A Key to Romans 1 – Hiding in Plain Sight

At Bible – thumping Liberal, the straight ally and evangelical Christian Ron Goetz asks a crucially important question:


August 27, 2013

I just got an email from Harold, one of my PFLAG friends. He asked the following question.

“How do you reconcile Paul’s words and yet support LGBTs?”

There are several good ways of approaching this question. One way looks at Paul’s specific words, what they mean and don’t mean, and then discover that Paul is not as anti-homosexual as fundamentalists make him out to be. Another way is to look at Paul as a man who was working out his theology, literally, as he went along. Another way is to see how Paul treated other issues of some disagreement, that have been puzzling or unclear to us. Finally, we can look at some of Paul’s own attitudes and interactions, and adopt some of them as our own.

-more at  Bible-Thumping Liberal.

This is important, because Paul’s words in Romans and in Corinthians are the most disturbing of all the Biblical clobber texts for lesbian and gay Christians. The story of Sodom in Genesis should not be troubling at all, as the Bible itself makes clear that the infamous “sin of Sodom” is about injustice, and pride, and has nothing whatever to do with homoeroticism. There are numerous responses to the verses in Leviticus, but the simplest one is just to note that these are part of the Jewish purity laws, like the dietary restrictions, the prohibition on clothing of mixed fibres and shaving one’s beard, and the obligation of male circumcision. As such, they simply do not apply to Christians – as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. The letters of Paul are another matter, less easy to reconcile with our experience of a same – sex affectional orientation.

So, how can we do so? In his post, Goetz goes on, to elaborate on each of these ways of looking at Paul. There is also another, simpler still: the words simply do not mean what they are popularly supposed to mean. I’ve already discussed how this is so for Corinthians, where the Greek words “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai” have been mistranslated as referring to homosexuals. (They don’t). For Romans 1, I suggest that the key is simpler still, hiding in plain sight – in the title. 

This is the letter to the Romans after all.

Hadrian and Antinous
Roman Emperor Hadrian and His Beloved, Antinous

Paul himself was a Roman citizen, and would surely have understood something of how his words would be interpreted. So let’s look at them:

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

(New International Version, at Bible Gateway)

That appears to be clear enough: “unnatural” sexual relations for women are lesbian, right? and it’s absolutely explicit that the men are “inflamed with lust” for each other – what we would call “gay”. Therefore, it must surely follow that homosexual acts are sinful?

Not so fast.

First, consider the context. These verses come at the end of a lengthy list of sins – for which these shameful and unnatural lists are the penalty – not the sin. Paul does not in fact say that these lusts are sinful – but that they are shameful. We must also note, as James Alison has reminded us, that the customary division into chapters and verses is a late amendment to the text. To get the full sense, we need to read Romans 1, followed immediately by Romans 2 – and the sense then becomes a warning against passing judgement on others.

But we still seem to be left with the idea that, whether as sin or penalty for sin, Paul seems to be saying that homosexual acts are at least shameful. But this too, is to read the words through a modern, European prism. This is why it is essential to remember that this was a Roman citizen, writing to Romans. What would “shameful acts” have meant to them, in the first century of the Christian era?

For them, “shameful” sex would certainly not have been interpreted as sex between men, or between women. Homosexuality was commonplace in Rome at the time, celebrated in literature, and slaves of either gender were freely available for sexual use. Male prostitution was not only legal, but even taxed, and male slaves worked alongside women in the brothels. Two Roman emperors married men, and Hadrian publlcly honoured Antinous after his boyfriend’s death, by naming a city after him and erecting numerous statues of him in public places. In a famous quote, Mark Anthony asked, “What does it matter where I put my dick?” (That is, whether in a vagina, or in a mouth or anus of a man or a woman, was of no great consequence). It should be obvious then, that Paul’s Roman readers and hearers would not have associated “shameful lusts” with homosexuality, per se. That was all around them (and there is no evidence that the Christians were any different in this respect to any others. John Boswell notes that the opposite may have applied: the pagans themselves believed that the Christians were even more prone to sexual laxity).

But Romans did have a very clear understanding of “shame” in sex, embodied in the term “stuprum”, and Julius Caesar, although also a notorious womanizer, was widely mocked by his own troops for his sexual relationship with a man, the king of Bithynia. The point is, that in this relationship, Caesar was believed to have taken the woman’s part – and therein lay the shame.

For Romans, appropriate sexual behaviour depended on the appropriate roles being taken – not on the gender of one’s partner, but on matching the sexual roles to the social status. For a male citizen, anything was acceptable with the people available to him, as long as he took the dominant role, as the active, or penetrating partner. That is why, for citizens like Mark Anthony, it really did not matter where he put his dick – as long as it was he who was doing the inserting. For Julius Caesar, who allowed another man to penetrate him, that was shameful. For men of lower social status, sex with other men was always permissible – as long as the proper roles were observed. Slaves were obliged to submit on demand to sexual use by their owners, but always in the passive, receptive mode. For a slave to penetrate a citizen, was regarded as shameful to both partners. Even freed slaves were expected, as a matter of courtesy rather than obligation, to submit to the sexual desires of their former owners.

For women, “natural” sex would have been to submit to their husbands, in a passive role. “Unnatural use” could have involved taking an active or dominant role in sex with their husbands, or with other male citizens, or in taking a passive role in sex with a slave. (The essential point was always to maintain sexual relationships that matched social status. Women were always inferior to male citizens, and so expected to submit to them. Slaves were inferior to everybody – and so should never take a dominant role with free women).

It is widely assumed that in Romans 1, Paul condemns homosexual acts as sinful. He does not. He refers to some forms of sexual acts as shameful, not sinful, and as a penalty for sin. And the shame does not lie in the gender of one’s partner, but in a mismatch between the sexual roles, and the social status of the partners – concern which would not apply in today’s egalitarian age. The idea that this passage does in fact refer to homoerotic sexuality simply does not accord with the way in which Paul’s words have been interpreted by his intended audience, and is a result of much later interpreters viewing them through the prism of their own prejudices – yet another example of the distorted Christian tradition on sexuality, and homosexuality in particular.

Books: History

Books: Bible

Enhanced by Zemanta

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *