You’re a foreigner to the Bible.
Too often people go to the Bible unaware that time, distance, and culture—much more so than language—are the primary translational barriers between themselves and its writers. They are the scrambling force between those in the white suburbs of America and those ancient middle easterners whose livelihoods were lost in the Babylonian exile or under Roman occupation. Certainly Jesus’s gospel is powerful enough to enter into any culture, but applying the gospel in new cultures requires the hard work of understanding how it affected its original one. Because we usually do this work poorly, or skip it altogether, we assume things the Bible does not assume and fly past assumptions the Bible so completely took for granted that it hardly felt the need to express. These foundational mistakes set us up to apply the Bible with all our might to concerns that its own writers never found concerning and to give authority to writers beyond what they would have even claimed themselves.
This is what we do with Paul.
If you’ve been in churches for any length of time, you’ve met this man. Few sermons quote Jesus without quoting Paul at least ten more times. Paul, after all, tells us how we can get our sins forgiven so we don’t burn in fire for eternity . . . right?
Yet despite the fact that his few words on the ethics of homosexuality represent the entirety of that which is found in the New Testament, I’ve hardly quoted him at all so far. I’m not avoiding Paul. He has actually been with us this entire time. However, before I could focus your attention on his specific words, I’ve had to take you to hear Paul in a more biblical place—a place where Paul’s words carry the weight of his actual background. Otherwise, we take our cue from Victor Frankenstein and bring to life a theology that is a reactive monster.
As I hope to show you, reading and hearing the real Paul requires disciplined work on two fronts:
- The actual problems Paul sought to solve
- The methods he used to solve them
I’ve spent the better part of four long installments to give you tools for that work. For our purposes, we will finish that work today.
So let’s begin with the Old Testament prophet, Nahum.
(Note: When someone writes “let’s begin with Nahum,” that’s how you know they’ve given up all hope of becoming famous).
The Bible began when the 8th century Assyrian King, Tiglath Pilaser, created the world’s first professional army. Again, when you to pair this fact to every other great start the Bible got under the suffering of the world’s great killing machines, you can’t miss a powerful pattern. In 740 BC, Tiglath Pilaser marched that professional army from his capital in Nineveh, around the Sea of Galilee, and south into the Northern Kingdom of Israel, where it laid siege to its capital, Samaria. The immense and prolonged suffering of those caught in the middle of it all set off a fire in the heart of one of the earliest writers of the Old Testament. Down deep in those wretched circumstances, Nahum could not help but hear a God who would destroy his enemies:
The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The Lord takes vengeance on his foes
and vents his wrath against his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power;
the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.
The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.
The Lord will restore the splendor of Jacob
like the splendor of Israel,
though destroyers have laid them waste
and have ruined their vines.
King of Assyria, your shepherds slumber;
your nobles lie down to rest.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with no one to gather them.
Nothing can heal you;
your wound is fatal.
All who hear the news about you
clap their hands at your fall,
for who has not felt
your endless cruelty?
In Part 2, I explained the problem of empire and how it was central to the Jewish vocation to restore the world in the image of God. In Part 3, I explained how the book of Deuteronomy was the Hebrew people’s earliest, though not singular, answer to that problem. In Deuteronomy, which was written strikingly in the same form as the treaties by which Assyrian Kings governed conquered subjects, God rewarded good and severely punished evil.
And lest you might wonder whether Deuteronomy’s Assyrian form was an accident, Nahum left little doubt. Nahum made clear that Deuteronomy was at least partially engineered as kind of weapon against Assyria. Literally the entire book was about how God would take vengeance on them. Regardless of what God may have been saying, Deuteronomy was all they could hear. They heard that God would pay back the people who had inflicted so much misery on them. They heard that the same God who was slow to anger nevertheless could reach an irrevocable point when he would release a terrifying blast of sizzling agony.
“Nothing can heal you,” emphasized the broken and bitter man, and his people said “amen.”
