Comparative study shows that all three of the major monotheistic faiths in the Abrahamic tradition--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--have, at one time or another, condemned same-sex love and its expression. Religiously based, this sex negativity has undeniably bolstered anti-homosexual attitudes in societies where these belief systems prevail. To be sure, one must acknowledge that such negative attitudes are not inevitable and unalterable, as is shown by the fact that today major branches of Judaism and Christianity have embraced more positive views, and actually welcome the participation of gay and lesbian parishioners and clergy.
Moreover, the different varieties of religiously-based negativity show less continuity than one might expect. The disapproval of same-sex behavior found in the New Testament (as seen for example in Romans 1:26-27 and First Corinthians 6:9-10) does not closely track seemingly analogous passages in the Hebrew Bible (most notably in Leviticus 18 and 20). In reality, the two traditions seem almost independent of one another. For their part, the Qur’anic prohibitions do not directly correspond to any of these Biblical “proof texts”, although they do draw on the story of Lot and Sodom from the book of Genesis.
These differences in detail notwithstanding, the broader concurrence of the three religions in condemning same-sex conduct is striking.
SODOM AND GOMORRAH
These legendary cities have been traditionally located in the Dead Sea area, where they constituted two members of a pentapolis, the Cities of the Plain. According to the account in Genesis 14, 18, and 19, God overthrew four of the five cities in a rain of brimstone and fire. Over the centuries, the names of Sodom and Gomorrah, especially the former, have become proverbial. Echoes of the story recur elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and in the Qur’an, as well as in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic exegetical and homiletic writings.
A number of main features of the Sodom legend emerge from the central passages and fragmentary allusions in the Tanakh. Used with care, one can adduce also certain indications found in the Pseudepigrapha, together with the midrashic writings of later centuries.
As Warren Johansson notes in his article in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (Dynes, ed., 1990), “the geographical legend that sought to explain the peculiarly barren terrain around the shores of the Dead Sea. The ancient world's rudimentary science of geology correctly related this barrenness to the circumstance that the water level of the Dead Sea had in prehistoric times been far higher; the sinking of the water level had exposed the previously inundated, now strikingly arid and sterile region to the gaze of the traveler.”
Johansson goes on to observe that “the theme of sterility by which the ancient mind sought to explain the origins of this condition; to the Bedouin living east and south of the Dead Sea it suggested the etiological inference that at one time the area surrounding this salinized body of water had been a fruitful garden belt. Yet the inhabitants of the cities of the plain had even in the midst of their abundance and prosperity denied hospitality to the poverty-stricken and the wayfarer, while the luxury in which they wallowed led them inevitably into effeminacy and vice (the parallel in the Hellenistic world was the city of Sybaris, whose proverbial self-indulgence gave the English language the word sybaritic). For this reason they were punished by the destruction of their cities and the conversion of the whole area into a lifeless desert.”
Johansson surmises that underlying the story is “a Bedouin folk tale on the perils of city life, of which Lot is the hero who must be rescued again and again by the intervention of others. In Genesis 14:12 Lot is taken captive when Sodom is conquered by the four kings who have allied themselves against the Cities of the Plain; Abraham saves him by military intervention in the manner of a tribal sheikh with his retinue of 318 warriors. In 19:4-9 the Sodomites threaten Lot's guests with gang rape, but are miraculously blinded and repelled, and in 19:13, 15 the angelic visitors warn Lot of the imminent destruction of the city so that he and his family can leave just in time to escape the rain of brimstone and fire. This underlying motif explains why Lot later ‘feared to dwell in Zoar; (19:30), even though God has spared the place as a reward for his model hospitality toward the two visitors. Over the centuries Sodom and Gomorrah, along with the Babylon of the Book of Revelation, came to symbolize the corruption and depravity of the big city as contrasted with the virtue and innocence of the countryside, a notion cherished by those who idealized rural life and is still present, though fading in twentieth-century America.”
Some gay and lesbian apologists have sought to discount the homophobic implications of the demand to “know” the two strangers, emphasizing the more general themes of inhospitality and corruption. It seems likely, however, that the motif of homosexual rape is an exemplification of those larger sins. As such. it cannot be discounted,
THE HOLINESS CODE IN LEVITICUS AND THE PROHIBITION OF MALE HOMOSEXUALITY
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) is so called due to its repeated use of the word Holy. Modern biblical scholarship has isolated it as a distinct unit, noting that the style differs markedly from that of the main body of Leviticus. In contrast to the rest of Leviticus, the many laws of the Holiness Code tumble forth in a closely packed mass.
According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Holiness Code represents an earlier text that the editors shoe-horned into the priestly source material (P) of the Pentateuch. Leviticus 26 strongly resembles the conclusion of a law code, despite the dangling presence of further laws afterward, giving the Holiness Code all the earmarks of a single distinct unit.
A key issue among evangelical Christians is how much of this biblical material might be binding today, as the Levitical priesthood and animal sacrifices ended with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Some of these groups see all these laws regarding sexuality as being applicable today; some of them are reiterated elsewhere in the Bible, notably in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. For their part, Orthodox Jews continue to observe many of the practices, generally regarding precepts not in current use as being in temporary abeyance until a Third Temple can be built and the observances restored.
Figuring among the many laws pertaining to sexual ethics are two that have been particularly influential in shaping Jewish and Christian attitudes to male homosexuality. These are “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (18:22); and “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” (20:13; NRSV).
These two religious carbuncles have proved particularly troublesome to observant gay and lesbian Jews and Christians. Various devices have been employed in the effort to detoxify them, with (in my view) scant success. Sometimes we hear that the prohibition of same-sex relations is of only transient significance, recalling the ban on wearing clothing made up of two different materials or eating shellfish. Yet this kind of mockery misses its target, because the second prohibition (in Leviticus 20) has the unique distinction of being both an abomination (to’ebah) and a capital crime.
Sometimes we hear that the prohibition applies only to the Canaanites, who were thought to be guilty of particularly licentious erotic practices. With the more careful interpretation of the Ugaritic documents that has recently taken place, this caricature of the Canaanites no longer passes muster. At all events there is no mention of that people in the passages in question. They are clearly directed at the ancient Israelites themselves.
It has been suggested that the passage refers only to anal penetration. In this view, a gay Orthodox Jew could have homosexual relations provided that they did not go beyond the oral stage. However, it may be that the implicit reference to anal behavior is only exempli gratia, a signal instance pointing to a larger complex of misbehavior (as with the Sodom story). As Mary Douglas has emphasized, many of the prohibitions in the Holiness Code have to do with boundary crossing, a purported confusion of realms (Douglas, 1966).
A further consideration has to do with one possible origin of the prohibition, which may implicate Zoroastrianism. Once powerful, today the religion of Zoroaster survives mainly among the small Parsi community in India, counting also a tiny remnant in Iran, where persecution continues.
Although it reached its apogee during the Achaemenid Period (ca. 550-330 BCE), the roots of Zoroastrianism reach much further back into Persian religious traditions relating to nature worship and good and evil spirits, and beyond these to primordial Indo-European mythology with its division of celestial beings into two warring classes. The prophet Zoroaster (from a Greek version of Zarathustra) is commonly believed to have lived about 630-550 BCE, though quite possibly earlier.
Zoroastrians were encouraged to seek piety by leading pure lives and doing good works. This would lead to a victory of good over evil in their personal lives and in the world. This dualistic world view, which can be detected as early as the sixth century BCE, influenced Judaism (especially as seen the Essenes), the Greek and Roman Stoics, the early Christian gnostics, the Manichaeans, and the Mithraists, a hero cult which competed with early Christianity. It has even been argued that the emphasis on sexual purity in early Christianity may stem ultimately from this Iranian source.
Under Cyrus the Great (d. 529 BCE), the Achaemenid family established the Persian Empire, which conquered most of western Asia, including Judea, homeland of the Jews. Darius I (d. 486 BCE), the first Persian ruler certain to have been a Zoroastrian, placed Jews in positions of power and encouraged the restoration of their destroyed main Temple and the adoption of a statute book to govern their reorganized community. Significantly, this document may have included the Holiness Code subsequently incorporated into Leviticus.
The result is striking if we compare Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 with the following passage from the Zoroastrian Scriptures: "Who is the man who is a Daeva [evil spirit]? . . . Ahura Mazda answered: 'The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as a woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daeva, this one ... is a female paramour of the Daevas, that is a she-Daeva.'" (Vendidad, Fargard, V:31-32). As Tom Horner remarks, “[n]oteworthy here is the equal guilt of both parties, unusual for the ancient world, and the ascription of femininity to the guilty. The same chapter prescribes 800 stripes for involuntary emission of semen. Elsewhere in Zoroastrian tradition permission is given for the killing of a homosexual man caught in the act (Commentary on Fargard, VIII, VD3:74).” (Horner, in Dynes, 1990).
While the possibility is intriguing. this Persian derivation of the Israelite taboo on male homosexuality must still be regarded as speculative. It is a truism that texts do not migrate of their own accord. Someone, for some reason must bring them from one tradition into another. So the question remains: why would the ancient Israelites should wish to adopt such a drastic prohibition of male homosexuality?
THE GOSPELS AND HOMOSEXUAL BEHAVIOR
We commonly hear that “Jesus said nothing about homosexuality.” It is true that the four gospels record Jesus as making no statement focusing explicitly on homosexual behavior or rendered a judgment in favor of either the Jewish or the Hellenic attitude toward it. Yet the omission of this particular area of sexual morality does not mean that he had no moral judgment on such matters. His statements on adultery and divorce (Matthew 5:27-32) and on that which "defileth the man: . .. adulteries, fornications... lasciviousness" (Mark 7:20-23) imply no weakening or abrogation of the code of sexual morality recognized by both Palestinian and Hellenistic Jewry. One might even conclude that Jesus was more rigorous in his moralism than his Judaic predecessors, for he seems to have insisted on what he regarded as an even higher standard of morality. It is not just overt acts, but even thoughts and intentions that must be banished from consciousness.
This being said, Warren Johansson (in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, 1990, and elsewhere) has pointed to some neglected evidence from Matthew 5:22, where the mysterious word racha appears. Johansson surmises that this may be a vulgar loan word (from Hebrew rakh) in Hellenistic Greek signifying the passive-effeminate homosexual whom both Jew and Gentile held in contempt. The import of the passage would then be that not simply physical aggression and violence, but even verbal insults directed at the masculinity of the addressee are forbidden by the higher morality of the new faith. In other words, the passage forbids fag-baiting.
Outside of the gospels, there are explicit references to the morality of homosexual acts in Romans 1:26-27,1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and I Timothy 1:9-10. The first is often mistakenly understood as the sole reference to lesbianism in the Bible, but is in all likelihood a reinterpretation of the sin of the "daughters of men" who had intercourse with the "sons of God" (= fallen angels) in Genesis 6:1-2,4, as echoed in the noncanonical Testament of Naphtali 3:5, an intertestamental writing. The opening statement that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven" (Romans 1:18) suggests that the whole passage is an allusion the Deluge and the destruction of Sodom, in both of which Paul sees retribution for violations of the natural order.
The passage in I Corinthians 6:9-10 assumes the Ten Commandments as its model. Those who depart from the proper path will find themselves excluded from the Kingdom of God. The words malakoi, "effeminate," and arsenokoitai, "abusers of themselves with mankind," signify the passive and active partners in male homosexual relations respectively, rephrasing the explicit condemnation of both in Leviticus 20:13, which Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus alike show to have been generally upheld in the Judaism of the first century CE. The reference in Timothy parallels the one in Corinthians, with a similar catalogue of evil-doers who are deserving of ostracism and punishment.
