Monday, December 31, 2012

The Gospel of John (2)

Why should we read John's Gospel sociologically, that is, as a history of the Johannine community? Why not read it theologically, as an offering to the Christian communities of John's theological reflection, a reflection (no doubt) responding to various challenges (e.g. deteriorating relationships between synagogue and church), but one driven more by the essential question Jesus posed. Who is Jesus?

In this light, the prologue is very important. Whether or not it is adopted by John into his gospel (from another theological source, as a Christian hymn, even as an adapted statement from another religion), it sets out a theological focus in relation to the question, Who is Jesus?

Jesus is the Word made flesh, the only Son of the Father, the one who makes God known in the fullest way to the world.

" And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. [NRSV]"

This christology is not disclosed (save implicitly) in the three Synoptic gospels, nor is it as explicit in the writings of Paul (though in various ways Colossians and Ephesians go very close). Need we pose any major cause for the writing of John's Gospel, any significant origin for his Gospel other than the reflection of an agile and questing theological mind as it posed then answered the question, Who is Jesus?

From the prologue, the ending of which is cited above, the Gospel of John flows readily as an account of who Jesus is: the Word become flesh (the Word which created the world now, in the flesh, transformed it through signs), with a glory seen by eye-witnesses, disclosing a message of God's love ('grace and truth') received by many (and rejected by some), in the course of which mission of transformation, God himself as Father identified with his Son, has been revealed in a manner not seen before.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Gospel of John

I want to use some posts here to set out some thinking on John's Gospel as I am teaching it in Semester 1, 2013. Any thoughts you wish to make via comments will sharpen my thinking.

The first three gospels pose all sorts of interesting puzzles, not least their relationship to each other. But the puzzle is interesting because potentially it is solvable, since the three gospels tell pretty much the same story with common materials, so comparing the differences leads to some good proposals re solutions.

The fourth gospel, John's Gospel, poses a different kind of puzzle. It is so different to the first three gospels that we can scarcely use comparison between the first three and the fourth to solve the puzzle of the relationship between then. The vastness of the difference is the puzzle. "Where does John's Gospel come from?" is one way to pose the puzzle. It does not seem to come from any one, two or three of the Synoptic Gospels. If those gospels are any kind of guide to whom Jesus was and what he did, then we might also ask whether John's Gospel stems from Jesus. The Synoptics' Jesus is a parable-telling, demon-exorcising, prophetic figure in the mould of Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah who agonises through his last night before the cross. The Johannine Jesus shares none of these characteristics but does share with the Synoptics' Jesus continual clashing with Jewish authorities while healing and teaching his way through Judea and Galilee. At best we could say that if the Johannine Jesus is connected to the authentic, historical Jesus of Nazareth at least as strongly as the Synoptics' Jesus then "another side" to the historical Jesus is being disclosed to the reader.

This in fact is a line taken by Richard Bauckham as he argues that the author John of the gospel is not John the Son of Zebedee but another John, a Jerusalem-based disciple with an insider's view of Jesus' activities in Jerusalem. Perhaps it is the only line which can be taken in order to offer a plausible explanation of coherency between the Jesus presented in Synoptic perspective and the Jesus presented in Johannine perspective.

Bauckham consciously argues against the other plausible explanation (if I may describe as a single explanation a variety of proposals advanced on the basis of the great work on John by the giant Bultmann which are synthesised by John Ashton). In this explanation, John's Gospel is as much, if not more so, an account of the circumstances and trials of the Johannine community (the Christians gathered around the author or authors of the fourth gospel) as it is an account of the life and times of Jesus.

The great advantage of the second account is that it does not have to justify itself in the court of biography (creative fiction about Jesus doesn't matter because the gospel document serves to convey another history). The great challenge for the first account is that it does need to justify itself in the court of biography (which Bauckham, more than any other Johannine scholar I know, rises to): did Jesus speak and act thus and so, even in a seminal way? (For we might allow, on this first account, that the gospel writer so identifies with Jesus Christ that he - through the Spirit of Jesus - stretches the words Jesus spoke into a true interpretation which Jesus speaks through the author.)
(to be cont'd).

Monday, November 19, 2012

I am still here

Hermeneutics has not gone away from my interests. Indeed the fourth Hermeneutical Hui for our church is looming - early February 2013.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

For the record

Glynn Cardy's speech at GS in Fiji recently is here.

I note, on a quick read, that Glynn steers clear of the key passage (in my view) re marriage and the Bible, Ephesians 5:25-33, with specific reference to Christ and the church.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


I am moving a discussion about the causes of homosexuality from Anglican Down Under to here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What does PORNEIA mean? (3)

Why seek a definition of porneia? Why not stick with (say) the definitions as given in good dictionaries, or follow what the best of the recent translations offer?

In his book Haller raises some questions which I think are good questions, and in following up some subsequent exchanges re reviews of his book I have found at least one other question, so the seeking of clarity about the definition of porneia includes at least the following issues:

(1) How wide is the scope of porneia when it is used in lists of objectionable/prohibited actions/attitudes (e.g. Jesus speaking about what defiles a person, Matthew 15:18-20, or Paul writing about sins which may be problematic about fellowship with sinful Christians, or are going to prevent entry to the kingdom of God, 1 Corinthians 5:1-6:20)? Specifically of interest in respect to current issues in human sexuality is whether porneia covered both heterosexual illicit sexual intercourse and same sex illicit sexual intercourse.

(2) In the end, is the weight of Scripture against 'sex before marriage' in general, or just in cases where sex between two people does not lead to their marriage? Specifically, does porneia mean 'fornication' (or include 'fornication')? A Malina article in 1972, vigorously disputed by a Jensen article in 1978, argued that porneia did not rule out sex before marriage where marriage later follows.

In other words, while translations which offer 'fornication' or 'sexual immorality' as translations of porneia are entirely laudable measured against the definitions provided by the better dictionaries, the question is whether they are sufficiently accurate for readers today who might (say) rule out more sexual activity than Scripture requires, or (say) misunderstand the historical background of the life situations into which porneia spoke.

So, it is worthwhile taking time to tease out what is going on with the use of this word in Scripture.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

What does PORNEIA mean? (2)

How do we determine what a word means in the Bible? This simple question has a complicated answer!

(1) Many words have one meaning and no great controversy attaches to that meaning.

(2) Some words have more than one meaning so the question arises what meaning the word has in verse X (compared to verse Y). The answer will often be determined by the context (what the whole verse says, what the verse means in the context of a larger passage, etc). Sometimes the answer is indeterminate (i.e. scholars and translators disagree). Porneia is one such word.

(3) A few words are unique to the Bible so working out what they mean can involve much argument because usage of the word in other literature cannot be cited for comparative purposes.

(4) Some words appear to have a (slightly) different meaning in the Bible compared to usage outside of the Bible; some words in one part of the Bible are used in a standardized manner, but in another part of the Bible are used in a new way; in some instances this variation is within one book of the Bible. Arguably this last phenomenon occurs with porneia in 1 Corinthians.

Something tempting can happen within the complexities of seeking a word's meaning: we can (IMHO) become over enamoured with how words are used in literature outside of the Bible. On the premise that the Bible writers could develop their own meaning for a word, we need to be cautious about the weight we put on word usage in other literature. (One criticism I have of Haller's book is that he places a lot of weight on word usage (or non-usage) in rabbinical literature: there is value in considering this literature, but it is literature which (a) is not the Bible (so usage may be different, especially in respect of the New Testament), (b) difficult to date so that citing Rabbi X re word Y may, at best, give us the usage of a word in an era after the closure of the New Testament. What is surprising in this amount of weight being placed on rabbical literature is how little weight is placed on New Testament scholarship by Christians).

Enough for now.

