Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (4 of 6)

In this post I want to challenge a popular assumption about Jesus and homosexuality. It is common knowledge that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. That assertion is technically accurate based on our existing historical sources (though he said many things that were never recorded). Yet, as I explained in the second post in this series, it is a flimsy argument for saying Jesus was okay with homosexual behavior.

In this post I want to go further. I plan to argue here that Jesus’ Jewish listeners did indeed hear him speak against homosexual behavior, even though he may never have explicitly mentioned it.

This is part of a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality:

    1. Introduction, Explanations, and a Summary of this Series
    2. How Should We Interpret Jesus’ Silence About Homosexuality?
    3. Does “Love Your Neighbor” Mean Jesus Affirmed “Gay Love”?
    4. Why It’s Wrong to Say Jesus Said Nothing About Homosexuality
    5. Historical Conclusions: Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality?
    6. Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?

We’ve all seen it—that child who insists on interpreting their parents’ instructions as narrowly as possible. Mommy says, “Don’t draw on the wall!” So Daughter writes her name instead. “But Mommy, you didn’t say I can’t write on the wall. You just said I can’t draw on the wall.”

Or Daddy warns his children, “We have company coming in a few hours. Don’t make a mess in the living room!” The children all start heading to their bedrooms to play except for one child. He tells his siblings, “Hey, Daddy didn’t say we can’t play in the living room. He just said ‘don’t make a mess.’ Let’s get our blocks and cars and build a town over there in the corner.”

“I don’t know… I don’t think Daddy will like that,” his siblings protest.

“But we’ll keep it really neat.  There won’t be any mess. We’ll be careful!”

So, the children get out their blocks and toy vehicles and stuffed animals. They carefully arrange an “orderly” town that soon sprawls across the entire room.

Daddy returns moments before the guests arrive, surveys the busy living room with surprise and frustration, and calls his children to attention. “But Daddy, this isn’t a mess! We arranged it very carefully!” his son protests.

What do his siblings immediately say? “It was his idea! We knew you didn’t want us to bring our toys into the living room, but he wouldn’t listen!”

I suggest something similar is happening when we suggest that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. If Jesus’ original Jewish audience could time-travel and speak with us, they would say, “Of course Jesus spoke against homosexual behavior! We heard him plainly!”

Three Ways Jesus Spoke About Homosexuality

What did Jesus’ Jewish audience hear that we miss? What might we hear, too, if we listen as students of history rather than as combatants in a twenty-first century culture war? What teachings of Jesus might we be interpreting too woodenly? What did Jesus say that communicated his disapproval of homosexual behavior?

I suggest there are at least three ways Jesus referred to homosexual behavior, despite never explicitly naming it. I’ll begin with the most general and move toward the most specific.

First, Jesus taught “You shall not commit adultery.” 

The Gospels record that Jesus explicitly cited this command at least twice (Matt. 5:27; 19:18), besides alluding to it on other occasions (Matt. 15:19; 19:9).  It seems illogical to our minds, trained by Western legal traditions, to think that “do not commit adultery” could also mean “do not commit homosexual acts.” But that is exactly how many ancient Jews thought.

We can perhaps begin to understand this way of thinking if we envision a Russian nesting doll (matryoshka doll), as in the following image.

A rough illustration of how ancient Jews thought of their paradigmatic law code. The more general commands (larger dolls) implied other related and more specific commands (smaller dolls nesting inside the bigger ones). In this way a person could sum up and include many “smaller” commands simply by citing a “bigger” one. (This diagram is adapted from an image by Monika Schröder from Pixabay.)

In Jewish thought, the more general commands of their law (the larger dolls) implied other related and more specific commands (the smaller dolls nesting inside the bigger ones). In this way a person could sum up and include many “smaller” commands simply by citing a “bigger” one.

Let’s consider how “You shall not commit adultery” fits into this picture. This command was part of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. As the Encyclopedia Judaica notes, “The Decalogue came to be regarded as a summary of biblical law.”1

If the Ten Commandments were a summary of God’s law, then they could also function as an outline, with each of the Ten Commandments serving as headings for other related commands. This is exactly what happened. “Some [ancient Jewish] sources classify the 613 commandments of the Torah under the the headings of the commandments of the Decalogue.”2

One person who thought this way was Philo, a Jewish philosopher alive at the same time as Jesus. Philo asserted that “under” the commandment “against adulterers… many other commands are conveyed by implication, such as that against seducers, that against practisers of unnatural crimes, that against all who live in debauchery, that against all men who indulge in illicit and incontinent connections.”3

While discussing the Decalogue’s commandment against adultery, Philo specifically mentioned several forms of homosexual activity:

The law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption… And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys submit to the same punishment, since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature… wasting his power of propagating his species, and moreover, being a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and effeminate lust… and last of all, because, like a worthless husbandman, he allows fertile and productive lands to lie fallow.4

There is evidence within the New Testament that Jesus and his apostles shared this approach to interpreting the Law of Moses. Jesus, for example, cited the two great commandments (love of God and love of neighbor) and then said that “all the Law and the Prophets” depend on (hang from, are derived from) “these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40).

Paul similarly suggested the Ten Commandments are encapsulated within the great commandments:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up [summarized] in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”(Rom. 13:9).

Jesus seems to have applied this kind of thinking specifically to adultery. For example, Jesus, like some other rabbis of the time, taught a broad definition of adultery that included the attitude of the heart: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).

Jesus even “expanded” adultery to include actions that were contrary to God’s creation design but which had specifically been given loopholes by the Law of Moses:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:8-9).

Under adultery then, Jesus also forbade other sexual sins such as lust and divorce.

If we combine Jesus’ and Paul’s statements, we could say that inside of “Love your neighbor” is found “You shall not commit adultery,” and inside of “You shall not commit adultery” are both “Do not look at a woman with lustful intent” and “Do not divorce”—and, Philo adds, “Do not engage in homosexual behavior.”

Robert Gagnon summarizes this ancient Jewish way of reading “You shall not commit adultery”:

The Decalogue commandment against adultery was treated as a broad rubric prohibiting all forms of sexual practice that deviated from the creation model in Genesis 1-2, including homoerotic intercourse.5

Given this way of thinking about laws, it is likely that ancient Jews would have understood Jesus to be prohibiting all sorts of unlawful sexual activity, including homosexual activity, when he taught “You shall not commit adultery.”

(This way of thinking is radically different from our Western legal tradition. Our legal codes are exhaustive, and any action not explicitly banned remains legal. Ancient law codes were paradigmatic, and people were expected to extrapolate from the examples given to all similar situations. For help in understanding these differences and how they impact the commands we are discussing here, see the appendix at the end of this article.)

Second, Jesus taught against πορνεία (porneia).

This Greek word is found on Jesus’ lips in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels.6 Jesus listed πορνεῖαι (plural) among the defiling sins that proceed from the human heart:

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality (Matt. 15:18-19; cf. Mark 7:21)

Πορνεία (porneia) is commonly translated “sexual immorality.” It is a broad term which refers to “every kind of extramarital, unlawful, unnatural sexual intercourse.”7

New Testament scholar James Edwards says that πορνεία “can be found in Greek literature with reference to a variety of illicit sexual practices, including adultery, fornication, prostitution, and homosexuality.”8

When Jesus spoke against πορνεία, he was speaking to Jews, not Greeks.  What kinds of sexual activity would they have considered unlawful or illegitimate? Would Jews have considered homosexual behavior to be πορνεία?

We don’t have to guess. In the Septuagint (the Greek OT translated about 200 B.C.), πορνεία was used “for any sexual practice outside marriage between a man and a woman that is prohibited by the Torah” (Edwards).9 Homosexual activity certainly fits this description. 

Remember the conclusion reached by Fortson and Grams regarding Jewish writings near the time of Jesus:

Jews consistently condemned homosexual practice of any sort… Jews understood the Old Testament to speak against homosexual behavior, and they accepted biblical authority in matters of sexual ethics.10

And remember how Keener summarized Jewish practices from the same period:

Jewish people… unanimously rejected homosexual behavior… Jewish homosexual practice was nearly unknown.11

Given this historical context, Gagnon’s summary is no surprise: “In Jesus’ day, and for many centuries before and thereafter, porneia was universally understood in Judaism to include same-sex intercourse.12 The related verb ἐκπορνεύω13 is even used in the NT to describe what Sodom and Gomorrah did: “indulged in sexual immorality” (Jude 1:7).

What would Jesus’ Jewish listeners say to us today if we suggested he never said anything about homosexual behavior? “Of course he did!” they might respond. “We clearly heard him warn against πορνεία!”

Third, Jesus taught against ἀσέλγεια (aselgeia).

Mark includes this word in his record of Jesus’ teaching about sins that come out of the heart:

From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality (Mark 7:21-22)

Ἀσέλγεια is sometimes translated “sensuality” (ESV, NASB). But that expression hardly carries the negative connotation in today’s “sexy” world that ἀσέλγεια apparently carried among ancient Jews. “Lewdness” (NIV) or “debauchery” (NET) come closer. While πορνεία was used widely to refer to all kinds of unlawful sexual intercourse, ἀσέλγεια seems to have been used more narrowly to refer to sexual sins that Jews considered especially shameful.

G. Thomas Hobson surveys the usage of the word ἀσέλγεια in classical Greek, pre-New Testament, and post-New Testament contexts in his 2008 journal article “ἀσέλγεια in Mark 7:22.” His findings are worth quoting at length:

It’s a word that Jesus… could easily turn to as a synonym for homosexual activity and other similarly shocking behavior forbidden by the Jewish law… ἀσέλγεια was πορνεία… taken to its most disgusting degree… The term may have been used to refer to what were regarded as the most shameless violations of the sexuality taught in the Torah.

It would appear that the writer of Mark, writing for a general audience, saw a need to spell out an element of Jesus’ teaching that addressed a sexual lifestyle issue among Gentiles, a matter that was less of an issue for Matthew’s predominately Jewish audience.  Furthermore, for some reason, neither πορνεία [“sexual immorality”] nor μοιχεία [“adultery”] specifically addressed the sexual sin he had in mind.  It is likely… that Jesus was speaking of violations of the Torah such as homosexual behavior, incest, or bestiality, rather than comparatively less shocking sins such as adultery and fornication.14

In fact, there is one place in the New Testament (2 Pet. 2:7) where the word ἀσέλγεια is used explicitly to refer to the actions of people who were homosexuals. Hobson again:

Second Peter uses ἀσέλγεια more than any other NT document.  It links ἀσέλγεια explicitly with the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, picturing Lot (2 Pet 2,7) as “greatly distressed by the licentiousness (ἀσέλγεια) of the wicked” around him. 15

Given this usage of ἀσέλγεια, what might Jesus have meant by the term in Mark 7:22? Hobson once more:

Exactly what did Jesus consider to be “utter shamelessness”?  What did he consider too far “over the line”?  The danger is to impose twenty-first century AD politically correct ideas on Jesus… In context, it is far more likely that Jesus had in mind what his fellow Jews (like the author of 2 Peter) meant when they used the word: images of Sodom and Gomorrah, images of outrageous violation of the one-flesh union of man and woman

If Jesus had wished to speak of homosexual behavior in his list of sins that defile the human heart, to what other word could Mark have turned in his translation?  Παιδεραστία [“paederasty,” from “love-of-boys”] was too narrow a term. Ἀρσενοκοίτης [“man-bedder”] had barely been coined by Paul.  And πορνεία [“sexual immorality”] is too broad a concept, although it is the only word Matthew chooses to use in his version of Jesus’ sin list.  Ἀσέλγεια was an ideal word for identifying both homosexual behavior and other similar sexual sins of which even the Mishnah was reticent to speak any more than was absolutely necessary

The appearance of ἀσέλγεια on the lips of Mark’s Jesus must be accounted for somehow, and it will not do to say that a word of such shock value as ἀσέλγεια was a throw-away detail, or was intended as nothing more than a synonym for πορνεία [“sexual immorality”] or μοιχεία [“adultery”]…  It is argued here that, as he seeks to faithfully communicate Jesus’ teaching, Mark found it necessary to emphasize to his readers that Jesus did explicitly reaffirm the Torah’s prohibition of the most shocking sexual offenses.16

Again, what might Jesus’ Jewish listeners say to us today if they heard us suggest Jesus never said anything about homosexual activity? “Of course he did!” they might respond. “We clearly heard him mention ἀσέλγεια!”

And, of course, it is clear that Jesus’ first followers did indeed understand that homosexual behavior was incompatible with following Jesus. (I’ll share more of that evidence in my final post.)

Conclusion

A primary goal of this blog series is to help us interpret Jesus within his own ancient Jewish historical context. If we read his silence, his speech, and his actions as if he were our next-door neighbor or even a twenty-first century rabbi, we are sure to reach conclusions that are historically invalid at best and dangerously deceptive at worst.

It is frequently claimed that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. That may be technically true according to our post-Scientific Revolution, post-Enlightenment way of reading science journals and law codes. But it is also very misleading according to ancient Jewish ways of talking about laws and sins.

Jesus’ general language condemning sexual immorality would have been understood by his original listeners to prohibit all mutually-recognized sexual sins—including homosexual activity as surely as bestiality, pedophilia, incest, and many other activities he also “failed” to mention.

Any ancient Jew would have concluded that Jesus did indeed address the topic of homosexual behavior. He did so when he taught about adultery, even more so when he mentioned πορνεία, and especially when he warned about ἀσέλγεια.

Are you able to hear Jesus through ancient Jewish ears? If you have a comment, please leave it below. And thanks for reading! I realize the posts in this series take some time to read and absorb, and I hope you have found the time worthwhile.


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Appendix:
The Implications of Ancient Law Codes

The following is excerpted from “The Paradigmatic Nature of Biblical Law,” an excursus in Douglas Stuart’s commentary on Exodus:17

“Modern societies generally have opted for exhaustive law codes. That is, every action modern society wishes to regulate or prohibit must be specifically mentioned in a separate law… By this approach, all actions are permitted that are not expressly forbidden or regulated. Thus it is not uncommon that criminals in modern Western societies evade prosecution because of a ‘technicality’ or a ‘loophole’ in the law…

“Ancient laws did not work this way. They were paradigmatic, giving models of behaviors and models of prohibitions/punishments relative to those behaviors, but they made no attempt to be exhaustive. Ancient laws gave guiding principles, or samples, rather than complete descriptions of all things regulated. Ancient people were expected to be able to extrapolate from what the sampling of laws did say to the general behavior the laws in their totality pointed toward… Ancient judges were expected to extrapolate from the wording provided in the laws that did exist to all other circumstances and not to be foiled in their jurisprudence by any such concepts as ‘technicalities’ or ‘loopholes’… The Israelites had to learn to see the underlying principles in any law and not let the specifics of the individual casuistic citation mislead them into applying the law too narrowly…

“It is in connection with the paradigmatic nature of Israel’s covenant law that Jesus, following the established tradition in Judaism, could make so sweeping an assertion as that two laws sum up all the rest… Properly understood, two laws do indeed sum up everything in the entire legal corpus of the Old Testament. So do ten laws (the Ten Words/Commandments); so do all six hundred and thirteen… If a reasonable number of comprehensive and comprehensible laws… are provided to a people as paradigms for proper living, there is no excuse for that people to claim ignorance of how to behave or to claim innocence when their sins are found out.

“Most laws are expressed as commands in the masculine singular—the you of the laws is ‘you, a male person’—from a technical, grammatical point of view. But here again the reader/listener would not have the slightest ground to say, ‘It prohibits individual men from doing such and such, but I’m a woman/we’re a group, so the wording of the law exempts me/us.’ Implicit in the wording is the need for paradigmatic extrapolation to all persons, singular or plural, male or female…

“Without an awareness of all six hundred and thirteen commandments and seeing within them the high standards of God’s holiness… a person corrupted by a fallen world does not easily get the point of what the two great commandments are intended to summarize. Once one has learned the breadth and depth of God’s expectations for his holy people, however, the two greatest commandments serve brilliantly as comprehensive reminders of all that is expected of God’s covenant people.”

In his discussion of the Ten Commandments, Stuart applies this understanding to command about adultery:

This commandment does not explicitly condemn premarital sex, postmarital sex (as by a widow or widower), cohabitation without formal marriage, bestiality, or incest, all of which are dealt with elsewhere in various ways; but by implication it certainly does condemn all those practices… Again the principle of law as paradigmatic is essential for appreciating the implications of this command: reasonable and careful extrapolation from the paradigm of the adultery law yields the realization that all sex outside of marriage, whether before, during, after, or instead of a person’s actual legal marriage would be a violation of the divine covenant… The commandment also argues, implicitly, against divorce. If marriage is so important that is must be protected against adulteration—even the sort of adulteration that might occur in brief interludes—it certainly is important enough to protect against dissolution altogether.”18

  1. “Decalogue,” David Kadosh, Encyclopedia Judaica, The Gale Group, 2008, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/decalogue, accessed August 2, 2019.
  2. David W. Pao and Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Luke,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 351.
  3. Philo, The Decalogue, XXXII. (168), http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book26.html, accessed September 2, 2019.
  4. Philo, The Special Laws, Book 3, VII. (38, 39). English source: http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book29.html  Greek source: http://khazarzar.skeptik.net/books/philo/specialg.pdf, pp. 82-83, accessed September 2, 2019. Philo’s comment about a “man-woman” seems to be concerned with men who change their appearance and actions to be like women. As for his comment about “the man who is devoted to the love of boys, it is worth noting that Philo does not seem concerned about child abuse or sexual abuse in any modern sense of those terms. Rather, the concerns he mentions are that such unions (1) are “contrary to nature,” (2) contribute to population decline, (3) train boys to be effeminate, and (4) cause women to remain barren. As with other ancient Jewish authors, the question of consensuality apparently was not a prime factor for Philo in evaluating the ethics of homosexual unions; other factors weighed more, and could not be overruled by the presence of consent.
  5. Robert Gagnon, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues,” 2003, online article based on an interview with Zenit News Agency, March 21 and 28, 2002, pub. by OrthodoxyToday.org, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/GagnonHomosexuality.php, accessed August 28, 2019.
  6. It is likely that Jesus did much of his teaching in Aramaic, in which case the Gospel writers (or the sources upon which they drew) chose which Greek words to use. Historians generally agree, however, that their translations reliably convey the message of Jesus’ teaching.
  7. See Geoff Ashley’s survey of definitions of πορνεία in “Jesus and Homosexuality,” online article, The Village Church, https://www.tvcresources.net/resource-library/articles/jesus-and-homosexuality, accessed September 2, 2019. Compare also with the usage noted in BAGD (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker): “of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.” Mounce similarly notes that “the word group to which porneia belongs generally relates to any kind of illegitimate sexual intercourse” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words).
  8. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 213.
  9. Ibid.
  10. S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 235.
  11. Craig S. Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009), Kindle Edition, commentary on Romans 1:24-27.
  12. Gagnon, Ibid.
  13. The relationship between the words can be glimpsed even by someone who dooes not read Greek; compare πορνεία and ἐκπορνεύω, or, in transliteration, porneia and ekporneuo.
  14. G. Thomas Hobson, “ἀσέλγεια in Mark 7:22,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 21 (2008), 65, 67, 70, bold added. See here for the full article: https://www.academia.edu/31907497/ASELGEIA_IN_MARK_7_22. See also this summary by Richard Klaus: “Jesus Did Mention Homosexuality!” online article, White Rose Review, October, 2014, https://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2014/10/jesus-did-mention-homosexuality.html, accessed September 2, 2019.
  15. Ibid., 68.
  16. Ibid., 72-74, bold added.
  17. Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 442-444.
  18. Ibid., 464-65, bold added.

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Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (3 of 6)

If there is one thing that all Americans may agree on about Jesus, it is that he taught us to love. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” are two of our favorite Jesus quotes. “Judge not” and “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” are often thrown in (or at) for good measure. But how do love and homosexuality fit together for Jesus and his followers? Here there is far less agreement.

This is part of a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality:

      1. Introduction, Explanations, and a Summary of this Series
      2. How Should We Interpret Jesus’ Silence About Homosexuality?
      3. Does “Love Your Neighbor” Mean Jesus Affirmed “Gay Love”?
      4. Why It’s Wrong to Say Jesus Said Nothing About Homosexuality
      5. Historical Conclusions: Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality?
      6. Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?

In my last post I argued, based on evidence from Jewish history, that it is virtually certain that rabbi Jesus agreed homosexual behavior is wrong. This is true even if he never explicitly mentioned homosexuality. Overwhelming historical evidence demands that this must be our working hypothesis in any discussion of Jesus and homosexuality, virtually certain unless there is very strong evidence to the contrary. (And then we need to explain how this evidence was somehow missed by all his first listeners.)

Is Jesus’ teaching on love such evidence? Is Jesus’ emphasis on love proof that he approved of loving homosexual relationships? Does “love your neighbor” mean Jesus affirmed “gay love”?

An adaptation of an image I found online. The original message is true, but the question I added at the bottom must also be answered honestly.

Love and Homosexuality:
What Did Ancient Jews and Christians Say?

Jesus’ life was marked by unusual compassion and love. He not only taught love of friend and enemy alike; he also modeled it by welcoming and honoring social “nobodies” of all sorts:

  • He welcomed children: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Luke 18:16).
  • He had compassion on the crowds: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).
  • He attracted women: “There were also many women there… who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him” (Matt. 27:55).
  • He said nice things about prostitutes: “Truly, I say to you… the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31).
  • He protected a woman caught in adultery: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
  • And he was accused of being a friend of the wrong crowd: “Look at him! …A friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt. 11:19).

Matthew Vines emphasizes Jesus’ example of love at the climax of his viral video “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality”:

Jesus placed a particular focus on those others overlooked, on those who were outcast, on mistreated and marginalized minorities. And if we are working to emulate the life of Christ, then that’s where our focus needs to be, too… How fully have you absorbed, not just the existence of gay and lesbian Christians, but the depth of the pain and the hurt that their own brothers and sisters have inflicted on them? Does that pain grieve you as though it were your own?” 1

Vines’ words here about love are true and on point. This is a message that all Christians, myself included, need to consider and act on. As Preston Sprinkle reminds us, when we discuss homosexuality, we are discussing “people to be loved… not just an issue.”2

However, Vines makes these statements about Jesus’ love in the context of arguing that “the Bible never directly addresses, and it certainly does not condemn, loving, committed same-sex relationships.” He claims that those who use the Bible to speak against homosexual behavior are denying gay people love: “You are uniquely unworthy of loving and being loved by another person, and all because you’re different, because you’re gay.” Here, it seems to me, Vines is badly misunderstanding both the nature of love and the significance of Jesus’ example of love.