For Evangelical opponents of homosexuality, the import of these passages is conclusive. These traditionalists sometimes label them, almost gleefully, as the “clobber passages.” Gay and lesbian interpreters have labored to diminish their force. In my view these interventions have not been successful.
An intriguing episode is the story of the Centurion's servant in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Donald Mader and others have argued that this implies a pederastic relationship, since the servant "who was dear [entimos] unto him" may have been both a valet and a bed partner. The "beloved disciple" in the Gospel of John alone is sometimes, usually not in a pious vein, asserted to have been a youth for whom Jesus' love was tantamount to a Greek pederastic attachment of the mentor to his protege. This is commonly referred to the Apostle John, but the beloved disciple may have been Lazarus or someone else.
Discussed elsewhere in these pages is an eighteenth-century manuscript discovered and published by Morton Smith that includes a passage that refers to the "young man having a linen cloth cast about his naked body," amplifying Mark 14:51-52, with the innuendo that Jesus had an homoerotic relationship with this otherwise mysterious disciple as well.
These observations are of continuing interest. Yet most commentators, whether gay-friendly or not, have focused on the three texts from Romans, Corinthians, and Timothy noted above. For several decades progay scholars such as Canon D.S. Bailey and John Boswell have been laboring to erase the anti-homosexual connotations of the scriptural passages noted above. If there contentions were correct, we would expect that the Patristic Writers, commonly called "fathers of the church," would take a benign or at least neutral view of same-sex conduct. However, that is not the case at all, for none of the fathers wrote positively about same-sex preferences or same-sex acts--quite the reverse. In retrospect, their role in the history of same-sex love was to appropriate, accentuate, and help perpetuate currents of hostility to homoeroticism in existing thought. As such, they lent their voices to strengthen the prohibitions of Leviticus and Paul. They went beyond borrowing and accentuation, revealing themselves to be enthusiastic inventors.
Writing in the first decade of the fourth century, Lactantius (ca. 240-ca. 320) offered a standard Christian explanation of why same-sex acts are unnatural. "When God invented the plan of the two sexes, he endowed the bodies of men and women with a vehement carnal desire for each other. In the pleasurable union of the two sexes, a child is conceived, our mortality is overcome, and the race of living beings saved from extinction. The satisfaction of sexual desire is natural when it serves this purpose. But there are also men, inspired by the devil, who actually join themselves to other males (mares maribus) and practice abominable intercourse against nature and against the institute of God. Such men abuse their own sex. Yet among themselves, they regard these practices as peccadilloes and almost honorable."
The emerging Christian sexual ethic owed a great debt to a Greek philosophical doctrine known as procreationism. As Eugene Rice has emphasized (in glbtq.com), the idea may be traced to Pythagoras of Samos (ca 570-480 BCE), who emphasized sexual restraint and moderation. At Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, Pythagoras is reputed to have persuaded the men of the city to give up their concubines and adhere to strict monogamy.
Pythagoras’ followers in the Hellenistic period made plainer the procreationist core of the Pythagorean sexual ethic: "The first postulate," wrote Ocellus in On the Nature of the Universe, "is that sexual intercourse should never occur for pleasure, but only for the procreation of children."
A stricter version of the doctrine explicitly prohibited every sexual act committed outside of marriage, including "all unnatural connections, especially those attended with wanton insolence [e.g., pederasty]," thus linking the idea of what is natural in sex to a normative demand for procreation as its end.
Both Jews and Christians accepted the procreationist mandate. "What are our laws about marriage?" asked Josephus (ca 37-ca 100 CE), historian of the Jews: "The Law [of Moses] allows no other union of the sexes but that which nature has appointed, of a man with his wife and this for the procreation of children only. And it abhors the intercourse of male with male, and if anyone do that, death is the punishment." Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-ca 215) offers an early Christian instance of the same doctrine. He insisted that marriage is a legal transaction between a man and a woman that exists for the sole purpose of procreating legitimate children in a reverent, disciplined act of will, not of desire. "To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, which we should take as our instructor."
