Martin, Sex and the Single Savior (2006)

Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).

Thesis: This book, as a collection of essays, does not have a thesis as such; however, its overarching theme is “to expose the complications of biblical interpretation in order to shine light on the agency of human interpreters and to insist that the ‘text itself’ does not exercise its own ‘agency’ in its own interpretation” (1), especially in regards to ideas about gender and sexuality.

The following overview is quoted from Robert Paul Seesengood’s review of the book.

Martin opens (‘The Myth of Textual Agency’) by dismantling confidence that we can determine a text’s ‘intended meaning’ via history (and showing that such concerns are very modern). A familiar conversation to many of us, Martin offers a single critique with solid examples accessible to the non-specialist. He continues his methodological discussion in chapter 2, ‘The Rhetoric of Biblical Scholarship: A Primer for Critical Reading of Historical Criticism.’

Chapter 3 ‘ Arsenokoitês and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences’ explores this notorious pair of words found in 1 Cor. Contrary to many suggestions which take both terms as descriptive of male-male sexual engagement (where the former term designates the active partner, the latter the passive), Martin offers a thorough lexical study to conclude that: a. we really have no idea what arsenokoitês actually entailed (though it seems to be some form of – economic – sexual exploitation?). Malakos, would be better rendered ‘effeminate’ or even ‘sissy.’ Martin then demonstrates how ‘historical’ reading and translation of these words is enmeshed in cultural assumptions about ‘normativity.’ The theme of heteronormativity is again taken up in chapter 4, ‘Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18–32.’ Martin, again, opens with a demonstration of how previous modes of reading are inadequate. His particular concern surrounds readings that suggest Paul is arguing humans, universally, have fallen from some pristine state into sin, the ultimate expression of which, is same-sex encounter. Such, Martin argues, is implicitly reinforcing heteronormativity. Martin, instead, takes a rigorous turn back into the text to argue that Paul suggests same-sex desire arises from idolatry (one should realize, as well, that, for Martin, ‘textual foundationalism’ is always couched as an idolatrous move).

In chapter 5, ‘Paul without Passion: On Paul’s Rejection of Desire in Sex and Marriage,’ Martin addresses Paul’s comments in 1 Cor. 7. In sum, Martin argues that Paul (blending some Stoic ideas) is fundamentally arguing for the cessation of desire. Sex, in and of itself (and if properly expressed – i.e. controlled), is relatively innocuous. Desire, however, is the stone in Paul’s shoe. Paul recommends marriage as a means to avoid ‘burning’ with desires. Marriage is intended to quiet sexual desire.

In chapter 6, ‘The Queer History of Galatians 3:28: ‘ No Male and Female’‘ Martin survey’s readings of this famous text. Beginning with Stendhal and expressed mostly fully (perhaps) by Schussler-Fiorenza, one strand of NT scholarship has argued for a Pauline egalitarianism (despite the clearly non-egalitarian thrust of some other key passages in Paul). Conservatives, however, have argued that no egalitarianism exists at all; male and female are equal only ‘in Christ’ (i.e. in terms of their potential to be saved). Radical contemporary feminists have argued this text is not egalitarian, either. Paul is arguing for ‘equality’ only to the extent that women are moved along a gender continuum towards masculinity; they become ‘equal’ only by becoming ‘male.’ Martin presents these readings, then makes a stunning and gorgeous turn of his own. Recognizing the grammar is ‘no…and…,’ Martin, using historical and grammatical analysis that is pristine, argues that Paul’s demands could also be taken as a call to femme up males and destroy masculinity.

The central chapter, carrying the name of the volume (ch. 7: ‘Sex and the Single Savior’) is the only chapter not to treat Paul in any way. Martin explores the possibility of whether or not the historical Jesus could have been married or had sex (of any kind). He notes that we can not conclude any position definitively; indeed, one can, as readily, demonstrate the possibility that Jesus was gay (and seeing the infamous ‘beloved disciple’ of John’s gospel). The point is most surely not that Martin argues that Jesus was gay; his arguments, however, reveal the extreme exegetical gossip that has amassed around Mary and Jesus and to illustrate how little we know (and how little, really, it matters). More, it reveals the dynamics of an implicit heteronormativity in scholarship and Christology. Martin argues scholarly views on the subject say far more about contemporary views of sex, sexuality and culturally described norms of sexual distinction.

In Chapter 8, ‘Familiar Idolatry and the Christian Case Against Marriage,’ Martin flatly denounces modern evangelical fascination with ‘family values’ as idolatry. He demonstrates that Jesus’ and Paul’s ethics of ‘family’ are radically different than what emerges from the modern focus on family. Jesus, Martin clarifies, called for a seamless boundary of believers which was broadly inclusive, not a narcissistic celebration of the nuclear family. In chapter 9, ‘the Hermeneutics of Divorce’ Martin continues this thesis. Surveying the remarks of Jesus and Paul on divorce, Martin concludes that the historical Jesus was radically opposed to divorce and remarriage, absolutely forbidding both. Matthew, however, adds a proviso (‘except in cases of pornea’), which Luke extends further. Paul, addressing the case of a woman divorced by a non-believing husband, allows remarriage (but only ‘in the Lord,’ i.e. to a believer). Martin argues that these various communities were trying to soften Jesus’ harsh standard, a standard which, by not allowing any form of divorce, would discourage or destroy marriage in the first place. Indeed, Martin argues that such a goal was Jesus’ particular intention; he wanted a marriageless community of believers, mutually sharing with one another. Martin, as well, calls for the same, suggesting the church should abandon the ‘marriage business’ because of the way marriage perpetuates divisions.

Chapters 10 and 11, ‘The space of Scripture, the Risk of Faith’ are clearly the capstone for the book and the argument for which Martin has been carefully preparing us. After a survey of Richard Hays’ monograph on Pauline use of scripture (and, in turn, surveying Pauline uses directly as they appear in Galatians and 2 Corinthians), Martin concludes that Paul read scripture not to be ‘formed by’ its contents, but to find confirmation, understanding, and argument for ideas he had already formed. Scripture was not taken as the means of making faith, faith recognizes scripture. Martin appeals for a similar reading approach among modern Christians. He offers a new metaphor for scripture: a sacred space for exploration which prompts, as a museum would, reflection, narrative, and new ideas. Noting, of course, the inherent risk of such an approach – that monstrous inequity and unethical reading could be implicitly ‘verified’ via readings of scripture – Martin never the less accepts the risks as those inherent in ‘faith’ and a hermeneutics of Love.

 

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