Jesus’ life of love was truly remarkable, yet it is virtually meaningless as evidence that Jesus approved of homosexual relationships. Here are three reasons, rooted in history, why I can make such a confident claim:

First, ancient Jews saw no contradiction between commanding neighbor-love and condemning homosexual activity. In the Law of Moses, the famous command to love one’s neighbor and the commands against homosexual behavior are found practically shoulder to shoulder:

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22).

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Lev. 19:34).

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them” (Lev. 20:13).3

It is questionable, at best, to say that because Jesus quoted and affirmed “Love your neighbor” from Leviticus he therefore disagreed with “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” from the same text. Instead, these passages demonstrate that ancient Jews did not think that affirming homosexual relationships was a logical or necessary outworking of an ethic of love.

Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits confirms this conclusion in his entry on “homosexuality” in the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He contrasts modern liberal Christian attitudes about love with the perspective found in Jewish law:

Whereas the more liberal attitude found in some modern Christian circles is possibly due to the exaggerated importance Christians have traditionally accorded to the term “love,” Jewish law holds that no hedonistic ethic, even if called “love,” can justify the morality of homosexuality any more than it can legitimize adultery, incest, or polygamy, however genuinely such acts may be performed out of love and by mutual consent.4

Second, the apostle Paul did not see any contradiction between urging neighbor love and warning against homosexual practice. Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth contains an entire chapter exalting love—the famous “Love Chapter” (1 Cor. 13). But it also includes this: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral …nor men who practice homosexuality… will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Similarly, Paul’s letter to the Roman church, which contains the New Testament’s longest passage critiquing homosexual activity (Rom. 1:24-27), also emphasizes that all the commandments “are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Rom. 13:9).

Here we must detour briefly to address a question about which whole chapters have been written: Was Paul really speaking against homosexual behaviors of all kinds in these passages? That is indeed how the church read Paul for nearly 2000 years, but a seemingly unending variety of revisionist readings have been appearing in recent decades. Are we wrong to understand Paul as speaking generally against homosexual behavior in these passages? (See also 1 Timothy 1:9–10.)

The first response to this question must be to remember that Paul was a Jew. He was trained as a Pharisee, and he stood in a longer religious tradition where “for a period of about 2000 years, all Jews everywhere taught that homosexual unions of any sort were sinful and against nature.”5 That historical context was our starting point in interpreting Jesus’ silence (see the last post), and it must also be our starting point in interpreting Paul’s teachings.

That Paul was standing in this Jewish tradition is reinforced by the fact that he apparently drew directly on the Law of Moses to coin an original term for a male homosexual. He apparently created the word ἀρσενοκοῖται (“male-bedders,” found in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10) from two words found in the Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13, ἄρσενος  (“male”) and κοίτη (“bed”). This word, like its source text, appears to be a very general reference to males who practice same-sex relations.6

In this Jewish context, it is nearly meaningless to argue that Paul’s statements could be understood to leave a loophole for some positive forms of homosexual behavior. In this historical context of prohibiting all same-sex sexual relations and preserving the male-female created order, it is somewhat beside the point to suggest that Paul “doesn’t have long-term, loving same-sex relationships in view.”7 In this context, debates about the precise meanings of the terms Paul used to condemn homosexual behaviors become secondary. To counter centuries of consistent Jewish teaching against all forms of homosexual behavior, we would need to see clear positive endorsement of some sort of homosexual behavior by Paul, not merely a failure to explicitly condemn all forms.

But we don’t see that. Instead, if we read Paul’s statements about homosexuality within the context of previous Jewish writings on the topic, we see that his statements are right at home. Just like them, he builds his case on both Jewish law (“ἀρσενοκοῖται“) and nature/creation (Rom. 1:24-27). And just like them, he speaks against the homosexual union itself (“ἀρσενοκοῖται,” “male-bedders”) and against unions that involved mutual desire (“passion for one another,” Rom. 1:27). He even speaks against female-female unions (Rom. 1:26). In short, there is nothing in Paul’s teaching on the ethics of homosexuality to indicate that he was carving a path contrary to Jewish predecessors.

Kyle Harper, in a recent book published by Harvard University Press, warns against “any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words” about same-sex relationships:

For Paul, same-sex attraction symbolized the estrangement of men and women, at the very level of their inmost desires, from nature and from the creator of nature… [pg brk] For the historian, any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered [within Roman culture]… Paul’s overriding sense of gender—rather than age or status—as the prime determinant in the propriety of a sexual act was nurtured by contemporary Jewish attitudes… By reducing the sex act down to the most basic constituents of male and female, Paul was able to redescribe the sexual culture surrounding him in transformative terms.”8

Despite Harper’s warning, there are many current revisionist readings of Paul to consider, and also many interpretive questions to answer.9 For those who wish to dig deeper into Paul, I recommend this transcript of an interview with Robert Gagnon or, for a much more detailed discussion, the book Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition, by Fortson and Grams (especially chapters 16-18).

With apologies, then, both for getting side-tracked with Paul and for giving him such cursory treatment, we return to Jesus.

Here, again, is our take-away point from Paul: Paul did not see any contradiction between urging neighbor love and warning against homosexual practice. Both the Jewish Scriptures (before Jesus) and Paul (after him) condemned homosexual behavior while also teaching the command “love your neighbor as yourself.” On these ethical matters of love and homosexuality, Paul and Moses were in complete agreement.

Jesus was also a Jew. He taught neighbor love using the very same commandment from the Law of Moses that Paul used. This is no reason to conclude he disagreed with Moses and Paul on the ethics of homosexual behavior.

Third, rather than equating love with sexual freedom, the New Testament commonly contrasts love and sexual indulgence. 

Don’t miss how radically different this is from our culture! In fact, this is one of those times when the “culture” of the New Testament (or even just of ancient Jews) is so radically different from our own that it is mind-bending.

Modern Western culture, at least since the 1960’s, typically equates love with sexual freedom. The language of love has been adopted by those promoting LGBTQ+ lifestyle choices, so that banners proclaiming messages such as “Love Wins” or “Love Is Love” are commonplace in Gay Pride marches and on social media. This use of “love” language is so ubiquitous that it is almost automatic for a person to feel they are being unloving if they speak against homosexual behavior.

To step from this mindset into the ethics of the New Testament is akin to jumping into a cold lake on a very hot day. The shock is great enough that most people complain that the water is too cold, rather than considering that the problem may be found in their own overheated bodies.

Rather than equating love with sexual freedom as our culture does, the New Testament specifically contrasts love and sexual immorality. It is not just that the NT sees some “sexual freedom” as loving and some as not; rather, it sees them as polar opposites. You are asked to choose one or the other.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians may contain the clearest example:

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you (Eph. 5:2-3, emphasis added).

Paul’s letter to the Colossians tells us to “put to death” what we might call “sexual freedom” and to “put on” love instead:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire… Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness… And above all these put on love (Col. 3:5, 12, 14, emphasis added).

Paul’s letter to the Galatians also agrees, essentially saying, “Do not practice sexual immorality, impurity, or sensuality, but instead love each other”:

Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”…  Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality… But the fruit of the Spirit is love” (Gal. 5:13-14, 19, 22, emphasis added).

Peter agrees with Paul (see 1 Peter 4:3-8), as does the writer of Hebrews. Near the end of his letter he writes, “Let brotherly love continue.” Then he gives several examples of how to practice brotherly love, including this:

Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous (Heb. 13:4).10

Again, it is easy to miss how radical the New Testament ethic is. Remember that these writers are all Jews who agree that homosexual activity of any sort is sinful (see my last post). When they mention “sexual immorality,” they think that term includes homosexual practices (more on this in my next post). We should not imagine that they think some homosexual activity is immoral and some is loving. Rather, as Jewish Christians, they all believe that all homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s will and, therefore, contrary to true love.

An adaptation of an image found online.

Love and the “Most Important” Commandment

How can we explain this radical New Testament idea that sexual freedom and true love are at odds with each other?

One source of this thinking is the Jewish heritage of the New Testament writers. For example, the Jewish philosopher Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, complained about how some people abused the term love in his day:

Seduction is an offence which is similar and nearly related to adultery, as they are both sprung from one common mother, incontinence. But some of those persons who are accustomed to dignify shameful actions by specious names, call this love, blushing to confess the real truth concerning its character.11

Remember also the statement of Rabbi Jakobovits as quoted above:

Jewish law holds that no hedonistic ethic, even if called “love,” can justify the morality of homosexuality.12

Another foundation for this New Testament perspective is Jesus’ teaching on the two great commandments. In Jesus’ view (also the historic Jewish view), love for neighbor is properly understood as the “second” commandment, not the first. It must always be defined in relation to the “most important” commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God”:

One of the scribes… asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31, emphasis added)

Ben Witherington’s helpful definition of neighbor love takes this priority into account: “Love in the NT is not mainly or merely a warm, mushy feeling or sentiment but a decision of the will to do what God commands in regard to the neighbor.13 It is not ultimately loving to help your neighbor violate God’s will.

In Jesus’ and Paul’s eyes, love for someone new was never a valid argument in favor of adultery or divorce—not even if both marriage partners wanted the adultery or divorce to happen. To the contrary, Paul said that the commandment “You shall not commit adultery” is “summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Rom. 13:9). In Paul’s view, to not commit adultery is to love your neighbor. Since neighbor love was “a decision of the will to do what God commands in regard to the neighbor,” this meant that even mutually-desired divorce was prohibited because it violated God’s creation pattern of male-female marriage for life.

The same realities apply to “loving, committed same-sex relationships” (see Vines above). In the ethics of ancient Jews and Christians, neither divorce (“except on the ground of sexual immorality,” Matt. 5:32) nor homosexual activity were considered legitimate expressions of human love, for they both violated what Jesus called the “most important” commandment: love of God.

It is important to keep the “most important” love commandment in mind when listening to perspectives like the following, from a lecture by Ted Grimsrud, Senior Professor of Peace Theology at Eastern Mennonite University:

In terms of their mission, Christian churches should take as their starting point a general stance of welcome or invitation or hospitality toward all people… Jesus’ welcome to sinners included welcoming both people who had violated Torah (for example, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the woman “of the city” who washed his feet) and people who were inappropriately labeled “unclean” (such as poor people, lepers, or menstruating women)…

The Bible does place a high priority on the need for the faith community to sustain a clear identity as God’s people—so we should resist forces within the community that compromise that identity. Not everything goes, but we limit hospitality only in order to serve the vocation of welcome… In relation to same-sex intimacy, same-sex marriage, and “homosexuality” in general, the fundamental call to hospitality does not fully resolve the issues. However, we should see the call to hospitality as the starting point.14

This perspective takes something truly beautiful—“hospitality,” or love of neighbor—and promotes it out of its place as the second commandment to become “the starting point.”  Given this beginning, it is little wonder that Grimsrud goes on to seek a “hermeneutic roundabout” for each biblical prohibition of same-sex relations.15 Making Jesus’ “most important” commandment the starting point for our discussion of love and homosexuality leads to different conclusions.

What Is Love? And Who Gets to Define It?

What, then, is love? What does it truly look like? Who gets to decide if a given action is actually loving? Is it possible to love a person while hating what they do?

It appears to me that it is impossible to agree on what true love is until we also agree in significant measure about what truth is.

What, for example, does it mean to love someone who experiences homosexual desires?

  • Supporting a person in their goals of achieving whatever pleasures, rights, or freedoms they desire?
  • Withholding support, even when it is asked for, if you disagree with their goals?
  • Warning them of the dangers of their goals, based on truth as best you can see it?
  • Withholding warning, even if it may mean their ultimate destruction?

Until we agree on truth, it is pretty much impossible to agree on which of the above (or any other alternative) is actually loving.

Love without truth is like cake batter without a mold. Fortson and Grams explain:

What happens with the criterion of “love” in a culture that highly values “freedom” is that “love” is defined in terms of “freedom.” The “loving thing to do” becomes letting people do what they want to do, as long as the rights of others are not infringed. Like cake batter, love takes the shape of the mold into which it is poured. In the West this mold consists of liberation and equality. No society will stand with so meager a basis for thinking through its great moral challenges. Citizens of Western culture lack a robust enough moral vocabulary and ethic to explain why they object to things their consciences feel are wrong. In the public square they are restricted to the language of freedom and equality in all moral matters.16

What “cake mold” did Jesus use to define true love? Clearly, the mold any ancient Jew used was the commands of God, including his commands about sexual immorality. Nothing could be truly loving unless it was in line with God’s law. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

Conclusion

Jesus’ teachings on love, then, do not in any way suggest that he was okay with homosexual relationships. If we conclude this, then we (like Vines above) are importing our own “cake mold” into the first century. We are assuming that Jesus defined love according to our values and our concepts of truth, not by those of ancient Jews or the law of God.

As we have seen, ancient Jews and early Christians alike both taught that one can love one’s neighbor and disapprove of homosexual activity at the same time. In fact, the authors of the New Testament believed that sexual immorality in all forms was diametrically opposed to true love.

Jesus’ emphasis on love is not proof that he approved of “loving homosexual relationships.” If anything, in light of biblical ethics, it shows the opposite.

Thank you for reading. If you have a comment, please leave it below.  And “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).


Postscript: It is not the purpose of this series to address the important pastoral questions of how to love and bless those of you who have same-sex desires or live homosexual lifestyles. (If that is you, special thanks for reading.) I cannot sign off this post without emphasizing, however, that Jesus’ view of love as described above must never be used to justify violence of any sort (physical or psychological) toward homosexual people. Quite the opposite. What does love look like when offered to a person with homosexual desires? Among other things, it looks like hospitality, as Rosaria Butterfield describes in her book The Gospel Comes With a House Key.


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  1. Matthew Vines, “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality,” originally a speech given at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas, on March 8, 2012; video and transcript available at https://matthewvines.tumblr.com/, transcript accessed September 8, 2019. Vines advertises that his video, which has over 1,112,000 views, “dismantles every Bible-based argument against homosexuality.” That is a bold claim for a speech produced by a 21-year-old. Vines makes a powerful emotional appeal, but I think he falls far short of his claim, though I don’t have time here to respond to most of his arguments.
  2. Sprinkle has written a book with this title: People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue. I have not read the book, only reviews, so this mention is not meant to be an endorsement (nor a critique).
  3. Compare also “Love the sojourner” and “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God,” both from Deuteronomy (10:19; 22:5).
  4. Immanuel Jakobovits, “Homosexuality,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 8 (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1971), 961-62, emphasis added. As quoted by Mark F. Rooker in Leviticus, Vol. 3A in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2000), 247.
  5. S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 248.
  6. Fortson and Grams explain further: “Arsenokoitai is a word not found in Greek literature outside Christian circles… Significantly,  the Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13 offers the words needed to understand how the word arsenokoitai came into being… Not only are the words found together, but a Greek manuscript in Paul’s day would not have separated them with spaces. While Paul would have known the two words were distinct, he would have seen them together in Leviticus 20:13 and apparently chose to keep them that way… Since the word arsenokoitai is not found elsewhere in Greek literature—except where Christian authors use it and usually in reference to 1 Corinthians 6:9—it is apparently a word Paul coined from Leviticus 20:13.” Ibid., 294-95.
  7. “A Brief Biblical Case for LGBTQ Inclusion,” online article, The Reformation Project, founded by Matthew Vines, https://www.reformationproject.org/biblical-case, italics added, accessed September 9, 2019.
  8. Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 94-95. Harper is Professor of Classics and Letters and Senior Vice President and Provost at The University of Oklahoma. According to reviewer Kevin DeYoung, “Harper’s book is a work of academic history. For the most part, he doesn’t comment on the history he presents either to approve it or condemn it.”
  9. Was Paul aware of such a thing as homosexual orientation, or is using the word “homosexual” to translate Paul anachronistic? Was Paul thinking only of pederasty or promiscuity? What exactly does he mean by “contrary to nature” and “natural relations”?
  10. Gareth Lee Cockerill comments on Hebrews 13:1-5: “These four pairs of exhortations are an expansion of the ‘brotherly love’ with which they begin. The first two pairs describe behavior that directly expresses this brotherly love—hospitality to strangers (v. 2), concern for the imprisoned, and aid for the persecuted (v. 3). The last two forbid conduct that violates brotherly love—sexual unfaithfulness (v. 4) and greed (v. 5).” The Epistle to the Hebrews, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 678.
  11. Philo, The Special Laws, Book 3, XI. (64) http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book29.html, emphasis added.
  12. Immanuel Jakobovits, “Homosexuality,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 8 (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1971), 961-62, emphasis added. As quoted by Mark F. Rooker in Leviticus, Vol. 3A in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2000), 247.
  13. Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 316, emphasis added.
  14. Ted Grimsrud, “The Bible and Same-Sex Marriage,” lecture presented at Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville, Ohio), January 18, 2015, transcript posted at https://peacetheology.net/2015/01/20/the-bible-and-same-sex-marriage/, accessed September 14, 2019, bold added.
  15. It is beyond the scope of this series to respond to each of Grimsrud’s interpretations in his lecture. However, virtually all of the arguments he uses and more are addressed in the recent book by Fortson and Grams recommended above.
  16. S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, NT: B&H Academic, 2016), pp. 176, emphasis mine.

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Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (2 of 6)

According to existing historical records, Jesus never explicitly mentioned homosexuality.1 This fact leads many to critique the church today for focusing on “things that Jesus never once talked about,” as Richard Rohr has put it.2

What should we conclude from Jesus’ silence? Did his silence mean homosexual behavior was a non-issue to him? Was he okay with it?

This is part of a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality:

    1. Introduction, Explanations, and a Summary of this Series
    2. How Should We Interpret Jesus’ Silence About Homosexuality?
    3. Does “Love Your Neighbor” Mean Jesus Affirmed “Gay Love”?
    4. Why It’s Wrong to Say Jesus Said Nothing About Homosexuality
    5. Historical Conclusions: Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality?
    6. Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?

Arguments from silence can be powerful. A famous example comes from the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” Here is some dialogue that shows how silence helped Holmes solve a mystery:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident… Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well. It was Straker who removed Silver Blaze from his stall and led him out on to the moor.”

The key lesson from this example is that silence is meaningful when you have a strong reason to expect noise instead.

There is a strong reason to expect a dog to bark if a stranger intrudes at midnight. Is there a strong reason to expect Jesus to have spoken about homosexuality? When the dog did not bark, Holmes concluded he must have been “okay with” the intruder. Can we include the same about Jesus and homosexual behavior? How should we interpret Jesus’ silence about homosexuality?

In this post I am going to explain why I think Jesus’ silence on homosexuality behavior is not very meaningful—why it is not good evidence he approved of it. His silence is best understood as agreement with the existing Jewish consensus about homosexuality.

A meme I found on Facebook. The person who shared it meant Jesus must approve of homosexuality, since he said nothing on the topic. I don’t think that’s what his silence meant.

Ancient Jewish Beliefs About Homosexuality:
What They Did

What was the range of beliefs about homosexuality among ancient Jews?

Let’s consider first what Israel actually did. It is clear that some Israelites engaged in homosexual activity during the time between the conquest of Canaan under Joshua (about 1400 BC) and the fall of Jerusalem at the beginning of the Exile (586 BC). Homosexual activity was common among the Canaanites before Israel entered the land, and over time Israel increasingly imitated them.

Various forms of homosexual activity are recorded several places in the Old Testament, some consensual and some not. For example:

Behold, the men of the city [of Gibeah], worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.”  (Judges 19:22; about 1300 to 1100 BC)

There were also male cult prostitutes in the land. They did according to all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. (1 Kings 14:24; about 930 BC)

Eventually homosexual prostitution happened right in the temple in Jerusalem:

And he [King Josiah] broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of the Lord (2 Kings 23:7; about 620 BC)

On the one hand, this evidence shows that many Israelites were okay with homosexuality—just as some Israelites were okay with sacrificing babies to idols and oppressing the poor and many other activities contrary to the Law of Moses. On the other hand, we have this evidence because it was preserved in texts that were part of the sacred scriptures of Israel, and these texts called these historical activities “abominations” (1 Kings 14:24).

Significantly, when we examine the period right before and during the life of Jesus, we do not find Jews practicing homosexuality like they did prior to the Exile.

Before the Exile, Jews widely imitated the sexual practices of the nations around them, just as they had imitated their idolatry. After the return from Exile, however, Jews showed an “obvious contrast with ancient Greek culture” around them regarding homosexuality, says commentator Craig S. Keener, an expert on the early Jewish and Greco-Roman setting of the New Testament. He summarizes the evidence:

Jewish people… unanimously rejected homosexual behavior… Jewish people associated homosexual activity especially (and probably largely accurately) with Gentiles. Although Jewish sources report Jewish adulterers, johns, and murderers, Jewish homosexual practice was nearly unknown… Idolatry and homosexual behavior [were recognized by] Jewish people… as exclusively Gentile vices.3

Ancient Jewish Beliefs About Homosexuality:
What They Wrote

When we move from historical practices to written perspectives, the evidence is unanimous: Ancient Jewish literature consistently condemns all forms of homosexual behavior. It is clear that, for ancient Israelites who were attempting to be faithful to the Sinai covenant, homosexual activity was never okay.

Let’s examine what ancient Jewish writings say about homosexuality. I’ll summarize the Old Testament evidence, but emphasize the evidence that is closer to Jesus’ day.

The Books of Moses present male-female marriage as the creation pattern (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:18-25). They also record two examples of homosexual activity that occurred before Israel existed: Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” Noah (Gen. 9:20-25) and the men of Sodom tried to “know” the men who were visiting Lot (Gen. 19:4-11). Both stories are brief, cryptic, and much argued over. In both cases, however, the narratives imply that the activity was not good.

The Law of Moses forcefully prohibited homosexual and transgender behavior:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination… If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; cf. Deut. 22:5; 23:17-18)

Significantly, these commands used the most general terms possible for homosexual behavior (“a man lies with a male”), avoiding narrower terms that would have applied only to cases such as temple prostitution.4 Underscoring this reality, both commands ended with the phrase “as with a woman”; it is clearly contrary to the rest of the Law of Moses to imagine that the commands were intended to mean “You shall not commit rape with a male as with a woman” or “You shall not engage in prostitution with a male as with a woman,” for both rape and prostitution were prohibited “with a woman” as well. Instead, these commands prohibited a male from doing with a man what would be, in the appropriate circumstances, right and good to do “with a woman.”5

These commands prohibited the act of homosexual union itself, not merely any possible negative attending attitudes or circumstances. They were not written in a form that distinguished between good homosexual activity (loving, consensual, faithful) and bad homosexual activity (lustful, violent, promiscuous), but between male and female.6 These commands, therefore, excluded female-female sexual relations as surely as male-male.7

Even consensual homosexual acts were forbidden by these commands, as is indicated by the shared guilt (“both of them have committed an abomination”).8 These blanket prohibitions of all homosexual acts formed the foundation, along with the Genesis creation account, for all future Jewish thinking about homosexuality.

The prophet Ezekiel described Sodom’s sins in a way that suggested her acts of “abomination” (compare with Lev. 20:13)9 were a chief reason for her destruction:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it. (Ez. 16:49-50)

What about Jews living nearer to the time of Jesus? What did they write about homosexual behavior? Here are seven examples:

[Moses] compels us to recognize that we must perform all our actions… according to the standard of righteousness… For most other men [non-Jews] defile themselves by promiscuous intercourse… For they not only have intercourse with men but they defile their own mothers and even their daughters. — “The Letter of Aristeas” (second century B.C.)10

Neither commit adultery nor rouse homosexual passion… Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits set by nature… And let not women imitate the sexual role of men. — Pseudo-Phocylides, Sentences (between 100BC and 100AD)11

The entertainment recorded by Plato [in Symposium] is almost entirely connected with love; not that of men madly desirous or fond of women, or of women furiously in love with men, for these desires are accomplished in accordance with a law of nature, but with that love which is felt by men for one another… for the greater part of the book is occupied by common, vulgar, promiscuous love. — Philo, On the Contemplative Life (early first century A.D.)12

All the world will be reduced to confusion by iniquities of wickedness and abominable fornications, that is, friend with friend in the anus, and every other kind of wicked uncleanness which it is disgusting to report. — 2 Enoch 34:2 (first century A.D.)13

What about our laws about marriage? That law… abhors the mixture of a male with a male; and if anyone does that, death is its punishment. — Flavius Josephus, Against Apion (about 97 A.D.)14

These are the felons who are put to death by stoning. He who has sexual relations with (1) his mother… (4) with a male, and (5) with a cow. — Mishnah, Sanhedrin (second century A.D.)15

The unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God, nor will… those who commit outrages and have sexual intercourse with males. — “The Testament of Jacob” (ancient; date unclear)16

It is important to notice several features of these quotes:

  • Their foundation for ethics was the Law of Moses.17
  • They appealed also to creation, and therefore considered same-sex promiscuity to be unnatural in a way that heterosexual promiscuity is not.18
  • They focused on same-sex acts themselves, not merely on contextual factors such as promiscuity or violence.19
  • They spoke against even mutual, consensual homosexual relations (“friend with friend,” 2 Enoch).

This is what Jews in Jesus’ day believed about homosexual behavior. This is the world into which Jesus was born.

There were no gay night clubs in Jerusalem. There was no “welcoming and affirming” synagogue in Nazareth. There were no Roman lawyers trying to convince Pilate to require Jewish bakers to make cakes for homosexual weddings. There were no Jews “coming out” on social media. There were no rainbow flags projected onto the temple mount. The Jerusalem Times was not publishing feel-good stories about LGBTQ persons.

Jewish denominations were debating topics like angels, the resurrection, how Jews should relate to their Roman occupiers, and even when divorce was justified.20 But there was no intramural rabbinical debate about homosexuality. Jewish leaders came to Jesus to explore and test his views on many issues, but no one asked him about homosexuality. No one had to. Everyone knew that everyone already knew the answer.  Homosexuality behavior was something “out there” that non-Jews did, and no Jewish rabbi had to stake out his public position on the topic.

“What did Jews writing after the Old Testament period, from the fifth century BC through the sixth century AD think about homosexual practice?” authors Fortson and Grams ask. After examining the evidence, here is their answer:

There is no debate at all: Jews consistently condemned homosexual practice of any sort after the return from the exile and right through the early church period. Jews understood the Old Testament to speak against homosexual behavior, and they accepted biblical authority in matters of sexual ethics.21

In fact, despite increasing homosexual activity within Israel prior to the Exile, the perspective of all existing ancient Jewish writings from the very first (the time of Moses) through the early Christian period is consistent:

For a period of about 2000 years, all Jews everywhere taught that homosexual unions of any sort were sinful and against nature.22

Interpreting the Evidence

For purposes of our discussion here about Jesus’ silence, this is the key sentence from Fortson and Grams: “There is no debate at all: Jews consistently condemned homosexual practice of any sort after the return from the exile and right through the early church period.”

This fits with Craig S. Keener’s summary of the same time period, as quoted above:

Jewish people… unanimously rejected homosexual behavior… Although Jewish sources report Jewish adulterers, johns, and murderers, Jewish homosexual practice was nearly unknown.

“Nearly unknown.” “No debate at all.” This is the world into which Jesus was born.

If homosexual activity was “nearly unknown” among Jews of the time, then it is no wonder that we do not know of any explicit word from rabbi Jesus on the topic.

If there is “no debate” about what Jews taught in this period about homosexuality, then there was little reason for Jesus to be debating the topic, either—or for us to debating what Jesus might have believed about it.

Historical Jesus scholar J. P. Meier makes the same point about Jesus and sexual ethics in general:

On sexual matters… one could call both Jesus and the Essenes extreme conservatives … apart from the two special cases of divorce and celibacy, where he diverged from mainstream Judaism [and arguably was more stringent than they were], his views were those of mainstream Judaism.  Hence there was no pressing need for him to issue or for the earliest Christian Jews to enshrine moral pronouncements about matters on which all Law-abiding Jews agreed.  If almost all Jews agreed that acts of fornication and adultery were wrong, there was no reason for Jesus, who shared these views (see, e.g., Mark 7:21-22; Luke 16:18) to exegete the obvious.23

Adultery was not a frequent topic in Jesus’ teaching.24 Sins of the heart were a more urgent concern, for many of his hearers aimed to “outwardly appear righteous to others”—avoiding public sins like adultery—“but within [were] full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:28).

If Meier’s observation is valid for adultery, how much more for homosexuality, which was “nearly unknown” among Jews at the time? Robert Gagnon summarizes things well:

Jesus’ alleged silence has to be set against the backdrop of unequivocal and strong opposition to same-sex intercourse in the Hebrew Bible and throughout early Judaism.”25

Conclusions

What, then, should we conclude from Jesus’ silence about homosexuality?

Given that (a) homosexual practice was “nearly unknown” within Jesus’ Jewish culture, and given that (b) there is “no debate” that Jews in Jesus’ day “consistently condemned homosexual practice of any sort,” it is wishful thinking to argue that, just because our historical records do not record rabbi Jesus specifically mentioning the topic, he therefore approved of homosexual relationships.

Remember the lesson from Sherlock Holmes: silence is meaningful when you have a strong reason to expect noise instead.  In this case there was little reason to expect a word from Jesus. If Jesus was silent on the topic, then we, with his original audience, can safely assume that he agreed with the Jewish consensus that homosexual behavior is sinful.

There is another silence, however, that is very telling.

Given the universal consensus among first-century Jews that homosexuality was exceedingly evil, imagine the outcry that would have arisen if Jesus’ listeners had noticed any reason to believe he was affirming homosexual activity. If Jesus, as a Jewish rabbi, had been understood to disagree with the Jewish consensus about homosexuality, he would have been immediately and forcefully rejected by fishermen and Pharisees alike. The silence from Jesus’ listeners on this point speaks powerfully: they saw no reason to think that Jesus affirmed homosexual behavior.

If they didn’t, why should we?

Thanks for reading. Comments are welcome, but thanks (again) for understanding that I have limited time for follow-up discussions.


