While it may not offer steamy bondage-filled love stories or 600 tips for giving perfect fellatio, the Christian Bible has remained for millennia one of Western society’s most widely-influential texts on sexual notions.
Asserting that the Bible is a piece of literature, and therefore open to interpretation, Dale B. Martin, the Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University offered new interpretations of famously cited texts. Martin, who specializes in New Testament and Christian Origin studies, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, presented these interpretations in a lecture entitled Sex and the Bible. This lecture, presented on September 19 at Concordia’s Bronfman building, is the first in a series of lectures he’s to give in the next year. Martin explores the Bible from a historical, secular perspective in an effort to show the text’s interpretability, arguing that, “The Christian Bible was composed over numerous centuries, representing cultures and historical periods [that] tried to deal with sex in radically different ways.”
Early in his lecture, Martin pointed out that many modern ideas of sex and marriage (i.e. love, procreation, and gender equality) do not appear much in the Bible. He argues instead that biblical ethics of sexual relations can be read through the three lenses of purity, patriarchy, and property. Through these lenses, Martin hones in on details such as how sexual acts were thought to pollute the people involved and the ground on which the acts occurred, how men were seen as superior to women (which tied in to the penetrator as superior to the penetrated), and the worst part of sleeping with another man’s wife having been the insult it would send to the husband. The very fact that a focus on purity, patriarchy, and property in marriage has given way to one on love, procreation, and gender equality, all while the same text endures, shows just how the Bible’s interpretations may change over time.
Many Christian conservatives use Bible passages to support arguments against homosexuality and promiscuity, as well as to justify societal roles for males and females. Martin combats this traditional interpretation by turning a secular eye to some of the earliest biblical stories. He mentions that not Abraham, nor Isaac, nor any other biblical men were condemned for offering up their wives for procreation, an act that smacks of promiscuity – although, to be fair, it smacks even more of patriarchy. Martin also argues that the story of Adam and Eve lacks a male/female hierarchy. Concerning homosexuality, Martin posits that much of the language in biblical stories can be read as suggestive of homosexual relationships (e.g., stories of Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, even of Jesus and his disciples). He also returns to that old classic: while Leviticus 18 may say not to “lay with man as with a woman,” it also lists many other demands that are no longer regarded.
Martin also discussed how many ideas that are often thought of as having Biblical roots actually come from other ancient cultural practices. For example, Christianity lifted the concept of celibacy from Greek philosophy.
While Martin doesn’t believe that the authors of biblical stories truly meant to portray Jesus as having homosexual relationships with his disciples, he jokes that “there’s no reason we can’t read it that way.” Throughout history people have repeatedly changed the Bible’s accepted interpretation for the times. “That’s what Christians and Jews have always done,” says Martin.
The lecture itself was geared towards those with previous knowledge of Biblical studies, making it inaccessible at points for the average attendee and harder to accept with confidence, which somewhat weakened its message for less-informed attendants. Still, Martin presents a valid point: that an approach of updated biblical hermeneutics may be just what’s needed to end the hostility between deout Christians and those who adamantly oppose their current interpreted beliefs.