February 16, 2010

Maligning Scholarship

In his review of Reasonable and Holy, Ephraim Radner, apparently less than willing to engage with my conclusions, instead spends much of his energy on dismissing my scholarship. He notes the book is physically thin but finds it logically thin as well. As to the former, the book is only 192 pages, but the print is rather small, and it amounts to just under 82,000 words. In any case, arguments should not be weighed in pounds. Content is more important than form, after all.

As to the logic and the scholarship, I think a problem for Radner is that the book is not what he was expecting, and he appears not to have been able to free himself from those expectations. He appears to have wanted the book to be a consideration of what various scholars have said on the subject, carefully annotated with all of their opinions. In short, the kind of argument Hooker found pointless and tedious.

In fact, this book is a return to primary sources, and the logic is based on addressing the premises and conclusions of the “reasserters” — which in their case is often the same thing. While I make passing reference to a number of contemporary authors, my main interest is in Scripture itself, the writings of the early church and the reflections of the rabbis, and a look at the literature contemporary with them — including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha — and all of this is properly cited. As to modern thinkers — few of their assertions on either side bear much mark of originality, and I do not think it my task to present the full arguments of those with whom I disagree, but rather to test their conclusions — I am aiming to provide answers to assertions, as Radner appears to recognize, even as he regards this approach as “lacking any scholarly context.”

Unfortunately, this assertion itself is short on detail — would that Radner had devoted more space to examples than to mere repetition of his theme. He gives only two explicit examples of my failings, in relation to my treatment of an assertion by Rob Gagnon, and my failure to cite Bruce Malina on the same subject. I want to address both of these specifics, as I think they provide a very good example both of the danger of citing contemporary authors, and the uneven quality of Radner’s own scholarship — which gives the impression of refutation when the texts cited do not support his assertion quite so forcibly as he suggests. I will take up the statement about Malina in this post, and address the matter concerning Gagnon at a later time.

+ + +

Radner says, “Haller references no other detailed discussions of the meaning of porneia, like Bruce Malina’s 1972 article, that would actually provide significant counter-evidence to Haller’s thesis.” Lest Radner accuse me of not providing the citation, I take him to be referring to Bruce Malina’s, “Does Porneia Mean Fornication?” in Novum Testamentum 1972, 10-17.

So, does this article actually “provide significant counter-evidence to Haller’s thesis.” Radner fails to state what my thesis is, so for the benefit of discussion, let me state it: That porneia (and zenut in Hebrew) and their related words do not, in the contemporary literature under examination, refer to same-sex relationships (apart from male prostitutes). So does Malina provide significant counter-evidence to my thesis?

First of all, it has to be noted that Malina’s own thesis, argument, and conclusion are not concerned with same-sexuality at all. His goal is to show that porneia in its biblical use is not intended to proscribe fornication in its modern sense as sex before marriage. As he poses the question, “Does the N.T. usage of the porneia word group in fact cover all the meanings generally given the word group by the lexica and commentaries, or do the meanings ascribed to the word group rather derive from later usage and later moral judgment deriving from a historically and culturally conditioned version of N.T. morality?”

Does this sound familiar? If you’ve read my book it should, as Malina’s goal is actually similar to mine: to limit the range of application of the porneia/zenut word group in its original frame, rather than the expanded reading of “just about anything one regards as sexual immorality.” (I wonder if Radner actually agrees with Malina, that sex before marriage is not forbidden by Scripture?)

In addition to the similarity in our aims, Malina investigates virtually the same ancient materials as I, by much the same means, and with much the same conclusions, with two exceptions. He does, it is true, as a matter of style offer a significant array of references to modern sources — but largely to reject their findings! When it comes to rabbinic texts (which Radner says I treat so poorly) Malina treats the passages citing R. Eliezer (15-17) exactly as I do, but (in my opinion) subverts his own argument. How?

Eliezer, as I point out (128) held that if a man had intercourse with a woman without the intent of marrying her he rendered her a harlot. But by failing to note the stress on lack of intentionality to marry her, Malina weakens his own argument: this is not about pre-marital sex, but what we would call “casual sex” or perhaps sexual exploitation. Malina’s aim is only to exclude “pre-betrothal, pre-marital, heterosexual intercourse of a non-cultic or non-commercial nature, i.e., what we call ‘fornication’ today” from the range of the word group. (17) With its focus on the intent not to marry, Eliezer’s ruling is actually consonant with Malina’s conclusion: that pre-marital sex is not porneia. (If the couple don't marry, the sex wasn't pre-marital, was it?)

