Home » Human Sexuality: Homosexuality

Human Sexuality: Homosexuality

Scripture (and homosexuality)

from Human Sexuality. New Directions in American Catholic Thought. Kosnik et Al., p.188-196

A Study Commissioned by The Catholic Theological Society of America, publ. 1977

Nowhere has homosexual activity been viewed with as much abhorrence as in the Judeo-Christian West. Neither Islam nor Hinduism sees it as taboo. Primitive peoples like the Eskimos, Malaysians, and North American Indians had no difficulty accepting it; ancient Greece institutionalized it. In some primitive cultures, a homosexual was even seen as a kind of shaman or holy man, certainly not as a criminal. (148)

The only adequate explanation for the profound, even phobic, animosity of the Judeo-Christian West is the fact that homosexual behaviour is viewed in the Bible as a crime worthy of death (Lev 18-22; 20:13), a sin “against nature” (Rom 1:26), which excludes one from entry into the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:10). Even more ominous was the punishment visited by God upon Sodom for the assumed sin that was named after that ill- fated city (Gen 19:1-29). If these acts called to heaven for ven­geance, how could a people and their rulers tolerate such be­haviour except at the risk of divine displeasure for themselves as well?

There is no doubt but that the Old Testament condemns homosexual practice with the utmost severity. The reason for the condemnation, however, and the severity of the punishment cannot be appreciated apart from the historical background that gave rise to them. Simply citing verses from the Bible out­side of their historical context and then blithely applying them to homosexuals today does grave injustice both to Scripture and to people who have already suffered a great deal from the travesty of biblical interpretation. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (to’ebah) (Lev 18:22). “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination (to’ebah); they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them” (Lev 20:13).

The prohibition of homosexual activity between men as a crime worthy of death could not be more explicit. The back­ground to these texts and reasons for the condemnation are equally explicit: “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Lev 18:3). “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves” (Lev 18:24). “So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs which were practiced before you, and never defile yourselves by them: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 18:30).

The fundamental theme of the Levitical Holiness Code is, “Do not defile yourselves,” do not make yourselves unclean. Its concern is not ethical but cultic. Even adultery is forbidden because of ritual impurity (Lev 18:20). “Leviticus deals almost exclusively with cultic and ritual matters.” (149)

Of particular importance for our consideration is the word “abomination” (to’ebah). Derived from the sphere of cult, the word comes from the verb “to abhor” and designates most commonly some practice or thing loathed on religious grounds. For the Israelites, this particularly meant idolatry. An idol is an abomination (Dt 7:25ff; 27:15; 2 Kgs 23:13; Jer 16:18; Ezek 14:6), and anything that has to do with idolatrous practices is an abomination (Lev 18:27, 29-30; Dt 12:31; 13:14; 17:4; 18:9; 2 Kgs 16:3; 21:2; 11; 2 Chr 33:2; Ezek 5:9, 11; Mai 2:11 \etal). Included as an abomination was not only the explicit practice of idolatry, however, but anything that even remotely pertained to it, like the eating of unclean animals and foods (Lev 11; Dt 14:3-21).

For Israel of the Old Testament the worship of Yahweh was unconditionally exclusive. Anything pertaining to the idol­atrous cult of Israel’s neighbours was an “abomination” that “defiled” an Israelite and rendered him unclean for the cult of Yahweh. The Old Testament law codes, however, “took their origin in a milieu where no sharp distinction was drawn be­tween the cultic and the non-cultic sphere of activity, but where every side of life had its links with cultic celebrations.” (150)

Many cultic procedures and customs were taboo in Israel simply because they were regarded as belonging specifically to foreign cults. In a world where worship permeated every aspect of life, this prohibition referred not only to apostasy but also to anything even remotely connected with it.  (151)

Among the Canaanite practices rejected by the Old Tes­tament was that of cultic intercourse whereby the sexual ac­tivity of the gods was enacted ritually by temple func­tionaries.  (152) These sexual rites were to be found in the fertility cults of the whole ancient East, from Cyprus to Babylon, and included not only female temple personnel but males as well.

There shall be no cult prostitute (kedeshah) of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a cult prostitute (kedesh) of the sons of Israel. You shall not bring the hire  of a harlot or the wages of a dog, into the house of the Lord your God in payment of any vow; for both of these are an abomination (to’ebah) to the Lord your God. (Dt 23:17-18).

