It is a stretch to say this first post is from Turkey. Literally, as I begin, we are over Turkey in a holding pattern waiting for a storm to subside so we can land at the Ankara airport.
But my head has been partly in Turkey for months as I have been reading, praying, and thinking in preparation for this time of sabbatical study. I have been learning a bit about the first century Jewish Turk, Paul the Apostle to the gentiles. I have been reading the views of Schweitzer, Sanders, Wright, and a brilliant young classicist Sara Ruden. I have learned a lot. But there is one key point on which I am not satisfied that any of them have explained Paul well. They are all better scholars than I could ever hope to be (though this is a question of law and I may be a better lawyer). I want this point to be clear because it is crucial to our understanding of Christianity and that clarification would go a long way to resolving some of the heated controversies in today’s Church, particularly issues of LGBTQ inclusion.
We all know Paul had a huge dust up with James, Peter, and eventually even Barnabas over his radical inclusion of gentiles -- radical in that he maintained that gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews. The way the scholars describe the issue is, in fairness to them, the way Paul spoke of it: did gentile Christians have to subscribe to “the law of Moses”? Paul said “No” while the others said, in greater or lesser degrees, “Yes.”
But here’s the problem: Paul says gentiles are free from the Law of Moses but then goes on to emphatically forbid a whole laundry list of infractions, some famously concerning sex. Paul is pretty adamant about keeping clear of idolatry and mistreating other people – but he is radically inclusive when it comes to such things as circumcision and kosher eating. How do we make sense of this seeming inconsistency?
“The Law of Moses” is a comprehensive umbrella term for – not 10 but – 613 written commandments scattered through the Hebrew Scriptures, plus centuries of oral traditions interpreting those laws (comparable to judicial decisions interpreting the Constitution and statutes in the Anglo-American legal system). But those laws are not all alike. They fall into 3 categories:
1. Moral laws – regulate how we treat each other. The book of Deuteronomy and other books from the same group of writers (the D source) are full of moral laws. Do not lie, cheat, steal. Forgive debts. Pay the laborers fairly and promptly. Extend hospitality to aliens. Leave the gleanings of your crop for the poor. Judaism practically invented the whole notion of religion infused with morality. Not that other religions may not have had a moral qualm here and there, but morality was not high on the concern list for ancient deities before YHWH appeared to Moses with a moral concern – the oppression of Israel by Egypt. Until then the primitive gods were more interested in getting their sacrifices. Transgression of a moral law was called “sin.”
2. Ritual purity regulations – define the cultural standard of yuckiness. You must not eat this, touch that, or associate with people who do. All cultures have such standards. But they vary widely from culture to culture. Sex is a great subject on which we can distinguish between ritual purity and morality because in our culture the word “morality” has gotten wrongly associated with sex. In the Jewish Law, adultery was a moral offense against the family.[i] It can hurt people. Having sex during menstruation, on the other hand, did not hurt anyone. But it was prohibited as a ritual purity violation because their culture thought of it as “unclean.” Transgression of a ritual purity regulation is not a sin. (I am not the one who said that. It’s the Bible.) Ritual purity violations are not sins. They are “abominations.” It’s a bad-sounding word but it does not mean a super bad sin. As the Bible uses “abomination,” it is not a sin at all. It is merely something that essentially smells bad according to a particular culture’s sensibility.
3. Cultic requirements – prescribe acts of worship, particularly sacrifice, that honor the deity. Ancient religious texts, like the early Vedas, are quite thorough in telling us how we are required to pay ritual homage to our gods or God. The Hebrew Scriptures go into great detail about how to furnish the Temple and how to perform the many required sacrifices.
All these things together make up the Law of Moses. But the Jewish attitude toward the Law had been evolving through the centuries as one might say Judaism matured from a narrow tribal cult into a great World Religion. Remember that, from the get go, Judaism was cutting edge in giving morality a big role in religion. But at first Judaism was still a primitive tribal religion worshiping a primitive tribal god, just one who had an unusual interest in justice, mercy, and integrity.
[At this point, just past midnight, we have landed in Istanbul and are refueling in order to take another run at Ankara.]
