Did the Biblical Authors Just Not Know?
Interacting with a common argument for why the Bible doesn’t forbid same-sex marriages by Craig Hoekema
One of the convictions that undergirds The Abide Project is that the Bible cannot be faithfully interpreted as supportive of same-sex sexual relationships. Probably the most common objection to this conviction that I’ve encountered—and likely you have too—is that the biblical authors had no concept of monogamous, consensual, and permanent same-sex relationships, and therefore their writings can’t be understood to rule out same-sex marriages. And to be fair, this objection has a ring of credibility to it. After all, one of our tasks when applying scripture to today is to identify modern circumstances that are analogous to the circumstance of the original audience. And all of us get uncomfortable when we sense that not enough attention is being paid to scripture’s context or that applications are being made to modern situations that don’t seem very parallel to the world of the Bible.
So I can understand why some have found this line of reasoning to be a credible foundation from which to affirm (or at least make room for the possibility of) biblically faithful same-sex marriages. However, my conviction is that the credibility of this objection is superficial, and that upon closer examination, it’s a foundation that crumbles beneath the weight of biblical, logical, and historical consideration.
We’ll begin by conceding the possibility that the biblical writers (and Jesus himself) had no concept of monogamous, consensual, and permanent same-sex sexual relationships. Even if this were true, it doesn’t follow that their writings can’t or don’t rule out the possibility of same-sex marriage. If Jesus and the biblical writers held the conviction that ‘male/female union’ is essential to what a marriage is, then all other marital partner combinations would necessarily be excluded—even combinations of which they may not have conceived.
The evidence that Jesus and the biblical writers held such a conviction about marriage is eminently stronger than any suggestion that they did not. Consider the following realities:
Marriage is instituted in the creation narratives as a male/female union (Genesis 1:27; 2:24).
This ‘man and wife’ union is explicitly said to be the model for all future marriages.
Jesus (Matthew 19:4-5) appeals to these Genesis texts as authoritative for answering questions about marriage in his day.
Scripture testifies unanimously to marriage as a male/female union.
These four facts are profound evidence that the Bible understands marriage to be a male/female union by definition. If only one of the above evidences were in place, it would be enough to warrant suspicion that ‘male/female union’ is likely essential to the definition of marriage. To put all four of these pieces of evidence together is more than enough to turn suspicion into conviction. I would suggest that there is no other claim with the above-described scriptural testimony that we in the CRC would consider unclear or up for debate (and plenty with less testimony that we consider more than settled).
Put simply, if we had asked Jesus, "What if two men or two women love each other and have sex as an expression of committed marital union?" he would not have said, “Interesting concept—tell me more.” Rather, Matthew 19 suggests that he'd have told us what a marriage is from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. It's up to those who deny this to explain why the biblical writers didn't conceive of 'male/female union' as being essential to the definition of marriage...and if they didn't, then what (if anything) is essential to who or what marriage partners must be? And how would we determine that from scripture?
Let’s continue to concede the possibility that the biblical writers had no concept of monogamous, consensual, and permanent same-sex relationships. Even so, we run into the additional problem that it is an illegitimate principle of interpretation to say, "If the biblical writers didn't conceive of something, then their writings can't be understood to forbid it."
Those who wish to employ this line of reasoning would need to explain why we should apply this principle to same-sex marriage but not to myriads of other matters. Consider that the biblical figures had no concept of electronic interactions. Does that mean they couldn't have forbidden internet pornography or cyber-bullying or online fraud? The biblical writers also didn't envision marriage being a union between immediate family members, or between people and their pets. Does that mean they couldn't have excluded such unions as marriages? When it comes to examples such as these, I suspect Christians on all sides of the same-sex marriage debate would want to say something very akin to the previous section. That is, I think we’d all affirm that the biblical writers knew (and therefore teach us) what sexual purity is...what love is...what honesty is...what marriage is...and they didn't have to identify (or even conceive of) every possible deviation from these things in order for us to be able to say, "That's not it."
To this point, we’ve conceded the possibility that the Biblical writers had no concept of monogamous, consensual, and permanent same-sex sexual relationships. We’ve seen that even if that assumption were true, it makes for a feeble foundation from which to affirm same-sex marriage. However, it turns out that even this assumption is historically over-confident (at best). More likely, it’s historically inaccurate.
