Was Jesus silent on homosexuality?
There are several reasons for believing that the statement is misleading. First, those who make it assume that the four canonical Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are all that we have. In fact, scholars have unearthed the texts of some sixteen other Gospels. One of these, the Gospel of Judas, was published only last year. Others may be on the way. The Jesus Project, a very serious attempt to separate what is authentic and what is not from the ancient texts, has published an edition of Five Gospels (adding Thomas to the familiar quartet). Others scholars, such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrmann, argue that we can use these noncanonical Gospels to reconstruct different forms of Christianity, forms that, historically speaking, “did not make the cut,” but which may offer useful lessons for today.
At least two of these outlying Gospels contain material on same-sex relations. “Secret Mark” is a different version of the Gospel of Mark ostensibly discovered by Morton Smith. The jury is still out on the authenticity of this text (see my earlier blog piece). The fragmentary material describes Jesus taking a disciple up to an inner room for a private initiation. To be sure, the text is not explicit about what was done there, but many readers have detected a sexual element. As I noted though, this text must be set aside until a more certain determination can be made as to its authenticity.
The recently published Gospel of Judas purports to be the text of an apostle now reviled, but who claims to have been Jesus’ truest disciple. This text contains harsh homophobic slurs about the priests in the Temple. If Judas really was close to Jesus, he may be assumed to be reporting views of the Savior himself.
There is a larger question. As a rule, Christians have never assumed that the Gospels alone (however many are recognized) would suffice to establish Christianity. In fact several key Pauline documents, are earlier than the Gospels. (We must not be deceived by the order of their appearance in printed Bibles, where the Gospels precede the works ascribed to the Apostle Paul.)
Of the fourteen letters conventionally attributed to the apostle Paul, seven are generally accepted as “undisputed,” expressing contemporary scholarly near consensus that they are the work of Paul: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The earliest of these was First Thessalonians, written probably in 51, or possibly Galatians in 49 according to one of two theories of its writing. The other five followed shortly thereafter. This means that the core documents of the Pauline corpus are earlier than any of the four canonical Gospels. At the very earliest, one can place Mark, the ur-Gospel, about 65; in all likelihood it is at least a decade later. Matthew is dated (somewhat optimistically) between 70 and 85. Luke is commonly ascribed to the period 80 to 95. John is later still.
Two key antihomosexual passages occur in Romans (1:26-27) and I Corinthians (6:9-10). As we have seen, the writing of these texts preceded the composition of the earliest of the four Gospels. If these views contradicted those of Jesus, wouldn’t someone, in the New Testament or one of the associated documents, have sought to set the record straight? To be sure, this is an argument from silence--but so is the assertion that “Jesus said nothing about homosexuality.”
For the purposes of argument let us return to the original premise about the four Gospels and their seeming silence on the matter of same-sex relations. Is it really true that Jesus said not one word about homosexuality? There is reason to think that this common view is mistaken.
A quarter of a century ago I had the honor of publishing in The Cabirion, a quarterly I then edited, an article by my friend Warren Johansson. This article, which deals with the context of the word “racha” in Matthew 5:22, is now accessible at Indegayforum.com, and in a shortened version at the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (Williamapercy.com).
Here is the textual source:
Matthew 5:21: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.
Matthew 5:22: "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Racha, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."
Translators and commentators have long been puzzled by the word "racha," which is left in the original in the King James version. Clearly racha was a term of disparagement, some sort of insult. In a general sense, one may conjecture that the word is related to a Hebrew term meaning "empty," "empty-headed," or "brainless." That would parallel the imprecation "Thou fool" in the last clause of Matthew 5:22.
In fact Johansson was reviving a 1922 proposal by the German philologist Friedrich Schulthess that "racha" should be equated with the Hebrew "rakh" meaning "soft" or "weak", a "weakling" or "effeminate person. That would make "racha" equivalent to the Greek adjective "malakos," serving to designate a receptive partner ("passive" or "effeminate," according to contemporary stereotypes) in homosexual behavior. The Greek term occurs in the epistles attributed to Paul.
If Johansson is right, as he seems to be, then the teaching ascribed to Jesus is that his followers should not insult men, impugning their masculinity by labeling them “softies,” that is, passives or effeminates, types of person generally disparaged at the time. "What the text in Matthew demonstrates," Johansson concludes, "is that he forbade acts of violence, physical and verbal, against those to whom homosexuality was imputed, in line with the general emphasis on self-restraint and meekness in his teachings." Warren Johansson cautions that none of his analysis implies that Jesus accepted or approved of homosexual behavior. Condemnation of homophobic slurs does not necessarily entail approval of homosexual behavior, as some overenthusiastic gay-Christian admirers of Johannson’s piece have concluded.
What Johansson’s work does show is that in all likelihood Jesus did utter one word about same-sex relations--in fact a fair number of words if we place racha in its full context.