Luke Geraty continues his series (this is part 5) dealing with Ken Wilson's, A Letter to my Congregation. The following is Geraty's writing. If you are as impressed as I, you will follow his blog here.
In this post, I want to review and interact with Ken Wilson’s work in ALTMC on the Apostle Paul. In addition to several posts covering Ken’s introductory work (here, here, and here), I’ve posted my thoughts on his use of the Old Testament. Now I want to start looking at his work on the NT, specifically related to the Pauline corpus. Don Bromley has already done a splendid job of why Ken’s use of Romans 14 is problematic, so I’ll simply be referring to the prohibitive texts and Ken’s use of certain sources.
The first NT text that Ken engages in ALTMC is Romans 1:24-27. Ken is helpful in pointing out that modern culture, especially in the Western world, does not generally include an awareness of pederasty. When we think about homosexuality in today’s culture, we do not normally think of a sexual relationship between an adult male and a pubescent or adolescent male. We generally call that child abuse. Yet in the ancient world, this type of relationship was common. Ken is also correct to remind us that a significant amount of “homosexuality” in the 1st century included what is known as “temple prostitution.” Additionally, the ancient world’s understanding of homosexuality included the sexual relationship between masters and slaves. As Ken notes, “we have three very significant and pervasive sexual practices that would have been well known to Paul’s audience and would shape their view of same-gender sexual practices: temple prostitution, pederasty, and the sexual services required of slaves.” These approaches have been argued by John Boswell and Robin Scroggs, though thoroughly refuted in numerous works (cf. Loader, Gagnon, Davidson; for a full refutation of Scroggs, see Mark D. Smith, “Ancient Bisexuality and the Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27,” JAAR, 223-256).
These are all very important issues for us to understand if we want to discuss the complexity of sexuality in the ancient world. Ken suggests that committed monogamous homosexual relationships “are very different than the things the Roman Christians were familiar with” and that “any comparison between the modern world and the ancient world is very difficult because “homosexuality,” in the sense we use it today (people who are primarily sexually attracted to members of the same sex), wasn’t a recognized category.” Furthermore, Ken thinks it is arguable to suggest that Romans 1 has application to the modern homosexual relationships. He writes:
“The fact is, when scholars search the literature of the period, they can find untold examples of same-sex acts in the context of pederasty, temple prostitution, and slavery. The case for asserting the existence of something like contemporary monogamous gay unions is sketchy at best. To assert with great confidence that such relationships were well known to Paul doesn’t seem justified.”
Ken’s primary scholarly source appears to be Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People, as she is referenced and footnoted in ALTMC. Ruden’s work has some significant flaws though. For example, her work largely ignores St. Paul’s Jewish background which means that his understanding of sex and sexuality is not acknowledged to come from a framework that is shape by the Old Testament (see this review for a devastatingly accurate evaluation of Ruden’s methodology). This appears to be why Ken suggests that it is “sketchy” and “doesn’t seem justified” to conclude that St. Paul had all homosexual activity in mind when he condemned it.
While this line of argumentation is popular, it appears to lack the support of the scholarly community. As I’ve already noted, Loader, Brooten, Davidson, Dover and a host of other scholars have demonstrated that there were homosexual relationships in the ancient world that correspond to what we see in today’s world. Ken appears to be unaware of these sources.
Furthermore, ALTMC suggests that the textual background to Romans 1 is Leviticus 18-20. While a host of NT scholars make this suggestion, it would seem just as likely if not more likely to see the background to Paul’s work in Romans 1 being Genesis 1-3. Loader writes:
“… Paul sees same-sex intercourse as disorder and sets it in parallel to the disorder when people stop worshipping God and worship idols instead. Not only are the two disorders parallel; one is the consequence of the other. God let people continue their denial of God’s reality into denial of reality in their own lives. So they not only deny God’s reality, they deny their own nature as (heterosexual) human beings, and engage with those of their own sex instead or with the opposite sex. So this is not simply a transgression of a biblical prohibition which Paul assumes (Lev 18:22; 20:13); it is deliberate perversion of God’s intention and their nature.” (The New Testament on Sexuality, 227).
One doesn’t need to point out that St. Paul would look at Gen. 1-3 to explain God’s intention. Loader further acknowledges that “the allusion to male and female in 1:26-27 very likely reflects the language of Gen 1:27 and, generally, one can scarcely ignore that for Paul divine creation is a major presupposition of his thought” (p. 301, emphasis mine; it seems important to note that while Loader acknowledges that the Bible condemns homosexuality, he simply believes the biblical authors are wrong). Hays pointedly writes:
“The reference to God as Creator would certainly evoke for Paul, as well as for his readers, immediate recollections of the creation story in Genesis 1– 3, which proclaims that “God created humankind in his own image… male and female he created them,” charging them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1: 27– 28).” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 386)
Additionally, in ALTMC Ken raises some challenges to the issue of female homosexuality (lesbianism). I won’t go into detail concerning the lack of plausibility for the views that he thinks may be a better way of understanding Rom. 1:26 other than to suggest that Brooten’s Love Between Women largely undermines most of his assumptions about St. Paul and the ancient world’s understanding of lesbianism (Ken only quotes an essay written by Brooten and does not reference her actual book on the subject).
Regarding Ken’s work on Romans 1, I must say that I was disappointed to see that he selectively uses Richard Hays and absolutely ignores what he writes concerning the ethical challenge found in the Pauline text. Advocates of the traditional approach to understanding these texts can be greatly served by Hays’ work because he does a splendid job of reading the texts and then approaching the practical ethical issues in a balanced way. Thus, Hays understands that homosexual activity is indicative of a larger issue and yet still something Paul condemns. It should neither be overlooked as being non-evil or seen as being any worse than other evils. Hays writes that “self-righteous judgment of homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behavior itself” (p. 389)” In my opinion, Richard Hays offers a far more trustworthy resource than Ken Wilson’s ALTMC.
