This is the second post on Gupta’s work on the Lord’s prayer. Having given his introduction, Gupta proceeds to explore the first line of the prayer, “Our Father in heaven.” Interestingly, besides the name “Lord’s prayer,” the prayer has alternatively been known in church history as the Pater noster, in Latin, the Our Father.
Gupta opens with a discussion of the context in which God is called Father. Some have suggested that Jesus’ use of the name in reference to God was one-of-a-kind, perhaps even scandalous. But, Gupta clarifies, “While Jesus’ addressing of God as ‘Father’ in prayer was distinctive, it was not precedented” (38, emph. original, but see John 5:18). He points to places in the OT where God is depicted as a Father (e.g. Exod 4:22-23; Isa 64:8-9; Psalm 89:26). (For a lengthier, accessible treatment of this theme, I recommend The Shadow of the Almighty).
In the context of Matthew, Jesus alone is the Son of the Father, but believers come to know God as Father through him, coming to share in his sonship. Alongside this, Gupta picks up on the theme of “family resemblance” (42), where we as children imitate our Father through our actions, such as showing love to our enemies (Matt 5:48). He also addresses how Matthew’s fatherhood imagery dovetails with his depiction of God as intimately caring for his children. Here, too, Gupta looks at Jesus’ use of the Aramaic “Abba” to address God in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36; cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15). Some scholars thought this best translated as “daddy” in the past but it has since been shown that adults in Jesus’ time used the form of address as well. The middle term, which I prefer, “dad,” is not addressed at this point, however. Many people have never addressed their dads as “father,” so that a gap between how God is addressed and how earthy dads are addressed has emerged in the church, something I sure goes beyond the picture provided by the NT.
A quote from Cyprian of Carthage introduces the comments on the opening line, focussing on “our”: “Before all things, the Teacher of peace and Master of unity did not wish prayer to be offered individually and privately” (45). This is true, and the primary setting of the prayer is surely communal. But the question remains as to what positive role the Lord’s Prayer might play in private. Gupta proceeds to provide a personal reflection on the use of the name “Father” in the prayer. He writes, ‘When I first had children, I remember my father would call me on the telephone and ask how they were. Once he said, ‘Nijay, you know how much you love those babies, your beloved children? Remember, my son, I love you even more.'” With the last part of the line, “in heaven,” Gupta suggests that this leads us to reflect on God’s omnipresence (being everywhere), greatness and majesty, and perfection.
In Luke, Jesus simply has his disciples pray one word to open, “Father.” But the context says something more. Luke portrays God the Father as compassionate. Thus Jesus commands his disciples, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Gupta also points to the famous parable of the prodigal son, which only appears in Luke (15:11-32).
In closing, Gupta turns to the problem of gendered language in the Lord’s prayer. “Some men and women have had difficult experiences with their fathers such that it is uncomfortable, perhaps even offensive, to imagine God in such a way” (49). Of course, there are also other criticisms on this point, like how such language functions to uphold the patriarchal superiority of the male over the female, for example, and works together with other oppressive theologies like an all male priesthood (which RC theologians uphold on the basis of Jesus’ maleness). Gupta seeks to uphold the language of fatherhood while still being pastorally sensitive, stating, “I am hesitant to reword the LP because kinship language is so central to the biblical message” (49). He looks at Patricia Wilson-Kastner’s suggestions, namely: showing the positive content of Jesus’ relationship to God the Father, underscoring the limits of the metaphor, resourcing other biblical imagery for God, and speaking of Jesus’ Father before speaking of God as our own Father. In a short commentary there is no room to go into detail on this issue, however.
In my spare time (!), I am currently reading through Nijay K. Gupta’s commentary, The Lord’s Prayer, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Smyth and Helwys: 2017). The Smyth and Helwys commentary series, while not addressing the deeper exegetical questions of larger commentaries, produces short and accessible commentaries on biblical texts and are generally helpful for those with little formal training.
Gupta introduces the text with an exploration of prayer in the OT and Judaism, and the texts contexts in Jesus’ wider prayer life, and the theology of Matthew and Luke. He indicates the prayer’s significance, being “prayed by millions and millions of men, women, and children across the globe every day, in some cases several times a day” (2). Indeed, the first-century Christian text, the Didache, prescribes that the prayer be prayed three times daily. In his discussion of OT prayer in the Shema (Deut 6:4), the priestly blessing (Num 6:22-27), and the Psalms, Gupta focusses on the theme of covenant, where, though not equal parties, both God and human beings are responsible to each other. Later Jewish prayers demonstrate key similarities to the the themes of the Lord’s Prayer, underscoring again their common origin in early Judaism.
