Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: Biblical Texts in Historical Contexts
Lancaster School of Theology
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today on the topic of "Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: Biblical Texts in Historical Contexts." Today we're going to look at a topic of intense current controversy, the Bible and homosexuality, but we are going to look at it from a rather different perspective, that of the cultural construction of gender and sexual relations in ancient Mediterranean antiquity. Underlying this different perspective are two foundational assumptions: first, that the writings of the Bible, whether we're talking about the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Bible with both Hebrew and Greek parts, are intimately connected to the ancient cultural systems in which they were produced; and second, that sexual roles are historical and cultural constructions differently understood and differently formed across history. These foundational assumptions—which, to be fair, are not without controversy in some, especially fundamentalist Christian, circles—are fairly well accepted by most classical scholars and Biblical historians. What they suggest for the particular topic of the Bible and homosexuality is that to understand the Bible's view of same-sex erotic relations one must understand the cultural construction of sexual relations generally which were operative in the world in which the biblical writings were produced. It is that ancient Mediterranean world which provides the context needed to explicate the meaning of the Bible's statements. Consequently, most of my discussion today will concern how sexual relations and gender roles were understood in the ancient Mediterranean cultures that produced the Bible.
However, before I move into the main body of my lecture I want to pose two caveats concerning the general topic of the Bible and homosexuality. The first caveat has to do with the fact that the Bible itself has precious little to say about same-sex eroticism, though one certainly might not guess this fact from the current level of national debate over its content. In the most generous estimate, there are only perhaps twelve verses in the entire Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament put together that could be construed as having any direct comment on same-sex erotic behavior. And that most generous estimate includes quite a few verses which contemporary Biblical scholarship has shown rather conclusively to be irrelevant to this discussion. Indeed the only uncontested verses that seem to be incontrovertibly linked to same-sex erotic behavior in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament turn out only to be four: two separate, one verse prohibitions in Leviticus, and one, two verse statement by Paul in the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans. It is upon this tiny textual base that all of the direct arguments about the Biblical understanding of same-sex erotic relations must be based. Given the numerous references to the "Bible's view of homosexuality" found in both ecclesiastical and secular writings, one can easily be mislead into thinking that this was a topic of great importance to the Biblical writers. It was not. So, my first caveat is that same-sex erotic relations are noteworthy in the biblical texts primarily by their absence from discussion.
The second caveat I wish to raise has to do with the word homosexuality itself. The word "homosexuality" is a modern term; it was coined in the 1880s in Germany and first used in this country in 1892. The term grew up in the work of a group of researchers who were studying and classifying sexual behaviors at the turn of the last century. People such as Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and others developed the study of sexuality into a medical sub-specialty called sexology. Prior to the work of the sexologists, same-sex erotic acts were certainly well known, but by and large, just like cross-sex eroticism, they were believed to be acts anyone might perform. Out of the classificatory work of the sexologists of the late 19th /early 20th centuries came the proposal for a different species of person, the homosexual. No longer were individual same-sex acts seen as possible behavior for everyone; instead, now same-sex acts defined a special kind of person, the homosexual. This new kind of person was identified and defined by sexual object choice alone, a same-sex object choice. Consequently, homosexuality denotes a very modern way of looking at the construction of human identity as characterized primarily by gendered sexual desire. With this concept of homosexuality, the idea of sexual orientation was born, and predictably, not long after the discovery of the homosexual orientation, modern sexologists defined the existence of a more dominant heterosexual orientation. Consequently, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, same-sex erotic acts were no longer the territory of all people but now the domain of only those of a particular orientation.
