What is new and noteworthy in The Galilee Episode consists of these five elements: 1) the argument explaining the presence of gay and lesbian couples in Luke 17:34-35, 2) the postulated early career trajectory of Pharisee Yoḥanan b. Zakkai in upper Galilee, 3) Philip the Tetrarch’s resistance to R. Yoḥanan’s legal challenge in Bethsaida, 4) the formation of the Same-Sex Pericope (Luke 17:28-29 and 34-35) and 5) the independent Jewish and Christian “cover ups” of the Galilee Episode. The Luke 17:34-35 passage exists only because of the judicial confrontation between Philip the Tetrarch and Rabbi Yoḥanan b. Zakkai.
Many people concerned with religion and sexuality believe that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, and technically speaking he didn’t. But no one in the first century discussed homosexuality as such, anywhere, because the word didn’t exist until the nineteenth century. Individuals in every generation have had to figure out where people like that fit in. Jesus’ mention of homosexuals simply hasn’t been on the radar. During the recent church debates over homosexuality, with Moses and Paul invoked regularly by gay-bashing fundamentalists, the best news in sight for Christian gays and lesbians seemed to be that Jesus wasn’t chiming in. His seeming total silence on gays and lesbians was a blessing.
But then I took a close look at that enigmatic “rapture” verse.
I tell you, in that night,
Two men will be in one bed,
one will be taken, and the other left.
Two women will be grinding together,
one will be taken, and the other left. (Luke 17:34-35)
I heard that passage preached on plenty when I was young. But many years later an anonymous poster recommended looking up Luke 17:34 in the King James Bible. And—wow—I saw the verse’s possible meaning in a whole new light. That was 12 or 15 years ago.
Jesus did in fact refer to gay and lesbian couples, their arrests, and their differing fates. With evidence from Josephus, the Talmud and the New Testament, I argue that Philip the Tetrarch resisted attempts by Rabbi Yoḥanan b. Zakkai to hold non-Jews accountable to Torah for homosexual behavior. Luke 17:34-35 are not prophetic or apocalyptic, but represent legal policy which honors the Roman policy of allowing subject tribes and peoples a high degree of self-government. This Roman policy not only protects subject peoples from unnecessary imperial meddling, but also one people’s attempts to impose its laws and traditions on others.
Chapter one reviews Pharisaic political activity through Josephus and Talmud. Most Christians and Jews know about Pharisees through the lens of their religious tradition. This was my situation. In my imagination Pharisees were a mixture of eighteenth-century East European rabbis with a little Joseph McCarthy sprinkled over John’s gospel. Pharisees were not, as Josephus would have it, a mere philosophical school distinguished by Torah, resurrection, and table fellowship. From the narrative evidence in Josephus, the Pauline epistles and Acts, I argue that Pharisees were a diverse group using the primary means available to Jewish males for advancement in government and law enforcement. The means of advancement was the Law. Chapter one shows the variety of men called Pharisees, from the score-settling advisors of Queen Alexandra, to partners in messianic adventures such as Zadok the Pharisee, to instigators of suicidal spectacles such as Mattathias and Judas. None of them was afraid to get his hands dirty.
Chapter two focuses on Yoḥanan b. Zakkai as one of these typically political Pharisee and covers three major points. First, I highlight aspects of R. Yoḥanan that rabbinic Judaism found expedient to preserve. He believed that fear of G-d was superior to love of G-d as a motivation for obedience, focused on capital punishment, urged destroying everything connected with sexual transgression, and defended the practice of cross-species execution to a deliberately misnamed magistrate. Second, you will see that the truncated account of his time in Galilee (Mishnah Shabbat 16:7) actually accomplishes three things: it eliminates the embarrassment of his Galilee record, contains a wealth of legal information and summarizes the legal doctrine inevitable culpability of law enforcement. Third, I explain his role in the Galilee Episode.
Chapter three, “Gays and Lesbians in Luke”, demonstrates the presence of two gay and lesbian couples in Luke 17:34-35. I document the sexual idiom of each verse’s key element, the words bed and grind. I discuss Old Testament antecedents, contemporaneous usages in Latin and Greek, and uncounted subsequent usages across language groups and across time. This was necessary to refute suggestions that modern American slang meanings were being imposed on first-century koine Greek. In addition to verse 34’s time of day reference, suggestive of sexual activity, I discuss the immediate context of the passage, verses 28 and 29, where Lot and Sodom are discussed in some detail. The same-sex theme is not only verbally present in verses 34 and 35, it is present contextually in the Sodom discussion, all carefully written without a hint of condemnation.
Chapter four moves to “The Galilee Episode” itself and to gospel persecution. I discuss Philip the Tetrarch—Rome’s appointed ruler, his major formative experiences, his geopolitical situation and his governing priorities. I also discuss familiar gospel passages about persecution, with additional insights from contemporary phenomena including “catch and release” and binational same-sex couples.
Chapter five, “The Making of the Same-Sex Pericope”, explains, step by step, how and why Luke 17:28-35 came to be. Starting with the oldest layer (the Q source) I explain why an anonymous scribe duplicated the Noah story point by point, which duplication has long puzzled scholars. The scribe edited a key word (a field became a bed), then added a three-word phrase (“in that night”) in order to clarify the grounds for arrest. I argue that subsequent scribes, deliberately or unwittingly, muddied the clarity so painstakingly achieved.
Chapter six explores some reasons why we missed the gays and lesbians in Luke 17 for so long, including concerns about antisemitism, the habit of harmonizing the gospels, and the demand for a univocal Bible.
About the Author
Ronald Goetz, recovering fundamentalist, served one year as a C&MA pastor and 13 days in jail for civil disobedience. A former board member of PFLAG and GLSEN, he co-produced the documentary Holy Families Together. The self described “Ecclesiastes Christian” attended two Baptist seminaries, and graduated from San Diego State University and Simpson University. Father of two daughters and gay son, he has four grandchildren. Ron lives with his wife Nital in Southern California