The Bible's New Testament and Sex
by Lewis Gannett
This article addresses aspects of the New Testament and sex. It has three components: the question of Paul and his legacy; the question of Jesus' attitudes to sexuality; and the question of whether Jesus might himself have been sexually active, perhaps even homosexually.
I: Paul: Was he as anti-sex as he is reputed to be?
Paul makes three condemnations of homosexuality in the New Testament, the only such passages to appear in it:
The Letter of Paul to the Romans 1:26-27
As a result God has given them up to shameful passions. Among them women have exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and men too, giving up natural relations with women, burn with lust for one another; males behave indecently with males, and are paid in their own persons the fitting wage of such perversion.
The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians 6:9
Surely you know that wrongdoers will never possess the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, no, no adulterer or sexual pervert … will possess the kingdom of God.
The First Letter of Paul to Timothy 1:8-11
We all know that the law is an admirable thing, provided we treat it as law, recognizing that it is designed not for good citizens, but for the lawless and unruly, the impious and sinful, the irreligious and worldly, for parricides and matricides, murderers and fornicators, perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers--in fact all whose behavior flouts the sound teaching which conforms with the gospel entrusted to me, the gospel which tells of the glory of the ever-blessed God.
Paul also is against marriage and having children, on the grounds that they distract from more useful activities, such as worship of God. But he does concede that in some cases, marriage is advisable: oddly enough, as an outlet for sex drive. Thus:
1 Corinthians 7:8-9
To the unmarried and to widows I say this: it is a good thing if like me they stay as they are; but if they do not have self-control, they should marry. It is better to be married than to burn with desire.
Evidently, Paul did not burn with desire. But at least he does recognize sex drive in others.
1 Corinthians 7:35-38
In saying this I am thinking simply of your own good. I have no wish to keep you on a tight rein; I only want you to be beyond criticism and be free from distraction in your devotion to the Lord. But if a man feels that he is not behaving properly towards the girl to whom he is betrothed, if his passions are strong and something must be done, let him carry out his intention by getting married; there is nothing wrong in it [all emphases added]. But if a man is steadfast in his purpose and under no obligation, if he is free to act at his own discretion, and has decided in his own mind to respect her virginity, he will do well. Thus he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who does not marry does better.
All of this suggests that Paul is anti-sex, or to put it more technically, erotophobic. But there is a strange twist to his logic. As noted, Paul seems resigned to the fact that passion will be passion, and if it requires outlet, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as it's within the confines of marriage. Paul's asceticism makes room for lust in those circumstances. But he goes further when it comes to sex within marriage: he makes the wife the sexual equal of the husband, or at least, he seems to.
1 Corinthians 7:3-7
The husband must give the wife what is due to her, and equally the wife must give the husband his due. The wife cannot claim her body as her own; it is her husband's. Equally [emphases added] the husband cannot claim his body as his own; it is his wife's. Do not deny yourselves to one another, except when you agree to devote yourselves to prayer for a time, and to come together then afterwards; otherwise, through lack of self-control, you may be tempted by Satan. I say this by way of concession, not command. I should like everyone to be as I myself am; but each person has the gift God granted him, one this gift and another that.
A notable thing about this is that Paul doesn't mention children in his tolerance for marital sex. In fact, he thinks it's better not to have children: they distract from God. This of course is the diametrical opposite of the edict, "Be fruitful and multiply," a very strange position for an ex-Jew to take. Paul instead says that marital sex is okay because without it, people might seek sex outside marriage, which is the true evil. Meantime, it's fine to have a busy sex life as long as it's husband/wife.
