(Sixth post on same-sex relationships.)
One of our great challenges when we read any ancient document is understanding the historical and cultural context being addressed. It is as if we are standing on one side of a glass door that has writing on the other side. We can work hard to get the text turned the right way round (in our heads) so that at least we can read what is on it, but we are still on the other side of the door! If only we could get to the other side we would then be able to see the text in that context, and perhaps we would discover that what is on the ‘door’ could have a context that would help us understand why the writing was there.
The letters that Paul wrote are contingent. Although this does not mean we cannot simply dismiss them as ‘not for us, but for the (e.g.) Corinthians’, but we also cannot simply say ‘for them, therefore all applies to us’. ‘Pay your taxes’ (Paul in Romans) is not as simple as a once-and-for-all verse to be quoted, but was written into a situation where there were major revolts against the unjust and increasing tax burden in Rome. All of that came to a head in the later 50s with major riots. This was the contextual situation that Paul was writing into, so we can legitimately ask if Paul was simply suggesting that ‘pay your taxes so that you do not get caught up in the imminent conflict and violence that will inevitably come’ or if he was giving a universal directive regardless of context. These are the difficulties when seeking to honestly read the Pauline texts.
To illustrate the challenge taking one of Paul’s passages that mentions homosexuality (Rom. 1) a very able scholar Douglas Campbell1 offers a convincing argument for this section to be what is termed prosopopoeia. That term refers to when a writer quotes someone else’s view so that it can be refuted. If that be the case then we would simply have Paul quoting his opponents false teaching, and what was being expressed would certainly not be Paul’s view! This argument has force if there is enough in the context, enough quotes and inferences that the hearers clearly recognise the language and arguments used by this other person. Campbell believes there is.
I quote Campbell above simply to illustrate the challenge that lies before anyone seeking to honestly engage with the text. Now it is my turn!2
Romans 1:18-32 (with 26, 27 being central to the debate)
I put the whole passage below with certain emphases added so that the structure can be better seen.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
Here is a table drawing out what I see as the structure:
||glory of the immortal God
|God gave them up
||the truth of God
||for a lie
|God gave them up
|Their women exchanged
|Likewise the men
||natural intercourse with women
||consumed with passion for one another
|God gave them up
The critique that Paul is advancing is against the ‘pagan’ Greaco-Roman world with arguments from what is plain (from nature)3 and the structure shows Paul is arguing that the Gentiles exchanged some aspect that would have acted as a boundary for a response that broke that boundary and as they did that there was a consequence. That consequence is not the judgement of God but the result of their behaviour (‘God gave them up’); it is that behaviour that puts them under the judgement of God.4
The ancient non-Jewish world saw sexuality differently from how the modern Western world. The categories of ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’ were not used. Sexual practice was used as a way of describing what took place, but not sexual orientation. In that society status (with terms such as honour / shame) mattered more than gender, and in order to maintain status a freeborn male had to be the dominant, active partner in any encounter.5 In contrast a woman always had a lower status in society, and it was appropriate that she should be the submissive partner. Thus a high status person had to be the dominant partner; a low status person or someone with no status should be the submissive partner. It was into this that the honour / shame evaluation of situations and behaviour fitted. And in this passage we have statements such as ‘degrading of their bodies’ (1:24, lit. dishonouring), ‘degrading passions’ (1:26) and ‘shameless acts’ (1:27).
Adultery was a shameful act as it dishonoured another marital relationship (and it was sex with another married person that was termed adultery), but if a freeborn man was the active partner, it was socially acceptable to have intercourse with:
- his own wife.
- boys (in Greek culture they could be freeborn; Rome restricted this to slaves).
- slaves (male or female) as they had no honour.
- prostitutes, male or female as they had no honour.
- actors and bar staff, because they also had no honour in that culture.
The social landscape allowed for a man to sleep around, provided he took the active role and if he did his sexual behaviour was not classed as adultery.
Paul’s Jewish world strongly linked prostitution with idolatry, and so prostitution was condemned and sex with young boys was seen to have a similar connection to idolatry, and was likewise condemned. The Judaism of the time also frowned upon any type of intercourse that was non-procreative – basically, anything that couldn’t result in a pregnancy. In contrast, the Greco-Roman world generally accepted such practices as anal intercourse.
