Homosexuality in the New Testament (2)

img_1704.jpgThe third New Testament text which is often quoted as evidence that the Bible condemns homosexuality is Romans 1:26-27.

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

One of the striking things about this passage is that it not only appears to refer to female homosexuality – which would make it unique in Biblical literature and rare in ancient literature generally – but also that such a reference to female homosexuality doesn’t become evident until the reader gets to the next verse which appears to refer to male homosexuality. In other words, the reader is left wondering about the meaning of “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” until they get to “men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another,” concluding that it refers to male homosexuality, and then having to read back female homosexuality into the earlier words. If this is the writer’s intention then it is certainly an awkward way to go about it. It is also odd that he doesn’t say “women with women” in the same way as he says “men with men” leaving open the question of what he means by women exchanging “natural intercourse for unnatural.”

Putting aside the conclusion of several scholars that this section of Romans is a late addition and was not written by Paul, I want to look at it in the context of the overall structure of this section of the letter which begins in verse 18. We should note a certain structural repetitiveness in this section:

1. “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (v.23), so “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (v.24).

2. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v.25) so “God gave them up to degrading passions” (v.26).

3. “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men … committed shameless acts with men” (v.26-27) “and since they did not see fit to acknowledge GodGod gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (v.28).

The tight structure and repetition of “exchanged” and “God them up” highlights the three attributes of God which come in between: God’s glory, truth and knowledge. In his commentary on Romans, Brendan Byrne [1] describes this series of repetitions as ‘waves.’ Each wave begins with an ‘exchange’ and crests with God’s ‘giving them up,’ building in intensity until the third wave ends with a crash. Once we recognise the repetition we can see that Paul is providing three examples of idolatry: making images, worshipping idols, and sexual debauchery as part of idol-worship. Each example concludes with God “giving up” the idolaters to certain consequences.

The association of sexual debauchery with idol-worship would have been familiar to an ancient audience, and certainly to one familiar with the Hebrew Bible. In earlier posts in this series, for example, I have referred to Biblical texts which mentioned both male and female temple prostitutes and why it was regarded as abhorent for Israel to worship  God in this way. The similarities between Romans 1:18-32 and two other texts in particular are so striking it is almost certain that Paul must have been familiar with them, and may have been directly alluding to them. For example, Paul’s line that “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” seems to come almost directly from Psalm 106:

They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. (Psalm 106:19-20)

The Psalm continues with a list of various ways the people of Israel provoked or angered God in their worship of foreign gods and images, and leads into a section dealing with sexual debauchery as part of that worship:

They mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them … they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. Thus they became unclean by their acts, and prostituted themselves in their doings. (Vv. 35-39)

Paul seems to get his “exchanged the glory/truth/knowledge of God… so God gave them up” language from this Psalm which continues with “then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage; he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them” (Vv.40-41).

There is an even more striking similarity to a long section in Wisdom of Solomon, a book found in the Apocrypha and quoted or alluded to many times in early Christian writings (including some of the writings of Paul).  Paul’s language in Romans 1 is so similar to Wisdom 13-14 – a lengthy section condemning the worship of idols – we can be almost certain that he was familiar with it. The section ends by detailing the depraved sexual practices associated with idol worship, and the consequences. Similar to Paul’s mention of exchanging the truth and knowledge of God for a lie, Wisdom says “it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God” (14:22) and goes on to list practices associated with their idol-worship:

For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs,they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil (Wisdom 14:23-27).

Wisdom concludes with the judgment that “just penalties will overtake them” – those worshippers who trust in lifeless idols – because “the just penalty for those who sin always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous” (v. 29-31). This too is similar to Paul’s “so God gave them up …” and he follows a similar line in his argument. These verses in Romans 1 are not primarily about homosexuality, but about sexual depravity associated with idol-worship. This sexual behavior regularly involved both male and female temple prostitutes and included both homosexual and heterosexual activity. While Paul speaks of men committing “shameless acts with men” during this idol-worship, homosexuality per se is not the focus of his argument and it would be wrong to draw any conclusions from it about sexual activity within the confines of a loving relationship.


[1] Byrnes, Brendan, Romans, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996) p.64.

One comment on “Homosexuality in the New Testament (2)

  1. Stephen,

    I agree with you that Wisdom 14.23-27 is instructive for interpreting Romans 1.18-32. The key point is that idolatry “is the beginning and cause and end of every evil,” and more specifically that “the invention of idols was the beginning of sexual immorality (πορνεία)” (Wisdom 14.12). The emphasis is not on sins committed “as part of idol-worship” but on the causal relationship between idolatry and a host of vices. Three questions that arise from Romans 1 are (i) why does Paul single out sexual immorality in vv. 26-27, (ii) what sexual behaviours is he referring to, and (iii) on what grounds does Paul regard the sexual behaviours he describes as sinful (in context of his argument about failure to acknowledge/worship God)?

    (i) Numerous scholars have observed that Romans 1.18-32 is a kine of setup: Paul assumes the guise of an indignant Jew who belittles the Gentile sinners for their idolatry and sexual immorality, which were seen by Jews as stereotypical Gentile vices (cf. 1 Thess. 4.5; 1 Cor. 5.1). Any observant Jew would be cheering Paul on through 1.32, but then beginning in 2.1 Paul turns the tables in order to eventually conclude that both Jews and Gentiles are under sin (3.9). Thus in 1.26-27 Paul focuses on behaviours that are universally abhorred among law-observant Jews (see below on Philo and Josephus) in order to maximise rhetorical effect.