Over time, Judaism saw its God as larger and larger, culminating in monotheism. The God they worshiped was not theirs alone but the God of all people, including those who did not share their distinctive cultural taboos. By the time of the prophets, we hear YHWH disavowing or at least downgrading the whole cult sacrifice system.
I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats . . .
Stop bringing your meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations –
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies . . ..
Yet on the day of your fasting you do as you please
You exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife.
And in striking each other with wicked fists . . ..
Is not this the fast I have chosen:
To loose the chains of injustice
And untie the cords of the yoke.
To set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
And to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
When you see the naked to clothe them
And not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Go to Bethel and sin.
Go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning
And your tithes every three years . . . . .
Boast about them for that is what you love to do,
Declares the Lord . . ..
But let justice roll down like the waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 4, 5
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
Acknowledgement of God, not burnt offerings.
Third Isaiah will quote God as saying; “My Temple shall be a house of prayer for all people.” Isaiah 56. All people? The prophet directly says the eunuch who had always been banned from the Temple for being unclean/ mutilated will be welcome. What about the non-Jews? What about the ritually unclean? A new spirit of inclusion was emerging hundreds of years before Jesus.
The course toward inclusion was not steady and it was not without controversy. After Babylon destroyed the Temple and took the leaders of Judah into exile for 40 years, faithful practice of the Temple Cult became impossible. So some Jewish leaders doubled down extra hard on ritual purity to compensate and keep Jews separate, uncontaminated. When they returned to Judah and began to restore their society, Ezra and Nehemiah ordered the people to be stricter than ever. The non-Jewish wives were to be divorced and deported along with their mixed race children. Top scholars believe the book of Ruth, valorizing the Moabite grandmother of King David, was written in protest against the narrow chauvinism of Ezra and Nehemiah.
So for centuries, there had been a movement in Judaism toward universality and inclusion that transcended the cultural taboos that divided God’s children into rival and often-warring camps.
Then along came Jesus, descended from the Moabite woman Ruth, born out of wedlock perhaps in Judah, but spending his early childhood in Egypt, then growing to adulthood in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (where ritual purity could be sketchy). He healed the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the son of the Roman Centurion, violated ritual purity several times most dramatically by drinking from the cup of the Samaritan woman at the well while telling her the time would come when all people would worship God neither on the Samaritan holy mountain nor in the Jerusalem Temple but rather “in spirit and in truth.” Jesus, told the story of the Good Samaritan who proved more righteous than the Jewish clergy, After the resurrection, he commanded his disciples to go “unto all nations” baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
This Jesus, who was crucified after a ritual assault on the Temple cult (while quoting Isaiah 56 to challenge the Temple's exclusiveness -- Matthew 21) was decidedly in line with the prophets who exalted Jewish morality above ritual purity and cult sacrifice. His actions and teachings were all about an inclusion that transcended Jewish taboos and cult practices. As the centuries went by, a decidedly universalist Jewish morality came to trump the narrow exclusive tenets that had defined the religion in its beginning.
[Here we landed in Ankara, cleared customs, found our agent not surprisingly absent, got a cab which took us a long long way to the Neva Palas Hotel, where the polite young cabbie banged on the door to get them to open for us, and we had a short but good night’s sleep with our windows open to the sounds of Ankara’s colorful nightlife. And now it is morning of our first day on the ground in Turkey.]
Conservative Bible scholar N. T. Wright is emphatic that Paul was a good Jew and that his message was faithful to that of Jesus. I agree. I just want to emphasize that Jesus and Paul after him were on a particular side of a particular ongoing Jewish argument. It was about inclusion and the elevation of morality (kindness, decency, fairness, compassion) over ritual purity and religious ceremony. Paul would not conscience any narrow insistence on Jewish ritual purity regulations or Temple sacrifice being made a pre-requisite for receiving the grace of God in Jesus. He would not make admission to the Temple a first step to membership in the Church. He had no use for such things as circumcision and dietary restrictions; but the moral law Paul defended with a purple passion.
