Gay liberation perspectives on the Bible have their antecedent roots in the post-World War II homophile movement, before the Stonewall Rebellion in New York, which is usually associated with the rise of gay liberation. In this era, the homophile movement confronted the exclusions of homosexuals from all denominational Christian churches. This led to the founding of an independent Catholic church by George Augustine Hyde to minister to homosexuals excluded from churches. Various pastoral attempts to deal with the growing, increasingly visible homophile movement led to the creation of the Moral Welfare Council in the Church of England, in the United Kingdom, and the later ecumenical Council of Religion in San Francisco. The publication of Derrick Sherwin Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955) and Robert Wood’s Christ and the Homosexual (1960) marked significant theological milestones for the development of gay Christian scholars. Bailey’s monograph would have significant impact on later gay interpretations of the biblical texts that churches applied or misapplied to homosexuals. In October 1968, Reverend Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Los Angeles for homosexuals who were excluded from their churches. Within the founding MCC, the first Jewish gay/lesbian synagogue in America, Beth Chayim Chadashim, was formed. The formation of gay/lesbian communities of faith and later denominational gay/lesbian groups provided sites for resistant apologetics to contest interpretations that misapplied texts to homosexuals. This entry will summarize several decades of gay liberationists and allies engaging in (1) apologetics over a handful of scriptural texts and (2) hermeneutical readings of the scripture from the contextual grid of their erotic experiences and lives.

“A (Holy) Pissing Contest.”

This section heading originates with Tim Koch (2001), who describes as a “pissing contest” the apologetic debates between those who cite scriptural texts or so-called texts of terror to condemn modern homosexuality and those gay scholars and others who challenge such readings. In the 1970s, there were three classic gay attempts to wrestle with the biblical texts commonly applied to homosexuality. John McNeill’s The Church and the Homosexual was published with an imprimatur in 1976. McNeill writes in his autobiography that a colleague at Union Theological Seminary shared with him an anonymous manuscript on homosexuality and the New Testament. He incorporated some of the argumentation in his book, and only later came to know that the manuscript was a draft of John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (McNeill, 1998, Both Feet Firmly Planted). The second book, released in 1978, was Tom Horner’s Jonathan Loved David. Finally, Boswell’s book was published in 1980, winning an American Book Award for history. These classics empowered gay/lesbian Christians to reconcile their sexual orientation with their Christian practices in denominational resistance groups and the MCC. McNeill’s and Boswell’s books were translated into several foreign languages for Catholic and Protestant Christians struggling with gay/lesbian issues. One result was the silencing of the Jesuit McNeill by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Boswell’s history launched a scholarly cultural battle over the texts of terror. There has subsequently been a taking back of the interpretation of the texts by gay scholars as well as allied heterosexual scholars from mainline Protestant denominations, such as Victor Furnish, Robin Scroggs, George Edwards, Martti Nissinen, Walter Wink, and Dan Via.

Traditional and contemporary Jewish interpretations of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are seldom used as condemnations of homosexuality, for Jewish discussions of homosexuality focus instead on Leviticus. Genesis 19 is traditionally used instead in rabbinic and orthodox traditions to condemn violence and inhospitality (Greenberg, 2004). Bailey follows a similar line of interpretative reasoning in his exegesis of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This emphasis on inhospitality has been popular among a certain group of gay authors (McNeill, Boswell, Helminiak). Another interpretation has focused primarily on the attempted rape and phallic violence against God’s two messengers (Goss, 2002; Long, 2006). Judges 19 is often used to underscore the rape and violence theme. Michael Carden (2004) has traced the development of the biblical myth of Sodom from early interpretations to a modern myth of divine extermination of homosexuals. Mark Jordan (1997) has reconstructed the invention of the theological notion of sodomy from Peter Damien and its trajectory within Roman Catholic moral theology.

