Homoeroticism In The Biblical World | Notes

Martti Nissinen. Homoeroticism In The Biblical World: A Historical Perspective. Augsburg Fortress, 1998. (208 pages)

homoeroticism in the biblical world


Whether the texts I studied were biblical or Jewish, Assyrian, Greek, or Roman, the term “homosexuality” was absent from them and the concept alien. When the ancient sources describe or evaluate erotic encounters between people of the same sex, they refer to various acts and practices without attributing them to individual sexual orientation–to say nothing of a “sexuality” that would govern a person’s acts and desires. What they knew was gender–desires and tensions associated with gender difference, justified and nonjustified roles, practices and self-presentations within a gendered society, all of which involved love and hate, pain and pleasure. Same-sex interaction was but one aspect of a larger system of interpretation of gender. (vi)

The heuristic historical task became more and more hermeneutically motivated. I realized that we all are responsible participants in the gender culture around us and that the interpretation of the origin of this culture is one means of taking this responsibility. It was no longer a matter of individual traits of a distinct group of people out there somewhere, but a matter of interpretation of the Bible, culture, and the individual life of each of us as gendered human beings. Ultimately, it all turned out to be about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. No matter how sanctimonious this may sound, this is how I still feel. (vi)


Society, Church, and Homosexuality

Applying the biblical texts to our time, therefore, is always a hermeneutical event, in which the differences between the biblical and contemporary worlds are in some way smoothed out. … Internalized reading guided by this tradition is often unconscious to the point that the readers of the Bible do not even notice that they are constantly interpreting what they are reading. (4)

The purpose of this book is to read the sparse biblical texts that address or pertain to same-sex eroticism, to examine them in their historical contexts, and to determine precisely what they are arguing about, their interpretation of sex and gender, and how they understand erotic same-sex interaction. (4)

The essential question is how ancient texts, whether biblical or other, pertain to today’s understandings of same-sex interaction. Mechanical paralleling o the modern and ancient worlds often results in distorted perspectives in which modern questions are carelessly put into the mouths of ancient speakers. Not only are the ancient sources culture-bound, reflecting the values of their own environment, but so also are modern readers. To achieve a meaningful comparison and to avoid anachronism and ethnocentricity, it is necessary first to outline modern questions and then to see how these questions correlate with the old texts and their particular issues. (4)

Explaining “Homosexuality”

Greenberg (1988) compiled a comprehensive cross-cultural study of same-sex relations in different parts of the world in different times, and classified the types of socially sanctioned homosexual relations in different cultures in four categories:

  1. transgenerational homosexuality, involving an older and a younger (male) partner
  2. transgenderal homosexuality, which requires a cross-gender role (that is, a gender role opposite to a person’s biological sex) on the part of one of the partners
  3. egalitarian same-sex relationships
  4. class-distinguished homosexuality (7)

In postmodern discourse, the discussion about homosexuality has been affected by the polarization of the so-called essentialists and constructionists. Essentialists hold that the basic structures of sexuality and gender are independent of their social context, that people are born with their sexual orientation. … Constructionists see sexuality and its manifestations as social constructions. According to this view, gender is not a biologically determined and immutable fact but a product of social relations. (8)

Interpretation of Gender

All the sources examined in this study derive from the time “before sexuality,” that is, before “sexuality” and its derivatives were conceptualized through the scientia sexualis in the nineteenth century C.E. Without holding any particular brief for constructionism, the study of the sources written “before sexuality” has compelled me to recognize the limitations of modern concepts and distinctions like “homosexuality”–and I mean conceptualized homosexuality with all its modern implications. I have become convinced that same-sex interaction cannot be simply equated with “homosexuality” but must be viewed within the broader framework of gender identity, which in each culture and in each individual involves different interpretations. (10)

The ancient sources examined in subsequent chapters do not utilize–or even know–the concept of gender identity, which did not exist int he time “before sexuality.” (10)

[via: This is perhaps why some argue against “behavior” rather than “orientation.”]

