Tag Archives: R.T. France

Is Marriage Indissoluble? A Look at Two Passages from “Rabbi” Paul

What do we mean when we say that marriage is indissoluble? More importantly, is this an accurate way to express the biblical witness about marriage? I will not answer that second question in this post (does that make my title clickbait?), but I do want to examine two passages from Paul that appear to answer it very clearly.

When people assert that marriage is indissoluble, they generally mean that nothing except death can end a marriage union. Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 are two passages cited most often as evidence for this assertion.

These parallel passages certainly do offer vital biblical evidence that must shape our understandings about divorce and remarriage. I have come to believe, however, that sometimes our thinking and speaking about these passages is not as careful as it should be. In our haste to cite these passages as being “clear,” we may not read them with the diligence that the Scriptures deserve.

Let me start by suggesting that neither passage quite says that only death can end a marriage union. Neither passage says that there is a “marriage bond” that holds every marriage together till death, or that the one-flesh marriage union is a sort of glue that cannot be broken by man. Rather, both passages say something slightly but significantly different. Here is the shorter passage:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 7:39-40)

What does “bound” mean? What sort of reality is implied by words such as “bound” and “free”? If we had only this passage and not the near parallel in Romans 7, we might be able to conclude that the passage is talking about some “marriage bond” or one-flesh union that is indissoluble—some mysterious ontological oneness that is impossible to separate.

But the language of “bound” and “free” is a hint that these passages are talking about different realities. The longer passage makes this clearer:

Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Rom. 7:1-3)

How is a married woman bound to her husband? “By law,” Paul says. To understand these passages well, we must remember that we are dealing not with metaphysical realities but with legal codes—with law.

By what means does law bind someone? Here it is instructive to look at how δέω, the Greek word translated “bound” in both Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, is used elsewhere in the New Testament. Here are a few typical examples: A colt was “bound” most likely with a rope (Matt. 21:2), Peter was “bound” with two chains (Acts 12:6), a woman was “bound” by Satan with sickness (Luke 13:16), and Paul declared that the word of God was not “bound” or prevented by persecution from spreading (2 Tim. 2:9). A wife, however, is not supposed to be bound to a man by a rope, a chain, sickness, or political oppression.

The closest NT parallel to how δέω is used in our two passages is probably found in Jesus’ words in both Matthew 16 and 18:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19, emphasis added; cf. Matt. 18:18)

In these passages, “bind” and “loose” are terms “used in rabbinic literature for declaring what is and is not permitted.”1 The way the law binds someone, then, is by declaring what is and is not permitted.

The words for “bind” and “loose” in these Matthew passages are the same words that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 7:27: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” He then repeats the same word “bound” a couple paragraphs later in one of our key passages: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.” (1 Cor. 7:39).

Paul, bound, teaching in Rome. Is this the way a wife is “bound” to her husband? (Image from Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org.)

Paul, trained under the Rabbi Gamaliel, is using the language of rabbis.2 He is not declaring a spiritual or scientific law that describes an unchangeable reality. Rather, he is “declaring what is and is not permitted” under the law, probably referring to the law of Moses.3 Legal rulings are not made against things that are impossible to do. To the contrary, any law, even a divine one, can be broken.

The law typically describes what could but shouldn’t happen and then says what will happen or should happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. (Read that fast three times in a row!) It is important not to confuse these different dynamics.

The language of “binding” in 1 Corinthians 7 and Romans 7 indicates, first of all, that something could but shouldn’t happen. Paul says that the law does not permit a wife to leave her husband while he is alive. The fact that this law was necessary implies that it is indeed possible for a husband or wife to separate from their spouse. It is possible for them to violate the law that binds them together.

This does not mean, of course, that as soon as a law is broken it has no say over the person who broke it. The Romans passage says one thing that certainly will happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. Paul says that if a woman breaks the law that binds her to her husband, then “she is called an adulteress” (Rom. 7:3). Who calls her an adulteress? Paul does not explicitly say, but the implication is that it is the law, first of all, who calls such a woman an adulteress. Since her husband is still alive, the law’s requirement that she be faithful to him is still binding on her. This law, still in effect even though broken, labels her an adulteress. This will happen. Humans are free to disregard the law binding husband and wife, but they will also suffer the legal consequences if they do so.

What about the phrase “as long as he is alive” (Rom. 7:2; cf. 1 Cor. 7:39)? This phrase does not address the question of whether or not it is possible for humans to end a marriage. Rather, it describes how long “the law is binding on a person” who is married (Rom. 7:1). At any point before death, a married person can break the law that binds them to their spouse, violating the union that was supposed to last until death. At that point, the law says what will happen: They will stand guilty of adultery.

How should a person guilty of adultery be held accountable? What does the law say should happen next? In neither passage does Paul answer this question. Neither passage says what should be done if a marriage is broken prematurely by sexual unfaithfulness.

We know from Leviticus—“for I,” like Paul, “am speaking to those who know the law” (Rom. 7:1)—that the law of Moses did not simply say, “It is impossible for a woman to separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “A woman must not separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “If a woman unites with a man besides her husband she will be called an adulteress.” No, the law had more to say than what Paul records in either of our passages.

This is what the law of Moses originally taught about adultery: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). Under this law, what should happen after adultery was death, which ended the marriage union and left the violated marriage partner alive and free to remarry. In addition, as Moo reminds us, this same law of Moses also recognized situations when a husband was permitted to divorce his wife and remarry:

Any body of law that Paul may be citing—Roman or OT (cf. Deut. 25:1-4 [sic; should be Deut. 24:1-4])—allows for remarriage on grounds other than the death of the spouse. His readers, who “know the law” (v. 1), would certainly recognize this possibility without it in any way spoiling the effectiveness of Paul’s analogy.4

It is probably significant that in both of these passages Paul refers to how a wife is bound to her husband until he dies. Under the law of Moses (unlike Roman law), a wife, unlike her husband, had no right to initiate divorce. For a husband, his marriage could end not only through the natural death of his wife but also in at least two other ways: 1) his wife could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) he could divorce his wife if he “found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1). In this sense, under the law of Moses a woman was “bound to her husband as long as he lives” in a way that her husband was not bound to her.

Yet, even for the woman, the law of Moses recognized at least two ways that her marriage could end apart from the natural death of her husband: 1) her husband could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) her husband could divorce her for some offense less than adultery (Deut. 24:1), leaving her free to remarry. The latter scenario, at least, is an exception to Paul’s statement about what the law required for a wife.

Is Paul misrepresenting the law? It is better, I suggest, to conclude that Paul accurately summarizes what the law under normal circumstances required of a wife, without meaning to deny any exceptions implied by specific case laws dealing with special circumstances.5

For Jews in Jesus’ day, legal divorce had largely replaced the death penalty in cases of adultery. It was understood that it was divorce that should happen next after adultery.6 It was also understood that divorce ended the marriage, so that the woman no longer had a husband and the man no longer had a wife. Therefore, in such a situation, the law cited by Paul that bound a wife to her husband was understood to no longer apply, for she was no longer “a wife” (1 Cor. 7:39) or “married woman” (Rom. 7:2). Rather—as had been the case under the Law of Moses after the death penalty—the wronged marriage partner was free to legally remarry.

(There was a severe gender inequity in how this was applied. Men generally were not liable to be charged with adultery, since polygamy was still legal under Jewish law. Thus, it was women who were divorced when suspected of adultery, but men were not. After a divorce adulteresses, like their former husbands, were free to remarry. But there was a stigma in marrying an adulteress and, as a reasonable precaution, adulteresses were not permitted to marry their lovers.7)

Christians today, even more truly than the Jews of Jesus’ day, are no longer bound by law to carry out capital punishment for adultery. We are under Christ’s new covenant. Jesus warned that the provision for divorce found in Deuteronomy 24 was given because of the “hardness of heart” of God’s people (Matt. 19:8), so it is unlikely that he thought this exception still applies under the new covenant—certainly not in the broad way that it was interpreted by many in Jesus’ day.8 But, leaving that question aside, we still have the other “unnatural” way that a woman could find herself released from the law that bound her to her husband: By her husband committing adultery.

What should happen next after a husband or wife commits adultery in our time? Again, neither of the passages we are discussing here answers our question.

In Corinthians 7:39-40 Paul had no reason to answer our question because the main reason that he cites this law about marriage, apparently, is to show that it is lawful for widows to remarry. Since he is discussing widows, the question of adultery is irrelevant. In Romans 7:1-3 Paul had no reason to answer our question because he is introducing the law of marriage primarily to make a similar point, one relevant to his theological argument: just as death ends a marriage and frees one to remarry, so Christians have died to the law so that they can be married to Christ. Again, his focus is on the fact that the law is not binding on a married couple after one of them dies. He is not concerned to detail exactly how the law was binding on a husband or wife whose marriage had been damaged by adultery. He does mention an adulterous wife in passing here (the language may imply she had remarried), but he says nothing about what should happen next.

What should happen to the adulteress? What should the wronged husband do? What were either of them permitted or required to do? Again, neither passage answers such questions.

If you are waiting for me to answer those questions in this post, I will (once again) leave you disappointed. Those are crucial questions, but my purpose here is different. My goal is to invite us think more diligently about these two passages, for they are often cited as being among the most “clear” New Testament passages on divorce and remarriage. I agree that these passages are indeed very clear on what should not happen. But I am proposing here that they say little about what should happen if the law that binds wife and husband together has been violated.

If I were to paraphrase the main point of what Paul is saying in both Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, it might look like this:

The law requires that a woman remain faithful to her husband as long as he lives; after that, she is allowed to remarry any Christian man she wishes. If she unites with another man while her husband is still alive, the law declares that she is an adulterer, but it doesn’t say that about a woman who remarries after her husband is dead.

I have often heard that these two passages from Paul are “clearer” than the exception clauses of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 regarding the topics of divorce and remarriage. For the reasons described above, I am not sure this is so.

Specifically, I don’t think these passages are clearer than Jesus’ sayings are regarding the question of whether divorce is permitted in the case of adultery. Unlike Jesus’ exception clauses, these passages from Paul don’t even mention the topic of divorce. (Read them again if that statement surprises you.)

Since they don’t even mention divorce, how can they be clearer than Jesus’ sayings on the topic? How can we use them to cancel out his words?

Before I close, however, let me underscore two things that are indeed clear in both these Pauline passages.

First, God’s intent is that our marriages last for life. This was clear in the law of Moses not only from its prescriptive laws, but also from the creation account that Moses recorded. This is also a consistent message from Christ and the witness of the NT.

Second, God still holds humans accountable today when marriages end before death. Whether or not marriage itself is truly indissoluble (“incapable of being undone”9) may be a question that these specific passages do not answer. But there is no question that married people are bound together by a divine law that is indissoluble (“perpetually binding or obligatory”10). Almost every marriage that ends before death does so because one of the spouses has sinned by breaking God’s law11, and anyone who breaks God’s law should fear being held accountable by him.

Now may that same good God, the God who redeems law-breakers, teach us from the whole biblical witness—not just a couple of the “clearest” passages—how to respond faithfully when unfaithfulness is found in our marriages.


It is a weighty thing to teach on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The cost of broken marriages has been tremendous and is growing.  Many people are confused and looking for true and loving counsel. Sincere Christians have long disagreed on minor and major points of interpretation and practice. My own understanding is still incomplete. For these latter reasons, this topic is even more difficult for me to handle than the series on homosexuality I shared last fall, where my biggest challenge was to present my understandings courageously, compassionately, and clearly.

On the other hand, it is a blessing to be able to ponder this topic at a time when I have no burning personal need to do so, besides a long-standing desire for better understanding of God’s word and will. It is a joy to know he is able to give us whatever understanding we need!

I have been intentionally seeking resources from a variety of perspectives so that my preferences and assumptions have a chance to be tested. My personal preference is usually to consider “small” exegetical questions one at a time (though in context, of course), rather than trying immediately to answer the big theological or practical questions. Hence my last two posts, one on the term “one flesh” and this on two short parallel passages.

I have also been puzzling over Jesus’ use of “one flesh” in Matthew 19 and his central statement there: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). I hope to be able to share more here if God entrusts me with more understanding. If not, I won’t!

Meanwhile, you can help in two ways: 1) Pray God will guide me, both in my thinking and in knowing when to write and when to wait. 2) If you read anything here that is contrary to Scripture, please show me from Scripture where I am wrong. I am eager to be increasingly true to Christ and the Scriptures.

Also, if you have a favorite resource that you think is exceptionally helpful for understanding the biblical witness on divorce and remarriage, you are most welcome to mention it, though I cannot commit in advance to giving it the time it may deserve.

Thank you for reading, and please share your insights in the comments below!


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  1. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 626. Luz agrees: “The primary meaning is ‘forbidding’ and ‘permitting’ with a halakic decision of the rabbis, that is, the interpretation of the law.” See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, ed. H. Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 365.
  2. Gamaliel was influenced by the famous rabbi Hillel—the one who argued for “any cause” divorce as discussed in Matthew 19, as opposed by Shammai who argued for narrower grounds for divorce. McRay suggests that Paul seems to have been influenced by the Hillel point of view in how he felt free to make legal adjustments for new situations “which the law did not envision,” such as dealing with mixed marriages (1 Cor. 7:12). See John McRay, Paul: His Life and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 45.
  3. Most commentators agree that this is the law Paul is referring to, and it makes best sense to me.
  4. Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 438, n. 649.
  5. Paul’s approach matches some marriage contracts from near his time. These sometimes stated that a marriage was for life, while nevertheless assuming the possibility of divorce and remarriage. Here, for example, is a translation from a Greek marriage contract from Egypt in 92 BC: “And it shall not be lawful for Philiscus to bring in any other wife but Apollonia, nor to keep a concubine or boy, nor to have children by another woman while Apollonia lives.” Notice how “while Apollonia lives” matches Paul’s language in Romans 7:2: “while he lives.” (David Instone-Brewer, “1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Graeco-Roman Marriage and Divorce Papyri,” Tyndale Bulletin, 2001, https://www.tyndalearchive.com/Brewer/MarriagePapyri/1Cor_7a.htm Accessed May 28, 2020.)
  6. Roman law required this for its citizens, too; a husband who refused to divorce his adulterous wife was to be punished.
  7. David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 121-23.
  8. Jesus’ exception clause was likely an allusion to the Shammaite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. But he offered an authoritative rewording of the text that narrowed it to allow divorce only on the grounds of sexual immorality, not merely shameful behavior. The way Jesus expressed his exception suggests that he narrowed the exception originally permitted in Deuteronomy 24:1 and thereby disagreed not only with the “liberal” Hillelites but also, to a lesser degree, with the “conservative” Shammaites.
  9. Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” abridgement of first definition, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/indissoluble
  10. Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” third definition, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/indissoluble
  11. I say “almost” because some people have been tragically separated from their spouses by events such as war, with no way to know if they are still alive. By far the majority of marriages that end before death do so because one or both of the spouses have been unfaithful to their spouses.

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Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (5 of 6)

In this post I want to summarize our findings about Jesus and homosexuality from my last three posts and evaluate three possible counter-arguments from the Gospels. Did Jesus say some people are born gay? Did he heal a centurion’s male lover? And what about Jesus and his “beloved disciple”?

I will finish answering the question “Was Jesus okay with homosexual behavior?” Then my final post will address the question “Is Jesus okay with homosexual behavior now?”

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 this series on homosexuality, I have focused on Jesus, discussing other biblical witnesses primarily in relation to him. There are at least two reasons for this focus.

First, I believe that being a Christian starts with following Jesus. It certainly does not end there (see my “Red Letter Reductionism” essay), but it is never less: “Whoever says he abides in him [Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). If we can learn directly from Jesus how we ought to think and act regarding homosexuality, let us do so.

Second, Jesus is often seen as the “weak link” in the Bible’s stance against homosexual behavior. If the idea that Jesus approved of “loving same-sex relationships” turns out to be historically unbelievable, then this illusion of a weak link is removed, and the witness of all of Scripture is seen to be consistent.

In discussing Jesus’ views of homosexual behavior, I have also presented much of the other biblical evidence on the topic. But I have not directly asked valuable questions like “Must Christians obey the Leviticus laws against homosexual behavior?” Nor have I attempted a detailed exegesis of Paul’s teachings against homosexual activity. Rather, I have placed these biblical passages alongside other ancient texts and looked for consistent patterns, with one guiding question: What light do these passages shine on what Jesus himself believed?

What, then, did we find?

Our Findings So Far

First, we examined Jesus’ apparent silence on homosexuality. Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day who mentioned homosexual behavior consistently condemned it, and it was nearly unknown among Jews at the time. It was something “out there” that non-Jews did, and no Jewish rabbi had to stake out his public position on the topic. If any rabbi had been suspected of disagreeing with this Jewish consensus, he would have been rapidly rejected by fishermen and Pharisee alike.

Given this historical evidence, there was little reason for Jesus to specifically mention homosexual behavior, and every reason to assume he agreed with the Jewish consensus.

Second, we asked if Jesus’ emphasis on love is proof that he approved of loving homosexual relationships. Does “love your neighbor” mean Jesus affirmed “gay love”? Ancient Jews saw no contradiction between commanding neighbor-love and condemning homosexual activity (see Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 19:18). Paul likewise paired these teachings in his letters to Rome and Corinth (e.g. Rom. 1:24-27; 13:9). Unlike our culture, the New Testament actually contrasts love and sexual indulgence (e.g. Eph. 5:2-3). In Jesus’ view, “Love your neighbor” is the “second” commandment, subordinate to the “most important” commandment, “Love the Lord your God” (Mark 12:28-31). Thus, it is not truly loving to help your neighbor violate God’s will.1

Given this ancient context, Jesus’ emphasis on love is not proof that he approved of “loving homosexual relationships.” If anything, it is the opposite.

Third, we considered three ways that Jesus’ original Jewish audience would have understood him to be addressing the topic of homosexual behavior, despite never explicitly naming it. Jesus taught “You shall not commit adultery” (Matt. 5:27; 19:18), a command that was understood by ancient Jews to also prohibit, by implication, all other unlawful sexual behaviors. Jesus taught against πορνεία (porneia, “sexual immorality,” Matt. 15:18-19), which “was universally understood in Judaism to include same-sex intercourse2 And Jesus warned against ἀσέλγεια (aselgeia, “debauchery,” Mark 7:21-22), “a word that Jesus… could easily turn to as a synonym for homosexual activity and other similarly shocking behavior forbidden by the Jewish law,”3  a word used in 2 Peter 2:7 to describe the “filthy conduct” (NKJV) of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

What might Jesus’ Jewish listeners say if they heard the claim that Jesus said nothing about homosexual activity? “Of course he did! We clearly heard him mention adultery, πορνεία, and ἀσέλγεια!”

But Is There Counter-Evidence?

Despite this evidence, some still point to several events in Jesus’ ministry as proof that Jesus affirmed homosexual behavior, as long as it was loving and consensual. Here are three examples that are perhaps most often mentioned. It is my impression that relatively few scholars find the following arguments significant, but some do, so I will address them.

Counter-argument 1: Jesus said some people are born gay. (Matt. 19:12)

This argument uses Jesus’ words about eunuchs:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Matt. 19:12)

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626. (From Wikimedia Commons.)

Clearly Jesus affirmed that some people are born as “eunuchs.” But what is a eunuch (ευνούχος)?

Here it is easy to get lost down a deep, dark hole, exploring all the ways that the word ευνούχος was used. The first thing I want to say is that, yes, the word ευνούχος (eunuch) may sometimes have been used to refer to someone who experienced same-sex desires (scholars do not all agree).4 However, ευνούχος was not a word that specifically referred to homosexuals, and most eunuchs were not homosexual.

BDAG, probably the most respected dictionary of New Testament Greek, lists three uses of the word ευνούχος, matching them to Jesus’ use in this passage:

1. a castrated male person, eunuch. Mt 19:12b…
2. a human male who, without a physical operation, is by nature incapable of begetting children, impotent male… Mt 19:12a…
3. a human male who abstains fr. marriage, without being impotent, a celibate Mt 19:12c…

Here we need to remember that, in any given circumstance, a word means what it means in that specific context, not necessarily what it sometimes means in other contexts. Linguists warn of a word study fallacy called illegitimate totality transfer. Blomberg’s definition of this fallacy is on point, particularly the second half:

Assuming that a word carries several or all of its possible meanings in each of its appearances when in fact the most probable meaning of any word is that which contributes the least amount of new information to the overall context.5

So what does the context indicate Jesus meant by ευνούχος (eunuch) in Matthew 19:12?

Well, Jesus actually uses the word in three different-but-related ways. That is, each occurrence of ευνούχος has its own immediate context (“from birth,” “made… by men,” “made themselves”), yet they all share the same larger context within Jesus’ discussion. The immediate context for each use is relatively clear; but how does the larger context constrain and specify what Jesus means here (in all three uses) by ευνούχος?