Now this leads us inexorably in 2015, with our pending church canon and Supreme Court case on gay marriage, to consider what Paul had to say about homoerotic behavior. We start with remembering what the Law of Moses has to say on the subject. It isn’t much. There is nothing whatsoever in the Torah about lesbian acts. For gay men, only one homoerotic act is labeled a ritual purity violation. Cross-dressing and one male homoerotic act are the only prohibitions at all relating to homosexuality [ii]in the Law of Moses and they are clearly ritual purity violations – not moral sins.
So what did Paul have to say about homosexuality? Short answer regarding lesbians: Paul said the same as Jesus and the Law of Moses before him: nothing.[iii] But what about gay men? If we take away the various texts that are mistranslated – some retranslated only since the 1970s to apply to homosexuality -- we have only the oft-cited passage from Romans 1. Did Paul who otherwise stripped away ritual purity laws left and right to clear the path to salvation for gentiles save this one ritual purity law based on only two verses of Hebrew Scripture?
There are two persuasive answers. Each has had numerous proponents among credible Biblical scholars, but I will focus on one spokesperson for each view. They would be Sara Ruden in Paul Among The People and Paul Helmeniak in What The Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.
Ruden places Paul in the social context of classical civilization. His time knew nothing of mature committed gay relationships. Frankly neither committed straight nor gay relationships as we have them today existed in that era. Homosexuality was a matter of dominance and cruelty; usually practiced against children, particularly slave children. Ruden interprets Paul’s criticism of homosexuality as a moral issue, not because it was same gender sexuality but because it was a sexualized expression of the domination system, the principalities and powers of the present age, which the Kingdom of God would overturn. The last thing the people Paul criticized would have wanted would have been gay marriage. In fact, gay marriage would be precisely the kind of committed loving relationship that Paul extolled in 1 Corinthians 13. It would replace the cruelty and domination of 1st century homosexuality with the moral values of God’s Kingdom.
Helmeniak focuses on Paul’s language and the precise pastoral context of the Roman congregation rather than the broader social context. The congregation in Rome was locked in conflict between the gentiles and the Jews. At one point, Emperor Claudius had exiled them from the city because of their rancorous quarreling. Paul writes Romans in sections, addressing the Jews first, then the Gentiles. He parrots back what they say about each other, generally saying, “yes, yes, that’s how they are” Then with significantly greater theological eloquence he tells them to “get over it.”
In his treatment of gentile homosexuality, he agrees with the Jews that the gentiles have behaved paraphysis – “unnaturally” – but then at Chapter 11 he pulls out the zinger. Now God has behaved paraphysis – “unnaturally” – by grafting the gentile branch into the vine of Israel. If you think two people of the same sex being partnered is unnatural, that ain’t nothing compared to putting Jews and gentiles in the same Church.
I find both Ruden’s and Hemeniak’s arguments persuasive. They both have a valuable moral force. If we are trying to get at what Paul was really on about, either could be right. I give the nod to Hemeniak for this reason: Paul takes on not just homosexuality but a variety of behaviors in this same passage. He explicitly calls other behaviors sins, but he speaks of homosexuality in the conventional Jewish terminology of a ritual purity violation. I believe if Paul were addressing the violence, oppression, and degradation of masters exploiting their slave boys, he would have spoken of sin. Here he is concerned with the “unnatural” ritual purity violation only to eventually say God has taken all such distinctions off the table in order to save us all.
There is a trajectory in our faith. We have moved a long way past a bloodthirsty tribal god who wanted our cattle burned on his altar. We have instead a God who is actually worthy of our worship because our God is a Love that manifests as justice, mercy, and nurturing relationship, a God with the capacity for delight and forgiveness. Paul’s letters about the place of the Law in our faith, properly understood, lead to a faith that connects us instead of divides us. It is a faith that fits the Church’s mission to “unite all people to God and each other in Christ.”
[i] Actually the definition of adultery Paul was working with doesn’t match the definition that got Hester Prynne her scarlet letter, but that’s another subject. Suffice it to say the issue for Paul was moral because it concerns how people treat each other. It’s ethical, not ritual.
[ii] I know cross-dressing is not really about homosexuality; it is a thing unto itself. But I am trying to cover all bases here in fairness to the other side.
[iii] The Romans passage on women behaving “unnaturally” has been recognized from the earliest days of Biblical interpretation to today to be about sex acts other than lesbianism.