Modern concepts like “sexuality” or “gender identity” are therefore inevitably anachronistic, all the more because they are used not just to describe but also to constitute reality. (Whether or not this anachronism is acceptable is another matter.) (11)

Sexual Orientation. These categories of sexual orientation represent a modern classification and cannot be found in ancient sources. The demarcation of homosexuality and heterosexuality presupposes a conceptualization of “sexuality.” (12)

Gender Identification.

Gender Roles.

Sexual Practice. According to Aristotle, menstrual blood cooperates with male sperm to form the embryo: “The menstrual fluid is semen, not indeed semen int he pure condition, but needing still to be acted upon.” (Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 728A:27-28) Nonetheless, because menstrual fluid cannot accomplish the final transformation, it is the male seed that plays the active role in creating new life: “The male provides the ‘form’ and the ‘principle of movement,’ the female provides the body, in other words, the material.” (729A:10-11) The subordination of women thus became justified quite early also on “biological” grounds, the interpretation of which was influenced by the societal interpretation of gender. (16)

Homosexuality, Homoeroticism, Homosociability

…the noun homosexuality will be used in a more restricted sense to denote homosexual orientation. Consequently, homosexual as a noun signifies a person “who has most or all of his or her erotic needs met in interactions with persons of the same sex” (Definition by Dennis M. Dailey, quoted by Jung and Smith 1993, 6) (16)

…men’s and women’s mutual erotic interaction also on the level of roles and practices, even without a thought of homosexual orientation: For such functions I use the term homoeroticism. By this term I mean all erotic-sexual encounters and experiences of people with persons of the same sex, whether the person is regarded as homosexual or not. (17)


The Epic of Gilgames

At most, the Epic of Gilgames can be described as a characterization of love between two men, with a homoerotic aspect that expresses their deep friendship. Nevertheless, the epic neither emphasizes nor idealizes the sexual aspect of the relationship. At the beginning, there is plenty of sex in the lives of Gilgames and Enkidu, but this lifestyle is presented as primitive and reckless. Already the dream of Gilgames brings a new, formerly unknown tone to his sexual fantasies: loving tenderness. As the story proceeds, the relationship between Gilgames and Enkidu deepens and, simultaneously, the sexual passions seem to subside to the point that one can speak of a “spiritual” love between the two men. The erotic tension between Gilgames and Enkidu is not lost, but it is transformed int he way that the same-sex interaction of the two men finally is characterized by love, with little if any sexual activity. Eroticism is important first and foremost as the impetus to the transformation which leads first from savage sexual behavior to mutual love, and finally away from physical sex. (24)

| Especially noteworthy is the equal relationship between the men, with no clear social or sexual role division. That Gilgames finds Enkidu his equal counterpart is the basis of their love. These men are united and become one on a level that was exceptional for a man and a woman under the normal conditions of the surrounding culture. They experience unity and share each other’s worlds–unlike a man and a woman, who live din separate worlds. This exemplifies less a homoerotic than a homosocial type of bonding, which is often strong in societies in which men’s and women’s worlds are segregated. Ancient literature knows also other examples of men’s relationships of equality, intimate affection, and companionship, for example that of Achilles and Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad or David and Jonathan in the Hebrew Bible. (24)

These stories, however, do not share the sexual pessimism and masculine asceticism of the Epic of Gilgames. (24)

Laws and Omens

Thus it cannot be said that Middle Assyrian Laws would take into consideration a case in which two men were involved as equals in a voluntary homoerotic relationship and for mutual satisfaction. The reason for the silence about this kind of relationship is scarcely that erotic interaction of this kind would have been common and approved but rather the fact that neither homosexual acts nor heterosexual acts were considered as being done by two equals. The Middle Assyrian Laws assume that one partner actively lies on top of the other. This becomes criminal in the case when the object is a tappa’u, a man of equal social status, or a man who was otherwise socially involved with the perpetrator, like a neighbor or a business partner. The Laws do not specify a case of penetrating a male who is not a tappa’u, for instance, a defeated enemy or someone of lower status who does not belong to the social circles of the perpetrator. (26)

