Romans 1:24 – 27, Part Two – Historical, Cultural Context.

I wrote recently about interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Romans as it affects LGBT Christians, pointing out that if we approach it with due consideration for the context of the full Chapter 1 and opening of Chapter 2, and not just the frequently quoted verses of 1:24 – 27, the sense of the passage changes substantially. This is not after all a condemnation of same – sex relationships as sinful. Paul does however, describe them as “shameful”. To appreciate more precisely what he means by this, and what it should mean for gay Christians today, we need to pay attention to another of the principles recommended for biblical interpretation by the Pontifical Biblical Commission: the need to consider the historical and cultural context appertaining at the time of writing.

I made a start on this in a previous post, where I argued that when the cultural context is considered for this passage, the real meaning is hiding in plain site: Paul was writing to the Romans, for whom sex in all its variety, was an even bigger part of daily life than in modern Western cities, with no general hostility to same – gender sexual practices.

Ithyphallic Tintinnabulum in British Museum (Source: Wikipedia)




“The first – century Roman world was pervaded by sexuality in a way that even modern Americans might find astonishing. It was not uncommon for home furnishings, cups, plates, floor mosaics and wall – paintings to carry representations of sexual intercourse, whether same – gender or opposite – gender. Nor was it uncommon for a person who owned slaves to treat one or more of them, whether of the same or opposite gender, as a sexual partner. Paul was in Gentile houses. He was scarcely ignorant of the differences in mores. He will certainly have had to come to grips with this most obvious of differences – the place of same – gender sexual relationships.

But that does not explain why Paul appears to label gay sex as shameful. To see that, we need to remember that while Paul was a Roman citizen writing to Romans, he was also a Jew, and indeed a Pharisee, for whom Jewish law and especially the purity laws were of crucial importance. This is often the rejoinder of the defendants of the traditional view on the bible and homosexuality, with the claim that as a Jew, Paul would necessarily have shared and promoted the accepted Old Testament condemnation of same – sex activity. (That “traditional” OT view is itself not as simple as commonly supposed, but that’s another story).

This is where Countryman’s analysis adds a dimension that I overlooked in my own post. Countryman puts into his title , “Dirt, Greed and Sex”, single words to represent the two key elements in Jewish approaches to sexual ethics: that they were understood in terms of the Jewish Holiness Code, or purity laws (“Dirt”), and property law (“Greed”)- because wives were seen as a form of property, belonging to their husbands, and before marriage to their fathers. It’s the purity element that concerns us here.

The Levitical condemnation of a man lying with another man “as with a woman” is embedded in a larger context of a number of purity regulations, including the familiar dietary restrictions, the obligation for men to be circumcised, and many others. But the point of these was to keep the Jewish clearly identified as distinct from other peoples. It was explicitly agreed by the early Christians, at Paul’s own insistence, that circumcision was not a requirement for Gentiles – and Countryman argues that in context, removing the “burden” of circumcision for the Gentiles was a shorthand for removing the obligations of all the purity laws – including the Levitical prohibition on male anal sex. (Elsewhere, Countryman argues that Leviticus passes no judgement on other forms of male same – sex practice).

Understanding both the cultural contexts, that of Paul as a Jew, and that of the Romans to whom he is writing, is further powerful evidence that Romans 1 should not be taken as condemnation of sex between men. The text describes such activities not as sinful, but as shameful. As a Jew, they are shameful to Paul, personally. But to the Romans, sex between men was not in itself shameful – but it could be, depending on the nature of the partners.

Reading the clause “Men committed shameful acts with other men” (1:27), we assume that such acts were shameful because they were between people of the same gender, but that is not the way Romans would have heard the words. For them, what made sexual partners acceptable, or shameful, was not the gender of the partners, but their relative social positions and the sexual roles they adopted. As noted above, it was routine for male Roman citizens to make sexual use of their slaves, either male or female, with no association of shame with either, provided that he took the dominant, active and penetrating part. What would have been shameful, would be a citizen taking the passive, submissive part in allowing a slave to penetrate him sexually – or to allow a woman to take the dominant role in sexual intercourse.

A more accurate reading, taking account of the cultural context, would include as understood, additional words appended to the familiar ones, perhaps something like this:

“Men committed shameful acts with other men, citizens and freemen allowing themselves to be penetrated by slaves“.

In the first post in this series on Romans 1, I showed that by applying the hermeneutical principle of considering the textual context of the verse, we can see that is not the people engaging in same – gender intercourse that are being condemned, but those who freely criticize others. Along the way, I also pointed out that such intercourse is not described as sinful, but simply as shameful.

By considering also the two cultural contexts relevant to Paul and his audience, we can now see also that what is “shameful” to the Romans could not have been the identity of gender involved, but more probably, the adoption of in sexual roles inappropriate to the partners’ relative social status. (The same point applies to the reference to women who “exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones”. There is nothing in the text to suggest that these unnatural ones were with each other).

In further posts in this series, I will discuss the implications for understanding Romans 1, when due consideration is given to the other points insisted on by the Biblical Pontifical Commission: careful linguistic and literary analysis, and understanding the modern cultural context, in drawing lessons for today’s conditions.

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