A Look at History

Jon Bodsworth picture from Egypt Archive.
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep – chief manicurists to the Pharaoh.

Why is it that so many people, especially Christians, have such a negative view towards homosexuality? 

Actually, it’s not as simple as that because Lesbianism has never been truly illegal in Britain, nor its colonies, whilst there have been many laws against male homosexuality – until quite recently.  Across Europe however, historically there have been cases of convictions for lesbianism resulting in disproportionately cruel punishments.  Both the inconsistency, and the levels of cruelty, must present a problem, or at least a few questions, for non-affirming Christians.  To give a little bit more detail about that comment concerning lesbianism, in the Middle Ages it was referred to as “the sin that cannot be named”, and sometimes people would be referred to as being “tried for a crime without a name”.  I understand that as proving a crime was tricky, safe convictions were not too common.  However, in 1477 a woman named Katherina Hetzeldorfer was tried in the German city of Speier and as a result of her conviction was drowned in the river Rhine.  It seems her crime was related to what she did with what we would term, a large dildo.  [pp72-73.  Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women, By Leila J. Rupp] The penalty for a woman having sex with another woman was frequently drowning, according to the writer of this book.

This week I wanted to take a look at history, because throughout much of recorded history there has been a tendency for those who are gay (as we would describe it today), to be disparaged or mocked and persecuted.  This was particularly true in Christianised Europe, and other places where European Colonization occurred.  However, that wasn’t universal.  In First Nation North American cultures, Two-Spirit folk were revered and honoured.  They were honoured because they balanced their communities, since they were neither male nor female, but stood between the two. 

“The concept of Two-Spirit folks existed well before the arrival of European settlers on Turtle Island*.  Indigenous individuals who identified as Two-Spirit folks were seen as gifted and honoured in their community because they carried two spirits with them, both male and female.  2S folks were often the healers, medicine people, and visionaries within their given community and they were foundational members of their culture.  Much of this can be attributed to the “double vision” 2S people are gifted with, being able to see both through the masculine and feminine lens.” https://www.theindigenousfoundation.org/articles/the-history-of-two-spirit-folk.
[* Turtle Island = name used by First Nations to refer to the North American land mass before the European colonization.]

At school I was bored by history, and perhaps that was because my history teacher was more than a bit rubbish.  Fortunately, I can’t remember his name, although I think I can just about picture him, but my mental image may be an amalgam of generic similar faces rather than a true memory.  However, I do remember us all sitting in class many times and being told to open the textbook and read the next chapter, whilst he got on with marking, or sometimes would be asleep at the front of the class within 10 minutes – different times!  Even so, we wouldn’t misbehave, because he had a violent temper, and if we disturbed him, we’d all get detention, which happened from time to time.  We would sit there and read about the Whigs and the Tories, William Pitt the Younger, the Corn Laws (and the repeal of the Corn Laws) and the South Seas Bubble – and it was all incomprehensible gibberish!  Today that period of English history seems just as muddled in my mind as it did then, and I have a clearer idea of the Viking period, King Alfred, the Norman invasion, and the Anarchy period in the 1100’s when there was civil war in England over the succession from Henry l, because his son had been drowned at sea in the White Ship disaster of 1120. 

Today I enjoy listening to history podcasts where history is presented in a far more accessible fashion, even if I only assimilate a fraction of what I hear!  Shout-outs to: “The Rest is History” (Tom Holland/Dominic Sandbrook); “Empire” (Anita Anand/William Dalrymple); and “History Extra Podcast” (BBC History Magazine).   Some threads  for this post were also prompted by “History is Gay” with their episode, “Cloistered Queers” (Leigh Pfeffer/ Gretchen Jones).

