In the last two posts, I’ve explored the ancient Roman context of homosexuality. This, of course, will help color in the borders of the portrait that the New Testament paints—and yes, we’ll get to the New Testament in due time. I don’t want to attempt to broadcast what the New Testament says about such a delicate issue until I have understood the world in which it was written. We must first find out what the Bible meant to them before we can accurately know what it means for us.
For this post, I want to address the common view that Paul did not know about same-sex orientation. That is, he didn’t know what we now know (do we?) about biology playing a huge role in shaping one’s attraction. And so some say that if Paul only knew that same-sex attraction was determined, or influenced, at birth, he would not have said the things he did in Romans 1 and elsewhere.
Regardless of what Romans 1 means—which we’ll get to soon enough—this argument is historically fallacious.
Again, it is (obviously) true that we moderns have a much clearer (though still clouded) perspective on the biological and societal influence on homosexual behavior. And it’s also true that we now believe that the earth revolves around the sun. However, and again, I think this is overplayed. (The bit about orientation, not the earth and sun.) While the ancients didn’t have a highly developed understanding of potential biological causes of homosexual behavior, they did speculate at times about “nature” causing some men to desire to have sex with other men.
Aristotle, for instance, said that some homoerotic desires come from habit, but others spring from nature (Eth. 1148b, lines 28-34). In other words, some people are born with same sex desires. Another Greek writer (pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata 4.26) says that the desire of some males to play the passive role in intercourse is due to a “physiological abnormality.” The details are bizarre and scientifically bogus. But the point is: this writer believed that biology played a role. A second century Roman physician named Soranus disagrees that such behavior is physiological, but argues that it’s a result of some defect in the mind or spirit (De morbis chronicis 4:131, 132, 134). This view seems to be shared by Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, who talks about “the disease of effeminacy in their souls” (VCon 60; Ab 136). A similar perspective is shared by fifth century Greek physician Hippocrates, who believed that “the conditions of both male effeminacy and female mannishness are determined genetically” (Thomas Hubbard referring to Hippocrates On Regimen, 1.28-29).
One of the most fascinating speculations is found in Phaedrus, who wrote his Fable around the time of Jesus. Phaedrus wonders why some women prefer women, and some men prefer men. He says (jokingly?) that the god Prometheus got drunk and attached male genitilia to women, and women
genitilia to men. In other words, some women are born trapped in men’s bodies while some men are trapped in women’s bodies (Phdr. 4.16). Sounds like an ancient myth about why some people are transsexual.
Now, to be sure, biological speculations such as these are relatively few. Most writers just talked about the same-sex activity of some individuals without referring to biological causes. In any case, to say that the ancients had no idea about biological influences over sexual orientation is—from everything I’ve read thus far—wrong.
What does this mean for interpreting the New Testament passages about homosexual activity? I’ll conclude with two observations.
First, it’s inaccurate, or at least quite speculative, to say: If Paul understood what we know now, that some people are born with same sex orientation, then he would not have condemned such behavior. Since speculations about biological influence on same-sex orientation were around in Paul’s day, there’s no reason to believe that he was unaware of them.
Second, saying that Paul “condemns homosexuality” in, say, Romans 1 is slightly inaccurate. Why? Because it assumes that Paul is aware of a modern category or identity marker. Again, in the Roman world (i.e. Paul’s world), a man could have sex with his male slave and yet not be considered gay; that is, sexually oriented toward men. It all depends on whether he was “active” or “passive” in the act. So, the term “homosexuality” only clutters the biblical text. What Paul prohibits in Romans 1 (as I’ll show in a later post) is men having sex with men, and women having sex with women. It doesn’t matter for Paul whether or not they were “gay,” according to ancient standards. It was the act that mattered.
I know I’ve given this caveat several times, but I feel the need to give it again. This post (and every other post on this issue) is not attempting to make conclusive statements about how Christians should view homosexuality or the LGBT community. All I’m doing is trying to understand piece by piece the biblical passages that directly talk about same-sex intercourse. We have to first find all the pieces of the puzzle and arrange them in the right order—and resist cramming some pieces into spots they weren’t designed to fill (like Genesis 18-19) before we can step back and view the complete biblical portrait on this issue.
Gone are the days when mindlessly quoting verses at random helps the discussion—or people.