The two verses in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13)) are employed in condemnations of homosexuality within the orthodox traditions of Judaism (Greenberg) as well as Christianity. Bailey, McNeill, Horner, and Boswell read these verses as condemning male temple prostitution; but later scholarship by Saul Olyan (1996), Daniel Boyarin (1995), and David Stewart (2006) has dismissed the cultic male prostitution thesis, reading these verses within the context of the Holiness Code. The condemned acts are now often seen as violations of male gender privilege when a male is penetrated by another male (Goss, 2002). The earlier published work of Jacob Milgrom (1991) suggests that, since semen is not involved in women’s relationships, there is no symbolic loss of life, and so women’s homosexuality is not mentioned. Milgrom also suggests that condemnation is confined to anal intercourse among Jews in the land of Israel. Olyan construes the Hebrew “the lying down of a woman” (miskebe issa) as a euphemism for a man functioning like a woman in male passive anal intercourse, a violation of gender roles. He concludes that sexual acts between women were not included in the Leviticus condemnation because, unlike the mixture of semen and excrement in male to male intercourse, they do not violate the purity codes. Stewart has made the claim that these verses about male anal intercourse condemn male to male incest (2006).

With his discussion of 1 Corinthians 6:9, Boswell initiated a frenzy of articles on the varying translations of malakoi and arsenokoitēs (also in 1 Tim 1:10) in numerous Bibles. He claims that there is no connection between the two words and passive and active homosexual acts, as some have argued. Boswell notes that until the twentieth century malakoi was understood to refer to masturbation, while arsenokoitēs meant “male prostitute.” Dale Martin (2006) has offered the most conclusive evidence on what Paul was referring to with these two words. Martin argues that malakoi refers to a range of activities considered “effeminate.” Martin notes the rarity of the term arsenokoitēs, but also that it appears in a list of sexual sins in Sibylline Oracle 2, denoting sins of economic injustice. Biblical mistranslations of these words as “homosexual perverts,” “catamites,” “sodomites,” and the like have been used to justify prejudice and religious violence against homosexuals, and so have been resisted by gay liberationists.

Gay interpretations also focus on Romans 1, where Paul presents his notion of sin among the gentiles and the consequences of idolatry. The consequence of gentile idolatry is the impurity of exchanging natural for unnatural relations, usually understood as homoeroticism. This is the only place in the Bible where female homoeroticism is mentioned. Boswell strangely argues that the passage refers to heterosexually oriented people engaged in homosexual sex, and that homosexual acts are not unnatural except for heterosexually inclined individuals. McNeill echoes a similar perspective in his interpretation of exchanging natural for unnatural relations (1976). This interpretation appears to be driven by Catholic moral theological arguments on natural law. James Miller (1995) understands these verses to refer to unnatural heterosexual anal intercourse by men and women. Thomas Hanks (2006) follows a similar line of interpretation, arguing that Paul refers to male/female anal intercourse used to avoid procreation. L. William Countryman (1988) and Daniel Helminiak (1994) understand Paul’s condemnation of homoeroticism as a reaction to violation of the purity codes. Bernadette Brooten (1996) brings gender analysis to these verses, understanding female homoeroticism within the larger context of Judaism and the Greco-Roman culture. Robert Goss reads Paul as referring to transgressions of ancient gender codes by homoerotically inclined men and women.

Robert Williams (1992) makes a distinction between biblical truth and biblical trash when reading scripture, citing Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s principle of identifying the word of God by whether or not it seeks to end relations of domination or exploitation. Peter Gomes (1996) states that homophobic prejudice rather than historical and contextual interpretation most often shapes the reading of all these texts.

Homoerotic Readings of the Scripture.

In addition to rereading texts used to condemn homosexuality, gay interpreters have challenged presumptive heteronormative readings of the First and Second Testaments by finding hints there of homoeroticism. Gay homoerotic readings have focused on three principal texts: David and Jonathan, the Q tradition of the centurion and his boy/slave (Matt 8:5–13, Luke 7:1–10), and Jesus and the beloved disciple. A few readers also note the youth in Mark 14:51–52, Secret Mark, and John, and Ruth and Naomi.

