Understanding how the Biblical text was originally written sheds light on how the anti-gay section of Romans 1 is not an argument made by Paul.
Biblical Punctuation Primer
The casual reader of Scripture needs to know that Scripture originally had no punctuation. The Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, as written, contain no punctuation–or very little punctuation in some sections of the Greek New Testament. The above is a picture of the Gospel of John–where do the sentences end and begin? Translators have to take into account the structure of the sentence and the argument to determine where punctuation goes.
Punctuation matters because where one places a comma or a period affects the reading of the text. Dr. Benjamin Shaw reflects:
For example, Ephesians 1:3-14 (one extended sentence in Greek) is divided into three sentences by the KJV, and up to fourteen or so sentences by some of the modern simple language translations. But this punctuation is a matter of editorial choice.
So for example, in Eph 1:4, the KJV reads, “that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:” The ESV reads, “that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love” (with the sentence then continuing into verse 5). The difference between the two renderings is that in the KJV, the phrase “in love” is understood to go with what precedes, as is indicated by the punctuation. In the ESV, the phrase “in love” is understood to go with what follows, again as indicated by the punctuation.
As biblical transcription and comparison efforts are more holistic, as we cross-reference how an author uses words or phrases in other sections of texts–as well as how the corpus of literature at the time used the phrases–our understanding of biblical texts becomes better over time and we can get closer to the intended wording of the text.
And in at least one case, proper punctuation severely diminishes the argument that Romans 1 is anti-gay.
Romans 1: Secretly Plagiarized?
Romans 1:26-27 is often quoted to support arguments that the Bible renders same-gender relationships to be anathema to God. However, many scholars are persuaded that Romans 1 is another passage that contains both Paul’s writings and an extended quotation of a theological opponent or strawman who is then refuted in Romans 2. Theo Geek writes:
Romans 1:18-32 seems to be an instance of an ancient literary device called “speech-in-character” (prosopopoeia). Or, more simply put, is what we would call a “dialog” or “debate”, with Paul deliberately presenting an opposition viewpoint and responding. It is now well-established that in Romans 7 Paul uses a lengthy speech-in-character without warning his readers. Equally, in many part of Romans that take a question and answer format, Paul is obviously engaging in a pseudo-dialog with opposing viewpoints.
Dr. James McGrath uses technology in some of his biblical critiques and writes:
As Paul piles on the insults aimed at the character of Gentiles, in a manner typical of Jewish polemic in Romans 1:29-31, BibleWorks was able to tell me something that other sources did not: just how many words are not merely rare, but the only instances of Paul using the word among the entirety of the authentic epistles…
Why is Paul’s language so different here? One plausible explanation is because he is mimicking the speech of one or more others. Indeed, it is not impossible to envisage him actually drawing on some other person’s well-known tirade against Gentiles in order to make his depiction of that position particularly relevant and poignant, quite possibly specifically that in Wisdom of Solomon 12-14.
And so, the rhetorical turn indicated by the vocative at the start of chapter 2, the move to condemn the speaker voicing the point of view articulated in chapter 1, and the distinctive vocabulary do all seem to reinforce this point: The views articulated in Romans 1:18-32 cannot be treated as Paul’s. This doesn’t mean that Paul disagreed with all the points, any more than it can be assumed that a Christian and an atheist, or two people of different political parties, will disagree on everything, even when they quote one another polemically or satirically. But it does mean that one ought not to use Romans 1:18-32 to determine Paul’s own views.
The problem of traditional translations means that we’ve turned Paul’s argument from a polemic into plagiarism. And that’s being unfaithful to the text.
By assigning the opinions about gay people to Paul’s lips instead of his opponent, we’ve weakened the argument he’s trying to make and stunted the biblical witness against rushing-to-judgment that Romans 2 makes.
The Need for Proper Punctuation
So how can the scholar inform the casual reader of Scripture that the above is a quote, not Paul’s words?
If it’s true that Romans 1:18-32 isn’t in fact Paul’s voice, shouldn’t our English text clearly reflect that? Why not add quotation marks around that passage to set it off from the rest of Paul’s letter? And, while we’re at it, why not add section headers that clarify the rhetorical interplay that’s taking place?
We do this already, especially when the Gospels are quoting prophetic literature. Read a hardbound copy of Matthew and you’ll see the references to Hebrew Bible prophecy are in italics or quoted differently in some way. The above picture is how it looks in my Common English Bible. The translators of Matthew are very clear to note that the prophetic writings are different sources than the Gospel–why can we not do the same with the Pauline scriptures?
Thankfully, this blog is called Hacking Christianity.
So here’s a hack: in your bible, draw quote marks around Romans 1:18-32, or shade them with a highlighter to indicate this is an extended blockquote. Above is how it could look in my Common English Bible. Perhaps with a question mark–whatever helps the reader hold the section in its proper form.
What’s needed in Scripture is precisely this kind of form criticism: clearly articulating who is speaking in each Scripture verse and how the reader is to hold or frame the passage in Scripture. By better visualizing that framework in Romans, we are better able to frame the anti-gay verse as not coming from Paul’s mouth but from that of his opponent–we have no other indicators that he agrees with the quote–and that is of tremendous help to LGBT Christians.
We do a disservice to Christian discourse when we interpret Scripture like infants who stop with the plain reading. Instead, we can find the deeper riches of Scripture when we interpret like adults who use our God-given reason to find the original God-given meaning.