Hellenist Judaism

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Herod the Great assumed power in the year 40 B.C. An Idumean by ancestry, as a faithful client of Rome and a philhellene he acted in the tradition of Hellenizing predecessors but without rejecting or suppressing Judaism in its peculiar customs. Under Roman protection he expanded the kingdom of Judea, rebuilt the Temple munificently in contemporary Hellenistic style, encouraged the Pharisees, and conformed to Judaic principles. Converts multiplied and with the population upswing more emigrated abroad for prosperity was confined to the elite. Within his family, however, Oedipal rivalry was overt and violent. Herod executed not one but three of his sons in the belief that they were trying to usurp the throne, the last shortly before his death in 4 B.C.

The homophobia of Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism never abated. It doubtless intensified the contempt and hatred in which Diaspora Jews held their pagan neighbors. That the Greek gods passionately loved boys and set an example for their worshippers must have exacerbated the horror in which they were held by pious Jews. In Alexandria, the center of Jewish religious as well as Greek intellectual life in the Hellenistic Diaspora, the opinionated and eccentric Philo Judaeus (ca. 20 B.C.-ca. 45 A.D.), an eyewitness to anti-Jewish riots in the reign of Caligula, denounced pederasty in unsparing terms. Not limiting himself to the traditional Jewish denunciation of it as an “abomination,” he was the first to fuse the Judaic and Platonic condemnations by inventing the notion that homosexuality was a “crime against the law of nature,” by which in fact he meant no more than the so-called Mosaic Law which Ezra and the “men of the Great Assembly” had compiled some four centuries earlier. Plato had imagined that animals did not have relations with members of their own sex, and also, quite independently, that it was against nature not to procreate, but he never suggested that there was a law (nomos) that forbade such conduct. The law of nature was a Greek and Stoic conception; Hebrew and Aramaic did not even possess a word for “nature,” and its absence from the Pentateuch meant that it could play no role in Jewish theology proper, then or later. However, in the Hellenic sphere the elevation of nature to a universal norm of human conduct–transcending the laws and customs of particular peoples–had become a major preoccupation of the Platonic tradition in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, which ended the cultural isolation of the Greeks and made them masters of a multitude of ethnic groups, for which they had to devise and administer suitable legal codes. Hence they were forced to seek a norm which reason and experience taught to be univerally valid and binding. The other criticisms which pagan philosophers had made of pederasty were beside the point for the Jewish theosophist for whom divine ordinance had made it a crime. Philo’s most significant borrowing from the storehouse of Greek philosophical concepts was the Stoic law of nature. By transferring the prohibitions of Leviticus 18 and 20 from the Mosaic Law into the framework of natural law, Philo made them a categorical imperative for all mankind. Homophobic authors of recent decades often imagine that the ancients believed in some fundamental law coexistent with the universe itself, parallel to Newton’s, which intercourse with one’s own sex violates in a manner so outrageous as to reach the nec plus ultra of depravity and horror, a shameless scorn of the moral norm binding upon every living creature. But Philo’s writings are Hellenic in form only; the content remained entirely Judaic. No Greek philosopher had ever urged the death penalty for pederasty, or would have encountered much approbation for such a proposal; for Philo it was a jus receptum. His adroit disguising of peculiarly Jewish beliefs and concepts in Hellenic and even specifically Platonic terms made his ideas intelligible and palatable to Greek readers. Although he he never refers to Jesus and his followers and is himself never mentioned in the New Testament, it is nevertheless not without some justification that he has been called “the father of Christianity.” With much more claim to be dubbed “the father of homophobia,” he unquestionably ranks as one of the most evil men of all time.

Philo Judaeus culminated six centuries of Jewish homophobia (both increased if not begun by Zoroastrian influence), which St. Paul was to transmit to Christianity. The Alexandrian theosophist’s work On the Special Laws denounced homosexuality in clearly Biblical terms, however much like other Diaspora thinkers he may on other topics have been influenced by concepts superficially borrowed from Plato and later Greek forerunners of asceticism. Their injunction against “debasing the coinage of nature” merely urged self-control in sexual matters to improve one’s way of life, not the death penalty for pederasty:

Much graver than the above [non-procreative sex with women] is another evil, which has ramped its way into the cities, namely pederasty. In former days the very mention of it was a great disgrace, but now it is a matter of boasting not only to the active but to the passive partners, who habituate themselves to endure the disease of effemination, let both body and soul run to waste, and leave no ember of their male sex?nature to smoulder. Mark how conspicuously they braid and adorn the hair of their heads, and how they scrub and paint their faces with cosmetics and pigments and the like, and smother themselves with fragrant unguents. For of all such embellishments, used by all who deck themselves out to wear a comely appearance, fragrance is the most seductive. In fact the transformation of the male nature to the female is practised by them as an art and does not raise a blush. These persons are rightly judged worthy of death by those who obey the law, which ordains that the man-woman who debases the sterling coin of nature should perish unavenged, suffered not to live for a day or even an hour, as a disgrace to himself, his house, his native land and the whole human race. And the lover of such may be assured that he is subject to the same penalty. He pursues an unnatural pleasure and does his best to render cities desolate and uninhabited by destroying the means of procreation. (Loeb ed., Philo, VII, 497, 499)

