Wait, Was Jesus a Homophobe?

What about all the other people in Galilee?

A gay Ohio teen is suing his high school after school officials prohibited him from wearing a t-shirt that said, “Jesus Is Not A Homophobe.” First Amendment aside, is the shirt accurate?

Yes and no. While it’s reasonable to assume that Jesus and his fellow Jews in first-century Palestine would have disapproved of gay sex, there is no record of his ever having mentioned homosexuality, let alone expressed particular revulsion about it. In Leviticus, the Old Testament declares it “an abomination” for a man to lie with a man; the punishment was death. It’s possible that attitudes would have been less draconian in Galilee, the region in northern Israel where Jesus spent most of his life, since it did have a reputation for political autonomy. Still, Jews of the time tended to be less sexually permissive than either the Romans or the Egyptians, so same-sex relationships probably would have been kept quiet.

For all that, Jesus’ best-known pronouncement on sexuality comes from the Gospel of Matthew, in which he merely condemns divorce except in cases of adultery. He also exempts eunuchs from the requirements of traditional marriage—a passage traditionally interpreted as referring to celibacy, though a few scholars take it as a sign of tolerance toward homosexuals as well. Never in the Bible does Jesus himself offer an explicit prohibition of homosexuality.

The Judaea of Jesus’ time was ruled by the Romans, who, like the Greeks before them, accepted homosexual relationships in some contexts but not others. The key was sexual dominance: The Romans thought no male citizen should allow himself to be penetrated by another man, but they didn’t have a problem with citizens who sodomized their male slaves or the occasional prostitute. Both Greek and Roman cultures frowned on effeminacy, but that referred not so much to homosexuality as to men who were dainty in appearance or preferences, including those who preferred courting women to manly arts such as politics and war.

Even if Jesus viewed homosexuality as a sin, he had a penchant for reaching out to sinners rather than shunning them. Criticized by the Pharisees for dining with tax collectors, he likened sinners to lost sheep; the goal was to bring them back into the fold. Not all of Jesus’ followers took such a tender view, however. In Romans I, Paul denounced gay sex as unnatural—an egregious example of pagan decadence—and said it would bring the wrath of God.

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Explainer thanks Bernadette Brooten of Brandeis University and David Greenberg of New York University.