Malina also cites Rashi’s reading of Eliezer to refer to sex between persons where legal marriage was forbidden. (16) This opens the question of the “forbidden relations” and Leviticus 18. In this context, Malina makes passing reference to male same-sexuality as included among forbidden relations, and then suggests that porneia — in addition to the figurative application to idolatry which I also elucidate — applies to any sexual immorality condemned in Torah, with specific reference to Leviticus 18. (13)

In this Malina and I actually are at odds. But does he “provide counter-evidence” to my argument? Although he makes this assertion about Leviticus two or three times in this short essay, he provides no reference from the primary sources to support it, and the secondary citations are of a very general nature. To the contrary, I have assembled primary citations against this conclusion. (126-132).

Most importantly the “forbidden relations” (arayot) include categories not found in Leviticus, as Malina notes(13). But not all of the arayot, in Leviticus or not, are referred to as porneia/zenut in the contemporary or later Jewish literature. (Leviticus 18 itself does not use the term at all.) As a matter of fact, as I note, porneia appears only to be applied on a very occasional basis in Jewish literature (e.g., Sirach 23:16-17) to the incest prohibitions of Leviticus 18, a section of Leviticus with its own internal unity based on the category of “likeness of flesh.” (see R&H 129) Moreover, two of the arayot appearing in Leviticus 18 (sex with a menstruant or a beast) are explicitly excluded from porneia/zenut in the Rabbinic tradition (bTerumah 29b, 30b). (ibid. 131)

So, on this point, far from providing counter-evidence to my thesis, Malina shows the same sort of over-broadening of the range of meaning of which he accuses the traditional lexica in regard to pre-marital sex.

I will also note that Malina is careful to point out that the Pseudepigrapha, such as Jubilees, only “perhaps” refer to homosexuality. (14) This is one of those “maybes” that Radner finds so troublesome, but which real scholars live by. In this case, my findings show that the Pseudepigrapha (Jubilees, Enoch, the Testaments), like our canonical Jude, link the story of Sodom with that of the Watchers (or Nephilim) from Genesis 6, and that the concern, as Jude 7 shows, is not homosexuality, but explicitly heterocarnality — “going after different (heteras) flesh. (167-168)

So, does this amount to refutation? Or even persuasive “counter-evidence?” And is this the best that Radner could find? You be the judge; or rather, the jury. I have no need to convince the prosecutor.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


rick allen said...

"[P]orneia appears to be applied on a very occasional basis in much later literature only to the incest prohibitions of Leviticus 18."

Don't know if you addressed it, but Clement of Alexandria uses the term "porneia" to refer to the relationship of Hadrian to Antinous in chapter 4 of his Exhortation to the Greeks.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thank you, Rick. I should have been clearer (as I hope I am in the book) that I am referring to the later Jewish literature, where the dominating notion of harlotry relating to women is consistent, and only occasionally refers to the incest prohibitions. I see now that my sentence is very unclear -- the second "only" should be deleted for clarity, or moved to precede "to be applied"! (I shall do that, if you don't mind; thanks for the editorial help!)

As to Clement, several things have to be considered. First, the passage you cite is about idolatry, and the fact that the "debauched boy" has been made into a God, and his image worshiped. That in itself brings the situation well within the biblical range of "porneia = idolatry." Secondly, given Clement's particular concerns, and the tone of the passage, I doubt porneia is being used in a technical sense, but rather as a part of the contempt of what Clement regards as a shameful and absurd situation. In Paedogogus, for example, he refers to boys made to look like harlots, and hubris and effeminacy are the dominating concerns. This usage here represents perhaps a beginning of the broadening in application to cover ranges of sexual misconduct that in earlier texts do not figure as such. As I note in R&H, this happens primarily in a Hellenistic context, as in this passage. Do you happen to know if this, in the latter part of the 2d century, is the earliest such usage?

rick allen said...

I had been struck by the use of “porneia” in Clement mainly because it was used as clearly referring to a homoerotic relationship disapproved of by the author. In so many cases in the New Testament and in the early Fathers it is used without reference to specific behavior, often part of a “laundry list,” so that we don’t know if it is restricted to the literal meaning of commercial sex or has a wider connotation.

