Sexual Ethics: An Exegetical Argument

As far as I can tell, the traditional view of the church on homosexuality goes something like this:

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures… Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 625, section 2358. (emphasis mine)

I’m not going to argue that this view of homosexuality is true; rather, I’m going to argue that one argument against it is a failure.

The argument runs like this:

  1. If specific practices were unknown to the writers of the Bible, the text can’t be properly understood as prohibiting them.
  2. Monogamous homosexual relationships were unknown to the writers of the Bible.
  3. Therefore, the Bible can’t be properly understood as prohibiting monogamous homosexual relationships.

At first glance, premise 1 seems fairly plausible. After all, the Bible, like any book, was written at a particular time, in a particular culture, by an author with particular ends in mind. The authors of the Bible were no different, and so stretching the meaning of particular verses beyond their historical context is a faulty hermeneutic.

However, if the Bible is divinely inspired, premise 1 loses much of its initial plausibility. By inspiration I mean God is the primary author of scripture – he guided the human authors of the Bible to write what he wanted them to write, but in their own languages, styles and cultural contexts. So, if the Bible is divinely inspired, it’s very plausible that God would have worded the commands so as to apply to situations and actions unknown to the human authors and recipients of the Bible. After all, God in his omniscience would know the possibility of new ethical dilemmas arising, or new sexual lifestyles becoming prevalent.

Even if the Bible is not inspired, but is just a collection of ordinary human texts, premise 1 is still not necessarily true. For instance, it is possible that the writers of the Bible had a very specific vision for virtuous sexuality, and viewed anything outside that vision as immoral. In other words, suppose the biblical writers believed sexual relationships were only legitimate in X context, and therefore sexual relationships in Y and Z contexts would be considered immoral under the ethics of the biblical writers, even if they were unknown to the authors at the time of their writing the Bible. So, if it’s possible that the Bible can be legitimately interpreted as prohibiting sexual relationships in some contexts unknown to the original authors of the text, then premise 1 isn’t necessarily true.

What about premise 2: “Monogamous homosexual relationships were unknown to the writers of the Bible.”?

This statement is not self-evident. It’s an assertion about the past whose truth or falsity is an open question. Therefore, whoever makes this argument should produce some reason to think it’s true. In the original discussion that was the catalyst for my writing this post, premise 2 was simply asserted, not argued. There may be reasons to believe it is true, but I’m not aware of them.

Strictly speaking, premise 2 is almost impossible to verify, because we can’t get inside the minds of the biblical authors other than through their writings. What we can do, however, is look at other ancient sources to see what they say about monogamous homosexual relationships. If other ancient authors wrote about them, that should severely undermine confidence in premise 2. I will quote several such sources.

The first source is Plato’s Symposium, written in the intertestamental period, c. 385 – 370 BC. The dialogue is primarily a discourse on love, particularly male to male eros.

Pausanias, one of Plato’s characters, gives the following speech:

“But the Eros of the Heavenly Aphrodite, first, does not partake of female but only of male – it is the eros for boys – and next is elder, and without share of outrage or wantonness. This is why those inspired by this Eros turn to the male, delighting in what is by nature stronger and possessed of more intelligence. One might recognize those moved purely by this Eros even in the love of boys itself: for they do not love boys except when they begin to get intelligence, that is, when they are on the verge of getting a beard.

Those who begin to love them at this point, I think, are prepared to be with them through the whole of life and pass their lives in common, rather than deceiving them by catching them in the thoughtlessness of youth and then contemptuously abandoning them and running off to someone else.” (122, emphasis mine)

As you can see, Pausanias is clearly discussing monogamous homosexual relationships. He cites the lifelong duration of these relationships – “the whole of life” – as well as their exclusivity, contrasting them with relationships in which one lover “abandon[s]” the other and “run[s] off to someone else.”