In appropriating these precepts of moderation, Jewish and Christian apologists enveloped an essentially secular ethic of temperance and self-control in a divinely ordained envelope. These behavioral restrictions must be strictly observed because God wills it so.
During the fourth century St. John Chrysostom held that homosexual acts are worse than murder and so degrading that they constitute a kind of punishment in itself, and that enjoyment of such acts actually makes them worse, "for suppose I were to see a person running naked, with his body all besmeared with mire, and yet not covering himself, but exulting in it, I should not rejoice with him, but should rather bewail that he did not even perceive that he was doing shamefully."
In addition the fathers discerned a connection between adultery and pederasty. The Constitution of the Apostles is a collection of ecclesiastical law compiled in the late fourth century incorporating earlier material. This text expands the sixth commandment in this way: "Do not commit adultery: for you divide one flesh into two: For . . . husband and wife are one by nature, concord, union, affection, life, and habit, and separated only by sex and number. Do not abuse boys (oude paidophthoréseis): for this vice is against nature and had its beginning in Sodom, a city consumed by fire sent down from Heaven. Let such a man be cursed and the whole people say: So be it, so be it."
As Eugene Rice has pointed out, one innovation of the early fathers of the church was to make the crucial move of labeling pederasty itself an abuse. So Greek Christians learned to say "boy abuse" (paidophthoria) instead of "boy love" (paiderasteia), "abuser of boys" (paidophthoros) instead of "lover of boys" (paederastés, paidophilos), and "to abuse boys" (paidophthoreo) rather than to love them (paidophilein). The interpretation of the story of Sodom remains controversial. Because the citizens of the city were charged with so many vices it it hard to make out that same-lust was the offense that triggered their destruction. Still, by the time of Philo Judaeus the homoerotic aspects had become salient in Jewish circles. Early Christian writers ratified this view. By the end of the fourth century, the Latin fathers had decisively fixed in the mind of the West the links between male-male sex, the lewdness of Sodom, God's anger, and the city's incendiary punishment.
The male inhabitants of Sodom wrote St. Augustine (354-430), "burned with unspeakable lust for one another." Their offense was "abusive intercourse with males" (stuprum in masculos), and God punished them by raining fire from heaven on their sinful heads, a foretaste of the divine punishment to come. The crimes of the Sodomites are against nature (contra naturam) and must be everywhere and always hated and punished. The relationship we ought to have with God is violated when the nature of which He is the author is polluted by perverted desire.
Augustine's follower, the historian Orosius, held that the crime of the Sodomites was precisely their choice of male sexual partners. Sodom and Gomorrah were rich, entailing a chain of consequences. From abundance sprang luxury, and from luxury, sexual depravity, "males with males working shame" (cf. Romans 1:27). Mastered by overpowering lust, the citizens of Sodom were indifferent to any consideration of place (public or private), condition (free or slave, rich or poor), or age (adolescent or adult).
The acceptance of the antihomoerotic connotations of the Sodom story spawned a new lexicon of disparagement in the Latin West, corresponding in meaning and intent with the paidophthoros family in the Greek East. With the sexual meaning that clings to the terms even today, the noun “sodomite” (sodomita), the adjective "sodomitical" (sodomiticus), the verbal phrase "to fornicate in the manner of a Sodomite" (more sodomitico) began to circulate in late antiquity. Their frequent attestation in the sixth century signaled the beginning of a new and ominous era in the history of anti-homosexual invective.
DOES THE BIBLE CONDEMN LESBIANISM?
The Hebrew Bible clearly condemns male homosexual behavior, as has been seen above. However, the texts do not equate it with lesbian conduct which is nowhere prohibited in the Tanakh. (A few rabbinical efforts to detect such a ban are forced and unconvincing.)
The conventional wisdom is that the prohibition of female same-sex love first appears in the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament. Specifically, Romans 1:26-27 appears to equate lesbianism with male homosexuality. Here is the passage: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way [homoios] also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”
So accustomed are we to read this passage in the usual way, that we omit to ask some crucial questions. Given the general androcentrism of the era, why would Paul mention women first?
