Does Jesus have anything to say about homosexuality? Simple answer, no.

Scot McKnight has recently proposed three (or four) teachings in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus may have had homosexual behaviour in mind. The discussions I’ve been involved in over the last few weeks have focused primarily on the prohibitive texts in Leviticus and Paul. It’s been assumed that while Jesus had some things to say about heterosexual misbehaviour and divorce, he kept quiet about—or had no reason to talk about—same-sex relations. Scot is careful not to draw firm conclusions from the evidence, but we can understand why people on either side of the debate might want to recruit Jesus in support of their cause. Since this is becoming an ongoing project for me at the moment, I thought I would take the opportunity provided by Scot’s post to review the arguments here.

A millstone around the neck of pederasts?

Agreeing with William Loader, whose books he strongly recommends (see below), Scot thinks that “when Jesus talked about scandalizing a child he may have been talking about pederasty and the all-too-common Roman empire practice of males having small boys around for sexual gratification”. The passage he quotes is Mark 9:42:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin (skandalisthēi hena tōn mikrōn toutōn), it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

In Mark’s narrative it is not clear who the referent of “these little ones” is. A few verses back, Jesus takes a child in his arms and says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (9:37). But then we have Jesus’ answer to John about people who are not against them being for them, and the saying “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward” (9:41). In Matthew’s version of this saying the cup is given to “one of these little ones” (hena tōn mikrōn toutōn) (Matt. 10:42); and in the judgment of the sheep and the goats the disciples are described as “the least of these my brothers” (Matt. 25:40, cf. 45).

This rather suggests that for Mark the “little ones” are the disciples, which is certainly how Luke takes it:

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin (skandala) are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin (skandalisē tōn mikrōn toutōn hena). Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:1–4)

We might suppose that Matthew identifies the “little ones” who might be caused to sin with children clearly enough:

Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matt. 18:5–6)

But wait. This is part of teaching about discipleship. The child is an object lesson: whoever would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven must humble himself like a child—that is, he must allow himself to become of no social standing, one of the least in the world (Matt. 18:1-4). So Hagner writes:

The first main part of chap. 18 (vv 1–14) is about disciples, not children. Even the reference to the παιδίον, “little child,” in vv 1–4 is only for the purpose of encouraging childlikeness in the disciples. Thus v. 5 too is not about receiving children…, as is the case in 19:13–15, but about welcoming the disciple of Jesus, who for the moment in this transitional verse is referred to as ἓν παιδίον τοιοῦτο, “one such child”…, the disciple who has become childlike.1

The “one such child”, therefore, is the disciple who is received as Jesus himself—exactly the point that is made in Matthew 10:40-42. The “little ones” who have angels in heaven always beholding the face of the Father are not children; they are the disciples (18:10). This is Jesus’ way of saying that God will take care of them. The lost sheep in this context is not a missing child but a disciple who has gone astray (18:12-13). Jesus concludes: “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (18:14).

So although we may be sentimentally attached to the idea that Jesus threatened punishment by drowning for people who cause children to sin, it appears that he had in mind those who would put stumbling blocks (skandala) in the way of the disciples. The teaching has nothing to do with pederasty or scandalising children. Scot, in fact, does not press the point very hard.

Men in palaces wearing effeminate clothing?

The word malakos literally means “soft”, but it is used in Hellenistic Greek quite widely with the connotation “effeminate” or “unmanly”, and can denote specifically a “catamite”—the passive partner, often a boy, in Greco-Roman same-sex relations. This appears to be the meaning of the word in 1 Corinthians 6:9. The only other occurrence in the New Testament is Jesus’ comment about the “soft clothing” worn by people in kings’ houses (Matt. 11:8; 7:25). Scot thinks it possible that Jesus was “looking at Tiberias or Sepphoris, Roman established cities, and had the Roman male practice of recreational sex with other men or young boys in mind”.

[pullquote]It’s hard to imagine, however, that as the disciples of John the Baptist wandered off, Jesus was asking the crowd whether they had gone out into the desert to see a gay man dressed in effeminate clothing.[/pullquote] The contrast is not between John’s manly heterosexuality and the homosexual proclivities of men who live in palaces. It is between John’s asceticism (“John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey”: Matt. 3:4) and the luxuries of palace life. BDAG cites the phrase himatiōn polutelōn kai malakōn from Artemidorus, Oneir. 1.78, meaning “expensive and soft clothes”.

