Homosexuality in the ancient world (Romans 1)

Bilderesultat for emperor hadrian

Illustration: Emperor Hadrian

In Romans 1:24-32 Paul described the depravity of the Gentiles. He cited homosexuality as the prime example and proof of their reprobation. In this behaviour they demonstrated the reality that rejecting God leads to a perversion of everything that is good and right. Indeed, widespread homosexuality remains irrefutable proof that a culture stands under divine judgement.

Today, however, many interpreters assert that reading Romans 1 in light of the cultural backdrop of the Greco-Roman world reveals that Paul was not really condemning homosexuality itself but was reproving a particularly lustful, promiscuous version of this sexual inclination. In other words, according to these scholars homosexuality in the context of a caring, loving relationship is not only acceptable but outside the realm of Paul’s concern.

This interpretation is based upon a distortion of what we know of ancient practices and beliefs. Homosexuality was extremely common in the Greek world, and by New Testament times had become widespread in the Roman world as well. Then, as know, there were homosexual orgies, but many other varieties of homosexual behaviour were practiced as well, and we cannot say with certainty that pagan homosexual behaviour was strictly the orgiastic type. Greek men often engaged in homosexual relationships with adolescent boys; many, in fact, regarded this as a coming of-age experience. Some homosexual attraction was described in highly romantic terms; both male and female poets celebrated their love for members of their own sex (Sappho, ca. 630 B.C., was the most famous poet of this genre, although the precise nature of her relationship with the women of her poem is debated). The Roman emperor Hadrian was so overcome with passionate love for a young man named Antonius that when the object of his affection drowned, the grief-stricken emperor decreed that he be worshiped as a god.

The Jews, by contrast, regarded homosexuality as by nature depraved – an attitude founded upon Biblical texts such as Leviticus 18:22. Jewish writings of this period treated homosexual activity as meriting death and damnation. Paul, far from dissenting from this viewpoint, rigorously endorsed it (1 Corinthians 6:9). It is important to note, however, that neither Paul nor his Jewish contemporaries distinguished between lawful and illicit homosexuality. For them, such a sexual preference was by nature wrong in any context.

Evidence exists that even the Greeks may have been aware that this behaviour was deviant. Aristophanes, the Greek comic poet, mocked homosexual behaviour (even as he employed it as a comic device). For example, in Women at the Thesmophoria he ruthlessly ridiculed the notorious homosexuality of the poet Agathon. It would be an overstatement to claim that Aristophanes opposed homosexual practice, but his comedy betrayed an uneasy conscience about such behaviour within the culture he inhabited. Plato, on the other hand, in his earlier dialogues spoke approvingly of homosexual behaviour. Yet near the end of his career he observed in his Laws that homosexual intercourse was widely recognized to be unnatural.


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