Friday, January 6, 2012

What does PORNEIA mean? (1)

If you have read the preceding posts below you will have seen the beginnings of a discussion about the meaning of the Greek word porneia which is joined by the author of the book Reasonable and Holy, Tobias Haller, especially in comments to the fourth post in the series.

Engaging with the book and with Haller's comments has led me to read 'around the traps' including Thiselton's major commentary on 1 Corinthians as well as Gordon Fee's NICNT commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, bits and pieces on the internet, and, of course, the Bible itself.

Among problems, or challenges with this word are the question of what is an accurate translation of it into English, whether it has a uniform meaning, and what its scope is if we accept that in some places at least it has some kind of general meaning (e.g. illicit sexual intercourse).

So, we might find that if we look up a number of translations it is translated as (say) 'fornication' (which seems quite particular, about sex before marriage) or as 'sexual immorality' which seems quite wide-ranging (any sex outside of (legal) marriage. But porneia has a strong root-link to porne or prostitute, so the question arises whether we read a word such as 'fornication' in our modern terms as (say) a boy friend and girl friend sleeping together, or two people hook up at a party and find a hidden place to have (casual) sex together, but should understand it as 'consorting with a prostitute', a not-frowned upon activity in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, and moreover something not considered adultery in that world if engaged in by a married man. (I want to acknowledge Haller for opening my eyes to the different contexts, at least in certain ways, in respect of how we might too readily read porneia one way today with insufficient regard for the ways of the days of the Bible).

As we read across the Bible (both Old Testament in Greek, and New Testament) we can also see situations in which porneia may have meant one thing in one place and another thing in another place. Some translations seem to show little understanding of this (e.g. using 'fornication' or 'sexual immorality' uniformly), others are more alive to this possibility (e.g. I happened to flick through the REB recently and noticed 'fornication' (used fairly uniformly by the NEB) and 'sexual immorality' (used fairly uniformly by the NRSV). Some interesting questions arise about how we determine a word's meaning when used in the Bible, especially a word which is controversial, relates both to a detailed Old Testament background as well as having a particular currency in the Gentile world outside the Bible.

Finally a third issue (one worked over quite a bit in my discussion-via-comments with Haller below) is the scope of the word: is it a 'fat' word (including quite a bit of illicit sex in its scope?) or a 'thin' word (narrow in scope such as prostitution or incest?)? That is, if it is not as general as the English translation 'sexual immorality' implies, what are its limits? The reading I have undertaken suggests some inadequacy with 'thin' meanings because such meanings imply that Jesus, Paul and others were quite concerned about (say) incest but felt no need to speak about other sexual failings. Conversely, we moderns who look down our noses at prostitution may need to reckon with prostitution (and temptations to consort with prostitutes) as a widespread difficulty as Christianity spread into the Gentile world (that is, what seems a 'thin' meaning for porneia to us may have been a broad issue for most Christian men (young men, older men, single men, married men)). As for a 'fat' meaning, is my interest in the possibility that porneia, when used by Jesus and Paul, invokes the full extent of the Law of Moses regarding illicit sexual behaviour, misplaced (as Haller argues)?

Well, that's enough for tonight!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality (5)

These are my final ‘review’ reflections on this book. I may come back to it another day, but I have promised to pass the book onto a friend. I am not pretending that these five posts add up to a comprehensive, thorough review. 

I suggest the context for my reflections is this: in the 21st century Christians are engaging with the question whether God might, despite some indications to the contrary in Holy Scripture, be favourably disposed towards same sex partnerships which exhibit qualities cherished in marriage: faithfulness, permanency, stability and, above all, unconditional and abiding love. A very sharp engagement is taking place in the Anglican Communion and in member churches of the Communion. The author, Tobias Haller, is a person (so it seems to me) of influence in his Anglican church (TEC), and I am someone reasonably well known in my Anglican church (ACANZP) for engaging with the question described above. So he writes and I review in the midst of the general engagement with the question as well as in the midst of a particularly sharp Anglican debate.