Much of the first chapter is given to the prayer’s context in Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, for example, the prayer is divided into six petitions (seven if you split 6:13), which theologians from the early church divided into petitions concerning the things of God and those concerning the things of human beings–in a similar way to that in which the Ten Commandments are often divided. I was a bit disappointed that Gupta seems to dismiss the later, concluding clause, “for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever and ever.” Granted, this does not appear in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, but can something be said about its importance throughout church history? It remains to be seen whether Gupta will provide any further comment in his chapter on this section. Interestingly, Gupta notes that Luke’s version has a lesser-known addition, replacing “Your kingdom come” with “May your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us” in some manuscripts. It would be good to see further comment on this, too, but perhaps it falls outside the scope of the commentary. I am particularly interested in it because the work of the Spirit in the prayer is only ever implicit, which for me, who cannot but see God in a thoroughly trinitarian way, has always been an issue.
Also notable is Gupta’s quick treatment of the question of whether the very words of the Lord’s Prayer are to be prayed or if instead the prayer is to be used as a guide to other prayers. Gupta comes down in favour of the latter, which is of course necessary, considering the many different prayers in Scripture and the church’s history, but it would have been good to see something more positive said about praying the words themselves. It seems to me to be the same reason we read Scripture, so as not to forget what the latter says in the midst of our own reflections on it!
Written by the chief copy editor at BuzzFeed, A World without ‘Whom’ addresses language in a fast-changing world. The title of the book refers to one of the greatest markers of this change, the use of the word “whom,” often deliberately avoided for its datedness or unconsciously substituted with “who.” Favilla provides an accessible take on various rules regarding spelling, punctuation, grammar, and style that are becoming obsolete in many areas, particularly in internet media such as BuzzFeed itself. She also provides helpful comment on developing conventions in different media, such as what to do in a text vs. an email, a tweet, etc. Published in 2017, it is perhaps not surprising that even now some of the content is appearing a little dated! Nonetheless, it is still an important read.
Favilla’s copy-editing philosophy is particularly notable. Early on, she writes, “Inaccurate information, insensitive language, and sentences that have egregious structural issues all put wear and tear on credibility…. You never want a reader to be jolted from their engrossment from a story because they’ve been distracted by an awkwardly structured, unclear, or offensively worded sentence” (33). Of course, there are exceptions to this. I would prefer to use the inclusive language of “pregnant people,” rather than simply “pregnant women,” despite it likely causing some readers a little jolt, for example, and there will be many similar situations. Perhaps this observation relates to Favilla’s critical take on the “just be consistent” mantra that often appears as a bottom-line in style guides. “There isn’t always a one-size-fits-all approach to language. And that’s really been the basis of the BuzzFeed Style Guide since day one: a fluid, evolving set of standards that shouldn’t be thought of as the iron-fisted rulers of prose… but as a thing that exists to just sorta help everyone out” (35). And quite a bit later: “How do you form an electrifying relationship with your reader? By speaking their language! Not by using the grammar rules our teachers taught us in 1989… or pretending that people aren’t really saying things like ‘I forgot how to person.'” (194).
Below I would like to offer critical comment on some of Favilla’s conclusions and suggestions. This should not be taken as a dismissal of her overall project though, which I think is basically brilliant.
In her chapter on “How Not to be a Jerk,” Favilla accepts APS* style on the distinction between a refugee and a migrant. “Use refugee when referring to ‘a person who is forced to leave his home or country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.’ Use migrant when referring to someone seeking economic oportunity” (62). But this is problematic. First, there is not always a clear-cut distinction between the migrant and the refugee. Can this persecution be the spectre of growing far-right groups in someone’s vicinity, or must it be state-sponsored violence? What constitutes a natural disaster that is significant enough to warrant refugee status? Seasonal flooding? Second, the implication that migrants seek economic opportunity overlooks a whole lot of other factors. What about those seeking education or family? Etc? Even if the distinction appears in legal texts, the responsibility of journalists and other writers involves being critical of inhumane laws, especially those that uphold such a distinction in order to prevent particular people from migrating. (*I am assuming this refers to the American Physical Society, but please let me know otherwise).
In the same chapter, Favilla commends “LGBT” and “queer” as collective terms, against such as “gay,” for example in “the gay community.” This is not simply her own conclusion but the result of many discussions with LGBTQ+ people. While I’m hetero myself, it would have been good to see comment here in regard to different approaches to the acronym. At the very least, surely a + could be included so as not to confuse say intersex people with trans people or pansexual people with bi people? L, G, B, and T don’t quite cut it as representatives themselves of a much larger collection of people. Then there is “queer,” which, while many may find it a helpful umbrella term, is potentially problematic when non-queer writers use it (especially as it originates as a slur or exonym and still carries those connotations for some), and also fails when some people who might otherwise be identified as queer reject the term altogether, even as a self-designation.
Also in this section, Favilla rejects the use of -phobic words such as “homophobic” or “transphobic,” preferring “anti-gay” and “anti-trans.” Her reasoning is that “the suffix -phobic implies a fear, and although this fear may or may not be figurative, it also implies something inherent that cannot be helped, and its use can perpetuate stereotypes.” This, however, is simply etymological fallacy, confusing a word’s meaning with its origin. I’m sure people are smart enough to be able to differentiate between agoraphobia, claustrophobia (and, it may need some work, but both the term as it is used clinically and its perhaps more common, colloquial form), and homophobia. Moreover, the noun form of the word disappears altogether. Are we to replace “transphobia” with “anti-transness?” Think also of the often helpful “xenophobia.” Don’t be so “anti-other”! I’ve had it up to here with “anti-otherness!”
On quite a different topic, I didn’t find myself quite agreeing with Favilla on capitalisation, though she suggests a great rule. “In general … you’re safer capitalizing anything derived from a proper noun than you are lowercasing it” (118). But this means that we end up with “Brussels sprouts” and “French fries”! Admittedly, Favilla reveals, “I’ll take ’em either way” (118). For such common terms, I’m much more inclined to lowercase, though perhaps this derives from my experience in theological writing where I consistently lowercase “christological” and “trinitarian” (but not “Christian” or “Triune God,” whoops). Maybe though, this whole paragraph stems from my offence at the great cheese appearing in the appendix as capital-B “Brie.” Favilla also argues that “G/god” should be lowercased “in common expressions” so: “thank god” and “god only knows,” etc. whereas it should often otherwise be capitalised (124). The reasoning is, quite rightly, that “someone’s god could be a saltshaker” (124). I wonder though, if this overlooks the other side, that someone’s god in those expressions could be quite real to them. Even atheists and agnostics (not all, I’m sure!) can harbour a poetic or literary appreciation for a G/god or two, and one that may find expression in letter case as well.
The book’s namesake also warrants comment. I wonder if Favilla is being ironic when in her very first paragraph she employs such as “nary” and “frolicking” (1). Just a few pages on a “hodgepodge” can be spotted (4). Are these not the glorious companions of the departing “whom”? (Perhaps only “frolicking”; I find the other two significantly less glorious). Why, then, does Favilla proceed to argue: “Face it: You hate whom. If you don’t, you’re likely a liar or someone with an English degree who actually still really hates whom but can’t bear to come to terms with your traitorous hatred for fear of your overpriced degree being snatched from your cold dead hands” (151)? She compares it with “shall,” as both are rarely used, unless ironically, in spoken language. (Notably, my American friends living in NZ recently asked, “Why does everyone say ‘shall’ over here?”). Her most compelling argument, however, is in an example of its incorrect usage. “They were not sure whom would do a better job” (151). Now, I can accept “whom” going out of style in spoken language (though I have often heard it and am happy to use it myself in spoken language), and this being reflected in some forms of written media (virtually all forms within another fifty years, I’m sure). But maybe I’m still in the grieving stages as “whom” enjoys continued use in my academic writing (a use also enjoyed by me), so I’m being all nit-picky about Favilla’s half-archaisms (datedisms?) in the first few pages. And, really, I’m all on board with farewelling “whom” if we can finally agree that “me and [person]” as the subject of a sentence is now acceptable English (because usage!).
I don’t know if this is just me either, but I found Favilla’s rejection of the verb “to Facebook” a little frustrating. “Why? Because Facebooking sounds silly; that’s why” (156). But Favilla is quite happy in the same chapter to accept the verbs “to Instagram” and “to Snapchat.” Hmmm. Maybe it’s because the first is ambiguous. If you Instragram something, you post it on Insta. If you Snapchat/snap someone, you send them a snap. If you Facebook something you… look it up on FB search? If you Facebook someone you… contact them over Messenger? Actually, this is the form of the verb I have used and still use. It probably derives from the earlier days before Messenger became a second thing. I’m quite happy telling someone I’ll either Messenger them or Facebook them, just as much as I am telling them I’ll “send [them] a message on Facebook/Messenger.” Also of note here is that the BuzzFeed Style Guide in the appendix lowercases “google” as a verb. Perhaps this is because it’s the most common? But I think there is a need for an executive decision here. Either all verbs deriving from proper nouns retain their capitals, so “to Google [something],” or they automatically lose them in becoming a verb, so “to snap(chat) [someone].” There is precedent for the former, in much older words such as “Judaise,” though I think I would prefer a blanket lowercasing, even on the older words.
Finally, I’m likely to be outvoted here, but I’d like to offer a little apology for the !? interrobang, as opposed to the ?! one that Favilla favours, writing, “the logic being that the sentence it punctuates is a question more so that it is an exclamatory phrase; the ! is just an added bonus” (250). I find the !? much more aesthetic, however. The question mark hints at enclosing the exclamation mark, somewhat like a bracket. Compare (thing!) with (thing)! The other thing is that I read a phrase or sentence with an interrobang in quite the opposite way to Favilla. When someone says, “What!?” it is their surprise, anger, enthusiasm, etc. that is apparent to me ahead of their asking a question. The logic of the exclamation-first interrobang follows this (though perhaps this symbol should have another name, as its order does not reflect “interrobang”: a “banginter?” “bangative?”).
