Sunday, July 29, 2012

I missed this three part series on biblical views of marriage and sexuality by Jennifer Wright Knust when it was first published in the Washington Post On Faith section in February 2011, but you can see the first part on marriage here, the second part on sexuality here, and the third part on sexual desire here.

Here is what first caught my attention: “The Bible is simply too complicated and too contradictory to serve as a guide to sexual morals.” What? Too complicated? I will deal with “too contradictory” – as if there is a sort of Goldilockian “just right” contradictory – later, but the notion that “if it’s hard, we must discard,” is ridiculous. The idea that the Bible is complex, so why look for moral guidance from it is to jettison the raison d’etre of interpretation, to say nothing of the fact that Christians consider the Bible divinely inspired. If one does not consider the Bible divinely inspired, I do understand the desire to sideline it in modern discussions: why pay attention to this ancient text? But we must interpret ancient texts precisely because they are significant and difficult to understand. Easy texts of no significance are not read 2,000 years later because they are insignificant or rouse nobody’s interpretive passions because they are simple to understand. Any text of significance must be interpreted, such as Dante or Shakespeare, because they are complex and worth the effort to understand properly, but when that text claims to have divine imprimatur, such as God’s word, whether in the Bible, the Qur'an, or any other religions’ sacred text, it is essential that the texts be interpreted and understood because they are seen as revealed. This does not mean that the Bible is primarily a list of doctrines, I do not see it in that manner, but it is certainly a guide for Christians.

Jennifer Wright Knust is confusing the fact that interpretation is difficult with dispensing of the project. I would hate to see architects, engineers, and surgeons take this path in their chosen professions. She writes, “since the Bible never offers anything like a straightforward set of teachings about marriage, desire, or God's perspective on the human body, the only way to pretend that it does is to refuse to read it.” But the key word, and weasel word, here is “straightforward”: the Bible does discuss marriage, desire and human anthropology, so what if it is not “straightforward,” whatever that might mean. If by the Bible not being straightforward she means that we have to take into account historical development in how marriage and sexuality were treated throughout the centuries, the complexity of the texts, the many and numerous texts which discuss marriage and sexuality, and the tensions between them, she is absolutely correct; if the tensions between texts, deriving from many social, historical and political contexts must be acknowledged, absolutely, she is correct, all of these must be accounted for in many and numerous ways. If she means that practices change over the centuries, and that many in the ancient world were misogynistic, for instance, yes, this too must be acknowledged. We must also acknowledge modern scholars offer different interpretations of the same texts, just as ancient and medieval interpreters did, and these disagreements challenge us all to test our biases and our ways of thinking and interpreting, but to suggest that the Bible does not offer answers on sexual morality because it is so complex and not “straightforward” indicates a couple of things: "too complicated" is probably a substitute for "I don't like what it says, but I just do not want to reject it outright" or "It's too complicated to explain the development of sexual mores and marriage practices throughout history to you." It’s the complexity that is so intriguing, whether you accept or reject it. It is the tension involved in the process of continuity and change that is entrancing.

She also writes that “Biblical books never speak to marriage as currently practiced in the US and what they do say is totally contradictory.” “Totally contradictory”? I am not certain what the difference is between a “total” contradiction and a “partial” contradiction, but I would appreciate an example of what is “totally contradictory” in Jesus’ or Paul’s teaching about marriage. Contradiction in a philosophical sense means that Jesus would both claim “A” (marriage is between a man and a woman) and “Not A” (marriage is not between a man and a woman). Matthew records Jesus saying this about marriage in Matthew 19:4-6:

I would like to see a passage in the New Testament (NT) which is "totally contradictory" to this view of marriage. Matthew 19 has an exception clause with respect to divorce which no other Gospel has. but this does not "contradict" the notion of what a marriage is. It is also true that in Matthew 19 Jesus speaks of those who become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, but again this does not "contradict the view of  what marriage is, but suggests a higher purpose. In the New Testament, and in early Christianity, celibacy is often seen as a higher good, perhaps, than marriage, but what constitutes a marriage in the NT is defined as that between a man and a woman.  I am not certain where the “contradiction” of this view of marriage occurs in the New Testament or in the development of early Christianity; and certainly in the Judaism of the time, marriage had become marriage between one man and one woman.

There were certainly differences in marriage back then, in terms of how marriages were contracted, the age of girls who were married, the hierarchical nature of marriage, the role and use of slaves in families, including sexual uses, and perhaps the function of marriage to bind families not just two persons together, but  the claim that “despite frequent claims to the contrary, not a single biblical book endorses marriage between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreation” is highly misleading. Children were certainly seen as a good in marriage, both in Judaism and Christianity, just as they were in the Greco-Roman world, and children were a positive fruit of marriage. Since Jews and Christians did not practice exposure, infanticide or use abortifacients, it was quite clear that children would be the result of marriages in most cases.