Elsewhere, though, Paul seems to support male domination of women. Some scholars, including Theodore W. Jennings, believe that such passages were inserted after Paul's death so as to make Scripture more in conformance with Judaic and Roman convention:
1 Corinthians 11:3-9
But I wish you to understand that, while every man has Christ for his head, a woman's head is man, as Christ's head is God. A man who keeps his head covered when he prays or prophesies brings shame on his head; but a woman brings shame on her head if she prays or prophesies bareheaded; it is as bas as if her head were shaved. … A man must not cover his head, because man is the image of God, and the mirror of his glory, whereas a woman reflects the glory of man. For man did not originally spring from woman, but woman was made out of man; and man was not made for woman's sake, but woman for the sake of man [emphasis added].
Man, in other words, is closer to God than woman is: a clear subordination. This does not quite square with Paul's idea that married men and woman mutually own each others' bodies. Then, consider the following from 1 Timothy:
1 Timothy 2:8-15
It is my desire, therefore, that everywhere prayers be said by the men of the congregation, who shall lift up their hands with a pure intention, without anger or argument. Women must dress in becoming manner, modestly … Their role is to learn, listening quietly and with due submission. I do not permit women to teach or dictate to the men; they should keep quiet. For Adam was created first, and Eve afterwards; moreover it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who, yielding to deception, fell into sin. But salvation for the woman will be in the bearing of children [emphasis added] provided she continues in faith, love, and holiness, with modesty.
Note the emphasis on "bearing of children." This is unPauline. But then, who knows what was meddled with as the Gospels settled into the written forms that have survived? At any rate, Paul contradicts himself on the question of the relative status of women and men, and on the question of the sanctity of childbearing. It does look as if he's been meddled with, scripturally. Paul may not be quite the big baddie that he has seemed.
II: Aspects of the New Testament Suggest Jesus' Tolerance for Homosexuality
In The Revised English Bible, Matthew 5:22 reads in part:
But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to justice. Whoever calls his brother "good for nothing" [emphasis added] deserves the sentence of the court; whoever calls him "fool" deserves hellfire.
The scholarship of Warren Johansson has shown that "good for nothing" mistranslates the original Jewish Aramaic word rakhkha, later shortened to racha, as it appears in the King James version of the bible. What does "racha" mean? Johansson argues persuasively that it means "weakling, effeminate," and that furthermore:
Racha is the vocative of a word derived from Hebrew rakh "soft," but specifically a vulgar Greek loanword in which the Semitic etymon has been assigned the semantic value of Greek malakos/malthakos, "passive-effeminate male homosexual." … Another point in support of this explanation--and one that has been totally ignored until now--is that in the Gaunersprache, the argot of German thieves and beggars, the word rach is recorded in the meaning "tender, soft, effeminate, timid, cowardly." Its origin is to be explained by the fact that three-fourths of the distinctive vocabulary of the Gaunersprache is taken from Hebrew and Yiddish.
Johansson goes on to comment that the phrase "thou fool," as conveyed in the King James translation, also has a strongly erotic meaning.
Thus the entire passage is not merely a Semiticizing pastiche, it also has an undertone of double entendre and irony that made it too subtle for the pagan readers of the second and third centuries--which is why modern commentators have wrongly attempted to decompose the text and reduce it to a shorter, primary form.
What to make of this? Evidently, Jesus didn't like gay-bashing. Racha, in short, is the Aramaic derivation of the Greek term for "faggot, fairy," etc. It has often been claimed that Jesus never mentioned anything about homosexuality. Johansson has quite deftly proven this idea false.
The Centurion and his Boy
An episode concerning a Roman centurion and his prized young male companion appears in differing forms in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and in much different form in John. Matthew refers to the boy as "pais," which meant several things, including the younger beloved in a pederastic relationship. Luke refers to the boy as "doulos," which means slave, but Luke also includes the modifying word "entimous," which means "dear," as in an especially intimate friend. John refers to the boy as a son, not of a centurion but of another kind of "royal official." Nowhere does this episode appear in Mark. The Revised English Bible renders Matthew's account, 8:5-13, as follows:
As Jesus entered Capernaum a centurion came up to ask his help. "Sir," he said, "my servant is lying at home paralyzed and racked with pain." Jesus said, "I will come and cure him." But the centurion replied, "Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof. You only need say the word and my servant will be cured. ..." Jesus heard him with astonishment, and said to the people who were following him, "Truly I tell you: nowhere in Israel have I found such faith." . . . Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go home; as you have believed, so let it be." At that very moment the boy recovered.
