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Are Same-Sex Relations Condemned in the Old Testament?

When people want to show that the Bible condemns same-sex relations – either to justify depriving LGBTQ people of civil rights, to condemn them morally, to preclude them from serving in church offices, or even to participate at all in faith communities (or for any other reason) – there are a few passages that typically get cited, usually with vigor.

I should stress that there are only a few passages that get cited, since out of the entire Bible – thirty-nine books in the Old Testament, twenty-seven in the New – there are in fact very few that appear to relate to the matter directly.  I stress both the adverb “directly” and the verb “appear.”

In terms of “directly: It is possible to take thousands of passage that have nothing to do with same-sex relations and say that they are definitive for them (as in the phrase that was already worn out decades ago: Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve).

In terms of “appear”: virtually all of the passages that do seem to deal with the issue directly don’t mean what people think they mean.

It is very, very, very difficult to read ancient texts with our modern forms of common sense without (wrongly) thinking that *our* common sense is the common sense that people had in the ancient world.   People who have never considered the problem have, well, obviously never seen it.  They just assume that common sense is common to all people at all times in every context and every place.  No wonder people have so much difficulty understanding the commonsense views of people today in other parts of the world (Middle East, central Africa, Moscow: pick your spot), let alone people in other times/places (Germany in the late 20s; Romans in the 3rd century; whenever…).

This is especially a problem in the Bible.  With respect to the current thread, here’s the example I’ll get to in a few posts.  If the Bible says that a certain sex act is “unnatural,” we almost automatically think we know what the author means by that.  Hey, it’s not natural for a man to have sex with a man.  No vagina!!   Yeah, well, that’s actually not what ancient people meant by it being “unnatural.”  What they thought is not at ALL what we think.  If we don’t think that what THEY thought made it, then why should we agree with them that it is unnatural???

By the way, as I’ll also be arguing (just to show why this thread matters) that no one in the ancient world condemned homosexuality.  In the ancient world there was no such thing as homosexuality.  Ancients certainly knew that men had sex with men and women had sex with women.  But no one had any conception of “sexuality.”  Seems weird, right?  Yup.  Different world.  You’ll see what I mean in a later post.

Before getting to that, I want to turn to the one passage that virtually everyone starts with to condemn same-sex relations (and “homosexuality”).   It comes in a brief passage in the Law of Moses, the book of Leviticus chapter 18.  It does indeed look pretty straight forward at first glance:

It’s easy to see what I have to say next:  join the blog!   The membership fee is less for three months than a cheeseburger at Five Guys.  And the blog is so much healthier!   (OK, you probably don’t have to choose.  Do both!).  You get five posts a week and important subjects, and your entire fee goes to charity.  Good for everyone, especially you!

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Bluebirds  November 11, 2019

    “we can’t use literalistic and simplistic reasoning to apply an ancient law code to the modern world…”
    The problem now is about why these ancient law codes are used as a citation (rather than the basis) ; because It ((seems)) as if someone would condemn same sex marriage on the basis of the ancient law code in the first place. You did justice in taking those who hold the law accountable to the law, and I find that to be the most logical (but it seems somewhat ineffective when applied-go figure). Thank you for writing about this, I find it super helpful!

  2. Avatar
    jhague  November 11, 2019

    1. So you shall not lie with a male as with a woman because it is an abomination is due to both other nations doing it AND it is bad mixing?

    2. In the OT, did the male dominance issue enter in to male/male not being allowed?

    3. I do not think there is any way to get the Christians that I know to understand that the meaning for the ancients was different than how it is viewed now. Probably due a lot to pastors not mentioning this at all to their churches. Do you find that your Christian students do not buy into the ancients having different views/meaning?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2019

      1. definitely the former, and probably the latter. 2. Since there is no discussoin of same sex relations outside of proscriptions in Leviticus, i’t hard to know. 3. They buy it, but they often after to see the evidence first.

      • Avatar
        Evsmit19  November 13, 2019

        To what extent were Israelites aware of differences between humans and animals beyond fairly obvious lack of “speech”? Was there any suspicion that animals were created to be similar and thus tempting to humans?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 15, 2019

          My sense is that speech isn’t the main thing, or at least the only thing. Animals were simply a different order of being, meant for human use and consumption.

          • Avatar
            Evsmit19  December 2, 2019

            Could bestiality be at root of homophobia?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 6, 2019

            I wouldn’t say it’s the basis for it, but analogous to it in many minds: sex is for humans with a single partner of the opposite sex. Anything else is unnatural and to be forbidden.

  3. Avatar
    webattorney  November 11, 2019

    One comment on my own experience researching many issues of laws when I used to practice as lawyer and then another comment on the article.

