A few weeks ago, City Church in San Francisco announced its decision to become a “third way” church with respect to the issue of homosexual practice: a church where there could be divergence of opinion and practice (life-long abstaining or life-long commitment to a single partner), but where all would be treated as equal members of the body.
An important guide for the church’s decision has been Ken Wilson, A Letter to My Congregation. I think that Wilson’s book is, overall, helpful in laying out a biblical approach to a contested question.
Part of Wilson’s own journey included coming to the conclusion that what the New Testament opposes as same-sex relations is not what contemporary homosexual Christians are trying to live into. He cites three norms of homosexual practice which, he believes, are indicative of same-sex relations in ancient Rome:
- Temple Prostitution
- Sex with slaves
Like most evangelical Christians, I am trying to play catch-up on the issue of homosexuality in the ancient world. I am not a classicist. There is a mountain of material to sift through.
However, as I understand it (and again, I’m learning here, so feel free to offer counter evidence or other conversation in the comments) pederasty as classically understood was not practiced in ancient Rome.
For a lot of very good reasons, we often talk about the “Greco-Roman” world, or “Greco-Roman” culture. The culture of Rome, which came after Greece, did in fact mimic much of its forebear, so the designation “Greco-Roman” is generally a good one.
In this case, however, it gets us into trouble.
According to Craig Williams’s seminal study, Roman Homosexuality (where most of the data from this post is coming from), the practice of pederasty was one which was celebrated by the Greeks but was stuprum (disgraceful, illicit) to the Romans.
What this means, in part, is that we cannot look at what Plato, for instance, says about men having young male sexual partners for the latter’s “education,” and import that into the Roman world in which the New Testament was written.
Pederasty is that practice summarized in the paragraph above. In Greece it was socially acceptable, and in some cases desirable for a youth’s social attainment, for older men to take on younger citizens as sexual companions for their “education.”
The Romans found this disgraceful.
For Romans, the standards of sexual conduct were worked out along lines that considered social order in a somewhat different manner.
Rome’s problem with pederasty wasn’t that it was homosexual contact, but that it was contact between a man and a freeborn Roman or citizen.
The third of Wilson’s points stands as a clear instance of a horrific engagement of sexual activity in a relationship of power dominance: Roman men were essentially expected to have sex with (i.e. rape) slaves of either gender.
The reason this was o.k. had to do with social power relations, and how the sexual act of penetrating someone else enacted class and power location.
It was not o.k. for Roman men to have sex with underaged freeborn youths because it would be dishonoring the social status of a fellow freeborn Roman. Thus, Romans did not practice pederasty.
What does this mean for understanding the New Testament?
As I understand it (and again, feel free to jump in and offer evidence to the contrary in the comments), a Roman, and perhaps by the middle of the first century, most people living in the Roman Empire, would not have “pederasty” as a primary, operative category when discussions of same-sex relations came up.
Pederasty was social practice endemic to Greece, that refers not to having sex with underaged people in general (something Romans would have thought o.k. if the person in view was a slave), but to having sex with a freeborn youth as part of a socially accepted “educational” and, we might say, “networking” tool.
Romans did not do this.
Sex with a male youth could be accepted, but only if that youth was not freeborn. This is not pederasty, but (broadly speaking) slave-sex.
This is just one of Wilson’s points about how modern homosexuality might differ from that of the New Testament world. As we try to understand together the Roman context of sexual mores in which the NT came into being and was heard, I think it’s important to consider that pederasty was probably not on the table.
In a subsequent post I’ll take up the question of temple prostitution. Did it exist at all?