Monday, March 20, 2006

Engaging The Text: The Vice Lists

At Connor's suggestion, I'm going to skip ahead to the Vice Lists. But before we do, let me apologize for coming from such a boring direction on the last post. I think that the issue of biblical interpretation is critical to how we continue this discussion, and if we don't agree on some rules about interpreting the text, I'm constantly going to get anonymous commenters accusing me of "bending over backwards to read the meaning I want", or of "ignoring the plain meaning of the scripture." But that last post was kind of a blah way to raise the issue, so maybe we can just deal with it as we go.

As an update, let's look again at the scriptures that may address homoerotic behavior, and mark off Sodom and Gomorrah, because it just doesn't have any answers to our questions.

Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19)
The Creation Accounts (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2)
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 18 and 20)
Paul's Theology of Idolatry (Romans 1)
Vice List (1 Corinthians 6)
Vice List (1 Timothy 1)


Today I want to look at the Vice Lists in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy.

Most scholars agree that 1 Corinthians was written by Paul. 1 Corinthians wasn't the first letter from Paul to the young church in Corinth; he mentions a previous letter in Chapter 5. Paul spends a lot of time in the letter responding to his Corinthian opponents and discussing how to deal with divisions in the church. The vice list that we're concerned with appears in Chapter 6, where Paul is talking about how to deal with conflicts among church members. Here's an excerpt:

If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another — and this in front of unbelievers!

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Ok, let's immediately notice that the first part of the passage is not about homosexual sex, or sex at all. Paul's telling the Corinthians that they need to solve their own disputes rather than take one another to court, and in the kicker of the passage, tells them:

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.

Then he reminds them that they are no longer sinners, but saints, and need to start acting like it. He reminds them to be sexually moral, and in the next chapter talks a bit about marriage and what people ought to do about it, because Jesus is obviously coming back in the next couple of years, if not weeks.

First, let's observe that this passage is not about homosexuality; it merely gets an offhand mention. Several authors, including the author of the article I mentioned in the post on Sodom and Gomorrah (Furnish), note that this list of naughty things is a common rhetorical device in period writing. So if this is a standard vice list, we shouldn't assume that Paul is referring to any specific behaviors of any specific person in the Corinthian church. Instead, Paul is simply listing a bunch of things that he thinks are self-evidently bad, as a means of getting to his point, which is, "you shouldn't be doing bad things".

On the other hand, it's possible that Paul is referring to a particular Corinthian behavior. If so, the Greek terms in the passage make it likely that this behavior is sex between men and adolescent male prostitutes. Even scholars who argue that homosexual behavior is sinful recognize this interpretation of the text.

The word malakoi is not a technical term meaning "homosexuals" (no such term existed either in Greek or in Hebrew),but it appears often in Hellenistic Greek as pejorative slang to describe the "passive" partners -- often young boys -- in homosexual activity.
Richard B. Hays, "Awaiting the Redemption of Our bodies: The Witness of Scripture Concerning Homosexuality", in John Carey, ed, The Homosexuality Debate in North American Churches.

In this case, the sinful activity described would include pederasty and prostitution, not consensual homoerotic behavior between committed adult partners. And the vice list in Timothy is even more parenthetical and vague ... the NIV does not even use the word "homosexual".

But no matter whether Paul is being specific or general, it seems clear that the point of these passages is not not the condemnation of consensual homosexual sex. Subsequent chapters in Corinthians talk extensively about morality and marriage -- a place some modern preachers would find perfect for a diatribe against "homosexuality" -- but Paul never mentions it again. And expanding his vague condemnation of gender-bending into a divine fiat against all homoerotic behavior seems to be stepping over some hermeneutical line.

Consequently, I'm going to reach the same conclusion about the Vice Lists that I reached about Sodom and Gomorrah: these passages contain no guidance regarding the morality of consensual homosexual sex. While I think we should at least consider Paul's (Paul's, not the Lord's) opinion about homoerotic behavior, this passge doesn't provide that opinion. Instead, we'll have to look at the passage in Romans, which we'll engage to in a future post.

10 comments:

connor said...

When I read these passages the word sodomites was used in both cases (NRSV) which I assume the interpreters were referring most likely to homosexual sex or (less likely) the broader sodomy of any type of sex outside of intercourse between whoever. I always thought that the NIV would be more explicitly anti-homosexual behavior than the NRSV but I guess I was wrong.

You've provided an argument that Paul is referring to pederasty and not homoerotic behavior in general. I'm no greek scholar but I would like to know if there is any level of concensus out in that scholarly world about this greek word?

You point out that they did not have a word for homosexuals like we do today, but that doesn't seem to be the issue. Homosexual and homosexual offenders in my opinion refer to different things. They must of had a way to refer to two men having sex; no society lacks terms describing all kinds of sexual things and acts.

With that, I'll let the vice list be inconclusive about the homoerotic behavior due to confusing old greek. I will say that if I was a Corinthian and had emailed Paul about homoerotic behavior he would of included in a letter a passage condemning it (just my opinion). Of course as you pointed out this would only be Paul's opinion which brings up the real debate for most people. From previous experience I would assume that it would not matter if the term used in the vice lists was obviously condemning homoerotic behavior of any kind or not, you would still not see it Paul's way. Which of course brings us back to your boring post.

Matthew said...

You've provided an argument that Paul is referring to pederasty and not homoerotic behavior in general.

Actually, I meant to argue that Paul could be either referring to specific Corinthian pederasts or referring to homoerotic behavior in a generic sense. Both interpretations seem reasonable to me.

But neither interpretation raises Paul's comment to the level of an intentional, theologically sound denouncement of homoeroticism.

If Paul is just mentioning homosexuality in passing, as something "obviously bad", his comment has only the tiniest ethical weight. If, on the other hand, he's talking about Corinthian pederasty, then it only has moral weight for pederasts, and none for committed, consenting adult homosexuals.

So while there's some disagreement about the Greek, I don't think the exact Greek translation should make a big difference in the moral weight we give to these two parenthetical comments.

I will say that if I was a Corinthian and had emailed Paul about homoerotic behavior he would of included in a letter a passage condemning it (just my opinion).

See, I think this begs the question. We don't know what Paul would say because, as far as we can tell, he has never even thought about the possibility of a committed homosexual relationship. The closest thing we're going to get to a thoughtful treatment of homosexual behavior in general is the passage in Romans, and that may not even qualify.

connor said...

As you have pointed out, neither of these passages is about homosexual behavior. So why are we discussing them? Because some people use them to condemn homosexual behavior. How do they do this if the passages aren't about homosexual behavior? By holding any of Paul's words as sacrosanct therefore even a little blurb in the vice list makes the cut for condemning homosexual behavior.

So you have provided an argument about how these verses can't be used to condemn homosexual behavior, but that argument would be invalid to people who would actually use these verses to condemn homosexual behavior. What's the point?

Matthew said...

As you have pointed out, neither of these passages is about homosexual behavior. So why are we discussing them?

Because some people say these passages are about homosexual behavior, and I'm wanting to consider the possibilty that they're right.

While people with a very rigid hermeneutic won't accept my conclusions about the vice lists, most of this blog's visitors seem to have some flex in their hermeneutic. So I post my posts in the hope that these people will pipe up and contribute to the discussion.

shane said...

I would argue this passage is part of Paul’s reaction to the report Chloe’s people have provided. This passage is preceded by a man who is reportedly sleeping with his step-mother (best case scenario- worst case is his biological mother) and by church members who are suing fellow members in civic courts, both actions are embarrassing the church in front of the community at large. In my opinion Matt has failed to broaden the context wide enough.

In Greek, authors would often pile up a bunch of synonyms or a constellation of actions to reinforce their point. With virtue and vice lists it is not good exegesis to pull each apart and examine the peculiar characteristics but to lump them together, stand back, and see the mosaic. Taking the broad look we see 2 distinct sections of 5 caricatures of Paul’s sense of wrong action: The first 5 loosely concerning sexual interaction, the second 5 loosely concerning financial interaction (admittedly, ‘drunkard’ is a looser fit.) Amazingly enough, these two subgroups happen to correspond with the two issues he has raised in the preceding section. Paul is directly addressing the Corinthian church with this vice list, and therefore it cannot be considered generic.

If this list is a group of two constellations of fundamentally wrong ideas, then the rhetorical purpose is to convince the Corinthian church they are also acting wrong. I agree Paul does not address the kind of committed, loving homosexual behavior Matt is investigating; rather Paul is referring to the situation he mentioned in chapter 5. Paul’s further discussion of human sexuality (6:12-20) moves to the most typical of sexual deviance-prostitution. This is where Paul does his theological work. Chapter 7:1 is a natural break, as Paul begins to address questions the Corinthians themselves have sent him.

But here is my objection to cold-cocking this text off the table: Paul includes homoerotic behavior in a list of sexual actions that are fundamentally inappropriate. Assuming Paul is referring only to the “passive” partners would indicate that the “active” partner has not performed any wrong action. Who is the guilty party in a relationship where an adult male uses a pre-pubescent boy for masturbatory functions (since it is not a loving, committed relationship)? Such action is wrong behavior on many levels. Paul used the term not to differentiate (remember the point of a vice list is the mosaic, not the peculiarities,) but to refer to the relationship’s wrong interaction. Context suggests he is probably not referring to a pederast relationship within the church. Hays’ word study is interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant to the passage.

The vice list is the assumption of wrongness Paul and Corinthians share. It is why he uses it as reference for the behavior within the church he is addressing. If Paul is using it as a fundamental ethical standard, shared by him and the church, it carries significant weight.

Matthew said...

Cool, so Shane takes the view that the vice list is more specific than simply a list of things that are obviously bad, but not so specific that it would actually refer to actual Corinthian prostitutes. (And their clients -- I suppose I omitted the argument that the term after malakoi actually refers to the men who were hiring the prostitutes.)

Context suggests he is probably not referring to a pederast relationship within the church.

This seems right, if you mean Paul is not referring to an *ongoing* pederast relationship, because the section in question is talking about things that the Corinthians no longer do. I didn't mean to suggest that there is ongoing pederasty by the members of the Corinthian church, just that Paul is referring to the wrong actions of Corinthians who used to be pederasts. In other words, it may be that Paul *is* referring to a specific behavior that the Corinthians have disavowed, and that that behavior is pederasty, and distinctly different from a committed homosexual partnership.

Hays’ word study is interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant to the passage.

If the vice list is even generically directed to the Corinthians, then I disagree ... translation does make a difference. For example, we probably wouldn't even be discussing the passage if it had been interpreted like this:

"Neither shrine prostitutes nor adulterers nor adolescent male prostitutes nor their clients nor thieves ... will inherit the kingdom of God."

In our current translations, the sinfulness of the first set of vices seems to involve the gender of the people involved. But interpreted this way, it would seem to stem from the character of the sex. And this seems like a much more reasonable interpretation, one that's truer to the themes of Corinthians as Shane understands them.

The vice list is the assumption of wrongness Paul and Corinthians share. It is why he uses it as reference for the behavior within the church he is addressing. If Paul is using it as a fundamental ethical standard, shared by him and the church, it carries significant weight.

I think I can accept that the vice list should carry significant ethical weight *if* the items in the list somehow reflect an overarching and universal ethical standard.

My questions are: first, do we have enough information in Corinthians to tell what that ethical standard is? And second, if we do, is the standard related to the gender of the participants, or to the power relationship between them and the character of their sexual interaction? The theological work that Paul does after the vice list -- work on prostitution -- and the broader text of Corinthians both seem to indicate the latter.

scott said...

Perhaps I'm too late in the game for anyone to read this, but:

Here's my main beef with Matt's argument: it's pretty easy to say Paul wasn't condemning homoerotic behavior in general when he apparently had no term to use for it. True, it's hard to take Paul's words as conclusive, but it seems to me that he condemns homoerotic behavior in every form he can imagine or has words for.

I think I suggested this last week, but I am rather suspicious of a hermeneutic which can't imagine a form in which a command could have been given such that we would see it as applying to ourselves.

Matthew said...

it's pretty easy to say Paul wasn't condemning homoerotic behavior in general when he apparently had no term to use for it.

That's funny, I've only seen this argument used the other way: to argue that Paul had never conceived of a loving homosexual relationship, and therefore we shouldn't apply his denouncement of homoerotic behavior to a loving, committed relationship.

So you're arguing that the two terms in the vice list constitute a condemnation of homoerotic behavior "in every form [Paul] can imagine or has words for"? And also that, by inference, this condemnation should extend to loving homosexual relationships?

I am rather suspicious of a hermeneutic which can't imagine a form in which a command could have been given such that we would see it as applying to ourselves.

I don't think this interpretation is the result of such a hermeneutic. First of all, the vice list absolutely does not use the language of command. And it seems that commands of God ought to take the form of commands.

Second, as the discussion with Shane shows, I allow that this parenthetical vice list could be interpreted as having ethical weight, but only if the following conditions are met:

1. We can show that in 1 Corinthians, Paul is making a clear and coherent attempt to establish a sexual ethic.

2. We can show that items in the vice list "plug in" to that ethic.

I think this goes about things in the right way, from broad to narrow. Other arguments seem to go the wrong direction, taking the "homo" words in the vice list and trying to extrapolate commands from there. *That*, I think, points to a questionable hermeneutic.

scott said...

That's funny, I've only seen this argument used the other way: to argue that Paul had never conceived of a loving homosexual relationship, and therefore we shouldn't apply his denouncement of homoerotic behavior to a loving, committed relationship.

I'm not saying the vice list proves anything (actually, I made a point to say in my post that it's not conclusive). What I am saying is that Matt's argument suggesting Paul didn't have a notion of loving, monogamous homosexual relationships cuts both directions and therefore does not make as strong a case as it seems.

If the act of gay sex were simply wrong (i.e., in God's mind), and Paul had some access to that fact, the most he could do is condemn it in the various forms he is familiar with. It seems to me he does just this, once you take the Romans passage into account.

I know we haven't gotten to that passage yet, but Matt played the Paul-Didn't-Know-About-Loving-Gay-Relationships card, so this is the point at which I felt I should note that that argument isn't as strong as it at first seems.

I suspect the response to this argument would be: since Paul didn't know of these relationships, we have to extrapolate from the rest of his theology, none of which suggests something evil in a loving, monogamous homosexual relationship. That's a good point, although I think Leviticus negates it -- but that, as they say, is for another day.

Matthew said...

What I am saying is that Matt's argument suggesting Paul didn't have a notion of loving, monogamous homosexual relationships cuts both directions

Good point.

So should we look at Leviticus next, or Romans? I'm thinking Romans.