It is useful to consult a short section of the Testament of Naphtali, belonging to a category of ancient writings that Brooten, exceptionally, did not exploit sufficiently. This text belongs to the so-called intertestamental writings, a body of texts originating in Jewish circles during the period of the Second Temple (ca. 500 B.C.E to 70 C.E,). The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs were probably written in the period 150-100 B.C.E. and thus available to Paul. The writer is elaborating on a text in First Enoch, another intertestamental text, which has to do with the Watchers, the sons of God who mated with human women in the time before the flood. In Hellenistic Judaism they were increasingly identified with the fallen angels and their offspring with demons, the source of evil.
"Sun, moon, and stars do not alter their order. The gentiles, because they have wandered astray and forsook the Lord, have changed the order. ... But you, my children, shall not be like that. ... [D]o not become like Sodom which departed from the order of nature. Likewise the Watchers departed from nature's order" [Testament of Naphtali, 3; ed. J.H. Charlesworth, p. 812].
Several assertions anticipate the animadversions of the Romans passage. First is the central idea of the order of nature, against which we transgress at our peril. The notion of nature is wholly Greek and is foreign to the Old Testament. While the Greek word physis does occur in 3 and 4 Maccabees and in the Book of Wisdom, these text were originally written in Greek and are not currently accepted as part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Accordingly, the idea of nature as a cosmic norm is part of the Greek heritage that insinuated itself into Jewish thought during the Hellenistic period. Violations of nature, of course, need not be sexual. However, in a late work, The Laws, the philosopher Plato specifically stigmatized both male and female homosexuality as "against nature" — para physin, the same expression used in Paul's text. In effect, works of Hellenistic Jewish provenance, such as the Testament of Naphtali, "predigested" the Greek material for the use of interpreters like Paul.
Elsewhere in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs we learn that women scheme treacherously to entice men. Because of this proclivity they seduced the Watchers (equivalent to the Nephilim of Genesis 6), who were induced to mate with them before the Flood. Ever since the birth of the Giants from these unions, the earth has been visited by two types of spirits: the spirits of truth and the spirits of error. In this view, the tendency of women to seductiveness caused disaster at a particular point of human history; it continues to this day. Hence the need to call attention to the capacity of women for misdeeds.
Although both the Sodomites and the Watchers were guilty of various errors, the pairing of them in this passage reflects types of sexual activity which would violate the order of nature. The sodomites sought forcible homosexual relations with angels who were the guests of Lot, while the Watchers actually mated with the daughters of men, producing the Giants. Note that in this passage the express "likewise," homoios, links two different sexual transgressions, one (in our terms) homosexual, the other heterosexual. What they have in common is that they risk God's wrath.
To return to the Romans passage, in the interpretation offered here, Paul refers first to the historical misdeeds of human women in offering themselves to the extraterrestrial beings. These acts would have been a kind of upwardly mobile counterpart of bestiality since they involve sexual behavior that crosses species lines. Then a modern instance of challenge to the natural order is offered, that of male homosexuality. Retracing Paul’s thought in relation to his probable source requires the conclusion that there is no certainly that he had lesbian activity in mind in Romans 1:26.
In short the standard interpretation of Romans as referring to female same-sex activity is in doubt. Since this is the only such passage in the entire body of scripture, Hebrew and Christian, one must conclude that in all likelihood that the Bible does not condemn lesbianism.
Since the Protestant Reformation, Christians have been advised to look at Scripture without regard to later commentaries and accretions. If my conclusions are correct regarding the exclusion of lesbian conduct from the sphere of condemnation, a striking asymmetry emerges. To take only the most salient passages (Lev. 18:22, and 20:13; Romans, 1:26-27; and I Cor. 6:9), the Bible condemns male same-sex behavior. Nowhere does it unequivocally forbid lesbian relations. Those who regard the Bible as a coherent guide to ethics and behavior (and not simply a disparate collection of remarkable ancient documents) must explain this inconsistency.
REFERENCES (See end of Part Two).