One day, I will be dead.
One day, everyone in this room will be dead.
One day, everyone in this town will be dead.
One day, everyone I know will be dead.
One day, I will be dead.
One day, everyone in this room will be dead.
One day, everyone in this town will be dead.
One day, everyone I know will be dead.
Alex Haiken has questioned my thesis that Luke 17:34-35 describes two gay and lesbian couples. (If you need to get updated on the gay theme in Luke 17, check the banner area above and click on “Gays and Lesbians in Luke,” or click here.) I’m not sure how much more Alex has read of these posts, so he may already be aware of my replies.
In three of your posts it seemed you established that in the Hebrew Bible, “grind” was sometimes used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, which is indeed true. You also established that “grind” was sometimes used as a euphemism for sex in both Latin, Greek and other languages, which is also true.
But then somehow you conclude that because the term could and sometimes was used as a euphemism for sex in these languages, and was used as a euphemism for sex in a poem written by Plutarch, who himself was Greek and lived around the same Luke did, that somehow we can conclude — without any context whatsoever in the Luke passage — that Jesus was referring to gay men and lesbian lovers here, and shows Jesus’ acceptance of non-celibate gays and lesbians.
How do we make that jump?
First: To have a credible case, it was necessary to establish several things. First, that the word grind was used sexually in the Bible, and, more specifically, that it was thus used in the time of Jesus. I documented the sexual use of grind first in Hebrew, then in first-century Latin and Greek, the two most pertinent languages to a discussion of Luke’s gospel.
By itself, this first-century sexual use of grind only proves that it was indeed used sexually in the time of Jesus. If I could not document this use, then people could justifiably say, “There is no evidence that grind was used sexually in the time of Jesus. You can’t import twenty-first century American slang into an ancient Biblical text.” And believe me, many people said precisely that.
What I have proved are (1) that grind was used sexually in the Bible itself and (2) that grind was used in the two major languages in Jesus’ world (Latin and Greek) during his lifetime. The next step was to investigate the text of Luke 17 to see if there were any more gay thematic markers.
Second: It is incorrect to suggest that I argue for the sexual use of grind in Luke 17:35 “without any context whatsoever in the Luke passage.” Among other things, chapter 17 contains two significant cultural symbols of same-sex relations: Sodom in Hebrew culture, and Zeus and Ganymede in Roman culture.
Now please realize that I am not stupid. Most of my readers will agree with me that, scripturally speaking, the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality. I know that. The references in Ezekiel includes:
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)
Both here and in the gospels it is clear that the main Biblical understanding, perhaps the only Biblical understanding, is that the sin of Sodom was their violent lack of hospitality. But I am convinced that there is a difference between strictly exegetical interpretations on the one hand, and popular and emotional understandings on the other. I suggest that when the average “man in the street” heard the story of the destruction of Sodom, the take-away was that Lot’s visitors were about to “take it in the ass” unless God intervened.
Careful exegetes were too respectful of the Bible to go much beyond what it said, but ordinary people are not so scrupulous. Wartime rape of defeated males have always been part and parcel of the fear of enemy nations. Wartime male rape is specifically described in Lamentations 5:13, “They took the young men to grind, and the children fell under the wood.”
The references to lightning and to eagles are both symbolic of Zeus, and the eagle figures highly in the story of Zeus’ kidnapping of Ganymede to be his sexual consort. The figures of Ganymede and the eagle (Zeus) appear on sarcophagoi, jewelry, statues, mosaic tile floors, etc. The symbols of Zeus & Ganymede were ubiquitous, even appearing on the coins in everyday use.
While the lightning and the eagles are separated in Luke’s text, the Q text had them together, and located nearer the beginning of the chapter. There are other contextual elements that confirm the same-sex theme in Luke 17.
Alex continues his critique with this paragraph regarding women grinding.
This becomes all the more problematic since we also know from commentaries such as the Bible Background Commentary which says referring to Luke 17:34-35: “Part of the Palestinian Jewish woman’s work was grinding at a mill; she would often do this with another woman. These women could normally work together regardless of religious convictions. Provided that the unreligious woman was not violating Pharisaic rules, even the wife of a Pharisee and the wife of a non-tither (whom Pharisees despised) could grind together.”
The “mill” he refer to is not found in Luke 17:35. The greek word for mill (muloni) is indeed found in Matthew 24:41: “Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” However, the word muloni is not found in the Luke passage. “Two women shall be grinding together at the same place, the one shall be taken, and the other left.” Just because the word mill appears in a so-called parallel passage is no justification for adding the word to Luke.
It is incorrect to assume that the women were grinding flour in their mill. There are alternative understandings of verse 35.
Remember one of the differences between the Sermon on the Mount in Luke and the Sermon on the Plain in Matthew? Matthew reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” whereas Luke reads, ” “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” There is a big difference between being “poor” and being “poor in spirit.” Can you imagine the hue and cry that would go up if a translation added the words “in spirit” to Luke? You would be doing violence to Luke’s intended meaning to take words from Matthew for supposed “clarification.”
The same thing holds true regarding the word muloni. Matthew specifies what is being ground, whereas Luke leaves it ambiguous. These small differences in wording are what gives us insight into the comparative meanings of the Gospels. The mill simply is not present in the Greek text of Luke 17:35.
I have documented the publicly available expressions of the overt, anti-homosexual sentiment of two major Bible scholars who engineered the suppression of the presence of gays and lesbians in Luke 17, Bruce M. Metzger (editor and translator for the RSV and the NRSV) and Mark Strauss (translator for the NIV). The suppression of the gay and lesbian presence in verses 34-35 has been underway since 1946 and continues into the present. (See the three posts under “Translator Bias” in the banner area, or click here.)
Alex describes 19th century practices of sharing beds and rare luxuries.
We also know with regard to the “two men in a bed” passage that up thru 19th century and even beyond it was a common practice for men to share a bed in eras when private quarters were such a rare luxury. So where then is the basis for such a forced interpretation?
There is nothing “forced” about this interpretation. The only Hebrew Bible antecedent for two men in one bed are the very Levitical prohibitions against such a practice.
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. (Leviticus 18:22)
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)
And the Hebrew word “lie” has the word “bed” as part of its root. So we have, “You shall not bed a man as you would bed a woman.” This is nearly identical to the English usage. The prohibitions against men bedding other men are, again, the only Biblical antecedents for two men in one bed. Bringing up subsequent historical practices seems irrelevant.
To go one step further, we know words like “hand” and “foot” were often used euphemistically for “penis” as were words like “thigh” for “testicles.” But it would not be responsible to presume when we see these in the Bible, that the text is necessarily referring to penises or testicles — and all the more so when the word shows up in passage with no context at all.
