(A lengthy discourse but well worth the read.)
Some time ago, I got an email from someone asking about an interview with Ed Oxford, published as a blog post on Forge titled “Has ‘Homosexual’ always been in the Bible?” Mr. Oxford argued that the idea behind our English word “homosexual” was not always in the Bible, and that the church has made a grave mistake when they started to convey the idea in their translations.
At the time I had never heard of this author or his writing, but I have since noticed this interview with Oxford popping up elsewhere, and I was fascinated by the fact that he graduated from Talbot School of Theology, a conservative Evangelical seminary, the very place where I graduated and where Sean McDowell teaches.
People may be attracted to reforming the Church’s interpretation of the Bible’s position on same-sex relationships because they have seen its abuse. Often times, they refer to the verses used against same-sex relationships as “Clobber Passages,” no-doubt because Christians with same-sex attraction have been clobbered with these verses by others in the church.
But if it’s true that same-sex unions are not in God’s design, then there is hope for the gay community that God can restore them to a way of life which is better than what they have ever known in their own sexual pursuits. This has happened for many people already—people who would probably never have found wholeness if they were convinced that the Bible validated their same-sex desires. In light of this, I offer a critique of Mr. Oxford’s position, not because I want to shut down hope for Christians with same-sex attraction, but because I think Oxford is incorrect and I want people to find freedom in God’s design.
What you are about to read is a revised version of this critique. After publishing the original version, I was contacted by Oxford who graciously invited me to join him in a dialogue where I could gain a more accurate understanding of his position. Knowing how tense these conversations can be, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it turned out to be a delightful experience for both of us! I valued the opportunity to hear directly from Oxford, and he likewise appreciated my willingness to listen. Although the crux of my position has not changed, I now have a better understanding of what Mr. Oxford believes and the rationale behind his approach.
“Homosexual” in the Bible
Those who believe that same-sex relationships are not prohibited in Scripture often mention how there was a cultural context in Biblical times where men would have sex with young boys. They may contend that this type of pederasty is what Paul had in mind when he condemned these male-to-male relationships. In this interview, Oxford defended the idea that this view was prominent in European church history, as evidenced by their translation of arsenokoitēs as something along the lines of “boy-molester” rather than “homosexual” or “those who practice homosexuality.” Likewise, he came to believe that the prohibitions of same-sex relationships in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were once translated in the same kind of way. Hense, his point was made: The concept of Homosexual as we know it today was not always in the Bible. Or, at the very least, the concept wasn’t always in those passages of certain translations of the Bible. (This would assume that we can glean the meaning of a compound word such as the German knabenschander by combining knaben “boy” with schander “molester.” Oxford recognizes that such activity is not always warranted, though in this particular instance he informed me that his research confirms such a meaning.)
Having spoken with Oxford myself, I learned that he actually doesn’t believe pederasty is the best way to think about these passages. Whatever the case, many of his beliefs to reform the Bible’s translation of these “clobber passages” for allowing same-sex marriage still come from his findings from old translations and lexicons (i.e., dictionaries specific to the vocabulary of something such as the Bible). I find this approach to be problematic. Allow me to explain…
Most biblical scholars don’t search out the meaning of Biblical words by browsing old lexicons and translations, at least not as a primary approach. One reason is that words change over time. If you look up the word “incredible” in Webster’s 1820 dictionary, you will see that it means something which cannot be believed. Today, we use incredible to express our amazement of something we believe to be true! Here is another, more relevant example: If you look up the word “boy” in the online English etymology dictionary, it will tell you that the word’s older usage was sometimes given without reference to any age.
Use the Right Sources!
What’s the point? We shouldn’t go to old translations/lexicons unless we have a good knowledge of what the words meant at the time the old sources were written. Otherwise we are susceptible to reading contemporary meanings into older words, which is a mistake known as “Semantic Anachronism.”
The New Testament was written in what’s called “Koine” Greek. Our best sources for Koine Greek are the more modern lexicons that have performed all of the work necessary to bring us back into the first century and is available in contemporary English. If we wanted to study Classical Greek, or the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament, written before Christ), then we would need different lexicons specific to those time periods because those Greek words don’t mean the same thing in different eras. They are often close, but there are important nuances. This is true for any spoken language.
A Better Approach
In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, the word arsenokoitēs is commonly translated to mean homosexual behavior. We can look the word up in BDAG, the “industry standard” lexicon of the Greek New Testament among scholars. BDAG tells us that the word could mean “a male who engaged in sexual activity with a person of his own sex,” or it could mean “pederast” (explaining why older translations sometimes used that term). It also says that Paul’s use of the word cannot be limited to contact with boys, citing important sources for why this is so.
Likewise, the “industry standard” lexicon for the Hebrew Old Testament is HALOT. With this resource in hand, we can know with great certainty that the prohibition in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 concerns men who lie with males (of any age). For any translation to limit this to young boys is an unwarranted restriction of the word’s range of meaning.
I asked Oxford why he invests so much time in the older lexicons and translations over the ones produced by modern scholarship. He believes that although BDAG and HALOT can be useful, their discussion on these terms is influenced by the narrative of today’s theology on same-sex marriage. By going back to the older resources, Oxford believes he can do a better job recovering what these prohibitions are really about. But even if these older translations and lexicons gave a different meaning (which I would contend is not always the case), are they not also products of their time?
Maybe the reason that modern translations speak of homosexual behavior is not because of an anti-homosexual bias, but because we have a better understanding of what the Biblical Greek and Hebrew actually says. Have we not learned more about these things since the early 1900s? Biblical language studies are in their zenith, informed by a web of data available to us, and the lexical work put into our modern translations are demonstrably better than anything produced in the bygone eras. Further, true lexical research is hardly about digging through the older translations and lexicons, but about digging through our ever-expanding databases of the original languages. This is not the kind of data which is easily swayed by contemporary bias. I’m concerned that Oxford’s area of research, though interesting, offers less persuasive force than he might be inclined to think.
Oxford’s interviewer never led him to discuss Romans 1:26-27, which is another important passage on the topic. I know you can’t cover everything in a single interview, but I find it important to briefly mention here for those who might still be hung up on pederasty for an alternative meaning. Paul says that men (Greek: arsēn) went after one another (Greek: allēlōn), that is, after other men (Greek: arsēn. Same word.) If Paul wanted to refer to men going after young boys, he would not have used “one another” and he would have used a better word for “boy” such as pais, paidion, or paidarion.
Additionally, in the passage in Romans, the men were engaging in the same behavior as the women (“the men likewise”). Since there was no female equivalent of pederasty, then the men whom Paul condemns must not have been engaging in pederasty either.
A Better Way
I do respect Mr. Oxford for his gracious attitude and his courage going against the grain of the Evangelical church on an issue that we all can agree is important to discuss. Sometimes the church needs correction, and it takes boldness for that to happen. In this case, however, I believe that Oxford’s attempt at recasting the translation of “homosexual” (more accurately, “homosexual behavior”) is misguided.
By God’s grace, we will find a better way to help our dear brothers and sisters in the church with same-sex attraction to find life in the truth of God’s Word.