Sexuality and Slavery – Part One

I want to begin a series of posts looking at how Scripture approaches sexuality and slavery and to see whether the allegation that conservatives use two different exegetical principles has any basis. I’m going to begin by looking at one of the most common revisionist arguments in favour of same-sex relationships and move on from there to explore issues of exegesis where Scripture can seem to present ambiguity on a subject.

A word of warning – this post contains some description of sexual acts that some might find offensive. These descriptions are simply for the purpose of academic inquiry to provide context to the discussion of the specific meaning and intent behind the use of certain words in the NT.

To begin, let’s examine one of the most common revisionist arguments in support of blessing same-sex relationships. The argument goes something like this:

The writers (mainly Saint Paul) of the New Testament clobber passages on sexuality were unaware of the possibility of “permanent, faithful, stable” gay relationships. Therefore, their condemnation of specific same-sex acts (prostitution etc) cannot be read as prohibiting modern gay relationships.

It’s a convincing argument, but let’s break it down to examine in detail its constituent parts:

  1. The NT writers were unaware of permanent gay relationships
  2. The NT passages refer to specific sexual acts and are not a wider prohibition on same-sex activity per se
  3. Twenty-first century gay relationships are of a qualitative and substantive different form than those in the first century.

So to the first point. Were NT writers unaware of permanent gay relationships?

We can answer the question “Were NT writers unaware of gay relationships?” with a definitive “No”. While the first century Roman / Hellenistic world that Paul operated in was (at least in the more Hellenistic parts) beginning to frown upon homosexual activity (particularly pederasty, to which we will later return), it still went on and was widely known about. For example, the Roman Emperors Nero and Salba were both widely reported to have taken male lovers (Nero most prominently to have “married” his lover in a public ceremony) but the context of these relationships was almost always of a superior partner and an inferior partner (and this was often linked to the specific roles in penetrative sex). Part of the criticism against Nero (apart from him being completely bonkers) was not that he engaged in homosexual practice, but that he was willing to be the receptive partner in penetrative sex, the role normally taken by the socially inferior person in the relationship.

Earlier, in the mid Roman Republic period (300 -150 BC) there was even wider acceptance – Rome is reported to have specific sectors of the red-light district that catered for male prostitutes. Grafitti has been uncovered in Pompeii that advertises the sexual abilities of specific male prostitutes, indicating that such practices were common well into the first century AD. It appears from the legal framework of this period of Roman rule that while homosexual activity was increasingly being viewed as inferior to heterosexual activity, it was still accepted as long as the social norms of its practice were adhered to, specifically that when it came to penetrative sex the socially superior partner of the relatonship was the one who penetrated.

The one thing however that was completely frowned upon in Roman society, from 300 BC onwards, was pederasty. This was in contrast to the the Hellenistic cultures of Greece, Asia Minor and the near Middle East where pederasty had a long and favoured history. From Homer onwards, the adoration of youth in Greek culture permeated the understanding of sexual expression, and not just homosexually, for Greek men often took teenage wives for themselves when they were aged in their late 20s and older. This pratice displays a clear marked difference between what the Roman and Hellenistic societies saw as ideals and can be easily seen in the contrast between the portrayal of the male body in the relevant artisitic cultures. In Hellenistic erotic art, the male penis is almost always displayed as small and pre-pubescent, even when erect. In Roman erotic art, the bigger the penis the better.

Pederastic relationships of the Erastes-Eromenos format were the most favoured (erastes – lover – the older male; eromenos – “beloved” (though this is not a perfect translation) – the younger male) and depending on location and time period could be chaste or sexual active. A perfect Erastes would not generally be overly interested in the sexual component of the relationship (though that sometimes featured and had a role in the education of the Eromenos) but rather would see his position as a sponsor and educator in the wider sense. Indeed, writers like Plato highlight the moral difference between an adult male who takes on an Eromenos to educate and sponsor and who engages very occasionally in sexual activity and that of an adult male who pays for sex with teenage boys.

