Leviticus and homosexuality: What is the historical truth?
Leviticus is the most common excuse homophobic Christians make for their homophobia. They want us to believe that the Creator of homosexuality did not approve of homosexuality.
The innocent church-goers blindly believe in the homophobia preached by insufficiently educated clergy.
So then, what is the truth?
The Bible that we use today in our own language came from various translations, re-translations, and interpretations. Scribes (ancient writers) are an important part of Biblical history – they wrote down the prophesies and historical occurrences – but not just in their own words, but also with their own interpretations. Writing and record-keeping, because it was an expensive task, was often shortened so fewer resources were used. Besides, a scribe was not necessarily a scholar. Many phrases in the English Bible today are a misinterpretation of the source – for example, what we commonly refer to as the Red Sea was originally the ‘reed sea’, a marshy land upon which the Israelites could cross over on foot, but the Egyptians couldn’t as their chariot wheels got stuck in the soft soil.
It is the same problem with the text in Leviticus 18:22, and Lev 20:13. Ed Oxford, a graduate of the Talbot School of Theology, began collecting old Bibles and discovered that the early German translations from the 1800s of the original Biblical texts used the word ‘knabenschander’ (Knaben is boy, schander is molester). During the time the book of Leviticus was written, the Greeks were also peacefully coming into contact with the Israelites. The Greeks traditionally had sexual relations with young boys and this was common among mentors and their followers. This didn’t go well with the Hebrew people, who then made a law forbidding ‘men from sleeping with boys’. (1) (2)
The original texts weren’t against homosexuality, they were against paedophilia.
A similar discovery was made by Reverend David, then a young seminarian in 1959, when he was reading 1 Cor 6:9-10. He discovered that the RSV version was the first translation in which the word ‘homosexuality’ was used. Previous versions had used a translation of the Greek word ‘arsenokoites’ and ‘malakos’ – both of which are unrelated to homosexuality. David wrote to the National Council of Churches (NCC) that commissioned the RSV Bible. The head of the translation team, Dr Luther Weigle, replied to David admitting their mistake, and later using a generic phrase ‘sexual perverts’ in future translations instead of ‘homosexual’. However, the mistranslated text continued to be used as a weapon against the LGBTQ+ community within the Church (3). A film is currently being made on this research work, titled '1946: A Mistranslation that Shifted a Culture'.
A similar misinterpretation takes place regarding the Biblical texts referring to Sodom and Gomorrah. It is assumed that God punished the land for ‘homosexuality’. However, there is no supporting evidence for this claim. History, however, records that the people of the region had a common practice of drinking and partying as well as raping guests. They indulged in pleasure to such an extent that it was creating an economic and social disaster for them.
The ultimate message, thus from the Leviticus text is simply, “Don’t have sex with children.” And from the texts referring to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is, “Drinking and partying all the time will bring your downfall.” Also, “Stop raping your guests.”
A Jewish person on Reddit shamed Christians for not knowing enough of the cultural context behind our Scripture (4). The findings by Ed Oxford were out in the open. Why then, did we not know about it? Why was the magisterium of the Church silent about it? It is possible that leaders in the Church didn’t consider this mistranslation a serious issue. They didn’t expect a mistranslation to become the basis on which Christians in the future would oppress, marginalise and discriminate against a group of people within the Church.
The early Church before the 12th century didn’t specifically condemn homosexuality. When ascetics later criticised sexual acts, they criticised all sexual experiences and upheld their own celibate lives. The hierarchy of the Church didn’t classify these acts as ‘sin’. In fact, in the early 12th century, many monks and priests wrote poetry on physical intimacy and passion, including intimate same-sex relationships. Condemnation for homosexuality became more concrete due to a political change within the Church that sought to control the private lives of citizens around the Third Lateran Council (1179), and intolerance towards minorities such as Jews, Muslims, and homosexual persons increased considerably (5)(6).
Freud famously theorised that the most basic drives for humans was Libido (love, lust) and Thanatos (death, destruction, entropy). Society deemed that these drives can be fulfilled in ‘civilised’ manner. Over time, we humans found and celebrated newer ways of being destructive – war, nuclear weapons, colonisation, racism, poisoning the air, soil, and water and wiping out forests. We gave this destruction polite names such as ‘development’, ‘economic growth’, ‘national security’. Meanwhile, on the other hand, society criminalised consensual love.
Look around at most societies (even the past history of today’s ‘developed’ nations) – parents are too embarrassed to teach children about sex, schools are allowed only limited or insufficient sex-education, TV shows were/are censored for romantic scenes (while bloody violence is mostly accepted and even appear in cartoons!). When one refers to an ‘adult movie’, we automatically assume that it refers to pornography, and not violence. In many societies, falling in love or sex before marriage is taboo, and even in societies where it is not, consensual love between two men or two women is considered ‘immoral’.
At the same time, mass-murderers, warmongers, wife-beaters, oppressive military regimes mostly don’t rouse much public emotion. A man kissing a woman on the street draws more shock and embarrassment in India than a man beating up a woman. The latter is more ‘acceptable’, more ‘normal’.
We love hate. We hate love.
Maybe before questioning the consensual love between two men or two women, we must question our high tolerance of violence.
Jesus recognised this hypocrisy and thus his new commandments stressed on LOVE. Love one another, love your neighbour, love God…
The Christians and Church leaders who challenge homosexuality must first ask themselves – what are they really opposing? Why do they strongly oppose the consensual love between two men while ignoring the non-consensual rape committed by clergy and religious over hundreds of years on young victims, or the marital rape and domestic violence that millions of women in heterosexual marriages experience all over the world?
Why does consensual same-sex love seem rouse so much anger, while domestic violence and rape does not? Aren’t the concerns misplaced? Why do Christians use the Bible as an excuse - a weapon - to oppress peaceful groups of people? Remember, the same Old Testament that laid down ‘moral’ laws also promoted war, supported slavery, allowed loot and plunder, while banning bacon and shaving.
We are followers of the same Christ who challenged old interpretations of laws and initiated social reform. After the coming of the Messiah, and His sacrifice, we were no longer required to dwell on the ancient Mosiac law – its existence in the Bible is simply to provide context to the teachings of Jesus. We do not need to look at the book of Leviticus to guide our present lives (7). Instead, let us keep our focus on the new commandment of love, of acceptance of one another, embracing each other as sisters and brothers in Christ, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Rachael Alphonso Feminist, currently pursuing a diploma in Christian Theology
1. LaCapria, Kim. Was the Word ‘Homosexual’ Only Added to Leviticus 18:22 in 1983? Truth or Fiction. [Online] 17 June 2019. [Cited: 17 June 2021.] https://www.truthorfiction.com/was-the-word-homosexual-only-added-to-leviticus-1822-in-1983/.
2. Oxford, Ed. Has “Homosexual” always been in the Bible? Forge Online. [Online] 21 March 2019. [Cited: 17 June 2021.] https://www.forgeonline.org/blog/2019/3/8/what-about-romans-124-27.
3. Baldock, Kathy. How the Bible Became Anti-Gay: Forging a Sacred Weapon. Canyonwalker Connections. [Online] http://canyonwalkerconnections.com/forging-a-sacred-weapon-how-the-bible-became-anti-gay/.
4. Garnelis, Lukas and Utaraité, Neringa. People On Social Media Point Out That The Bible Was Translated Wrong And Didn’t Say Anything About Homosexuality. Bored Panda. [Online] 2020. [Cited: 17 June 2021.] https://www.boredpanda.com/wrong-translation-of-bible-homophobia/?utm_source=duckduckgo&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=organic.
5. McClain, Lisa. A thousand years ago, the Catholic Church paid little attention to homosexuality. The Conversation. [Online] 10 April 2019. [Cited: 18 June 2021.] https://theconversation.com/a-thousand-years-ago-the-catholic-church-paid-little-attention-to-homosexuality-112830.
6. Betancourt, Roland. The Overlooked Queer History of Medieval Christianity. Time. [Online] 7 October 2020. [Cited: 17 June 2021.] https://time.com/5896685/queer-monks-medieval-history/.
7. Tallon, Jonathan. Does Leviticus mean homosexuality is an abomination? Bible and Homosexuality. [Online] [Cited: 17 June 2021.] http://www.bibleandhomosexuality.org/does-leviticus-mean-homosexuality-is-an-abomination/.