Robinson’s article elicited a number of responses from readers, which were published in the January-February 2008 issue of the magazine - the editors of which note how “the critiques focus on the originality of the author’s thesis . . . [while the] additional letters confirm that it’s a thesis that has a history and a small but respectable body of literature behind it.”
One of the letter writers was William A. Percy , who provided a detailed outline of the history and development of the thesis that the Roman centurion was what we’d now call gay.
Following is the full text of Percy’s letter in response to Robinson’s piece in The Gay and Lesbian Review. As you will see, this letter serves well as an insightful and scholarly article in and of itself.
In attempting to discuss Jesus and homosexuality, Friar John Robinson could have greatly improved his insufficiently referenced article, “Jesus, the Centurion and His Lover,” (The Gay and Lesbian Review, Nov.-Dec. 2007) by citing Donald Mader’s closely argued “The Entimos Pais of Matthew’s 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10,” first printed in the now-defunct Paidika (1, 1987), and then reprinted in Wayne Dynes and Stephen Donaldson’s Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy (XII of their thirteen-volume Studies in Homosexuality, Garland, 1992, now available at williamapercy.com). He would also had benefited from awareness of Theodore Jennings Jr. and Tat-Siong Benny Liew’s meticulously sourced “Mistaken Identities But Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap, and the Christ” in The Journal of Biblical Literature (123:3, 2004).
Or, for that matter, Robinson could have noted Tom Horner’s Jonathon Loved David (1978), written at the height of the gay liberation movement. Both Mader and Jennings and Liew credit Horner with being the first theologian (at least in the English language) to suggest that the Centurion and his “boy,” whom Jesus cured from near death, is a text about pederasty, although Horner does not attempt an analysis of the text himself. Despite Mader’s and Jennings & Liew’s assertion, it was apparently one of Fr. Robinson’s own co-religionists, Dr. John McNeill, S.J., to whom the honor should actually go. Two years prior to the publication of Horner’s book, in an obscure interview published in Christopher Street magazine, “God and Gays: A New Team” (interview with J.J. O’Neill by Charles Ortleb, Christopher Street, October, 1976), McNeill says: “The four gospels are totally silent on this issue of homosexuality. There is no explicit reference to it whatsoever. There is one curious story of the Roman centurion whose boy servant is ill. Jesus is asked to cure him. It is said that the centurion loved the boy very deeply; one could read into it a homosexual relationship.”
In 1987, Mader argued that the texts of Matthew and Luke, whose gospels present the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s pais or doulos, both obtaining it from the common source “Q,” demonstrate a pederastic relationship between the centurion and his sick companion. In 2004, Theodore Jennings Jr. and Tat-Siong Benny Liew, both at the Chicago Theological Seminary, endorsed Mader’s conclusion but argued that the method of comparative exegesis by which he arrived at it was not sound. Mader had argued that Luke cleaned up Matthew’s language, replacing the word used by Matthew, pais, meaning “boy” or “child,” with another Greek word which specifically meant slave, doulos, in an attempt to tone down the pederastic relationship between the centurion and his esteemed slave boy that was suggested by pais – a connotation that revealed too much about the sexual connection between the centurion and the boy and Jesus’ attitude about pederasts.
Matthew, more at home in Aramaic, was, Mader claims, less attuned to the pederastic connotations of pais than was Luke. Jennings and Liew maintain that because the order in which Luke and Matthew were written cannot be ascertained with certainty, such an argument is invalid, and base their case on an analysis of the key word in Matthew alone – ending, however, with the same conclusion regarding the centurion, his boy, and Jesus’ attitudes.
Fr. Robinson discusses another converted centurion, Cornelius, from the Acts of the Apostles 10:1-38, centurions being something of a trope in the New Testament for gentiles who were nevertheless people of faith. He does not take up, however, Morton Smith, as did W.V. Harris recently in “The Case of the Fake Gay Gospel” (Times Literature Supplement, Oct. 19, 2007), who claimed his Secret Gospel of Mark (the text of which has Jesus spending the night with a naked, newly converted youth) may be early and authentic. Smith’s argumentation is summarized in Dynes, vol. XII. Nor does Robinson deal with Warren Johansson’s masterly article, “. . .whosoever shall say to his brother, racha” (also in volume XII of the Dynes/Donaldson collection, reprinted from the Caberion and Gay Books Bulletin, No. 10, 1984). There, citing a German source, Johannson loosely explains that racha is an Aramaic word meaning something like queer or faggot today. This puzzling word was never translated by St. Jerome, Martin Luther, the translators of the King James Version, or the French Roman-Catholic Douai. If it had been, Jesus would be on record as having said, “Don’t put down fags.”
