This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

N.T. Wright's blunder on homosexuality

Paul, I think, was against heterosexual sex outside of committed relationships (marriage), and it is safe to assume that he was also against homosexual sex outside of committed relationships. Paul's statements against homosexuality in Rom 1:18-2:4 and 1 Cor 6:9 do not state that gay marriage is an exception, but this silence is significant only if something similar to gay marriage occurred in Rome or Corinth in Paul's day. N.T. Wright believes that Paul was indeed aware of committed homosexual relationships:

He gave the following comments in this video.
But one thing I do know, as an ancient historian, is that there is nothing in contemporary understanding and experience of homosexual condition and behavior that was unknown in the first century. The idea that in the first century it was all about masters having odd relationships with slaves or older men with younger men - yeah sure that happened, but read Plato's Symposium. They have permanent faithful stable male-male partnerships - lifelong stuff - Achilles and Patroclus in Homer - all sorts of things.
Similarly, here, he writes:
In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it's already there in Plato.
In his Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1, he writes:
Nor is it the case, as is sometimes suggested, that in the ancient world homosexual relationships were normally either part of cult prostitution or a matter of older people exploiting younger ones, though both of these were quite common. Homosexual 'marriages' were not unknown, as is shown by the example of Nero himself. Plato offers an extended discussion of the serious and sustained love that can occur between one male and another.
And here, he says,
And as a first century historian I want to say the context in which the New Testament is written is one in which there was a lot of casual homosexual experimentation and whatever. But also as you see, hundreds of years before in Plato, people who were in long-term partnerships. So it isn't the case, as some have said, that the New Testament is simply opposed to a phenomenon which is quite different from what we know today.
Have you spotted Wright's blunder? The problem here is that the evidence that Wright cites does not support his conclusion. Plato was a Greek writer, not a Roman, and his Symposium was written in 385BC. Paul refers to homosexuality only in 1 Corinthians and Romans, which were written to the most Roman of all his audiences, and he wrote more than four centuries after Plato. Homer's work, the Iliad, dates to the 8th century BC, so is even less relevant to first century Roman sexual practices, and there is no consensus on whether  Achilles and Patroclus were homosexual lovers, and, according to Plato, their relationship was one of age dissonance.

As far as I can tell, there is little evidence for anything close to gay marriage in Paul's day. The evidence of committed homosexual relationships in classical Greece merely brings the lack of such evidence from the early Roman empire into sharper focus. Wright, who by his own admission is no specialist on homosexuality, seems to assume that sexual practices must have remained the same across the centuries. They did not.

The example of Nero, cited by Wright, hardly provides evidence of committed homosexual relationships. Wright is referring to the 'marriages' of Nero to Sporus and to Doryphorus, as recorded by Suetonius: Nero XXVIII-XXIV. The passage, which doesn't make pleasant reading, is reproduced here:
XXVIII. Besides abusing freeborn boys and seducing married women, he debauched the vestal virgin Rubria. The freedwoman Acte he all but made his lawful wife, after bribing some ex-consuls to perjure themselves by swearing that she was of royal birth. He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife. And the witty jest that someone made is still current, that it would have been well for the world if Nero s father Domitius had had that kind of wife. This Sporus, decked out with the finery of the empresses and riding in a litter, he took with him to the assizes and marts of Greece, and later at Rome through the Street of the Images, fondly kissing him from time to time. That he even desired illicit relations with his own mother, and was kept from it by her enemiess who feared that such a relationship might give the reckless and insolent woman too great infiuence, was notorious, especially after he added to his concubines a courtesan who was said to look very like Agripinina. Even before that, so they say, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, he had incestuous relations with her, which were betrayed by the stains on his clothing.

