The remarkable thing about the Christian tradition that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was because of the sin of homoerotic sex, is that this was never part of the Jewish tradition: not in the Hebrew Bible (First, or Old Testament), not in the Apocrypha, not in the Pseudepigrapha, and not in the Rabbinic tradition that followed. The obvious question that follows, is quite how did the Christian theologians get it so wrong, using a strong condemnation against oppression, injustice and lack of hospitality to strangers, to justify their own persecution, oppression, and explicit refusal of hospitality in Church to sexual and gender minorities?
In tracing the historical development of what is clearly a distorted tradition, Renato Lings draws on the commentaries of the story from each historical tradition – and simultaneously describes how changes in language over those centuries meant that later commentators, up to the medieval scholastics, were depending on texts which had been through multiple translations, losing some of the subtlety and nuance of the original, and also had suffered corruption from copying errors.
A long church tradition may have led to errors of misinterpretation end errors of translation, some of which continue to affect todays versions of the Bible. Since the issues addresses by the Hebrew prophets are idolatry, pride, social injustice and oppression, it is indeed remarkable that today’s scholarly consensus emphasizes sexual violence.
Ling identifies four broad frameworks of interpretation of the Sodom story, introduced at four key points in its history.
The earliest of these, and so closest to the original Classical Hebrew, are found in the prophetic books of the First Testament (especially Ezekiel and Isaiah, but also Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Lamentations, Amos and Hosea, as well as in Deuteronomy and Psalms). In these, Sodom is widely used as a symbol of desolation and destruction, brought about as punishment for general wickedness. Where this is described more specifically, three broad groupings are identified: pride and arrogance, apostasy and idolatry, and corruption, oppression and injustice to the weak and marginalized.
By the time of the last centuries before Christ and the early years of the Christian era, with the apocrypha and the books of the Second Testament, a new theme, that of the lack of hospitality to strangers, was added to the earlier ones of pride, injustice and idolatry. For Christians, the view of Jesus Christ should be paramount, and this is clearly expressed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
The main novelty in Sodom and Gomorrah in the ST is the way in which Jesus refers to the cities as an emblem of unacceptable behaviour, particularly their failure to show hospitality to the messengers of God (Matt10:15, Luke 10: 12)
Almost without exception, the references to Sodom in the First Testament, the apocrypha, and the Second Testament are absolutely without any reference to sexual behaviour of any kind – let alone to homoerotic activity. The two minor exceptions, drawing on the late Jewish pseudipegrapha, occur in late additions to the Christian canon – and refer to sexual depravity in general, not to sex between men in particular.
In some of the Jewish pseudepigrapha, notably in the Book of Jubilees, the sexual immorality of Sodom is said to include “lusting after other flesh”, which in context refers to sex between humans and angels. This is echoed in the Second Testament in Jude and 2 Peter. Later Christian commentators however ignored the orgin of the term in Jubilees, referring to sex with angels, and assumed without any justification, that it was a reference to sex between men ( a somewhat odd interpretation of “other” flesh). That assumption of reference to homoerotic activities however, was the result of reading into Jude and 2 Peter something external to the actual text, introducing their own interpretative biases. These in turn had been introduced by a Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, who was attempting to explain the Jewish religion to Gentiles. In his interpretation of Sodom, however, Philo largely ignored the Jewish tradition as found in either the First Testament or the apocrypha, and introduced instead ideas from late Hellenistic philosophy, and observations of the Greek culture in his own city, Alexandria. His idiosyncratic reading has been universally ignored by later Jewish commentators – and enthusiastically taken up by Christian writers.
That story I will deal with in a later post. For LGBT Christians, suffering abuse and discrimination in Church supposedly on the basis that the reviled sin of Sodom refers to sex between men, it’s crucially important to hold on securely, to this simple statement by Lings:
No biblical text referring to Sodom and Gomorrah deals specifically with homoerotic relationships
– Love Lost in Translation, p280
- Lings, K. Renato Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible(Amazon,com)
- Lings, K. Renato Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible (Extensive preview at Google Books)
- Carden, Michael. Sodomy: The History of a Christian Biblical Myth London: Equinox Pub.
- Countryman, L.William: Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today . (Fortress Press 2007 (revised edition) 290 pages)
- Guest, Deryn, Mona West, Robert E. Goss, and Thomas Bohache, (eds). The Queer Bible Commentary . London: SCM.
- Helminiak, Daniel: What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality (Alamo Square Press, 1994 ) 149 pages
- Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
- Nissenen, Marti Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: An Historical Perspective
- Noort, Edward, and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar. Sodom’s Sin: Genesis 18-19 and its Interpretations Leiden: Brill.
- Sharpe, Keith. The Gay Gospels: Good News for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People . Winchester, UK: O-Books.
- Stone, Ken, editor. Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible (Library Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies) . Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.
- Stone, Ken: Practicing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective London: T & T Clark International.
- Vasey, M: Strangers and friends: A new exploration of homosexuality and the Bible
- Biblical Love – Lost in Translation?
- The Distorted Christian Tradition of the Sodomy Myth (1)
- “Clobber Texts” – Resource Page
- Catholic Responses to Sex and Greed (18th Sunday of O.T,)
- “The Bible In Drag”: Introducing a Queer – centric Reading of Scripture
- “Practicing Safer Texts”: The Bible and Sexuality, Homosexuality
- “The Sin That Cries Out to Heaven For Vengeance”.