Steve Holmes on Pais

A short but clear piece on the way that Jeffrey John tries to argue in the re-issued “Permanent, Faithful, Stable” that the Centurion and his “pais” are lovers.

I have been reading the new edition of Jeffrey John’s book, now titled Permanent, Faithful, Stable, Christian Same-sex Marriage,in preparation for writing a couple of pieces on human sexuality. In the course of his discussion, Canon John makes brief reference to the miracle of the healing of the Centurion’s servant in Lk. 7:1-10 // Mt. 8:5-13, and draws on Theissen and others to suggest that ‘[a]ny Jew … would almost certainly have assumed they were gay lovers.’ (p. 14) On this basis, and because ‘the possibility that the relationship was homosexual would not have escaped Jesus, Matthew or Luke’ (15), Canon John argues that ‘it is a real question whether we are intended to see Jesus deliberately including a gay couple here as yet another category of the despised and rejected…’ (15)

I had heard this line before, of course, although the argument that it fitted a pattern in the healing miracles of extending grace to the excluded was new to me. It occurred to me, though, that it was not a text commonly considered in the literature on theological accounts of human sexuality, and a quick search confirmed that: Stan Grenz noted that the argument had been made in Welcoming but not Affirming; beyond that, as far as I could determine, silence. The text is not even treated in Robert Gagnon’s compendious The Bible and Homosexual Practice (except for a note about God-fearers amongst the Gentiles, with the intervention of the elders in Luke’s version being held up as evidence.)

This story seems to play extensively – along with the relationship of David and Jonathan (which gets a bit more discussion – see both Grenz and Gagnon, or Eugene Rogers, Sexuality & the Christian Body, e.g.) – in ‘semi-popular’ defences of the acceptance of faithful same-sex marriage in the church, at least in my hearing; given that, the silence of serious sources – from any side of the debate – is unfortunate.

It does seem clear, however, that neither account will stand up as a Biblical defence of faithful same-sex marriage. This is not because of the silence as to the precise relationship – Grenz’s point about the centurion, and Gagnon’s point about David and Jonathan – but because, even if we were to accept that the relationships were actively sexual, neither gets us anywhere near a picture of ‘faithful same-sex marriage’. Holding up David as an exemplar of any account of sexual ethics seems to me to be rather ambitious, given the details of his career; it is surely really very obvious that he was not someone who experienced exclusively same-sex erotic attraction and who was seeking a faithful and exclusive sexual relationship with another man…

As for the centurion, it is very plausible that a Roman centurion would engage in sexual intercourse with his slaves, both male and female; it was a standard way for a slave owner to assert control over his possessions. (There is an extensive literature on this.) Raping a slave to assert ownership and control is some distance from any  ideals of Christian marriage I know of, however. Even if we hypothesise some sort of unusually affectionate relationship (Luke has the slave as ‘precious’ - entimos – to his master), we have to insist that a properly loving relationship can never occur in the context of ownership – we open the door to all sorts of horrific ethical possibilities otherwise.

This was exactly my critique when I wrote about the issue a few years ago.

Phang, in “The Marriage of Roman Soldiers” argues coherently that in the period of Roman history this passage occurs, it would have been inconceivable that a Roman soldier would have been permitted to have had a sexual relationship with either another soldier, any freeman, or even a male slave. There is however evidence that some Roman soldiers bought slave boys in order to have sex with them, but the documentation of this phenomenon is scarce. In some parts of the Empire at this time (i.e. Egypt) it was already unheard of for a free Roman to enter into pederasty with a junior. By the middle to end of the third century it was almost eliminated from the life of the army across the Empire.

So we are left with the possibility that the pais might be a male lover, but that if that is so then he would almost certainly be a pre-pubescent or teenage slave. This also raises the question as to whether the pais would have been a willing “lover”, as given that he had no choice in the matter we cannot automatically assume that he would have chosen such a position if he was free.

At this point then we are left with an uncomfortable dilemma, for if we wish to use this passage to affirm gay relationships then we might inadvertently be affirming pederasty and in particular, forced sexual activity on minors. Given that we already need to make an assumption that pais in this context means male lover, the assumption that the pais is not a reciprocal equal is not unwarranted given our understanding of the cultural context of the first century.