I don’t recall using the words “hand” or “foot” in any of my discussions of Luke 17, so I’m not sure of the relevance of these comments. If you meant to compare my use of grind to your examples of hand and foot, then all I can say is that it would be foolish to suggest that every use of grind referred to sex. I have already written about Biblical “grinding gold,” “grinding teeth,” and “grinding the faces of the poor.” I never assumed that every instance of grinding necessarily referred to sex. I always realized that various kinds of evidence were necessary to successfully argue my case.
Also, to say that any of my case has “no context at all” is a bit premature. I have previously discussed the context in numerous posts under “Gays and Lesbians in Luke” in the banner area.
Even “if” Plutarch was referring lesbians in his poem, as you suggest, I still don’t see how one can responsibly make the jump that Jesus was referring to gay men and lesbian lovers and shows Jesus’ acceptance of non-celibate gays and lesbians.
[Mind you, I’m not suggesting God has a problem with gay people who are sexually active, as you averred in another comment. Fact is I spend my life in many ways helping gay people integrate a theologically-sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality and in connection with this, it has become increasingly clear to me that the people who truly do well in the long run are those who accepted they were gay and sought after a same-sex monogamous partnership.]
Alex, it is not necessary for me to make “jumps” or “leaps” in my case for gays and lesbians in Luke 17: 34-35. I have already discussed the context of the references to two cultural markers for same-sex relations, the Roman and the Hebrew, as well as the lack of a muloni for the women. In addition to this, all of the action takes place at night (verse 34).
But for the reasons stated above, I do not see how one can responsibly derive from Luke 17:34-35 without taking some serious liberties that Jesus was referring to gay men and lesbian lovers.
I have taken no “liberties,” Alex. I have identified no less than four same-sex thematic elements in Luke 17, not to mention the poetic parallelism of verses 34 and 35. This parallelism is consistent with Hebrew poetry, which is characterized, not by rhyming, but parallel ideas. The parallel ideas here are, by my interpretation, same-sex love-making. I insist that Jesus did accept gays and lesbians.
How his acceptance is demonstrated depends on your pre-existing theological or interpretive assumptions. (1) If you believe in the popular idea of the “rapture” (which I do not), then verses 34-35 show one gay and one lesbians being raptured out of judgment.
(2) If you are a preterist, which means you believe books like Revelation describe historical events that occurred, say, before 70 C,E., then verses 34-35 do not refer to future events.
I have become convinced that, based on research that I have only recently begun to publish, Luke 17:34-35 reflects the persecution of one of the earliest Christian communities, the Q community. Based on evidence in Q, this community included many gays and lesbians, and that the couples mentioned in verses 34-35 were ethnically mixed Jew and Gentile.
The eminent founder of Yavneh, Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai, made nocturnal visits to suspected same-sex couples, catching them in flagrante dilecto, with sufficient witnesses to make the arrest of the Jewish partners for trial and execution. Generally, unless the gentile magistrate deferred, it was necessary to leave the gentile partner untouched since Torah generally had no jurisdiction over gentiles.
This persecution occurred between 30 and 40 C.E. in northern Galilee, and much of it was centered around the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Arav. Jesus pronounces judgment on Chorazin and Bethsaida, which are just north of the Sea of Galilee, and are only a few miles apart. From Yohannan ben Zakkai was stationed in the town of Arav between 20 and 40 C.E., which overlaps the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the likely date of the end of the Q community. Arav is only 17 miles north of Chorazin and Bethsaida, the cities Jesus warned.
My case is that the Q community, the group responsible for the writing of the Q source, had a significant number of gay and lesbian among their members, as evidenced by the gay theme found throughout the Q source. Jesus’ earliest followers included many gays and lesbians, which is discernible in what remains of their sojourn with Jesus. Now before anyone suggests that I am making unwarranted “jumps” in logic, you’d better wait until you’ve at least read a previous post: A Famous Rabbi Destroys the Gay and Lesbian Q Community.
I received a reply from Alex Haiken, with whom I’ve been having a lively exchange for the last several weeks. I want to excerpt one paragraph from one of the last things he wrote me.
As you yourself have here admitted in comments to others about things you’ve grown weary of, I myself have grown weary of those who insist that the men of Sodom were gay, that Ruth and Naomi were lesbians, that David and Jonathan were lovers, that Jesus and John the disciple he loved were gay, and other similar notions.
The first thing I should mention, so you won’t jump to any unwarranted conclusions, is that Alex is “in a long-term relationship with [his] domestic male partner of almost 10 years.” The context of his remark is important as well. He was making some initial challenges to my thesis regarding gays and lesbians in Luke 17:34-35.
I do grow impatient and weary sometimes. When you hear the same things over and over, the same objections, the same arguments. Sheesh! It is an indicator of how well people stay on message; how practiced, for example, they are in doing a cut-and-paste job on Romans 1.
Alex, I understand your impatience and weariness with shallow, sloppy, or inadequately grounded interpretations of Scripture, especially ones which deal with relationships that could possibly have been sexual, but which cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, or are subject to serious questioning. In your list of such relationships, you begin with the popular anti-gay interpretation of Sodom, and move to three queer-friendly assertions.
In my own interpretation of the Bible, I do close readings–I focus on what’s actually present in the text, and attempt to follow the standard methods of exegesis I learned in Bible college, four years in several seminaries, and in my personal reading. Something that is ironic is that I am frequently accused of practicing eisegesis, that is, reading into a text things that are not there. These accusations come from people who aren’t haven’t read my various posts, or the various discussion threads, where I present my case.
Being a perfectionist, academic type, it is very important to me to be right. I hate being wrong or mistaken and having someone call me on it. In some contexts of life that’s a problem, but in my thesis-driven writing, it’s a plus.
But not everyone is a perfectionist, and they aren’t motivated to read the Bible to prove a point or win a debate. Thank God for them! They come to the Bible to solve their day-to-day problems, to find encouragement in the face of failure or discouragement. These people read the Bible for encouragement, and for survival in a hostile world.
This is one of the main reasons why I try to cut people some slack when it comes to Bible interpretation. Most people believe what they’re told, or what they were raised to believe. For them, they need to continue believing the things that everyone in their circle of friends and acquaintances believe, or risk their sense of belonging within their tribe. Changing their understanding of their faith is not worth being cast out. While we should be willing to become a church organization’s rejects, this is not easy for some.
