Having read several reviews of Vines’ book over the last 24 hours, let me begin my critique on a different note. I don’t assume that Vines is reading his view into the text. Last time I checked, I’m not God and I don’t have direct access to his interpretive motivations. What I do have access to are his actual biblical and historical arguments, and it is these that I will discuss in these blogs.
I also want to set aside the whole “overturning centuries of tradition” critique. Yes, church tradition is non-affirming of gay and lesbian relationships. It was also non-affirming of a heliocentric solar system until Galileo dared to go against centuries of well-established tradition. I’m unashamedly Protestant; I believe that the God-breathed text can (and sometimes does) overturn tradition. While the tradition argument should be considered and weighed, it’s a bit of a red herring. Vines knows that he’s going against tradition. But 80-90% of his book shows why he believes that the authoritative Bible challenges this tradition. Such a proposal is bold, if not risky. But it’s not inherently wrong—if you’re Protestant.
So again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It’s not that I don’t like pudding, or that I think Vines is a bad cook. But the pudding he’s served up is missing some key ingredients.
A major thread throughout his book is that “the concept of same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world” (pg. 104; cf. chapter 2), and this is a serious and necessary claim. Think about it. Paul’s language in Romans 1 could be taken to refer to straight people having gay sex—they exchanged the natural function of the male/female. And if Paul didn’t know what we know now, that some people are simply born gay, then perhaps he wouldn’t have said what he did. Or, put differently, since same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world (the cornerstone of his argument), then Paul could not have such people in mind. Paul was only condemning straight people who got bored with heterosexual sex and ventured into new, same-sex territory to satisfy their hyper-lustful urges.
My initial thought is: does it matter? If we were able to bring Paul up to speed with all of our psychological wisdom, would his argument in Romans 1 look different? Or, isn’t it a bit bold to think that we in 2014 have arrived in our understanding of sexual orientation? In 400 years or 800 years, will people look back on our silly and backwoods scientific views, just as some look back on Paul’s (seemingly) patriarchal views? The ever-changing fields of psychology and social science are suspicious starting points for moral arguments.
But let’s grant Vines’ assumption. Let’s say that our modern understanding of sexual orientation is as polished as we think it is and therefore a valid starting point to read the New Testament. Houston, we still have a problem: Ancient concepts of same-sex orientation did exist in Paul’s world.
I’m not sure if Vines ignored or simply did not come across the piles and piles of historical evidence that works against his thesis. Only God knows. In any case, if you’re genuinely interested in this discussion, you need to know that the ancients did in fact have beliefs about what we now know as “same-sex orientation.”
Aristotle for instance said that some homoerotic desires come from habit, but others spring from nature (Eth. 1148b). In other words, some people are born with same-sex desires. Some ancients even speculated about certain biological defects that cause some men to desire other men. One writer explains that males who desire to be penetrated are born with a physiological defect where semen is abnormally secreted into the anus and sparks a desire for friction (Pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata 4.26; cf. 879a36-880a5; 879b28-30). Soranus, the Greek physician from Ephesus, also believed that same-sex desire is shaped more by nature rather than nurture, but locates the source of the desire in the mind or spirit (De morbis chronicis 4:131, 132, 134).
We can certainly write off such speculations as unscientific, barbaric, and downright wrong. And we should. But the veracity of such claims about orientation is irrelevant. What matters is that ancient writers were making such claims about orientation. It is clear that at least some of Paul’s contemporaries believed that same-sex desires were biological.
Some writers were not as specific—or creative—as the medical texts cited above about such orientation, yet they still seemed to believe in a form of what we would call homosexual orientation. Phaedrus, who wrote his Fable around the time of Paul, presents a mythological account about why some people desire sex with the same gender. He says that the god Prometheus got drunk and attached male genitalia to women and women genitalia to men. In other words, some women are trapped in men’s bodies and some men are trapped in women’s bodies (Phdr. 4.16). The account, of course, is mythical and humorous, but nonetheless reflects ancient assumptions that desire for same sex intercourse is inherent. Less mythical is Lucian’s report of a woman named Megilla who says: “I was born as a woman like the rest of you, but my mind, desire, and everything else in me are that of a man” (Dialogue of the Courtesans 5:4). Today, we would say that Megilla was a lesbian—or transgendered—even if such categories were not available to the ancients.
Bernadette Brooten—an affirming scholar, by the way—has gathered evidence from ancient astrological texts, which suggested that sexual orientation was determined by the arrangement of the stars. One text says: “If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men” (Matheseos libri viii 7.25.1). Dorotheos wrote her astrological poem, Carmen Astrologicum, right around the time Paul was sending his letter to the Roman church. In it, she says that if the sun and moon are at a particular location when women are born, they “will be a Lesbian, desirous of women, and if the native is a male, he will be desirous of males” (2.7.6). After looking at many more examples, Brooten concludes: “Contrary to the view that the idea of sexual orientation did not develop until the nineteenth century, the astrological sources demonstrate the existence in the Roman world of the concept of a lifelong erotic orientation.”
I could list many more examples of ancient concepts of sexual orientation, but suffice it to say: Vines’ claim that “the concept of same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world,” which is crucial to his entire argument, ignores a wealth of historical evidence to the contrary. Maybe Paul did not have any concept of sexual orientation, or maybe he did. In any case, we cannot appeal to the absence of such a view in his cultural environment and then project it upon Paul as Vines does. When Paul therefore says that “men…gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (Rom 1:27), he is not revealing ignorance about sexual orientation.
There’s no reason—no good historical reason—to believe that Paul was unaware of same-sex orientation.