Thursday, August 16, 2012

The New Testament, Homosexuality and the Problem with Arguments from Silence: More on the Healing of the Centurion's Slave

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. 


  1. In your last paragraph, you state, "We are far more preoccupied with homosexuality than the Jesus and Paul". Not sure how you can include Jesus in there since the only thing he said about homosexuality was, "{}".

    1. Thanks for pointing out the little piece of irony! You are correct that Jesus said nothing on the topic. But for rhetorical sake I will let it stand.

  2. John,

    Thanks for this excellent post. I think arguments from silence are really tempting for all of us, at times, because it allows us to insert our views onto texts with no way for those text "to respond," since they are silent on the matter. So, some can say that Jesus did not oppose homosexuality because he never mentions it, while others protest that Jesus' failure to mention it means he likely accepted the typical Jewish view in his day that opposed it.

    In like fashion, our good friend James can ask, from silence, that if Jesus opposed homosexuality why did he pass on a golden opportunity to question the centurion about his "pais." It also could be asked, from silence, that if Jesus was OK with consenting same-sex relationships, why did he not broach the subject with his Jewish contemporaries? He was hardly timid about being controversial?

    In the end, arguments from silence get us nowhere.

  3. This is a judiciously written post, and spot on. I would like to expound a bit on your statement about the OT and Jewish views of human sexuality (with homosexuality in view), since the OT is in the background of the tradition that Jesus, Paul, and Judaism stand in, and that the Jewish sources provide an analogy to the NT concerning proportion vs. stance.

    Jewish sources, like the NT, also say surprisingly little (proportionally speaking) about the issue of homosexuality. But breadth of discussion is not always a good indicator of importance. In the case of Jewish sources, the position of homosexuality is clear: it is prohibited. This position, of course, stands in the OT tradition, where homosexuality is again, clearly prohibited. Perhaps this background should be taken into account when considering the issue at hand. I am not suggesting a 1-to-1 correlation by any stretch of the imagination, nor am I suggesting, for example, that the the preventative measures given by R. Judah have direct links to the NT. I am suggesting that Jesus was Jewish, and that Paul was Jewish, etc., and that in OT and Jewish tradition, the position is clear (despite little discussion in both sources), and that Jesus, Paul, etc. have inherited a some sort of tradition. This should probably enter the conversation more often, instead of viewing the NT in isolation. I am not saying it is determinative, and may be as weak as ar

    I also know that I have not done justice to the complexity of diaspora Judaism, and I have not addressed social issues among the Greeks and Romans. I also have not acknowledge the differences in audience...Jewish vs non-Jewish. I am just attempting to draw attention to an area that might be useful in the conversation. How helpful is open for debate.

  4. Jesus may not have shunned same-sex marriage, but I believe he backed his Father's decree in Genesis. Mark 10:6 Jesus is shunning divorce, but he also recognizes that a male and a female will leave their home and become one. The quote is for divorce, but I can imagine that Jesus believed every part of that quote for all situations.

  5. I find it interesting in these discussions that the commentators seem to deemphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and Paul. Before they were anything else they were faithful Jews well within the mainstream of that religion at the time. Everything else flowed from that. To any faithful Jew homosexual behavior was anathema. Period. There was simply no debate about this so it is not surprising that the writers of the New Testament felt no need to expound on it.

  6. I find it intriguing that there is no mention of the fact that much of the words/actions of Christ were written after the fact, and that it is perfectly possible that Jesus did make comment about the same-sex relationship (if there was one), and that it had been forgotten by the writer. Also, just because He did not make a comment, this does mean He approves. It is reasonable that Christ could disagree with a situation, but still heal the individual involved. Christ loves us, no matter what sin we fall prey to. He does not like the sin, but He loves the sinner.

    My own opinion on the subject - I disagree with same-sex relations, I believe them to be contrary to the will of God. However, that does not mean that I hate those who live their lives that way. They are still sons and daughters of God. They sin, but so do we. We all sin in many ways. Who are we to judge others, just because the sin they struggle with is different to the sin that we struggle with?