Of course, there are limits to how much slack you cut people. I have taken issue with leaders like James Dobson, Steven Anderson, Philip Kayser, Curtis Knapp, Charles Worley and Frankie Purdue. These sorts of leaders need to be called out and held accountable. I admit that I would be astonished if any of these men have ever visited my blog! (Except for one of them, a United Methodist pastor unfortunate enough to have stumbled across my blog and left “sincerely wrong” comments . . . )
For Christians it is important that there be characters in the Bible with whom they can identify, people who look like them. How many people have said, “I’m glad Peter is in the Bible–I really identify with him.” When it comes to LGBT folks, I would not want to eliminate all the potential LGBT role models in the Bible because the exegetical legitimacy of those models didn’t meet my personal standards of close scrutiny or careful scholarship. That would violate the highest command and chief virtue of Jesus followers.
This is one way I apply Paul’s dictum, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.”
This is how I try to deal with others. For me it is the loving and gracious attitude to have. This has nothing to do with whether I agree with all the queer-friendly interpretations of Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, or Jesus and John. At this point in my life, I have not entered into those debates. I did write one post on Jesus and John, but limited myself to accurate reportage of what the Bible says, and left it at that.
There are reasons why some people accept all three of those pairs as being sexually intimate, or two pairs, or only one pair, or none of them at all. Those reasons are personal, and I don’t think it’s worth my time to persuade any of them to see “the error of their ways.” All I need to know is that, at this point in their lives, it is important to them to believe what helps them negotiate their way through their own personal challenges.
This would be an example of not arguing over gray areas. We are called primarily to love.
For myself, I attempt to be as scrupulous and careful as I can with my own interpretations of Scripture. That’s part of my fundamentalist heritage, part of letting the Bible say what it really says, and not making it say what you want it to say. In fact, there are things in the Bible that I don’t like, but I don’t lawyer the passages, forcing it to say something it doesn’t say.
I realize that the comments I’ve made may not flow naturally from what you wrote, that you did not personally articulate the things I responded to. I have run your comments through my own filters, and these are the responses that came to me.
More and more, conservative Bible scholars are acknowledging the fact that, Biblically speaking, the sin of Sodom has to do with the lack of hospitality–in the extreme–and not anal sex per se. Nothing lacks hospitality like raping visitors to your town. Nevertheless, I must insist that the hospitality references in Ezekiel are not the end of the discussion.
In the popular religious mind of the first century, there were those who believed that the sin of Sodom was primarily male anal intercourse. Just as there are people today who define the sin of Sodom as the lack of hospitality or anal intercourse, so too were there people who came to differing conclusions in Biblical times. The difference here is the difference between a careful exegetical understanding of a scripture passage, and how a verse is understood in the minds of people who don’t care about careful exegesis.
The Book of Enoch dates back to between 300 and 100 B.C.E., and clearly equates anal sex, either imposed on children or between friends, as sex “in the manner of Sodom.”
MS P of Enoch, which arguably preserves the uncensored text, is very specific, speaking of judgment for “sin which is against nature, which is child corruption of the anus in the manner of Sodom” (10:2) and the wickedness of those sowing worthless seed, including “abominable fornications, that is, friend with friend in the anus, and every other kind of wicked uncleanness which it is disgusting to report” (34:1-2), here apparently addressing both pederasty and adult to adult consensual male same-sex relations. (The Pseudepigrapha on Sexuality, p. 507, William R.G. Loader, Eerdmans, 2011)
Again, this description if found in 2 Enoch as well. 2 Enoch is generally dated from the first century C.E.
“And I said, ‘Woe, woe! How very frightful this place is!’ And those men said to me, ‘This place, Enoch, has been prepared for those who do not glorify God, who practice on the earth sin which is against nature, which is child corruption in the anus after the manner of Sodom, of witchcraft, enchantments, divinations, trafficking demons, who boast about their evil deeds—stealing, lying, insulting, coveting, resentment, fornication, murde’” (2 Enoch 10: 4).
Note how sin upon sin are strung together, as they are in places in the Bible itself, and as they are in popular preaching.
There were religious writers in the first century who believed the sin of Sodom was anal intercourse, this is undeniable from the evidence of Enoch. The book of Jude famously quotes the book of Enoch as follows:
“Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 1:14-15).
You will recognize the similarities in the book of Enoch, written some time before Jude, which reads:
“Behold, he comes with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon them, and destroy the wicked, and reprove all the carnal for everything which the sinful and ungodly have done, and committed against him.”
The author of Jude was certainly influenced by the pseudepigraphal book of Enoch, the book which describes “fornication,” “friend with friend” and “child corruption of the anus” as sin, “after the manner of Sodom.” With this knowledge, the meaning of Jude in the following verse seems clear me.
“Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7).
The phrase “unnatural lust” frequently refers to same-sex relations, bestiality, to anything outside the realm of heterosexual relations. Nevertheless, it cannot be “proven” that Jude considered anal sex between men as the sin of Sodom, and neither can it be disproven. Both are possibilities, but given the specific identification in the book of Enoch, it seems likely that Jude believed they were equivalent. Jude demonstrates an unusual preoccupation with bodily fluids in verse 23:
“. . . to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”
The feelings expressed toward “clothes stained by corrupted flesh” are somewhere between revulsion and literally phobic. But, as I said, it cannot be absolutely “proven” that Jude considered anal intercourse to be the sin of Sodom. The non-canonical book of Enoch certainly demonstrates that there were influential religious writers who did.
My specific interest in the popular, first-century understanding of Sodom relates to how we interpret the gay theme of Luke 17. Luke 17:34-35 reads:
I tell you, in that night,
there shall be two men in one bed,
the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left,
Two women shall be grinding together;
the one shall be taken, and the other left.
(Luke 17:34-35, KJV)
The same-sex theme is completely embedded in the passage (which is considerably more apparent when taken in the more abbreviated context of the Q source).
“It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.” (Luke 17: 28-29)
The gay theme becomes more apparent when we consider the fact that “two men in one bed” and “two women grinding together,” at night, immediately follow Sodom, and the fact that the Greek word for “mill” (muloni) does not appear in Luke 17: 35.
The gay theme of Luke 17 does not rest on any single element, but on numerous elements taken together.
Note two things. First, nothing sinful or wicked is mentioned regarding Sodom–this general lack has puzzled scholars for centuries. Second, there is nothing in the text that explains the disparity between those taken and those left. In fact, scholars are divided as to whether being taken or being left is better.
If Jesus or Luke had been interested in denouncing same-sex relations, either of these places would have been good places to be clear. Same-sex relationships are not denounced here. They do, however, establish a same-sex theme for the chapter.
There will be those unwilling to give an inch on any possibility that the sin of Sodom was understood as anal intercourse, that their sin was their lack of hospitality, and that Jude in no way considered anal intercourse to be the sin of Sodom. There are valid reasons for taking such a hard-line stance on the issue.
