LGBTQ lecture series explores what’s written, not written, and misunderstood
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 firstname.lastname@example.org Comments