There is also difficulty with the reticence of some of our forebears, saintly and not so, to be sexually explicit. One can read in Blackstone about a crime he calls the “peccatum illud horribile inter christianos non nominandum.” We happen to know what he is talking about, but distant future historians might have some difficulty, from his text alone, parsing out what exactly his “infamous crime against nature” consisted of.

And as I’m sure you’ve gleaned from your study, sexual terms can be very fluid. I had to laugh today when my daughter, watching a DVD of “A Man for All Seasons,” gave me a puzzled look when Meg remarked to her father Thomas More, “You’re very gay.” She was using the ancient language of 1966.

So though I don’t know of any other instances of “porneia” specifically coupled with homoerotic relationships, when I think about it I can’t think of any particular instances in which it is linked with a literal account of paying for sex either. My own sense is that, by the first century AD, among Christians, at least, the word had taken on a larger sense of sexual impropriety derived from the Levitical sexual prohibitions, sharing with the Jews a common horror of late Greco-Roman sexual mores identified with the gymnasium, the symposium, and paederasty. It is obviously a “Hellenistic” usage because it is a Greek word. But I think more telling than the use of the particular word is that uniform and uncontroverted disapproval of sexual relationships between males that one finds (to take the examples that come first to mind) in Paul, in Athenagorus, in Clement of Alexandria, in Athanasius, in Augustine. Whether or not they were right to so disapprove, I don’t find persuasive the arguments that they did not in fact so disapprove.

Fr. J said...

I am generally a fan of Fr. Radner's work. And I think that some of his concerns about form in "Reasonable and Holy" are valid. That being said, I think that he failed to really engage with what you were doing in your book, Br. Haller. Having read your book, I will say that I didn't agree with most of your conclusions, but I felt that your book went farther to address the arguments for traditional sexual morality than almost any other reappraiser work that I've seen (and I've read quite a lot of them). Fr. Radner feels that you didn't go far enough in grappling with the work of Dr. Gagnon--and perhaps he's right, but considering that you're the first reappraiser I've read to even mention Dr. Gagnon at all, I think it's uncharitable to criticize you so strenuously for not taking the man's arguments apart piece by piece, particularly since that would not have fit with your stated intention.

What most reappraisers don't seem to get, which you obviously do, is that the crux of the scriptural and traditional arguments proscribing homosexual behavior rest not in passages like Leviticus or even Romans but in Genesis and in the complimentarity of the sexes. You address those issues head on and at length. As I said, I didn't come away convinced by what you said, but I did come away feeling like the discussion was where it needed to be all along, and I also came away with important questions to ponder. I consider "Reasonable and Holy" to be well written, well argued, and a very important contribution to the ongoing discussion about human sexuality in the Church. I'm sorry that Fr. Radner doesn't feel the same way.

Paul said...

Tobias, I cannot imagine anyone accusing you of lacking in scholarship. I haven't read your book yet, but this post and your response above are proof enough for me.

I appreciate your willingness to write in clear and persuasive prose, rather than hitting us over the head with Latin and Greek and a version of English which is only slightly less obtuse. I get the impression (perhaps I am wrong) that Radner wants us lay people to "trust the experts" where you would rather engage with us in conversation. I appreciate that engagement very much.

MarkBrunson said...

You're worth 20 of Radner, Tobias.

This is proof of the corrupt mindset of so-called "theologians" like Radner, that he thinks that a position explained clearly in a few words is weaker than a position which requires 999 pages of mental mast . . . er, gymnastics.

matthew said...

Thanks for responding to Radner.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Rick, it seems clear to me you have not read my book, and I commend it to you, as you appear to think I hold opinions I don't. I also address your sense of porneia being a grab-bag for any and all sexual improprieties at length. The term had far greater precision in the Jewish tradition, though it broadened out in the Hellenistic (I am using the term in its technical sense in relation to the post-Alexander world) and certainly in the later eras, though it really became a vague cloud of concern in the modern era -- precisely the issue Malina addresses. Most importantly, I do not at all deny that Paul held male homsexuality (at least in the forms of it he knew) in contempt. So you are in part critiquing a position I do not take.

Fr. J., thanks for the comment. This was indeed my goal -- to advance the discussion past the sticking points by actually engaging the issues of concern raised by the tradition. Thanks for taking them with the seriousness I intend.

Paul, you have hit a main point that bears repeating. Sometimes scholarly work only appears scholarly because it is strewn with footnotes, bibliographies, and citations, quotes set in the original Hebrew or Greek (or Syriac!) fonts, and so on. But when one does the work of seeing if the citation actually supports the point raised -- as I attempt here with Malina -- the fog clears a bit. The problem is that most ordinary people won't (or can't) make the effort to check the underlying evidence, and so they simply accept the scholars' "expert" opinion. My effort here has been to lay bare some of the underlying source material.

Thanks, Mark and Matthew! Blessed Lent...

Grandmère Mimi said...

Tobias, as a humble pew-warmer (The expression is getting worn, isn't it?), I did not find your book a quick read, it's thin size notwithstanding. I liked the blocks, including the humorous asides, as a break from what was, at least to me, not an easy read. However, I found your book accessible and helpful, even though I'm not especially learned in Scriptural scholarship or theology, not to mention the languages of the Bible.

MarkBrunson said...

Mimi's comment made me think: Is it possible that "theologians" like Radner are simply trying to obfuscate to keep the laity from developing and learning? After all, if everyone can theologize, then theologians aren't "special" anymore.

Given the conversation's unofficial central term, it also occurred to me that Radner can go porneia himself.

MarkBrunson said...


I confess that I am no scholar, even less a Biblical scholar, but a lover of stories and patterns.

From what I've read of the Nephilim, the stories sound very much like the stories common, especially in ancient Mediterranean cultures, of a race of giants (sometimes wild men) who eat the flesh of humans. I have only ever been aware of the Pseudopigrapha as a concept, never studied it.

I'm not sure any etymological case could be made for the original terms and a relation to "going after other flesh" in terms of heterocarnality, but, is it possible the sin of Sodom, of these Nephilim of Sodom, is the ritual killing and cannibalizing of other humans? We believe that some ancient cultures practiced cultic cannibalism, particularly of enemy soldiers and priests (would angels be recognized as holy men of another god?) Is there a sense in which "to know" could have meant "to devour?"

I realize none of this has anything to do with your thesis, merely a thought that occurred and I wanted to run past an actual scholar. If nothing else, it'd make interesting fiction!

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Mark, I think this is would be a stretch, though it is not without some foundation. The giants described in 1 Enoch 5-7 (with which Jude was likely familiar) do in fact turn on human beings and devour them when they are no longer able to provision their gigantic appetites. I suspect there was a mixing of the short passage in Genesis with, as you suggest, other Mediterranean (or even Asiatic) legends of a race of rapacious giants, and some overlay with the Greek Titans -- chained in Tartarus as punishment -- and also alluded to by Jude.

Rick, I did not have the Greek text of Clemens Alexandrinus' "Exhortation" at hand when I wrote earlier, but now have it. I note that "porneia" appears in reference to the orgiastic revels of the Cult of Antinous, and its Mysteries ("the Sacred Nights"), and Clement is noting the absurdity and baseness of "classifying as a god one who is revered by means of harlotry." As I noted, this bears out my suggestion that the idolatrous cult is linked with the usage in this case. So, as in Romans 1, while there is no doubt that male homosexual behavior is involved, the aim of opprobrium is on idolatry: and in both cases the prevailing negative view of male same-sex behavior is taken for granted, and as a rhetorical tool to say: "see how absurd idolatry is, that leads people to do such things." This is, then, a cultural prejudice employed as a theological argument against idolatry.

Mimi, thank you. The book was intended to be helpful, and I know from you and others that it has been so.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

One of the things that we stress in the Education for Ministry program is that we are ALL theologians and ministers by virtue of our baptism. Multiple graduate degrees not required.

I am continually astonished by the depth of my EFM students' insights and their thoughtful commentary--once they get over being afraid of having an opinion at all.

Tobias, thank you for working so hard to make this discussion accessible to lay people.


rick allen said...

Toby, with respect to Clement's question, “ti moi theon katalegeis to porneiai tetimemenon;” I would render it “Tell me, why do you account one a god who is honored because of porneia?”

Of course the discussion concerns pagan religion, which, from the perspective of Jews and Christians was always a porneia, a prostitution of the true faith in God. But I don’t see Clement using “porneia” that way here. He has been long been speaking of idolatry, but here his meaning is much more specific. He begins by alluding to the parallel pairing of Zeus and Ganymede. He protests on account of the obligation, not to despoil beauty, the “flower of youth,” but to preserve beauty’s “katharon.” He is suddenly, very specifically, discussing homoerotic relationships.

It is admittedly often difficult to know how to interpret the dative case. Was Antinous honored as a god because he engaged in porneia, or is he presently honored by those engaging in porneia? It’s arguable. I think the tone of the piece favors the first, the scandal that Antinous was accounted a god because of Hadrian’s sexual infatuation with him. Giving “porneia” a meaning of “idolatry” seems not only redundant, but inconsistent with its apparent absence from the long discussion preceeding about the absurdity of idolatry.

So, yes, “the aim of opprobrium is on idolatry,” but there is a specific reason here that its form is so reprehensible, that “porneia” engaged in by Zeus and Ganymede, by Hadrian and Antinous, and, presumably, by the gods’ devotees during the “nuktas hieras.”

You are correct, by the way, that I haven’t yet read your book. I stopped by, not to offer any general critique, but to supply what I thought was a counterexample to an assertion in your original post. I have no intention here of taking the side of Radner, whose apparently acerbic review I haven't read, nor of Gagnon, whose book I also haven't read.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Rick, I'm now at the airport on my way to London, for an Anglican Communion meeting, so I don't haver the text before me. There are two problems, as I recall, with your interpretation. One is that tricky dative -- does it mean "honored because of his porneia" or "by means of porneia." Then, too, there is the question of the proper antecedant. Does porneia, as you suggest, refer back to the reference to Zeus and Ganymede, and the "Roman King" who engaged in the same lustful behavior with Antinoous -- or is it a reference to the immediate antecedent, the revelry of the Antinoan Mysteries? Again, not having the text before me, but if "porneia" was intended as directly referring to the behavior of the earlier named couples, why not say it there? Indeed, what is said -- that is, what word is used to describe the behavior of Zeus and Hadrian?

I do not, by the way, claim that porneia in this instance "means" idolatry -- simply that that is the context, and it is inseparable, to my mind, in this case, from the reference to the cult. I do not at all deny the plain meaning here that all-male orgies are involved here. But I think it important to know what exactly is the antecedant.

So I do not think this example, as interesting as it is, offers a pristine example of "homosexuality in any and all forms = porneia" -- which is Gagnon's thesis. I wonder if there are any other instances of Clementine use of porneia that might clarify. The danger of the hapax legomenon always lurks, and if a more general meaning can apply, it seems strained to insist on specificity. My argument, in R&H, in fact, is that the broadening of meaning of range in the word is a reality, but that it comes about in a period at some remove from the Scriptural texts.

Nor do I, in R&H deny that "porneia" may be used of same-sex relationships in an earlier period -- even in Scripture -- but always in reference to cult, idolatry, or commercial sex. So this citation from Clement may be part of that pattern, depending on whether you think porneia refers to Hadrian's pederastic relationship or not.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Godspeed and safe travels, Tobias. Give Rowan my regards.

padremambo said...

"No need to convince the prosecutor"


MarkBrunson said...

Your a true pastor to entertain the question, Tobias, thanks! It's just one of those ideas - again, no scholar here; I do intuitive leap not empirical method - that zapped into my head.

JCF said...

Fr J: Genesis and in the complimentarity of the sexes

Whenever I read a phrase like this, I always feel like I'm not quite in the room (or that I've become invisible).

We LGBT people---and even more, the Intersexed!---are, in our selves (minds* and spirits, as well as bodies) proof-positive that the sexes are NOT always a "complimentarity" (or that "the penis is for the vagina" as, IIRC, one African Anglican bishop put it).

[* I underscore "mind" here, for the famous truism that "sexuality is between the ears, not between the legs"! Something that the "Natural Law" (so-called) proponents don't seem to get, at all.]

Now I wouldn't mind being "an exception which proves the rule" . . . except that those who find us exceptional also find us objectionable . . . and then want to cut-to-fit us into Procrustes Bed [Shout-out Counterlight/Doug if he's here, in the midst of painting said myth!].

To wit: the more than one Christian who's told me "You face no marriage discrimination: you're just as free to marry a person of the opposite sex, as I am!" Cut-to-fit.

As far as Hadrian and Antinous? Ask anyone in a long-term same-sex partnership: they'll be the first to tell you, that their partner is NOT a god! ;-p (But they'll keep 'em anyway. <3)