Besides its contemporary origins, the term homosexuality combines in itself contradictory elements. Not only is it composed of the merger of a Greek root with a Latin root—to the horror of classicists—but it also more seriously combines fundamentally contradictory meanings in its use today.1 On the one hand, when some people use the term homosexuality they seem to mean a kind of predisposition toward sexual intimacy with people of the same gender that is present at least potentially in the sexual make-up of everyone, the pre-sexology view, we might call it; in other words, the term homosexuality continues to bear a universal application. Because all people have the ability to be homosexual, for example, homosexuals can be portrayed as potential seducers of children and other adults into this same manner of erotic life, and thus for some, all information about homosexuality should be silenced for fear of attracting new adherents to it. On the other hand, the word homosexual is also used to refer only to a certain small percentage of the population who display a particular orientation. So, in addition to the continuing universal meaning associated with the term, there is also a minoritizing meaning related directly to the arguments of the sexologists.
In this perspective only a certain group of people who live life in a certain way are understood to be homosexual. This minoritizing view understands homosexuality to be at its core an unchangeable sexual identity, probably developed within early childhood from genetic predispositions, which only a small percentage of the population embodies in any generation. Under this meaning of the term, people who are not homosexual in orientation cannot possibly be "seduced" into that identity simply by knowing about it or knowing someone who is homosexual. The minoritizing and the universalizing meanings of homosexuality (that is, either something only a few people are or something everyone can be), though deeply incommensurate meanings, often appear together in contemporary usages of the word. This definitional incoherence makes discussions of homosexuality particularly frustrating and confusing. For these reasons, the modern origins of the term and its internal incoherences, in talking about the Bible or the Biblical world the word homosexuality is both anachronistic and unhelpful, to say the least. Consequently, in my discussion of same-sex relations in the ancient world and of those texts within the Bible that have been used to talk about modern homosexuality, I will try to avoid using that term and use instead the more general term homoeroticism because I do not want to assume at the outset that the construction of same-sex eroticism in the ancient Mediterranean world bears any resemblance to the construction of same-sex eroticism in the Western world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. With these two caveats in mind let us turn now to a discussion of the construction of sexuality in the ancient world.
The single most important concept that defines sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean world, whether we are talking about the kingdoms of Egypt or of Assyria or whether we are talking about the later kingdoms of Greece and Rome, is that approved sexual acts never occurred between social equals. Sexuality, by definition, in ancient Mediterranean societies required the combination of dominance and submission. This crucial social and political root metaphor of dominance and submission as the definition of sexuality rested upon a physical basis that assumed every sex act required a penetrator and someone who was penetrated. Needless to say, this definition of sexuality was entirely male—not surprising in the heavily patriarchal societies of the ancient Mediterranean. Nevertheless this assumption that the difference in status between the dominant penetrator and the submissive penetratee was essential to all sexual behavior is prevalent in most sources from at least the Egyptian empires of the Second Millennium BCE all the way through the late Roman Empire and beyond. Of course, we must recognize that the vast majority of the laws and other texts from antiquity that give us some insight into sexual roles were written by elite men. Whether or not the convention of dominance and submission as the defining aspect of sexuality was actually embodied in all sexual acts across these societies and not just in the writing about all sexual acts remains unknown. Our knowledge is constrained, as always in history, by our sources.
Because sexual acts were defined as the combination of dominance and submission, sexual acts between men could have and generally did have strongly political overtones. For example, the early Egyptian legend of the relations between the gods Horus and Seth demonstrate the political use of anal intercourse as a way of embarrassing a rival political power.2 As you may remember, Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, and Osiris had been murdered by his brother Seth. So, now, Horus and Seth were contenders for supremacy among the gods. One of the episodes in the myth relates the time when Seth invited Horus to his home for what appeared to be a conciliatory meal. However, the real purpose of the meal was to further Seth's royal aims by providing him with a situation in which he could anally rape Horus while he was sleeping after dinner. Seth's sexual dominance over Horus would prove to all the gods that Horus was unworthy to be supreme among them and that Seth was the truly superior one. While this particular stratagem did not work out to Seth's advantage in this myth because of the fortuitous intervention of Isis to protect her son, the story does demonstrate what became a very common usage for male/male sexual intercourse in the ancient Mesopotamian world particularly, that is, the demonstration of the political dominance of one group over another.
A similar view of male/male sexual acts can be found in the Assyrian dream omen series entitled the Šumma a-lu which includes 38 different omens that deal with various aspects of sexual acts.3 These dream omens, by the way, are quite similar to ones found much later in the writings of the very famous 2nd century C.E. text by Artemidorus called The Interpretation of Dreams. Among the omens listed in the Šumma a-lu are the following:
- If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers.
- If a man copulates with an >assinnu (a special priest of the goddess), a hard destiny will leave him.
- If a man copulates with his male courtier (secretary), terrors will possess him for a whole year but then they will leave him.
- If a man copulates with a house-born slave, a hard destiny will befall him.4
From this list it can be seen that having sex with someone of equal rank in one's dreams was a matter of good fortune, for it meant that one will be superior or dominant over those of equal rank. On the other hand, having sex with someone in one's dreams who is of much lower rank, like a secretary or, worst of all, a slave, is a bad omen because it assumes only what society already allows to a free man. Now what was desirable in one's dreams was of course not at all acceptable from the standpoint of real personal action. The same Assyrian culture that produced the Šumma a-lu also produced the Middle Assyrian Law codes, which had one section that said:
If a man has sex with his comrade and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall have sex with him and they shall turn him into a eunuch.5
In other words, in real life sex between equals at least for the one who perpetrated the act is punishable by sexually abusing him and castrating him to keep him from ever repeating his offense. The one who received the act is, of course, already disgraced and dishonored. So, while one might dream of achieving sexual dominance over one's equals, it was far better not to act out one's dreams, since such acts were judged as sexual and social violence.
While we have been talking so far primarily about ancient Mesopotamian culture, one can see the same political usage of male/male anal intercourse much later. There is a famous picture from Greece that celebrates the victory of the Athenians over the Persians in 460 BCE.6 In the picture a Greek soldier with erect penis in hand approaches from the rear a distressed, defeated Persian soldier who is bent over waiting to be raped by the Greek. The picture was intended to show, through the imagery of male-male sexual intercourse, that the Greeks now dominate the submissive Persians. This picture was not pornography; it was politics. In myth, law, treaties, monuments, and pottery decorations, political and military domination was often conventionally symbolized by sexual domination between men.
The Egyptian and Assyrian texts demonstrating the importance of male/male sexual acts in establishing political, cultural or social dominance over another provide a helpful context for understanding some of the possible homoerotic texts within the Hebrew Bible. For example, in the story of Sodom found in Genesis 19:1-11, the desire of all the men of Sodom to "know" the foreign visitors who are staying overnight in the house of that other foreigner, Lot, probably represents precisely this same scenario of political or social dominance. You may remember that the story depicts three angels coming to the city of Sodom and deciding to spend the night in the public square of the city. Lot who is himself a foreigner living in the city of Sodom begs the three visitors to stay instead within his house for the night, evidently fearing some untoward activity by the rest of the population. After much begging on Lot's part the three visitors agree to stay with Lot and his family. During the night all of the men of Sodom surround Lot's house and demand that he send his three male guests out that they might "know" them. The Hebrew verb yada‘ which simply means "to know" is occasionally used, as in this instance, in a sexual sense in the Hebrew Bible. Lot is appalled at what the men of Sodom request and instead of sending out his three male guests he offers the men of Sodom the use of his two virginal daughters that they might "know" them.
What in the world is going on in this very disturbing story? If we put this story in the context of the political or social consequences of ancient sexual acts, what the men of Sodom intend in raping these foreign visitors is to show their social and cultural dominance over those foreigners who would come to their city, in much the same way that the picture of the Greek soldier approaching the Persian soldier celebrated Greek dominance over Persian culture. As an added value, from the point of view of the men of Sodom, to this act of cultural dominance over foreign travelers, by humiliating visitors of Lot's, who was himself a foreigner in the city of Sodom, the men of Sodom could also show their dominance over Lot and in fact bring disgrace upon his house. Honor in antiquity was a "zero-sum game," in which one could only gain honor, if someone else lost it. If Lot lost honor, the men of Sodom would thereby gain it. Lot's offer of his two virginal daughters to the men of Sodom was still a loss of honor to his house but not nearly the disgrace that the humiliation of three male guests would bring it. Daughters, after all, are submissive women whose sexual use by men is "natural." Like the Middle Assyrian Dream Omen, having sex with those who are naturally passive—women or slaves—brings little or no honor to the penetrator.
That the purpose of the men of Sodom in this story was to show their social and cultural dominance over foreigners is confirmed by the vast majority of references to the acts of Sodom in the rest of the Bible. In other biblical texts (e.g., Ezek 16:49, Isa 110-17, 3:9; Jer 23:14; Zeph 2:8-11; Wisd. 19:13-17; Matt 10:15; Luke 17:28-29) Sodom's evils are listed as being pride, failure to help the poor, and lack of hospitality to foreigners, not sexual abuse. Indeed, the one reference in the Biblical material to the so-called "sin of Sodom" that might carry some sexual overtone is found in the tiny New Testament book of Jude, verse 7. In that text the author of Jude accuses the men of Sodom of seeking "alien flesh" (Greek: sarkos heteras). Given the context in Jude, which in the preceding verse has just alluded to the odd story of the sexual relations between angels and the daughters of men in Gen 6:1-4, this reference to "alien flesh" interprets the action of the men of Sodom as, not seeking simple dominance over foreigners, but instead seeking dominance over angels. After all, the Genesis story does indicate that the three visitors were angels, although Lot and the men of Sodom do not seem to recognize that fact in the story itself. From Jude's perspective, however, the men of Sodom were actually attempting to declare themselves dominant over the Divine, an act of incredible hubris.
It is possible that this same context of dominance and submission and the political and social ramifications of sexual acts between men should also inform our understanding of the prohibitions against male same-sex intercourse found in the book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 both say categorically that a man shall not sleep with another man as with a wife. These two prohibitions fall within a body of legal material known as the Holiness Code. The Holiness Code itself was most likely written down in the post-exilic period, in other words probably some time in the late 6th or early 5th Century BCE. The post-exilic period was a time in which the Judaites who returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon were attempting to reestablish their national and cultural identity. The Holiness Code participates in that reestablishment by setting up legal boundaries between the behavior and social structure of the new Jewish community in Jerusalem and that of its half Jewish or non-Jewish neighbors. The two similar prohibitions (one in chapter 18 and one in chapter 20) about homoerotic relations among Jewish men may be, as the Biblical scholar Phyllis Bird has argued,7 an attempt to preserve the internal harmony of Jewish male society by prohibiting the use of anal intercourse as a form of expressing or winning social and political dominance. Jewish males were not to dishonor other Jewish males by treating them like wives. The underside of this law, of course, is that wives were normally and naturally to be dishonored, or perhaps, better said, that passivity, which was dishonorable for a man, was assumed to be the natural condition of wives. Besides preserving social harmony within Jewish male society by denying the transfer of honor through the sexual game, the prohibitions against same-sex male intercourse in the Holiness Code also distinguished these Jews as a national group from what the Holiness Code asserted was the common behavior of their neighbors, the Canaanites, who, according to the Holiness Code, approved all such activities. Consequently the rejection of intra-tribal same-sex male intercourse became another marker of the national and cultural boundary between the returned community of Judaites and their neighbors.
