A friend sent me a news story today about a set of billboards in Dallas, Texas that cite the Bible in support of homosexual relationships. Because you can find all kinds of crazy things on billboards, I initially didn’t think much of this report. But I was really intrigued by the picture of one billboard that was included in the story (see it at right).
The message reads simply, “Jesus affirmed a gay couple. Would Jesus Discriminate?” What caught my attention was not the suggestion that Jesus affirmed homosexual conduct. This is standard fare among religious progressives, and I have heard this many times before. What caught my attention was the single Bible text quoted in support of the messageâ€”Matthew 8:5-13.
I am very familiar with the biblical texts that progressives usually cite in support of homosexual behavior, and this is not one of them. At least it was not one that I was aware of. R. T. France’s 2007 commentary doesn’t mention such an interpretation of that text. Neither Robert Gagnon (2001) nor James DeYoung (2000) respond to any such interpretation in their books debunking pro-homosexual interpretations of key biblical texts. So I had to do some digging. Where was this interpretation of Matthew 8:5-13 coming from?
It turns out that the billboard reflects an obscure interpretation of the text that first appeared in 1978 but that was most recently defended in a 2004 article in The Journal of Biblical Literature: “Mistaken Identities but Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap, and the Christ in Matthew 8:5-13” by Theodore Jennings and Tat-Siong Liew (pp. 467-94). But what I found in this article does not support the message contained on this billboard. The billboard suggests that Jesus affirms gay relationshipsâ€”presumably between consenting adultsâ€”and that an example of his approval appears in Matthew 8:5-13. But this is not at all what Jennings and Liew argue.
In the article, the “gay couple” that Jesus affirmed was a Roman soldier and his young boy sex-slave. In short, Jennings and Liew argue that the Greek word paisâ€”usually rendered as “servant” in verse 6â€”is actually a mistranslation. Jesus didn’t heal the centurion’s “servant.” Rather, Jesus healed the centurion’s “boy-love” (p. 468). The paralytic is a young boy who was the sexual plaything of a Roman centurion. The authors contend that such “forced pederastic relations” between Roman soldiers and young boys were both “legally permissible and socially prevalent” during Jesus’ time (p. 486). They argue further that the centurion is worried that Jesus will steal away the paralytic as his own “boy-love,” and that is why the centurion doesn’t want Jesus actually to come to his house (vs. 8, “I am not worthy for You to come under my roof”). Because Jesus “marvels” at the “great faith” of the centurion in verse 10, the authors conclude:
“The way Matthew’s Jesus seems to affirm the centurion’s pederastic relationship with his pai/j, we contend, may also be consistent with Matthew’s affirmation of many sexual dissidents in her Gospel” (p. 492).
The other sexually dissident behavior that Jesus affirms includes adultery, prostitution, and perhaps lesbianism (p. 493).
The problems with this article and with the billboard are manifold. First, it’s blasphemous and outrageous to suggest that Jesus supported this kind of behavior. In the Sermon on the Mount alone (a favorite text among progressives), Jesus unambiguously condemns sexual immorality (Matthew 5:28) while affirming the sanctity of the marital union (Matthew 5:32). Are these authors seriously going to suggest that Jesus goes against the Old Testament and his own teaching to affirm the alleged homosexual conduct of the centurion and his sex-slave? The whole suggestion strains credulity at every level.
Second, I’m not alone in finding this reading to be completely implausible. Jennings’ and Liew’s novel interpretation of Matthew 8:5-13 has not been widely received in scholarship and was subsequently debunked in the same journal on historical grounds (see Saddington, pp. 140-42). There was a reason that I couldn’t find the interpretation mentioned in France’s commentary. It is so out of the mainstream that it didn’t even bear mentioning.
Third, even if Jennings’ and Liew’s interpretation were correct, it would prove more than what this billboard probably intends to prove. Do the authors of this billboard really wish to suggest that Jesus supports forced sexual predation of older men upon underage boys? I certainly hope not.
In any case, it is very clear that the message of this billboard is absurd, and its supposed biblical basis is a farce. For any of you readers who may come upon a message such as this one, be assured that the claim is absolutely baseless. This is the kind of revisionist historicism that supports progressive interpretations of key texts. It’s not serious, though it is seriously damning, and people should pay no heed to it.