Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Did Jesus Heal a Same-Sex Partner?

The Christofascists and the con-artists of the professional Christian set  love to insist that the Bible is "the inerrant word of God."  Except, of course when the actual language of Bible proves to be inconvenient - e.g., prohibitions against divorce, polygamy being the true biblical marriage structure in the Old Testament, prohibitions against lying, commands to feed the poor rather than amassing wealth, etc. - or, worse yet, cuts them off at the knee caps.  A column in the Huffington Post brings up another situation where the New Testament portion of the Bible proves unhelpful in the jihad against same sex couples.  What am I talking about?  The passage where Jesus heals the Roman centurion's lover or "pais" in the early Greek versions of the New Testament.   Here are column excerpts:

In this year's battles over same-sex marriage (there are referenda on the issue in Minnesota, Maine, Maryland, and Washington), opponents have tried to depict the issue as a choice between traditional religious values and some sinister homosexual agenda, between God and gay.   .   .   .   some people argue, what about the fact that the only sanctioned relationship in the Bible is between a man and a woman?

Well, in fact, that's not quite the case. The story of the faithful centurion, told in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10, is about a Roman centurion who comes to Jesus and begs that Jesus heal his pais, a word sometimes translated as "servant." Jesus agrees and says he will come to the centurion's home, but the centurion says that he does not deserve to have Jesus under his roof, and he has faith that if Jesus even utters a word of healing, the healing will be accomplished. Jesus praises the faith of the centurion, and the pais is healed. This tale illustrates the power and importance of faith, and how anyone can possess it. The centurion is not a Jew, yet he has faith in Jesus and is rewarded.

But pais does not mean "servant." It means "lover." In Thucydides, in Plutarch, in countless Greek sources, and according to leading Greek scholar Kenneth Dover, pais refers to the junior partner in a same-sex relationship.  Now, this is not exactly a marriage of equals. An erastes-pais relationship generally consisted of a somewhat older man, usually a soldier between the ages of 18 and 30, and a younger adolescent, usually between the ages of 13 and 18. Sometimes that adolescent was a slave, as seems to be the case here.

However, it is a same-sex relationship nonetheless. (It is also basically the same as the soldier/armor-bearer in the model of David and Jonathan, which I'll explore in a future article.) And what is Jesus's response? Does he spit in the centurion's face for daring to suggest that he heal the soldier's lover? Hardly. He recognizes the relationship and performs an act of grace.

Now, could pais really just mean "servant"? There are several reasons why this makes no sense. First, one would not expect a Roman centurion to intercede, let alone "beg" (parakaloon), on behalf of a mere servant or slave. Second, while Luke refers to the young man as a doulos (slave), the centurion himself specifically calls him a pais; this strongly suggests that the distinction is important. Third, we know that the erastes-pais intimate relationship was common practice among Roman soldiers, who were not allowed to take wives, and whose life was patterned on the Greek model of soldier-lovers.

If I and dozens of other scholars (some of whom are listed below) are correct, this is a radical act. Jesus is extending his hand not only to the centurion but to his partner, as well. In addition to Jesus' silence on homosexuality in general (he never mentions same-sex intimacy, not once, despite its prevalence in his social context), it speaks volumes that he did not hesitate to heal a Roman's likely same-sex lover. Like his willingness to include former prostitutes in his close circle, Jesus' engagement with those whose conduct might offend sexual mores even today is a statement of radical inclusion, and of his own priorities for the spiritual life.  

No doubt local loon Pat Robertson, Bryan Fischer, Rick Warren, and Maggie Gallagher all pretend that these passages are a part of the Bible as they relentlessly denigrate gays and same sex love.

Other takes on these New Testament passages can be found here and here.  The former looks at the historical basis for Hebrew opposition to homosexuality:  the Hebrews looked down upon their neighboring nations and people and deliberately set themselves apart as God’s Chosen People through the strict dietary and living codes of the Torah.  Here are relevant highlights:

Hebrew scripture and culture had roots in the same Mediterranean soil as their neighbors, but also the Hebrew people quite deliberately set themselves apart as God’s Chosen People. The Torah governed every detail of life from cradle to grave and served as an impenetrable wall around the Jews. One aspect of the Torah was a strict prohibition of homosexual activity among men. (The Hebrew scriptures contain no prohibition of lesbian activity.) Some scholars maintain that the Torah prohibition of male homosexual activity among the Jews was meant to protect the ritual purity of the Jews and cannot be seen as a condemnation of homosexuality in general. In other words, maybe the neighbors do those things, but we would never do them (Countryman, 1988).

The apostle Paul, whose letter to the Romans is often cited to condemn homosexual activity, could hardly be expected to have been comfortable with homosexuality. Paul began life as a Jew and a Pharisee, a strict observer of the Jewish Law. He inherited his tradition’s harsh attitude toward homosexual activity, probably without understanding the boundary-marking aspect of that condemnation. This attitude hardened in the three hundred years before Christ, as the armies of Alexander the Great and his successors occupied the Levant. Alexander brought in Greek ideas, including the glorification of the body and the idealization of physical beauty, both male and female. The former found expression in the gymnasium, where young men and boys exercised their bodies gymnos, or naked, as older men looked on, offering encouragement. Alexander also erected statues of their pagan gods that boldly displayed the virtues of the male body, often modeled after the beautiful, naked young men in the gymnasium. The revolt of the Maccabees against foreign occupation in 160 BCE began with the establishment of a gymnasium in Jerusalem and the erection of a Greek idol in the Jewish Temple (I Maccabees 1:14 and 54). For 300 years Jews had reason to connect the abhorrent idea of idolatry as practiced by the Greeks in the temples to their suspicious fascination with each other’s bodies at the gym.

The Romans, who of course absorbed much of Greek culture, arrived in Palestine as political and military occupiers in the first century BCE. The Jews increasingly set themselves apart from these foreigners.   .   .   .  Jewish culture and attitudes contributed to the context of the centurion and his servant, and so did Roman culture. The two cultures diametrically opposed each other with regard to homosexuality.

Unfortunately, ignorant preachers - many of whom attended two bit bible colleges that could not even meet normal accreditation standards - know little about the real history of the ancient world.  Consequently they are all too often among those who mindlessly repeat the far right lie that societies that have embraced homosexuality have fallen.   Yes, the Roman Empire ultimately fell, but  not because of homosexuality.  Indeed, as previous blogs have explored, the Church itself was a leading force that undermined the Empire.  And, whatever their failings, the Roman Empire and the city states of classical Greece endured for longer than the United States has existed and surely surpassed the levels of art and knowledge in Judea throughout their combined nearly 1,000 year duration. 

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