NT Wright is a distinguished scholar in the area of New Testament studies, but when he gets off his primary topic and into the muddy waters of the marriage equality debate he does not serve either himself or his reputation well, particularly when his comments are off-the-cuff in an interview. That being said, it should be expected that any competent scholar would be able to avoid the shoals of error upon which Wright founders in this conversation.
And a strange conversation it is. Wright begins by launching into an ill-informed and curmudgeonly argument about the meaning of the word marriage. His claim is that applying marriage to a same-sex couple is a total novelty — not just in English but across all cultures — and implies that the effort to give it that meaning is similar to word-torture by Nazis and the Politburo. Marriage, he claims, has “always been male plus female.”
He is obviously wrong when it comes to English; perhaps he is to be forgiven for not having heard of the 19th century “Boston marriages” in Durham. But as a scholar he is distressingly ill-informed when it comes to the language of Scripture. It has to be admitted that the Hebrew and Greek texts do not have a simple word for the concept of “marriage” — or for “husband” or “wife” for that matter, as the common words are simply the words for “man” and “woman” or (in the case of men, the equivalent of the word “lord.”) The Hebrew words for “marriage” normally revolve around the concepts of taking or carrying off — a relic of which still exists in our marriage rite as each spouse “takes” the other. And this language was applied to same-sex couples in the rabbinic tradition: it is used in Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8 in its interpretation of what Leviticus forbids in terms of the practice of the peoples distinguished from God’s people. “A man married a man and a woman a woman, a man married a woman and her daughter, and a woman married two men.” The word translated “married” here is the same used in Scripture in Ruth, Ezra, and Nehemiah. So the Hebrew mind was capable of wrapping itself around the notion of same-sex marriage, even while disapproving of it. Whether such marriages actually were a part of the Egyptian and Canaanite societies is beside the point, though if they were that would undercut Wright’s thesis as well.
So Wright can assert his counterfactual on word usage as much as he likes, but marriage not only has been used to refer to same-sex marriages for millennia, but it is now part of civil law in many countries. His response: “Simply at that level, I think it’s a nonsense. It’s like a government voting that black should be white. Sorry, you can vote that if you like, you can pass it by a total majority, but it isn’t actually going to change the reality.” Obviously he is also unaware that the English word “black” derives from the Anglo-saxon blæc — meaning “white.” (Think “bleach”). But let that pass.
More serious is Wright’s assertion that what he calls “complementarity” of “pairs that work together” lies at the heart of the created order. But it seems very odd to talk of “heaven and earth” and “sea and dry land” as “working together” in the way a man and a woman do. I have no doubt that the narrative shows a man and a woman working together — but I do not see any evidence that heaven and earth or sea and dry land “work together”; to say nothing of the many other “binaries” in Genesis 1: light and dark, fish and birds, plants and trees — to say nothing of the triads such as the sun, moon and stars. Wright is either just straining to read something into all of this to support his exclusion of same-sex pairs (which, after all, are also pairs who work together!) or indulging in a reading that would be more appropriate to the I Ching, which does indeed conceive the cosmos as being built up from opposites.
Moreover — and again Wright should know this but his antipathy towards marriage equality appears to have induced some biblical blind spots — the “marriage” portrayed in Scripture is not complementary or balanced. The institution of marriage in both Testaments is tilted strongly towards male privilege and power. This is why in the allegories the husband figures God or Christ, and the wife the people of God or the Church. It is true that there are some passing descriptions of real marriages where some sort of mutuality is enjoined or enjoyed, and the Pauline tradition attempts gingerly and modestly to even the scales ever so slightly, but when it comes to imagery the balance tips to the man, away from the woman.
In the final section of the interview Wright show all the signs of frustration at a lost cause. I can almost hear him holding his breath at the end, after a final foot-stomp. He compares the movement for equal marriage to the pressure towards war in Iraq (and why is it that all of his comparisons are violent and over the top). He seems to think that being on the wrong side of history is a statement about trends and pressures. History doesn’t force things, it records them. In this interview, Wright is wrong about history as well as being on the wrong side of it.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG