Stuart Kelly: A debate lost in translation

Many of the arguments being used by Churches to condemn same-sex marriages do not stand up under close examination of the biblical texts

ORIGEN, who lived from 184/5 to 253/4AD, was the greatest of the early Christian exegetes and is rightly remembered as the first theologian. Examining the various responses from the various Churches to the Scottish Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, let alone the subsequent correspondence and opining, made me wish that Origen’s spirit of deep reading and precise thinking were more in evidence today. When the Church of Scotland says that “the debate has been patchy, undeveloped and exclusive of both ordinary people and the religious community”, I can only concur, and regret the Church did not itself take the lead in that debate.

Origen’s great realisation was that the Bible had to be read in different ways: literally, at times, yes, but also metaphorically and spiritually. More than most, Origen had reason to be careful about overly literal interpretation. According to Eusebius, as a young man Origen had meditated on Matthew 19:12 – “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from [their] mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive [it], let him receive [it]” – and castrated himself. In later life, this most intelligent of commentators found himself refused entry into the priesthood because of his self-mutilation.

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Too often the so-called debate about Christianity and homosexuality has been reduced to a few verses, shorn of context, presented as undeniable proof. In truth, the situation is far more knotty. There are three points in the New Testament which are used by conservatives in opposition to homosexuality. It’s worth mentioning that none occurs in the Gospels or in the words of Jesus – an important consideration, given how frequently what is said is conveniently ignored. One verse – Luke 17:34 – is sometimes used as an endorsement of gay relationships (it reads: “On that night there were will two men in one bed: one will be taken, the other left”) but this is specious. Sharing beds was as common in first-century Judaea as it was in early 20th-century Scotland.

The first “killer verse” – a distinctly distasteful term – is from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, 6:9-10. My copy of the New English Bible translates it as “make no mistake: no fornicator or idolator, none who are guilty of adultery or homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers, or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the Kingdom of God”. The problem here is the specific Greek word St Paul uses for homosexual: arsenokoitai. This word had never occurred in Greek before. It is not as if the Greek language lacked words for homosexual behaviour – they appear in Plato, in Aristophanes, in Xenophon, in Herodotus. What arsenokoitai means, precisely and exactly, is unknown. It combines two words – arseno means man, and koite means bed. But as any linguist knows, a compound word’s meaning can’t be derived from its constituent parts. A ladykiller is neither a lady, nor a killer.

Other translations of the passage reflect this uncertainty. The King James Bible translates arsenokoitai as “abusers of themselves with men”; the Good News Bible says “homosexual perverts” and the New International Version tries “homosexual offenders”. The Catholic Encyclopaedia, until 1967, translated it as “masturbators”. Later Greek sources, such as Philo, Theophilus of Antioch and the Sybilline Oracles use the word, with very different meanings: temple prostitute, or pimp. The second verse, from Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy 1:9-10 has the same problem, as the same ambiguous word is used. Biblical study is not a sealed and finished business, and as papyrii are discovered and translated, there is a possibility that a more precise meaning might be found.

The third reference is even more problematic, though it seems on the surface clear. In the opening chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, verses 26-7, we read “in consequence, I say, God has given them up to shameful passions. Their women have exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and their men in turn, giving up natural relations with women, burn with lust for one another; males behave indecently with males”.

Few people using this verse as a condemnation stop to ask “in consequence of what”? Yet Paul is very clear: these people – former Christians – have taken to worshipping false gods, and after this passage he goes on to categorise all the other sins it has led them into.

The stress on the unnatural aspect of their behaviour stems from the previous verse (24), where they indulged in heterosexual orgies. It seems clear that the orgies and the idol-worship are interrelated, and it is more than likely that what is being condemned is the kind of cultic sex-worship that was a feature of certain Roman ceremonies. In other sections of Galatians and Ephesians, where Paul is systematically listing sins, there is no mention of homosexuality.

So the evidence for even Paul’s blanket condemnation of homosexuality is precarious at best. The evidence for the much-vaunted “sanctity of marriage” is even shakier. Paul is quite clear: marriage is the second-best option after celibacy. “Better be married than burn with vain desire”, he writes in First Corinthians, and sets out, in detailed form, a set of ideas about how Christians in a pagan society should live. “It is my opinion then, that in a time of stress like the present, this is the best way for a man to live – it is best for a man to be as he is. Are you bound in marriage? Do not seek a dissolution. Has your marriage been dissolved? Do not seek a wife.

“If however you do marry, there is nothing wrong in it, and if a virgin marries, she has done no wrong. But those who marry will have pain and grief in this bodily life”. And note how specifically Paul says that this is “his” opinion. Throughout the chapter he differentiates between “I say this, as my own word, not as the Lord’s” and what the gospel says. On celibacy, he says bluntly “I have no instructions from the Lord but I give my judgment”. Where Paul cedes to scriptural authority is in reference to divorce, and the pronouncements made by Jesus in Mark 10 and Matthew 19. The Church of Scotland has already wrestled with the question of the remarriage of divorcees, and states: “marriage is not understood in the Church of Scotland to be a sacrament and therefore binding forever”. While leaving room for each individual minister’s conscience, it also states that “marriage in Scotland takes place under Scots law”: not through ecclesiastical sanction. Given the Church has moved on in terms of this more doctrinally difficult question, why does it hum and haw now?

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As Origen knew, the Bible does not bear the same relationship to human ethical questions – to the soul – as a manufacturer’s instruction manual does to a piece of technology. It provides a moral narrative, and that narrative is ongoing. There are many questions relevant to us today, about which the Bible tells us nothing: for example, are psychotherapeutic drugs a “chemical cosh” or a necessary treatment? What is absolutely clear is that the gospel is in a process of continual out-reaching to those hitherto excluded or marginalised. Jesus reaches out to lepers, occupying soldiers, prostitutes and tax collectors (who might be described more accurately as collaborators with an enemy power).

In Acts, among the first converts, are an Ethiopian eunuch; Nicolas of Antioch, a pagan convert to Judaism; and Onesimus, a runaway slave. The first European convert was not a philosopher or a politician, but Lydia of Thyatira, possibly a freed slave and a rich businesswoman, who provided the Roman authorities with their distinctive purple dyes. From the 19th-century abolition of slavery, to the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez, Christianity has still had a morally progressive dimension.

At the kernel of Paul’s teaching is his vision that “there is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female”. It is this radical agenda to which the Church should cleave. Supporting same-sex marriage is not some liberal capitulation to current pressure groups, but a daring affirmation of the Church’s ability to confront injustice, and a brave recognition of the value of fidelity over promiscuity. As a married, heterosexual Christian, I see no reason, morally or theologically, why two people of the same sex should not make a commitment to each other in the presence of the God in whom they believe, and who loves them.