Paul and Homosexuality
Chapter Five of The BIG Issue: The Bible and Homosexuality from a Christian Perspective, Stan G. Duncan (2008).
1. Background on Homosexuality in the ancient world
In the 6th Century BCE
What we might today call “homosexual” love was prominent in the ancient Greek and Roman world (though the word itself was not invented until late in the 19th century), and was generally accepted. For men, women had come to be seen more and more as merely propagators of the species. Love (as opposed to sex), was increasingly homosexual, and increasingly pederastic (that is, an older man and younger boy).
An older man, known as an erastes would take on an eromanos, a boy between 12-18, as a student. This was an arrangement that was accepted and promoted by the parents. In it the older man would teach such "coming of age" skills as hunting, warfare, etc., to the boy. An important part of this relationship—and the part that makes it important to our discussion today—was anal intercourse, with the teacher playing the active role and the student playing the passive role. There were two reasons for this. First, the Greeks believed that a man's semen contained spiritual, masculine qualities, such as arete (virtue), power, etc., that would be passed on to the student during the sex act. Second, social roles were demonstrated. Females had no rights in Greek culture, and were considered property. In the Greek mindset, men's dominance of women was a part of nature, and must be expressed in every aspect of the male-female relationship. In the erastes/eromanos relationship, the teacher is the dominant player, and must subjugate his student. In this way, the student is inculcated with skills in domination. Regardless of our cultural judgment on this form of ritual propagation of ideology, this was a large part of Greek culture, especially in certain geographical locations.
Philosophers even extolled its virtues. The relationship of the younger boy was seen as an apprentice or student of the older man. The man was like a mentor. On the
, it was in fact thought shameful for a boy not to have an adult lover. island of Crete
Plato called it the noblest of all relationships, hence the term “Platonic Love,” love which goes beyond sexuality, ascends from sexual love of the individual toward contemplation of the universal and ideal.
Sappho, the sixth century BCE poet, led a colony of women on the isle of
Lesbos. Famous for her love poems to her young protégés. It is from her that we get the term “Lesbianism.”
Writings about same gender relations during the Roman Era and the First Century CE (i.e. Paul’s time)
In Paul's day the behavior we have loosely referred to as "homosexuality" was still being practiced, but had become mainly a practice of the upper classes. It was increasingly seen as abusive of the young men being kept by the older men. The younger men used in the relationship were increasingly poor or slaves. Here are the thoughts of a few contemporaries of Paul on the topic.
A Roman Praetor about 49 CE and tutor to young Nero. Nero’s mother was married to Emperor Claudius who died in CE 54. Nero then became emperor, and Seneca became Nero’s political advisor, but he resigned in CE 62 in protest of Nero’s politics. He wrote the Moral Epistles about the lack of direction and responsibility in his society. He argues that Homosexuality came from lust, not love, associated with luxury, not relationship, and was a practice of exploitation, not mutuality. In an essay entitled “On Master and Slave,” he complains about a slave who serves wine to the guests who must, “...dress like a woman and wrestle with his advancing years; he cannot get away from his boyhood;...he is kept beardless by having his hair smoothed away or plucked out by the roots, and he must remain awake throughout the night, dividing his time between his master’s drunkenness and his lust.
A Greek biographer, essayist, moralist. He lived in the first Century also. He wrote Dialogue on Love, a conversation between several young men about whether a man named Bacchon should marry a rich widow, Ismenodora. One of the men in the dialogue is Pisias (who was attracted himself to Bacchon), and who is against marriage. He believes that women are merely propagators of the species and says that a decent woman is incapable of giving or receiving pleasure. To him, homosexual love is the best love (with the implication that Bacchon should stay with him). Another of the men in the debate is Daphnaeus, who argues against homosexual love and says that homosexual intercourse is sexually exploitative. One thing he notes, which is important for our understanding Paul's position in the New Testament is a difference between two types of same gender relations: that which is without consent, in which case it involves "violence and brigandage,” and that which is “with consent” in which case “there is still weakness and effeminacy on the part of those who, contrary to nature, allow themselves...to be covered and mounted like cattle."
The concern for him is that there is sexual exploitation in the same-gender relationship, even when there is consent.
He also lived in the first Century along with Paul. He was banished from
early in the reign of Domititian. He wandered for years through Rome , and the Balkans preaching the philosophy and values of the Stoics and the Cynics. He believed that Homosexuality is essentially exploitative and that it comes from raw lust, rather than healthy relationships. He decried men who, through wantonness and lawlessness wish to have boys and emasculate them. And thus a far worse and more unfortunate breed is created, weaker than the female and more effeminate. Greece
In his writings he cites the classic example of Nero in 67 CE. After the death of his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, Nero had his male lover, Sporus, mutilated. Sporus was then renamed “Sabina” and publicly married to the Emperor.
The terms and the concepts “homosexual” and “homosexuality” were unknown during Paul’s day. Terms such as “heterosexual,” “heterosexuality,” “bisexual,” and “bisexuality,” “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” etc. presume a twentieth century understanding of psychology and sociology which was unavailable to people in the ancient world.
The homosexual behavior which was known at the time (as distinct from adult personal intimate relationships about which we know nothing) was increasingly associated with lust and avarice, and mutilation and control, in Paul’s time. Whatever merits it might have had in the centuries before Paul, by his time it had become a rich man’s sport. Plato’s ideal of pure, disinterested love between a man and boy had been lost in Roman decadence.
2. References to Homosexuality in the Writings of Paul
One of the difficulties is finding the texts. There are only three passages in the Bible which are attributed to Paul and which address the subject. And one of those passages is in 1 Timothy, which most scholars agree was written by someone else, long after Paul died. Another difficulty is that in neither of the passages which Paul actually did write, was homosexuality the subject of the passage. In both cases he only alludes to homosexual acts on the way toward making a much different point. Here are the two passages. We will spend much more time on the first than the second.
The First Pauline reference to homosexuality to be discussed is found in his first letter to the church in
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the
? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakos, ìáëáêüò), sodomites (arsenokoiteôs, Pñóåíïêïßôçò), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God . And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. kingdom of God
—1 Corinthians 6:9-11; italics added (nrsv).
Comments on this passage:
Paul frequently includes lists of “sins” in his writings. They vary from place to place and time to time. Other places to find cataloged lists are 1 Corinthians 5:10-11, Galatians 5:19-21, Romans 1:29-31. There are two key words used in the passage translated above as “male prostitutes,” and “sodomites.” Most translations (and the earlier versions of the RSV) translate the two words as one word. Here’s a survey of various Bible translations:
Bibles which translated the two words in 1 Corinthians 6:9 as one word (or one concept):
Bibles that translate them as one word
Revised Standard (rsv) 1945 Homosexuals
Living Bible 1971: Homosexuals
New English Bible (
) 1961: Homosexual Perverts neb
New American (nab): Sodomites
rsv 1972: Sexual perverts
Today's English Version 1966 homosexual perverts
Bibles that translate them as two words (or two concepts)
King James (kjv) effeminate, abusers of themselves with
Moffatt catamites (a boy kept by pederast), sodomites
JB Phillips 1958 effeminate, pervert
Goodspeed 1951 sensual, given to unnatural vice
New American Standard (nas) 1963 effeminate, homosexuals
New International 1973 male prostitutes, homosexual
New King James 1979 homosexuals, sodomites
New American Catholic 1987 boy prostitutes, practicing
nrsv 1990 male prostitutes, sodomites
New English Translation (net) passive homosexual partners,
The first key word in this passage is malakos, (ìáëáêüò), which means “soft,” or “weak.” Perhaps as a result of most translators being male, it is often translated as “effeminate,” though in actual practice it technically it had little to nothing to do with being female. When it was used in Classical Greek—when it was used at all—it tended to be applied simply to the passive partner in same-gender intercourse, which could mean a slave, an abused child, or anybody else who was controlled by the stronger partner. This is the word used of “call-boys” whom older men (arsenokoitai), in a corrupted and declining
, took to bed. (The term is also used in 1 Tim. 1:10, which is another list of vices.) Rome
The second word is arsenokoiteôs (Pñóåíïêïßôçò), which is a compound of arseôn, (áñóçí) an adjective meaning “a male something,” and koiteô (êïßôç), a noun meaning “a place for resting or lying down.” So roughly it means, “a man who lies down somewhere.” Classical Greek, when it used the term at all, tended apply it to the active partner in male intercourse. However, it was used so seldom that this is barely more than a guess by linguists. The extreme difficulty in defining terms in this case is that there is no ancient reference to the word at all prior to Paul, and very few instances after him. So how does a Christian interpreter base a doctrine on such a difficult and indefinitely defined word? Paul himself is not much help because he only places the term in a list of condemnable actions without explanation. So, with all of that in mind, a tentative, but probably more complete translation of v. 9 above might be something like the following:
“Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, men who are the weaker (the recipients of a sex act), and men who are the more powerful (the perpetrators of a sex act), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the
. kingdom of God
The New rsv (nrsv) used above comes close to this if one assumes a “sodomite” means a male who performs oral sex, but this is only one of its meanings (and incidentally has little to do with the crimes of the Biblical city of “Sodom”). “Male prostitute” also comes close to the meaning, but it doesn’t carry with it the sense of force or violence that the term Malakoirightfully should have. A Malakoi does not volunteer to be in this relationship. He/she is forced. When only one side of a sexual relationship agrees or benefits, force or violence is either actual or threatened.
One last thing. Evangelical New Testament scholar, Jeremy Townsley, did some research on the word, arsenokoites and made a very interesting discovery. He did a database search of all of the ancient writings in Greek and found 43 references to this word. All but one of the references used it in lists of vices (and the one that wasn't was brief and unhelpful). In looking through the lists he made the interesting observation that in most cases the lists of vices were organized by themes. Those that referred to sexual vices were roughly grouped together and those that referred to economic injustice vices were grouped together and so on. The difficulty this poses in translating the word was that throughout the lists arsenokoites was found occasionally in one kind of grouping and sometimes in another, and sometimes in between the sexual and injustice classes. Which means that the early writers themselves were not of one voice on the nature of this vice: was it a sexual sin or an economic injustice sin? Probably both.
So, in attempting to get at what Paul had in mind in using the word, Townsley concludes:
If we put in the English translation "homosexual" in place of arsenokoites [in Paul's writings], it makes no sense. It doesn't fit with the categories. What makes much more sense, is to say that the placing of arsenokoites in the [lists] in between the sexual sins and economic/injustice sins is not an accident. What makes sense is that arsenokoites is a term referring somehow to sexual injustice. For example, when arsenokoites is placed just before slave-trader, this seems particularly appropriate, since homosexual slaves were normative in both Greek and Roman societies. The interpretation of arsenokoitai therefore, as one of …subjugation and/or exploitation, rather than referring to all homosexual behavior, seems most appropriate as we see from these contexts.
—“Greek Culture and Homosexuality,”
Search For God's Heart and Truth, 1996, by Jeramy Townsley
So what can we know about this passage? What conclusions can we draw from looking at it closely now? Here are a few.
1) The list describes the behaviors of believers in Paul’s day; the crimes are descriptions of what Roman culture was up to in Paul’s day (cf. 1 Corinthians. 6:1-8).
2) Paul sounds like the ethicists of his time. He is reflecting the moral critique of his day against the abuses of older male-on-younger-male sexuality that was in the
of his day. Abuse, not homosexuality, was the subject at issue. Rome
3) Paul does not call these kinds of things “sins.” Generally speaking (with exceptions), when Paul uses the word “Sins,” he is quoting from his tradition. When he speaks of “Sin” (in the singular) he is referring to (a) a power that drives a wedge between God and God’s people and (b) as the condition of alienation from God that results. Strictly speaking, these are actually symptoms of Sin, not sins.
Paul’s Second Reference to Homosexuality
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, and ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
Summary comments on this passage:
To Paul, God’s way was apparent to the world (vv. 19-20), but the world (by which in this passage he means mainly the Romans) chose not to recognize it, preferring to worship creations of their own hands (idolatry: v. 23). So “God gave them up” to their own lustful devices, a list of which follows. The list is meant to be typical Gentile vices of the day. They are the standard Jewish accusations against the Gentiles, the behavior of those who have not recognized God’s sovereignty.
The Context of the Passage in the Larger Letter:
As with the passage in Corinthians, Paul’s words here on homosexuality were incidental parts of a much larger argument. This section is meant to condemn the gentiles and their wicked behavior (and the Jews were supposed to applaud). This is followed by Romans 1:21-3:20 which was meant to show them that even though they (the Jews) feel special, they too are guilty of their own sin (and then the Jews were supposed to get angry). Paul’s point was not to make a reasoned theological point about male-male relations or female-female relations. His purpose was rhetorical. He was using the most inflammatory words he could think of in order to make the Gentiles look bad to his Jewish readers. He was trying to draw them into his condemnation of the Gentiles and their “Sin,” so that they would look foolish later in Romans 1:21-3:20 when he is equally critical of the Jews. His point is to say that all have sinned and are separated from God, and that that was why God sent the Christ to the earth to reconcile creature and creator once again. In fact, one could say that for the purpose of his argument, Paul actually exaggerated the evilness of the Gentiles, so that the comeuppance of his Jewish readers would be more startling later.
The Jews were in no position to feel proud of being better than the crimes of the gentiles, because “all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). “What then?” he says, “Are we (the Jews) any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” (Rom 3:9) That is why God sent the Christ. “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a place of atonement...effective through faith” (Rom. 3:24-25).
1. Note again that these deeds are not called “sins,” in and of themselves. Paul tends not to believe that these things are “sins.” They are the consequences of the root sin which is idolatry.
2. Note also that Idolatry and sexual immorality are connected (vv. 22-24 etc.) See Wisdom of Solomon 14:12 for the idea that making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life.
Nothing in this passage from Romans is different from that of any of Paul’s contemporaries. What is uniquely Paul’s is his use of this section in the structure of the rest of the letter of Romans. It is used as a ploy to get his readers to understand that since all people have fallen away from God, all are in need of a mediator, the “Christ.”