How not to abuse the Bible against Jews and homosexuals

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.

0 thoughts on “How not to abuse the Bible against Jews and homosexuals

  1. It says in Revelations that those who practice homosexual acts won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Where did John get this belief? From Jesus, who taught that God made man male and female and that the man and woman become one. Jesus is God and Man: God would know His works and the New Adam would know His commandment “be fruitful and multiply” even more than the Old Adam did.

  2. Nick, are you referring to Revelation 22:15? The meaning of “dogs” (kunes) in this verse is uncertain. There is good reason for linking it to homosexuality, but it is not an unambiguous condemnation. We can only speculate on where John got his beliefs from, but I think he presents this verse as the glorified Jesus’ own words.

  3. Is it completely clear what the Leviticus stuff means? I can read it as saying that people who are gay sholdn’t pretend not to be – if you are gay, BE gay as God made you – don’t pretend that you are having sex with a woman if you are with a man?.

  4. Alice, that seems to me like far too creative an interpretation. Consider what the text originally meant, among Israelites in the desert or in the pre-exilic monarchy. In those times there was no concept of people being gay by orientation apart from their actions – actually was there such a concept before the 20th century? I am quite sure the author intended to condemn any man having sex with a man. That doesn’t immediately imply that we should do the same today.

  5. It is interesting that both your commenters so far have missed the point. Correct me if I’m wrong but James Alison is encouraging us not to judge, to realise that we are ALL the same and not to use the bible as a weapon against people we disapprove of. Any post on homosexuality immediately encourages debate on why it is moral or immoral. Can we get away from that a little and realise that we are all in the same boat and need to help each other limp into the Kingdom? We are all sinners. Pauls also says in 1 Cor. 6 that the ‘greedy’ will not inherit the kingdom of God. I put my hand up.

  6. Mike, I think you get the point. While 1 Corinthians 6 lists homosexual practice as sin, it puts it on the same level as things like greed and slander, which so many Christians think they can do with impunity while loudly condemning gays even for existing.

  7. Fristly all credit to you Peter, for reminding us how essentail it is to “engage with Scripture” carefully and objectively, and not read far more into a passage than is there. 3 briefish comments here:

    1) I have heard some describe the Leviticus texts as referring to the operation of the Cult – the religous authorities. My reading of every English traslation I possess is that the context is clearly that of instructions to the entire community. I would be interested to know if you would agree with or rather qualify that. If it does refer to the cult only,could there still be some read across the church leaders today! And depending on how we view priesthood of all believers it could still apply to everyone in the pew.
    2) In drawing form Joel Hoffman, you seem to suggest that these texts show God’s disapproval of same sex practice, but do not label it as sin. If God disapproves/abhors etc then is it not sin by definition? I think I must be missing something you are saying here?
    3) From somewhere on the Church Society website I have printed an excellent article which looks at The Torah from the 3 views of Cultic, Civil, and Moral Law. It argues only the moral applies to us with minimal qualification . One CoE Reader I know felt homosexuality fell in the Cultic/Civil area, rather than Moral.

  8. Colin, I’m sure these laws in Leviticus applied to all Israelites, not just priests etc to whom stricter laws applied. I think an argument could be made that they are cultic and so not relevant in the NT age, but I would need to look at any such argument in detail.

    Joel’s point was really that “sin” is not a good translation of the Hebrew word in question. There are different words for what God forbids, and it is not good to use the word “sin” every time even though these things are all sin.

  9. Thank you for taking the time to look at this issue and to think about it, rather than simply regurgitating teachings of others (not that I’d expect less from you, as I’m a longtime reader, but still, it’s worth saying). I appreciate that, and the spirit in which this post was written.

  10. Peter – Do you think Alison is right that “the Jewish leaders” is less literal than “the Jews”? The way I understand it, ’Ιουδαιος is an adjective which is ambiguous between the meanings “Jewish” (in our broad sense) and “Judean.” Greek can, but English cannot, substantivize an adjective to say something like “the Jewish”. To translate that into English we need to answer the question, the Jewish (or Judean) what? Saying the Jewish people is an interpretive decision that adds content that isn’t in the literal text, just as much as saying the Jewish leaders is.

    I was translating some bits of John on my blog yesterday (I would value your thoughts on it if you get a chance), and I thought it best to use ‘the Jewish [leaders]’ in some places and ‘the Jewish [crowd]’ in others. Anyone yelling about literal translations (like, say, Grudem) should, I think, be insisting on those brackets!

  11. Kenny, it seems clear to me that Ioudaios could be used as a noun referring to a Jewish person. So the rendering “the Jews” is more literal for those who believe in strict word for word translation. That doesn’t make it more accurate or preferable in any way. What “Anyone yelling about literal translations (like, say, Grudem) should” do is shut up and learn some proper translation theory. So should you, and then you will realise that your brackets around “leaders” and “crowd” are completely unnecessary.

  12. 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…Amen Peter

    Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Co 6:9-11 (NIV)

    In context; And that is what some of you WERE
    The Bible doesn’t teach that we will be sinless, but we can sin less, not by our own abilities, but by the power of the Spirit. In Christ we become a New Creation, we are Recreated (2 Co 5:17). Praise God! He alone gives the power to live a Victorious Christian sin less life.

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