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.
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.”
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.
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)
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.
* 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.
Posted on July 8, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Culture & Art, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Sexuality & Gender and tagged 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Abomination, Gay, Hermeneutics, Homosexuality, Interpretation, Lesbian, Romans 1:26-27, Walter Wink. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.