Wednesday, December 1, 2004

James Alison

Per James Alison, in re: Romans 1 (For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ...): lesbianism is not, in fact, forbidden anywhere in the Bible:
A quick show of hands in any English-speaking country nowadays would probably agree to the following statement: ‘This quite clearly refers to lesbianism. That is the obvious meaning of the words. To deny that this refers to lesbianism is the sort of thing that you would expect from a clever-clogs biblical exegete with an ideological axe to grind.’ Well, all I’d like to say at this point is that we have several commentaries on these words dating from the centuries between the writing of this text and the preaching of St John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century. None of them read the passage as referring to lesbianism. Both St Augustine and Clement of Alexandria interpreted it straightforwardly as meaning women having anal intercourse with members of the other sex. Chrysostom was in fact the first Church Father of whom we have record to read the passage as having anything to do with lesbianism.

Now, my first point is this: irrespective of who is closer to the mark as to what St Paul was referring to, one thing is irrefutable: what modern readers claim to be ‘the obvious meaning of the text’ was not obvious to Saint Augustine, who has for many centuries enjoyed the status of being a particularly authoritative reader of Scripture. Therefore there can be no claim that there has been an uninterrupted witness to the text being read as having to do with lesbianism. There hasn’t. It has been perfectly normal for long stretches of time to read this passage in the Catholic Church without seeing St Paul as saying anything to do with lesbianism. This means that no Catholic is under any obligation to read this passage as having something to do with lesbianism. Furthermore, it is a perfectly respectable position for a Catholic to take that there is no reference to lesbianism in Holy Scripture, given that the only candidate for a reference is one whose ‘obvious meaning’ was taken, for several hundred years, to be something quite else.

And if lesbianism is not condemned, then neither is "homosexuality" per se. There is some Biblical issue with some sort of male sexual activity, but we don't know exactly what, since the word translated as "homosexuality" in Timothy and Corinthians was made up by Paul and nobody knows exactly what it means. In any case, it definitely refers to men, specifically. (I read someplace that a gay Orthodox Jew argues that the verb in Leviticus translates as "do not do to," rather than as "do not do with." Therefore the argument follows that this prohibition is against exploitative sex; sex done to somebody else, for one's own pleasure. It refers to sexual slavery, IOW. I'll try to find this reference and post it.)

In addition:
My second point is slightly more positive. According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. I will read you what they say, and please remember that this is rather more than an opinion. This is the official teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, at the very least an authorized Catholic source of guidance for how to read the Scriptures, in their 1993 document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church:

‘Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary ... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavourable attitudes to the Jewish people.’2

The list which the Commission gives is deliberately not exhaustive, but it has the advantage of taking on vastly the most important of any possible improper actualization, which is that related to the translation of the words όι Ίουδαιοι [hoi Ioudaioi], especially where they are used in St John’s Gospel. I ask you to consider quite clearly what this instruction means. It means that anyone who translates the words όι Ίουδαιοι literally as ‘the Jews’ and interprets this to refer to the whole Jewish people, now or at any time in the past, is translating it and interpreting it less accurately, and certainly less in communion with the Church, than someone who translates it less literally as something like ‘the Jewish authorities’, or ‘the local authorities’ who were of course, like almost everyone in St John’s Gospel, Jewish.

Now, given how vitally important the Jewish people and the relation between the Jewish people and the Church has been in the development of Christian Doctrine, if we are urged to avoid absolutely any actualization of the text, then the following statement must, a fortiori, be at the very least perfectly reasonable, if not actually highly recommended, as a guide to a properly Catholic reading of a passage dealing with something rather less important. Here it is: given the possibility of a restricted ancient meaning in a text which does not transfer readily into modern categories, or the possibility of one which leaps straight and expansively into modern categories and has had effects contrary to charity on the modern people so categorized, one should prefer the ancient reading to the actualized one.

Come on, folks. Let's get over this by now.

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