Comments on Gospels and Gays

Bob Stauffer

    A couple of months ago a friend commented that all of Jesus of Nazareth's teachings on gays and same-gender love, when written out in all their glory, would equal a blank sheet of paper. This is certainly a common view, and the seeming lack of recorded condemnation -- lack of anything, really -- stands as a silent witness against those who call themselves followers of Christ but proclaim a gospel against gays.

    But the Jesus record is not as silently neutral as it might first appear. At least two witnesses come to mind, one only recently rediscovered, the other one hiding behind mistranslation.

    The first witness comes from Mark, translator and associate of the Apostle Peter, the rock of the early church.

    Mark’s "Gospel" (literally, "Good News") is the oldest of the four orthodox gospels and the one closest to the events it chronicles. Tradition has it that Mark wrote the first draft of his gospel in Rome. This draft was used as the biographical core of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, which is to say that nearly all of Mark’s first (Roman) draft was later copied separately by those two authors.

    Mark meanwhile journeyed to Alexandria, Egypt. This was the second-ranked city in size, importance, and culture in the Roman Empire, and fast becoming a center of early Christianity. Mark has ever since been considered the Alexandrian church’s founding saint. While there, he expanded on his gospel, adding additional information he knew of Jesus, and created the full (Alexandrian) draft of his book. This Alexandrian draft is also known as the "Secret Mark" because it contained sections which were reserved for the spiritually advanced members of the Alexandrian church.

    This Alexandrian draft was then censored, possibly by Mark himself, in order to create a shorter version of his gospel for the uninitiated. Oddly enough, it is this censored (or "public") draft which now appears in Christian Bibles as Mark’s Gospel.

    No independent copy of Mark’s first draft from Rome has survived. We know of its existence and what it said only because of its later extensive (and independent) copying by both Matthew and Luke. On the other hand, we know the censored version very well because it is the one which has appeared in the Bible.0

    But we have only limited fragments of what was contained in the uncensored Alexandrian draft of Mark, and these fragments -- which relate to the story of a wealthy young man -- have been unearthed only in the last generation.

    Why was the Alexandrian version of Mark censored? One reason was given by the Alexandrian church at the time:  that the complete draft contained information which should not be made available to the general public or those Christians not yet fully initiated into the church.

    A second reason for the censorship may have dealt with sexual concerns. We know that the uncensored parts of the complete draft of Mark, together with some unauthorized additions to the book, were used at the time in the teachings of the sexually libertine Christian sect known as the Karpokratians. Whether because of a general anti-sexuality movement that grew within the orthodox church, or in reaction to attacks on all Christians because of the Karpokratian sect, or both, it has been suggested that much material was removed from Mark, leaving us with the censored version that the church uses today.

    To summarize: Mark’s Roman draft was copied by Luke and Matthew. In order to read this first draft, we must reconstruct it from those later gospels as the original is lost. Mark’s Alexandrian draft was his complete version. It is mostly lost, although portions were recently rediscovered. Mark’s third draft is the censored version which has survived in our Bibles.

    Two portions of the complete Alexandrian draft, which were censored for the third draft we see in the Bible, deal with a wealthy young man. Here is his story. As we have unearthed this story (and an understanding of the literary trajectory of Mark’s three drafts) only in the last generation, it is interesting to see how this material fits in with the censored version.1  I suggest you first read the story through and then reread it with attention to the footnotes which add to an understanding of the narrative2:

    [Part I.] And they came to Bethany,3 and there was a certain woman whose brother had died. And she prostrated herself before Jesus and said to him, "Son of David,4 have mercy on me." But the disciples rebuked her.

    And Jesus, being angered,5 went with her into the garden where the tomb was. And immediately a great voice was heard from the tomb. And Jesus, drawing near, rolled away the stone from the entrance to the tomb.

    And immediately, going in where the young man was, he stretched out (his) hand and raised him,6 grasping his hand.  And the young man, looking at Jesus, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him.7

    And as they came out of the tomb, they went into the house of the young man, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus gave him an order;8 and when the evening had come, the young man went to him, dressed with a linen cloth over his naked body.9

    And he remained with him that night, because Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.10  And thence, arising, he [that is, Jesus,] returned to the other side of the Jordan [River].

    [Part II: later, on the final trek to Jerusalem:]11 And he came into Jericho, and there were the sister of the young man whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome,12 and Jesus did not receive them.13

    [Part III: later, after his arrest:]14 All of them deserted him and fled. [But] a certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They [the guards] caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.15

    [Part IV: still later, after the crucifixion:]16 When the sabbath17 was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week,18 when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

    They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

    As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.19

    The second witness we have on same-gender love is a story told by both Matthew and Luke, copied from an earlier common "sayings source" book.

    The Roman Empire of that time included broad territories in northern Africa, Egypt, western Europe, Greece, and what is now Turkey. But these were joined together in the eastern Mediterranean by only the narrow territory of Palestine.

    The "tax collectors" Jesus was willing to eat with were therefore likely toll (customs) tax collectors, for this was the fringe of the Empire as it faced out across the eastern desert to the non-imperial districts of what are today Iraq and Iran. Indeed, the native tongue of Jesus and his followers was a dialect of the Aramaic from the east, and the gospels were written in Greek, both facts reflecting that Rome had not always held this territory.

    It was not unlikely to find imperial frontier guards in this border province. A company of these troops would be commanded by a centurion. Such troops or at least the lower officers might well have spoken Greek and have a background in the arts, civilization and customs of that world which the Romans had taken on as their own.

    A central custom of that world -- and one not practiced in traditional Judean (Jewish) society -- was the pairing of male leaders with younger men. This practice was the rule in the academies of learning and included many of the Greek philosophers, but it also extended to politics and military affairs (Mark Anthony, a leading general of this era, had played the role of both the younger and the older of this customary male-male pairing during his life). The relationship included a sort of apprenticeship for the younger man, and he was sometimes referred to as a servant. And the relationship always included a sexual component; the two were lovers. The younger partners were referred to as pais or meirakion, two terms that otherwise meant young man. (In the above story from Mark, the wealthy young man is referred to with the related term neaniskos in the original Greek.)

    A centurion on active duty, stationed in far-off Galilee, was barred from having a family. But he would be expected to have brought along a pais or meirakion.

    In reading the following extract from Matthew’s Gospel, again I recommend reading it through and then returning to explore the footnotes:

    When he [Jesus] entered Capernaum,20  a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, "Lord,21 my pais22 is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress." And he said to him, "I will come and cure him."

    The centurion answered, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;23 but only speak the word,24 and my pais will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my doulos [slave],25 ‘Do this,’ and the doulos does it."

    When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, "Truly I tell you, not even in [all of] Israel have I found such faith...."26

    And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; let it be done for you according to your faith." And the pais was healed in that hour.27


References And Footnotes

0.  This is not to say, of course, that we have a single perfect copy of the censored version.  There are about 5,000 surviving copies of the New Testament from the original Greek, and each is reasonably unique from the others.  Scholars have had to sift through all these to arrive at what the original version of the NT most probably said.  Large numbers of the surviving NT copies include slightly differing versions of all or parts of censored Mark.  Scholars, sifting through these competing copies, have arrived at the best possible version of censored Mark as they can, and it is this agreed-upon text that appears in the best modern Bibles.

1.  There is  great amount of modern scholarly material which stands behind the background history of Mark's three drafts, but these writings are beyond the scope of this essay.  These other materials include those which cast doubts on the existence of these three drafts, those which only attack the legitimacy of the sections dealing with the wealthy young man, and those which have, I believe, successfully replied to such criticism.

    Helmut Koester, a giant of NT scholarship of the latter 20th century, summarizes the issues well in Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development, Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1990, pp. 293-303.

2.  In the text above, those portions from the uncensored Alexandrian draft of Mark are from Koestler, and also from John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus:  The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, HarperCollins Publishers:  New York, 1991.  See also the Scholars Version (SV) as given in Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels, Sonoma:  Polebridge Press, 1992.

   The portions of the above text which survived in the censored draft are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), as given in Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy, ed.s, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1991.

3.  The first five paragraphs form a single fragment which was recently rediscovered from the uncensored Alexandrian Mark.  This fragment appears immediately after what we now number as verse 34 of chapter 10 of the censored Mark that appears in the Bible (the numbering system of chapters and verses in the Bible were added long after the books were originally written).  At that point in the narrative, Jesus is walking on his final trek to Jerusalem with a large party that includes disciples.

    Bethany, in the text, is a village about two miles east of Jerusalem. John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus here, a story similar to the one of the wealthy young man in the uncensored Alexandrian version of Mark. The Lazarus story is probably a second telling of Mark’s story above. The placing of this story in the general sequence of events is the same in both gospels; the town is the same; and the basic facts of raising the young man from his tomb are the same. Also, in both there is an acknowledgment of the love between this young man and Jesus (see John 11 in general, and particularly John 11:3, 11:5, and 11:35-36).

4.  Ancient prophesies (such as Isaiah 11) had foretold the coming of the "anointed one" (messiah) from the family of Jesse and David, who would usher in a new day.  The gospels often contrast those who recognized Jesus of Nazareth as this "son of David" and those who did not.  See also Footnote 21.

5.  A common motif in the gospels is someone asking Jesus for help, the disciples rebuffing the request, and Jesus going forward (sometimes with a rebuke towards the disciples) and granting the request from the petitioner.

6.  Rolling away the tomb's stone and raising the dead -- Mark provides a symbol preview to the events of the fast-approaching first Easter.  This is in keeping with the censored Mark which we have in the Bible:  it is full of such carefully crafted literary conventions.

   For example, in Mark 8:31, 9:31, and 10:32-34, the gospel provides three predictions of the coming crucifixion and resurrection.  It was previously known that after the first two predictions, the censored version provides complementary descriptions of people being "amazed" as Jesus either raises someone from the dead, or talks of entering the reign of God (Mark 9:15, 26-27; and Mark 10:21, 23-24).  But the sequence then broke down because there had not been a corresponding reference after the third prediction.

   By rediscovering this missing censored story of the tomb at Bethany, Mark is again complete and uncensored, with its third corresponding story (of raising from the dead), occurring in its proper sequence.

   Note also that the authors of Mark and John both used an ancient, now lost, source which listed some of Jesus' miracles.  See John 5:1-18 (healing paralysis); 6:1-15 (bread and fish); 6:16-21 (walking on water); 9:1-7 (healing the blind man); and 11:1-57 (raising the dead man).  Although the censored Mark repeated these in the same sequence, it gives only the first four:  Mark 2:1-12; 6:33-44; 6:45-52; and 8:22-26.

   By adding this censored story of raising the dead young man, we now have the missing fifth miracle restored, in correct sequence, into what would have been the complete (Alexandrian) version of Mark.

7.  The original Greek has a second possible translation with a similar meaning:

And immediately, going in where the young man was, he stretched out (his) hand and raised him.  Grasping him by the hand, the young man, looking at Jesus, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him.

8.  The original Greek is evidently a bit obscure.  It might suggest that Jesus was giving the wealthy young man some instructions.

9.  A literal rendering of the original Greek is, "a linen cloth having been draped over the naked body."  Identical Greek is used in the young man's later appearance, on page 8 of the text, when Jesus was arrested and the other followers had run away.

    Perhaps attempting to limit the sexual concerns raised by the relatively recent discovery of this uncensored Mark material, some have pointed to a report from Hippolytus of Rome, a conservative early church theologian, that Christian baptism was to be undertaken in that era with both parties standing naked in the water.

10.  The Alexandrian church maintained a tradition of baptism "after six days."  The shedding of clothes and immersion in the water is a rebirth backwards into the mystery of God, first through Genesis 3 (the putting on of clothes of shame), and then back through Genesis 1 (the beginning waters).

   For a discussion on the prevalence of sacred same-gender sexuality and baptismal eroticism in this era, see Crossan, pp. 330-31.

11.  This short paragraph is the second fragment of the uncensored Alexandrian draft of Mark that has recently been rediscovered.

