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.[fn]D.A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (1995), 521.[/fn]
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.[fn]R.B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996), 383.[/fn]
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.