This rendering translates "pais" into "servant," and at the end translates "pais" into "boy." Although "pais" at the time was used to refer to a number of subordinate male relationships, in this context it is clear, to the scholars Donald Mader and Theodore Jennings, that the boy is the centurion's lover, and that Jesus almost certainly understood that this was the case. Pederasty was a widespread sexual arrangement throughout the ancient world, greatly esteemed among many gentiles and pagan Romans. Jews, however, saw pederasty, and homosexuality of any form, as an abomination.
Yet the centurion sought the help of Jesus, a Jew. Jesus, however, did not condemn him. Instead, he marveled at the man's "faith": "nowhere in Israel have I found such faith." For Jesus, faith far outweighed any sinfulness that traditional Judaism ascribed to homosexuality.
This theme echoes throughout the New Testament. In John 4:8-10, Jesus is utterly unconcerned that a Samaritan woman he meets has had multiple husbands and is now living in sin with a man to whom she is not married; he even asks her for a drink of water despite the fact that Jews did not share drinking vessels with Samaritans. This so impresses the woman that she believes in Jesus' holiness and evangelizes for him among her neighbors. Similar themes can be found in Luke 7:36-50, which describes Jesus having dinner at a Pharisee's house. An "immoral" woman learns this, goes to the house with a flask of myrrh, washes Jesus' feet with her tears and anoints them with myrrh. The Pharisee is revolted. At the end of the story Jesus says to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." In Matthew 21:31-32, Jesus tells people of insufficient faith that "tax-collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you."
So it's not surprising that Jesus would look at a pederast who had faith in Jesus' power to heal and see not a sinner, but man of faith.
III Suggestions in the N.T. that Jesus Had a Gay Sex Life
Young Men Scantily Attired in Nothing But a White Cloth
The New Testament includes stories of Jesus hanging around with young men wearing only a white cloth and who then get totally naked. Mark 14:47-52 tells the story of Jesus' arrest by a mob in the garden of Gethsemane. The following includes (from Jennings' reading) some of the words in the original Greek:
One of the bystanders drew his sword, and struck the high priest's servant, cutting off his ear. … Then the disciples all deserted him and ran away. [But] Among those who had followed Jesus was a young man [neaniskos] with nothing on [gymnou] but a linen cloth [sindona]. They tried to seize him; but he slipped out of the linen cloth [sindona] and ran away naked [gymnos].
This youth, unlike Jesus' other disciples, didn't desert him. Jennings comments:
The term for nudity here is gymnos, which refers not simply to body (soma) or flesh (sarx) but to the nudity that gave its name to the gymnasium (or nuditorium) where hellenized youth honed and displayed their athletic prowess in the nude. In the classical Greece and in the subsequent hellenistic world, the gymnasium is the privileged site for homoeroticism and for the making of pederastic liaisons. The nudity (gymnos) of the youth (neaniskos) is the focal point of the homoerotic gaze of men.
None of this could have been lost on Mark's hellenstic, gentile readers. Moreover we may be sure that it would have scandalized Mark's more conservative Jewish readers. (p.111)
Secret Mark or Clementine Mark consists of a fragment apparently excised from canonical Mark. It was discovered in 1958 by a scholar named Morton Smith at an Orthodox monastery near Jerusalem. While controversial at first, the fragment now is largely regarded as genuine. It concerns the story of a woman whose brother had died and who wanted Jesus' help:
And going near Jesus rolled away a stone from the door to the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came to the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what he was to do and in the evening the youth (neaniskos) comes to him, wearing a linen cloth (sindona) over his naked body (gymnos). And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. (pp.115-116, Jennings.)
