Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Bible: conclusion

The area once known as Canaan is only the size of Rhode Island, yet it is the most fought-over region in the world. It has been claimed by a long list of empires including the Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans and Muslims. Why was there so much struggle over this patch of land of no exceptional inherent value? The reason is geography: there is Egypt below, Asia Minor above, Mesopotamia to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Major trade routes ran through there, and control of those highways was highly attractive to big and small powers alike. This was good in peace, but wealth attracts war, and armies passing through on their way to wars, and the region has not found stability to this day.

In this context the survival of the Israelite culture is exceptional. Even after successive devastations scattered them across the world, the Jews clung to their texts and customs, and their culture survived into the modern day. This feat of survival can partly be attributed to the Hebrew Bible. Just as remarkably, by laying the foundations of the three Abrahamic religions, the Israelites helped to define the modern world. That a compilation of contradictory texts written by a marginal culture of the ancient Near East to record their special relationship with a jealous storm god should wield so much influence in countries like the USA or Brazil, thousands of miles from the Levant and thousands of years later, is rather bizarre and astonishing.

Unlike most ancient myths, the Bible is presented in part as a historical record: an account of how a god has intervened in the affairs of one particular nation and, by extension, its neighbours. This special association with history invites archaeologists and historians to study the texts’ precise relationship with reality.

Many years of investigation tell us there were no Patriarchs, no period of slavery in Egypt, no Exodus, no Israelite conquest of Canaan, no empire of David and Solomon. They reveal how the Hebrew Bible was heavily influenced by other Ancient Near Eastern literatures. The creation story drew upon myths of ancient Babylon; the great flood upon Sumerian literature; the Mosaic covenant upon Hittite vassal treaties; the Psalms and Proverbs upon forerunners in the literature of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Ugarit; Yahweh himself upon pagan gods like Baal. They reveal how Jesus Christ was modelled upon the Greco-Roman concept of a demi-god; the Gospels upon Greco-Roman biographies with their miraculous births and recounting of deeds; Christian rituals upon familiar pagan practices co-opted for convenience.

Written over several centuries by multiple authors with a variety of viewpoints, the Bible is inevitably packed with contradictions, errors, and things that cannot ever have happened. This must have implications for faith. As the French scholar Roland de Vaux put it: “if the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also.”[1] Insistence on the literal truth and inerrancy of the Bible is surprisingly recent – the movement is only about a hundred years old – but nonetheless Christians assumed the Bible was at least broadly accurate. The early ‘Biblical archaeologists’ of the Albright school set out with the assumption that the events described were real: they just needed to dig the evidence out of the ground. Instead, it turned out that the Israel portrayed in the Bible had mostly never existed. If the Bible is the word of God, the messy tale of spliced manuscripts, scribal errors, edits, insertions and endless debates and confusions suggest Yahweh has treated his ‘word’ extremely carelessly.

Science has found no evidence for any instance of the supernatural. Many materialists feel that if the events described in the Bible did not actually happen, i.e. were not literally ‘true’, then everyone should abandon Judaism and Christianity. They argue that from a rational perspective, its contents are often impossible and silly. Who could possibly believe that Noah could fit every species on Earth into a wooden boat? Or that someone could walk on water? Even if you interpret those stories as mythical and allegorical rather than literally true, you must deal with the shortage of evidence for the parts that claim to be historical. If the texts are not reliable as historical documents, why should you trust them as spiritual documents? Without hard data to prove that your faith is more true than other faiths, why have faith at all? The vast majority of believers follow the religion of the culture they were born into. If you were born in Canaan in 1200 BCE, you might worship both Yahweh and Asherah; if you were born in the same place 800 years later, you might worship Yahweh alone as the one and only god; another 500 years later, you might worship Jesus; another few hundred years, and you might worship Allah; ten thousand years earlier, and you would have worshipped none of the above. In every case the beliefs and rituals would be different. It is hard to take religion seriously when it is an obviously human product rooted in history rather than eternity.

Despite the rote assertions of preachers, the Bible is not even valuable as a guide to morality. You don’t have to be religious to respect ideas like ‘don’t kill’, and there are plenty of things in there – slavery, sexism, revenge, racism, genocide – that modern civilised people find abhorrent. Even Christians don’t know what morality they are meant to adopt. Thanks to the Bible’s contradictory nature and the multitude of Churches and interpretations, they can pick and choose which bits of scripture they respect and which bits they ignore. This has condemned them to bitter disagreements even on basic moral questions, like slavery and homosexuality.

However, the Bible is not only a product of religion or history or morality: it is a rich work of literature. And the importance of a work of literature is not whether its events really happened but its emotional, philosophical, imaginative content. To take the Bible literally is absurd, and neither the Church Fathers nor its writers themselves would have seen religious writing that way. The Bible was not written as ‘history’ as modernity understands it, but as a document of myth and faith. Its writers were interested in the spiritual images, ideas and ‘truths’ communicated by the stories. That is a very different attitude to ours and it explains why its redactors felt little need to try and make all those diverse source texts consistent with one another.

The arguments against religious belief have all been made, and the world has not abandoned religion. Believers find ways to let their gods off the hook. Every failure of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, such as the no-show project of Josiah, was ascribed, not to the non-existence of Yahweh and the impossibility of seeing into the future, but to the failure of the Israelites to obey Yahweh’s laws. Gods persist no matter how often they fail to show up. Religion can appeal to rational argument but does not depend upon it; it can work intuitively and symbolically, as art does, and it has become clear that reason cannot kill religion off any more than it can kill a song.

The materialist critique of religion does not require us to become ‘militant’ atheists like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, because religion is not the most important determinant of humanity’s problems. The religious evils of the day are ideological expressions of a deeper set of underlying conditions. The vast majority of religious people do not beat up gay people, or bomb abortion clinics, or fly planes into skyscrapers. Many march for peace or environmentalism, or volunteer in homeless shelters, or endanger their lives in war zones to help the sick and injured. Marx observed, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” Better let us change those soulless conditions than waste resources warring against the notion of faith.

Whatever one’s beliefs, let us value the Bible without reducing it to religion. It is often very boring; it is obsessed with racial destiny; it is superstitious and garbled and offensive and inconsistent. But it is also full of complex characterisation, exciting stories, and incredible images, shared through a story told on an epic scale. For all its faults, it is first and foremost a monument of art.

[1] Roland de Vaux, The Hebrew Patriarchs and History (1964).

A short history of the Bible

We can now summarise the history of the Bible from its beginnings to the sealing of the canon. We can’t claim every detail is certain. It is merely a well-informed account, some of which is unavoidably speculative.

From around the 12th century BCE in the Egyptian-controlled Levant, a pastoralist culture came together in small highland settlements to step into history as a people we know today as the Israelites. Their name comes from the Hebrew ‘Yisrael’, the name given (in the Hebrew Bible) by Yahweh to Jacob whose descendants formed the twelve tribes of Israel. This pagan people helped to rebuild Canaan after the Bronze Age Collapse. At about 1000 BCE, there may have been a memorable early king named David, followed by another named Solomon, but the culture was still small, and Jerusalem a mere hill town.

In the 10th century, internal tensions led to the division of Israel into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south – the former was the more populous, fertile and wealthy. The division lasted about two hundred years.

Between 922-722, two religious narratives known to scholars as J and E were written in Judah and Israel respectively. This period of two kingdoms was brought to an end by a devastating Assyrian invasion that destroyed Israel in 722. Refugees from the north surged into Judah, which enjoyed a sudden growth in wealth, literacy and importance. This was probably the decisive period in the passage to monotheism. During the reign of Hezekiah, a religious reform was launched to promote Yahweh-only monotheism over polytheism, and to establish the Temple as the centre of Israelite religion. To try and unite the two communities, their respective histories J and E were combined into a joint narrative, JE.

The priesthood had long been divided into two factions. The northern Levites were supposedly descended from Moses; the southern Aaronites were supposedly descended from Moses’ brother Aaron. Hezekiah favoured the Aaronite priesthood, who ran the central altar. Between 722-609 BCE, someone in that circle wrote the source text known as P, as an alternative to JE with its Levite, pro-Moses elements. This was to become the single biggest section of the Hebrew Bible – contributing alternative versions of several stories including the opening account of the creation, parts of Exodus and Numbers, and all of Leviticus.

Assyria then attacked Judah, which between 700-640 BCE became its vassal. But during the reign of King Josiah, the Assyrian Empire was weakening as Babylon grew, creating a space for Josiah to dream of conquering the territory of the former kingdom of Israel and launching an Israelite empire. He renewed the religious reforms of Hezekiah (but favouring the Levite priesthood), and in 622 a book of the law was discovered in Jerusalem. Using the law code as a kernel, someone created the book of Deuteronomy, and drew upon a mixture of northern and southern texts, regional folk memories, archive histories and legends to add the Deuteronomistic History – Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. (This writer/editor was familiar with JE. He also knew P but, as a Levite, was sectarian towards it.) Thus Josiah’s faction created a narrative of conquest and empire common to both kingdoms, portraying Josiah as a new David. But then in 609 Josiah was killed by the Egyptian army, throwing the imperial project into disarray – Judah ended up as a Babylonian vassal state.

The year 587 or 586 brought catastrophe. In response to a rebellion the Babylonians smashed Judah, razing Jerusalem and stealing its treasures, and sending many of its people into exile in Babylonia. Many others fled to Egypt as refugees. The Temple and the Ark were lost, and the line of David was ended. Often in the ancient world a defeated small culture assimilated into the conquerors. The Judahite scribes, however, realising their culture was in danger of following the kingdom of Israel into oblivion, rewrote and reinterpreted the old stories to keep them alive. The grand vision of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History now looked a bit foolish, so they were edited, possibly by their original writer, to include warnings of exile and to stress the need to keep the covenant with God.

Persia soon replaced Babylon as the dominant regional power. About fifty years after the disaster, the exiled Israelites were allowed to return to what was now the Persian province of Yehud (origin of our term ‘Jew’). This is known as the Second Temple Period, after the rebuilding of the Temple from about 520 BCE. Some time during the exile or shortly afterwards, an editor from the Aaronite priesthood went to work on J, E, P and D to create the final form of the Torah. This may have been Ezra: a priest, scribe and lawgiver who returned from exile during the Second Temple period with, to paraphrase the Biblical book attributed to him, the law of God in his hand. The completion of the full Hebrew Bible, however, would take a little longer.

In Alexandria in Eygpt, between the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE, a Greek translation was made of the Hebrew scriptures, known as the ‘Septuagint’ after the 70 scholars who reputedly wrote it. It was aimed at the many Jews who now spoke Greek rather than Hebrew, and became the principal version of the texts for both Jews and Christians.

The Jews continued to live under foreign rule – the Persians, the empire of Alexander the Great, and the Seleucids. The Maccabean Revolt in 164 BCE brought independence under the Hasmonaean dynasty, but a hundred years later Judea was conquered by the Romans and governed either directly from Rome or by client kings.

In the early 1st century CE there were repeated uprisings against the occupiers and the collaborationist Jewish ruling class. A peasant labourer from Galilee called Jesus of Nazareth began to preach to his fellow Jews about the coming ‘kingdom of God’, a call that was considered treason by the Roman authorities. Like many other such leaders, he was captured and executed for sedition. Unusually, however, his followers insisted they had seen him alive after his death, and debated what this could mean. A sect emerged that would eventually become the new religion of Christianity.

In about 50 CE a convert to this group named Paul wrote a series of letters to local communities he was establishing around the Eastern Mediterranean. The Jews rose up against the Romans in 66 but by 70 their uprising had been smashed and the Second Temple destroyed. Between approximately 70-100 CE four writers, each working independently and within their own ideological framework, produced biographical interpretations of Jesus of Nazareth known as Gospels.

In the absence of the Temple, Judaism meanwhile entered its Rabbinic period. Following yet another Jewish uprising under Simon bar Kochba (c.132–136 CE), Judea was devastated and massively depopulated by the Romans, who banned Jews from Jerusalem. From now on, most Jews lived outside Judea and were a minority there until the establishment of modern Israel. Gradually the canon of Jewish scripture was sealed. Writings such as Proverbs, the Psalms, Daniel etc were debated and embraced as scripture. The exact dates of canonisation are not certain, but by the 4th century CE the contents of the Hebrew Bible – Torah, Prophets and Writings – were almost universally accepted.

As for Jesus’s movement: after a long debate, during which Christianity was assimilated as the dominant religion of the Roman empire, a set of scriptures was agreed which we now call the New Testament. This canon, which adopted the Jewish scriptures as its ‘Old Testament’, was sealed by the 6th century CE. However, there was never a consensus among all Christians about which books belonged in either volume, and differing canons exist to this day.

In the 380s, Saint Jerome began work on a translation of the Old and New Testaments into Latin, the common language of the Roman and post-Roman world, that would bring the Bible to an even wider audience. This book profoundly permeated Western European culture and became the definitive edition of the Bible for over a thousand years.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Creating the Christian canon

We take it for granted in the contemporary West that a religion will be based upon holy texts or scripture, but this was almost unknown in the ancient Roman world. Unlike Christianity, which thinks in terms of doctrines one must believe, Roman pagans were more concerned with what one practiced: the rituals, prayers, sacrifices and so on that would encourage the gods to intervene to your benefit. These interventions were for the present, not the grey, mysterious afterlife. The exception at that time was Judaism, which did have a set of scriptures – the Hebrew Bible. Christianity, beginning as a sect within Judaism, inherited both those scriptures and the idea of a canon.

Scripture is any piece of writing regarded by a community as authoritative and holy. However a given piece of scripture is not necessarily part of a canon (from the Greek for ‘list’): an officially approved group of books, defined by both what is on the list, and what is not. Not every religion has one. In Judaism, the canon is the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible. In Islam, it is the Quran. Christianity accepts the Jewish scriptures as the Old Testament, and has its own additional canon, the New Testament.

The writers of the New Testament texts did not think they were writing a ‘new testament’, merely an individual book or letter, and when they spoke of ‘scripture’, they meant the Hebrew Bible. Only after the New Testament was compiled did the Hebrew Bible come to be seen as the ‘Old Testament’ that had to some extent been superseded.

Unlike Roman paganism, which was generally happy to make room for the gods of other nations, and even Judaism, which was not much interested in trying to convert non-Jews, Christianity was missionary. Its adherents insisted that their religion was correct and all others were wrong [1]. This follows from its ideology as a religion addressing not one community but “all nations” (Luke 24:47). Nobody in the world could be right with God unless they accepted Christ and believed the right things. What these were was laid down by a generally accepted authority – at first this was Jesus’s surviving disciples, but as they died out authority passed to the holy books. This was problematic, for as we saw in the last article, there was no single view of Jesus, and in fact the range of belief among groups calling themselves ‘Christian’ was even more wildly diverse than we have discussed. Some groups thought Jesus was human, some that he was divine; some that there was one god, some that there two, or many; some embraced the Judaic legacy, some rejected it outright. Each group thought their version was correct, and claimed legitimisation from one or more texts.

We might see this as a vibrant example of pluralism, except that these ideologies were tied to a very material world: the long debate about which of the many Christian books were ‘correct’ and which weren’t was not purely a battle of ideas but in part a class struggle. Its eventual outcome was the canon we call the New Testament.

Early steps

As local Christian groups organised into hierarchies, the Church’s institutions expanded, and it began to feel a pressing need to settle its many internal arguments.

These Christian structures were alien to the spirit of the itinerant peasant apostles. If Acts is to be believed, the earliest Christians were egalitarian:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. (Acts 4:32)

This seems to ring true with what we think we know of Jesus as a champion of the poor. But Christianity has always been troubled by the contradictions of the class forces it tries to embrace. By the early 2nd century power was increasingly centralised into the hands of deacons, overseen in turn by presbyters (‘elders’) and bishops. Though in the early years the bishops were elected by popular vote, this was rolled back over the next few centuries. These upper layers wished to impose what was taught, and which texts were read. The masses in the ancient world weren’t usually literate, except for some slaves trained as scribes – they depended instead upon hearing scripture read aloud – which helped keep the decision-making in the hands of the educated and privileged. It was in this context that the writer of 1 Peter, which was probably written in the late 1st century or early 2nd century, asserted a very different attitude to Roman authority to that of Jesus the Galilean rebel:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil... Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

As we’ve seen, the first Christian texts were Paul’s letters, written from about 50 CE. By the middle of the 2nd century a great variety of documents was in circulation, each offering a different perspective and claiming to be authoritative. One of the first attempts at a canon was made in the 2nd century by Marcion, a member of the Christian community in Sinope in Asia Minor. He and his followers argued that the god of the Hebrew Bible was false and evil, and that the father of Jesus Christ was a different god who was loving and merciful. On this basis they rejected Jewish law and scripture. The Marcionites thought the apostle Paul was right because he was against observing Jewish law, so they favoured ten of his letters – the ones they knew about – along with the Gospel of his companion, Luke. This set of prescribed texts was the first attempt at a Christian canon. While the texts of Paul and Luke look towards the Gentiles and advise them against following Jewish law, they nonetheless respect Jewish culture; Marcion ascribed this to later, Judaising adulterations, and edited them to recreate what he believed were the authentic texts.

Another 2nd century thinker, Tatian, noticed that the four main Gospels did not agree with one another, and tried to resolve this by combining them into a single, harmonised Gospel known as the Diatesseron. This text enjoyed two centuries or so of success in the Syriac churches until the authorities moved against it. An alternative early list, known as the Muratorian canon, appears on a fragment of manuscript discovered by the Italian historian Muratori, who published it in 1740. Dating to perhaps the late 2nd century, the text is incomplete. But it includes books that don’t appear in the modern Bible – the Wisdom of Solomon, the Apocalypse of Peter – and excludes a few that do, e.g. Hebrews and one letter of John.

The Roman Church reaffirmed Yahweh as the god of Christ and excommunicated Marcion as a heretic. But the debate over his scripture list encouraged the selection of a ‘correct’ list, i.e. a canon. Orthodoxy, the Church recognised, went hand in hand with power.

A canon comes together

The contents of the canon weren’t decided by an official decree. In his novel The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown fostered the widespread misconception that the Council of Nicaea (or Nicea) in 325 CE made decisions on the canon and doctored the Bible; in reality the canon was not discussed at that meeting. Occasionally a bishop or a council would publish a list of fundamental documents, but the diversity of the early Church meant that no one person or body was able to dictate to the entire Christian world. Instead, the canon evolved. In Bart Ehrman’s words, “the canon of the New Testament was ratified by widespread consensus rather than by official proclamation.” [2] This is true, but it was a consensus achieved with some fierce disputes as various figures tried to discredit or suppress the texts they considered heretical.

How did the Church leaders decide what was scripture? It was not enough for a text to be ‘inspired’, because the ancients thought most texts were inspired. Ehrman outlines four criteria that had to be met for a text to be accepted into the canon.

1) A book had to be ancient, not recent, giving them the closest historical proximity to Jesus and the apostles. All the canonical books date to the 1st century, or at the latest according to some scholars, the early 2nd century.

2) It had to be written by an apostle, or someone associated with the apostles, though we know today that the Gospels, for example, were not in fact written by apostles.

