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.
"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."
"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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TERRY GROSS, host:
As a Bible scholar, ordained Baptist pastor and professor of religion Jennifer Knust says she's tired of watching those who are supposed to care about the Bible reducing it to slogans. For example, she says you can't use the Bible as a straightforward guide to sexual morality because the Bible fails to offer a consistent message regarding sexual morals and God's priorities.
Her new book is called "Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire." Knust is an assistant professor of religion at Boston University. She's also the author of "Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity."
Jennifer Wright Knust, welcome to FRESH AIR. When it comes to marriage and the Bible, the Bible is cited most often, I think it's fair to say, when it comes to gay marriage. And it's usually cited in opposition to gay marriage.
Ms. JENNIFER WRIGHT KNUST (Author, Scholar): Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But your book, you know, deals with that but it also deals with many other aspects of heterosexual marriage.
Prof. KNUST: Yeah.
GROSS: What do you find most interesting and maybe most anachronistic about what the Bible has to say about marriage?
Prof. KNUST: Yeah, I think I was really careful not to address gay marriage explicitly in the book. I really didn't want the book to be about whether or not we should approve of gay marriage because it seems to me that whatever the Bible says regarding homoerotic sexual intimacy is folded within a very large Biblical conversation about sexuality in general. And so to pull out a particular verse and say, oh well this solves our position on, you know, 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, so why we are lifting out gay marriage when we've clearly rejected things like slavery and stoning women who aren't virgins at first marriage. So I, in fact, wanted to show that claims about sexuality first of all are entirely contradictory and second of all, are made with many other assumptions in mind that have nothing to do with homosexuality and heterosexuality at all.
GROSS: What's an example of one of the contradictory claims about sexuality?
Prof. KNUST: Well, the obvious one is, you know, polygamist marriage is the assumption by many of the texts in the Hebrew Bible and don't get married at all is the assumption of the majority of the New Testament, so that's just easy. I mean that's just an obvious contradiction right there. Gosh, there's so many other ones.
GROSS: Well, let me stop you. In what way does the New Testament say don't get married at all?
Prof. KNUST: Well, there's a fantastic passage in Matthew in which 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 that be eunuch for the kingdom of heaven means be celibate would make sense. However, interestingly enough, some Christians took this literally and there are cases of early Christians castrating themselves for the purpose of celibacy.
GROSS: When Paul talks about celibacy, is he speaking to people who are disciples of Christ or who are committing to the priesthood or is he addressing everybody?
Prof. KNUST: He is addressing everybody. Paul is clearly addressing everyone because Paul clearly believes that the kingdom of heaven is going to happen in his lifetime. And so it's emergency time for him. I mean Christ is going to return and there is no time for marriage. We need to be celibate and be focusing on spreading the gospel. That is clearly Paul's perspective.
I mean later Christians also prefer celibacy for not only the priesthood, which there really isn't a priesthood at this point, but not only for example male leaders but, in fact, for everyone. And virginity becomes a sign of one's true devotion to Christ.
GROSS: So even though the focus of your book is not gay marriage, you address it in your book. So what are some of the most frequently cited sections of the Bible used to oppose gay marriage?
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm. Well, the two passages I hear cited most often are the commandments in Leviticus that suggest that a man may not lie with another man as with a woman and the household codes in Ephesians -Ephesians is a New Testament letter written in the name of Paul sometime around the end of the first century. The household codes include a description of an ideal marriage from the perspective of the author of Ephesians.
GROSS: OK. So let's start with the Old Testament then. So Leviticus, and I'm paraphrasing here...
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...says that if a man lies with another man in the manner of a woman, both of them have committed an abomination and they shall be put to death.
Prof. KNUST: Yes.
GROSS: So how do you interpret that? You obviously interpret that differently than people who use that to oppose gay marriage.
Prof. KNUST: Well, the question I would have about Leviticus is what is the author of Leviticus attempting to accomplish with these laws? Well, I think the answer to that question has to do with the context of Leviticus. Leviticus was written by priests and it can be read as a critique, in part, of the Davidic monarchy, because if we go and we read 1st and 2nd Samuel, we find out that King David and his heirs violate pretty much every commandment in Leviticus.
So for example, David has an intimate relationship with the son of King Saul, whose name is Jonathan, and Jonathan loves David more than he loves women. Now, we can read that to mean that Jonathan and David had an intimate partnership in which David was the active or dominant partner in their relationship, meaning that Jonathan was David's woman, which from the perspective of 1st and 2nd Samuel means that David could legitimately inherit the throne that actually belonged to Jonathan as the son of King Saul. So now Jonathan becomes one of David's wives in a way and so therefore David can legitimately inherit.
My point is that even Leviticus and 1st and 2nd Samuel disagree about intimate male partnerships. So to suggest that that one commandment in Leviticus condemns gay marriage is quite a leap, especially because the Bible itself doesn't agree on this point.