In the larger context, Jesus is responding to a question of the Pharisees about divorce. Jesus responds by affirming the creation model of male-female marriage with its “one flesh” sexual union (Matt. 19:3-9). His disciples, dismayed at the strict limitations Jesus places on divorce, suggest a second option: “not to marry” (Matt. 19:10).

Jesus’ comments about eunuchs occur within his response to this second option, “not to marry.” Jesus and his disciples, as good Jews, do not imagine any third option; the two options are male-female marriage or “not to marry.”6 Eunuchs, in Jesus’ discussion, fall into the latter category—no marriage and therefore, in the Jewish worldview Jesus shared, no sexual union.

Thus, despite the differences between the three categories of eunuchs Jesus describes, the common ground for all three that makes Jesus’ illustration work is that they are people who are not engaging in sexual relationships.

Other issues like sexual orientation or even reproduction are not the subject of conversation in this passage.7 Rather, Jesus is saying that some people fall into the “not to marry” category for three possible reasons: they were born with conditions that leave them unsuited for marriage;8 they were castrated; or they voluntarily give up marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”9

So, did Jesus say that some people are born gay? Not really, although his words do indicate that not every male is born suited for marriage. More importantly, however, his words indicate that for everyone, whatever their sexual desires, there are only two options: faithful male-female marriage until death or “not to marry.”

Gagnon’s summary is on point:

Jesus’ comparison of men who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven with “born eunuchs” shows that Jesus categorized “born eunuchs” as persons not having any sex (Matt 19), for certainly Jesus was not giving the disciples permission to have sex outside of marriage and thereby avoid his newly enunciated standard for marriage. So, from that standpoint, any argument that is made about “born eunuchs” including homosexual persons (with which I would agree) leads to the view that Jesus did not give homosexually oriented persons the option of sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. 10

Jesus’ words about eunuchs are not a blessing on same-sex relationships, but they are a clear reminder to the church to honor those who, whatever their condition as “eunuchs,” are faithfully celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.11

Counter-argument 2: Jesus affirmed a gay couple—a centurion and his “boy.” (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)

This argument is based primarily on a story, one historical fact, and two Greek words. The story is the account of Jesus healing a centurion’s servant. The historical fact is that, in ancient Greco-Roman culture, it was not uncommon for a master to have a servant who also functioned as his male lover. In addition, the term παῖς (pais), found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of this story, can mean “boy” and was sometimes used to refer to such a lover.12 Finally, Luke’s account describes the servant as being ἔντιμος (entimos) in the eyes of the centurion—a word that can mean “dear.”

Some who promote homosexual relationships among Christians go far beyond these facts (see here, here, and here). Jesuit priest John McNeill, for example, translates the centurion as talking about “my beloved boy” and proposes this interpretation:

Here we have the most direct encounter of Jesus with someone who would today be pronounced ‘gay,’ and Jesus’ reaction was acceptance of the person without judgment and even eagerness to be of assistance to restore the ‘pais‘ to health, and by implication to restore the loving relationship of the two, making possible the renewal of any sexual activity which they would have enjoyed together prior to the illness.13

The centurion with his sick servant. (Image copyright www.LumoProject.com. Used with permission from Free Bible Images.)

There are multiple problems with this interpretation. First, παῖς (pais) usually carries no sexual connotations whatsoever; only other contextual clues can provide this meaning. When used of human relationships in the New Testament and other early Christian literature, παῖς refers either to a boy, a son, or a servant/slave.14 There are no sexual connotations in any of the other places παῖς is used in the NT.

Later in Matthew, in a quote from Isaiah, Jesus is described as being God’s beloved παῖς: “My servant… my beloved” (ὁ παῖς μου… ὁ ἀγαπητός μου; Matt. 12:18). Clearly, a παῖς can even be described as “beloved” without there being any necessary sexual connotations, or else such language would not have been used by God about his own servant.

Second, in neither Matthew nor Luke do we find the centurion talking about “my beloved boy” (McNeill’s expression). What we have instead is the narrator Luke saying that the centurion’s δοῦλος (slave/servant) was ἔντιμος in the eyes of the centurion.

Much has been made of how the terms παῖς and δοῦλος are used in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, but no explanation is sure enough to strongly determine our interpretation of the passage.15 More clearly, ἔντιμος fails to support the case for a homosexual relationship. Though the term can be translated “dear,” the two main senses of the word in the NT are “honored, respected,” and “valuable, precious.”16 “Dear,” in fact, is related to the latter sense; it can imply an emotional attachment based on value, without the presence of sexual desire. Most English translations of this verse use a term such as “highly valued.” Similarly, Luke’s only other use of ἔντιμος is usually translated as “distinguished” or “honorable” (Luke 14:8).

Some argue that it is unreasonable to imagine a Roman centurion would plead for Jesus to heal a mere servant unless that servant were his lover. But are we willing to argue that sexual interest is the strongest possible motivation? If this centurion could possess a faith greater than Jesus had found in Israel (Matt. 8:10; Luke 7:9), why could he not also possess a great (non-sexual) concern for a  valued servant? If the centurion who called for Peter was “a devout man who feared God with all his household,” “gave alms generously,” and had “a devout soldier… among those who attended him,” (Acts 10:2, 7), why could this believing centurion not likewise sincerely care for “those who attended him”?

Third, if we take into account Luke’s assessment of how valuable (ἔντιμος) the servant was to the centurion, then we must also consider Luke’s report of how valuable the centurion was to the Jews. Luke reports that elders of the Jews “pleaded… earnestly” with Jesus on behalf of the centurion, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5). If “a deeply observant God-fearer [Gentile proselyte] would not practise paederasty,”17 surely a pious Jew would avoid supporting it. Perhaps this centurion was not a God-fearer but only a benefactor; nevertheless, can we really imagine Jews in Jesus day offering such high praise for someone they know is practicing pederasty? Can we imagine them pleading with Jesus to heal a pederast’s “beloved boy”? Can we imagine the Jewish crowds standing quietly by as Jesus took an active pederast and “preached him into the kingdom” (Matt. 8:11-12)?

In contrast to such scenarios, Green’s assessment of the centurion’s possible motives is refreshingly reasonable:

His desire to see his slave returned to health need not imply an extraordinary humanitarian concern on his part, since care for sick slaves was advised in Roman antiquity as a way to prolong their usefulness. At the same time… Luke’s language suggests that the centurion not only regarded the slave as useful, but actually esteemed him. There is no socio-historical reason to doubt that, as an urban slave in the home of a wealthy master, this dying man might might have enjoyed friendship with the centurion.18

The hypothesis that Jesus affirmed a gay couple by healing the centurion’s “boy” creates far more problems than it solves.

Counter-argument 3: Jesus had a homosexual relationship with his “beloved disciple.” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20)

The disciple “whom Jesus loved” is first mentioned in John’s account of the Last Supper. There we read that “one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side” (John 13:23). A more word-for-word translation could read “reclining on the chest of Jesus,” but “the position of the Beloved Disciple is not to be understood as resting ‘on top of’ Jesus.”19 We know this disciple was very close to Jesus, yet not actually on top of him, because later when he wanted to ask Jesus a question (John 13:25), “the easiest way for him to address Jesus was to lean back until his head literally rested”20 on Jesus’ “chest.”21

This physical proximity may make us uncomfortable. Scholars, however, point to abundant evidence that such practices were normal and non-sexual in Jesus’ day. For special meals like the Passover, people reclined next to each other on couches to eat.22 If this Last Supper meal followed standard banquet procedure, three people were reclining at the head table—including Jesus and beloved disciple, leaning on his left elbow, just to Jesus’ right.

In this image of the Last Supper, Peter (foreground) is addressing the beloved disciple (left), who is next to Jesus (center), with another disciple (Judas?) on Jesus’ left. If the beloved disciple wanted a private word with Jesus, he would lean back till his head was next to Jesus’ chest. (Image is property of Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing. Used with permission from Free Bible Images.)

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus similarly describes Lazarus lying “on the chest” of Abraham (Luke 16:23). “One might also lay one’s head on another’s bosom, which in that culture, far more tactile than our own, had no necessary sexual connotations.”23

Klink reminds us of our own cultural biases:

The Western reader must be immediately reminded that such physical closeness was (and is) quite different in an Eastern context. In many parts of the world today, men walk down the street holding hands as a sign of friendship, not as a sign of homosexuality. This is an especially common practice between two men operating together in a business relationship, reflecting mutual respect and trust. With this in view, the actions of the Beloved Disciple become wordless communication that shows mutual trust and respect.24

Some point to an event during Jesus’ crucifixion as more evidence that Jesus had an erotic relationship with “the disciple whom he loved”:25

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)

Keener, however, points to multiple ancient Greek texts in which people either promise to take a friend’s mother as their own if the friend dies or entrust their mother to the care of a friend.26 He also points to texts which “described a disciple’s virtue in terms of caring for the teacher’s family.”27 In this case, there was an additional motivation for Jesus’ choice:

Most important, because Jesus’ brothers did not believe (7:5), Jesus entrusted his believing mother to a disciple… This model suggests that the ties of the believing community must be stronger than natural familial bonds, a moral amply illustrated by the Jesus tradition (Mark 3:33-35; 13:12).28

How, then, do we explain this disciple’s special title as the one Jesus “loved”? First, the beloved disciple was probably the apostle John, who was indeed part of the “inner circle” of three disciples closest to Jesus. Second, he was probably also the author of the Gospel, and may have used this term as a form of authorial modesty and gratitude for receiving Jesus’ love.29 Third, his anonymity invites the reader to interact with him not just as an historical figure, but as an “ideal disciple” to be imitated.30

Whatever the reasons for this title, we should note that John also records Jesus as having special “love” for Lazarus (“he whom you love,” John 11:3, 36) and for his sisters Mary and Martha (John 11:5).31 Further, “the verbs agapaō and phileō and their cognates”—the words used for “love” in all these passages—“nowhere in John’s Gospel have a sexual connotation.”32

As Keener writes, “given John’s Jewish context, any implied sexual relationship” between Jesus and the beloved disciple “would be impossible without the Gospel somewhere indicating a lifting of Jewish sexual taboos.”33 If John’s readers would have protested at the idea, so would have Jesus’ other disciples.34

The problem with all homosexual interpretations of Jesus and the beloved disciple is revealed clearly in this assertion by Anglican priest Paul Oestreicher: “It would be so interpreted in any person today.”35

But Jesus didn’t live “today,” and not in Oestreicher’s Western culture, either. When we read these texts within the historical context of Jesus’ own ancient Jewish culture, it becomes clear that no one then saw any reason to come to any such homosexual interpretation of Jesus’ actions. Why should we imagine we can understand their own culture better than they did?

Was Jesus Okay With Homosexual Activity?

I have discussed the big picture arguments regarding Jesus’ “silence” about homosexuality and his ethic of love. I have also evaluated three details from Jesus’ life and ministry that have been used to paint a pro-homosexual Jesus. More importantly, we have examined all this evidence within the larger historical context of Jesus’ own time and place.

I believe the evidence points clearly in one direction: The total available historical evidence fits only with the hypothesis that Jesus—the historical Jesus of Nazareth—did not approve of homosexual behavior.

This fact is not surprising, for it appears that Jesus built his sexual ethic on the Genesis 1-2 creation account, as is seen in Matthew 19:3-8. The structure of Jesus’ argument in this passage (drawing on God himself) is that because God made humans male and female they become one flesh in marriage. Jesus used this creation reality to forbid the separation of male-female one flesh unions. But it is equally relevant to the question of homosexual unions, for the basis given in the creation account for becoming “one flesh” is the same-yet-different duality of male and female.

According to Genesis, Eve was taken from Adam and made to be “a helper” who was “corresponding to him” (Gen. 2:20, CSB). Another male would not “help” Adam, nor was Eve designed to “correspond” to another female. Thus, male-male and female-female unions have no foundation in God’s creation design, but actually contradict it. The fact that Jesus drew on this “from the beginning” creation design (Matt. 19:8) as the foundation for his answer to divorce strongly indicates he would have done the same in his answer to homosexual behavior—just as other Jews in his day in fact did.

Conclusion

At this point some readers will be more than content, believing that it is clear what Christians today should believe about the ethics of homosexual behavior. Other readers, perhaps agreeing with much of my historical analysis, will nevertheless feel the question of Christian belief and practice is still open. For the latter readers, I have one more post addressing this question: Is it okay for Christians today to affirm homosexual behavior?

For now, however, we should pause to reaffirm what we already know: While individual pieces of evidence can be used to paint a pro-homosexual Jesus, the total available historical evidence fits only with the hypothesis that Jesus did not approve of homosexual behavior.

Have you puzzled over the three details of Jesus’ life that we examined in this post? Have I missed other possible counter-evidence that seems strong to you? Are you finding this series helpful? Troubling? Am I scratching where it itches—without merely satisfying itching ears (2 Tim. 4:3)? If you have a comment, please leave it below. And thanks again for reading!