I firmly believe, however, that Luke 17 has a deliberate same-sex theme, and that part of this theme is the connection, in the popular mind, of Sodom with same-sex relationships. For purposes of demonstrating Jesus’ acceptance of gays and lesbians, this example is at least as valuable as the story of Jesus and the centurion’s pais, if not more valuable. It not only mentions both gays and lesbians, but the passage contains the main Hebrew cultural marker for same-sex relations.
For more posts on the gay theme of Luke 17, click here.
(My citation of William R.G. Loader should not in any way be taken as an endorsement of his anti-gay diatribes.)
My brother Noel recently expressed his concern for me.
Tread lightly if befriending those who will agree with you, based only on their need to be comforted and befriended, versus a true hunger for the truth of the gospel. This befriending and adoration though satisfying to the flesh is temporal and emotional at best. These are the the very same people who in one moment will roll out the red carpet until you preach the “Whole Gospel” and thus coming to fully understand your mission. They will turn on a dime and call for you to be crucified with your blood on their children and their children’s children. Unless we preach and teach the whole gospel, we are hiding the light under a bushel and our saltiness has lost it’s savor.
Noel, I’ve already undergone what felt like “organizational crucifixions” over this issue three times in the last few years–once in a secular LGBT organization, once in an LGBT-supportive Christian organization, and most recently in my own church.
I am preaching part of the gospel that you and your Christian friends neglect. I am called to a prophetic ministry to my own Christian community–my tribe, the people among whom I was born. I stand against thoughtless shepherds, against conservatives in search of scapegoats, and against Christian officials who yield to the most ignorant and bigoted voices in their organizations.
If you are not thoughtless, in search of scapegoats, or yield to the ignorant and bigoted, then these descriptions don’t apply to you. Relax, don’t get defensive and in a huff. But you do know that the descriptions do apply to some people.
Called to be salt? You better believe it! I leave a taste in the mouth of every conservative Christian on the net who engages me on the topic of a Christ-like love and acceptance for gays and lesbians. I don’t reinforce their ignorant prejudices. And yes, they are ignorant, ignorant of Christ’s acceptance of gays and lesbians, ignorant of the spiritual lives of Christian gays and lesbians, ignorant of their own ignorance. I have not lost my saltiness.
Called to be light? Oh yes! But you and I don’t shine the identical light. The light is the light of Christ, but it is filtered through different personalities, different life experiences, and shines in different places, illuminating different problems.
You shine your little light, and I’ll shine my little light. Yes, there’s darkness, but there are different kinds of darkness. You shine in the darkness you see, and I’ll shine in the darkness I see.
You preach and teach the gospel according to your best lights, And I’ll model and teach the messages of Jesus according to mine. Christians don’t have to all believe and teach the same message to be virtuous or acceptable to God. Period.
I have previously written to you at length about the diversity of gifts and callings, that not all people are called to the same ministry. Please stop assuming, even insisting, that I must act in accordance with your sense of calling to evangelism and ministry. I am not you, you are not me.
I think I have explained how, where, and by whom I’ve been crucified–all for being salt and light–but you may not remember.
I know you are expressing your concern, but consider expressing this concern for people closer to home who need it. My children are all grown adults, but some of yours are still in the nest. Are you prepared to love and support them no matter what kinds of adults they turn out to be?
I am doing what God has gifted, equipped, and prepared me to do, and I plan to continue doing it as long as I have the strength and the faculties.
And if your gifts, equipping, and preparation mean that you will continue trying to keep me on the straight and narrow as you understand it, preaching a gospel message that they preach in your circles–oh well, I guess I’ll just have to bear with you!
I just found this post from the Swindon Humanists (U.K.) by contributing editor Fred Pound. In the second half of this post Fred’s done a really marvelous job of succinctly presenting the case for gays and lesbians in Luke 17:34-35. The post has teeth! Pray Away the Gay: Or How to Edit the Bible.
Please check it out.
Nice job, Fred!
Jesus’ acceptance of the Roman centurion and his pais has some troublesome contemporary implications. These troubling implications were highlighted in a comment from Charles Kinnaird over at Not Dark Yet.
Kinnaird was not taking issue with the substance of either my post or the particular point I was making regarding Jesus’ acceptance of the centurion and the pais. His concerns were three-fold: first, the very real problem of present-day child sexual abuse, second, the sense that Jesus was okay with pederasty and the related issue of sexual exploitation of slaves, and third, the alienation of people by this second point.
It’s interesting. In writing that post, I knew the word pederasty was problematical. I felt that. I knew the word pederasty had exclusively negative meanings for most people today. And I knew that I was not representing the centurion’s situation adequately. Charles, thank you for giving me the opportunity to think aloud about the centurion’s relationship and about how we can address the phenomena related to age disparity in sexual relationships.
Here are a few excerpts that summarize his concerns.
Briefly, the centurion illustrates the following elements of what could be called an “ethical pederasty.”
Considering the aide-de-camp’s likely age, the word pederasty may not even be appropriate for the relationship between the two men. This underscores the need for definitions, as well as careful exegesis. This illustrates the value of discussing age differences in sexual relationships.
The first thing I’d like to note is that in this discussion of pederasty we have several possible audiences in view. The people for whom we are concerned include
(I hope my tone and approach don’t feel too antiseptic or uber-logical. It’s just that I take this problem seriously, and I find that this sort of bullet-point presentation is best for clarity and understanding.)
The group for which I must have the least concern is number 4. Comprised mainly of fundamentalists and other orthodox individuals, they are locked into their belief systems by temperament, rigidity, genuine phobias (coitophobia, sociophobia, coprophobia, haptophobia, etc.), and by their need to remain in good standing with their co-religionists. They will not be persuaded by mere words.
Charles, I completely understand your “concern that any indication that Jesus was okay with pederasty will cause some to discredit everything else that has been said.” This is a valid concern, and different people will come to different conclusions regarding the problem of discrediting and rejection. We need to distinguish between the walking wounded, people who are victims of child sexual abuse, and church people who are dogmatic and delight in excluding people.
I would like to partially address your concern about discrediting people who support gay and lesbian believers and their full inclusion in church and society. I know you are already aware of the issues.
If my fundamentalist friends are the weaker brethren, why should I have to refrain from offending them? How long should I be expected to coddle these spiritual babes instead of challenging them to a more authentic faith?
(Charles Kinnaird, Pot Luck Sunday at Weaker Brethren Community Church)
There is a difference in how to approach people. Jesus welcomed the weary and burdened, and he castigated Pharisees to their faces. We must not rule out a confrontational approach when dealing with dogmatic folks, the intolerant, anal, insecure, and controlling.
But quoting such hard-nosed, confrontational verses is far too simplistic a reply to your comments. Your concern for the wounded and damaged is equally important.