For a large part of history, sex was seen as something that was only appropriate for the procreation of the species.  If we look at the non-human world, in whichever sphere you choose, you see that after two creatures’ mate, they either have young, or in the case of the avian family the female lays an egg, which must be protected until it hatches.  In fish, the female produces eggs which the male then fertilizes.  It was therefore regarded as purely functional.   There aren’t many animals where sex is practised for pleasure.  However, in humans it was different, because humans weren’t slow to realise sex could be fun, but for much of history, ‘fun’ is not a word that has commonly been associated with the Christian Church.  Although God made sex something to be enjoyed, humans have never been able to get a balance between living under grace and living under law.  We want to please God and we know that to please God we ought to live in a particular way, but to do that we have to put in place laws, but God says throughout the Bible that laws are bad, and that instead, our behaviour code should be in our hearts not on paper (Jeremiah 31: 31-34), but how can we get rid of laws, without people abusing the situation?  Jesus says our righteousness must exceed the pharisees (Matthew 5:20).  And in all that, the fun gets lost somewhere, and everything becomes serious.

We have many verses in our Bible that give the impression that life is serious and we need to try a bit harder, of which these are a selection:

  • Philippians 2: 3 – Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,
  • Romans 12: 3 – Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
  • 1 John 2: 16 – For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

And just in case we forget that, Jesus was down with the kids:
Luke 18: 15-17: 15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them.  When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.  16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Also see Matthew 19: 13-14 & Mark 10: 13-16)  We all know how kids steer clear of serious adults but gather round those who play with them and make them laugh.  Jesus is clearly the example we should be emulating. 

Then there is also Matthew 18: 1-5 NRSV(UE) – but go on to read up to verse 15: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”  That’s not a child who is serious – “don’t speak unless you’re spoken to”, but one who is full of fun and mischief.

In the days of the New Testament church, we find there was a rise in Gnosticism.  This way of thinking had some roots in Christianity.  There was quite a broad spectrum of belief rolled up in Gnosticism**, but the main thrust was that people could attain Salvation through knowledge and that there were various degrees of “secret knowledge”.  In addition, the pervading thinking was that things that pertain to the “spirit” were good, and things that were associated with the “flesh” were bad.  Hence, we had a type of Dualism, and we still see some of that thinking in Christianity today.  Hence, prayer is good, and fun is bad – prayer is of the spirit, and fun is of the body; Hymns and worship songs are good, dance music (actually, probably any other music that makes us feel good) is bad (and of the devil, when I was growing up!).  Going to church – good, going to the pub, bad!  Sexual enjoyment was clearly bad because it was of the flesh.  You get the idea.

** If you are interested, use the search engine of your choice to look up more information about Gnosticism and its impact on Christianity.

Indeed, when I was a young teenager, my parents were uneasy when I went to the Wimpy Bar with friends after the Sunday evening service.  “Couldn’t you go some other time?”  Then, when I started going to the pub with church friends, when I was a little older… Hmmm!  It didn’t matter whether we were talking about policy issues we were facing in church (whether we could afford a youth pastor, who to appoint to the leadership team, how can we make the church building more useful, etc,) trivial chatter, personal angsts, or the current form of Crystal Palace, a mile or so up the road!

Getting back on track: yes, we recognise that sex could be fun, but that brought it’s own problems.  If we enjoy sex: Who could we join with?  When?  Is the pool of possible partners I can choose from, limited in any way?  Could we have more than one partner?  What happens if our partner says “no”?  What if they always say “no”? Different cultures will answer those questions in different ways.  As Christians we will have a different moral outlook to those who have no faith, because at the heart of our decision‑making process we should have a respect for our partner because we are taught that we should value and respect the other person, and if the other person is a Christian as well, they will value and respect us.  The relationship is two-way.  Abuse should be anathema to us, because that is a selfish one-way relationship and nothing to do with the spirit of God.

If we look at biology, for most of history it wasn’t known that women brought anything to the party as far as conception was concerned.  It wasn’t until the 17th Century that it was finally realised that the key components for reproduction were eggs and sperm (See “An Amazing 10 Years: The Discovery of Egg and Sperm in the 17th Century by M Cobb – Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester). It’s a fascinating in-depth paper explaining how the process of fertilisation was discovered.  Prior to this, the simplistic view had been that women merely functioned as vessels (empty incubators, if you like – or even if you don’t like!), into which the male placed everything that would result in the birth of a baby.  (Maybe think of the mother Kangaroo with a joey in her pouch.)

This idea persisted until the time of the ancient Greeks whose period (very roughly 700-480BC) started from about the Biblical time of King Hezekiah in Judah.  At some point during that period, it was realised that there was a dual contribution from both parents, but the mechanics were purely speculated – nothing could be proven and wasn’t, until the 17th Century, as I said just now.  And because it was much more obvious that men caused pregnancy, many people held onto the idea that women didn’t really contribute anything until it could be proven that this was wrong.

Hence when we read the story in Genesis 38 (1-10) about Onan spilling his “seed” whenever he slept with his late brother’s wife, Tamar, it was seen as wicked for two reasons: 1) that sex was supposed to be used to generate new life (In this case any child would be seen as extending his late brothers line, and would threaten his own standing/inheritance) ; 2) that he was effectively killing something that would result in a baby.  Onan was therefore seen as a wicked man who rejected the expectations of the society of his day.

So, if sex was seen to be for procreation and the “seed” intended for that procreation was just wasted on the ground, Onan was a doubly condemned.  This thinking that semen must never be treated as simply a waste product, presumably  underlies the historic unease/discomfort towards homosexuality.  (And also, masturbation.)

Before you ask me about the role’s of prostitutes/sex workers in the Biblical period, and were their clients trying to get them pregnant, I can’t give you an academic answer!  We know that sex-workers have always been around, whether they were part of paganistic temple worship, or simply working within a community.  However, throughout history, some people have known methods of preventing babies being conceived, or if they were, stimulating an early abortion, using herbal concoctions, amongst other methods.  But this area is beyond my knowledge at present, and I don’t have time to read around it today!

In spite of the unease of the Abrahamic religions, history demonstrates that what we describe as LGBTQ+ identity goes back to the beginning of recorded history.  We find erotic and homosexual depictions in Egyptian tombs and Wikipedia gives some examples of well-known stories and art. In fact the picture of at the top is thought to be of an elite pair of men who were buried in the same tomb. The fact that they are depicted as nose-to-nose suggests they were very close, but Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (- the chief manicurists to the Pharaoh), were not thought to be blood relatives. Enjoy exploring what you can find out about them on the internet. So, are they twins or lovers?

In addition, we find there is historic reference to homosexual relationships, whether that be male/male or female/female, in both texts and art, of the Greek period.  If you want to follow this up, there are many sites you can refer to on the internet.  For an overview you can read about the situation in Sparta, one of the Greek city states by reading about it here.   If you want to check the art of the period, you can start on this page, or do your own search.  Furthermore, we know about one particular unit in the army of the city state of Thebes.  This unit was called The Sacred Band of Thebes and was made up of 150 elite warriors and their gay partners, who were also elite warriors.  This unit of 300 men were formidable and were only defeated by Phillip ll of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) at the  Battle of Chaeronea 338BC.  Phillip was so impressed with their bravery that he wept beside their bodies.

When we, as Christians, look back on what happened in the past, we look at it through our cultural lenses.  So, if two men are having sex we say they are homosexual.  However, in Ancient Greece (and, as we said earlier, in Bible times this was around the time of the exile) people wouldn’t have been making this same judgement.  They may have disapproved, but they disapproved because one of the men had debased himself and ‘become like a woman’.  The active penetrating partner in the coupling would have raised no eyebrows, because society differentiated on the grounds of whether the person was active or passive, not on male and female.  Active/Penetrative = Male; Passive/Penetrated = Female. They weren’t judgemental so much on what they were doing, but on how they were doing it.  The passive partner flouted social conventions by lowering his station to that of a woman or slave, and it was this that made him feminine.