  7. "We are far more preoccupied with homosexuality than the Jesus and Paul".

    The reason "we" are more preoccupied than "they" is simple: we live in a culture where religious and secular groups advocate the normalization of same sex behavior. Had that been the case in 1st century Israel, it's likely Jesus and Paul would have said far more

  8. John,
    Do you know when the normal (and perhaps, but not necessarily 'normative') marriage relationship in Israel became one man + one woman? Obviously, it was not always the case - with leverite marriage requirements and un-condemned polygamy in much of the OT. Even in the NT there are references to eunuchs, commendations for bachelorhood, and an odd reference in Paul's letter to whether or not one is treating his virgin in a seemly manner.
    Yet, the normal relationship by the NT time seems to be one man + one woman. I remember a remark in Crossan and Reed's "In Search of Paul" that said Julius Caesar started a 'family values' kind of push toward monogamy (which was not well received among his elites) throughout the Roman Empire. Is that when the one man + one woman model became "normal"?

  9. My experience has taught me that life and living is made up of huge places of "silence." Those places cannot be ignored and to simply shrug and retreat means we miss a lot of folks journeying in those places because we may not have a right/clear/precise Biblical answer. In no way am I suggesting that the authors or any others are retreating. This is a great dialogue. But eventually the feet hit the pavement and you deal with the mess and bless of real folk in real places making their way like Jesus. Jesus invited those first disciples to be willing to push out into the "deep," whatever that means or meant. I dare say life has taught me what it means. It means 'trusting' in One who goes with us, when our feet don't touch the ground, when the currents sweep us under, when the stuff within, hormones, DNA, whatever seem to have their way with us on any given day have their way. When our best choices and best rules don't give us the best of life. Sometimes there are no words, no proper descriptions, no precise theological jargon, no neat fixes in a "book", no final exegetical safeguards to help us navigate our way. I am not shocked at all that Jesus didn't speak to so so much. In not doing speaking to everyone about everything he did not come off as the resident expert, pontificating about all manner of those silent places where people live and slowly die. We live in a culture with all forms of communication tech yet human beings are starved for touch. Human sexuality, like it or not, is the deepest and holiest form of that. In a culture that appears to be awash and ablazed in it, it too often still occupies a silent, even dark place for so many, hungry to touch and be touched. I am astonished how often Jesus reached out and put his hands on people as opposed to arguing with them, and in doing so making that connection, made them well, not just physically healing them but well. There might be more to be said/argued about silence than we dare say. It is unfortunate that so much of the speaking and dialogue around the issues of human sexuality meanders away from the silence that frightens so many about this important form of human communion and communication.

  10. But "created order" doesn't help much if homosexuality has biological underpinnings.

    1. Alex, I agree. My point about "created order" is what Paul thought, not what science may or may not tell us today.

  11. I would like to hear a response to the comment from 'anonymous' on the current drive to normalize homosexual behavior. What *was* the common view of homosexuality in the first century? In Israel? I have heard different responses to this question. To me, scripture does seem to be consistent on this issue: Genesis, Ezekiel. Romans, Jude and Revelation condemn homosexuality, and in three of these scriptures Sodom is mentioned by name. But this doesn't address the issue of 'silence' by Jesus; though whenever he speaks of marriage and God's great plan for the world the language is always "male and female" and so on.
    I think the point is well taken that there is silence, as I see it, in the NT on polygamy. As a non-scholar, it also seems clear to me that the entrance of polygamy into the people of Abraham was an obvious mistake from the beginning, though God did allow it. Did polygamy end after the Babylonian exile? Was there something going on during the intratestamental years calling the nation back to moral and sexual purity?
    Has there been any work done on this for the lay student of the Bible (accessible work, that is)?
    I know from past experience that too many questions tend to get ignored......:)

  12. We may be too preoccupied with homosexual conduct( I think we are), but, you probably can't use the failure of Jesus to rail on homosexual conduct as evidence He considered it a big "no biggie".

    Jesus didn't rail on any sins except unbelief as a general rule.

    1. Jesus railed on one sin above all others: failure to provide meaningful assistance to the poor, the afflicted, and the marginalized. To those who focused on moral purity and ignored the plight of the disadvantaged he had one unambiguous directive: Go to hell.

      I am beginning to suspect that the emphasis by Christianity Inc. on human sexuality is being promoted by those who have a vested interest in keeping the flock distracted from the true moral issues of the day: the rich (including so-called shepherds who live in palaces). They say nothing about true evil in the world, actively support those who are inhospitable to strangers and aliens (the true sin of Sodom), and even urge their followers to vote for those who promise to lower taxes on the rich and cut off support to the needy and afflicted.

      I live in Phoenix, Arizona, under the jurisdiction of the braggart who styles himself America's toughest sheriff. Rather than protesting at abortion clinics and military funerals, perhaps followers of Jesus should be picketing the office of an elected public servant who mistreats aliens and prisoners, sends tanks to knock down doors when searching the wrong property, and wastes taxpayer resources sending investigators thousands of miles outside his jurisdiction to politically embarrass the President and get himself on television in the process. What would Jesus do, indeed?

  13. Thank you for the post, Professor. Sorry for my tardy reply. Obviously this debate won't be resolved anytime soon. I am curious, though, why everyone continues to refer to the centurion in question as a Roman centurion? Is the Greek rendering of the officer’s title actually 'centurion' (I don't read Greek) or its common equivalent, hekatontarch? This is important because Capernaum, the centurion's residence, was in Herod Antipas's jurisdiction, hence the likelihood of a Roman officer living there seems remote to me. Herod's troops would have been a polyglot mix of Hellenized Gentile and Jewish mercenaries, organized along Roman and Greek lines. They were certainly not ethnically Roman or Italian. Even the 'Roman' garrison in neighboring Judea was composed primarily of auxiliary cohorts raised in Sebaste (in modern day Nablus). These men would have been Hellenized Syrophoenicians, Samaritans and Greco-Aramaics. The only exception was the famous Italic cohort, the unit that Cornelius served with. The upshot is that if the officer was, in fact, a Herodian army captain, and the 'pais' was his lover, it would most certainly have been viewed as a scandal within orthodox Jewish circles. Even if the officer was a Gentile, he was an officer in Herod's army and he would have been taking a major risk, in my opinion, in seeking relief from the protégé of John the Baptist, the firebrand Jewish prophet who made his reputation--and lost his life--preaching against the licentiouness of Herod and his regime.

    1. Mike B.

      Sorry for my tardy reply. You bring up a good point. In the article in JBL I reference above this is one of the points the author brings up as well and he does a good job of explaining it. In the end, I am not sure that we can or should get into the details surrounding the Roman Centurion's hometown. I think the purpose of the gospel authors is not to say something about his sexuality but about his faith and Jesus' response to it.

    2. Thank you for the reply, Professor! My apologies, I missed that link. I concur with your assessment, as well. Cheers!

  14. Paul no where condemns premarital sex? Do a search for the word fornication (porneia), which includes premarital sex.

    "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, " (1 Corinthians 6:9)

    "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, " (1 Corinthians 6:9)

    "Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. " (1 Corinthians 7:2)

    And the Lord Jesus condemned fornications, plural, and specified that it male and female that God sexually joined together in marriage, that being where cleaving is sanctioned, (Mt. 19:4-6) leaving all other sexual relations to be fornication.

    As for the attempt to force sex into another passage that it does not belong, see

    God made man and women uniquely compatible and complimentary, in more ways than the physical aspect, and only joined them in marriage, which Jesus Himself specified. (Gn. 2:18-24; Mt. 19:4-6) Homosexual unions are only condemned by God in the Scriptures by design and decree, in principle and in precept.

    And attempts to force homosexual relations into passages it does not belong extends even to pro homosexual apologetics on the Bible, and i find the manipulation of the Bible by them to be more serious than even homosexuality.

    However, some of the first Christians were likely former homosexuals, (1Cor. 6:9-11) and there is room at the cross for all who want the Lord Jesus over sin, and believe upon Him to save them who died for them, and rose again. And who thus are baptized and follow Him, to the glory of God.