This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Gaius Titius Justus and his new name, Stephanas

Here I argue that Gaius Titius Justus gave part of his house to the community of believers in Corinth, and that he was then named "Stephanas" in recognition of his generosity. The main texts are Acts 18:7; 1 Cor 1:14-16; 16:15-18;  and Rom 16:23.

Benefaction of the meeting space
An inscription from Stobi, Macedonia, probably from the second century reads:
[Claudius] Tiberius Polycharmus, also (called) Achyrios, the father of the synagogue at Stobi, having lived my whole life according to the (prescriptions of) Judaism, in fulfilment of a vow (have donated) the rooms to the holy place, and the triclinium, with the tetrastoa, out of my personal accounts without touching the sacred (funds) at all. All the right of all the upper (rooms of the building) and the ownership is to be held by me, Claudius Tiberius Polycharmus, and my heirs for all (our?) life. If someone wishes to make changes beyond my decisions, he shall give the Patriarch 250,000 denarii. For thus I have agreed. As for the upkeep of the roof tiles of the upper (rooms of the building), it will be done by me and my heirs.
Polycharmus had given some of the rooms of his house to the Jewish community, while retaining other rooms for his own use. Most synagogues may have been formed out of domestic homes.

I will argue now that this same kind of benefaction provided the meeting places of both the Jews and the Christians in Corinth.

Acts 18:7 reads
Τhen he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God; his house adjoined (ἦν συνομοροῦσα ) the synagogue.
Titius Justus is here presented as a benefactor who gave space in his house for Paul's use. His house adjoined the synagogue because he (or his predecessors) had given part of their house to be used as the Jewish meeting place. A synagogue, I suggest, had been formed out of Titius Justus's house, in the same way that a synagogue had been formed out of Polycharmus's house. They may, of course, have later extended their house to compensate for the loss of rooms. Titius Justus, like Polycharmus, had given up ownership of the synagogue space in his house, otherwise Paul would not have needed to leave the synagogue.

It is not surprising that the household of Titius Justus should donate rooms for the use of the Christian community,  since it seems that they had earlier performed the same benefaction for the Jews.

1 Cor 11:17 and 1 Cor 14:23 suggest that the whole church met in one place. Rom 16:23 confirms this and shows that the meeting place was in Gaius's house. Now, there are indications that the house owner (presumably Gaius) had given up ownership/control of the space where the believers met:
  1. Paul writes, "Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?"(1 Cor 11:22). He writes, "homes", rather than "your own homes", and this indicates that the meeting place was probably not considered someone's home (1). See also 1 Cor 11:34.
  2. If the head of the house (Gaius) had control over the space, why did he allow the impropriety at their communal meals (1 Cor 11:17-34)? Surely he would have insisted at least that they wait for each other. And why did he allow the problems of 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 12:1-14:40? There meetings were disorganized and this suggests that no one person was in charge: Gaius no longer owned the space so he could not bring the congregation to order.
  3. Paul insisted on not receiving payment (1 Cor 9:12,15; 2 Cor 11:7-9; 12:14-15) for his work (presumably because he wanted to be seen to be independent of the influence of any patrons). It is therefore unlikely that he would allow himself or the church to be dependent in the long-term on a patron for their meeting space. The independence of the church required that they have joint control of their meeting space.
All this suggests that, as in the case of Polycharmus, the church of Corinth met in a room or rooms that had been donated from a believer's house and the head of the house had given up ownership/control of the space. We can assume that, by calling Gaius "host", Paul is not saying that Gaius owned the meeting space, but that he performed the other roles of a host - putting himself at the service of the congregation.

Gaius as Titius Justus
"Gaius" was a Roman praenomen. He was almost certainly a Roman citizen since he was able to host the whole church, so he almost certainly also had a Roman nomen and cognomen. Since "Titius Justus" is a nomen-cognomen combination, his full name could have been Gaius-Titius-Justus, as many have pointed out. The following arguments confirm this identification.
  1. Gaius, along with Crispus and the "household of Stephanas", was baptized by Paul. The household of Stephanas were "firstfruits" (1 Cor 16:15) and Crispus was also one of the first converts in Corinth (Acts 18:8). This suggests that Gaius, too, was an early convert, who was baptized by Paul himself, before someone else (presumably Crispus) started doing the baptizing. This supports the view that Gaius was Titius Justus, the first Corinthian convert mentioned in Acts.
  2. I have argued that Gaius had given up control of rooms that he had donated for the church. This is exactly the type of benefaction that we should expect from the household of Titius Justus, which had performed the same benefaction for the synagogue.
  3. If, as seems likely Titius Justus's household had been able to donate rooms that could accommodate the synagogue community, they surely were able to do the same for the (presumably smaller) church. The church would have no reason to move to someone else's house. Even if Titius Justus died or apostatized, the space would probably still be available for the church to use.
The role of Stephanas
1 Cor 16:15-18 reads:
Now I urge you, brothers and sisters,  - you know that the household of Stephanas were the firstfruits of Achaia and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints - to put yourselves at the service of such people, and of everyone who works and toils with them. I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they bave made up for your absence; for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. So give recognition to such persons.
The recognition that Paul urges should be given to Stephanas suggests that they were benefactors of the church. Carolyn Osiek writes:
Stephanas particularly can be singled out for his social prominence, for he hosts Paul and the whole church, the members of which are expected, as good clients, to be submissive to him

This is precisely the role that Gaius has in Rom 16:23, so we should start to suspect that Stephanas was Gaius.

Stephanas's household is described as the "firstfruits (ἀπαρχὴ) of Achaia". It is widely agreed that the term "firstfruits" has the sense of "the first with the prospect of more to follow". Paul is not saying that Stephanas was merely the first convert of Achaia, because that would not have really helped him to convince the Corinthians to be submissive to this household, and because Athenians were actually the first converts (Acts 17:34). No, the role of "firstfruits" must have been a more substantial role that commanded respect. This fits the role of Titius Justus perfectly. Titius Justus was the "firstfruits", whose benefaction had been followed by a bumper crop of conversions (Acts 18:7-8), and his benefaction deserved the respect of all the Corinthian believers.

The household of Stephanas had "devoted themselves to the service of the saints", as had Gaius Titius Justus, who had acted as host to the whole church (see above).

Paul devotes a lot space in 1 Corinthians to correct the disorder in the Corinthians' meetings, and this fits nicely with the suggestion that Stephanas was Gaius, the host of he church. We can imagine Stephanas, as host, feeling a sense of responsibility for the meetings and deciding to travel to Ephesus to ask Paul for help in controlling the meetings. Stephanas's journey to Ephesus is explicable if he was Gaius.

In 1 Cor 16:15-18 Paul bolsters the authority of Stephanas and his household and this makes perfect sense if he was the host of the church. The Corinthian church was suffering from divisions and poor behavior in their meetings, so Paul here tries to unite them under the roof of Stephanas, their host.

The name "Stephanas"
The name is very rare. In the six volumes of LGPN published so far there are just 5 people called Stephanas. This represents just 0.002% of all recorded persons. The same database records just 6 cases of "Stephanephoros". Stephanas means crowned or crown-bearer or the like. In New Testament times crowns were given as civic honors to luminaries because of their beneficence or achievements on behalf of the city.(2) In inscriptions the most commonly mentioned response of the community to a benefaction is the giving of a crown (3). Inscriptions found at Delos (twice) see image,(4) Egypt,(5) Asia Minor,(6) and twice at Berenice (7) show that synagogues likewise gave crowns to their benefactors, including those who financed building construction. Since Gaius/Titius Justus gave part of his house to the church, it is very appropriate that Paul recognized his commitment by giving him the name "Stephanas".

John Chrysostom wrote about Gaius of Rom 16:23:
See what a crown (στέφανος) he has framed for him by bearing witness to such great hospitality in him, and brought in the entire Church into this man's house!
Name selection
On the present hypothesis, Paul calls Gaius Titius Justus "Stephanas" in 1 Corinthians because doing so recalls his benefaction and thus bolsters his authority. This explains why the name "Stephanas" appears only in 1 Corinthians, but is absent from Acts. In Romans 16:21-23 Paul sends greetings from all those in Corinth who, through traveling, had met many of those who had moved to Rome (see here). It is therefore surprising that Stephanas (who had travelled at least to Ephesus) is not mentioned, unless he is Gaius. It is not surprising that Paul should call him "Gaius" in 1 Cor 1:14 since this refers to a time before he had been given the name "Stephanas". Also, calling him "Stephanas" here would have conferred honor on him, and Paul did not want to hint that being baptized by him is a point of pride. It was not uncommon for ancient writers to use different names for the same person according to context. Cicero does it frequently, and Paul does it with Cephas/Petros in Galatians. The switch of names would produced no ambiguity for the Corinthian readers. Paul calls him "Gaius", rather than "Stephanas", at Rom 16:23, presumably because he had called himself "Gaius" when he travelled among the churches and met those who subsequently moved to Rome.