Eunuchs who have been so from birth?

Scot did not mention this one, but it came up in the comments. The disciples are taken aback by Jesus’ teaching on divorce and wonder whether it wouldn’t be better not to marry in the first place. Jesus replies, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” He then differentiates between men who are eunuchs from birth, those who have been deliberately castrated, and those who have “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”—we assume figuratively (Matt. 19:10-12).

Would Jesus have included men who are homosexual by nature in the category of congenital eunuchs, as being unfit for marriage? As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that homosexual men were classed as eunuchs, and the text gives us no reason to think that Jesus had such people in mind. It’s also highly unlikely that Jesus was thinking of men who are homosexual by nature. It is of course true that homosexual men, like eunuchs, would not find it difficult to accept the “word” about not marrying, but this is not what Jesus says.

Sexual immorality is not just for straight people?

Scot suggests, finally, that Jesus’ use of the term porneia, generally translated “sexual immorality”, is “as close as it gets to thinking Jesus did have something to say about same-sex relations”. In the Gospels the pornē word group is usually used with reference to heterosexual immorality: according to Matthew, Jesus allows a man to divorce his wife on the grounds of sexual immorality (Matt. 5:32; 19:9); tax collectors and prostitutes (pornai) go into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders of the people (Matt. 21:31-32); the Jews protest to Jesus that they “were not born of sexual immorality” (Jn. 8:41). Porneia is listed along with adultery in the more general saying: “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19).

There is an argument that for a first century Jew porneia, at least when used in general terms, would have  encompassed all the forbidden sexual relations listed in Leviticus 18:6-23. Richard Hays, for example, makes the case with reference to the apostolic requirement that Gentiles abstain from porneia (Acts 15:29):

If, as seems likely, these stipulations are based on the purity regulations of Leviticus 17:1-18:30—which apply not only to Israelites but also to “the aliens who reside among them” (Lev. 17:8-16, 18:26)—then the umbrella term porneia might well include all the sexual transgressions enumerated in Leviticus 18:6-30, including inter alia homosexual intercourse.2

I’m not sure this is entirely convincing. In the Septuagint porneia appears to be used consistently for heterosexual immorality, prostitution in particular, either literal or metaphorical. In the context of the mission to the Gentiles it is reasonable to think that Greeks and Romans were required not to indulge specifically in the same-sex practices that notoriously characterised the culture. But to read such a contingent development back into the Gospels seems questionable.

So where does that leave us?

Frankly, I don’t think there is any evidence that Jesus addressed the subject of same-sex relations. I assume that he expected Israel to observe all the commandments—including the prohibition against a male lying with a male as with a woman—at least until the coming of the kingdom of God and the end of the age of second temple Judaism (cf. Matt. 5:17-20). He was not challenged to make his views clear with regard to what was presumably, in his immediate context, the relatively insignificant or rare—or perhaps covert—issue of same-sex relations. But we cannot infer from that silence that he tacitly approved of or condoned same-sex relations.

  • 1D.A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (1995), 521.
  • 2R.B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996), 383.

Andrew, on a related matter… do you see any scope for understanding Paul’s use of the word “arsenokoitai” to be in terms of the Greco-Roman practice of ‘anal rape’ where dominance and power over the subjugated or vanquished was being exhibited?

Did you see what I wrote here? It seems to me that Paul would have understood the word in rather general terms, consistent with Jewish understanding of the texts in Leviticus, as denoting a man who lies with another man as he would with a woman. That would have included in principle the sort of brutalizing practice you describe, but I assume that the word has a wider frame of reference than just that. My guess would be that Paul is reacting to something that is manifested at the level of popular and public culture.

Thanks Andrew, yes I read what you wrote. I’ve been following along with interest your recent crop of related articles. It was Phil Ledgerwood’s comment to your past post that tweaked my interest, where he said… “If there’s a way to get around the homosexuality clobber texts in the Bible, I am all for it. I just haven’t seen an exegetically convincing way to do that.”

