Tuesday, May 1, 2012


There is no excuse for Dan Savage’s bullying of high school students, though , Michael O’Loughlin has given it a decent try. A mistake that O’Loughlin makes, and that Savage himself implicitly makes in his comments, is that someone who has been victimized, as Savage clearly has in his youth, has freedom to victimize others. Prior victimization offers carte blanche for bad behavior. Nonsense. What Dan Savage’s behavior tells us is that when placed in a position of power and authority, he used it to bully others, teenagers, who have less power and authority than he does. The character of a person is revealed not by their behavior with their equals or superiors, but those who are weaker than they: Dan Savage failed that test. But Dan Savage’s hypocrisy is his to own and I have no desire to psychologize or berate him. I have sympathy for him due to his past suffering and contempt for his bullying behavior, even though bullying tends to come from a place of hurt and pain.

I was more interested in his biblical exegesis. For a man who holds no truck with the Bible, he offered opinions which suggest knowledge of and interest in the biblical text and raised interesting questions about the Law of Moses (Torah) and its role in Christianity. He seems to me, so maybe I do have a little desire to psychologize him, to be “Bible-haunted” in the way that Flannery O’Connor spoke of the South as “God-haunted.”

Below are citations from Savage’s blog response to the controversy he created and the questions he raises regarding the use of the Bible by modern Christians. He raises some fascinating questions, too many to handle actually in a blog post, too many, probably, to handle well in one academic paper, but there are serious points he makes. I will place in italics those passages from his blog post which I want to address:

1)      I was attacking the argument that gay people must be discriminated against—and anti-bullying programs that address anti-gay bullying should be blocked (or exceptions should be made for bullying "motivated by faith")—because it says right there in the Bible that being gay is wrong. Yet the same people who make that claim choose to ignore what the Bible has to say about a great deal else. I did not attack Christianity. I attacked hypocrisy. My remarks can only be read as an attack on all Christians if you believe that all Christians are hypocrites. Which I don't believe.


2)      We can learn to ignore what the bible says about gay people the same way we have learned to ignore what the Bible says about clams and figs and farming and personal grooming and menstruation and masturbation and divorce and virginity and adultery and slavery. Let's take slavery. We ignore what the Bible says about slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. And the authors of the Bible didn't just fail to condemn slavery. They endorsed slavery: "Slaves obey your masters." In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris writes that the Bible got the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced wrong. The Bible got slavery wrong. What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? I'd put those odds at about 100%.

3)      It shouldn't be hard for modern Christians to ignore what the bible says about gay people because modern Christians—be they conservative fundamentalists or liberal progressives—already ignore most of what the Bible says about sex and relationships. Divorce is condemned in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus Christ condemned divorce. Yet divorce is legal and there is no movement to amend state constitutions to ban divorce. Deuteronomy says that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night she shall be dragged to her father's doorstep and stoned to death. Callista Gingrich lives. And there is no effort to amend state constitutions to make it legal to stone the third Mrs. Gingrich to death.

4)      There are untrue things in the Bible—and the Koran and the Book of Mormon and every other "sacred" text—and you don't have to take my word for it: just look at all the biblical "shoulds," "shall nots," and "abominations" that religious conservatives already choose to ignore. They know that not everything in the Bible is true.

5)      All Christians read the Bible selectively. Some read it hypocritically—and the hypocrites react very angrily when anyone has the nerve to point that out.



1) I want to first of all state that the Bible says nothing about “gay people.” This is significant. The Bible prohibits certain behaviors, which might seem the equivalent of saying “gay people,” but it does not speak of sexual identity in the way modernity understands it.  Certainly in Greece and Rome, relationships amongst men and boys/younger men were quite common and some of these men and boys might have had such an identity, but most men in Greece and Rome who engaged in homosexual relations were married and so the whole question of sexual practice had to do with being in the “active” role and not the “passive” role, not sexual identity. (It is also important to understand that in speaking of relationships in antiquity as being between men and boys/young men, I am not equating such relations with present day pedophilia - see the Christian Laes article below which deals with this issue.) If one was in the “active” role, masculinity was not in question, but if one was in the “passive” role (boys/younger men; male slaves; and some freeborn men) one was considered “feminized.” Homosexuality, as a term, was not in usage and nor was there any equivalent language for our usage of “gay.” In Judaism there were few males who engaged in such sexual relations, as was the case in early Christianity, though the issue in early Christianity is not as clear cut. For whatever reason such sexual relations were prohibited in Judaism and Christianity, the prohibtion does not include the rejection of a group of people who identified themselves by sexual identity as "gay." I direct people to the literature below for those who want to learn more about sexuality in the Greco-Roman world.