Reposted by me on my Goodreads with my permission.
Nissinen treats 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 under the same heading. The texts read: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakos), sodomites (arsenokoitēs), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10 NRSV). “This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites (arsenokoitēs), slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:9-10 NRSV).
The genre of these passages, vice/virtue lists, derives from Hellenistic Judaism, which, in turn, adopted the genre from Greco-Roman literature. It is a common genre in the NT. Nissinen lists Rom 1:29-31; Gal 5:19-23; Col 3:18-4:1; Eph 5:21-6:9; and 2 Tim 3:1-5 as further examples. Notably, “All vice lists appear as summaries, rarely referring to the actual context of the vices or the real people to whom the text is directed…. It is hard to know whether Paul in his list in 1 Corinthians wants to underscore any particular point, although he doubtlessly concurs with the items in it” (113). Indeed, the vice list functions here as a rhetorical climax to Paul’s appeal for the Corinthians to stop taking each other to court. “Nothing else in 1 Corinthians can be interpreted in terms of homoerotic conduct” (114).
arsenokoitēs is made up of two elements arsen (man, male) + koitē (bed). The word is rare, and Nissinen suggests an etymology based on Lev 18:22 and 20:13 in the Septuagint, where these elements appear close together. Nonetheless, etymology rarely determines the meaning of a word where it is used in different contexts. Nissinen cites a couple of studies which argue that arsenokoitēs does not always have a homoerotic meaning. This is especially the case where the ambiguity of the word allows it to have either a subjective or objective meaning. Yes, someone who lies with men, but also a man who lies with whatever might be the case in context. Nissinen suggests an English example, nymphomania, which I would contrast with Beatlemania. The one is subjective–it refers to the mania of the nymph, namely “excessive” female sexual desire, whereas the other is objective–it refers to mania for the Beatles. Indeed, the term could simply be a general one for exploitative sex.
malakos means soft, and it can have the transferred sense of being morally weak or effeminate. In that case it could refer to “the passive partner in a pederastic relationship” (117). But, Nissinen continues, it can often designate the effeminacy of men without having any erotic connotations at all. In one example, a male musician is called malakos because he dresses up in female clothes at the request of women in the audience.
Nissinen thus concludes with the argument that the words are too vague for us to determine definitively what they refer to. To do so, in my opinion, would be analogous to arguing that a right interpretation of “baptism on behalf of the dead” in 1 Cor 15:29 is necessary for Christian practice. The reality, however, is that not everything that seems clear-cut in Scripture really is. That is why the Westminster Confession reads, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
Nissinen provides some final words that point a more constructive way forward: “Regardless of the kind of sexuality meant in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, in their current contexts they are examples of the exploitation of persons. This is the hermeneutical horizon for understanding the individual components of the lists of vices. What Paul primarily opposes is the wrong that people do to others” (118).
In chapter six, Nissinen proceeds to address NT passages dealing with homoeroticism. He identifies three: Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9; and 1 Tim 1:10.
Nissinen opens in contending that “Paul himself was flesh and blood, an educated male of Hellenistic Jewish origin whose worldview and moral standards, even after his conversion to Jesus Christ, had much to do with his cultural environment. Paul was a man of considerable self-awareness, whose letters were meant to be authoritative, indeed; nevertheless, when writing his letter to the Romans, he was scarcely aware that he was participating in the making of Holy Scripture. His words in Romans 1:26-27 concerning female and male same-sex interaction, however, continue to affect the lives of lesbian and gay persons at the turn of the third millennium C.E.” (103).
It is worth quoting the passage at length: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Rom 1:18-27).
Nissinen notes that this is Paul’s characterisation of Gentile sin, which informs his rhetorical strategy. He is drawing attention to the sins of the Gentiles only to reveal to the Jews in his audience that they, too, are guilty of the same things (2:1; 3:9). That is, he butters them up in seeming to agree with their condemnations of Gentiles, only to show that they too are in need of grace in Christ.
Nissinen goes on to argue that Paul takes up the language of his contemporaries here. A key formulation is “against nature” (paraphysin; NRSV “unnatural”). This is different to the biological sense of the term in modern times and is more related to convention. “For Seneca, for example, hot baths, potted plants, banquets after sunset, and a man’s passive sexual role were all ‘against nature,’ contra naturam” (105). Paul himself asks elsewhere, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Cor 11:14-15). God goes against nature in grafting the Gentiles into the chosen people (Rom 11:24).
Another significant feature of Paul’s language is that of “changing,” which in Jewish texts of the time carried sexual connotations. The Testament of Naphtali, for example, reads, “so that you do not become like Sodom, which departed from [lit., ‘changed’] the order of nature” (quoted p.106). Nissinen suggests that Paul deliberately draws on Jewish rejection of homoeroticism in order to parallel the exchanging of worship of God for the worship of creatures (i.e. idols). Paul may very well have condemned homoerotic relations himself, but here they function in his argument to appeal to Jewish perceptions of Gentile idolatry.