    When I used to research various statutes during my career as lawyer, I soon realized that many statutes did not make many things clear explicitly on the face of statutes; and therefore, often the controlling issues had to be determined by the IMPLICIT meaning of the statutes which requires common sense or practical understandings of broader issues of other related legal, social or cultural contexts. Now, getting to the “implicit” meaning of the Bible requires that you understand all these broader issues of the people who lived in specific regions during certain period of times, which for us can be difficult. Now, the Chinese or Mayans might have had very different takes on the homosexuality issue than the people who wrote the Bible. Also, many of the writings left from the ancient times might reflect the views of the minority because after all people who wrote books moved in the artistic or leisurely circles of the times.

    Having said this, it is to me undeniable that the Bible does view homosexuality in a negative light, not for the exactly same reasons as we might, and the Bible might actually view homosexuality as an abomination because it goes against the natural order of things, i.e., need to procreate. Of course, this does not mean we need or want to condemn it now, and I strongly disagree with people who quote the Bible as if the Bible should govern our own codes of morality. For example, how many of us turn our right cheek when our left cheek is hit, or love or truly pray for our enemies?

  4. Avatar
    ShonaG  November 11, 2019

    St Augustine also didn’t distinguish, two monks he said had merely committed temptation of the flesh where as the monk that cooked the books calculated how to rip the church off when asked why he got the greater punishment.

  5. Avatar
    mombird903  November 11, 2019

    I hope the day comes when we don’t use the bible as an authority on anything. It certainly needs to become just a book of curiosity and intellectual study and not a guide for 21st century living. Good work Bart.

  6. Avatar
    Logan Jones  November 11, 2019

    Most Christians I know do not condemn homosexual acts because of what the OT says, but rather because Paul, who argues that the OT law is no longer applicable to God’s people, continues to condemn homosexuality as being immoral. Would you say that if a Christian wants to live consistently with Paul’s doctrine, then he/she must likewise condemn homosexual acts?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2019

      Yes, I don’t think he does. You’ll see in later posts.

      • Avatar
        Logan Jones  November 14, 2019

        Okay thanks! I look forward to them!

  7. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 11, 2019

    Do you think they viewed horses and donkeys as two different kinds, so they had no mules?

  8. Avatar
    godspell  November 11, 2019

    Excellent post, and of course it will fall on deaf ears when it comes to those who use religious texts to justify feelings that have nothing to do with religion. Just as Darwin–via Herbert Spencer and other popularizers–was used to justify antisemitism and other racist beliefs. Some people will twist whatever texts they believe in to mean what they want them to mean. And ignore the parts of those texts that tell them what they don’t want to hear. The desire to have a supposedly unimpeachable authority to fall back on is pretty near universal. But there is no such thing. Authority comes from sound arguments, not brandnames.

  9. Avatar
    Hon Wai  November 11, 2019

    I look forward to future posts explaining in what sense ancient people didn’t have a notion of sexuality. You have posted on this before, but unfortunately I still don’t get it. Regarding your claim that no one in the ancient world condemned homosexuality, surely some of the Church Fathers argued against same-sex relationships e.g. John Chrysostom: “All of these affections then were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul is more the sufferer in sins, and more dishonored than the body in diseases…[The men] have done an insult to nature itself. And a yet more disgraceful thing than these is it, when even the women seek after these intercourses, who ought to have more shame than men.”

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2019

      That’s right. Sex *acts* are not the same as “sexual orientation”

  10. Avatar
    Apocryphile  November 11, 2019

    Sometimes these seemingly silly rules work to our benefit; for example, when drinking red wine with fish helps James Bond to spot the (naturally, uncultured) bad guy!

  11. Avatar
    michael51  November 11, 2019

    One of my pet peeves: judging people in history by today’s standards. It would be interesting to know how we will be judged by future generations according to their standards.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2019

      Yup, I think about it a lot….

    • Avatar
      Apocryphile  November 12, 2019

      One thing is almost certain, I think. Future generations will undoubtedly look at our consumption of real meat as barbaric, (albeit understandable, given our past and present technology).

  12. Avatar
    mikezamjara  November 11, 2019

    Hi Dr Ehrman

    When is your book about hell and heaven coming out?.

    About homosexuality, the answer I get from christians about the argument you made is that the new testament abolish many of the laws of the old testament but mantain the view of same sex intercourse as negative in Romans1:26-27, 1 Cor 6: 9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Are you going to post on that?

    Did jews in the times when leviticus was composed really killed people for homosexual behaviour, not keeping the sabath, idolatry and so forth? is there any evidence of that? did romans allowed that after they occupied the Judea?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2019

      It comes out March 31. Yup, I’m getting to those passages! And no, I don’t no of any record of that. If they did, it was mob action, not legal.

  13. Avatar
    michael51  November 11, 2019

    It would help us to remember that the writings were intended for the contemporary audience—their time, their place, their circumstances. Some principles can be brought forward, but that’s what we have to discern. For example, should Christians keep the Sabbath—isn’t it still valid like the other nine commandments, such as against murder and theft? Or was the Sabbath just given to the Israelites to distinguish them in their land? The early church, as it spread out from Israel and became increasingly Gentile, made the distinction between that commandment and the other nine which were considered perpetual.

  14. Avatar
    ksgm34  November 11, 2019

    Fascinating stuff! But would conservative Christians thinking homosexuality is wrong but that – e.g. – mixing fabrics isn’t be because they also see homosexuality as being condemned in the NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2019

      Probably. I”ll be getting to the NT soon. That’s where there is a lot of modern misunderstanding going on.

  15. Avatar
    doug  November 11, 2019

    Good point about being different from other groups. Leviticus 18:3 (NRSV):

    “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes.” Which is followed by “the Lord’s” statutes.

  16. Avatar
    Scorpiored48  November 11, 2019

    Do you think the story of Lot and the angels in Genesis is an illustration of Lev. 19:33-34 given that Lot and his family were aliens in Sodom?
    As an aside, do you think the whole story of Lot could be an long origin legend of the Moabites and Ammonites from the Hebrew Bible point of view? I’m certain they must have had a better origin story for themselves.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2019

      I don’t think that story is about homosexual relations so much as about how hosts are to treat guests under their roof.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  November 14, 2019

        Jewish authorities generally did not consider the “sin” of Sodom to be same-sex activities (what the men of Sodom proposed was rape, anyway). See for example Ezekiel. The Talmud’s discussions of Sodom focus on the way it treated the stranger.

        Philo of Alexandria was about the Jewish thinker prior to the Middle Ages to link Sodom to homosexuality, and he lived in a Hellenistic world where such activities may have been approved, so he had a specific axe to grind, as it were.

  17. Avatar
    dwcriswell  November 11, 2019

    You said the Jews we’re instructed not to eat Pork because the Canaanites ate it. In my Anthropology classes we discussed this issue a lot, and the thinking was that the Middle East was too hot for pigs (although some were raised there) and the pigs were very environmentally detrimental.

    Do you think the Canaanite reason is more compelling?

    Any what about the prohibition on animals that crawl on their belly, basically all invertebrates, what is the reason for that prohibition?

    By the way, we were told it is quite easy to get pork in restaurants in Israel and is commonly eaten by Jewish people, if you go to a restaurant and want pork you just ask for white meat.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2019

      No, it’s not because it was too hot. There were lots of pigs in Palestine. Invertebates? Not sure where you’re getting that one? Israel: yes, there are lots of non-kosher restaurants.

      • Avatar
        AlaskaRoy  November 12, 2019

        dwcriswell’s anthropology professor surely was basing their lecture comment on Marvin Harris, a 1960s “cultural materialist” anthropologist who promoted the idea that pig husbandry became forbidden because it was an inefficient use of land and labor in the Near East. As you point out correctly, Bart, this argument cannot possibly be true because others before, during, and after the development of pork-avoiding Hebrews (beginning in the latter half of the 2nd millennium BCE, according to archaeologist Israel Finkelstein) have successfully raised and eaten pork in the Near East.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 13, 2019

          Plus archaeologists have found tons of skeletal remains of pigs.

  18. Avatar
    tcasto  November 11, 2019

    We should have this posted on billboards across America. You could do another post, in a humorous vein, noting all the get out of jail cards in Leviticus. Burn a couple of doves. Really big sin. Kill a fatted calf.

  19. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  November 11, 2019

    Excellent post! It does indeed seem to be cherry 🍒 picking scripture to fit ones prejudices and biases when in these same passages things are condemned that nobody adheres to in the modern world. I had one Christian Fundamentalist that tried to convince me that he believed things exactly as Jesus’ disciples did!

    Texts like these did begin my questioning the belief that scripture was divinely inspired. Within Fundamentalist and Evangelical circles are there those who do recognize and admit human thoughts, beliefs within historical and cultural contexts are present in scripture while still maintaining a belief in the divine inspiration of scripture?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2019

      Yup. they would say that God made sure these thoughts were not such as contained any errors, or that God had directed the thoughts, etc.

  20. Avatar
    APOCALYPSE  November 12, 2019

    Very interesting post,indeed, Dr. Ehrman.
    It is accepted that the rules present in the OT are the laws of the Israelite people. My professor at Rome University tought that we should not confuse the regulations of the religious community with the laws of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah for the preexilic period. We do not have access to the these as they are not preserved. Even accepting that differences between the religious and the political matters are product of the Enlightment and do not fit the Ancient World

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