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Biblical Sexuality

LGBTQ lecture series explores what’s written, not written, and misunderstood


Jennifer Knust, an assistant professor at the School of Theology, says that if we stop applying Bible texts in a simplistic way, we could stop using the Bible as a hurtful instrument. Photo by Kimberly Cornuelle

In 1975, when Virginia’s sodomy law was challenged, a federal court upheld the statute, arguing that it was rooted in Judaic and Christian law — and quoted Leviticus as justification.

It took 28 years before that argument became moot: in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated sodomy laws across the United States, including Virginia’s — a year after Massachusetts had struck down its sodomy laws.

This wasn’t the first time Biblical texts were invoked to justify modern laws, and it won’t be the last, says Jennifer Knust, an assistant professor at the School of Theology.

Knust’s 2005 book Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (Columbia University Press) examines the use of sexualized vocabulary by Christian authors from Paul to Irenaeus of Lyons. She is working on a new book on sex and the Bible, slated to come out next year.

“My main argument is that Biblical texts do not speak with one voice,” says Knust, an ordained American Baptist (USA) pastor. “There is no shortcut to sexual ethics through the Bible.”

As part of a lecture series sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) ministry at Marsh Chapel, Knust is speaking tonight at the School of Education on the topic What the Bible Does (Not) Say about Homosexuality.

Angelo Cella (CAS’11) says the series, called Outlook: Shedding Light on the LGBT Community and Culture, will cover multiple disciplines, from law to public health. “A lot of people talk about homosexuals in ancient Greece, for example, but what about gay medical history, or homosexuals in the Bible, or gay history in the 20th century?” asks Cella, a member of the LGBTQ ministry. “If every other community gets to have a cultural history and heritage, why not us?”

BU Today: How did you come up with the title of your lecture?
Knust: The idea that homosexuality — as it’s understood in a contemporary American context — has anything to do with the way that same-sex attraction and pairing might have been understood in the 7th century BCE or the first century CE, is just preposterous.

The idea that we could go back and find a single sexual morality from the Bible is problematic not only because of the historical and cultural difference between ourselves and these books, but because the books themselves are contradictory. The Bible doesn’t say any one thing about homosexuality. Arguably, it doesn’t say anything about homosexuality at all, in the sense that someone would think of that word and what it means today.

Are there passages that do mention same-sex attraction?
The Song of Songs celebrates nonmarital desire, and in the context of early Jewish and Christian interpretation, that’s an occasion for queer theology. The Christian interpretation is, how do we imagine ourselves as the bride of Christ? But of course it’s men imagining themselves as the bride of Christ. In the rabbinic tradition, they’re imagining themselves as Yahweh’s wife.

How do you refocus people to think about the context of Biblical texts?
We’ve lost a lot of the sense of why the text was written, what it was trying to address. We just don’t have the information we would need to understand the diversity of people and opinions — even the vocabulary of the time and assumptions that people would bring to the text. Think about medical literature in antiquity; the ideas are so foreign to our own medical literature. If we’re going to think about homosexuality as a biological category, what kind of biology are we thinking about? It would be ludicrous to use those texts today.

How do the texts reflect sexuality?
Human beings think about and talk about sexual desire — that is a constant. Are there passages that mention sexual desire between men in the Bible? Yes. Are there passages that allude to sexual desire between women? Yes. But details about how that same-sex desire is understood and represented has changed.

The reason people look to the Bible to come up with doctrinal or dogmatic statements about what sexuality is has to do with the overwhelming cultural authority of the Bible. If one can claim that the Bible is on one’s side, apparently the conversation is supposed to shut down. But it has the opposite effect, because a person will say, “The Bible is on my side, and it says x,” and the other person will say, “The Bible is on my side and says y.” There’s no way to solve that dilemma.

As long as we think we can get to some shorthand solution by beginning a sentence, “The Bible says …” we will continue to look to the Bible to say something, and not solve our problem. And we won’t hold ourselves responsible for the sexual decisions we’re making.

Is the Bible worth interpreting on these points, if it’s on another cultural level?
I think it’s worth reading the Bible to have access to different ways of thinking about sexual desire and to notice our common humanity with people from long ago, who were very concerned about sexual desire, about their bodies, about how God related to the way they desired.

It’s a way of thinking with and through people who had similar questions to ours, but answered them in different ways. It’s like returning to our ancestral heritage, and we should take our ancestors seriously — if we consider the Biblical authors to be our ancestors.

Do you get a lot of questions pointing to specific texts to try to prove a theory?
I’m a professor with the Massachusetts Bible Society, and someone asked a question online, “Did Paul and his world have any conception of faithful monogamous same-sex love?” I argued that Paul had little conception of faithful monogamous opposite-sex love, let alone same-sex love. In First Corinthians he’s more concerned about celibacy, not about heterosexual love. For people to want to use that text to argue for same-sex love or heterosexual marriage, this is a problem. It would make no sense to him; in his context slaves don’t get married, for example. In his context, celibacy is preferred, and the point of marriage is to protect couples from illicit sexual desire, not for procreation.

How did you get involved in this research?
I had a project in graduate school on prostitution in antiquity. Prostitution was legal and taxed, and there are tax receipts, documentary evidence, as well as literary evidence. For example, the emperor Caligula is accused of being particularly bad because he raised taxes on prostitution in Rome. That led me early in my graduate school career to wonder, what is going on when people talk about sex in antiquity? It got me looking into the kinds of sexual charges people would lodge against each other. I wrote the first book to show that followers of Jesus were picking up on a standard sexual vocabulary, applying common strategy of how you talk about your enemy, but to new purposes.

I had to learn about ancient sexuality, how it was understood, how texts from the Hebrew Bible were interpreted.

What about Leviticus?
One can’t help but note that in the holiness code, for example, the passage about men lying with men is identified as improper sexual behavior, placed along with sleeping with a woman who’s menstruating, committing adultery, committing incest or bestiality.

The framing of those laws is, don’t be like the Canaanites and the Egyptians. So is the point of the law to identify what the Israelite God thinks? That’s part of it, but another part is to put distance between the Israelites and the Canaanites and Egyptians. It’s also to accuse the Canaanites and Egyptians of behavior anathema to Yahweh.

There’s already a way in which talking about sexuality is asserting superiority and difference.

Do you think people will ever stop using the Bible for their own arguments?
That’s my dream, that people will get the idea that there’s the notion of context.

I’m moving beyond sex to the broader question of Biblical authority. Biblical texts are fluid, not stable, and it’s questionable whether a Bible that we read today in translation has anything to do with the Bible that Paul read or even Augustine read in Latin because his Greek was kind of crummy. He was reading crummy Latin translations. So I’d like to undermine the idea that these are the same books.

It also would be nice to talk about something constructive. There are wonderful texts in the Bible, and if we stop applying them in this simplistic way, maybe we could find something really beautiful — and to stop using the Bible as a hurtful instrument.

Jennifer Knust, an STH assistant professor, speaks on What the Bible Does (Not) Say about Homosexuality, at 7 p.m. tonight, October 8. Ulrike Boehmer, a School of Public Health assistant professor, will talk about Beyond AIDS at 7 p.m. on Monday, November 2. Robert Volk, a School of Law professor, will lecture on Two Steps Forward, One Step Back at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 5. All lectures are in the School of Education, Room 130, 2 Silber Way, and are free and open to the public. More information is available at the Marsh Chapel LGBTQ ministry Web site, or contact Liz Douglass, Chapel associate for LGBTQ students at Marsh Chapel.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.


17 Comments on Biblical Sexuality

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2009 at 10:09 am

    Try a Catholic perspective:

    If Professor Jennifer Knust is interested in a non-simplistic and constructive interpretation of the bible, perhaps she should open dialogue with the Catholic Church.

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2009 at 11:43 am

    Perhaps Professor Jennifer Knust should more thoroughly review references to homosexuality in the bible. The link below presents a complete discussion of biblical references to homosexuality and their appropriate interpretation.


  • Anonymous on 10.08.2009 at 11:49 am

    The Song of Songs in the bible depicts the love that exists between God and His people. It is well established that this love (God’s love) transcends sexual and romantic love between humans. Interpreting the poem to allude to same-sex attractions is an adulteration of the true meaning of this Old-testament book.

  • Likai Liu on 10.08.2009 at 12:19 pm

    Knust gross misinterpretation of the bible

    I have to first clarify that I speak here not to cause harm to people who believe or practice homosexuality because Jesus said “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” Luke 9:55-56 (NKJV, because NIV has a serious omission). But I’m here to speak against Knust.

    Knust asks, “did everything in the bible condemn homosexuality?” knowing it is false. Then she said, “well here is Song of Songs that is queer theology for you, supporting same sex attraction. Why don’t you practice homosexuality?”

    Just like in Genesis 3:1-5, how did the serpent lure Eve to eat the fruit of wisdom? He started by asking if all fruits are forbidden to eat, knowing it is false. Then he said, well maybe you will not die of eating the fruit of wisdom either. Why don’t you eat it?

    If you want to look for homosexuality in the bible, the relationship between King David and Jonathan is probably the canonical example. Why twist the good meaning Song of Songs which is really about pure love, not physical attraction?

    Matthew 22:30 quotes Jesus as saying, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” Even if you interpret Song of Songs as attraction between God and men, or Christ and men, this attraction will be non-physical.

    Knust, your argument is absurd.

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2009 at 1:08 pm

    It’s rare to read something intelligent on this website… thank you for a wonderful and sensible interview that more people should read and absorb

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2009 at 1:34 pm

    Ah yes, once again the LGBT community will distort what is written in the Bible and completely ignore both historical context and 2,000 years of Theological commentary to force the Biblical text to say (or not say) what they want it to.

    If you believe that an LGBT lifestyle is morally appropriate, fine — you have every right to do so. But stop trying to distort history and faith to match your personal moral decision.

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2009 at 2:34 pm

    It's time to stop explaining the Bible in such a simplistic way

    Prof Knust says, “There are wonderful texts in the Bible, and if we stop applying them in this simplistic way, maybe we could find something really beautiful — and to stop using the Bible as a hurtful instrument.” I think its also time to stop trying to explain the Bible in such simplistic terms. What it really gets down to is that people need to read the Bible for themselves, stop looking to other people to tell them what it says, other wise we will just get the Bible misquoted and misrepresented. I suggest everyone read the Bible, its not a book thats hard to read. Another source for questions about why we should look to the Bible at all, watch videos of Q&A sessions, http://fbcnj.org/site/sermons/. I hope that these videos answer some questions.

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2009 at 2:54 pm

    How about we leave the Bible out of it

    Let people live in peace, and leave religion out of it. No wonder an increasing number of people, including myself, do not identify with any religion. Let’s stop living in the Middle Ages. On a side note, the whole Republican town hall nonsense over health care reform really isn’t that Christian, now is it? What ever happened to the loving part of religion? Solve that problem, and maybe the numbers of those leaving the church will reverse, but until then don’t count on it.

  • Read the article on 10.08.2009 at 3:25 pm

    Did any of you even read this interview? Professer Knust is not trying to deny the presence of anti-homosexual references in the Bible, she is saying that the context in which those references were written is completely different from today’s world. We can’t use the arguments in the Bible and apply them to the present because we don’t know exactly what meaning these arguments had to the people who wrote them–we weren’t there! Knust is not attacking religion or attempting to undermine the values set forth in the Bible. In fact, she propounds quite the opposite. By focusing on such elements of the text, which likely no longer have cultural relevance, we are missing the beauty of the whole. And as someone who has studied these texts for the entirety of her career, I’d say she knows a good deal more about them than you.

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2009 at 8:32 pm

    Kunst YES! Finally someone using their God-given intellect!

    In response to – “Ah yes, once again the LGBT community will distort what is written in the Bible and completely ignore both historical context and 2,000 years of Theological commentary to force the Biblical text to say (or not say) what they want it to.”

    So it seems, in your view, that if the LGBT community brings a different perspective to this discourse – one you don’t agree with – then it is “distortion” – In my opinion Ms. Knust is using her God-given intellect to examine the context in which we live today and asking if a context from 2,000 years ago is appropriate for today. Obviously millions of same-sex
    couples are living healthy, productive, and spiritually full lives. Sorry if that bursts your bubble. Time to grow up and stop trying to be God. Let God do God’s work because He can do it a lot better than you. Everyone in the LGBT community has a right to have their own relationship with God just like you do. Sorry if ours doesn’t look like yours. Maybe it’s time for some bible basics like “love thy neighbor” – and as Ms. Knust points out “There are wonderful texts in the Bible, and if we stop applying them in this simplistic way, maybe we could find something really beautiful — and to stop using the Bible as a hurtful instrument.” Perhaps you are the one who is distorting things.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2009 at 12:53 am

    Really interesting article. I’d have to disagree with some of the things Knust is saying. I think it’s dangerous to say that what’s written in the Bible has become culturally irrelevant. And, I wasn’t convinced by Knust’s argument. I guess it depends, like she said, on whether you take the Bible as the opinion of a variety of different men or as the actual word of God. You have to go all or nothing. You can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible to accept.

  • kcornuelle on 10.09.2009 at 2:21 pm

    great speech last night

    Thanks Prof. Knust for a wonderfully enlightened talk last night! Your examples were incredibly detailed, and I only had hoped that some of the negative commenters would have had the chance to attend as well. Maybe they would have seen things in a different light.

  • Fr. C. Francis Schmidt FCEEC on 10.11.2009 at 3:51 am

    Prof. Kunst

    Refreshing to see one who uses her God given Intellect to question and search for truth. I see you as in the company of Hans Kung. Do your research and question, question, question!!! See how much thought you have provoked. I will remember you in my Masses and prayers.

    Thank You, Lord, for this precious child. May You watch over her and continue to give her inspiration to seek out the truth. Amen.

    FR. Francis

  • Anonymous on 10.16.2009 at 10:45 am

    There is no one Catholic perspective anymore than there is a single Jewish or Protestant perspective.

    Thank you Professor Knust and BU for engaging this issue. BU is finally coming out of the dark ages by addressing issues like this and by acknowledging that LGBT scholarship exists.

    Now, let’s get to work on establishing a degree program in LGBT studies, thus joining Stanford, UCLA, and the University of Minnesota, among others.

    The many books in many translations that comprise the bible were written for readers at the time of authorship and for all time. This does not mean that we should interpret the stories the same way they were interpreted when written. Jesus took slavery for granted since it was nearly universal then. We don’t now.

    If it were even a good idea to accept all of what is written in the many books that comprise the bible at face value, we still would disagree about what it means.

    We ought to open our minds and hearts to these books, not use them as wespons against minority groups that frighten us.

  • Mark Krone on 10.19.2009 at 11:40 am

    Literal Interpretation is Relatively Modern

    I want to thank Professor Knust for her thoughtful responses to the questions above.

    The many books, in many translations, written at many different times, were never taken literally until relatively recently. Many feared that the Enlightenment would replace faith in God with faith in science, thereby threatening the primacy of religion as the explanation for our existence. Instead of accepting science as a human advancement that added understanding to biblical writings, some people reacted in fear. Their response was to treat scripture like science by claiming it was literally true and could be “proven” in the same way science proved its propositions. This was a reactive belief systems based in fear. We see what religions based on fear have done and continue to do to the world. Scripture, like poetry can certainly be true, but it never claimed to be factual.

    Regarding the suggestion that Prof. Knust “should try a Catholic perspective,” there is no more a single Catholic perspective than there is a single Jewish or Protestant perspective.

    One way to cut through all of this is to simply ask ourselves: “Does my personal theology live up to the high standard of “love thy neighbor” set by Jesus Christ? If so, we are probably on the right track. If not, it is time for a humble reassessment.

  • door on 10.27.2009 at 7:31 pm

    Read - pretty clear to me

    Read Romans 1:16 – 31, then keep on reading – ch 2

  • Anonymous on 02.28.2010 at 2:09 am

    Wow Have you read the Bible without putting political bias

    Your saying that what it says in the bible about homosexuality in more places than Leviticus, (try Romans and 1 Corinthians as well) is not relevant to today? That makes no sense whatsoever simply because if God found it detestable then he would today. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Not to mention if He finds it detestable then would he not find it detestable now? it only makes sense. Get your head out of the politically driven mode and read the scripture for what it is and it’s real context. Only then will you find what God is saying to you. Oh yeah if you want to twist what the bible is saying to mean what you want it to mean, what is the point of the book and studying it. I pray for you

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