Despite the obvious flaws in the argument, why do those like Dr John continue to peddle these weak “proofs”? More to the point, why do others fall for them hook line and sinker with no attempt at discernment?

33 Comments on “Steve Holmes on Pais

  1. I’m guessing it’s based on the theory that if homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon, then it must have been around in all cultures throughout history, and therefore it must be somewhere in the Bible. People see it because they’re looking for it. If you assume that everybody is naturally heterosexual, you’re less likely to see it.

    I’m not arguing either way. Just making an observation.

    • Hmm, I think it’s more complicated than that..

      But it’s certainly true that “liberal” theologians like Dr John are very influenced by cultural perceptions and current thought. For instance, I was reading some ~100 year old argumentation by the Modern Church folk that was basically arguing that the idea of penal substitution should be rejected because *we now know* that retribution is not a morally acceptable objective of punishment (in other words, *current thinking* was that retribution was not a morally acceptable objective of punishment). That is a wobbly argument… Current thinking in our own society (or among its elite) is hardly a reliable basis for deciding what God thinks!

          • That, whatever and whoever this passage is referring to, penal substitution is not a morally acceptable concept.

              • I don’t quite see how Isaiah 53:4-6 can refer to someone who wasn’t even born until hundreds of years later, but whatever, yes.

                    • “…the Jews read their sacred texts in terms of their own situation and their own faith and expectations, without being concerned with the question what the biblical authors might have meant by their words in their own day. The disciples of Jesus thus did what was customary in their environment.”

                      “The New Testament authors considered that what had happened with Jesus of Nazareth had been clearly foretold in the ancient scriptures. Therefore everything ‘had to’ follow the course that it did, according to the plan: the plan which God had revealed long beforehand to his prophets. “It is impossible for us to take over that vision. It is too tightly bound up with a form of biblical interpretation which can no longer be ours.”

                      – LUCAS GROLLENBERG, O.P., Unexpected Messiah, or How the Bible can be Misleading (1988)

                    • So your thesis is that the NT writers basically interpolated the events of Jesus’ life as having been foretold by the OT even though the OT didn’t actually foretell them?

                      Let me ask you a direct question. Do you believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead?

                    • Yes, that sounds about right. I highly recommend Fr Grollenberg’s book. It is the work of a convinced Christian who was a Dominican priest for many years until his death in 1997.

                      Do I believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? Yes. But
                      I do not believe that resurrection implies the resuscitation of a corpse, if
                      that is what you mean.

                    • I am not aware of any passage in which Paul refers to Jesus’s resurrection as the resuscitation of his corpse or implies that he so understands it. Paul seems to teach that Christ’s resurrection is the type or pattern of our own future resurrection, and our own dead bodies certainly will not be resuscitated or reconstituted. Paul himself asserts that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; and the perishable cannot inherit what lasts for ever” (1 Corinthians 15:50).

                      Furthermore, the interpretation of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances as appearances of the body which was buried in the tomb raises a number of questions. For instance, if we take the accounts of the empty tomb as literal history, he left his grave clothes behind in the tomb (Luke 24:12; John 20:6). There is no suggestion that he appeared naked to his followers, so what clothes was he wearing, and where did they come from – especially those in which he appeared to Mary of Magdala beside the tomb early on that Sunday morning (John 20:14–18)? This may seem a trivial, tiresome and even puerile question, but it cannot with honesty be simply brushed aside; it demands a satisfactory and convincing answer. And where did his body ultimately go to? As the theologian Paul Badham puts it, “[B]elief in a heaven in such close proximity to this earth that a resurrected physical body could be carried there by clouds [Acts 1:9] is simply no longer a conceptual possibility for us. … Consequently, when Christians speak today of ‘heaven’ they locate it not in the sky, but in another dimension of being. In this new context, talk of a literal physical resurrection of Jesus simply does not fit.” (The Contemporary Challenge of Modernist Theology, 1998) Pope Pius XII, of course, placed a similar strain on the faith of more thoughtful Catholics when in 1950 – perhaps feeling that having the supposed gift of infallibility and not actually using it was a bit like having money and never spending it – he solemnly defined ex cathedra the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven as a dogma of the Catholic faith.