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  1. I say “explicitly” because I think Jesus actually did talk about it, and even came very close to naming it. I’ll explain more in post 4. Some who are lobbying for Christians to accept homosexuality think Jesus mentioned it, too. I’ll explain why I disagree with their claim in post 5.
  2. Richard Rohr, “Love Is Who You Are,” online article, adapted from Richard Rohr, True Self/ False Self (Franciscan Media: 2003), disc 2 (CD), Center for Action and Contemplation, August 11, 2016, https://cac.org/love-is-who-you-are-2016-08-11/, accessed September 7, 2019.
  3. Craig S. Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009), Kindle Edition, commentary on Romans 1:24-27, emphasis added. Schreiner agrees: “Homosexual relations were not uncommon in the Greco-Romans world, while they were consistently frowned upon by Jews. Jews who practiced same-sex relations doubtless existed, but if they remained in Jewish society, they almost certainly kept it a secret to avoid social ostracism. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, 2nd ed., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 87.
  4. S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams underscore this point: “Temple prostitution is addressed in the Old Testament, and particular language was available in Hebrew to reference it. It could, therefore, have been clearly mentioned here had the author wanted to limit the laws to that context… Other prohibitions of certain homosexual acts in the ancient Near East… do not oppose homosexuality in general; they refer to specific types of homosexual acts. If, then, these laws specified what was prohibited, why did Lev 18:22 and 20:13 not specify particular kinds of homosexual acts? The answer to this question seems clear: any type of homosexual act was being prohibited.”
  5. Gane provides a more word-for-word translation of the phrase “as with a woman,” but comes to essentially the same conclusion: “Both instances of the ban on homosexuality contain the phrase ‘lyings (plural of miskab) of a woman’ (18:22; 20:13)… By itself this idiom is morally neutral… ‘Lyings’ are illicit when one party usurps the customary sexual activity (hence the plural, apparently) that rightfully belongs to another… In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the one who usurps a woman’s ‘lyings’ is any male.” Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers,  The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 327-328. Kindle Edition.
  6. Gagnon identifies the same purpose in this concluding phrase: “The reason for the prohibition is evident from the phrase ‘lying with a male as though lying with a woman.’ What is wrong with same-sex intercourse is that it puts another male, at least insofar as the act of sexual intercourse is concerned, in the category of female rather than male… The non-procreative character of same-sex intercourse was no more the primary consideration in the rejection than it was for the proscription of bestiality. Incest and adultery, two other sexual acts rejected in Leviticus 18 and 20 are certainly not wrong because they are non-procreative; but neither is the primary reason for their rejection that fact that children might arise. All three are wrong because they constitute sex with another who is either too much of an ‘other’ (sex with an animal) or too much of a ‘like’ (sex with a near kin and sex with a member of the same sex). These are transcultural creation categories, not superstitious dregs from a bygone era” (Robert Gagnon, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues,” 2003, online article based on an interview with Zenit News Agency, March 21 and 28, 2002, pub. by OrthodoxyToday.org, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/GagnonHomosexuality.php, accessed August 28, 2019.)
  7. Several more observations confirm this: 1) It is very difficult to imagine a patriarchal society such as ancient Israel blessing lesbianism while prohibiting male homosexuality. 2) There is no evidence ancient Jews ever believed this law offered a loophole for lesbianism; rather, those who mentioned lesbianism spoke against it. 3) Ancient laws were paradigmatic rather than listing every conceivable situation (see Appendix at end of forthcoming post three in this series); thus, for example, the Ten Commandments, though addressed grammatically to males, apply equally to females.
  8. The translation of Leviticus 20:13 by Jewish scholar Everett Fox confirms these interpretations: “A man who lies with a male (as one) lies with a woman—abomination have the two of them done, they are to be put-to-death, yes, death, their bloodguilt is upon them!” Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1995), 607. Fox’s translation aims to convey the literary forms, word-plays, and rhetorical power of the underlying Hebrew.
  9. Yuan notes that the verbal parallel between Ezekiel and Leviticus actually involves a phrase, not just one word: “In Hebrew, ‘abomination’ is toevah and ‘did’ is asah. These two words appear next to each other not only in Ezekiel 16:50, but also in Leviticus 20:13. The prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the Holy Spirit, used these two words to connect Sodom’s sin with Leviticus 20:13″ (Christopher Yuan, book review of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, by Justin Lee. The Gospel Coalition, January 7, 2013, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/torn/, accessed September 5, 2019). It should be noted that Ezekiel uses toevah to refer to a wide range of sins, not only sexual ones. Further, toevah and asah are found together in multiple places in the OT, including elsewhere in Ezekiel, not only in these two verses. Nevertheless, given (a) that Sodom did commit sins of a homosexual nature, and (b) that homosexual acts were described using the same word pair “did-abomination” (asah-toevah) in Leviticus 20:13, it seems probable that Ezekiel is thinking here of Sodom’s acts of homosexuality.  Duguid suggests the same possibility: “The sexual sin to which it gave its name” (sodomy) “may lie behind the ‘detestable things’ of Ezekiel 16:50” (Duguid, Iain M.. Ezekiel, The NIV Application Commentary, p. 170. Zondervan. Kindle Edition).
  10. The Letter of Aristeas, trans. H. T. Andrews, in The Apocrapha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, ed. R. H. Charles (New York, NY: Clarendon, 1913), 83-122. Note: for these quotations of intertestamental Jewish literature, I am relying heavily on quotes and citations provided by S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams in Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016). See there book for the extended contexts of these quotes and for more.
  11. Pseudo-Phocylides, Sentences, 3 and 192, trans. P.W. van der Horst, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1985).
  12. Philo, On the Contemplative Life 1:59, in The Works of Philo Judaeus, the Contemporary of Josephus, trans. C. D. Yonge, 4 vols. (London, England: Henry G. Bohn, 1854-55).
  13. “2 Enoch,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, ed. James H. Charlesworth, trans. F. I. Andersen (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 158.
  14. Flavius Josephus, Against Apion 2:199, trans. William J. Whiston (public domain, 1828).
  15. Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7.4, in Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 596.
  16. “The Testament of Jacob,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, ed. James H. Charlesworth, trans. W. F. Stinespring (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 917.
  17. “The Letter of Aristeas,” Pseudo-Phocylides, Josephus, Mishnah.
  18. “A law of nature,” Philo; “the limits set by nature,” Pseudo-Phocylides. Some argue that the concept of  “contrary to nature” meant “contrary to cultural custom.” But this makes little sense of the term’s use by those pagan Greeks who critiqued their own culture’s widespread acceptance of same-sex relationships. It makes more sense to see the term, in both its Greek and its Jewish uses, as meaning roughly “contrary to physical design; contrary to the way things were made to work.” In the Jewish context, this is equivalent to saying “contrary to how God created things to function.” Paul uses the term in Romans 1 in the context of explicitly referring to God as Creator.
  19. “Intercourse with men,” “Letter of Aristeas”; “friend with friend in the anus,” 2 Enoch; “the mixture of a male with a male,” Josephus; “sexual relations… with a male,” Mishnah; “sexual intercourse with males,” “The Testament of Jacob.”
  20. I cannot recall any example of when any Jew was surprised by Jesus’ position on a sexual topic except when his own disciples were surprised at his rigid stance on divorce and remarriage.
  21. S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 235.
  22. Ibid., 248.
  23. J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, volume 3 (New York, 2001), 502-503 as quoted in G. Thomas Hobson, “ἀσέλγεια in Mark 7:22,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 21 (2008), 73.
  24. Jesus did teach directly on adultery. But the times he mentioned adultery fall into two camps: times he cited adultery in passing in lists of well-known sins or commands (cf. Matt. 15:19; 19:18), and times when he expanded the “textbook” definition of adultery to include lust or wrongful divorce (cf. Matt. 5:28, 32). The latter were the only times he “exegeted” adultery, to use Meier’s term.
  25. Gagnon, ibid. Gagnon also summarizes what we can learn from Jesus’ “alleged silence”: There is no historical basis for arguing that Jesus might have been neutral or even favorable toward same-sex intercourse. All the evidence we have points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that Jesus would have strongly opposed same-sex intercourse had such behavior been a serious problem among first-century Jews.”

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