Horner (1978) points out how some biblical scholars fail to acknowledge the intimate relationship between the heroic warrior-king David and Jonathan. He traces homoerotic readings of the narrative tradition surrounding Jonathan and David through the ages by men attracted to men. Likewise, Boswell (1994) notes that Jonathan and David have functioned as models of same-sex fidelity for men attracted to men in some of the “prayers for making brothers” or same-sex blessings. Ward Houser (1990) points out that in previous centuries the story was a coded reference to homoerotic relations when such relations were socially unacceptable. Houser provides a historical thematic survey of representations of the homoerotic relationship between David and Jonathan in literature from the Renaissance to the present. A nineteenth-century Jewish artist, Simeon Solomon, understood the biblical relationship of Jonathan and David as biblically sanctioning same-sex relationships (Seymour, 1997). Both the growing reclamation of Jonathan and David as lovers within Jewish and Christian LGBT faith communities and these earlier traditions of homoerotic reading of David and Jonathan’s relationship provided impetus for further gay liberation readings (Johansson, 1990; Williams, 1992; Comstock, 1993; Jennings, 2001, 2005).

Horner seems to be the first author to suggest a homoerotic reading of the Q story of the centurion and his boy/slave (Matt 8:5–13, Luke 7:1–10)), noting that the centurion displayed more than ordinary concern for the health of his boy (pais in Matthew, a word that sometimes has erotic connotations) or slave (doulos in Luke). He observes that if Jesus was disturbed by the homoerotic relationship of the centurion with boy, he would have noted the situation. Instead, Jesus praises the centurion for “no greater faith.” This initial homoerotic reading of the Q story has been developed further by a number of gay interpreters (Williams, 1992; McNeill, 1995, 2008; Hanks, 2000; Jennings, 2003; Bohache, 2006; Goss, 2006; Long, 2006). Nissinen points out that in the Greco-Roman world, it was common for master and slave to enter a sexual relationship. While mainline scholarship has rarely discussed possible homoerotic connotations of the Q story, the biblical scholar Gerd Theissen, in his narrative quest for the historical Jesus, also sees a homoerotic relationship in the centurion and his boy/slave (1987). McNeill observes how Catholics on Sunday receive Communion, paraphrasing the words of the centurion in a homoerotic relationship with a younger male: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof. Just say the word, and my soul will be healed.” This reading has empowered LGBT Catholics and ex-Catholics.

Horner was not the only modern author to suggest a homoerotic reading of Jesus and the beloved disciple. Boswell (1980), Goss (2002), and Jennings (2003) have traced trajectories in Christian history in which the story of Jesus and the beloved disciple played on the erotic spiritualities and literary imaginations of men attracted to men. Three writings from the late 1960 and the early 1970s that sparked the religious imaginations of gay Christians are covered by Horner as background for his discussion of Jesus and the beloved disciple (1978). The first was a paper delivered at a conference at Oxford in 1967 by the Anglican canon Hugh Montefiore, who raised the possibility that Jesus may have had homosexual tendencies. The second was the published analysis of the fragment of Secret Mark by the biblical scholar Morton Smith. There was a public outcry because the fragment speaks about the youth Jesus raised from the dead spending the night with him naked in a baptismal initiation. Many religious leaders and biblical scholars discredited Smith’s work as a fraud and forgery. Others attacked Smith as attempting to justify his own homosexuality. The third work was William Phipps’s book Was Jesus Married? (1970), which precipitated debates about the sexuality of Jesus. After his examination of the evidence, Horner concludes that nothing can be proved from such assertions, and he preserves a construction of Jesus as man for all.

