An Analysis of Romans 1:18-32, Part 3
Closing Issues in Romans 1:18-32
HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE BIBLE:
PAUL AND HOMOSEXUALITY
By Bruce L. Gerig
12.How does Rom 1:26-27 relate to modern-day “homosexuality”? Robert Gagnon holds that this is the “central text” that must be used to (universally) condemn all homosexual activity1,because of the “complementary orifices” of the female vagina and male penis in the way God created the world.2 Yet, this hardly explains the widespread observation of homosexual behavior among animals3 , and Gagnon also fails to recognize that sexual desire originates not in the groin but in the brain, and he is unaware of accumulating scientific evidence which shows that prenatal conditions affect an infant to be later attracted either to the opposite sex or to one’s own sex.4 Fortunately, Gagnon’s extreme views are rejected by nearly all other Bible commentators today. Although Everett Harrison calls homosexuality a “folly” because it cannot reproduce, he goes on to say that “this need not demand the conclusion that every homosexual follows the practice in deliberate rebellion against God’s prescribed order.”5 Still, does this mean that every heterosexual couple that cannot or does not produce children is a “folly”? Becoming a couple can serve different needs, including simply providing companionship (Gen 2:18) and sexual fulfillment (1 Cor 7:8-9), besides producing children.
Brendan Byrne notes that the interpretation of Rom 1:26-27 must take into account its context and the considerable gap that exists between what was envisioned in the ancient world and the personal situations that are addressed by contemporary moral and pastoral reflection. Today we view homosexuality as being more related to an abiding personal psychological orientation rather than a deliberate choice to abandon the norm (heterosexual coupling). Free choice is the key here, and any modern moral assessment must take this into consideration.6 Luke Timothy Johnson notes that exegetically (just carefully reading the text) there is little ambiguity in Rom 1:26-27, for as a Jew Paul would have condemned homosexual behavior in every form that he saw widely practiced in the cosmopolitan areas of the Roman Empire7. Yet, Paul considers homosexuality here as a vice that is freely chosen, in a fallen world. The question, then, is how to proceed hermeneutically (how to apply Scripture to another period and culture), how to apply the Bible today in the light of later experience and enlightened perception. For example, some studies and many people claim that homosexuality is the “natural mode” of expression for a small portion of the world’s population and that it can be expressed in a chaste and covenantal relationship.8 Also, related to Rom 1:18-32 it should be pointed out that (1) homosexuality is not the main topic here, but only an illustration; and (2) it is not the ultimate ‘perversion,’ the social cruelty expressed in the final list of antisocial vices, which the strong inflict on the weak.9
Moreover, it cannot be stressed enough that in ancient Rome we are dealing with a largely bisexual culture. Even John Chrysostom (c.347–407), bishop of Constantinople, noted that here in Rom 1:26-27 Paul “deprives them [the Gentile God-rejecters] of any excuse, . . . observing of their women that they ‘did change the natural use.’ No one can claim, he points out, that she came to this because she was precluded from lawful [heterosexual] intercourse or . . . because she was unable to satisfy her desire [with men]. . . . Again, he points out the same thing about the men,” [who] . . . ‘left the natural use of the woman,’” noting also that “they not only had [heterosexual] enjoyment and abandoned it, going after a “different one, . . . [but that] spurning the natural they pursued the unnatural” (Epistle to the Romans, homily 4, Patrologia Graeca 60, pp. 415-422; trans. John Boswell).10 In other words, the verb metēllaxan, “exchanged,” (G3337, 1:26) is crucial here because this passage concerns persons (or perhaps their culture) that was originally heterosexual (enjoying and being fulfilled by heterosexual sex), but then they turned aside to indulge in homosexual activities, as well. Robert Jewett notes also that one should not overlook the fact that this was an aggressive bisexual society.11 Norman Kraus points out how it was not uncommon for a father-husband to bring a male sexual partner in to join the family circle (as a kind of live-in boyfriend).12 David Schroeder notes that in Greco-Roman culture we are dealing (primarily) with heterosexual men, many of whom were married, but who had also turned to freely take up homosexual behavior. There is no awareness of homosexual orientation here, as we understand it today. One must remember that in the Bible, both in Hebrew and Greco-Roman societies, homosexuality was viewed within the context of heterosexuality, the condemning same-sex acts being engaged in by heterosexual men, many of whom were married.13
Many aspects of ancient Roman society do not exist today as major social factors, including, e.g., the widespread sexual abuse of slaves, common use of prostitutes, and the sex orgies that went on at free temple feasts and at home dinner-drinking parties. Sarah Ruden believes, based on what Paul had witnessed growing up in Tarsus (i.e., young children being sold at public actions), that Paul’s main focus would have been the sexual abuse done to young slaves and boys.14 Mark Powell mentions the Romans’ casual promiscuous view toward sex in general, as well as the exploitative uses of sex, with minors, slaves, and prisoners.15 Christopher Bryan writes that Paul was unaware of homosexuality as a psychological orientation, the nature and cause of which still remain somewhat of a mystery today. In Rom 1:18-32 Paul does not regard homosexuality as the human problem, but rather apostasy (the rejection of one’s Creator God); and all other sins he discusses are merely symptoms of this.16 Stanley Stowers points out that the word “homosexuality” can hardly be used here, since it implies many things about sex and gender that were utterly foreign to antiquity. For example, those who confused the hierarchy of male and female and who engaged in gender-inappropriate behavior threatened proper property descent (inheritance) and were a disruption to the social order and centuries of cultural values.17
Arland Hultgren notes that Paul is concerned here with behaviors that were idolatrous and abusive.18 The most obvious, prominent and appalling forms of same-gender behavior in the Greco-Roman world was pederasty, not sex between persons of the same age and class (as is common today), except relating to prostitution. Although ancient references make it clear that some men were known for their love of boys, most references to same-gender sexual activity “are about men who have both boys and women (presumable their wives in most cases) as lovers,” men whom today would be called “heterosexuals” or “bisexuals.” Questionable same-gender activity would have included pederasty, promiscuity, prostitution, drunken orgies, sexual abuse of slaves, rape of men and boys, and bawdy role-playing in the theater. Yet, one must, above all, be alert to differences between ancient and modern understandings, and judgments made about persons and sexual behavior then and now.19 Also, “disgraceful conduct” occurred when one male took on the passive, feminine role in a sexual encounter. Thinking along the same lines as Philo20, Paul saw gender roles distorted, with a effeminization of the passive partner, which he considered “against nature.” In fact, effeminacy might also have been Paul’s concern with malakoi in 1 Cor 6:9, KJV-ABS: “effeminate [males]”).21 Although what Paul is referring to specifically in 1 Cor 6:9-10 and in Rom 1:26-27 is not spelled out in these general statements, the same-gender behavior he had in mind would have been prominent, common, and visible forms in the Gentile world. That Rom 1:26-27 is about “homosexuality” or “homosexuals” must be rejected because “sexual orientation” was unknown in Paul’s day. Although there were those who were attracted exclusively to the same gender, there is no evidence that Paul himself had such an awareness. Therefore, four points need to be made: (1) Paul does not speak here about people who are homosexual; what he refers to is excessive public same-gender activities. (2) These verses fall within a passage about abusive behaviors of various kinds, which raises the question as to whether it can be applied to other types of (e.g., loving and caring) same-gender sexual relationships. (3) Although by “natural” and “unnatural” Paul probably had in mind anatomical differences, one must recognize that the meanings of these words change over time; and today physiological, genetic, psychological and other factors are included in seeking to understand human nature. (4) In any attempt to apply Paul’s teaching to today, one must ask what kinds of behaviors would Paul have specifically had in mind, and then see if these apply in any way to contemporary behaviors.22
13. What elements in pagan religions would have influenced Paul’s views on same-sex behavior?
a. Paul knew that the Greco-Romans were influenced by the bisexual activity ascribed to their gods and heroes. Inhabitants of the Roman Empire got their license to indulge generally and widely in same-gender sexual behavior from the chief god himself, Zeus, who had fallen in love with Ganymede, a strikingly handsome prince of Troy who disappeared in his youth (Homer, Iliad 5.265) and who was snatched up by Zeus to Mount Olympus to become his cup-bearer and bed-companion (Cicero, Tusculanae disputationes 4.71,23). Ganymede would frequently be pictured in art thereafter as a youth being carried aloft by Zeus in the form of an eagle.24 However, at the same time Zeus had a great many heterosexual encounters, giving children to more than 17 goddesses and 44 other women, including mortals and nymphs.25 Heracles, son of Zeus and a human mother (Alcmene) and so a demi-god (part human and part divine) did not match his father’s sexual exploits, although he did not fall far behind. Besides being married four times, he had other heterosexual affairs, including taking up the challenge of Thespius, king of Thespiae, to have sex with all 50 of his daughters in one night; and all of them became pregnant. At the same time, his male lovers included Flacatus, Abderus, Iphitus, Nireus, Sostratus, and others. Yet, the male lover most associated with Hercules is Iolaus, his charioteer and squire; and Plutarch (46-120 AD) notes that even down to his time male lovers gathered at Iolaus’s tomb in Thebes to swear their love and loyalty to each another.26 Yet, it should be noted here that we are dealing with bisexuals, not homosexuals in the modern sense of the word.
John Clarke notes that the Romans basically viewed sex as a gift from the gods and a pleasure to be pursued, whether with male or female, or with adult or adolescent partners. It is true that some philosophies and religions stressed sexual abstinence, but the pervasive attitude toward sexual pleasure was positive. A citizen was not to have adulterous sex with others of one’s own class, but sex with slaves and former slaves and with prostitutes of both sexes was a guilt-free practice; and for the majority of those living in the big cities, apart from the elite, there were no legal or moral restrictions on sex.27 If your passion found fulfillment, no matter the object of that desire, and no one got hurt, you thanked Cupid and Venus for your good fortune. The Romans had no concept of pornography as we do today, but bought and enjoyed objects and paintings which depicted sexual intercourse and love-making in all its ways.28 Whether ribald, romantic, beautiful or laughable, sexual imagery was integral to their lives. The Romans were not at all like us in their attitudes toward sex, for they generally felt no guilt with extramarital affairs.29 They enjoyed looking at sexual images, because they did not associate them with sin but rather with pleasure. Procreation was a duty, but beyond that a great variety of sexual partners was available.30 That some ancient Romans bought and prized works of art with images of gay lovemaking, threesomes and foursomes, cunnilingus, fellatio, or Ethiopians with huge penises probably said something about the sexual acts they found exciting and engaged in.31 Ray Laurence writes that the Romans might profess love for the ideal of living without pleasure, but few actually did it, unless they were beggars living under the bridges.32 However, this does not mean that everyone engaged in the world of pleasure or made a show of it in public.33
b. Paul would have known of the cross-gendered Galli priests of the Mother Goddess in Syria, and elsewhere. From his patriarchal background, Paul would have abhorred these men who sacrificed their manhood (testicles) to the Goddess, then dressed in female attire, and (according to rumor) engaged in homosexual orgies. Having spent three years in Damascus in Syria (and the desert) after his conversion to Jesus (Acts 9:1-25, Gal 1:17-18) and then later living a whole year in Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:25-26), Paul would have been familiar with the famous Syrian Mother Goddess (Dea Syria) cult which was practiced at Hierapolis (the “Holy City”) or Bambyce, located ca. 130 miles NE of Damascus and ca. 150 miles SE of Antioch. He may even have seen some of these wandering eunuch-priests begging or parading in Damascus or Antioch. Lucian of Samosata visited and described this cult center (in the second century AD, although its rites are much older34), which was similar to the worship of the Great Mother of Phrygia (in western-central Asia Minor).35 Lucian writes how the residents of Hierapolis believed that Dionysus had founded their temple, with its two large phalli that stood as sentinels at the gateway leading to the temple (De Dea Syria, section 16).36 The daily animal sacrifices in front of the temple were attended by “holy men, flute players, pipers, and Galli, as well as women, who are frenzied and deranged” (sections 42-43). At the great Spring Festival, the Mother’s devotees “cut their arms and beat one another on the back.” This is also the time when other men become Galli—when the youth “throws off his clothes, rushes to the center [of the sacred area before the temple] and takes up a sword . . . and immediately castrates himself.” Then he dresses himself in female clothing (sections 50-51).37 However, since cutting off one’s testicles did not eliminate sexual desire,38 it is not surprising to find traveling Galli in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass luring home a rural youth for a homosexual orgy (8.29).39
In ca. 205 BC a sacred stone which fell from heaven (a meteorite) which was believed to represent Cybele the Mother Goddess was brought from Phrygia to Rome40, where she was welcomed by senators, knights, and the Vestal virgins. Her cult there was supervised by foreign priests, galli devotees who had emasculated themselves like Attis; and in processions they followed their usual practice of wounding themselves with whips and blades until the blood flowed, to garner donations. New initiates in Rome brought their testicles to the Mother’s temple, where they were stored as consecrated objects.41 One popular version of the myth relates how the Great Mother of the Gods and her wild, androgynous son Agdistis were in love with the same young man, Attis; but when Agdistis learned that Attis had rejected him in favor of the Mother, he brought a frenzy upon the drunken youth so that he castrated himself (Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Pagans, 5.5-6,16-17)42. When in the morning, Attis realized that he become a “counterfeit woman,” he bemoaned his state, but then dedicated the rest of his life as a slave to Cybele (Catalus, poem 63)43. Although Roman law forbade castration of its citizens, numerous clay figures of Attis and objects representing the glans of the penis found during excavations of the Cybele temple in Rome vouch for the popularity of this cult. However, Paul would have been influenced by what he had learned about the Mother Goddess cult in Syria, not its Roman counterpart.