The context then is not an abstract piece of research because this just happens to be the academic area of shared interest for us: rather the context is one in which attempts are being made to persuade people to come to one commitment or another about the answer to the question, in the hope that a way forward can be found for the Communion to remain a union of churches, and for individual churches to be of a common mind.

For some of our brothers and sisters the question is a ‘no brainer’: it doesn’t even need discussing, it is so obvious that same sex partnerships are right / wrong. It is scarcely credible that Haller has written for this group: he has spent a lot of time and energy on a detailed and complicated argument.

For others the answer to the question is not so obvious, meaning that for some they would like to be made more sure of their decision that such partnerships are right, and for others they are open to being convinced that such partnerships are right but currently think they are wrong. I take it that Haller is writing for such people. In turn, that means that in part a response to the book can properly be concerned with the reviewer’s assessment of the power of the main argument and lesser arguments to convince the reader. Given that I have read a number of adulatory comments from some readers whom I judge to be disposed to agree with Haller’s conclusions, I am in no doubt that readers wanting to be made ‘more sure’ in their convictions are well convinced by the book.

But for myself (as someone ‘open’ to being convinced otherwise than my convictions currently stand) I am left unconvinced by some of Haller’s arguments but more importantly left wondering whether this book will convince any ‘open’ conservative to change their mind. For example, as implied in posts below, I think it wrong-headed to argue the rightness of same sex partnerships by drawing so many negative outcomes to questions posed about a biblical understanding of marriage.

Not mentioned in posts below, but relevant to this concern about a wrong-headed approach re marriage is this reflection: when Haller argues about ‘complementary’, ‘differences’, ‘similarities’ and does so in such a manner as to minimise differences between men and women, he misses a rather large point about the reality of marriage between a man and a woman: the significant bits of marriage are precisely about the differences between a man and a woman. Very few heterosexual marriages work well and present well without immense effort, often hidden from sight of others, to face, learn from and overcome the difficulties which differences between husband and wife cause. The similarities between husband and wife are the straightforward aspects of wonderful married life. The differences, especially the gender differences are where marriages grow (or fail). In short: Haller would be (I suggest) more convincing in some things he says about marriage if he conveyed a more accurate description of how marriage works between a man and a woman, a description which might show more appreciation of the role gender difference plays in the achievement of a successful marriage.

Additionally, though this is less of an issue, I also suggest Haller would also be more convincing if he did not downplay the role of procreation for marriage (e.g. the phrase '... in some cases, to procreate ...', p. 22). Some marriages are infertile - an undeniable fact. But most marriages have procreation at their centre, whether driving the years of paying off a mortgage on the house which will be the home to children, filling the years in which children come, grow, and even in maturity require nurture and support, or driving months and years of striving to conceive by one means or another. If I am to speak more frankly, I find Reasonable and Holy to be quite off-hand about procreation and its importance to nearly all marriages. That could be just me. But if not, then I suggest such off-handedness is unlikely to win the readers to Haller's cause whom he seeks to persuade.

Then, thinking about convincing readers, I also wonder how many readers will be convinced that Jesus (on the one hand) said nothing about same sexuality and (on the other hand) if asked would have said something which went against Leviticus 18:22 (or any other part of Leviticus 18). I have explored this in the previous two posts, and Haller has responded in a long comment to post (4). I remain unconvinced. But more importantly: are readers going to be convinced or unconvinced? Readers, that is, whose starting point is that Jesus by no means has been neutral about homosexuality.

There are then three other observations I wish to make in this final post about ways in which this book fails to convince me. Again, I am trying to raise matters which I think are worth noting because I wonder if they are also ways in which others will fail to be convinced:

- What is Haller’s main argument in this book towards justifying same sex partnerships? At times the main argument seems to be about what Scripture does and does not say about same sexuality, and towards this argument is brought a great deal of detailed commentary, not a small amount of speculation (e.g. p. 139), and a preference for what Rabbinical Judaism had to say about the meaning of biblical texts. At other times the argument seems to be that if we only distil from Scripture the imperatives of love (the Golden Rule, the centrality of Love your neighbour as yourself, showing mercy, finding within people the intent of their heart), then all is well for all loving, faithful, permanent relationships. As adduced in posts below, I find Haller unconvincing on many aspects of the detailed argument (and, prompted by noting some other reviewers’ comments, bemused by the preference for what Rabbinic Judaism had to say when so many Christians fathers had things to say ... but in any case both groups were speaking a long time after the last New Testament document was written); and the imperatives of love approach offers nothing new which has not already been said before.

- Haller has a (to me) surprising view of the authority of the church in relation to sin: ‘The church has the authority to declare whether a given act or relationship is sinful or not’ (p. 174). Yes, the church at different times and places has declared this and that, and it may have acted as though it had the authority to declare a given act or relationship to be sinful or not. But, in the end, the determination of what is sin is God’s business and those determinations are declared to us in ‘God’s Word written’ (which Haller, on the same page, acknowledges the church must not ordain anything which is contrary to that written Word). On those matters where the church has expressed a view contrary to (or, arguably, contrary to) God’s Word written (for example, usury, which Haller rightly mentions on that page), then the matter is far from authoritatively settled. The church in its councils can ‘err’ and time is not yet finished on the question of whether the church is in error or not on usury.

- The book as a whole has an approach to Holy Scripture which begs a question or two. In particular it begs the question whether Holy Scripture is God’s Word written or the writings of God’s people. Again and again the approach taken is that Scripture is a document we scrap over more than a document we come before in order to obey its commandments and to receive its instructions. ‘Scrap over’ is my term, Haller would put it quite differently, and talk about the engagement of reason with the material in Scripture. Again, I suggest that the people Haller might be most interested in winning over to his conclusions include those whose general understanding of Scripture is different to his, but to that different understanding little accommodation is made.

Nevertheless I have appreciated and wonder if other readers might join me in that appreciation of the simple point that Haller makes in Chapter 7. I cite what I wrote in my second post on the book:

“I think Haller's best point and strongest argument in favour of same sex relationships being accepted in the church is made in chapter 7. Working from St. Paul's 'better to marry than burn' (1 Corinthians 7:9), that is 'Marriage, for Paul, was among other things a remedy for desire' Haller asks the question, 'So can we in our present day make a similar allowance for same-sex relationships?' (p. 59). He further says, p. 61, 'A more tolerant view within church or state does not necessitate the recognition of same-sex relationships as either marriage or matrimony, that is, as either civil or sacred in exactly the same was and to the same extent as mixed-sex marriage. But some form of recognized permanent commitment can be seen to be appropriate as an application of Paul's teaching that "it is better to marry than to burn" to a situation which Paul himself may well have found inconceivable.'

Here is, indeed, a reasonable point (sexual desire in most people is too strong to contain), a responsible question (what is the remedy for homosexual desire when celibacy is not a gift given to all?), and a moderate request (can some form of recognized permanent commitment be offered by the church?).”
Is this the 'last word' on the subject (at least in Anglican circles)? No.

Is this an important 'must engage with' word on the matter? Yes!

Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality (4)

[Continued from previous posts below]

Mixed in here (i.e. in our reflection on what Jesus said about marriage, divorce, adultery, lust, the Law of Moses, eunuchs) is a sense that when Jesus spoke about sexual immorality he was speaking about all the possibilities addressed in the Law of Moses (i.e. those listed in Leviticus 18). Haller denies this. In particular he challenges invoking the word porneia as a coverall term for sexual immorality including same sex sexual relationships (pp. 126-132). This word, translated ‘sexual immorality’ in the Bible I have at hand (ESV), appears both in a saying of Jesus (‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality [porneia], theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.’ Matthew 15:19-20), in the declaration of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:20), and in Pauline sin/vice lists (1 Corinthians 5:10-11, 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10). To quote Haller’s summary of Gagnon: “The argument goes that porneia is a relatively generic term that includes any form of sexual behaviour judged irregular, with specific reference to Leviticus 18.” (p. 126)

Haller goes on an immediate offensive against this understanding of porneia stating clearly,

‘In fact, in biblical usage, porneia (or its Hebrew equivalent z’nut) has two primary meaning for the great majority of instances, and it is usually clear from the context which is intended:

1) actual prostitution, in relation to the root word zonah / porne = whore, harlot, and

2) figuratively as a metaphor for idolatry ...’