Nissinen also connects Paul’s theology of sexuality here to that of gender roles. Paul is not interested primarily in biology and the implications this might have for differing gender roles. He is interested in upholding (at least to some extent) the gender roles established by the Jewish and Greco-Roman conventions of his time. “According to 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, strict gender differentiation, based on the hierarchical ladder, God-Christ-man-woman, and manifested in different hair styles, is a matter of shame and honor before God and thus becomes a theological issue” (107). Paul’s theology clearly reflects the gendered assumptions of his day. If these are not accepted today, then why do churches still accept the gendered logic of his condemnation of homoeroticism?
The influence of Paul’s time and place on his theology becomes especially clear when considering that he presents homoeroticism as being a deliberate rebellion against God, rather than the exercise of someone’s inborn sexual orientation. This is also clear in the parallel Paul makes between homoerotic acts and idol worship. Nissinen speculates that Paul may have been exposed to abusive pederastic relationships between men and slaves, and homoeroticism playing a religious role in pagan cults, though Paul does not go into detail so these cannot be confirmed.
Nissinen’s conclusion is worth quoting at length: “The first chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans, then, address the theology of justification by faith, not homoeroticism. Paul does not list individual sins that would rouse God’s wrath. The deeds he mentions are not provocations of the wrath of God but manifestations, symptoms, and results of the one root sin, exchanging God for idols, which inevitably leads to ‘unnatural’ practices. It is of no help if people amend the wicked habits that rule their lives, since even a ‘natural’ way of life … does not bring salvation; only faith in Christ can remedy the situation…. Presumably nothing would have made Paul approve homoerotic behavior…. But condemning ‘homosexuality’ is not Paul’s main concern. His words about same-sex conduct in Romans 1:26-27 are one example he chose from his tradition to illustrate how badly the world needs grace, and, at the same time, to set a trap for anyone who would read his words with feelings of moral superiority or religious bigotry” (112).
In the following chapter, Nissinen turns to attitudes towards homoeroticism in ancient Judaism. He begins with the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. Here, the moral depravity of the Gentiles comes into focus, and homoeroticism is given as an example: “The majority of other men defile themselves in their relationships, thereby committing a serious offense, and lands and whole cities take pride in it: they not only procure the males, they also defile mothers and their daughters” (Letter of Aristeas 152, quoted on p.89). But Nissinen locates the main underlying logic for sexual immorality in Jewish thought of this period to be that of its association with idolatry. He cites Wisdom of Solomon 13-15 here, though finds no explicit reference to homoeroticism.
With later figures like Josephus and Philo, Nissinen finds the first explicit connection made between the story of Sodom in Gen 19 and homoeroticism. He observes, “These learned men, who were profoundly influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, used the familiar term physis (‘nature’), defining homoerotic behavior as against nature (para physin)” (93). Josephus even compares the actions of the Sodomites to pederasty. Interestingly, Josephus does not talk about Judges 19. Nissinen reflects, “Josephus seems unwilling to admit that his own people would ever have engaged in homoerotic relations. Instead, he actually boasts about the Jews’ homophobia and their death penalty for homosexual relationships” (94). But Nissinen does not ask whether this death penalty (following Lev 20:13) was enforced or just suited Josephus’ argument.
Philo’s characterisation of the Sodomites is also worth quoting at length: “Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbours, but also men mounted males without respect for the sex nature which the active partner shares with the passive; and so when they tried to beget children they were discovered to be incapable of any but a sterile seed…. Then, as little by little they accustomed those who were by nature men to submit to play the part of women, they saddled them with the formidable curse of a female disease” (On Abraham, 135-36, quoted pp.94-95). Not only does Philo think that homoeroticism means less time for hetero baby-making, but, Nissinen writes, he believes that these encounters “actually cause sterility, destroy the semen, and cause lethal ‘women’s’ illnesses, that is, probably, venereal diseases” (95). Philo’s position thus depends on a pre- and here anti-scientific understanding of fertility. Nonetheless, while Josephus’ and Philo’s polemics were informed by established attitudes in pagan philosophy, it was also informed by their readings of distinctly Jewish sources and traditions.
Nissinen proceeds to the Rabbinic literature, where homoeroticism is addressed in the same context of incest, adultery, and bestiality, and is considered to be universally condemned following God’s commandments to Noah, thus applying to all people. Notably, “Fully in line with Roman morality, the rabbis consider the passive sexual role a woman’s role, humiliating for a male, especially if penetration took place (y. Qiddushin 1:7:61a). Being penetrated by another male was sacrificing one’s maleness, and with it the authority and power attached to the male role in society” (99). Yet the references to homoeroticism are scant when compared to those concerning heteroerotic relations. Moreover, female-female homoeroticism is barely considered. Nissinen points to one example where different Rabbinic schools disagree on whether a woman who has “rubbed” another woman can go on to marry a priest (a reflection on the law that forbids prostitutes marrying priests).
In his next chapter, Nissinen turns to homoeroticism in classical antiquity. This will provide important background context for the ways that homoeroticism is approached in the NT.
Nissinen begins with Greek pederasty, from paiderastia, love for boys, which was a form of homoeroticism that took place between adult men and boys. The majority of sources concerning the practice are from Athens. Importantly, “What follows is largely drawn from sources that reflect philosophical, idealistic, and elite attitudes and may not be in complete accordance with common customs and opinions” (57). According to Nissinen, pederasty functioned as a form of intiation for boys into adulthood. The man would school the boy in the ways of adulthood. In return, the boy would provide him with sexual gratification. Typically, after a pederastic relationship, men would go on to marry women. “Pederasty thus meant a homoerotic relationship in which the partners were not, at least in principle, homosexuals in the modern sense of the word. It would be more appropriate to speak of institutionalized bisexual role behaviour, in which the partners expressed their sexuality from quite a different basis and in ways different from modern concepts of homosexuality” (60). But pederasty also played a role in stopping a gap that was left open by the gendered norms of the time. In principle, the man’s sphere was in the world of business outside the home and the woman’s sphere within the home. Women were seen to be weaker, physically, but also in terms of being prone to flights of emotion and more likely to engage in adultery! “The Greeks regarded it impossible for a man to have a deep, all-encompassing love relationship with a woman. This was possible only between two men, and such was the aim of pederastic relations” (64).
In pederastic relationships, the man was the active partner and the boy the passive. But it was not only anal sex that transpired. As in the Ancient Near East, Nissinen again finds attitudes in the ancient world that viewed anal sex as degrading for the passive partner. Especially honourable boys satisfied their partners with an opportunity for intercrural sex, where the active partner rubbed his penis against the boys thighs. Additionally, the boy did not need to bend over as in anal sex, another symbol of its degradative nature. It was rather the man who bent over. For Nissinen, the underlying logic that connects anal sex with shame is again to be found in the boy taking on the role of a woman.
Later Roman sources also document Roman attitudes towards pederasty. Nissinen finds pederasty to be less common and less celebrated here. A key difference also appears. Whereas Athenian pederasty was typically between free men and boys, Roman pederasty took place between slave boys and their masters. The Greek vision of pederasty as an initiation into adult life is contrasted with a Roman approach that is more explicitly erotic. Indeed, sex between free men could incur the death penalty, as anal sex meant the degradation of the passive partner. The passive partner was thus also punished here in losing certain social privileges.
There are also some sources on female homoeroticism at this time, though relatively less than those dealing with male homoeroticism. The most famous are those of the poet Sappho. Later sources claim she ran something like a school for young women on the island of Lesbos with an “erotic atmosphere” (74). This atmosphere is evidenced especially in her poetry. Strikingly, “The distinction between active and passive, dominant and submissive roles, which was so essential in pederasty, cannot be found in Sappho’s texts. Sappho’s love relationships are mutual; both partners behave in a similar manner: wooing, bribing, repelling, and lusting” (76). Condemnations of female homoeroticism tend to focus on women taking up the role of men in sex. Nissinen quotes Seneca referring to some women who “even rival men in their lusts … although born to be passive” (77). Others such as Lucian depict female homoeroticism negatively as women take on masculine features.
Finally, Nissinen directs his attention to criticisms of homoeroticism in ancient Greece and Rome. These provide important context for the Pauline and deutero-Pauline material in the NT. Criticism was not so much concerned with homosexuality vs. heterosexuality but with the nature of gender. “The issue [homoeroticism] nevertheless was the object of intense moral preoccupation, because it involved some of the strongest values of classical antiquity: virility [i.e., masculine virtue], self-control, and the appropriate use of pleasure. Because masculinity was not a birthright but rather an achieved state of paramount moral significance, there was always the danger of losing it” (79). Criticism was thus particularly interested in men who took a passive role in sex. Other critics used language of homoerotic relations being “against nature” (physis), language Paul would go on to appropriate in Rom 1. All of this comes together in a quote from Daphnaeus in Plutarch’s Dialogue on Love: “But [for a male] to consort with males (whether without consent, in which case it involves violence and brigandage; or if with consent, there is still weakness and effeminacy on the part of those who, contrary to nature [physis], allow themselves in Plato’s words ‘to be covered and mounted like cattle)–this is a completely ill-favored favor, indecent, an unlovely affront to Aphrodite” (quoted 84).
Nissinen addresses three other OT texts that relate to homoeroticism in the OT: Judges 19; Gen 9:20-27; and 1 Sam 18-20; 2 Sam 1:26.
Judges 19 presents a similar story to that of Genesis 19 (Sodom), and Nissinen suspects the texts may be related, perhaps Judges 19 being later, but he doesn’t go into detail here. Interestingly, we don’t have evidence of ancient readers noticing these correspondences until much later. Nissinen notes, though, “The following common features are striking: (1) The city is unfriendly toward visitors. (2) The guests are prepared to spend a night in the streets, but there is one friendly man in the city who shows them hospitality. (3) The friendly host is not a native of the town. (4) The house comes to be surrounded by aggressive men from the city. (5) The men demand that the guest or guests come out, because they want to have sex (yādaɔ [“know”]) with him or them. (6) The host is horrified by this demand: “Please, dear men, do not commit such an evil deed!” (7) Virgin daughters are offered as a substitute. (8) The hostility of the people of the city and the hospitality of the man are juxtaposed. [9?] Both stories are preceded by an experience of special hospitality (Abraham in Gen. 18:1-5; the father of the Levite’s wife in Judg. 19:3-10)” (50).
A key difference though is that there is an actual rape in Judges 19, where the virgin offered is raped by the men outside. Nissinen wryly notes, “Perhaps not surprisingly, no later interpreter of the story, ancient or modern, has condemned heterosexual behavior because of this text, although it is structurally equivalent to the story of Sodom, which has been used to condemn homosexuality.” Indeed, the English word “sodomy,” conventionally connoting a negative judgement on male-male anal sex, derives from Gen 19. I would point out that no English word such as “gibeahy,” Judges 19 being set in Gibeah, has arisen to condemn male-female sex on the basis of the rape of the woman in the text.
Nissinen proceeds to address the story of Ham and Noah in Gen 9:20-27: “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.'” For modern readers, this story can be confusing. What is the connection between Ham seeing his dad naked and the following curse? But in the holiness code, to see someone naked is to have sex with them (Lev 20:17-19). By now a familiar theme, Nissinen reads 9:24, “When Noah awoke … and knew what his youngest son had done to him,” to indicate that Ham is the active, assaulting partner. “Apparently Ham aspired to dominance among post-flood humanity and attempted to show his superiority by disgracing his father sexually” (53).
Finally, Nissinen turns his attention to the story of David and Jonathan, a story which, in contrast, is often used in support of homoeroticism today. Two passages are particularly suggestive for modern readers. “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt” (1 Sam 18:1-4). “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful,passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:25). But Nissinen wonders “whether a modern reader is more prone than an ancient to find a homoerotic aspect in the story. The editors of the Deuteronomistic history, in spite of the negative attitudes toward homoerotic contact expressed in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, found nothing to be censored in the story of the relationship between the two men” (56). David and Jonathan’s relationship is to be understood homosocially, that is, in that they shared a close same-sex relationship with emotional and physical aspects, though not necessarily erotic ones. Nissinen compares it with male friendships in Islamic and non-Western Christian countries, where such expressions are often mistaken by Westerners as homosexual. Nonetheless, importantly, Nissinen also notes that the friendship of David and Jonathan is likely a lot closer to the loving and consensual relationships of modern-day homosexual men than those implied in other texts in the OT, where homoeroticism is negatively depicted.
Having addressed the prohibitions in Leviticus, Nissinen proceeds to the destruction of Sodom in Gen 19:1-11: “The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground.He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square.’ But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’ Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ But they replied, ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.”
Nissinen summarises, “This narrative is reminiscent of a genre also known elsewhere, with the theme of the virtue of hospitality. A deity in human appearance arrives in a hostile city, where some friendly citizen gives him lodging. Later on, the guest thanks his host by rescuing him from the devastation of the city” (45). Nissinen finds support for this thesis in Ezekiel’s assessment of Sodom. “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (16:49). Later texts, too, seem uninterested in a relationship between the text and homoeroticism. “He [God] did not spare the neighbors of Lot,whom he loathed on account of their arrogance” (Sirach 16:8). “Others had refused to receive strangers when they came to them, but these made slaves of guests who were their benefactors. And not only so—but, while punishment of some sort will come upon the former for having received strangers with hostility, the latter, having first received them with festal celebrations, afterward afflicted with terrible sufferings those who had already shared the same rights.They were stricken also with loss of sight—just as were those at the door of the righteous man—when, surrounded by yawning darkness, all of them tried to find the way through their own doors” (Wisdom of Solomon 19:14-17).
This trajectory continues through Jesus’ sayings, where he contrasts the hospitality of those of his day with that of Sodom. “But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say,‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town” (Luke 10:10-12). Nonetheless, with Philo and Josephus, interest begins to develop in the relevance that these texts might hold for homoeroticism. (Nissinen does not address Jude 7, which is unfortunate, though I’m not sure if this text has the account of Gen 19 in mind). Nissinen concludes, “The attempted homosexual rape is not the main theme in the story. The Sodomites’ behavior is characterized by excessive arrogance, xenophobia, and contempt of hospitality. The transgression of Sodom is particularly grave because it offends God’s emissaries and thus God. Abraham’s (18:1-5) and Lot’s (19:1-3) exemplary hospitality are the opposite of the outrageous behavior of the Sodomites” (48).