Penetrating a tappa’u was tantamount to rape and deliberate disgrace, because the penetrating partner effects a change in the other partner’s role from active (male) to passive (female). Castration as a punishment was obviously intended not only to prevent the crime from happening again but also to alter permanently the role of the man who committed it. (26)

Rap to a rapist demonstrates power and superiority and is motivated by something other than sexual lust: sexual subjection involves surrender and loss of power. (27)

| The above examples show that the Assyrians distinguished between active and passive roles in sexual acts. (27)

…both texts assume the thought recognized already in the struggle between Horus and Seth: to become subjected to (anal) intercourse by another man involves shame and suppression; to do the same to another brings superiority and power. The law obviously was designed to prevent this power from being executed in concrete terms. (28)

Devotees of Istar: assinnu, kugarrû, kuluu

In Mesopotamia castration was a token of a lifelong devotion to the goddess, which in any case was the fate of an assinnu. Mesopotamian society included a considerable number of eunuchs (sa-resi) who frequently rose to high civil an military offices. (31)

Lucian (third century C.E.), for example, relates that these people were called “holy.” The alli had castrated themselves to dedicate themselves to the Syrian goddess for the rest of their lives; by doing this they shared the fate of Attis, who died of self-emasculation and subsequently rose from the dead. According to Lucian, the self-castration of the galli took place in a fervid trance in the middle of the crowd; a young man in an ecstatic state grabbed a sword, slashed with it his testicles and walked form house to house holding them in his hand and receiving women’s clothes and accessories from the people. The result was a “third gender,” which separated the galli irrevocably from ordinary people’s lifestyle and, later on, became the target of the promoters of the Christian faith, who saw in them the most outrageous example of the corruptness of the pagan world. (31-32)

Gallie are made of men but never men from galli. – Arcesilaus (c. 318-242 B.C.E.)

All things considered, it is possible that an assinnu occasionally served as the passive partner in a sexual contact with a man. How often and under what circumstances this happened is difficult to determine; the bit astammi suggests itself as a convenient environment. To have this kind of sexual contact was not an expression of sexual orientation of either of the partners, nor had it anything to do with insuring fertility. It meant a connection to the goddess who had visited the underworld and had been released from there. Sexual contact with a person whose whole life was devoted to the goddess was tantamount to union with the goddess herself. (33)

The sources from Mesopotamia do not speak of their sexual orientation but of their role and identity as devotees of Istar. This role was characteristically asexual rather than homosexual. (34)

In the final analysis, then, it is misleading to affiliate assinnu with our concept of homosexuality. … All this is beyond modern knowledge. (34)

We may conclude that the Mesopotamian interpretation of sex and gender differed from the modern understanding. … In the light of Mesopotamian texts, then, it may be more appropriate to speak of the male roles changed into either female roles or into a “third gender” or genderless roles in which the line between masculinity and femininity vacillates or disappears altogether. (35)


The Holiness Code: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

It might instead be compared to a catechism that teaches Israelites, especially adult males, God’s will and, accordingly, the rules for just behavior. (37)

The surprising reference to child sacrifice in a list of sexual offenses strengthens the impression that there is a cultic background. It has been commonly assumed, therefore, that the writers of the Holiness Code associated homoerotic behavior with sex connected to cultic practices. (39)

These texts give no concrete historical idea of the role and activity of the qedesim, (קדשים) because they date from a considerably later period than their setting, and they almost without exception represent Deuteronomistic polemics against disapproved cultic practices. (40)

Two interacting explanations suggest themselves: ancient sociosexual taboos, on the one hand, and the identity struggle of the Israelite community, on the other. (41)

The taboos functioned to protect society and its members. Social identity in an ancient Israelite community did not proceed from the perspective of fulfillment of one’s individual rights or preferences but from that of the protection of society. (42)

…other ancient Near Eastern sources display sexual ethics, taboos, and gender roles basically similar to those in the Hebrew Bible, with certain qualifications that serve the ends of the identity struggle. Linking sexual transgressions with the customs of neighboring peoples must be seen as an attempt to protect the identity of the early Jewish community, which had to maintain a distinctive profile in order to survive. (42)