GROSS: But it still sounds like the bottom line is in spite of John and David, that...
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...the Bible advises, the Old Testament advises, against lying with a man in the manner of a woman.
Prof. KNUST: I think one could argue that the Bible opposes homoerotic sexual encounters overall. I think that's true. But that's not the only thing that the Bible does, as the David and Jonathan example shows. And interestingly, rabbis and early Christian theologians could imagine gender much more complicated 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 I'm just trying to suggest that the story of what's in the Bible regarding homoerotic encounters is way more fascinating than a soundbite about gay marriage could possibly suggest.
GROSS: Getting back to the premise of your book, which is that you can't really use the Bible as a guidebook for marriage or sexuality, what were some of the codes in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, for infidelity, for being married - for a woman getting married when she has already lost her virginity?
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm. Okay, let's start with the first one. A woman married if she's already lost her virginity - how do we solve that problem? Well, according to the Sinai Covenant, if a woman is accused of having sex before marriage, what her family does is produce the sheets that were bloodied at her wedding night. And if the family can produce these sheets, then the man is punished by not being allowed to ever divorce his wife because he has falsely accused her of not being a virgin at marriage. If, however, the family is not able to produce the sheets, then the woman is to be stoned on her father's doorstep. The message seems to be, oh, you know, you bad Israelite father, you should have kept your daughter in line and made sure that this didn't happen.
And there's all kinds of provisions in the Sinai Covenant for if a woman is, for example, raped and she's betrothed, what do you do? Well, what one can do is force her to marry her rapist and never get divorced. It's a property arrangement. Basically the man who does the raping has violated the property of the father, so it's up to him to pay a fine to the father and to marry the woman and therefore make her a good woman. And he's punished by having to pay the bride price.
GROSS: In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, how accepted was polygamy? Was it assumed that all men would be polygamists? Was it just a certain class of men that was to be polygamous?
Prof. KNUST: Well, it seems in Genesis, for example, that polygamy was considered normal and it's what men did. I mean you may remember some of the patriarchs had multiple wives and also slave wives. And I mean 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.
In terms of the Sinai Covenant, yes, polygamy is also assumed and the Sinai Covenant addresses the problem, for example, of a man who takes a second wife and fails to continue to support his first wife appropriately, and the covenant says, no, you have to support your first wife. You can't just stop feeding her and tending to her just because you've married a second wife. So the assumption is polygamy, and the kings also have many, many wives, which again seems to be a sign of their prosperity and wealth. How many wives can you have? How many children can you have? This shows how fancy and wealthy you are.
By the time you get to the New Testament, Jews have already stopped practicing polygamy largely. They're usually just having one wife at that point. There is an interesting marriage contract from the first century that suggests that polygamy is still happening in Judea at that time, but it's unusual. So it kind of goes out of fashion as just history goes forward, culture changes, prosperity and notions of prosperity change.
GROSS: So we've heard you talk about what you have chosen to ignore in the Bible, things about polygamy, slavery, stoning to death somebody who wasn't a virgin when she got married, those kinds of things, and things that you are interpreting differently than people who oppose gay marriage interpret.
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So given that you've thrown out a lot, you're interpreting things differently than a lot of other people, what do you find in the Bible that you love? In other words, if you're challenging a lot of the things that are in the Bible, why does it remain such an important book to you? Why do you - why are you a pastor if...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You know, why are you a religion scholar if there's so much that you think is wrong, like slavery, polygamy, stoning women to death?
Prof. KNUST: You know, I tell a story in the introduction to my book about growing up with the Bible and with my mom. My mom used to read the Bible to me before school when I was a little girl. We'd sit on a big couch and we had a big picture Bible and we read every story in the Bible. I mean we really did. I was so prepared for seminary. I knew all the Bible, thanks to my mom. So - and what I remember about that is how invitational that was and how friendly it was and how warm it was. We would sit together and we would come up with troubling questions, we would encounter troubling stories, and we would talk about them. And in the process of that conversation we would think about how God loves us. We would think about how we love one another, and we would think about how we want to be to one another and to the people in our own communities.
You know, when I go to church on Sunday, when I teach the little kids Sunday school, which I do, I try to keep that lesson in mind, and therefore the Bible remains infinitely fascinating and infinitely love-giving and inspiring to me, because I read it as a document produced by human beings who love God and who are doing the best they can. I'm a person who also loves God and is doing the best she can, as are the people at my church, as are the little kids that I work with, as are my seminary students, as are my college students; we're all doing the best we can here. And to read the Bible as a kind of invitation to thinking about what it means to be human and what it means to love God means that the Bible remains at the center of my reflection in a positive way.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. KNUST: Well, thank you very much for talking with me. It's been a great privilege and an honor to speak with you, Terry.
GROSS: Jennifer Knust is the author of the new book "Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.