Joppa: Part 1
And this sentiment had staying power.
When Babylon in the 6th century BC sought to rule the world, it too performed the march around the Sea of Galilee, march south, siege maneuver, and forcing into exile and slavery of the Jewish people. And those caught in the middle of it went back to the wrathful imagination of Nahum.
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137 was an amen to Nahum.
But a new thing happened too. The passage of time caused other people in the Babylonian captivity to see problems with Nahum. You can see in the text I quoted earlier Nahum’s promise that God would restore the northern kingdom: “The Lord will restore the splendor of Jacob like the splendor of Israel.” The problem was it never happened. In fact, it still hasn’t happened.
And this made Judah fertile for new ideas about God.
About who God is.
What God is like.
What God is up to.
And out of Judah came to life a new idea.
A new idea that found expression in my favorite book of the Bible, a book I must have read hundreds of times.
Jonah is a short book, but it is one of the ancient world’s great displays of literary brilliance. It’s progressive, it’s hilarious, and it’s bold. Whoever wrote Jonah had an agenda. From start to finish, Jonah comedically and satirically personified the wrathful ideas in Nahum. Also, he was a complete diva.
Those who first heard the story of Jonah were experiencing the human degradation of the Babylonian captivity, but the story took place during the previous captivity under Assyria. The story began quickly. God told Jonah to go preach to the people of Nineveh so that they would repent of their violence, but Jonah fled from the Lord.
Jonah didn’t flee because he was afraid of Nineveh.
He fled because he was angry at Nineveh.
And he had a plan.
Jonah had read Deuteronomy and Nahum. He had been obedient to Torah all his life. But he didn’t do these things because he had developed a tender heart. He did this because his pleasure centers were fixated on God’s white-hot wrath being poured out on his enemies. Again, for Jonah Deuteronomy was a weapon. It was an instrument of wrath prepared for those whose lives were happy and prosperous at the bitter and painful expense of him and his people. Jonah could not conceive of a future world made in the image of God that included gentiles—especially those like the violent Assyrians. His religious categories included one happy slot for Jews and one retributive slot for all others.
And so when it appeared that God might want to save those people after all, every warning blinker on his Nahum dashboard went off. What God called him to do was unconscionable. It could not happen. And so he reasoned that if, instead of going to Nineveh he just went somewhere else, the Assyrians would have no chance of repenting and God would then be forced to inflict the wrath that he had slobbered for all his life. So Jonah went to the coastal city of Joppa and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Tarshish was literally the farthest city in the known world from Nineveh. The author’s choice of Tarshish not only solidified Jonah’s status as a diva, but also set up a sharp argument.
If God’s heart was for the people (and animals) of Nineveh, Nahum was far from God.
Because no matter how hard Jonah tried to force God to activate Nahum, God just wouldn’t let it happen. That’s the great scandal of the story. Instead of God preparing wrath, God prepared a great fish. You know the story. Jonah was swallowed, vomited back to the shore, and forced to grudgingly go to Nineveh.
Even when he got there, Jonah was still working to try and prevent them from escaping the wrath of Deuteronomy. So instead of preaching a passionate sermon calculated to win their hearts and minds, he preached easily the worst sermon in the entire Bible.
“Forty days and Nineveh will be otherthrown,” was the whole thing.
Yet the English reader usually misses and important word in the Hebrew. Jonah accidentally unleashed a pun on himself. In Hebrew the word for “will be overthrown” is the same word for “will repent.” And that’s what happened.
To Jonah’s horror, right there in front of him the most powerful city in the known world—all the way from its king to literally its cows—instantly and without hesitation cried out to the Lord, declared a fast, and fell prostrate in sackcloth and ashes. Jonah preached the worst sermon in the entire Bible and it produced the most successful display of repentance in the entire Bible. No prophet in all of history was more successful than the man portrayed in this Jewish comedy.
And he came furious.
