Think you know what the Bible says about sex?
Two years ago I started what became a deep investigation of the sexual teachings of the Bible. Everything I thought I knew came under question, and often was simply disproven.
Along the way many scholarly papers were helpful, but some made me sit up and say, “I didn’t know that” — then have to figure out what to believe after that. Here’s a few.
- Wayne A. Meeks, “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity”
Released in 1974, at the height of Glam Rock, the great scholar of early Christianity noted that the Jesus teachings are rooted in androgyny. For me it was all new: The first human in Eden was androgynous? The Christian project is recovering that state?? As Dr. Meeks notes, Paul saying that Christians aren’t “male or female” in Galatians 3:28 “reverses the fateful division of Genesis 2:21–22.” All the church’s insistence on gendered male vs. female biology and roles was clearly a mistake.
- Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Garments of Shame”
Baptism was done naked? — not even segregated by gender? After all, the idea behind baptism is rebirth, rising from a new spiritual womb to be ‘born again’ as resurrected beings, and newborn children aren’t born with clothes on, aren’t we? It was done fully naked. I read this paper, more and more startled. The Christian project is becoming the divine child, naked and resurrected in a new Eden? Whaaaaaaat?
- Kalina Wojciechowska, “The First Human and the Perfect Human as an Androgynous Character”
It was commonly believed by Jews, as by Philo, and by important early Christian writers that the first created human was androgynous. Dr. Wojciechowska brilliantly evokes this being who lives “without trying to elevate oneself, rule over others, or impose one’s will on them.” This is the ideal state that Christian teachings cultivate. Further reading: A. F. J. Klijn, “The ‘Single One’ in the Gospel of Thomas”
- John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20–27)”
What happened when Noah got drunk and his son Ham ‘saw his nakedness’? The traditions knew! It was castration! It was dad gay rape! It was patricide! But the Bible, as it turns out, uses unusual phrases repeatedly and their definitions become clear: Ham has sex with Noah’s wife. This tells us the tradition, especially when lurid sexual matters were in play, couldn’t read the text.
- Scott Morschauser, “‘Hospitality’, Hostiles and Hostages: On the Legal Background to Genesis 19.1–9”
The “homosexual rapist” theory of Sodom isn’t so much as hinted at anywhere in scripture, and that city is talked about a lot. A Bible scholar with a focus on Egyptology, Dr. Morschauser identifies legal phrases in the account that tell us what is actually happening in Genesis 19. The angels are suspected of being spies and the city rulers want to interrogate them. Fearing for their safety, Lot puts up his valued daughters as hostages — a plot device we see frequently in the Old Testament. Also note: Holly Joan Toensing, “Women of Sodom and Gomorrah: Collateral Damage in the War against Homosexuality?” It took a feminist to ask the obvious: If Sodom is about gang-banging gays, why are women killed for it? She tweaks the Morschauser theory in helpful ways.
- Bruce W. Longenecker, “A Humorous Jesus? Orality, Structure and Characterisation in Luke 14:15–24, and Beyond”
Studying the ‘Parable of the Great Banquet’, Dr. Longenecker realizes that Jesus is telling a joke that ends with a sexual punch-line. If sex is dirty, then Jesus tells a dirty joke! This told me that Christian interpreters often had no idea how to read the text, and even the imposition of seriousness is a distortion. Jesus is laughing!
- J. David Hester, “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19.12 and Transgressive Sexualities”
When Jesus suggests the disciples become ‘eunuchs for the kingdom’, this is typically understood to mean that church officials are prompted to never touch any other humans. That would be sin! Or so the Christian thinking went. Dr. Hester identifies one little problem: the eunuch was highly sexual! They were famous for it! Jesus is suggesting, actually, that followers leave the devotion to human family as the meaning of life. That doesn’t shut down touching, i.e. ‘sex’.
- W. Derek Suderman, “Modest or Magnificent? Lotus versus Lily in Canticles”
What could be more Christian than the lovely white lily? We haul them out every Easter, and point to them as symbols of ‘chastity’, etc. Just one little problem: they’re not lilies. Dr. Suderman goes through the evidence: the flower in question, by a series of historical misidentifications we can trace, is actually the Egyptian blue lotus, a colorful symbol of sexuality and resurrection.
- Joan E. Taylor, “‘Two by Two’: The Ark-etypal Language of Mark’s Apostolic Pairings”
Dr. Taylor realizes something: the text of Mark says that Jesus sent out pairs of apostles, “two by two.” This is a phrase that clearly points to Noah and the ark, and so it means male and female. She evokes the possibility that the women we often see around Jesus were travelling with the men as missionaries. Being sent as ‘messengers’, they were apostles. More interesting suggestions even than this lurk in this astonishing paper. Could it be that the female is, for Jesus, the model divine servant, like the angels who ‘served’ him? Check out the fun T.V. documentary.
- Martha Himmelfarb, “Judaism and Hellenism in 2 Maccabees”
In 1 Maccabees 1:14–15 and 2 Maccabees 4:7–17 there is a narrative of a gymnasium for Jews being constructed next to the Temple. There, Jewish men, in the Greek style, exercised naked. I was stunned, for I’d read many Bible commentators saying that Jewish men abhorred nakedness, especially male nakedness. I realized: some Jewish people abhorred nakedness (and Jesus clearly wasn’t one of them). Then I realized that Paul’s encouragement of exercise in 1 Tim 4:7–8 has the implicit backdrop of naked Greek athletics (cf. 1 Cor 9:24, Phil 3:14, 2 Tim 4:7), and early church baptism, as Jonathan Z. Smith had documented, was clearly done fully naked. As in Hebrews 12:1, we’re to throw off our clothes, and if this has a spiritual suggestion, the New Testament writers are clearly using physical nakedness as a teaching tool. The later Christian insistence the body has to be covered is a scriptural error.
- Mary Beard & John Henderson, “With This Body I Thee Worship: Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity”
Every treatment of Paul’s writing to the Corinthians has relied on the idea of Corinth being a pagan vat of sex, sex, sex. Paul’s references to porneia, ‘prostitution’, were interpreted in this light. Just one problem: there is no evidence of this being true. Let me put this in clear terms: Dozens, perhaps hundreds of Bible commentaries, including John MacArthur’s, maintain that cities like Corinth had heightened sexual activity and early Christians stood against all that. False. The porneia language is clearly referring to a spiritual concept, not human intimacies.
- Marshall Janzen, “Orderly Participation or Silenced Women? Clashing Views on Decent Worship in 1 Corinthians 14”
It’s a bitter irony that a passage taken to characterize all Christianity — Paul telling women to shut up — was a quotation of a position that Paul forcibly rejects. Janzen goes through the evidence. Then we realize: the organized Christian church ignored all of this as they were intent on creating a hostile environment to women . . . and to men as well.