Letters to the Editor

Published in: January-February 2008 issue.


Scholarship on Jesus and the Centurion

Editor’s Note: There was a lively response to Jack Clark Robinson’s piece in the Nov.-Dec. 07 issue on the biblical account of Jesus healing the servant of a Roman centurion, possibly his lover. The critiques focus on the originality of the author’s thesis, a matter he addresses in his reply to the first letter. The additional letters confirm that it’s a thesis that has a history and a small but respectable body of literature behind it.


To the Editor:

The arguments and reasoning found in Jack Clark Robinson’s “Jesus, the Centurion, and His Lover” have been previously made and as convincingly or more so by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., in a hard-to-find book, The Man Jesus Loved (Pilgrim Press, 2003), previously reviewed in your pages. Except for the concluding paragraph’s “irony” concerning words spoken by Roman Catholics as part of Communion, the entire article could have been based on Jennings’ engrossing and highly recommended book.

Greg Gaysans, Portland, OR


Author’s Reply:

I wish to thank the writer for drawing attention to Theodore Jennings’ excellent work, The Man Whom Jesus Loved, which deserves the widest possible readership. In his chapter on the Centurion, Professor Jennings footnotes as one spur to his examination of the story, its mention in Freedom, Glorious Freedom, by John J. McNeill. McNeill in turn, referenced the background material which led to his interpretation of the story as provided by an “anonymous Franciscan Biblical scholar.” Though I am not a Biblical scholar, I did send McNeill this material in the early 1990’s. After I publicly presented this interpretation at a religious conference in 1996, my life led me other places. I only dusted off my former work in response to recent articles in the GLR. I hope that Professor Jennings will receive the scholarly credit that he deserves for his nuanced presentation of the story. Yet, what I think most important is that a counter-message to the blanket condemnation of gay relationships so often falsely espoused as the teaching of Jesus finds its way by as many avenues as possible into the public forum.

Jack Clark Robinson, Santa Barbara, CA


To the Editor:

With the arrival of your November-December issue today, and scanning the contents, I hoped that in Jack Clark Robinson’s article “Jesus, the Centurion, and His Lover” I would find a review of the progress of arguments surrounding this passage. Instead, I find another writer putting forward arguments as though he has invented the wheel.

While I am pleased to know that he agrees with me, your readers might want to know that in 1987 I first advanced precisely this argument about the Matthean and Lukan passages Robinson deals with (in my article, “The Entimos Pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10”). While the original article was published in an obscure European journal, in 1992, it was reprinted in Dynes and Donaldson’s Studies in Homosexuality: Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy, Vol. XII, where your readers can find a more thorough treatment of the issue.

I am not suggesting plagiarism; rather, it would appear that your author has been guilty of sloppy research. He has also missed the excellent discussion of the Matthean passage by Theodore Jennings, Jr., and Tat-Siong Benny Liew, “Mistaken Identities but Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap and the Christ in Matthew 8:5-13,” and in the Journal of Biblical Literature 123:3 (2004). Of the several sources over the years that have deigned to discuss my arguments (and attribute them to me), Jennings and Liew are among the few to give full credit to my article, accepting that I arrived at the right conclusion, albeit, in their eyes, by an outdated exegetical approach. Your readers are also referred to their article for a more modern—though, to my mind, still complementary—reading.

Donald Mader, Rotterdam, Netherlands


To the Editor

In attempting to discuss Jesus and homosexuality, Friar John Robinson could have greatly improved his insufficiently referenced article, “Jesus, the Centurion and His Lover,” (Nov.-Dec. 2007) by citing Donald Mader’s closely argued “The Entimos Pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10,” first printed in the now-defunct Paidika (1, 1987), and then reprinted in Wayne Dynes and Stephen Donaldson’s Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy (XII of their thirteen-volume Studies in Homosexuality, Garland, 1992, now available at williamapercy.com). He would also have benefited from awareness of Theodore Jennings Jr. and Tat-Siong Benny Liew’s meticulously sourced “Mistaken Identities But Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap and the Christ” in The Journal of Biblical Literature (123:3, 2004).

