It’s nearly impossible to understand what the New Testament says about homosexual relations until one first understands the historical context of the Roman world. After all, Paul was not writing to a modern western nation; he was writing to people living in the Roman empire. Therefore, when Paul says things like “men committing shameless acts with men” (Rom 1:27), or when he uses words like arsenokoitai and malakoi (1 Cor 6:9)—translated “practicing homosexuals”—we must understand something about Paul’s Roman context in order to know what he’s actually saying.
Knowing this, I’ve set out to study the original Greek and Roman sources that talk about homosexuality in the first century. While at times I feel like I need to scrub my eyes with soap and dip my Kindle in a bucket of Purell, my findings thus far have greatly helped me understand the New Testament in its historical context. I’d like to sum up my findings so far over the next few posts.
For starters, I don’t care how bad you think our modern culture is, let me assure you: It’s nothing like first-century Rome. What we call “pornography,” people of Rome simply called “life.” For instance, it wasn’t uncommon to have pictures of men having sex with boys painted on water pitchers served at the dinner table. “And in Zeus’s name we pray, Amen…please pass the water, mom.” If I went into detail about the sexual practices of ancient Rome, and the frankness in which they talked about it, the parental block on your household internet would prevent you from reading this blog. What I’ve seen in the Roman world would make Miley look like a nun swinging from a wrecking ball and Lady Gaga a priest…or a nun (minus the wrecking ball). However you slice it, our kids are much, much safer today than they would have been going to school in the first-century. I can only imagine how weird the early Church must have been viewed. Like an Amish community living in downtown Vegas.
Now, I’ve often heard people say that the ancient Roman world didn’t think in terms of homosexuality and heterosexuality. This implies that when Paul talks about same sex intercourse in Romans 1 and elsewhere, he isn’t thinking about homosexuality as such. He must be prohibiting something else, such as male prostitution, pederasty (sex with boys), or overindulgence in sexual behavior. He could not have been prohibiting homosexuality since such a category didn’t exist in the ancient world.
This is sort of true to some extent, but I think it’s overplayed. Overplayed and misleading. Yes, of course Paul wasn’t thinking in terms of the relatively modern (19th century) sociological term homosexuality. How could he? But Paul does speak explicitly about same-sex intercourse and what he says does have relevance for what we now call homosexuality. So this whole argument is a bit of a “red herring”—while true in itself, it distracts from the main issue.
In any case, was there no ancient parallel to what we now call homosexuality?
For the most part, first-century Romans didn’t think in terms of sexuality but in terms of gender. That is, they didn’t raise questions like “is Joe gay,” or say things like “if Joe has sex with Frank, then they both must be gay.” Having sex with someone of the same gender didn’t automatically mean someone was gay. What mattered was manliness and womanliness. “Is Joe a man,” or “is Joe ‘effeminate’” were the questions they would raise.
Now, there were many different things that would make Joe a man (and I’m terribly sorry if you’re reading this and your name is Joe). If Joe fought valiantly in battle, avoided PDA with his wife, and kept his household in submission, then he might be a manly man. And thick chest hair wouldn’t hurt. But if Joe doused himself in perfume, plucked out his chest hair, and cried in the face of death, he would probably be called womanly, or effeminate—mollis (“soft”) in Latin. Again, what mattered was how well Joe matched up to the societal standards of gender, not sexuality.
Now, in terms of his sexual activity, if the manly Joe also had sex with his male slaves and, on occasion, hired out “call boys” (adolescent male prostitutes), Joe would not lose his male identity. Such activities may annoy his wife, but such was life in ancient Rome. Joe would not be considered “gay” by his peers.
On the flip side, if we consider the effeminate Joe who dripped with perfume and wore soft, elegant clothes, this Joe would still be considered “effeminate” or womanly, even if he had sex exclusively with women. That’s because ancient Romans didn’t think in terms of sexual identity (gay or straight) but in terms of gender identity (manly or womanly). And there was a bit of cross over when it came to which gender you had sex with. What mattered most was whether you played the active (manly) or passive (womanly) role in intercourse.
The category of “homosexuality” does not neatly capture the Roman context in which Paul lived. Does this mean that the Paul’s words are irrelevant for understanding what God thinks of our modern concept of homosexuality? Are we being anachronistic (reading modern categories back into ancient material) by making Paul speak to our modern debate?
We’ll continue to explore this in the next post.