These earlier works provided a background for gay Christian interpreters to revisit the taboo subject of Jesus’s sexuality and reclaim Jesus and the beloved disciple. Many gay Christians have reimagined Jesus and the beloved disciple as a homoerotic grace. Robert Williams relies upon Montefiore, earlier conversations on the sexuality of Jesus, and Morton’s publications on Secret Mark to affirm that Jesus is gay. He dwells on the strange incident of the nude youth (Mark 14:50–52) and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This incident has a long history in the erotic imaginations of Christian men who were attracted to men. Williams suggests that Jesus had an explicitly sexual encounter with the youth, whom he identifies as Lazarus. He wrote a fictional work on Jesus, describing in detail Jesus having homosexual sex. The manuscript was sent by Williams’s executor to HarperSanFrancisco, but the press declined to publish the manuscript because of the explicit erotic scenes.

Ted Jennings (2003) suggests that Lazarus is the beloved disciple and argues that the material in John’s Gospel makes it clear Jesus had a homoerotic relationship with the beloved disciple. He acknowledges that the sources do not give us an idea of how Jesus’s love for the beloved disciple was sexually expressed. Jennings is quick to make the case that whatever relationship Jesus had with Lazarus did not impede his love for others. Jennings maintains that this reading is a dangerous memory for an emerging orthodox church whose primary values are ascetical, misogynistic, erotophobic, and antipederastic. In a similar fashion, Goss (2000) reads Jesus and the beloved disciple in a time of AIDS. Goss noticed frequently that, at the bedside of a dying gay man, both his lover and mother were present. The dying man was concerned for his lover and mother. Thus the scene at the cross in John 19:26–27 was reenacted many times during the AIDS pandemic. Goss reads the story as bereavement narrative intertextually with the loss of his lover to AIDS. Jesus on the cross attempts to create a family of choice between beloved and mother during the time of death.

The Episcopal priest and poet Malcolm Boyd (1990, 1994) explores the question of whether Jesus was “gay.” He claims that Jesus exhibits qualities that form a gay archetype: vulnerability, sensitivity, shunning power for service, being gentle and strong, and breaking boundaries for love. Terrence McNally wrote Corpus Christi, a gay retelling of the life and passion of Joshua/Jesus, struggling against cultural and religious homophobia. A touring production has taken the play, along with a documentary, Playing with Redemption, as part of an “I Am Love Campaign” to numerous U.S. cities. Finally, there is the gay countercultural parody of San Francisco’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who celebrate the Hunky Jesus contest on Easter Sunday. Jesus is eroticized by gay men in this iconoclastic celebration in Dolores Park. These homoerotic readings counter ascetical, misogynistic, and erotophobic constructions of Jesus and Christological formulations that subvert his incarnational fleshiness.

The gay biblical scholar Dale Martin (2006) acknowledges the gay imagination interpreting Jesus’s sexuality in John’s Gospel, one of the most homoerotic, sensual gospels. Martin notes, however, that, as with all imaginative readings of Jesus, how people imagine the sexuality of Jesus reveals more about how they feel about sexuality than about the historical Jesus. While I agree with his conclusion, I would add that homoerotic readings of Jesus’s sexuality have provided moments of self-accepting grace throughout history for men who were attracted to men.

Lesbian Contributions and the Critique of Gay Androcentrism.

In Love Between Women, biblical scholar Bernadette Brooten (1996) acknowledges that Boswell’s work made a lasting contribution to the study of same-sex love and sexuality and Christianity. It suffered, however, from a lack of gender analysis and unbalanced discussion of male homoeroticism over female homoeroticism in the ancient world. Brooten suggests that paucity of material on female homoeroticism was due to male authors attempting to fit it into a male framework. Mary Rose D’Angelo (1997) applies Adrienne Rich’s notion of lesbian continuum to pairs of women missionaries and explores female same-sex intimacy in early Christianity without ever discussing female homoeroticism. “Lesbian continuum” denotes an emotional bonding between women or women-identified experiences without focused attention on whether there were homoerotic desires or practices. The Jewish lesbian scholar Rebecca Alpert, on the other hand, observes that Jewish lesbians have occupied the narrative silences of the Hebrew scriptures by writing lesbian midrash to surface their erased presence from the text (1997). Where gay men have focused on David and Jonathan or Jesus and the beloved disciple, Alpert offers a lesbian reading of Ruth and Naomi. Thus women ancestors are given voice beyond their erasures.