Or, for that matter, Robinson could have noted Tom Horner’s Jonathan Loved David (1978), written at the height of the gay liberation movement. Both Mader and Jennings & Liew credit Horner with being the first theologian (at least in the English language) to suggest that the Centurion and his “boy,” whom Jesus cured from near death, is a text about pederasty, although Horner does not attempt an analysis of the text himself. Despite Mader’s and Jennings & Liew’s assertion, it was apparently one of Fr. Robinson’s own co-religionists, Dr. John McNeill, S.J., to whom the honor should actually go. Two years prior to the publication of Horner’s book, in an obscure interview published in Christopher Street magazine, “God and Gays: A New Team” (interview with J. J. McNeill by Charles Ortleb, Christopher Street, October, 1976), McNeill says: “The four gospels are totally silent on the issue of homosexuality. There is no explicit reference to it whatsoever. There is one curious story of the Roman centurion whose boy servant is ill. Jesus is asked to cure him. It is said that the centurion loved the boy very deeply; one could read into it a homosexual relationship.”

In 1987, Mader argued that the texts of Matthew and Luke, whose gospels present the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s pais or doulos, both obtaining it from the common source “Q,” demonstrate a pederastic relationship between the centurion and his sick companion. In 2004, Theodore Jennings Jr. and Tat-Siong Benny Liew, both at the Chicago Theological Seminary, endorsed Mader’s conclusion but argued that the method of comparative exegesis by which he arrived at it was not sound. Mader had argued that Luke cleaned up Matthew’s language, replacing the word used by Matthew, pais, meaning “boy” or “child,” with another Greek word which specifically meant slave, doulos, in an attempt to tone down the pederastic relationship between the centurion and his esteemed slave boy that was suggested by pais—a connotation that revealed too much about both the sexual connection between the centurion and the boy and Jesus’ attitude about pederasts. Matthew, more at home in Aramaic, was, Mader claims, less attuned to the pederastic connotations of pais than was Luke. Jennings and Liew maintain that because the order in which Luke and Matthew were written cannot be ascertained with certainty, such an argument is invalid, and base their case on an analysis of the key words in Matthew alone—ending, however, with the same conclusion regarding the centurion, his boy, and Jesus’ attitudes.

Fr. Robinson discusses another converted centurion, Cornelius, from the Acts of the Apostles 10:1-38, centurions being something of a trope in the New Testament for gentiles who were nevertheless people of faith. He does not take up, however, Morton Smith, as did W. V. Harris recently in “The Case of the Fake Gay Gospel” (Times Literary Supplement, Oct. 19, 2007), who claimed his Secret Gospel of Mark (the text of which has Jesus spending the night with a naked, newly converted youth) may be early and authentic. Smith’s argumentation is summarized in Dynes, vol. XII. Nor does Robinson deal with Warren Johansson’s masterly article, “…whosoever shall say to his brother, racha” (also in volume XII of the Dynes/Donaldson collection, reprinted from the Caberion and Gay Books Bulletin, No. 10, 1984). There, citing a German source, Johannson loosely explains that racha is an Aramaic word meaning something like queer or faggot today. This puzzling word was never translated by St. Jerome, Martin Luther, the translators of the King James Version, or the French Roman-Catholic Douai. If it had been, Jesus would be on record as having said, “Don’t put down fags.”

In short, Robinson’s piece lacks the serious scholarship required to make a strong case about Jesus’ attitude toward homosexuality. Had this foundation been there, it would have been clear that Jesus opposed the homophobic condemnations of St. Paul and St. Clement. Nearly two centuries ago, in 1814, Jeremy Bentham wrote that “Jesus has on the whole field of sexual irregularity preserved an uninterrupted silence” (cited in Louis Crompton, Byron and Greek Love, 1985); scholarship today gives plenty of reason to believe that far from being silent about homosexual relations, including age-differentiated relationships, Jesus viewed them at least with toleration, if not approval, so long as they were conducted ethically.

