I have a review of William Loader’s Sexuality and Gender: Collected Essays coming out soon in Reviews in Religion and Theology, a book that raises ethical questions in its content and its composition. I’ll return to the concerns I have with Loader’s writing in a moment.
To be clear, the title suggests that Loader will be talking about issues of sexual orientation and gender paradigms / identity much more than he actually does, although sexual orientation does come up in a few places. Rather, the essays address the ethics of sexuality (as in, being sexual) which are in many ways impacted by perceived gender and gender norms. He covers mostly later Jewish biblical literature, the apocrypha, Philo, and Josephus, as well as the New Testament. The patterns he notes here are discussed more thoroughly in the review. Here, I want to address two issues with the book.
Will the Ancient Gay Jews Please Stand Up!
When Loader does discuss homosexuality, or rather homoerotic practices, he has a tendency to definitively find homoeroticism where texts aren’t exactly clear. These potential type II errors (he fails to reject the hypothesis that ancient texts are talking about homoeroticism even when there’s a strong chance it’s false) have plagued his earlier works on ancient sexual ethics. They are exacerbated in this volume because Loader rarely takes the time to defend his readings, instead citing his earlier works and quickly moving on. A casual reader who does not look up the (sometimes obscure) passage or Loader’s previous discussion may not appreciate how uncertain his reading actually is.
Loader is especially apt to find lesbians when none are mentioned. For example, in his discussion of The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, Loader simply notes “his disapproval of lesbian relations where one woman usurps a male role” (p. 175), elsewhere claiming the text “applies the Leviticus prohibitions by extension to female same-sex relations (190-192)” (p. 354).
I’ve never found this argument convincing. Here are lines 189-192:
Do not outrage your wife by shameful sex acts.
Do not go beyond natural sex acts by unlawful passions
(Nor do male beasts please themselves with sex acts together).
Any female should not imitate the sex acts of men.
Loader is possibly thinking of women using dildos with each other, but they could just as easily use them with their husbands. If so, the whole focus of these lines would be on anal sex: don’t perform it with your wife (189) or with another man (190-91), and don’t let your wife do it to you (192).
The point is, there is almost no allusion to Leviticus 18 (as Loader acknowledges, pp. 174-75). Apparently, Loader thinks of Lev 18:22 only because male homoeroticism is condemned as “unlawful.” That’s it. He hears lesbians in line 192 because they are compared to homoerotic men, and through our own modern paradigm that lumps gay men and lesbians together under the heading of “homosexual,” he infers a strong condemnation of all lesbian behavior in ancient Jewish circles. That seems to be put too much weight on the one ambiguous line. Since real LGBTQ+ people’s lives are impacted by biblical interpretations, Loader has an ethical and scholarly responsibility to unpack the nuance of these ancient texts, which he repeatedly fails to do with texts that can be interpreted as condemning female homoeroticism.
With Romans 1 he admits “one has to be satisfied with degrees of probability” (p. 371) whether lesbians are even addressed, but this comes after a longer argument that claims the passage “reads most naturally to see 1:26 as similarly referring to same-sex relations but here applied to women,” adding, “Female to female eroticism was more widely condemned in the Greco-Roman world than male, so that perhaps Paul chose to begin with the most abhorred” (p. 370). “Most abhorred” is a bit strong. Female homoeroticism is often poo-pooed at best, with very few strong condemnations of it in the literature. It would be more accurate to say that it is the most consistently criticized since, while certain forms of male homoeroticism were condemned much more strongly and at much greater length than anything we see regarding women, Greco-Roman culture had a place for other forms of male homoeroticism. Sometimes these other behaviors are praised right alongside intense condemnations of others. But if we set condemnations of female homoeroticism side by side with condemnations of male homoeroticism, condemnations of women would include some offhand remarks, vague comments, jokes, and the occasional strong statement. Very few wholesale arguments would appear. Condemnations of men would include a much longer, much more thoroughly argued list that reads like an evangelical sermon. Many discussions of male homoeroticism pass over female homoerotic behavior altogether. You wouldn’t get this impression from Loader’s discussions.
Loader opens himself to this sort of critique since he addresses the ethical and ecclesiological application of his findings in several of the later chapters of the book. I can’t say I always agree with his ethical positions, but they are clearly argued and often nuanced. It’s simply that they suggest he’s aware of the ethical implications of his research, which makes the casual way he makes strong but largely unwarranted statements about lesbians a bit harder to swallow.
The Ethics of Citation
There are two scholars Loader relies on that raise questions of whether one can divorce the scholarship from the scholar (although with one far worse than the other). This is important in academia since citations, “impact scores,” and h-indexes raise the authors’ prestige. Their impact influences whether they get important teaching positions, invitations to public talks, book deals, and more. In short, an influential scholar like Loader citing someone – and especially citing them frequently and interacting with them thoroughly – benefits the scholar he cites. It’s not a neutral act.
Furthermore, if there is something problematic about the scholar cited, something publicly known and even relevant to the research cited, and Loader does not acknowledge it or comment on it, the citation acts as a tacit endorsement, or at least a handwaving of these problems.