Within Greek culture, which we have referred to on a number of occasions, you frequently had a situation where a younger male would be taught the common social mores by an older male.  This included issues of sexual expression.  The older partner was called the erastes, whilst the younger male partner was the eromenos.  The eromenos took the passive role until he came of age, at which point the relationship would normally cease until the eromenos became the erastes for somebody younger.  Later it was common to marry a woman and start his own family.  None of this was particularly odd within the culture, and the relationship was normally respectful, though from my reading it sounds like there were occasions when this continued long after it would have been expected to cease, or that the pederastic relationship referred to, was more abusive.  I am much more inclined to feel that when the Bible talks about arsenokoites, although many translators have used the word “homosexual”, it is really referring to exploitative or abusive male/male sex.

You can read more about pederasty here.  But if you are fascinated by Greek writers and writings you can explore the writings of Aristophanes and Sapphos.  Aristophanes wrote a lot of plays, some of which had a bias towards what we would regard as homosexual themes whilst Sapphos was a poet born on the island of Lesbos, whose poetry often had what we would think of as a lesbian theme.  You could also take a look at Plato’s Symposium where he explores various themes about love.  There is a summary of the Symposium here and a brief look at the sexuality of the period here, but that site is quite useful because you can select other sections of the Symposium to explore by clicking the links in the left column.

Moving forward again in history, we also get hung up on how we use the word Sodomy.   Its derivation comes from the city of Sodom destroyed by God in Genesis, and in my essay, I have done a detailed examination of the text to demonstrate that it is simply plain wrong to associate homosexuality as the sin which condemns Sodom.  It is a misreading of the Biblical text.  If you read the story in Genesis 18 and 19, God had determined to wipe out Sodom long before the attempted attack on the angels.  The angels were only there in the first place to warn that the city was about to be destroyed.  Throughout the Bible, God always allowed time for people to repent after sinning, and indeed we are repeatedly told that God is slow to anger (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 103: 8; 145:8 and others!), so to argue that God knew what they were going to do, and that this planned almost pre-emptive strike was punishing them for this supposedly homosexual attempted rape, is theological nonsense!

The word “Sodomy” doesn’t appear in the King James’ Bible – the first Bible in the English language, though the word sodomite does (Deuteronomy 23: 17; 1 Kings 14: 24; 15: 12; 22: 46; 23: 7 – none of which are the traditional clobber passages).  However, when the word “sodomite” appears in the KJV, later translators use the words “(male) cult prostitute” or “temple prostitute”.  The first Bible to link sodomy to homosexuality was the Revised Standard Version in the late 1940’s early 1950’s, and many of the later translations simply followed their lead, because culturally it had been regarded as correct, even though it has now been accepted as incorrect, as I’ve mentioned many times in previous writings.

So, to link sodomy to homosexuality is manifestly wrong, but it has happened, and we are where we are, but we need to put it right.  Nevertheless, this word has been used in many ways down the years:

In the 11th century, an Italian monk named Peter Damian coined the term sodomia in a letter he wrote to the pope.  Damian was concerned about priests and monks engaging in sex with young boys (pederasty).  Damian listed several specific acts he had noticed the clergy engaging in: solitary masturbation, mutual masturbation, stimulation of the penis on another person’s thighs, and penetrative sex, both oral and anal. It may seem strange that solitary masturbation was on Damian’s sodomy list, but remember that the Catholic Church has always viewed any non-procreative sexual act as sinful. Even today, the Roman Catholic Church’s official stance on masturbation labels it “intrinsically and gravely disordered.”***

Kathy Baldock. Walking the Bridgeless Canyon (p. 16). Canyonwalker Connections. Kindle Edition.

***(“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” Vatican Archives, Item 2351, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm.