He then develops quite a complicated argument which is focused on whether zonah / porne is ever associated directly with any form of same sex sexuality in either the Hebrew or Greek Old Testament or the Greek New Testament: with the exception of a possible reference in Deuteronomy 23:18 LXX no such reference is found. I suggest this, however, misses the key question about porneia and that is (whatever the ‘great majority of instances’ are about) whether there are even a few examples of porneia being used as a general term for ‘sexual immorality’ or, as stated above, ‘any form of sexual behaviour judged irregular, with specific reference to Leviticus 18.’

The answer is affirmative and this is the reason why. First, there were multiple concerns about sexual immorality in those days, especially as Christianity spread into the Gentile world: fornication, adultery, prostitution were all concerns. The apostles were concerned for correct and appropriate behaviour on the part of the believers whom they taught. Despite what some say, fornication was a concern (and marriage was the remedy, 1 Corinthians 7, see especially 7:36), as was adultery and consorting with prostitutes. When speaking generally about sexual immorality, porneia was the term ready at hand. We may understand it being used in this way in the Jerusalem statement (Acts 15:20, and note how 15:21 goes on to speak about Moses’ Law being read and proclaimed in the cities of the Gentile world), as well as in warnings about Christians not behaving badly (e.g. Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3). There is no reason to think in these situations that either only prostitution was in view or that idolatry was the problem. Secondly, understanding porneia as sexual immorality fits one specific and important context well: 1 Corinthians 5:1.

‘It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality [porneia] among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.’

The sense here is that (a) there is sexual immorality present within the Corinthian congregation, which (b) is of a particular kind that (c) is distinctive because it is a form of porneia which not even the pagans tolerate. The implication is that porneia means sexual immorality (general) and covers various (particular) forms, including some things tolerated by the pagans (which in Corinth appeared to be quite a lot!) and some things not. (Incidentally Haller, pp. 130-131, is quite unconvincing when he attempts to argue that it was not the father’s wife but the father’s prostitute which is being referred to. Paul refers to the woman concerned as gunaika and not as porne.) Consistent with this understanding that porneia covers (to coin a phrase) ‘a multitude of sexual sins’ and thus is used in the Greek New Testament as a general term for ‘sexual immorality’ we find Paul a few verses further on in 1 Corinthians 5 explaining an earlier letter in which he wrote about not associating with ‘sexually immoral people’ [pornoi] to not mean that they were not to associate with the ‘pornoi of this world’ (5:9-10). At these points in his writing Paul is speaking in general terms using porneia to speak for all sexual immorality / all sexually immoral people.

What relationship might porneia then bear towards a Jewish Old Testament description of sexual immorality, such as Leviticus 18? Three observations can be brought to bear. First, when Paul gets to 1 Corinthians 7, he effectively and comprehensively lays out a sexual ethic compatible with what Jesus has taught (as stated in the previous post) that sexual intercourse should take place within marriage between a man and a woman and not outside such marriage. If porneia is Paul’s general term for sexual immorality it is a term applying to all sex outside of marriage and thus is a useful summary term for the behaviours prohibited in Leviticus 18. It does not have to have a specific linguistic relationship to any one of those behaviours to touch on all of them (contrary to Haller’s detailed attempts to show the lack of (or at best, thinness of) relationship of porneia to Leviticus 18).

Secondly, if context is important (as Haller says, and it is so) then the context of 1 Corinthians 5 in relationship to porneia is fascinating: in 5:1 Paul says porneia covers a behaviour not tolerated by the pagans which by implication means that porneia covers sexual relationships tolerated by the pagans, that is, porneia covers a wide range of sexual relationships. For Paul, as a Jewish expert in the Jewish Scriptures, the obvious starting point for his understanding of what constituted ‘a wide range of sexual relationships’ outside of marriage is Leviticus 18 (with, as Haller acknowledges, pp. 130-131, the case in 1 Corinthians 5:1 being directly related to Leviticus 18:8).

Thirdly, with respect to Haller’s point (see previous post) that many instances of porn-root words relate to idolatry, in 1 Corinthians 5-6 Paul lists idolatry (or idolater) alongside porneia (or pornoi), thus distinguishing between concerns about idolatry and concerns about sexual immorality (5:10, 11; 6:9).

In sum: Porneia is properly understood as a term concerning irregular or immoral sexual activity and is rightly translated in general terms as ‘sexual immorality’ (e.g. ESV).

There is a little further to be said about porneia in 1 Corinthians because the above summary could be challenged. Paul writing in chapter 5 begins with a specific and quite outrageous instance of a porneia (5:1), he then moves on to speak generally about Christians’ association with sexually immoral people within and outside the congregation (5:9-13), but in chapter 6 porneia (or pornoi) is used in discussion of prohibited sexual behaviours which also include specific behaviours. Thus the list in 6:9 runs, ‘neither the sexually immoral [pornoi], nor idolaters, nor adulterers [moikoi], nor men who practice homosexuality [malakoi ...arsenokoitai]’, and in 6:12-20 when Paul speaks about the character of porneia, the specific instance of porneia cited is joining the members of one’s body with a prostitute [porne](6:15-16). Thus two questions arise.

First, does 6:9 imply that no matter how general porneia is understood to be, it excludes certain behaviours which need separate listing in a large list of prohibited behaviours?

Secondly, does 6:16-17 imply that the usual concern marked by porneia is consorting with prostitutes, and thus that the use of porneia to describe sexual immorality in general (as in chapter 5) is an unusual usage of the word?

Both questions can be reasonably answered in the negative.

The list in 6:9-10 compared with the lists in 5:10,11 adds in ‘thieves’ which means Paul is making 6:9-10 both more extensive and more precise than the earlier lists. Later Paul will congratulate his readers as being those who fitted this list but have now changed (6:11). The implication is that Paul added moikoi, malakai and arsenokoitai to the earlier lists because some in the Corinthian congregation once fitted those specific categories (also ‘thieves’) but now do so no longer, ‘such were some of you.’ That is, porneia would be sufficient on such a list to cover all kinds of sexually immoral behaviours, but Paul makes a point of noting the specific behaviours which once featured in the lives of some of the congregation.

6:16-17 occurs within a larger exposition on the theme of sexual immorality in connection with the physical body, 6:13b-20. The theme moves from the general, ‘sexual immorality’ (6:13b) to the particular, consorting with a ‘prostitute’ (6:15), then back to the general, ‘sexual immorality’ (6:18). There is a word play which occurs (porneia /porne/porneia) reflecting the etymology of porneia in relation to prostitution, but there is no reason to conclude that porneia has a narrow meaning here. In 6:18 Paul distinguishes between ‘Every other sin’ and ‘the sexually immoral person’, with the former being sins ‘outside the body’ and the latter sinning ‘against his own body.’ That is, sexual immorality here includes consorting with a prostitute, but is not confined to it. We understand, for instance, that the offender in 5:1 is also sinning ‘against his own body’ rather than committing a sin ‘outside the body.’ Consideration of the whole context, in which Paul is concerned that his readers understand the relationship of their bodies to the Lord, that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that they are to glorify God with their bodies, makes the singling out of prostitution very apt as the one example of porneia cited: the worst case (so to speak) of offending Christ as Lord and the Holy Spirit within their ‘temple’ bodies is to participate in prostitution associated with worship in idolatrous Corinthian temples.

