So, what do we know?
We know that, in societies that are not entirely literate and where warriors dominate, a great deal of same-sex eroticism is standard, irrespective of whether this finds expression in unequivocally sexual behaviour. In some 'heroic' societies, pre-Shogunate Japan, say, we know that there was a fair amount of such behaviour; in others, there is some evidence of a taboo. (According to Tacitus, the ancient Germans had such a taboo, but Tacitus was busy setting up the Germans as a quasi-mything counterpart to decadent Rome, so he may have made it up, since there is no other independent surviving source for this claim.)
The Illiad nowhere says that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers - but the tradition in Classical Greece was for the most part that they were, and nothing in the Illiad is inconsistent with the idea. The triangular relationship between King Saul, his son Jonathan and the ambitious David makes entire sense as an erotic relationship, whatever was or was not going on at a physically sexual level. The same can be said of the relationship between Ruth and Naomi some generations earlier.
Societies with a strong and universally applied taboo on same-sex relationships, backed up by slow and painful death, tend not to produce great poems of same-sex love. Yet clearly 'whither thou goest, there go I' and all of that in the Book of Ruth, and the great elegy for Saul and Jonathan, are just such poems.
We are told that the prohibition dates back to Leviticus and the time of Moses - but is there any reason to believe that this is actually the case, any more than there is evidence for elaborate dietary rules in the period of the Kings and Judges? The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about violation of the sacred, and violation of the rules of hospitality, and plain old-fashioned rape, as much as it is evidence of a specific curse on homosexuality as such - and can we point out that, hello!, it is also an origin story intended to explain why the terrain is so bleak rather than a record of a historical event capable of archaeological verification.
(And indeed much the same can be said for much of the pre-Exile history of the Jewish people - not so much a kingdom or an empire as a loose federation of city and township statelets held together or not by important warriors who could impose their will. Can we keep in our mind that the Old Testament is wisdom literature and not a faithful and inerrant historical record? Because Evangelical claims of inerrancy fall down the moment you start doing serious digs, as do the current grand claims of elements within the Israeli state for long-standing possession of the whole region.)
So, then we get the massive deportation of much of that population to Babylon and other conquering states and the vanishing of large parts of that group of deportees from any future Jewish identity. They got demoralized and assimilated and how you gonna keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paree? As a result, you get community leaders like Josiah creating a new consciousness of identity, you might call it fundamentalism, and coming up with either long- forgotten, or possibly entirely concocted, versions of what that identity might be that made assimilation difficult. A lot of dietary restrictions, some of them quite arbitrary and not susceptible of explanation as hygiene regulations in an era without knowledge of germs or parasites, makes it hard to get swallowed up by your neighbours; make it difficult to have dinner with them and they won't ask you again.
And a heavy taboo on homosexuality and other non-procreative sex is both a good way to keep your numbers up and a good way to stop people screwing out.
In the post-Exilic period, the Jews found themselves back in Judaea and got very snotty with the Samaritans who believed that the religion they were still practising was the same religion that had existed before most of the population got shipped away. As far as I know, there are, or were until comparatively recent history, still some Samaritans around reckoning they got a raw deal from all this nonsense about food. I don't have any idea what the Samaritans thought about sex.
The world moves on and suddenly there are Greeks all over the place. They are where the money and the power and the culture is, and the taboo remains important as a way of staying separate. As does circumcision, because the Greeks find that a real turn-off and go 'Eeeewww!' to the extent that observant but semi-assimilated Jews wear clip-ons when they go to the gymnasium. (I cannot remember where I know that from.)
And of course the Greeks have their own hangups about sexuality and are rather more systematic about the keeping and abuse of slaves; not that the Jews didn't, but they were sort of sloppier about it.
Thanks to Foucault and Kenneth Dover, we tend to believe a version of Greek sexual mores deromanticised to the point of being as nuts as the beautiful-youths-having-orgies-cool nonsense that preceded it in public favour. Dover is obsessed with the law in Athens at the expense of everything we know from the literature - Davenport's attack on Dover and Foucault is only a bit of an improvement. Dover says it was all about penetrating/good vs being penetrated/bad; and Davenport says it was all about avoiding liking anything too much and too much buggery was as bad as too many fishcakes.
