Was the Word ‘Homosexual’ Only Added to Leviticus 18:22 in 1983?
On June 11 2019 Twitter user @n_robe shared the following tweet, claiming that the word “homosexual” was only added to the Bible in 1983 as a pretext for codifying anti-gay sentiments in Christianity:
According to the tweet, “the word ‘homosexual’ didn’t appear in the Bible until 1983, replacing a verse stating that “man shall not lie with young boys as he does with women” referred to pedophilia rather than homosexuality. The tweet did not specify which version of the Bible had been changed, what parties were responsible for the changes, or how purported Biblical doctrine was widely changed without notice.
Leviticus 18:22 is one of several texts colloquially called “clobber passages” because of their popularity among those wishing to argue against LGBTQ+ inclusivity. The relevant verse is widely referenced as having said in the King James Bible:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
As of June 17 2019, the tweet accrued nearly 90,000 retweets and over 280,000 likes. In a reply, the original poster linked to a March 2019 interview on ForgeOnline.org, a website created by a self-identified gay Christian seeking answers about faith and sexuality. A brief blurb on the site explains:
FORGE IS A NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT CREATES SPACE FOR POST-EVANGELICAL CONVERSATIONS, WHICH INCLUDES TOOLS AND RESOURCES FOR LGBTQ+ INCLUSION IN THE CHURCH.
In other words, the site’s purpose was facilitating conversations about reconciling tenets of Christianity with topics of LGBTQ+ inclusion. In March 2019, it published an interview with Ed Oxford, an openly gay Christian who discussed his purported findings about Leviticus 18:22 in an interview with Forge:
YOU HAVE BEEN PART OF A RESEARCH TEAM THAT IS SEEKING TO UNDERSTAND HOW THE DECISION WAS MADE TO PUT THE WORD HOMOSEXUAL IN THE BIBLE. IS THAT TRUE?
Ed: Yes. It first showed up in the RSV translation. So before figuring out why they decided to use that word in the RSV translation (which is outlined in my upcoming book with Kathy Baldock, Forging a Sacred Weapon: How the Bible Became Anti-Gay) I wanted to see how other cultures and translations treated the same verses when they were translated during the Reformation 500 years ago. So I started collecting old Bibles in French, German, Irish, Gaelic, Czechoslovakian, Polish… you name it. Now I’ve got most European major languages that I’ve collected over time. Anyway, I had a German friend come back to town and I asked if he could help me with some passages in one of my German Bibles from the 1800s. So we went to Leviticus 18:22 and he’s translating it for me word for word. In the English where it says “Man shall not lie with man, for it is an abomination,” the German version says “Man shall not lie with young boys as he does with women, for it is an abomination.” I said, “What?! Are you sure?” He said, “Yes!” Then we went to Leviticus 20:13— same thing, “Young boys.” So we went to 1 Corinthians to see how they translated arsenokoitai (original greek word) and instead of homosexuals it said, “Boy molesters will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
I then grabbed my facsimile copy of Martin Luther’s original German translation from 1534. My friend is reading through it for me and he says, “Ed, this says the same thing!” They use the word knabenschander. Knaben is boy, schander is molester. This word “boy molesters” carried through the next several centuries of German Bible translations. Knabenschander is also in 1 Timothy 1:10. So the interesting thing is, I asked if they ever changed the word arsenokoitai to homosexual in modern translations. So my friend found it and told me, “The first time homosexual appears in a German translation is 1983.” To me that was a little suspect because of what was happening in culture in the 1970s. Also because the Germans were the ones who created the word homosexual in 1862, they had all the history, research, and understanding to change it if they saw fit; however, they did not change it until 1983. If anyone was going to put the word in the Bible, the Germans should have been the first to do it!
In a subsequent portion, Oxford explained that further digging led to a purported selective Bible translation commissioned by a company called Biblica in 1983:
As I was talking with my friends I said, “I wonder why not until 1983? Was their influence from America?” So we had our German connection look into it again and it turns out that the company, Biblica, who owns the NIV version, paid for this 1983 German version. Thus it was Americans who paid for it! In 1983 Germany didn’t have enough of a Christian population to warrant the cost of a new Bible translation, because it’s not cheap. So an American company paid for it and influenced the decision, resulting in the word homosexual entering the German Bible for the first time in history. So, I say, I think there is a “gay agenda” after all!