After Jonah saw the whole city of Nineveh instantly repudiate its violence, and thus would be spared the fire of Heaven’s hottest furnace, the rest of the story shows Jonah having a meltdown on a hill outside the city.
Jonah was a comedy, but it introduced a serious and sophisticated argument about the Jewish vocation: Even the worst gentiles in the empire could change and enter the kingdom of God—even the Assyrians, and by extension the Babylonians.
It’s an idea I’m fond of, considering I’m a rather wealthy resident of Nineveh.
Joppa: Part 2
This is the rich literary tradition behind what happened next. We’re getting warm.
Hundreds of years later, Joppa was again the scene of a Jewish move. It had been a decade since Jesus had died when the apostle Peter, one of his twelve disciples, was in meditation on a rooftop in Joppa. Before we go on, the fact that Peter’s actual name was Simon bar Jonah should focus your mind on this move. In other words, Simon bar Jonah was in the same coastal city where Jonah had fled from the Lord because he could not imagine that gentiles, let alone those of the empire, could ever enter the awaited kingdom of God. Any first-century Jewish hearing this story would be alerted that another big move was about to happen.
And on that rooftop, God told Peter to do something that Peter could not imagine possible.
God told Simon bar Jonah to eat food that the Bible instructed Jews not to eat.
And then God told him to enter the household of a leader of the empire that had crushed his nation.
And God told him to preach to him so that he would be saved from his empire and instead join the kingdom of God.
And just like Jonah, Simon bar Jonah said “no.”
Peter heard the word of the Lord, but just like Jonah, he couldn’t follow that word because of the Bible.
Please tell me you’re seeing the connections.
If there is a trajectory to the Bible, it is that more categories of people will be in the kingdom than previously thought, even when those categorical exclusions find their support in the Bible. Every time God’s people resist new categories of people entering the kingdom, God prepares a great fish. Or a storm. Or a plant. Or a scorching wind. Or a worm.
For Peter, God prepared a sheet full of unkosher animals.
Peter had grown up with Jonah. His Judaism was more advanced than Nahum. He understood from his scriptures and from his years as a disciple of Yeshua that gentiles would enter God’s kingdom of peace. He knew each of these things even before Jesus called him to be his disciple. All of this was clearly in his Bible.
He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
But while Peter knew that we gentiles would enter the kingdom, in a thousand years he would not have imagined that people would enter the kingdom as gentiles. Like Jonah, God’s command set off all his warning blinkers.
However, unlike Jonah, Peter never boarded a ship and head for Spain. He didn’t jump into the ocean to die. He didn’t call out to God to let him die in a scorching wind. Peter was a contemplative. On that day a brand new space opened up in his brain. For the first time in his life, he figured out that people who did not follow Jewish law could be properly formed to reject empire and accept the kingdom of God. So he went to the house of a commander in the military of his oppressor and taught him the “gospel of peace,” a different gospel than Pax Romana.
And for preaching against Pax Romana, Rome would eventually crucify him.
Peter was passionate, but he wasn’t a theologian, let alone very literate. Peter was a fisherman, a laborer. When he was called to explain his actions, he didn’t have much to offer other than I saw this sheet of animals and God told me to eat it. That would be enough for some, but if you’ve been in the church long enough you know that some people are theological doubting Thomases. No matter how much beauty can be found in an idea, they won’t believe it unless you can show them where it says that in the Bible.
To speak to those people, God chose a man on his way to Damascus.
Saul of Tarsus
The Bible’s word for spirit, wind, and breath are the same word.
When the reader is introduced to Saul of Tarsus, he and the Jewish Sanhedrin are in a dispute with a man named Stephen over the importance to the kingdom of the Temple in Jerusalem. Don’t be a modern reader and minimize the stakes here.
The Jews lived under the occupation of Rome. They lived under Syrian occupation before Roman occupation. They lived under Greek occupation before Syrian occupation. They lived under Persian occupation before Greek occupation. They lived as slaves in Babylon before the Persian occupation. They lived as slaves in Assyria before they lived as slaves in Babylonian. They tasted their history in the bitter herbs they ate every year during Passover.