c. Paul imagined what orgiastic things went on in Bacchanalian secret gatherings. The well-read Paul no doubt had learned about the cult associated with Dionysus (his Greek name) or Bacchus (his Latin name), god of wine and fertility, from reading the famous account of the Roman historian Livy (59 BC–AD 17) about the scandal that had occurred earlier in Rome. Livy described how foreigners had brought this cult to a river port near Rome several years before 186 BC, and thereafter a growing number of “Bacchantes,” including both women and men, joined their nighttime revelries, where members got drunk, danced wildly, ate raw flesh, and engaged in sex. At first initiations were performed three set days in the year for women (only); but then it was made available five times a month for males, preferably in their teens. To join the cult and be “reborn into a new life,” an initiate had to abstain from all sexual activity for 10 days prior to his initiation; and then, according to Livy (History of Rome 10.7), he was handed over to be sexually assaulted (repeatedly raped). If an applicant resisted, he was simply made to disappear, “chained to some kind of machinery, in secret caverns” (10.13). Initiates also had to swear a fearsome oath, not to divulge the Bacchanalian rites.44 Although their meetings were severely restricted in Italy after this cult was exposed and officially condemned in 186 BC (e.g., no more than 5 members could take part in a ceremony), the cult of Bacchus continued to haunt the popular imagination in plays and in art. Essentially, the Bacchanalias went underground, became the affairs of private societies, and were enacted in rural settings.45 Although the rites generally became more domesticated, sexual aspects are still suggested by the drunken Bacchus, frenzied dancing, and huge covered phallus that feature predominately in the Dionysian marriage rite pictured in the wall frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, dated c. 40 BC46, and also in a frenzied scene portrayed on one side of a marble sarcophagus (coffin) from the Farnese collection (Rome), now in the Naples Archaeological Museum, dated the second half of the second century AD. Here, in the center of a Bacchanalian celebration a drunken Dionysus is held up by two mostly-nude male figures, while at the far right two satyrs (lustful woodland creatures with human bodies but goat-like ears and legs) prepare to be joined in anal intercourse, while at the far left another satyr positions his rump to push back onto the erect phallus of a Herm figure (a column with a male head and protruding penis).47 Although the worship of Bacchus tended to become more respectable, orgies still continued in some groups, away from prying eyes.48 Certainly there was enough debauchery in this cult’s history to fuel the imagination of Paul and other outsiders, who could only imagine what kinds of illicit, uncontrollable, wild, drunken, noisy, hedonistic activities went on in this secret cult.49
Then, in 139 BC another cult related to the worship of Sabazius, a god from Thrace (a region in southern part of the Balkan peninsula) and Phrygia (a region in central Asia Minor, now Turkey), who was brought to Rome and made news, settling in the same area as the earlier Bacchantes, and also holding nocturnal orgies.50 It was believed that after Dionysus came to Phrygia, the Great Mother had initiated him into her mysteries; and thereafter he assumed the name Sabazius. The cult of Sabazius flourished in Athens even during the Roman period—although nothing is known of its secret rites.51
d. Paul was especially concerned about believers who continued to attend the free pagan temple feasts, which led to debauchery and orgies. Ray Laurence in Roman Pleasures (2009) has noted how the lack of clothing on the males in Roman sex scenes led one commentator (in the London Sunday Times, 6/5/2005) to conclude that such occasions turned into orgies; however, he maintains that the Romans did not engage in orgies, but had sex only in private52—even though he admits that these drinking occasions led to “sexual arousal.”53 He notes that young Roman males learned the joys of drinking and drunkenness first outside the home with peers in their late teens and early twenties; and then women learned to drink, as well, so that they also could break free from the social rules placed upon them.54 He notes Plutarch’s comment about how Roman (drunken) men would get up from the dinner table and begin to dance to the music, “making movements unfit for a free man” to make (Moralia 705E-F).55
So, did all orgies cease? At least, we know that sometimes group sex took place, from the three-some and four-some sex scenes that were pictured at the Suburban Baths in Pompeii.56 Also, group scenes are depicted on first-century AD ceramic pieces that were made in factories along the Rhone River (then in Gaul, now in southern France) and widely exported, including lamps, bowls, plates and wine jugs.57 One bowl shows two men and two women piled up having sex together, with one man being penetrated.58 One clay medallion made to decorate a large jug59 shows a threesome having sex60, and another shows two men on a bed with a woman between them.61 Although such images of group sex scenes are rare, writers describe group sex of various sorts, including Catullus (c.84–c.54) and Propertius (c.50–c.16 BC), both Roman love poets. Then the emperor Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37; ruled 14-37) in his 60s retreated to the island of Capri, where he lived a secret life; and afterward stories began circulating, of his hiring of sex experts to put on orgy shows for him and of him swimming naked with young boys, who were trained to swim between his legs and sexually excite the old man (Suetonius, Life of Tiberius 43-44).62 Graffiti from Pompeii and Herculaneum make frequent references to group sex.63