1 Corinthians & 1 Timothy
Engaging ALTMC and Ken’s interaction with Paul’s first epistles to the Corinthians and to Timothy will take a bit of technical work. In addition to suggesting that the ancient world’s understanding of homosexuality differed from ours, which has been demonstrated as being incorrect, Ken spends time analyzing Paul’s use of the Greek words malakoiand arsenokoitai. The two prohibitive texts are:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-10)
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine…” (1 Tim. 1:8-10)
Before we look at the definition and lexical range, I want to address a passing statement that Ken makes. He writes:
“… there is not a single condemnation in scripture that is specifically and explicitly aimed at monogamous gay couples.”
Readers of these reviews will likely know that my response to this statement is simple: hogwash. It is only possible to suggest that the Bible does not condemn homosexual activity within a committed monogamous gay relationship if it can be demonstrated that the NT was unaware of that type of relationship (which it isn’t) or that the NT’s use of porneia didn’t include all homosexual activity (which it did). When the Bible condemns homosexuality, it condemns all homosexual sex. It’s important to note that this is not the same as condemning homosexual orientation or homosexual identity. The bottom line is that all of the evidence, both historically and biblically, is diametrically opposed to the position that Ken Wilson argues for in ALTMC.
Back to the challenges raised by the Greek.
Ken’s contention is that malakoi and arsenokoitai are difficult words to translate, so we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that they are referring to the passive and active participants in homosexual sex. ALTMC appeals to Soards’Scripture and Homosexuality and Fee’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. However, the only way that Ken’s concerns about malakoi and arsenokoitai stand are if we concede that the NT knows nothing about committed monogamous homosexual relationships. Otherwise, most of Ken’s issues are essentially moot.
Furthermore, BDAG defines malakoi as pertaining “to being passive in a same-sex relationship” (p.613) and Louw-Nida as “the passive male partner in homosexual intercourse” while noting that “as in Greek, a number of other languages also have entirely distinct terms for the active and passive roles in homosexual intercourse” (pp.771-772). The Dictionary of BIblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) lists among possible definitions “passive partner in male-to-male sex act” and the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament notes that malakoi‘s use in 1 Cor. 6:9 is the “reprehensible examples of passive homosexuality” (p.381). My point in listing these lexicons (and there are others) is that a number of well-respected (if not authoritative) lexicons view malakoi as pertaining to the passive partner in homosexual activity. Interestingly, in the context of Fee’s statements in regards to malakoi, Fee writes that “for Paul’s attitude toward homosexuality in general one need refer only to his own Jewish background with its abhorrence of such,28 plus his description of such activity (Rom. 1:26–27)” (p. 244). That’s similar to what Loader, Gagnon, and a host of other exegetes suggest too. I’ll grant that malakoi is not a slam dunk for the traditional view, but certainly the majority of Greek scholars seem to disagree with Ken (and Fee) here and tend to indicate that the best guess is to view it as the passive homosexual partner.
When it comes to arsenokoitai, it should be noted that the word is comprised of ἄρσην (male) and κοίτη (bed), which, as Fee notes, “there is no question as to the meaning of the koitai part of the word; it is vulgar slang for “intercourse”” (p.244). This is why the Greek word is seen as pertaining to the active participant in homosexual sex by BDAG, Louw-Nida, DBL Greek, LXGRCANLEX, EDNT, etc. In other words, Ken’s caution at translating arsenokoitai are not shared by the scholarly community, and these are just lexical sources, not exegetes and commentaries. In addition to the scholarly literature, it’s important to note that this Greek phrase likely is based on the LXX and it’s translation of Lev. 20:13 (cf. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 382-383). This is to say that St. Paul is likely building his case off of the Jewish background.
Plus, we still have to deal with Paul’s use of pornos, a cognate of porneia, in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10. Even if we granted that 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 are ambiguous when it comes to translating malakoi and arsenokoitai, there’s the challenge of porneia that still remains. Unfortunately, Ken completely ignores this issue. Once again, I would suggest that it is better to go with Hays on this issue, who writes:
“The early church did, in fact, consistently adopt the Old Testament’s teaching on matters of sexual morality, including homosexual acts. In 1 Corinthians 6: 9 and 1 Timothy 1: 10, for example, we find homosexuals included in lists of persons who do things unacceptable to God.” (p. 382)
Lastly, I think it is very important to note that the NET’s translation note for 1 Tim. 1:10 states that “since there is a distinction in contemporary usage between sexual orientation and actual behavior, the qualification “practicing” was supplied in the translation.”
The “Sexual Immorality” Texts Are Noticeably Absent
As has already been noted numerous times in this post, as well as observed by Thomas Lyons, Ken virtually ignores the texts that state that sexual immorality is sin. This is because Ken clearly wants to control the data so that, in the end, he can argue that the Bible is silent on monogamous homosexual relationships and that the NT’s use of porneia has nothing to do with LGBTQ issues. I beg to differ.
As another alternative alongside Thomas Lyons’ posts, I’d want to argue that we need to consider Ephesians 5:3-20 just as much as Revelation 2. In the future a number of us plan to provide a more constructive way forward and I plan to spend more time engaging with this Pauline text.
I’d interact and engage with Ken’s thoughts on St. Paul’s writings concerning the issue but, like I stated, they are virtually absent in all of ALTMC. For Ken, porneia (sexual immorality) simply doesn’t have anything to do with this issue.
I think St. Paul disagrees. And I think Jesus does too.