3) It had to be universally used. A book was more likely to get in if it was accepted by a large number of churches in a large number of regions.

4) Most importantly, a book had to be theologically acceptable, or to put it differently, it had to agree as much as possible with what a majority of the elite already believed. This trumped any claims to apostolic authorship. If a book was not ‘orthodox’, the reasoning went, it could not have been written by an apostle.

What eventually emerged was what Ehrman calls a proto-orthodoxy: a body of books and doctrines that later became orthodox. After a centuries-long process to decide what orthodoxy would be, the canon is the list of the winners.

Constantine and consolidation

In 312 the Roman emperor Constantine was fighting to re-unify the divided Roman empire under a single ruler. On the night before a battle against his rival Maxentius, he supposedly had a vision from God. The most powerful man in the world had (allegedly) become a Christian.

The Christian leadership had begun to assimilate the ideology of the Roman ruling class long before, acting as local government administrators, landowners and tax collectors while channelling the discontent of the masses into dreams of paradise on a pew. Constantine’s conversion was probably fake, an attempt to co-opt the widespread and resilient Church network into the power structures of the Empire. This combination of the two bureaucracies required an agreement on doctrine. At a time when the Church was still divided by dissenting theologies such as Arianism and Donatism, Constantine stepped in to pressurise its leaders to establish an orthodoxy, using expropriation, exile and force. In about 322 CE, he ordered fifty copies of the scriptures for the imperial capital of Constantinople, which the historian Eusebius says were copied and delivered in “magnificent and elaborately bound volumes” [3]. Eusebius does not tell us which texts were included, but assuming the incident is historical, these magnificent codices ordered by the Emperor himself may have exerted an influence on the canon.

The squabbling over the nature of God was to be settled once and for all at the aforementioned Council of Nicaea. The aim was to agree upon a core theology of the Church, which all followers must profess or be condemned as heretics. The meeting agreed a statement on Jesus’s relationship to God, known as the Nicaean creed (which still was not accepted by every Christian group). It is unlikely that Constantine cared much what they decided, as long as a decision was made.

Orthodoxy is an important element in canon formation, because it is not enough to establish an official set of texts: you also need to tell everyone how to interpret them. This was especially true of the Christian movement, with its diverse, contradictory texts and a radical Messiah whose original, proto-communist message was still troublingly evident.

Page of the Codex Vaticanus
The 4th century Codex Vaticanus is arguably the oldest extant copy of the Christian Bible and dates to roughly this time, though it is unlikely to be one of Constantine’s fifty volumes. It contains the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, plus the Greek New Testament, and is nearly complete except for some damage. Because of its antiquity, it has become definitive.[4]

Constantine’s role in the Church has often been misrepresented. Partly thanks again to the unhelpful Dan Brown, he is accused of intervening heavy-handedly in the formation of the New Testament and burning the books of non-conformers. Ehrman protests:

The historical reality is that the Emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings).[5]

If Constantine did not personally choose the canon, the assimilation of the Church apparatus was nonetheless a significant step. The advent of Christianity as an imperial religion saw the canon sealed within a few generations. In 367 CE, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, circulated a letter in which he lists 27 books for reading in churches. This is the first appearance of the canon as we know it today – over three centuries after the death of Jesus – and is thus a milestone in the process. Athanasius only intended the list for his own region, and rival lists continued to appear. But by the 5th or 6th centuries most Christians finally agreed to the 27-book list used today.

The Church had reached the point where people could be killed as heretics for having different conceptions of Jesus: the first Christian to be executed for heresy was the bishop Priscillian in 385. The consensus was not a benign process of wise heads comparing the merits of stimulating ideas. It was decided by powerful clerics, under a range of ruling class pressures, decreeing what texts were or were not ideologically acceptable and censoring the others. The last words of Revelation, which are also the last words of the Bible, are a direct threat to anyone thinking of tampering further:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:19-20)

A decade or two after Athanasius released his list, a Latin Christian scholar best known as Saint Jerome began work on a translation of the Old and New Testaments that would bring the Bible to a new audience. For centuries everyone read the Bible in Greek: in the 1st century CE even most Jews had Greek as a first language and read the Hebrew Bible in Greek translation. Jerome’s Vulgate (or ‘common version’), as it came to be known, was in Latin, the common language of the Roman and post-Roman world. This book profoundly permeated Western European culture and became the definitive edition of the Bible for over a thousand years.

The codex

The shiny bestselling Bible we know today started out written by hand on papyrus. The only way to preserve and propagate books created with such perishable materials was for scribes to make fresh copies of them. If a text was considered scripture, it was more likely to be copied. The authorities did not necessarily have to destroy books it did not like: non-canonical books were considered less worth copying, and many simply wore out, fell apart and disappeared.

Ancient books worked on the same principle
as this Torah scroll.
One of the things that helped solidify canon was a technological innovation. Early books were written on scrolls. To read a particular section, you had to unroll it all the way to the place you wanted, and a long text might be written on multiple scrolls. This cumbersome system was superseded in the Roman era by the codex, which became established by the late 3rd or 4th centuries. This used parchment (animal skins) rather than papyrus (made from the reed-like papyrus plant), still written on by hand but cut into pages and sewn together. These codices were much more efficient than a boxful of scrolls, and made it much easier to refer to texts. It might have been Christians who championed the codex, to assist them in their constant disputes.

There are practical considerations when you start to preserve your text in a codex. Removing a book from a collection of scripture is easy when it only requires removing a scroll from a box. Removing passages from a codex, however, requires either the mutilation of a very expensive object or starting over, so you need to make final decisions about what is included. This doesn’t of course mean that everyone immediately adopted Athanasius’ list of 27 books. The contents of early codices like the Codex Sinaiticus (4th century CE) and Codex Claromontanus (6th century CE) still don’t quite match our canon. But the invention of the codex, as historic as that of the printing press centuries later, provided an impetus towards uniformity.

The books that got away

The sealing of the canon meant that a great number of Christian texts, considered scripture or even canonical by somebody at some point, were suppressed. These books are known as apocrypha (from the Greek, ‘hidden things’).

One major work was the Shepherd of Hermas, a book written in Rome in possibly the 2nd century, which was highly valued by many early Christians and rated as scripture by some Church fathers. It was eventually rejected, perhaps because of its relatively late and non-apostolic authorship.

Some apocrypha were more controversial. Among these were the books of the Gnostics (from the Greek gnosis or ‘knowledge’), an important and varied group of early Christian philosophers interested in the nature of good and evil. The Gnostics wrote their own texts, which were once thought to have been lost thanks to the struggle to establish orthodoxy. Fortunately, in 1946 near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt, thirteen codices were discovered, including works such as the Gospels of Thomas and Philip and the Secret Book of John, that were considered scripture by some Gnostic groups. A more recent discovery was the Gospel of Judas, in a copy possibly dating to the 3rd-4th centuries.

In Gnostic philosophy, the spirit was good, and the body and the world were evil – the result of a kind of cosmic disaster. A good Christian must reject the material world and learn, through the help of special knowledge, to liberate the spark of the divine within him so he might return to the world of the spirit. The Gnostics therefore seem to have been rather ascetic. Bart Ehrman takes this view:

Their logic was that since the body is evil, it should be punished; since attachment to the body is the problem of human existence, and since it is so easy to become attached to the body through pleasure, the body should be denied all pleasure. Thus it appears that the typical Gnostic stand on how to treat the body was rather strict.[6]

Their opponents however accused them of the opposite – a “cavalier”, anything-goes attitude to the body and sexuality – and it’s hard to say to what extent that was true. Whether libertine or ascetic, with its limited mass appeal (only an elite enjoyed the special knowledge required for salvation) and its rejection of the material world, this was not a doctrine attractive to the Roman ruling class that had allied itself to Christianity, and it had disturbing implications for the Church’s coffers. By the end of the 4th century Gnosticism’s leaders were ostracised and its sacred books destroyed.

Another contentious text, rediscovered in 1896, was a 2nd century account of Jesus whose central character is a woman named Mary. This is widely believed, for example by the scholar Karen L. King, to be Mary Magdelene [7]. Mary, assuming she existed, seems to have been an important follower of Jesus, credited in the canonical Gospels as one of the first witnesses of his resurrection. It is not difficult to see why the Gospel of Mary, the only New Testament text attributed to a woman, was rejected by early Church leaders, because it argues that women were fit to hold authority within the Church. Though the surviving text is fragmentary, it includes a passage where Peter complains about Mary’s apparently privileged relationship with Jesus:

“Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?”[8]

Then a disciple named Levi steps in and berates Peter:

“Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Saviour knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us.”

Women have always played an important part in Christianity. Jesus seems to have welcomed their participation in his movement, the New Testament mentions female disciples, and it is women who are the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Apocryphal texts even mention women apostles [9], and in the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia Jesus grants Mary, together with John, a higher status than the other apostles. Despite this, women seem to have been pushed out of significant roles in the leadership. Most notoriously, from around the 5th century Mary Magdelene entered tradition as a prostitute, though she is never described that way in the New Testament. Thus a prominent woman was brought down – not for the last time – by the smearing of her sexuality.

Again, the literature that became canonical was selected to conform to the interests of the social layers making the choices. Texts that had disturbing implications for who held power were excluded. This has contributed to the atmosphere of rumour and conspiracy theory exploited by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.