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  1. This is what someone like David Gushee misunderstands when he makes the following statement: “I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable and that all that parsing of Greek verbs has distracted attention from the primary moral obligation taught by Jesus — to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially our most vulnerable neighbors” (David Gushee, “I’m an evangelical minister. I now support the LGBT community — and the church should, too,” Nov. 4, 2014, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/04/im-an-evangelical-minister-i-now-support-the-lgbt-community-and-the-church-should-too/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019. Gushee’s sentiment is also why I have placed little emphasis on “all that parsing of Greek verbs” in this series. I contend that the basic stance of the Scripture on homosexual activity is clear when simply placed within its overall historical context, without a lot of parsing of individual words. The individual words can only be understood correctly when this larger context is clear.
  2. 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.
  3. 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, accessed September 2, 2019.
  4. For a positive conclusion, see Robert Gagnon and J., “Jesus, eunuchs, and the allegation of a ‘gay Jesus,'” email correspondence with links, dated 1/18/07, http://robgagnon.net/AnswersToEMails.htm, accessed September 28, 2019. However, much of the evidence shared in J.’s link refers to ancient concepts of eunuchs in cultures and languages far from Jesus’ context, and not specificially to the use of the word ευνούχος itself. For a contrasting opinion, see this article by A. Phillip Brown, III, which claims that “the Greek term eunouchos is never used to denote a person with intact sexual organs who is intersex, transgender, or engages in homosexual behavior.” If ευνούχος should indeed be understood to include people with same-sex attractions, it is still a matter of scholarly debate whether such persons were equivalent to what we today call a “homosexual.” I agree with Fortson and Grams (in Unchanging Witness) that the ancient world did have understandings of sexual desire effectively equivalent to our modern category of homosexual orientation. For a contrasting opinion, here is France’s commentary on what “born a eunuch” means: “In the context of modern discussions about homosexual orientation it might be suggested that it also includes those who are psychologically disinclined to heterosexual intercourse and thus debarred from fatherhood, but evidence for such an understanding of homosexuality in the ancient world is hard to find. Most references to homosexual behavior in the ancient world are to what we now call bisexuality, the choice of some who are capable of heterosexual intercourse to find sexual fulfillment also (or instead) with members of their own sex. Such a choice could hardly be described as being ‘born a eunuch,’ and the idea of an innate and irreversible homosexual orientation belongs to modern Western psychology rather than to the world in which Jesus lived.” R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 724-25.
  5. Craig L. Blomberg with Jennifer Foutz Markley, A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 136.
  6. I am indebted to Hugenberger for this observation: “What is notable for our discussion is that as far as Jesus is concerned, there is no THIRD option! One must either be chaste (“a eunuch… for the sake of the kingdom”) or one must be faithful in a heterosexual marriage (“male and female” “united to his wife”). Surely if Jesus wanted to affirm life-long committed homosexual unions, here is where he needed to do it because his own disciples were astonished at the radical and difficult requirements he seemed to set before them. But Jesus did not allow that third option” (Gordon Hugenberger, “Homosexuality,” June 15, 2004, https://www.parkstreet.org/teaching-training/
    articles/homosexuality (now a dead link), quoted by Aubrey Spears in “The Great Exchange: Same-Sex Sex Attraction,” sermon,  https://clovermedia.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/7572d4795b/attachments/Great_Exchange__The__Incarnation__2018.pdf, accessed September 24, 2019).
  7. It is true that, just as a minority of males “born eunuchs” have homosexual desires, so a minority of males who are castrated experience a change in sexual orientation or desire (. 2016 Mar; 4(1): e51–e59. Published online March 2, 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.esxm.2015.11.001.). In both cases, however, homosexual orientation is not the experience of most eunuchs. Thus, given both physiological realities and the literary context of Jesus’ conversation, it makes little sense to interpret his words as meaning, “Some are born with homosexual orientation, some are made homosexual by others, and some choose for themselves to be homosexual for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Context similarly suggests that Jesus and his disciples are not narrowly concerned with ability to reproduce, either, as if Jesus were saying, “Some are born unable to reproduce, some are rendered unable by others, and some choose for themselves to not reproduce for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is not discussing varied sexual experiences (fertility vs. sterility) within marriage; rather, he is discussing the option that does not include sexual union: “not to marry.”
  8. Here is a sample of explanations of this first category of “eunuch” in commentaries: “The impotent” (Hagner); “those born without sexual organs or impotent” (Osborne); those “born without the capacity for sexual relations, such as those born without properly developed genitalia” (Wilkins); “people without fully functioning sexual organs” (Blomberg); “those who are physiological incapable of procreation” (France); “those who were born without sexual organs” (Keener); “those who are naturally impotent” (Luz). See Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 33b (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995), comment on Matt. 19:12; Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament, Kindle Edition, comment on Matt. 19:12; Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, Kindle Edition, 645; Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, The New American Commentary (B&H Publishing Group), Kindle Edition, 294; R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 724; Craig S. Keener. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.(Eerdmans), Kindle Edition, comment on Matt. 19:10-12; Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 501.
  9. Almost all English Bible translations that avoid the word “eunuch” (or the older equivalent “gelding”) in this passage are in essential agreement with my paraphrase here. Bible Gateway lists seventeen such translations (of sixty total in English). About seven of the seventeen mirror the NABRE: “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Another five differ mainly by focusing on reproductive ability, as with the NCV: “There are different reasons why some men cannot marry. Some men were born without the ability to become fathers. Others were made that way later in life by other people. And some men have given up marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” Another four simply use “chaste” or “celibate” as in GW: “Some men are celibate because they were born that way. Others are celibate because they were castrated. Still others have decided to be celibate because of the kingdom of heaven.” The final one, The Message, is just plain wonky on this verse!
  10. Robert Gagnon, from email to “J,” January 16, 2007, shared at “Answers to Emails,” http://robgagnon.net/AnswersToEMails.htm, accessed September 26, 2019, emphasis added.
  11. The following comments by Wilkins are timely: “Those who have chosen to remain single as the expression of the way that they believe they can best serve God need us as their community of brothers and sisters. Jesus declares that celibacy is an acceptable lifestyle for those for whom it is given by God. Paul expands on Jesus’ statement to indicate that if one remains unmarried, one is in a position to be undistracted by the amount of work that goes into taking care of one’s family responsibilities, and the kingdom of God receives benefit (1 Cor. 7:27, 39–40). Unfortunately, many of our churches endorse marriage as a sign of maturity, and those who are married tend to get the more ‘responsible’ ministry opportunities in the church. Single people are seen as those who have not ‘settled down’ yet. We should reevaluate the way we view and value single people within our ministries.” Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan), Kindle Edition, 658.
  12. Mader explains: “Within the institution of paederasty, pais had a rather specific reference to the younger, passive partner in a paederastic relationship” (Donald Mader, “The Entimos Pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10,” online article, Greek Love Through the Ages, https://www.greek-love.com/antiquity/matthew-luke-loved-boy-pederasty, accessed September 28, 2019). Mader’s entire article is worth consulting, though I question some of his critical assumptions and disagree with his final conclusion. One factor he fails to consider is how the Jewish elders implored Jesus on behalf of the centurion. See below for more on this.
  13. John J. McNeill, Sex as God Intended: A Reflection on Human Sexuality as Play Including Festschrift Essays Celebrating the Life and Work of John J. McNeill (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2008), 63, 65. As quoted in Fortson and Grams, p. 22.
  14. These are the three uses listed in BAGD, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., by Walter Bauer et al. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 604.
  15. In both accounts the centurion always refers to his sick slave as a παῖς but refers to another servant/slave as a δοῦλος. Matthew always calls the sick servant a παῖς, while Luke always call him a δοῦλος. It is hard to know what to make of these patterns. On the one hand, it shows that the two terms have considerable overlap in meaning. On the other hand, it may be significant that the centurion always refers to his sick servant by the term that can imply more emotional connection. Those who argue that a homosexual relationship was present make much of this fact, but παῖς could simply hint at a non-sexual closeness. What about the choices of the Gospel writers? It is possible that Matthew, as a Jew writing to a primarily Jewish audience, was able to use παῖς to suggest the feelings of a God-fearing centurion toward his servant without considering any possible connotations of pederasty. Luke, however, was probably a Gentile, as were many in his audience; they probably shared a greater familiarity with Greco-Roman practices of pederasty than Jews did. Thus Luke may have chosen δοῦλος to avoid any connotations of pederasty for his readers, then added ἔντιμος to retain a sense of how the centurion valued his servant. I am indebted to Mader (ibid.) for pointing me in this direction, though the conclusion is my own.
  16. These are the glosses provided in BAGD, ibid., 268-69.
  17. Mader, ibid. Mader states this despite arguing that the account “suggests an attitude of toleration toward a non-exploitive, caring paederastic relationship.” He tries to evade his own observation about God-fearers by arguing that either this God-fearer was not deeply observant or that the factors suggesting piety were added (invented) by Luke.
  18. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 286.
  19. Edward W. Klink III, John, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan), Kindle Edition, comment on John 13:23.
  20. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 474.
  21. Here the ESV has “leaning back against Jesus,” which does not translate the Greek word στῆθος (“chest”), but does correctly convey that the beloved disciple was now actually touching (“against”) Jesus.
  22. “It is important to note that meals in the ancient world did not involve tables with chairs but involved reclining on couches, usually U-shaped (called a triclinium) around a low table. Participants would support themselves on their left elbows and eat with their right hands” (Klink, ibid.)
  23. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. II (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 915, n. 184; cf. 915-16, also 900-901. Other scholars agree. Gagnon: “A text in Pliny’s Epistles refers to a senator named Veiento who ‘was reclining… on the chest’ of the emperor Nerva, again without any sexual connotation (4.22.4)… I wrote Dr. Katherine Dunbabin, professor of classics at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) and author of The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), and asked her whether the paragraph above reflected her own understanding of the matter. She responded (reproduced with permission): ‘I think the Pliny passage shows incontrovertibly that there is no necessary sexual connotation involved in a diner reclining “on the chest” of another; there is no suggestion whatsoever that Fabricius Veiento had any sort of sexual relationship with the emperor Nerva! What the passage does imply is intimacy; here in the sense that Veiento (whose past history was extremely shady) was being received as a favoured associate of the emperor/host'” (Robert A. J. Gagnon, “Was Jesus in a Sexual Relationship with the Beloved Disciple?” essay, Feb. 10, 2008, http://robgagnon.net/articles/HomosexBelovedDisciple.pdf, 5, accessed Sept. 30, 2019).
  24. Klink, ibid., comment on John 13:25, emphasis added. Carson: “Westerners may recoil at the physical proximity of two men. In many parts of the world, of course (e.g. the Philippines, the Arab world), men walk down the street holding hands. This is a sign of friendship, not homosexuality. Men and women in such cultures may not hold hands in public: that would be a sign of licentiousness.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 474.
  25. Jennings asserts, “The plain sense of this episode is to buttress our hypothesis that Jesus is to be understood as having a lover…. The relationship is depicted by the text as a homoerotic one, which is here acknowledged as entailing a loyalty that has consequences even beyond the death of Jesus. … This scene should be read as underlining not Jesus’ love for his mother (which is suggested nowhere in this or any other Gospel) but Jesus’ love for his beloved.” Oestreicher similarly misreads this text as indicating that “John becomes unmistakably part of Jesus’s family.” But the text actually says that Jesus’ mother went to live in the beloved disciple’s home, not that the beloved disciple joined Jesus’ family. See Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2003), 26-27, quoted at https://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/SF/jesus.html, accessed Sept. 29, 2019; Paul Oestreicher, “Was Jesus Gay? Probably,” online article, The Guardian, Apr. 20, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/apr/20/was-jesus-gay-probably, accessed Sept. 29, 2019.
  26. Keener, ibid., 1144.
  27. Keener, ibid., 1145.
  28. Keener, ibid., 1145.
  29. “If we wonder why the beloved disciple chooses this form of anonymity, two answers are suggested by the emphases of the Fourth Gospel. Just as ‘the beloved disciple,’ if a self-designation, implies not arrogance (as if to say ‘I am more loved than others’) but a profound sense of indebtedness to grace (‘What a wonder—that I should be loved by the incarnate Word!’…), so the silence as to the identity of the beloved disciple may be a quite way of refusing to give even the impression of sharing a platform with Jesus… At the same time, the author thus serves as a model for his readers: becoming a Christian means a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, such that he receives the glory.” Carson, ibid., 473.
  30. “The anonymity functions as a literary device that forces the reader to engage with the Beloved Disciple primarily by his narrativized identity. For the reader then, the identity of the Beloved Disciple is not simply who he is (behind the narrative) but what he is (within the narrative). The anonymity of the Beloved Disciple depicts the “ideal disciple,” one having special access and intimate relationship with Jesus… This in no way minimizes the historical reality of the Beloved Disciple, but creates alongside his historical identity a narrativized identity and role that is significant to the message of the Gospel.” Klink, ibid., comment on 13:23.
  31. Gagnon: “It is interesting that Mary and Martha tell Jesus about their brother Lazarus’s serious illness in these terms: ‘Lord, see, the one whom you love (phileis) is sick’ (11:3). Two verses later we read that Jesus ‘loved (ēgapa) Martha and her sister and Lazarus.’ He loves all three but nevertheless Lazarus can be referred to simply as ‘the one whom you love’ (hon phileis). This sounds a great deal like the reference in 20:2 to the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’ (hon ephilei ho Iēsous), which singles out a specific disciple even though the broader context makes clear that Jesus loves all his disciples (13:1, 34; 14:21-23; 15:9-13). If Jesus’ special love for Lazarus is not understood in a sexual sense—otherwise, Jesus would be having sex with more than one person, contrary to his own teaching about monogamy in Mark 10 and Matthew 19—how can his special love for one disciple be understood in a sexual sense? When ‘Jews’ saw how Jesus wept for Lazarus and said, ‘See, how he loved (ephilei),’ they obviously were not drawing the conclusion that Jesus was in a sexual relationship with Lazarus. Rather, Jesus loved Lazarus as
    though he (Lazarus) were his own brother. The same applies to the references to the beloved disciple.” Ibid., 4.
  32. Gagnon, ibid., 3.
  33. Keener, ibid., 917.
  34. Gagnon: “In the context of early Judaism, where homosexual practice of any sort would incur a capital sentence, how likely is it that Jesus would have had sexual intercourse with a male disciple and have done so without apparently raising an eyebrow among any of his other disciples?” Gagnon, ibid., 5-6.
  35. Oestreicher, ibid.

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The Arts and the Absence of Jesus

I am a house church guy who likes cathedrals. My spiritual forebears in the Reformation include some who smashed statues and images and others who banned organs. My spiritual contemporaries include some who participate in the Anabaptist Orchestra Camp and others who are performing complex choral works tomorrow afternoon by the great Lutheran composer Bach. (If you live near Lancaster, PA, perhaps you can catch this Singet dem Herrn concert, which appears to include a 40-page piece for “double choir and strings with continuo, vocal ensemble and soloists,” complete with “intricate passages of fugue, which is sort of like a round in different keys that expands as it goes.” Good stuff, and definitely not the sort of thing that Conrad Grebel would have approved.)

I am an Anabaptist and, like most Anabaptists, I am somewhat ambivalent about the place of the arts in the Christian life.

When I was a young teen, I dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. My father didn’t think this was very practical. He was probably right, though he and I may not fully agree on why. While I have never lost my capacity to delight in the arts, especially the musical ones, I am afraid I would have made a bad concert pianist. I am not sure I believe in the cause strongly enough—even though there are times when I have felt that my soul would surely have shriveled up and died were it not for the beauty of musical (near-)perfection. I have worshiped while listening to Rachmaninoff piano concertos and while listening to Phil Keaggy guitar solos. But if I had attempted the life course of a career concert musician, I am afraid I would have been only an all-round poor imitation of the great Albert Schweitzer, who abandoned a promising musical career to be a medical missionary.

All that for background. This week at work I was blessed to listen to the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew on Tuesday, Mark on Wednesday, and Luke on Thursday. One story that caught my ear was the familiar account of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment. Here is the story as it is told by Matthew:

Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matt. 26:6-13)

You can also find this story in Mark 14:3-9 and in John 12:1-8 (where she is named Mary).

Perhaps you, like me, have sometimes heard people draw implications from this story for our understanding of the arts. I’m quite certain I’ve heard, though I can’t say where, this line of thought suggested: This woman, in a creative and symbolic act, expressed her deep devotion to Jesus. Jesus praised her for this extravagant and apparently wasteful gift. Similarly, Jesus is pleased when we give extravagant and apparently wasteful displays of devotion to him through the creative arts.

Some quick browsing now online confirms to me that something like this kind of thought is sometimes expressed by Christians writing about the arts. For example, read this from Steve Scott (otherwise unknown to me):

Jesus placed a value on signs and sign making that had little to do with the price of the materials involved, and he seemed to show little regard for the social controversy and the lack of immediate graspability that came with the sign. Mary, in some ways, faced the problems that many sign makers and artists face today. They are told their work is an expensive luxury. They are told their work seems controversial, often for the sake of controversy, and they are told their work is obscure, for the sake of obscurity. When Jesus told the other celebrators to leave her alone, he upheld her dignity as a person and gave his support to the dignity of her gesture. He stated that this gesture of hers would be recalled wherever the gospel is told. Jesus reminds his audience—then and now—that images and symbols have value. And those who work with signs, metaphors and images are doing valuable work.1 (emphasis added)

Or consider this footnote find:

Calvin Seerveld makes a compelling case that beautiful works, such as that of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany…, should be allowed a place in the Christian life alongside activities such as evangelism and feeding the poor. Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art (Toronto: Piquant, 2000), 1-5.2 (emphasis added)

And there is much of the rub for me: I often find myself identifying more with the disciples (worse, Judas, according to John’s version) than with Mary. I walk into an ornate church or indulge in live musical soundscapes, and I sense that something is profoundly right, and I even find myself drawn to worship the Creator—and then I wonder how we can spend such measureless loose change on such extravagance while God’s children elsewhere are crying for bread.

I do not have a theological resolution for this problem that I can share with you in this post. Rather, I want to share an exegetical observation that occurred to me while listening to the Gospels this week.

One phrase stood out to me. Hear Jesus’ words: “You will not always have me” (Matt. 26:11). Mark includes the same statement (Mk. 14:7). John highlights this thought by placing it at the very end of the story: “You do not always have me” (John 12:8).

What this phrase means, at minimum, is that Mary was doing something for Jesus that she and the disciples would not be able to do later. There would be opportunity later to care for the poor. But there would be no “later” for doing whatever it was that Mary did to Jesus.

What was it that Mary did to Jesus? In Matthew, Jesus explains it like this: “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matt. 26:12). Mark’s Jesus says, “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” John’s Jesus speaks parallel words.

Can you see where my thoughts are headed? Consider R.T. France’s comments on this story:

The woman’s extravagant loyalty offsets the shameful horror of crucifixion. That is why it must always be remembered, not simply as a model for uncalculating devotion (though it certainly is that) but as an affirmation of the value of his death from the point of view of faith.

It is a matter of priorities (cf. the rather different lesson on the priority of the spiritual over the mundane, also set in Bethany, in Luke 10:38-42). A definitive moment is upon them, and even the duty of helping the poor must take second place. Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves. It is because this unnamed woman has seized on that sense of special occasion that her act is to be remembered. Probably without realizing it, she has provided a pointer to the theology of the cross.3

So let me sum up what I’m observing: It seems to me that Jesus very clearly indicates that what Mary did for him was an act specially suited to a unique, non-repeatable opportunity. No Christian artist today has Jesus in the flesh before him or her, on his way to the cross. No one today can anoint Jesus in preparation for his burial, either literally or figuratively.

More than that, listen again to France’s suggestion: “Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves.” In other words, let’s say that Mary owned a second flask of ointment. What would be the right way to use it after Jesus’ death and resurrection had passed? According to Jesus’ words, the right thing for Mary to do with another such flask of ointment, would not be to use it to anoint Jesus. Rather, it would be fitting to use it to care for the poor.

So… my ambivalence about the arts continues. I conclude that we should exercise more care not to take this biblical account out of context as support for our artistic endeavors, especially our expensive ones. I suggest that we will need to look elsewhere if we want to find strong biblical basis for extravagant expense in art or worship.

(Help me out. Do you see a biblical basis somewhere? To be clear, I am not claiming or aiming in this post to deny any such biblical basis for investment in the arts. Rather, my main concern is that we keep our theology tethered to Scripture through careful exegesis.)

And if I were to try to draw any tentative positive lessons for our art from this passage, I might suggest the following:

  1. Our art should be consistent with “a theology of the cross” (to borrow France’s words). This suggests to me that (a) what artistic expressions we do create must be consistent with all that the cross represents, and (b) sometimes the call to bear the cross will be a call to surrender our present artistic desires.
  2. Our art should point us to the day when Jesus will return in the flesh. Yes, Christ is present by his Spirit now. But this is yet the day of the Bridegroom’s absence, when fasting and mourning are still appropriate (Matt. 9:15). Only when he returns will the full consummation of true art be realized. Any artistic perfection now must strengthen our hunger for the perfection of Beauty (Christ and his likeness) then.

This post raises unfinished thoughts. What do you have to add to the discussion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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  1. Steve Scott, Like a House on Fire: Renewal of the Arts in a Postmodern Culture (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 102-103.
  2. Jason S. Hiles, Images in the Service of God’s Word: A Theology for the Christian Use of Visual Images, a dissertation presented to the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest, 2008), 262, fn 75.
  3. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007), 974.

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