Sex in the world of the Bible

October 30, 2012

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Murdoch University Emeritus Professor Bill Loader has completed his acclaimed five-book series on sexuality in ancient Judaism and early Christianity with the publication of The New Testament on Sexuality.

The five-year ARC-funded project examined attitudes to sexuality in both Jewish literature, most written after the time of the Old Testament of the Bible, and the first Christian writings, collected in the New Testament.

Professor Loader said his motivation was simply to increase understanding.

“I noticed that in churches when they had debates about sex, their information about the historical side was very limited. I set out to do an analysis of the existing literature – reading original writings in the language it in which they were written – Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic,” Professor Loader said.

“This was in effect a cross-cultural encounter in which I respected the texts and tried to understand what they were saying and meaning in their day.”

He said one of the things that surprised him was how positive attitudes were to sex.

“In the ancient world, Jews believed that God created human beings and created sex, not just for reproduction, but for pleasure and intimacy. This only changed for some as they encountered the Hellenistic-Roman world, which had certain philosophies about controlling strong emotions.”

On homosexuality he points out that the only person who addressed the subject, almost incidentally, was Paul, who shared the common Jewish view of the time.

“The approach of Jews and most early Christians was that when people engaged in same-sex activity they were perverting their nature because it was assumed everyone was heterosexual.

“From my experience, there are people with a natural homosexual orientation, so I would say it’s inappropriate to take ancient texts that assume homosexuals are perverts and apply them to issues today. We need to respect that the ancients lived in a different world from ours, with different beliefs about reality, including cosmology and anthropology.”

The retelling of ancient stories in this literature, he said, often illustrates sensitivity to sexual issues.

“The original Hebrew story told in the Book of Esther talks about Esther as being a hero, a woman who was brought into the harem of a foreign king and then became the queen – a wonderful story.

“When it was written and expanded into Greek a hundred or so years later, it was turned on its head. The story became one of abduction, sexual exploitation and adds comments and prayers from Esther saying a terrible thing has happened to her.

“At the time, there were concerns about non-Jews and Jews marrying. All such writings need to be read in the context of their culture.”

Professor Loader is currently in the process of completing a single volume based on his series, written for a wider readership. He hopes to publish it in 2013.

For more information, visit his website.

To read some of Professor’s reflections on social issues of the time, go here.

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