For the longest time, I have wondered how conservative Christians’ staunch certainty that the queer community is sinning against the Lord came to be. After recently watching an episode of "Queer Eye" where the person being made over was a gay pastor–who discussed the presence of gayness in the Bible, citing the story of Jesus healing the slave of a centurion–I did some further research, and began to realize that some of this turmoil was bound to happen. Not simply because of conservative American Biblical interpretation, but also because of erasure combined with injection of intentionally harmful translation into the Bible itself over many centuries.
Now before this column gets too far into the weeds, I want to make several things clear:
1) I understand that the marginalization of the queer community by religion does not occur only in Christianity. However, understanding that sexuality, most especially as it relates to religion, is a very nuanced topic, I did not want to attempt to speak on other holy texts or religious practices without the proper in-depth and at-length study of them first.
2) While this column focuses on the language of the Bible, I would also like to make clear that in evaluating this text, I am also calling into question the perpetuation of a theology that is not queer-affirming.
3) This is not a column that will put sexuality up for debate or shame the queer community. If that is what you are looking for, I suggest you stop reading this article.
With that being said, I turn my attention back to the topic at hand and continue to ask the question of why the church is so hell-bent on vilifying and demonizing the queer community.
The most common answer offered is that the Bible says it's wrong. This construction of “wrongness” is generally based on one of 6 passages from the Bible: Genesis 1-2; Genesis 19:1-9; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9 or 1 Timothy 1:10.
These six excerpts have become the go to sources for trying to browbeat people into thinking that identifying as LGBTQIA+ is a sin. While the use of these passages is by no means the beginning of anti-gay sentiment in the church, their mistranslation and subsequent misinterpretation has heightened the ideology that anti-gayness is Biblically justified.
The present-day understanding is based on a translation of the Bible that was not written until 1946. Leviticus 18:22, one of the “clobber” passages, is said to read, “Man shall not lie with man, for it is an abomination;” however, as scholar Ed Oxford found, this English translation did not appear until 1983, and this 1983 translation was an edit of the 1946 RSV version of the Bible. Prior to these translations, Leviticus 18:22 read, “Man shall not lie with young boys as he does with a woman, for it is an abomination.” This translation switch is a result of the changing of a Greek word meaning “pedophile/boy-lover” to “homosexual.” The switch was made in the German version of the Bible, which Americans used to translate the 1946 RSV into English.
I know that the language path has a lot of translations to follow, and that is exactly my point.
The Bible has existed for nearly 4,000 years. It contains 31,102 verses and has been translated into 698 languages. None of these was written in a vacuum, but rather within a very specific context, to speak to a particular group of people, cultural norms and values–meaning, our 20th- and 21st-century understandings of the Bible are not the first ones to exist, nor do they exist as stand alone readings. Rather, they come as a result of a Book translated and edited over several millennia.
While I may have focused on the misuse of Leviticus specifically, other passages such as the story of the centurion (Matthew 5:8-13, Luke: 7-10) mentioned earlier, the passage on the Sodomite Sons of Israel (Deut 23:17-18) and the other five “clobber passages” all show the ways in which the Bible has been misread to erase and condemn Homosexuality.
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I say this not as an invalidation of the Bible, but rather a critique of the way that present-day Christians choose to understand and interpret the text. There is a tendency to read the Bible as if it is a perfect work with no infallibility and as if it has never been modified. However, to do so can have serious moral implications.
To read the Bible as a perfect work is to discount the way that centuries of personal interests and communal agendas play into what the Bible is today.
To fail to account for the multiplicity of translations of the Bible, while also discounting the lack of synonymy between ancient, early modern, modern and postmodern language, is to do a great disservice to hermeneutical and theological construction.
All of this creates the perfect storm for the church to condemn and disavow communities such as the queer, whilst still claiming piety. I understand that the Bible is a Holy text, but that notwithstanding, there must be balance between understanding the Bible as Holy and still being able to critique it.
I know that it's impossible for the church to get everything right all the time, because we are human, but there is no excuse for the intentional mistranslation and erasure of communities from the Bible. And as Biblical scholarship and understanding progress, so must the church. This is not a call for a free-for-all reading of the Bible; rather, it is to say the church must learn to read the Bible in ways that create hermeneutical understandings that get back to the original languages of the Bible, or at very least understand that the English translation of the Bible is not exactly the same as the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic writings.
More than anything, Christians also must learn to read the Bible as a book based out of a place of love rather than condemnation. For if the Christian community cannot walk this line of piety and discernment, it will find itself upholding a theology that condemns everyone, without calling into question whether the church is building community or destroying it.
Tatayana Richardson is a Trinity senior who thinks all clergy should be required to take at least three classes on Biblical Hermeneutics and Church History. Her column "searching for Canaan" runs on alternate Mondays.