But located in Jerusalem was their hope of overcoming it all. In Jerusalem was their temple. The home of Yahweh. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who created all the heavens and the earth. Who rescued the Israelites from Egypt. Who promised Abram that he would be made into a great nation and that every nation on earth would be blessed through his nation. This was what their sacred scriptures told them.
Let your heart be softened to the desperation in the hearts of those who threw their stones at Stephen and the other disciples of that rabbi named Yeshua. To downplay the temple order was to threaten to leave the Jews in a permanent state of bitter misery. Today we have exchanged the Jews’s faith in their temple for our faith in fleets of bombers. And we throw stones at those who call them into question.
But an important contrast happened in the story. When the Sanhedrin killed Stephen by stoning, we are told that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and shouted, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” These were beautiful words in their own right, but they also literarily strategic. Because immediately after Stephen died, the author tells us that Saul was breathing out “murderous threats” against those like Stephen.
Remember: spirit, wind, breath—same thing.
In Paul was the spirit of accusation (literally in Hebrew, the spirit of “the Satan”). On the other hand, in Stephen was the spirit of advocacy (the Holy Spirit). Stephen and Saul are the Bible’s clearest expressions of the work of Satan and the work of the Spirit. The spirit of the Satan is in the one who accuses. The spirit of God is in the one who advocates, even for those who first harmed them.
Yet it is singularly because of Saul of Tarsus and his message—specifically that our faith that Jesus conquered the Roman cross without fighting is sufficient to usher in and inherit the kingdom age—that those of us in the party of Stephen owe our welcome in the kingdom of God.
Paul’s letters are complicated. When you read them, don’t lose sight of the thesis at the heart of his whole project. Paul’s heart and soul were dedicated to showing from the Bible how it was always God’s plan that non-Jews as non-Jews would enter God’s non violent kingdom.
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
In support of that overarching thesis, Paul’s letters essential made three arguments: (1) the law and the prophets were all along about Jesus,
Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
(2) God through Jesus forgave the sins of everyone and not just Jews,
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
and (3) non-Jews could enter the kingdom as non-Jews.
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Understand, then, that all those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
But the Bible is sometimes less than cooperative with this idea that gentiles would not have to follow Torah.
For example, long before Jesus came the Torah already had a mechanism for the forgiveness of sins. This was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Paul’s Jewish detractors rightly countered that if the gentiles wanted their sins forgiven, they could just become Jews and follow Torah. This was effectively Peter’s position before his vision in Joppa.
Understand that, contrary to what most modern Christians understand, the Jews were not waiting on God to send his messiah so that their sins could be forgiven.
In fact, when Paul was on his way to Damascus with arrest warrants, it was also because of the Bible. The Law of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy had long since instructed the Jews that “cursed is everyone who is hanged upon a tree.” Yet Stephen and his cohorts were exchanging the glory of the temple for some rabbi whose death came by being hung on a tree. Do you see the scandal?
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
I Corinthians c1
That’s the power of what happened when Ananias called Paul a brother. The scales from Paul’s eyes fell and he began to see the complete story that God was trying to tell Nahum and the writers of the Torah. Paul was no longer saw Deuteronomy through the spirit of accusation, but the spirit of advocacy. Yes, cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree, but God was not out to hang sinners on trees. He was out to save sinners by himself hanging upon a tree. Jesus took that curse, the sins of the violent world of empire and accusation, and conquered them in his resurrection.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
This, then, fed into Paul’s argument that the prophets and the Torah were and always had been a forerunner for Jesus. Understood this way, Torah, if perfectly followed, was one way to be properly formed to enter the kingdom to which Isaiah had called the people, but a person’s faith in the counterintuitive work of Jesus was also sufficient. And more beautiful.
Today, we usually talk about faith versus works in the context of where will we spend eternity when we die? It completely misses Paul, who was proclaiming a new way to a world without war.
That was the direction of Paul’s work.
But to really understand the mind of Paul, we have to understand his method. If you recall from Part 4, the Pharisees were breathtakingly creative with the text of the Bible. They had little qualms with straying at times from its original intent.
Hillel was the most important Pharisee in the history of Judaism. He was notably more liberal than his adversary, Shammai. Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel, was the president of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Saul of Tarsus was a disciple of Gamaliel. This was Paul’s upbringing. Not only could he perfectly recite the Torah and the Prophets, but he knew how to stretch their ideas beyond what you and I would ever feel comfortable. Certainly beyond what you and I would think biblical.
This post is already getting long, so I’ll provide just a few examples among many.
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote “our ancestors all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.” By now you should recognize the gist of message. It’s what he frequently argued, that Jesus was with the Israelites long before there was a Torah. But to understand the significance of arguing his point that way, I need to make a modern analogy.
If you were to ask the typical Christian how many magi came to present gifts to baby Jesus, you would almost uniformly get the answer three. The text doesn’t say that, but we’ve adopted that assumption because of the number of gifts was three. We adopt all kinds of assumptions about the Bible’s stories that both aren’t in the text and are probably questionable. In a similar way, the Jews had developed a similar extra-biblical assumption about the story of Moses in the Sinai wilderness. There’s no water in the Sinai desert, so when story says that the Israelites came to a place called Rephedim, they complained that they had no water in the desert, and Moses miraculously got water from a rock. In another book, the wondering in the Sinai desert had progressed by forty years. At this point, the Israelites came to a place called Kadesh, they complained that they had no water, and, again, Moses got water from a rock.
The Pharisees, however, who were familiar with the barrenness of the Sinai desert, caught on to a logistical problem in the story. Forty years had elapsed between the giving of water in Rephedim and the giving of water in Kadesh, but the text never explained where the Israelites got water the rest of the time. So when they debated the question, the conclusion they reached was that the rock in Rephedim and the rock in Kadesh were the same rock.
And that the rock had followed them the whole time (hahahaha).
So the well, which was with Israel in the wilderness, was a rock of the size of a large vessel, and was oozing out and rising as from the mouth of this flask, traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys. Wherever Israel encamped, it encamped opposite them before the door of the Tabernacle.
I hardly needs to be said that the traveling rock is not in the Bible.
And for good reason. It makes no sense. Why would the Israelites panic in Kadesh about getting water if for forty years a watering rock had been following them the whole time? Right? You see the problem?
But for Paul, everything in the Bible was now about Jesus. Even things that he assumed were in the Bible’s stories, but actually weren’t. To Paul, this watering, traveling rock was Jesus and because it was Jesus, that was just more evidence that God’s plan from the beginning was for the gentiles to enter the kingdom. See it?
(If you don’t, well, haha neither do I).
It would be like supporting the doctrine of the trinity by saying that there were three magi and therefore the Bible has a preference for patterns of three.
This is what I mean when I say that Paul was “creative.”
If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.
II Corinthians c5
Why, thank you, Paul.
And there’s pleeeeeeeenty more. The book of Romans is Paul’s greatest theological discourse on the admission of gentiles into the kingdom. In chapter 9, Paul quoted from Hosea to continue the same argument.
What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and,
“In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’”
Sounds good, right?
Well, I’ve read Hosea.
And, haha, Hosea was not saying what Paul is saying. Hosea was writing about God rescuing disobedient Jews. I know this not because I’ve been given special powers, but because Hosea plainly said so.
Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them—not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the Lord their God, will save them.
The Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” they will be called “children of the living God.”
This is a great example of the lengths to which Paul was willing to stretch the meaning of a text in order to get more people into the kingdom.
