I've been saying for some time -- notably here, here, and here -- that the Biblical case against gay marriage isn't very strong. The case for polygamy and female slavery is much stronger and to say otherwise is to really cherry-pick the good book. But I'm not a religious scholar. These three men are and they've taken their case to Des Moines Register.
The debate about marriage equality often centers, however discretely, on an appeal to the Bible. Unfortunately, such appeals often reflect a lack of biblical literacy on the part of those who use that complex collection of texts as an authority to enact modern social policy.
As academic biblical scholars, we wish to clarify that the biblical texts do not support the frequent claim that marriage between one man and one woman is the only type of marriage deemed acceptable by the Bible’s authors.
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In fact, there were a variety of unions and family configurations that were permissible in the cultures that produced the Bible, and these ranged from monogamy (Titus 1:6) to those where rape victims were forced to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and to those Levirate marriage commands obligating a man to marry his brother’s widow regardless of the living brother’s marital status (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38; Ruth 2-4). Others insisted that celibacy was the preferred option (1 Corinthians 7:8; 28).
All three, Hector Avalos, Robert R. Cargill and Kenneth Atkinson, are professors at prominent Iowa universities, but that hasn't insulated them from hostile reactions.
He explained that it is obvious to scholars (and some religious leaders) that the Bible endorses a wide range of relationships. But he noted, however, that professors are "terrified" of the potential backlash that might result from opening a dialogue about these relationships. Cargill also noted that the initial response to the Register column has included its fair share of vitriol.
Ultimately, said Cargill, a Biblical "argument against same-sex marriage is wholly unsustainable. We all know this, but very few scholars are talking about it, because they don't want to take the heat."
He suggested that academics who continue to be cowed by a strident opposition do a disservice to their communities.
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Anyone who argues that "the Bible speaks plainly on one issue, especially something as complicated as marriage ... haven't take the time to read all of it," he added.
I have wondered many times if the people who quote the Bible as the definitive source on a range of hot-button issues have actually read it. I don't think it means what they think it means.