walter wink on homosexuality & the bible (part 2): new testament

This post is the second part of a series on Walter Wink’s views on homosexuality and the Bible. It is advisable to read Part 1 on the Old Testament before continuing below.

The debate over homosexuality is a remarkable opportunity, because it raises in an especially acute way how we interpret the Bible, not in this case only, but in numerous others as well. The real issue here, then, is not simply homosexuality, but how Scripture informs our lives today.

Fresco from the Tomb of the Diver, c.475 BC. Paestum, Italy.

With these words of Walter Wink we launch into the second part of this series on homosexuality and the Bible. In the last post I summarised Wink’s case as presented in his article Homosexuality and the Bible in regards to the Old Testament. In short his argument could be summarised as claiming we cannot simple say “the Bible says” while holding an inconsistent approach to interpretation in which we allow some parts of the Bible to dictate our behaviour while ignoring others for no reason other than arbitrary selection (based on our own cultural preferences). In this sequel I will summarise Wink’s comments on each of the relevant New Testament passages that speak directly about homosexuality (since there are only a few).


1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine… (1 Timothy 1:8-10)

Wink says, “It is not clear whether 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 refer to the “passive” and “active” partners in homosexual relationships, or to homosexual and heterosexual male prostitutes. In short, it is unclear whether the issue is homosexuality alone, or promiscuity and “sex-for-hire.””

Digression Wink’s explanation is frustratingly concise as he does not explain the rationale behind his comment. It is worth here explaining the academic discussion to which he refers, even if one concludes by disagreeing with him.

The Greek translated as “men who practice homosexuality” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is actually two distinct words - malakoi and arsenokoitai - and so the sentence reads, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor malakoi nor arsenokoitai, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

A Greco Roman depiction of what could be an Arsenokoitai and Malakos

So what do those two Greek words mean? Nobody really knows. Prior to the 1950s this phrase was never translated as referring to homosexuals. Scholars continue to debate the meanings, though there is greater consensus that malakoi refers to effeminate call boys, such as those that were widespread in the first century Greco-Roman world. The NRSV translates the term as “male prostitutes”, though call boys were specifically the young prostitutes used by older elite married men. If this translation were correct the implication would be that Paul was condemning married men who hired young boys (malakoi) for sex, as well as the boys themselves.

What about arsenokoitai? (used in 1 Timothy 1:10.) Scholars don’t really know what it means and there is little consensus, though it seems Paul may have invented the word. Some scholars believe it may refer to the customers of the call boys. The interpretation of the word as “homosexual” is only a recent development and made less likely by the fact that in Paul’s time there was already a standard word in Greek for homosexual (paiderasste) that he could have used.*

That Wink says, “it is unclear whether the issue is homosexuality alone, or promiscuity and “sex-for-hire,”” is seemingly justified by the ambiguity of the words involved. Whatever our position on the issue, we must be honest in our exegesis, not opting for a reading that suits our previously determined theology; to opt arbitrarily for the translation “homosexual” is a perverse and baseless choice.


Romans 1:26-27

For Wink Romans 1 is left as the only unambiguous condemnation of homosexual behaviour in the New Testament, and he says it should be the centrepiece of any discussion.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)

Wink says:

No doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has apparently very little choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does. He seemed to assume that those whom he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their regular sexual orientation for that which was foreign to them. Paul knew nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically in some cases. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up” or “exchanging” their natural sexual orientation for one that was unnatural to them.

Wink goes on to say that Paul would have thought those whose behaviour he condemned were actually “straight”, and so by committing homosexual acts they were behaving in ways that were unnatural to them. Paul had no concept of homosexual orientation simply because the idea was not available in his world. In Wink’s view, “there are people that are genuinely homosexual by nature (whether genetically or as a result of upbringing no one really knows, and it is irrelevant). For such a person it would be acting contrary to nature to have sexual relations with a person of the opposite sex.”

Wink also qualifies the nature of the relationships described by Paul in Romans 1 as, “heavy with lust; they are not relationships between consenting adults who are committed to each other as faithfully and with as much integrity as any heterosexual couple.” This possibility was something Paul could not envision, says Wink.

Wink then digresses to make the point that venereal disease and AIDS are often viewed as divine punishment for homosexuality, though they are in fact, “a risk involved in promiscuity of every stripe, homosexual and heterosexual.” In fact, he says, the vast majority of people with AIDS are heterosexuals, and non-promiscuous lesbians are at almost no risk; it can hardly be divine punishment for homosexuality.

Wink’s last point is that though Paul believed homosexuality to be contrary to nature, we know that it is manifested amongst a wide variety of species, especially (but not solely) under the pressure of overpopulation. Wink poses the idea that it could be a quite natural mechanism for preserving species. Wink finishes by saying, “We cannot, of course, decide human ethical conduct solely on the basis of animal behavior or the human sciences, but Paul here is arguing from nature, as he himself says, and new knowledge of what is “natural” is therefore relevant to the case.”

Wink’s treatment of this issue in his brief article is vastly incomplete, as he himself would no doubt concede (hence why he edited a book on the subject). This is obviously a discussion that requires more exegetical and theological labour, as at the very least Wink has demonstrated that the mainstream Western Christian perspective on homosexuality is rife with interpretive inconsistencies.

As I have said in the previous post, the issue of homosexuality and the Bible is not a minor or marginal one – it affects real people who are made in God’s image. We must approach this issue honestly and openly in case the Bible not actually say what many have assumed. Surely we do not want to repeat the sins of the past in condemning those who the Bible does not (in the name of the Bible, no less; slavery is again the most poignant example).

Let us not be deceived or hard-hearted or lazy; this is no simple issue. The Bible does not “just say” in this instance.

MCA

Read about some of Walter Wink’s conclusions about our reading of the Bible in Part 3 of this series…


* Arsenokoitai seems to be a compound word including arsen which means “man”. In this way even if the word referred to homosexuality, it would assumedly not refer to both male and female homosexuals. This does not prove any perspective, but surely must be taken into account in their formulation.
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Posted on July 8, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Culture & Art, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Sexuality & Gender and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. richardrglover

    Next post: “How then do we come to a humble assessment of the issue.” Yes? :)

  2. I am not convinced by Wink’s reasoning on Romans 1. We are often called to go counter to our nature in the name of righteousness. So, just because some people may be naturally inclined to homosexuality does not make it ‘ok’.

    For me the relevant ‘answer’ to Romans 1, is in Romans 2, starting with “Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge…”

    Surely, Romans 1 as all teachings in the Bible are for our own edification. If you want to interpret Romans 1 as definitive, then don’t be gay. But we should also take Romans 2 to heart, and stop judging others. It’s just not our job.

    PS Thanks for this series, Matt, it’s been very thought-provoking.

  3. This is a fascinating discussion, Matt. Thanks for offering the ongoing series of very thought-provoking posts.

    While the specific points of the discussion are very interesting, though, I think the real point in all of this is, as you’ve mentioned, the way we approach the text(s) in the first place and our systems of interpretation.

    It is so incredibly easy to allow anachronism to slip in to our interpretation, and to forget that the biblical texts are, at their core, a wonderful socio-historical snapshot of a given community responding to God in their own situation.

    I am very much enjoying the discussion that is coming as a result of your posts!

  4. Matt, you said: “Prior to the 1950s this phrase was never translated as referring to homosexuals.”

    What do you think the translators of the 1587 edition of the Geneva Bible had in mind when they translated this term as “buggerers,” if not making reference to homosexuals?

    • Hi Ben,

      Great question; it forced me to look into the background to “buggerers”.

      “Buggerers” obviously refers to those who commit “buggery”. In modern English it is used as a curse word, and is well-known to technically refer to sodomy.

      There is slightly more to it. The Buggery Act of 1533 in England was a law against forms of intercourse deemed “unnatural”. This referred to anal sex (by a male with either another male, or a female) and bestiality.