In postexilic Israel, at the latest, one of the distinctive features of the people of Yahweh that separated them from others seems to have been that there was no compromise of gender identification: a “third gender” role comparable to that of the Mesopotamian or Syrian devotees of the goddesses was an impossible option for an Israelite. … Mixing gender roles was not a matter of personal preference or orientation but a cultural signifier. This doubtless was a factor in the later Jewish abhorrence of homoeroticism. (43)

| It can thus be plausibly maintained that regulations about same-sex acts and other gender-related commandments involved the linking of an ancient taboo with society’s strategy to survive. (43)

A woman could not lose her manly honor, and it was inconceivable to think of woman in an active role in a sexual act. Neither did female same-sex activity challenge male domination. Therefore, women’s homoeroticism did not pose nearly as big a problem as that of men. (43)

The Middle Assyrian Laws decree that a man who has raped another man be raped and castrated himself; his manly honor was to be disgraced, and he was to lose his masculinity and change his gender identity permanently. Also the Holiness code interprets sexual contact between two men as a confusion of gender roles…. (43)

Sodom: Genesis 19:1-11

Out of our way! This man has come and settled here as an alien, and does he now take it upon himself to judge us? We will treat you worse than them (Genesis 19:9)

…when a daughter lost her virginity, it put her father to shame (Deut. 22:20-21) (46)

…it is relevant to ask why the earliest references to Sodom did not especially emphasize the sexual aspect of its sin, even though the narrative seems to give good reason to do so. The answer lies in the story itself: The attempted homosexual rape is not the main theme in the story. The Sodomites’ behavior is characterized by excessive arrogance, xenophobia, and contempt of hospitality. (48)

Gang rape of a man has always been an extreme means to disgrace one’s enemies and put them in their place. Its purpose is to disgrace one’s manly honor, to reduce one to a woman’s role, which inevitably has a homoerotic aspect. It is not a matter of exercising one’s homosexual orientation or looking for erotic pleasure but simply of protecting or threatening one’s masculinity. Rape–homosexual or heterosexual–is the ultimate means of subjugation and domination, the reverse side of which is the fear of being raped. (48)

Gibeah: Judges 19

Judges 19 is a part of a larger collection of narratives (Judges 17-21), which as been positioned as a kind of link between the stories of the “judges” and of the kings as leaders of Israel. Within this macrocontext, the narrative serves as an example of the corruption of Israel without a proper government. (51)

All things considered, the stories at the end of the book of Judges are positioned to serve as the background and rationale for monarchy, which is consistent with the first Deuteronomist historian’s (DtrH) positive attitude toward the David monarchy in Israel. (51)

Ham and Noah: Genesis 9:20-27

By analogy, what Ham did can be interpreted as taking jurisdiction over what normally is a female sexual function–putting his father in a woman’s sexual role. (53)

It may be that the Yahwist wanted to criticize the dominance of Egypt–or his contemporary oppressors–and reverse the role of master and slave. (53)

David and Jonathan: 1 Samuel 18-20; 2 Samuel 1:26


Greek Male Homoeroticism

…”transgenerational homosexuality.” It was truly a matter of initiation, in which a boy, with the guidance of an adult, would mature into a man in both sexual and social senses. The goal was to maximize men’s spiritual capacity and moral virtue (arete). (58)


…only lovers can die for one another.

…military troops were sometimes arranged according to pederastic relations, so that a man and a boy would fight side by side, the older serving as a model and prodding the younger to heroic actions. (58)

It is impossible to understand a pederastic relationship without appreciating its essential role structure and, especially, its distinction of active and passive roles. A boy (“beloved,” eromenos) was a passive partner who was taught and brought up by an adult (“lover,” erates), an active partner, not primarily in the art of physical love but also and first of all in a cultural sense. In Sparta, where the community was regarded as more important than the family, an erates basically fulfilled the tasks that usually belonged to a father. (58)

| As formational relationship, pederasty aimed to develop youths into brave, cultivated men who would defend and serve their community in a manly way. (58)

The central idea is that love would inspire a man and a boy to compete in courage and virtues; the older one was to serve as an example, to win the admiration of the younger, and to give his protecting affection to the younger. In return, he would gain admiration and sexual satisfaction from the young men. (59)

