By Lee Karl Palo
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo
A common refrain I hear coming from the progressive side of the debate on full LGBTQ inclusion/condemnation of homosexual practice is that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. This is very often used as evidence, even considered strong evidence by some, that Jesus would have supported the progressive position. Many memes on social media use it, and it frequently comes up in the rhetoric. That said, I thought I would critically examine the claim that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.
Perhaps the first point that ought to be mentioned before exploring the claim in detail is that it is, at the most basic level, an argument from silence (which is a logical fallacy). At this point the debate about the efficacy of the claim is over. That it qualifies as an argument from silence should give people caution about using the claim that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. What could it mean if the claim were taken seriously?
A basic question to ask is about the nature of the documents that provide us with any information about the historical Jesus. As any scholar involved with reconstructing the historical Jesus will tell you, the best sources are still the Gospels you find in the Bible (take agnostic Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, for example). The four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are not exhaustive accounts of Jesus’ life, which is even noted in John 21:25. So, as the argument from silence implies, it could be that Jesus talked about homosexuality, but it simply wasn’t recorded in any of the Gospels.
None of the Gospels (canonical or otherwise) are what any contemporary historian would consider an unbiased account of the life of Jesus. They were all written for communities of faith, and so the material contained in them was presumably thought to be useful for those communities. It is likely that Luke, for example, is written to Gentile “god-fearers” to demonstrate that they can become part of the Christian movement—that Christianity is not an exclusively Jewish religion. The author of Matthew is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience to convince them that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. While the authors of both Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a basic outline, they added other material for their own particular agendas (as well as incorporating some type of “Q” source). Thus it is possible that the Gospel writers may have been aware of Jesus having spoken on the topic of homosexuality, but that it simply didn’t fit with what they wanted to say in their literary constructions of Jesus.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Jesus never spoke about homosexual practice. First it should be noted that Jesus was an observant Jew. That is all the more clear in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls which provide ample evidence as to the diversity of opinion among different Jewish sects of the Second Temple period as to Torah observance (see 4QMMT, for example). Thus while Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath on occasion, his response is typically to define and defend his understanding of the Sabbath, not to marginalize Sabbath observance as unimportant. In this light, it becomes clear that the Levitical prohibitions against homosexual practice would not have likely needed comment by Jesus’ to his predominantly Jewish audience. This would be contrasted with Paul, who is speaking to a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile Christians (doubtless why the subject comes up in Romans 1:26-27). Seen in this light, Jesus lack of comment on the subject doesn’t necessarily favor the progressive position.
What would Jesus have said about the subject? From ancient documents it is fairly certain that there was no concept that people could be in a loving mutual same-sex relationship. Generally homosexual practice was seen in terms of power, which was one participant having power over the other. In the Gentile world of the Roman Empire it was not entirely uncommon for an older man to take a boy to have sexual relations with. Given that context it should come as no surprise that the early Christians did not approve of such practices. It wouldn’t be out of character if Jesus too condemned practices like that, especially as he was known for valuing children (Jesus in Mark 9:42 prescribes some pretty severe consequences for the misleading of children).
One text that has been used to condemn homosexual practice is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-28). It may be overlooked that the Gospels record Jesus referencing the story. How does Jesus interpret and make use of the story? Jesus relates the cause for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as having to do with a lack of hospitality toward visitors (see Matthew 10:5-15 and its parallel in Luke 10:1-12). Most Bible scholars today would agree with Jesus’ interpretation of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as it is recounted in Genesis 19:1-28. However in Ezekiel 16:49 the reason for the destruction is spelled out in some detail. Nevertheless it is striking that it was not uncommon to discuss inappropriate sexual relations as a cause for the destruction of Sodom, and yet Jesus is not ever recorded as making that connection. The passages in question are Jude 1:7 and 2 Peter 2:4-10a (it should be noted that the sexual sin being attributed as the cause for the destruction of Sodom in both passages has to do with sexual relations between humans and angels rather than homosexual relations—see also Genesis 6:1-4 and the Book of Jubilees in this regard).
Hypothetically, if Jesus had encountered a same-sex couple in a mutually loving and egalitarian relationship, how would he react? A point often noted by both traditionalists as well as progressives is that Jesus was well known for hanging out with people on the margins of society. Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, and healed people whose ailments prevented them from full participation in the life of the community. Unfortunately that doesn’t help us with a determination as to whether Jesus would have condemned homosexual practice or not, but that he didn’t let anything get in the way of having social relations with any person. Jesus is recorded as telling people not to sin anymore, the most famous example being perhaps John 8:1-11. Thus the question becomes whether or not Jesus would see homosexual practice as sin, and not whether he would reject anyone defined as a “sinner,” etcetera.
So what can we now say about the significance of the claim that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality? The odds that Jesus, being a faithful Jew, would take a radical stand contrary to the Levitical prohibition against homosexual practice are not good, particularly given the normative means for the expression of same-sex relations in the First Century. But then the question is raised as to whether it is a fair comparison to liken First Century homosexual practices to those we see today of loving and committed same-sex couples. It is the view of this author that there is no resemblance between the contexts for homosexual relations in the first century and the context today. In the end, the fact that Jesus is never recorded as saying the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with his own [Jesus’] teachings isn’t helpful to the debate. Hopefully by this point you can see that the real issue is whether the few condemnations of ancient understandings of homosexual practice can be considered as relevant to the contemporary reality of the LGBTQ community.
It was also recently pointed out to me that it can seem strange for traditionalists to make the condemnation of homosexual practice so important an issue despite the fact that the subject doesn’t appear to be worthy of note by Jesus. At least in some cases, part of the point progressives make in the statement that Jesus never said anything about homosexual practice is just to question how important the topic really is. As has been demonstrated, that claim isn’t helpful to debating the subject, but it has been occasionally used as if it was. The issue isn’t about faithfulness to scripture or Biblical obedience, as all Christians read and interpret the Bible, rather it is about the difficult and messy task of how best to make God’s Word relevant to the world of today.
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo