Caveat emptor: you may find what follows heretical.
As you are likely aware, there is (and has long been) a strident outcry from certain quarters in Christianity against homosexuality as a behavior and, in the worst cases, against homosexual men and women (pick/choose/mix liberally, as you will) themselves. To my chagrin, the religious voices from those quarters make a great many references to the Old Testament of their holy book and generally opt to leave out references to the New Testament. When they do choose to include the New Testament as part of their attack ideology, they keep flipping right past the Gospels, right past Acts, and on to Paul. That’s interesting to me, because as I understand the Bible, Paul wasn’t the one born of Mary.
For that matter, the great Jewish rabbi, Yeheshua, called Moshiach by some, rather made it a point to indicate a certain authority devolves to one Peter, who, as it turns out, may or may not have been entirely silent on the subject. As a (for argument’s sake) omniscient and omnipotent deity made manifest in the flesh, Yeheshua, for whatever mysterious reason, failed to indicate that a much more worthy teacher would one day come along, Saul the Persecutor, who would teach a message that would one day supercede his own. Nevertheless, that’s where the anti-gay battalions turn for New Testament support. Further, when they do reach out to Paul, they make an enormous effort to do so, skipping merrily over ten of his thirteen letters to home in on some rather ambiguous phrasing and relatively weak context to make such a tremendously loud and damning noise about it today. For more on the point of the paucity of New Testament admonitions against homosexuality, I encourage you to read What the New Testament Says About Homosexuality by William O. Walker, Jr., “Jennie Farris Railey King Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas where he served as a member of the faculty and as an administrator until his retirement in 2002.”
To my delight, the Christian left, of late, or what I tend to think of as “people more approximately Christian” (to their credit), has been finding its voice on the subject. They are gently but forcefully calling on their more extreme brethren to remember the host of admonitions to love, to refrain from judging, etc., found conspicuously all over the Gospels. I would like to think this approach may eventually temper the perceived social force of the Christian right. The relevance of the Christian right is, after all, grossly assumed to be much greater than its numbers merit.
What I have noticed, however, is that neither side addresses a point that I find rather salient. For that matter, given that I was once a member of a Bible-believing church, I never heard this point there. I missed this point when I took Bible as Literature in college. I missed it when reading a fair amount of material in the realm of “comparative religion.” It’s a point I only tripped across but recently. Having done so, I’m simply flabbergasted that there is not much, much more about this point readily and prominently available online, as it seems a great many would love to be liberated by such an issue as I am about to raise.
But first, a question. How many commandments are there?
The answer: It depends.
If one means “as found on the tablets of law as delivered by Moses,” approximately ten, depending on how one counts them. If one means the full body of Jewish commandments, well, brace yourselves, my Jewish and Gentile friends, as you have 613 to keep track of. Good luck with that in our modern world. If you mean the ones that Yeheshuah, called Moshiach, thought most important, then there’s only two, but they make a lovely all-encompassing umbrella for what I think of as “ethical sins” while leaving plenty of room for what I think of as “observational sins.” It’s rather difficult to steal somebody’s car (an ethical sin) while loving the victim as oneself. Yeheshua didn’t seem quite so concerned to cover prohibitions against “observational sins” like mixing textiles, however.
When’s the last time you heard someone make the audacious claim that there are four commandments, though? Some of you may have, but I hazard to guess you are rare. For those of you that care about such matters, especially as it might apply to all the damning and judging of homosexual people and/or select behaviors, let’s start with the “ten,” and see where this conjecture leads us.
From the original 10 (depending on your counting):
Keep (well, kind of): No other gods before “me.” No graven images. Or likeness of anything in heaven, in the earth beneath, or in the water below the earth. Don’t bow to those images or serve them. These are rather a big deal. Maybe even the only deal. You’ll see.
Dispose (read: here’s your get out of jail free card): Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. Remember the Sabbath and rest on it. Honor your father and mother. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t covet.
In question: Don’t commit adultery.
What it comes down to is that there are only four commandments, handed down from Peter (as received from the Holy Spirit, God on High in the Third Person, so to speak) to Gentile (not Jewish) converts to Christianity. Jewish converts to Christianity on the other hand…well, they’re still obliged to observe the whole kit and kaboodle of Mosaic law. Sorry about that. I didn’t make the rules. For everyone else, just four. Note for emphasis: Yeheshua isn’t recorded as saying this. His nominal successor did, as moved by the Spirit, or so they say.
Acts 15:29 That you abstain from  things sacrificed to idols and from  blood and from  things strangled and from  fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell. - New American Standard (chosen for literal accuracy in translation from Greek and Hebrew)
Let’s start with 2 and 3 because they’re easy. Eating blood was outlawed because that’s where the life is, you see. *nods* (Aside: I still can’t find anything about zygotes, genetics, DNA, meiosis or mitosis in either testament.) Not eating something strangled is just a fine adjustment on that. If it’s strangled, it might still have the blood in it. I guess things without blood aren’t alive, even by modern standards, so have all the live-culture yogurt you want! Thank goodness the ancients rigorously applied modern science to know what they were talking about.
