There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Temple worship in Paul’s time was highly segregated, but in a complicated way. Everyone was encouraged to worship at Temple (and there’s only the one Temple at this time; cities do not have their own synagogues), but not everyone was allowed to participate fully in worship. There is full segregation based on gender — men to one side, women to the other — and then within this main system of segregation you would have your Greek gentiles apart, and your slaves apart, on either side of that male/female literal and spiritual dividing line. (I have ::frequent:: stress nightmares about being the logistics manager at the Temple in Jerusalem. I’m great at my job of course; but at what price?) And then the Jesus movement happens (we can’t really call them Christians yet), everything gets thrown off balance. The Jesus movement — sometimes called The Way or Nazarenes in the 1st century CE — can’t compete with Judaism’s exclusivity, so it becomes almost radically ecumenical. Women are recognized as disciples, and even do some teaching. (This doesn’t last super long; a movement that is too egalitarian becomes challenging to harness.) And these early gentile followers (which just means “non-Jew” in this case) of Jesus would want to worship in the way Jesus did, at the Temple, because there are absolutely no other places for ritual worship. (There are house churches, but that’s an entirely different form of worship.)
Imagine falling in love, and wanting to spend your days in full communion with your love. You want to almost transubstantiate yourself into your love, and your love into you. Now imagine that the place where you can be closest to your love tells you, “This spot, but no further.” Imagine being denied full participation in the worship of your love. That’s the tension we see between Jews and gentiles. Gentiles want this immediate experience of the Divine — because ::it recently happened within memory::. Paul has an experience of the resurrected Jesus and it utterly shatters his life and blinds him. On the day of Pentecost, extraordinary things happened to the apostles. After years of divine silence, ::something:: was happening, something that included any who wanted to become a part of it. And the Temple is saying, “Okay. But: here. And no further.
“Jesus is a figurehead, in the very first days of his ministry, for an eschatological gospel: the good news of the end of the world. Not how we’re ending the world today, by killing and destroying it. This is an end of temporality: the wicked days are coming to an end, and a new era of righteousness is coming. This is what John the Baptist, likely an Essene, preached. Whether or not you believe the messianic claims made on Jesus’s behalf, he does pick up John’s cross and also preaches a gospel of repentance. Cast off what is harming you, care for those who need caring for, because all of this is going away and you won’t need your hurt any more. “Repent” literally means “turn back” or “turn away from.” (That this ended up ::not:: happening becomes a problem for the Jesus movement, but that’s for another parenthesis.) And this message resonated with Jews and gentiles alike. When Paul is writing his letters to various churches (“no, you’re doing it wrong” or “no, YOU’RE doing it wrong” or “NO, your doing it wrong” or “STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP”) he wants to challenge Jewish hegemony and insists on an almost-egalitarian ideology for these followers of Jesus. (Does he hate women? When have we ever ::not:: hated women? Is he homophobic? Aren’t we all, aren’t we all.) Insisting that categories like “slave,” and “women,” and “Greek” are meaningless within the community of believers, he tells the Galatians, as early as the late 40s CE, that anyone is welcome in worship.
Paul as Pride Grand Marshall is a fun joke. Others have spent useful time trying to either redeem Paul’s homophobia (an anachronistic term that may or may not be fair to Paul), or reify his position. In letters to the Romans, to the Church in Corinth, and to his fellow evangelizer, Timothy, Paul seems pretty clear on his stance about queer identity. Except it isn’t very clear at all. There’s an ocean of time and distance and references separating us from the mind of Paul.
In the ’90s, I worked at an HIV Day Center in Portland, Oregon. Our intake form was invasive, because we want to know the everything of the mistakes a person makes before we help them. We would ask men if they were homosexual.
Some men were! Some men outly and proudly identified as gay. Some men were not! Sometimes angrily not. Sometimes confusedly not. But our form required an additional question, which was: “Have you had sex with other men?” And a what-shouldn’t-be-all-that shocking number of men who did not identify as homosexual answered yes to the “have you had sex with other men” question. Capitalism was only just formulating bisexuality as a means of selling hair-care products to men, and no one could understand how (a) someone could not be a homosexual; and (b) have sex with men.
Is Paul homophobic? It actually doesn’t matter. We don’t need to listen to Paul’s Grand Theory of Moral Sexuality in order to listen closely to what he writes to the Galatians about radical openness. Inconsistency doesn’t affect our rightness, just like rightness doesn’t keep us from doing wrong. If Paul is wrong about women; if Paul is wrong about women and gay people and sodomy and what the church is doing in Thessalonica and even about his own transfiguring experience of the risen Jesus on his way to Damascus; even if he is wrong about all of that, we can still trust fully that whatever the ineffably divine experience of the universe is, it is open to all: to Greeks and to slaves, to queer people and sinners, to people in all their messy splendor, to every piece of creation sidelined as Other.