Tony Di Mambro
Throughout the last 7000 years, the Bible has been written about and interpreted by scholars, saints and religious people, with wide variations of meaning and differing opinions of what each text means. Arguments and discussions continue as to whether a meaning has been altered or lost in translation and how that affects the teaching of Christian faiths. Among the most contentious Bible interpretations are those related to homosexuality. There have been more condemnations of same-sex activity “on behalf of the faithful”’ from those who have claimed have our planet’s best interests at heart, especially since the 19th century. Unfortunately, most people who challenge the traditional beliefs often receive condemnation, excommunication threats or suppressed and muted support from the higher echelons of the Vatican or Lambeth Palace. It has been forward thinking authors and theologians like James Alison, John J. McNeil and Gareth Moore who have taken the initiative to discuss the relevant ‘anti-gay’ scriptures, now nicknamed ‘terror texts,’ that supposedly allow nearly all the Christian religions to prohibit, condemn and outlaw active same-sex relationships.
In Keith Sharpe’s book his viewpoint as an activist and gay Christian comes across as someone who is determined to argue, fight and convince even the ‘arch-conservative brigade,’ who seemingly refuse to listen or consider that their traditionally taught beliefs could be wrong. He advocates alternative ways of interpreting the terror texts rather than resigning himself to further oppression and repressive thinking within the Christian institutions.
Sharpe divides his book into two main sections: the Defensive and Affirmative Testaments. At the end of each Defensive and Affirmative chapter, there is a self-defence or self-affirmation summary, particularly helpful when wanting to remember the chapter’s main points. The summaries are also useful as a reference tool. He refers to all the known terror texts in the defensive section: Genesis 1-2, 18-19, Leviticus 18 and 20, Paul’s letters to the Romans 1, 1 Timothy 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 6. He scrutinises Catholic, Evangelical and Anglican interpretations of these texts and purports several inconsistencies in his revealing ‘Textual abuse’ chapter.
In the first defensive chapter “The Story of Sodom”, Sharpe’s main argument refers to how the passage of Sodom and Gomorrah has been totally taken out of context. The two strangers who visit Lot in Sodom and are the object of the townsmen’s attention has nothing to do with homosexuality, especially not same-sex love, but about reward for hospitality to strangers and punishment of inhospitality.
Sharpe claims in the second defensive chapter, Leviticus and the Abominations, that this book “might have well have been called the Book of Abominations, because its speciality lies in making lists of them”. The Hebrew word used is ‘toevah’ and the author of Leviticus regards eating rabbits, pigs or shellfish, taking the silver or gold of gods and women wearing trousers are all toevah or abominations. “In essence however, it supposedly denotes something which displeases God for a reason” (p15). Adding, “the ritual purity laws of the Holiness code were designed to separate ‘God’s chosen people,’ the Jews, from the Gentiles, whom they supposed God didn’t choose.” In Ancient Israel, “idealised males should penetrate and idealised females should be penetrated”. Male-male penetrative sex was understood as a violation of this code, hence it is a toevah (p16). Lying with mankind as with womankind: both of them shall be put to death; they have forfeited their lives (Leviticus 20:13). Other abominators destined for execution include those who curse or refuse to obey their parents, those who work on the Sabbath. Sharpe concludes the chapter by stating that traditional interpretations are unjustified and these terror texts have nothing to do with same-sex love. “Traditional teachings on witch-craft and slavery are now denounced. If Christian churches want to carry on persecuting LGBT people, how can such actions be possibly considered as loving? Can the church prove that mutual, caring, loving, same-sex relationships are damaging to them involved?”
Is it healthy for young gay Christians to hate themselves and pray desperately that they should be different? Is self-hatred, isolation, despair and suicide really an expression of the Church’s love for its gay neighbours (p24)? The author says that “one can only imagine that it’s a gross affront to the loving God who has created us all in his likeness (p25)”.
