In the last two posts, I’ve explored the ancient Roman context of homosexuality. This, of course, will help color in the borders of the portrait that the New Testament paints—and yes, we’ll get to the New Testament in due time. I don’t want to attempt to broadcast what the New Testament says about such a delicate issue until I have understood the world in which it was written. We must first find out what the Bible meant to them before we can accurately know what it means for us.

For this post, I want to address the common view that Paul did not know about same-sex orientation. That is, he didn’t know what we now know (do we?) about biology playing a huge role in shaping one’s attraction. And so some say that if Paul only knew that same-sex attraction was determined, or influenced, at birth, he greek homo 1would not have said the things he did in Romans 1 and elsewhere.

Regardless of what Romans 1 means—which we’ll get to soon enough—this argument is historically fallacious.

Again, it is (obviously) true that we moderns have a much clearer (though still clouded) perspective on the biological and societal influence on homosexual behavior. And it’s also true that we now believe that the earth revolves around the sun. However, and again, I think this is overplayed. (The bit about orientation, not the earth and sun.) While the ancients didn’t have a highly developed understanding of potential biological causes of homosexual behavior, they did speculate at times about “nature” causing some men to desire to have sex with other men.

Aristotle, for instance, said that some homoerotic desires come from habit, but others spring from nature (Eth. 1148b, lines 28-34). In other words, some people are born with same sex desires. Another Greek writer (pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata 4.26) says that the desire of some males to play the passive role in intercourse is due to a “physiological abnormality.” The details are bizarre and scientifically bogus. But the point is: this writer believed that biology played a role. A second century Roman physician named Soranus disagrees that such behavior is physiological, but argues that it’s a result of some defect in the mind or spirit (De morbis chronicis 4:131, 132, 134). This view seems to be shared by Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, who talks about “the disease of effeminacy in their souls” (VCon 60; Ab 136). A similar perspective is shared by fifth century Greek physician Hippocrates, who believed that “the conditions of both male effeminacy and female mannishness are determined genetically” (Thomas Hubbard referring to Hippocrates On Regimen, 1.28-29).

One of the most fascinating speculations is found in Phaedrus, who wrote his Fable around the time of Jesus. Phaedrus wonders why some women prefer women, and some men prefer men. He says (jokingly?) that the god Prometheus got drunk and attached male genitilia to women, and women

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genitilia to men. In other words, some women are born trapped in men’s bodies while some men are trapped in women’s bodies (Phdr. 4.16). Sounds like an ancient myth about why some people are transsexual.

Now, to be sure, biological speculations such as these are relatively few. Most writers just talked about the same-sex activity of some individuals without referring to biological causes. In any case, to say that the ancients had no idea about biological influences over sexual orientation is—from everything I’ve read thus far—wrong.

What does this mean for interpreting the New Testament passages about homosexual activity? I’ll conclude with two observations.

First, it’s inaccurate, or at least quite speculative, to say: If Paul understood what we know now, that some people are born with same sex orientation, then he would not have condemned such behavior. Since speculations about biological influence on same-sex orientation were around in Paul’s day, there’s no reason to believe that he was unaware of them.

Second, saying that Paul “condemns homosexuality” in, say, Romans 1 is slightly inaccurate. Why? Because it assumes that Paul is aware of a modern category or identity marker. Again, in the Roman world (i.e. Paul’s world), a man could have sex with his male slave and yet not be considered gay; that is, sexually oriented toward men. It all depends on whether he was “active” or “passive” in the act. So, the term “homosexuality” only clutters the biblical text. What Paul prohibits in Romans 1 (as I’ll show in a later post) is men having sex with men, and women having sex with women. It doesn’t matter for Paul whether or not they were “gay,” according to ancient standards. It was the act that mattered.

I know I’ve given this caveat several times, but I feel the need to give it again. This post (and every other post on this issue) is not attempting to make conclusive statements about how Christians should view homosexuality or the LGBT community. All I’m doing is trying to understand piece by piece the biblical passages that directly talk about same-sex intercourse. We have to first find all the pieces of the puzzle and arrange them in the right order—and resist cramming some pieces into spots they weren’t designed to fill (like Genesis 18-19) before we can step back and view the complete biblical portrait on this issue.