There were also controversies over books that were eventually included. The canonicity of the book of Hebrews was disputed because the absence of Paul’s name from the text itself casts doubt on its attribution. Eventually Paul was agreed to have written it – contrary to the views of most modern scholarship – and it ended up in the canon. Revelation too was much disputed. It was not clear to the early Church whether the John who wrote it was the apostle John. But the objections ran deeper. This strange apocalyptic book identified Rome with an abominable female character known as the ‘Whore of Babylon’, and envisaged an age where the Romans and the wealthy were overthrown. We cannot be sure exactly on what basis it became canon – perhaps it was agreed to be the work of John the apostle and thus canonical despite the many reservations.[10]


The books of the New Testament were not written until decades after Jesus died, and even then it took hundreds of years for them to be regarded first as scripture and then as part of a canon. By the end of the long process, we eventually had by far the most influential work of literature in the West.

If it weren’t for the finds at Nag Hammadi, we would still know very little about many of the losers in the contest. Even now, there is no universal agreement among the world’s Christian communities on what counts as scripture. The 27 books of the New Testament are accepted almost everywhere, but Revelation is rejected by some eastern churches, and there is a huge variety of Old Testaments that supplement the Jewish scriptures with additional books – such as Tobit, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Baruch – that are not part of the Hebrew Bible. The sealing of a canon was also unable to stop Christianity from splitting into a multitude of denominations – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – and subgroups – Methodists, Baptists, etc.

The assorted Christian Churches maintain that the writers of the New Testament texts were inspired in one way or another by God, and that the early Church leaders were guided by God in their decisions about the canon. If God’s guidance seems rather messy and overlong in execution, that is because in reality scripture is the work of human beings. Canon formation was part of an attempt to establish an authoritative, ‘catholic’ (universal) version of Christianity. The problem with the project is the contradictions within Christianity itself. It is impossible to square the peasant labourer Jesus, who said “woe to you who are rich”, with the fabulously wealthy, imperial and warmongering institution that eventually prevailed, its earthly hubris symbolised by the staggering pomp of St Peter’s basilica in Rome.

[1] Thus Christianity introduced the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy, where ‘orthodoxy’ means literally ‘right belief’ and ‘heresy’ refers to dissenting opinion deserving of punishment. This approach would have made little sense to the pagans.
[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities (2005).
[3] Eusebius, Life of Constantine.
[4] Another early Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, was ‘discovered’ in the 19th century and dates to between 325-360. There is some debate about which of the two books is older.
[5] Bart D. Ehrman, Truth And Fiction In The Da Vinci Code (2006).
[6] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities (2005).
[7] As Jesus was Jesus the Nazarene (from Nazareth), Mary was Mary the Magdalene (from Magdala).
[8] You can read the Gospel of Mary here: www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelmary.html 

[9] There may be one reference in the New Testament (Romans 16:7) to a female apostle, named Junia, but scholars debate whether this refers to a man or a woman.
[10] From the early Church’s standpoint, that would mean Revelation and the Gospel of John were written by the same person. Scholars no longer believe this.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Defining Jesus: the writing of the New Testament

After Jesus died, his followers were in disarray. They believed he was the Messiah, yet he had just been crucified. The Jewish world had no precedent for a suffering, sacrificed messiah, so either his followers had to disperse, or they had to find an explanation of what had happened. Some of them were convinced they saw Jesus alive again, three days after his death. Had God raised him from the dead? And if so, what did it mean? What was the relationship between Jesus and God? Was he human, human become divine, or always divine?

This debate opened straight after he died, but it was many years before the texts we call the ‘New Testament’ began to appear. The New Testament is not a single book. It is a compilation of 27 books, written between the years 50-150 CE, in Koine, a form of ancient Greek used widely after the conquests of Alexander. They are diverse texts, written in different places and styles with different theologies by a range of authors, and they didn’t come together as the ‘New Testament’ until over three hundred years after Jesus died.

The running order opens with the four Gospels. They are followed by a series of letters or ‘epistles’ by various writers, and the volume closes with the weird visions of the book of Revelation. Rather than examine every book, we will focus upon the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Unsurprisingly, we can understand their writing process better by putting the texts into the political and ideological context of ancient Palestine and Rome.

The letters of Paul

Saul's conversion, as imagined by
Gustave Doré
Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee [1] committed to persecuting Christians in the Jerusalem area. According to the story as told by his companion Luke, Saul was travelling to Damascus to capture Christians, some time between 31-36 CE, when “suddenly a light from heaven shone around him”, and the voice of Jesus asked him, “why are you persecuting me?” [2] To everybody’s amazement, he converted and began to preach Christianity. As he was often speaking to Gentiles, he preferred to use his Romanised name, Paul, which would be more familiar to his audience.

Although he never met Jesus, Paul was, as far as we know, the first person to write about Christianity. His self-appointed role was to travel the Mediterranean establishing churches, but he could not be everywhere at once, so he sent letters to particular individuals or communities to address problems and inspire followers. These letters would be written down by scribes (probably slaves), copied, and circulated around the churches. The process is explicit in the texts themselves:

And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16)

Paul’s first letter – and thus the first book of the New Testament to be written – was probably 1 Thessalonians, written in about 50 CE, twenty years after Jesus died. Thirteen epistles or letters are attributed to Paul. Scholars generally agree that at least seven of the letters really were written by his own hand – 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. These were probably written between 50-58 CE, more than ten years before than the first Gospel. The rest of the Pauline letters were probably written not by Paul himself but by followers writing in his name. It is unlikely that they were ever intended to become ‘scripture’. Early Christians believed that Jesus’s second coming was going to happen very soon, probably within their own lifetimes, so the letters were intended only to meet immediate issues. Indeed, one of the limitations of the correspondence is that they are an incomplete account of his theology. Paul’s opinions were only preserved when he had occasion to write about particular questions.

Paul was writing during the early years of the church, when Christianity barely existed independently of Judaism, and had no scripture, no sacerdotal (i.e. priestly) hierarchy and a weak infrastructure. It was a collection of scattered Jewish-Christian communities, held together by travelling preachers. As we shall see, Paul had a profound influence upon its development.

A tension in early Christianity

In this unsettled world we can identify two main camps – the Judaic ideology of Jesus himself and his peasant followers, and the communities set up by Hellenist diaspora Jews. The unquestioned leader of the former was James [3], Jesus’s brother based in Jerusalem supported by the apostles Peter and John. The most prominent leader of the latter was the convert, Paul.

James took over as leader of the early movement after Jesus’s death and supposedly ran it for thirty years. Our main sources for James are books in the New Testament, as well some apocryphal works and references by Church fathers. There is one epistle attributed to James, but he would almost certainly have been illiterate, so it must be pseudepigraphical, i.e. written in his name by someone who considered it faithful to James’s ideas. The epistle, which discusses faith and temptation and scorns the wealthy, exhibits a respect for Mosaic law:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. (James 2:10)

Whether or not new recruits were obliged to live by the Jewish law was a very important question, and the common view was probably that they should, as this was a Jewish movement. We can be fairly certain from various scraps of evidence that James, like Jesus himself [4], believed the Christian message was a form of Judaism and was an advocate of Mosaic law.

According to Acts 15 and Galatians 2, the Jerusalem church held a meeting – usually dated to around 50 CE – to decide whether or not Gentiles joining the movement had to be circumcised. James said they didn’t, advising instead:

[We] should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:20)

We should take anything in the book of Acts with a grain of salt, but allusions in other texts suggest the decree, at least, may be historical. James shows a liberal hand in his judgement, but he still expects even Gentile converts to respect some of Mosaic law’s minimum requirements.

Unlike the illiterate James, Paul was educated in Greek and was reportedly a Roman citizen. He was dedicated to converting the Gentiles, and was happy to cast aside Mosaic law to achieve this – to be cynical, it was hard to convert a man to your religion when one of the conditions was the removal of his foreskin. Though Jesus had denied he came “to abolish the Law or the Prophets”, Paul was not greatly interested in what Jesus had to say. He rarely mentions or quotes him, and even directly contradicts him [5]; and when he begins his ministry he chooses not to consult the apostles in Jerusalem who knew Jesus personally, but to tour the Greek diaspora with his own version of the message. He is quite scathing about the Jerusalem church, saying “what they were makes no difference to me” (Galatians 2:6), and dismissing them as “those who seemed influential” (Galatians 2:2) and “seemed to be pillars [of the church]” (Galatians 2:9). He asserted that “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10) and that Mosaic law was “a veil” that Christ removed (2 Corinthians 3:15-16).

Paul does not say Jesus’s Jewish followers must abandon Mosaic law, but he doesn’t think Gentile converts need to keep it, in fact he forbids them to. He considered himself a “minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles” (Romans 15:16), an apostle who would bring all nations to worship the god of Israel. It was not necessary to keep the Jewish law because salvation came not through the law but through Jesus. For Paul, Jesus was the messiah and the son of God, and you did not have to be a Jew to worship him. Familiar though this position seems today, he was probably in a minority in the early years, and had to fight to make his case. Christians – as they later came to be known – began to postulate that Jesus was God soon after his death, but did not yet agree on what that meant, and for contemporary Jews Paul’s position was controversial. He was doing away with the earthy rebel Jesus many of them remembered, and the idea that Jesus was literally the son of God was blasphemous. There was a tension therefore between Paul’s radical position and James’s.

This conflict takes a very physical form in Acts 6, when the Hellenist Stephen is stoned to death for saying Jesus “will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” As reported in Acts 21, Paul is summoned to Jerusalem, where he gets into trouble for teaching against Mosaic law. He is told to go through a purification ritual (known as a Nazirite Vow).

We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that… you yourself also live in observance of the law. (Acts 21:23-24)

There was no choice but to submit, because one cannot win an argument about Jesus with his own brother. Towards the end of the week, a crowd of Jews seizes Paul and shouts for his arrest, saying he is teaching against the law and has brought Greeks into the Temple. Because of the uproar, Roman soldiers arrest Paul and he ends up being sent to Rome, where he is executed in possibly around 67 CE. James dies at about the same time, depending on which chronicler you believe, in Jerusalem.