Trouble is, we have too much from Classical Athens and not enough from anywhere else - everyone romanticised the Spartans or slagged them off and they didn't really go in for literature themselves. There was clearly a lot of shagging going on in Sparta between equals, and it rather looks as if the same was true in Thebes, where you have the famous Army of Lovers until the Macedonians beat it and destroy the city. We know that the island were free and easy - women were excluded from male society and locked up as wives; yet we have enough fragments of Sappho to know that there was a women's eroticism of youth and beauty parallel to the love of young men.
And Athenian literature reveals a whole subculture that is not about the official line of licensed pederasty engaged in for the sake of propriety and education. Everyone cites the Symposium, but the point is that the Symposium is a drinking party in which everyone comes up with a different version of truth - and one of the versions of truth is that the mature and bearded Alcibiades makes it clear that, if he had his druthers, he would be shagging the great-souled and far from beautiful Socrates. And no-one says a dicky-bird, or is shocked; Socrates politely declines and that is that.
Meanwhile, in Macedonia, rampant bisexual scandal led to eg the death of Alexander's father Philip, stabbed by an ex-boyfriend whom he had had buggered by the royal guard for making a marriage he disapproved of. Alexander marries various princesses for expediency and kills companions in drunken rages and has a pretty Persian eunuch at his side and stirs the pot of the ancient world. All very indecorous and, no doubt, the sort of thing that convinced the elders in Jerusalem and the scholars in the new city of Alexandria that all this same-sex stuff was a bad thing which led to trouble.
And also, in the post-Alexandrian world, to a lot of very pretty poetry that doesn't especially fit Dover's model.
Then, the Romans - who were busy being top nation and respectable and adopted as a public ideology a version of the Athenian sexual ideology, especially under Augustus who had been pretty when young. The Romans go in for a lot of talking about how you only bugger inferiors and get married and all of that - until you read Catullus and, a century and a bit later, Petronius, and realize that this is all bull shit and what they really do is bounce around like Heaven on a Saturday night. (Heaven is a big, mostly gay London night club - Americans please note.)
In the middle of all this, out in the province of Judaea, Jesus appears, preaches and is killed, and manages never to say a word on the subject. With one possible exception.
There was a centurion whose servant was sick and he came to Jesus and asked that his servant be cured. Jesus said, well, bring him, and the centurion said, I am used to having authority and know what it is to say come and he cometh and go and they go, and you can do this here and now. Jesus praises his faith and heals the servant.
Does the average RSM go and see a local miracle-worker in a turbulent border society just for a useful slave? Or is it a last resort taken over someone who is actually important to him? The story in the Gospels is not inconsistent with Jesus cheerfully healing a Roman soldier's catamite.
After Jesus' death, we have the apostles wandering around preaching - the apostles who knew Jesus, that is, not Paul-come-lately.
There is an odd story in Acts as well, on which light can be thrown. Philip meets up with the eunuch treasurer of the Queen of Meroe - the Ethiopian state of the time - and converts him.
My friend Annie Ogbourne is an American transwoman who has spent a lot of time with the hijra in India. The hijra, many of the younger of whom identify as transwomen as well as hijra, are a cult of self-made sacred eunuchs who are devotees of minor deities in the Hindu pantheon. Across time they have been gangsters, hookers, temple whores and something rather more - their glory days are long past as a result of oppression by the Moguls and the British and the Brahmins.
Annie was staying in one of the older hijra houses and talking to a young friend with a partly Christian background who raised the Philip story. What are you babbling about ? said one of the elders, who spoke no English - they explained. The elder went to the back of the house and produced a chest full of records, copied and recopied over the centuries, and scoured them - and said 'thought so - we sent someone from this house to Meroe to act as adviser, so that's what happened to them'
After which digression, we get to Paul and he denounces homosexuality as contrary to nature. Paul is of course big on ditching circumcision and dietary restrictions as barriers to converting as many people as possible, but homosexuality and lesbianism are big sticking points for him. Paul moved in the Roman world, saw enough sexual exploitation to convince him that this stuff was always bad news and never bothered to examine further. He was a citizen, but wasn't going to get asked to the right sort of parties.He was a man of his time, making stock judgements, and it was several centuries before anyone regarded every damn thing he ever said as being equivalent in importance to the Gospels.
