Jesus’ Silence

I heard it again a few days ago. “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, only Paul did.”

People say this thinking that Jesus’ silence is a point in favor of affirming homosexual behavior. But they really haven’t thought it through. The silence of Jesus, if it is meaningful at all, is a point against affirming homosexual behavior.

Jesus was a Jew who spent almost his entire ministry among Jews. It’s well known that 1st century Jews had a strong ethic of heterosexual marriage. Like many conservative communities through history they did not accept homosexual behavior. Their Scriptures were against it. Their social structures made no space for it. Homosexual behavior was common and approved in Greco-Roman culture, but Jews found it decadent and abhorrent.

I assume that some Jews in first century Judaism had homosexual desires. But it is very unlikely that those who lived in Judea had opportunity to act on those desires, except in the most secretive way.

Jesus might have spoken up against this. He did speak courageously against his culture and religious tradition on other issues. For example, he opposed the tightly restrictive understanding of Sabbath, a volatile subject. He opposed the way men used divorce. He was never shy about speaking out against the status quo. But he didn’t speak about homosexuality. Why not? Probably for the same reason he didn’t speak about many other issues. The community had a settled policy that he had no quarrel with. If he disagreed, he would surely speak. Since he didn’t, the most likely explanation is that he was, regarding homosexuality, a conventional 1st century Jew.

You can’t prove anything from silence, but that’s certainly the most likely explanation.

Why was Jesus silent while Paul addressed the topic several times? That’s easy: Paul’s ministry was in the diaspora, where Jews mixed with Greeks and Romans. Homosexuality was prevalent. Paul addressed the topic because it was a question, in a way that it was not in Judea. He, too, reaffirmed a traditional Jewish stance.

We are in the midst of a social revolution regarding sexuality, and I don’t find it at all easy to know what to say on many issues, including homosexuality. It would be easiest to dispense with religious traditions and simply affirm the 21st century ethic of individual liberty. For those who retain respect for (let alone obedience to) Jewish and Christian traditions, however, it’s important to be honest. Jesus didn’t speak about homosexuality, so far as we know. That leaves us with the Jewish tradition unaltered and carried forward into Christian tradition.

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9 Responses to “Jesus’ Silence”

  1. James Says:

    This sounds like an argument for maintaining every Old Testament law that’s not specifically contradicted by something in the Gospels.

    I’m sure the list of horrifying examples is better known to you than to me. Do we really want to go down that road?

    I don’t think it’s dishonest to believe that “whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law.” That is, according to Wesley’s notes quoted at [http://bible.cc/romans/3-19.htm], “to those who own its authority; to the Jews, and not the gentiles.”

    • timstafford Says:

      Hi, James,

      I certainly don’t mean it as that. My point is simply: don’t try to make Jesus’ silence into something it isn’t.

      Jesus said quite a lot about the law, and so did Paul. As you probably know, there’s a long, complicated theological history of interpreting the OT law among the Gentiles. Some have, indeed, thought all should live out the OT law exactly as written. But the vast majority have seen it as fulfilled and transformed in Jesus. So, no, we don’t appropriate every command as written.

      Yet certainly, for every orthodox Christian theologian in history, the law is of value not only to Jews, it is of great value to all people. Appropriate it with subtlety and great care.

      • James Says:

        I agree that you can’t argue deductively from silence, but I think you go much further in the original post.

        Now that you replied, I’m uncertain. Are you arguing that Jesus’ apparent silence on homosexuality implies that homosexuality is evil, or not?

        If so: How can I reconcile this with my determination to ignore much of the law of the Old Testament? For example, according to Leviticus 21:17-23, the disabled cannot serve as priests. This law is not explicitly challenged by Jesus, but it would be immoral, and foolish, to try to enforce it.

        If not: What are you getting at when you say, “If he disagreed, he would surely speak” and “That leaves us with the Jewish tradition unaltered…?”

      • timstafford Says:

        Yes, I do think that Jesus very probably took a traditional Jewish view on sexuality, including homosexuality. I can’t prove it, but I think it’s more likely that not, given what he said about sexuality and what he didn’t. You don’t have to like that, you don’t have to agree with it. It’s an intensely uncomfortable reality for many in our generation, if it’s true. But Jesus has never been particularly comfortable.

        My larger point is that people are trying to skip over the difficulty of interpreting the Jewish view on sexuality. If they want to skip it because they don’t care, that’s one thing. But those who really care what the Bible says, what Jesus thought, what the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition taught, can’t afford to be so intellectually sloppy. I’m not telling you or anyone what to think. These are hard issues, and always have been. I’m telling you not to say that because Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality, he is all but giving permission for people to follow their hearts wherever they lead. Grapple with the stuff, or toss it away.

        I don’t find your mention of a nasty law or two–or even a hundred–very convincing argumentation. You could quote distasteful laws and outmoded laws from any legal code, especially those 3,000 years old. That doesn’t suggest even remotely that you throw the whole body of the law away. Old Testament ethics if a very subtle and rewarding subject, if you are interested.

      • James Says:

        Probably you are quite right, but since I reason for a living, I feel like I should try to defend my argumentation a little more fully.

        There are various reasons a person might come to believe that homosexual behavior is sin. Of these, there is one that I don’t regard as respectable, which is naive literalism. For that reason, I think it’s worthwhile to start by showing that literalism leads to untenable conclusions. This is the context in which it’s rational to quote nasty, distasteful, outmoded laws: When we want to show that a universal claim is false, we produce a counterexample.

        Of course, even if we accept that claims with counterexamples are false, we do not conclude that we must, or should, throw away the entire law. It forces our attention, though, to the fact that parts of the law are plainly immoral. This means that it is our responsibility to test the law, in the light of what we know and believe about God. In this process, reasonable people may come to different conclusions.

        In any case, I do not object to being told not to argue from Jesus’ silence. It just bothers me that it comes in the same post where you argue from Jesus’ silence. [again: “If he disagreed, he would surely speak.”]

        It is a shame that we can’t be together for the holiday — these are the sorts of conversations that could perk a Thanksgiving dinner right up!

      • timstafford Says:

        I agree, and I suspect you and I are over the limits of what can be accomplished in blog comments. Thanks for your very stimulating thoughts, which have helped me consider the subject of the Law more deeply.
        I think we can agree that silence is silence, and shouldn’t be mined for content. If I argue for my point of view from silence, I admit that is very shaky ground. My defense would be that I wasn’t arguing from silence but from context. We know Jesus as a man deeply rooted in Scripture. He’s not silent about that! My presumption, absent contradiction, is that he carries forward the Jewish tradition rooted in that Scripture.
        But as you point out, that tradition is a mixed bag. Bringing it forward into new contexts is a very delicate business. Jesus did it with great subtlety, often confounding people even in his day.
        My most basic concern would be for Christians to engage seriously with material in Scripture that they don’t like. It’s all too easy to assume that we know what’s right and the only important question to pose to our forebears is whether they agree with us.

  2. Silas Says:

    I just read this comment thread. Who knew that civil dialogue was possible on the internet? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law)

    • James Says:

      Silas, who do you think you are, passing judgment on who’s civil and who’s not?

      …Nazi.

      • James Says:

        Well, I tried, but I did not have the courage to let this go without an explicit disclaimer attached.

        For the record: That was a joke. Silas is nothing like a Nazi, as far as I know. 🙂

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