WWJD: Jesus on Anti-gay Slurs

A slightly different version was published October 23, 2002, in the Chicago Free Press.

WHAT WOULD JESUS SAY about anti-gay slurs? The received wisdom is that Jesus never addressed the issue of homosexuality. But some interesting evidence suggests that teachings attributed to Jesus indicates strong disapproval of using anti-gay slurs.

In the gospel once attributed to the disciple Matthew, in the collection of ancient teachings gathered together as "The Sermon on the Mount," this passage occurs:

Matthew 5:21: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.

Matthew 5:22: "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Racha, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."

What is "racha"?

For a long time no one knew what "racha" (later altered to "raca") meant. The word occurred nowhere else in the Bible or other ancient literature, which no doubt is why King James's panel of translators left the word untranslated.

The Revised Standard Version, often a good translation, doesn't even try but translates the whole clause as "Whoever insults his brother he must answer for it in court"--providing no sense of what the insult might be. A coy footnote says that "raca" is "an obscure term of abuse."

Clearly "racha" was unfavorable, some sort of insult. The most prominent guess was that the word was related to the Hebrew word "reqa" meaning "empty," "empty-headed" or "brainless." That would make the insult parallel with "Thou fool" in the last clause of Matthew 5:22.

But in "The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality" published in 1990, in an article on the word "Racha," gay historian Joseph Wallfield, who wrote under the pen name Warren Johansson, revived a 1922 proposal by German philologist Friedrich Schulthess that "racha" should be equated with the Hebrew "rakh" meaning "soft" or "weak", a "weakling" or "effeminate person."

That would make "racha" equivalent to the Greek word "malakos," referring to a receptive partner ("passive" or "effeminate," according to the concepts of the time) in homosexual behavior, a term found in the Epistles attributed to Paul.

Johansson pointed out that the 1922 proposal received substantial support a dozen later in 1934 when an ancient Egyptian papyrus was published written in Greek in 257 B.C. containing the word "rachas" with a parallel text indicating that the word meant "kinaidos" or "faggot."

As an interesting sidelight, Johansson pointed out that modern German underworld slang, which preserves a number of loan-words from Hebrew and Aramaic, uses the word "rach" to mean "tender, soft, effeminate, timid, or cowardly."

There is an additional consideration that weighs against the older, traditional interpretation of "racha" as simply "brainless" or "empty-headed."

Matthew 5:22 contains three major clauses in ascending order of deserved punishment:

  • a) anger with a brother, danger of judgment (at a lower court)
  • b) calling a brother "racha," danger of being called before the supreme council
  • c) calling someone "fool," danger of hell fire.

In this series of three increasingly serious offenses and punishments, calling a brother "racha" deserves a serious, but less severe, punishment than calling someone "fool." So it seems extremely unlikely that "racha" can mean something so similar to "fool" as the older reading of "brainless," or "empty-headed" suggests. "Racha" must be something different. That leaves the effeminacy or anti-gay interpretation of "racha" the more likely reading.

Johansson's suggestion, initially proposed in an obscure gay scholarly quarterly called Cabirion (Winter/Sping, 1984) was widely resisted at first when it was not completely ignored. With time and additional study and thought, however, some of his early critics changed their minds and now accept his reading of the passage.

If Johansson is right, and he seems to be, then the teaching ascribed to Jesus is that his followers should not insult men, impugning their masculinity by accusing them of being "passive" or "effeminate" homosexuals, a type of person generally looked down on at the time.

"What the text in Matthew demonstrates," Johansson concludes, "is that he forbade acts of violence, physical and verbal, against those to whom homosexuality was imputed, in line with the general emphasis on self-restraint and meekness in his teachings."

Johansson cautions that none of his analysis is meant to argue that Jesus accepted or approved of homosexual behavior. The disapproval of homophobia does not necessarily entail approval of homosexuality. Such a claim would have to be based on different arguments and different evidence.

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