When an older lover (erates) and a young man (paidika) come together and each obeys the principle appropriate to him–when the lover realizes that he is justified in doing anything for a loved one who grants him favors, and when the young man understands that he is justified in performing any service for a lover who can make him wise and virtuous–and when the lover is able to help the young man become wise and better, and the young man is eager to be taught and improved by his lover–then, and only then, when these two principles coincide absolutely, is it ever honorable for a young man to accept the lover. – Plato’s Symposium

Pederasty thus meant a homoerotic relationship in which the partners were not, at least in principle, homosexuals in the modern sense of the word. It would be more appropriate to speak of institutionalized bisexual role behavior, in which the partners expressed their sexuality form quite a different basis and in ways different from modern concepts of homosexuality. … Pederasty was not a biological but a social, pedagogical, and ethical phenomenon, in which social identity was more central than sexual identity. At the same time, it also reflected patriarchal society’s considerable mistrust of women’s spiritual capacity, as will be observed later. All this raises the question whether the term “homosexuality” is relevant here at all. At the least, as an expression for sexual orientation, the term does not correspond with the cultural construction of Greek pederasty. (60-61)

Each of us, then, is a “matching half” of a human whole, because each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one, and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him. That’s why a man who is split from the double sort (which used to be called ‘androgynous’) runs after women. Many lecherous men have come from this class, and so do the lecherous women who run after men. Women who are split from a woman, however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more toward women, and lesbians (hetairistriai) come from this class. People who are split from a male are male-oriented. While they are boys, because they are chips off the male block, they love men and enjoy lying with men and being embraced by men; those are the best of boys and lads, because they are the most manly in their nature. Of course, some say such boys are shameless, but they’re lying. It’s not because they have no shame that such boys do this, you see, but because they are bold and brave and masculine, and they tend to cherish what is like themselves. Do you want me to prove it? Look, these are the only kind of boys who grow up to be real men in politics. When they’re grown men, they are lovers of young men, and they naturally (physei) pay no attention to marriage or to making babies, except insofar as they are required by local custom (nomos). They, however, are quite satisfied to live their lives with one another unmarried. In every way, then, this sort of man grows up as a lover of young men and a lover of love, always rejoicing in his own kind. – Plato’s Symposium

Plato’s Symposium lists four virtues of Eros: justice (dikaiosyne), rationality (sophrosyne), courageousness (andreia), and wisdom (sophia). (62)

Both arts and literature real a certain tightening of sexual norms throughout the classical age. Sexual self-control (enkrateia) and related training (askesis) were regarded as philosophical ideas. Erotic desire naturally needed to be satisfied, but people were not to indulge in it, and desire itself was not to become a value. All activity that aimed solely to satisfy one’s own desires, whether regarding food, wine, sex, or gambling, became a target of philosophical suspicion. (62)

Greek social life was characterized by a separation of the worlds of men and women. (62)

Whereas man was “dry,” that is, self-possessed and cool, woman was seen as “wet,” that is, fickle, superstitious, incapable of persistent reflection, susceptible to emotional outbursts, and so forth. (64)

The Greeks regarded it impossible for a man to have a deep, all-encompassing love relationship with a woman. This was possible only between two men, and such was the aim of pederastic relations. (64)

Physical eroticism could take both heterosexual and homosexual forms, but spiritual love was something that happened between men only. Without this fact, it is impossible to understand what ancient pederasty was all about. (65)

In Greek pederasty the partners were not equal, and it was not intended that they should be. Sexual satisfaction belonged to the active partner, whereas the passive partner was not allowed to have sexual satisfaction or even aspire to it. (65)

A young, trained male body represented the ideal of beauty of the time, and the boys with good bodies were naturally the most popular. (65)

There were two kind of boys, it was believed: good boys (agathoi), with whom men could develop pederastic relationships, and call boys (pornoi), who were used as “one-night stands.” (68)

It was not proper for a decent boy to aspire to sexual satisfaction from a pederastic relationship. His role was to “render a service” (hypourgein) or to “grant a favor” (charizesthai) to the older male. (68)

Roman Male Homoeroticism

The Greek ideal of pederastic upbringing, which aimed at developing good, manly citizens, required that the partners come from the same social class. The Romans did not maintain this pedagogical goal, nor was homoeroticism at any point motivated by social or political reasons. Instead, the sexual dimension of the relationship was more emphasized than in Greece. (71)

| To generalize, it is conceivable that Roman homoeroticism was more physical and had more elements of subordination than what the Greek ideal would have condoned. (71)

For a free Roman citizen the passive role was shameful, as it involved the loss of one’s manly honor. (72)

In Rome, an essential part of the passive role was a feminine appearance. (72)

To conclude, Roman homoeroticism was not prohibited in principle, yet it did not hold any moral value. In its accepted form, however, it had its limits. Tolerance did not extend to those cases in which a free adult man had become the passive partner. (73)

Female Homoeroticism

Interestingly enough, the only positive descriptions of women’s eroticism (and the only sources written by women) come from Sappho, whereas men generally oppose women’s mutual erotic relations regardless of what they think of homoeroticism between men. Men viewed women’s relationships from a male perspective and ultimately made female homoeroticism a matter of male honor and shame. From this perspective, the supposed active role of one of the two parties in a female homoerotic relationship was considered a grave transgression of established gender role boundaries. It was worse than the passive role of a man, which brought shame only upon the individual, while the active role of a woman was an attack on manliness itself, threatening to lower its status and undermine the male privilege of penetration. Male and female homoeroticism, therefore, were not just symmetrical sides of the same coin but represented different kinds of sexual practices that required different treatment by male writers. (79)

Critiques of Homoeroticism

Attitudes toward homoeroticism in antiquity were not based on an assumption of two distinct identities and orientations, “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality,” between which one should have made a moral choice. (79)

Because masculinity was not a birthright but rather an achieved state of paramount moral significance, there was always the danger of losing it. (79)

Other morbid propensities are acquired by habit, for instance, plucking out the hair, biting the nails, eating cinders and earth, and also that of love of men (he ton aphrodision tois arresin). These practices result in some cases from natural disposition (physei), and in others from habit (ex ethous), as with those who have been abused from childhood. – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Manliness, according to the Roman understanding, did not automatically follow from anatomical sex but was an achieved state that had to be embodied and shown by culturally determined signs, a “symbolic language” of masculinity,… (83)

Plutarch’s discussion does not compare homosexual and heterosexual orientations but pederasty and marriage. (85)

By and large, by the Hellenistic age and at the beginning of the Common Era, homoerotic relations increasingly had taken forms that would hardly have been tolerated in the classical age. Thus it is no wonder that the issue was discussed by moral philosophers, which inevitably influenced both Jewish and Christian circles–especially if the criticism of homoeroticism could be harmonized with the Jewish tradition. During the formative period of the early church, Greco-Roman philosophical models prepared the soil and conceptual basis for Jewish and Christian condemnation of homoerotic relations. (88)


Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

There are no unambiguous references to homoeroticism, which has to be read between the lines from statements that leave room for diverse interpretations. (89)

The corrupt sexual practices are generally seen as deriving from idolatry. (90)

What has same-sex eroticism, then, to do with the polemic regarding the Gentiles, the Watchers, and the Sodomites? These texts are obscure inasmuch as same-sex conduct is an independent concept in them but rather looms behind a variety of terms that have different intentions and interpretations. Based on these concepts, it is possible to understand same-sex sexual behavior as one way to “change” the ordinary to the unordinary, to change divinely based life orders to illicit ones. Ultimately all this is regarded as paganism, an expression and result of idolatry. It will become apparent below how this mode of thought had a crucial influence on Paul’s arguments. (93)

