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

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.


  1. Thank you for this excellent paper, Richard.

    I wish you and all the followers of this blog a Merry Christmas and very soon I'll give you by mail a little present.

    Greetings from the European Green Capital 2012,


  2. A very thorough case you've presented, Richard; I'm impressed.

    Happy New Year to you.

  3. I enjoyed it too, Richard! Thank you for begining my year with such a wonderfully written piece. Though I would have been a little bit more cautious toward the end of your essay. While I would agree that Paul probably wasn't anticipating future generations using his writings to deny a minority group it's rights, I don't think we can boldly proclaim that "he would have been shocked" as if we knew what Paul thought on the subject. The best conclusion would be that Paul was simpily critisizing a social norm and not homosexuality.

  4. Thanks, Xabier, Loren and Brian. Your point, Brian, is a fair one. My contention that "Paul would have been shocked" (at the denial of equal rights to gays) is admittedly an extrapolation and is based on my reading of his attitude to other disadvantaged groups (he gave equal rights to Gentiles in the church, and I have argued elsewhere on this blog that he was egalitarian on gender roles, and that he organized no less than three collections for the poor).

  5. With all respect, Richard, I think you're making the same mistake you accuse your opponents with, " assum[ing] that [the Bible] must contain statements that directly address the burning issues of their own day." The idea that one's sexuality is a fixed point of one's genetics is a 20th-21st Century contention (which, I will point out, remains unproved) and had nothing to do with Paul's worldview.

    Paul's view on the subject is very succinctly given in Romans 1--homosexual sexual attraction is a symptom of a culture which rejects the truth of God. Paul views it as a spiritual condition rather than a physical one, and therefore one which requires a spiritual remedy.

    I agree that Paul was horrified by the abuse of slaves in the Roman world, sexually or otherwise, but to take that fact, project upon it a Leftist view of "egalitarianism," and strip out the fact that Paul was also still a Torah-observant "Pharisee of the Pharisees" in order to try to sidestep his very traditional, "Abrahamic" view of what constituted sexual immorality is also reading your preferred view back into the text.

    Criticisms of your conclusion aside, I appreciate your excellent work giving a clear window into the sexual issues of the 1st Century Roman world. I'll be adding extensively to my own notes from your work.

    Thank you, and shalom.

  6. There is some truth to this way of looking at the passage. But it's ultimately about Idolatry and Paganism.

  7. I disagree with your discrediting those relationships simply for not being strictly Monogamous.

  8. I think readers will also be interested in Helen King's piece on Pausanias and Agathon. It is thoughtful and well researched.

  9. James Neill writes, "I was not prepared to find that exclusive homosexuality accounted for a only small proportion of the varieties of homosexual customs and traditions reported by anthropologists and historians, and that in a great number of societies homosexuality was practiced by nearly all the males and females most of whom would move on to heterosexual marriage or were already married."

  10. I am bisexual and learned about Rome, Greece and Japan and the brutal reality that our behavior seemed to culturally connect with brutality and evil is something I am glad to see someone note. Japan's society had weird views on women. They were seen as undesirable and dirty.

    and India was harder to understand as the caste system and what that is all about was hard for me to fully click with. Egypt and Persia were neutral though. I think culturally there is something about my group in particular that makes us problematic. I know at age 36, when I was 15-16, I was raised Catholic and we were more or less associated with satanic rituals. I just know that for the most part, our system was cruel to people and I think they are too focused on using the homosexual behavior aspect to attach our historic realities. Bisexual rome murdered and tortured and castrated feminine men for fun.

    I don't personalize that now because it doesn't apply to modern times but there's something we often do when we get involved with issues that has nothing to do with us at all. They talk about "visibility" but they'd flip out and pull the modern tumblr insult "bisexuals like you are hetero by proxy" but Rome also treated heterosexuality as a mundane, and lower class because of it. It was very elitist. So we were historically oppressors and systemically and statistically, often have uneven demographics socially to match it. We don't really want to face ourselves and our issues.

    We have those fanatical LGBT bisexuals who are all LGBT all the time but we also have the cluster of us that think bisexuality should be approached as a 3rd and separate from the hetero/homosexual model as we really have little empathy for the way we play both sides. Heterosexual bisexuality is practiced as a kink like sadomasochism and stays in the bedroom for the most part and is pretty common.

    I was active in that community and I wrote a blog about bisexual denial and bisexual male homophobia as an entity and it's relation to heterosexual make homophobia and gay male internalized and overt homophobia. It was very valid. Especially considering right after Pulse shooting, the people planning to blow up pride parades that were arrested were all openly bisexual. And there were numerous hate crimes. And I was kicked off their site. Called delusional and self hating and I said, people are NOT going to forget this and at some point it will backfire.

    Thank you for this. Part of it is the arrogance of us putting our bully pulpit in the middle of a dispute with two groups that we by definition qualify as both gay and straight.

    Here's an article written in 1999 about radical bisexuality and it being a dangerous trait to politically allow to go off the charts. She notes a lot of things I see in our group festering and it's scary because I remember back then we didn't really care about gay or straight people at all. Not all of us are blind to reality. The separate but productive 3rd group approach is shouted down by the uppity activist types:

  11. Thanks for your thoughts/insights, Matt.

  12. Marriage in the minds of the ancients (Jew and Gentile) is preserved for husbands (men) and wives (women). Homosexual acts in any context (religious or romantic) are regarded as having nothing positive to do with family and home life. To Gentile thinkers, homosexual acts are considered morally acceptable for the elite freeman, although his submissive partners (whether willing or unwilling) are considered despicable creatures. To them, the marriage is still intact even if the husband has male sexual partners. But to Jewish thinkers such as Paul, all extramarital sexual acts (including male-to-male and female-to-female relationships) are sinful. Sex outside of marriage violates the very nature of men and women in God's creative purpose and adulterates marriage itself. God's judgment will come upon those involved. To suggest that a lifelong commitment between same-sex partners could, under any circumstances, be exempt from Paul's condemnations of sinful sexual activity outside of marriage is historically implausible.

    1. Bob, I was with you up until your last sentence, which does not seem to follow from the rest. You assume that a same sex marriage involves "sex outside of marriage".