Pederasty, where practised, can be seen then as less a demonstration of innate homosexual attraction and more a social constuct to facilitate the life of the community. In Ancient Greece, one model would be of teenage girls from high society being married off to older males (usually aged 30 and above) while the boys would enter into pederastic relationships with men 10 to 15 years their senior (aged in their 20s). These boys would then graduate to being Erastes themselves, until finally marrying teenage girls once they reached the necessary age and refusing any further affection to younger men and boys. This model raises the question as to whether these relationships, even at their highest moral points, can be described in the same language as modern western gay relationships. Compare the Hellenistic pederastic relationships to the modern practice of some tribes in the East Indies who practice a form of ritual sodomisation amongst teenage boys (where boys upon reaching a certain age transfer from their mother’s care to the hut of the teenage boys, and for the next few years engage in ritual sodomy, first as penetrated, then as the penetrator, until they finally leave the hut, marry a girl and never ever engage in sodomy or other homosexual practice again). Is such sexual attraction and ability to function homosexually (and all of the boys involved practice penetration) biological/genetic or culturally conditioned?  If culturally conditioned, what does this have to say for our modern western ideas of “natural” homosexuality?

Elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, homosexual relationships between adult males were frowned upon at the very least. The few cases that have come down to us have been viewed as fitting the older / younger model (i.e. Euripedes and Agathon) and the idea of two equal males engaging in a sexual relationship was so socially problematic in the second half of the last millenium BC that Greek writers had to re-interpret the myth of Achilles and Patroclus to make it similar to a pederastic relationship (complicated by the fact that Patroclus was older, but Achilles was the dominant partner).

So, to summarise, the kind of relationships that Paul would have known about are as follows:

  • Hellenistic pederasty, where a man aged in his 20s would take a teenage boy. This relationship was not always sexual. Discussion is present in Greek philosophical literature as to whether pederasty was moral.
  • Hellenistic male prostitution. This relationship was heavily frowned upon by Greek society.
  • Hellenistic adult male couple. This relationship was very rare and socially unacceptable.
  • Roman homosexual activity between a socially superior and inferior. While attitudes varied to this practice, it was tolerated as long as the socially superior partner was the assertive / penetrative member.
  • Roman homosexual prostitution. Accepted on the same basis of fitting social norms of superior/inferior (i.e. to pay a prostitute to penetrate him was acceptable, to pay one to be penetrated was not).

One could argue from this list that Paul was conversant with at least two forms of homosexual relationship which, while not taking the exact social form of modern western gay relationships, were to some extent “permanent, stable and faithful”. The first was Hellenistic pederasty, which when discussing we need to view beyond our 21st century lens of automatically labelling as immoral on account of the ages involved. Pederasty in its highest forms was not necessarily primarily sexual and played a crucial role in the social life of some Greek cities.

The second form of permanent relationship was the Roman form of two adult male lovers of differing social standings (something scandalous to the Hellenistic mindset). This relationship was explicitly sexual, but normally accentuated by the socially superior member being the more assertive. The junior member received social status by being associated with the senior member, but only in a rare number of cases were the role boundaries crossed.

This second form of relationship has the closest similarities to modern western gay relationships. If one was to remove the social boundaries and hierarchies of specific sexual activities from the Roman model of male adult love, a very clear approximation to modern western gay relationships appears. One thing is clear – Paul was definitely aware of this kind of relationship because it was exported across the Roman Empire wherever the Latins went. If you doubt this, have a read online of Craig Arthur Williams’ “Roman Homosexuality”, which explores these matters in greater depth, including concepts around male-male marriage (to which I will also return in later posts).

In the second part of this series I will turn to the NT passages on homosexuality to see how they might fit in connection with this First Century understanding of homosexual practice. In particular, I will examine some of the revisionist arguments about the possible meanings of certain words and see whether such interpretations in context might interact with the First Century Roman/Hellenistic culture Paul found himself in. After this I will turn to seeing how our hermeneutical processes around homosexuality might then be applied to the issue of slavery in the New Testament.

26 Comments on “Sexuality and Slavery – Part One

  1. I appreciate your life experience and your sober yet unflinching presentation. Prudery and inhibition can get in the way of investigation on one side of the debate, exhibitionism and immaturity on the other.

    Still think you should have run the Windsor Process. Might have worked with someone like you at the helm.

  2. Excellent Peter. I appreciate the depth of your research and your clear but unflinching presentation.

  3. It’s interesting how different people’s perspectives on the same information can be, Peter. You’ve obviously posted this information because you believe it supports your contention that the Bible condemns all homosexual activity, because you seem to believe that the 1st century cultural context allowed for the kinds of committed, loving, monogamous homosexual relationships we see in our 21st century context.

    Yet you describe all the research I’ve read previously, and it seems to me exactly the opposite is true. As I’ve written before, the 1st century context only knew of homosexual relationships within the context of power/dominance/etc – in other words, a complete lack of sacrificial, Christ-like love

    Remember Ephesians 5, where Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it. Then compare that kind of relationship to what Paul would have known (as you’ve described here) of homosexual relationships in his own culture. In Paul’s cultural, with the cultural understanding of the proper male dominance/power relationships (in other words, taking advantage of those with less social power/standing than yourself), this kind of sacrificial love within a homosexual relationship wasn’t at all conceivable (even though we know from experience in our own cultural, that it happens all the time).

    I am amazed that you could write the following (in arguing that Paul did actually know of homosexual relationships that were essentially the same as 21st century ones):

    <<<<The first was Hellenistic pederasty, which when discussing we need to view beyond our 21st century lens of automatically labelling as immoral on account of the ages involved. Pederasty in its highest forms was not necessarily primarily sexual and played a crucial role in the social life of some Greek cities.<<<<

    In no way, shape or form are equal, loving, committed partnerships between two same-sex equals today at all equivalent to a power-abusive relationship (no matter how socially acceptable in the 1st century world) between an older man and a youth.

    Yuck. :-(

    As for two adult males of socially different standings – how is that equivalent to the committed homosexual relationships we see today? Remember – promiscuity was not generally frowned on in Paul's 1st century context (although Paul himself disapproves!). The fact that these two males were of socially different standings (often master-slave) gives you a big clue that this isn't the same kind of relationship.

    Add to the fact that these men were generally expected to also have a wife (while carrying on their socially unequal homosexual relationship on the side) is another indicator that this type of activity has very little in common with the type of same-sex relationships we are talking about today.

    I see lots of harm, abuse of power and lack of love in the types of relationships you describe – all reasons why Paul would condemn them in his own cultural context.

    But there is no textual reason to extrapolate from these unloving examples of (rightly condemned) homosexual behaviour to condemnation of loving committed, monogamous same-sex partnerships today.

    • Carolyn,

      You make some very good points about the nature of homosexual relationships in the C1 and I’m going to be addressing them in my third and fourth posts in this series.

      Let me just pick you up on one thing. You wrote:

      In no way, shape or form are equal, loving, committed partnerships between two same-sex equals today at all equivalent to a power-abusive relationship (no matter how socially acceptable in the 1st century world) between an older man and a youth.

      I think that displays a naive understanding of the highest forms of Greek pederasty. Often it was the youth who chose the older partner for the purpose of having the best possible mentor. Within these relationships, when sexual activity happened (if it happened) it was normally entirely consensual. For example, some of the Greeks believed that semen contained the source of a man’s best qualities, and so to be penetrated by such a man (with ejaculation) was actually a positive step, and one which many younger men sought.

      Not saying I approve, but I can understand.

      • But these types of relationships were based on power/dominance – no matter how much the ‘dominated’ partner might (because of cultural considerations, the status that came with assent to the dominance, etc) acquiese to that dominance.

        And the gospel of Jesus is directly opposed to power/dominance relationships (Mark 10:42-45).

        Critical discourse analysis has a lot to say about this. Cultural knowledge is constructed through ‘discourse’ – the way we talk about/think about a certain topic.

        And this discourse is predominantly controlled by the powerful. They direct and determine how we talk about a topic (and therefore what views about that topic are acceptable). However, if we look at the discourse of the ‘power elites’, you will find their views [which subjugate the ‘dominated’] also reflected in the words/actions of the ‘dominated’.