Men engaging in ritual intercourse (kedeshim) are mentioned as active in Israel during the period of the monarchy, perform­ing all the “abominations” of the Canaanites (1 Kgs 14:22-24; 15:12-14; 22:47; 2 Kgs 23:7). Recent discoveries of texts at Ras Shamra, the ancient city of Ugarit, have shed considerable light on the religious practices of the Canaanites, including the cult of the Canaanite fertility goddesses Ashera and Astartex, which involved sacral intercourse (Fragment 8252).

Homosexual activity between men is proscribed in Levit­icus for the same reason that it is condemned in Deuteronomy and the Books of Kings. It is an “abomination” because of its connection with the fertility rites of the Canaanites. The con­demnation of homosexual activity in Leviticus is not an ethical judgment. “Homosexuality here is condemned on account of its association with idolatry.”  (153) Even after the danger of ritual intercourse had passed, the rabbis in the post-Exilic period maintained the prohibition against homosexual activity much as they retained all the di­etary prescriptions that had arisen in the same period. The Tal­mud extended the prohibition, but not the death penalty, to women as well, who were not included in the Levitical injunc­tion. The Talmud treated homosexual activity and bestiality as similar crimes on the assumption that “the one like the other had its origin in the licentiousness of the heathen Canaan­ites.”  (154)

Even though a Christian does not read the legislation of the Old Testament in the same way as an Orthodox Jew, the Levitical prohibition against homosexual acts has had consider­able indirect influence on the Church. Certainly it coloured St. Paul’s estimation of the sexual practices of first-century Hel­lenism. More directly influential, however, and historically more significant for the Christian attitude toward homosexual behaviour was the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19).

Throughout the Old and New Testaments allusions are made to Sodom as a symbol of utter depravity. So great was Sodom’s sin that it merited complete destruction. The Fathers of the Church had no doubt that the nature of the wickedness for which Sodom was punished was the homosexual practice of sodomy. The story has a parallel, however, in the account of the wickedness of the townsmen of Gibeah (Jgs 19). In this in­stance, a similar incident is described involving the sexual abuse of a female concubine. What is common to both stories, however, whether involving the male visitors of Sodom or the female concubine of Gibeah, is rape.

Both the stories of Sodom and Gibeah deal with sexual violations. But the fact that the sex victim is interchangeable without lessening the repulsion of the biblical authors shows clearly that it is not homosexuality or heterosexuality that is the primary consideration here, but the violence of rape. If sex­uality is involved in the condemnation, it is subordinated to the issues of hospitality and justice. For Sodom as for Gibeah, “the emphasis falls not on the proposed sexual act per se, but on the terrible violation of the customary law of hospitality.”  (155)

As often as it refers to the sinfulness of Sodom, the Old Testament never explicitly identifies Sodom with the practice of homosexuality. In fact, there is no uniform tradition as to the nature of Sodom’s offense. For Isaiah it was lack of justice (Is 1:10; 3:9); for Jeremiah, adultery, lying, and the un­willingness to repent (Jer 23:14); for Ezechiel, “pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease” together with the fact that Sodom “did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49). Old Testament Wisdom literature speaks of Sodom in terms of folly, inso­lence, and inhospitality (Wis 10:8; 19:14; Sir 16:8). The New Testament presents Jesus as referring to the proverbial wicked­ness and punishment of Sodom, but with no indication of the specific nature of its sinfulness (Mt 10:14-15; 11:23-24; Lk 10:12; 17:29). No connection is made with sexuality at all, let alone homosexuality.

Not until the late New Testament books of Jude and 2 Peter is any explicit connection made in the Bible between Sodom and sexuality (Jude 6-7; 2 Pt 2:4, 6-10). In Jude the sin of Sodom is described in terms of “fornication” and “going after strange flesh” (Jude 7), with an allusion to the sin of the angels. Evident here is the influence of the apocryphal writings of the inter-testamental period. The Book of Jubilees (1st cen­tury B.C.) emphasizes the depravity of Sodom as sexual in na­ture (Jub 16:5-6; 20:5-6) and links the sin of the Sodomites to the Nephilim or giants born of the unnatural union of angels and men, the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” (Gen 6:1-4). (156)

Philo of Alexandria (c.13 B.C.-C.50 A.D.) appears to be the first author to connect Sodom explicitly with homosexual practices. (157) Even before him, however, a homosexual interpre­tation of the Sodom story is strongly implied in the apocryphal Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, written in the late second century or early first century B.C. (Test. Naph. 3:4-5; Test. Benj. 9:1), and in the Second Book of Enoch (2 Enoch 10:4). Josephus (37.38-c.96 A.D.) also makes the same connection (Antiquities, I, 11, 3). The conclusion seems warranted, there­fore that “by the end of the first century A.D. the sin of Sodom had become widely identified amongst the Jews with homosex­ual practices.” (158) This identification can be shown to have had immense influence not only on the New Testament (Jude) but on Christian tradition and legislation thereafter.