As Jennings points out, "The homoerotic aspect that we noted in the canonical story [garden of Gethsemane] seems even more clear here." It gets more intriguing, however. Another fragment of Secret Mark has to do with the beliefs of the Carprocatians, a sect noted for its "sexual license." The material refers obliquely to "naked man with naked man," which, Jennings writes,
"presumably belongs in the description of what happens when the nude youth wrapped in a sindona spends the night with Jesus. That is, the sindona comes off, and so too with whatever it was that Jesus had been wearing. Morton Smith here suggests that the togetherness of nude youth with nude Jesus might be related to 'physical union.'" (pp.119-20)
"The disciple Jesus Loved" in the Gospel of John
Mention is made in the gospel of John of a mysterious, unnamed disciple "whom Jesus loved." The references include 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7,20.
Tradition has assigned authorship of John to John of Zebedee, one of the original twelve apostles. But John of Zebedee, according to Mark (10:39), died a martyr in the early stages of the Christian movement. Another candidate is presbyter John of Ephesus. This candidate also seems doubtful in terms of his date of death. The actual author or authors of the Gospel of John have not been definitively identified.
Of note, however: the final verses of John, 21:20-25, claim that the gospel's author was, in fact, "the disciple whom Jesus loved." But: verse 24 states: "It is this same disciple who vouches for what has been written here. He it is who wrote it, and we know that this testimony is true [emphasis added]."
So the question is: Who is the "we"? Apparently, the text did not come exclusively from whomever "John" was. A committee or perhaps committees, edited. No surprise there.
What is surprising is something that Jennings does not discuss, namely, if the "disciple whom Jesus loved" wrote the Gospel of John, why did that disciple choose to remain anonymous? It's really very puzzling. The "disciple whom Jesus loved," by the way, appears nowhere else in the New Testament. It's entirely a figure in the gospel of John.
Johansson and Mader do not consider the issue of the "disciple whom Jesus loved" to be particularly important in terms of Jesus' sexuality. Jennings, however, does, and he makes a fairly persuasive case.
Who could this disciple have been? Jennings rules out both John son of Zebedee and presbyter John of Ephesus. The available evidence suggests that Jesus' beloved disciple was a young man; the mentions of him place him at several highly important events in Jesus' life; he appears to have been a close companion of Simon Peter; he probably was not one of the "twelve" disciples, for he is never mentioned as an important leader of the early Christian church.
Let's take a look at how he is portrayed in John:
John 13:21-26: After saying this, Jesus exclaimed in deep distress, "In very truth, one of you is going to betray me." The disciples looked at one another in bewilderment: which of them could he mean? One of them, the disciple he loved [emphasis added], was reclining close beside Jesus. Simon Peter signalled to him to find out which one he meant. That disciple leaned back close to Jesus and asked, "Lord, who is it?" Jesus replied, "It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then he took it, dipped it in the dish, and gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.
At the scene of Jesus' crucifixion: John 19:25-27:
Meanwhile near the cross on which Jesus hung, his mother was standing with her sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother, with the disciple he loved standing beside her [emphasis added], Jesus said to her, "Mother, there is your son; and to the disciple, "There is your mother"; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home.
Both passages suggest considerable intimacy, even a physical intimacy, between Jesus and the mysterious disciple John. No conclusive interpretation can be drawn, of course. But the foregoing certainly seems quite at odds with the iconic Jesus' sexual asceticism.
Jennings, Jr., Theodore W. The Man Jesus Loved. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003.
Johansson, Warren J. "Whosoever Shall Say to His Brother, Racha," in Homosexuality in Religion and Philosophy, Wayne Dynes, ed., pp.212-214. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.
Mader, Donald. "The Entimos Pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10," in Homosexuality in Religion and Philosophy, Wayne Dynes, ed., pp. 223-235. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.