More on dodgy theology (3)

IMG_1664I wasn’t planning to write a long series on the subject of Israel Folau’s dodgy theology, but to be fair to Folau and those who hold similar views I should cover the other texts which are quoted in the debate about the Bible’s statements on homosexuality. In my two previous posts I referred to the texts in Leviticus about “a man lying with a man” but I should note that Leviticus wasn’t actually quoted by Folau in his controversial message on social media. I dealt with the Leviticus texts primarily because I’m an Old Testament scholar. Although that doesn’t disqualify me from writing about the New Testament, it does mean I feel more competent dealing with Hebrew rather than Greek texts. However, the New Testament was written by people whose Bible was what we call the Old Testament, and they were writing against that background and were heavily influenced by OT writings, so the OT is always a good place to start. Apart from the Leviticus texts, the other OT verses often referred to in discussions on this subject are the verses which deal with the sin of Sodom. I’ll come back to that in a later post.

But first, let’s look at the text which was quoted by Folau in his message on social media, Galatians 5:19-21. The version used by Folau in his quote (the Kings Kames Version, KJV) was written in 1611 and uses terminology which isn’t in common use these days. The quotation below is from a modern version preferred by many scholars, the New Revised Standard Version:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

We should note a few things about these verses. First, Folau has obviously equated “not inherit the kingdom of God” with “going to hell.” I won’t get side-tracked into a theological discussion about this, but will simply note that they are not necessarily the same thing.  Next I note that this list says nothing about homosexuality. The closest we might come to it would be to include it under an umbrella term like “licentiousness” but that would require making an assumption about what the term means and includes. The Greek word is ἀσέλγεια aselgeia and can refer to unbridled lust and debauchery, as well as gluttony and insolence. It isn’t restricted to sexual behaviour, and there is no suggestion in the scholarly literature that is means or includes homosexuality. On the other hand, the word translated “fornication” is the Greek word πορνεία porneia which does refer to sexual immorality (and is the origin of our English word pornography). It’s a non-specific term in that doesn’t refer to any one form of illicit sexual behaviour, and can include adultery and prostitution. Again, there is nothing in the word itself or its biblical or classical usage to suggest it includes homosexuality.

While this list quoted by Folau doesn’t mention or even imply homosexuality, it does condemn “dissensions” διχοστασίαι dichostasia, which means “causing divisions”. The writer (of Galatians) may have meant causing divisions in the church specifically, although this isn’t certain. It could mean causing divisions in communities or in society. I’m not about to accuse Folau or anyone in particular of being guilty of doing this, although some outspoken commentators seem not to have realised that being divisive prevents someone from inheriting the kingdom of God as much as immoral behaviour. The fact that Galatians lists it together with  ἔχθραι echthra “enmities”, a term which can include being hateful,  ἔρις eris, “contention, strife”, and ἐριθεῖαι eritheia “quarrels” (a term which, interestingly, is used by Aristotle with reference to  those who use dirty tricks while electioneering for office to obtain popular support), suggests that the writer was just as concerned about those who stir up hatred and division in the community as much as he was about those who were sexually immoral. People who use the Bible to condemn others should take note, and take care!



Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 2)


Israel Folau portrait session at Sydney Olympic Park, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Photo: Steve Christo)

Israel Folau is not alone in thinking that the Bible prohibits homosexuality. What he is probably not aware of is that the argument for this rests on some very dodgy translations of a tiny handful of texts in the Bible. I’ve seen comments on social media that, after all, Folau was only quoting the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. What many people don’t realise is that the KJV never uses the words “homosexual” or “homosexuality.” In fact, the word is a relatively modern invention and didn’t appear in any Bible translation before the mid-twentieth century.

What he also may not realise is that the ‘original’ Hebrew and Greek texts of the verses in the Bible which have been translated to condemn homosexuality are incredibly difficult to translate. One reason for this, in the case of the Hebrew (‘Old Testament’) texts, is that the sentence construction is so awkward we cannot be certain what the writer was actually saying, and at best scholars are guessing at what was intended. In the case of the Greek (‘New Testament’) texts an added difficulty is that the writer uses a word which occurs no where else in the Bible, or in any ancient Greek literature, so we really have no idea what it means. Again, scholars have to guess. There is considerable disagreement amongst scholars what these texts mean and how they should be translated. If a prohibition against homosexuality was so important to the writers of the Bible they could easily have made it clearer!

Let’s take a look at the main texts concerned. I’m a Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (OT) scholar, so my expertise is not with the Greek New Testament. I’ll focus on the OT texts. There are two verses in the book of Leviticus (18:22; 20:13), a legal text, which use a phrase translated as  “a man lying with a male as with a woman” or words to that effect, in the context of listing prohibited sexual relationships. The phrase contains an expression which is difficult to translate: מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה miškĕbê ʾiššâ. It literally means “the beds (masculine plural) of a woman” or “the beds of a wife” (“wife” and “woman” are the same word in Hebrew) so that the whole phrase would read something like “a man lying with a man on the beds of a woman/wife commits an abomination”. Scholars agree that this is an awkward way to say “a man must not have sex with a man” and there would be much simpler ways of saying it, if that was what the writer intended. The context in both verses is about individuals who are be considered  to be “off-limits” sexually due to their relationship with another individual. Grammatically, there are a lot of difficulties with the phrase, but without becoming too technical the best scholarly explanation I have read which makes sense of it in its context is that it probably has to do with ‘ownership’ and monogamous marriage. It is about family stability and prohibits a man from going to bed with a man who ‘belongs’ to a wife. In other words, a man can sleep with another man, provided they are both ‘single.’ But even if this explanation is wrong, to make any definite claim about such a gramatically difficult phrase is decidedly dodgy. Folau is on shaky ground.