Gone are the days when mindlessly quoting verses at random helps the discussion—or people.

Series Navigation<< Was “Homosexuality” Unknown to Paul?Jesus & Homosexuality >>

30 COMMENTS

  1. Is this post out of order? It says 9 of 10 while yesterday’s says 10 of 10. Loving this series, by the way, and intend on purchasing the book. For my part, I am wondering why a biological or social predisposition is relevant, in the light of Christ? If we are predisposed because we are born sinful, to selfishness, desire for money and to steal, and to pridefully make ourselves look better than we are to others, yet commanded to behave contrary to those (sinful) natures, and empowered to do so by God, why is homosexuality or the desire for same-sex physical acts, any different from illicit heterosexual acts. That assumes that Romans 1, at least, implies that those acts and desires are sinful, which *seems* fairly clearcut, or at least as clearcut as a lot of other condemnations of sin that are rarely challenged, such as fornication and divorce without persistent adultery.

    • Ya, good question, David. And I agree for the most part: We are all born with sinful tenancies and commanded not to act on those if they are sin. If we assume for the time being that acting on homosexual desires constitutes sin, then the biological influences are somewhat tangential. Even Justin Lee, a gay Christian who doesn’t think the Bible clearly prohibits same-sex relations, agrees with this line of thinking in itself.

      In a sense, though, my post is aimed at a different question. Instead of: Is it sinful to act upon inborn desires? I’m asking the question: Was the idea of biological influence of homoeroticism foreign to the ancient Roman thinkers? I’ll need to, of course, address your question later on.

      But let me play devils advocate. If God empowers people to change inborn desires, why do so many (like 95%) of believers who have unwanted same-sex attraction not experience change? We should expect to see a good deal of empirical success, as we do other areas, such as alcoholism, greed, etc. But with same-sex attraction, we don’t for the most part.

      Also, it’s not exactly the same as those who have heterosexual inborn desire for sex. Yes, we are to not act upon this outside of marriage, but we have the hope of getting marriage and fulfilling our sexual urges. Even Paul says that it’s better to marry than to burn (1 Cor 7), acknowledging that marriage is one way to satisfy sexual urges. But gay people seeking to follow Christ, who are told that it’s a sin to act upon their desires even in the context of a monogamous marriage, have no such hope. How do they satisfy their “burning” desire (1 Cor 7) for sex?

      • Those are some very good questions, I look forward to seeing some answers. 🙂 My automatic response would be that our “sexuality” is so closely intertwined with our identity and worldview that it falls into a different category than say, alcoholism.

        I understand your post here is establishing that the “if Paul ‘knew’ what we ‘know’ now” argument about biology, psychology, psychiatry and homoeroticism. It’s been a long time since I read many ancient philosophers, and admittedly I read more Greek than Roman thinkers, but I remember one or two of them contemplating about desire and the will, ego and biology, more about ‘wants’ and necessities like food than sexual ideas, but those ideas were definitely around.

  2. For what it’s worth, readers might be interested to know that John Corvino, the “Gay Moralist,” even agrees with Preston’s second concluding point: the cause of same-sex attraction is irrelevant to the moral question of same-sex sexual activity. See ch. 5 of his “What’s Wrong with Homosexuality?”

  3. Could you please prove your assumption that “we know now, that some people are born with same sex orientation.” This is not founded upon exegetical or theological reasoning, therefore what is your basis for such an assertion.

    • Michael,

      Thanks for dropping in, Michael. I appreciate your pushback. However, it might be good to read the post again. I’m quoting the argument here, not making an assertion. On two occasions, I drop parenthetical hints that our knowledge of biological influences is still “cloudy.” Or to quote myself: “what we now know (do we?) about biology playing a huge role in shaping one’s attraction.” That “do we?” implies that this is still debated.