Your central concern is with the little ones, the wounded and the brokenhearted, which is appropriate. “Lives have been shattered. . . . there has been a lot of hurt inside as well as outside the church from child molestation.”
Our concerns and approaches are not mutually exclusive, but are complementary. Paul endorses a diversity of gifts and ministries. I’ve discussed this very diversity in my post, Diversity and Conflict, Spiritual Gifts, and Homosexuality.
In the past I have been too much concerned about offending the sensibilities of so-called weaker brothers. In general, they will not be persuaded by mere words, and can object to virtually anything. I must begin to disregard their sensitivities and objections because there are important concerns that progressive Christians need to consider and discuss without being “afraid of what people will think.”
Certainly the most controversial of the five audiences is number 5. For many people, even suggesting the possibility of a responsible, caring “pederast” is wicked. It is the delusion of NAMBLA. It is an unimaginable concept, or, at least, a topic so controversial and dangerous as to defy calm, rational discussion.
If, however, we believe that Jesus accepted the relationship between the Roman centurion and his pais, then this is a subject that needs to be explored. I don’t have all the answers, of course, and I know that we will never reach a consensus on the subject. But the impossibility of reaching consensus should not be a barrier to discussing what Jesus’ acceptance of the gay centurion means to us today.
Nothing in Jesus’ Life & Ministry Justifies the Sexual Abuse of Children
Jesus said, “Whatever you have done unto the least of these by brethren, you have done unto me.” If you abuse, coerce, rape, or otherwise victimize children, Jesus takes it completely personally.
Unlike his more “serious-minded” followers, Jesus said, “Allow the children to come to me.” Jesus didn’t take the playful, rambunctious, non-intellectual antics as a bothersome interruption of his “serious” teaching task. If more of adults were engaged with children, it is possible children would be less lonely, less prey to exploitation. His delight in children, however, was public, and subject to the scrutiny of concerned parents. As they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I would add to this, “It takes a village to protect a child, too.”
Scripture Urges us to Defend the Rights of the Defenseless
In the Bible, God is described as having great concern for the fatherless, that is, young people who have no one to care, protect, and provide. Without meaning to understate the equal importance of mothers myself, the patriarchal society of the past considered the protection of children the father’s responsibility. If we do not take care to protect our children, then they are, in effect, fatherless.
Jesus Accepted People Ostracized by Respectable Society
Jesus’ acceptance of the ostracized and marginalized is where a lot of our difficulties arise. I need not document, chapter and verse, the social cast-offs whom Jesus accepted: lepers, prostitutes, gentiles, mixed-race co-religionists (Samaritans), collaborating traitors (tax collectors), Jews who made no attempt to live according to the Law of Moses—designated sinners, and same-sex couples.
Pariah Status: Cultural, Social, Legal, and Personal
The practice of same-sex relationships was debated in ancient civilizations just as it is today. For example, some ancient Greeks highlighted the value of male same-sex relations, others denounced them. Some ancient Romans accepted male same-sex relationships, and some argued against them. There never was an absolute consensus of opinion among the Greeks or Romans, no matter what others say.
Government policy and the legal system are important in determining the pariah status of individuals. Until recently, sodomy was a crime punishable by imprisonment in many states. President Dwight Eisenhower, in 1953, forbade the employment of homosexuals in any branch of the federal government in Executive Order 10450. Gays and lesbians were thus forced into the closet for fear of losing their government careers and livelihood.
Personal factors also figure in to whether or not a person or a group has the status of pariah, of socially ostracized, of demonized. These factors, mentioned earlier, include temperament, rigidity, genuine phobias (coitophobia, sociophobia, coprophobia, haptophobia, etc.), the need to remain in good standing with their co-religionists, as well as personal experience. Victims of childhood sexual molestation understandably find it difficult to distinguish between actual pedophiles, and gays and lesbians with no interest in children. The subject is not a matter of logic and fairness for them.
Personal factors also include personal feelings about age disparity. Such disparities are listed in the Wikipedia article, Age Disparity in Sexual Relationships. I admit that despite my attempts to refrain from judging couples with a large age disparity, I nevertheless feel discomfort where a great age difference exists. My solution is simply to tell me that they are not accountable to my sense of comfort, nor to my inability to deeply empathize. My acceptance is an intellectual thing, not, as some people would prefer, a matter of celebration.
If we accept the fact that the objectionable features of pederasty are culturally, socially, legally, and personally determined, then it should be possible to discuss an “ethical pederasty.” A discussion of “ethical pederasty” would need to address issues like
In a much quoted passage, the discussion of abuse focuses on anal penetration.
Though paederasty was once accepted in many cultures, some modern observers have retrospectively labeled it abusive. Enid Bloch argues that many Greek boys who were involved in paederastic relationships may have been harmed by the experience, if the relationship included anal intercourse. Bloch writes that the boy may have been traumatized by knowing that he was violating social customs. According to her, the “most shameful thing that could happen to any Greek male was penetration by another male.” In this respect Bloch is in accord with Greek sexual morality, which also recognized a difference between ethical pederasty which excluded anal intercourse and “hubristic” pederasty which was believed to debase the boy as well as the man who penetrated him. (emphasis added)
(Dumézil, Georges, preface in Homosexuality in Greek Myth by Bernard Sergent, Boston, 1984)
One of the first steps in discussing pederasty is to address the definitions of pederasty, and the definition of “ethical pederasty” in particular. Definitions include:
Differences among these definitions: “sexual activity” could range from hugging to mutual masturbation, oral sex, and anal intercourse; “minor” status is legally determined, where “minor” status differs between states and countries; while “anal intercourse” is quite specific.
For purposes of discussion, we need to avoid the isolated word “boy.” It is imprecise and biased. There is a difference, after all, between a six-year-old and a sixteen-year-old. While the concept of adolescence is culturally determined, I nevertheless believe that “adolescent male” is a more objective label for the younger member of a “pederastic” relationship.
The definition of “ethical pederasty” seems to hinge on the absence of anal intercourse. This definition seems far too limited. An adequate “ethics of pederasty” would need to take into account far more than this, as I suggested above.
The concept of ethical pederasty is nothing new. Numerous discussions of ethical pederasty are found in the many books and articles on Plato’s Phaedrus. I am a complete novice in this field, and people interested in ethical pederasty have vast resources at their disposal.
The legal and cultural element intersect with this matter of minors. What people consider an appropriate age of consent or legal marriage has varied remarkably, which simply indicates that there is nothing absolute about our ideas of propriety. In 1275, the legal age of marriage in England was 12 years of age. In medieval Europe, while the general age of legitimate marriage was between 12 and 14, records exist of marriages before 7, and purely legal marriages as early as 2 or 3. These were, obviously, arranged marriages.
It may be desirable to prepare a book for publication titled, “The Ethics of Christian Pederasty.” I am not, however, the person to write such a book. But if we can write books about “The Christian Concept of Just War,” “Christian Business Ethics,” “Religion and the Death Penalty,” “Christian Legal Ethics,” or “Toxic Christianity,” then discussing the Christian ethics of pederasty is certainly appropriate.
To discuss an ethics of Christian pederasty, we would need to keep in mind the purposes of developing such an ethic. It seems to me that the primary reasons for developing an ethic of responsible pederasty are
I think I am right in my perception that for many, this is a taboo subject. It may be taboo for good reason, but it doesn’t have to be taboo for all of us.
Developing such an ethic would not be to persuade anti-gay crusaders to give up their campaign to beat gays and lesbians back into submission. Admittedly, the discussion, as Kinnaird warns, could provide them with ammunition for their bigoted, un-Christian attacks. It might, however, temper the nightmarish imaginings of gays and lesbians among less vitriolic conservatives.
If ethical pederasty sounds like “rationalizing sin,” it is not. Consider how much ink was spilled among conservatives as they struggled to accept the ordination of women, allowing the consumption of alcohol, giving up head-coverings for women, etc. When traditional practices become untenable, Christians put their brains to work to de-absolutize subjective cultural elements embedded in the Bible. Every major and necessary shift in a well-developed ideology requires sufficient discourse to remove internal tensions and conflicts. Sometimes guilt feelings are appropriate, sometimes they are irrational.
There are three different but complementary ways of approaching the issues involved. One way focuses on the fact of cultural factors. Another deals with differences in personal comfort zones. What is probably the most important way to deal with same-sex age differentials is to examine how Jesus dealt with concrete people, not abstract ideas.
As I considered this post, my first thoughts were to the limitations of language. As far as I know, there are no popularly used equivalents for pederast or pederasty. At least in common currency among straights (that’s me). My background in this is admittedly quite limited. The only synonym with which I am familiar is “sugar daddy.” A less loaded version in an ethics of pederasty deals with responsibility and provision for one’s family. I prefer discussing this under the rubric of “ethical pederasty” or “responsible pederasty.”
I believe that a substantive discussion of ethical Christian pederasty could easily begin with the centurion and his pais found in Matthew 8:5-13, and Luke 7:1-10. While related to these verses, John 4:46-54 does not address the specific topic at hand. In John the centurion is transformed into an “official,” and the servant into a “son.” It seems that the Johannine community found the obvious reference to a homoerotic relationship too uncomfortable to leave standing, or had other theological reasons for their redaction.
I don’t know how practical or generally needed such a project is. Certainly the subject of ethical, fair, responsible, and lasting gay relationships where a marked difference in age exists has been discussed. I just know that changing conditions, primarily the legal and social acceptance of same-sex relationships and marriage, create the need for logical “next steps.” I don’t presume to know what the logical next steps are for the LGBT community. I have simply noted the complications that, in a Christian context, can arise in the particular discussion of the gay centurion and his aid-de-camp.
As a footnote, I published a satirical post a while back titled Slavery: Scripture’s Consistent Testimony. It’s a parody of an anti-gay tirade that John R. MacArthur published some years ago, in which I used reasoning and rhetoric identical to MacArthur’s. The post is a testimony to the fact that most Christians find it impossible to live strictly by the Bible.
According to Jewish tradition (I am told), in the first century girls were betrothed when they were 12 years old, and married a year later at 13. Many people are uncomfortable with this young age, and place Mary’s age of betrothal at 14 or even as old as 18. If you look at most pictoral representations of Mary with the baby Jesus, however, she looks to be anywhere from 20 to 30.
This post has a simple thesis: there is nothing universal, binding, eternal, or sacred about the “appropriate” age to willingly commence sexual activity. This statement is not a justification for pedophilia or child sexual abuse. I am highlighting, however, the social relativity of age-appropriate sexuality in general, and age-appropriate coupling in particular.
Our feelings, on the other hand, about age appropriate sexuality seem like they are objectively true. The process of socialization, which begins at childbirth, is such that socialization feels binding, as “natural” as breathing. This is why culture and society seem so inescapable. For survival and social solidarity, we learn what is safe and what is dangerous. That’s why socialization is supposed to be “second nature”: it helps our species survive.
Note: in focusing on the social construction of adolescence, I am not urging that sexual activity start at earlier ages. I am not disregarding the fact that having children interferes with getting an education and becoming a valuable profit center for industry and commerce. I am simply saying that there is nothing objective about what we feel is an appropriate age to commence sexual activity or to marry.
In sixteenth through eighteenth century Europe, many countries set the legal age of marriage was set between 10 and 12 years old. In 1689 Virginia, Mary Hathaway is recorded as marrying William Williams at age 9.
Today, 14 is the lowest official age of consent for females in Bolivia, Columbia, and Paraguay. The age of consent is 15 in Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Canada, and Mexico, as well as in Angola, Mali, Niger, South Africa, Tanzania, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestinian Territories, the Philippines, Syria, and Venezuela. Of course these ages can be difficult to enforce in outlying regions beyond the control of the national governments. A number of governments also allow marriage after puberty, with the approval of parents or the courts. In the Sudan, puberty in the legal moment of marriageability (See “Age of Consent“).
In the social sciences there is almost universal agreement that the concept of “adolescence” is not biologically determined, but socially determined, prompted by the demands of industrialization. Many of you are familiar with this information, but for the rest I provide a small sampling of this concept in contemporary scholarship.
It is accurate to say that in an industrialized country, where education and maturity are extremely important, a high age of consent and legal marriage is important for reasons which are neither natural nor universal.
When we consider our feelings about May-December marriages and cradle robbing, about pederasty and sugar daddies, our feelings about age disparity in sexual relationships come into play. What we have seen and feels familiar will feel safe, while what we have not seen will feel alien and strange, dangerous. And there is nothing absolute about those feelings, except for the feeling, depending on the person, that those feelings are absolutely correct.
 Elton, M. The Social Construction of Adolescence, scribd, 2010.
 Rocha, Sam. “Sex Miseducation: Abstinence Doesn’t Make Sense”, 2013.
 Stern, David, and Dorothy Eichorn, eds. Adolescence and Work: Influences of Social Structure, Labor Markets, and Culture, Routledge, 2013.
 Valdivia, Angharad N. A Companion to Media Studies, Wiley, 2008, p. 229.
 LeTendre, Gerald K. Learning to be Adolescent: Growing Up in U.S. and Japanese Middle Schools, Yale University Press, 2000.