He was a sexist who was far too tolerant of things as they were and toned down the socially rebellious aspect of Jesus teaching. He also said all those important things about charity and the worthlessness of faith and works without it that many Christians forget much of the time, along with Jesus' parables against spiritual pride.
We know that Paul was not regarded as uniquely authoritative for a long time for a lot of reasons - he spoke out against women in positions of church authority and St Jerome was still doing the same a couple of centuries later - which means no-one much listened.
It is claimed that the universal doctrine of the Christian church has always been to disapprove of homosexuality. Setting aside the claims by John Bosworth that there were actual rituals for blessing relationships in some periods - he makes a good case with a lot of evidence, but somehow it doesn't work for me - we have the fact that Peter Damien needs to make a huge fuss in the early Middle Ages about something which, if everyone had been absolutely solid on the issue for centuries, he would not have had to make a fuss about.
Then Thomas Aquinas chips in with some of those wonderfully circular arguments. Homosexuality is against nature because it doesn't exist in animals or birds - sorry, Thomas, we've now all seen the photographs of bonobos buggering, flamingos frigging and walruses flipping each other off. Homosexuality is wrong because it is like usury - where usury unnaturally makes money breed, homosexuality unnaturally turns affection where it does not belong. Well, two points there - first that a celibate man with a gluttony problem ill-placed to tell other people about their deadly sins and second that the linkage with usury is something that tends to get forgotten by Evangelicals who go on about natural law, forget the context of Aquinas' remarks and take a lot of funding from rich malefactors.
Dante, influenced by Aquinas, places his friend Bruno Latini in Hell, but clearly thinks it is an awful shame. And Latini is one of the few figures in Hell who has dignity as well as pathos - Dante, being a great poet, has a very bad conscience about what orthodoxy makes him say.
So, fast forward to now, and what we have is an alliance of people who want to kill queers for Jesus, people who want to reinstate the idolatrous idea of the Bible as an unerrant compendium of literal truth dictated by God - a bad case of Koran envy - and people who just want a battle they can win. They've mostly lost on Darwin; they've mostly lost on women clergy; they lost on slavery - and some of them really mind that; people are voting with um, not exactly their feet on abortion, contraception, fornication and adultery. And, as I point out above, they have absolutely let themselves forget about usury.
This is not about saving souls, or saving bodies from disease, war and poverty. It is certainly not about living holy lives. It is about regaining the power.
As a result, we get some bedfellows so strange that they make any orgy I have ever been to sound positively staid. Let us look briefly at some of the people lining up in the same camp. We have people who believe that slavery was a good thing, justified in scripture, and African bishops obsessed with demonic possession and the Grand Inquisitor himself, Cardinal Ratzinger, and people who cannot cope with losing votes and people who want to be able to frighten people with hellfire and rich Republicans who want to turn back the clock in every possible way.
If the Anglican church suppresses the idea of gay clergy, after an immense struggle, will a single starving child be saved? A single soldier disarmed? A single rich man persuaded to renounce obscene wealth?
No, of course not.
On the other hand, you can make gay teenagers' lives hell. You can frighten people and divide families and stand outside funerals chanting abuse and stop people getting condoms that might save lives and make up a lot of sick stories about devils in people's arses.
And this has precisely what? to do with the Sermon on the Mount and with the injunction to love one's neighbour as oneself?
I have not been a Christian for several decades because I lost my capacity to believe in God about the same time that I wanted to rescue the preachings of that good and holy man Jesus from the thugs, bullies and bigots who claim to act in his name. I do not believe in the divinity of any great spiritual leaders, but Jesus seems to me less flawed than most - I prefer him to that self-hating windbag Gautama or to Mohammed, a poet who found a way to make everyone listen to his verses. But I remember how it felt to believe and I think if I still believed I would be saying strong biblical things about generations of vipers and people that need to be driven from temples.
Losing my faith stopped me breaking my heart.
And, may I say, the liberals and gay Christians just are not taking this seriously enough. This is not just a battle for their bit of the turf. It is a battle against real forces of darkness whom they should call by their names - bigotry and willed stupidity and bibliolatry and lies.