- 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?
- 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 it...it'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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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:
- No incest (Lev 18:6-17)
- No marrying a woman and her sister unless the first wife has passed away (Lev 18:18)
- No adultery (Lev 18:20)
- No homosexuality (Lev 18:22)
- 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:
- No incest
- No adultery
- No homosexuality
- No bestiality
- No fornication (sex before marriage)
- 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:
- Fornication (premarital sex)
- Polygamy *
- Sex with someone under legal marrying age *
- 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 sin...it 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.