Does the Bible Really Say…Anything at All about Homosexuality as we Understand it Today?

by the Revd Dr Jonathan Tallon, Biblical Studies tutor at Northern Baptist College and Research Programme Director and tutor at Luther King House

Jonathan Tallon

Introduction

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.

The Problem

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.

How come?

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.

Conclusion

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

Jonathan Tallon 3Revd 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.  

Jonathan runs the Bible and Homosexuality website and associated YouTube channel.  He enjoys photography as a hobby, and drinks too much coffee.

Further Reading

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.

 

This entry was posted in Does the Bible Really Say, Human Sexuality, Jonathan Tallon. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Does the Bible Really Say…Anything at All about Homosexuality as we Understand it Today?

  1. Martin sewe says:

    I recall Jonathan contributing with great knowledge and copious examples when I engaged in a debate on the Psephizo website pointing out that the struggle against slavery was resisted by precisely the same problematic methodology of reading scripture in a “plain meaning” way.

    Like

  2. davidsja says:

    You do not mention the lesbian “abomination” in the Romans passage.
    What is your take on that ?

    Like

    • Jayne Ozanne says:

      Where exactly in your Bible does it say “women sleeping with women”??

      Like

      • sandi says:

        26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. Romans 1

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jayne Ozanne says:

        Precisely – it doesn’t say what you are claiming! Important for all that we’re accurate!

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      • sandi says:

        precisely Jayne. I’m sorry that you cannot understand: For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another – ROMANS 1

        Like

      • Jayne Ozanne says:

        “exchange natural relations that are contrary to nature” according to many scholars and specialists is actually about the fact that they had heterosexual sex in a way that was not procreative – it’s the only reason it gets mentioned here. Sadly you are falling into the age old trap of reading into the text what is not there to suit and support your views. That will be clear to readers reading this exchange, and I will leave this as the last post.

        Like

      • Mrs. PGL says:

        not me, my friend, but your “scholars and specialists” have. The translation of it being homosexuals coincides with Leviticus 18 and 20.
        Scripture interprets scripture. One way or the other, Christ will forgive our sins when we turn to Him, repent and follow Him.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. davidsja says:

    What about the reference of women sleeping with women in Romans ?

    Like

    • Jayne Ozanne says:

      We will look at Romans 1 in more depth later in the series. For now you might want to look at what Jonathan has to say on his website about this (http://www.bibleandhomosexuality.org/condemned-or-not-st-paul-romans-and-homosexuality/)- including the reason why Paul leads with talking about women distorting “what is natural” (when normally women don’t get mentioned at all in other texts).

      You should also look again at your Bible and see that Romans 1: 26 does not actually talk about “women sleeping with women” at all!

      Like

    • Hi, as Jayne suggests, the passage doesn’t actually say women are sleeping with women. This tends to get assumed because males are involved with males, and in our modern culture we equate male and female homosexuality.
      However, this was not the case in ancient Roman times. Female-female sexual relations were rarely referred to in public discourse. It was viewed differently because, for many, it wouldn’t count as ‘real’ intercourse – because no penetration was involved. In contrast, ‘unnatural’ usage commonly referred to intercourse which couldn’t be procreative, particularly anal intercourse. So, in the absence of another context, the most likely meaning is Paul using a well-worn Jewish trope of pagans having anal intercourse (common in pagan society, not in Jewish).
      However, there is another possible context, which fits in with the reputation of orgiastic and violent rites for fertility goddesses. This would also explain women being mentioned first (an otherwise surprising feature of the passage) as the cult was led by priestesses. And, of course, the passage is about idolatry.
      As Jayne indicates, you can find a fuller analysis of Romans 1 on my website, and links to further resources including the academic scholarship lying behind it.
      Hope this helps!

      Like

      • sandi says:

        For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; Romans 1:26 – that explains and says it all.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Edmund Weiner says:

    Marvellous exegesis. May it liberate many Christians who are spiritually rather like those Roman boys, dominated and abused by power-driven church ‘leaders’. It sadly probably won’t liberate the ‘abusers’, because power is addictive. And what a pity that this debate even needs to happen in the church. Which Christian doctrine does same-sex love violate, for heaven’s sake? If ever evidence for a devil was needed, Christian homophobia is it.

    Like

  5. Emma Slingo says:

    This is so good!

    Like

  6. David Shepherd says:

    “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 issue that I have with his thesis is that it doesn’t do justice to the scale of divine retribution (“against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”) which Paul is sketching out.

    The verses that precede this (Rom. 1:14-17) outline Paul’s rationale for returning to Rome to preach the gospel. It is the “power of God unto salvation” without which Paul charts the moral decline that is symptomatic of any society, abandoned by God to do as they please, even to “exchange the natural use for that which is against nature”. This is just recompense for their own idolatrous “exchange of God for a lie”.

    The universal scale which Paul attributes to his sketched outworking of divine retribution does not really make sense, if the locus of decline is limited to the excesses of first-century heathenism in the Roman Empire.

    Like

    • Hi David, thanks for engaging.

      As indicated, this post isn’t specifically about Romans – I have a post on my website which does this in more detail. But in brief, I would question whether the passage from Romans 1:18 onwards is meant to be universal. Most commentators agree that it is an attack particularly upon gentiles/non-Jews/pagans. And they think this for excellent reasons. First, it is similar to other Jewish attacks upon pagan society (see Wisdom 14). Secondly, the fault is NOT attributed to the fall, but to idolatry – something which pagans do but Jews don’t. Thirdly, most see the transition in chapter 2 to be a type of gotcha for the Jewish listener – having had a go at gentiles, Paul now switches his focus to Jews and says that they too are in the same boat – and this is the main point he makes all the way through to chapter 3 (and beyond). It’s all about Jew and gentile, Jew and gentile.

      So yes, Romans 1:14-17 is universal. But Paul shows it is universal by first addressing gentiles, and then Jews.

      And a standard attack upon the idolatry of gentiles included an attack on pagan worship itself (again, see Wisdom 14).

      Like

      • David Shepherd says:

        Hi Jonathan,

        Thanks for your clarifications. Concerning Rom. 1, you’ve questioned whether “the passage from v. 18 onwards is meant to be universal”.

        Despite your examples of similar polemical approaches, Paul’s repeated conjunctions (Gk. dioti = “for”) indicates that verse 19 forwards are explaining the outworking of the divine retribution against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”.

        In fact, it’s this universality in the outworking of divine retribution that makes those addressed in Rom. 2 inexcusable.

        To limit Paul’s description of this universal outworking of divine wrath to the moral decline of first-century Gentiles, as you’ve done, is to nullify the universal basis for Paul’s rhetoric in Rom. 2

        Surely, we cannot limit Paul’s sketch of “God’s wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” to the guilt of a particular era.

        Thanks for engaging.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi David,
        We are going to have to respectfully disagree. Romans 1:23, for me, clearly indicates Paul’s target in what follows: ‘and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles’. This criticism – actual idolatry – could only be levelled at pagans, not Jews. The threefold ‘therefore’ that follows is all dependent upon this identification. Hence the remaining part of chapter 1 is focused on gentiles, with a switch to Jews in ch. 2. The contrast is made explicit in Romans 2:10-12.

        Like

  7. sandi says:

    As Christ is omniscient and He directed all of the abominations on homosexuality, one can trust that He knew what he was talking about and all forms of homosexuality are condemned by Him.
    The good news is, if we turn to Him, renounce our sins, and follow Him – He is faithful an just to forgive our sins

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Corinne Brixton says:

    I know these comments may not be particularly scholarly ones, but (1) the article seems to only deal with the second half of Romans 1:27, and not the part where Paul states: “the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” – it seems to overlook the ‘natural relations with women’ part, which surely gives the better basis for understanding what Paul is talking about. He’s saying ‘not doing this, but doing that’ – surely we can’t understand what ‘that’ is properly, without the contrast to ‘this’ that Paul is drawing. (2) The article shows that Philo was able to use the word for boys in describing pederasty – surely Paul was no less capable of using the same language, if that was what he was describing (3) The article obviously ignores the OT prohibitions (hundreds of years before the Graeco-Roman culture) which would have informed Paul’s Jewish understanding of what constituted sexual immorality, and the OT has more than one example where it is clear that it is adults not boys that are being described (Gen 19:5, Judges 19:22 – the fact that this is non-consensual sex being sought is irrelevant for the point I’m making, which is simply that these were men, not boys. Also irrelevant is the fact that the first were actually angels – they were perceived by the perpetrators as ‘men’) (4) The article makes a big thing of Paul using the word ‘male’ instead of ‘men’, to bolster the idea that Paul is talking about boys. However, again, it seems to ignore the fact that Paul is contrasting male with female here. The other four uses of the same Greek word for ‘male’ in the NT are all in the context of male/female (see Paul’s other use in Gal 3:28). Aside from the reference to a male rather than female baby (in Luke 2:23), the other two uses are by Jesus in describing the creation order: ‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? (Matthew 19:4,5). Is this not the better context within which to understand Paul’s words, given that he, like Jesus, would have seen these OT verses as foundational in understanding God’s natural order in creation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Corinne,

      Thanks for these thoughtful comments. I don’t have time for a full reply, but here’s a quick response:
      (1) In my view, the most likely context is Paul describing orgiastic pagan temple worship (which was a common attack in rhetoric, whether or not there was much reality behind it). The rhetoric typically accused fertility goddess worship of priestesses using phalluses on male self-castrated priests (galli) who would also penetrate each other, all as part of the temple cult. But my post on my website goes into other possibilities as well. Orgiastic sex is therefore the contrast to ‘unnatural’. If, on the other hand, you think Paul is using ‘unnatural’ to mean sex that can’t result in a baby, then bear in mind that that would also mean condemning (for married couples) contraception, oral sex, or indeed marrying/having sex with someone knowing they were infertile.
      (2) & (3) The context in which Philo talks about pederasty is commenting upon the Levitical verses which talk about a man lying with a male. (Incidentally, many scholars think that Paul is referencing these verses in 1 Cor. 6). Philo is talking at some length about the issue: Paul is making a brief allusion which he is expecting his audience to grasp immediately (in a context where the overwhelming practice of same-sex intercourse is pederasty).
      (3) The story of Sodom is about gang rape and abuse of hospitality. I have a post about this on my website. (From memory, I also think that some later Jewish commentary on Sodom assumes that the angels appeared as youths rather than as men, but don’t quote me on that). It is not about homosexuality.
      (4) Jesus’ words on marriage were, of course, to address the issue of divorce, and not same-sex relationships.
      The verses with ‘male’ (arsen in Greek) include Matt. 19:4; Mark 10:6 (both quoting Genesis); Luke 2:23 (firstborn male); Romans 1:27; Gal. 3:28 (quoting Genesis); Rev. 12:5 & 13 (male child). Note that in Rev. 12:13 the child is simply referred to as ‘the male’.
      However the other occurrence is in a compound word arsenokoites (1 Cor. 6:9 in the plural form and 1 Tim. 1:10) – which is used without any reference to females in both cases.

      All of this is in a general context in which the issue of equal, loving, same-sex relationships wouldn’t arise. I prefer to think that Paul was addressing issues common to his culture, as the more likely background to his letters.

      Like

      • Corinne Brixton says:

        Hi Jonathan, thanks for your response. I think you slightly misunderstand my use of the Genesis 19 and Judges 19 passages, which was simply to point out that Paul would have been aware of Scriptural situations where men were wanting sex with men (as opposed to boys) – regardless of whether it was consensual or not. But leaving that aside, I still think that your reply hasn’t really answered my main points: firstly, that Paul is contrasting a man having sex with a WOMAN with a man having sex with a male (or whatever age) – you haven’t dealt with the contrast in the verse; and secondly, that although the context of Jesus’ words are divorce, Jesus is nevertheless reiterating God’s pattern for marriage in creation.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Tim Milburn says:

    Why did God make the Bible so difficult to understand?

    Like

    • curlew says:

      He didn’t – at least not on this issue.
      These super-convoluted attempts to make it so are neither convincing nor creditable.
      Ask yourself: what are the odds that a new interpretation of these passages should have been hit on for the first time only after 2,000 years, and also happen by pure fluke to be EXACTLY in tune with contemporary secular thinking -?

      Like

  10. kiwianglo says:

    Maybe God didn’t make the Bible so difficult to understand! Maybe it was the understanding of the writer that needs constant cultural re-interpretation.

    Like

  11. Leslie says:

    I rarely look at this website now because it certainly isn’t looking for a middle way as its strap-line suggests and I don’t think Jonathan will be inclined to adapt his view. The “pink-washing” of history is in full swing just now and no less in theology. It was said of Friedrich Schleiermacher the German theologian who sought to appeal to his ‘cultured contemporaries’ who despised religion that staring down the well of history he found a smiling 19th Century German gentleman looking back.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer G says:

      That exactly expresses it – and today’s cultured elite find a smirking Millennial.
      Neither the culture nor the smile saved Germany, did they?
      I wonder what we can learn from that.

      Like

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  13. Philip Almond says:

    Corinne Brixton
    May 18, 2019 at 6:07 pm
    Corinne’s comment about understanding Paul’s meaning in Romans is a key point in this debate. Over to you Jonathan.
    Phil Almond

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