Number 1 in the list goes hand in hand with an issue God took very seriously in the original 10-ish commandments (depending on how you count). No other gods before it. Ever. Never. Neverever. Nevereverevernever. Neverino. (Gratuitous Mr. Show reference. You’re welcome.) Nope. So here, the Gentile converts were told to completely avoid things sacrificed to idols. Oddly, it doesn’t say to avoid the idols themselves. Or having them before. Or after. Or during. Or how to relate to them, if at all. Just avoid the stuff sacrificed to them.
Number four, fornication, now that one is a touch trickier. The original Greek for “fornication” here is πορνεια (porneia).
After my own lay-person’s analysis, I can only conclude that, in its context, this rule is lumped in with number one and has to do with idolatry. Just as one is to avoid partaking of things sacrificed to idols to remove oneself from idolatry (never mind the qualifications I noted above), odds are good that if you also don’t engage in prostitution you won’t be paying for a good time with a temple harlot. It’s that simple. Now even if we go to Early Modern English usage, it would appear that the restriction would be on either any unmarried sex OR just heterosexual sex that wouldn’t count as adultery. *blink* Mind you, wiktionary also seems to tie in the notion of being a catamite (which would amount to being the bottom in a pederastic relationship), but that doesn’t necessarily rule out being the pederast.
That’s right…in all the various prohibited behaviors I can come up with from Greek and Early Modern English, about the only things NOT sexually restricted are married sex and gay sex! Just don’t be promiscuous, m’kay?
According to wiktionary, porneia can mean either prostitution or fornication. For translation as “fornication,” we can turn to William Tyndale (his was the first English translation to work directly from Hebrew and Greek texts). He completed his translation of the New Testament in 1524. Mind you, he was executed for heresy.
So now we have a word (fornication) and a time period (c. 1524). What did that word mean at that time? Meanings do change, as you well know.
- sexual intercourse, especially on the part of an unmarried person.
- (law) The act of such illicit sexual intercourse between a man and a woman which does not by law amount to adultery. 1604 I am the sister of one Claudio, Condemn’d upon the act of fornication To lose his head; condemn’d by Angelo — Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1 1611 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. — Galatians 5:19-21 KJV*
For further clarification, see Strong’s Concordance:
4202 porneía (the root of the English terms “pornography, pornographic”; cf. 4205 /pórnos) which is derived from pernaō, “to sell off”) – properly, a selling off (surrendering) of sexual purity; promiscuity of any (every) type.
* Note: Personally, I put no stock in Galatians. Even if I did, the very nature of the verse flies in the face of what Peter said by adding so many more things to Acts 15:29. This, in a nutshell, is the problem I have with everything after John. As for MML&J, well, I have different issues. At least therein may be found the purported words of the purported deity-made-flesh not one degree (or more) removed, much less those purported words twisted by scalawags like Paul. Further note: Paul had to check in with Peter, remember? Paul wasn’t that high in the pecking order.
In closing, it’s also important to note that when Peter passed down these mere four commandments, the other elders were none to thrilled and needed to be placated. Forget for a moment that they were Jewish believers in Yeheshuah as Moshiach. Forget that, as such believers, they knew that the Holy Spirit itself proclaimed these four commandments.
Acts 15:28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:
They needed placating. Peter makes what I call “the foot in the door” case.
Acts 15: 21-22 21 For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren,…”
For the whole context, by all means read Acts 15. The basic gist of this short passage, as I understand it, is that at first the Pharisee believers among them insisted on circumcision. “Late-stage” circumcision. For Greek converts. That wasn’t going to play well to the Greeks. By implication, being Pharisees, they would also expect that the entire corpus of 613 commandments be kept. That, also, would not go over so well.
“So there, my lovely Greek converts, salvation is yours. Now all you have to do is take out your peckers. This will only hurt tremendously. Oh, and there’s a small matter of some rules. Let me see, I’ve got the list here somewhere. Oh, there. *KERPLUNK*”
No, that clearly wasn’t going to work too well.
So Peter reassures the Pharisees by telling them, “Don’t worry! First they convert. Then they go to one of our many synagogue locations where they will slowly but surely get the idea that there’s a few extra little things.”
THEN it seemed good to the apostles and elders. Then, and only then.
Speculation as to whether or not the Holy Spirit would need to resort to trickery may or may not be the subject of another post. It does raise an interesting question, however, for those of the once-saved, always-saved school of thought. If a Gentile convert were saved, and then later learned in synagogue of all the extra rules and regulations only to say, “um, no thank you,” would said convert lose salvation? If yes, oops, there goes a school of thought. If no, then were the 613 laws binding for them to begin with?
For now, there you have it. Four commandments, as passed down by a Spirit-inspired Peter, by way of Paul and company. Four commandments that, in their proper context, go beyond ignoring homosexuality. They expressly do not forbid it.
Am I trying to win converts here? Hardly. I am, after all, not Christian, so I could hardly be said to evangelize. I am, however, trying to engender constructive inquiry in the interest of mitigating the social effects of hate and intolerance. If this is an interpretation you consider valid, more power to you. I wholeheartedly encourage anyone from any walk of faith to embrace a more inclusive and accepting belief system. If not, I’d be very curious to hear why, from a Christian perspective, Peter’s edict should be discarded as if not spoken, written by letter, passed along by committee, and repeated by mouth? If, post-Gospels, Peter is not to be taken seriously, then who should be?
Image credit: Adapted from photograph in the public domain.