Over the past few weeks I have been taking occasional soundings into questions surrounding homosexuality in the ancient world.
Just to clarify what has not been clear to some: it is obvious to me that Paul did not approve of (some sort of) same-sex coupling. The question I have been probing is what did he not approve of, and why?
I regularly hear that the things Paul stood against were pederasty and temple prostitution. In a couple of previous posts (here and here) I questioned whether these forms of same-sex relations existed, and/or might have otherwise been the object of Paul’s scorn.
Last week I took up a third possible target for Paul’s same-sex polemic: slave sex. This was a ubiquitous reality in Rome. And, it was built on a system of social hierarchy that was deeply embedded in not only “pagan” Greco-Roman culture, but also early Judaism and nascent Christianity.
Jewish and Hellenistic
A couple of people have pushed back against the idea that we look to Greco-Roman context to understand what Paul might have been communicating. I get it. There is a theological bent to all of Paul’s thinking that has to be given some level of primacy. Paul as a Jewish theologian, engaging and working from the story of Scripture, needs to be a primary reference point.
To this I say yes. And no.
Today I want to go over the yes. We’ll get there in just a second.
In a later post I’ll explore the no. Here’s what I mean by no: First, by the first century there is no such thing as a non-Hellenized Judaism. There were approximately 160 years of Hellenization in play before the first Pharisees arrived on the scene. To be anyone in the first century Mediterranean is to be someone whose life has been Hellenized, and possibly someone whose life has been Romanized.
Second, there are a couple of places where, in discussing what might be same-sex issues, Paul shows that he is working with Greco-Roman ideas as much as Jewish theological ones.
The Jewish Story
There is only one place in the New Testament where the question of same-sex relations is mapped onto any sort of theological discussion. That is Romans 1.
I remain convinced of what I developed at some length in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?; namely, that Paul tells an anti-creation narrative in Rom 1 that reaches its nadir in same-sex intercourse. (By the way: you really should read the book. It’s basically like a skeletal New Testament theology that digs into important ethical issues in the second half.)
Romans 1:18ff. starts with a description of God as creator, and God’s ability to be known through the creation. The specific echoes of Gen 1 come into play when Paul describes the idolatry to which people turned: humans, birds, beasts, swarming things.
This is not just a generalized depiction of the turn from creator to creation, it is specifically tied to the creation story of Gen 1.
In different ways, the creation stories of Gen 1 and Gen 2 both depict the culmination of creation as the making of male-female humans. In Gen 2, the purpose appears to be rather overtly sexual.
Thus, the giving up of “natural” sex for unnatural, or men burning in their desires for one another is a final piece of a decline of civilization narrative (a common ancient trope) built on a Jewish framework.
A couple of things need to be said at this point.
First, this is a stereotyped depiction of civilization gone bad. It does not mean that Paul imagines men who first know God then deciding to worship idols and then one day waking up and realizing they want to have sex with men.
Second, the decline itself is depicted as an act of God: God gave them over. The various steps in the descent are each their own little punishment, the revelation of the wrath of God.
Third, the vice list that comes after is the final “handing over.” So, even though I would maintain that the same-sex remarks in 1:27 are the nadir of the anti-creation narrative itself, that is not the worst that it gets. The true low point is found in the manifold vices that Paul lists in vv. 28-32.
It is because Paul is working with an idea of how sex fits into the natural world and created order that he can talk about various sexual activities being unnatural in this context.
Ok, But What Does It Mean?
Having said all of that, there are still a couple of issues that may seem obvious to us that we’ll have to work out. I’ll come back to them in a subsequent post.
First, do we know, yet, what Paul is opposing? In v. 26 he says women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural. Do we know what this means? Many, perhaps most, modern readers think this is talking about lesbian sexual intercourse. This does not seem to be how most ancient readers understood it.
Second, are we sure we know why Paul thinks these things are wrong? Paul says certain kinds of sex are “against nature.” But if we look at 1 Cor 11 Paul talks about “nature” teaching us that certain hair styles are only for men, others for women. Might it be that in issues of gender (which are inseparable from issues of sexuality) Paul uses the word “nature” for what we might call “culture”?
Third, what does Paul mean when he says, “receiving in themselves the due penalty of their error”? What does this tell us about what Paul is opposing and why he is opposing it?
Paul is mapping his concerns about sexual contact onto a Jewish map of creation and anti-creation, a stereotyped depiction of how the good world has gone to hell in a hand basket. (He is probably building specifically on another Jewish text, one called Wisdom of Solomon.)
I think that what we will see as we keep digging is that his Jewish background is in a deeply entangled relationship with his Greco-Roman culture.
[Post Script: the best articulation of this perspective probably remains that of Richard Hays in Moral Vision of the New Testament.]