Thursday, October 23, 2014

Jesus Did Mention Homosexuality!

There is an argument that continues to be used that says that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality.  This is supposed to be of some consequence since many of those making this argument seem to imply that if Jesus had mentioned homosexuality they would change their views to match his.  Even if it be granted that Jesus didn’t specifically mention homosexuality there is still the need to accurately place Jesus in his first century Jewish context.  Consider these words from J. P. Meier:

On sexual matters, Jesus and the Essenes tend in the same direction: stringent standards and prohibitions… In a sense, one could call both Jesus and the Essenes extreme conservatives … apart from the two special cases of divorce and celibacy, where he diverged from mainstream Judaism, his views were those of mainstream Judaism.  Hence there was no pressing need for him to issue or for the earliest Christian Jews to enshrine moral pronouncements about matters on which all Law-abiding Jews agreed.  If almost all Jews agreed that acts of fornication and adultery were wrong, there was no reason for Jesus, who shared these views (see, e.g., Mark 7:21-22; Luke 16:18) to exegete the obvious.[1]

Nevertheless, it may be the case that Jesus did speak directly to the issue of homosexuality in his teaching.  Below are some excerpts from an article by G. Thomas Hobson, “σέλγεια in Mark 7:22,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 21 (2008), 65-74.  (A pdf of this article can be found HERE).

It is commonly claimed that Jesus never speaks one word about homosexuality.  However, one can argue to the contrary that he actually speaks two.  As we look at his list of sins in Mark 7, we find two words that arguably include homosexual behavior within the scope of their meaning.  One is the term πορνεία (sex outside of marriage), a word which has been much studied and commented upon.  The other is the word σέλγεια, on word on which precious little study has been done. (p. 65)

Hobson mentions William Barclay’s comment that σέλγεια may be possibly the “ugliest word” in the list of New Testament sins.  Hobson comments:

It’s a word that Jesus (translated through the tradition that Mark presents) could easily turn to as a synonym for homosexual activity and other similarly shocking behavior forbidden by the Jewish law. (p. 65)

Hobson goes on to engage in a lexical study of the word looking at its usage in classical Greek, pre-New Testament, and post-New Testament contexts. 

Jewish writers almost always use this word in its sexual sense.  It appears that what βδέλυγμα was to idolatry, σέλγεια was to πορνεία: sin taken to its most disgusting degree… The term may have been used to refer to what were regarded as the most shameless violations of the sexuality taught in the Torah. (p. 67)

Hobson notes that σέλγεια is used ten times in the New Testament: Mark 7.22; Romans 13.13; Galatians 5.19; 2 Corinthians 12.21; Ephesians 4.19; 1 Peter 4.3; 2 Peter 2.2, 7, 18; Jude 4.  The references in 2 Peter are especially noteworthy, as Hobson points out:

Second Peter uses σέλγεια more than any other NT document.  It links σέλγεια explicitly with the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, picturing Lot (2 Pet 2,7) as “greatly distressed by the licentiousness (σέλγεια) of the wicked” around him (probably not referring to their failure to show hospitality). (p. 68)

Hobson notes that Jesus’ usage of this term only appears in Mark.  Hobson takes the accepted view of Mark’s audience that it was primarily a Gentile audience.

Only Mark has σέλγεια on his list also.  It would appear that the writer of Mark, writing for a general audience, saw a need to spell out an element of Jesus’ teaching that addressed a sexual lifestyle issue among Gentiles, a matter that was less of an issue for Matthew’s predominately Jewish audience.  Furthermore, for some reason, neither πορνεία nor μοιχεία specifically addressed the sexual sin he had in mind.  It is likely (particularly in light of a text such as Melito, De Pasc. 389-94) that Jesus was speaking of violations of the Torah such as homosexual behavior, incest, or bestiality, rather than comparatively less shocking sins such as adultery and fornication. (p. 70)

Hobson ends his article with these thoughts:

Exactly what did Jesus consider to be “utter shamelessness”?  What did he consider too far “over the line”?  The danger is to impose twenty-first century AD politically correct ideas on Jesus.  It is unlikely that Jesus used the word to describe the scandals of poverty and injustice.  It is unlikely that he was speaking of mere affronts to “common decency” (whatever that means).  In context, it is far more likely that Jesus had in mind what his fellow Jews (like the author of 2 Peter) meant when they used the word: images of Sodom and Gomorrah, images of outrageous violation of the one-flesh union of man and woman.  Jesus would likely have shared Jude’s concern about those who “twist the grace of God into σέλγεια” (Jude 4).

If Jesus had wished to speak of homosexual behavior in his list of sins that defile the human heart, to what other word could Mark have turned in his translation?  Παιδεραστία was too narrow a term.  ρσενοκοίτης had barely been coined by Paul.  And πορνεία is too broad a concept, although it is the only word Matthew chooses to use in his version of Jesus’ sin list.  σέλγεια was an ideal word for identifying both homosexual behavior and other similar sexual sins of which even the Mishnah was reticent to speak any more than was absolutely necessary.  It appears that the situation demanded that the subject be addressed for Mark’s mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles, but not for Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience.

σέλγεια reveals itself as a shamelessness that knows no boundaries, a shocking brazen disregard for any kind of morality.  Did Jesus use this word as a synonym for homoerotic activity and other similar acts from which Jews (along with many Gentiles) recoiled in horror?  One cannot prove beyond doubt that Jesus had this meaning in mind, but a plausible case can be made that he did.

The appearance of σέλγεια on the lips of Mark’s Jesus must be accounted for somehow, and it will not do to say that a word of such shock value as σέλγεια was a throw-away detail, or was intended as nothing more than a synonym for πορνεία or μοιχεία.  Yes, these three words may overlap in meaning, but in a context where all three are used together as part of a standard trio of sexual vices, and particularly in a first century AD Jewish context, where σέλγεια is virtually always used in a sexual sense, it is likely that all three terms are intended to convey specific meanings: fornication, adultery, and the most shocking sexual offenses named in the Torah.  It is argued here that, as he seeks to faithfully communicate Jesus’ teaching, Mark found it necessary to emphasize to his readers that Jesus did explicitly reaffirm the Torah’s prohibition of the most shocking sexual offenses, of reaffirmation that Matthew did not find it necessary to make to his readers.

Jesus says that both πορνεία and σέλγεια come from the heart, along with murder, theft, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness (Mark 7,21-3).  As the debate about sexuality continues in today’s society, Jesus’ words about shameless disregard for boundaries in the area of sexual behavior deserves further consideration in this debate. (pp. 72-74)

     [1] J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, volume 3 (New York, 2001), 502-503 as quoted in G. Thomas Hobson, “σέλγεια in Mark 7:22,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 21 (2008), 73.