In When Deborah Met Jael, Deryn Guest maintains that same-sex activities have been observed widely across cultures and historical periods of time. She explores why male perspectives have failed to uncover female homoerotic relations in past historical cultures, in particular, the storyworld of ancient Near Eastern cultures and the Greco-Roman world. She argues that it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that female homoeroticism has been suppressed in the Hebrew Bible, not because it was a matter of little cultural importance but because its “thinkability” as a cultural category would be disruptive to the Hebrew sex/gender system (2005, p. 128). Gender complementarity has been used to justify a heteronormative mantra, “Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve.” Guest builds upon the earlier work of Brooten, D’Angelo, and Alpert and criticizes gay liberation strategies of reading the scriptures for their androcentric focus. Lesbian-identified interpretations elevate lesbian experience as a fundamental hermeneutic criterion. For Guest there are four interweaving hermeneutical strategies for reading Scriptural texts: (1) a commitment to engage the text with hetero-suspicion; (2) a commitment to disrupt gender binaries; (3) strategies of appropriation or reclamation; and (4) and a commitment to make a difference. These strategies disrupt heterocentric and androcentric interpretative traditions that have absented or ignored female homoerotic relations. Guest looks at gay efforts to wrestle with and exonerate the scriptures or at times to reject the authority of scripture. Ultimately, she argues for an “ethically lesbian-identified hermeneutic,” but suggests that, if such a lesbian hermeneutics is to make a difference, interpreters may pay a price.

Queer Critiques and Opportunities.

In addition to lesbian critiques, gay men of color have added criticisms of the shortcomings of white gay male interpreters writing from privileged social positions. In his reading of Galatians, Patrick Cheng (2006) reads queerly from his social location as an Asian American gay man against heterosexist as well as dominant white gay male culture. He criticizes the dominant gay male culture for imposing its cultural values and norms on ethnic gay minorities. He compares gay Asian American voices to the gentiles in Galatians who search in vain for affirmation of their uncircumcised penises in a world of white gay males and their racist norms of male beauty. Similar criticism is offered from a nongay perspective by Tat-siong Benny Liew (2001), who notes that many queer readings neglect race, ethnicity, and class and shortchange possible readings of the text from often ignored hybrid gay-identified voices. Such criticisms are justified, for the primary gay voice of color on biblical interpretation from the 1990s is Peter Gomes. Building upon earlier scholarship on the texts of terror, the African American pastoral theologian Horace Griffin (2006) points out that the black church fails to extend its rich history of using the Bible to oppose oppression to homophobic readings of scripture. Because of its quest for respectability and internalization of white racist portrayals of black sexuality, the African American church has adopted conservative gender and sexuality mores that influence scriptural interpretations. Griffin argues that it is anachronistic to address twenty-first-century homosexuality with ancient understandings of sexuality and gender. Finally, Manuel Villalobos (2011) has produced a transgressive borderland reading of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip.

Goss, Stone, Williams, and gay-affirming scholars such as Jennings and Nissinen have built their approaches on feminist biblical hermeneutics and historical reconstruction of gender/sex codes in the ancient world. They have attempted to move beyond the negative apologetics in interpretative battles over the texts of terror applied to same-sex sexuality. Stone (2002) has been critical of some apologetic biblical interpretations driven by theological concerns, noting the value of critical and historically contextual reconstructions of homoeroticism in the wider networks of cultural gender/sex codes. This approach demands a hermeneutical comprehension of current gender/sex ideologies in the interpretative enterprise of reconstructing and comprehending the sex/gender codes from the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world.




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Robert E. Shore-Goss