Where has this excursion on porneia led to in respect of the greater discussion which Reasonable and Holy engages its readers in? It underlines, I suggest, the first sentence above in this post:

‘Mixed in here (i.e. in our reflection on what Jesus said about marriage, divorce, adultery, lust, the Law of Moses, eunuchs) is a sense that when Jesus spoke about sexual immorality he was speaking about all the possibilities addressed in the Law of Moses (i.e. those listed in Leviticus 18).’

I want to say again that there is much more to be said about Jesus’ teaching and current issues in human sexuality. For instance we have much to engage with in respect of Jesus’ attitude to the Samaritan woman who had many husbands and seemed to be living with a man who was not her husband (John 4), likewise the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8), along with other episodes in the life of Jesus. That porneia in both the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul may reasonably be construed as presuming Leviticus 18 is a modest point. But it is an important point: Jesus was not silent about sexual immorality in general, and thus we must not presume to deduce that Jesus would have said something contrary to Leviticus 18:22 if he were asked a direct question about it.

Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality (3)

In this part of my response to Tobias Haller’s book Reasonable and Holy and in the next part I am going to tackle a couple of arguments Haller mounts. I think these arguments lack strength so my response could be taken in two ways: dismissing the arguments (end of story) or reconsidering the arguments (beginning of making them stronger). Naturally I recommend the second way of receiving my response! But at the outset I want to recall where my last post went in terms of appreciation of strengths of the book, noting that some quite reasonable points can be made and questions raised about what the church’s response is to same sex desire when framed in terms of the church and St Paul’s understanding of marriage being (among other things) a remedy for sexual desire (1 Corinthians 7:9). The highway forward for a ‘reasonable’ approach to understanding today’s same sex sexuality issues in relation to Holy Scripture lies here (I suggest) and not elsewhere in the book.

Naturally Haller and the book’s readers are interested in what Jesus had to say, whether by implication or explication, about same sex sexuality. This is mainly discussed by Haller in Chapter 11 (pp. 121-148). Haller’s conclusion is that Jesus (a) said nothing about same sex sexuality (b) if he had he would have treated it like he treated other moral issues such as the dietary laws and, in essence, this treatment boils down to the Golden Rule. But to get there Haller explores the meaning of the word porneia in a way which is controvertible and downplays some of the things which Jesus did say which can be reasonably construed as saying something about same sex sexuality either by speaking generally about all sexual behaviour or offering clues as to what he would have said if asked a direct question.

An important text in relation to Jesus’ teaching about the Law of Moses is Matthew 5:17-20. Strangely this is not discussed in Chapter 11 but it is relevant to what Chapter 11 discusses because it is Jesus speaking about the Law, upholding it, and supporting what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount where in relation to some laws Jesus speaks in a manner which intensifies the demands of the Law: do not murder also means do not hate (5:21-22); do not commit adultery also means do not lust (5:28). With respect to the latter Haller does have a comment to make, p. 109, Chapter 10, but that comment says nothing about Jesus upholding the Law of Moses. The point to draw out here is not that Matthew 5:17-20 and related parts of the Sermon on the Mount are the final word of Jesus on the Law – there is much more to say about Jesus and the Law, as we explore what Jesus said about dietary laws, the Sabbath, and the summary of the Law. Rather the point is, noting 5:17-20 in association with 5:28, we cannot presume that Jesus would have said anything different about (say) Leviticus 18:22. If we are going to conclude that Jesus would have said something different if asked a direct question about Leviticus 18:22 we need to specifically engage with Matthew 5:17-28, not to avoid discussion of it.

Indeed we could go quite a lot further and put everything Jesus said about marriage, divorce, adultery, lust, the Law of Moses, eunuchs together and reasonably draw this fair conclusion: Jesus taught that sexual intercourse should take place within marriage between a man and a woman and not outside such marriage. Note I am not asking Haller or any reader here to agree that this is the incontrovertibly true summary of Jesus’ teaching; but I am suggesting this is just as reasonable a conclusion to draw as any other. Jesus was (in terms of the use of the word today) conservative about matters to do with sex!

[to be continued with specific discussion of porneia]