Note that this is Part 2 in a series which begins HERE
Of all the biblical passages cited as proscriptions of gay sex, Romans 1 is probably the favorite and I think understandably so. As I have already mentioned, there are legitimate scholarly debates over the translation of the only other direct mentions of homosexuality in the NT but Romans 1:26-27 seems far less ambiguous since, rather than using a particular term, it describes what it is condemning. Certainly in my own development on this topic, there was a time where everything seemed to hang on Romans 1.
So let me dive in. First, I think the basic assertion I just made is actually fairly problematic. It might be convenient if a basic description of an act could be taken to represent all possible variations of that act but that just isn’t how language and communication work. I think it is fairly certain that Paul is describing gay sex in Romans 1:26-27, but I do not think it is at all obvious that the Romans 1 description should be taken as representing all possible instances of gay sex. What needs to be asked is: “What was Paul talking about when he describes gay sex in Romans 1?” And in order to answer that question we will have to look into connotations of gay sex in the 1st century Hebrew and Roman worlds.
Let me be clear, I am claiming that while Paul may have been aware of something roughly analogous to our contemporary understanding of homosexuality, (though even the classical Greek approach doesn’t map perfectly on to our current model) it is an extreme stretch to claim that our contemporary understanding is what he would have been talking about in Romans 1. If that seems far fetched, let me illustrate with an example of how we use language:
If I were to say that I support the right of parents to have their child circumcised it would seem to be a fairly straightforward statement, and for most practical purposes it is. However, it is possible that some future scholar, studying my life and writings, could legitimately demonstrate that I am aware of the practice of female circumcision and thereby argue that I support the right of parents to have their daughter circumcised. The thing is, our future scholar would be dead wrong. I am entirely opposed to female circumcision. And yet the original statement “I support the right of parents to have their child circumcised” is still a true statement because in our cultural context, female circumcision is not a live option. Female circumcision (excision) is a thing I am aware of and is legitimately within the lexical domain of “circumcision” but it is not what I am talking about when I talk about circumcision in my American context (1).
Thus to assume that Paul’s description in Romans 1 automatically includes what we might refer to as a monogamous, covenant, gay marriage commits the same linguistic fallacy involved in assuming that I support excision. In order to determine what Paul was talking about, we have to look at the dominant cultural connotations of gay sex.
Contemporary scholarship suggests that there were three cultural understandings of gay sex which would have been available to Paul: The Hebrew, the classical Greek, and the Roman. Of these, I would argue that the Greek, while more nuanced and philosophical than the other two, is essentially irrelevant to Paul who was writing as a Jew to a mixed Jewish/Roman audience in a Latin context (2). A great deal of ink has been spilled speculating as to whether or not Paul would have been aware of the Greek theories on the subject but at the end of the day, even if he was, his knowledge does not warrant the claim that he was talking about them when he talked about gay sex in Romans 1.
So then what would Paul have been talking about? While scholars can get into all sorts of debate over exceptional, potentially loving, non-abusive instances of gay sex in the 1st century Roman world, they pretty much agree that the overwhelming majority fall under the categories of slave rape, pederastic dominance and abuse, temple prostitution, and adultery. As far as the Roman cultural connotations for gay sex are concerned it is safe to say that monogamous, covenant relationships were not what Romans meant when they talked about homosexuality, they were not a live option in that context (3).
But Paul was educated in a Hellenized Jewish context as was a portion of his audience in Romans so that context is relevant as well. I will get more into this in the next post but for now I will maintain that the dominant Hebrew cultural connotation for gay sex included temple prostitution, gentile licentiousness, and adultery, and seems to have mistakenly seen them as inseparable from any form of gay sex. As with the Romans, I maintain that monogamous, covenant relationships simply were not what 1st century Hebrews were talking about when they discussed homosexuality.
Furthermore, the immediate context of Roman 1 supports the claim that monogamous, covenant relationships are outside the scope of Paul’s discussion. Verses 26-27 are given as a social implication for refusing to worship God and are followed (4) by a list of other practices which arise as a result of that refusal. The full list is uniformly ugly, other-damaging and blasphemous. The dominant Roman (and Hebrew) expressions of gay sex fit well on the list, but monogamous, covenant, same-sex relationships do not. To claim that 26-27 must include all instances of gay sex one would have to claim that verse 30 must include all instances of a child disobeying their parent. But we recognize that Paul is not condemning the refusal of Christian converts to obey a parent’s order to participate in idolatry or another religion. We see that as a fairly obvious exception, one might even say “when the fruit of disobedience draws someone closer to God, we may safely conclude that we are dealing with a form of disobedience Paul was not talking about in Romans 1:30”. That same statement can be made in reference to Romans 1:26-27: “when the fruit of gay sex draws someone closer to God, we may safely conclude that we are dealing with a form of gay sex Paul was not talking about in Romans 1:30”
- The cultural associations that Paul’s audience would have had with gay sex would not have included monogamous, covenant relationships. Therefore Paul should not be assumed to be talking about monogamous, covenant relationships.
- Exegetically there is space in Romans 1 to claim that Paul was not referring to every possible instance of an activity in his list of consequences for rejecting God. Therefore it is exegetically reasonable to claim that Paul’s description of gay sex does not necessarily include every possible instance of gay sex.
Click HERE For Part 3 in this Series: The Old Testament
(1) This analogy still holds if I substitute the term “circumcision” with the phrase “surgical removal of genital tissue” so the fact that Romans 1 is descriptive does not substantively change the argument here.
(2) At a time when classical Greek thinking was 300-500 years old and about as relevant to the common person as enlightenment thinking is to my high school students: formative but not conscious and certainly not something they will cite in day to day life.
(3) Sarah Ruden and Louis Crompton are particularly useful sources here, though it is well documented elsewhere.
(4) Romans 1:28-32