First of all, I encourage you to seriously ponder the plausibility of this claim, just on the surface of it. We know the biblical writers were well-acquainted with the fact that some people had and desired to have same-sex sex. Is it plausible to think that none of them—in the span of multiple millennia—ever thought, “We have this union called marriage in which sexual expression is God-honouring and beautiful. For those who clearly prefer same-sex sex, why not simply substitute a man for a woman (or vice versa)?” Is that such a profound or inventive extrapolation that none of the biblical writers even conceptualized it? Such a blanket assumption about previous generations strikes me as an example of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” (i.e. assuming the thinking of earlier ages was inferior to our own).
But more significantly, as shouldn’t be particularly surprising, there is evidence that people in the ancient world conceived of monogamous, consensual, and permanent same-sex sexual relationships. Dr. Preston Sprinkle has done a good deal of research in this area (e.g. see paper # 7 HERE; Did adult consensual same-sex relationships exist in Bible times?). Here is a succinct summary of a handful of Sprinkle’s findings.
When it comes to same-sex sexual relationships between females, there are several references around the time of the New Testament that describe such relationships as marital or marriage-like. For example, Clement of Alexandria from the second century mentions that, “woman behave like men in that women, contrary to nature, are given in marriage and marry other women.” Similar references are found in the writings of Ptolemy of Alexandria (2nd century), Iamblichos (3rd century), and Lucian of Samosata (2nd century). In addition, Sprinkle points to poets from before the time of Christ whose descriptions of female relationships are laced with consensual homoerotic language and ancient works of art that frequently represented female couples of the same age and status engaged in homoerotic and even marital behaviour.
As for sexual relationships between males, it’s true that the dominator / dominated paradigm held true for most male-male sexual relationships in the ancient world. However, we do see evidence of male adult-consensual relationships, particularly in literature. Petronius’ first-century novel The Satyricon, Xenophon’s second-century novel An Ephesian Tale, and another novel by Achilles Tatius written around the same time all depict consensual male lovers.1 Other historical and literary examples exist from Greek culture hundreds of years before Christ, including the famous Achilles and Patroclus, whom Plato and others considered to be divinely approved lovers. Additionally, a Jewish commentary on Leviticus from the second century says, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt…And what did they do?...A man married a man and a woman a woman.” While the author’s history might be off in terms of what was actually happening in ancient Egypt, it’s clear that he’s intending to draw application to what he considered a concern for his day; namely, same-sex marriages.2
In short, there’s sufficient evidence that the ancients had no difficulty envisioning the possibility of monogamous, consensual, and permanent same-sex sexual relationships. Therefore, we cannot attribute to ignorance the fact that scripture’s prohibitions against same-sex sex are categorical and offer no exception for these kinds of relationships. The evidence much more compellingly suggests that though same-sex marriages were a conceptual possibility for the writers of scripture, they knew them to be at odds with what God himself created marriage to be.
In the end, the argument that the biblical writers had no concept of monogamous, consensual, and permanent same-sex sexual relationships (and therefore couldn’t have forbidden them) may have a superficial credibility, but it doesn’t stand up to biblical, logical, or historical examination. The biblical writers knowingly reserve sex for lifelong male/female unions.
Craig Hoekema was ordained in 2008 and has serves Calvin CRC in Ottawa, Ontario.
Though these examples come from fiction, they illustrate that the concept of such relationships was not foreign to the ancient world. In addition, Sprinkle notes that historians are quick to point out that “such novels were designed to offer commentary on real life—the way it is, or at least the way the author wants it to be.” (Preston Sprinkle. Does the Bible Support Same-Sex Marriage? (Colorado Springs, CO.: David C Cook, 2023) 93.)
Dr. Robert Gagnon points to additional references, including Plato’s Symposium where Aristophanes refers to males who “are wonderfully struck with affectionate regard and a sense of kinship and love, almost not wanting to be divided even for a short time. And these are they who continue with one another throughout life.… [the lover] desiring to join together and to be fused into a single entity with his beloved and to become one person from two.” (cited in Robert A. J. Gagnon, “Why the Disagreement over the Biblical Witness on Homosexual Practice?” <https://repository.westernsem.edu/pkp/index.php/rr/article/ view/1548/1885> (26 October 2023).)