Josephus, Philo, and Pseudo-Phocylides

Philo, Josephus, and Pseudo-Phocylides argue against homoeroticism by traditional Jewish reasoning. However, they, more than others, are clearly thinking of the most common form of homoeroticism of their time, pederasty, and express their explicit opinions about it. Yet their criticism does not arise solely from their Jewish context, because they all aim to build a bridge between Jewish and Hellenistic cultures. It is quite clear that especially Philo agrees in detail with those moral philosophers who reproach homoerotic relations and the effeminacy of the passive partner in particular. In assessing pederasty, it was easy for Hellenistic Jews to join the similar criticism of their most famous contemporary moral philosophers. “Here again the Jewish writers were not simply at variance with Greek morality, but could be seen as taking sides in widespread Greek debate.” But they gave the Greek concepts new contents adapted to Jewish tradition. In terms of homoeroticism this meant a more categorical refutation than the Greeks thought necessary. This was no doubt influenced by the fact that the Hellenistic Jewish Diaspora was a minority society, the identity of which required defending their own particularity against the dominant culture. (97)

| The Hellenistic Jewish argument will become manifest again in Paul’s writing. (97)

Rabbinic Literature

The Rabbinic texts have no term for “homosexuality” any more than the Hebrew Bible has. These texts are concerned with the blurring of gender roles and the penetration of a male rather than same-sex desire or “homosexuality.” (98)


Paul and the Unnatural: Romans 1:26-27

The question arises whether the word physis is part of Paul’s own deliberate theological terminology or whether he more spontaneously follows convention here. (105)

Accordingly, “unnatural” is a synonym for “(seriously) unconventional.” (105)

Paul’s argument about the “unnatural” is thus not his own creation but grows from his Hellenistic Jewish background. Also, it does not represent any specifically new Christian morality. (105)

Physis (nature), however, is not a synonym for ktisis (creation); creation and nature are not interchangeable concepts in Paul’s theology. The criterion for the “unnatural” or “against nature” (para physin) does not by itself imply any distinct theology of creation; these expressions instead relate to the concept of the “law of nature” (nomos physeos) identical with the law of God. (107)

That Paul refers to the woman as “their women” (1:26) is a clear indication of an implied gender role structure. Paul’s understanding of the naturalness of men’s and women’s gender roles is not a matter of genital formation and their functional purpose, which today is considered the main criterion for the unnatural. A man and a woman each have their own place and role, which are not to be exchanged. (107)

The word plane (“error”) is often understood as referring precisely to homoeroticism, which brings punishment to those involved–venereal disease, for example. It is more probable, however, that plane is not just a sexual lapse on the part of some individuals but a much broader phenomenon that applies to all the people in question (en heautois), namely, idolatry. … To “exchange” one’s sexual behavior as such is due recompense for this fundamental error, especially since God has left people to the consequences of their passions. This is where divine retribution, the wrath of God (orge theou, 1:18), has been revealed. (109)

…the categories of sexual orientation play no role here. Paul’s criticism does not focus on homosexuals or heterosexuals but more generally on persons who participate in same-sex erotic acts. The distinction between sexual orientations is clearly an anachronism that does not help to understand Paul’s line of argumentation. (109)

What matters here is the theology of justification by faith, not homoeroticism as such. Paul’s rhetorical strategy in Romans 1-2 seems to be to stimulate his readers’ moral indignation by listing sins traditionally associated with Gentiles, in conventional Jewish wordings–but this is a rhetorical trap: Paul turns the force of his criticism against his potential readers. (111)

Men Who Sleep–with Whom? 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

All vice lists appear as summaries, rarely referring to the actual context of the vices or to the real people to whom the text is directed. Compilers of such lists are not particularly selective about their content but use them to describe all the evil people could potentially do. The longer the list, the more weight it has;… It is hard to know whether Paul in his list in 1 Corinthians want to underscore any particular point, although he doubtlessly concurs with the items in it. It is equally difficult to know whether any vice mentioned in the list was an especially real problem in the Corinthian congregation. (113)

Nothing else in 1 Corinthians 6 can be interpreted in terms of homoerotic conduct. (114)

Whether fully convincing or not, these attempts not only show how difficult it really is to determine the actual meaning of this word in different contexts but also illustrate that our questions do not emerge solely from “objective” philological interest but from ideological needs as well. (117)

