William Loader is professor emeritus of New Testament at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia, and author of five volumes with Eerdmans that explore attitudes toward sexuality in Judaism and Christianity during the Greco-Roman era. In this post, he introduces the last of these volumes, The New Testament on Sexuality, and explains why he chose to devote seven years to the intensive study of this subject.
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Sex is everywhere. Sometimes it’s in the right places; sometimes it’s in the wrong places. As human beings, we are sexual beings. This is how God made us.
Sex is also controversial. When controversy about sex first started to erupt in the churches in recent times, I was surprised to find how little reliable information there was about how people approached sex in the world of the Bible. It bothered me then – and it still does — when I heard people lifting passages about sex from the Bible and applying them to our own day without any sensitivity to all the changes which have occurred over the last two thousand years. It bothered me just as much when I heard people claiming that their new “enlightened” ideas were there in the Bible all the time, when I could see they were reading into the texts their own agendas.
Instead of complaining about this, however, I set myself the task to trying to listen. To me listening is the key to all good human relations: listening to what you are saying in your terms and context, not just hearing what I want to hear, not imagining I can know all about why you are saying what you saying, not reading in my own stuff, not censoring out what I don’t want to hear. Respecting other people is about letting them be in their uniqueness and otherness. Such respect is also how I understand “hallowing”: treating others as holy and also treating God as holy.
So I set about listening to the New Testament and its world and also listening to what others had been saying about sex in that world. The Australian government through its Research Council awarded me a five-year grant to undertake full time the project of listening to what Jewish writers and writers in the early Christian movement were saying about sex. Of the eight books I have published on sexuality in the last seven years, five are detailed studies based on my five-year research project. Four of them explore Jewish writings; the fifth, The New Testament on Sexuality, comes onto the shelf this month. This newest volume includes a hundred pages looking at the world of the Testament, both Jewish and Greco-Roman, and another four hundred pages on the New Testament itself.
My extended time of listening has shown me two main things: how far apart our world is from theirs and yet how close to home some of their best thoughts were. That world was one of arranged marriages, where local parents and elders did the matchmaking to ensure that the extended family would survive into the future: with children who could then support them when they became old, with stable households and marriages earning enough to feed everyone and look after their needs. Fathers tried to marry off their girls as young as possible to prevent them becoming pregnant out of wedlock, as contraception was virtually non-existent. Men, however, married around thirty, and they saw their role in part as teaching their wives how to run the household. Wives were thus usually treated as junior, and this fitted the general view that they were inferior. Adultery was a major threat to the stability of the entire extended family and required divorce. Forgiveness and reconciliation were not seen as an option. Family controlled everything.
In our world of small nuclear families, effective contraception, social welfare, and relative prosperity, sex challenges us in very different ways. Yet some in the world of Jesus put their finger on issues which are right at home with what matters for us. When Jesus told people not just to look at actions but also at attitudes — not just murder but hate, not just adultery but adulterous attitudes — he invited people to a new way of being whole and holy. Marriage was to be more than a convenient way of producing offspring and serving households; it was also about human intimacy and oneness. His message of love and respect for all and of forgiveness and reconciliation were seeds which would sprout into new understandings of sexuality. That includes going beyond rules to embrace respect for others. It also means that we can apply reconciliation to broken relationships in ways they never contemplated.
Jesus challenged the power of the family system. At thirty he even chose not to follow the norm and get married. He challenged some people to leave their families. His aim in this was not to destroy families, but rather to offer a new way of approaching family and sexuality. Ultimately his words and example would undermine discrimination and abuse against women, slaves, and people of different sexual orientation, though in all three areas there is still a long way to go.
Listening to what Jesus and the writers of the New Testament said then can sharpen our sensitivity to what we need to hear today. People will reach different conclusions about what was said then applies now. My hope is that my books will help them do so in a more informed way.
Click on the images to order The New Testament on Sexuality or any of William Loader’s studies on Jewish and Christian understandings of sexuality during the Greco-Roman era.