The Surprising Truth About Same-Sex Relations In The Bible
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How Pederasty In Ancient Societies Paved The Way To Modern Day Religious Homophobia
If you were raised in a Christian household, you have likely been taught that being gay is a sin. The majority of churches in the world cling to this belief. At face value, the Bible seems very clear about its stance on this particular issue. When you accept each verse- without any context, translation assistance, or basic understanding of ancient societies- it is pretty easy to conclude that god disapproves of same-sex relationships. But the Bible is a complicated book. And if you want to understand it for what it means rather than just for what it says, you have to do more than read it.
Recently, I was scanning recommendations on Youtube when a video from one of my favorite channels popped up. The channel, God Is Grey, is run by a beautiful Christian woman named Brenda. She is the only Christian Youtuber I watch because she comes to the Bible with an open mind. Remember, for hundreds of years, Christians did not have a Bible as a guide. They had only what they’d heard and what their faith led them to believe.
The recommended video was titled 1946: Your Bible Is Wrong About Homosexuality. In it, Brenda interviewed a woman named Rocky Rollio, who has dedicated years of her life to unraveling the truth behind the word “homosexual” in the Bible. She is currently working on a movie titled 1946 about this very topic.
I was shocked to hear about how one little mistake in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible created a path from which modern-day religious homophobia would stem.
But this alone wasn’t enough to convince me that the Bible doesn’t specifically condemn homosexuality. So I dug my heels in and went on an investigative journey. What I learned sent me down a rabbit hole, completely changing how I see and read the Bible. Homosexuality was never discouraged in the Bible, but something much more sinister was. If you found yourself posting #SAVETHECHILDREN on your social media in the last year, you’ll want to stick around for this.
What Happened in 1946?
1946 was the year that the New Testament Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible was completed by the National Council Of Churches Of Christ In The USA. The goal was to portray an accurate and easily readable English version of the New and Old Testaments combined.
The Bible never used the word homosexual in its original text because it did not exist until the 1800s.
The forties were not ideal for being gay, so it seemed like a no-brainer to assume that the verses discussing male-on-male sexual activity or “sexual perversions” were about homosexuality. But a letter found in a fifty-year-old box at Yale University uncovered something different.
A man named David S. wrote to the commission in charge of translating the Bible to explain why “homosexual” was the wrong choice for the English translation. He seemed concerned that the mistranslation could provoke unbiblical hatred toward the gay community. A response to this was also found, signed by Dr. Luther Weigle, the head of the translation committee. He acknowledged the error and vowed to remove “homosexual” from the new translation in his reply. Unfortunately, this revision took over thirty years to publish. By then, the original translation was widely circulated, and the damage had already been done. A new wave of religious homophobia developed.
Pederasty In Ancient Greece
Before we jump into the translations, it is essential to understand the culture of Ancient Greece and how it affected the writings of Paul and other New Testament Authors. Christians will often defend Old Testament slavery and claim that those were “different times,” and cultural norms must be considered. But rarely do they discuss the cultural norms of Ancient Greece and why that also must be considered when reading the New Testament.
Many Ancient Civilizations, including Greece, practiced pederasty- which was essentially legal pedophilia.
Grown and typically wealthy men would act as “mentors” to boys between ages 12–18. Often these “mentorships” looked more like slavery, as parents would initiate the relationship by selling their young boys off. These relationships would usually turn sexual. It was not uncommon for wealthier men to hold multiple young male mentors (or sex slaves), even showing them off in public places. These men would frequently continue the relationship with these boys even after taking a woman’s hand in marriage.
Consensual same-sex relations among adult men, however, were so common that there wasn’t a need to make up a word to describe it. To the Greeks, it was natural. The term homosexual never shows up in the original translations. Instead, the original text reads “man-bed.” We’ll revisit this.
Although pederasty was legal and the men who acted as mentors were respected members of the community, there was one significant rule they were to abide by- The relationship could be sexual, but it was never to include anal penetration. At that time in society, to be anally penetrated was shameful. Ancient Greeks believed that to be penetrated was to be made like a woman, a massive disgrace to any man. For this reason, most same-sex relationships did not include penetration.
Of course, we have to assume that anal penetration was taking place. But it was done in secret to protect the reputation of the one being penetrated. The Greeks didn’t care who you were having sex with, only how you were having sex with them. This tidbit of information completely changes the New Testament tone regarding sexual perversions.
Paul’s Unique Vocabulary
When reading the New Testament, you have to remember that it has been translated several times from an ancient language that no longer exists. Ancient Greek is not like modern-day Greek, and most of the vocabulary used no longer exists. Translating original text is not as easy as simply converting the words. Interpreters took many liberties with the language.
Let’s take, for example, the apostle Paul, who wrote many letters that are believed to be divinely inspired by god and take up a portion of the New Testament. In these letters, he seems to convey a particular feeling about same-sex relations, writing in Corinthians 6:9–10;
“…Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of god? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of god.”
Remember, this is the English translation. The above verse contains two ancient Greek words, which were thought to refer to homosexual behavior for many years but likely referenced something else.
The original word used for “sexually immoral” is malakoi. This word holds history as a derogatory term for men who are effeminate or soft. Since Ancient Greek society placed women in the lowest class, it was not acceptable for men to take on feminine traits. This verse could be referring to men who were not “manly” enough or even men who were being penetrated by another in a consensual same-sex relationship. The word malakoi appears in other ancient texts describing morally weak men. It could be that Paul was not addressing sexual immorality but a weak morality overall.
The next word Paul uses is arsenokoitai. This word has puzzled scholars for many years because, as far as anyone knows, it was not an actual word, but one made up by Paul himself. His writings are the earliest known texts to use it. Arsenokoitai seems to be a compound word like butterfly or doorknob.
Paul combines two words from Old Testament text that translates to “male-bed” (arsên and koitê). It was assumed that the word referred to men having sex with men, hence the “homosexual” translation. However, it seems much more likely that Paul was referring to a pederast relationship, considering the cultural norms and the Old Testament text Paul procured the two words from (Leviticus 20:13, which we’ll go over in the next session).
Arsenokoitai shows up very little in historical text. But In the Sibylline Oracles, there is a passage that uses the word:
“Do not steal seeds… Do not arsenokoitein, do not betray information, do not murder. Give to one who has labored his wage. Do not oppress a poor man. Take heed of your speech. Keep a secret matter in your heart. (Make provision for orphans and widows and those in need.) Do not be willing to act unjustly, and therefore do not give leave to one who is acting unjustly.”
This passage very clearly condemns acts of oppression and abuse. Do not oppress the poor, Do not murder or act unjustly, lend aid to the widows, etc. When considering the text as a whole, why would arsenokoitai translate to consensual same-sex relations? Would not it make more sense to read a similar tone in the rest of the passage, referencing acts of abuse and injustice? If that is the case, perhaps this “male-bed” word holds implications of abuse of power- which pederasty certainly was.
Another thing to consider is the confusion surrounding a passage in Romans, which some people believe has been altered over time. I found that many interpreters maintain much of Paul’s letters were heavily edited in what they call “non-Pauline interpolation.” When studying Paul’s letters’ overall style, language, grammar, and structure, experts have noticed a distinct difference between passages like Romans 1:18–32 and Paul’s writings overall. There is much evidence to suggest that Paul’s words were edited to suit political agendas.
What The Old Testament Says Is Interesting But Irrelevant
Christians will be quick to defend their opposition to homosexuality by pointing verses such as Leviticus 20:13, which states:
“If a man lies with a man as with a woman, they have both committed an abomination. They must surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
It would seem impossible to derive any other meaning from that verse other than a direct command against same-sex relations. But there are essential things to consider when dissecting this verse.
Leviticus commandments were a strict set of rules explicitly given to the Israelites to keep them as pure as possible as god’s chosen people. The goal was to ensure that their lineage remained strong and holy so that they could be used for god’s ultimate plan. These rules were given for several reasons, including setting them apart from surrounding civilizations and keeping them moral, healthy, and clean.
These were not rules intended for anyone but the Israelites, and any person born after the death of Jesus Christ was no longer obligated to follow them. Instead, they were to follow the teachings of Jesus.
When looking at the verses surrounding Leviticus 20:13, you get a clearer picture of what the author is attempting to convey. You also might start to wonder why Christians focus solely on the verses regarding sexual relations but ignore the bits about beard trimming, bearing false witness, farming instructions, and even style restrictions. These laws fall under the same umbrella intended to keep god’s “chosen people” on the straight-and-narrow. They do not apply to modern-day Christians.
2. The Translation
The most interesting bit of information that I found in my research was regarding the language used in Leviticus 20:13. The English translation reads that “if a MAN lies with a MAN,” but the original text looks quite different. There are two different words used for MAN; Ish and Zachar. Ish is used for the first MAN, and Zachar is used for the second.
It looks like this:
“If a MAN (Ish) lies with a MAN (Zachar)…”
Ish, in ancient Hebrew, refers only to an adult male. You would never see the word Ish used to describe a young male. However, Zachar can be used in reference to men of all ages and more often for a male child or teenager.
Why would the author make this distinction between the two different kinds of male? And why did the author only ban sexual activity between two males, but not two females? Would it be because pederasty was a common issue in society at that time, and they were working to eradicate it? I can’t think of any other reason there would be such an apparent distinction.
