Why the Bible does talk about homosexuality… and what it says.

In the first article in the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say….?’, Dr Jonathan Tallon considers the question ‘Does the Bible Really Say…Anything at All about Homosexuality as we Understand it Today?’[1]

Dr Tallon’s argument.

Dr Tallon notes that there are passages in the New Testament that might appear to show that the Bible clearly prohibits homosexual activity. He writes:

‘… you open your Bible and are reading 1 Corinthians 6:9, and see a reference to ‘homosexual offenders’ (NIV) or ‘homosexual perverts’ (GNB). You read Romans 1:27, and note the reference to ‘men committing indecent acts with other men’. And it seems that the plain meaning of Scripture is staring you in the face.

Maybe you’d like it to be otherwise. Maybe you don’t understand what’s so wrong. But it appears to be the plain meaning of Scripture. The Bible appears to say that being homosexual – gay or lesbian – is not OK.’

However, Dr Tallon then goes on to argue that this reading of Scripture is mistaken because it is in fact misleading to use the modern term ‘homosexuality’ when talking about what is said in the New Testament.

He gives three reasons why this is the case.

First. when we use the term ‘homosexual’ we mean someone who has a sexual orientation to a member of their own sex. By contract ‘the ancient world was generally uninterested in questions of orientation, but much more concerned with questions of action.’

Secondly, in the ancient world ‘there was no term for ‘homosexual’. Terms used defined who was the active, dominant person and who was classed as the passive, submissive participant.’

Thirdly, if anyone referred to an adult male having sex with another male (as in Romans 1:27) the assumption would not be that that male was another adult:

‘…. the natural assumption would be that the males were boys. Other assumptions would include that no equal relationship was involved, and that the boy would be humiliated. But what would not be assumed is that the adult only had intercourse with boys; the listener would expect the man also to have intercourse with women (slaves and prostitutes) and also would assume that the man was married (or would be married in the future).’

What this all means is that our idea of consenting sex between two adults with orientation towards a member of their own sex cannot be read back into the New Testament.

Dr Tallon’s overall conclusion is that:

‘In our modern world, ‘homosexuality’ might conjure up images of loving couples of the same gender in long term relationships. However, the world of the New Testament had no word for ‘homosexuality’ and precious little visibility of anything like our image today. For the ancient world, male-male sex meant pederasty, it meant abuse, it meant rape, it was something married men did, and it often involved slaves or prostitutes or slave prostitutes. Do condemnations of that mean that we have to condemn loving, faithful relationships now? What is clear, however, is that the Bible doesn’t really say anything at all about homosexuality as we understand it today.’

The problems with Dr Tallon’s argument.

Dr Tallon’s argument is a re-presentation of an argument previously put forward by Robin Scroggs [2] that same-sex activity in the first century and homosexuality today are two different phenomena and that therefore we cannot apply the New Testament’s rejection of the former to loving, committed homosexual relationships today.

The argument goes like this.

  • Homosexuality today means loving couples in long term relationships;
  • Same sex-relationships in New Testament times meant married men engaging in violently abusive pederasty
  • Therefore, when the New Testament condemns the latter it is not talking about homosexuality as we know it today.

There are three major problems with this argument.

Homosexuality in the ancient world and today.

The first problem with this argument is that it misrepresents both the nature of homosexuality today and the nature of same-sex activity in the ancient world.

The reason it misrepresent the nature of homosexuality today is that the definition of a homosexual is someone who is ‘sexually attracted to someone of their own sex.’[3]  Homosexuality is the same-sex sexual activity engaged in by such a person and (as in the case of heterosexual sexual activity) this can take many different forms. Loving monogamous same-sex relationships are one form, but they are not the only form that exists today. There are also open relationships, serial relationships and casual one night stands, sexual activity involving pederasty, abusive sexual activity and sexual activity involving prostitution and even sex slavery. There are also married men (and women) who engage in homosexual sexual activity.

The reason it misrepresents the nature same-sex activity in the ancient world is that it fails to acknowledge the evidence we have that a wide range of different forms of same-sex sexual activity were also known about in the ancient world. This is a point that is made by Mark Smith in his 1996 article ‘Ancient Bisexuality and the interpretation of Romans 1:26-27’ in which he rebuts the argument of Scroggs. [4]

Smith notes that in addition to relationships between men and boys there are also examples from the ancient world of relationships between young adult males, between adult males of unequal age, between adult males of roughly equal age, between adult males who alternated in the roles of ‘lover’ and ‘beloved,’ and between bisexuals and members of both the same and the opposite sex, with many of these relationships being characterized as stable and long lasting and even as lifelong ‘marriages.’

In addition, there were also female same-sex relationships, which were often relationships of mutual consent in which there was no distinction between those playing the active or passive role, no distinction of age between the women involved and no question of exploitation.[5]

What the evidence cited by Smith indicates is that the forms of same-sex relationships that were known in the ancient world were actually fundamentally similar to those known today. Male pederasty was not the only thing that was known about and in fact there was ‘a decline in the prominence of pederasty in the last three centuries preceding Paul.’

The prominent pro-gay Church historian John Boswell has written that an:

‘… equally distorting and even more seductive danger for the historian is posed by the tendency to exaggerate the differences between homosexuality in previous societies and modern ones. One example of this is the common idea that gay relationships in the ancient world differed from their modern counterparts in that they always involved persons of different ages; an older man (the lover) and a young boy (the beloved).’

Like Smith he argues that there is plenty of evidence that same-sex relationships between adult males (such as Parmenides and Zenon who were sixty five and forty) were both common and known about in the ancient world. [6]

What this means is that the idea that the New Testament must have been referring to pederasty because this was the only thing people knew about is unsustainable.

The New Testament references to same-sex sexual activity

Secondly, there is no evidence to support the argument that when the New Testament refers to same-sex sexual activity it is only, or primarily, pederasty that is in view.

There are two types of reference to same-sex sexual activity in the New Testament.

The first is the references to porneia in texts such as Mark 7:21, Acts 15:20, 1 Corinthians 6:18 and Galatians 5:19. Porneia was a comprehensive term which was used to refer to all sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage[7] and therefore in telling Christians to ‘shun porneia’ (1 Corinthians 6:18) the New Testament declares all forms of same-sex sexual activity (and not just pederasty) off limits.

The second is the specific references to same-sex sexual activity in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude7.  These texts take a strongly negative view of both female and male same-sex sexual activity (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:10), of both passive and active male same-sex activity (1 Corinthians 6:9) and of homosexual lust (Jude 7). What none of these texts do, however, is refer specifically to pederasty.in the way that, for instance, the Jewish writer Philo does. The specific vocabulary used to describe pederasty is not used in these texts. [8]

In Romans 1:27 Paul’s use of the ‘males’ is not, as Dr Tallon suggests, a reference to pederasty. Rather, like the reference to ‘females’ in the previous verse, it is an intertextual reference back to Genesis 1:26-28. What Paul is saying is that same-sexual relations are an example of the males and females created by God to be his image bearers acting in a way that both nature and Scripture show is contrary to the way they were created to act. Human beings were created by God to have sexual intercourse within marriage with the members of the opposite sex and by this means to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ Same-sex sex involves a turning away from this calling.[9]

The reasons why the New Testament takes a negative view of same-sex sexual relationships.

Thirdly, the theological reasons why the New Testament rejects same-sex sexual activity apply to all forms of such activity (in both the ancient world and today) and not just to pederasty. The criteria applied in the New Testament to sexual relationships are whether such relationships are in accordance with the order of things established by God at creation (as recorded in Genesis 1 and 2) and whether they are in accordance with the law God subsequently gave to Israel as a reflection of that order.

The reason the New Testament takes a negative view of all same-sex sexual relationships is that they fail on both counts. They go against the created order put in place by God (Romans 1:26–27) and they are contrary to the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Leviticus 18 and 20 (1 Corinthians 6:9–11, 1 Timothy 1:10). For the New Testament writers therefore the question of whether or not a same-sex sexual relationship is a committed and loving one is theologically irrelevant, in the same way it would be in the case of an incestuous or adulterous relationship. For them, all such relationships are inherently wrong in all circumstances by dint of the very fact that they involve sexual activity between those of the same sex.

Conclusion.

As we have seen, homosexuality means sexual activity between two persons of the same sex. Such activity existed in New Testament times just as it does today, and, just like today, it existed in a variety of forms. We can therefore rightly say that homosexuality existed in New Testament times.

What we can equally rightly say is that all forms of homosexuality are both referred to and rejected by the writers of the New Testament, both implicitly in their references to porneia and explicitly in their specific  references to particular forms of homosexual activity.

Therefore the answer to the question ‘‘Does the Bible Really Say…Anything at All about Homosexuality as we Understand it Today?’ is ‘Yes, it does. It says that homosexual practice is wrong. It is against creation and the law of God.’

[1] Jonathan Tallon, ‘Does the Bible Really Say…Anything at All about Homosexuality as we Understand it Today?, 17 May 2019 at https://viamedia.news/2019/05/17/does-the-bible-really-say-anything-at-all-about-homosexuality-as-we-understand-it-today/

[2] Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).

[3] ‘Homosexual,’  The New Oxford Dictionary of English  (Oxford: OUP, 1998) p.879.

[4] Mark Smith, ‘Ancient Bisexuality and the interpretation of Romans 1:26-27’ (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 64, 1996), pp 223-256.

[5] For lesbianism in the ancient world see Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1996).

[6] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1980), p.28.

[7] See James Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), s.v. ‘porneia’, H. Reisser, “Porneuō,” in Colin Brown (ed.), The New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) 1:499 and John Nolland, ‘Sexual Ethics and the Jesus of the Gospels,’ (Anvil, Vol26:1, 2009) , pp. 21-30.

[8] For an overview of the interpretation of these texts see Martin Davie, Studies on the Bible and same-sex relationships since 2003 (Malton: Gilead Books/CEEC, 2015).

[9] For the intertextual echoes of Genesis 1 in Romans 1 see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp.289-293 and Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1:  Chapters 1-8, (London: SPCK: 2004), pp.20-24.

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