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Peter and the “shellfish” argument

Peter and the “shellfish” argument

As the Episcopal Church and other denominations have taken positions of that support the full inclusion of LGBT Christians and marriage equality, those in support of that position point out that the ritual law of the Old Testament was suspended after the resurrection, and arguing that Levitical prohibitions are still in force for some things and not others doesn’t make a lot of sense.


Conservative voices in the larger church call this the “shellfish argument” and generally dismiss it. Al Mohler, the leading voice in the Southern Baptist convention characterizes the argument this way:

“Look,” we are told, “the Bible condemns eating shellfish, wearing mixed fabrics and any number of other things. Why do you ignore those things and insist that the Bible must be obeyed when it comes to sex?”

Mohler goes on to dismiss the argument saying that the explicit removal of ritual purity laws in Peter’s vision in the 10th chapter of Acts only refers to things, not people.

Fred Clark, writing on his blog Slacktivist takes strong exception with Mohler’s reasoning.

“But while popular, this view utterly contradicts Peter’s own interpretation of his vision. If Mohler is right, then Peter was wrong. If Peter was right, then Mohler is wrong.

For Peter, his rooftop vision wasn’t about kosher dietary laws — it was about people. He says this explicitly: ‘God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’

That’s a very different conclusion from the one Mohler draws. Mohler says this story — this scripture — is about purity laws. Peter says this story is about God’s commandment that no people should be excluded as impure.

I’m going to have to side with Peter on this one. Peter was right. Mohler is wrong.”

Go check out the full argument and Clark’s reasoning. God does seem to be less worried about how we feed ourselves than how we treat one another.

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Murdoch Matthew

Traditions are as prone as translators to give coherent readings to obscure or corrupted texts. Thanks to Brother David for pointing out that the Hebrew expressions in many passages dealing with male sexuality do not make sense when examined word for word. This is important for people who rely on Scripture as Authority, despite the fact that it was written by human beings, translated in different times and contexts, and understood by fallible readers in the present-day.

Thanks to Bill Dilworth for resolutely declaring that we need to base ourselves on present-day knowledge. Myths can give pleasure and insight, but cannot trump reality. Leviticus and Romans have nothing to do with present-day experience of relationships, and people who try to apply them must twist logic to the extreme. (Gay men do not sleep with men as with women -- they sleep with men as with men, not as a substitute for women -- and homosexuality is not caused by idolatry -- really!)

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Bill Dilworth

Yes, David, I read Hebrew. But as I've said, the interpretation I'm referring to is that historically used by Jewish scholars.

"The rest of what you have to say is your opinion on the matter and you are free to hold to it. I don't share it."

Huh? The genocidal wars of extermination, the slavery, and the unequal treatment of women in the OT are my opinion? The fact that Christians are not bound by the purity codes is my opinion?

While it's nice of you to encourage me in my own opinions, I would really like to know why its so important to establish the approval of the OT on the subject. If such a thing were possible, would proof that the Torah condemned every sex act other than with a man and his wife make any difference whatsoever in your life?

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David Allen

Do you read the Hebrew, Bill, or do you repeat what others have told you the Hebrew says. I read Hebrew. I am familiar with the "layings of a woman" translation and I don't find it in the Hebrew that is there.

But for argument's sake, what if "the layings of a woman" translation was correct. Then the text could read "With a man, do not lay the layings of a woman, it is an abomination..." What is the "layings of a woman?" "The layings of a woman" is the passive roll in penetrative sex. So this would say that it is an abomination for an Israelite man to be the passive partner in penetrative sex with another man. However, there is no proscription against being the active partner in penetrative sex with another man. So in US vernacular, at most, if one were to accept the "layings of a woman" translation, the passage is a proscription against Israelite men being bottoms, and has no problem with them being tops.

But then that brings up another issue, the word translated man in the passage. It isn't the ordinary word for man, but many scholars believe that it alludes to a man who is a religious sex worker, or prostitute. So what it could be saying then is that it is an abomination for an Israelite man to be the passive partner in penetrative sex with a religious prostitute.

Either way, one is hard pressed to get a blanket condemnation of homosexual relationships from the piece.

The rest of what you have to say is your opinion on the matter and you are free to hold to it. I don't share it.

Brother David

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Bill Dilworth

Brother David,

First of all, not only am I a gay Christian, but I'm pretty sure that I've been out and associated with the Episcopal Church (well, off and on) since before you were born. Even if I weren't, though, the idea that only gay people can venture to address gay issues strikes me as ridiculous.

Secondly, if you go back and read what I wrote, it's hardly my interpretation of "mishkevei ishah." The standard reading of mishkevei ishah in Rabbinic Judaism is not "a woman's bed" but "lyings of a woman" - and the prohibition has been held to apply only to male/male anal intercourse (as opposed to other all forms of male/male sex). Sometimes mishkav can mean bedding, and sometimes it means "lying," as when it's used in Numbers 31:17 when the subject is women who have not had sex with a man.

But again, why the need for gay Christians to reshape the OT into a gay-friendly text? It's not as if adherence to the commandments of the purity codes were of any importance to us, as it might be if we were Jewish. It suggests an approach to the Bible that mirrors that of conservative literalists; the implication is that being gay is allowed because the OT doesn't forbid it (as if everything the OT forbids is wrong, and everything it allows is good).

And it's not as if, having made the Torah gay-friendly, we're left with anything like a liberal text. I mean, it elevates genocidal war to the level of divine commandment, allows chattel slavery, and treats most women (in one way or another) as the property of men. Trying to scrub it free of homophobia seems pretty pointless to me.

It seems much more intellectually honest and mature to say, "Yes, the OT restricts sex to a man and his wife (or some other woman he owns). So what? It also prohibits shellfish, wool/linen blends, lighting a fire on Saturdays and not killing every last Amalekite man, woman and child. Why should I be terribly concerned with OT prohibitions?"

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David Allen

I can't agree. I think it's pretty clear that the purity codes of the OT contain some pretty powerful sexual strictures, including forbidding *at least* male/male anal intercourse

There are plenty of us who read ancient languages now Bill, and the two Levitical passages that you refer to do not forbid "male/male anal intercourse." The passages in question forbid two men having a sexual relationship within the bed of a woman.

or why some gay Christians insist on trying to read them out of the Bible.

If you aren't a gay Christian then "you don't have a dog in this fight." We do, these passages don't exist in the Bible and it's important to us that that message is clearly known by all.

And because they clearly don't exist, the ridiculous logical gymnastics that some of you do to get around them are no longer necessary.

Brother David

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