Then there is the issue of the meaning of “abomination”. Eating shellfish, or wearing clothing made of two different kinds of fibre (Leviticus 19:19) are also “abominations”. I wonder, does Folau post on social media that people eating lobster, or wearing cotton-polyester shirts are also going to hell? I don’t think one gets to pick and choose with these laws: either you accept them all as binding, or reject them all.

A claim made by some of Folau’s opponents is that he is a hypocrite because he has tattoos, and the Bible allegedly prohibits tattoos. The sole verse quoted in the case against tattoos is Leviticus 19:28 “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” Interestingly, it is the same biblical book (Leviticus) which is quoted to prohibit homosexuality, so the argument goes that if one quotes Leviticus to condemn homosexuality one has to keep all the laws in that legal code, including the one about tattoos. In the interests of full disclosure I probably should confess that I have a couple of tattoos, although none as awesome as Folau’s! He also has a better canvas to work with!

The key words in this text are “for the dead.” Whatever it means, it probably refers to some ancient practice of cutting oneself as part of a mourning ritual. It almost certainly doesn’t refer to decorative “body art.” It’s in the context of some random laws, many of which relate to the customs of surrounding idol-worshippers. The verse immediately before it says “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” It’s difficult to determine what was behind this prohibition, but it probably had something to do with a ‘pagan’ practice that was associated with the worship of another god. While Orthodox Jews have a particular way of interpreting and practising that law, mainstream Christians such as Folau wouldn’t see it as obligatory for Christians. The prohibition against cutting/marking the flesh for the dead, falls into the same category. Again, we can’t pick and choose. Either all the laws are binding, or none of them. I think Folau’s tattoos are awesome, and I’m happy with my own. I’m also ok with wearing cotton-polyester, and ordering a short-back-and-sides at the barbers. I’m not an Orthodox Jew and the laws don’t apply to me. So I’m not going to single out any that I like and impose them on anybody else. I’m not going to come after lobster-eaters and post on social media that you’re going to hell. I wish Folau would do the same.

Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 1)

INSTAGRAM-GETTY-israel-folau-homophobic-1120The ongoing clash between Rugby player Israel Folau and Rugby Australia over a post by Folau on social media which said liars, atheists, adulterers, homosexuals and others would go to hell has triggered a fair amount of debate in the community. The main issues seem to be Folau’s rights to freedom of speech and to practice his religion, against whether a prominent public figure should keep his religious views to himself, especially if it is seen to target a group within the community (in this case the LGBTIQ community) which has already suffered enough. NRL player Ian Roberts has condemned homophobia in sport and pointed to the high rate of suicide amongst gay youth saying Folau’s comments could have an adverse impact on the “[gay] kids in the suburbs killing themselves.”

In this post I’m not going to weigh-in on the issues of freedom of speech or whether Folau’s comments have anything to do with freedom of religion. As a biblical scholar I want to look at his claim that the people on his list are going to hell. There are two issues here: (a) does the Bible say that liars, adulterers, drunks, etc, will go to hell? and (b) does the Bible condemn homosexuality?  In a subsequent post I will look at the claim by some people that Folau is a hypocrite because he has tattoos, and I’ll examine the verse they cite to say that tattoos are prohibited by the Bible.

First, who is going to hell? A lot of people are surprised when they learn that, according to the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) everyone goes to the same place at death! The Hebrew word is sheol and everyone – good and bad – goes there at death. Sheol is often translated as “hell” in English Bibles (such as the King James Version), but it’s not the kind of fiery place of judgment that we find in much later Christian writings. We don’t get any kind of description of sheol in the Bible. Some of the latter parts of the Hebrew Bible to be written speak of the dead being resurrected at some future time, and thereafter face a “judgment” to determine their final reward or punishment. This idea of resurrection is more prominent in the New Testament, but it has its origins in a small handful of places in the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Jewish literature such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s pretty clear that to the writers of the Hebrew Bible sheol/”hell” was a kind of waiting room until the resurrection at the end of the world as we know it. (I’ve written more about sheol and the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible here.)

In the oldest translation of the Hebrew Bible that we know of, the translation into Greek known as the Septuagint (probably translated between 300-200 BCE), sheol is translated into Greek as hades. This is one of the words often translated as “hell” in the New Testament. Hades probably had a similar meaning for the earliest Christians as the Hebrew word sheol and didn’t have any connotations of fire or burning. The word that is associated with fire in the New Testament is Gehenna and is the word generally used by Jesus, also translated as “hell”. Gehenna is derived from a Hebrew phrase and refers to a valley to the south of the city of Jerusalem where the city’s rubbish was burned. The dead bodies of executed criminals were also burned there, and Jesus himself would have been burned in Gehenna if a rich politician hadn’t intervened and paid for his burial instead. But it wasn’t a place of torment as the people who were burned there were already dead. In fact, the New Testament does say (Acts 2:27-31) that Jesus went to hell! This is in a text quoting the Hebrew Bible and using the word sheol. The writer was almost certainly thinking that Jesus was in the place of the dead, waiting resurrection. The only place in the New Testament that associates hell with fire and brimstone is a text in the highly symbolic and enigmatic book of Revelation, where the devil, “death” and hades/”hell” are all cast into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:10-15). This text is at odds with the later Christian idea that the devil rules in hell, because here he is destroyed in the lake of fire, together with hell! How could “hell” be a lake of fire if hell itself is destroyed in a lake of fire? I said this is highly symbolic and enigmatic!

The idea that hell is a place of torment for the wicked dead is foreign to the Bible. According to both Old and New Testaments everyone goes to the same place after death. Israel Folau should get used to the fact that, according to the Bible, he is going to spend some time in sheol/hades/hell with everyone, good and bad.

In my next post I will look at what the Bible has to say (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality.