What if the Writers of the Bible Were Just … Wrong?

Caravaggiothe_inspiration_of_saint_matthThe Bible says some unpopular things – many of them true and important, necessary for us to live better, more Christ-centered lives. Many of them go against the grain of our culture, calling us to reject, for example, materialism and greed and to embrace generosity and compassion. These are difficult, and they are often unwelcome, but they are right and most Christians accept them, even if they do so reluctantly or with personal struggle.

But not every unpopular thing the Bible says is so clear-cut. And this leads to some acrobatics that I feel might not only be unnecessary but may actually be damaging to the way we read these ancient texts we value so highly.

Of course, I speak about two topics much discussed on this blog: women and homosexuality.

There are two big passages, in particular, both of which happen to be attributed to Paul.

On homosexuality, Paul provides the one and only clear-cut New Testament condemnation of homosexual behavior by both genders, in Romans 1:18-32, specifically verses 26-27:

That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies.

And on women, 1 Timothy 2:11-14 provides the strongest and I’d wager most cited admonition about the role of women in the church:

A [wife/woman] should learn quietly with complete submission. I don’t allow a [wife/woman] to teach or to control [a man/her husband]. Instead, she should be a quiet listener. Adam was formed first, and then Eve. Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather [his wife/the woman] became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived.

These are uncomfortable passages; not only do they cut against the democratic grain of our culture, in which we believe all people are created equal, but they are so over-the-top in their statements that they can be – and have been – used to propagate all sorts of unChristian behavior, from bullying and misogyny to murder and slavery. We rightly recoil at the way these verses have been used by the powerful to maintain their hold on the powerless, so we look for a way to provide these verses proper context.

But that leads to what I feel are some unconvincing attempts to contextualize these passages culturally.

For example, in an article about 10 lies the church tells womenCharisma writer J. Lee Grady writes:

In their book I Suffer Not a Woman, Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger explain that certain cultic worship practices involving female priestesses of Diana had invaded the first-century church. These priestesses promoted blasphemous ideas about sex and spirituality, and they sometimes performed rituals in which they pronounced curses on men and declared female superiority.

What Paul was most likely saying to the Ephesians was this: “I do not allow a woman to teach these cultic heresies, nor do I allow them to usurp authority from men by performing pagan rituals.”

Similarly, Justin Lee, president of the Gay Christian Network, argues that Paul in Romans 1 is addressing pagan temple prostitution in his condemnation of homosexual behavior.

Both of these are not uncommon positions, and they represent an effort to maintain the literal truth of the Bible’s moral admonitions while acknowledging that times have changed in the centuries since. That is admirable, but I think it might be wrong.

To take it further, I don’t think either of these really bolsters the credibility of the argument. It’s certainly possible that the writers in question were addressing a specific situation, but wouldn’t they have said so? And neither letter seems to be like a 1 Corinthians or 1 Thessalonians, which root their contexts in very specific circumstances where such an argument would make more sense.

That’s not to say I necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed in Romans 1 or 1 Timothy 2. My question is: What if those passages are simply wrong?

What if we stop trying to make Paul into a superhero, writing down timeless moral instruction with the Holy Spirit whispering in his ear – which is the notion even these efforts to contextualize his statements attempt to preserve? What if we accept that the writers of the Bible spoke within and to a cultural context that no longer exists? What if we acknowledge and account for the fact that this context came laden with a set of assumptions, some of which may no longer be acceptable in our cultural context?

What if Paul and the author of 1 Timothy were simply wrong?

“Wrong” is a tricky word and maybe a little inflammatory. It doesn’t mean the New Testament writers were wrong about everything, or even most things. In fact, given their cultural assumptions, it’s not even accurate to say they were wrong at all. Given what they knew about the way the world worked, their arguments might have been exactly right for their time and place. But knowledge changes, and with it, so do the moral assumptions based on that knowledge.

So in Romans 1, Paul simply assumes that homosexuality is wrong. Not even that gay sex is wrong, but that the attraction itself is wrong. Not only that, he speaks in terms of what is clear simply by looking at the natural order: “That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other.”

I’ve bolded the key phrases that clue us in to what assumptions Paul is working with, and those assumptions are problematic given what we now know: that homosexual attraction is born from a constellation of causes, including genetic, environmental and biological factors over which a person has no control, and that homosexuality is in fact prevalent in nature. Paul made a pair of assumptions that are simply not workable anymore, yet these undergird his argument about the nature of homosexuality, itself a label Paul did not know. Note also that Paul considers these lusts and actions the consequence not the cause of idolatry. He’s not trying to convince anyone of their sinfulness because everyone involved in the conversation assumes that right off the bat; in fact, they all agree it’s such a shameful and horrific activity that it’s actually the punishment for the less obvious, more prevalent sin of idolatry.

Similarly, in 1 Timothy, the author (who I do not believe was Paul) uses the order of creation and Eve’s role in the primal sin as the reason for the hierarchical structure he defends. It’s certainly possible this is some reference to a practice in Ephesus, but the text gives no indication of it, and I’m leery of trying to simply place that kind of specific cultural marker into a passage that doesn’t call for it. The argument simply loses credibility, in my opinion, and damages the credibility of the entire effort to equalize the roles of men and women in the church.

Rather, a simpler, much easier-to-prove argument is that the Greco-Roman culture in which 1 Timothy was written was heavily hierarchical. The roles of men and women were entrenched, and subverting them was tantamount to a treasonous effort to overturn the society itself. We could go on for quite a while about the causes and effects of these assumptions, but they existed, they are documented, and the secular Roman beliefs about men and women line up exactly with the beliefs expressed in 1 Timothy. Those beliefs, of course, are no longer tenable in our own culture.

These are uncomfortable arguments for many to make and many more to hear because they open up a wide swath of scripture to being written off as culturally conditioned. I acknowledge that danger. But if we are to truly respect the Bible for what it is, we must engage with what it says in the terms of the culture in which it was written. Many times the simplest argument is best, and in these two cases, I believe the simpler arguments are better – even if they are scarier to contemplate for many people.

22 thoughts on “What if the Writers of the Bible Were Just … Wrong?”

  1. I think the most common response to what you’re suggesting here would probably be “well, then… where does it stop?” But I think such an argument arises from the fear of a world where we no longer have an answer-all book – a world more mysterious and out of our control than many of us are willing to try to handle, psychically speaking. I don’t know that you’re right (although I’ve always suspected Lord Paul of some simple wrongness), but I think the knee-jerk reaction to what you’re proposing comes from a place of fear, which can’t be divine. I think we could all stand to let go of our pretensions of Pure Knowledge and Divinity.

    1. Hi Josh, yes, I totally agree that’s the basic argument in response, and the base emotion from which that rises. The fact is, it stops where your faith says it does. I’d like to see less of an effort to put up some sort of fortification around the Bible and acknowledge that at some point, apologetics is destined to fail and we must have faith.

      Those wishing to do so can go so far as to deny even the existence of Christ; I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t a slippery slope. But, like all such arguments, the worst possible result is not inevitable, and there are plenty of flat places where we can choose to plant ourselves. The question is whether we want to make opposition to equal rights for women and gays the place to stop when there are far more important elements of the faith on which to place all of our chips.

      This makes me think I need to do a post about what I see as the purpose and use of the Bible. It’s fun to knock down assumptions, harder – yet perhaps more important – to articulate the positive argument.

  2. Specifically to the Romans debate.

    IMO, Paul is discussing a specific incident in human history from the OT text( I think “they” are the dispersion of the 70 nations at Babel from Gen. 10-11), not the cause of all homosexuality in human history. Clearly it is from various causes as you pointed out.

    So, from that perspective I think Paul was accurate and our hermeneutic is flawed personally. That dispersion is among the biggest theological events in human history and it is not accidental that Jesus dispatched 70 disciples to begin regathering “the nations” in Luke .

    1. Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for the response! That’s an interesting idea; I haven’t heard that before. If you’re right, I think that hews closely to my theory about Romans being a text written to cut the Gentile Christians in Rome down to size, and that Romans 1 serves as a setup to remind them that they are not, in fact, any better than the Jews they now ostracize and/or condemn.

    1. Hi Doug,

      Thanks for the response! Certainly possible. But for that to be the case, we would have to ignore or reject the evidence God has left us in his physical creation about the way that creation works.

      I don’t mean to be flippant, but I’d like to see the argument for them being “right” a little more fleshed out. How do you define “right”? On what issues are they “right”? How do you reconcile what they say with the nature of creation as revealed through the study of it? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this.

      1. Focusing on the issue in women in ministry, I think it’s highly likely that Paul (and I think he wrote what he’s accused of writing) said exactly what he meant: He doesn’t want women teaching or having authority over men. He bases this on, among other more ambiguous things, the fact that Adam was created first. This means that it’s not based on the bad habits of a local church or culture thousands of years removed from Adam and Eve. It’s based on a simple assumed fact and doesn’t appear to me to be negotiable. This only really becomes a problem when we wring our hands in modern America because we want Paul to be wrong (or at least disregarded). Is it so hard to accept that this might just be God’s will on a matter and that we might not understand it (or that our culture is so degenerate that we can’t see the obvious value in God’s will)?

      2. Well, I think we have agreement on a few things. First, I agree the author of 1 Timothy said what he meant, and that he based it on a universal, rather than context-specific cause, the sin of Eve and the order of creation. I also agree that this would indicate a more non-negotiable position than we see in other areas of the New Testament discussing gender roles.

        But we disagree on where this becomes a problem. This isn’t a problem because of modern-day hand-wringing, in my view. It’s a problem because God’s creation has revealed to us overwhelming evidence from multiple sources that Eve was a mythical figure, which would seem to nullify the assumptions on which the 1 Timothy author bases the entirety of his arguments. (You could argue, I suppose, that the argument holds even if Genesis 2-3 are mythical in nature, but that would call for a level of knowledge the 1 Timothy author does not seem to display.) Which would indicate, at least to me, that we should shy away from using the Bible as a directly translatable handbook for church management and instead look at the larger message the biblical authors intended to convey from their context and discern how best to apply that message to our own.

  3. Excellent piece. The writings of the Bible represent the attempt by people at a certain time and place to wrestle with the idea of God. You could sum it up in a sentence: They developed cultural practices and ideas and attributed them to a deity.

    And it is exactly what people have always done and always will do. That’s why the attributes of and the demands of god changed between the Old Testmant and New. That’s why Christians today are certain that the things that are important to our culture are in the Bible, even though our modern issues and worldview would be totally foreign to any Biblical character/author.

  4. Paul,

    I’d go a step further and say Paul also cut the Jews down to size in Romans. It appears lots of that text is trying to get both groups to stop being Gentiles or Jews culturally, forget the past divisions and start seeing all believers are a unique “race” called “new creation”.

    On issues like you’re addressing, I think context is the most important issue.

  5. If Paul was wrong about the wrongness of homosexuality, for the reasons you gave, wouldn’t that also make him wrong regarding his positions on heterosexual lust and immorality outside of marriage?

    After all, everything you said about homosexuality can also be said about heterosexuality.

    It also seems that you assume an action or trait is right and good and moral simply because it is innate, and that we aren’t (or should not be) responsible for its expression.

    I would think if you wanted to apply this idea to your reading of scripture in such a drastic way, you need to make a case for, rather then assume, the moral goodness of homosexual behavior simply because it is innate.

    1. Hi Greg! Thanks for responding.

      I disagree on both of your two major points.

      First, that everything said about homosexuality could be said of heterosexual lust and sex outside of marriage. Paul discusses those latter two much more frequently than he does homosexuality, and there is a much more explicit tradition of condemning those two things in the Hebrew Bible, as well. There’s much less room for ambiguity, in my opinion, although we would need to look at exactly what was considered “fornication” and “adultery” in Paul’s context. I haven’t studied that issue, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it led us to revise some of our assumptions on that score, as well.

      Second, I do not assume something is right and good and moral simply because it is innate. The problem is that the only text we have clearly condemning same-sex sexual behavior is based on an assumption that such behavior is “unnatural,” i.e., not innate. The fact that we now know differently should lead us to rethink how we use that passage, in my opinion. It does not mean we necessarily come to the conclusion that God blesses gay relationships – though it certainly could lead us there. It does mean, however, that we need to have a better reason for labeling those relationships as sinful than simply citing Romans 1. I see no reason in this particular discussion to make a positive case for the moral goodness of gay relationships; that wasn’t the point of this post, nor is it necessary to moderate our view of what lessons we should draw from Paul’s writing in Romans 1.

      1. Paul,

        Thanks for responding.

        It would be an interesting study to look at how 2nd temple Judaism looked at and thought about homosexuality. I do think a case can be made that it too is sufficiently spoken of negatively in the Old Testament, so I would imagine 2nd Temple Judaism would reflect that position, and that Paul would have continued in that tradition, or at least been influenced by it, in his day regarding homosexuality. I have no familiarity with this subject from the perspective of 2nd Temple Judaism, so I can’t make a case either way.

        Concerning your second point, I would disagree with your definition of what Paul considered to be “unnatural”. Looking at the text in question, it appears that Paul is calling it unnatural only by way of comparison to the natural, which he describes as that between a man and a woman.

        Romans 1:27 – “and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another…”

        Or in other words, he was defining homosexuality as unnatural because it goes against the complimentary nature of the bodies of men and women. I think it goes without saying that a vagina is made to accept a penis, and that neither men or women together have the corresponding organ to use on the other in the same way. (In detail, a vagina naturally lubricates itself to accept a penis, while an anus does not. In fact, anuses are made not to accept anything, but only to expel. Naturally, a woman does not have an organ that was actually made to go into a vagina.)

        After all, from a first century perspective, this would be inherently obvious to even the most unlearned observer. I think a significant case can be made that this is why Paul was defining homosexuality as unnatural, and that even today, this argument would hold. Nothing has changed in the physical natures of either sexes to make homosexual relationships procreative or physically accepting in the same way that natural heterosexual relationships are.

        In other words, homosexuality is still unnatural, and will always be unnatural, because the sexual organs aren’t being used in their natural way.

        One can argue about the causes of homosexuality, but it does not change the obvious facts regarding the function of the sexual organs of either sexes. Even in homosexuals, a vagina is made to accept a penis, a penis is made to go into a vagina, an anus does not lubricate itself, and the corresponding sexual act is made to procreate.

        If Paul based his definition of “unnatural” on the physical sexual organs, and their natural use, which I think he did, then I think his clear condemnation of homosexuality, which you acknowledge, is in fact true, and still holds up even today. While our understanding of the causes of homosexuality have improved over the centuries, and that is fine and good and helpful to the church, the homosexual’s organs are still tied to their natural, original functions, and will probably remain that way as long as humans are around.

        Thus, homosexual relations, to use Paul’s terminology, are still unnatural, and Paul is still right.

      2. I think we agree that Paul assumes straight sex to be natural and gay sex to be unnatural. I think we differ on whether Paul was thinking so much about the anatomy of the situation. Gender was not so much biological as sociological in the Greco-Roman world, and the “natural order” was for the stronger gender to dominate the weaker gender. Anatomy didn’t really enter into that discussion, except to say that for a grown man to allow himself to be penetrated was an act of gender defiance that threatened the continuation of the society and was therefore not only among the worst acts a man could allow to happen but was also among the best ways to slander the opposition. And if anyone knew how to effectively slander people, it was Paul. The rhetoric of Romans 1 gives him away; he’s not delivering an anatomy lesson. He’s engaging in the well-worn Greco-Roman and Judaic traditions of hyperbolic slander, which use the agreed-upon cultural assumptions of the speaker and audience. Sometimes those assumptions don’t withstand 1,900 years of medical, scientific and genetic scrutiny. That’s not Paul’s fault; it’s ours for expecting something different from him than he was prepared to give us.

  6. All sex outside of marriage is sin in the narrative. Straight, gay, you name it. I guess the key here is does God endorse marriage for homosexual couples?

    I tend to think no right now.

    I’d start with this, it seems to me if He were of that mind, He would have at least tolerated gay unions in the narrative because He did tolerate polygamy, slavery (although it is unclear what that term always meant in the Hebrew bible), male chauvinism and other stupid stuff that didn’t meet His highest standards of loving God and man found in Leviticus.

    I’m still open to the idea, just don’t find support for it yet. Marriage according to Paul is a metaphor for the marriage of Christ and His church, so there may be theological hurdles.

    1. Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for the response! Thanks also for the clarification; we are indeed talking about same-sex behavior that would be considered morally appropriate if the partners were straight rather than gay. I had failed to make that clear, so I apologize if it sounded like I was making a case for any broader activity than what would be considered OK under the traditional norms for heterosexual couples.

      My one point about your thoughts would be to question the assumption that there were “gay unions” for God to endorse in the biblical era. As I understand it, monogamous homosexuality is simply foreign to the biblical culture, attempts to re-read David and Jonathan’s relationship notwithstanding.

  7. Paul, trying to find some modern justification for gay marriage in the Bible by parsing the details is a fool’s errand. The Biblical authors would have condemned it, and it does no good to say, “well, if only they knew what we know.”

    Because that is the entire point. They didn’t know what we know. They wrote what they did based on their cultural assumptions and limited scientific knowledge. Any reading of these writings should be based on the fact that they represent the views of people long ago and far away, whose world view was alien to ours today.

    The real question isn’t how we can contextualize certain passages to make them agree with our modern worldview, it’s to wonder why we look to base our lives on the writings of people from an alien culture.

    1. I agree. The writers of the Bible did not even know of monogamous homosexuality as a possibility; it simply did not exist in their context.

      I don’t think that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t “base our lives” on what the Bible says, though. It just means we should change the kind of lessons we should expect to learn from it.

      1. I used to think that way. But any kind of life lessons you learn you have to learn almost in spite of the text, not because of it.

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