                    • Let me ask you one simple question. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus presents his hands, feet and side with the wounds in for Thomas to touch. Why does he do this if it is not the exact same body resurrected that died?

                    • Yes, I agree, that certainly indicates that the author of Luke’s gospel believed in a literal, physical resurrection of Jesus, but it leaves the real difficulties that I have already indicated unresolved. It also means that, since our own bodies assuredly will not rise from our graves or be reconstituted after being cremated, Paul’s view of our future resurrection as being analogous to that of Jesus (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:12–19) seems to fall to pieces.

                    • There’s a clear difference between what resurrection means for a newly deceased cadaver (Jesus / Lazarus) and the final resurrection.

                      And I absolutely love the fact that you see very clearly what Luke’s gospel says, but you reject it because it doesn’t fit *your* framework.

                    • As one who doesn’t claim to be a theologian, I would be genuinely interested to know what clear difference IN TYPE there is between the resurrection of Jesus and our final resurrection – apart, of course, from the obvious one that the former is past and the latter is future – especially in view of Paul’s analogy to which I have already referred.

                      I must say that I am rather surprised at your bracketing of the resurrection of Jesus with the raising of Lazarus. I thought that it had long been generally agreed (but perhaps I am wrong) that whatever the resurrection of Jesus means, it means a great deal more than that. Jesus, we are told, rose from the dead to die no more, and his risen body, whatever the nature of it, could and did do things that his pre-resurrection body couldn’t do. Lazarus, by contrast, merely resumed life in a body which remained as it had previously been and must have eventually gone the way of all flesh. I like what the Dutch theologian Harry Kuitert has to say about this:

                      “But we can’t read out of this what the Christian tradition means by resurrection. For Lazarus then died again; he himself died twice if we are to take the story historically (so I don’t think that we should, because God wouldn’t make anyone die twice). (I Have My Doubts, 1993)

                      You say “you reject it because it doesnt fit *your* framework.”

                      Hardly my personal, idiosyncratic framework. I reject it because it entails a way of thinking which is no longer tenable for us and raises insoluble conceptual problems. As Professor Badham puts it:

                      “The point I am making is that for many thoughtful Christians today the traditional literal physical resurrection of Jesus has become simply unthinkable: not so much because of physiological difficulties about the resuscitation of a three-day-old corpse (for to a believer God can do anything) as, more radically, because a physical resurrection requires a physical ascension, and a physical ascension requires a ‘three-decker Universe’ with a literal heaven in the sky above the earth.” (The Contemporary Challenge of Modernist Theology, 1998)

                      About Luke’s account Badham has this to say:

                      “Luke’s understanding of the resurrection body of Jesus is ruthlessly physical, with explicit mention of ‘flesh and bones’, and invitations from Jesus to touch him. But I suggest that this represents a later interpretation which arose partly from a wish of the disciples to insist on the ‘reality’ of what they had experienced, and partly because of an application to Jesus of a passage in the Psalms that sasGod would not allow his ‘Holy One to see corruption’.” (The Contemporary Challenge of Modernist Theology, 1998)

                      Hans Küng puts it nicely:

                      “For us today, with our education in science, it has to be said quite plainly that God does not need the bodily remnants of the earthly existence of Jesus for the identity of the person to be preserved. This is resurrection to a completely different form of existence. … We are not obliged to hold any kind of physiological ideas of resurrection.” (Credo: The Apostles’ Creed Explained for Today, 1993)

                    • The word “ascension” is certainly applicable to the description in Acts, where the language used by the author seems to assume precisely the kind of “three-decker universe” model which can no longer form part of our thinking. We are told that Jesus was “LIFTED UP”; that “A CLOUD took him from their sight”; that the disciples “were still staring into the SKY” when the two mysterious men in white appeared and asked, “Why are you men of Galilee standing here looking into the SKY?”; and that they are promised that Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come back again “in the same way as you have seen him go there”. (Acts 1:9–11, Jerusalem Bible)