The Jewish War

In 66 CE Judea and Galilee successfully rebelled against Rome, at last, and won four years of independence while Rome was preoccupied with a civil war. Roman troops reconquered Judea and in 70 CE sacked Jerusalem, destroying the Second Temple and killing countless people. As Josephus recorded it:

[The Romans] ran every one through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men’s blood.[6]

This was the third great catastrophe to befall the Jews, after the Assyrian destruction of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and the invasion by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The trauma of this devastating experience is impossible for us to imagine. Rebuilding the Temple was forbidden.[7] All Jews had instead to pay to maintain the centre of Roman religion, the Temple of Jupiter. Judaism was no longer a respected cult. The Jerusalem church, the most authentic heirs to the life and teachings of the real Jesus, led by people who had actually been his disciples, disappears.

Roman troops looting treasures from the Temple. Photo: Steerpike.

Reza Aslan argues that after the war, it was wise to move messianism away from the revolutionary politics that had proved so disastrous. Now that the Jews were pariahs, the Gentiles – above all the Roman world – were the only realistic audience for the message of the nascent Christian church.

With the Temple in ruins and the Jewish religion made pariah, the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah had an easy decision to make: they could either maintain their cultic connections to their parent religion and thus share in Rome’s enmity (Rome’s enmity to Christians would peak much later), or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.[8]

Everyone interested in Jesus needed to shift their ground from seeking an earthly kingdom to seeking a spiritual one; Jesus needed to be identified not as a revolutionary nationalist executed for sedition but as a spiritual figure who transcended politics. Of course, Paul had already solved this problem, by redefining what a messiah was and transforming a movement for Jews into one for all nations. Aslan concludes:

The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the Law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and required nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generation of Jesus’s followers to make.

It was also not a difficult decision for a Jewish ruling class of priests and nobles, shaken by a series of popular uprisings directed not only against the Romans but against their own class hegemony. This is the backdrop to the writing of the four canonical Gospels.

The Gospels

Though the letters of Paul were written first, it is reasonable that the New Testament opens with the four Gospels, as they describe the life and deeds of Jesus. (The English word Gospel derives from euangelion, Greek for ‘good news’.) They are by far our most important source for Jesus.

The Gospels included in the New Testament are the best known, but there were quite a few others too, some of which, such as the Gospel of Thomas, still survive. For this article we shall confine ourselves to the four that ended up in the New Testament.

Papyrus 52, a fragment of John’s Gospel
believed to be the oldest extant
New Testament manuscript.
It dates to roughly the first quarter
of the second century.
The Gospels were originally anonymous. Tradition claims the authors were the apostle Matthew, Mark the Evangelist, Luke the companion of Paul, and John the apostle. In reality the names of these important figures were attached to the texts, partly to lend them greater authority, by later editors – the first reference to them as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John appears a hundred years after they were written.[9] This system of attribution was not unusual. The two epistles of Peter claim to have been written by the apostle Peter, but this isn’t very credible, not least because a peasant fisherman would not have known Greek. The texts were more likely ascribed to him by someone else, possibly their actual author(s), who believed them to be in the ‘school’ of Peter. This doesn’t mean the works are fakes. Pseudepigraphy was a common practice in ancient writing, as in the probably misleading attribution of The Iliad and The Odyssey to a single author known as Homer.

The Gospels represent a continuation of the process whereby Jesus’s followers try to make sense of who he was and what his followers should believe. It is difficult even to talk of ‘Christianity’ at this time, because there is ideological diversity: each writer asserts their own opinion about how Christians should relate to Mosaic law, and their own Christology, i.e. theory of the nature of Jesus.

The first Gospel to be written was Mark in about 70 CE, forty years after Jesus’s death. It is a terse and breathless narrative, whose author believes Jesus will return within the present generation’s lifetime. Probably writing as Roman troops ransacked Palestine and lay seige to Jerusalem, Mark (as we shall call him for convenience) warns his readers to expect suffering before they are saved. Despite some apocalyptic passages he does not explicitly mention the destruction of the Second Temple, perhaps because he finished his book just before it happened. In chapter 13 he does describe a terrible ‘tribulation’ during which Jesus will descend from the clouds to ‘gather his elect’, an apocalypse that will happen very soon: the current generation will not die out before it happens. Mark would have been influenced by Jesus’s own apocalyptic message, but perhaps also by the Roman troops putting his homeland to the sword as he wrote. His Jesus offers hope to a suffering community.

Mark shows Jesus making modifications to Mosaic law, e.g. declaring all foods fit to eat, but sees him as coming in fulfilment of Jewish scripture, not in opposition to it. Mark’s Jesus is continually misunderstood by those around him – even the disciples don’t quite seem to get it. The Jewish scribes and Pharisees consider him a threat and eventually get him executed. Significantly, the only person in the Gospel who realises that Jesus is the son of God is the Roman centurion overseeing the crucifixion (15:39). Jesus was rejected by the Jews, and it is the Gentile world, represented above all by Rome, that will recognise and embrace his movement.

Written a decade or two later, Matthew and Luke both have a strong resemblance to Mark, with similar events, sequence and wording, which suggests they used it as a source. Scholars have labelled the three texts ‘Synoptic’ Gospels because of their close relationship (‘synoptic’ implying ‘seeing together’). Many historians argue that Matthew and Luke also used a now-lost collection of Jesus’s sayings known as Q (from the German Quelle or ‘source’), because of details their books have in common, and the writers then added their own material too, including conflicting accounts of Jesus’s infancy and of the resurrection. However, the two Gospels’ differing theologies suggest they were written independently of each other within different communities, and each may not have known of the other’s work.

Matthew was clearly considered an important and complete account by the early Church, and became the opening text of the New Testament. The author, who may have been based in Antioch, rewrote and expanded upon Mark, adding the Christmas story, the sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. Familiar with Jewish laws and customs, he was primarily writing for Greek-speaking Jews and seeks to place Jesus more strongly within the Jewish tradition. He argues that Jesus came in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies and calls for the respecting of Mosaic law, but thinks the law comes second to loving others. The first principle was: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (7:12).

Despite Matthew’s emphasis upon the cult’s Jewish roots, in his Gospel the Jewish leaders reject Jesus, even after witnessing his miracles, and are presented as hypocrites and enemies responsible for his eventual execution. John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers” (3:7), and Jesus challenges the priesthood by making a scene in the Temple:

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (21:12)

Then in chapter 23 Jesus makes an entire speech of ‘seven woes’ against the Jewish leaders, where they are again a “brood of vipers”. It is important to note that Matthew is not condemning Jews per se, as anti-Semites have liked to conclude, but the leadership. Perhaps his community was facing hostility from the local Jewish authorities at the time.

The Gospel also supports the very Christian notion of salvation through Jesus, as illustrated by the story in chapter 14, verses 22-33: the disciples are in a boat, beaten by a storm at sea, and they see Jesus walk to them across the water. Peter tries to imitate him, but begins to drown because his own faith is not strong enough, so Jesus intervenes to save him: “And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Whereas Paul thought Gentile converts didn’t need to obey the Mosaic law, Matthew is trying to create a Christianity in which arguably even Gentile converts must observe the law, to the extent that some scholars believe he wishes to promote a sect within Judaism rather than a new religion. Whatever the truth, Matthew puts his version of the cult into a contradiction with Judaism when he recognises Jesus as the Messiah offering salvation through faith, and even he appeals to Gentiles too. After the Resurrection, Jesus gives his disciples an explicit commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).

Luke strongly emphasises the spread of Jesus’s teachings to Gentiles. It was written at about the same time as Matthew (roughly 80-90 CE) and forms a two-part work with the book of Acts. Together these comprise about a quarter of the New Testament, making it the largest contribution by a single author. Jesus himself never preaches to non-Jews, so Luke-Acts seeks to explain how a Jewish Messiah became the focus of a Gentile religion, claiming that Jesus and the apostles approached the Jews first but were rejected. Acts proves Luke’s pre-occupation with converting the non-Jewish world. It describes how the apostles spread the word after Jesus’s ascension into heaven, and above all the career of Paul after his conversion. In Acts, in town after town Paul begins by preaching to Jews, is angrily rejected, and preaches instead to Gentiles who respond by forming a church.

Luke’s view seems to be that the Jews have their laws and customs that they will uphold – just as every people has its laws and customs – but that Gentiles need not uphold Jewish law because they’re not Jews, and can become Christians without being bound by them. Although Jesus was a Jew, his message is for everyone. He says: “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47). Thus Acts ends in Rome itself, symbolising the spread of the message to the whole world.

The fourth Gospel is very different, containing about nine-tenths original material telling different stories. The last to be written, in around 90-100 CE, John has more dialogue, less action, and its own preoccupations such as an interest in signs. There are three letters in the New Testament attributed to John which, if not literally by the same author, seem to be products of the same community. For John, the world is a wicked, hostile place and Jesus represents a light in the darkness. John shows little interest in the matter of whether to follow Mosaic law, and ‘the Jews’ in this Gospel is generally a derogatory term indicating enemies of Jesus. John wanted to emphasise Jesus’s spirituality and divinity. It is clear from the beginning that in this Christology, Jesus is eternal, existing before and after he was incarnated in human form, and equal to Yahweh. We don’t see that in the other Gospels. In fact, this is the most ‘divine’ version of Jesus, and the nearest to later Church orthodoxy.

Each of the four Gospels is interested in creating a particular ideology of who Jesus was and what his message meant. They are attempts to mould the real Jesus into a form agreeable to the writers’ own ideological context and, to varying degrees, one that could be embraced by non-Jews in the Roman empire [10], so that by the time the last of the four, John, was written, Jesus was no longer a radical Jewish nationalist but had become the eternal equal of God.

