Monday, September 16, 2013

More on Jewish sexual laws and Acts 15

Before my trip to Disney last week, I posted about Acts 15 and its impact on the gay marriage debate. Several astute readers pointed out two things:

  1. That Leviticus 18 also outlaws sex during menstruation, which I did not address. Is this okay, or is it also prohibited by the Acts 15/Lev 18 connection?
  2. That there are other commonly-taught Christian sexual ethics, which are not included here. Are they therefore okay?
That prior post was intended to be purely about gay marriage, so I did not address these there, but they are very good questions. So let's take them one at a time.

1. Sex during menstruation

As Laura pointed out in the comments to my first article, there is one other thing that is forbidden by Lev 18:19--sex during menstruation. So why did I leave that out of my list of prohibitions above? Primarily, because this one is a bit of a debatable point, and there are two approaches to it.

The most safe/conservative approach is simply to follow this command as it is written: do not have sex with your wife during her period. That is following the plain teaching of the text. The early Jews--though more open to discussing menstruation than we are today--had a very strong aversion to contact with menstruation or menstrual rags. You can simply follow this command and not worry about's not a big sacrifice (just a few days per month), and so there is no risk.

However, I do think that there is good exegetical reason to believe that this is not quite the same as the other Leviticus 18 commands. You see, Lev 18:19 is really just a specific extension of the general rules in Leviticus 15 against bodily discharges. Recall that at this time, worship happened in the Temple: instead of God living in our hearts and us becoming the Temple, His only presence on earth was through the Jewish 'Holy of Holies' at the Temple. Therefore, in order to walk into His presence required ritual cleanliness. Bodily discharges kept one out of a state of cleanliness...including semen, pus, or menstruation.

Leviticus 15:19 tells us that--just like a man's discharges--a woman must stay away from "clean" places until her period is over, and then bathe to become purified. Leviticus 15:24 shows us that this (like most impurities) can be passed from unclean to clean--so if a man sleeps with her, obviously her uncleanliness passes to him. 

So the Lev 18:19 statement is simply a restatement of Lev 15:24--that is, in the section about sexual immorality they restate/highlight a law about uncleanliness, since it is topically related to the sexual discussions of Leviticus 18.

To put it another way:  the "no sex during menstruation" rule is a Leviticus uncleanliness rule--exactly what Acts 15 is meant to tell us we need not follow. Leviticus 18 simply restated this rule when they were listing the "universal" sexual rules.

Finally, I think it is important to note a few further things:
  1. The reason that this is included as a law, as shown in Lev 15:19-24, is because of uncleanliness passing from one person to the other. There is no more Temple levitical system, and there is no more Jewish ritual uncleanliness to be passed on. Therefore, the law simply doesn't logically apply: it is a law to protect ritual impurity from passing from wife to husband--but if the impurity is gone from Gentiles (per Acts 15), then there is nothing to pass on!
  2. Leviticus 15:24 shows that the punishment/cleansing rite for having sex during menstruation is a seven day uncleanliness; by comparison, Leviticus 18:29 says that those who do sexual sins should be cut off from their people. Obviously these are vastly different punishments! The reason is because the other sexual sins of Leviticus 18 are seen as universally immoral, whereas sex during menstruation is only seen as ritually impure.
  3. When Jesus is approached and touched by the woman with the 12-year menstruation in Luke 8:43-48, He is not made unclean--quite the opposite, He takes her uncleanliness and heals it. This is the overarching message of much of Luke's Gospel--Jesus is not here just to fulfill the Law, but actually to make the impure, pure. I think that this passage is fairly clear proof that, in the Christian system, having a flow of blood no longer need pass from unclean Jew to clean Gentile.
For all these reasons, I think that sex during menstruation is not considered part of the universal sexual code discussed in the rest of Leviticus 18...but if you are unsure, do the safe thing and simply abstain for those few days.

2. Other Christian sexual ethics

So:  Acts 15 tells us to "avoid sexual immorality"--what does that look like? There unfortunately isn't a single book called, "The Sexual Immorality Handbook of First-Century Judaism." So we will have to use our heads here a bit and understand how to draw this from history as well as the Old and New Testament texts. So the sourcing, in other words, looks something like this:

In other words, the Acts 15 leaders spoke of "sexual immorality" a bit off-hand, knowing that everyone reading it knew what they were talking about: we, being a society which loves the details, find this infuriating. They expected people to "read between the lines" and we--the Wikipedia generation--want a cross-linked list instead. So, let's build that. I submit that the view of sexual ethics that the Acts 15 leaders speak of includes the commonly-held ethics of their day--and that we can discover these through looking at writings of the time, teachings of rabbis, and Leviticus 18.

We have already discussed Lev 18 in detail above. From this, we get the following prohibitions:
  1. No incest (Lev 18:6-17)
  2. No marrying a woman and her sister unless the first wife has passed away (Lev 18:18)
  3. No adultery (Lev 18:20)
  4. No homosexuality (Lev 18:22)
  5. No bestiality (Lev 18:23)

Jesus, Paul, and the Rabbis

Jesus doesn't talk all that much about sexuality, actually. However, He does weigh in on a very controversial topic of the day--divorce. I wrote about it in detail here, two major rabbinical traditions disagreed about divorce law. Both sides agreed with the prohibitions above from Leviticus; however, the two disagreed greatly and the discussion was largely a sexual one. One side (Rabbi Hillel's disciples) said that divorce could happen for any reason and there was no sexual sin with remarrying. The other side (Rabbi Shammai's disciples) said that you could only divorce if a woman was found not to be a virgin at the time of her wedding, or had broken one of the above laws. Any other divorce meant that you were guilty of adultery when you slept with your new wife--as you were still bound to the original one.

Jesus was quite clear in His teaching:  you cannot divorce and remarry. Unless one's partner has violated the above, then divorce is not acceptable. To divorce and remarry is basically just adultery. (His disciples hated this answer, saying it would be better never to marry than to be stuck with one woman forever!)

Additionally, Jesus taught that lustfulness was wrong (Matt 5:27-30). There is a wonderful commentary on this passage here, and points out that Jesus went beyond His Jewish contemporaries by saying that lustfulness was the sin of the luster, not the woman. (A point I--controversially--have made before.) This is not referring to passing thoughts of attractiveness, but rather of harboring ongoing fantasy and obsessing/focusing on another person. (Often this ends in masturbation, but even if it does not, the sin of lust can have occurred.)

Another clear rabbinical and Biblical teaching, which probably need not be mentioned but which I will for completeness, is that fornication (sex before marriage) was also strictly forbidden, both in the Old Testament and in the Jewish ethics of the day (see: Exo 22:16-17, Deut 22:13-21, 1Cor 6:9-11). 

So then, our list of prohibitions under "sexual immorality" grows to:

  1. No incest 
  2. No adultery 
  3. No homosexuality 
  4. No bestiality 
  5. Lust
  6. No fornication (sex before marriage)
  7. No sex after divorce (except if partner violated the above).  (NOTE:  This also includes #2 from the above list, which is a specific version of this general rule.)

Other Documents and Early Christian Works

I can't find any documents which disagree with any of the above, but there are a few early Christian documents which add to it.

This is the section which gets more difficult, because now we leave the preaching and teaching of the inspired word of God. So the top 7 up above must get a higher certainty level than what I say below. That is: the above are denied by the Bible while the below are denied by ancient Church Tradition.

For example, one thing which was still practiced some in first-century Judaism but not in the rest of the world was polygamy. Romans hated polygamy, and it seems that the early Christian churches agreed. They (being Gentiles) viewed polygamy as sexual immorality (even though some Jews still practiced it)--so when Acts 15 denies them the right to sexual immorality, they see polygamy as included. The evidence for this is shown in the early church writers like Justin Martyr (who uses it against Trypho as a shameful practice), Tertullian, Augustine, and Basil--all of whom stated that the Christian Churches had taught since the apostles that we were given one woman per man, just as Adam was given one Eve.

