I thank John Richardson for giving me, in a comment on my post on the new bishop of Chelmsford, a link to a fascinating paper “But the Bible says…”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1, by James Alison, a Roman Catholic scholar. I am all the more grateful to John because he sent this link even though he disagrees with the conclusions of the paper.
This paper was given in 2004 at Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women, Baltimore, which was at least in its origin a community of nuns. So it was rather bold of a man to address these women about anal intercourse and lesbianism!
The part of the paper which I want to focus on here is this:
According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call “actualization” of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. I will read you what they say, and please remember that this is rather more than an opinion. This is the official teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, at the very least an authorized Catholic source of guidance for how to read the Scriptures, in their 1993 Document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”:
“Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary… to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavourable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)
The list which the Commission gives is deliberately not exhaustive, but it has the advantage of taking on vastly the most important of any possible improper actualization, which is that related to the translation of the words ‘οι ’Ιουδαιοι, especially where they are used in St John’s Gospel. I ask you to consider quite clearly what this instruction means. It means that anyone who translates the words ‘οι ’Ιουδαιοι literally as “the Jews” and interprets this to refer to the whole Jewish people, now or at any time in the past, is translating it and interpreting it less accurately, and certainly less in communion with the Church, than someone who translates it less literally as something like “the Jewish authorities”, or “the local authorities” who were of course, like almost everyone in St John’s Gospel, Jewish.
What does this teaching look like from an evangelical Protestant perspective? Of course “the official teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission” has no binding authority for non-Catholics. Nevertheless this passage is surely good teaching on how not to abuse the Bible by using it as a weapon against, for example, the Jewish people as a whole.
Also it is indeed exegetically correct to note that when biblical authors used the words hoi Ioudaioi they were referring in many cases not to the Jewish people as a whole but to the Jewish or Judean authorities who opposed Jesus and the apostles. It is therefore good translation to render this term, as for example TNIV does, as “the Jewish leaders”. But this TNIV rendering brought condemnation from Wayne Grudem, among others, on the grounds of “obscuring larger corporate responsibility” – does this mean that Grudem considers the Jewish people as a whole to be corporately responsible for the death of Jesus?
Alison notes that the passage he quoted uses the Jews only as an example, and so derives a broader principle from it:
given the possibility of a restricted ancient meaning in a [Bible] text which does not transfer readily into modern categories, or the possibility of one which leaps straight and expansively into modern categories and has had effects contrary to charity on the modern people so categorized, one should prefer the ancient reading to the actualized one.
And he then applies this principle to Romans 1. I appreciate the way that he has discarded the unhelpful chapter and verse divisions here (I have used them only so I don’t have to quote at length), and sees 1:18-32 as the build-up to 2:1. He understands 1:26-27 as a description of
the sort of things that went on in and around pagan temples throughout the Mediterranean world in Paul’s time.
Alison goes on to describe these disgusting practices in some detail. As he points out, up to this point
the [original] listeners will have been able to say “Right on, Brother!”
But the sting is in the tail, where Paul brings the argument home to his listeners, as in 1:29-31 he lists the kinds of non-sexual sins which they must have realised that they too were guilty of. Thus, according to Alison, Paul’s focus is not really on these pagan religious practices, but on the ordinary non-sexual sins of every ordinary person.
One clear direction of Alison’s argument, although he only hints at it, is that modern homosexuality and lesbianism is so different from the pagan orgies described by Paul that it should not be understood as being the same thing that the apostle speaks negatively about. But he gives more prominence to the argument that these orgies are mentioned only
as illustrations for an argument of this sort: “Yes, yes, we know that there are these people who do these silly things, but that is completely irrelevant besides the hugely significant fact that these are simply different symptoms of a profound distortion of desire which is identical in you as it is in them, and it is you who I am trying to get through to, so don’t judge them.”
In other words, Paul is not so much teaching that homosexual practise is wrong as teaching that his readers’ ordinary sins are just as wrong as they consider pagan orgies to be.
Now this is certainly not to say that the Bible approves of homosexual practice. There do seem to be much clearer, if briefer, condemnations of male homosexual intercourse in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11.
This argument also does not cover Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Joel Hoffman is correct to point out that these verses do not use the language of sin. But it is clear from them that God strongly disapproved of homosexual practice among the Israelites. The only question then is whether this, like blood sacrifices, circumcision and food laws, can be understood as a law for Israel which does not apply to Christians today – this needs detailed study.
James Alison has made an important point. Most would agree that great care should be taken in using biblical texts about specific Jewish people against the Jews in general. Similarly, great care should be taken in using biblical texts about specific homosexual groups “in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity” against today’s LGBT community. I would still consider, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11, that homosexual practice is wrong. But a proper reading of the Bible certainly does not justify the kind of condemnatory language against gays and lesbians used by many Christians.