12.  Salome appears in no other book of the (orthodox) New Testament except for Mark, although she appears in a good many other early writings, including many which were later suppressed by the church.  She appears to have been quite close to Jesus.  The Gospel of Thomas, which may predate the (orthodox) gospels, quotes her as saying to Jesus, " 'Who are you [really], man, that you have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?'"  (From the critical text in Bentley Layton, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2-7, Vol. I, Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 1989, page 75.)

   She appears linked with the wealthy young man in the above text, from the uncensored Alexandrian Mark.  She appears a second time, on page 8 of the text.  Her only other appearance, not given in the text above, is from the censored Mark 15:40-41, "There were also women looking on [at the crucifixion] from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.  These used to follow him and provided for him  when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem."  (From NRSV.)

   Note the connections between the first reference in the text (to an unnamed woman, a mother, and Salome), the other reference in the text from page 8 (to Mary Magdalene, a mother, and Salome), and the third reference quoted in this footnote (to Mary Magdalene, a mother, and Salome).  The trio may be one and the same.

   Finally, note that Mark’s geography, "come up ... to Jerusalem" is not in error as Mark refers to altitude and not latitude: although Jerusalem is down from (i.e., south of) Galilee, it is at a higher elevation.

13.  But what of the censored phrase that "Jesus did not receive them"?  Mark chose his words carefully throughout his gospel.  Here, by omitting any other verbiage, he leaves only one explanation:  Jesus' all consuming trek to Jerusalem, and destiny.  Mark underscores the priority of that journey:  Jesus is not refusing to meet with just anyone as he continues his journey.  Rather he is turning away from the three women who followed and provided for him, including the woman he might have been closest to, Salome (see footnote 12); these three also included the sister of the one person Mark says he individually loved (agape), the wealthy young man.  (Agape, to love.)

   The censored version of Mark, which appears in current Bibles, contains only the first five words of this paragraph (changing only "he" to "they," so that it reads 'And they came into Jericho').  In the censored Mark it has been given the modern number of verse 46 of chapter 10.  This short comment, truncated into a sentence in the Bible, has puzzled readers as it is followed immediately, in the same verse, with a sentence that begins "As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho...."

   Why bother to mention an arrival in a city if it is followed with an immediate departure and no activity? Indeed, this stands against the form utilized elsewhere in Mark. The missing material, now available from the uncensored Alexandrian Mark, given in the text above, answers this old question by filling in this well-known gap.

14.  The previous two fragments were not in Mark's first Roman draft, then were included in his complete Alexandrian draft, but then were omitted in the censored draft that we have in our Bibles.  The one-paragraph "Part III" in the text above was likewise not in the Roman draft, was added for the complete Alexandrian Mark, but then it was not lost, and so it appears in the censored version as 14: 51-52 in the Bible.

15.  The two earlier uncensored Alexandrian Mark fragments have said that the wealthy young man loved Jesus and the feeling was reciprocated.  This segment now shows the young man's love to be greater than any of the disciples or other Jesus followers, all of whom deserted Jesus and fled.  The young man is the last to run away, and does so only when his physical safety is directly threatened.

   Not surprisingly, with the loss of the two earlier fragments, readers of the censored Mark have always had great difficulty trying to understand the narrative’s sudden introduction (and then exit) of this odd naked young man. The modern discovery of the earlier fragments have now answered this mystery.

16.  This three-paragraph section also remains in the censored version of Mark, where it consists of all nine verses of chapter 16.

17.  I.e., the Judean (Jewish) sabbath, Saturday.

18.  "First day of the week," i.e., Sunday.

19.  Missing the censored introduction to the wealthy young man, and therefore not understanding his mysterious appearance at the tomb, a traditional interpretation is that the man here was an angel, though nothing in the text suggests this.

   If indeed this is the young man who often wore white (the original Greek is identical), then he holds a place in the Christian story beyond not only the disciples but also beyond the two Marys and Salome, the women who came after him to the tomb and were chosen to bring the news of the resurrection to the disciples.

   The best original copies of Mark that we have end with these three paragraphs, providing a final emphasis for the important role of the young man in Mark's narrative.