Of course, the verse continues to condemn both parties to death if they committed such an act. You might question why god would punish the victim of pedophilia, but can’t forget that god also instructed disobedient children to be stoned to death in the streets. It was not unusual for god to command severe punishment for children. Especially because pederasty was not always forceful, as young boys often went with their mentors willingly (rather, they were groomed) or as a form of prostitution.
The bottom line is that what little the Old Testament seems to imply about sexual orientation is irrelevant. According to the New Testament, Christians are not obligated to follow the old laws meant for the Israelites. Not even the 10 Commandments are meant for modern Day Christians. The only commands that matter can be found in the New Testament.
You might be thinking that the New Testament also contains verses condemning homosexuality. But let’s recall what we’ve learned thus far. Remember the culture of Greece at the time of Paul; what happened in 1946; the letter sent from David S. to the commission; and the mistranslation of Old Testament text regarding pederasty.
In doing so, it likely won’t surprise you that Paul was also trying to convey concern for something much more troubling than consensual same-sex relations. It would seem that condemning the abuse of power and sexual abuse of children would be higher on Paul’s list of priorities than condemning consensual same-sex relationships.
What Did Jesus Say?
So far, we’ve gone over what the Bible has to say about same-sex relationships, but for Christians, the most critical question we should be asking is, “what did Jesus say?”
Christians are called to be “followers of Christ.” Not followers of Abraham or Paul or English translations of ancient texts. If this is the case, why are we not looking to the words of Jesus to decide what is or is not sin? Isn’t he the deciding factor, after all?
As he did not convert until several years after the supposed death and Resurrection, Paul didn’t know Jesus. Paul’s letters were not published until decades after Christ’s death, which meant many Christians did not have them to base their faith.
If what is written in the Gospels is true, the words of Jesus would be the best source for determining what constitutes sin. But Jesus didn’t say anything about it.
Jesus commanded his followers to love one another, help the poor, devote themselves to peace and kindness, put away judgment, and walk in love and light. But he never instructed them not to engage in same-sex relations. If he did, it wasn’t significant enough to write down. We have no records of Jesus speaking on the topic of homosexuality. He did have quite a bit to say about divorce, however. Women were already given such a low status in society, and to be a single woman after divorce was even more shameful. Jesus’s teachings revolved around love and justice, and equality for the oppressed. When Jesus spoke against divorce, he was standing up for the women who would be shamed as a result. When he defended the prostitute, he was again modeling compassion for societal outcasts. When he flipped tables, he protected the ones being conned by what he called a “den of robbers.”
Jesus didn’t concern himself with rules and regulations for maintaining some moral purity. His words, according to the Bible, promoted an ideology that saw past gender, social class, occupation, and even sexual orientation.
Although Jesus never explicitly condemned or condoned same-sex relationships, there is one verse that may suggest he acknowledged them.
In Matthew 19:12, Jesus says,
“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others — and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Jesus is speaking about eunuchs, which were castrated men (although there are variations in the definition). When he states that some eunuchs are “born that way,” there is speculation that he speaks of men who were born homosexual. Although it could also mean men born with genital defects or even asexuals, it is still an interesting passage to consider when striving to understand Jesus’s stance on homosexuality.
The Bottom Line: There Are Lives At Stake
I wrote this because I see the damage the church has done to the LGBTQ+ community. I have heard the traumatic stories of religious homophobia. I have read reports of teenagers committing suicide because they were too afraid to come out of the closet; children beaten and even killed for simply “acting gay”; Hate crimes and homicides in the name of Jesus; damaging conversion therapy; bigotry and violence. I am not a believer, but I can tell you that all of this religious homophobia is not biblical, nor is it Christ-like. Jesus never commanded anyone to concern themselves with the sexual relationships of others. In fact, I would file such behavior under the sexually immoral acts that New Testament authors warn against.
Kids in the LGBTQ+ community are five times more likely to contemplate suicide than their heterosexual peers. The church claims this is a result of their sin. I would argue (and so would many experts on the subject) that it directly correlates to religious bigotry and homophobia.
If there is a way we can melt these human-made boundaries bred out of mistranslations of ancient texts and bring peace between the church and the LGBTQ+ community, we need to do it.
Suppose you use the Bible as a weapon or tool to hold moral authority over the lives of others (whether it be by speech, action, or political vote). In that case, you are responsible for making sure that what you are preaching is in the least an accurate representation of your source. You must not only read the texts but also work out what the texts mean. Those two are not always the same.
I strongly recommend you do your research on the subject and not take mine or anyone else’s words as truth. The most dangerous thing a person can do with new information is recycle it without confirming its validity. But if what I have researched and written is true, there should be a great awakening within the church. Every congregation should be working to eliminate homophobia, apologizing for their part in religious abuse, and welcoming the LGBTQ+ members in their communities with open arms. I am convinced that if “true Christians” exist, they’ll be a part of this awakening. Will you?
Yours Authentically, Kristi