If Paul and the Gospel writers are so keen to spread Christianity beyond the Jewish world, why do they so often emphasise Jesus’s roots inside Judaism? Especially when it is becoming a new religion? Partly of course, they are themselves Jews (though not necessarily all of them) and interpret Jesus in the light of what they already understand. Bart Ehrman offers a further explanation, arguing that antiquity was very important in the ancient world: a Christianity going back a millenium was much more venerable and respectable than one created very recently, in the reign of Emperor Tiberius. “Even by the second century,” he writes, “Jesus was considered ‘recent’. If something recent is automatically suspect, then a religion based on Christ is in peril.” However, “if Jesus is predicted by the Jewish prophets and Moses, then the religion he established is very old indeed.”[11]

The Gospels as historical sources

The Gospels are not eye-witness accounts. Illiterate and without any education in Greek, Jesus’s original disciples were in no position to write down their experiences. None of the Gospel writers knew Jesus, nor do they claim to: the texts are testimonies of faith, written decades after he died.

There is little or no archaeological evidence to confirm any of the events of the Gospels – we must take the texts on trust. They share many similarities, probably because their writers relied on common oral traditions and even written sources such as the postulated Q. However, they cannot be considered reliable historical documents, because they also have many discrepancies. There are far too many to explore here, but a good example is how they report the story of Jesus’s birth, known as the Nativity. In Mark and John there is no birth story at all. In Matthew, after Jesus is born in Bethlehem he is visited by wise men [12] bearing three gifts; Herod comes to kill the child but the family is warned in a dream and flees to Egypt, only returning to Judea after the massacre of children is over and Herod has died. In Luke, Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem because of a Roman census; there is ‘no place for them at the inn’ so Mary places her baby in a manger (feeding trough) after he is born; some nearby shepherds are told of the Messiah’s birth by angels and visit the family; about a month later Jesus is taken to the Temple at Jerusalem where he is praised by Simeon and Anna, then the family goes back to Nazareth.

Matthew and Luke, knowing of the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah is supposed to be born in David’s hometown of Bethlehem, have both contrived stories to explain how Jesus, widely known to be a Nazarene, could have been born there. But these are completely different stories, with very little in common save the birth in Bethlehem and the family’s ultimate residence in Nazareth.

All four Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death, in another country, in another language (Greek rather than Aramaic). Without the benefit of first-hand observation, their writers would have taken their information from stories that had been in oral circulation for decades. In 1 Corinthians 11:23, Paul is commenting on the Last Supper and uses the phrase “for I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you”. He never met Jesus, so this probably refers to him passing on a tradition he has heard from other followers. There are also passages in Paul that sound like Jesus but aren’t reported in the Gospels, such as 1 Corinthians 9:14 (“those who proclaim the Gospel should get their living by the Gospel”), which again is probably evidence of an oral tradition.

Forty or more years after the event is plenty of time for oral communications to become unreliable. The stories the Gospels were based on may have changed over time, and then the writers themselves changed the stories too. Then, in turn, later traditions embellished the stories further. Some rehashed versions of the Nativity mention an unsympathetic inn-keeper who turns the Holy Family away, forcing them to take refuge in a barn surrounded by animals. Neither the inn-keeper nor the barn and animals appear in scripture. What we are told is:

And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

That’s all. The Nativity is a wonderful story that enjoys the contrast between Jesus’ royal, Davidic lineage and the impoverished conditions of his birth. But the popular, mass-consumed version of the story has come a long way from a difficult and dangerous first-century childbirth in a rude, mudbrick home in Nazareth. The story illustrates how deeply the real Jesus has become obscured by both the New Testament texts and the fond legends of later generations.

It is often assumed, even by lifelong Christians, that the New Testament offers a coherent and consistent ideology. It does not. The Gospel writers disagree on many points and even hold contradictory views. That is to be expected, because the various books were written by different people or communities in different geographical regions who may not even have been familiar with each other’s texts, and were trying to make sense of a very challenging series of ideas and events. There was no central authority dispensing orthodoxy; the nearest thing to such a body, James’s circle in Jerusalem, had been obliterated by the rampaging Romans. We have to approach each book as we would a work of literature, with an eye to who wrote it and for what purpose, and be prepared to notice when the purposes don’t match up.

Jesus as Messiah and God

If Jesus’s crucifixion had been like any other, he would have been just another failed rebel, noted in the history books alongside the likes of Judas the Galilean. However, his followers believed he was resurrected. That was the birth moment of Christianity, prompting a process by which the historical Jesus became the divine saviour of humanity with a special relationship with God.

Jesus himself, as reported in Mark, doesn’t like to describe himself as the messiah, and he discourages his followers from saying it too – this odd situation is known as the ‘messianic secret’. The Romans must have thought he was claiming to be King of the Jews, because they killed him for it, but Jesus prefers to call himself the ‘Son of Man’, a phrase from the book of Daniel which implies kingly ambition but is too ambiguous to be as explosive as ‘messiah’. The likely explanation of the messianic secret is that the historical Jesus did not think he was the messiah. His followers, convinced of the opposite, explained his silence by pretending that he was keeping it a secret.

At his death Jesus had failed to achieve the things the messiah is meant to achieve. There were differing conceptions of the messiah in Judaism, but none of a messiah who was crucified as a criminal and raised from the dead. Either Jesus was a fake, or the messiah had to be redefined. His followers opted for the latter. They had assumed he was the messiah during his lifetime – his death seemed to contradict that, but then God had vindicated him by resurrecting him from the dead, so the problem was to work out what sort of messiah he was. This approach ensured that his cult, unlike the movements of other failed rebels, stayed alive.

All four Gospel writers and Paul believe that Jesus is the messiah, though they don’t have identical views of what that means. For Mark and Matthew, the messiah must suffer in order to redeem the sins of humanity, so his execution was a necessity willed as part of God’s plan. For Luke, the messiah was a prophet and martyr, with no theme of redeeming sins: his death prompts people’s repentance for rejecting him, and they are forgiven that way. For John, Jesus is eternal and fully equal to God, and removes humanity’s sins through his sacrifice. There is no ‘messianic secret’: Jesus performs public miracles “that you may believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God.” For Paul, the resurrection heralded a period when the dead would begin to rise up at the end of time: the messiah would shortly return to Jerusalem, and all the world, Jew and Gentile alike, would be embraced into Israel.

In all these conceptions, Jesus was a suffering messiah who died for the sins of the world and was resurrected by God, thereby conquering sin, to return in judgement in the future. This was a messiah spliced away, though not entirely or immediately, from Judaism, and shorn of dangerous, nationalist politics.

All four Gospel writers and Paul believe Jesus was, in some sense, the son of God. In Jewish tradition, the term ‘son of God’ refers to people who have a special, intimate relationship with Yahweh, mediating the divine will in some way. It is very unlikely that Jesus himself thought he was the literal ‘son’ of God. He only claims it in the Gospel of John. In 8:58 he says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Not only does this mean Jesus was alive many centuries earlier, making him supernatural, he is repeating Yahweh’s answer to Moses when asked who he was (Exodus 3:14). Plainly he is claiming to be God. He also says things like “I and the father are one” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

But John’s Gospel was written about sixty years after Jesus’s death by someone who had never met him. If Jesus had made such an audacious claim, it would be astonishing if it failed to become part of the oral tradition around him. We may reasonably conclude that the real Jesus did not think he was God, and that his followers in his lifetime didn’t think he was either.[13] Only after some of his followers believed they saw Jesus resurrected did speculation of his divinity start, as Bert Ehrman explains:

Once the disciples claimed Jesus was alive again but was (obviously) no longer here with them, they came to think that he had been taken up to heaven (where else could he be?). In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinised – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus. After that a set of evolutionary forces took over, in which the followers of Jesus began saying more and more exalted things about him – that he had been made the son of God at his resurrection; no, it was at his baptism; no, it was at his birth; no, it was before he came into the world; no – he had never been made the son of God, he had always been the Son of God; in fact, he had always been God; more than that, he had created the world; and yet more, he was an eternal being equal with God Almighty.[14]

Paul seems to think differently. For him, God and Jesus aren’t the same thing, and Jesus isn’t quite as important as God. In 1 Corinthians 11 he asserts a hierarchy: “Man is the head of woman, Christ is the head of man, and God is the head of Christ.” Despite this unorthodox position, which eventually became heretical, Paul’s works were included in the New Testament. In fact, many scholars consider him the true founder of Christianity. In his lifetime his ideas were controversial and had been rejected by the apostles in Jerusalem, but in the post-Jewish Revolt world they were much more attractive. He already had a long record of teaching Christianity to the Gentiles, and his theology was perfectly placed to benefit from a shift from a Jewish to a Gentile audience. The early followers who thought Jesus was preaching only within Judaism, and that his followers would have to convert to Judaism if necessary, were partly defeated by the limitations of their own impoverished origins, because they were illiterate and therefore, like everyone who actually met Jesus, did not write their doctrines down.[15] Paul did, which made his ideas more durable and easier to spread. His posthumous ideological victory is illustrated by a simple statistic: out of the 27 books of the New Testament, only one is attributed to James, but fourteen, more than half, are attributed to Paul.

It is hard to say how far the Gospels are directly influenced by Paul. But the shift of emphasis is clear. Jesus the radical Jewish revolutionary became Jesus the universal spiritual leader, Jesus the son of God. Later Church leaders turned instructions like ‘love your enemy’ or ‘turn the other cheek’, which Jesus had intended as good advice for inter-Jewish relations, into universal instructions of peace and non-violence (ignored by nominally Christian governments ever since). As an orthodox, hierarchical Church gradually extended ideological hegemony, the differences between the various conceptions of Jesus that had existed in different communities and within the New Testament were glossed over: a “homogenisation, rather than illumination, of their distinctive emphases”, as Ehrman puts it.