      There are a few reasons to argue this was not a reference specifically to homosexuality (though it would have included it inasmuch as male homosexuals may engage in sodomy). The first was that the restricted intercourse was for all people of both sexes. The second is that bestiality was included. Homosexuals were not being directly referred to; this is obvious since lesbians would have been unaffected, though anal sex between a consenting married couple would have been. In short, buggery is not synonymous with homosexuality – inclusion is not equal to synonymity.

      The problem with the Geneva translation is that it imposed a culturally-determined value on the text. Sodomy and bestiality was taboo; this concern made its way into the text as a result. There is no reason to believe that Paul was referring to “buggerers”; such a meaning is simply not within the range of options for malakoi and arsenokoitai. Sure, there are crossovers, but they are not the same.

      In short, malakoi and arsenokoitai do not equal buggerers, and anyway buggerers do not equal homosexuals.

      Matt

  5. The other question then is whether we continue on in this vein and reinterpret many of the Biblical restrictions on behaviour in light of our own current picture of how things should work. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, Matt, on Michael Green’s book on the subject. I can’t for the life of me think of the title at the moment, but I’ll do a quick search (“Church and Homosexuality” is the closest I could find…). There is value in contrasting the two points of view here, and I don’t think that presenting one side of the debate and hoping for insightful comments below is doing that. Perhaps the next two posts (!) could sum up the opposite viewpoint, from an informed Biblical perspective.

    • Hi Tom, sorry for the delay in my reply.

      I would argue that we do such reinterpretation all the time, often without realising it. Christians, as Wink argues, pick and choose what they like among the Bible’s commands depending on cultural preferences. This applies to even the most ardent literalistic fundamentalist (prawns and pork anyone?).

      I would want to rephrase your statement though. You said, “The other question then is whether we continue on in this vein and reinterpret many of the Biblical restrictions on behaviour in light of our own current picture of how things should work.” Wink’s argument, as I see it, is that we are not strictly reinterpreting biblical restrictions, but are trying to work out what the Bible actually says, and what that means for us today. If the Bible really does condemn something other than a homosexual orientation we could argue that the Bible is actually silent on that issue.

      As for balancing the argument, I hate to disappoint but I have no plans for this at the moment. i say this for two reasons. The first is that blogs are, by nature, unbalanced opinions. Indeed, I am not a media source and have no ethical reason to have to balance the debate (by this i do not intend to be rude, I hope it didn’t come out that way). The second is that there is enough information out there arguing for the immorality of homosexuality; I felt the need to simply offer a counter-argument.

      Glad you are reading my blog Tom. I have enjoyed your comments and look forward to more.

      Peace brother.

  6. @Tom: Are you suggesting that Wink, a specialist in the New Testament and Biblical Interpretation, does not offer an “informed biblical perspective”?

  7. No, not at all. Just that there are people with those same credentials on the other side of the argument and that it would be nice to hear from them too!

  8. The other question then is whether we continue on in this vein and reinterpret many of the Biblical restrictions on behaviour in light of our own current picture of how things should work. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, Matt, on Michael Green’s book on the subject. I can’t for the life of me think of the title at the moment, but I’ll do a quick search (“Church and Homosexuality” is the closest I could find…). There is value in contrasting the two points of view here, and I don’t think that presenting one side of the debate and hoping for insightful comments below is doing that. Perhaps the next two posts (!) could sum up the opposite viewpoint, from an informed Biblical perspective.
    +1

  9. Edward T. Welch: “Is it possible that the biblical texts were ignorant about homosexual orientation and were thus prohibiting only “unnatural” homosexual practice by participants of heterosexual orientation? This would suggest that the practicing homosexuals in the Bible were involved in homosexuality against their natural inclinations. Yet the nature of sin is that people sin because they want to sin (James 1:13-15). It comes from our desires. No one is dragged into sin kicking and screaming. Homosexuality existed in biblical times because people enjoyed it; they were drawn to it by their own hearts (Mark 7:21-23). An artificial distinction between (sinful) homosexual practice and (justifiable) homosexual orientation contradicts the Scripture’s constant connection of desire, orientation and deed. If the deed was prohibited in Scripture, the desire was too.”

    • The logic clearly doesn’t follow on. How is a distinction between “sinful” (unnatural) homosexual practice and homosexual orientation artificial? If it is real then it is quite frankly an ontologically legitimate distinction.