Judaism and early Christianity not only condemned sex with young boys but listed it as a separate category. Here are a select set of early Christian texts setting ‘corruption of children’ as a separate sexual vice from adultery and immorality:
You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children (paidophthorēseis); you shall not be sexually immoral; you shall not steal…
(Didache 2.2 (a teaching manual from about the beginning of the second century)).
You shall not be sexually immoral; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children (paidophthorēseis).
(Barnabas 19.4 (a second century letter)).
…how much more shall all the nations appear to be under a curse who practise idolatry, who corrupt children (paidophthorounta), and commit other crimes?
(Justin Martyr, Dial. Trypho 95 (second century)).
You shall not commit adultery. You shall not worship idols. You shall not corrupt children (paidophthorēseis). You shall not steal…
(Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 3.12 (early third century)).
Which is more beautiful? To confess the cross, or to attribute to those you call gods adultery and corruption of children (paidophthorias)?
(Athanasius, Vita Antonii 74 (early fourth century)).
One who approves of adulteries and corruption of children (paidophthorias)…
(Gregory of Nazianzen, Adv. Eunomianos (orat. 27) 6 (late fourth century)).
The separation of adultery, sexual immorality (sex with prostitutes, though perhaps a wider term than that) and pederesty / child corruption illustrates how common this practice was. Shocking as that is to us, it is present as an ever-present background within the culture of the non-Jewish world of the New Testament era.
In Romans 1 Paul is using a well known way of writing that is aimed ultimately at trapping the person who is in agreement with his argument. The person is nodding in agreement only to be stung with the:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things (2:1).
The Gentile is condemned in the verses in chapter 1 (the language is ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘theirs’), but the sting in the tail / tale is aimed at the Jew, so that eventually Paul can conclude that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23), with the ‘all’ in context meaning ‘both’: those who are of the covenant and those not.
Those pagans, Paul lays out, worship created things rather than the creator: the cardinal sin of idolatry. The results of idolatry are awful and evil, and God judges those pagans. God gives them up to impurity, dishonourable passions and a debased mind.
The verses at the centre of the sexual lust critique begin with a comment on what took place with the women, who ‘exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural’. It is possible to read this as being a critique of lesbian sex, naming it as ‘unnatural’, and when read as parallel to the critique that follows of males being consumed with passion for one another, it could be read as such, but…
If Paul is critiquing lesbian sex he is unique among ancient writers, and the early church writings of the first 300 years did not understand it this way. He refers to these women as ‘their wives’ and a key is to understand what Paul meant by the phrase ‘unnatural’ (para phusin). It could be argued that he is presenting here a creational argument and that sex has to be between a male and a female, but elsewhere he uses ‘nature’ as a cultural marker (long hair in Corinth for the men, for example). Philo, a Jewish writer / philosopher, roughly contemporaneous to Paul, understood ‘against nature’ in a sexual context to be any sexual activity that could not lead to pregnancy. This would (and with material on pagan worship that I will add below) accord well with Paul’s Jewish background and the thrust of this passage, against nature would then be something like excessive, unrestrained passion. If we add the honour / shame framework we suggest that these women are not taking the passive role of being available only to their husbands6; they would be exchanging natural intercourse with their husbands and overriding all that was considered natural in pursuit of their degrading / dishonouring passions. Rather than understand this as a critique of lesbian sex it better fits the passage, and the language used, to see it as women being consumed by lust, and indulging in practices that Paul as a Jew found abhorrent, and even for Gentiles was ‘against nature’.
Then he comes to the behaviour of the men, or as Paul says ‘males’. It is unlikely that he is seeking to critique all forms of homosexual activity but that which is excessive, abusive and oppresive. The condemnation would certainly include pederasty and it is inconclusive if he is arguing beyond that in this passage.
Pagan worship: ritual sexual practices
We have from the early second Century this description of Cybele worship (the reference to Galli is to the male castrated priests):
On appointed days, the crowd assembles at the sanctuary while many Galli and the holy men whom I have mentioned perform the rites. They cut their arms and beat one another on the back. Many stand about them playing flutes, while many others beat drums. Still others sing inspired and sacred songs. This ceremony takes place outside the temple and none of those who perform it enters the temple. On those days, too, men become Galli. For while the rest are playing flutes and performing the rites, frenzy comes upon many, and many who have come simply to watch subsequently perform this act. … The youth for whom these things lie in store throws off his clothes, rushes to the center with a great shout and takes up a sword, which I believe has stood there for this purpose for many years. He grabs it and immediately castrates himself. Then he rushes through the city holding in his hands the parts he has cut off. He takes female clothing and women’s adornment from whatever house he throws these parts into. This is what they do at the Castration. At death Galli do not receive a burial like other men. Instead, whenever a Gallus dies, his companions lift him up and carry him to the outskirts of the city. They set him down along with the bier with which they carried him. Then they pile up stones upon him and after completing this task they return home. They observe a period of seven days, then enter the sanctuary. If they enter before this time, they commit a sacrilege. In such matters they abide by the following customs: If anyone of them sees a corpse, he does not enter the sanctuary that day. On the following day, after purifying himself, he enters. When the corpse is that of a relative, they observe thirty days, shave their heads and then enter the temple. It is sacrilegious for them to enter sooner (Lucian, De Dea Syria 50-53).
This might be an exaggerated account, but even if so the style of rhetoric was to use such language, and so appropriate to Paul’s style in Romans 1. In Rome the Cybele cult was part of the official calendar, embedded therefore into the culture.
The report of the worship of Cybele could well be something that lies behind the phrase ‘received in their own persons the due penalty for their error’ (castration); another possibility is an oblique reference to Caligula (emperor 37-41) who was stabbed to his death in his genitals and was renowned for his excessive sexual expressions, including adultery and incest.
In reading Romans 1, excessive (against nature) sexual practices were evidently a result of idolatry. The Jew listening to the case being built up against the Gentile would indeed be nodding in agreement! Wrong worship led to all kinds of evils. However, their turn was to come.
Paul, of course might condemn all forms of same-sex activity, but I do not think it is possible to use this chapter, as it stands, to critique all and every same-sex relationship.
We also have to remember that our current use of the word ‘homosexual’ to refer to orientation was not understood in the ancient world. This adds weight to whatever Paul is condemning is not what we understand by the word homosexual. (As per the usury / mortgage example, we are not comparing like with like.)
1. The Deliverance of God (2013).
2. In turning to the NT we enter the wider world of the Graeco-Roman culture. A summary of attitudes and responses to homosexuality in that setting can be helpfully read:
3. ‘Nature’ could conceivably be a reference to creation, and so there are those who argue that what Paul critiques is ‘against a creation order’. However, he is writing here with regard to the Gentiles and in that context he is not appealing to Scripture. Using language typical of the contextual ‘Stoic’ philosophies, and also comparing how he uses the word ‘nature’ elsewhere, it seems to be an argument about what was considered ‘natural’. What was considered ‘natural’ was not even a restriction.
4. The Gentiles (without the law) have not lived by the revelation of God that is present in the world – though Paul later seems to acknowledge that there are Gentiles who live by the ‘law’ (2:14, by law he does not mean Torah) – will be judged; as chapter 2 begins it is the Jew (with the law, in the sense of Torah) who will be judged. The style then in the opening section of Romans is rhetorical, exaggerated language, taking the extreme and making it sound as if the critique applies to everyone. As we read this we should also realise that though salvation is individual Paul’s concern is salvation of the world, for salvation is ‘to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek‘ (1:16); likewise judgement will come in the form of ‘anguish and distress for everyone who does evil,’ and that will be to ‘the Jew first and also the Greek,’ but for those who respond to grace will experience ‘glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.’ Paul’s concern is the world, and salvation is for all, regardless of the relationship to the law, ‘for God shows no partiality’ (2:9-11).
5. Julius Caesar was criticised not for having sex with king Nicomedes of Bythinia, but for taking the ‘passive’ role in the affair.
6. The text calls them ‘their’ women, perhaps indicating a status as married women in view.