The reinterpretation of Jesus’s relatively obscure original movement was so effective that a couple of centuries later the Roman emperor himself would convert to this new faith and make it the official religion of imperial Rome.


The Christian religion did not fall intact from the sky but developed through a process of ideological struggle. The arguments over how to interpret Jesus and his movement began immediately after his death, and even the sealing of the New Testament canon, or the official doctrine agreed at the Council of Nicaea three hundred years after Jesus’s death, failed to create a Christology acceptable to every Christian. The supposed resurrection of Jesus caused tremendous theoretical problems.

The biggest problem, of course, was the question. If you want to know ‘why was this preacher raised from the dead by God?’ there is no ‘correct’ answer, proved beyond doubt by signed and dated letters and archaeological artifacts, any more than you can uncover the ‘true’ stories of Tiamat or Jupiter. Much like art, religion is partly a figurative world, where the concrete elements must jostle with subjective interpretations.

Jesus never thought he was founding a new religion. He was a Jew preaching a liberal version of Judaism to other Jews, trying to prepare his people for an impending apocalypse. But his followers were chosen from the uneducated peasantry, which left the task of recording his teachings to an urban, Greek-speaking elite. The smashing of Judea helped to break the Church’s link with the ‘authentic’ school of Jesus, leaving his legacy in the hands of those who would formerly have been considered heretics. This Hellenistic faction of early Christianity reinvented him in the tradition of the Greek or Roman demi-god: a spiritual being, unconcerned with such earthly matters as the liberation politics of Palestine. The Gospel writers tried to argue that the movement was not a break from Judaism but a fulfilment of its scriptures. In practice, they launched a new religion addressing Gentiles instead. Jesus’s cult was no longer Jewish, but universal. Jesus of Nazareth had become the Christ.

[1] The Pharisees were a religious society of Judaism. Whereas the Sadducees, the party of the high priesthood, insisted on the Torah as the source of law even centuries after the time of Moses, the Pharisees were a party of laymen and scribes who spoke up for a more democratic Judaism and a more progressive relationship between scripture and contemporary social issues.
[2] The story of Paul’s conversion is told in chapter 9 of Acts, written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke.
[3] The existence of Jesus’s brother lays down an obvious challenge to the theory of Mary’s perpetual virginity.
[4] Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18).
[5] E.g. Jesus says one isn’t allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul the opposite; Jesus says the law continues until the end of heaven and earth, Paul thinks it is abolished; and so on. There is a powerful scene in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in which Paul tells Jesus face to face that he will tell people whatever he needs to, regardless of what Jesus thinks.
[6] Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War (ca. 75 CE), as translated by William Whiston.
The Bar Kokhba Revolt, launched in about 132 CE and crushed by Roman troops, had even more devastating consequences, with massive death and depopulation: it was arguably the most decisive cause of the Jewish diaspora. 
[7] The loss of the central Temple explains why Jews no longer sacrifice animals as outlined in the Torah, and now pray instead. This was also the era when authority shifted from the Temple priesthood to the rabbis (the flowering of Rabbinic Judaism).   
[8] Reza Aslan, Zealot (2013).
[9] Even early Christians, who lived much closer to the time of writing, were confused about the Gospels’ provenance: for example, the second century bishop Papias seems to have believed Matthew was originally written in Hebrew and translated into Greek later.
[10] This helps explain the peculiar trial scenes in which Pilate is infeasibly sensitive to Jewish customs and lets the Jews decide who is executed: the writers are trying to absolve
their (Roman) target audience from responsibility. Blame for Jesus’s death was instead transferred to the Jews that rejected him, which has provided a scriptural justification for anti-Semitism ever since.
[11] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (1997).
[12] We aren’t told how many ‘wise men’ there were. The assumption that there were three is a later tradition, probably based upon the three gifts. They are not three ‘kings’, either.
[13] Once Christians believed Jesus and God were the same, they had to deal with many difficult questions about the precise relationship between them. The complex doctrine of the Trinity was an attempt to resolve this.
[14] Bart D. Ehrman, ‘How Jesus Became God’, Huffington Post 29 May 2014. 

[15] Or if they did, their writing has vanished without trace, which perhaps tells its own story.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Bible and homosexuality

Some people prefer same-sex partners. There is no reason why this should upset anybody, but for centuries the Abrahamic religions have contributed to homophobia. Churches have banned gay people from attending and from getting married, and told them that their sexual preferences are offensive to the creator of the universe. In the United States in particular, opposition to gay marriage among the religious right has become an obsession.

Citing the Bible in support of homophobia isn’t as straightforward as fundamentalists think. It doesn’t mention lesbianism at all, and male homosexuality is mentioned only rarely. Jesus made no recorded statements on the subject. There are certain passages, sometimes referred to as ‘clobber passages’, that are read as clear statements against homosexuality by countless Christians around the world. Yet more progressive Christians question the intended meaning of these passages, and appeal instead to the spirit of tolerance in Jesus’s teachings. How can these opposed positions claim support from the same work of literature?

We should begin by pointing out that scripture is interested in same-sex sexual behaviour in males, not females. The religious authorities in the ancient world, as far as they even recognised lesbianism, probably saw no need to pass comment on it as women’s issues were taken less seriously. There is only one reference to female same-sex behaviour in the Bible, namely Romans 1:26 (which should probably be interpreted in the same way as Paul’s other comments, see below).

Religious arguments against homosexuality

Christians opposed to homosexuality rely on several arguments. Let’s look briefly at two of the main ones. The first is that our species reproduces through heterosexual sex, therefore any other form of sex is contrary to ‘God’s design’.[1] This is just an excuse for bigotry. If we did not allow anything that did not appear in nature, we wouldn’t have the internet, anti-biotics or artificial limbs, either. The existence of large numbers of gay people is actually strong evidence that homosexuality is part of God’s design, otherwise who created them all? Many of the animals God created also show ‘homosexual’ behaviour and presumably cannot be reprimanded for making unnatural moral choices.[2]

The second argument, popular within the Catholic Church, is based on the belief that sex should be for reproduction not pleasure. This rubbish, which has no Biblical support and derives from the Church fathers’ hostility towards sex, is applied inconsistently. There is no condemnation of infertile heterosexuals who continue to have sex purely for the fun of it. And who made sex pleasurable in the first place, if not God?

This article will concentrate upon a third argument: that sections of the Bible condemn homosexuality, above all the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah, Leviticus, and parts of the Pauline letters. We’ll look at those next.

Sodom and Gomorrah

The sites of Sodom and Gomorrah have yet to be identified by archaeologists. If they ever existed, the two towns lay on the plain of the Jordan river in Canaan. They have become powerful symbols of divine retribution against sin, above all the sin of homosexuality – from them the English language took the word ‘sodomise’, a modern term meaning oral or anal sex.

The events in Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned in a few places in the Hebrew Bible. When Abraham leaves Egypt, he moves north into Canaan and settles at Bethel. Lack of space compels Lot to move on into the Jordan Valley, and he settles near Sodom.

Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD. [Genesis 13:13]

In chapter 18, God tells Abraham he plans to take action against the two wicked towns:

Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me.” [Genesis 18:20-21] [3]

The key passage comes in Genesis 1-29. Two angels go to Sodom and at the gate they meet Lot, who invites them to spend the night in his house.

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, that we may know them.” Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any 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 said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down.[4]

The two angels protect Lot by striking the Sodomites with blindness. Then they warn Lot to flee the town with his family before it is destroyed. The reckoning comes after sunrise:

The LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. [Genesis 19:24-25]

Even the plant life is implicated in the cities’ sin. What are we to make of this strange, vivid story?

The Biblical term ‘know’ is a euphemism for sex, so scholars do not dispute that the men of Sodom arrive at Lot’s house in order to force gay rape upon his two guests. Some translations dispense with the euphemism: the New International Version for example says “so that we can have sex with them”.

The homophobic interpretation of the story is that the Sodomites are punished for being degenerate homosexuals. However the idea that they are destroyed expressly for practising sodomy – in this context, homosexuality – is never stated in the Hebrew Bible. According to Ezekiel 16:49 the guilt of the Sodomites was that they had ‘pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy’; their sexuality doesn’t merit a mention. Claims that the Sodomites were punished specifically for homosexuality appear only in later commentaries.

An equally valid reading of the story would be that yes, the men of Sodom’s behaviour is wicked, but it is wicked because they intend sexual assault, not because it is homosexual per se. Their crowning sin could just as well be violation of the law of hospitality towards strangers. Judges 19 tells of a similar incident in the town of Gibeah, where a Levite and his concubine are taken in by an old man, and again men of the town surround the house demanding to rape the visitor. We hesitate to believe that towns in ancient Israel were terrorised by gangs of gay rapists; and in the end the men are satisfied with the visitor’s concubine instead, so their homosexuality is hardly thorough-going. It is more likely that the Bible’s original readers would have understood this sexual violence as a threat wielded against unwelcome strangers – i.e. as extreme inhospitality or xenophobia. Someone participating in a ritualised sexual humiliation is not the same as them being gay as an intimate part of their personal identity. The episode at Lot’s house, therefore, was merely one instance of a pattern of brutality and sinfulness.

In short, the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah provides, at very best, only ambiguous support for the condemnation of homosexuality.


Even if we accept that the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative is not anti-gay, there are other passages in the Bible which seem much less ambiguous. Above all, there are two passages in Leviticus that are often quoted to justify homophobia:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. [Leviticus 18:22]
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. [Leviticus 20:13]

‘Case closed,’ you might think. In the homophobic reading, these statements – both spoken by God himself – are clear condemnations of homosexuality, even to the point of saying gays should be killed.

However here, too, there are alternative readings. One might be that these statements, like others in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, are cultural instructions for the ancient Israelites rather than eternal laws for all humankind. But the progressive side can make a much stronger case than that.

The story of the Hebrew Bible follows the Israelite people in their pursuit of the destiny granted them by God to invade, ethnically cleanse and populate the chosen land of Canaan at the expense of the indigenous, heathen peoples. (As we have discussed elsewhere, this is a myth: the historical Israelites were themselves indigenous to Canaan and originally practiced a similar polytheism.) The passages from Leviticus should be read in the context of the great lengths taken by the Hebrew Bible to differentiate the monotheistic Israelites from the Canaanites, who worshipped popular rival deities such as Baal.

The Hebrew Bible identifies homosexual activity with the Canaanite nations. The word translated as ‘abomination’ is the Hebrew tow’ ebah which implies something morally disgusting and strongly implies idolatry and ritual. Some pagan fertility rites included sex with both male and female sacred prostitutes, through which people could achieve intimacy with their gods. The verses may therefore be read as condemnations of behaviours associated with idolatry and paganism, rather than of homosexuality as such. In similar vein, crossdressing is forbidden (Deuteronomy 22:5) because of its role in certain pagan rituals, not as a comment on individual gender identity.

Again, ritualised same-sexual activity is different to homosexuality as we understand it today, as an intimate, personal aspect of identity.

Of course, Leviticus is notorious for anachronistic instructions which are ignored even by fundamentalist Christians. Other abominations besides ‘lying with a male as with a woman’ include eating shellfish (11:10), mixing fabrics in clothing (19:19), trimming your beard (19:27), and getting a tattoo (19:28), yet there are no outraged Christian campaigns against tattoo artists or polyester. There are very many other such verses that devalue women, discriminate against the disabled, demand that adulterers be executed, and so on – the same goes for Deuteronomy. The New Testament has some too. For example Corinthians 11:6 states that women must cover their heads to pray:

If a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.

And in Matthew 19:9, Jesus says that someone who divorces and remarries commits adultery, a crime that breaks one of the ten commandments and in the Old Testament is punishable by death. Yes, a Christian who remarries (such as US talk-radio cretin Rush Limbaugh, who after four marriages is a serial offender) deserves to be executed.

Modern Christians accept that such verses may be ignored because they belong to a particular cultural context, but some apply a different standard of literalism to people they want to condemn. Every Christian selects which of God’s instructions they will respect, based upon culture, denomination and personal preference.

Many Christians would argue that Mosaic law was made obselete when Jesus made his new covenant with humanity, and this is why Christians do not have to eat kosher food, circumcise their sons, etc.[5] If so, were the Old Testament passages associated with homosexuality not made obselete too? At this point the homophobes’ arguments become byzantine. Their objection is that only some of the laws were superceded whereas disapproving of gays is eternal. This depends on dividing Mosaic law into categories and claiming that some laws are outdated (ceremonial, judicial/civil laws) and others aren’t (moral laws). The truth is, these categories are not defined in the Bible but have been inferred from the text by later commentators, and there is no consensus among Christians about whether they have any force.

Leviticus is an ancient book written for a specific group of people under conditions that ended long ago, and in the 21st century its strictures are outdated. Christians today don’t feel bound by obnoxious rules such as the forced marriage of women to their rapists, so even if the Leviticus passages were intended as condemnations of homosexuality per se, Christians can choose to simply reject them as no longer culturally relevant, as they do so many others.

Jesus and Paul

There are no recorded statements by Jesus about homosexuality, which suggests he didn’t think it was important. His one statement that has some relevance arises during a discussion of divorce:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” [Matthew 19:4-6]

Though Jesus doesn’t mention gays, this sounds like an endorsement of heterosexual monogamy – until he goes on to answer his disciples’ query about whether husbands and wives should marry at all:

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” [Matthew 19:11-12]

Here Jesus identifies eunuchs as people would not consider marrying women. In the context of ancient Israel and Rome, men termed ‘eunuchs’ had not necessarily been castrated; the term also included those who were effeminate and lacked a sexual interest in women. This is the closest Jesus comes to a possible reference to gay men, describing them as being made so ‘from birth’, and he accepts them into God’s scheme without condemnation, recognising there are minorities who will legitimately follow different paths. Even if you don’t accept that Jesus had gays in mind, it is surely in the spirit of his teachings to extend to them the same general message of acceptance. It is also Jesus who reportedly said:

You shall love your neighbour as yourself. [Matthew 22:39]

The real meat and drink of New Testament-authorised homophobia comes from Paul, who is less progressive than Jesus. The books in question are 1 Romans and 1 Corinthians. In the former, Paul discusses a group of people who ‘knew God’ but had become vain, foolish and idolatrous.

Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves. Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. [1 Romans 1:24-27]

The homophobic reading, namely that people have rejected God and are committing sins including homosexuality, seems to have a strong case here. But again, the reference may be to the sex rites of pagan fertility cults – Roman ones in this case – rather than a condemnation of homosexuality per se. Paul’s self-appointed mission is to promote Christianity at the expense of traditional Roman and other pagan religions.

Our final passage comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. [1 Corinthians 6:9-0]

The problem centres on the term translated here by the ESV as ‘men who practice homosexuality’ – the Greek word is arsenokoitai, and precisely what Paul meant by it is endlessly debated. The two parts of the word mean male and bed, and the likelihood is that it does refer to men engaged in homosexual behaviour. But the nature of this behaviour is hard to pin down. It is probably not very obscure, given the basic nature of the other sins on the list, and the context is Greece, so Paul is probably referring to the well-known practice in ancient Greece of older men having relationships, both mentoring and sexual, with youths. Whether he meant to condemn homosexuality per se is impossible to tell, but the mentoring of youths by older men is long dead, so humane Christians may reasonably consider the reference anachronistic, and ignore it.

Even if we accept the most homophobic interpretations of the two passages above, must we then feel bound by every other contentious instruction? Such as this one:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. [1 Timothy 2:9-15] [6]

And don’t get a Marxist started on Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:1, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.’ If the homophobes insist on citing Paul, let them also demand that women be submissive and silent, or condemn Sophie Scholl for challenging the Nazis, and see how that is received. No decent person should feel obliged to respect such rubbish.

If we are to take Paul as an authority, what are the homophobes to make of this:

The commandments... are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. [Romans 13:8-10]

Paul argues in this passage that God’s commandments can be fulfilled simply by acting in a loving way (which surely implies, at the very least, tolerating rather than condemning homosexuals). Jesus in the Matthew verse cited above also ranked loving our neighbours as one of his two most important commandments, second only to loving God. If Christians want to cite Bible precedents when deciding how to behave, let them cite these.


There isn’t even a word for homosexuality in the Biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Koiné Greek: the ancient Israelites and early Christians did not have an adequate language for discussing the topic. This doesn’t mean ancient society was as universally backward as we might assume – in fact, the strong trend of homosexuality in Greece and to a lesser extent in Rome suggests that gay relationships were to some degree socially acceptable.

If you want the Bible to justify your vile homophobia, you can interpret selected passages to suit you. If you prefer your Bible homophobia-free, you can interpret them to suit that view, too. This underlines the foolishness of taking seriously an Iron Age anthology of superstitious texts, comfortable with slavery and the execution of people who work on Sundays, as a guide to how to live in the twenty-first century. Even if you do believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality, the text gives no reason why, except that Yahweh says so – which makes Yahweh look arbitrarily hateful.

The truth is that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about homosexuality. Where Bible verses do condemn homosexual behaviours, there is a strong case that they are condemning an aspect of idolatry and not homosexuality as such, i.e. as an intimate part of someone’s sexual identity. They no more apply to the LGBT people on a Pride march, say, than Jesus’ disparaging remarks about the corrupt tax collectors of ancient Judea tell us what to think about the British HMRC.

No gay man or woman has ever been struck down by a bolt of lightning for their sexuality: the hatred comes from human beings, living in a class society which identifies groups of people for discrimination as part of its power structure. Christians are not obliged by the Bible to be homophobic – if they insist on looking to an anachronistic book for guidance, they are perfectly entitled to choose generous, kind interpretations of it over hateful ones, and to commit themselves to the spirit of Jesus’s radical left-wing message: care for the sick, defence of the poor, charity, forgiveness, and loving our neighbours. Homosexuality itself is not a choice; but people can choose how they respond to it.

[1] Modern IVF methods complicate the argument, but we’ll put the issue aside.
[2] Animal same-sex behaviours are interesting, but
we shouldn’t take the parallel with human behaviour too far. Humans are uniquely self-aware and must be considered on their own terms.
[3] It
s unclear to me why God needs to ‘go down to see’ what the people of the cities have done when, being omnipotent, he ought to know automatically.
[4] To protect his guests, Lot suggests the Sodomites abuse his two virgin daughters instead: i.e. the duty of hospitality is more important than protecting his children. This is shocking, but to be fair, the Bible does not endorse Lot’s offer. He and his family are in general presented negatively: they ‘linger’ instead of getting out of town when told to; Lot’s wife looks back, though she was expressly told not to, and is turned into a pillar of salt; and the would-be rapists are put to the sword by the angels.
[5] Christians are explicitly excused in the New Testament from obeying sections of Mosaic law, such as circumcision and the dietary rules, which might have hindered the spread of Christianity into the Roman world.
[6] Despite its name, the book of 1 Timothy is usually ascribed to Paul, who is named as the author in the first verse. Most modern scholars don
t believe he actually wrote it.