Archives For Ancient Rome

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 vines 1actual 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 vines 3defect 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.

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 greek homo 1would 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.

I often hear in recent discussion about the Bible and homosexuality: “Since homosexuality as a sexual category was unknown to Paul, he could not have critiqued it.” The

implication is that when Paul talks about same-sex activity in Romans 1 and elsewhere, he must have had something more specific, something more narrowly defined, in mind. For instance, perhaps he was prohibiting men having sex with boys (pederasty), or male prostitution, or perhaps we was prohibiting heterosexuals from having homosexual sex.

So is this correct? Was “homosexuality” unknown to Paul? And if so, is it inaccurate to make Paul’s speak to our modern category?

It is true that the modern categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality do not fit the ancient Roman worldview. We saw this to some extent in the previous post. However, there is evidence that some ancient Romans were exclusively interested in sexual partners of the same sex.

For instance, the Roman writer Suetonius says that Caesar Claudius “was possessed of an extravagant desire for women, having no experience with males whatsoever.” The fact that Suetonius feels the need to highlight this and even add (the seemingly superfluous statement) that he had no taste for men whatsoever (rare among the emperors), shows that he was a bit of an anomaly. Claudius was totally straight (a 1 on the Kinsey scale). However, another emperor Galba seems to have been into dudes way more (maybe even exclusively) than women. The emperor Hadrian, though married to a woman, also had a lover named Antonius who clearly garnered Hadrian’s affections much more than his wife. Pliny the elder refers to “men who hate intercourse with women.” Firmicus Maternus (4th Cent. AD, astrological writer) talks about men who are “lovers of boys” and who also show an aversion to having sex with women. And Martial writes about some men who only had experience with other men (11.58).

Now again, these men may never have received the charge of being “effeminate” or womanly. As long as they remained the active partner in the union, they would maintain their manly persona. And this is what Rome cared about most. However, I still think it would be accurate to say that if such a person lived today, having exclusive interest in the same sex, we would call them gay. And if the emperor Claudius lived today, we would call him “straight” and not just manly. Craig Williams, author of Roman Homosexuality, rightly says: “If they were alive today, men like this would no doubt be called, and would likely call themselves, straight or gay” (Kindle loc. 3889).

Moreover, some men not only had intercourse with other men (sometimes exclusively), but actually married other men.

Caesar Nero had at least two public wedding ceremonies to other men, and in one case he played the role of the bride: he even wore a veil and played the passive role in sexual intercourse. The same goes for the third century (A.D.) emperor Elagabalus, who was a bride to his husband. The Roman satirist Juvenal makes mention of other similar marriages among men (2.117-42), as does the author Martial (1.24; 12.42). Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, was never married and never praises women with erotic expression. According to historian Martti Nissinen, “A modern reader would easily identify…Plato’s own sexual orientation as predominantly homosexual” (Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 59).

I don’t think it’s accurate then to say that since homosexuality as a category didn’t exist back then, the NT writers could not have been critiquing it. True, they weren’t critiquing our 19th century concept, but they were—or, every well could have been—critiquing a parallel concept expressed in their own terms.

Shifting gears a bit, I’ve often heard people say that the ancients didn’t have any concept of inborn sexual orientation. That is, homosexual acts were simply what some people did and it wasn’t a believed to be an outflow of some sort of biological orientation. Or at least, the ancients weren’t aware that such orientation existed. The implication is this: If Paul only knew that sexual orientation is inborn, he would not have critiqued same sex acts. If Paul was alive today, he’d be okay with consensual, monogamous, Christ-centered gay marriage. Is this true?

We’ll see in the next post.

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 ancient rome homolike “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 10_Sappho_vase_304x384explicitly 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.