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Does the New Testament Condemn “Homosexuals”?

It is commonly argued that the Bible condemns sexual “perversion” such as gay or lesbian sex.  In earlier posts I discussed the relevant passages of the Old Testament, to show that they simply cannot be used in these modern debates, since their very understandings of the phenomena are completely at odds with what people think today (including, most emphatically, the people who appeal to those passages in support of their views).  See, for example: https://ehrmanblog.org/are-same-sex-relations-condemned-in-the-old-testament/?highlight=homosexual

I should stress there are lots of other activities that are condemned in the Bible all over the map, and these are never a particular emphasis of modern ethical discussion, whether in Christian circles or in society at large.  You may be able to deprive gays and lesbians of their civil rights or deny them the ability to serve in the church, based on a couple of passages (almost always misinterpreted) scattered here and there throughout the very large Bible; but what about doing the same for people who are greedy, who get angry, who disobey their parents, who eat or drink too much, who have had sex with someone they weren’t married to, or who are rich?   Do you want to condemn all of them to hell as well?  Throw them in jail?  Keep them out of public view?  Not let them talk to your children?  Deprive them of their rights?   But these are problems condemned forcefully and repeatedly in the Bible, over and over again.

When I worked in churches back in my 20s, I knew all sorts of people who were fabulously rich, and completely self-indulgent, and willing to lie at the drop of a hat, who didn’t care a fig for the impoverished souls living within a mile of them, who were regularly asked to serve as leaders of their church boards, and who, in that role, condemned “homosexuals” as going straight to eternal torment.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Most people with that view appeal not only to the Old Testament passages I’ve discussed, but especially passages in the New Testament.   But again, there’s actually not much to go on here.  In a later post I’ll be arguing that the New Testament has no conception at all of sexual orientation, any more than it had a conception of quantum physics.  Human knowledge has advanced a lot since the first century.

It’s true, the authors did know that sometimes men had sex with men and women with women.  But they had no conception at all that it had anything to do with something we today would call “orientation” that could explain sexual desire.  They saw something they weren’t used to and (in at least one passage) (in fact, in only one passage) condemned it as unnatural.  The same way they condemned women with short hair as unnatural.  Literally, the same way.  Both were unnatural.  Should we deprive women with short hair their civil rights or keep them off church boards and the PTA?

I’ll get to that later, when I get around to talking about Romans 1.

The easiest passages for people opposed to “homosexuality” or “homosexuals” to appeal to are the passages that, in some English translations, actually use the term.  In the entire New Testament, there are two:  1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.    The seemingly clearest instance is the former.  Here it is in the New American Standard Bible translation:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

The 1 Timothy passages uses the same term, to say that the law opposes it, just as it does people who lie and don’t keep their oaths.

There are two very big problems with using these passages to make wide-sweeping claims about same-sex relations either in the church or in society at large, on the grounds that God condemns it and will send those who engage in it to hell.   The first is obvious and the second is almost entirely unknown to the reading public at large.

The obvious problem is that …

This is an unusually important and timely topic.  If you want to see what I have to say about it, all you need to do is join the blog.  If you do, you’ll get five substantial posts a week, on all sorts of interesting topics.  It doesn’t cost much at all, and every penny of your membership fee goes to charity!

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  December 8, 2019

    Appreciate this topic. It’s timely, in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, particularly about same-sex marriage.

  2. Avatar
    Nichrob  December 8, 2019

    Your so awesome…!! We should all take a stab at its meaning…. It’s obvious that “Man-Marriage-Bed” means “Dumb Decisions”….. So, you can’t enter the Kingdom if you keep making “Dumb Decisions”… You’re welcome…!!

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 8, 2019

    What about Romans 1:26-27?

    “Unnatural function” can mean a lot of course, but 1:27 seems to speak specifically about homosexual desires.

  4. Avatar
    HoltG  December 8, 2019

    Once again Dr. Ehrman ~ an amazing post!! Again! Thank you so much for the post! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to accept that the mass majority of people aren’t going to change their views on such matters – especially in this current political climate. That of course is my personal opinion and feeling and I’m not trying to speak for anyone, but I’d like to say that in my opinion because most people have the opposing views, it doesn’t mean that one cannot try to reveal the truth to people – it’s just a tough task. Coming from an early Southern Baptist upbringing, a Catholic school education, and some family being AME .. I know all too well the problems with their views on this subject, the thinking process behind their views, and the consequences most of us have dealt with when trying to broach this subject with loved ones who are entrenched in that opposite way of thinking. BUT! Thanks to your series of posts on this subject, it gives me something personally to refer back to when I get lost in certain thoughts, and it gives me hope that one day people will understand the truths that you are trying to reveal to people on this blog. Thanks again!

  5. Avatar
    Qadir  December 8, 2019

    What about early NT translations, e.g. to Latin—how do they translate the word?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2019

      The Latin is: masculorum concubitores, which means something like “bed-fellows of men.” I.e., it takes “man — marriage bed” and reverses it to “marriage bed — with men,” more clearly, I think, meaning, “men who have sex with men.”

  6. Avatar
    jrussel18@aol.com  December 8, 2019

    Sadly, the entire notion of sex has been linked to sin almost from day one thanks to Adam, Eve and the serpent. Paul did no favors to the status of women or marriage for that matter by downplaying their role in the new religion. Sex became synonymous with Original Sin and the religious moralists were off to the races. For hundreds of years the Church of Rome proscribed sex not intended for procreation while throughout Christendom men agreed with a wink and a nod. This (de)volved into a theology of “it’s not what you do that matters, it’s what you believe,” justification and sanctification will cover all your sins. No doubt this will change to “it’s not what you believe, it’s how you act” (follow Christ’s red letter instructions in the Bible and you will be saved). Eons later and we still haven’t learned much from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

  7. Avatar
    Gary  December 8, 2019

    Off topic question: I posted this question under another post but I think I made the question too long and difficult to answer: Isn’t it possible that all the stories we have about Jesus (except those few mentioned by Paul) in both “Q”, the canonical and the non-canonical gospels were the literary/theological inventions of their authors, many of them using “Mark” as a starting point for their own stories? An historical Jesus existed but we know little if anything that he said or did because all the stories in our Bible are fiction?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2019

      The reason for not thinking so is that so many of the same stories are shared by authors who did not know each other’s work, so that no one of them could have made them up.

      • Avatar
        Gary  December 9, 2019

        Are there any stories that Luke and Matthew share that are not found in Mark, “Q”, or the writings of Paul?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 10, 2019

          No, by definition if a story is found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark, it is understood to have come from “Q”

          • Avatar
            Gary  December 10, 2019

            Exactly. So isn’t it entirely possible that the Jesus Story originated with Paul, was embellished by “Mark”, further embellished by “Q”, then further embellished by “Matthew”, “Luke”, “John”, and embellished even later by the authors of all the non-canonical Gospels?

            That brings us back to Paul. Paul says in First Corinthians 15 that he “received” the Early Creed, but he doesn’t say from whom! Isn’t it possible that Paul received this information through “revelation from Jesus the Christ” himself?

      • Avatar
        Scott  December 9, 2019

        Are you talking about the NT authors, like John being independent of Matthew/Mark/Luke, or extra canonical authors?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 10, 2019

          Yes, but not only them. Matthew did not know Luke; Luke did not know Matthew; Mark did not know either, John did not know any of them. Mark did not know Q. Either did John. L and M did not know each other or Q or Mark. Paul didn’t know any of the above. Either did Josephus. Or, arguably the author of Thomas. Etc. etc….

          • Avatar
            Gary  December 10, 2019

            According to Raymond Brown, at least 50% of modern scholars now believe that the Gospel of John is NOT an independent source; that the author had access to or at least knowledge of the Synoptics. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the Jesus Story started with Paul (in a mentally unstable mind). Decades later, the author of Mark, a Pauline Christian of a later generation who had never met Paul, made a good story (for evangelism purposes) about Paul’s Jesus. “Q” invented sayings about Paul’s Jesus (and maybe had access to the Gospel of Mark). And you know the rest…

            Is there any evidence that contradicts this possible explanation for the rise of Christianity?

          • Avatar
            jyarbrough01  January 7, 2020

            Gary I think the problem with your theory, is there are theological differences between the gospels, and particularly Mark and Paul. I would argue specifically the divinity of Jesus.

  8. Avatar
    nichael  December 8, 2019

    Just out of curiosity, do you happen to know when is the earliest example of any relevant writer (for example, one the church fathers) unambiguously and explicitly condemning what we would today recognize as homosexual activity?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2019

      I think Paul may in Romans 1, as I’ll explain when I get there. I’ll also be arguing that he uses the same mode of argumentation to show why women have to wear veils in church.

  9. Avatar
    nichael  December 8, 2019

    >[…] (no one, by the way, thinks that either passage has a word to say about lesbian sex)

    BTW, should anyone be interested in further pursuing this topic in a scholarly fashion might I recommend “Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism” by (my old teacher) Bernadette Brooten.

  10. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 8, 2019

    Perhaps you will touch on this in an upcoming post. I can accept that ancient people might not have had the concept of sexual orientation and therefore didn’t talk about homosexuality, at least the way modern people do. But I would presume homosexual people existed in the ancient world. Did ancient people not have a comparable concept, even if conceived differently, and write about it? Or are there writings in which people are talking about what we would call homosexuality even if they didn’t call it that? To make an analogy, it is sometimes possible to tell that ancient people were observing a supernova or documenting what we now recognize as a medical illness.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2019

      Yeha, it’s a bit hard to explain. People did know that it rained and thundered, but they didn’t understand the principles behind either. They also knew that men had sex with men and women with women. But they didn’t understand why. Since they had no concept of orientation or sexuality, they simply thoguht that sex acts were things people chose to do, and if they did them in ways that most people didn’t do, they were unnatural. And since they were unnatural, and based entirely on *decision* rather than, say, on orientation, then they were condemned as “sins.” Once “orientation” is brought into the picture, then “choice” becomes more complicated. No one chooses to be white or black, short or tall, beautiful or ugly: they’re born that way. If that’s the case, we’d be crazy to blame them for it or say they should change or that they have have something to be repent of.

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  December 9, 2019

        Do you think the typical Christian who condemns homosexuality, on the basis of the Bible, sees choice as complicated? Part of the complication that you mention is that when we consider orientations and tendencies, it is debatable whether they justify behavior or not. A person can be born with a high sex drive or be prone to anger. Regardless to what degree these traits might be biologically influenced, we still expect people to not rape, assault or batter others. If homosexuality was wrong, by divine mandate, I’d be inclined to say having tendencies is not wrong as long as you keep them in check. I suppose that might be the view that proponents of conversion therapy think (an awful thing in my opinion, even if well intended). But I’m not sure the typical condemner puts much thought into the matter.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 10, 2019

          I think you’re right. It’s changing, though, as people realize that we are born with different sexualities. No one *chooses* to be heterosexual, e.g. — that is, there was no point in my life when I decided that I was going to be attracted to women but not to men. Not a choice I could make.

  11. Avatar
    forthfading  December 8, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    As a Greek expert as well as a textual critic, lets say you were overseeing a committee on a new translation of the passages discussed in this post. How would you translate the compound word? Plus, imagine you did not have the tradition of translating it as homosexual, so you would not necessarily translate it that way since there was no history of doing so. Just thought it would be fun to pick your brain.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2019

      And this is why I will never publish a translation of the NT…. I don’t know.