Later in the dialogue, another participant, Aristophanes, narrates a Greek creation myth. In this story, humans were originally genderless, but Zeus split them into men, women and an androgynous gender in order to keep them distracted and less able to rebel against the gods. Aristophanes says:

Each of us then is but the token of a human being, sliced like a flatfish, two from one; each then ever seeks his matching token. Men sectioned from the common sex, then called androgynous, are woman-lovers; the majority of adulterers are from this sex, while on the other hand women from this sex are man-lovers and adulteresses. Women sectioned from a woman pay scant heed to men, but are turned rather toward women, and lesbians come from this sex.

Those sectioned from a male pursue the masculine; because they are slices of the male, they like men while still boys, delighting to lie with men and be embraced by them… When they reach manhood they love boys and by nature pay no heed to marriage and the getting of children; it suffices them to live out their lives unmarried, with one another. So this sort becomes wholly a lover of boys or a boy who loves having lovers, ever cleaving to what is akin.

When the lover of boys and any every other lover meets his own particular half, they are then marvelously struck by friendship and kinship and Eros, and scarcely willing to be separated from each other even for a little time. These are the people who pass their whole lives with each other, but who can’t even say what they wish for themselves by being with each other. No one can think it is for the sake of sexual intercourse that the one so eagerly delights in being with the other. Instead, the soul of each clearly wishes for something else it can’t put into words; it divines what it wishes and obscurely hints at it.  (133, emphasis mine)

In the same vein as Pausanias, Aristophanes describes the lifelong nature of these relationships, referring to “people who pass their whole lives with each other.” Additionally, these unions are not simply carnal, but deeply meaningful, with each lover’s soul “clearly wish[ing] for something else it can’t put into words.”

The second source is a journal article that quotes many primary sources: “A History of Same-Sex Marriage” by William N. Eskridge of Georgetown University Law Center. 

A key document Eskridge cites is Sifra, “an exegetic midrash interpreting the book of Leviticus.” Finding estimates on the time of Sifra’s composition is difficult; however, one Jewish educational institution dates the text to c. AD 250 – 350. This puts it significantly after the composition of the canon of Scripture. However, given that Sifra cites events occurring many hundreds of years earlier in Israel’s history, it is plausible that the ideas contained in this passage go back much further than when they were written down. It would be odd if the writer of this midrash simply invented the idea of homosexual marriages in the land of Canaan hundreds of years after Israel’s interactions with the inhabitants of the land.

The midrash takes the form of question and answer:

If “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt… or of the land of Canaan,”

Might one think that they are not to build their buildings or plant vineyards as they did?

Scripture says, “nor shall you follow their laws”:

I have referred only to the rules that were made for them and for their fathers and their fathers’ fathers.”

And what would they do?

A man would marry a man, and a woman would marry a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, a woman would be married to two men.

That is why it is said, “nor shall you follow their laws.” (1438, emphasis mine)          

The wording here is unambiguous: men married men, and women married women.

Later in his article Eskridge argues that:

The evidence of marital practices – whether for different – or same sex unions – is particularly sparse for Egypt; few records illuminate the intimate practices of the region, and no authoritative legal texts survive. Yet some artifacts have depicted same-sex couples in familiar poses, perhaps providing evidence that Egyptian society at some points in its history was accepting of same-sex relationships.

For example, a tomb for two male courtiers of the Fifth Dynasty (circa 2600 B.C.) includes bas-reliefs of the “two men in intimate poses, holding hands, embracing, noses touching, poses that are strikingly more erotic than those depicting different-sex couples in Egyptian tombs. Social historian David Greenberg argues that the men were lovers whose same-sex relationship was apparently accepted by the state, because the Pharaoh provided their tomb. Indeed, the tomb of at least one Pharaoh, the renowned Ikhnaton, contains figures of the Pharaoh and his male consort posed even more intimately. (1437 -1438, emphasis mine)

If Greenberg is right, and these relationships were sanctioned by the state, they were likely of a long-term nature. After all, what interest would the state have in recognizing casual sex?

This is obviously a very limited historical survey. However, I believe the documents I’ve quoted cast significant doubt on premise 2. At minimum, they show that the idea of monogamous homosexual relationships is not a modern invention, but rather dates back to at least within several centuries of the composition of the Bible, and probably earlier.

In conclusion, because both of the premises are dubious at best, this argument against the church’s traditional understanding of homosexuality is a failure.