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines an “orgy” as “excessive drinking and unrestrained sexual activity,” and Webster’s College Dictionary as a “drunken revelry.” Petronius’s Satyricon (set in the area of Naples) describes a scene where the priestess of Priapus comes with her “faggot” friends to visit Encolpius and Asclytos; and after heavy drinking all seven in the group are going at it sexually (2.17-25). Then there is the Galli orgy described in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (8.29). Bachanalian orgies probably still went in some cult groups, but in secret.64 The Roman rhetorician Quintilian (c.35–c.96) warned, “I do not approve of boys sitting with young men [at meals in private homes?]. For even if the teacher be such a one as we would desire to see in charge of the morals and studies on the young . . . it is nonetheless desirable to keep the weaker members separate from the more mature” (Institutio Oratoria = Oratorical Treatises 2.2.41f). He was afraid of the sexual advances and other intimate activities that went on at Romans banquets and drinking parties.65 It is probably true that orgy scenes66, such as one finds pictured on Greek pottery as following symposia (home dinner drinking parties) did not continue in Roman times, at least to that extent. Yet, Antonio Varone believes that Roman evening dinners with friends, where participants often got drunk, had “improbable sexual implications,” offering the diners “a chance to let go, to abandon oneself to new sexual approaches.” The sexual scenes on the walls and on the dishware no doubt would “stimulate the libido of the participants or even lead to orgies.”67 Or perhaps those so disposed disappeared from the table for a while into the cubiculum, a room located next to every dining room which was furnished with beds.68 In any case, it does seem that Paul (who surely learned about these things from Gentile church members) had no doubt that pagan temple feasts not only led to excessive drinking but to sexual debauchery (Rom 13:13, 1 Cor 10:6-9, Gal 5:21).
14. What might be said in summary about Rom 1:26-27, in its literary and historical context? Paul’s salutation (“To all in Rome . . . called to be saints,” 1:7a) is made more specific by personal greetings which he adds at the end of his letter (Rom 16:3-15), extended to 25 named individuals. Of this group only 6 appear to be Jews (i.e., most are Gentiles) and a great number appear to be slaves or former slaves (freedmen)—including those meeting in households of Narcissus and of Aristobulus (16:10b-11) and a third group which appears made up entirely of males (and perhaps all slaves: Asyncritus’s group, 16:14). Other names mentioned were common slave names. James Dunn notes 13 names that were often slave names: Philologus, Julia, Ampliatus, Urbanus, Persis, Rufus, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Nereus, and Olympas;69 and to this list Thomas Hanks adds: Epenetus, Stachys, and Apelles.70 Besides this, many in Paul’s church in Corinth were also slaves or freedman, from whom he no doubt had heard stories of how they had been sexually abused, or their children (slaves could cohabitate, even if they could not marry). This alone could account for Paul’s introduction of the theme of ‘males doing shameful things with other males’ (arsēn/arrēn, in Greek carry the primary meaning of “male”71, rather than the adult-sounding “man”).
Although Paul is vague in Rom 1:26-27, he no doubt would have expected his readers to recall the most common forms of same-gender sexual acts in his day (1) that were out-of-control sexually (1:27, NIV: “inflamed with lust”), (2) that were “shameless” (NRSV) or “indecent” (NIV), (3) that related to their “error” (NRSV, planē basically means “wandering fr[om] the path of truth” [cf. Bauer and Danker], or related to their idolatry), and (4) that were sometimes para physin (“against nature,” 1:26) or had forsaken the physiken chresin (“natural use,” 1:27). If one looks at how Paul uses para physin elsewhere in his letters, it usually refers to something that is “(seriously) unconventional” (Martti Nissinen, Norman Kraus) or “surprisingly out of the ordinary” (Jack Rogers)—and not necessarily sinful per se (cf. Rom 11:24, William Countryman). Still, Paul no doubt believed that everyone was born heterosexual72, and these Greek and Roman men in Rom 1:27 had willfully “abandoned” (NASV, NIV; aphentes G863) or ‘given up” (NRSV, NJB) their original heterosexual desires to indulge in homosexual behavior.
Regarding Paul’s brief allusion to women in 1:26, interpreters are evenly split over whether he is referring to lesbian behavior or primarily to heterosexual acts which these women initiated, e.g., by entering their husbands with dildos (Seneca the Younger) or seeking out male partners who were not their husbands (David Fredrickson). The Biblical text simply says that they “changed the natural [sexual] use to the use against nature” (lit., Jay Green), but lacks any wording like “males among males” as in 1:27 which would tie it to homosexuality. The emphasis in 1:26 seems rather to be placed on women who belong to men (“their women”) taking over an active sexual role (“did change”) which did not belong to them. Paul probably was more concerned about persons violating the traditional gender roles (cf. 1 Cor 10:14) than most readers today would realize—and this no doubt would also bear on his condemnation of male-male sexual relations as well.
