Last week I posted a response to a Huffington Post article that suggested Jesus healed the same sex partner of a Roman Centurion. I suggested that while the author did have some correct points, ultimately he was reaching a bit to use that story as biblical support for same sex marriage. His central contention was that the Greek word pais could mean slave, but it also was a way to describe the junior partner in a same sex relationship.
I agreed with him, but also pointed out that there is no evidence for the term’s use that way in the Bible and that based on what little evidence we have in the Matthew and Luke’s versions of the story the most we can say is that the individual was probably a slave. We know nothing about whether or not they were sexually involved. You can read my entire response here.
One of the people who left comments on the post was my friend, fellow Durham grad and blogger James McGrath. His first response was to agree with me and thanked me for the post. A few hours later James commented again this time suggesting that the author of the Huffington Post may be correct since pais can sometimes be used for a junior partner in a same-sex relationship. I agreed with James that this was correct, but that I was not convinced that it was the case here since we don’t have enough evidence.
Yesterday James posted a piece asking whether the NewTestament was uninterested in homosexuality. Following a summary of some of what I just outlined above James then moves into challenging conservatives about their view of homosexuality and the Bible. Focusing on the story of the Centurion he says:
At any rate, the point is this: If Jesus cared about whether people were engaged in such activities, given how common they were among Greeks and Romans, he really missed a good opportunity to ask, and potentially offer a rebuke. I wonder how those who think the answer to “WWJD?” is “condemn homosexuals” will explain the fact that Jesus did not even bother to ask or address the issue, apparently missing an opportunity that his conservative followers today would not have passed up.
Following this he turns to Paul where James correctly points out that Paul too is mostly silent on the subject only mentioning homosexuality twice in his letters once with a rarely used term (1 Cor 6.9-10) and as part of list of those things Paul considers unnatural and shameful (Rom 1:26-27). He concludes the post with a critique of conservative Christians, but first has this to say about Paul and the New Testament.
That Paul and other NT authors say little about the subject in a world where it was more taken for granted than it is in our time tells us a great deal. This simply was not as important an issue for the NT authors as it is for contemporary conservative Christians. And in those few places where the subject seems to come up, what is said and what is not said both serve to remind us that the sorts of relationships that are in view are not those being discussed by advocates of same-sex marriage today.
I want to start by saying that I agree with much of what James says in his post. I have advocated for the church to have a much more open conversation about homosexuality. And I think the issue is much more complicated than taking Bible verses and applying them. But my issue has to do more with James’ hermeneutics. I understand what he is doing, but I don’t think it helps his case.
My first problem has to do again with interpreting pais in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 in such a way that it means the servant in question was also being used sexually. Again, I agree that pais did sometimes refer to the junior partner in a same-sex relationship, but I don’t think we can argue that here since we don’t have enough evidence. All we can say is that he was a slave. Is it possible even likely that he was used for sex by the centurion? Yes, but we simply don’t know. Slavery often involved sexual exploitation of the enslaved. But slavery was not monolithic and we can’t assume that everyone acted and thought the same way. There is much more that could be said about the problems with interpreting the story this way, but I would direct James and my readers to an article that responds to this type of interpretation of the story in JBLin 2006.This interpretation of the story is complicated on several levels
Also problematic is James’ point about Jesus being silent here and missing a good opportunity to offer a rebuke. I suppose that is one way to look at the situation, but we could also look at it from another angle. Jesus also missed a chance to rebuke any type of sexual exploitation since that was common practice in slavery. Why would Jesus heal a slave who was going to be exploited sexually by the man who was requesting the healing? Jesus missed a good chance here. If, as James wants to suggest, Jesus knew or suspected that the centurion was using the slave sexually why did he not condemn him for this sort of exploitation?
Some might argue that the Centurion had strong feelings for the servant which thus demonstrates their close relationship. But this too is problematic. The story is only told from the perspective of the centurion; the slave has no voice in this story so we don’t know how he felt about the relationship. Which leads to another important question: Does Jesus support slavery? Perhaps he did. It was a commonly accepted practice in the ancient world, Jesus never condemns it and slaves are frequent characters in his parables. Should we then conclude that slavery is “ok” based on this story? Is Jesus’ silence here not only endorsing same-sex relationships but also slavery and the sexual exploitation of slaves?
As to James point about Paul, I agree for the most part, although I think that Paul’s words in Romans 1:26-27 are fairly unambiguous. They are based on the Old Testament and Jewish views of human sexuality. In fact Paul goes further by including Lesbians, something not mentioned in the OT. I am among those who think that Paul did view same-sex relationships as contrary to the created order and therefore wrong. But I also see Paul subjecting women at times in ways that I don’t agree with and supporting slavery not only through his silence on the subject but telling slaves “not to worry about it”(1 Cor 7:21) and sending back Onesimus to Philemon. I do agree, however, that Paul was not preoccupied with same-sex relationships. If anything, Paul was preoccupied with sexual immorality (mentioned in many of his letters) which would include much more than just same-sex relationships.
The problem with appealing to silence, as James well knows, is that there is a lot that the Bible is silent about. For instance, Paul no where condemns premarital sex, although I am pretty sure that he thought sex outside of marriage was a bad idea. If we want to get a hint of what Paul thought was sexually immoral then we would need to look beyond the New Testament to the Old Testament and other Jewish literature of the period.
I realize this could sound like James and I are making the Bible say whatever we want it to say. And as we all know you can in fact do that. But this is what makes the study and the application of the Bible so difficult and exhilarating at the same time. And this is a topic that deserves a lot better consideration and hard work than it often is receiving. Condemning or supporting something simply because that is the way of the Bible is tricky. If we do that we have little theological ground for abolishing slavery, ordaining women and allowing divorced people to remarry.
In closing, I want to reemphasize that I am not against the basic premise of what James is saying. I agree that we are far more preoccupied with homosexuality than Jesus and Paul. And the vitriol with which some pretend to discuss the topic is not only unhelpful, it is unchristian. But I don’t think appealing to the healing of centurion’s slave or an argument from silence will help. Like James I think the Bible has something to say to us today. We just need to do a better job of interpreting and applying it.