Here is a short, but excellent Bibliography:

BREMMER, JAN (1990), “Adolescents, Symposion, and Pederasty”  in Oswyn Murray (ed.) Sympotica: A Symposium on the Symposion, Oxford, 135–148.
BROOTEN, BERNADETTE J. (1996),  Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, Chicago.
BROWN, PETER (2008),  The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, New York.
GOLDEN, MARK (1984), "Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens” in Phoenix 38: 308-24.
GOLDEN MARK (1985), "Pais, 'Child.' and 'Slave.'" L'Antiquite Classique 54: 91-104.
HORN, CORNELIA AND JOHN W. MARTENS (2009), “Let the Little Children Come to Me:” Childhood and Children in Early Christianity, Washington, D.C.
KOLTUN-FROMM, NAOMI (2010),  Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community, Oxford.
LAES, CHR. (2003), ' Desperately Different? Delicia Children in the Roman Household', in Balch and Osiek (ed.) 298-326. D. Balch, C. Osiek (ed.), Early Christian Families in Context. An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, Grand Rapids, MI, 298-326.
LAES, CHR. (2010), “When Classicists Need to Speak up: Antiquity and Present Day Pedophilia ‒ Pederasty”  in Valerij Sofronievski (ed.), Aeternitas Antiquitatis: Proceedings of the Symposium Held in Skopje, August 28  2009, Skopje, 33-53.
LAES, CHR. (2011), Children in the Roman Empire. Outsiders Within, Cambridge.
MARTENS, JOHN W. (2009), “Do Not Sexually Abuse Children:” The Language of Early Christian Sexual Ethics” in Cornelia Horn and Robert Phenix  (eds.), Children in Late Ancient Christianity (Studien Und Texte Zu Antike Und Christentum), Tübingen.
SMITH, ABRAHAM (1991), “The New Testament and Homosexuality” in Quarterly Review, Winter: 18-32.
SZESNAT, HOLGER (1998), “Pretty Boys”in Philo’s De Vita Contemplativa” in Studia Philonica Annual 10, 87-107.
WILLIAMS, CRAIG (2010), Roman Homosexuality, Oxford.

2) Second, the Bible does prohibit certain sexual behaviors, focusing especially on sexual relations between men. Savage’s point with respect to these behaviors is straightforward: why do Christians ignore other prohibitions and laws in the OT, but still maintain these prohibitions regarding sexuality? Is it arbitrary as to which laws are followed and which are not? This actually gets us to the heart of the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity. Orthodox Jews today would not say that one should ignore laws regarding figs, menstruation and clothing, for instance, one should follow every law, but Christians do seem to be “selective” in what laws they follow from the OT and they seem to be “moral” laws. The issue arises in Matthew 5:17-20 in which Jesus says that he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. This takes us to the Apostle Paul’s letters (particularly to the Galatians and Romans) in which Paul claims that in Christ the law is fulfilled (Gal. 5:14) through love of neighbor or that Christ is the “end {telos} of the law” (Romans 10:4). The whole issue of how much of the law of Moses Christians must follow is left open, and is also found in the discussion of Acts of the Apostles 15 -though it is worth reading chapters 10-15 to get a sense of the whole debate, however idealized it is there.

The earliest Christians, as we see in Acts, were often found at the Temple and seemed not to feel that the Law of Moses in any functional way had come to an end, at least not in the earliest Jerusalem Church. In practice, as early Christianity spread, Christians adhered to much of the teaching of the OT, especially as it pertained to the moral life, summed up in the Ten Commandments, but found throughout the OT.  Though the OT itself did not partition the law into “types” of law, Christians began, based on Acts 15, Galatians and common practice, not to follow the food laws or other ceremonial laws. Later Christians, such as Thomas Aquinas, would divide the law into three types of law - moral, judicial; and ceremonial – and argue that only the moral law was binding as it was a part of the divine or eternal law. (If you have the time, I recommend wading through the Summa Theologica Prima secundae 90-114, commonly known as Thomas’ treatise on law, available here.) This is an incredibly dense issue, both in the ancient context and the medieval context, but Savage raises some interesting questions regarding the law and what parts of the law are followed. The short answer, though Judaism and Paul himself did not divide the law into these parts, is that the Church continued to follow the “moral” law, but not the ceremonial and judicial law, which is why they continued to care about sexual behavior and not figs and shellfish.