 Mason, Laura Deane, School Facility Design Characteristics Supporting California Schools to Watch–Taking Center Stage Middle Schools: Perceptions of Middle School Principles and Teachers, University of LaVerne, 2008, p 48.
 DeLamater, John D., and Amanda Ward, Handbook of Social Psychology, p 124, Springer, 2013.
What follows is a summary of my conclusions regarding (1) the presence of a large percentage of gays and lesbians among some of Jesus’ very first followers (the Q community), (2) the highly political and violent nature of the rabbis and Pharisees in years before Jesus’ ministry, and (3) the role of Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai in the deadly campaign against the Q community.
One of the communities of Galilean followers of Jesus, the Q community, accepted and included a large number of Jesus’ gay and lesbian followers. What was preserved of Jesus’ teachings and actions did not necessarily include everything said and done, but certainly included things of particular relevance to his earliest audience.
The Q Source preserves four sections in particular which are the evidence of the theme of same-sex relationships:
I follow Q scholars who support an early date for the Q source, between 30 and 45 CE. I also agree with the view that the Q community was located in northern Galilee. This location is based on the mention of two otherwise insignificant Galilean towns, Chorazin and Bethsaida, which are just north of the Sea of Galilee.
Until now, Q scholars have had a hard time explaining why the Q community disappeared. Nothing seemed to exist to provoke a violent persecution, nothing meriting the death penalty. The Q community is frequently dismissed as a bunch of wandering vagabonds, “countercultural” cynics who petulantly whined about not being welcomed with open arms.
Regarding the existence of a “Q community”: the composition and propagation of each of the gospels is believed to have been supported by a particular community of Jesus followers. Thus, scholars speak of the Markan community, the Lukan community, etc. Yet because of its unfinished, unpolished condition, the Gospel of Q seems to have had no community to support its continued composition and development. The question has remained: why did the Q community not survive?
I argue that the Q community disappeared because, in order to impose Pharisaic teaching and practice on the Galilee, Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai waged a ten-year campaign for its destruction.
Rabban Yohannan was one of the most influential rabbis of the period, and is credited for the survival of the Jewish people. Early in his career he was stationed in northern Galilee, between 20 and 40 CE, probably as an official representative of the Pharisees in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were always attempting to expand their influence on government officials. The specific city mentioned as his place of residence is Arav, which is located only 17 miles north of Chorazin and Bethsaida.
This overlap in time and space between (1) Jesus’ ministry, (2) the Q community, and (3) the presence of Yohannan ben Zakkai was the key discovery that pushed me to explore the official record of Rabban Yohannan.
Thus, Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai, one of the most important Pharisees of the first century, had the means, motive, and opportunity to wage the campaign that destroyed the Q community.
The means? He was an expert in Torah, had experience in explaining Torah to gentile officials, and used persuasion as his primary method to prosecute his campaign. Pharisees eschewed holding the reins of power themselves, and favored using civil authorities (Jewish or gentile) as instruments through which to work.
His motive? To establish the centrality of Torah in Galilee, a region sometimes called “Galilee of the Gentiles,” a region with its own religious traditions from as far back as the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, a region about which Rabban Yohannan said, “Galilee, O Galilee, you hate Torah!” There is no better way to convince a resistant population to follow your ideology than to “flex your muscle,” to impose upon the region a “reign of terror.”
His opportunity? Living in northern Galilee between 20 and 40 CE, witnessing all of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, living a mere 17 miles north of Chorazin and Bethsaida where events occurred which caused the Q community to announce God’s judgment against them. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry until Rabban Johannan’s own departure to Jerusalem (30—40 CE), the rabbi’s base of operation was located only 17 miles from two small towns that were probably the scenes of the first executions of gay and lesbian members of the Q community.
There is strong evidence within Q itself that Yohannan ben Zakkai was among the Pharisees persecuting the Q community.
Q 11:39-49 is comprised of woes specifically aimed at the Pharisees. Before that section is Q 11:14-19, which is often called the Beelzebul Controversy. In the Beelzebul Controversy the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the authority of Beelzebul. In Q 11:19 Jesus reportedly says, “And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges.”
It so happens that one of Jewish history’s most famous exorcists was a disciple of none other than Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai. That name of that exorcist was Hanina ben Dosa. Thus, when Jesus refers to “your sons” who cast out demons, he is referring to one of Rabban Yohannan’s most well-known disciples. Referring to their exorcist “sons” near the climax of this heated exchange suggests that the historical basis of this event left a dramatic, even poignant, impression. Note that within this debate between Jesus and the Pharisees, mention is made of the little towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida.
Rabban Yohannan is virtually unknown among Christians, but is much better known among Jews. He founded the rabbinic school in Yavneh (also known as Jamnia), what became the center of Jewish learning in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Subsequently, the Torah replaced the Temple as the center of the Jewish religion.
You will search in vain for any descriptions of Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai’s campaign against the first gay and lesbian followers of Jesus. I believe that an understandable and wise cover-up of ben Zakkai’s anti-Q campaign was launched in the years between c 70 CE and c 500 CE when the Gemara (the second part of the Talmud) was written. Jacob Neusner, a leading scholar on Rabban Yohannan,, insists repeatedly that nothing was “preserved” about Rabban Zakkai except what Rabban Hillel and his colleagues (who succeeded Zakkai at Yavneh) wanted to survive. Neusner repeated emphasizes the political coloring of Zakkai’s record, suggesting that the picture we have of Yohannan ben Zakkai was carefully crafted, sanitized of materials that were either antithetical to the “precedent” conscious Hillelites, or were dangerous to the Jewish people under newly “Christianized” Roman imperial power.
Nevertheless, a number of clues were left, clues which undermine the studious and scholarly picture of Zakkai’s life and work. Without going into great detail, I will list these clues here.
There are two popular descriptions of Zakkai, one referring to his interest in capital crimes, and the other a typical exaltation of Torah study, that bear the markings of the cover-up. I believe they were generated in response to bona-fide criticisms that were actually leveled against him by his successors at Yavneh.
The first of these would preempt accusations that ben Zakkai was careless in his prosecution of the campaign against gay and lesbian in the Q community. In such a reign of terror, it is impossible to avoid sweeping up uncooperative bystanders (friends and family) along with those targeted. The second characterization, while elevating the virtue of Torah study, is voiced so exaggeratedly that it too sounds intended to preempt criticism, accusations that his cleansing operation had eclipsed his devotion to Torah.
Another clue to ben Zakkai’s activities follows.
