All Foods Clean
Dignity San Fernando Valley
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Whenever we get a scripture reading that skips verses, it’s suggestive, if not downright entertaining, to see what we’re missing. In this case, it’s the evangelist’s parenthetical words in verse 19: “Thus, Jesus declared all foods clean.”
The great gay historian, John Boswell of Yale University, set out to trace the history of unclean animals, because it’s related to the oppression of gay people. And yes, that’s every bit as absurd as it sounds. Why should animals be unclean, when they are the handiwork of the Creator? We’re not talking hogs here that wallow around in the mud. This is a different level of uncleanness, an imaginary one. It’s part of our history, one we need to tell over against the backdrop of “Thus, Jesus declared all foods clean.”
This is Boswell’s work, not mine.
We start by looking at the Epistle of Barnabas. Presumably, none of us has read it, and it isn’t accepted as Scripture, but it was quite the rage in the first century A.D. The author equates Mosaic law with various sexual sins. We speak of men here because women were pretty much ignored in those days.
The first animal Barnabas names and Boswell traces as unclean is the hare. The author of Barnabas asserts that Moses ordered men not to eat hare (but that’s not in Scripture), because it would turn them into “boy-molesters.” Or as we would put it today, pedophiles. The reasoning behind all this? In those days, it was believed that hares grew a new anus every year. From what we can tell, the ancients had no support whatsoever for this thesis. Boswell relates it to Aristotle’s observation that hares urinate backwards which, while it may be scientific fact, has nothing to do with anything. The purported growth of a new anus, considered abnormal, was interpreted to mean hares were unclean. No eating hares, People! And Jesus declared all foods clean?
The second animal Barnabas names and Boswell traces as unclean is the hyena. Eating one would make a man a seducer. Why? Because hyenas were thought to change their gender annually, alternating male and female. (Their genitalia is similar, so this idea has some rationale behind it.) Aristotle refuted this idea, but by the second or third century A.D. “all serious zoological treatises . . . accepted it as fact.” Pliny included bizarre notions of both animals in his natural history and embellished them with “even more extravagant stories.” Ovid jumped on the bandwagon with similar fables. And Jesus declared all foods clean?
The third animal Barnabas names and Boswell traces as unclean is the weasel. It was commonly believed that weasels conceived through their mouths, and that made them unclean. (Weasel mothers carried their young in their mouths, which is likely where this idea came from.) Aristotle refuted this idea, too, and Aristophanes seconded the proof, but Aristophanes continued to believe that weasels participate in oral intercourse – or, as Plutarch put it, sexual aberrations. The females then gave birth through their ears – to males through their right ears and females through their left.
Many varieties of birds were also said to participate in oral intercourse, but apparently they weren’t condemned.
So we have Barnabas using popular zoological tradition in a moral context. Unfortunately, it was a decisive influence on many Christians, who not only adopted but expanded his prejudices. The belief about the hare survived till the fourth century. By then, Barnabas’ comments about animals were applied to all sexual activity between persons of the same gender. What a leap! We are told that Clement of Alexandria then popularized these ideas in his Paedagogus, a manual of instruction for Christian parents. Clement tell us that Moses had rejected “fruitless sowings” by forbidding eating hyena and hare, since “these animals are quite obsessed with sexual intercourse.” Never mind that he didn’t have Scriptural or scientific backing for this notion. Clement further insisted that, while hyenas may not actually change their sex annually (apparently he had read his Aristotle), the males did mount one another and, therefore, homosexual relationships are wrong. This logic elude you, too?
It’s easy enough to criticize Clement, and justifiably so, but that’s not the point. What matters is that his ideas were influential. By now, the Epistle of Barnabas was enshrined as truly apostolic, and Clement was preaching on the proper rearing of children. He was regarded as saintly and wise which, of course, meant that everyone believed him. And Jesus declared all foods clean?
In the West, a Latin translation of the Epistle of Barnabas was quite a success. Around the 250s, the theologian Novatian claimed that the law about not eating hare condemns men who have made themselves women. Whatever that means. No such law, of course, but that didn’t stop his claim.
The single most popular work of natural science in the Middle Ages was the Physiologus. It was still being read widely in the 1600s, centuries later! The American linguist E.P. Evans believes it’s the second most widely read book worldwide after the Bible. Dozens of different versions appeared in every medieval vernacular from Icelandic to Arabic. Boswell claims its influence was incalculable, particularly in the High Middle Ages. It was “a manual of piety, a primer of zoology, and a form of entertainment.” And yes, you guessed it, it perpetuates the same nonsense we found in the Epistle of Barnabas.
You can see how widespread and long lasting this deception was! We have the bishop of Pavia comparing a gay male to a hare and 1000 years later, Bernard of Cluny comparing a gay male to a hyena. No explanation given or necessary, so it was thought. This is the foundation of LGBTIQ prejudice in the Church. How ridiculous!
“Thus, Jesus declared all foods clean.” Yeah, but nobody was paying attention! And that’s the point of this sermon. It sounds positively trite to say that Jesus is the founder of our Church, and that what He says is authoritative. It cannot be countermanded by the Church, the Pope or the College of Cardinals. So what does Jesus say about homosexuality? Absolutely nothing! If He had in mind for it to be forbidden, He surely would have said something! His silence is positively deafening. The same thing with women priests. Where does it say in Scripture that Jesus didn’t ordain women priests? For that matter, where does it say in Scripture that Jesus ordained anybody? Or similarly, Jesus says, “Take this, all of you,” referring to the Eucharist. That’s all of you. Why does the Church think it can contravene the teacher of its founder and forbid the Eucharist to some?
Jesus declared all foods clean. Where was the Church that it wasn’t enforcing this teaching? We don’t have to like all foods, or even eat them, but we do have to start with Jesus’ words when we interpret any portion of Scripture. Yes, I know we were raised to believe that true holiness consists in obeying all the rules to the letter. But did Jesus ever say some of these things? Remember, He only gave us two laws. Just two. What He was really after was a relationship with each and every one of us! And all too often, we bypass the relationship by virtuously following questionable Church teaching instead of daring to ask whether it is correct.
I’m not saying to take everything with a grain of salt, but I am asking us all to bring a healthy skepticism to things that don’t make much sense. We started with all this folderol about unclean animals. Look where it takes us! Our call for today is to be adults in the Church: to ponder and to pray and to discern. And when, at last, we come to a place of peace, we accept what lies before us as Truth, manifest by Jesus Himself. And we find it laced with compassion and forgiveness and understanding, just like our Savior.
Grrrr. Any comments, anyone?