[L. Michael] White is the director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin. ... White received his doctorate in 1982 from Yale University, and he moved to the University of Texas in 1996 from Oberlin College, where he was chair of the Department of Religion. He has also taught at Yale and at Indiana University. He specializes in the religions of the Roman Empire, focusing heavily on the social context of Jews and Christians in the Graeco-Roman period by blending historical, literary and sociological research with traditional biblical studies and archaeological field work.
During a recent appearance at Trinity Episcopal Church, White contended that those arguing for inclusion were making an error in strategy. “To not talk about the Bible is to lose automatically in the minds of those on the other side,” he said.
“The words that we often assume are found in the Bible are not even really there,” he said. The word “homosexual” was not coined until 1869 as an effort by the medical profession to arrive at a more neutral term than “sodomy” or “sodomite,” White said, and even those words did not come into being until the 11th century, almost 2,000 years after the first portions of the Torah were written. Nonetheless, all appear in some translations of the Bible.
White noted that the only references to same-sex relations in the Old Testament come in two passages in Leviticus, a book scholars believe was written in about the fourth century B.C., almost 500 years after the first version of the Torah emerged.
In the original Hebrew, those passages label incest and bestiality as “tebel,” which means “improper mixing.” They describe sex between men as “toebah,” which means “abhorrent by reason of impurity.” The word applied to incest and bestiality, White said, would clearly indicate a greater transgression.
The Bible uses the term it applies to sex among men to describe many other things, including lying, cheating and burning incense. The differentiation is lost, he said, in the translation to Latin, which used the same word to translate both “tebel” and “toebah.”
White notes still other problems in translation. The Greek word “arsenokoitais,” for example, is translated in the King James Version as someone who defiles himself with men. In the New American Bible, circa 1970, the translation became “practicing homosexuals.” In the New International Version three years later, it was “perverts.”
White was even more emphatic in his analysis of a verse in the New Testament book of Romans that has been interpreted as a condemnation of homosexuality. White says he and many other scholars believe the verse actually refers to a practice called “pederasty,” an ancient Greek tradition in which older men had sex with young boys.
“It is to pervert the New Testament to try to make those passages apply to homosexuality in general,” White said.
Still, he said, it would be wrong to deny that the Bible frowns on homosexual relationships. Of course, it also frowns upon the presence of menstruating women in church, and it celebrates the murder and mutilation of a woman whose only sin was to have been raped.