There is a huge library of books just on this issue in Paul and Judaism and I recommend a few here:

MARTENS, JOHN W. (2003), One God, One Law: The Mosaic and Greco-Roman Law in Philo of Alexandria, Boston.
SANDERS, E.P. (1983), Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. Philadelphia.
SANDERS, E.P. (1990),  Jewish Law From Jesus to the Mishnah: Five Studies. London.
SANDERS, E.P. (1992),  Judaism: Practice and Belief: 63BCE-66CE. London.
WESTERHOLM, STEPHEN (1988), Israel's Law and the Church's Faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan.

3) Nevertheless, there is a genuine problem which Savage raises and that is, even with respect to the moral law, do not certain laws which were once in effect no longer remain in effect, such as laws regarding slavery? I think the reality of slavery is a problem when we look at the history of Christianity, for it continued for centuries and we know that various Bishops and Popes had slaves. This reality should not be ignored, but we should also be clear:  the Bible does not speak positively about slavery, such as, “slavery is a good,” or command it, “you must have slaves;” that is, there is no law commanding it positively. This might seem insignificant, since the Bible, OT and NT, does acknowledge the reality of slavery and speaks of the treatment of slaves and seems to accept slaves and slavery as a part of life, but it does open the door for the end of slavery. Still, instead  of condemning slavery does not the Bible simply reflect the reality of the ancient world, in which the Greeks, Romans, and most other ancient peoples kept slaves, just as the Jews and Christians did?  It does, indeed, and we might argue that the Bible should not just have reflected this reality but instead denounced it outright. I think this is a fair point, which might have an explicable historical and cultural answer (or answers), but leaves one a little cold from our vantage point. It is also the case that Christian "equality" (Galatians 3:28-29; Philemon) might have led to the undermining of the moral and intellectual underpinnings of slavery, even if this took centuries. What it does point to, though, is development of understanding and doctrine, which occurs historically, over time, and in which Christianity finally moved to a condemnation of slavery.

Here are a few books which deal with ancient Christianity and slavery:

GLANCY, JENNIFER (2002),  Slavery in Early Christianity. New York.
HARRILL, J. ALBERT (2006), “Servile Functionaries or Priestly Leaders? Roman Domestic Religion, Narrative Intertextuality, and Pliny’s Reference to Christian Slave Ministrae (Ep. 10,96 8),” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 97.
HARRILL, J. ALBERT (2006), Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions. Minneapolis.
HARRILL, J. ALBERT (2003),  “The Domestic Enemy: A Moral Polarity of Household Slaves in Early Christian Apologies and Martyrdom.” In Early Christian Families in Context. An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Eds. David L. Balch and Carolyn Osiek. Religion, Marriage, and Family series. Pp. 231-254. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.
HARRILL, J. ALBERT (1995),  The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity. Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Theologie 32. Tübingen.
HARPER, KYLE (2011), Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425, Cambridge.

4) Finally, then, that leads to Savage’s final points on the Bible: “All Christians read the Bible selectively” and “There are untrue things in the Bible—and the Koran and the Book of Mormon and every other "sacred" text—and you don't have to take my word for it: just look at all the biblical "shoulds," "shall nots," and "abominations" that religious conservatives already choose to ignore. They know that not everything in the Bible is true.” Whether Savage agrees with it or not, there are reasons for why Christians ignore certain laws in the Bible – ceremonial and judicial – which go back to ancient disputes and medieval distinctions (I cannot speak for the other sacred texts). Again, whether he believes these are correct, it is not simply an arbitrary ignoring of some laws or choosing of others on an ad hoc basis, but something worked out in light of Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching with respect to the law.  If that is what he means by “reading selectively,” that is not fair, as there were careful attempts to work out what ought to be followed and why. If he means that certain, individual Christians choose what they want to obey, or what they want to ignore, that is fair: one finds hypocrites everywhere, perhaps even moreso in the Church than elsewhere.

As to “untrue” things in the Bible, for Christians (and Jews) who accept the Bible as the word of God, Sacred Scripture, it teaches the truth and so is, by definition, “true.” Yet, again, whether we like this or not, Savage is on to something. Many things found in the Bible reflect particular social and cultural realities of antiquity, such as the role of women, or the use of slaves, and are not, I would suggest, essential assertions of truth in the Bible.

The question which many Christians are asking today, as is Savage, is focused on sexuality: do the Bible’s teachings on sexuality reflect the truth eternal or is it reflective of the cultural and social realities of the ancient world? Is this an issue like slavery in which views might change and develop over time?

Savage should leave the teenagers alone and continue and deepen his readings in these areas of ancient history and biblical studies. He asks excellent questions, and many people are asking his same questions; whether all of them answer his questions in the same way is another matter, but I for one would like to see him continue on the path of biblical exegesis.

John W. Martens

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