                      If you wish to update our understanding of this account and to interpret it as the removal of a physical human body into another dimension (presuming such a thing to be possible), then to call it an ascension strikes me as a slightly strange use of figurative language. But there are more serious questions. The one about clothes in connection with the resurrection appearances, to which you still haven’t suggested any answer, arises here also. Did Jesus’s clothes go with him into this other dimension, or did he discard them in this one before proceeding? And if he took with him the self-same body as he had here (albeit with new properties in its glorified state), will that same body still be doing the same things that human bodies do here, eating, drinking, sleeping etc.? To quote Paul Badham once more:

                      “The problem is that once one tries to spell out what a literal physical resurrection would actually be like, where it might be located and what social conditions might obtain there, one rapidly finds oneself piling absurdity upon absurdity. Apart from Jehovah’s Witnesses’ tracts, I know of no contemporary book that spells out such a position.” (The Contemporary Challenge of Modernist Theology, 1998)

                    • Grave clothes first – the “clothes” left were his burial shroud and wrappings. They were left in the tomb to demonstrate that he was no longer in the tomb but that he had been there. As for what he was wearing post-resurrection, well for a hyper-dimensional being able to walk through walls and appear in any place at will, I think rustling up some robes mightn’t have been too much of a problem!

                      As for the ascension, I see no problem with Jesus visually ascending as though rising to the “third heaven” and then, once in the clouds, moving hyper-dimensionally to the presence of his Father. Like the resurrection, you only have a problem with it because you want to have a problem with it, because if it were true that Jesus was raised physically from the dead and ascended to the Father then that has implications for your life.

                    • I’m probably going to get in trouble again for over-reacting, but I find this kind of conversation very irritating. It’s not that people ask these questions, or have different opinions about them, it’s the implication that only ‘thoughtful’ Christians ask these questions, and all the rest of us who are prepared to go along with what the Church has taught for centuries just haven’t thought about it.

                      Underlying it is also the implication that we’re more ‘enlightened’ than the people in the past who wrote the gospel accounts or the Church councils that put together the creed. It would seem to me that the people who actually knew Jesus when he was on earth are in a better position to answer these questions, and it’s not as if the Church didn’t decide these matters without a lot of debate and questioning.

                      If people two thousand years ago were so much more credulous than us, then why did Thomas doubt in the first place? and why did the people at Pentecost think the disciples were drunk? and why did people feed Christians to the lions if their ideas were so much more acceptable that to the modern mind?

                    • Well, Peter, I realise that some people succeed in continuing to believe these things, but they now lie beyond my own threshold of credulity.

                      Whatever, I fail to see that a physical resurrection would have any implications for my life or anyone else’s that a non-physical resurrection doesn’t have.

                      But to return to the pais argument, I must say that I entirely agree with you that it is very thin, so thin in fact that I don’t know why anyone is bothering still to use it.

                    • Just come across this but it strikes me as quite a mormonesque way of trying interpret the NT narratives to fit what we *now* know is not a Three-Decker Universe. ‘God has got a body and we will all get our own planet’ comes to mind.

              • whereas Peter presumably you do regard penal substitution as the most commensensical interpretation of that passage (in part) *because* you do not regard penal substitution as intrinsically immoral?

                • Exactly. The notion that we cannot believe in penal substitution because it is immoral is predicated on major misconceptions. The morality of God’s actions are not determined by us but rather by God in that whatever he does is good by definition.

                  • I’d look at it the other way round and say that if something is obviously immoral, then we can be sure that God wouldn’t do it, even if someone else assures us that he would and has.

      • One could note that the growth of science, among other disciplines, in the OT period to now suggests that there are indeed all sorts of areas where we may be better informed.

        As to those who object to the ‘liberal’ ‘modern’ understanding of homosexuality, how far back exactly do you want to turn back the clock? Call me a raging liberal, but I rather think (as most do) that the fact that gay people are no longer put to death in this country is rather a good thing.

        Note also that conservative Christian apologetics, as with alpha, argue *for* penal substitution as being self-evidently moral (as opposed to “God does it so it must be good”). Reason, as with many a liberal argument, is being used to support particular scriptural interpretations.

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