        That is, part of the power of the poweful is expressed in the fact that they get the dominated to become complicit in their own subservience. But that still doesn’t make it right.

        And I would think that you particularly, would be glad to see an example in which God (via Paul) challenges and condemns a culturally accepted practice. :-)

        We see the acceptance of domination, for example, in the role of women in many fundamentalist Christian groups. I speak from experience, as this is my background.

        There are none so vehement in the insistance that women are to be subservient and are unable to challenge men/take leadership roles/etc than the women in such situations.

        Why? Because when you are in a dominated position, with little to no power – and you acquiese to that dominance – then you have a vested interest in maintaining and justifying that dominance. Even when it is damaging to you.

        Why? Because to admit that the domination is wrong and damaging is also to admit that you were gullible in acquiesing to it. Additionally, in those social circles, there is a large price to pay for challenging the powerful. I remember when I first challenged the male dominance model in my home church – I was told (repeatedly) that I was listening to Satan and not to God.

        All of this despite the fact that I could support my position coherently from Scripture and those advocating male dominance had never even looked at what the Bible says about this in depth. Just a knee-jerk response that I was obviously ‘evil’ for challenging their position.

        Just imagine the response in the 1st century context if a ‘youth’ challenged the ‘pederasty system’. It is a very difficult thing to do in our 21st century context. Even more difficult in a 1st century one.

        So – the fact that the dominated youth acquiesed to his own dominance doesn’t suddently make the relationship one based on equality and self-sacrificial love, you know?

        These pederasty relationships were still relationships of social unequals, based on the dominance of one individual over another. Which is not the same thing as a relationship between two equal same-sex partners today.

        • But these types of relationships were based on power/dominance – no matter how much the ‘dominated’ partner might (because of cultural considerations, the status that came with assent to the dominance, etc) acquiese to that dominance.

          I’m sorry Carolyn, but that opening sentence simply doesn’t fit the real facts behind the highest forms of Greek pederasty. You are assuming dominance as implying an assertion of power, and that simply wasn’t the case in many of these relationships. Just a cursory reading of the contemporary literature would demonstrate as much.

          Pederastic relationships were between freemen, and were not based upon dominance but rather upon the mentoring of the junior partner by the senior. The notion that these relationships were intrinsically power oriented has no basis in fact.

          • Peter – just because these types of relationships were part of the cultural landscape, and moving through them was seen as a ‘rite of passage’ of sorts, doesn’t remove the power element from them.

            The older partner clearly had power over the younger one. Just as tutors today are in positions of power with respect to those learning from them. It’s just in our cultural context, any sexual contact at all is taboo – unlike the Greek context.

            You make a compelling case that often, the younger partner complied with the social requirements of their ‘junior’ status. Much as, I’m sure, women complied with the social requirements of their inferior status in the 1st century (and as many women continue to do so within fundamentalist circles in the States, for example).

            But acquiesing to your subordinate position does not make the relationship into one of equals – which is what you are attempting to claim.

            You see, you are trying to claim that this pederastic relationship (although you emphasise the ‘highest form’ of it, in which sexual relationships appear to play only a minor role, if any role at all) is essentially equivalent to equal same-sex partnerships that exist today.

            That is clearly not the case.

            You also attempt to claim that these relationships approximated the monogamous aspect of the equal same-sex relationships we see today. But by your own description, this isn’t true.

            Men were expected to move through sexual ‘stages’ – from the ‘junior partner’ to being the ‘senior partner’ (clearly with a different person), to eventually taking a female partner (obviously another different person!).

            So we clearly have – at best – serial monogamy (if monogamy at all, which is questionable). And that is something one would expect Paul to condemn, regardless of whether the serial monogamy was heterosexual or homosexual.

            It feels to me as if your examples are undermining your argument.

            They don’t at all fit the position you are trying to make them fit – i.e, that Paul knew of ‘monogamous, equal, committed same-sex partnerships in the 1st century’.

            • You see, you are trying to claim that this pederastic relationship (although you emphasise the ‘highest form’ of it, in which sexual relationships appear to play only a minor role, if any role at all) is essentially equivalent to equal same-sex partnerships that exist today.

              I don’t think I’ve claimed that anywhere. You are reading into my writing something that I haven’t actually said. What I have said is that pederasty is one of the C1 forms of homosexuality that might be closest to C21 forms, but I don’t think I’ve ever claimed an equivalency.

              • Apologies, Peter – I thought equivalency was the basis of your argument, as you’ve acknowledged previously that the liberal position that Paul did not know about same-sex relationships (loving, equal, self-sacrificial) was a good one that needed to be addressed. I’m sorry if I picked you up wrong.

                So am I correct in assuming that you are acknowledging that 1st century pederasty and 21st century loving, committed monogamous same-sex relationships are not the same kind of relationships?

                Because I think my point remains a valid one – i.e., that the pederastic relationships have almost no similarity at all (beyond the specific form of the sexual activity taking place) to the types of committed, monogamous same-sex relationships we see today.

                These pederastic relationships violated Jesus’ command to ‘love others as ourselves’ in myriad ways that today’s equal, monogamous same-sex relationships do not.

                • I think I’m going to cover this in later posts are we start to look at the meaning of words like arsenokoites.

                  And as an aside, I don’t think I’m historically comfortable with your accusation that pederastic relationships necessarily were not about “love others as ourselves”. I think some of the Greeks would have argued that they were very much about doing exactly that – an older wiser man investing in a younger man to the expense of his own life. I think you are failing to come to this historical examination with a dispassionate mind and in doing so are missing the reality of Greek pederasty.

                  And none of this is to say that I support Greek pederasty, but I want to let it be what it was, not what we want to paint it as because the consequences of letting it be what it actually was lead us to uncomfortable places.

                  • I see what you are saying, Peter, about perhaps not being comfortable with the realities of the Greek pederasty relationship – that within its own context, some may have seen it as a good/loving relationship.

                    However, drawing from your own description of Greek pederasty – it cleary bears no relationship to the kinds of committed, equal, monogamous same-sex partnerships we see today, does it?

                    Again – at best, you are talking about serial monogamy. And one would not expect either Paul or Jesus to condone any kind of serial monogamy – whether it was heterosexual or homosexual, right?

                    And I question whether ‘serial monogamy’ can really exhibit Christ-like self-sacrificial love. I mean – these are relationships one begins with the idea that they will end at a determined point in the future – whether or not both partners are happy/comfortable with that ending, etc.

                    Again – the nature of the Greek pederasty system and the kinds of relationships formed are diametrically opposed to the kinds of self-sacrificial, committed, monogamous relationships we see in same-sex couples today.

                    • I suppose the question will arise, is the basis of the biblical negativity towards homosexual relationship simply that such relationships were – in their day and age – necessarily involving unbalanced sharing of power, lack of self-sacrifice and commitment, etc.

                      On the one hand, it’s pretty hard to prove this textually, because the argument undermines the sufficiency of the text to directly answer the question. This isn’t a bad thing, I think. It’s a valid question and to answer it requires theological argument and reasoning about Scripture, about how relationships and humans are properly constituted.

                      On the other hand, I don’t see Paul, in the brief passages we have, criticizing homosexual acts on this basis – that the acts are always ultimately selfish acts. If he offers any basis (Romans 1? anything else?), it’s going to be his view of nature, isn’t it?

                      I mean, if Paul said, “this is a terrible thing because you’re just not showing enough commitment and self-sacrificial love”, then we would all naturally jump to the conclusion that Paul doesn’t think twice about homosexual acts per se – he’s worried about abusive relationships, and we could all happily accept same-sex committed partnerships. But that doesn’t seem to be the basis of his complaint. I’d be glad to be set straight … part of me would love to see things differently.

                      I think Peter’s study is necessary, although I don’t know where his argument is going exactly. Happy to wait and see :)

  4. ‘If one was to remove the social boundaries and hierarchies of specific sexual activities from the Roman model of male adult love, a very clear approximation to modern western gay relationships appears.’

    Peter – this is the problem, you cannot remove the ‘social boundaries….’, and such is their significance in the ancient world that they negate any real comparison with gay relationships today.

    What I also find fascinating is your unwillingness to recognise that you too easily project backwards constructs with regards to sexuality that would be meaningless in the first century. It seems to me what you describe, except in a small number circumstances, is ‘sexual activity’, and not a way of being which denotes a sophisticated understanding of gay sexuality – in fact of any form of sexuality.


    Ps. By the way, did you see the recent article in the Times with regard to the increasing acceptance of gay relationships in our society forty years after Stonewall, and the gap between this and the attitudes of the Church. It seems to me that in order to convince society at large, your largely academic and intensely cerebal analysis of biblical arguments will not change most people’s minds. In the end, they encounter gays and lesbians, and know intuitively that what they are encountering is that which motivates them to love and to be loved.

    • Winston

      Is ‘sophisticated understanding of gay sexuality’ just code for agreeing with the liberal postion?

      If Peter is projecting back a social construct that is meaningless for C1 (which I do not accept), then surely you have to accept that modern gay sexuality is just as much a social construct. Consider the following:

      1) Sexual orientation, while complex, is not unchangeable and often does change through life.
      2) ‘Gay’ is an entirely modern and post-modern category that did not exist before C20.
      3) Prior to this, same sex attraction and relationships existed, as they always have. Its simply that people did not regard their identity as being based on who they happen to desire or have sex with.

      As for Peter’s ‘largely academic and intensely cerebral analysis’, I am sure that if it supported the liberal position it would be lauded as a ‘reasoned, well-researched and irrefutable arguement for same-sex love’. So what if it is not shared by society at large? Only 12% of the UK are evangelical or charismatic (Operation World figures) so it would be very surprising if society did agree with conservative evangelicals. John 15:18.

      • Of course, I accept the modern gay sexuality is a construct – all sexuality is a construct.

        I do not necessarily think that a cerebral analysis does much good for either side, particularly in relation to convincing the secular world of one Christian perspective on this against another.

        On your last point – 12% of the UK being evangelical or charistmatic seems highly spurious. 12% of the population do not go to church, and of those that do the majority are found in the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church – neither of which have sort of a charismatic or evangelical majority. Interestingly, in both of these churches, the average punter in the pew would also find most of the debate conducted at an academic level incomprehensible. So, if liberals and conservatives are never going to agree, and the average church goer outside of the conservative churches finding it all unimportant, and the secular world finding it incomprehensible, who is this academic debate for?

        • Winston

          I agree that the 12% stat does seem high. I think (from the source) that this is based on returns from evangelical & charismatic churches, which are probably maximum rather than average attendance.

          Cerebral and academic. Fair point, I’m sure most people are pretty bored of the whole ‘gay and Christian’ thing, but discussion and changes in the world of ideas always have an impact later on down the line. Heres a nice quote for you from the great economist J.M Keynes:

          J.M. Keynes, ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’: ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. …. Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or ill’.

    • Winston,

      It seems to me that in order to convince society at large, your largely academic and intensely cerebal analysis of biblical arguments will not change most people’s minds. In the end, they encounter gays and lesbians, and know intuitively that what they are encountering is that which motivates them to love and to be loved.

      Is this an admission from you that discussions over the meaning of greek nouns are irrelevant? Why then does the progressive lobby want to make such a point around such debate?

      • Yes Peter, I do think discussions around Greek nouns are irrelevant. I think we need a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to use the Bible as a source of revelation and authority in the twenty-first century. To be honest, I think most progessives do as well, but feel somehow obliged to enter into an a theological ball game that ultimately will end up going round in circles with few people willing to give ground on the meaning of Greek nouns.

        Philip – I do take your point on the importance of ideas; it would seem silly even contributing to this blog if I didn’t. However, it seems to me that we have to recognise that on some issues such as the gay one, change does not really take place on this level. For example, there is some evidence that more and more young evangelicals do not share the attitudes of former evangelical generations to gay people, even gay relationships. I am not sure that this is because of a battle at an intellectual level, but a contextualising of their theology in the light of having lesbigay friends and family.

        I also have it on good authority that some of the newer evangelical bishops hope that the CofE can hold together long enough for these younger evangelicals to grow in significance in their churches, and for the whole debate to lose its significance within this constituency.


        • Thank you, Winston – I largely agree with this post. :-) Particularly with respect to the reality of younger evangelical attitudes changing in light of living with the reality of gay and lesbian friends and family.

          The academic arguments I find interesting (and I believe strongly that the so-called liberal position is much more internally consistent, taking into account all of Scripture, than is the conservative argument), but I agree – they are unlikely to convince many people.

          It is the human element that is the key – as people realise that – yes, they actually do know gay and lesbian people & gay and lesbian couples – they begin to see the fallacy in the conservative argument that same-sex relationships are inherently somehow ‘damaging’ (although conservatives can never back this claim up with any objective evidence).

          I did have a post addressing Peter’s arguments about homosexuality in the 1st century that I’ve tried to post twice, without any luck. Not sure what the problem is. Perhaps I’ll try again, though…

  5. We can’t know what St Paul knew or didn’t know about homosexual behaviour in his day, other than what he tells us that he knew – or believed. Given his original background as a devout Jew brought up to strict observance of the Mosaic Law, and therefore regarding any homosexual behaviour as beyond the pale, it hardly seems probable that he would have cared to investigate too closely. Even in the last century, owing in part to the repressive and barbarous laws here in the U.K., the knowledge possessed by many people of my parents’ generation would have been confined for much of their lives mainly to reports in the media about men fined for public indecency and cottaging and men such as schoolmasters and scoutmasters who had committed sexual offences against young boys. (Hence the conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia, which some dishonest “family” campaigners vehemently desire to perpetuate.) Historical researchers may have much to tell us about sex in the ancient world, but there is no evidence that Paul was a 1st century Kinsey.

    If we postulate that what little he had to say on the subject was intended to apply to all homosexual behaviour – rather than, for example, specifically to sexual orgies engaged in by pagans in their temples – we must conclude that he “knew”, or rather assumed, the following:

    (1) Homosexual behaviour is “against nature”. That statement is difficult, if not impossible, to justify in the light of modern knowledge.

    (2) All homosexual behaviour is the result of idolatry. Plainly nonsense.

    (3) All those who engage in gay sex are doing so having abandoned or turned away from “normal” heterosexual sex. Again, plainly nonsense.

    As a relative of mine (a married, heterosexual, former Anglican clergyman) put it, you can avoid a huge amount of futile and never-ending argument and save an awful lot of ink, if you face the fact that, if Paul was writing about homosexuality as such, he clearly didn’t know what he was talking about.

    Does this matter? Not really. Whatever assumptions Paul may have made, telling his readers what he thought about homosexuality was not his purpose in writing his epistles.

    Robert P. Carroll (late Professor of Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow) summed it up nicely when he wrote:

    If the slaves have been freed, if the animals are no longer sacrificed to God, if witches are no longer murdered on good biblical grounds, if women have been ordained, surely it is time to accept that homosexual (or same sex acts) are no less acceptable than all the other freedoms so painfully gained in the struggle for human liberation.

    While Paul’s reading of the sexual mores of his time is a very interesting application of the notion of causality sometimes found among the biblical prophets (cf. Isa. 3.1-5), it is so tied into his general argument in Romans that it must be regarded as a highly tendentious interpretation of social reality designed to underwrite the theology of his letter. … The long history of Christian persecution of homosexual people cannot be justified on the strength of such a slender piece of opinionation.

    I am sure that the gay Spanish priest, Fr José Mantero, was right when he said, speaking of consensual gay sex between adults, “God would never forbid sexual relationships.”

    By the way, I entirely agree with you about the Roman centurion and his pais. Thoroughly pro-gay as I am, attempts to read a homosexual interpretation into this incident have always seemed to me forced and gratuitous.

    • I really think that a more sympathetic and detailed reading of Romans 1 might be helpful.

      On your first point about ‘nature’, I’d suggest that you’re using an idea of nature that doesn’t do justice to what Paul is saying. This is, for Paul, not simply what we observe. If this was the case, Paul would describe death as ‘natural’ and therefore ‘very good’, and he doesn’t tend to do that. In addition, if we read just a little earlier in the relevant Romans text, you can see that while Paul thinks certain aspects of God’s character can be known through the natural world, he also thinks that humans have a habit of misinterpreting this.

      It’s also helpful to remember the dichotomy that Paul is dealing with throughout his letter, that of Jew and Greek. If you think about this, several things fall into place, including the comments about ‘giving up’ (vv. 24, 26).

      Paul believes that the Gentile world lives in rebellion to the Jewish God. He’s not working on the basis of individual ethical choices, he’s talking about the ethical actions of people groups: Jews worship the one true God; Gentiles reject this God and commit idolatry.

      When Paul says that the Gentiles ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie’ or ‘exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural’ he doesn’t have individual ethical choices primarily in mind. Paul knows that there are non-Jews who have not engaged in homosexual acts. Similarly in 1:28-32 he doesn’t think that every Gentile commits all these sins. (I wonder if there is humour in this passage, as Paul paints a Jewish caricature of Gentile sinfulness before turning to the Jews themselves in 2:1.)

      Similarly, when Paul says that God ‘gave them up’, this is not an individual forsaking of individuals. It’s rather the fact that God has not brought the Gentiles back to himself, and back to living in the way he decrees. How does God do that? Well, God did it for the Jews by giving them the law. He does it for us through, amongst other things, the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.

      The sum total of all of this is that I think your three points might be helpfully revised.

      Having said this, I accept that reading Romans takes effort and much public debate, as it also did when society was more conservative, surfs on prejudices.

      A way forward? The Church, at least this is my current idea, needs to offer itself as a voluntary organization again. When you sign up (i.e. get baptized), this is what you sign up for – certain standards of behaviour that are derived from the Church’s authoritative texts. No one has to sign up. If you want to set up your own organization feel free. Not incredibly theological, but I’m not sure that the public debate will stretch to nuanced, demanding and self-critical reflection – call me an elitist snob, if you like :/

  6. Matt –

    I think there is already too much ‘nesting’ in the comments, so I can’t reply directly to your post.

    But you make the point that it would be much easier if Paul made his ‘case’ against homosexuality explicitly about the ‘lack of self-sacrificial love’ that characterised 1st century homosexual relationships. And of course, Paul doesn’t do that.

    But the point I’ve been trying to make is this: it is impossible for Paul to address homosexual relationships that – as far as he and his cultural context knew – didn’t exist.

    As others have pointed out on this blog, sexuality is a social construct – we think about sexuality differently, depending on how the society around us thinks about sexuality (or any other issue, of course. There was no societal discourse about ‘working mothers’ or ‘equal education for women’ or a ‘war on drugs’ in the 1st century either, because that society didnt’ know/have experience of any of these things).

    So to expect Paul to address homosexuality in terms alien to his cultural world is asking the impossible. How could Paul advocate for ‘loving, equal homosexual relationships’ in a cultural setting in which these kinds of relationships didn’t exist?

    That standard of ‘proof’ only makes sense if one also demands that Paul explicitly condemns slavery and calls for the freedom of slaves before ‘accepting’ that slavery is incompatible with Christianity.

    We do have the freeing of slaves in the 1st century – so Paul could conceive of that. We don’t have loving, equal, monogamous same-sex relationships – so why would Paul have any conception of that? And why would he address and extoll something he had no knowledge of?

    Expecting that from Paul makes sense if he was writing in a 21st century context; but it makes no sense at all given that he was writing in a 1st century one.

    • But the point I’ve been trying to make is this: it is impossible for Paul to address homosexual relationships that – as far as he and his cultural context knew – didn’t exist.

      I’m going to address this specific issue later on in my series (which is why I won’t now!!)

  7. Saying that Paul didn’t know homosexual relationships exist is the same as saying Jesus didn’t know. Jesus appeared to Paul and converted him, was taught by Jesus through his spirit and made an apostle to the gentiles by Jesus.

    Saying Paul didn’t know is like saying God didn’t know!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.