Jesus, most scholars believe, was literate in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, though not in Greek. The Septuagint, however, was in Greek. According to legend, the Septuagint was the product of a “seminar” in Alexandria, circa 250 BCE, when King Ptolemy had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek by seventy rabbis in seventy separate cubicles. All seventy rabbis came up with identical renderings, word for word—a feat of divine inspiration. Like St. Paul, Josephus (Contra Apionem, 2) and Philo Judeaus (De specialibus legibus, 3), all of whom used the Septuagint, other Jews who used the Hebrew text interpreted the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as shown in the Mishnah, as a transgression of lust and not of inhospitality. The case that Jehovah destroyed Sodom because of inhospitality can indeed be plausibly deduced from the Hebrew scriptures, but that interpretation was certainly abandoned during the intertestamental period (that is, between the canonization of the Old Testament around 200 BCE and that of the New Testament, around 200 CE), in such texts as the Book of Jubilees, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Secrets of Enoch. Warren Johannson convinced me that Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey was instructed by higher-ups in the Church of England to minimize the Jewish argument that God destroyed Sodom for sexual acts rather than for inhospitality, in order to reduce hostility to the Wolfenden Commission’s recommendation to decriminalize consensual sex betweens males over 21 in England. Accepting Bailey’s claims without question, John Boswell went so far as to claim that the medieval Orthodox Church developed rituals for same-sex unions, which his admirers assumed to be same-sex marriages.

Many of these arguments are summarized in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, edited by Wayne Dynes with Associate Editors Warren Johannson and William A. Percy (two volumes, Garland, 1990). But Johannson’s book-length manuscript, published posthumously just this year on my website, gives a more profound and original interpretation. Along with many other authorities, Johannson maintains that a group of scholars under Ezra created the Hebrew Bible in the 5th Century BCE under Persian rule, condemning “males who lie with males” as the Zoroastrians did. When Alexander conquered Palestine in 330 BCE, bringing with him the Greek pederastic tradition, apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical writings registered Jewish condemnation and reinterpreted the Sodom legend to make it divine retribution not for inhospitality but for homosexual lust. In the first century CE, Josephus (Contra apionem, 2) “categorically condemned sexual relations between males,” so that on this subject nothing remained for Christian theologians to do. Christians did add an elaboration for unnatural behaviors, that is to say all sexual activity not leading to procreation, as “the sin of the sodomite,” fusing the Greek philosophical concept with the Jewish legend. Mainstream Judaism proper, however, never fully abandoned the old notion that the Sodomites violated inhospitality and justice, as the Talmud had recorded.

William A. Percy, Boston


Poetry and the Small Presses

Dear Poetry Editor:

We were delighted by your warm and enthusiastic review of Joan Larkin’s “My Body.” I’d been hoping for years to get a collection like this from her and she really came through. The book has been a very satisfying project for us.

One minor note, if I may. It’s undoubtedly true that a trade publisher like Farrar Straus has the wherewithal to do more for a book than a small press can, although many of them have traditionally shied away from forthright subject matter. Still, I don’t think Hanging Loose Press represents a dreadful alternative. We have been publishing books for 41 years, including work by Sherman Alexie, Ha Jin, Jayne Cortez, Helen Adam, and Paul Violi, among many others, and I think the press enjoys some respect in the poetry world. You’ll be happy to hear that Joan’s book has gotten some excellent reviews and is selling well. We’ve also nominated it for every award we can think of and we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

Bob Hershon, Hanging Loose Press


Poetry Editor’s Reply:

Dear Mr. Hershon:

I did not mean to disparage Hanging Loose. I have published in the journal, and I never meant that you were a “dreadful alternative.” I would be very pleased to have a book published by you (are you interested?). But I was thinking directly of comparing her to—to my mind—talentless Franz Wright who gets published by FSG. I only meant to suggest that Joan should be recognized as one of the finest poets working in America. For hers and for your sake, I hope she wins so many prizes that even John Ashbery will drool. And if I can write something in support of your next grant, I’d be glad to.

David Bergman, Baltimore


The Shelleys’ Secret Is Safe

To the Editor:

I just finished reading Douglas Sadownick’s review of “The Man Who Loved Frankenstein” in the September-October issue with great interest and much appreciation. One of my Harvard professors, Dean Sue Weaver Schopf, is equally fascinated with the Doppelgänger monster and certainly did not shy away from the homoerotic elements in this fascinating tale. However, she will be heartbroken even to contemplate that Mary Shelley may not be the author. If I remember correctly, she used an edition that included a facsimile of Mary’s schoolgirl revisions. Not that that precludes the possibility that Percy Bysshe (note the “she”) wasn’t the monster himself/herself. Alas, I suspect that only Ozymandias will ever know for sure—yet another larger-than-life monster for fantastic wet dreams.

Frank McKeithan, Wollaston Beach, Mass.