XXIX. He so prostituted his own chastity that after defiling almost every part of his body, he at last devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes, and when he had sated his mad lust, was dispatched by his freed man Doryphorus; for he was even married to this man in the same way that he himself had married Sporus, going so far as to imitate the cries and lamentations of a maiden being deflowered.
Clearly, Nero was not a homosexual in the sense that we would understand the term, and his "marriages" were not committed relationships in any sense. Suetonius's mentions of Nero's "marriages" to men appear in a discussion of Nero's bazaar sexual practices, and this suggests that Suetonius expected the idea of homosexual marriages to appear bazaar to his readers. Suetonius would not have written "he married him with all the usual ceremonies", if this was a recognized practice. Thus, Wright's mention of Nero's "marriages" backfires on him, doesn't it?

Wright says that there has been a lot of confusion about homosexuality, but I fear that he has added to it. Unfortunately many will turn to Wright and other famous writers for guidance on passages like Rom 1:18-2:4 and 1 Cor 6:9, but there is no substitute  for consulting specialists and, preferably, the source documents.

33 comments:

  1. Thanks for this nicely executed demolition job.

    (PS if you want to remove my defunct Clayboy blog from your blogroll and ad my current one …) :-)

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  2. Good stuff - I agree. Wright's case is too general, and unsupported by the specifics of the timeframe he wants to apply it to

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  3. Excellent post, Richard. And nice citation of the Suetonius passage.

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  4. Thanks, Doug, Matthew, and Loren. I hope to post on Paul and homosexuality again sometime.

    Doug, I have updated my blogroll. Thanks for letting me know.

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  5. "bazaar sexual practices" should be bizarre sexual practices.

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  6. if the admonition were only against practicing homosexuality outside of a 'marriage,' the word adulterers would cover that, in I cor. 6:9. the fact that it is specified does seem to condemn homosexuality itself. as previous post mentioned, 'bazaar' in two occurrences, is not what you mean.

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  7. Anonymous2, as I point out in my more recent post, most Roman men were attracted to both women and male youths. Roman men who were married (to women) were free to have sex with their male slaves, but other people's wives were strictly off limits. Given the double standards of Roman (patriarchal) society, I would question whether a married man considered it "adultery" to have sex with a male slave, for example. Perhaps someone can find some data to help answer this question. Certainly male-male sex prior to (heterosexual) marriage would not be considered adultery, and nor would male-male promiscuity.

    Anonymous1 and Anonymous2, yes, "bizarre" is wrongly spelled.

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  8. Is there evidence of "committed homosexual relationships" in 1st Century Roman world, such that Paul would point to and say, "See?...that's how it should be done, now that you are a follower of Christ!" ??

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  9. While you may be right that Plato's piece was written to a Greek audience and Paul to a Roman one, are you also suggesting that 400 years and a few hundred miles keeps Paul completely in the dark as to what kind of relations were being had in Greece? You're saying there's no evidence, but you know as much as Wright knows & simply come to a slightly different conclusion.

    Besides, you're missing the point. When taking a look at the "5th Act" as Wright calls it, he's simply not liberating himself to improvise on the practice of homosexuality, going back to Gen 1 & 2, and to Jesus' & Paul's words on marriage and being the bride of Christ. Of course, forgetting that Jesus said there won't be marriage that the resurrection & Paul's charge to remain single, if possible (being the best way to live, he says), contradicts any ideas that we have that "marriage" itself is "where we're going" as human beings when God brings heaven to earth.

    We are in a world that is not perfect, yet we have been called to love and show mercy, not judge. That is left to God alone. And if we take on the "5th Act", as Wright puts it, not changing the script that has been written before us, but not reenacting it, either, then we're left with stories from Jesus about how to treat and love those that no one else will love. Your life is a story, you're not a computer. You're not a puppet, you're a person, just as Jesus was. And he respected the OT & took liberties with it. We can't take liberties with the NT
    in a cavalier way, but we also cannot copy/paste all of Paul's commands (slavery, women, etc...) in to our contexts. You know this. I know this. But we are too afraid to apply them. Paul told women to be silent (IMO) so as to not harm the good that the message of Jesus was doing in that day. He didn't want this to disrupt the movement at the time, because that would've disrupted it, in his opinion. Same with slavery (although I would say slavery was different then, it was still slavery in some kind, which we condemn in all forms today).

    But what if a condemnation of gays actually disrupts the movement of God in our world? It is disrupting it. Paul told women to be silent in the church even though God created male and female equal (only after the fall do we see males domineering women), and even though God may not have created men to have sex with men, would Paul (or Jesus) permit it so that the gospel message (which isn't "don't have gay sex" by the way) could flourish?

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  10. I think sometimes we act as if we, by ourselves (with God's HELP, of course) are going to create heaven on earth, all alone by our hard work (again, with the HELP of God) & rule following. The reality is it will never happen until God makes it happen. We do what we can and trust that God will bring about His glory in full at His appointed time, but until then we will continually make concessions so that the message of the gospel can thrive (we let divorced men/women lead in our churches & preach from our pulpits, right? Even those that didn't divorce due to marital infidelity).

    So we point to churches that allow gay pastors or gay people to belong/lead and say "those churches aren't growing" and then say about those that condemn the behavior (evangelical churches) that "they are the only sect of Christianity growing right now." Okay, so that's true. The CHURCH is growing. The institutional church. But what about the Spirit of God? Is it growing within us?

    We read things like "all men will hate you because of me" and think that standing up against homosexual behavior, and thereby receiving jeers from the liberal media, is fulfillment of the passage, but what if Jesus meant that, perhaps one day, the religious leaders would "hate" those that practice or accept the practice of homosexuality? THis can't be quickly passed by or overlooked. It must be studied and prayed over and thought about and discussed.

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    Replies
    1. Your last 3 sentences, especially, parallel my recent thoughts on this subject...

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  11. Incidentally, I had a brief email exchange with NT Wright about this post. He did not offer a rebuttal, presumably because he was too busy.

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  12. Richard;

    I found your blog well argued. However, I believe that Paul makes it very clear in Romans 1 that any homosexual activity, whether it took place within a committed relationship or outside of any commitment, was deserving of God's wrath (and to be clear, not man's wrath). Paul used the most generic terms in Romans 1 (i.e., male with male), which makes it clear that Paul was condemning any homosexual activity--whether older men with younger men, or activity among peers, or within some form of monogamous relationship, or through some completely random act. Paul's obvious point was any homosexual activity is "ungodly," "unatural," "indecent," and driven by "degrading passions." The generic nature of Paul's words in Romans 1 indicates that he was not "silent" with respect to certain homosexual behavior, but that anytype of homosexual activity was and still is outside of God's design.

    Monte Shanks

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  13. I just found your blog through a Google search, and, I really want to say, thanks so much for posting this, I'm young (in my 20s), gay and, though I was never raised in any particular religion, I am very interested in Christianity, and, it's good to see rebuttals, especially scholarly rebuttals, refuting the arguments that are made against homosexuals.

    Again, thank you very much for posting this.

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  14. In agreement with the first post on May 1, 2012, and against the second post, I would reiterate the point that the general argument to "leave social change to God" falls flat, since presumably we ourselves would not have made that argument about slavery if we were all transported back in time a few centuries. It seems to me that if Christians want to play Paul's cards condemning homsexuality and commanding women to be silent before male authorities, then they need to bite the bullet and say that (a) the abolition of slavery was ungodly, (b) slaves who ran away were sinning, etc. Despite that I agree with Wright on the issue at hand, I am interested to hear from R. Fellows' side whether there is some reason that taking Paul's apparent moral commands on homosexuality at face value does not force us to take his apparent moral commands about slavery and women at equal face value. Should Pauline moral literalists, for instance, argue that a 14-year-old girl living as a sexual slave in Thailand ought to remain so?

    After all, that's what Paul said.

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  15. A 14-year-old girl in Thailand should not ever be a sex slave. No one should be anyone's slave.

    When slavery is institutional, however, our role as Christians is to appeal to the consciences of people and nations (Philemon).

    Americanized Christianity can presume that the Civil War was a Christian action and thus our view of liberating slaves is discolored by it.