    (ii) What sexual behaviours are referred to? I agree with you that v. 27 is clearer in this respect than v. 26. If males abandoning the natural function of the female and burning in lust toward one another were not clear enough, the following clause removes any doubt. The phrase ἄρσενες ἐν ἄρσεσιν τὴν ἀσχημοσύνην κατεργαζόμενοι is more sexually explicit than translators generally convey: ἀσχημοσύνη functions in the LXX as a euphemism for genitals (Ex. 20.26; Lev. 18.6; Deut. 23.14), and so the sense is something like ‘males working the member in males’. Unmistakably, homoerotic intercourse is in view. The reference in v. 26 to females exchanging ‘the natural function’ for that which is ‘contrary to nature’ could possibly refer to, e.g., heterosexual oral or anal sex (on the former, cf. Barnabas 10.8), but seems more likely to refer to female-female homoerotic acts (in view of females alone being described as the actors, and ‘likewise’ in v. 27 relating this behaviour to what follows).

    (iii) In condemning these acts, Paul makes no reference to the social setting in which they occur, but condemns them intrinsically, as departures from ‘the natural function’ (τὴν φυσικὴν χρῦσιν) that are ‘contrary to nature’ (τὴν παρὰ φύσιν). In context of Paul’s foregoing emphasis on God’s creative power, ‘nature’ most likely refers to the created order, specifically that God created humans ‘male and female’ (ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ),’ enabling procreation (Gen. 1.27-28 LXX). It is noteworthy that Rom. 1.26-27 is the only place in Paul’s epistles (other than Gal. 3.28) where men and women are referred to as ‘males’ (ἄρσενες) and ‘females’ (θήλειαι), which not only emphasises gender but recalls the creation story (Gen. 1.27). The upshot is that, for Paul, male-male and female-female sexual acts follow from a denial of God’s creative power in that they depart from ‘nature,’ the divine design of male/female sexuality that enables procreation. They are thus an effect of idolatry, which subverts God’s authority as Creator and instead elevates the creature (Rom. 1.25). Paul regards homoerotic sexual acts as illicit by their very nature.


    This reading of Rom. 1.26-27 is supported by the contextual evidence of other Hellenistic Jewish writings of his time (summarised below), which identify homosexual intercourse as being ‘contrary to nature’ (παρὰ φύσιν), that is, against the male-female created order whereby heterosexual intercourse is ‘according to nature’ (κατὰ φύσιν). Not only does Paul use the identical term παρὰ φύσιν in Rom. 1.26, but he knows of the παρὰ φύσιν/κατὰ φύσιν contrast, using it in his olive tree metaphor in Rom. 11.23-24.

    – Philo of Alexandria (Paul’s contemporary) condemns pederasty, speaking of men who change ‘the male nature’ (τὴν ἄρρενα φύσιν) into a feminine one (εἰς θήλειαν) and the pederast who pursues ‘the pleasure against nature’ (τὴν παρὰ φύσιν ἡδονὴν) and guides young men into ‘unmanliness and effeminacy’ (ἀνανδρίας καὶ μαλακίας, abstract form of μαλακός), wasting his procreative potential (Special Laws 3.37-39). He also speaks of the men of Sodom who, ‘being men, mounted males’ (ἄνδρες ὄντες ἄρρεσιν ἐπιβαίνοντες), disregarding ‘their shared nature’ (τὴν κοινὴν…φύσιν) as males and abandoning their procreative responsibilities (On Abraham 133-36).

    – Josephus (Paul’s younger contemporary) describes the Jews’ laws about marriage as allowing no ‘intercourse’ (μῖξιν, literally ‘mixing’) except ‘that according to nature’ (τὴν κατὰ φύσιν), i.e. ‘that with a wife’ (τὴν πρὸς γυναῖκα) for procreative purposes. The law abhors ‘that [intercourse] of a male with a male’ (τὴν…πρὸς ἄρρενας ἀρρενων) (Against Apion 2.199). He later speaks of the Eleans and Thebans who do ‘that contrary-to-nature and licentious thing of intercourse with males’ (τῆς παρὰ φύσιν καὶ [ἄγαν] ἀνεδην πρὸς τοὺς ἄρρενας μίξεως). He adds that the Greeks contrived such practices as occurring between the gods in order to defend their ‘improper and contrary-to-nature pleasures’ (τῶν ἀτόπων καὶ παρὰ φύσιν ἡδονῶν) (Against Apion 2.273-75)

    – 4 Maccabees (probably late first century C.E.) further illustrates the connection between Jewish laws and ‘nature’ understood as the creative order: ‘Therefore we do not eat defiling food, for, believing that the law is divine, we know that the Creator of the world shows us sympathy by imposing a law that is in accordance with nature (κατὰ φύσιν). He has permitted us to eat what will prove suitable for our souls, but he has forbidden us to eat the flesh of what will prove contrary to us.’ (4 Macc. 5.25-26). See also 4 Macc. 15.25 on the association between ‘nature’ (φύσιν), procreation, and maternal love for children.

    – The phrase from Wisdom 14.26 translated above as ‘sexual perversion,’ γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή, translates literally to something like ‘inversion of procreation,’ again focusing on deviation from the natural procreative purpose of sex.

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