  12. Avatar
    godspell  December 9, 2019

    In any event, nobody believes Paul was God, God’s son, Messiah, or a prophet. He wasn’t even one of Jesus’ disciples. An Apostle after the fact, maybe. He’s a man who persecuted Christians, then had a vision, and decided to become one, and he happened to write well in Greek, and have a knack for theology and proselytization, which made him a rare combination of talents among early Christians.

    One of the most influential figures in early Christianity, arguably the most, and no doubt he had a brilliant mind, and a deep sense of spirituality, but that’s hardly a basis for depriving people of their civil rights–and he’s not talking about civil rights. He’s talking about who gets into the Kingdom, which he still believes, like Jesus, is coming in the near future.

    Okay, let’s say you believe the Kingdom is still coming someday–or that Paul really means the afterlife. Either way–that’s not your call, it’s God’s, and it has no bearing on how you treat people around you. Jesus said treat everyone well, even those who hate and persecute you. And if you don’t, you’ll be in Gehenna (or hell) with them.

    Paul was more interested in sexual behavior than Jesus, but there is nothng to indicate he wanted people whose preferences he disapproved of (and remember, his preference was that nobody have sex at all, and never out of wedlock, which leaves out just about everybody these days) to be persecuted and deprived of their rights. He was just saying that all these people whose behavior was unsatisfactory would be judged by God when the Kingdom came.

    You can make a case for Leviticus (which devotes a few words to condemning male on male sex) being the basis for earthly laws, but few if any modern Christians want to live in a world where those laws are strictly enforced. The books of the New Testament are not books of laws, because (in the words of Stevie Smith) “Those who truly hear the voice, the words, the happy song, never shall need working laws to keep from doing wrong.” If you need earthly laws to be good, you’re not good enough for the Kingdom. The laws you follow are written in your heart. And I’ve known too many good-hearted gay people to think they’re going against those laws by following the orientation they were born with–and in fact, they organized to fight for their right to marry (rather than burn). Paul never knew any same-sex oriented people like that. How do we know he wouldn’t have approved? 🙂

  13. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  December 9, 2019

    Stephen Carlson’s explanation:
    https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/pwh/bosdisc-carlson.asp

    “Dale Martin has shown that in the earliest usages outside of 1 Corinthians, it is often lumped together with *economic* / *money* sins, rather than or in addition to *sexual* sins.”

    He has not shown it. Paul is saying in every way possible that all forms of sex outside of marriage are condemned. That’s one of the emerging themes in Paul’s letters that is very clear. Martin is essentially attempting to disconnect Paul from the condemnation of same-sex acts by manipulating the meaning of the texts. By doing that, he forces Paul to condemn all forms of sexual activity outside of marriage EXCEPT FOR same-sex acts. As if that makes any sense. He is desperately trying to bring Paul into the 21st century, and it does not work. This post combined with the other article linked to Martin shows (to me anyway) that he is pushing his idea of social justice. I’m all for social justice, but not if it means misconstruing information in an attempt to confuse people into believing something they wouldn’t believe otherwise. It’s very dishonest and deceitful.

    Paul mentioning it “a handful of times” does not mean it was not extremely important to him. In fact, he makes it very clear that sexual sin will keep people out of the kingdom of God. The only thing that makes sense to me is that Paul didn’t understand that people could be born with different sexual orientations. Homosexual desire is connected to disbelief in God which leads to idolatry which leads to depraved lustful passions. That’s what I see when I read Paul. Certainly, there are Christians who focus on sexual sin while forgetting about other sins, but there are also Christians who believe homosexuality is sinful while being generous and kind and never touching a drop of alcohol.

    I can’t recall the texts right off the top of my head at the moment, but there are a couple of ancient writers who did recognize sexual orientation. They specifically mention that they were born that way. They weren’t Jewish authors, but the concept was not entirely foreign in the ancient world.