Interestingly enough, this new homosexual interpretation of the sin of Sodom had an almost negligible effect upon the Talmud. The apocryphal writings, some of which were highly apocalyptic in character, lay outside the mainstream of rab­binical tradition and were never recognized by orthodox Ju­daism. The basis for the reinterpretation of the story in Philo, Josephus, and the early Church seems to lie in the association made between the “wickedness of Sodom” and the “law­lessness of the Gentiles” (Test. Naph. 4:1). In the Old Tes­tament tradition, Sodom was no longer simply a locality on the shores of the Dead Sea, laid waste by some natural catastrophe in the dim past. Sodom had become a symbol of every wicked­ness offensive to Jewish moral sensibilities, above all, pride, inhospitality, and forgetfulness of God. With a change of time and circumstances, there arose a change of interpretation. Sodom became a symbol of the depravity that Jews and later Christians found most abhorrent in Hellenistic society. The conclusion may be drawn, therefore, that:

There is not the least reason to believe, as a matter ei­ther of historical fact or of revealed truth, that the city of Sodom and its neighbors were destroyed because of their homosexual practices. This theory of their fate seems un­doubtedly to have originated in a Palestinian Jewish rein­terpretation of Genesis 19, and its exponents, and by con­tempt for the basest features of Greek sexual immorality. (159)

The Hellenistic depravity that gave rise to the reinterpre­tation of the Sodom story in the first century A.D. likewise provides the background for the isolated references made to homosexual practices in the New Testament. We have no words of Jesus at all on the issue. The epistles make three defi­nite references. In two passages homosexual behavior is simply listed along with the vices rampant in the licentious pagan soci­ety of first-century Rome.

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither pornoi (men involved with prostitution), nor idolaters, nor adulter­ers, nor malakoi (men who engage passively in homosexual acts) nor arsenokoitai (men who engage actively in homo­sexual acts), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10).

The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholyand profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, pornois, arsenokoitais, kidnap­pers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrines (1 Tim 1:9-10).

Even the most intolerant anti-homosexual cannot help but be taken aback by the apparent equation in these two lists of homosexual acts with patricide, matricide, kidnapping, and robbery. It must be remembered, however, that the New Tes­tament originated in the era of Caligula and Nero. St. Paul was a contemporary of Petronius, whose Satyricon, along with the writings of Juvenal and Martial, presents a lurid descrip­tion of pagan life in the first century. Prostitution, male as well as female, was rampant.(160) Slaves, men and women, were sold for sex. Pederasty, child molestation, and seduction were com­monplace. Dissolute heterosexuals engaged freely in homosex­ual liaisons for diversion. Violence was coupled with every sort of perversion and possibility of dehumanization. Confronted by such degeneracy, a Hellenistic Jew like St. Paul could not but be repulsed. The foregoing catalogues of vice do not seem to be exaggerations; neither, however, are they examinations of con­science nor careful theological considerations. Both are simply mosaic descriptions of the chaotic moral climate of Hellenistic Roman society. Significantly, neither list singles out homosex­ual behavior in any way, nor sees it as posing special problems or difficulties.

There can be no doubt that St. Paul considered homosex­ual acts as perversions of the natural, divinely instituted order of human existence. Writing from Corinth, notorious for its prostitutes, to Rome with a reputation no better, St. Paul makes the only extended reference to homosexuality in the New Testament:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wicked­ness suppress the truth. . . . Claiming to be wise, they be­came fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among them­selves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Cre­ator, who is blessed foever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations with women and were consumed with pas­sion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct (Rom 1:18; 22-28).