      To argue that homosexuals only act on sinful desire is to completely circumvent any complex debate about the reality of a genetically-derived orientation. There is no more self-evident connection between sinful desire and a possible homosexual orientation from birth than there is between such desire and being born dark-skinned, blue-eyed, dwarf, dyslexic, hermaphroditic or with parentally-contracted AIDS.

      Simply put, you assume that homosexuality is a sin, even if someone were to be born with that orientation, and have no willingness to consider that this may not be the case. For this reason you can post a quote that simply strings a bunch of prooftexts together, without reference to biblical context, that illogically makes the case that there is no difference between a genetic orientation and a sinful choice.

      “This would suggest that the practicing homosexuals in the Bible were involved in homosexuality against their natural inclinations.”

      Yep.

  10. Hi guys.
    Thanks for the great articles Matt. They are the best things I have read on the subject, although maybe that’s because I haven’t read much :P

    And thanks for the discussion, all. A couple of thoughts that I’ve had that might add to the discussion here:

    The first comes from a discussion on the nature of homosexuality. IMHO the question of “Natural sin” (we sin because we follow our “natural sinful desires”) v “Unnatural sin” (“by committing homosexual acts they were behaving in ways that were unnatural to them”) turns on our understanding of our Natures.

    Are we born broken and redeemed by grace, or are we born good, carrying God’s image, led away to sin by our sinful (unnatural) desires and redeemed by grace?

    My view is that the biblical narrative teaches the latter.

    If we understand and trust God who made us and who lives within us, then sin is unnatural and we only do it because it seems like a more attractive option at the time.

    If we understand that we are so inherently sinful that, even redeemed, God cannot abide to live within us and all of our desires are evil, then you could say that any act that came from a desire, would be sin.

    I don’t think this actually bears directly on your discussion of homosexuality Matt, as I’ll show below.

    My second and related thought which may be relevant here comes from my disagreement with the use of Romans 1 as a condemnation of homosexuality.

    I know I have no claim to dispute with a scholar like Wink, or even like you, Matt, who are using the passage to say that God condemns homosexuality or otherwise. My reading of Romans 1 is that, while there is no denying that Romans 1:26 and 27 contain a list of acts that God condemns, the gist of the passage is NOT to condemn the acts, but to use the existence of these acts to show that the WHOLE WORLD has been corrupted.

    Rom1:20 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

    The thrust of Paul’s passage is NOT that homosexuality is sinful, the thrust is that we are ALL sinful (Rom3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”).

    If you are going to use Romans to discuss homosexuality, you might as well include Romans 1:25 and 26. You could even argue from these verses that homosexuality (if you’re including modern, mature, homosexuality in the list of sins in vv 26, 27 and, Matt, I see that you and Wink are not) is a RESULT of sin, not a sin itself.

    Also, if you are going to use Romans 1 to condemn homosexuality, you simply can not do it without also, IN THE SAME BREATH, condemning greed, envy, deceit and disobedience to parents as Paul does in verses 29 and 30.

    Lets stop the greedy from getting married shall we?

    There is no escaping that we are all sinners. All in absolute dependence on God’s grace for salvation. There is no point condemning anyone else for their acts (or their orientation) because we are all, equally, depraved and condemned.

    And so the distinction between Natural and Unnatural sin, and, for me, the use of Romans 1, while it may be diverting, is irrelevant. We are all offered grace, divine grace, freely. And we are all called to offer the grace that has been offered to us, as freely as it is offered to us.

  11. Why don’t we do what Christians are suposed to do. PRAY about the issue and God will direct your paths. Everyone who reads the Bible or other religious texts interpret it the way they want. God picks what is a sin not us. I believe the homosexual lifestyle is a sin not just from reading my Bible but pray about this issue and others. I believe all Christians should stop looking for their own interpretation but seeking God and finding what his law is.

    Thanks,

  1. Pingback: walter wink on homosexuality & the bible (part 1): old testament « life.remixed

  2. Pingback: walter wink on homosexuality & the bible (part 3): conclusions « life.remixed

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