And also sea monsters & mysterious cults…
By Robin Happel
How different would modern Christianity be if we thought that Jesus was more than friends with John? This fairly hot take was put forward by King James (of “King James Version” fame) at the Privy of Council of 1617. Called “Queen James” even during his lifetime, his falling out with the Catholic Church occurred for fairly obvious reasons, and one of his main motivations to re-translate the Bible was weakening Catholic authority. (Oddly, he didn’t bother to take two specific sentences out of Leviticus, but we’ll get to that.) Like Constantine and countless other rulers before him, King James saw the Bible partly as a political tool, and the tens of thousands of changes his translators made are just a single step in the centuries-long game of telephone between our modern translations and what was spoken to Moses on the mountaintop.
Should we believe the Bible literally? That depends on who you ask. As someone with Quaker ancestry, I personally believe that God can speak to us as individuals. (Also, parts of the Bible low-key imply vampires and sea monsters are real, and I don’t know what to do with that.) Some Quaker meetings have had prominent, openly gay leadership since at least the 1960’s, and other religious orders are similarly coming around to more nuanced views of gender and sexuality. If you believe that the true path is word-for-word teachings from the time of Moses – which is totally valid for you, just again not what all Christians believe – it’s worth considering what those teachings actually were, word-for-word. (It’s also worth maybe never shaving or eating shrimp again, but that’s a separate discussion.)
Two of the most famous verses used against LGBTQ people are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:33. Hebrew, like Latin, doesn’t always follow a strict word order or super clear prepositions, so exact translation is complicated. One possible interpretation is “man shall not lay with man on a woman’s bed,” which isn’t really all that relevant, short of a very specific type of roommate drama. Once we move from Hebrew into Greek – and I can feel that I’m already losing you, but the grammar part is almost over – translation becomes even more complicated. Before such shifts, the original pronouns in Hebrew implied a much more fluid understanding of gender. Some of the earliest Greek translations seem to ban abusive or coercive relationships, and thus don’t match up with our modern ideas of same-sex love. And, finally, the story of Sodom is arguably more about hospitality than desire.
To some Biblical experts, several such passages are colored by local suspicion of Egyptian or mystery religions, and don’t really fit gay people outside such cult practices, for whom worshipping a lizard god isn’t a typical Friday night. Notably, tombs of high-ranking Egyptian officials include portraits of men kissing, indicating that LGBTQ people were perhaps relatively accepted in ancient Egypt, and celebrated rather than condemned, as in many other cultures before British colonial law. In recent years, Ruth and Naomi, or David and Jonathan, are also increasingly recognized as potentially positive portrayals of same-sex devotion.
What did Jesus have to say about all this? Not a lot, unless you read “eunuchs from birth” as code, in which case he literally said LGBTQ people are born that way. He also once healed a same-sex couple, although again this relationship likely didn’t meet modern standards of what it means to be gay. Notably, Jesus also warned against overly literal readings of Christian teachings. And, according to Paul, Christ’s ordeal on the cross overturned the old laws of Leviticus, if anyone wants a theological defense for wearing a wool-lined coat this winter.
But what about weddings? In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church performed something similar to civil unions between men. Although not necessarily romantic, such rituals, similar to adoption of adult partners throughout American history, likely could have functioned as a form of marriage for gay men denied other avenues. What does the Bible have to say about marriage? Very briefly, it’s… not always ideal, especially for women. In the 1960’s, Christianity was used to defend bans on interracial marriage, and even today “Christian marriage” is defined in ways that harm many, especially young girls. Far from everyone agrees with such views, however. In my hometown in rural Tennessee and elsewhere, many of us are humble enough to know that, at least in this lifetime, we’ll probably never know exactly what goes on in the mind of God. In the absence of that, it’s up to us to love our neighbors as best we can, and protect the dignity of all people. Also, I’m definitely going to keep wearing polyester, so as the Pope says, who am I to judge?
Editor’s note: thank you to Fordham’s LGBTQ+ faculty members and allies who were generous enough to advise on parts of this article. On behalf of Fordham’s free speech paper, I am proud to uphold LGBTQ+ history and discussion on campus, despite recent controversy.