My own beliefs about Biblical teaching on homosexual acts are relatively simple: the Jewish Law prohibited any sex between two men (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). Paul renewed that prohibition in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10) and taught that such acts are “contrary to nature” (Romans 1:27). The Church has always regarded homosexual acts as serious sins. Thus, for me, the primary questions are, “How do I obey this teaching?” or “How does this teaching harmonize with the importance of loving and being loved in the Gospel teaching more broadly?”
However, the range of possible controversies behind those relatively simple beliefs is vast. I wrote a little about this in my recent post on Pederasty and Arsenokoitai, and @ladenheart, a friend who knows the classics much better than I do, has written a thoughtful response. His post is rich, well worth reading, and raises too many questions for me to address here. I will make at least a partial response, however. Near the end of his post, he offers the following tentative conclusion:
My general sense – although I do admit, it is a work in progress – is that what the Judeo-Christian tradition is condemning when it speaks negatively of sexual acts between men are, demonstrable in most cases, acts that are based on exploitation, unequal status, or excess.
I agree with him that, if we really want to understand what the Apostle Paul and the subsequent Christian tradition were trying to say, we need to understand the cultural context that he was writing in. However, we also need to understand the mind with which he judged that world. My concern with @ladenheart’s post—and I raise this as a concern needing further discussion, not a conclusion—is that he focuses heavily on the historical details of ancient paganism, but then judges what he finds with largely 21st century eyes.
Complexities of Cultural Context
To begin with, it’s important to acknowledge that one of the exegetical difficulties we face, as we try to read Paul’s letters, is that he was speaking to a very different cultural context. I addressed some of these differences in a post from a couple of years ago. As I pointed out in that post, Paul seems to assume that his claim that homosexual acts are “contrary to nature” or that the Jewish Law prohibits men having sex with men will not be controversial for the Christian readers of his letters.
However, whatever attitudes Paul inherited from his Jewish background and training as a Pharisee, and whatever assumptions he may have expected to share with his early Christian readers, the broader culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world in which he preached had attitudes toward sex which are quite foreign to us today.
Consider the following scenarios:
- Adam and Steve, who are both third year law students, have fallen in love, had a commitment ceremony, and moved in together. Their relationship, including their sex life, is organized to be as egalitarian as possible.
- Brian, who is in his thirties and married, is secretly sleeping with his business partner’s son.
- Charles, a married slave owner in the antebellum south, who forced his male slaves to sleep with him.
Most Americans and Western Europeans would find Brian and Charles’ situations repugnant, but would condone or celebrate Adam and Steve’s situation. Even those, like me, who believe that there is a moral problem with Adam and Steve’s relationship would regard Charles and Brian’s behavior as much more seriously wrong.
The surprising thing, however, is that the broader pagan culture in which Paul preached was much more tolerant of pederasty and sex with slaves than it was of sexual relationships between adult citizen males (though pederasty was more tolerated in Greek than in Roman culture). So if I had presented the scenarios above to the average pagan of Paul’s time, he would have found Charles and Brian’s behavior relatively unremarkable, but would think Adam and Steve’s behavior was shameful and a disgrace.
@Ladenheart suggests that, when the Apostle Paul condemned the arsenokoitai, he was reacting against the kind of same-sex relationships that were common in the surrounding pagan culture—for example, sex between adult men and adolescent boys, or masters forcing slaves to have sex with them—and that his condemnation was directed toward the age and power differences he found in ancient same-sex relationships. Thus, he suggested, Paul may not have intended to condemn committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.
This seems—at least superficially—a plausible way of reading the text. But we might want to stop and ask ourselves: how much of the plausibility of this reading is derived from the way we in contemporary Westerners think about sexuality? And how much do contemporary Western attitudes reflect deep engagement with the Christian faith?
As I argued in Pederasty and Arsenokoitai, Paul doesn’t use the common language for describing pederastic relationships, and, instead of focusing on the age or power differences in the relationships he saw, focuses on the fact that they involve two men.
Regarding age differences in general, the outlook of the ancient world was very different from our own. If I were writing a book on the subject, I would provide a general survey of ancient attitudes toward marriage of teenage girls to adult men. For a blog post, one example will have to do. The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia cites an apocryphal story about Mary and Joseph which, though it is quite unlikely to be true, gained some popularity and influenced some older religious art:
When forty years of age, Joseph married a woman called Melcha or Escha by some, Salome by others; they lived forty-nine years together and had six children, two daughters and four sons, the youngest of whom was James (the Less, “the Lord’s brother”). A year after his wife’s death, as the priests announced through Judea that they wished to find in the tribe of Judah a respectable man to espouse Mary, then twelve to fourteen years of age. Joseph, who was at the time ninety years old, went up to Jerusalem among the candidates; a miracle manifested the choice God had made of Joseph, and two years later the Annunciation took place.
In the modern world, the story of a 90-year-old man being espoused to a 12- or 14-year-old girl would be a source of scandal and would lead (except, perhaps, in New Hampshire) to prosecution. But, to ancient Christians, this was the sort of thing that could become a popular legend about two of the most revered figures in the Church’s origin story. In that religious context, it is unlikely that, if they vehemently objected to a man in his twenties or thirties having sex with a teenage boy, their primary objection was the age difference.
This touches on an even more difficult cultural disconnect. As disturbing as it is to modern consciences, Paul was much less concerned by slavery than we are. He was not a strong supporter of slavery, but he did not denounce it as unambiguously evil, either:
Every one should remain in the state in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7:20-24)
He encouraged slaves to obey their masters, and when he gives advice to masters, it strongly suggests that there were Christian slave-owners in the early Church:
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ . . . . Masters, do the same to them, and forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 6:5, 9)
On the other hand, when he returned the slave Onesimus to his master Philemon, he instructed Philemon to receive him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). This is encouraging, though I would have liked to see Paul speak much more unambiguously against slavery, which I believe is always wrong (see Gaudium et spes 27, 29).
Paul’s ambiguity on slavery is, for most people in the contemporary west, a challenge for his moral authority. Those, like me, who still respect Paul’s moral authority, but oppose slavery, have to admit that this makes it more challenging to read Paul’s letters and make simple, direct application to contemporary problems. (Readers interested in a more in-depth study of Christian debates about slavery in the Antebellum United States should consult Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.)
However, if we are just trying to understand Paul’s own moral views, it seems that the power difference between slave and master bothered him much less than it does us. It is therefore less likely that if he objected to masters having sex with their male slaves, he was primarily objecting to the power differential inherent in slavery. Although this would be the most serious source of evil for us, it seems unlikely that this would be such a serious concern to him.
As I said at the beginning, my own beliefs are relatively simple. @Ladenheart and others have argued that those who hold beliefs like mine are naive about how very different the ancient cultural context is, and thus miss the nuance of what Paul kinds of behavior has in mind when he speaks of the arsenokoitai.
Up to a point, I agree: I’ve been learning about the way ancient societies understood human sexuality for over 20 years now, and I still learn new and surprising things on a regular basis. But this very fact makes me skeptical when an exegete presents me with an Apostle Paul whose moral judgments are those of a typical 21st century man. Such a Paul will be plausible to 21st century readers. But he strikes me as being unlikely to be very like the author of the Pauline epistles.
If we want to move beyond merely obeying a prohibition, and attempt to understand why Paul prohibited same-sex relationships, we do need to carefully study the cultural context in which he wrote. However, this is only half the battle. If we learn the historical context, but then judge it with our own 21st century categories, we aren’t really trying to understand Paul’s reasoning.