As with Egypt, Assyria, and other Mesopotamian countries, the later empires of Greece and Rome also defined proper sexual relations as occurring only between people whose status was unequal. However, both Greece and Rome developed the rules and roles of sexual activity in ways somewhat different from earlier Mediterranean models. It is in classical Greece that homoerotic relations between men became not only acceptable but indeed worthy and laudable. In Athens and in Sparta the socialization of free young Greek men was accomplished through the complex rituals of pederasty, or the love of boys. The Greeks believed that the hard work of education and socialization needed for the creation of a strong democracy of free citizens required powerful motivation. For the Greeks, that motivation was found in the erotic. Young boys, following puberty at around 12 or 13, were encouraged to accept older Greek male citizens as their patrons and educators into the social and civic life of the city state. These relationships between the older men and the post-pubescent boys were profoundly erotic in nature. The erastes, or older, active male lover courted his chosen beloved young boy (the eromenos) by bringing him gifts of dead animals, crops, or other similar masculine presents, vying with other men to entice the favors of the finest young boys available in each generation. In terms of preserving or enhancing the civic standards of the polis, this romantic game between men was ideal: Greek men, generally in their younger years prior to marriage, competed with one another through athletic, civic and political contests of honor to gain the notice and admiration of young Greek boys, who, at the same time, were being given superb models of the best forms of honorable civic participation. The whole ritual of pederasty was profoundly interlaced with rules and family oversight to protect particularly the boys from abusive relationships.
This pattern of boy-man erotic involvement was especially strongly encouraged in the military environment of Sparta. Indeed the Spartans believed—unlike the U.S. military—that the most indestructible army would be one composed completely of male lovers. They reasoned that a man's willingness to fight hard or even die for the sake of his lover, who was standing at his side in battle, would be far greater than a man's willingness to fight or die for the more abstract principle of national pride. So homoerotic relations between boys and young men were encouraged as a way of producing the most manly virtues of military prowess, courage, athletic ability, and political statesmanship. The educational and civilizing component of same-sex eroticism in the classical Greek city states was of such value that same-sex relations were actually prohibited by law in Athens between free citizens and slaves, the most common form of same-sex relations in most of the Mediterranean world. For most of the Greeks of the classical period, pederasty was the key motivational factor in the education and socialization of the next generation of city leaders. While pederastic relationships for many Greek men ended with their marriage in their late twenties or thirties, they were expected to continue their warm relationships with their former pederastic lovers throughout their lives, providing a deeply homosocial and indeed homoerotic context for Greek society as a whole.
While the Romans took on many of the cultural developments and religious beliefs of the Greek city states they conquered, they were never particularly pleased with the Greek ideal of pederastic relations. For the Romans, passivity or submission should never cloud the life of a free Roman man, even when that man was still a boy. There were, for example, a number of rumors about the early boyhood of Julius Caesar and his relations to certain royal families in other countries that persistently dogged Caesar's political career in the voice of his opponents. These rumored erotic proclivities of his youth toward submission in same-sex relations were suggested as indications of a character flaw that should undercut his potential as a ruler of Rome. Whatever the value of such rumors, the Romans, like the Greeks, were generally quite at ease with same-sex erotic relations when those relations involved people of unequal social status, that is, slaves or foreigners; but the Romans and the Greeks both found homoerotic relations appalling when they involved or seemed to involve people of equal social status since one man in the sexual relation would have to play the submissive, penetrated role. Why anyone of dominant social status—basically a free male—would want to be submissive to another man was difficult, if not impossible, for either Greeks or Romans to understand. Such desire, that is to be submissive or passive, was seen in a man as either illness or moral decay. Thus, for most Greek and Roman moralists the primary ethical or moral problem posed by same-sex erotic acts, even between social equals, concerned only explaining the personality or nature of the passive partner; the active, dominant partner in same-sex erotic relations was simply performing the natural sexual role of a free man.
To understand more fully the danger involved in same-sex erotic acts between equals for the Greeks and the Romans, it is important for us to spend a few moments thinking about the construction of gender roles in Mediterranean antiquity. The reason that the passive role in homoeroticism was disgraceful or shameful was because it was the role assumed to be natural for women. Women, slaves, children, and also foreigners (barbarians to the Greeks) were generally assumed by both Greeks and Romans to be by nature passive and submissive in contrast to the natural activity and dominance of free males. Women in particular were constructed as passive, submissive beings within Greco-Roman antiquity. Now whether individual women within the Greco-Roman world always behaved in passive or submissive ways is not really the point here—we know in fact that they did not—the point is that the cultural ideal dictated passivity. The submissive role was natural to women, it was argued, because of their creation as deficient men. In a fascinating study of gender construction in antiquity, Thomas Laqueur has shown that ancient Mediterranean understandings of the body posited the view that both men and women shared the same physical structure; that is, the one body had two forms, a perfect male one and an imperfect female one.8 All the organs and fluids that men had in their bodies, women also had; the difference was simply in the placement of those organs. Men's genital organs were exterior while the same genital organs in women were interior. As the famous 2nd Century C.E. physician Galen of Pergamum said, "Turn outward the woman's, turn inward so to speak and fold double the man's genital organs, and you will find the same in both in every respect."9 This one body shared by both men and women was only differentiated by the outward appearance of genitalia, the assumed heat or coolness of the body itself, and by rigidly enforced gender roles.
Because ancient men shared with ancient women the same body, the line between male and female was an especially fragile and anxiety-producing one. It is true that women, as defective males, were assumed to be cooler, so that in fact the seed planted in them would not burn up but come to fruition, while men were hotter thereby producing the spiritual concoction of fluids needed to transform the physical matter women provided in reproduction into a spiritual and physical being. But this difference in temperature could easily be undone should men spend too much time in the company of women; effeminate men were often assumed to like women too much, cooling their hard manly virtues into female softness. Alternatively, as Galen also remarked on a number of occasions, if a woman became too hot—as for example in running across a field—her genitals might suddenly pop out, and she would become a man. Since the physical, anatomical separation between the perfect dominant male and the imperfect submissive female was so strikingly tenuous, social differentiation needed to be strongly defended and heavily marked. Much of the disdain ancient Mediterranean moralists felt for same-sex erotic relations came less from the sexual acts themselves than from the gender role reversals they required. Male same-sex relations required one man to be passive and submissive, in other words to take on the gender role of a woman. Female same-sex relations, which are rather rarely discussed by ancient writers, are often classed as a type of monstrosity, since one female, it was assumed, would have to be acting as the dominant penetrator. Such a woman was a physical and moral monster, someone completely out of control. Consequently, discouraging homoerotic relations among any who might even vaguely be considered social equals was an essential way of policing the crucial boundaries between the genders in antiquity.
We can find in Paul's letters in the Greek New Testament several places where he seems very concerned to preserve gender role boundaries within the Christian communities to whom he is writing. Perhaps the most famous of these texts can be found in the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 2-16. In this section of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul attempts to make a very convoluted argument for why women should cover their heads whenever they are praying or speaking in public assembly. He argues that the order of creation, with God at its head, Christ under God, the man under Christ, and the woman under the man, witnesses to this requirement. If, Paul says, a man prays with his head covered, he dishonors his head, which is Christ, but if a woman prays with her head uncovered, she dishonors her head, which is man. Nature itself, Paul goes on to point out, shows that men's hair should be short and not long, and that women's hair should be long and not short. If that argument seems a bit illogical to you, you are in good company. Not only generations of commentators but probably the Corinthians themselves had difficulty trying to figure out what Paul was saying. However awkwardly phrased, what Paul intended to do in this passage was to underscore the importance of following the cultural dress codes that proper gender role performance required. Paul is trying to convince the Corinthian community to conform in their ecstatic worship services to the same set of gender role markers that the society in general enforced. This passage is particularly famous because it is so obscure and so very obviously culturally bound. As Paul's attempt shows, it is hard to come up with logical arguments for the often arbitrary social conventions demanded by gender role boundaries. These same concerns for gender role propriety may well lie behind the one clear reference in the Greek New Testament to homoerotic behavior, also found in one of Paul's letters, Romans 1:26-27.
In the first chapter of Romans, Paul describes those people who reject the true God in favor of idols. Even though this group, Paul argues, did not have the benefit of the Torah or law that was given to the Jews, nevertheless they had the benefit of the natural world in which they could, had they wished to, perceive the good works of the one God. Instead of worshiping the true God, Paul asserts, these people chose to worship "images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles." Because of this disobedience, Paul affirms, the true God gave these people up to their own passions, to their own shamefulness. It is at this point that Paul gives us verses 26 and 27. Let me quote them:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural use for those beyond nature, and the men likewise gave up natural use of women and were consumed with passion for one another. Men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
In Paul's version of homoeroticism, it has become a punishment by God for idolatry. Because these people rejected the worship of the true God and turned to idols instead, God abandoned them to their own passions—now run wild and out of control. In this disordered state, these people "exchanged" natural roles for ones that were para physin, which is best translated as "beyond nature"—inordinate desires.
Paul's argument appears to be that because these idolaters do not recognize the true God as their head, they also do not honor the natural order of gender role behaviors, in which man is always dominant and woman always submissive. They exchanged that natural order for sexual reversals in which "their women" become the sexual aggressors (by the way many of the early Church Fathers who commented on this passage in Romans took Paul to mean that these women were dominating their male partners, not that they were having sex with other women) and the men desire both to penetrate other men and be penetrated by them. Some Greco-Roman moralists assumed that men who participated often in homoerotic acts became impotent as a result, and that view may be what Paul is referring to in his statement about "receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error." Or it may be, as other moralists assumed, the loss of virility and honor, associated with rejecting male gender role performance, were the penalties Paul had in mind. Such disordered sexual behavior, which blurred the vital boundaries between men and women, was totally repugnant to Paul, who, to be honest, was not a fan of sexual expression or desire at any time even in its most natural setting between a husband and a wife. Sexual passion itself was always a dangerous commodity because it could easily get out of control, and for Paul it always had the potential to distract the followers of Jesus from their proper spiritual vocation. Would that they could all be as he was: a man whose self-mastery of desire was absolute (see 1 Cor 7:7).
The connection between idolatry and homoeroticism is an important one for Paul. Since idolatry is the actual cause of homoeroticism, same-sex erotic acts were simply not encountered among those who worshiped the true God. Like his Jewish contemporary, Philo of Alexandria, Paul evidently believed that Jews did not participate in homoerotic behavior, only "foreigners" or Gentiles did.10 Since even the Gentile converts to Christianity now worshiped the true God through their faith in Jesus Christ, they, too, were freed from any danger of participating in homoerotic or gender reversing behavior. This assumption of a necessary connection between idol worship and homoeroticism may be the reason it is so rarely mentioned in Paul's letters and never mentioned at all elsewhere in the New Testament.
So much more could be said about the construction of gender roles and sexuality in Mediterranean antiquity, but even the little we have reviewed today places the few biblical texts that deal with homoeroticism in a quite different light from what most modern debates about the "Bible and homosexuality" seem to assume. The biblical writers knew nothing of sexual orientations, mutual erotic relationships, or sexuality as the expression of a passion for equality. Our world is not their world; and theirs is not ours—and as a woman, I have to say, "Thank Goodness" to that. If the Bible really is, as some have argued, America's iconic book, it becomes especially important to examine the values this icon encodes. The natural submission of women and the natural domination of men might not be the values most of us would like to see America emulate; yet, it is precisely those values that lie behind the very little the Bible does say about homoeroticism. In a very real way, to stand with the Bible in its rejection of same-sex erotic acts is also to stand with the Bible in its adherence to misogyny—and hatred of women is not a cultural value I will ever claim should be normative for contemporary culture, including Christian culture.
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Epistemology of the Closet" in H.Abelove, M. Barale, D. Halperin, eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 56-59.
- For a fuller discussion, see Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, translated by K. Stjerna (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 19-20
- Ibid., pp. 27-28.
- Ibid., p. 27.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- Ibid., p. 48.
- Phyllis Bird, "The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions" in D. Balch, ed., Homosexuality, Science, and the "Plain Sense" of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000) pp. 149-154.
- Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1990).
- Ibid., p. 25.
- See Philo, Laws 3: 37-42.