In short, Robinson’s piece lacks the serious scholarship required to make a strong case about Jesus’ attitude towards homosexuality. Had this foundation been there, it would have been clear that Jesus opposed the homophobic condemnations of St. Paul and St. Clement. Nearly two centuries ago, in 1814, Jeremy Bentham wrote that “Jesus has on the whole field of sexual irregularity preserved an uninterrupted silence” (cited in Louis Crompton, Byron and Greek Love, 1985); scholarship today gives plenty of reason to believe that far from being silent about homosexual relations, including age-differentiated relationships, Jesus viewed them at least with toleration, if not approval, so long as they were conducted ethically.
Jesus, most scholars believe, was literate in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, though not in Greek. The Septuagint, however, was in Greek. According to legend, the Septuagint was the product of a “seminar” in Alexandria, circa 250 BCE, when King Ptolemy had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek by seventy rabbis in seventy separate cubicles. All seventy rabbis came up with identical renderings, word for word – a feat of divine inspiration. Like St. Paul, Josephus (Contra Apionem, 2) and Philo Judeaus (De specialibus legibus, 3), all of whom used the Septuagint, other Jews who used the Hebrew text interpreted the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as shown in the Mishnah, as a transgression of lust and not of inhospitality. The case that Jehovah destroyed Sodom because of inhospitality can indeed be plausibly deduced from the Hebrew scriptures, but that interpretation was certainly abandoned during the intertestamental period (that is, between the canonization of the Old Testament around 200 BCE and that of the New Testament, around 200 CE), in such texts as the Book of Jubilees, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Secrets of Enoch. Warren Johannson convinced me that Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey was instructed by higher-ups in the Church of England to minimize the Jewish argument that God destroyed Sodom for sexual acts rather than for inhospitality, in order to reduce hostility to the Wolfenden Commission’s recommendation to decriminalize consensual sex between males over 21 in England. Accepting Bailey’s claims without question, John Boswell went so far as to claim that the medieval Orthodox Church developed rituals for same-sex unions, which his admirers assumed to be same-sex marriages.
Many of these arguments are summarized in the Encylopedia of Homosexuality, edited by Wayne Dynes with Associate Editor Warren Johannson and William A. Percy (two volumes, Garland, 1990). But Johannson’s book-length manuscript, published posthumously just this year on my website, gives a more profound and original interpretation. Along with many other authorities, Johannson maintains that a group of scholars under Ezra created the Hebrew Bible in the 5th Centurt BCE under Persian rule, condemning “males who lie with males” as the Zoroastrians did. When Alexander conquered Palestine in 330 BCE, bringing with him the Greek pederastic tradition, apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical writings registered Jewish condemnation and reinterpreted the Sodom legend to make it divine retribution not for inhospitality but for homosexual lust. In the first century CE, Josephus (Contra apionem, 2) “categorically condemned sexual relations between males,” so that on the subject nothing remained for Christian theologians to do.
Christians did add an elaboration for unnatural behaviors, that is to say all sexual activity not leading to procreation, as “the sin of the sodomite,” fusing the Greek philosophical concept with the Jewish legend. Mainstream Judaism proper, however, never fully abandoned the old notion that the Sodomites violated inhospitality and justice, as the Talmud had recorded.
William A. Percy
Recommended Off-site Links:
The Historical Jesus and the Slave of the Centurion: How the Themes of Slavery, Sexuality, and Military Service Intersect in Matthew 8:5-13 - Eric Koepnick. (NOTE: This is a pdf document.)
The Gay Centurion: The Day Jesus Blessed a Gay Relationship - Rick Brentlinger (GayChristianity101.com).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 1)
The Bible and Homosexuality
Song of Songs: The Bible’s Gay Love Poem
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
St. Francis of Assisi and Human Sexuality
The Sexuality of Jesus
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Alexander’s Great Love
Image: Ernest Borgnine as the Roman centurion and Robert Powell as Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977).