    On another note, I am curious to see if Disney moves forward with its lesbian storyline in Frozen. I’m even more curious to see the reaction is gets from Christians.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2019

      Carlson’s article is dealing with the specific claims of Boswell that the term means “male prostitute.” That’s not Dale Martin’s claim. To see whether he shows that the term is early on used on contexts of economic sins, you would need to read the article. His ultimate view is that we’re not sure what it means exactly. I do disagree with Stephen that it means “homosexual” since ancient people didn’t have a concept of sexuality at all, and so did not have categories for hetero-sexual, homo-sexual, bi-sexual, trans-sexual, etc. They knew that people behaved in certain ways sexually, and they disapproved of most of these ways, but they did not condemn sexual orientations since they had never heard of such things.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  December 9, 2019

        Martin can’t figure out what ARSENOKOITES means but has a very clear view for the meaning of PORNEIA. So in one place, we can’t assume what male bedder means, while in another place, we can be confident that fornication can mean lust between husbands and wives.

        You see how this comes across as an agenda, right?

        I do agree that Paul didn’t understand sexual orientation; however, I also understand that, for Paul, all sexual activity was to be within the confines of marriage. Paul also indicates that all sin, not just sexual sin, is tied to rebellion against God.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 10, 2019

          No, not at all. That’s the whole point. PORNEIA is an extremely common word and you can see how it is used in context after context after context in order to see how it is functioning. That’s precisely what you canNOT do with ARSENOKOITES. If it had been used a lot, we would be in a completely different situation.

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  December 11, 2019

            “No, not at all. That’s the whole point. PORNEIA is an extremely common word and you can see how it is used in context after context after context in order to see how it is functioning.”

            All right. How is porneia functioning in 1 Thess. 4:3-6 and how is it functioning in Matthew 5:32 & 19:9?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 13, 2019

            1 Thess 4:3-6 is inordinately and famously difficult. It gives commentators fits. It involves sexual immorality, but the Greek is a paroblem. V. 4 urges a man to “acquire” or to “hold” his “vessel” in holiness and honor. Does that mean “acquire a wife” (as the vessel for his semen) or to “hold/control his penis”? Probably the former, though it’s not a very high opinion of the woman in the matter. And why does he contrast what he’s urging with what the pagans who do not know God do, who do this thin, whatever it is, out of the passsion of lust? If he’s talking about acquiring a wife, he seems to be saying that the man should marry to procreate rather than to fulfill his sexual desire. Marrying and having sex because of desire is porneia. One more indication we live in a different world from the NT authors. Why doing whatever the person is not supposed to do might “defraud a brother in the matter” is open to a number of interpretations.

            In Matthew it appears to be referring to women who engate in sexual immorality. But it doesn’t specify if that means adultery or forbidden sexual practices. The latter doesn’t occur to most readers, but the word may mean that, and it’s striking that Jesus’ exception clause is not “except for reason of adultery” but “except for reason of porneia.” He certatinly oculd have said the former, but chose not to.

  14. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  December 9, 2019

    There is no way that the passage in question allows for any interpretation that doesnt include a condemnation of homosexual ACTS.

    The idea that Scripture also condemns homosexual DESIRE is reading a contemporary Protestant and biased understanding back into the passage.

    Homosexual acts are condemned. The inclination to commit such acts is not addressed in Paul’s letter.

  15. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  December 9, 2019

    Great post – and so needed (why IS that, in 2019!?).
    I’m tempted to say – snarkily – . . . Well, OK, it may be hard to work out just what that word meant, but then some of us also find it very VERY hard to puzzle out what the Bible means when it says ‘Love They Neighbour As Thyself.’
    I mean that’s open to SO many and SUCH difficult intepretations . . . (NOT!!!)

  16. Avatar
    jakethedog  December 9, 2019

    Here in Australia a rugby player(and devout Christian) was fired after posting the 1 Corinthians verse on his social media page. He was fired for being homophobic. He took Rugby Australia to court and walked away with millions of dollars. This incident gained a lot of media attention.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2019

      Yeah, maybe he should have used a different English translation. But then I’d guess he’d be a lot poorer for it.

  17. Avatar
    Damian King  December 9, 2019

    Hey Bart. I had a question about you and Islam. I understand that you are not trained in Islamic studies, but the Quran, Muslim Holy Book, does contain the alleged sayings of Jesus and things that happened in his life. Jesus is the most mentioned figure in the Quran as far as I know.
    I am wondering, why haven’t you analyzed what percentage of sayings in the Quran actually goes bad to the “Historical Jesus”? What number of events described in the Quran go back to the “Historical Jesus”?

    Do you think that the Quran is absolutely worthless from a critical standpoint when determining what Jesus said and did?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2019

      The Qur’an certainly got its information from the Christian stories in circulation about Jesus. There isn’t any historically reliable information in it that is unavailable elsewhere. In large measure that’s because of it’s date. By that time, no one had independent access to the things Jesus said and did.

  18. Avatar
    veritas  December 9, 2019

    In reply to Godspell’s post and specifically praising Paul for his thoughtful mind in those days. A few years ago , I was reading an article in a magazine, in which i cannot remember the name, about four research companies who conducted an analysis among scholars and other meaningful folks on the top ten thinkers (philosophers ) of all time. Surprisingly, one of them had Paul as number four. Most of them had Plato, Socrates, Kant and so forth. But for one company, Paul was regarded a great thinker. I thought you may find it interesting.

  19. Avatar
    mikezamjara  December 10, 2019

    Hi Dr Ehrman:

    I heard an argument to response that. It goes like this. The septuagint is the translation of the hebrew bible to greek. So in that version in Leviticus 20:13 the expresion “ἄρσενος κοίτην” is used that is very close to ARSENOKOITES and in that verse is epxlicitly said it refers to sexual relatiions. Wouldn’t be the case that Paul is refering to that expressión of Levicitus?.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2019

      That’s a very interesting argument. I would have to look at it more fully. At first blush the only hesitancy is that αρσενος κοιτην isn’t a stand alone phrase in Lev. 20:13, it’s part of a larger construction that clearly indicates what is meant: “whoever κοιμηθη μετα αρσενος κοιτην γυναικος”. The grammar is a bit odd and I’m not completely sure how to construe it It’s not clear to me at first how the accusative κοιτην is functioning. It’s obviously not an object of κοιμηθη (at least I think it’s obvious), since the verb is intransitive, meaning “to sleep” (i.e. it doesn’t take an objtect) In any event, since it’s modified by the genitive γυναικος it appears to be some kind of comparative, but that doesn’t make sense of the accusative. Is it some kind of odd accusative of respect? In any case, it *seems* to mean something like “whoever sleeps with a man in the way one shares a bed with a woman.” And that certainly does mean, whoever (masculine) has sex with a man as he would with a woman” and the act is clearly condemned. That’s no surprise given what is said earlier in Leviticus 18. But it’s a great question: is Paul (or someone before him) inventing the word ARSENOKOITES with this passage in mind? I just don’t know. If anyone has better insights in the grammar (than what I can come up with on the spot) or furhter comments, I’d welcome them.

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  December 12, 2019

        yeah it is interesting. I’ll try to search something that clarify this. Thank you Dr.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  December 13, 2019

      I made a reply to you about the Septuagint and Leviticus, but I must have not been paying attention and made my comment into the blogosphere somewhere. Anywho, Carlson mentions the same thing in the link I mentioned.

  20. Avatar
    peterstone  December 10, 2019

    This is extremely interesting. Who is the first known author to use “ARSENOKOITES” explicitly to mean men having sex with men? A related question–when do Christians unambiguously understand these passages in Paul to refer to men having sex with men?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2019

      I’m not sure there is an unambiguous usage that explains it. It certainly was understood that way by the time the early Latin translations of the NT were done, say in the second century or so.

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