Often polygamy was not directly referenced by early Christians--it was taken as a "duh" kind of thing that this was unacceptable. Basil clarifies, for example, that there is no separate law against polygamy because it is covered by fornication/adultery laws: that is, your first wife is your lawful wife in God's eyes, so any other sex is adultery which was clearly not okay.

Other ancient works like the Didache follow the same line of logic: though not quoting directly from Scripture, they say that sex with someone who it is not moral to marry is fornication--therefore, they also add that you cannot have sex with children, but only of people who are of legal marrying age.


Based on the above, we Christians can get a pretty good feel, I think, for what constitutes first-century Judeo-Christian sexual immorality.  This is important, because that is specifically what is denied us in Acts 15. 

So here is the list of sexual acts which are forbidden under the Acts 15 command:
  1. Incest
  2. Adultery
  3. Homosexuality
  4. Bestiality
  5. Fornication (premarital sex)
  6. Lust
  7. Polygamy *
  8. Sex with someone under legal marrying age *
  9. Sex after divorce (unless the partner violated one or more of the above)
* These are not explicit to the Bible but made explicit by the ancient Church documents
** Per section 1 above, some would add "Sex during menstruation" above, but this is a debatable point and hence left off of the list

Note what is NOT forbidden: having a tendency to prefer one of the above. People will have passing sexual thoughts--it is only lust when one begins focusing on them and/or acting on them. Some people's passing sexual thoughts will be about people of the same gender; others will be about people they aren't married to; others will have passing thoughts before their own marriage; others will have passing thoughts about children or animals. It is not the passing thought that is is refusing to let the passing thought pass. It is when one captures it, focuses on it, obsesses about it, or--worst of all--acts on it that one is guilty of lust.

So it is not sinful to be a homosexual--that is, for a man to find men more attractive than women. What is sinful is for a homosexual to lust about others, or to engage in homosexual activity. The same is true for straight men and women, or bisexuals, or bestialuals (or whatever you call that): the problem is not that you have a passing thought of attractiveness about another, it is when you begin imagining and focusing and fantasizing about--or acting on--those passing thoughts that you have fallen into sin.

So, to put a bow on it:  

Acts 15 told us that, as Gentiles, we are not burdened with God's whole Law. We need only follow the commands of the Noahic Covenant (no murder, no idolatry, no blood sacrifice), and sexual immorality. And I believe that the original post and this one make the clear case that 'sexual immorality' by the early church and Bible was defined as: incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, pre-marital sex, lust, polygamy, pedophilia, and sex after divorce. 

That is all we have, guys: in total it is like 12 rules out of the 613 that the Jews taught were derived from the Mosaic Law. So my next question is: why is the Church today so bad at following some of them (specifically, #3, 5, 6, and 9)? We need to all reboot and get back to the clear definition of Christian sexual ethics, so that we march to the beat of the same drum.


  1. I found your blog because I came up with a book idea that I was going to title, Rebooting Christianity: What the Church Could Learn From Hollywood and Video Games. At first I was miffed that the idea for the title was already in use, but I enjoy reading your posts and find them to be very well written and researched, especially this one and the one it is an extension of. That takes some of the sting out of you already having the name of my book.

    Quick question related to your posts. What do you thtink is the biblical stance on marrying after you have had sex? I was not Christian in my teen years and was not a virgin when I married. Am I, do you think, committing adultery with my wife now? Or does it not count because I never actually married those women? Further, would the fact that it happened prior to my conversion make a difference?

  2. This post highlights one of the biggest problems with Christianity and other religions. The will to pick and choose what is law and what isn't. As you pointed out Jesus changed the laws of the old testament, so this means God is not perfect as he messed up the first time round, so what else is God wrong about? This is something not to shy away from, as it is clear if some laws in Leviticus were wrong then God was wrong. If Jesus (who is God) had to change the laws then God was wrong. either way God was wrong. So how do we know what is true in the Bible when again I say "God was wrong".

    1. Umm...I don't think you read this carefully at all. You certainly didn't read the original post referenced, or the Series: Suzerain Covenants. Because what you are saying is 100% opposite of what I actually said...

      Please read those posts for details. But in a big summary:

      1. There are universal laws which apply to all people, all time, because God is the same.

      2. One particular type of people (the Jews) had a special relationship with God in which He promised to free them from slavery and set them up as a nation, in return for which they would undergo an additional set of extremely difficult laws, so that they would look, eat, feel, and act differently from everyone else.

      It should be self-evident that this is not "changing" laws. For example, my sons have the same rules, and I am the same father to them. But one son wants to learn basketball, so we have additional rules of practicing. That doesn't mean I am inconsistent or that I am not telling them both the's true that they both need to have the same moral/universal rules, and yet the one who requests something additional (i.e., to be a good basketball player) has additional rules for that.

      Maybe not a perfect analogy, but you get the point--there is nothing wrong with having a set of universal rules and then a set of "higher/more difficult" rules for a subset of the population. (Indeed, we do it in America all the time--certain people have harsher rules because of past crimes, or because of age, etc., than the general populace.) Indeed, even the universe is this way: we have general laws of nature and specific situations of those relativity for example, which has both a General and Special case. For another example, I run a factory: I have general rules for everyone, and then additional demands that I put on my white-collar employees (such as, salaried employees get paid no overtime). Does this mean that my handbook is inconsistent? The law (and logic) says absolutely not! It is just that there are general rules and then a subset of rules within them (picture a Venn diagram) that apply to a smaller population. There is nothing wrong with that.

      What is confusing for so many today is that we are Gentiles who study both the Christian and Jewish Scriptures. The Jewish Scriptures are critical to understanding the context of what happened in the New Testament, and indeed are very valuable to reveal to us the character and will of God. However, it does mean that we have to use our brains to determine what were "general case" laws and what were "special case" laws.

      And that is why your argument is are saying that if there is ever a special case law given to one group, then it must be applied universally or God has changed. Yet that is in no way a proven statement--it is pure supposition and you have the burden to actually prove it to be true. Basically you're saying that Venn diagrams shouldn't can't have subsets any more, everything must apply to everyone at all times. I wonder if you think that every American state should have exactly the same laws? Or if it is okay for there to be federal law and still variation within the states (so long as they do not contradict)? For example, is it okay for the Fed to have a 5% tax on something and a state to levy an additional 3%? You'd probably say yes (happens all the time)...and that is the exact same situation: a subset of the population has a higher demand in return for some specific action.

    2. I re-read the post and made an effort to clearly read the original post as well. I am not sure how my argument is flawed if you consider the whole concept of the trinity. As we read in the NT that the Laws were changed by men, or guided by the holy spirit which is God (The council in Jerusalem). So initially God made the laws, then Jesus changed the laws (Jesus=God) and then the Holy Spirit changed the laws (Holy Spirit=God). So again the question arises.

      If some laws in Leviticus were wrong then God was wrong. If Jesus or the Holy Spirit (who is God) had to change the laws then God was wrong. Either way God was wrong. So how do we know what is true in the Bible when again I say "God was wrong".

      The only other option we have is to reject the concept of the Holy Trinity, but then Jesus and the Holy Spirit guided books of the NT are all lies. Its really either that or God is not perfect. So yes I am using my brain here, but if we have to accept things like a perfect God and the trinity then surely we have to accept all the associated problem.

      BTW: According to what Acts says about the sexuality laws, we have to conclude that sex during menstruation is a sin. This is what Leviticus 18/15 says so its not something to steer clear of.