Other similar cases of new name giving
Nearly all the benefactors of the church in the New Testament were given new names to honor their generosity. See here.  These include Crispus-Sosthenes and also perhaps Epaenetus who, like, Stephanas, was a 'firstfruits'. In future posts I hope to show that the tradition of giving new names to benefactors continued into the second century.

Summary of the reconstruction
The family of Gaius Titius Justus had given part of their house for the Jewish community to use as a synagogue. After becoming a Christian and being baptized by Paul, he gave further space in his house for the church to use for its meetings. For this benefaction he was honored with the name "Stephanas" (crowned). Having given up ownership of the space he was not able to enforce proper behavior in the church meetings, so he travelled to Ephesus to get Paul's support. Paul then wrote to the Corinthians, referring to Justus as "Stephanas" to remind them that he had provided the meeting space. Paul urged the Corinthians to respect Stephanas and his household, to give them the authority that they needed encourage proper behavior in the meetings. Later, Paul wrote to the Romans and sent greetings from Gaius Titius Justus Stephanas, who on his travels had met many believers who had subsequently moved to Rome. Paul described him as host of the whole church.

I hope that this post summarizes the evidence for Gaius Titius Justus Stephanas, whom I have previously discussed here, here and here.

(1) See the work of Edward Adams, as reported by Justin Mihoc, here.
(2) See "The Fading Crown: Divine Honour and the Early Christians", Journal of Theological Studies, (vol 54.2 Oct 2003).
(3) Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field.
(4) Menippus, and Serapion, son of Jason. The image is from Philippe Bruneau, "«Les Israélites de Délos» et la juiverie délienne," Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique 106 (1982).
(5)  It is disputed whether this inscription concerns Jews.
(6)CIJ 738
(7)Marcus Tittius in Reynolds 1977:244-45, no. 17 = Roux and Roux 1949 = IGRI 1024. Also Decimus Valerius Dionysius in SEG vol.16, no. 931.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Paul opposed Roman (bisexual) norms, not gay marriage

This post is borne of the conviction that interpreters of Paul, at all levels, have failed to fully account for the fact that sexual practices in his day were very different from those of most of our modern cultures. When reading 1 Cor 6:9 and Rom 1:26-27 it is natural for us to assume that Paul has in mind the actions of a group equivalent to modern homosexuals - a persecuted minority who represent about 2% of western society. I shall argue that, rather than having such people in view, Paul is attacking the sexual practices of the majority of Romans, and that these practices can better be described as bisexual and unfaithful.

Bisexual practice was the male norm
Today the prevalence of bisexual practice varies enormously, and in some tribes is universal.*
Psychology Wiki writes about bisexuality in history:
Male heterosexuality and homosexuality, while also documented, appear mostly as exceptions, unless we are examining cultures influenced by the Abrahamic religions, where heterosexuality was privileged, and bisexuality and homosexuality forcefully suppressed. In fact, most of the commonly cited examples of male "homosexuality" in previous cultures would more properly be categorized as bisexuality.
In ancient Greece few men had sex only with men, but bisexual practice was normal. See here. The early Roman empire was similar in that respect. For a good selection of the source documents see the collections here. Also see Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a sourcebook of basic documents. The section on the early Roman Empire is available here.
Thus, in the view of Martial and other contemporary writers, it could be taken for granted that nearly all Roman men found younger males at least as attractive, if not more so, than women
With marriage, as Martial says, a man was supposed to give up the pleasure of loving young males, but this was only in theory. Wives had reason to fear competition from young males, who were still widely available, and in fact, a woman could not sue her husband for adultery until the late Empire. (p200)
As illustrated by the literature produced in late Republic and early Empire, homoerotic interests and relationships were a dimension of the sex lives of most of the Roman men of the period. Virtually all the major political and military leaders of the late Republic and early Empire were known for their homosexual loves and affairs. (p200)
Consider, for example, the first 15 emperors, whose reigns lasted from 46 BCE to 138 CE. 2 were probably exclusively heterosexual and 3 may have been exclusively homosexual, though two of these were married (to women). The remaining 10 show evidence of having been bisexual and all had wives. This illustrates that bisexual behavior was very common, even allowing for some exaggeration by the ancient historians. See the discussion by Melinda Selmys here.

Julius Caesar Bisexual, married.

Augustus Bisexual, married.
Tiberius (see here and here) Bisexual, married.
Caligula Bisexual, married.
Claudius Married.
Nero Bisexual, married
Galba Bisexual, married
Otho Probably Bisexual, married
Vitellius Bisexual, married.
Vespasian married
Titus Bisexual, married
Domitian Bisexual, married
Nerva probably homosexual or bisexual, probably unmarried
Trajan probably homosexual, married
Hadrian Probably homosexual, married

The shortage of passive male partners, and resulting abuses
A normal (bisexual) Roman male desired sex with both women and men, but only if they could take the active (penetrating) role. (We should not therefore equate ancient Roman bisexuality with modern bisexuality). Wikipedia explains:
Same-sex attitudes and behaviors in ancient Rome often differ markedly from those of the contemporary West. Latin lacks words that would precisely translate "homosexual" and "heterosexual." The primary dichotomy of ancient Roman sexuality was active/dominant/masculine and passive/submissive/"feminized". Roman society was patriarchal, and the freeborn male citizen possessed political liberty (libertas) and the right to rule both himself and those of his household (familia). "Virtue" (virtus) was seen as an active quality through which a man (vir) defined himself. The conquest mentality and "cult of virility" shaped same-sex relations. Roman men were free to enjoy sex with other males without a perceived loss of masculinity or social status, as long as they took the dominant or penetrative role. Acceptable male partners were slaves, prostitutes, and entertainers, whose lifestyle placed them in the nebulous social realm of infamia, excluded from the normal protections accorded a citizen even if they were technically free. Although Roman men in general seem to have preferred youths between the ages of 12 and 20 as sexual partners, freeborn male minors were strictly off-limits, and professional prostitutes and entertainers might be considerably older.
See here for further discussion of Roman sexuality. The pleasure was had by the one who took the active role, but not, in general, by the passive partner. We see this when Lucian discusses sex with boys:
the one who's in charge ... goes away having taken a choice pleasure, but for the one outraged there are first pain and tears, and then, as the pain loosens a little over time, you won't hurt him any more, so they say, but there's no pleasure whatsoever.
Seneca the Younger's Moral Epistles 95.21
Today women equal men in regard to lust, although born to take the passive role - may the gods and goddesses destroy them! So perverse is their new species of invented immodesty: they actually penetrate men!
Ovid (Ars 2.683-4)
I hate sex that doesn't get both partners off; this is why I'm less moved by love with boys.
Those who enjoyed the passive (penetrated) role were a tiny minority and are frequently ridiculed in our sources (the texts are too numerous to mention). Thus Roman society was cursed with a gross imbalance in which many desired to take the active role, while few wanted the passive role. It seems to me that this mismatch of supply and demand led to all sorts of abuses, in which the rich and powerful used every necessary means to secure the scarce resource.

Thus, not only was most same-gender sex unfaithful to the marriage bed, but it was also an expression of social domination. Sex was commonly involved a male Roman citizen and a non-citizen male who serviced him when coerced or paid. The citizen nearly always took the active role, and indeed, there seems to be agreement nowadays that it was illegal for anyone to penetrate a male Roman citizen. See Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, p110-112. Sex between Roman citizen men was therefore illegal.

The abuse of slaves is shown, for example, by Seneca the Elder's Controversies 4.Preface.10
When Haterius was defending a freedman accused of being his patron's male concubine, I remember him saying: "Lack of sexual modesty in a free man is a legitimate charge, but in a slave it is a necessity, and in a freedman a duty."
Petronius's Satyricon illustrates that this practice threatened marriages:
A handsome young boy turned up among our new waiters, and Trimalchio cornered him and proceeded to lavish kisses on him. To assert her wifely rights, Fortunata [Trimalchio's wife] responded by bad-mouthing Trimalchio, calling him "scum" and "a disgrace" for not controlling his lust.
Male-male sex usually involved an adult man and a beardless boy, who would be discarded when he lost his boyish looks. Seneca the Elder complains that "leading citizens employ their wealth against nature; they have legions of eunuchs and amputate them so they can be apt for a longer passivity" (castration causing them to keep their boyish looks for longer).

We have few sources on female-female sexual relationships. However, since nearly all women had arranged marriages between the ages of 15 and 20 (usually for economic reasons), I think we can assume that most sexual acts between females involved at least one married participant.

Little love or devotion in same-sex relationships
Some are keen (for various reasons) to argue that not all same-sex activity was abusive. However, cases of mutually loving homosexual relationships were rare. Most of the evidence for them comes from works of fiction, where we would expect rare relationships to be recorded. In his chapter on "Love and Devotion in Homosexual Relationships" James Neill (p206-208) cites the following examples: 

Encolpius and his slave boy, Giton, in Satyricon by Petronius. However, neither man is faithful and, as discussed here,  "An orgy ensues and the sequence ends with Encolpius and Quartilla [a woman] exchanging kisses while they spy through a keyhole at Giton having sex with a virgin girl; and finally sleeping together".

Fortunata and Scintilla in the same novel. They exchange erotic kisses, but both women are married (to men).

Hippothous and Cleisthenes in An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus. However, this is a pederastic relationship and was not loyal since, Hippothous fell in love with a woman named Anthia. See pages 83-84 here.

Hippothous and Hyperanthes in the same novel. This too is a pederastic relationship and Hyperanthes shows no love for Hippothous. See here.

Clinias and Charicles in Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius. Again this is an asymmetric (pederastic) relationship. Charicles, the beloved (passive partner), seems indifferent to Clinias, the lover. It would be wrong to think of Clinias as a homosexual since he is clearly experienced in the seduction of women. See here.

Megilla and Demonassa in Dialogues of the Courtesans by Lucian. They have a long term Lesbian relationship, but it is not exclusive, since they entice Leaena to have sex with them.

Berenice and Mesopotamia in Photios's abridgement of Babyloniaca by Iamblichus. Photios lived in the nineth century and, in any case, the relationship between these two women is far from clear. See here, pages 49-52.

Callistratus and Afer in Martial's satire Epigrams 12.42, and Gracchus and a cornet player in Juvenal's Satire 2. These texts refer to (fictional) weddings in which citizen males took the role of a bride. They perhaps represent the best evidence of committed homosexual relationships close to Paul's time-period. We should remember, though, that weddings had little legal consequence, and we cannot assume that neither partner was bisexual in practice. Also, Martial and Juvenal consider it shocking that a Roman citizen should choose to take the female role in these unions, and they expect their readers to be shocked too. This demonstrates the rarity of such unions.

Lastly, Neill mentions the same sex relationships of emperors Nero and Elagabulus. I have already discussed Nero's abusive relationships hereElagabulus (ca 203-222) married five women in his short life and is no example of faithfulness.

Others point to Plutarch's moralia 751A. However, it is widely agreed (see here) that Plutarch's Eroticus was written in imitation of Plato. Plutarch "was an avid propagandist for Hellenic values, and his works are thought to reflect the attitudes of an age long past."* Thus, Plutarch tells us more about the values of classical Greece than first century Roman practice.

In summary, nearly all same-gender sexual relationships were abusive/unfaithful and Paul would not have approved of the equivalent heterosexual relationships. Hultgren in his recent Romans commentary (p620) writes, 
In no case does one find references to or hints of committed same-gender relationships entered into by adults who pledge lifelong fidelity. On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence for promiscuity and abuse.
Same-gender sex in the bible
In the bible, as in other ancient Jewish texts, same-gender sex is strongly associated with idolatry. We see this directly in Lev 18:21-22, in 1 Cor 6:9, and in Rom 1:23-27. This reflects the fact that bisexual practice was normal in pagan society. Gen 19:4-11 describes an attempted same-gender sexual assault by "the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man". Clearly this passage is not referring to a homosexual 2% of the population of Sodom, but to the bisexual (and married) majority. A city where all the men are strictly homosexual is absurd and is disproved by the fact that Lot's daughters had found husbands in Sodom (Lev 19:12-14).

1 Cor 6:9-11
Corinth was a very Roman city. We know of a few members of the Corinthian church and I would argue that they all had Latin names (Prisca, Aquila, Gaius-Titius-Justus-Stephanus, Crispus-Sosthenes, Fortunatus, Achaicus, and Erastus (which was probably a cognomen)). The background of 1 Corinthians is that members of the Corinthian church were wanting to continue their pagan practices of idolatry and sexual immorality. In "The Corinthian Question" Barnett argues that these opponents were upper class, and this is consistent with their hubris and the influence that they had over the lower class majority in the church. As is often pointed out, Paul is attacking the upper class in 1 Cor 6:1-8 since it was the upper class that took people to court. The context therefore suggests that Paul is attacking the norms of upper class Roman households in 1 Cor 6:9-11.

The NRSV translates 1 Cor 6:9: "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (οὔτε μαλακοὶ), sodomites (οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." The terms μαλακός and ἀρσενοκοίτης have been variously translated, but there is perhaps a consensus that they refer respectively to those who take the passive and active roles in male-male sexual unions. Paul's terms therefore imply asymmetric relationships, that usually involved social dominance.

In 1 Cor 4:17-6:20 Paul discusses vices about which some Corinthians had boasted, so the sins that he mentions in 1 Cor 6:9-11 are likely things performed openly. This is confirmed in 1 Cor 6:11 where Paul writes: "and this is what some of you used to be". Paul had recently visited the Corinthian church and he knew its members and their lifestyles. So, while he was diplomatic enough not to name names, his readers will have known exactly who he was referring to when he condemned same-gender activities in 1 Cor 6:9. Paul was condemning the sexual relationships of those individuals: we cannot conclude that he was condemning all possible same-gender sexual relationships. It is especially doubtful that he was condemning committed same-gender relationships, which were very rare. 1 Cor 6:9 refers to 'wrongdoers' and this arguably limits the scope to abusive/unfaithful male-male sexual relationships. It seems unlikely that Paul is here telling male slaves that they will not inherit the kingdom of God if they complied to their masters' sexual advances, since they had no choice in the matter, so 1 Cor 6:9 is not a blanket ban on male-male sexual activity.

While I would go a little further, Thistleton (p451) puts it well when he points to:
Vasey's reminder that in the society of imperial Rome Jews and Christians saw a "form of homosexuality [which] was strongly associated with idolatry, slavery and social dominance. It was often the assertion of the strong over the bodies of the weak." This no doubt colored Paul's perception, and coheres with certain attitudes related to wealth, status, manipulations, and power at Corinth.
Rom 1:18-2:3
Interpreters of the bible often assume that it must contain statements that directly address the burning issues of their own day. Thus, those who want to find a policy statement on gay marriage in the bible will find what they are looking for. However, the bible contains no such policy statement. In Rom 1:26-27 Paul is not saying "do not practice same-gender sex". He describes same-gender sex as a punishment for idolatry, not as a sin (though he surely considered much of it to be a sin).
and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 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. (Rom 1:23-27)
.... yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. (Rom 1:32) 
The "error" in 1:27 is the aforementioned idolatry. (This point has been missed by the NIV translation which has "perversion" instead of "error").

This passage makes sense in the light of the sexual practices of the ancient world described above. Paul is caricaturing the bisexual practices that were characteristic of the pagan world. People gave up having sex with their spouses, but instead had sex with members of their own gender. He is referring to the bisexual majority, not to a homosexual minority. Paul's statement that they "applaud others who practice them" makes it even more unlikely that he was referring to committed same-sex relationships because such relationships (if they existed) were despised (see on Callistratus and Afer above).

At least part of Paul's purpose in this passage is to encourage his readers not to pass judgement on others (Rom 2:1-3). It is therefore ironic that this passage has been used to pass judgement on homosexuals, with brutal consequences. Paul's discussion of same-gender sex in this passage is, in a sense, incidental to his discussion of Gentile culture and passing judgement. He is not giving a policy statement on same-gender sex, so we cannot assume that he condemned all same-gender sexual relationships. Paul's larger argument requires only that he convince his readers that pagan culture resulted in sinful forms of same-gender sex, and that some of them practiced those very same things.

Paul's condemnation of the (abusive and unfaithful) same-gender sex of Roman culture is completely in line with his egalitarian principles (e.g. Gal 3:28). He would surely be shocked to learn that his words have been used to deny equal rights to a persecuted minority whose sexual orientation is not a choice.

Let me know if I have missed any important considerations.