If one looks to idolatry as it related to same-sex behavior in Paul’s day, the issues that come to the mind are bisexual and promiscuous indulgence (practiced the supreme god Zeus and the famous demigod hero Hercules), changing one’s gender (as seen in the self-castrated, cross-dressing Galli servant priests of the Mother Goddess), and drunken orgies (connected in the popular mind to the Dionysus/Bacchus cult, and which Paul also knew characterized various pagan temple feasts in his day, 1 Cor 10:7-8, 20-21). If one looks at major same-gender sexual forms of behavior that came to mind in Paul’s day, they would have included: pederasty (sexual use of children), the sexual abuse of slaves (the usual pederastic targets in the Roman period), prostitution (most prostitutes were also slaves), effeminate males (who rejected the Roman ideal of masculinity, the leadership role expected of men, and the ancient patriarchal traditions), and bisexuality (the main feature found here, not homosexuality). Paul probably also felt that the Greco-Roman culture had gone too far in plastering their world with sexual images (with phalli displayed everywhere, with erotic scenes of all kinds viewable on the walls of homes and shops and on utilitarian objects, and with their glorification of the nude male body). He would have noticed the same-sex cruising that went on in the baths (and stares at his own circumcised organ), frank graffiti abundantly displayed on building walls, and the many prostitutes hanging around the baths, latrines, and other public places. In this regard, it should be noted that in Rom 1:24-27 Paul uses no less than four terms (epithymiai [“lusts”], pathoi [“passions”], orexis [“desire”], ekkaiō [“to burn”]) that point to lust or being inflamed with sexual passion, and three terms (atimazō [“to dishonor”], atimia [“dishonor”], aschēmosynē [“shame”]) meaning to dishonor or shamelessly use the body—compared to only two references to abandoning “the natural [sexual] use” (physikos chrēsis) or doing sexual things that are “against/beyond nature” (para physin), in 1:26-27. Even many Greek and Roman philosophers would have agreed with Paul that, when it came to sex, one needs to practice self-control.
In 1 Corinthians Paul specifically clearly condemns ‘sexual immorality’ (like sleeping with the wife of one’s father, 5:1,11), adultery (6:9), visiting prostitutes (6:15), attending temple-feast orgies (10:7-8, 20-21), and disregarding the patriarchal gender boundary (like men wearing long hair, 11:1)—while he also recognizes how powerful the sexual drive can be (7:9). But of course, this letter was sent to Corinth and not to Rome. In the latter Paul is writing to many Gentiles whom he has never met, and for this reason probably preferred to remain vague when he brings up the touchy subject of sex, although he clearly emphasizes that there are boundaries of dishonor and shame which Christians should think about. Paul surely knew that some topics like “fornication” were tricky, since slave were not permitted to marry (Sarah Ruden), and perhaps in lieu of this some of them has found comfort in sexual relations with other slaves, of the opposite or the same gender. Specific circumstances can be very messy and even require bending the rules (which Paul does with Jesus’ rule on divorce in 1 Cor 7:15), because as God’s children we are called to a life of “peace” (1 Cor 7:15). Paul had already changed a lot as a Jew (who normally considered all nudity as shameful), in tolerating Greco-Roman culture (where male nudity was on display everywhere, especially in the flesh at the baths), because he wanted to win Gentiles to the Jesus; and he could not change entrenched Roman sexual culture, any more than he could change the institution of slavery. And so, after referring vaguely and briefly to certain abusive sexual behaviors, both opposite-sex and same-sex, Paul moves on to his central argument that all Gentiles and Jews “have sinned” and are in desperate need of “the redemption that comes through Christ Jesus” (3:23).
As many interpreters have noted, Paul knew nothing about homosexual orientation (Brenden Byrne, Luke Johnson, David Schroeder, Christopher Bryan, Stanley Stowers, Arland Hultgren, and many others), an understanding of which would certainly change Paul’s views if he were alive today. What we are dealing with in ancient Rome is an “aggressive bisexual society” (Robert Jewett), not one divided into straights and gays, as today. Paul also did not understand gender orientation; and he would modify his views here, as well, if he knew about growing scientific findings which show that prenatal factors predispose some to experience an overpowering desire to be or to dress as the opposite gender. Paul also erroneously believed that homosexual behavior flowed from idolatry, from a rejection of the Creator God, which is countered today by so many gays and lesbians today who their whole lives have been gay or lesbian.
