Strength in Weakness: An Interview with Dr. Douglas Jacoby on “Gay and Christian?”
The following interview appears in Guy Hammond’s new book, Gay and Christian? How Pro-Gay Theology is Crashing into the Church Like a Speeding Train Without a Whistle (late summer 2021), IPI Books. Click here to order.
Click for the pdf version of this interview.
* * * * * * * *
Guy Hammond: Dr. Jacoby, thank you for speaking with me today.
Dr. Jacoby: You’re very welcome.
GH: Your resume is impressive and given your expertise. I’m certainly interested in hearing your thoughts on some of the issues my new book is addressing. In this interview I would like to pose a number of questions and objections I have heard through the years. These aren’t necessarily my own questions, but they are definitely others’.
DJ: I don’t consider myself in any way an expert. But yes, I do think a lot about theology, and have been following developments in the ongoing sexual revolution.
GH: Through the centuries, the Bible has been misused to support prejudice, segregation, slavery, treating women as second-class citizens, and so on. Today we look back and recognize these horrible errors. However, as the accusation goes, the Bible is still being misused—against gay people. They predict that in years to come people will look back aghast on our generation, just as we do on previous generations. Would you agree?
DJ: Yes, that’s exactly what people will say. It’s already happening. A number of public intellectuals compare “homophobia” with resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. They portray Bible believers as backward and hateful. True, the lack of grace and love shown to LGBTQ people on the part of supposed Bible believers is atrocious. Such people seriously misrepresent Christ. Moreover, as Christians we freely admit that many do distort the meaning of the Scriptures—an unfortunate reality throughout the centuries of church history (2 Peter 3:1-3, 16).
GH: It seems you aren’t comfortable with the term “homophobia.”
DJ: I’ve never cared for the word. Phobia denotes a fear, often an irrational one. But mere disagreement doesn’t necessarily entail fear. I don’t care for brussels sprouts—to me they taste bitter—but does that mean I have a phobia I need to grow out of? I don’t agree with the Buddhist tenet that the material world is unreal, nor with their doctrine that there is no soul. Does this make me “Buddhaphobic”?
Now I’ve never heard the term “heterophobia.” Nor will I use it, since it would be unfair to accuse those who live and think differently from me of suffering from a phobia. Is it possible that gay people fear straight people? Of course—just as there’s evidence many straight people fear and hate gays. But such ungracious attitudes are not inherent in biblical morality. Loaded words like “homophobic” and “transphobic” are coined to paint those of a different opinion as narrow-minded, ignorant, or otherwise in the wrong.
GH: But back to the matter of the comparison between Civil Rights and Gay Rights…
DJ: Basic human rights should be denied to no one, whether on the basis of gender or ethnicity or preference in vegetables.
But I’d say the comparison fails, for several reasons. First, there’s a difference between regulation of already-existing customs and institutions and active support for them. For example, in Old Testament times divorce was permitted, but a certificate provided the woman a fresh start, and protection against any future claims on the part of her former husband (Deut 24:1ff.). Slavery was a social institution worldwide—though it has nearly faded out globally since the 19th century. Yet in Israel humane treatment of fellow human-beings was required by the Law (Exod 21:2ff.). And engaging in the slave trade was a capital crime (Exod 21:16; see also 1 Tim 1:10). Blood vengeance was virtually a social expectation in the ancient world (as it still is today in many countries), which is why the Torah provided cities of refuge for the innocent (Num 35:6).
Let’s consider one more well-known principle: that the punishment must fit the crime. “Eye for eye” (Exod 21:24) is a recognition of proportionality: the punishment of a criminal cannot exceed the level of harm suffered by the victim. That is, “an eye for an eye” determines a maximum penalty, not a minimum. In fact there is strong evidence that despite the designation of numerous capital crimes in the Torah, cases were normally settled financially.
None of these lamentable practices (slavery, divorce, blood vengeance, etc.) were actively encouraged. But they were regulated. There is, however, no “regulation” of homosexual sin (Lev 18:22)—any more than there was “regulation” of bestiality (Lev 18:23). It is true that among the 1189 chapters of the Bible there are only a handful of scriptures forbidding homosexual behavior (two in the O.T., three in the N.T). That is, the Bible hardly obsesses over the issue. Yet it is not true that this is therefore a non-issue.