So, in this instance Peter Damian is using it to encompass: masturbation; oral sex, and anal sex.  By the way, sodomy also covered bestiality, and any anal or oral sex, whether it was with a man, or a woman!  At other periods, any non-procreative sex came under the term of sodomy.  Therefore, anyone nowadays using contraception of any kind, is guilty of sodomy.  In the course of my reading around this subject I came across this nugget, which just goes to show how bizarre sexuality has been:

In 1475 John Stocker, a chaplain of the cathedral of Basel, was convicted by an ecclesiastical court for committing sodomy with John Müller, a chorister who was also Stocker’s lodger.  The cleric justified his behaviour by saying that, while relations with a woman would not have been tolerated, he could have sexual relations with a boy and still be regarded a pious priest. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/history-matters/celibacy-misogyny-and-sodomy

 And I also feel compelled to include a couple of other striking quotes (my emphases included), gleaned from https://banap.net/spip.php?article122:

“The history of ’sodomy’ as a tool of political control is unavoidable, but should not deflect from our abiding concern with histories of sex and desire between men. The nature of surviving sources, with few descriptions in court records from before the fifteenth century, means that most of our remaining examples come from the late medieval or early modern periods.  Viewed sexually, sodomy was excessive rather than perverted sex, part of a propensity to loss of control rather than a specific tendency: Bernardino of Siena said in the 1420s that all ’unbridled and crazy young men’ were prone to sodomy because of their acute lust.” (Phillips and Reay, Sex Before Sexuality A Premodern History, p. 65)  

“Before the eighteen-century, then, it was conceivable that any man or woman might engage in the unnatural act of sodomy, as part of a more generalized bisexual behavior. Sodomites were not fundamentally different from anyone else.  They were simply sinners who engaged in a particular vice, like gamblers, drunks, adulterers, and the like.” (Merrick & Ragan, Homosexuality in Modern France, p. 12)

And perhaps the most amazing quote:

Sexual acts not geared toward procreation were commonly referred to as sodomy.  In addition to homosexual intercourse, this term might cover anal contact between man and woman, coitus interruptus, bestiality, and even sexual intercourse between Christians and non-Christians (Greenberg 1988, 274-275; Gilbert 1985).” (Oosterhuis, Stepchildren of Nature Kraft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identities, p. 21)

So, I would argue that to contend that sodomy and homosexuality are interchangeable is wrong.   And as I’ve said before, for the Bible to say that some form of behaviour is not right, it must be looking at something that only brings clear harm to someone.  What we understand as homosexuality, doesn’t, and in fact brings many benefits to those who identify as gay.  It is far more rational and reasonable to think Paul and the other writers were talking about sexual behaviour that was violent and/or exploitative and linked to some form of paganistic idolatry

So, I come back to the question I started with: Why is it that so many Christian people have such a negative view towards homosexuality?  I suspect that many Christians don’t really think through the repercussions of their theology – they like it to be simple, tied up in a nice box with a bow on it.  Most Christians I know, just read their Bibles in a very superficial way, and in an unquestioning way.  They don’t ask “why does the Bible say that?”  What point is the Bible trying to make?   How should I try and read this?  Why does this passage say the complete opposite to that one?  I have heard so many people argue that there are no contradictions in the Bible, and that they can all be easily explained, so others become afraid to ask questions, in case they are thought silly or ignorant, or that they are, whisper the word quietly … “doubters”!

I also don’t think many have any sort of real relationship with anyone who is gay, because in many conversations I have had, if a family member is gay, it is easier to work through to a different thinking.  There are, however, many Christians who hold a non-affirming attitude and when a child “comes out” they reject them and throw them out of the house, so that a significant percentage of the homeless are those who come from “religious” families.  The parents can’t cope, because to accept them, threatens their long-held beliefs, and if they don’t hold the line, what other parts of their faith will also be under threat. 

This was true at one point for me, in that when I started to change my thinking, one of my friends told me they expected me to leave the church completely and give up on my faith within a year or so.  I never felt that was likely, because I found the process exciting and liberating.  But I get it – I really do.  However, in my case, my faith is now far deeper than it was ten years ago, even if I feel some areas are paradoxically more fragile than I once thought, and I don’t have all the answers, but with God’s help I will continue to grow stronger.  And as a Lion once said in the land of Narnia, “Further up, and further in!”