Did Jesus say something about homosexuality après la lettre?
Essay by Stephen O. Murray
March 22, 2002
The conventional wisdom is that Jesus said nothing on the subject of same-sex sex(/uality). In the early 18th century Jeremy Bentham, the first modern advocate of decriminalizing sodomy, wrote that “Jesus has in the field of sexual irregularity preserved an uninterrupted silence.” (Of course, His acceptance of a prostitute as a major female follower would seem to many as within the realm of “sexual irregularity.”)
The Gospels, in which the words and deed of Jesus are officially recorded, are less than crystal clear about whether the legalism of Leviticus was to be overthrown or not. In the early Church, those who interpreted the requirements of the dietary code, circumcision, etc. as still being in effect (led initially, by the apostle James) lost the argument to the let’s-convert-the-Gentiles views of St. Paul (see Ephesians 2:11–22, Romans 1:13–17).
Between the Old Testament and the letters of St. Paul in what is sometimes billed as “the all-time best-seller” are the four books about Christ. Within the Gospels, the core of Christ’s teaching is the Sermon the Mount. It is precisely here, in the midst of the most sustained exposition of Christ’s teaching (however far removed these are from Christian institutional practices of licensing intolerance) that there is an exhortation about condemning homosexuals (the word that was not coined until 1868)—and it is against condemning them.
In the King James Version, which more than a few Americans seem to believe is the original language of both testaments (rather than being a translation of a translation), Matthew 5:22 reads:
But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother 1, shall be in danger of the Judgment;
And whosoever shall say to his brother, “Racha,” shall be in danger of the counsel 2;
But whosoever shall say, “Thou fool” [moré], shall be in danger of hell fire [the Gehenna of fire].
As in many other junctures in the Bible, parallel grammatical construction is used here to lay out warnings about A (bad), B (worse), and C (worst). The 17th-century translators had no idea what “Racha” meant so did not translate it. The term remained opaque until publication in 1934 of a (257 B.C.) papyrus from the archive of Zenon in Philadelphia (the original one, in Egypt) that referred to a particular rachân, Antiochus. From the context, it is clear that that this refers to a soft, effeminate male, corresponding to the Greek malakos, or kinaidos and Latin cinnaeudus. It seems to me that the best contemporary colloquial translation would be “faggot.”
In the middle of this passage from Matthew, what Christ is condemning is fag-baiting. He does not condemn “faggotry” either in the sense of effeminate carrying-on or same-sex sex.
My interpretation of Matthew 5:22 is very consistent with the message of Jesus Christ throughout the Gospels. He consistently broke away from and challenges the censorious majority. He did not shun lepers, publicans, or prostitutes, and it is quite consistent with his message and with his treatment of stigmatized categories of persons in his homeland that he would warn fag bashers to desist. His wrath was aimed at the profiteers and those who judged others (taking for themselves making judgements that are for God the Father to make at the Last Judgment; see, for instance, John 1:1–11).
The nature of the relationship between Jesus, who is generally thought to have been unmarried, and The Beloved Disciple (Matthew 8:5-13, 26:20; John 13:23, 19:24-26, 20:2, 21:7, 20; Roscoe 2004) is very controversial. A sexual interpretation of it attributed to Christopher Marlowe was one of the excuses for not punishing his killer.
More recently, it has been argued that Christ blessed a centurion and his boy toy. The two types of sexual relationships between two persons born male in the ancient world for which there were words involved what I call heterogender homosexuality (in which one partner was effeminate or effeminized, the soft male of “racha”) and pederasty (the Greek model with many Roman instances, including, seemingly the centurion and his boy). In that modern egalitarian (homogender) homosexuality was not institutionalized in the ancient world and was unnamed, there is a sense in which the whole Bible (not only Jesus) is silent about (“gay”) homosexuality not organized by social status differences (age, class, or gender). (On the three recurrent organizations of same-sex sex see my 2000 book Homosexualities.)
However censorious St. Paul and the Holiness Code are, Christ famously preached against censoriousness—not only in general as in the famed “Judge not that ye be not judged” but specifically against what can be best labeled in the current English vernacular as fag baiting.
Edgar, C. C. (1934) “A new group of Zenon papri.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 18:112-13.
Johansson, Warren (1985) “Whosoever shall say to his brother, Racha.” Cabirion 10:2-4.
— (1990) “Racha.” Encyclopedia of Homosexuality 2:1093–94. New York: Garland.
Jordan, Mark (1997) The Invention of Sodomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Murray, Stephen O. (2000) Homosexualities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Richlin, Amy. 1993. “Not before homosexuality: the materiality of the cinædus and the Roman law against love between men.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3:523–73.
Roscoe, Will. 2004. Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same Sex Love. San Francisco: Lethe Press.
Winkler, John J. (1990) The Constraints of Desire. The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge.
©2002, 2016, Stephen O. Murray
originally posted on epinions 22 March 2002