People bring their prejudices with them when they come to the Bible. It’s why the most popular of the choices of how to interpret those passages used to clobber LGBTQ+ people is the one that is historically less probable but supports a dominant cultural prejudice.
When homophobia is one of those prejudices, it makes for convoluted attempts to read other biblical passages beyond the well-worn seven or so usually trotted out against LGBTQ+ people. And homophobia is programmed into us from the moment we’re born.
So reading it into the Bible is a common default even if it’s not in the text. And that kind of prejudice is actually protected from being challenged by arguing that homophobia is really there in a sacred book.
The root cultural meaning of “homophobia” isn’t the one thought of when the word is usually mouthed. It’s often used to mean fear of gay people, or fear of being gay, or fear of homosexuality, or fear of one’s own same-sex experiences.
More broadly, it’s also a label where more precise phrases than a word diagnosing a person’s actions as caused by “fear” would be more appropriate. Better might be: anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry, prejudice, hatred, or violence.
But the root meaning of “homophobia” that’s installed in our American culture is “fear of getting close to one’s own gender.” That fear is installed in anyone regardless of sexual orientation.
If anyone doesn’t display such fear, they too will be treated as gay people are no matter what their sexual orientation. If two heterosexual men walk down almost any street in America even today and decide to express their friendship by holding hands (which is normal in cultures less homophobic), they’ll get treated the way gay men are.
So, imagine reading New Testament commands that actually challenge such a fear. Homophobia as a principle of biblical interpretation has to mean for those who’ve internalized it that such commands just can’t be taken in the sense that they were literally written.
If we put all the “love” commands in the New Testament together, there’s another that’s probably the second most repeated command: the command by first-century apostle writers to: “Greet one another with a kiss.”
It’s found in one version or another in Romans (16:16); I Corinthians (16:20); II Corinthians (13:12); I Peter (5:14), and I Thessalonians (5:26). Yet you don’t see all those “Bible believing” churches obeying this as a command no matter how they claim to adhere to some version of biblical “literalism”.
Worst of all for those who bring their homophobia as one of their principles of biblical interpretation, is the version of the command in I Thessalonians (5:26). There, Paul tells his apostolic protégée, Timothy to: “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.”
This was no big deal back in the time and place where these works were written. Men greeting each other with a kiss was a common practice in Mediterranean culture then as it usually is today — where homophobia hasn’t spread.
When Judas betrayed Jesus, he told the Roman soldiers that they would know which of the guys in the group in the garden was Jesus by the one he kissed first. The kiss itself as an act would have been no big deal.
This is the same culture where a “disciple whom Jesus loved” could be identified without batting an eye as the man who “reclined on Jesus’ chest.” John (13:23, 25; 21:20; 19:26-27; 20:2: 21:7). But that’s another activity not often seen among men in our culture without it being a statement beyond the idea that men just do this normally.
Some translations change the “on” in these passages about the “disciple whom Jesus loved” to “near” just to protect cultural homophobia. Phew.
The Philips translation, a British paraphrase, even translates I Thessalonians (5:26) as “Greet all the brothers with a hardy handshake.” And the New International Version that makes its money by selling bibles to conservative Evangelicals such as the Sunday Schools of the Southern Baptist Convention avoids the issue by translating it: “Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss.”
Many translations make this change to protect their cultures from challenging their homophobia. It’s common.
When asked why we don’t see these Bible-based activities taking place and approved in the United States today, the excuse, the interpretive principle that protects one from the charge of disobedience, is that: “Well that was another culture, not ours. We don’t have to take that literally because it’s culturally specific.”
But if you grant anyone the idea that these passages should be interpreted in terms of the difference in cultures and that therefore they need not be followed “literally” in order to protect one’s homophobia, you’ve conceded that that could be true of any of the other passages used against LGBTQ+ people. In fact, to a historian it’s true that culture determines biblical interpretation more often than not.
Unfortunately, consistency of such interpretation and a willingness to admit their inconsistencies are not marks of those for whom a prejudice must be supported at all costs by their holy book.
If homophobia must be a part of their hermeneutical toolbox to protect their prejudices, the old book must be understood to sanctify it even if doing so is inconsistent and historically unlikely, makes little sense, and ends up sounding not very loving to those who are the lightning rods that experience the brunt of the prejudice.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.