      For what it’s worth, almost every expert I’ve read on both sides of the debate now say that same sex attraction is influenced by both biology and society.

      Theologically? We’re all born in sin, so same sex orientation at birth shouldn’t surprise us.

  4. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all 10 posts on this topic. It is refreshing to read a “discussion” about an issue that digs deep into the details without bashing the subject. Thank you. First of all I would say that Paul’s words would be the same, regardless of his knowledge of homosexuality at all, because his words are really God’s words. Second of all, I don’t think the Roman’s would have cared enough to delve into why there were homosexual acts in their empire because they seemed to enjoy just about every form of debauchery that existed without caution. A research of the biological studies of that time may assist with knowing if the Roman’s were aware of any biological influences of homosexual behavior. Third and last, is it possible that the sin of homosexuality is an abomination because when committing a sexual act with another person we are becoming “one” with that person and God never intended two men or two women to become “one”? He made male and female for a purpose and that purpose cannot be accomplished with two members of the same sex. And one partner has to take the female role which blurs the lines between the genders. Thank you for the thought provoking posts.

    • Veronica,

      Glad you enjoyed the posts. All 10! Wow, that’s a lot of reading.
      Quick response to your three points:

      1) Paul’s words = God’s words. True, but inspiration does not mean “dictation,” and Paul very much spoke out of and into his own culturally context. He wasn’t in some trance mindlessly writing God’s words; rather, he was moved by the Spirit to say things that flowed out of his own historical/cultural context.

      No time to prove this, but it’s the standard Evangelical view of inspiration.

      2. “The” Romans is too simplified. There were hugely diverse opinions on gay sex. Seneca opposed it. Juneval celebrated it. Nero and the emperors participated in it. I’m not sure what you were getting at with your last line: ” A research of the biological studies of that time may assist with
      knowing if the Roman’s were aware of any biological influences of
      homosexual behavior.” My post was a brief summary of such “research.” Were you simply affirming the post?

      3. Ya, good point. This is definitely possible. However, I’d need to see explicit textual support for this REASON for why God prohibits same-sex intercourse. But ya, I think there’s a lot of truth to this and I’ll continue to explore it as an option when I get to this part of my study (namely, exploring the “why”).

      Thanks again for dropping in and offering some very helpful comments.

      • I love to read and especially topics that reflect the issues of our day. I love to hear other’s view points. It challenges me and helps me to think outside of my own preconceived ideas.

        1. I recognize that the writers write from their own cultural/historical perspective. But it is still inspired words of God. And I realize it kind of has to be filtered for what is applicable today, but this can be very dangerous. Because homosexuality still exists today, in much the same way, affirms that the statement most likely would have stayed the same. If the difference between then and today is a possible biological component, I still don’t see that Paul’s words would be different. It is either a sin or not regardless of the cause.

        2. I was reaffirming your post. Studying the time period is new to me and I enjoy being able to put it all in perspective.

        3. I will be waiting to see what you come up with.

        Thank you for making me think.

  5. It is speculative to say which side of the argument Paul would fall on if he had todays information but to say it would be different in some way is not speculative. What we know now from modern day genetics would have radically changed the opinions of everyone you mentioned, from Paul to Plato. The argument is not to say which side they would fall on but instead if the new information is important to the claim itself. Paul today would not have the same opinion because the facts have changed, unless you understand Paul to not to have factual opinions. Whether he would be more for or against homosexuality is not fair to speculate but to say his opinion would be different is fair.

    • Garner,

      Thanks for dropping in and taking the time to post what seems to be a thoughtful comment. Unfortunately, after reading your comment twice, I’m still not sure whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with me. Can you clarify? I’d love to respond, or even change my view if necessary, but I need more clarity first.

  6. Preston,
    Thank you for this series and the time and study you have put into this issue. I was naive to think as a Believer I would never have to deal with this issue ‘up-close and personal’. But I recently found out a friend from high school, a Believer, is living in a monogamous lesbian relationship. It has presented me with all sorts of questions and conundrums. I appreciate the lack of emotion in your arguments as I don’t believe that helps either side get anywhere fruitful. I also appreciate how you look at both sides of each argument. I’m new to trying to understand how someone could try and use the Bible to justify a LGBT lifestyle and have learned much from your posts. Knowing I too am only a sinner justified by grace and no better than anyone else, keeping this truth a reality in front of me while learning about these issues helps me remember all people are souls bound for somewhere in eternity. Keeping the love of Christ forefront is crucial, I understand this even moreso now. Keep up the flow of info! Sincerely, Marissa

      • I was wondering if there was a reason, when you mentioned why Paul wrote certain things, you didn’t refer to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit directing his thoughts and words? Is this something you don’t believe? These weren’t Paul’s personal thoughts, but words from God Himself. Just curious.

  7. You’ve done a good job here, but stopped short of the real answer. Roman society was modeled after Greek society, which in turn was modeled according to their religious beliefs. (The Romans accepted those beliefs as well, just giving the deities more latinized names.)
    The Greco-Roman creation story speaks of a single human who was split in two. One half was male, the other female. (Not too different from Genesis.) But here is where the story diverges: The story goes that because of this splitting, neither person was complete. Whereas the first person was complete, once the male and female parts were divided, both were only half a person. So the Greeks, and later the Romans, sought to restore the wholeness. One way in which they tried to do this was by being sexually active with both sexes.

    Now, we shouldn’t get the idea that life in the Greco-Roman world was one big, long bisexual orgy. They did have rules. (What the Caesar’s did isn’t really relevant; they did what they wanted and more than one was certifiably insane. Anyone who makes his horse a senator isn’t all there!)
    A woman was allowed one husband, and was not supposed to be intimate with any other man. She was, however, allowed, and expected, to have intimate relations with other women. Nobody was thinking in terms of sexual orientation. This was just what their culture expected of them, what was taught as normal, what they had grown up with.
    A man could have a wife, or wives if he could support them. He was not supposed to be intimate with a woman he wasn’t married to. (A flourishing prostitution trade shows us that the rules weren’t always followed.) But an adult man was also expected to form a relationship with a teenage boy, to whom he would be teacher, mentor and lover. The physical aspect of this relationship was supposed to be severed when the young man reached adulthood, and each would form new relationships with others. (It did happen that the two would fall in love, and the relationship would continue.)
    Again, this was considered normal, not pedophilia. A man would refer to his “boy.” A man generally would not use the word boy to refer to his son, as it was understood to mean a younger partner. (It could be used in general terms to refer to any boy, but one usually would not refer to one’s son that way.) It was not uncommon for a man to form such a partnership with a slave boy. The centurion who came to Jesus mentioned his boy. (KJV incorrectly translates it as servant in all places; only at the end of one account is it mentioned that the boy was a slave.) Such a relationship was commonplace, and wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows in Judea or Galilee, since they had been under Greek and then Roman rule for centuries. So when the centurion told Jesus his boy was sick, Jesus would have known exactly what the relationship was. But it had no effect on His response. The boy was healed. And rather than condemn the relationship after the centurion’s departure, Jesus praised the man’s faith, saying He had not found such faith in Israel.
    Was the centurion homosexual? Maybe. Maybe not. They didn’t understand such words or sexual orientation. But using modern terminology, their culture expected them to live as bisexuals, regardless of their own nature.
    It is this error that Paul addressed in Romans 1. Notice that this chapter has much to do with their religion. It was because of their religious beliefs, which included worshiping things created instead of the true Creator, that they fell into this error.
    In any population, the majority of people are heterosexual by orientation. Even without knowing anything about sexual orientation or such words, Paul knew that. And so he addressed his remarks about what was going on in Rome in reference to that majority. When Paul speaks of “nature” in vss. 26 & 27, he is not speaking of the greater creation. Rather, this word is referring to the Romans’ own nature, what was natural FOR THEM. In other words, he was referring to a concept that was not at all understood at the time: sexual orientation. He speaks of people “leaving” and “exchanging” what was natural (for them) for what was against (their) nature. And of course, when heterosexuals live as bisexuals, that is exactly what happens. Paul wasn’t trying to condemn the concept of homosexuality. His point was that most of these people were ignoring the way they had been created, their own nature, and that this was a result of their flawed religious beliefs and idolatry.
    So if we follow his logic, every person is created with a “nature” (sexual orientation) and societal expectations are not a good enough reason to ignore that nature. In effect, to ignore one’s own nature in this sense is like telling God He made a mistake.