Nonetheless, there remains some important relationship to homoeroticism, if it can even be said to fall under that category. That is the issue of gang rape. “It is not a matter of exercising one’s homosexual orientation or looking for erotic pleasure but simply of protecting or threatening one’s masculinity” (48). So the rape of Horus by Seth, addressed in Nissinen’s first chapter. He also points to phallic and rapist imagery among the Greeks, used to threaten their foes, and gang rape today, which has to do with power rather than erotic attraction.
In conclusion, “There is no need to assume that Lot’s guests would have been handsome young men for whom the Sodomite men felt erotic attraction. The men were motivated not to satisfy their sexual lust but to show their supremacy and power over the guests–and ultimately over Lot himself, a resident alien to whom a lesson was to be taught about the place of a foreigner in the city of Sodom. Lot’s daughters, therefore, were not a satisfactory substitute” (49).
In this third post, I address Nissinen’s comments on OT biblical texts dealing with homoeroticism. I will just focus on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in this post, but in the same chapter Nissinen will also address Genesis 19:1-11; Judges 19; Genesis 9:20-27; 1 Sam 18-20; and 2 Sam 1:26. Because of the paucity of such texts, Nissinen notes that we have a very incomplete picture of ancient Israelite attitudes to homoeroticism (I would add, as we would have on any topic, as the Bible reflects the beliefs of particular groups or individuals in particular times and particular places).
Nissinen begins with the prohibitions against male-male sex in Lev 18:22 and 20:13. These belong to the Holiness Code (chs. 17-26), “the historical background of the present form of which is the post-exilic Jewish community” (37; I cannot comment on this as I am unfamiliar with the scholarship). An interesting difference between the two texts is that the first seems to condemn one partner, whereas the latter condemns both:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (18:22)
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them” (20:13).
Nissinen proceeds to address “temple prostitution,” a concept with a long history in biblical studies that has come under increasing scrutiny. Because the Holiness Code is couched throughout in language rallying Israel to live a life distinct from that of its neighbours (in a post-exilic context reflecting Jewish concerns related to the development of their identity), this suggests a cultic context for the two prohibitions. Nissinen suggests a connection between the the male-male sex prohibited here and the practices of the devotees of Ishtar, addressed in the previous chapter. He is aware, however, that his reconstruction is speculative and moves on to explore other possibilities. “Even if sexual offenses in the present context are linked with foreign cult customs, the commands themselves may be older and may have originated separately from the cultic context” (41).
Another possibility for the underlying logic of the laws might be found in what Nissinen calls “ancient sociosexual taboos” (41). What was at stake here was “the entire gendered structure of the community, in which each and everyone was expected to conform to his or her gender role and social class” (42). Interestingly, “Other ancient Near Eastern sources display sexual ethics, taboos, and gender roles basically similar to those in the Hebrew Bible” (42). But the text still reflects Israel’s attempt to distinguish itself from its neighbours. Nissinen links this with other gender-concerned prohibitions such as that against cross-dressing (Deut 22:5) and that excluding eunuchs from the assembly (Deut 23:2; but see Isa 56:3-5). These may have been related, as Nissinen suggests in his earlier comments on the third gender role of devotees to Ishtar. He concludes, “It can thus be plausibly maintained that regulations about same-sex acts and other gender-related commandments involved the linking of an ancient taboo with society’s strategy to survive. The specific way of regulating sexual relationships in pursuing these life-determining goals was the result of an interpretation of gender as a fundamental factor of social structure and control. This, finally, leads us to the issue of gender roles and their transgression as a basis for understanding Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13″ (43, emph. original).
Here, again, it is notable that there is no mention of female-female sex in the OT. One possibility is that the male writers did not even consider this, the world of women being such a distant one for them. But Nissinen returns to the thesis he advanced in the previous chapter. Women, being unable to take an active role in sex, did not threaten the gendered order. Their masculinity was not compromised in taking a passive role because they had none to begin with. That the transgression of gender roles is in focus here, according to Nissinen, can be seen in the prohibition itself, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” Moreover, the verb šākab, here, “lie,” when used to refer to sex, only has a woman as the grammatical subject twice, and these are exceptional situations. In Gen 19:32-25, where Lot’s daughters get him drunk so that they can rape him, and in 2 Sam 13:11, in Amnon’s words to Tamar, “Come, lie with me, my sister.”
The texts are written as a polemic against non-Israelite practices.
They are no concerned with the biological aspects of sex and gender here so much as they are directed to maintaining Israelite identity through gendered roles.
In this regard, male-male sex is transgressive because, in the passive role, the masculinity of one sexual partner is compromised.