GH: The film 1946: The Movie advances the claim that the first time the word “homosexual” appeared in any Bible was in 1946, with the publication of the Revised Standard Version. In the translation of 1 Cor 6:9, the word “homosexual” was used to render of the Greek words “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai.” Years later, the head of the translation committee admitted that this was a mistake. Subsequent revisions of the RSV, however, didn’t replace “homosexual” with “sexual perverts” until 1971, 25 years after the mistranslation occurred. By then, many other translations of the Bible had followed suit with the word “homosexual” in biblical texts. The damage had been done. Did a mistranslation occur back in 1946?
DJ: No, I don't think so. Languages change; all languages are constantly evolving. The word “homosexual” came into the English language in the late 1800s. But that hardly means there was no such thing as homosexuality before the 1890s! Men having sex with men or women having sex with women—phrases, not words—still connote what is meant by the modern phrase “homosexuality," even if there is no exact biblical equivalent of the English word.
Translators are only human, and they do make mistakes—especially when they are pressured to agree with others, or face public academic shaming. As far as the RSV goes—which is normally a perfectly fine translation—the mistake seems to have been made not in 1946, but in 1971.
GH: Let’s shift our conversation to questions regarding what many call the “clobber passages”: those six scriptures that speak directly to the topic of homosexuality. Consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. In the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, Peter Gomes,former Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School, makes the point that the city of Sodom was doomed to destruction before the angels showed up at Lot’s door. That is, the city wasn’t slated for annihilation because the men of the town wanted to gang rape Lot’s guests. Gomes goes on to claim that there have been 500 years of reputable, critical scholarship in the English language on these texts that show that homosexuality isn’t what was being condemned in Genesis 19. He stresses that this argument isn’t something that has just come up recently by liberal reading of scripture. By the way, as you received your Masters in Theological Studies at Harvard, I wonder whether you knew Professor Gomes.
DJ: Yes, I agree with Professor Gomes that Sodom was doomed before the violent homosexual acting out, but I think he’s missing the point. Homosexuality wasn’t the root issue, only a symptom of deeper issues. Ezek 16:49-50 clarifies: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” Here Israel is urged to learn from the negative example of Sodom. Notice what’s highlighted first: arrogance. We also see self-indulgence and apathy. The (unnamed) detestable things aren’t mentioned till the end. Sodomy may have been practiced in Sodom, and that may be what the city is remembered for, but biblically the situation was even more serious. It seems all she cared about was herself.
I also agree with Gomes that intent of Gen 19 isn’t to condemn homosexuality. It is a principle of Old Testament interpretation that Torah is the key to evaluating the morality of actions. Narrative passages (like Gen 19) seldom inform the reader whether actions are right or wrong. That must be discerned through the lens of the Law. But I can’t go along with his comment about “five centuries of reputable, critical scholarship.” He is implying that they saw no problem with homosexuality. More apropos would be scholars’ comments on Leviticus 18 or any of the other passages that explicitly condemn homosexuality.
Yes, I knew Gomes. He was one of my professors when I began my masters program, and we had come some memorable discussion. (This was before he came out.)
GH: While Ezekiel 16:49-50 does tell us that all she cared about was herself, as you say, don’t 2 Peter 2:6-8 and Jude 7 confirm the homosexual nature of these “abominations?”
DJ: Yes, both of these passages highlight the sexual aberrations of Sodom and Gomorrah. Bible commentators who are troubled by the implications for homosexuality usually respond in one of two basic ways.
(1) They admit that these New Testament passages, in agreement with Old Testament law, do indeed condemn homosexual behavior. But then they reason that such laws are relics of a bygone age—we were meant to become more tolerant—or that the Bible gets it wrong. Not all biblical scholars accept the inspiration or relevance of Scripture.
Or (2) they reason their way out of the implications by suggesting that it’s a case of mistranslation, or else an overly strict construction of the passage—i.e. it’s only non-consensual sexual behavior (rape) that is in view. True, both asélgeia, licentiousness (2 Pet 2:7) and ekporneúein, to engage in sexual immorality (Jude 7) are general words, not limited to homosexual sin. Yet many fail to understand that it's not just homosexual acting out of which the Bible disapproves, but all sexual activity outside the context of monogamous heterosexual marriage.
Genesis 19 (the story of the destruction of Sodom and the other Cities of the Plain) clarifies exactly what sort of sexual sin is being censured in Jude and 2 Peter. At any rate, exegetical gymnastics are seldom convincing to those whose minds have not already been made up.
GH: In Leviticus it is difficult to differentiate between what is a cultural or ritual taboo, like eating shellfish, wearing clothes made of different fabrics, or planting different crops side by side, and homosexuality, all of which call for the same punishment of death. It becomes especially confusing because these verses are altogether, there is no separation in the Bible distinguishing between what is an abomination because it was culturally wrong for Hebrews and what is an abomination because it is morally wrong for everyone. Why is this such a big deal?
DJ: That’s a great question, and it’s closely related to your last question. Actually, none of these infractions against Torah stipulated capital punishment, apart from homosexuality (Lev 11:12; Deut 22:11; 22:9; 22:13). The rules about clothing and farming seem quaint and arbitrary. But I think we need to look deeper. “Abomination” referred to both things that are morally neutral and to things that truly are wicked. Sensitivity to context, history, and above all the Torah will enable us to sort out the issues.
Whatever led to the disintegration of Yahweh’s covenant society—whether by breaking faith with the Lord by violating the covenant or by encouraging the Jews to discard their traditions and blend in with the ambient (idolatrous) culture—was considered a serious threat. And obviously actions that may lead to the erosion or evaporation of a people will be strongly opposed. This attitude also explains why, for example during the 2nd century bc Maccabean Revolution, many Jews chose to die rather than to violate the Sabbath, kashrut (kosher law), or the covenant requirement of circumcision. These were probably the top three cultural identity markers of Judaism.
It is oversimplifying to posit that what is detestable is culturally determined, biologically justified, or only a matter of old vs. new covenant. Even in the New Testament, there are several matters that are culturally expressed, like the holy kiss (Rom 16:20). More to the point, Ezekiel 18 lumps covenantal prohibitions with acts of immorality. Most often I notice that what is “detestable” in scripture is idolatry (1 Peter 4:2, etc). Anyway, it would be nice if the Bible made clearer distinctions among the nuances of “detestable,” but we have to deal with the text as the Spirit has given it to us. It’s easy for us, enjoying the peace and prosperity of a hyper-liberal society, to criticize a benighted people living 3000 years ago for not agreeing with our enlightened values. Probably I should be clearer. It’s not same-sex attraction that the Bible forbids, but acting on that attraction.
GH: Can you offer guidance on how to tell the difference between what is cultural and what transcends culture, impacting Christian theology?
DJ: I agree that it can be confusing sometimes to distinguish temporary or cultural taboos (like kosher law) from other taboos. A good rule of thumb is to check to see whether O.T. laws (found in the books from Exodus to Deuteronomy) are repeated in the N.T. This is one way to distinguish which parts of the old covenant carry over into the new covenant. (See Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:1-13.)
GH: For Christians to focus on the homosexual passages in Leviticus and not on other passages—isn’t this selective reading?
DJ: If we want to know what the Bible says about worship, we look up the worship passages. If we want to learn more about Egypt, looking up the passages on Egypt is the way to go. To learn more about Abraham, Genesis 12-25 is our primary source. We won’t be faulted for failing to find verses on Abraham in Judges or Proverbs. I suppose in a way this it selective. It makes sense to focus on the relevant scriptures. Of course we select the passages most germane to the issue at hand.
Now it would indeed be selective if preachers addressed only sexual sin—and not the rampant materialism, narcissism, deceit, hatred, bitterness, and other sins plaguing modern society. We aren’t to pick and choose the commands (or sins) that we agree with. Our Lord commands both fidelity and consistency as we obey him.
GH: It is important to look at the historical context in which Lev 18 was written. This particular section speaks on homosexuality and goes on to discuss procreation. It is about a nation trying to grow, to procreate. It’s not about homosexual activity in itself being sinful. What are your thoughts on this?
DJ: This is way too simplistic a reading of Lev 18. Verses 21 and 23 have nothing to do with procreation, nor do most of the sins identified in the next section (like 19:4 and 19:14).
GH: When the term “abomination” is used in the Hebrew Bible, it is always used to address a ritual wrong. It is never used to refer to something inherently immoral. Eating pork wasn’t inherently immoral, but it was an abomination because it was a violation of a ritual requirement.
DJ: Well, that’s not quite true. The term refers to certain sexual sins, and even to child sacrifice. Of course we could view the cultic requirement of infant sacrifice as a religious matter, since it took place all over the ancient world in the context of religious observance. Yet few would agree that this is only an opinion matter. Sometimes, however, “abomination” refers to something less serious. There are certain things the Lord wanted his people to reject—to be repulsed by. The same word applied to kosher requirements as to more obviously moral matters, and that can cause confusion today. But just because some rules are “cultural” or specific to the Old Covenant does not mean that there is no sin—that anything goes. Just as there are physical laws governing the universe, so there is a moral law to which we are all subject.
For a moment, let’s shift from the O.T. to the N.T. The apostle Paul urges us to be led by the Spirit, not by the flesh (Gal 5:18-23). He doesn’t speak in the abstract; Paul lists specific vices (“works of the flesh”), as well as specific virtues (“fruits of the Spirit”). In the sin list, sandwiched between debauchery and hatred, are the sins of idolatry and witchcraft (Gal 5:20). We should be repelled by both. They are not morally neutral. Further, they cause religion to degenerate into mechanics, they objectify persons, and the lure people away from faith in God into various attempts to control the future. When we do such things, people get hurt.
Prov 6:16-19 is a passage naming seven abominations, none of which we are likely to construe as morally neutral. Ezekiel 18:13 applied the term abomination to multiple sins, including robbery and adultery (Ezek 18:11-13). Sadly, despite usually denouncing robbery, our culture has little conviction about marital fidelity.
Moral laxity spreads like a cancer. Sadly, the very things the Israelites were warned about, the idolatry and violence and superstition of the Canaanites, eventually consumed them. Israel was by no means too serious about holiness—quite the opposite. If only she hadn’t imitated the nations in their degeneracy, expressed in violence and self-indulgence.
GH: A recent New York Times article claims: “Before Leviticus was composed, outright prohibitions against homosexual sex — whether between men or women — were practically unheard-of in the ancient world.” The writer, Idan Dershowitz, goes on to claim (with “a little detective work”) that the original version of Leviticus actually permitted sex between men. After making his case, he concludes, “One can only imagine how different the history of civilization might have been had the earlier version of Leviticus 18’s laws entered the biblical canon.” What’s your response?
DJ: I’ve read the article, but I’m not impressed. Dershowitz may be a biblical scholar and junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, but in this case he is not handling the text well. It’s a long article, and I will share only a few comments.
First off, why would we expect prohibitions against homosexuality in the ancient world? The pagan religions did not call people to holiness. Nor did their gods and goddesses behave morally or selflessly! Yet when Yahweh creates a people of his own, calling them to the pursuit of holiness—not the pursuit of happiness!—he prohibits all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. In Greco-Roman culture, a degree of shame attached to being the passive (penetrated) male partner, but not to the dominant partner. Sex with a slave or young boy was acceptable. A number of ancient intellectuals spoke in praise of homoeroticism. Again, why should this surprise us?
The entire O.T. is many-layered. It did not drop out of heaven as a single volume. Instead, it’s more of a library. And even then many books in the library show clear evidence of development (e.g. Deuteronomy, Psalms, Proverbs, Jeremiah…). Canonization was a process, not a discrete event. The version of Leviticus we have today has probably been shaped and edited. Conservative scholars, recognizing God’s prerogative to reveal his will in any way he determines, believe this took place under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. The final form of each book of the Bible is specific. Seldom can anyone know for sure what the previous version was. And in the case of Dershowitz’s “detective work” on Lev 18, the degree of speculation is high indeed. Perhaps an ancient, pro-homosexual copy of Leviticus will be unearthed at some future time. But I’m not holding my breath.
As for the last rumination, that the history of civilization would have been different without Leviticus 18, it is hard to take such a thought seriously. There are, after all, a number of scriptures forbidding homosexuality, in both testaments. Generally speaking, biblical doctrines tend to appear in more than one isolated passage. Let’s read the Bible in its entirety.
GH: Regarding Romans 1, pro-gay proponents argue that the problem was not that people were engaging in homosexuality, but that the homosexuality was associated with idolatry, prostitution, orgies, and paedophilia. Is there any suggestion of this in the original Greek of Romans 1? If so, what is it? If not, where do you think pro-gay theologians get these ideas from?
DJ: That sounds like special pleading. Sure, homosexuality idolatry, prostitution, and paedophilia are wrong, but it’s doubtful these are what Rom 1:26-27 is referring to. The description is more general. Like English, Koine Greek has a rich vocabulary, and there is no shortage of terms when a writer wants to be specific.
The key concern within queer readings of Romans 1 is over the term “nature” (see, for example, John Boswell). They argue that what Paul is prohibiting is heterosexuals engaging in homosexual practice. In other words, people who are by “nature” gay should engage in gay practices; it is only those who are not gay by “nature” who should not. Within queer hermeneutics this is the practice that Paul is railing against. The argument is flawed in that Paul is not talking about “human natures,” but nature itself, but the arguments surrounding which kind of sexual practice is in view (pederasty, prostitution, cultic sex practices) do not really relate to Romans 1 directly. Those debates are generally about the terms used in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1.
As for where some theologians get their ideas, their views are not biblical. They arrive at their conclusions ahead of time, read them into the text,and then claim to have “discovered” them there. A similar dynamic was in play 2600 years ago among Israel’s popular false prophets (Jer 23:26, 30-32).
GH: Regarding the term that Paul uses for the word homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-19; didn’t Paul just make up the word arsenokoitēs (“men who have sex with men,” NIV)? Some people say the word didn’t even exist before the first century ad, therefore homosexuality wasn’t banned until that time. What do you say?
DJ: Well yes, quite possibly it was the apostle who coined the word. As far as scholars know, arsenokoitēs shows up nowhere else in the literature before Paul. Yet the bare observation may be misleading. The Jews translated their Bible into Greek in the centuries before Christ, as more and more lived outside the land of Israel. This was the Bible of the early church, commonly referred to as the Septuagint or LXX.  In fact, nearly every time the N.T. quotes the O.T., it’s from the Greek version, not the Hebrew.
Arsenokoitēs is derived from the Greek of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Arsēn means male. Koítēs is lying (as in English coitus). Arsēn + koítēs = arsenokoítēs. Lev 18:22 states “… meta arsenos ou koimēthēsēi…” [with a male not will you lie], and Lev 22:13 “… hos an koimēthēi meta arsenos koitēn gunaikos…” [whoever lies with a male the lying of a woman]. The word is thus not so much a neologism (the jury’s out anyway) as an obvious reference to a sin passage that would have been familiar with anyone who read the Greek O.T. This included the majority of Jews as well as the majority of Christians.
Of course there’s a difference between a thing and what you call that thing. The first murder was probably committed before there was a word for it. Too often I am afraid self-acclaimed experts in ancient languages are just playing games. So even if Paul did mint a new word, that doesn’t invalidate his teaching. Besides, he was an apostle. It was to the apostles that Jesus promised the truth would be revealed (John 14:25; 16:12-13).
GH: Is there anything else you’d like to express before we end the interview?
DJ: Too much of the current debate focuses on personal “rights.” Let's keep in mind that just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s pleasing to God. Like Jesus Christ, we are called to be willing to surrender our rights, especially for the greater good of love (1 Cor 8:1-11:1). Humans are more than sexual animals. By God’s Spirit we can rise about the level of the flesh—of being controlled and defined by our appetites.
I realize that some readers will brand me as closed-minded. And I may even be labeled a fundamentalist. (I assure you, I’m not!) Lately I’ve been reading the complete works of G. K. Chesterton. It was he who wisely quipped, “An open mind is like an open mouth: its purpose is to bite on something nourishing. Otherwise, it becomes like a sewer, accepting everything, rejecting nothing.” It's possible to be too open-minded.
We appreciate your ministry deeply, Guy. It takes real courage to resist the strong currents of societal pressure—standing instead on the Word. Your work is important, and deserves our prayers and support.
GH: Thank you, Douglas.
* * * * * * *
 Nevertheless, even in our time there are millions trapped in servitude of various forms, ranging from sweatshops and child labor to sex trafficking and outright slavery.
 The only exception to this practice seems to have been in the case of first-degree murder (Num 35:31). As for “an eye for an eye,” I don't know of a single example in the O.T. where this was carried out literally.
 For the Bible Tells Me So, 2007: http://www.forthebibletellsmeso.org.
 Peter Gomes lived 1942-2011.
 For more on this, please see the material on Messianic Judaism at https://www.douglasjacoby.com/messianic-judaism-1-why-focus-on-this-movement/.
 Paraphrased “the acts of the sinful nature” in the NIV.
 “The Secret History of Leviticus,” The New York Times, 21 July 2018.
 Special thanks to my friend and N.T. scholar Andrew Boakye (Manchester University) for his insightful critique in this paragraph.
 This is eisegesis, not exegesis.
 The Septuagint is named after the 70 (septuaginta, Latin) scholars who (tradition claims) translated the Hebrew O.T. into Greek. The translation was made in the third first centuries bc. It is usually designated by the letters LXX (Roman numerals for seventy).
 The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 16:212.
* * * * * * *