The most important point to note in this passage is that the reference to homosexuality is almost parenthetic. It is not the principal consideration at all. Rather, homosexuality is used as an illustration of the chaos that follows as a result of idolatry, the real object of St. Paul’s attack. Three times Paul uses the phrase “God gave them up” to demonstrate the inner connection between sin and punishment. The Gentiles sin in that they have “exchanged” (1:23) the true God for idols. The punishment for this idolatrous confusion is a corresponding sexual confusion, whereby natural sexual relations are “ex­changed” for the unnatural (1:26).(161)

As a Hellenistic Jew conditioned by the Levitical legisla­tion of the Old Testament and appalled at the depravity of the age, St. Paul understandably rejected homosexual perversion, whether by men or women. (His mention of women in Rom 1:26 is the only reference to lesbianism in the Bible.) The ques­tion needs to be raised at this point, however: can St. Paul’s references to homosexuality simply be applied without qualifi­cation to all homosexual activity, particularly in the light of what we know today about inversion?

It has been suggested that, in discussing homosexual be­havior in terms of “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging,” St. Paul is not speaking here at all of the invert, the true homosex­ual for whom the “natural” use of sex creates not only an aver­sion but even, in some cases, an impossibility. Paul has been in­terpreted as speaking here only of those who deliberately choose homosexual over heterosexual relations.162 Obviously, St. Paul knew nothing of inversion either as an inherited trait or a condition fixed in childhood. The Bible regards all homosexual behavior as deliberate and therefore as perversion. “St. Paul’s words can only be understood in the sense which he him­self would have attached to them.”163

If the distinction between deliberate perversion and indelib­erate homosexual orientation cannot validly be read into St. Paul, the same is true of the rest of the Bible. “Inversion as a constitutional condition is a phenomenon which lies totally out­side the biblical perspective and considerations.”164 Until re­cent findings of medical science and research came to light, in­version lay outside Christian tradition and theological consideration altogether.


  1. Cf. the cultural studies of Margaret Mead.
  2. Martin Noth, Leviticus, A Commentary (London: SCM Press, 1965), p. 16.
  3. Martin Noth, The Laws in the Pentateuch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), p. 49.
  4. Ibid., p. 52. It may be supposed that what existed as a neighboring foreign cult in the immediate surroundings of ancient Israel, and might therefore become a temptation to “fall away “ to “other gods,” was forbidden to Israel, along with all its special features. M. Noth, Leviticus, p. 16. This explains, for example, why eating of pork was forbidden to the ancient Israelites. Every act of slaughtering was considered as sacrificial, and the wild swine sacred to one of the Canaanite deities. If the swine could not be offered in sacrifice to Yahweh, it could not be slaughtered and then could not be eaten. M. Noth, The Laws in the Pentateuch. p. 56 138.Ibid., p. 52.
  5. See Chapter 1
  6. N. H. Snaith, Leviticus and Numbers, the Century Bible  (London: Nelson, 1967), p. 126; see also H.-J. Schoeps, “Homosexualitat und Bibel,” in Zeitschrift fur Evangelische Ethik, 6 (1962), p. 371; and William G. Cole, Love and Sex in the Bible (New York Association Press, 1959), pp. 350-51.
  7. Louis Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism ( York: KIAV, 1968), p. 135.
  8. Anthony Phillips, Ancient Israel’s Criminal Law, An Approach to the Decalogue (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970), p. see also Gerhard VonRad, Genesis, A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 212-13.
  9. For a detailed study of the development of the homosexual interpretation of Sodom in the Pseudepigrapha, see D. S. Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Tradition (London: Longmans, 1955), pp. 11-25.
  10. Questiones et Solutiones in Genesin, 4, 37; De Abrahomo 26, 134-36.
  11. Bailey, p. 23.
  12. Ibid., p. 27. See also J. McNeill, The Church and the mosexuaU pp. 42-50.
  13. McNeill argues that the malakoi and arsenokoitai condemned by St. Paul should not be exclusively identified with homosexual activity but in the first instance with “soft” dissolute behaviour in general, and in the second instance with male prostitution. The Church and the Homosexual, pp. 52-53.
  14. Otto Kuss, Der Romerbrief {Regensburg: Pustet, 196: 52.
  15. T. Bovet, Sinnerfulltes Andersein (Tubingen, 1959), p cited in H.-J. Schoeps, “Homosexualitat und Bibel,” p. 373, n. 17.
  16. Bailey, p. 38.
  17. Schoeps, p. 373.