Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. is the acting academic dean and professor of biblical and constructive theology at Chicago Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (2003), Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative In The Literature Of Ancient Israel (2005), and the newly released Plato or Paul? The Origins of Western Homophobia (2009). For anyone interested in gay issues, specifically, the intersection of biblical exegesis/theological interpretation and sexual orientation and gender identity, Jennings is a must read author. I’ve read prolifically on this issue and Jennings’ scholarship is extraordinary. His readings of biblical texts are like none I’ve read before. Jennings even questions if Jesus was gay.
Personally, I have no theological problem with Jesus being gay. In fact, I chuckle when I think about the irony of homophobic Christianity if Jesus, in fact, was gay like I chuckle when I think about conservative Christians insisting on the King James Version, being that King James was probably gay. (See Michael B. Young, King James & the History of Homosexuality. New York: New York University Press, 2000, and David M. Bergeron, King James & Letters of Homoerotic Desire. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.)
Despite being a liberal Christian who doesn’t believe homosexuality is a sin, my initial reactions to Jennings’ scholarship were: 1) Why hasn’t anyone else made the points you are making?, 2) there is no way you are going to prove that Jesus was gay, and 3) if you can’t prove Jesus is gay, then is talking about Jesus being gay the best route to take? Being a formerly homophobic heterosexual Christian, I know that any talk about Jesus being gay will pretty much shut the door to a homophobic heterosexual brain. It comes across as some crazy scholar grasping for straws, just finding in the text what he wants to find in the text (like we all do at some point in time, or like we do most of the time!) and puts into question the rest of his scholarship. The more I read Jennings, however, the more I found his arguments hard to dismiss. No, he didn’t convince me that Jesus was gay, but he did persuade me that it was a possibility, and that my inability to conceive that a faithful reading of the Bible could support the idea that Jesus might be gay was an indication of just how tainted my interpretive eyes had become from homophobic translations and exegesis. In other words, I was having trouble seeing what was, or could be, in the text because I was suspicious of seeing in the text what I wanted to see. How’s that for an exegetical suspicion dilemma? (Kinda like worrying about people who worry too much.) I thought Jennings and I were probably trying to squeeze something out of the Bible that simply was not there, but what if my exegetical suspicions were actually getting in the way of me being able to read the texts? Generally speaking, exegetical suspicion (asking if you are just reading into the biblical text what you want it to mean) is a good thing, but in this case maybe it was a roadblock. Perhaps I, a non-homophobic Christian, was engaged in homophobic biblical exegesis and completely ignorant of what was happening.
Liberal me preferred to admit up front that the Bible did condemn homosexuality (in at least two places) but that in those instances those Biblical authors were simply wrong just as the biblical authors were wrong who depicted God as approving of the killing of the enemies of Jews and Christians, the subordination of women, and the slavery of any human being. A better tact, I reasoned, would be for us just to be honest about the Bible and about theological method (need for use of science, reason, experience, Bible and tradition and sources for theology, with the Bible not allowed to trump other sources). Jennings, though, has taught me that liberal Christians resorting to “the Bible at that point is just simply wrong” argument are failing to see some remarkable things in the church’s book, failing to recognize and factor in what Jennings calls homoerotic Biblical narratives/texts.
Below are some excerpts from Plato or Paul?: The Origins of Western Homophobia.
“I have attempted to show in my study of the Hebrew Bible that there is a great deal more in this literature than meets the homophobic or hetero-normative eye. That is, there is a remarkable amount of narrative material in the literature of ancient Israel that take’s same-sex attraction, same-sex relationships, and same-sex eroticism for granted and even makes it exemplary of the proper relation between the deity and “his” people. Thus if there are two verses of Leviticus that seem to condemn same-sex erotic practices, there are a great many narratives, including narratives produced in the prophetic literature, that take same-sex erotic relationships for granted.” (p. 10)
“Nor does this end with the Hebrew Bible. I have also shown that New Testament narratives (the Gospels) may be read as accepting same-sex relationships and even as suggesting that Jesus himself was engaged in such a relationship. And I have sought to show that this reading, for example, of the Gospel of Matthew or John helps to make sense of the elements of the narrative as a whole. In neither the case of the Hebrew Bible nor that of the Christian Gospels do I claim that my reading is the only possible one, but rather that it is a reading that takes the narrative seriously and pays close attention to the texts in question.” (emphasis mine) (pp. 10-11)
“…I will be arguing that the often cited texts from Paul do not by any means require a homophobic reading or appropriation.”
“….what Paul says doesn’t cause Western or Christian homophobia; instead, (cultural) homophobia causes the texts of Paul to be read in a homophobic way.”
“…those who are personally and professionally opposed to homophobia may nevertheless read biblical texts ‘homophobically,” that is, read them through the lens of a preexisting tradition of homophobic reading or appropriation.” (emphasis mine)
“Of course, the point of this exercise is not to absolve biblical texts of any and all responsiblity for the emergence of homophobia, but rather to ask how it came to make sense to appropriate just these texts in just this way. How does a tradition of interpretation come into being such that it could ultimately be made to seem that these texts produce the homophobia by which they are appropriated?” (p. 11)
“The effective origin of Western homophobia, I maintain, is to be found in the very influential texts of Plato.” (p. 12)