Friday, December 17, 2010

Mistranslation and misinterpretation

In case you haven't explored why many Christians believe the Bible does not condemn gay people (or you need a refresher) Bishop Gene Robinson wrote an excellent series of articles for -- of all places -- The Washington Post. Though that is a surprise I'm pleased to see these arguments in such a prominent secular venue. I've seen all of these points before.

In "Texts of Terror" he discusses how one should read the Bible. One major hurdle is making a distinction between what the words mean now and what they meant in context of the society in which they were written. He also explores the importance of Tradition and Reason, which (with Scripture) make up 3 parts of the Quadrilateral that John Wesley described. The fourth is Experience. Robinson also declares he does not believe God stopped talking to people once the books of the Bible were chosen and made official.

The two condemning passages from Leviticus chapters 18 and 20, the ones that refer to male-male sex as an abomination, are in the section describing purity. They assume that everyone must be straight, so gay sex is a person acting against nature and is thus unclean (in the same manner a woman's period is "unnatural" because it happens only for a short time each month. The surrounding passages also uphold common cultural stigmas and current understandings of how the world works. They might have been important in ancient Israel, but the whole lot of them are not binding on us today.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) is frequently taken as a prohibition to gay sex. However, the story is about coerced sex, or rape. Elsewhere in the Bible, including by Jesus, the story is declared to be about not offering proper hospitality.

Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. One would think an issue causing denominations to split would be worth a mention.

In Romans 1:26-27, Paul appears to be using the same argument as Leviticus -- that since the ancient world didn't know the concept of homosexuality all people were assumed to be straight. Worshipping idols (instead of God) would cause people to do things which are not natural, so straight people would engage in same-sex acts. Other than that, there are several sexual acts, such as temple prostitutes, that Paul is upset about, but he never actually says. Just a few verses later at the start of chapter 2 Paul issues a strong condemnation against judging others. This is the part conservatives ignore.

Passages in the letters to the Corinthians and to Timothy that are used as texts of terror use a Greek word that is used nowhere else in Scripture nor in other texts of the time. It's meaning is unknown. Modern translators have, of course, imposed their own biases onto the word.

These passages simply do not address the modern concept of two people of the same sex in a loving relationship. That means while we should not interpret the Bible to condemn gays we also cannot say it supports gays. The concept of homosexuality was unknown at the time. However, the Bible has a great deal to say about empathy, justice for the marginalized, honesty, and loving relationships. Those concepts should guide us when dealing with gays and gay relationships.

Another excellent discussion of these texts of terror can be read in the Soulforce guide "What the Bible says -- and doesn't say -- about homosexuality."

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