The claim that the Bible did not originally condemn homosexuality was not new in 2019. As Oxford referenced, efforts to pin down accurate translations of passages relevant to sexuality have been underway for years, and the same argument appears in a college essay from 2016. An undated PBS Frontline item (archived as early as March 2000) began:
In recent years a few adventurous interpreters have boldly claimed that the Bible actually does not oppose homosexuality. Here we are clearly in a different kind of argument, now not over the hermeneutical principles of the application of Scripture but over the directly interpretive task of determining just what Scripture says.
A June 2015 New York Times piece contrasted interpretations of verses, including the aforementioned Leviticus 18:22. It featured commentary from two separate theologians on the selected passages:
Matthew Vines, an openly gay, evangelical Christian and the author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, has been actively encouraging conservative Christians to re-evaluate their beliefs about homosexuality. He has engaged them in private conversations, in public talks and through the organization he founded, the Reformation Project.
He was recently invited by the Rev. Caleb Kaltenbach, lead pastor of Discovery Church in Simi Valley, Calif,, to talk privately with a small group of evangelical leaders to discuss what the Bible says about gay relationships. Mr. Kaltenbach is the author of the forthcoming book Messy Grace, which is about how he reconciles his conservative Christian convictions with his experience as the child of gay parents.
In that article, Vines provided a different argument against modern interpretations of Leviticus 18:22 in 2015, holding held that the New Testament amounted to a complete overhaul of the old laws and never applied to Christians in the first place:
Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law, and the New Testament teaches that Christians should live under the new covenant rather than the old one. Consequently, this verse has never applied to Christians. For a man to lie with a man “as with a woman” violated the patriarchal gender norms of the ancient world, which is likely why Leviticus prohibited it. But the New Testament casts a vision of God’s kingdom in which the hierarchy between men and women is overcome in Christ. So not only is Leviticus’s prohibition inapplicable to Christians on its own, the rationale behind it doesn’t extend to Christians, either.
A separate July 2018 Times editorial, “The Secret History of Leviticus,” also made an entirely different argument against modern interpretations of the verse. In that op-ed, biblical scholar Dr. Idan Dershowitz maintained that a close study of the chapter revealed evidence of revisions:
Like many ancient texts, Leviticus was created gradually over a long period and includes the words of more than one writer. Many scholars believe that the section in which Leviticus 18 appears was added by a comparatively late editor, perhaps one who worked more than a century after the oldest material in the book was composed. An earlier edition of Leviticus, then, may have been silent on the matter of sex between men.
But I think a stronger claim is warranted. As I argue in an article published in the latest issue of the journal Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, there is good evidence that an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men. In addition to having the prohibition against same-sex relations added to it, the earlier text, I believe, was revised in an attempt to obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.
The chapter’s original character, however, can be uncovered with a little detective work.
Dershowitz explained that careful readings of the text suggested that the presence and absence of specific scenarios hinted at revisions:
If a later editor of Leviticus opposed homosexual intercourse, you might wonder, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him (and it was probably a him) to leave the original bans on homosexual incest intact?
No. The key to understanding this editorial decision is the concept of “the exception proves the rule.” According to this principle, the presence of an exception indicates the existence of a broader rule. For example, a sign declaring an office to be closed on Sundays suggests that the office is open on all other days of the week.
Now, apply this principle to Leviticus 18: A law declaring that homosexual incest is prohibited could reasonably be taken to indicate that non-incestuous homosexual intercourse is permitted.
The original tweet referenced one argument put forth about Leviticus 18:22 and an allegation that a private company commissioned a new German version in 1983. Theologians have made many claims about that specific passage, among them that no interpretation applies to Christians due to the covenant of the New Testament, and that studying its revisions suggests that the original had been changed. But the issue is far from settled, and the “1983 change” claim is one of many that some scholars embrace in ongoing debate over the genuine meaning of Leviticus 18:22.