So Friday, after the Supreme Court decision upholding marriage equality regardless of the genders involved, (the ruling was even broader than just applying to gay marriage, or same sex marriage, for a number of reasons), my Jewish friend Michael decided to come out publicly as genderqueer, and said “Today needs to become a feast in honor of David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi.” The next day, as I started to write, I was a bit hungover from extensive celebrating, but I wanted to write a little bit about looking at the Bible through queer eyes, especially sharing a passage that I read right over many times without really noticing back when I was repressing much of myself, but that I find personally very moving now that I am out as trans. (Hint, it involves two people who were probably at the Last Supper, but are not in Da Vinci's painting above).
Obviously different people read the Bible with different lenses, different hermeneutics, different sets of interests and accounts of what the Bible is or is for. Many people read the Bible as only talking about queer folk in a few passages of moral condemnation, in Leviticus or Paul. Just now I got a meme quoting Jimmy Carter as claiming “Jesus never said a word about homosexuality,” a claim I've always found pretty dubious, if common enough. But if you go looking not for pronouncements about “-ities” and “isms” but actual stories about queer folk, and look with eyes capable of seeing, you find a lot. Just how many depends a bit on the eyes you use when you go looking. If you are committed beforehand to the idea that the Bible endorses a unified single, heteronormative picture of morality, then you can read the Bible as having a single picture of marriage and the Ruth and Naomi story having nothing queer about it. I know people that do that. But if you are looking for queerness there are many stories that look plausible, including Ruth and Naomi. The Bible at least portrays a wide variety of different visions of marriage. Even just with respect to marriage ideas that the Bible seems to want to endorse there is quite a range: with and without polygamy, with and without concubinage, with and without an obligation to marry your relatives widows, with and without divorce (that is easy for a male to obtain), etc. (See Ex 21:10, 1 Kings 11:3, Mark 12:19, etc.). 1 Kings 11:19, describes Tahpenes as the wife of Pharaoh, so the Hebrews certainly recognized people with marriage customs very different from their own as nonetheless being married. (Indeed Pharaohs were often closely enough related to their wives, that this would have been a violation of Leviticus 18, and indeed the first prohibition in Leviticus 18 is "you shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you dwelt." A marriage that violates Hebrew law is still considered a marriage by the ancient Hebrews.) Some folks read the Bible as endorsing a fundamentally egalitarian picture of marriage and some read it as endorsing a deeply patriarchal picture of marriage. Heck, some people read Ruth's vows at Ruth: 1:16-18 (and Naomi's response) as actually portraying a same-sex marriage, and the passage is certainly a favorite in ceremonies where two women wed each other.
But today I want to talk about less obvious, less certain, less famous cases, and cases from the New Testament. Personally, I've long been tempted to interpret the story of Jesus and the Centurion in a queer light, and in the last few years I've been convinced that the back story to the upper room has profound implications for queer friendly Christian thought.
OK Jesus and the Centurion, the story is at Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7 1-10 (and some think John 4:46-53). A Centurion comes to Jesus and asks Jesus to heal his beloved “servant” (called a doulos only at Lk 7:2), who was in bad shape. Jesus offers to go and do so. The Centurion says, don't come, just say he'll be healed and that should be enough. And Jesus says, basically, wow what faith! And says the servant will be healed. The thing is, the term usually used for the person the Centurion is worried about is “pais.” Now “pais” is a term that has a lot of different meanings in Greek, roughly, “child” or “slave” or “boy.” It can mean one's literal offspring, and in that capacity can refer to a boy or girl (it's were we get the words pedagogy and pedophile, for example). It is also often used to simply mean slave. It was also a normal term for the junior partner of a male-male homosexual relationship. Luke 7:2 also describes the servant as “entimos” - dear. If this is the same incident as described in John 4, (where the person is described as huios, far less ambiguously a “son”), then perhaps it is a literal child of the Centurion. But it was not normal procedure for a Centurion to publicly acknowledge a slave as being their own child, especially without also freeing them. Using the term “pais” for a slave or servant was somewhat marked as derogatory. It would be an unusual thing to call someone you felt very positively towards, especially if you were worried about them, as the Centurion clearly is, even if they were your slave. So I've always been tempted to interpret the Centurion as begging Jesus to heal his gay lover. It is by no means a slam dunk that the servant is the Centurion's gay lover, boy to his sir, as it were, but it is one of several possible interpretations of the fairly ambiguous text. If this is right then Jesus declines to condemn the homosexuality involved, seeing instead, the love, and worry, and faith. Indeed, if so, then at least one of the things that Jesus says about homosexuality, even in canonical scripture is “Not even in Israel have I found such faith!” Of course, since the Centurion is likely the owner of the pais even on the gay lover theory, because of the doulos line, it's not exactly an ideal relationship we should admire today ...
