paul has Leviticus 18 and 20 in mind when he says that same-sex intercourse is a sin in Romans 1.

Paul refers to homosexual sex again in 1 Cor 6:9 when he coins the word arsenokoitai—literally “lying with a male.” Paul invents this word by combining two Hebrew words mishkav zakur (“lying with a male”), which are the same Hebrew words used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Again, not only does Paul see same sex intercourse as sin, but he draws on Leviticus 18 and 20 to do so.

The prohibition of male-male sex in Leviticus 18 and 20 appears to remain relevant for new covenant believers.


1. The Old Testament never mentions lesbian sex and therefore such acts are not condemned.

This is sort of true. Nowhere is lesbian sex mentioned; Leviticus 18 and 20 only talk about male-male intercourse. In fact, lesbian sex is nowhere mentioned in legal material in the ancient world. Did it exist? Or did such women just kept in secret? Or did the male lawgivers only focus on making rules that involved men? We just don’t know. My best guess about why lesbian sex is not mention in Leviticus is that it wasn’t a (known) practice that needed to be addressed. What we do know is that when it is mentioned by later Greek and Romans writers, it is considered more appalling than male-male sex, which is often considered a supreme form of love.

In short, while it is true that lesbian sex is nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament, I don’t think this should be taken to mean that it was therefore okay for female Israelites or sojourners to engage in it. In any case, Paul does mention lesbian sex in Romans 1 and, from what I can tell, he condemns it.



I know that the name Robert Gagnon produces shrills from the LGBT community, but I can’t help but see his interpretive observations on Leviticus 18 and 20 as compelling. (Though I’m not convinced by his reading of Genesis 9 or 19). Gagnon points out that the laws in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 “are unqualified and absolute…They neither penalize only oppressive forms of homosexuality nor excuse either party to the act” (Homosexual Practice, 115). That’s because the Leviticus laws view the act as confusing God given gender roles. “For a man to have sexual intercourse with another male as though the latter were not a male but a female violates God’s design for the created order” (ibid., 157).

Let me end with the same caveat I gave in the previous post: If at any place you see that my interpretation or reasoning is wrong, or if you believe my argument is unclear, I genuinely invite you to critique me. I’ll do my best not to be offended, even if you respond offensively. After all, my goal is not to prove a certain presupposed view to be true, but to understand Scripture in order to bring its truth and love to bear on a broken world.

This entry is part 8 of 20 in the seriesHomosexuality in the Bible

It’s nearly impossible to understand what the New Testament says about homosexual relations until one first understands the historical context of the Roman world. After all, Paul was not writing to a modern western nation; he was writing to people living in the Roman empire. Therefore, when Paul says things ancient rome homolike “men committing shameless acts with men” (Rom 1:27), or when he uses words like arsenokoitai and malakoi (1 Cor 6:9)—translated “practicing homosexuals”—we must understand something about Paul’s Roman context in order to know what he’s actually saying.

Knowing this, I’ve set out to study the original Greek and Roman sources that talk about homosexuality in the first century. While at times I feel like I need to scrub my eyes with soap and dip my Kindle in a bucket of Purell, my findings thus far have greatly helped me understand the New Testament in its historical context. I’d like to sum up my findings so far over the next few posts.

For starters, I don’t care how bad you think our modern culture is, let me assure you: It’s nothing like first-century Rome. What we call “pornography,” people of Rome simply called “life.” For instance, it wasn’t uncommon to have pictures of men having sex with boys painted on water pitchers served at the dinner table. “And in Zeus’s name we pray, Amen…please pass the water, mom.” If I went into detail about the sexual practices of ancient Rome, and the frankness in which they talked about it, the parental block on your household internet would prevent you from reading this blog. What I’ve seen in the Roman world would make Miley look like a nun swinging from a wrecking ball and Lady Gaga a priest…or a nun (minus the wrecking ball).  However you slice it, our kids are much, much safer today than they would have been going to school in the first-century. I can only imagine how weird the early Church must have been viewed. Like an Amish community living in downtown Vegas.

Now, I’ve often heard people say that the ancient Roman world didn’t think in terms of homosexuality and heterosexuality. This implies that when Paul talks about same sex intercourse in Romans 1 and elsewhere, he isn’t thinking about homosexuality as such. He must be prohibiting something else, such as male prostitution, pederasty (sex with boys), or overindulgence in sexual behavior. He could not have been prohibiting homosexuality since such a category didn’t exist in the ancient world.

This is sort of true to some extent, but I think it’s overplayed. Overplayed and misleading. Yes, of course Paul wasn’t thinking in terms of the relatively modern (19th century) sociological term homosexuality. How could he? But Paul does speak 10_Sappho_vase_304x384explicitly about same-sex intercourse and what he says does have relevance for what we now call homosexuality. So this whole argument is a bit of a “red herring”—while true in itself, it distracts from the main issue.

In any case, was there no ancient parallel to what we now call homosexuality?

For the most part, first-century Romans didn’t think in terms of sexuality but in terms of gender. That is, they didn’t raise questions like “is Joe gay,” or say things like “if Joe has sex with Frank, then they both must be gay.” Having sex with someone of the same gender didn’t automatically mean someone was gay. What mattered was manliness and womanliness. “Is Joe a man,” or “is Joe ‘effeminate’” were the questions they would raise.

Now, there were many different things that would make Joe a man (and I’m terribly sorry if you’re reading this and your name is Joe). If Joe fought valiantly in battle, avoided PDA with his wife, and kept his household in submission, then he might be a manly man. And thick chest hair wouldn’t hurt. But if Joe doused himself in perfume, plucked out his chest hair, and cried in the face of death, he would probably be called womanly, or effeminate—mollis (“soft”) in Latin. Again, what mattered was how well Joe matched up to the societal standards of gender, not sexuality.

Now, in terms of his sexual activity, if the manly Joe also had sex with his male slaves and, on occasion, hired out “call boys” (adolescent male prostitutes), Joe would not lose his male identity. Such activities may annoy his wife, but such was life in ancient Rome. Joe would not be considered “gay” by his peers.

On the flip side, if we consider the effeminate Joe who dripped with perfume and wore soft, elegant clothes, this Joe would still be considered “effeminate” or womanly, even if he had sex exclusively with women. That’s because ancient Romans didn’t think in terms of sexual identity (gay or straight) but in terms of gender identity (manly or womanly). And there was a bit of cross over when it came to which gender you had sex with. What mattered most was whether you played the active (manly) or passive (womanly) role in intercourse.

The category of “homosexuality” does not neatly capture the Roman context in which Paul lived. Does this mean that the Paul’s words are irrelevant for understanding what God thinks of our modern concept of homosexuality? Are we being anachronistic (reading modern categories back into ancient material) by making Paul speak to our modern debate?

We’ll continue to explore this in the next post.

This entry is part 9 of 20 in the seriesHomosexuality in the Bible

I often hear in recent discussion about the Bible and homosexuality: “Since homosexuality as a sexual category was unknown to Paul, he could not have critiqued it.” The

implication is that when Paul talks about same-sex activity in Romans 1 and elsewhere, he must have had something more specific, something more narrowly defined, in mind. For instance, perhaps he was prohibiting men having sex with boys (pederasty), or male prostitution, or perhaps we was prohibiting heterosexuals from having homosexual sex.

So is this correct? Was “homosexuality” unknown to Paul? And if so, is it inaccurate to make Paul’s speak to our modern category?

It is true that the modern categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality do not fit the ancient Roman worldview. We saw this to some extent in the previous post. However, there is evidence that some ancient Romans were exclusively interested in sexual partners of the same sex.

For instance, the Roman writer Suetonius says that Caesar Claudius “was possessed of an extravagant desire for women, having no experience with males whatsoever.” The fact that Suetonius feels the need to highlight this and even add (the seemingly superfluous statement) that he had no taste for men whatsoever (rare among the emperors), shows that he was a bit of an anomaly. Claudius was totally straight (a 1 on the Kinsey scale). However, another emperor Galba seems to have been into dudes way more (maybe even exclusively) than women. The emperor Hadrian, though married to a woman, also had a lover named Antonius who clearly garnered Hadrian’s affections much more than his wife. Pliny the elder refers to “men who hate intercourse with women.” Firmicus Maternus (4th Cent. AD, astrological writer) talks about men who are “lovers of boys” and who also show an aversion to having sex with women. And Martial writes about some men who only had experience with other men (11.58).

Now again, these men may never have received the charge of being “effeminate” or womanly. As long as they remained the active partner in the union, they would maintain their manly persona. And this is what Rome cared about most. However, I still think it would be accurate to say that if such a person lived today, having exclusive interest in the same sex, we would call them gay. And if the emperor Claudius lived today, we would call him “straight” and not just manly. Craig Williams, author of Roman Homosexuality, rightly says: “If they were alive today, men like this would no doubt be called, and would likely call themselves, straight or gay” (Kindle loc. 3889).

Moreover, some men not only had intercourse with other men (sometimes exclusively), but actually married other men.

Caesar Nero had at least two public wedding ceremonies to other men, and in one case he played the role of the bride: he even wore a veil and played the passive role in sexual intercourse. The same goes for the third century (A.D.) emperor Elagabalus, who was a bride to his husband. The Roman satirist Juvenal makes mention of other similar marriages among men (2.117-42), as does the author Martial (1.24; 12.42). Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, was never married and never praises women with erotic expression. According to historian Martti Nissinen, “A modern reader would easily identify…Plato’s own sexual orientation as predominantly homosexual” (Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 59).

I don’t think it’s accurate then to say that since homosexuality as a category didn’t exist back then, the NT writers could not have been critiquing it. True, they weren’t critiquing our 19th century concept, but they were—or, every well could have been—critiquing a parallel concept expressed in their own terms.

Shifting gears a bit, I’ve often heard people say that the ancients didn’t have any concept of inborn sexual orientation. That is, homosexual acts were simply what some people did and it wasn’t a believed to be an outflow of some sort of biological orientation. Or at least, the ancients weren’t aware that such orientation existed. The implication is this: If Paul only knew that sexual orientation is inborn, he would not have critiqued same sex acts. If Paul was alive today, he’d be okay with consensual, monogamous, Christ-centered gay marriage. Is this true?

We’ll see in the next post.

This entry is part 10 of 20 in the seriesHomosexuality in the Bible

In the last two posts, I’ve explored the ancient Roman context of homosexuality. This, of course, will help color in the borders of the portrait that the New Testament paints—and yes, we’ll get to the New Testament in due time. I don’t want to attempt to broadcast what the New Testament says about such a delicate issue until I have understood the world in which it was written. We must first find out what the Bible meant to them before we can accurately know what it means for us.

For this post, I want to address the common view that Paul did not know about same-sex orientation. That is, he didn’t know what we now know (do we?) about biology playing a huge role in shaping one’s attraction. And so some say that if Paul only knew that same-sex attraction was determined, or influenced, at birth, he greek homo 1would not have said the things he did in Romans 1 and elsewhere.

Regardless of what Romans 1 means—which we’ll get to soon enough—this argument is historically fallacious.

Again, it is (obviously) true that we moderns have a much clearer (though still clouded) perspective on the biological and societal influence on homosexual behavior. And it’s also true that we now believe that the earth revolves around the sun. However, and again, I think this is overplayed. (The bit about orientation, not the earth and sun.) While the ancients didn’t have a highly developed understanding of potential biological causes of homosexual behavior, they did speculate at times about “nature” causing some men to desire to have sex with other men.

Aristotle, for instance, said that some homoerotic desires come from habit, but others spring from nature (Eth. 1148b, lines 28-34). In other words, some people are born with same sex desires. Another Greek writer (pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata 4.26) says that the desire of some males to play the passive role in intercourse is due to a “physiological abnormality.” The details are bizarre and scientifically bogus. But the point is: this writer believed that biology played a role. A second century Roman physician named Soranus disagrees that such behavior is physiological, but argues that it’s a result of some defect in the mind or spirit (De morbis chronicis 4:131, 132, 134). This view seems to be shared by Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, who talks about “the disease of effeminacy in their souls” (VCon 60; Ab 136). A similar perspective is shared by fifth century Greek physician Hippocrates, who believed that “the conditions of both male effeminacy and female mannishness are determined genetically” (Thomas Hubbard referring to Hippocrates On Regimen, 1.28-29).

One of the most fascinating speculations is found in Phaedrus, who wrote his Fable around the time of Jesus. Phaedrus wonders why some women prefer women, and some men prefer men. He says (jokingly?) that the god Prometheus got drunk and attached male genitilia to women, and women

genitilia to men. In other words, some women are born trapped in men’s bodies while some men are trapped in women’s bodies (Phdr. 4.16). Sounds like an ancient myth about why some people are transsexual.

Now, to be sure, biological speculations such as these are relatively few. Most writers just talked about the same-sex activity of some individuals without referring to biological causes. In any case, to say that the ancients had no idea about biological influences over sexual orientation is—from everything I’ve read thus far—wrong.

What does this mean for interpreting the New Testament passages about homosexual activity? I’ll conclude with two observations.

First, it’s inaccurate, or at least quite speculative, to say: If Paul understood what we know now, that some people are born with same sex orientation, then he would not have condemned such behavior. Since speculations about biological influence on same-sex orientation were around in Paul’s day, there’s no reason to believe that he was unaware of them.

Second, saying that Paul “condemns homosexuality” in, say, Romans 1 is slightly inaccurate. Why? Because it assumes that Paul is aware of a modern category or identity marker. Again, in the Roman world (i.e. Paul’s world), a man could have sex with his male slave and yet not be considered gay; that is, sexually oriented toward men. It all depends on whether he was “active” or “passive” in the act. So, the term “homosexuality” only clutters the biblical text. What Paul prohibits in Romans 1 (as I’ll show in a later post) is men having sex with men, and women having sex with women. It doesn’t matter for Paul whether or not they were “gay,” according to ancient standards. It was the act that mattered.

I know I’ve given this caveat several times, but I feel the need to give it again. This post (and every other post on this issue) is not attempting to make conclusive statements about how Christians should view homosexuality or the LGBT community. All I’m doing is trying to understand piece by piece the biblical passages that directly talk about same-sex intercourse. We have to first find all the pieces of the puzzle and arrange them in the right order—and resist cramming some pieces into spots they weren’t designed to fill (like Genesis 18-19) before we can step back and view the complete biblical portrait on this issue.

Gone are the days when mindlessly quoting verses at random helps the discussion—or people.

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