The story of Saul of Tarsus is the story of a man who learned not to let the Bible get in the way humankind’s evolving understanding of God. He was a Pharisee, and he argued like one. As long as he could see the beauty in an idea, he would not let the the original intent of a text to become an obstacle to that beauty. And the idea of all people being welcome to the table of the Lord is a beautiful idea. It’s no longer a controversial idea.
Saul of Tarsus was an ancient man who used controversial means to argue points that are no longer controversial.
The point is that Jesus gave his disciples the keys to the kingdom (see Part 4). He gave them the authority to bind and loose, authority that had previously been the exclusive domain of the rabbis. He gave them the authority to interpret how to live out his teachings and thus decide who would be in the kingdom. Where any two people gather in Jesus’s name, such as the council in Jerusalem in Acts c15, Jesus declared that this exercise of authority would be recognized in Heaven. This is stated multiple times.
The Apostle Paul was one of the first to interpret what it meant to live in the kingdom that Jesus had described. In allowing gentiles to enter the kingdom without adopting Jewish customs, Paul was one of the first to exercise the keys to kingdom.
As I hope you have seen, Paul did a lot of loosing. He certainly did much more loosing than binding. He went “out of his mind” to allow non kosher gentiles into the world that was being renewed into the image of God. The epistles of Paul are the difference in literally more than 99% of the world’s population having a seat at the Lord’s table. They are the only reason I have any part of the kingdom project to make the world of Isaiah c2. That’s some mighty loosing!
But as much as Paul’s upbringing gave him the tools to creatively push boundaries, Paul’s upbringing caused him to bind some things too.
Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
I Corinthians c6
While Paul’s imagination of who would be in the kingdom of God would be broader than his contemporaries, we should not be surprised at its limitations.
First of all, understand Paul’s Jewish upbringing. Paul would have memorized Leviticus before he reached puberty. And Leviticus prohibited a man from having “sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman,” calling it an “abomination.”
(btw the same chapter of Leviticus said the same thing about men having sex with their wife while she was on her period).
Second, understand Paul’s upbringing in the Mediterranean city of Tarsus. Tarsus was a thoroughly Greco-Roman city, and the brutal realities of that world probably influenced him even more than his Judaism. Among the prostitutes on the streets by whom young Saul would have passed each day on the way to synagogue would also have been young slave boys who were used by their masters for anal sex.
A common misconception of the ancient Greco-Roman world is that it was full of and open to homoeroticism. This misconception comes mostly from a few lines from Plato, who was gay. And just as Greece was nowhere near as democratic as most imagine, it was nowhere near the affirming place that most modern people imagine. What was common was slaveowners sexually abusing their young slaves. The Greek literature we have on this subject consists almost entirely of exercises of power and domination, not respect, consent, and openness. One would lose all social standing by having “passive” gay sex (that is, being on the receiving end).
The ancient literature is full of derogatory names and insults for such people. No such derogatory words existed, however, for the man on top. Penetration in the ancient world signaled virtue. In fact, we get our word virtue from the Latin word virtus, which literally means “manliness.” Sexual brutality was not only common, but expected. Even flaunted.
I hope this helps you understand why it was only natural and even compassionate for Paul to outright declare that this kind of thing would not be in the kingdom. On the specific point of penetration being used to dominate people, I wholeheartedly agree.
This was the lens through which Paul thought about homosexuality. His experience with the dehumanizing aspects of men penetrating other men was front and center in his limited understanding of the kingdom. While we shouldn’t blame him, we need to be careful as we decide how to apply his knowledge to the twenty-first century. Paul’s intentions were noble, but modern-day homosexual relationships don’t look like the cruel power displays that Paul witnessed in Tarsus. Today’s gay teenagers aren’t out to exercise male dominion. They want companionship.
If Paul were to sit down today, I have not doubt he would steadfastly maintain complete opposition to homosexual relationships. I’ll concede that point. But you are finally ready for what I have to argue about that. For all the many words I have written, this is where I’m going with them:
When Jesus gave his disciples the keys to the kingdom, he gave his church the authority to disagree with Paul.
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