Reading Iron Age Minds in the 21st Century

Dale B. Martin’s book, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, is an excellent resource in this particular moment in U.S. history as the walls of sexual orientation segregation crumble. This past week the Supreme Court decided to equalize marriage for same-sex couples. With this announcement many fundamentalist Christians decried the decision as immoral. ‘It goes against God’s law’ was a common cry.

A question that must be asked (as the author does) is essentially, What were they thinking? What went through the minds of biblical authors 28 centuries ago? That time period was ancient. That society was insular and fragile as well as as far from American democracy as can be imagined. The concept of personal freedom and guaranteed individual rights was unknown. Ancient theocracies granted few liberties.

Yet, some Americans living in the second decade of the 21st century wish to impart biblical law onto our society. That’s the fundamentalist’s desire. That’s their agenda.

They don’t get the fact that theocracy and democracy cannot coexist. That ideas from the Iron Age do not stand up to modern day facts. That myth and legend no longer trump truth.

Author Martin examines, as his title suggests, the context in which the Bible stories involving sex and sexual relationships were written. Martin names “the myth of textual agency,” that is, the “common assumption … that the Bible ‘speaks’ and our job is just to ‘listen” as a prime fallacy in the modern world. We cannot ‘just listen’ without understanding the culture of the times in which the stories were written.

This is precisely where the fundamentalist goes awry. Martin argues against this assumption about what he calls a “speaking” Bible. He instead argues that textual meaning is inseparable from interpretation, which itself takes place ‘in specific contexts and under the influence of traditions and interpretive communities (religious and scholarly).’

The author contends that those who read the biblical passages literally cannot  hide behind texts when making statements about Bible and homosexuality. He insists that they will need to specify more clearly, and take responsibility for, the full range of considerations that lead them to adopt this or that position in the contemporary debates. It is my experience that such debates- especially on Internet blogs- inevitably end with a quote from Scripture as ‘proof’ of Truth.

Many who argue (conclude) in this manner seem to be ignorant of the historicity of biblical documents, specifically that most of what we have today are translations not from Hebrew but from Greek. New Testament authors used the Greek Septuagint versions of Hebrew texts. Martin points out two Greek words which have become problematic especially in reference to homosexual content. These are the Greek words arsenokoitês and malakos. The original meaning or intent of meaning is lost to history, yet the English translators jumped to homosexual interpretations that literalists cling to when they wish to condemn gays and lesbians.

The upshot is that modern translations of biblical references cannot be read in a literal context without understanding the original mindset of the original author. Yet, it persists, sadly.

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