15. The third “giving over” (Rom 1:28-31), to social chaos and cruelty. At the end of Romans chapter 1 Paul writes, “ And since they [these idol-worshippers] 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 [NIV: ‘greed’], 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 [written on their consciences, cf. Rom 2:14-15a], that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them” (NRSV). In this section, Paul focuses on the corruption of the heart, from which sinful actions really spring (cf. Jesus pronouncement, Matt 15:18-19); and this is certainly no accident.73 Here in one of the most exhaustive lists of sins in all of Scripture, Paul shows the wide sweep of human moral depravity; and these sins reveal particularly rebellious hearts.74 Everett Harrison notes how we are given a broad picture of the havoc wrought in human relations when there is suppression of the knowledge of the true God; and the difficulty in detecting any kind of satisfactory classification in the long list may suggest even that sin is irrational and disorderly in its effects. Still, the initial group of sins (“wickedness,” “evil,” “greed,” “malice”) offer more broad, generic sins, after which more specific ones are mentioned. In the last list, “God-haters” stands out, as particularly poignant.75
Christopher Bryan notes that God gives these God-rejecters over to a “depraved mind” (NIV, NRSV) or “worthless mind” (Jay Green, Brendon Byrne), which is no longer able to function in a proper moral way and which leads to behavior that is totally improper. Thereafter follows a list of social vices (from which the sexual area is noticeably absent since it has been dealt with already), which threaten the destruction of the wider social fabric.76 With a play on words, Paul notes that these pagans did not see it “fit” (dokimazō, G1381) to acknowledge their Creator God, therefore he gave them over to an “unfit” (adokimos, G96) mind. They are no longer able to discern what is true, good, and beautiful, and capable of producing a wholesome and fulfilling life—and so they descend into a living death, a condition that destroys their humanity and poisons their relationships with others.77 Paul hardly considers homosexuality the worst sin in this passage (Rom 1:18-32), which is really the pagans’ social depravity (1:28:32), their “cold” sins of “strength” against the weak. The pagans’ sexual sins may be out of control and shameful, but it only in this last section that Paul uses the words “wickedness” and “evil” (1:29), and it is only these social sins that Paul calls “worthy of death” (1:32).78 Even some Gentiles, as well as Jewish teachers, stressed the importance of egkrateia (“self-control,” G1466).79 For example, the orator Quintillian mentions three things that make for a good person: justice, courage, and self-control (Institutio Oratatio 1, Preface 9.12); and Paul himself includes egkrateia in his list of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). It is not that Hellenistic thinkers did not recognize that people had needs and that pleasures had their values, but “excesses . . . are bad and should be avoided” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 7.4.5). Then, in the Roman society self-control was also perceived to an essential masculine virtue. This did not mean that women could not also display it, e.g., Plutarch’s Virtues in Women is full of stories where women display self-control when frequently the men around them lack it.80 Also, Seneca the Younger bemoaned a world where people were not only attracted to, but also pleased by, shameful things. (Moral Epistles 39.6)81 Idolatry opens the floodgates for vices which can destroy a society and lead to terrible chaos.82
FOOTNOTES: 1. Gagnon 2001, p. 229 2. Gagnon 2001, pp. 254-255 3. Bagemihl 1999, passim 4. Durden-Smith and deSimone 1983, passim; Gerig 2012 5. Harrison in Gaebelein 10 1976, p. 25 6. Byrne 1996, p. 70 7. Cf. Cantarella 1992 8. Johnson 1997, p. 34 9. Johnson 1997, p. 35 10. Boswell 1980, p. 109 11. Jewett in Balch 2000, pp. 239-240 12. Kraus in Kraus 2001, pp. 263, 271 13. Schroeder in Kraus 2001, p. 66 14. Ruden Paul 2010, p. 48 15. Powell, in Childs 2003, p. 27 16. Bryan 2000, p. 87 17. Stowers 1994, pp. 94, 96 18. Hultgren 2011, p. 617 19. Hultgren 2011, pp. 618-620 20. On Abraham 26.135-136, trans. in Gagnon 2001, p. 172 21. Hultgren 2011, pp. 99-100 22. Hultgren 2011, pp. 101-102 23. Cf. Williams 1999, pp. 56-57 24. Davidson 2007, pp. 170-172 25. Anon., “Zeus,” online pp. 2-4 26. Anon., “Heracles,” online pp. 4-5 27. Clarke 2003, p. 157 28. Clarke 2003, p. 15 29. Clarke 2003, p. 159 30. Clarke 2003, p. 160 31. Clarke 2003, p. 162 32. Laurence 2009, p. 11 33. Laurence 2009, pp. 15-16 34. Astour 1976, p. 26 35. Meyer 1987, p. 130 36. Meyer 1987, p. 135 37. Meyer 1987, pp. 138-139 38. Bullough in Tougher 2002, pp. 4, 10 39. Meyer 1987, p. 145 40. Meyer 1987, p. 122 41. Turcan 2011, pp. 109-113 42. Trans. in Meyer, pp. 116-120 43. Trans. in Meyer, pp. 125-128 44. Turcan 2011, p. 117-118; cf. trans. of Livy’s text, 39.8-19, in Meyer 1987, pp. 81-93 45. Turcan 2011, p. 119 46. Clarke 2003, pp. 47-57 47. Cf. Grant 1997, pp. 92-93; Mulas, Eros in Antiquity 1978, pp. 100-101 48. Meyer 1987, p. 81 49. Cf. Williams 1999, pp. 151, 324 50. Turcan 2011, p. 120 51. Anon., “Sabazius” online p. 1 52. Laurence 2009, pp. 4, 92 53. Laurence 2009, p. 93 54. Laurence 2009, pp. 109-110 55. Laurence 2009, p. 115 56. Clarke 2003, pp. 128-131, 136 and figs. 88 and 90 57. Clarke 2003, p. 136 58. Clarke 2003, pp. 138-139, figs. 93 and 93-1 59. Clarke 2003, pp. 139-140 60. Clarke 2003, p. 144, fig. 97 61. Clarke 2003, p. 145, fig. 98 62. Laurence 2009, p. 25 63. Clarke 2003, p. 145 64. Meyer 1987, p. 63 65. Cf. Witherington, Cor 1995, p. 193, note 29 66. Cf. Clarke 2003, pp. 38-39, fig. 15 67. Varone 2001, pp. 41-45 68. Varone 2001, p. 47; Clarke 2003, p. 163 69. Dunn 2 1988, pp. 895-898 70. Hanks in Guest 2006, p. 604 71. Cf. Liddell and Scott 1940, p. 248 72. Brown 2010, p. 115 73. Witherington 2004, pp. 69-70 74. Radmacher 1999, p. 1424 75. Harrison 10 1976, p. 26 76. Bryne 1996, p. 71 77. Waetjen 2011, pp. 85-86 78. Bryan 2000, pp. 88 79. Bryan 2000, p. 89 80. Bryan 2000, p. 90 81. Ruemann in Dunn 2003, p. 1285 82. Kaseman 1980, p. 49
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Clarke, John R., Roman Sex, 100 BC–AD 250, photographs by Michael Larvey, 2003.
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Dunn, James D. G., Romans 9-16, 1988.
Durden-Smith, Jo, and Diane deSimone, Sex and the Brain, 1983.
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Gerig, Bruce, “Biological Determinants and Homosexuality,” The Epistle online http://epistle.us/articles/biologicalhomosexuality.html, accessed May 7, 2012
Grant, Michael, Eros in Pompeii: The Secret Rooms of the National Museum of Naples, 1997.
Green, Jay P., Sr., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew–Greek–English, 1986.
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Hultgren, Arland J., Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 2011.
Jewett, Robert, “The Social Context and Implications of Homoerotic References in Paul,” in David Balch, ed., Homosexuality, Science and the ‘Plain Sense’ of Scripture, 2000, pp. 223-241.
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Kraus, C. Norman, “Making Theological and Ethical Decisions: Contextualizing the Bible,” in C. Norman Kraus, ed., To Continue the Dialogue; Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality, 2001, pp. 256-279.
Laurence, Ray, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome, 2009.
Liddell, Henry G. and Robert Scott, comp., A Greek-English Lexicon, 1940.
Meyer, Marvin W., ed., The Ancient Mysteries, A Sourcebook: Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World, 1987.
Mulas, Antonio (photographer), Eros in Antiquity, 1987.
New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd ed. 2005.
Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, 1998.
Petronius, Satyricon, trans. with notes by Sarah Ruden, 2000.
Powell, Mark A., “The Bible and Homosexuality,” in James M. Childs, Jr., ed., Faithful Conversation: Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality, 2003, pp. 19-40.
Radmacher, Earl D., ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1999.
Ruden, Sarah, Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, 2010.
Schroeder, David, “Homosexuality: Biblical, Theological, and Purity Issues,” in C. Normal Kraus, ed., To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality, 2001, pp. 62-75.
Stowers, Stanley K., A Reading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles, 1994.
Strong, James, ed., The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, rev. John Kohlenberger III and James A. Swanson, 2001.
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BIBLE TRANSLATIONS: Contemporary English Version, 1995 English Standard Version, 2001 King James Version–American Bible Society, 1962 New English Bible, 1970 New International Version, 1978 New Jerusalem Bible, 1985 New Revised Standard Version, 1989 Revised English Bible, 1989 Updated New American Standard Bible, 1999
Photo: The Abduction of Ganymede, 450 BC. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Ferrara, Italy.
© 2012 Bruce L. Gerig
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