Source: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Material taken from “Ch 4: The Scriptures”; and “Appendix 1. Lexicography and Saint Paul”.
Boswell suggests that there are just five passages in Scripture that have ever been taken as clearly implying the condemnation of homosexuality, two from the Old Testament, three from the New Testament. Before looking at these he makes several preliminary points:
1. Most early Christian misgivings about homosexuality did not rely upon Scripture, but other arguments or sources.
2. There is no word like “homosexual” in the Bible, in any manuscript, whether in Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Aramaic. “Homosexual” in English refers to a type of person, and there was no such concept or word in the ancient languages. The word and concept are of modern vintage (since the 16th 17th centuries). Note that the word “sodomite” is ambiguous and could refer to either homosexual or heterosexual behavior, and thus only inaccurately or misleadingly translates a concept of “homosexual”.
PASSAGE #1: Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom):
. . . the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
The interpretations of the passage as concerned with homosexual offenses are generally very late in history. None of the references to this story in the Old Testament suggest that Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality or the like. Most scholars today believe that the offence that led to the destruction of Sodom was inhospitality. Lot was violating the custom of Sodom by entertaining unknown guests within the city walls at night without obtaining the permission of the elders of the city. When the men of Sodom gathered around to demand that the strangers be brought out to them, “that they might know them,” they meant no more than to “know” who they were, and the city was consequently destroyed not for sexual immorality but for the sin of inhospitality to strangers. (The verb “to know” used here is not used in a sexual sense; Boswell notes that contrary to popular belief, only something like 10% of the uses of this word in Hebrew have any sexual connotations.)
An interesting confirmation of the thesis that in ancient times everyone thought Sodom was destroyed because of inhospitality comes from Jesus himself (in Matt. 10:14 15 and Luke 10:10 12):
Matt. 10:14 15
“And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”
Luke 10:10 12
“But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
References in the Old Testament also confirm that the destruction of Sodom was not because of homosexuality. Thus Ecclesiasticus (16:8) says that God abhorred the Sodomites for their pride; the Book of Wisdom suggests the same thing (19:13 14), as does Ezechiel (16:48 49).
There are sexual overtones to the story, as there are in parallel stories in Judges 19:22 ff, and Joshua 6, but the major concern is always inhospitality.
The origin of the emphasis on the story of Sodom as concerned with sexuality is probably datable to the reaction of early Jewish and Christian moralists to the sexual licentiousness of pagan culture. Evidence to this effect is found in the Jewish apocryphal writings, and in early Christian writings such as the Epistle of Jude.
Even Origen (185-254 A.D.), inclined to puritanism, dis¬cusses the sin of Sodomy as the sin of inhospitality. St. Ambrose (339-397 A.D.) followed him on this. Ambrose was concerned about the offering of Lot’s daughters as a bribe, but did not suggest homosexuality as the issue. John Cassian (360-435 A.D.) explicitly rejects the homosexuality interpretation, as does Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.).
It should be noted that “sodomite” is used to translate various sexual sins in the King James version. The term as originally used did not specifically mean “homosexual”, since sodomy often referred to any sexual act that was unnatural whether heterosexual or homosexual. The word in Hebrew which “sodomite” translated was kadash; according to Boswell the term meant or referred to prostitutes in sacred temples. There is no implication of homosexuality at all. The history of the condemnation of sodomy by reference to Scripture depended on mistranslations of terms.
PASSAGE #2: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination (toevah).
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination (toevah): they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
The word for “abomination” in Hebrew is toevah which does not designate something intrinsically evil, but something which is ritually unclean, such as eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are mentioned in the same part of Leviticus as the passages above. Often toevah is employed to mean “idol”. There is thus the question whether these prohibitions stem from moral absolutes, or from concerns to keep Jews separate and distinct from the nations.
The Greek Septuagint translation eventually distinguished between violations of law or justice (anomia) vs. infringements of ritual purity or monotheistic worship (bdelugma). The Levitical prohibitions fell into the latter because they were specific to the Jews, or tied up with rules about idolatry, etc.
It should not be surprising that converts to Christianity from outside Judaism would not take these laws any more seriously than they took the dietary laws. Conflicts arose about these matters, which were settled by the so called Council of Jerusalem. The decision was that no obedience to Mosaic law was required, except for four things: abstinence from idol pollution, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication (porneia). None of these entailed homosexuality.
PASSAGE #3: 1 Corinthians 6:9
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (= malakos arsenokoitai). . .
The word “homosexuals” translates two Greek words:
a) malakos = “soft”, very common Greek term, often has connotation of “licentious, lacking in self control”. Never used of gay people or homosexual acts in Greek literature. The Greeks did not think of homosexuals as “effeminate or soft”, but generally as manly. One of the guests in Plato’s Symposium speaks approvingly of the Athenian army founded on male-male homosexual relationships, because such relationships bring out the “virility” in men, and help to create a stronger army. Hence the fallacy of assuming that if a word to designate “effeminate” is used here, the reference must be to homosexuals. Indeed, the term malakos is often used of heterosexual acts. Generally interpreted by the church as referring to masturbation, until the modern era, when “homosexual” began to be the preferred translation/interpretation.
b) arsenokoitai = quite rare, meant “male prostitute” to St. Paul, and never meant homosexual until the 4th cent. St. Paul may have invented the word; it has not been found previous to him. The word literally means “a male who takes the active position in sexual intercourse” (and not “having sexual intercourse with a male”, as Greek dictionaries commonly have it). There is evidence from other sources, several centuries later, that this term meant a male prostitute, and did not mean homosexual (Aristides [early 2nd cent. A.D.] and Eusebius [265-339 A.D.]). Only late in the 4th century was the term used to mean “homosexual” and many other things, the term itself probably having considerable ambiguity.
PASSAGE #4: 1 Timothy 1:10
(. . .the law is laid down not for the just but for the lawless . . .) immoral persons, sodomites [arsenokoitais], kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. . .
Again, the crucial term is arsenokoitais, and Boswell’s suggestion is that it should be translated as male prostitute.
PASSAGE #5: Romans 1:26 27
For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against [para] nature: And likewise, also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.
Three points: first, this is part of an argument, and functions as an analogy to something else. Paul’s point is that there was a time when monotheism was offered to or known by the Romans, but they rejected it (vv. 19-23). The present passage offers an analogy, and is not primarily concerned with a moral analysis of homosexuality.
Second point: the passage in question does not condemn homosexuals, but heterosexuals who have abandoned their commitments and true calling. The analogy is between those who are naturally inclined to monotheism, and those who are inclined sexually toward those of the opposite sex.
Third point: Paul refers to “natural use” and says these acts are “against nature”. Close textual study of Paul’s use of “nature” reveals that he did not have a natural law theory, and did not use “nature” in a moral sense, but only in the sense that nature referred to some “character of a group of persons” (thus: “Jews are Jews by nature”). The word translated as “against” is para. But para does not mean “in opposition to” (in which case kata would have been the word of choice), but rather “more than”, “in excess of”. The sense is that these acts are not contrary to nature, but unusual or unexpected in the natural order of things. There is no suggestion of a “violation of natural law.”
Several final notes:
1) Jesus’ comments on sexual mores are extremely few, especially in comparison with the frequency of his observations on such matters as wealth and demonic possession, which were largely ignored by later Christians. Indeed, while most Christians “read” Scripture liberally in interpreting comments about the wealthy getting into heaven, they read it like fundamentalists when interpreting comments about homosexuals, even presuming the obscure words used by St. Paul in fact referred to them. Consistency of interpretation and approach to Scripture on moral questions is extraordinarily important.
2) It is not true that Scripture has only negative messages about same sex relationships and friendships. There are extreme positive images of same sex relations in the O.T., which would often be quoted by “gay” spiritual writers in subsequent centuries: Saul and David, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi. In the N.T., there is the unusual relation of Jesus and John.