Philo further reinforced the taboo on male homosexuality by asserting that it was the crime for which the Biblical Sodom had been punished by a rain of brimstone and fire. He thus reiterated the interpretation of Genesis 19 that had gained currency during the struggle against hellenization in the second pre-Christian century, and made it part of the homophobic legacy of Judaism to the Church fathers. The two beliefs–that homosexuality “violates the law of nature” and that “Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their homosexual depravity”–became and remain the backbone of the homophobic tradition in Western civilization to this day.

By the beginning of the Christian era Judaism had become notably intolerant of forbidden sexual activity, perhaps because this drew a clear line of demarcation between Jewish and pagan mores. The non-canonical treatise of the Talmud Derekh erets rabbah 56a (the name means literally “The Way of the Earth”; it is a treatise on good manners which in its present form was composed about the third century, though the nucleus of the work is older) asserts that the Jew who has sexual relations with a non-Jew violates 14 separate commandments of the Torah, and the Talmud itself ordains that the offender should not even be brought before a tribunal, but should be put to death by vigilantes on the spot (b.Sanhedrin 82b). Philo is no less vindictive toward those guilty of homosexual activity, asserting that “the man-woman who debases the sterling coin of nature should perish unavenged, suffered not to live for a day or even an hour, as a disgrace to himself, his house, his native land and the whole human race,” and adding that “he pursues an unnatural pleasure and does his best to render cities desolate and uninhabited by destroying the means of procreation” (On the Special Laws, III, 38?39). Thus Philo gave the classic formulation to the paranoid mentality that became almost standard practice in later centuries: that those guilty of homosexual activity should not even be tried by a court of law, but should be assaulted and lynched by an outraged populace.

Even the ideologically colorless Josephus (37-ca. 105), the protégé of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, writing an apologia of Judaism meant for pagan readers, could assert:

The Law recognizes no sexual connection except the natural union of man and wife, and that only for the procreation of children. The sexual connection of males with males it abhors, and it punishes any guilty of such an offense with death.... The Law orders all offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the foetus; a woman convicted of this is regarded as an infanticide, because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race (Contra Apionem, II, 199, 202).

The significance of this passage–overlooked by so many authors struggling with the problem of the sources of Christian doctrine on sexual morality–cannot be overestimated. At the very moment when Christianity was emerging from Hellenistic Judaism, the latter had already formulated a moral code that limited sexual expression to heterosexual marriage and there solely for the purpose of procreation, and forbade abortion and infanticide. There was nothing left for St. Paul or St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas to invent. They could, it is true, add their own motivations and morbid fantasies, but the fundamental belief system was adopted from Hellenistic Judaism without modification, even when many other provisions of the Mosaic Law were discarded forever. The distinctive feature of Christian sexual morality–the one which it does not share with Judaism–was its asceticism, but this by its very nature could be no more favorable to homosexual expression than the Judaic code, although in due time it gave exclusive homosexuals a convenient pretext for evading marriage and the burdens of heterosexual life–as Judaism with its positive emphasis upon marriage and procreation had never done. In fact, the only character in the Old Testament whom the sources show never to have married was Jeremiah, who lived at the very end of the First Commonwealth. Marriage and fatherhood were the norm for the religious elite of Judaism quite as much as for the untutored layman.

Judaism alone, however it detested the sexual practices of the heathen, could never have inflicted upon the Greco-Roman world the homophobia that was to become the heritage of Western civilization. For this purpose a new religion was needed, a religion that incorporated the philosophical core of Judaism into a cult that would be embraced by the whole of Mediterranean civilization. The victorious competitor in the struggle to convert the Greeks and Romans to monotheism abandoned nearly all the ritual precepts of the Mosaic Law, but kept its code of sexual morality intact, if anything made it more rigorous by superimposing an ascetic ideal which Judaism lacked.

The internal development of Judaism followed its own course. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70, and the failure of Bar Kokhba’s revolt under Hadrian some sixty years later spelled the end of Biblical Judaism. In the wake of these catastrophes the Jewish sages were forced to recontruct their cult, and embodied its new constitution in the Mishnah, a law code composed about 193 under the leadership of Rabbi Judah the Prince. Redoubling the earlier fiction that the Pentateuch had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai, it purported to enact an “oral law,” equally ancient and authoritative and duly transmitted by the religious teachers of Jewry down to its own time. Written in Hebrew in the last phase of its existence as a spoken language, this text became the authoritative code of Rabbinic Judaism and remains so, in later adaptations that incorporated and codified the jurisprudence of subsequent generations of scholars and interpreters.

Judaism turned its back on Hellenism to become an ever more closed society in the Roman Empire and in Babylonia, a “nation within a nation,” living by its own distinctive laws and customs and interposing insuperable barriers between itself and the surrounding gentile world. Distancing themselves and their followers ever more from the Christian faith that was making inroads into Greco-Roman paganism, the religious leaders of post-Biblical Judaism elaborated the precepts of the Mosaic Law into one of the most neurotic-compulsive belief systems ever devised by the human mind, in which taboo and ritual hovered over all aspects of daily life. The dietary laws in particular ensured that social intercourse between Jew and Gentile could never become intimate, since the one could not eat the other’s food. While Christianity adopted the asceticism of Eastern religions, which remained alien to Judaism, and ever more glorified abstinence and virginity, Judaism en revanche imitated those taboos of the Hindu religion which forbid members of different castes to eat together. Gay Christian apologists who appeal to the Church’s abandonment of the Jewish dietary laws are ignoring not just the unmistakable continuity but also this fundamental divergence in the evolution of the two faiths in late antiquity.

Nothing occurred during all this time that could have relaxed the scriptural ban on male homosexuality in any way. It was duly incorporated in the Mishnah as a crime worthy of death. The prohibition was linked with two groups of statutes, one aimed at breaches of patriarchal authority and power (the domination of younger age-cohorts by their elders) and the other forbidding idolatry and magic (non-Judaic, heathen religious practices) [b. Sanhedrin 53a]. The penalty was death by stoning, as in other sexual offenses (the Johannine story of the “woman taken in adultery” reflects this usage). Both the active and the passive partners were held culpable and equally worthy of death, in contrast to the relative indifference or even approbation accorded the active male homosexual in many other cultures [b. Sanhedrin 54a-55a]. Moreover, a later passage [b. Sanhedrin 73a] held that one intending to perpetrate the crime is “to be saved [from sinning] even at the cost of his life.” Several texts in the Midrashic literature of the early Christian centuries, in particular Bereshith Rabbah 26:5 on Genesis 6:2, asserted that God is long-suffering with all sins except fornication. This belief implied that homosexual sodomy–as the most heinous form of sexual immorality–threatens the community with immediate and dire retribution if it is not prevented or punished. It is analogous to the paranoid notion in incipient stages of schizophrenia that unless some particular act occurs (or does not occur) a catastophe, even the destruction of the cosmos, is imminent. Hence the pathetic dogma in later times that those who engage in sodomy are “trying the patience of God by their unnatural crimes.” Echoing Philo Judaeus in The Special Laws, and very likely reflecting contemporary practice within Jewish communities, this last provision of the Mishnah held it legitimate to kill another individual to prevent him from committing the offense, in explicit opposition to bestiality where no such preventive rigor is ordained. The post-Biblical Judaic tradition in regard to homosexual behavior was crescendo, not diminuendo: it reinforced and amplified the Biblical sanctions, anticipating later belief and practice in Western culture, where violence against persons believed to be sodomites (or homosexuals) came to be condoned as a tacit norm for which the perpetrator should not be held criminally responsible.

So the intolerance of homosexuality in Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism not merely weathered the challenge of Greek paiderasteia, it even gained intensity, acquired a new rationale, and formed part of the “legacy of the dying Judaism to the nascent Christian Church.” In the clash of two codes of sexual morality it was Judaism, however defeated and humbled by Roman arms, that emerged victorious thanks to Christian retention of the provisions of the book of Leviticus and of the anti-Hellenizing interpretation of the “sin of Sodom.”

Jewry itself had undergone vast changes since the days of Persian rule. No longer confined to a narrow strip of territory on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, or even concentrated on it, it had formed a diaspora extending from Mesopotamia in the east to Spain and Gaul in the west. The notion that the Levitical enactments against homosexuality were motivated by the need to defend an underpopulated territory corresponds to no historical fact. Like the Greeks, the Jews were a far-flung nation, but unlike them they founded no colonies or city-states of their own. Everywhere they remained a client people living in the midst of a gentile population. Judaism was a proselytizing religion, and so it gained many converts who were not descended from the community that had formed in Palestine in the Persian period. Most important, after the second century Hebrew was no longer a spoken language, and Palestine ceased to be the center of Jewish life. The major Jewish teachers and thinkers were to live elsewhere, to be sure, in the midst of thriving and prosperous communities, but speaking other native tongues and little by little adapting themselves to a permanent diaspora. In fact, the diaspora became the Jew’s natural habitat; his economic life grew ever more complementary to that of his gentile neighbors. The internal evolution of Judaism was strongly influenced by the culture of the host people; but the Judaic code of sexual morality was fixed forever. What it had been in late antiquity it remained until the Enlightenment opened the doors of European society in the eighteenth century and began the process of assimilation.
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