    Note that nature in this sense is not the same as our sinful nature, which obviously we try to overcome. Some things that are in our nature are supposed to be there. Centuries ago, parts of Europe got the idea that red hair was a sign of demonic influence and shunned and persecuted redheads. Of course, today, we understand that having red hair, while not the norm for most people, is simply a genetic variant, and neither good nor bad. As late as the mid-20th century, left-handed people were being forced to use their right hand. For centuries, Christian Europe and later America had adopted the idea that the left hand was the devil’s hand. Why? Because the Latin word for “left” is sinister. Today we know that even though only about 10% of people are left-handed, it is not evil, it is not chosen, but is a normal variant.
    Having red hair and being left-handed are in some people’s nature. For them it is natural. For me, a right-handed individual, to try to force myself to use my left hand is an error, and is a denial of the way I was created.
    Paul saw the forced bisexuality of Rome the same way. And if it was wrong for heterosexuals to try to change their sexuality to meet societal or religious expectations, isn’t it wrong for homosexuals to do the same thing?

  8. Hello Preston,

    Thank you for your posts (the entire series!). I don’t know if you plan on addressing this, but I sure would appreciate it.

    As you know, sexual orientation is much more than just the sex of whom we want to have intercourse with. And so while I agree with you that Romans clearly prohibits men having sex with men and women having sex with women (the act of intercourse), as a Christian (fundie!) man who believes in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, who also undeniably is attracted to people of the same sex, I have a hard time struggling with the “other” aspects of “homosexuality”.

    That is, I get not being allowed to have sex with other men. But what I struggle with is even the emotional part of same-sex attraction / orientation. I long to have intimacy (I’m sure, as you know, that intimacy isn’t just found in sex, but also in a relationship), but because of my orientation, I really long for a deep relationship with another man.

    Since nowhere does it say in the Bible that orientation is wrong, and as you say here (and I agree with you) that the act of intercourse is strictly prohibited, where does that leave me (and others like me) on the issue of emotional attachment?

    Thanks. 🙂

  9. Wow. This series has definitely shaken up my theology. I have had yet to see a counter-argument for the claims that monogomous, same-sex marriages are not necessarily prohibited by the bible. It is SO important that believers seek truth in regards to this issue. As someone with a gay brother (and friends like him) I appreciate you doing this research. There are so many more questions to be dealt with regarding this, and I look forward to reading your book.

  10. Vincent, can you email me? preston@eternitybiblecollege.com

    This must be a God-thing, but I’ve been wrestling with this same question and I would love to hear more of your thoughts.

    To re-affirm: When the Bible addresses homsexuality, it speaks specifically of same-sex intercourse (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:25-27; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:9). You bring up a very good question and I’m glad you recognize that intimacy isn’t just found in sex. Heterosexual men can find a level of intimacy in relationships with other men, as C.S. Lewis so eloquently argued in his book “4 Loves.”

    So, please email me. I’d love to talk with you about this!

  11. Hey William,

    Thanks for taking the time to read the post and offer some very thorough comments. Admittedly, I didn’t read through your entire comment. I’ve got several others to get to so I can only devote so much time to each comment.

    From what I read though, I’m still not clear what you see is the “real answer” as you suggest in your first line. Could you concisely sum it up for us?

    Also, from the bits that I did read, there are several historical inaccuracies assumed in your comment. No, the Roman’s didn’t just adopt the norms of Greek society in terms of sexuality. For instance, the Greek view of pederasty was quite different than the Roman view. For the Greeks, the “boy” was freeborn while the Romans maintain a more strict social hierarchy in terms of the “active” (freeborn man) and the “passive” (freedman, slave, etc. boy) partner. Also, the Greeks and Romans differed very much on how they valued the size of male genitalia…I leave it at that. In short, there were many similarities between Greek and Roman (homo)sexuality but many differences as well.

    Your view of the meaning of “nature” is incorrect. Or at least, you’re assuming one of many different views among the vast scholarly discussion on this issue. You can’t just say that “nature means…” in Rom 1 without arguing for your case and citing the relevant literature (both primary and secondary). It’s just not that simple.

    If you’re interested, you should read Bernadette Brooten’s extensive discussion, along with Richard Hays’s article on “Relations Natural and Unnatural” for starters. (I do apologize if you’ve read these works already, but your comments suggest that you have not.)

    All for now.

  12. For a while I (naively) made a similar move as to the one you are critiquing. Namely, I would argue that Paul had no concept of sexual orientation, let alone what we call “homosexuality,” so we ask too much of Paul, etc etc.

    However, further research has uncovered similar findings to what you have addressed in the last 3 posts.

    If I may, I’d like to add a further point of consideration, and that is regarding “eunuchs.”

    In “Paul’s day” (for lack of a better term), “eunuch” was an umbrella term that covered 3 categories of males: men who were castrated, men who chose celibacy, and men who were physically able to reproduce but psychologically unable to. (That wasn’t said very well, I agree).

    These were known as “natural” or “born” eunuchs. (as opposed to “man-made eunuchs”)

    I won’t bore you (or the other readers) with all the research (though I could help with links and such?) but I’ve found the study of “eunuchs” to be very enlightening with regards to the question: did our ancient Romans understand the concept of people being attracted/aroused to one gender exclusively, or more so?

    And now I would answer “yes,” they certainly did.
    Though, as you stated, they may not frame it like we do now, or be able to define it as neatly (do we?).

    But yes, I would agree, Paul was likely aware that some people were born differently.

    Which raises (or, as most people now inaccurately say, “begs”) all sorts of other questions. Not least of all the one that Michael touched on in a previous comment: if Paul knows I am “gay,” and you say he strictly prohibits me from having sex with someone of my same gender, then what WOULD or MIGHT he permit?

    And I don’t think we have very good answers to that…

    Anyways.
    Eunuchs FTW.

    (p.s. this throws an interesting light on to Jesus’ words in Matt 19, IMO)

    • Bro, once again, you’re dropping some super interesting comments!

      Even if no other readers are interested, I’d LOVE to see your resources on the Eunuchs. My initial study has turned up similar conclusions that you have hinted at. But I’d love to see what you’ve got. I certainly need to work through this as I dig into Matt 19 (and Acts 8).

      Thanks for reading, Colby! Many blessings on your study.

      p

  13. I have read and reread all these posts over the last two days. What awesome insights and the writing is phenomenal. This issue is one we as the church, if we’re not dealing with it already, will be soon. We have to be comfortable and informed on the subject and not be confrontational. This post gives some great tools for this work, thank you for sharing it.

  14. Good question, Marissa. It all has to do with how we define inspiration. If it’s “dictation,” then Paul’s personality, context, writing style, situation, etc. are irrelevant. But most evangelicals don’t hold to this view of inspiration. Most say that it’s a both/and: Paul’s letters are both his own thoughts (derived from Scripture, of course) AND the product of God’s movement in His pen.

  15. For your first point – I think maybe the way Paul would EXPRESS the concepts he writes about might be different if he wrote today (God might tell me to give away my truck, not my horse and cart), but sin and righteousness and grace have not altered, so the practical application of what Paul would say today would be the same. So his words, and possibly the reasoning/way he would address things would probably be different (English if he wrote to us, not Koine Greek, for a start), but the conclusion and the Christ-likeness he would point us to would not.