Christianity did not enter the world independently of other religions, or uninfluenced by them. It began as a Jewish sect, and still shares with Judaism a major part of its scriptures and traditions. The Jews in turn were just one small ethnic group in a diverse Mediterranean world of conflicting cultures and civilizations, subject to repeated conflict and war with their neighbours, and to repeated bouts of conquest and slavery. Before we can really appreciate the place of queer men and women in “Christian” history, we need to consider their place in a wider context: outside the Jewish world, in the Jewish scriptures, and in the contemporary world of Christ himself, before the expansion of his following became an independent faith with a name of its own – Christianity.
The Rape of Ganymede (Rubens)
Before and Beyond the “People of the Book”
One characteristic feature of the Jews was how resolutely they identified themselves in religious terms, as recognising only a single God, who had chosen them as his people. In loyalty to this one God, they increasingly sought to distance themselves from the influences of all outside religious, with their elaborate pantheons of multiple gods and goddesses. What were the characteristics of these other religions, in their responses to human sexuality?
Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with their own kind – either divine or human.
The example of the Greek gods is familiar. From Zeuss himself, who abducted the youth Ganymede for his own pleasure, through almost the entire Greek pantheon, most of the gods indulged in erotic adventures with partners of both genders. The Indian gods include examples not only of same – sex love, but also of gender transitions. In fact, most polytheistic religious systems seem to include such examples of same – sex desire among their divinities, and some even honour gods with specific responsibilities as Divine Patrons of Homosexual Love.
The Jewish Scriptures
The Hebrews’ concept of a single all-powerful God did not incorporate any concept of divine sexuality, but they did include in their Scriptures numerous passages that describe same sex loving relationships, as well as tales of eunuchs as prophets.
The best known of these stories of same – sex love are those of David The Prophet & Jonathan, whose love “surpasseth that of women” and of Ruth and Naomi, and their distinctly queer family . The theologian Chris Glaser has noted that in terms of simple space devoted to them, these two stories of same – sex love represent the two longest love stories told in the entire Hebrew Bible. Glaser also notes, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that the first and greatest love story in scripture may also be seen as between two “men” – God and Adam. (Women, no doubt, would disagree with this representation).
In the story of Joseph and His Fabulous Queer Technicolour Dreamcoat, there are several indications that Joseph, so familiar to us even from childhood, may well have been what we in modern language would think of as trans. Among the Hebrew prophets, there are many who are identified directly or indirectly, as eunuchs – and in biblical times eunuch slaves were generally assumed to be available for sexual use, for example Daniel the Prophet in the Lion’s Den and the Three Young Men in the Burning Fiery Furnace who were his companions. In the story of the prophet Nehemiah, there is an important lesson for all queer Christians – to “Rebuild God’s Church”
The Hebrew Bible also includes a flat contradiction of the modern, conservative assertion that sex must be only within marriage, and for the purposes of procreation. The Song of Songs is an entire book of the bible in frank celebration of erotic, physical love, with no suggestion anywhere that the two lovers were even married, let alone thinking of making babies. At The Wild Reed, Michael Bayley, writing about The Bible’s Gay Love Poem has described how at least one scholar has even suggested that in the earliest versions, both lovers were men – and that later editors amended the pronouns to make them different sex.
The Christian New Testament
Right from their openings, the Christian Gospels offer examples of queer affirmative references. Matthew begins his account with a detailed analogy, to illustrate how Jesus’ ancestry goes all the way back to David – lover of Jonathan. Getting back to Jonathan, he shows too, how that ancestry also goes through Ruth’s queer family. Luke skips the genealogy and goes right to the story of the nativity – and a distinctly queer family that was very different from modern understanding of the Holy Family as matching the so – called “traditional” model. In the queer holy family, as a popular slogan has it, .
The Gospels offer tantalizing hints at Jesus’ own sexuality, which may have included some male love interest. In John’s Gospel, there are the repeated references to the “Beloved Disciple”, who was able to rest his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper, and who alone among the disciples, was present with his mother Mary at the crucifixion. There was even a tradition in some parts of the medieval church, that the famous wedding feast at Cana was celebrating the wedding of Jesus himself to John, his beloved disciple. In Mark, there’s the reference to the nearly naked young man with him during Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Tantalizing hints these are, but we have no really conclusive evidence on Jesus’ personal sexuality. What we do know for certain though, is that because it is accepted that he was both fully divine and also fully human, he experienced in his body all the normal physical responses of human men – including erections and wet dreams. We also know that in his life he was certainly not a conventionally heterosexual married family man, and from his teaching and example, we may conclude that he was certainly genderqueer.
However, more directly relevant to us are His teaching and example, which clearly show that His message is an inclusive one, that quite explicitly does include sexual minorities of all kinds. There is no evidence that Jesus ever married, and his advice to followers was to leave their families to follow him, most prominently in the all – male band of twelve. At a time when Jewish culture put great pressure on people to marry and raise children, and unmarried women were looked on with great suspicion, Jesus; closest friends included Martha and Mary, two women living together, and their brother Lazarus (who has his own claims to be seen as the beloved disciple). These are notably queer values in the Gospels.
The words of Jesus constantly emphasized respect, justice and inclusion for all, particularly the oppressed and downtrodden of all kinds. His actions, willing to go into the home of the Roman centurion to cure his sick slave / boy, show that this inclusion also included those whom onlookers would have assumed to be two men in a possibly sexual relationship.
Opponents of queer relationships protest that they are merely upholding Biblical values, but they are not. The models of family in the First Testament do not remotely reflect those of the modern, conservative understanding of the “traditional” family, and the values displayed in the Gospels are distinctly queer – not conservative “family values” at all
- Boswell, John: Christianity, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century
- Goss, Robert: Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible
- Guest, Deryn, Mona West, Robert E. Goss, and Thomas Bohache, (eds). The Queer Bible Commentary
- Jennings, Theodore W. Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel
- Jennings, Theodore W. The Man Jesus loved
- Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation
- Sharpe, Keith. The Gay Gospels: Good News for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People
- Some Divine Patrons of Homosexual Love
- Queer Gods, Demigods and Their Priests: The Middle East
- Joseph and His Fabulous Queer Technicolour Dreamcoat
- David The Prophet & Jonathan, His Lover
- Ruth and Naomi
- The Queer Family in the Book of Ruth
- Daniel the Prophet in the Lion’s Den
- Three Young Men in the Burning Fiery Furnace
- The Queer Lesson of Nehemiah: “Rebuild God’s Church”
- Christ’s Queer Family
- Was Jesus Gay? The Gospel of Mark, and the Naked Young Man
- Jesus’ Gay Wedding Feast at Cana
- Jesus: Not Gay, but Genderqueer
- The Gospel’s Queer Values
- John the Beloved Disciple
- John, the (Queer) Evangelist
- St Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles
- Martha and Mary, Lesbian Lovers?
- Jesus and the Gay Centurion