I agree and so google search arsenokoitai and came across these two articles HERE and HERE by an “Andrew that when reading wondered if such may have been yourself; is it? Anyway I concluded you probably weren’t the author only because there has been no reference (that I’ve seen) to this particular meaning I raised above given in any of your definitions of arsenokoitai as being a possible rendering/meaning of that word, as opposed to the more “homosexual” translation. Any thoughts?

Definitely not me—seems to be an Australian. A few comments in response…

If arsenokoitēs means “sodomite”, it has not come from normal Greek usage; it has come from the LXX via Jewish tradition. I find his dismissal of the biblical background unaccountable.

Paul was in Corinth for a year and a half. It’s reasonable to think that the subject of same-sex relations came up and that he made reference to Leviticus 18:22; 20:13. The sarcastic point about Paul inventing a word that his Corinthians readers didn’t know and expecting them to hunt through the scriptures to find a meaning for it simply doesn’t take the historical context seriously.

The verb arsenokoitein is found in the Pseudo-Phocylides section of Sib. Or. 2:

Do not steal seed; accursed he who took it through many generations unto scattering of life. Indulge not vile lusts (mē arsenokoitein), slander not, nor kill. Give the toil-worn his hire; do not afflict the poor man. (2:71-74)

This is part of a Jewish imitation of Greek moral teaching, dated 1st century BC to 1st century AD, so it could pre-date Paul. The context doesn’t help us very much but may suggest the exploitation and abuse of the poor or vulnerable. The fact that it’s a Jewish text makes the link with Leviticus more likely.

The 6th century BC Greek poet Hipponax has the word mētrokoitēs for a man who has intercourse with his mother. It’s a fair assumption to make that a word such as this provided the template for arsenokoitēs.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 04/13/2015 - 08:32 | Permalink

I agree with your argument. With regard to the so called ‘clobber passages’ and Paul’s use of the word arsenokoitai, I offer the following commentary from ‘Evangelicals Concerned’, a US based pro gay Christian organisation — http://ecinc.org/clobber-passages/

peter wilkinson | Tue, 06/09/2015 - 12:00 | Permalink

As I’m in serious danger of being defenestrated from my church over my views on this subject (it came up following the Irish Referendum which endorsed gay marriage by 60%), I returned to this item, which I’m now finding very helpful. I’ll be looking at what you say on the Levitical texts shortly as well.

I was particularly wanting to remind myself of what you say about “eunuchs” (Matthew 19:12). It wasn’t very helpful to my cause. You said:

As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that homosexual men were classed as eunuchs, and the text gives us no reason to think that Jesus had such people in mind. It’s also highly unlikely that Jesus was thinking of men who are homosexual by nature. It is of course true that homosexual men, like eunuchs, would not find it difficult to accept the “word” about not marrying, but this is not what Jesus says.

I guess this is where contemporary application collides with historic usage. As far as I am aware, homosexual relationships in today’s sense (in particular, committed, lifelong, monogamous relastionships between adults) were unknown in the ancient world. (Can anybody correct me?). Homosexuality as a condition is not mentioned or discussed in the bible, because cultural lenses did not view it that way. So from that point of view, the historic meaning of “eunuch” did not include homosexuality.

However, from today’s point of view, the meaning of “eunuch” would certainly extend to homosexual people (if not homosexual behaviour or lifestyle). If Jesus was a figure whose significance was for all time (I choose the word carefully), then homosexual people might well take heart from this statement. They are not born with an abnormality which will forever stigmatize them — even if they live a celibate lifestyle.

Two other passages you do not mention are Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. (Did Scot McKnight refer to these?). A perspective on these can be found at http://stopbibleabuse.org/biblical-references/affirming-references/matthew-and-luke.html

If you had the time to apply your surgical knife, I wonder what you make of the argument?

It’s not so much the church defenestrating me, as me defenestrating myself. I’m less prepared to live with the sin of injustice and oppression (and that’s in the church) than I used to be, and am lining up my scriptural ducks in anticipation.

It seems to me very unlikely that the “honoured” doulos/pais refers to a sexual partner, particularly given the centurion’s close relationship to the Jews in Capernaum in Luke’s version. Is that another dead duck, then?