Scholarly Homophobia

In response to a post on Paul and homosexuality from Mike Bird, and a waste-of-time video clip from Ben Witherington, James Crossley fairly asks why bigoted scholarly views are so mainstream. Like James, I don’t normally get involved in these kind of debates, but will make a few observations.

The comment from Deane Galbraith under James’ post lights on the real problem: the inability to treat Paul as a neutral or hostile witness. It’s a mark of double-standard scholarship so often seen in evangelical writings, not to mention the apriori weight given to Judeo-Christian traditions over Greco-Roman. Says Deane:

“If I follow Bird’s train of thought, the idea of ‘nature’ which Greek, Roman, and (‘uninspired’) Jewish literature describes would be ‘very much constructed on the basis of a particular cultural framework’. Which is right. But when Paul makes very much the same appeal to ‘nature’, Bird’s critical ability to discern a cultural construct apparently deserts him. Bird does not ask any critical questions about Paul’s pronouncements on nature. For Bird, once Paul has spoken, he must be defended, not criticised. Paul’s words about the topic of ‘nature’ – no matter how many parallels with contemporary Greek and Roman writers Bird adduces – cannot ever be treated as a social construct. At this point, criticism is abandoned, ‘nature’ is absolutized into ‘the created order of things designed and put into effect by God and which showcases God’s very own glory’, and the question of the how Paul’s words were socially constructed is ruled out of court.

“Bird’s reluctance to penetrate beyond the surface or rim of the question of the social construction of Paul’s categories – in stark contrast to his willingness to plunge hands and feet into the social constructedness of Greek and Roman writers – marks the very failure of any critical project he purports to be undertaking. But it is worse than that: it is criticism used tendentiously, and self-consciously so, and so the abuse of scholarship for certain pre-established claims. Yeah, yeah, we all do it to some extent, I know we all have presuppositions, but it’s one thing to be aware that you have some dirt on your person that you can’t see, another thing entirely to wallow in the mud like a pig in shit.”

That pretty much sums up the problem with folks like Bird, Wright, and Witherington, and Crossley is not being unfair in implying that a certain level of homophobia is mainstreamed in the academy.

Mike Bird retorted to this business by implying that James Crossley represents self-righteous secularism, mostly by fudging over what really constitutes homophobia, but many people (myself included) tend to use the term synonymously with sexual predjudice. To be precise, predjudice is simply an attitude or judgment directed against a social group which involves hostility, dislike, or feelings of moral superiority. It’s a descriptive term and doesn’t account for any of the dynamics or motivations of the predjudice. If those like Bird are using Paul to endorse the idea that homosexual behavior is wrong, unacceptable, or inferior (regardless of what precisely Paul thought about homosexual behavior, which, in partial agreement with Bird I take to be largely negative), then this is indeed a predjudice, and it’s not self-righteous for people like James Crossley to point this out.

With regards to homophobia, Bird says, rather amazingly:

“Now I had always thought that homophobic (= gay-hating) behaviour would be something like setting up a website called ‘’ or else standing outside a gay bar with a cricket bat ready to bludgeon the first man in leather jeans who walks out of it. For Crossley, however, homophobia is exceedingly broad.”

Now I have friends who are Christian (liberal and moderately conservative), Unitarian, Jewish, atheists — and each and every one of them has an understanding of homophobia that is as “broad” as James Crossley’s. It’s simply not true that homophobia necessarily involves inflammatory predjudice. This site is as good a guide as any to the term, and outlines the four basic manifestations of homophobia (personal, interpersonal, institutional, cultural), and it wouldn’t be the wildest guess that one or more of these would apply to Bird. But I don’t know Michael well enough, or his church, to opine beyond this.

If we took a cue from Deane and really explored the social constructs of Paul’s view of the matter, then an argument that Paul, as an honor-shame macho man, hated male homosexuality, but didn’t have much to say about female homosexuality (if Rom 1:26 points to alternative heterosexual behavior instead of lesbianism) has a lot going for it; he was also galled in particular, as a Jew, by the pagan practice of temple prostitution. Perhaps this will serve as the subject for a later post.


10 thoughts on “Scholarly Homophobia

  1. Loren, you make good points.

    I think it is hazardous to suggest that Paul hated male homosexuality because he was an honor-shame macho man. Macho men in Greco-Roman culture had sex with both men and women, as long as they exclusively took the active (penetrating) role. There were very few, (non-macho) men who actually preferred to take the (humiliating) passive role. Rather than Paul being an honor-shame macho man, isn't it more likely that Paul was against the homosexuality of his day precisely because he was not into all this social domination/humiliation? He certainly seems to have wanted heterosexual sex to be loyal and mutually honoring.

  2. Richard,

    Good point, and you're obviously right about the penetrating vs. the penetrated roles — there's a lot I wasn't unpacking. But I see Paul as echoing the Holiness Code of Leviticus, which demands that both penetrator and penetrated be put to death. That he wanted heterosexual sex to be mutually honoring is another matter.

    On the other hand, I remain unsure about his ambiguous remark about females who “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural”. That could refer to women who either “like to be on top” of other women or who “take it up the posterior” from men. If the former, then Rom 1:26 is the only passage in the Bible addressing female homoeroticism, and if the latter, none at all, symptomatic of a macho concern with proper behavior. But I agree that Paul opposed domination and exploitation in any case. A revisionist machoism, perhaps.

  3. Richard and Loren, you both make great points.

    “If we took a cue from Deane and really explored the social constructs of Paul's view of the matter, then an argument that Paul, as an honor-shame macho man, hated male homosexuality, but didn't have much to say about female homosexuality (if Rom 1:26 points to alternative heterosexual behavior instead of lesbianism)”

    You know, I've always thought the relative absence of criticism of lesbianism in the Bible vs. male homosexuality was a serious flaw with the argument in favor of heterosexism based on “creation order” or “nature.” If male homosexuality is wrong because God made male and female for each other, then surely lesbianism must be equally as bad, right? So why does the Bible largely (perhaps even entirely, depending on the interpretation of Romans) ignore lesbianism? There are other sexual sins that are not male exclusive — for instance, only a few passages after the prohibition of male homosexuality, Leviticus goes on to clearly condemn bestiality for both genders. I have yet to see a good explanation from homophobic scholars for this phenomenon.

    – Arianne A.G.

  4. “Predjudice is simply an attitude or judgment directed against a social group which involves hostility, dislike, or feelings of moral superiority.”

    So you are in fact “predjudiced” against bible-believing Christians, no? You certainly express “dislike” and “feelings of moral superiority” against them in this post, far more than Bird, Wright, Witherington etc. have ever expressed against homosexual people (e.g. they have always been careful to confess that they too have sinned and so are not at all morally surperior to anyone). Perhaps we should stigmatise and label “christophobic” anyone who expresses any “dislike or feelings of moral superiority” towards adherents of historic Christianity, as you have done here. By your own excessively broad definition of “prejudice” it seems you are an anti-Christian bigot…

    Unless of course it's possible to merely disagree with another group's beliefs and practices without necessarily meriting stigmatisation via “bigot” or “predjudiced” or “phobic”? But then if you are rescued from the charge of “predjudice” by such a rational consideration then even more so are they.

    You have joined Crossely in perpetuating a blatant equivocation, between the mere statement that homosexual practice is not God-honouring, on the one hand, and actual hostility to homosexual people, i.e. “homophobia”, on the other. Such unfair equivocation is itself a secular form of bigotry against adherents of historic Judaism, Christianity and Islam, at least. Please stop it.

  5. Jeremy, all you're doing is recycling the same “intolerant of intolerance” objection that's been parroted forever, and as such, it's impossible to take seriously. The pointing out of bigotry does not make one a bigot in turn.

    And no, I am not prejudiced against bible-believing Christians, as my bible-believing Christian friends will happily tell you.

  6. Who are these bible-believing Christian friends who will happily tell me you are not predjudiced against them, even though you publicly stigmatise them as “homophobic”?

    I'm not saying you're bigoted for merely for “pointing out bigotry”, as you claim. Rather, you blatantly equivocate between different groups of people who do in fact differ importantly from each other in both principle and practice. First, there are people who are actually hostile to homosexual people as such. They deserve to be stigmatised as “homophobic”. But then there are those who are actively loving towards homosexual people in many practical ways while still choosing to accept the bible's teaching on homosexual practice. Yet you would deliberately obscure the otherwise obvious distinction between the two groups by branding both “homophobic”. It is this unfair, hostile equivocation that I call prejudiced and bigoted on your part, not the mere accusation of bigotry as such.

  7. Years ago there was an online paper by James Miller that argued Rom 1.26 wasn't about lesbianism. Do you know if this is available anymore – outside the expensive journals?

  8. I don't think so, Jordan. I think it became “inaccessible” once it was published.

    Miller's is one of those perfectly persuasive cases where unfortunately the counter-argument is equally persuasive. Paul's “likewise” in Rom 1:27 could signal that he's targeting either homoeroticism or anal sex. And does the emphasis in “men committing shameless acts with men”, fall on on “men with men” or “shameless acts”?

    I like Miller's argument because it deals nicely with the phenomenon that ancient Mediterraneans males were so reticent to speak about female homoeroticism. (Reason being it was threatening to the hierarchical way men established reality: as Richard pointed out, honorable men took the penetrating role, women and “pathetic” men the penetrated.) One wouldn't really expect Paul to mention women at all in the context of same-sex activity.

    On the other hand, Philip Esler argues that Ezek 16 is also rather unique in calling attention to the daughters of Sodom (while the rest focuses on the men of the city), and if indeed Sodom is in the background of Rom 1:18-32 (as I believe: Sodom, not Adam, looms over this section in Romans), then it's not implausible that female homoeroticism is targeted.

  9. Loren, how can we be sure that Paul (or all people) is echoing the holiness code of Leviticus? And if he is, is he affirming it? I have yet to see a convincing explanation of the overall take-away message that Paul is trying to communicated in Rom 1-2. Perhaps I should read Douglas “Deliverance of God”. Apparently he suggests that in Rom 1-4 Paul writes a “send-up” of the position he wishes to reject. What do you make of Campbell's work? I have been reluctant to read the 1200 pages because anything that requires 1200 pages would have been hard for Paul's original audience to understand.

  10. Richard, The Deliverance of God is well worth your time, though I disagree with Campbell's thesis, and have yet to come across a reviewer who accepts it. It is Campbell's torturous inversion of Rom 1:18-4:25, sprinkled as he insists with the real Paul here and there, that would have been completely lost on Paul's original audience — not the 1200 pages themselves. I like the book for the questions it raises, and especially the first half which sizes up the New Perspective, what we can keep from it and what we should reject.

    Insofar as the Holiness Code of Leviticus is concerned, the parallels to me are obvious, especially as both describe those engaging in male-male sex as being worthy of death. Naturally (pardon the pun), I don't think homosexuality is primarily on Paul's mind in Romans. He simply shares the common Jewish view (along with those like Philo and Josephus), and brings the issue up to set a trap for Gentiles who might believe that their freedom from Torah made them morally superior.

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