by the Revd Dr Jonathan Tallon, Biblical Studies tutor at Northern Baptist College and Research Programme Director and tutor at Luther King House
Most of the time, our problem with the Bible isn’t trying to understand it but rather it’s trying to follow it in our daily lives. ‘Love God’ and ‘love your neighbour’ are simple, straightforward commands, that we constantly try to achieve and yet constantly fall down on, throwing ourselves repeatedly on God’s mercy. In addition, there’s the grand Protestant tradition of expecting everyone, not just priests or academics, to read Scripture, relying on its plain meaning. And most of the time, that is right.
Most of the time…
However, if we apply our modern cultural understanding of ‘sexuality’ as we read the Bible it can seriously mislead us – because the Bible doesn’t really say anything at all about homosexuality as we understand it today.
Occasionally, we can get tripped up and not even realise that how we understand the ‘plain meaning’ of a passage is utterly different from what people in the first century would have actually understood to be the plain meaning.
In many areas, the past is like the present. Humans haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. We still get angry, fall in love, like to play, show off, gossip, tell jokes and so on.
But in some areas the changes from ancient Roman culture to (post)modern western cultures have been immense, and cultural understanding of sexuality is one of them.
Modern Understanding of Sexuality
Fundamental to a modern understanding of sexuality for many people is the idea of ‘orientation’ – that most adults are sexually attracted to one gender or the other. And we have terms for this – ‘heterosexual’ for those attracted to the other gender from their own, ‘homosexual’ for those attracted to the same gender, ‘bisexual’ for those attracted to both.
So if I tell you, ‘Keith is homosexual’, you expect him to be attracted to other men, perhaps to be in relationship with one of them, perhaps even to have a man as a partner.
Reading the Bible from a Current Sexuality Framework
And so you open your Bible and are reading 1 Corinthians 6:9, and see a reference to ‘homosexual offenders’ (NIV) or ‘homosexual perverts’ (GNB). You read Romans 1:27, and note the reference to ‘men committing indecent acts with other men’. And it seems that the plain meaning of Scripture is staring you in the face.
Maybe you’d like it to be otherwise. Maybe you don’t understand what’s so wrong. But it appears to be the plain meaning of Scripture. The Bible appears to say that being homosexual – gay or lesbian – is not OK.
But you’re not comparing like with like.
Ancient Roman Sexuality – Dominance not Orientation
How different was the ancient Roman approach to sexuality from ours? Completely. A happily (from his point of view) married freeborn man could also rape his male and female slaves, rape boys, and sleep with prostitutes, and neither his masculinity nor his sexuality (nor indeed his honour) would be in question at all.
In ancient Rome, sexuality wasn’t defined by who (which gender) you had sex with, but whether you were either the dominant, active partner, or alternatively the submissive, passive one. So long as a freeborn man was the dominant partner, little else mattered so long as no-one else’s honour was affected (and slaves and prostitutes had no honour to affect) (see Williams, Roman Homosexuality 2010, 3). Sexuality was not tied to orientation, but to action – to be the active partner was to be virile and manly. To be a passive partner was to be weak and effeminate.
The Widespread Acceptance of Pederasty
In particular, and perhaps most alien to our culture, pederasty by men was commonplace and not sanctioned either legally or socially – it was simply part of everyday life. An ancient Roman’s masculinity could be demonstrated by aggressive sex with a slave, whether male or female. Boys were seen as equally desirable as women – until the boys started to grow a beard, at which point they became off-limits (so the boys involved would typically be aged from about ten to eighteen years old).
What this means is that same-sex activity by an adult male was practically always abusive. As an example, the Roman poet Martial uses the term ‘cut to pieces’ for the passive partner. The passive partner was seen as ‘used, humiliated, and physically and morally damaged’ (Ruden, Paul Among the People, 2010, 49). The active partner could carry on, using boys and discarding them as they grew older. It is telling that the Romans have no word for ‘homosexual’, but had two for the boy slave who was kept precisely for this purpose and abused in this way by his master (deliciae and concubinus).
Let’s be clear. If, in the ancient Roman Empire you talk about ‘men having sex with males’, everyone would have understood you to mean men raping and abusing boys, usually slaves.
Were there Roman Homosexual Couples?
But what about ancient same-sex couples? Weren’t there loving gay and lesbian couples? After all, I said human nature hasn’t changed, and some people back then must have been gay or lesbian as we understand it today.
I’m sure there were some people 2,000 years ago who were gay. And I’m sure that some would have formed adult loving relationships. But they mainly remained hidden from the rest of society – a secret that if it became known would destroy the reputation and honour of at least one of the couple. The evidence that we have mostly comes from private material: charms, spells, graffiti, or from insults from others. There simply wasn’t the cultural space for a committed relationship between adult males in Rome at the time of Paul. In today’s society, pederasty is condemned, and adult loving same-sex relationships mainly accepted. But in Roman times, pederasty was accepted, and to have intercourse with an adult male was not.
Examples from Ancient Christian and Jewish Writers
This cultural approach is alien to us, so it is hard to accept. But Jewish criticisms of male same-sex activity in Roman times assumed that one of the participants would be a boy – pederasty. Here’s an example from Philo, who lived about the same time as Paul, and like Paul was Jewish.
‘And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys submit to the same punishment, since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature…’
Philo, Special Laws 3.39
The earliest Christians also attacked pederasty as something routinely accepted by society but rejected by the Church. The earliest interpretation of Romans 1:26-27 that we have (by Athenagoras, a second century Christian) assumes that Paul is talking about pederasty:
‘For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure, who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations… …These adulterers and pederasts defame the eunuchs and the once-married…’
Athenagoras, Apology 34.
And this assumption carries on through the first few centuries of the Church. Writer after writer condemns pederasty, calling it ‘child corruption’ (see the Didache 2:2; the Epistle of Barnabas 19.4; Justin Martyr, Dial. Trypho 95; Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 3.12; Athanasius, Vita Antonii 74, Gregory of Nazianzus, Adv. Eunomianos (orat. 27) 6).
This, then, is the background to Paul’s letters. He lived in a world where a freeborn man was expected to have intercourse with his wife, his slaves and prostitutes, and as the active partner to demonstrate his virility and masculinity by this, irrespective of the gender of the slaves or prostitutes.
Homosexuality – a Misleading Term in New Testament Times
This shows how misleading using a term like ‘homosexuality’ is when talking of the New Testament.
First, the ancient world was generally uninterested in questions of orientation, but much more concerned with questions of action.
Secondly, there was no term for ‘homosexual’. Terms used defined who was the active, dominant person and who was classed as the passive, submissive participant.
Thirdly, in public discourse, if anyone referred to an adult man having intercourse with males, the natural assumption would be that the males were boys. Other assumptions would include that no equal relationship was involved, and that the boy would be humiliated. But what would not be assumed is that the adult only had intercourse with boys; the listener would expect the man also to have intercourse with women (slaves and prostitutes) and also would assume that the man was married (or would be married in the future).
How does this Affect our Reading of Scripture?
How does this affect our reading of Scripture? It should at least stop us from (in this case) naïve appeals to the ‘plain meaning of Scripture’ when debating this issue. However if we then look at other passages, the wider context was one where male same-sex activity generally meant pederasty. Recognising this as the background raises the question as to how to apply texts that were written in a sexual cultural context vastly different from our own.
But what about Romans 1 26-27?
At this point some readers might be wondering about the controversial verses in Romans 1:26-27 – even if the general background was one of pederasty, surely here Paul is plainly referring to men having sex with men and women with women? Again, this is one of those unusual cases where a combination of translation and context means that we can be seriously misled in a number of different ways. There isn’t space in this article to unpack this (I cover this passage in more detail here) but for now notice that Paul actually writes ‘males with males’ and not ‘men with men’ (many translations mask this). The use of ‘males’ was a common one within the Greco-Roman culture to recognise that one of the participants would be, not a man, but a boy. This is one example of why we need to appreciate how radically different the sexual culture of Ancient Rome was from that of Britain today.
In our modern world, ‘homosexuality’ might conjure up images of loving couples of the same gender in long term relationships. However, the world of the New Testament had no word for ‘homosexuality’ and precious little visibility of anything like our image today. For the ancient world, male-male sex meant pederasty, it meant abuse, it meant rape, it was something married men did, and it often involved slaves or prostitutes or slave prostitutes. Do condemnations of that mean that we have to condemn loving, faithful relationships now? What is clear, however, is that the Bible doesn’t really say anything at all about homosexuality as we understand it today.
About the Author
Revd Dr Jonathan Tallon trained at St John’s Nottingham and is now Biblical Studies tutor for Northern Baptist College. He is the Research Programme Director at Luther King House, where he also also teaches New Testament and Greek . He has previously taught on a variety of Anglican courses as well as having been a parish priest. His own research interests include the interpretation of Paul in the early Church and his doctorate was on the concept of faith in the preaching of John Chrysostom.
Ruden, S. (2010). Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. New York: Image Books.
Williams, C. (2010). Roman Homosexuality (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.