There is evidence of homophobic persecution recorded in a gospel, two deaths occurred, but the evidence is complex.
It’s like discovering a grave site in some woods in Poland and having to figure out what happened to the victims, when and why. But instead of digging in the ground, you have to dig through old, familiar documents.
If you’re looking for a polished little parable or miracle story, with a tidy beginning, middle, and pithy maxim at the end, this isn’t that kind of thing.
This is about the triàl of two gay and lesbian couples. This is about how two people were executed. The really long version explains that some early Christian scribes didn’t want to explain why Jesus was talking about gays and lesbians.
For background, the city of Bethsaida was on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. A number of Jesus stories are set in Bethsaida by the gospel writers. One such story is about three Jesus followers named Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44). There is also a famous denunciation of Bethsaida and Chorazin for not repenting (Luke 10:12-13).
In 30 CE there was a major status change for Bethsaida. After perhaps ten years of improving the city’s infrastructure (harbor, fortifications, housing), the town’s legal status was elevated to Imperial Polis. Among other legal and jurisdictional changes, after 30 CE anyone born in Bethsaida who was eligible would automatically be a Roman citizen.
Far from being a little fishing village in sleepy Galilee, Bethsaida was at a breakthrough moment economically and politically. Eligible Palestinians who wanted the advantages of Roman citizenship for their as-yet-unborn children could conceivably migrate to Bethsaida, settle, and have their kids.
This elevation in the Palestinian city’s status increased the regional influence of Rome, and decreased the prestige and influence of local tribes and peoples. The entity most affected was the Jerusalem temple-state.
The Jewish temple-state was already feeling the cultural and political squeeze of Tiberius and Sepphoris. Adding a new urban center to the mix was yet another political challenge to Jerusalem’s hegemony in its historical backyard.
To meet this political challenge proactively, the Jerusalem temple-state would explore its options. One particular temple-state representative, Pharisee Yohanan b. Zakkai, initiated a legal action to, as it were, stay in the game in the political and legal life of Bethsaida.
Jewish leaders used to call homosexuality “the sin of the gentiles”. Through this legal prosecution they could also discourage same-sex activity among Diaspora Jews by making the gentile sexual partners subject to the same arrest and execution as the Jewish partner.
The creation of this Roman polis was a strategic empire-wide opportunity for the Pharisees. If Yohanan b. Zakkai’s legal gambit worked, he would have achieved a precedent that Jewish officials could use in any Diaspora community in the Empire.
If R. Yohanan were able to impose the authority of Torah over non-Jews in a single imperial jurisdiction, he would also be giving to his colleagues abroad an emotional tool to persuade gay and lesbian Jews to not find sexual partners among gentiles. If someone did, and the couple was not entirely discrete, a loved gentile partner could potentially face execution under Jewish law, as far away as Alexandria, Tarsus or Rome.
A test case was prepared, possibly timed to coincide with the effective date of Bethsaida’s elevation to imperial polis. Two mixed-ethnicity same-sex couples were arrested in Bethsaida, or possibly in Bethsaida and nearby Chorazin (see Luke 10:12-13). The couples could have been selected because of their visibility, influence or notariety.
But whether or not the couples resided in both cities or were targeted for arrest for reasons other than simply being sexual transgressors is not critical to this scenario.
Two mixed-ethnicity same-sex couples were arrested for trial. Since the Jews were not authorized to execute people charged with capital crimes, the case was prosecuted by the Pharisee Yohanan b. Zakkai.
(Decades later Rabbi Yohanan appears as second in command during the Siege of Jerusalem, and finally the chief legal mind in the founding of Yavneh.)
The presiding magistrate at this trial, the Roman surrogate who would hear the case, was Philip the Tetrarch.
(Philip administered the area that today is northern Israel and southern Syria. A few years after his death the area would be consolidated under the name The Roman Province of Arabia.)
Yohanan b. Zakkai argued his case, undoubtedly using Torah, “Zakkai’s Formularies” and probably precedents hammered out in previous decades as well. The case hinged on the prosecution’s insistence that in a certain capital case the Law demanded the execution of “both the ox and its owner”.
Philip the Tetrarch ruled that, as usual, the Pharisees were authorized to prosecute Jews according to Torah, but non-Jews were still not subject to Torah.
Thus, Philip’s ruling came down to us as,
“There shall be two men in one bed; one shall be seized and the other shall be let go.
“Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be seized and the other shall be let go.” (Darby)