In the fifth chapter, St Paul and Pederasty, Sharpe states the translation of Greek words arsenkoitai & malakoi in (the letter to the Corinthians) contains many inaccuracies. While malakos means soft, implying effeminacy, a characteristic despised in the culture of the ancient world, Paul’s use seems to be about men failing to act as men. “It does NOT say anything of practising homosexuals or boy prostitutes’, as claimed in the modern translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Early English translations implied malakos meant weakness and degeneracy, with Elizabethan translations suggesting effeminacy. The concept of ‘homosexual’, previously unheard, developed in the 19th century and the translation moved to a specific sexual orientation so that malakos became sodomite, male prostitute or homosexual pervert (p57-58).
The Greek word arsenokoitai, translated as ‘practising homosexual,’ was not used before Paul and appears to be made up of two words: arsen meaning man and koite meaning bed. Sharpe claims “some commentators jumped to conclusions that St Paul is ‘obviously’ talking about men having sex with men in bed. You can’t elicit the meaning of a word by analysing its constituent parts” (p62-63).
While I feel convinced that most of Sharpe’s objective criticisms of the defensive testament raise valid points against how the terror texts have been interpreted to ‘justify’ condemnation, discrimination and segregation against LGBT people, I’m certainly less convinced of some of his arguments in the Affirmative Testament, which I find ironic.
In the ninth Affirmative chapter, Jesus was no family man, Sharpe suggests Jesus’ attitude with regard to the family is “clear, unambiguous and unequivocal . . . of determined and relentless opposition” (p170). Sharpe refers to Luke 14:26-7: “If anyone comes to me and doesn’t hate his father, mother, children, brothers & sisters, they cannot be my disciple” and concludes: “It would be difficult to conceive of a more definitive anti-family statement than this” (p171). As he has already pointed out that countless meanings of Bible texts have been lost in translation, I’m baffled that he hasn’t realised that this may also have occurred in this instance. Jesus’ first commandment was to love one’s neighbour and that is the most important. Therefore he would NOT want us to hate anyone, surely?
In Affirmative chapters 1 and 2 Jesus and the Beloved Disciple and Jesus’ Sexual Orientation, Sharpe suggests “It’s blindingly obvious to everyone reading St John’s gospel that the relationship between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple was homoerotic in character” (p103). Arguing that in John’s Gospel there is evidence of a very close emotional bond, the author suggests it was a mutual homoerotic attraction “based on reciprocal desire and delight” (p101). He lists five significant events the Beloved is present at and alludes “It would be perfectly natural for an intensely loving relationship to encompass physical erotic activity” (p102). In the summary he adds, “At the crucifixion the beloved is the only disciple remaining after all the others have run away” (p104). Perhaps the Beloved disciple is most likely to have been John as it is only gospel where the Beloved is mentioned. Christopher Marlowe, who was allegedly murdered for blasphemy, apparently believed so. A murder suspect said that Marlowe controversially claimed, “St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma” (p107). These are audacious claims by Sharpe, with no genuine proof, but subjective research and reasoning instead potentially over interpreting. While I can’t prove that he’s wrong, I feel that he’s trying too hard to look for Bible texts that are affirmative and encouraging for LGBT Christians. Rather than holding up his Defensive section, it nearly undermines it.
I believe that it’s more important that Sharpe has been successful in exposing how empty of truth the terror texts are regarding the supposed justifiable condemnation of LGBTs across our world. The Defensive section deserves merit and acclaim, but not the Affirmative.
In the Conclusion and Final Affirmation, Sharpe ends his book convincingly. He compares the patriarchal approach of our Christian institutions to fellow textual abuser Humpty Dumpty: “Glory doesn’t mean a ‘nice knock-down argument’, Alice objected. ‘When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean, neither more or less,’ replied Humpty Dumpty scornfully” (p198). This rang true for me. Many of us can see how guilty those who in powerful and influential positions within our Christian institutions are of only selecting necessary bible texts to attempt to control the lives of LGBT people around the world, rather than simply choosing to love and respect the people in their care, as Jesus did by example. Let the last words be those of Sharp, “Jesus included outcasts and the marginalised in the Kingdom of heaven, but these churches still practise exclusion. LGBT people need to be able to point up the inadequacies in the arguments of Christian homophobes and assert with confidence that they are as much numbered amongst God’s children as anyone else” (p200).
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 66 (Spring 2013)