Thomas Römer is a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Lausanne and has held the chair “The Bible in Its Contexts” at the Collège de France since 2007. He is a member of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres since 2016.
There should be no antagonism between “brain” and “heart”. It is important to understand historically the formation of the texts that later will become the Bible, in order to realize that these texts come from concrete historical contexts and that it is impossible to claim these texts as timeless truths. But this does not exclude at all the reading of these texts in a spiritual or religious way.
The First Testament is a book that many Christians read as a law, others as a novel, but for which the majority of the population no longer has too much interest. What do we need to be aware of if we want to know what it intends to say?
There is no “New Testament” without an “Old Testament”. We should not forget that the compilers of the New Testament did not want to abolish the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament was only fixed in the fourth century, before Christians has the “old testament” as their only Bible. In any case, the writings of the NT were never considered to substitute themselves to the Jewish Bible.
How do you interpret the principle of the Reformation that affirms "Sola Scriptura"?
This principle was a critique of the Catholic dogma and magister of the Pope. It is an important idea because it insists that the Bible is the foundation of Christianity and not church doctrines. The danger of the principle is to understand it as disconnected from any historical context of the texts, so that it can lead, especially in Protestant churches, to a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible.
A few weeks ago Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to the delight of many fundamentalist Christians who see in this action the fulfilment of prophecies about the end of time that they say the Bible foretells. What do you think about all of this?
This shows who dangerous an uninformed and fondamentalist approach of the Bible is. Trump wants to please very conservative evangelicals who voted for him. According the apocalyptic view of those evangelicals Jerusalem needs to be the capital of a great Israel and the Temple needs to be rebuild (I am afraid that this will come next). Then Jesus will return and all Jews have to convert otherwise they will be killed. These evangelicals are in fact very strange allies of the right wing of current Israeli politics.
The text of Sodom and Gomorrah that appears in the book of Genesis was used and still is use to justify the discrimination, and even murder, of LGBTI people. However, some specialists believe that it has not been interpreted correctly. What was the purpose of this legend?
The story about Sodom and Gomorrah is about non-respect of hospitality which is an important pillar of Ancient Near eastern societies. What the inhabitants of the cities want to do with the foreigners protected by Lot is to rape them. This has nothing to do with homosexuality but with violence and non-respect of human dignity. Still in the NT, Jesus refers to Sodom and Gomorrah as an example for the non respect of hospitality.
When we read in Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them”. We do not recognize the God of Jesus. And you?
This text is about roles and gender in the Ancient Near east. According to this civilization a man is always active and a woman always passive. It is unconceivable for the authors of Lev 18 and 20 that a man can have a passive part in a sexual relation. These texts also show a restrictive view of sexuality, according to which the only aim of sexuality is procreation. Such a text is situated in a context, where polygamy is accepted, as well as slavery, and where is no equality between men and women. Such texts can not be transferred in our society of the 21st century.
In the face of the attack of biblical literalism, many Christian LGBTI people find answers in theologies such as liberation, gay and lesbian theology, or queer theology; which are often criticized for the excessive freedom with which they reinterpret the biblical texts. What, if any, are the limits that according to you should not cross any theology if it wants to be biblically grounded?
It is legitimate that Christian or Jewish LGBTI people seeks other texts in the Bible then Gen 19 and Lev 18 and 20. There are indeed texts that show another view on sexuality as the Song of Songs; the story of David and Jonathan has some homoerotic passages. These references to the Bible are certainly valid ones; but one should never forget that each theological approach based on the Bible needs an hermeneutical effort. In a LGTBI reading of the Bible, one should again not forget that the authors of those texts were in a total different society as we are.
In your doctoral thesis "Israels Väter" you defend that the Pentateuch is an attempt of unification between two internal factions of Judaism after exile: the exiles to Babylon and those who remained in the country. Today it seems that there are deep differences of opinion between the most liberal Christians and the fundamentalist by interpreting the Bible. What do you propose could be done to reach a minimum agreement between these too parties.
I have no easy answer to this question. Sometimes I feel desperate about this issue. And I don't not really understand the obsession of some people about the sexual orientation. Sexuality is an important part of a person, but a person cannot be reduced to his/her sexuality. Could we agree on the importance of openness to the other ? Could we agree on restraining ourselves of condemning the other ? I hope so, but I am less and less sure.
On a personal level, being a gay man: Has it helped you, has it been a handicap, or has it not influenced you at all when it comes to studying and interpreting the Bible?
Being gay has not helped me in my career, but I never thought it was a handicap neither. When I started my academic career in the 1980, it was not so easy to be openly gay even in Europe. However I always found that honesty helps for getting accepted by the majority of people.
To finish: Could you highlight at least one teaching, message or idea from the Hebrew Bible that in your opinion may be relevant to LGTBI people today?
The Bible is above all a compilation of very diverse texts; and you cannot understand the bible if you do not accept diversity. Each human being can find his/her place in the Bible.
Thank you very much for your kindness in answering these questions.
Interview made to Thomas Römer by Carlos Osma
Photography by @Kfir Ziv