Now celibacy was seen as a good by both Jesus and Paul, in terms of spiritual growth and in light of the coming eschaton, so she is correct that context, context, and then context matters when considering ancient views of marriage and sexuality. Cornelia Horn and I detail quite extensively in "Let the Little Children Come to Me" how mixed and convoluted the views of early Christians were regarding children, sexuality and marriage even beyond the New Testament, so, again, historical research, social and theological context are significant in using the Bible and applying it in a modern context. But, that is precisely the job of a biblical interpreter.

The Bible is not the only source for Christian discussions of marriage and sexuality – tradition, human reason, and human experience all must come into play. The Church, as is the case with every other institution, changes. Change matters and the Bible is not a simple playbook for marriage and sexuality, but to say “the Bible is simply too complicated and too contradictory to serve as a guide to sexual morals” is a failure on a number of levels. The most significant failure is not to determine what precisely it can in all of its complications offer us as guidance today, whether “straightforward” or not. Is there nothing to learn from the Bible's teachings on sexuality and marriage at all? The other failure is not to define what she means by a contradiction and what exactly the contradictions are in the Bible which render it useless for consideration. Again, if she, or others, do not consider it a divinely inspired text, I agree, ignore it. But if the Bible is a divinely inspired text and is seen as something useless because it is complex, that is another matter. Mind you, I am not arguing she must interpret these “complex” texts as I would, or as some other biblical scholar might, or that there is a set of “correct” answers at which she must arrive. My point is simple: you do not ignore the source of your tradition's teachings because it is complex; that’s why you pay attention to it.

How one weighs the relative merit of human reason, scientific advances, social changes, human experience, the tradition of the Church and the Bible regarding marriage and sexuality is different for many people including biblical scholars. It is different, for instance, for the Catholic Church as compared to the Anglican Church. Jennifer Wright Knust is correct that the Bible offers many texts and varying points of view – though I would ask her to find an example of “contradiction” on the view of marriage presented in the New Testament. But she then seems to say that since the Bible is not simplistic, let’s forget about it.  I think the sorts of questions being asked today regarding sexuality and marriage are important, as I wrote last week on change in the Church and the criteria for change and a few months ago on the excellent questions Dan Savage asked of the Bible, but the answers will always be complex, never simple, whether the Bible is used as a source or ignored. Strange though for a biblical scholar to ask for us to ignore the text which is the foundation of her profession. If the Bible is too complex, she is certainly taking the easy way out: instead of wrestling with the difficulties, just disregard them.
UPDATED: A Twitter follower sent me a link to an example of someone taking on and describing the complexity of marriage as presented in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament not ignoring it. From May 2012 in the Huffington Post,  Esther J. Hamori in Biblical Standards for Marriage, states that there are a number of models of marriage presented in the Bible, but

There is, however, a unifying theme to the diverse pictures of God-ordained marriages in the Bible, and it is that different kinds of unions are accepted in different places and times, evolving in tandem with broader cultural shifts.

She also says that 

While the traditional view is that the Bible sets standards, and cultures either follow these standards or don't, the Bible itself shows us that cultural norms and biblical positions shifted in tandem. This does not mean that anything goes; it's simply what we see in the biblical texts themselves. 

Hamori, to my mind, does an excellent job in a short amount of space explaining the complexity of marriage within the historical and cultural contexts of the Bible and the social and religious worlds in which the people of Israel and the early Church existed. The fact is that marriage and what was considered an acceptable marriage did shift at various times in antiquity. I am not as convinced by her claims that the NT does not, in fact, present marriage between one man and one woman as the cultural norm (and I believe this is the case in the rabbinic literature of the day as well). Still the argument holds: marriage practices and traditions do change and evolve. They are currently changing and evolving in the Western world today. 

Commenter Chris Sullivan gets to the heart of the matter, see below, when he writes "the need for some authority to interpret the meaning of scripture seems evident here." That is, ultimately, the crux of the matter. The Bible has authority for Christians (and the Hebrew Bible or Tanak for Jews), so who interprets the complexity of these biblical texts?  Is it the Bible alone that has authority and each interpreter authority over the Bible? Does human experience bear the most weight? Human reason?  The Tradition of the Church (or Synagogue)? For Catholics, of course, the Magisterium has final authority for definitive interpretation of biblical teaching, but change has, indeed, happened in the past, and Hamori presents this far more persuasively because such complexity is a part of the biblical record to be understood not ignored.

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


  1. The Pauline privilege of a convert being able to separate from marriage to a pagan and remarry would at least appear to contradict the plain meaning of "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate".

    As would the ability of spouses to separate without remarriage (not sure if that is explicit in the NT ?)

    And there's the apparent contradiction between the simple statement of "no divorce" and exceptions for adultery.

    The need for some authority to interpret the meaning of scripture seems evident here.

    God Bless

  2. Chris, as you wrote, "the need for some authority to interpret the meaning of scripture seems evident here." This is exactly the case. Saying "it's too complicated" is just a cop-out.

    I do certainly agree with you on the complexity of the texts regarding marriage and sexuality even in the NT alone - especially as you point out concerning divorce (Matthew 19) and separation (1 Cor. 7) - but I would not put these differences in the category of "contradiction" with respect to what Christians considered the nature of marriage.