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The Real Meaning and Context of Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient World

While religious freedom is an inextricable feature of a constitutional society, to exploit and abuse religious freedom while bastardizing what the Bible actually says in context for the stated purpose discrimination is, itself, both gravely immoral and contrary to a lengthy syllabus of biblical teachings.
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(Image: The Apostle Paul)

For the better part of a week now, it's been frustratingly accepted that anti-gay Christian business-owners can legitimately cite one or more solid religion-based justifications for refusing equal service to LGBT customers and same-sex weddings. The reality is this: they really, really don't have any solid justification for discriminating against those customers. And without a solid biblical basis for their objections to offering goods and services to gay people, it'd be nearly impossible to defend any discriminatory practices under Indiana's twisted "Religious Freedom Restoration Act."

Not only does the Bible barely mention same-sex intercourse, but when it does, it mentions it in a much broader context of an endless series of other then-problematic behaviors -- behaviors that anti-gay Christians rarely if ever object to, at least in terms of who gets to buy a cake and who doesn't. Yet it's singled out almost exclusively as something that self-proclaimed devout or evangelical Christians believe is a hell-worthy trespass. Put another way: no one's refusing wedding or catering services to hetero couples who happen to be living together; just the gay couples, even though the Bible contains considerably more harsh words against premarital hetero sex than against same-sex intercourse.

That brings us to the two primary biblical sources for anti-gay language: Paul's letters in the New Testament and Leviticus from the Old Testament. Leviticus forbids men sleeping with men, going so far as to sanction the death penalty for it. We've covered this one so often, but it's worth repeating, especially given what Jesus had to say about it.

This whole Leviticus affair could be the most egregious example of political/biblical cherrypicking in the history of the biblical debates given how it's so often cited by anti-gay Christians who brazenly ignore or waive all of the other Levitical laws including bans on getting haircuts; trimming your beard; marrying a divorcee; eating shellfish; masturbating; attending religious services while suffering from acne, blindness, a broken bone, scars, deformities, "crushed testicles," and so on. Worse, Leviticus also calls for both the perpetrator and victim of incest to be executed. So far, there aren't any Christians resurrecting that one, but there it is anyway -- noted with the same importance in the same book of the Old Testament.

If this is truly and honestly about obeying the word of God and not being condemned to Hell -- if this is about justifying your freedom to practice your religion -- then why are all of these other rules totally ignored while the one about sleeping with another man is observed exclusively, while also repeatedly codified in secular law? The answer is obvious. Homophobia and bigotry. It's also important to reiterate that even if someone is so devout as to follow the letter of Levitical law, it doesn't forbid the selling of goods to customers who engage in same-sex intercourse; it strictly forbids the act itself.

Ultimately, though -- and this is a big deal -- Leviticus should be completely irrelevant to Christians. Any Christians who've read their Bible have read Matthew 15:1-20. It's an important chapter given that Matthew quotes Jesus rejecting "the tradition of the elders," and he did so while meeting with the Pharisees. Now, this isn't necessarily an endorsement of same-sex intercourse or gay marriage (which didn't exist then), but Matthew 15 is clearly about Jesus' rejection of the old Jewish laws.


During this meeting, the Pharisees were shocked to see the Apostles eating without having washed their hands first, a violation of Jewish strictures. After accusing the Pharisees of being hypocrites, Jesus said:

"Hear and understand: it's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth. [...] Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."

In other words, all that crap about shellfish and seeds and pig skin is irrelevant in the eyes of God. Rather, it's all about what's in your heart that matters. Along those lines, there are numerous New Testament teachings advising Christians to refrain from judging others, and many of those passages come to us from the Apostle Paul, the second major selectively-quoted source for anti-gay Christians.

Context is really the key to understanding when and to whom Paul was writing, and it's too often conveniently ignored or not discussed.

Ask any classics scholar and they'll describe a very different sexual climate dating back 1,600 to 3,200 years. Primarily, the terms "homosexuality" and "same-sex marriage" are anachronistic in the ancient world, making it impossible for both biblical Testaments to explicitly condemn either term as we know it today.

Sexuality among the ancients was, in a word, complex and applying modern definitions to it is a mistake. Sexual intercourse with the same sex and/or the opposite sex was commonplace in rituals, priestly classes and displays of power, and same-sex intercourse even in the era of Paul was considered typical, though not necessarily endorsed. Greek Religion by Walter Burkert describes temple priestesses, and sexual intercourse as part of a complicated tapestry of the religious beliefs of the ancients. But there simply wasn't an understood category of person defined as "gay," there was instead merely a recognized means of having sex that involved two men.

Paul and the early Christians, in establishing a separate religion, lumped discussions of all forms of same- or opposite-sex intercourse into the broader goal of converting idolaters to Christianity.

Paul's letters to the Ephesians, Corinthians, Romans, Colossians and so forth were really recruitment pamphlets to pagan gentiles instructing them about how to reject their old idol-worshiping religion and to learn how to live simple, ascetic lifestyles as a means of joining the Christian faith and therefore being accepted into Heaven. Since various forms of "fornication" were often involved in pagan rituals, and Christianity obviously rejected the pagan gods and the manner in which they were worshiped, it stands to reason same-sex intercourse would be included -- and it's included along with all other forms of pagan worship and lifestyle. (Pagan sexual rituals 2,000 years ago can't be rationally compared in any way with loving same-sex couples of today.)

Simply put: Paul was saying that if you want to be a Christian, you can't worship those other gods by doing X, Y and Z including the sexual rituals. That's it.

Like everyone else at the time, Paul had about as much of an understanding of homosexuality as he had about internet porn because there was simply no such concept. Therefore, again, it's anachronistic to suggest Paul disapproved of gay people or same-sex marriage because the concepts simply didn't exist at the time. (There are modern translations of the Bible that have anachronistically shoehorned "heterosexual" into Paul's letters, but there was no such contemporaneous concept.)

As with Levitical law, Paul's instructions were manifold and the passage about forbidding same-sex intercourse is actually one of the more minor recommendations. (If worshiping the goddess Athena had involved wearing gigantic novelty foam cowboy hats, Paul would've forbidden it.) Yet it's constantly cherrypicked, while Paul's other recommendations are ignored. It's doubtful that anti-gay business-owners are also turning away customers who don't adhere to fully ascetic lifestyles as prescribed by St. Paul.

In Colossians 3:5, Paul wrote, "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry." He's talking about behaviors characteristic in pagan gentiles, but knowing that, should we write secular laws banning evil desires and general immorality? No way, chiefly because there are very few pagan Americans today. But anti-gay Christians need to take a long, hard look at the sheer breadth of what exactly the Bible condemns.

In the same letter to the Romans in which Paul famously wrote that male-male intercourse was "unseemly," he also scolded those who engage in "unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness," anyone who is "full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, spiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable," and the "unmerciful."

If Paul authorizes Christian caterers to refuse service to gay couples, then I'm not sure how those caterers will stay in business while turning away customers who do all of those other things, too. Along those lines, Paul told the Ephesians, "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery." So, no weddings that might have drunken guests, either. That'd pretty much be all weddings, really.

That said, Paul wrote extensively about compassion and forgiveness. Here's the Apostle in Ephesians 4:

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Paul in Galatians 6:

Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if any one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each man will have to bear his own load.

Paul in Romans 14 is especially germane to this discussion:

Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean.

"Never put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother." And, "It is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean." If your behavior conforms to your own morality, you might not be a candidate for salvation according to Paul, but you're certainly not an "abomination" either.

Even if the New Testament didn't include extensive and numerous lessons about forgiveness, acceptance and love, Paul's various warnings against all varieties of other behaviors far outnumber the handful of notes about same-sex intercourse, which is merely addressed in the broader context of a departure from paganism. But the weight applied to those few allegedly anti-gay notes is massive and the others are mostly ignored, at least in the discussion of exercising the religious freedom to refuse service to specific customers. While religious freedom is an inextricable feature of a constitutional society, to exploit and abuse religious freedom while bastardizing what the Bible actually says in context for the stated purpose of discrimination is, itself, both gravely immoral and contrary to a lengthy syllabus of biblical teachings.

(With additional reporting by Joy Holland-Cesca. Sources: Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism by Bernadette Brooten, Greek Sexuality by Kenneth Dover and Before Sexuality: The Construction of the Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World.)