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  16. homosexuality is obviously wrong, the misuse of bodily parts shows this.--declaring that homosexuality is right by giving an example of women not being able to speak is to refuse to put those passages in there proper context---recent scholarship shows that paul wasnt saying that women couldn't speak, he was saying something much different. a lot of scholars say that genesis was rewritten around the Babylonian exile period and was meant to keep Israel faithful---the stories of adam and eve remain.

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  17. Quite a few have mentioned Paul telling women to be submissive/quiet/etc. for the sake of the movement. For clarification, there is one passage in which Paul commands women to be silent which is in 1 Cor. and that passage has to do with orderly worship (of course many debate about the scope of Paul's statement, I wont go into that as that's not my purpose). However, it is in 1 Peter that women are told to be submissive so that their husbands might convert based on their example--a loose summary anyways.

    I read 1 Peter today and though I don't have a perfect understanding of it, I'm not sure if Peter is telling women to be submissive simply for the sake of the movement. The general context of the epistle (as I understand it) is that the Christians he's writing to are experiencing persecution and Peter is trying to encourage them to follow Jesus' example of always doing good: "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation." I think he's emphasizing that loving your enemies will force you to endure injustice sometimes but that is never an accuse for retaliation or evil in any case--rather love and respect all at all times.I don't think that is prohibitive of working and even fighting for social justice, rather it is simply reminding the Christian readers that these aren't the end all-be all, Christ has shown us love and grace beyond measure, it is Christ who is in control, when Christ returns all will be set right on that day--simply be faithful to love until then.

    I realize I've written a lot and I may not have made myself completely clear so please tell me if I am not. As to the present issue and how this relates:
    I am currently of the conviction that the Bible does preach that homosexual acts are sinful. However, I plan to simply abstain from the whole Gay Marriage debate; if it ever comes to a vote like it did a few years back (I live in California), I will abstain. My purpose in doing so is that while I believe homosexual activity is a sin, I also believe this entire debate is causing more harm than good and making it more difficult for Christians on both sides to talk to one another and to non-Christians.
    Sorry again for posting so much, thank you Robert Fellows for this post. I have a friend who is Christian and gay and trying to figure things out, she posted a link to gaychurch.org and it's been refreshing seeing an evangelical approach to the issue--even if I disagree with it.

    --Felix Noel Rivera Merced

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  18. abstain or what you really mean by that is 'being tolerant'---please realize tolerance is a cheap form of love, it denounces purpose in love just as homosexuality denounces purpose in our sexuality

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  19. Why is it that intelligent men like Wright hesitate in saying that homosexuality is a SIN.Why when it comes to this sin they make excuses and seem to look for a way out of not being looked upon as homophobic.You have to admit the gay lobby have done a brilliant job in persuading even Christian scholars like NTWright and others to wobble on such an obvious sin of the flesh.Trying to use Plato a Greek to somehow overshadow Paul's obvious warning about homosexuality is incredible and this from someone who scholars say is an authority on the Pauline letters in the NT.The first lie by Satan was eat of the forbidden fruit and live forever and we all know how that ended up.Today the lie is eat of the forbidden fruit homosexuality as its all about love and even our men/women of God have again listened and will pay a huge price for it. Christian leaders will one day have to stand before God and answer for such things but I doubt like the Pharisees of old they will take much notice before that day comes.

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  20. Interesting debate but a lot of wrong premises.A more exhaustive reading of N T Wright's writing will show that he believes homosexuality in whatever form is a sin. Paul knew that too that is why he spoke against it.However homosexuality was not as widespread then as it is today even though it was common and known. Jesus then Paul spoke more about fornication and adultery because they were more prevalent in the first century. Jesus redefined adultery to include lusting after other women. This definition is apropos for our time given the upsurge of pornographic consumption which correlates with the high level of premarital and extramarital sex.Jesus who should know makes it clear that in our resurrected bodies we will not be having sex or getting married. The frenzied debate on homosexual relationships and sex is earthly and sensual. The Bible does not recognise same sex unions or marriages because the great and overarching narrative of the Bible is the marriage or union of Heaven and earth - a plurality of dimension made into one.Heterosexual sex, common and prevalent in nature is given for now with conditions set by He who is the author and architect of the coming age which was set in motion with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.Paul advocated marriage to forestall the lure of fornication but affirmed clearly that being celibate was far better.Paul compared the brevity of fornication in the Hebrews letter with the story of Esau losing his birthright (and for God's people -our place in Christ).
    Homosexual sex in all form is at best a form of fornication or at worst unnatural.The debate should be about the unbridled and runaway culture of sex in our society and not the evil of homosexuality. Paul made it clear that adulterers, practitioners
    of free sex(fornication)and homosexuality will not enter the kingdom of God. So have sex but use with caution.

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  21. Your piece, of course, misses the real point: homosexuality is an aberrant, not divinely designed, sexual behavior. The Bible is quite clear about this, and Wright did a fine job of pointing that out in many places. Committed-love-relationship isn't the issue (although admittedly it is for gays, since they have much to gain with it). God's will is the issue! If the benchmark for acceptance in the church is simply "are they in a committed-love relationship" then we must open the door much wider to new relationships that include consenting adult polygamy, incest, etc, -- or perhaps even (if the culture eventually moves in this direction, as the Romans did) consenting adult/child relationships. Wright is quite right in suggesting that our fleshly, sin-filled desires would like to move the margins to include these relationships, but in the end the Church must stand for Christ and His Word, not what we wish it said, or even what we try to make it say, as the gay community is currently doing.

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  22. I think really what goes to the heart of this matter and the real "sin" is a culture that says there is something wrong with you and your sexuality. I say this as somebody confident in my own sexuality and heterosexual. Sex has always been dirty within the church. Historically it is that at most sex is a necessary evil in procreation. Sex is the shame felt by Adam and Eve and had much to do with covering up. It is related to the original sin. Augustine certainly felt this way. Sex, yes for procreation, but do not find pleasure in it even with your spouse - a venial sin at least to be sure. All we have to do is look at the Roman clerical abuses involving sex throughout the ages to see how this has gotten twisted. Listen folks, what you do in your bedroom is your business! Nobody should feel forced to be alone. "Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion."

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  23. Insert common sense: To think that gay monogamous relationships didn't exist in Paul's time is simply ludicrous. It just doesn't make sense....I'm am sure they had just as many scenarios for sexual relationships (proper, improper as well as depraved - pedophilia etc) as we have. When we educated start parsing stuff out to this degree we become foolish....and the Bible was correct about that to be sure.

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  24. I don't think Mr. Wright was off base by utilizing Plato and others who were Greek to discuss and issue that was fairly common in Paul's day. I think Mr. Wright was attempting to show a history of a particular behavior in a particular region or culture. We must not forget that the Romans supplanted the Greeks for power in the region. The fact that a particular practice was common some 300 years prior to one author and continued under a different regime speaks to the mindset of the people of the region. Homosexuality was a common biblical topic, not just a New Testament topic. It should also be noted that the Romans basically adopted the Greek Pantheon to fit themselves so it is no surprise they did not dismantle many other elements of the culture they would have had opportunity had they desired.

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  25. Richard, this is a really odd comment. OK, Tom Wright doesn't get down to source. But both Martial and Juvenal record the occurrences of same-sex marriages (admittedly to mock them).

    You appear to be quite mistaken here.

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  26. Ian, not only does Wright not cite relevant sources, he cites irrelevant ones. You are right that his case would be stronger if he used Martial and Juvenal instead of talking about Plato, Homer and Nero. I mentioned Martial and Juvenal in my subsequent blog post here.

    For Wright's conclusion to hold he needs to show more than that committed same-sex unions were known in Paul's day. He needs to show that they were common enough that they (rather than just hedonistic or exploitative relationships) would have come to the minds of Paul's audiences when they heard Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6.

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  27. Thanks for the response. But I think there are three things missing from your logic.

    First, your examples show that the most common forms of same-sex activity were bisexual or unequal or promiscuous. But the argument that Paul's comments say nothing about stable relationships rests on the assumption that Paul knew *nothing* of these. Given Plato's continued influence, and the example of Martial and Juvenal, this looks like a very big (and unwarranted) assumption.

    Second, if Paul has certain kinds of unequal relationships in mind, why didn't he use the appropriate terms? Erastes and eromenos were widely used terms, and Paul's rhetorical competence means he would have used these if he had meant them.

    Third, the structure and terminology of the 'vice list' shows that chief in his mind was the Decalogue. There are ten terms, of which four relate closely to four of the commandments. They all echo the language of the LXX, and in particular arsenokoitai is a portmanteau from LXX Lev 18.22. Paul is adopting and adapting OT ethical standards into the life of the kingdom. This term is quite general, referring to 'those who bed men'.

    So there is good evidence that Paul is not interested in forms or contexts, but in the sexual acts themselves.

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  28. I ought also to point out that Philo cites Plato's account of the origin of same-sex attraction, so it is hardly an obscure unknown text in the first century.

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  29. Ian, thanks for making these points. You say "But the argument that Paul's comments say nothing about stable relationships rests on the assumption that Paul knew *nothing* of these." By using the word "*nothing*" you put it too strongly, I think. I tell my kids, "never hurt other people, and never lie", but that does not mean that I am unaware that there are rare circumstances in which hurting other people or lying is justified or even required. I impress upon my children that lying is wrong because I am more worried about them lying when they should tell the truth than telling the truth when they should lie. You are right that Paul's words focus on the acts themselves (rather than on forms or contexts), but over-generalization is what Paul does, and he does not expect his readers to take his words literally in all circumstances. Consider his statement that "rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad" (Rom 13:1-7). Surely he did not expect Andronicus and Junia to infer that they had been imprisoned for doing bad. He wrote Rom 13:1-7 (which also makes absolutist statements and expresses little interest in forms of contexts) even though he *knew* that Andronicus and Junia were part of his audience. This shows that Paul was a very "high context" speaker, doesn't it? So, if Rom 13:1-7 is anything to go by, Wright would need to show that Paul was aware of more than one faithful same-sex couple in the church of Rome. The bar is high. You place it too low, I think. If Rom 1:26-27 condemns faithful same-sex relationships, then Rom 13:1-7 condemns Andronicus, Junia, and Paul himself (for he too suffered imprisonments from the authorities)!

    Thanks for your point about Philo's use of Plato. Does Philo show that he was aware of faithful same-sex relationships, from reading Plato, or from anywhere else? He seems to interpret Plato as referring to lust between men "differing only in respect of age".

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  30. Richard, I cannot help thinking you are making this more complicated than it is! When you say 'Don't lie' then you might not be literalistic about it…but you do mean it. The 'revisionist' case is arguing, not that Paul might have allowed some exceptions, but that Paul does know nothing of 'faithful' same sex relations, and if he had, that he would have treated them as equivalent to marriage. That is a bit like your children interpreting your comment as saying 'There is a whole set of contexts where lying is not only ok--it is the chief virtue.' It is an attempt to make Paul say the exact opposite to what he is saying, and that fairly clearly.

    As I understood it, the centre of this piece, and your criticism of Wright, is that he cites ancient and irrelevant sources. My example merely shows that Plato is far from irrelevant…which I think means your argument fails?

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  31. Ian, you seem to be misrepresenting my views. There is a lot of middle ground between your position and the "revisionist" case, as you have caricatured it. For Paul, marriage (including heterosexual marriage) was not "the chief virtue". It was a concession for those who were not able to live the single celibate life. I do not imagine that Paul would have had a higher view of same-sex marriage than he had of man-woman marriage. But my point is that we cannot conclude that he would have had a lower view of it. I am, of course, not arguing that Rom 1 or 1 Cor 6 demonstrate that Paul would not have had a lower view of it.

    I think we disagree on whether you have shown the relevance of Plato.

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