This episode is exceedingly significant for several reasons. First, it indicates that Yohannan ben Zakkai had an active interest in capital crimes involving what might be called sexual perversion, and that he sought to destroy anything connected with such perversion. Second, it is consistent with the typical Pharisaic approach to making things happen: working through civil officials. Third, it is related to the principle of minorum ad majorum, and/or to the practice of legal reasoning by analogy. Here, by analogy, the beast represents a gentile sexual partner, who, though technically not subject to Torah, could be argued to be so subject by extrapolation. Remember that even Jesus is recorded as calling the Canaanite woman a dog.
This point regarding gentiles as beasts and dogs fits the Galilean settings of an anti-gay campaign. Galilee had a mixed population of Jew and gentile, and sexual minorities often cross social and ethnic boundaries because of their problematical social isolation. Or more simply, when your romantic options are severely limited, you are more willing to cross normal ethnic and social boundaries to locate a suitable partner. It follows that Jesus’ following included gay and lesbian couples who were ethnically mixed—Jew and gentile.
Estimates for the first-century population of Galilee range from 100,000 to 200,000. If we use today’s conservative estimates, and 3.5% of the population is homosexual, that means that the number of gays and lesbians in the Galilee were between 3,500 and 7,000. Also, the Galilee was roughly 650 square miles. less than half the size of Long Island, NY or the entire state of Rhode Island, 1/7 as large as San Diego County, and 1/10 the size of Kuwait. Or, envision a region approximately 25.5 x 25.5 miles.
First, Jesus’ inclusive and celebratory message attracted gays and lesbians. They follow him. They attended his love feasts. Launching a campaign to exterminate these gay and lesbian followers of Jesus (and mainly ben Zakkai’s fellow Jews) would be relatively easy in such a small area, given their new acceptance and visibility. Rabban Yohannan had a relatively easy time of it, so long as he could persuade the local magistrates to cooperate.
It is important to remember that in the early decades of Christian history, there was no strict line separating Jews from Christians. The early Christians considered themselves Jews, and so did the Jewish authorities. Thus, Yohannan ben Zakkai was not, in his mind, persecuting another religion. He believed he was fighting for the purity of the Jewish people by eliminating Jews who were unwilling to repent of their sodomy. For ben Zakkai, the elimination of gays and lesbians was an in-house, domestic affair.
Rabban Yohannan’s mission was to bring the Galilee under the sway of Pharisaic orthodoxy. In our popular Christian mind, we often merge Galilee and Judea together and assume that, religiously speaking, they were pretty much the same. This assumption is quite incorrect. Their histories were very different. Galilean Jews, for example, were not taken to Babylon into captivity–and the Galilean offer to assist in the rebuilding of Jerusalem when the Jewish nobility returned from captivity, that offer of assistance was rudely rebuffed by Ezra.
There is one major barrier to most people’s ability to accept the argument that the Pharisees–Jewish rabbis–launched a campaign to annihilate gay and lesbian Jews. That barrier is our habit of reading into ancient history our contemporary image of rabbis as temperate, calm, wise men who patiently and peaceably lead their flocks.
We anachronistically read back into the past what we know of the Judaism of the present. In the past, religion and politics were often fused in the government, and deadly violence was common. We aren’t inclined to imagine rabbis and priests with swords and knives killing one another, but this is not too far from the truth. Assassinations motivated by politics & religion did occur.
Several relevant episodes occurred during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, and during the reign of his wife Alexandra. Alexander Jannaeus was king of Judea from 103 BCE to 76 BCE. Once, in order to demonstrate his support for the priests, he slaughtered 6,000 people in the Temple courtyard, a number that included many Pharisees. On his death bed Alexander advised Alexandra to make peace with the Pharisees and take them in as advisors. Upon the advice of the Pharisees, a massive repression of their enemies occurred: the crucifixion of some 800 persons, and a number of up-close-and-personal assassinations. Religion and politics were truly a high stakes game.
In first-century Palestine religion and politics were intimately connected, as they are in most places in the world today. To really understand this part of our ancient past, while many things stay the same, it is often necessary to unlearn what you have learned.
Q scholars are fond of saying that theories for the disappearance of the Q community are surmise and conjecture. They believe it is not possible to know these reasons with any sense of confidence. I obviously disagree.
Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai is the only well known Pharisee of that era who is known to have been in the vicinity of Jesus and the Q community at the time of that community’s disappearance. He had the means, motive, and opportunity to eradicate these gay and lesbian Jews who flouted Torah and associated with gentiles so indiscriminately. Official records demonstrate his policy of tightening up the enforcement of the death penalty. Accounts exist showing his M.O. to be consistent with the Pharisaic policy of persuading civil authorities to implement their strategic plans, like they had done with Queen Alexandra. And there is evidence of a cover-up of his actions. Today we would call his actions “crimes against humanity”. In the first century CE, his actions were simply “politics as usual.”
Some people paint a picture of Rabban Yohannan’s early years as being spent in a sort of melancholy, bucolic state of inactive defeat. He is painted as complaining, impotent to influence Jews in the Galilee. And we are expected to believe that he suddenly becomes a person of bold action and initiative, able to negotiate with the Zealots trapped in Jerusalem and with Vespasian himself? Is such a transformation believable?
Rabban Yohannan was always inclined to act unilaterally, to do whatever the situation demanded to accomplish his goals, to make whatever argument was appropriate to his audience. It was impossible for even the Hillelites to totally suppress his characterization in an attempt to make him a precedent-bound rabbi who would never make a decision without consulting the opinions of those who came before him.
The impetuous man who cut the ear of a priest, thereby ending the priest’s career, was the same impetuous man who convinced civil magistrates in Chorazin and Bethsaida to execute homesexuals according to Torah.
The discontinuity of these pictures of ben Zakkai is simply the result of a massive cover up. The record of his work was thoroughly sanitized and redacted. Under the conditions after 70 CE of being subject to Rome but lacking any territory, the actual example set by Yohannan ben Zakkai would be extremely dangerous to preserve as a precedent. Repeated clashes with Rome eventually resulted in the annihilation of over 1 million Jews in Jerusalem. These clashes were nurtured by the memory of Jewish heroes and martyrs of the past. After Constantine, the last thing the Jewish people needed was yet another hero, the first hero to do battle with the Christians.
Many scholars have expressed with surprising vehemence their anger at what they characterize as the misdirection, half-truths, and down-right lies of the Talmud. I have only seen a few brief characterizations that go along these lines. I don’t know what their backgrounds are, but they remind me of former fundamentalist Christians who hate their former faith. Such expressions of bitterness always suggest to me a sense of betrayal. I have no direct knowledge of the roots of their bitterness.
What I do know is that in this regard, the early compilers of the Talmud had excellent reason to cover pre-Yavnean history in a veil of silence and misdirection.