   That the young man's story spanned four segments of the uncensored Alexandrian version of Mark is also remarkable:  only his mother, his Galilean disciples, and John the Baptist appear more often.

Finally, for a possible parallel to this censored story of "the young man who Jesus loved," see the story of the unnamed young "disciple whom Jesus loved" in John’s Gospel. Like the young man in Mark, this beloved follower appeared late in the narrative, was the only one whom Jesus was said to have individually loved, and appears to have been wealthy enough that in John 19:26-27, Jesus asks him, from the cross, to take over the support of his mother. See also John 13:23-24; 20:1-10; 21:4-8; and 21:20-24.

20.  Capernaum was an important and sizeable (for its time) town on the Sea of Galilee, about 80 miles north-east of Jerusalem.  Its population of 1700 or so was notable for including a company of imperial occupying troops, numbering perhaps 60 or 100 men, commanded by a centurion. 

The town was Jesus’ home (Mark 2:11) and center of his work; it was mentioned more often than any other town in the gospels except for Jerusalem.

21.  "Lord" is a title showing respect.  The term is often used in Mark to identify those who recognized Jesus of Nazareth's position.  See also Footnote 4.

22.  Pais (pronounced paheece), is the original Greek term used in Matthew.  Assisting us in understanding the term's meaning in this instance is an extra clue:  the same story, told in Luke's Gospel, refers to the pais as being entimos (en'-tee-mos), meaning precious or dear.

23.  A Judean would be rendered unclean by entering the home of a Gentile like this centurion.

24.  "Word:"  a translation of the word Logos (pronounced logos), which is the original Greek term used here.  It is a word that carried great weight to philosophers of the time and to the writers of the gospels.  Logos is otherwise known as the Word of God, Jesus' gospel message, or even Jesus himself (the "Word" in the poetic prologue to John's Gospel, referring to Jesus, is a translation of this Greek term).

25.  Doulos (pronounced doo'-los), means a slave.  Some English translations of Matthew refer to both the doulos and the pais in the text as "servant," thereby confusing the two and obscuring the meaning of the story.  A doulos was not a servant, but a slave.  On the other hand, while a pais was a young man who, in this type of relationship with a centurion, would have carried out certain tasks during his service, this did not make him a servant.

26.  The elevation of this gay officer above the disciples and Jesus' other followers, indeed above all of Israel, is remarkable indeed.  And Jesus stuck with this pronouncement:  Jesus did not later revoke this declaration nor replace the centurion in his august position, second to none in his faith.

27.  Importantly, Jesus makes no reference to the gay sexual relations of the centurion and his pais as being somehow responsible for the young man's illness.  Likewise, he makes no comment about "go, and sin no more."  Lack of such references -- references which we sense Jesus would have berated anyone for making -- only serve to further underscore what Jesus has said concerning the deep faith of this individual, a point which became central to Jesus' teaching.

    The story appears in Matthew 8:5-13, quoted above, and also in Luke 7:1-10.  The text given is from the New Revised Standard Version, which renders pais as "servant" and doulos as "slave."

    For a general introduction to the cultures of the centurion and Jesus by a respected (and straight) Biblical scholar, see Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983, pp. 17-43.

    It should be noted that few if any part of the Bible enjoys an unanimity of interpretation. Our centurion and his beloved young man are no exception. Two other general bodies of interpretation exist; these, in turn, involve various sub-bodies of interpretation.

    The two individuals may not have been in a classic lover/beloved relationship of freemen as was otherwise common. Instead, the young man could have been a slave (rendered 'servant' in some translations), although a sexual relationship could then still be surmised.

     The other, and least likely, interpretation is based on John 4:46-53. Borrowing apparently from a form of the same story as above, the Gentile centurion in John is transformed into a Judean official; the young man becomes the official's son; and the praise of the elder because of his faith in Matthew/Luke is turned around in John into a rebuke that the elder is initially without faith because he must have "signs and wonders" like the healing in order to become a believer.

    Under such an interpretation, applied to the Matthew/Luke story above, the youth is beloved because he is the son of the elder and so no sexual relationship is implied. Applying John's story to Matthew/Luke's is difficult, however, and unlikely.