I bring this up because citation issues came up with two problematic scholars. In the first case, I noticed Loader was heavily relying on Robert Gagnon in discussions of Romans 1. I’ve read some of Gagnon’s work, but the frequent citations piqued my interest. I wanted to learn more. As it turns out, Gagnon is a strong advocate of applying (centuries later) natural law theory to Romans in support of an opinion of heteronormative gender complementarity. He is a biblical scholar, but one who uses his work on ancient sexual ethics in order to argue against the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Much of Gagnon’s applications of his research go directly against Loader’s efforts to read these passage in their historical context. A reader would never get that impression from Loader’s discussions of Gagnon’s work.
By relying on Gagnon so heavily for his examination of NT comments on homoeroticism, Loader has amplified Gagnon’s scholarly prestige and directed readers to works that have a clear political and social agenda. And he has done that without comment on Gagnon’s larger agenda. Novice readers would only get the impression that Gagnon is a leader in this particular subfield (he’s not exactly—many of his exegetical arguments are easy to find elsewhere, after and before his work), and may assume that Loader agrees with Gagnon’s social agenda. Or worse, assume that Gagnon’s (mis)applications of his research follows naturally from reading the biblical text.
Should Loader have cited Gagnon if he relied on him? Yes.
Should Loader have employed other scholars too, so that he engages the (often common) argument rather than a particular scholar? He could have.
Should he have noted even in a footnote the motivation behind Gagnon’s research, and at least claimed it was irrelevant to the specific question he was addressing? I would think so.
To be fair, I was not too turned off by the interaction with Gagnon. I was probably more sensitive to citation issues because I was already turned off by multiple citations of a much more problematic scholar: Jan Joosten.
Joosten did some work on sexual ethics in the Torah, specifically on condemnations of male anal sex in Leviticus 18 and 20. So there are some relevant works there to cite.
However, in 2020 Joosten was convicted of possession of massive troves of child pornography, including depictions of rape. There’s a discussion happening behind the scenes in biblical studies and in academia as a whole whether to cite scholars like Joosten or Richard Pervo, who was also convicted of possession of child pornography in 2001. Despite that, Pervo published many influential books after his conviction, before his death in 2017. I even briefly met him at a Chicago Society of Biblical Research meeting where he was a featured speaker—before I knew anything about his conviction. It’s strange to think that there were no social or professional consequences to a child pornography conviction in such a conservative field. Or maybe it’s because the field is so conservative, I don’t know.
The issue with citations of Joosten is he deals specifically with issues of sexual ethics. Loader not only cites his research approvingly (p. 386, a 2020 article published while Joosten was on trial), but on two occasions cites personal correspondence with Joosten (pp. 37 n. 7, 48 n. 2)! That’s… creepy, dude. You know what else was on the computer he sent those emails from? And that 2020 article has 11 citations in Google Scholar, five of them from Loader.
So what points does Loader make with Joosten’s work? In the article cited, it is that the terms in Lev 18:22 are ambiguous since man and woman are also often the words for husband and wife (always so in Greek), and the “lying” of the man with a man is literally a bed. In other words, don’t f**k a guy in his wife’s bed, an expansion of adultery. The point cited from personal correspondence is only to support a translation Loader gives on other grounds. If the point has to be made (see next paragraph), is the ethical wrong of failing to cite your informal source (in the latter case) greater than the ethical wrong of overlooking such horrific crimes?
So on the one hand, there are only three citations all on minor translation issues – or at least, Loader doesn’t make much of them. He doesn’t base a whole chapter on Joosten’s work. On the other hand, they are very minor points, which raises the question of whether making them was worth citing a voracious hoarder of violent child pornography. I myself had a citation of Joosten’s pre-publication article on Leviticus in a piece I was working on that I simply removed because… ew. It would have supported my reading, sure, but there were other ways to make the argument. I won’t be adding a twelfth citation to Google Scholar’s list.
In these discussions, the idea has also come up of simply acknowledging the conviction to mitigate the additional professional status given by scholarly citations and to avoid any appearance of validating or ignoring his crimes. “I got this point from so-and-so. It should be noted that this scholar was convicted of a heinous act, which he admitted and pled guilty to.” Something like that.
I don’t have the answers here. I don’t know that Loader failing to make these points is the solution, or acknowledging the conviction in a footnote. I can’t even definitively say that citing this sort of criminal a few times in 400 pages without comment is unequivocally bad. But given that he cites personal correspondence and has cited the article in question on five separate occasions in a year suggests that Loader simply overlooks the issue. I draw attention to it only as a blatant test-case for these sorts of ethical questions, and to note that I as a reader found it to be a distraction from Loader’s broader points.
 See for example Mark G. Brett, “Social Inclusion and the Ethics of Citation, JBL 140/4 (2021): 819-25, here p. 825.
 At least one citation is to a “forthcoming” article, so may have been cited before Joosten’s arrest and conviction, but then the essay is basically a blog post so easily emended.