Yet the contention that a man’s homosexuality does not always appear in his femininity misses the point. Evidently this is the case today, but it is equally clear that in the Greek and especially the Roman cultures at the beginning of the Common Era the passive partner in a homoerotic relationship, the cinaedus, was considered expressly girlish and was hence held in contempt. In any case, “effeminacy” in our sources does not refer to the sexual orientation or gender identification of a (male) person of whom it is used but to his moral quality as characterized by the traditional signs of effeminacy–lack of self-control and yielding to pleasures. This certainly motivated Paul to use the word malakos in his list of vices. (118)

Regardless of the kind of sexuality meant in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, in their current contexts they are examples of the exploitation of persons. … What Paul primarily opposes is the wrong that people do to others. (118)

Jesus and Homosexuality

Broadly speaking, “eunuch” can mean anybody who finds marital life impossible. (120)


Homosexuality and the Biblical Interpretation

If we want the Bible and other ancient sources to contribute to today’s discussion, the starting point is the sensible hermeneutical principle that there must be a sufficient correlation between the topics discussed today and the ancient sources. (123)

…it is important to remember that “sexuality,” with its derivatives “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality,” is a modern abstraction with no equivalent in the Bible or other ancient sources. This means that the distinguishing of sexual orientations, with the accompanying rationales and justifications, also is a modern phenomenon with a quite different basis and motivation for argumentation from the way ancient sources deal with same-sex eroticism. (124)

Other biblical authors can be held responsible only for those questions and answers they themselves posed or could have posed. They cannot be expected to give statements about questions for which they were not sufficiently equipped or knowledgeable. (125)

The Interpretation of Same-Sex Relations Then and Now

The threat of homoeroticism and the homophobia it generates seem, after all, to have more to do with issues of masculinity and femininity than anatomy or psychology. (132)

Values, however, cannot be derived from anatomy. (133)

The boundaries set by society are difficult to cross, even by the power of love. (134)

Yet, somewhere between tragedy and ecstasy lie the struggles of daily life. – Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality.

Appendix: Creation, Nature, and Gender Identity

…the concept of “nature” needs to be defined. In modern language at least three intertwined meanings of this word can be identified: (1) the empirical meaning: the sum of observable facts; (2) the teleological meaning: the function and goal of natural phenomena; and (3) the cultural meaning: a synonym for the word “normal.” (136)

This concept is thus descriptive rather than normative. However, although deliberate manipulation of natural phenomena can be called “unnatural” or “against nature,” values cannot be drawn from observable phenomena, and “nature” in a purely descriptive sense carries with it no moral obligation. (136)

To consider creation or nature as a static condition or a series of events according to absolute laws of nature would lead to naturalistic determinism. There is really no such single rule to which all phenomena and creatures could conform. To see “nature” as a machine in which each part serves its own function is reminiscent of the Enlightenment’s mechanistic notion of “nature” and easily leads to rigid functionalist definitions. (138)

If creation is not a static condition but constantly being rejuvenating, we can understand that it looks different in different times, in the material world as well as in social communities. (138)

Love must not be confused with “tolerance,” which is also considered an exemplary way to relate to “different” people. Tolerance can be a paternalistic attitude that maintains different processes and systems for externalization and marginalization. The one who tolerates is seen as above the other. The distance and difference between the self and the other remains, because the need to tolerate requires that there is something wrong with the other person. Love, on the other hand, means stepping into another person’s shoes, carrying his or her load, suffering together (sympathein). Love is not about striving toward an objective good but about putting oneself at risk for another human being. Stepping in the other person’s shoes, we can see ourselves in that person and love him or her. This means understanding the other person from his or her own point of view, even when the person’s lifestyle or opinions appear strange or wrong. (139-140)

The question, “Why is this person’s sexual orientation something other than purely heterosexual?” may still be relevant. But another question is far more important, a question posed to everybody: “Why is the other person’s different gender identity a problem for me and my society?” This question forces us to look into the mirror, which is the first step–a necessary step–in loving the neighbor as oneself. (140)


About VIA



  1. Pingback: Oriented to Faith | Review & Notes | vialogue

  2. Pingback: Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

  3. Pingback: Another Gospel? | Reflections, Notes, & Critical Review | vialogue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: