Homosexuality in the Ancient World

March 18, 2012 | By | 11 Comments

A common question that is posed when discussing how the New Testament addresses the issue of homosexuality is as follows: Are there differences between the homosexuality addressed in the New Testament (1st century) and the monogamous homosexuality that is being advanced in today’s society (married homosexuals)?

This is a very important question because the “hermeneutical process” seeks to determine the contextual understanding in the ancient text and seeks to determine how that is both contextualized and whether the ethical issues still stand. For full disclosure, I believe that the OT and NT both condemn homosexual practices and that regardless of whether we find examples of homosexual relationships that are akin to those of today, exegesis of the relevant texts demands that we take a traditional perspective on the issue. I hesitate to suggest that we take a traditional approach to the issue because I believe that the church has not dealt with and related well to those who identify themselves within the LGBT community. But that’s an aside and not my main point.

A question like this will easily produce two results, from two different sides of the spectrum. Some will dismiss a question like this because they believe that homosexuality is a sin and to even pose a question like this is to question the authority of Scripture. Others will suggest that obviously culture has changed and we can’t read those ancient texts into our current day. While I am not advocating a simplistic approach to Scripture that ignores the importance of seriously engaging in the aforementioned “hermeneutical process,” I want to provide a few of the reasons and resources that lead me to conclude that the New Testament (and Old Testament) texts that address homosexuality are relevant to the discussion of all homosexuality, be it in the “uncommitted-multiple-sex-partners” lifestyle or the “committed-homosexual” perspective.

So again, I am not, in this post, seeking to “think theological” by providing the conclusions to how Christians and the church-at-large needs to take this information and develop positions necessarily.

First, the NT texts that deal directly with the issue of homosexuality are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:8-10, and Jude 6-7 (cf. Genesis 19:1-11). I’m going to pass on addressing the OT texts (e.g., Leviticus 18:22; 20:13) because arguing from the Mosaic Law is unconvincing and a hermeneutical issue that is too complex for my purpose here.

So the issue is this: in the ancient world, were there such things as monogamous homosexual relationships? Or are the NT texts addressing homosexuality that was only related to (1) idolatrous pagan religious rites, (2) homosexual prostitution, (3) homosexual rape cases, or (4) pederasty (the sexual relationship between an older man and a younger boy)? These are standard explanations from some biblical scholars.

As an aside, I do not doubt at Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality would include all of the above. But what about today’s monogamous homosexual relationships? Were there homosexual relationships in the ancient world that are similar to those being promoted in today’s culture?

It would seem that there is evidence that suggests that the ancient world included homosexual relationships that were based on “love” and “commitment” in a way that would appear to be similar to of “monogamous homosexuality.” So what is the reference?

Plato’s Symposium.

Within the Phaedrus dialogue, a we find evidence of what appears to be advocacy for committed homosexual relationships. In fact, Plato was the first to suggest that military groups should be formed by same-sex lovers because it was assumed that lovers would fight to the death for each other. It reads,

“And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?” (online source; cf. the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry).

This was the basis for the famed Sacred Band of Thebes that many of us read about in classes covering ancient history.

Furthermore, it’s also interesting to note that historians, both modern and ancient, also suggest that Homer’s Illiad gives us another example of romantic homosexual love between the mythological characters Achilles and Patroclus. Though this is fictional, it betrays a perspective that was shared in the ancient world: homosexual relationships were not simply activities of pagan ritual, prostitution, rape, or pederasty. Plato’s Symposium, Homer’s Illiad, and the Sacred Band of Thebes all mitigate against such a narrow perspective.

My only point in bringing this up is that this evidence should be given a more careful consideration by those who quickly divorce 1st century biblical texts from today’s cultural expressions.

This says nothing about the well known fact that the vast majority of homosexual relationships are not monogamous. Nor does it even begin to deal with what I believe reasonable exegesis demands. It simply means that the ancient world wasn’t simply a world devoid of committed homosexual relationships.

For the sake of transparency, allow me to clarify that I am not an ancient Greek historian. Perhaps I’m misreading these texts and drawing conclusions that are not as convincing to others. I invite you to interact, as I am not trying to read into the ancient world something that I do not think existed. If men and women today can claim to express love and commitment to people of their same gender, I find it extremely likely that the same was true in the 1st century and those previous.

Which is why I think the discussion must take seriously the biblical text.

Thoughts?

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Filed in: Cultural Engagement, Homosexuality, Marriage, New Testament, Old Testament, Scripture, Sex | Tags: , , , ,

About the Author (Author Profile)

Luke Geraty has been married to Dawn for 12 years and they have four children, plus one on the way! For the past seven and a half years, he has served as the lead pastor of Trinity Christian Fellowship, a Vineyard Church. In his spare time, he prays, reads, blogs, writes, disciples, plays video games, drinks coffee, and eats sushi... but not simultaneously. Actually, that's not true. Luke is a multi-tasking extraordinaire who likes to juggle. Aside from leading in a local church, he is regularly involved in coaching and training leaders and providing support for local churches from a variety of traditions. He has earned a B.Th., M.Div. and is working on an MA through the University of Birmingham (UK) with the hopes of eventually completing a Ph.D. in some esoteric theological field... like ecclesiology in the rural church. Learn more about Luke here.
  • Deborah J. Shore

    A good post on the basics.  Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SeanClue Sean Clue

    Thank for the post Luke, I have never really gone deep into the issue as I am doing these days.

  • Pingback: Elsewhere (03.24.2012) « Near Emmaus

  • http://www.craigladams.com/ Craig L. Adams

    Thanks. You are right. Plato’s Symposium is quite clear I think. The Aristophanes speech describes “true love” pretty much in the same way people think of it today.

  • http://www.thinktheology.org Luke Geraty

    Yeah… that’s essentially the conclusion that I reached in reading through Plato, as well as my understanding of the Sacred Band… 

  • http://www.craigladams.com/ Craig L. Adams

     You have read more than I have, Luke. But, when I first read Robin Scroggs’ book on the NT & Homosexuality (and I think I read it when it first came out — shows my age), I knew the argument was wrong just from having read Plato in college. But, the argument never seems to die! It just re-appears, slightly tweaked.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nightounce Dayton Mix

    As a pastor in the United Methodist Church, I have heard the attempt to distance scriptural references from today’s practice. I really appreciate your examination of a few ancient sources that shed light oin that argument. Thank You! Keep up the good work!

  • http://twitter.com/Bahumuth Jeff Querner

    The meaning behind both examples you used have been hotly debated by
    scholars.  That Achilles and Patroclus were lovers is an interpretation
    given by Phaedrus via Plato but many scholars believe this was just a common
    belief for that particular time period. Phaedrus is only one person
    engaged in a dialectic with others who do not always share his opinion.
    Plato himself later rejects all homosexual intercourse in Book 8 of
    Laws.

    In any case, I don’t think there’s any question whether there were committed homosexual relationships in the ancient past.  Whereas today most people believe only homosexuals engage in homosexual behavior, there was not so much stigma attached to a “normal” person in ancient times penetrating another male of lower status though being penetrated carried a huge feminizing stigma. So the real question is whether the Biblical verses are referencing this more common type of dominating sexual activity or all homosexual sex regardless of intent. I think this is important in the context of 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 since the otherwise unknown word arsenokoitai means “man-bedder” and therefore could not possibly be referring to lesbians.  This may seem to be mute in light of Rom. 1:26, but that verse seems to be
    talking about a specific group people “who thought they were wise” and
    worshiped idols. Jude 6-7 references Sodom and Gomorrah which again conjures up the idea of sex-as-domination.

    Despite all of this, it may still seem like a hard sell, but the most important problem I see with the debate on homosexuality in the Bible is how it is emphasized far above other sexual sins in the Bible. 1 Cor. puts “male-bedders” on the same level as “pornoi,” or fornicators, and Jude includes ek-porn-euw. Unmarried sex is accepted as a sin, but is far more tolerated by the religious-minded, at least where I am from. Divorce is far and above the more linguistically clear condemnation and is attributed to Jesus rather than Paul or Jude, and yet this “sin” has completely dropped off the radar in most Protestant churches for obvious reasons. The Catholic Church is even worse in that it has developed an entire bureaucracy where “annulment” can be granted to those with power and influence like Joe Kennedy after 12 years with kids and without letting his x-wife know. Yet despite the fact that over half of marriages now end in divorce, there is not a whisper of any kind of Christian “marriage crisis.” Americans seem unable to contend with the massive chasm between the idealized heterosexual marriage of the Biblical canon and the real world but rather than try to discuss the 10-ton gorilla in the room, they instead focus on minority groups to play the part of the great Other since it is commonly perceived as existing only outside the community. To those who condemn the progressive “acceptance” of homosexuality and not the “acceptance” of divorce by both progressives and traditionalists, my question is: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

    Jefferey Querner
    @Bahumuth:disqus  on Twitter

  • http://www.facebook.com/pjbenedict1 Peter Benedict

    I’m with Mr. Querner on the question of homosexuality vs. divorce and their relative acceptance in Christian America.

    I don’t believe the church should be agitating to make divorce more difficult legally, nor agitating to cause the divorced to be treated less lovingly in churches. I also believe the same for the GLBT among us.

    Additionally, I think the argument from one passage of Plato’s works, when stacked against the additional historical evidence (Ruden is worth reading!) is flimsy at best. I have yet to see an expert in ancient Greek culture make this argument, which I find telling.

  • Luke

    Peter, it is actually pretty common for people to debate that question, though given your theological leanings it doesn’t surprise me you would hesitate to accept what many others see as decent evidence for committed homosexuals in the ancient world. After all, the argument that they didn’t exist, which is often trumpeted by those who seek to affirm these relationships, doesn’t fair well if they did, in fact, exist.

    But I actually think you are missing the overall point that I (and I have heard NT Wright make many times as well)… which has more bearing on how those whose agenda is to affirm often overlook key evidence that IS suggestive towards those types of relationships.

    Read the Greek from the aforementioned passage… and suggest an alternative! I would really like to know how it could mean something other than what it appears to say… it is fairly easy to access with either Logos or one of the many online libraries. Not sure what the “debate” is about on this one…

    Regarding the divorce issue: of course divorce is an issue in the US! But it is certainly not to be assumed that since someone takes issue with homosexual practices that one is light on divorce. That argument is boh misleading and quite judgmental, wouldn’t you think? It seems a bit of a red herring or at least a little misleading.

    I am just, at this point, interested in the historical accurqcy of statements like, “committed homosexual relationships never existed in the ancient world.” Deally? How are people sure of that? And why do so many overlook this source?

    What is interesting is that I had a philosophy prof (at a “secular” college”) who was very “liberal” and was an advocate for the homosexual lifestyle (i.e., he was gay) who told our class time and time again that homosexual relations were full of mutual love in ancient Greece and Rome… I wish I would have had him cite more evidence for that assertion so I could verify it!!

    Oh well… maybe folks will just take the time to interact with Plato… not quite Koine Greek, but doable!
    :)

  • William Blake

    The meaning behind both examples you used have been hotly debated by scholars. That Achilles and Patroclus were lovers is an interpretation given by Phaedrus via Plato but many scholars believe this was just a common belief for that particular time period. Phaedrus is only one person engaged in a dialectic with others who do not always share his opinion. Plato himself later rejects all homosexual intercourse in Book 8 of
    Laws.

    In any case, I don’t think there’s any question whether there were committed homosexual relationships in the ancient past. Whereas today most people believe only homosexuals engage in homosexual behavior, there was not so much stigma attached to a “normal” person in ancient times penetrating another male of lower status though being penetrated carried a huge feminizing stigma. So the real question is whether the Biblical verses are referencing this more common type of dominating sexual activity or all homosexual sex regardless of intent. I think this is important in the context of 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 since the otherwise unknown word arsenokoitai means “man-bedder” and therefore could not possibly be referring to lesbians. This may seem to be mute in light of Rom. 1:26, but that verse seems to be talking about a specific group people “who thought they were wise” and worshiped idols. Jude 6-7 references Sodom and Gomorrah which again conjures up the idea of sex-as-domination.

    Despite all of this, it may still seem like a hard sell, but the most important problem I see with the debate on homosexuality in the Bible is how it is emphasized far above other sexual sins in the Bible. 1 Cor. puts “male-bedders” on the same level as “pornoi,” or fornicators, and Jude includes ek-porn-euw. Unmarried sex is accepted as a sin, but is far more tolerated by the religious-minded, at least where I am from. Divorce is far and above the more linguistically clear condemnation and is attributed to Jesus rather than Paul or Jude, and yet this “sin” has completely dropped off the radar in most Protestant churches for obvious reasons. The Catholic Church is even worse in that it has developed an entire bureaucracy where “annulment” can be granted to those with power and influence like Joe Kennedy after 12 years with kids and without letting his x-wife know. Yet despite the fact that over half of marriages now end in divorce, there is not a whisper of any kind of Christian “marriage crisis.” Americans seem unable to contend with the massive chasm between the idealized heterosexual marriage of the Biblical canon and the real world but rather than try to discuss the 10-ton gorilla in the room, they instead focus on minority groups to play the part of the great Other since it is commonly perceived as existing only outside the community. To those who condemn the progressive “acceptance” of homosexuality and not the “acceptance” of divorce by both progressives and traditionalists, my question is: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”