Sunday, February 18, 2007

Ben Witherington: Toward Conversations about Homosexuality and the Scriptures

In the context of critiquing a recent Rob Bell appearance in Lexington, KY, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington writes about homosexuality in the New Testament:

...Rob then makes an argument from silence which is in fact misleading. The argument is this--- "Jesus never said anything about homosexuality". This is not quite true. Jesus took all sorts of sexual sin very seriously, even adultery of the heart, as Rob admits, and so it is no surprise then that we find Jesus telling his disciples in Mt. 19 that they have only two legitimate options: 1) marital fidelity (with marriage being defined as a relationship between one man and one woman joined together by God which leads to a one flesh union), or 2) being a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom.

The term 'eunuch' here whether taken literally (as in a castrated person who is incapable of normal sexual intercourse), or simply morally (as in a person who never engages in sexual intercourse, remaining celibate in singleness, though he or she is capable of such an act), makes very evident that for single persons, any single persons, celibacy in singleness is the standard Jesus holds up for the unmarried.

Nor, in view of the way Jesus talks about marriage in the context with the discussion of the original Genesis story about the creation order-- the creation of woman for man (and their interdependency), could one ever imagine Jesus redefining marriage to include same-sex sexual partners. Jesus is not silent on such matters at all-- fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness are his standards, and indeed they are standards by which Jesus himself lived when we are thinking about the celibacy in singleness issue. He is likely talking about himself when he speaks of persons who have chosen to be eunuchs for the Kingdom. Chastity was considered a great virtue in that honor and shame culture.


Rob then raises the point that the Bible says nothing about sexual orientation. This is true, but irrelevant. It says plenty about sexual behavior, including same sex sexual activity between consenting adults in Romans 1, 1 Cor. 6 and Gal. 5, to mention three texts. It is simply not true that the Bible is just opposed to pederasty or male prostitution, though certainly both of those forms of same-sex sexual expression are prohibited. The terms used in 1 Cor. 6 refer to males who play the role of 'malakoi' or the soft or effeminate role, and those that play the aggressive more male role called 'arsenokoites'-- which literal means a male who copulates with another male (and the word certainly does not imply copulation only with under aged males). On all of this Rob really needs to read Rob Gagnon's definitive work The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon).


knsheppard said...

I'm no expert, but, I know for a fact that since 1985 a LOT of work has been done on biblical scholarship and the homosexuality issue. While I thought it was a good post, it is interesting that he refers to the work at the end as 'definitive', almost implying that seeing things another way would be the deviant view. From what I recall, McKnight's series of posts at Jesus Creed on the topic would question his more conservative reading of the Greek and Hebrew terms. But you're a man of Greek, what say you?

Stephen said...

i'll need to read mcknight and get back. i know he spent some time on this some months ago, but i didn't keep up with the series he did.

Anonymous said...

Lurking around this afternoon and found you...

It seems to me that trying to redefine or keep an 'open mind' towards issues such as homosexuality is a way to continue to live as one wishes.

The Bible is crystal clear about such matters. What bothers me is the intended desire to understand God's will for man here.

If one looks for literal specifics, i.e., "the Bible says nothing about sexual orientation", this just tells me someone really has no idea of God's intended purpose & design from Gen to Rev.

I share this as one struggling with my own issues. I admit I can fall into sin with porn and other things from time to time. I know this is wrong in God's sight, yet I fall at least several hard times each year. I hate it! Yet my personal struggle does not negate what the truth is, and pretending that God didn't say this or that specifically does not satisfy my conscience. In fact, in times of struggle, I am miserable and lose my joy for God and life.

brad said...

i respect the work of ben witherington (the little i know of him). however, it's difficult to really comment without having heard the particular piece shared by rob bell.

wish i could hear the entire exchange. jaimie arpin-ricci spent a good deal of time committed to this topic not long ago as well. i really enjoyed following along there.

stephen, glad to hear you're doing alright after the windshield incident:)


brad said...

added note... ben certainly has some good conversation going on at his blog in regards to his post on bell. thanks for pointing it out:)