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'Unprotected Texts': The Bible On Sex And Marriage

Pastor Jennifer Wright Knust says the Bible often contradicts itself on topics relating to sex and desire.

If we were to take the Bible literally, marriage would look very different than it does today, Knust tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"If you're reading the Hebrew Bible, we might have polygamy again. We might have not only polygamy with wives, we might have polygamy with concubines and slaves," she says. "And if we're reading the New Testament, we would avoid marriage. The overwhelming opinion of New Testament writers is that marriage is a waste of time and that we shouldn't be doing it because we should be spreading the Gospel. ... If you're married, you're totally distracted and not focusing on God. If we took the New Testament seriously, we would all stop being married."

Knust's book, Unprotected Texts, suggests that the Bible shouldn't be used as a guidebook for marriage or sexuality because passages related to sex — on topics related to monogamy, polygamy, sexual practices, homosexuality and gender roles — are more complex and nuanced than popular culture has led us to believe.

"The Bible offers no viable solution to our marriage dilemmas," she says. "There is no such thing as a single, biblically based view of legitimate marriage."

Sexuality and The Bible

Many Biblical scholars misinterpret and oversimplify passages in the Bible related to sexuality, says Knust, depending on their agenda. She points to the recent Proposition 8 legal proceedings in California, where many opponents to same-sex marriage filed briefs to the court citing specific Bible passages. But those passages, she says, are far more complex and rich than the 'friend of the court' briefs had indicated.

"Whatever the Bible says about homoerotic-sexual intimacy is folded within a very large Biblical conversation about sexuality and gender in general," she says. "And so to pull out a particular verse and say, 'This solves our position on gay marriage' is such a mistake, given that the Bible says a lot of things about sexuality and many of those things we would reject today."

Knust says the Bible hardly mentions same-sex encounters — and that the original authors may have been far more nuanced than we give them credit for.

"There's hardly any comment about same-sex behavior [in the Bible] but I think one could argue that the Bible opposes homoerotic sexual encounters overall," she says. "But interestingly, rabbis and early Christian theologians could imagine gender in much more complicated ways than we can. So they would imagine, for example, that they were God's wife and they longed after God and they longed to be welcomed by God in an erotic embrace. So what's in the Bible regarding homoerotic encounters is way more fascinating than a sound bite about gay marriage could possibly suggest."

Jennifer Knust is an assistant professor of religion at Boston University. She received her doctorate in religion from Columbia University and a master's degree in divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She is also the author of Abandoned to Lust: Slander and Ancient Christianity.

Interview Highlights

On celibacy

"There's a fantastic passage in Matthew where Jesus says to his disciples that some people should be eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. So the way this gets received by early Christians is that Jesus is recommending celibacy which would make sense, given that he says elsewhere that we shouldn't get married, that we should be focusing our attention on spreading the gospel. So the idea [of] 'be a eunich' for the kingdom of heaven makes sense. However, interestingly enough, some Christians took this literally and there were some cases of early Christians castrating themselves for the purpose of celibacy. So that's a pretty radical statement that the best kind of Christian is one who is celibate to the point of castration. We don't talk about that much in our own culture and that was a really important message and many, many Christians were celibate."

On polygamy

"In Genesis, for example, polygamy was considered normal and it's what men did. You may remember some of the patriarchs had multiple wives and slave wives. The 12 sons of Jacob are fathered by multiple wives and concubines. In a subsistence economy, where people are subsistence farmers, the more wives and children one has, the more prosperous one is. And that seems to be how Genesis approaches the issue. So Jacob is a very wealthy man. He has many wives and children."

On the Song of Solomon

"It's an erotic love poem that was written some time during the monarchy in Israel and it imitates some of the other Egyptian and Mesopotamian love poetry from the time. It's quite erotic in its content. The way it gets read today is usually as an erotic poem. So it's often read quite literally as a description of sexual desire and sexual consummation. Interestingly, it wasn't read that way by rabbis and by the early Christians. They read it instead as an allegory or metaphor of the relationship of the soul to God — or the synagogue to God. So then, the description, for example, of the woman longing after her love becomes a description of the soul longing after God. The description of the man seeking out his lover in gardens becomes God seeking out the church in gardens and longing to be with the church and in a partnership in the church."

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