2016-06-30
Excerpted from "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism" with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

Nothing about Paul was moderate. He was tightly drawn, passionately emotional, filled with enormous feelings of self-negativity, seeking to deal with those feelings in the timehonored way of external controls, unflagging religious zeal, and rigid discipline. He could not, however, master the passions that consumed him.

What were these passions? There is no doubt in my mind that they were sexual in nature, but what kind of sexual passions were they? Searching once again through the writings of Paul, some conclusions begin to emerge that startle and surprise the reader.

Paul's passions seemed to be incapable of being relieved. Why was that? Paul himself had written that if one "could not exercise self-control" that person should marry. "For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion" (1 Cor. 7:9). But we have no evidence from any source that Paul ever married. Indeed, he exhorts widows and the unmarried to "remain single as I do" (1 Cor. 7:8). A primary purpose of sexual activity in marriage, according to Paul, was to keep Satan from tempting people "through lack of self-control" (1 Cor. 7:5). Why, when Paul seemed to be so consumed with a passion he could not control, would he not take his own advice and alleviate that passion in marriage? He did write that marriage was an acceptable, if not ideal, way of life. Still, however, marriage never seemed to loom for him as a possibility.

Paul has been perceived as basically negative toward women. He did write that "it is well for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Cor. 7:1). The passion that burned so deeply in Paul did not seem to be related to the desire for union with a woman. Why would that desire create such negativity in Paul, anyway? Marriage, married love, and married sexual desire were not thought to be evil or loathsome. Paul's sexual passions do not fit comfortably into this explanatory pattern. But what does?

Obviously there is no way to know for certain the cause of Paul's anxiety prior to that moment of final revelation in the Kingdom of Heaven. But that does not stop speculation. The value of speculation in this case comes when a theory is tested by assuming for a moment that it is correct and then reading Paul in the light of that theory. Sometimes one finds in this way the key that unlocks the hidden messages that are present in the text. Once unlocked, these messages not only cease to be hidden but they become obvious, glaring at the reader, who wonders why such obvious meanings had not been seen before.

Some have suggested that that Paul was plagued by homosexual fears. This is not a new idea, and yet until recent years, when homosexuality began to shed some of its negative connotations, it was an idea so repulsive to Christian people that it could not be breathed in official circles. This is not to say that our cultural homophobia has disappeared. It is still lethal and dwells in high places in the life of the Christian church, and it is a subject about which ecclesiastical figures are deeply dishonest, saying one thing publicly and acting another way privately. The prejudice, however, is fading slowly but surely. With the softening of that homophobic stance we might consider the hypothesis that Paul may have been a gay male. We might test that theory by assuming it for a moment as we read Paul. When I did this for the first time, I was startled to see how much of Paul was unlocked and how deeply I could understand the power of the gospel that literally saved Paul's life.

When I suggest the possibility that Paul was a homosexual person, I do not mean to be salacious or titillating or even to suggest something that many would consider scandalous. I see no evidence to suggest that Paul ever acted out his sexual desires and passions. He lived in an age and among a people that cloaked the way he would have viewed this reality with layer after layer of condemnation. But for a moment assume the possibility that this theory is correct and look with me again at the writings of Paul and, more important, at the meaning of Christ, resurrection, and grace in the life of this foundational Christian.

Paul felt tremendous guilt and shame, which produced in him self-loathing. The presence of homosexuality would have created this response among Jewish people in that period of history. Nothing else, in my opinion, could account for Paul's self-judging rhetoric, his negative feeling toward his own body, and his sense of being controlled by something he had no power to change. The war that went on between what he desired with his mind and what he desired with his body, his drivenness to a legalistic religion of control, his fear when that system was threatened, his attitude toward women, his refusal to seek marriage .as an outlet for his passion-nothing else accounts for this data as well as the possibility that Paul was a gay male.

Paul's religious tradition would clearly regard gay males as aberrant, distorted, evil, and depraved. When discovered, gay males were quite often executed. The Law stated: "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Lev. 18:22). Do not defile yourself by these things, the Torah continued, for God will cast out those who defile themselves. God will punish, promised the Law, and the land will vomit out those who are thus defiled (Lev. 18:24ff). To do these things is to be cut off from the people of Israel (Lev. 18:29). Later in the Torah death is called for as the penalty for homosexuality. "If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death" (Lev. 20:13).

Paul was a student of the Law. If homosexuality was his condition, he knew well that by that Law he stood condemned. His body was a body in which death reigned. He lived under that death sentence. What Paul knew himself to be, the people to whom he belonged and the Law to which he adhered called abominable, and Paul felt it to be beyond redemption. Is it not possible, even probable, that this was the inner source of his deep self-negativity, his inner turmoil, his self-rejection, his superhuman zeal for a perfection he could never achieve? Could this also be his thorn in the flesh, about which he wrote so plaintively? With this possibility in mind, listen once more to Paul's words: "And to help me keep from being too elated by the abundance of revelation, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I sought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness' " (2 Cor. 12:7-9).

On another and perhaps earlier occasion, Paul had written, "You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first; and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus" (Gal. 4:13). The word angel can also be translated messenger. Paul is the possessor of a condition that he believes to be incurable. It is a condition for which people might scorn or despise him. I have heard and read of commentators who suggested that this physical condition was some kind of chronic eye problem. This is based, I suspect, on Paul's words to the Galatians that they would have "plucked out their eyes and given them" to Paul (Gal. 4:15). But chronic eye problems do not normally bring scorn or the activity of despairing, and through the eye, which Paul called "the window of the body," life and beauty as well as death and pain enter the human experience. Paul, in these words to the Galatians, told them that he had now "become as they are," one in whom "Christ has been formed," and assured them that they "did him no wrong" (Gal. 4:12, 19). That refers to an inner healing not an external healing.

Others have suggested that epilepsy was the condition from which he was not free. Epilepsy was thought of as demon possession, but it was a periodic sense of being possessed by an alien spirit, not a constant malady. Also, in the biblical narrative the epileptic elicited a sense of pity, or at times fear, but seldom did it elicit despising or loathing. Epilepsy does not appear to me to account for the intensity of the feelings that Paul expressed. The realization that he was a homosexual male does. It is a hypothesis that makes sense of the data and accounts for the tone, the fear, the passion, and the behavior.

If this hypothesis is correct, it also illumines in powerful ways Paul's experience of conversion, his understanding of Jesus, his view of resurrection, and his move toward universalism. Furthermore, it provides us with a means to step into Christ as Paul did and to see the Christ experience outside the context of limited words and in the context of a universal human experience. It thus becomes for us a point of entry into a universal spirituality inaugurated by Christ that may endure into the unlimited future in a way that the narrow and brittle religious forms from our Christian past no longer seem capable of doing.