OK now for the text I really want to get to, the story of the upper room, at Matt 26:17-19, Mk 14: 12-16, and Lk 22:7-13. It is the First Day of Unleavened Bread, (Nisan 14th, just before Passover that evening), and every family big enough to consume a lamb or young goat is religiously obligated to go to the Temple of Jerusalem that afternoon, ritually sacrifice a lamb or young goat and then eat it together on Passover, that evening after sundown. Jesus and his disciples have nowhere to stay in a city that is bursting at the seams with families from all over who have already come together to fulfill their religious obligations together as a family. Jesus tells his disciples to go and find a “man who is carrying a jar of water” (well that's the usual translation, but stay tuned), who then follow him home to a “householder” and there prepare the Passover, in a large upper room. (Here's a painting by Tissot someone else found for me. Interestingly, this bit is not a topic of much artistic depiction, unlike nearly every other passage in the New Testament.) That evening Jesus and his disciples have their famous Last Supper for Passover, in the upper room of the householder.
So what's queer about that? A least one important thing, and perhaps several more to boot, if you scratch the surface. Why in city full of crowds out-of-towners, is Jesus confident that the disciples will encounter one singular “man carrying a jar of water?” Carrying water is a common task, surely every family is doing this to get ready for the Passover, right? But carrying water from the cistern or well to the home was exclusively women's work in ancient Israel. A man might carry water in a sheepskin or goatskin waterskin, for their own use, but a jar, especially a jar or pitcher intended for use at home was an extremely feminine accouterment, (the Greek here is keramion). A man who is carrying a jar of water - in public – in ancient Jerusalem, is a man who either 1) doesn't give a hot damn about local gender conventions, or 2) is actively doing their best to live publicly as a woman. Indeed if we look more closely, the translations usually render this person unambiguously as a “man,” but the Greek is more cautious, each version uses ambiguous terms, but in the masculine grammatical gender, and with masculine pronouns. Matthew call the person “deina” (a certain one, someone whose name I can't or would rather not give, the only time this term is used in the Bible), and Mark and Luke use “anthropos” (a person), when it would have be easy for them to use “aner” instead, which is indeed the term the Bible usually uses when it wants to talk specifically about a male human. I think that this person is most likely what we would consider a trans person today, someone living publicly as a gender other than the one they were often perceived as, or at least a gender-non-conforming person. Based on the odd use of "deina" perhaps they even went publicly by a feminine name. Transchristians.org, likes to call the water-carrier, one of out "trans-cestors." The Bible doesn't even call this person a man, rather it refrains from calling him a man, while using male pronouns to refer to him. Further, he lives in a large house, with apparently one other person, a “householder” or “homeowner” (oikodespote) who again is referred to with the male grammatical gender and pronouns. We don't know what the relation of these two is, except that they live together. Usually the Bible will mention a familiar relationship where it exists, so it is possible that they are siblings, or parent and child, but I strongly suspect the Bible's lack of mention makes it more likely that they are a couple. A queer couple.
Third, why isn't there family already staying at this house? Every family is obligated to come together, sacrifice a lamb or goat at the temple, and feast on it together that night. Where are the water carrier or householder's families? Why aren't they elsewhere celebrating with their families, or their families here celebrating in their house? The city is crowded. Why is there space for Jesus and his 12 disciples? Maybe both the water carrier and householder have no other family, but then why does the householder own such a large house? I guess it's dimly possible that the householder is the last descendant of a once rich and large family. But it seems far more likely to me that the householder and water-carrier are not welcome with the rest of their families. Perhaps the family is embarrassed of, or rejecting of the water-carrier's public non-standard gender presentation. Perhaps the issue is the water-carrier and householder living together. For some reason, their family doesn't want to come and fill up their big house in town, and they don't want to leave their house to be with the rest of their family. Before they heard from Jesus and the disciples, they were probably planning to take Passover together. Again it looks like what is being portrayed here, in the New Testament, without condemnation, are two queer people who are choosing to be a family of their own to each other, rather than parts of their original family. If this isn't a full on same-sex marriage, it is at least in the neighborhood as it were.
Further notice that Jesus clearly already knows these two people and vice versa. Jesus has the disciples say to them “The Teacher says 'my time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.” Jesus expects the householder (or water carrier, Matthew's version isn't clear) to know who “the teacher” is, expects the householder to be friendly enough to him to be willing to open up his house to a bunch of guests on very short notice for a holiday celebration, expects the householder to be at home rather than elsewhere with relatives, and expects the house not already to be full. Jesus must know that the water-carrier and householder are not on good terms with their families, and that other family won't be there, nor will they be elsewhere with family. Indeed, the sacrifice of the Passover is a distinctively family obligation. Jesus's relatives are around in town, but Jesus chooses not to celebrate Passover with his mother (or his brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, or step-brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews, depending on how one interprets things). Jesus is symbolically saying that his disciples are his real family, not Mary's family. Similarly, he is saying that the probably trans water-carrier, and perhaps queer householder are his real family, who he would rather be with to celebrate the holy day … The theme of chosen family vs blood family shows up in several places in Jesus' story, and the things Jesus says are not exactly in line with the usual conservative interpretations (Matt 10:34, Matt 12:46-50, etc.). Jesus is once more siding with his disciples and his queer friends, over his Mother and brothers, by choosing to take Passover here. Oh and traditionally the upper room owned by the householder, is the site of several later Bible stories as well including the gathering of the disciples after the ascension, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at the Pentecost, and according to the Catholics even the site of the first Christian church.
As a trans person, in a country where many Christians are neither kind nor understanding towards trans people, I often lean heavily on Matt 19:11-13, where Jesus declines to criticize trans people and clearly says “Some eunuchs are born eunuchs, some eunuch are made eunuchs by men, and some eunuchs make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God. He who has ears to hear let him hear.” I've talked more about the Biblical understanding of eunuchs elsewhere, but at least we see here that Jesus, in his own day long ago, already understood that some people, like me, seek to alter our own outward genders for all the right reasons. When I am feeling defensive, I cite, Matt 19. But the far more difficult, complex, seemingly unimportant passages just before the Last Supper are the bit that really inspire me these days. Jesus was friends with a gender non-conforming person, someone who was referred to both with male pronouns, and carefully ambiguous terms, but who seems to have acted publicly as a woman. Someone we would probably call trans today. I've found few artistic portrayals of this water carrier, and the few I've found portray a bearded, conventionally male dressed man, as if carrying a jar of water in public were a normal thing for a regular man to do in Jerusalem. Somehow I doubt that's how the water carrier looked. I am conjecturing, interpreting, seeing with one set of eyes. No doubt many will and already have seen these passages very differently. And exactly how queer the householder is, what his relation to the water-carrier is, and whether they are an example of a queer partnership of some kind are not clear. But they are not bad guesses, based on the data at hand, if we aren't strongly motivated to reject the whole line a priori. And the gender non-conformity of the water-carrier IS clear and undeniable if we understand the context. Seen through my queer eyes, the water-carrier was probably a trans-cestor, and Jesus chose this person as his family, over his own mother, before the crucifixion. The great spiritual moment of the Last Supper, when the body and blood of sacrificial lamb was shared out, to “all of you” happened where it did probably because some queer folk's families rejected them and didn't want to celebrate with them. And so the room was open at the last minute. Jesus chose the table of feasting, an upper room, which had been rejected to be the foundation of countless celebrations and feasts of communion to come. Elsewhere Jesus cites the Psalms that the stone that the builders rejected, became the keystone of the foundation. Well, Jesus did that at the Last Supper too, he took the upper room of celebration that had been rejected, and made it the foundation of celebration. I take great solace in this. In all likelihood, there was a transperson at the Last Supper, probably helping to serve Jesus and the disciples, (who are described as sitting or laying down at the table, and therefore probably aren't serving or clearing platters or dishes) someone who lived with the gracious host of the Last Supper, even if portrayals of the Last Supper decline to depict these two . Oh, my Christian trans friends, if your family is not accepting of you and your gender presentations, or if you are partnered with someone such that parts of society are scandalized by your partnership, read and re-read the story of the water carrier and the householder, who opened their home to Jesus and his disciples at the last minute, and shared a holiday feast with them.
Perhaps, Jews should make June 26, or rather, the 9th of Tammuz into a feast day for queer marriages, in honor of Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi, as a reminder that there are many kinds of family, that we can and should celebrate. But Christians already have a feast day to queer households, although very few realize it, it is when they commemorate the Last Supper (Holy Thursday in many traditions). Indeed, every time any Christian celebrates Communion they are celebrating among other things, this moment with Jesus, and the disciples, but also the water carrier and householder, and whoever else may have been serving or celebrating Passover with them.