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The Bible and Homosexuality

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

Leviticus Scroll from Qumran (11QPaleoLev)
Leviticus scroll from Qumran

Q. I’m a scientist trying to define my own beliefs on homosexuality, which I believe is based in chemistry and genetics, not choice. However, I feel like either I’m buying into a conspiracy theory (Paul being gay and fearfully adding homophobic commentary to cover his own struggle) or I’m avoiding biblical truth because I can’t wrap my head around God forbidding something that occurs naturally. What does the Bible say?

A. As for homosexuality, one problem is that many biblical texts on the topic are not clear in terms of the specific actions they are referring to (some scholars would certainly disagree with me on this point). The texts assume a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the reader that we moderns do not have any more. For example, the Leviticus texts (Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13) say that a male should not lie with another male literally “on the beds of a woman.”

In my opinion, no one really knows what this means, and so most scholars (for a very long time) have assumed that the word “beds” must refer, here, to the act of lying down rather than the place of lying down, because the word for “bed” comes from the verb “to lie down.” This is how they arrive at the usual translation, “as one lies with a woman.” I happen to think that this is not a very good translation and that we should work on figuring out what “on the beds of a woman” might mean in this context, but I’m in the minority at this point.

Even if the phrase does mean “as one lies with a woman,” the reasoning behind the rule would probably come from the concern in Leviticus with the inappropriate mixing of categories. A person should not mix two different kinds of seed in a field or wear clothing that mixes two different types of fabric (Lev 19:19). Things in the animal category should not mix sexually with things in the human category (Lev 18:23; Lev 20:15-16). The issue with homosexuality could be that two members of the “male” category should not mix sexually or, perhaps, that a male should not be placed into the role/category of a woman (the receptive partner). In a sense, all of these rules were meant to be object lessons to reinforce the main point in this part of Leviticus (Lev 17-26 are a special section known as the Holiness Code) that the Israelites were supposed to be separate from everybody else—separate because they worshipped Yahweh exclusively and separate because they had a set of religious and moral practices that (purportedly) made them different.

When it comes to the New Testament, the issue has to do with certain of Paul’s letters. In Rom 1:26-27, Paul does seem to express the view that homosexual behavior on the part of both men and women is unnatural. He did not, of course, have access to the scientific evidence that we have today, and his main point is to denounce idolatry. His comments on sex in Rom 1 are part of his strategy for condemning idol worship. Moreover, Paul didn’t always get everything exactly right. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, for example, he clearly believes that Jesus will return to the earth before Paul himself passes away. Scholars also debate about the kind of sexual practice that Paul is referring to in 1Cor 6:9-10. Some have argued it is primarily pederasty (a homosexual relationship between a grown man, often married, and an adolescent boy) and that Paul would not have known about our concept of sexual orientation. Others disagree and say that Paul’s statements do indeed categorize all homosexual behavior as “unrighteous.”

For better or worse, there are no easy or clear-cut answers when it comes to interpreting the biblical texts on this issue. While the theory about Paul that you mention is certainly creative, I would agree that it’s probably far-fetched to say that Paul was gay and just covering it up. But it is not a foregone conclusion that biblical texts are clear and decisive on the issue or that they all even agree on matters of sexual behavior.

There are a number of books and articles that address these issues in greater detail (see “Related Publications”). Robert Gagnon’s 2001 book represents the older, more conservative view. Many others disagree with this. Jennifer Wright Knust’s 2011 book and Michael Coogan’s 2010 book present more progressive views, which are accepted by most academic scholars today. Mark Preston Stone’s 2022 article offers one of the most thorough overviews of the different scholarly positions on the relevant laws in Leviticus, which are the most debated texts in the Hebrew Bible.

It is worth noting that, within Christianity, there are different understandings of what it means for Scripture to be true or inspired; traditions that emphasize natural law, such as Catholicism, tend to resist treating the Bible as a handbook of morality and rather use it as one resource among others, including human reason, to determine what is right and wrong.

  • Bruce Wells

    Bruce Wells is professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Wells is the author of The Law of Testimony in the Pentateuchal Codes (2004) and the co-author of Everyday Law in Biblical Israel (2009).