Here’s Why The Christian Right is Totally Wrong About This Clobber Verse.

Here’s Why The Christian Right is Totally Wrong About This Clobber Verse. September 18, 2015

GUESS WHAT?

Yes, it’s the history post I’ve been promising you, just in time for some weekend reading!

Party time! Brandon Fick, CC license.) A celebration in Shanghai for "the opening of a new Buddhist temple and the 2251st anniversary of Lord Buddha."
Party time! Brandon Fick, CC license.) A celebration in Shanghai for “the opening of a new Buddhist temple and the 2251st anniversary of Lord Buddha.”

What follows is a guest post by my dear friend David J. Murphy, a scholar who took courses in seminary, earned his Ph.D. in Classics from Columbia University, taught Latin and Greek for many years, and works and publishes on ancient Greek philosophy and textual criticism.

He’s the real live deal, in short, and we are very privileged to have him join us today. In this post, he specifically addresses one of the several “clobber verses” Christians use to hammer at the idea of marriage equality for same-sex couples. The verses in question are called “clobber verses” because they’re thought to be totally definitive and utterly unquestionable, with no wiggle room at all for alternative interpretations. To right-wing Christians, these verses mean 100% that the Bible condemns equal marriage.

But what if these Christians are wrong?

What if these verses aren’t talking about same-sex marriage or homosexuality at all?

Recently we’ve been seeing a number of Christians and Christian leaders and writers making this exact argument, and this paper seeks to add another answer to that question by closely examining one of Christians’ favorite clobber verses in a way I’ve never seen before. Does this particular clobber verse really mean what modern right-wing Christians think it means? And if they’re totally, completely, utterly wrong about its meaning, what does that error mean for their idolization of the other clobber verses?

One thing (out of many!) that the author and I have in common is a desire to present conservative Christians with an excuse to opt out of their religious leaders’ self-created, self-fueled culture war against LGBTQ people–because we both feel that that’s what a lot of fundagelicals want: an excuse. They want the culture war to end. They’re tired of seeing the fight against same-sex marriage co-opt everything else they think their religion stands for. There are a lot of really decent folks caught up in that culture war and they’re starting to feel uncomfortable with their stance–but they don’t want to make a mistake that might land them in eternal torture. I well remember that mindset. When I was Christian, I had a zillion ways of rationalizing cruelty to others; even when I wanted to be kind, I couldn’t because I thought that I was behaving in line with the Bible–and I was terrified to do anything else. I couldn’t just stop because it was the right thing to do; I had to know I was doing the correct thing for fear of my eternal soul. I think that there are a lot of Christians in that boat now.

To non-Christians, the Bible is not authoritative anyway, and I’d like it understood that nobody is lending the Bible more credence than it deserves. Nor is this paper really aimed at Christians who are using religion to be crappy toward people they don’t like. No matter what anybody says to them, they’re going to find some way to rationalize their behavior. Instead, it’s aimed at the growing numbers of Christians who are getting increasingly disturbed by the trends of hatefulness and vicious cruelty they’re seeing in their peers and leaders–and at non-believers who are interested in this kind of deep historical analysis, since it tells us a lot about what people at the time thought about themselves and the world around them.

When David told me he was digging into this clobber verse a while ago, I was just floored by his initial conclusions and eagerly offered him a spot here to talk about what he was discovering.

Without further ado, here is David J. Murphy and his analysis of Romans 1:26. I hope y’all enjoy it as much as I have.


I. Textual considerations.
II. Earliest interpretations of Romans 1:26.
III. Nature as an evaluative construct.
IV. Greco-Roman attitudes toward female eroticism.
V. Other Jewish Influences.
VI. “On Vot Theory?”
VII. How Conservative Judaism Has Handled LGBT Issues.
VIII. Suggestions for the Evangelical Church.


Is Romans 1:26 Really About Lesbians?

David J. Murphy

When she was well out of college, Anna, a former teaching colleague of mine, discovered that she was lesbian. She met Becky. They fell in love. They were married. Anna gave birth to Meredith, who is now four. Recently, Anna posted a photo of little Meredith at Sunday School. Although I knew that some churches welcome lesbian and gay members, I was a bit surprised, as well as encouraged. When I asked Anna about it, she replied,

The Presbyterian Church ordains gay ministers and recognizes gay marriage. Things have come a long way! Our beliefs as Christians teach us that Christ loves us no matter what, and we are all welcome in His church. It is important to Becky and me to raise Meredith with those values. First Pres’s school is very accepting towards our family — Meredith attends the school that is a part of the church, and there are at least two other gay families at the small school.

This happy story is replicated today in many mainline Protestant denominations in the US. What I find even more encouraging is that a growing number of evangelicals—folks often enculturated to distrust mainline Protestants as “liberals”—find themselves, too, wanting to affirm same-sex couples in their relationships. Some evangelicals have already come out as “affirming.” They focus on big themes like Christ’s love, as Anna talked about, while concluding that scripture does not condemn committed same-sex relationships.

Most evangelicals, though, still deny that people like Anna and Becky have a real Christian marriage. They insist that they base their denial on the plain meaning of scripture. Ben Witherington recently blogged: “Same sex sexual activity, whether between consenting adults or through some other sort of relationship, is clearly defined as a sin in both the OT and the NT, indeed a serious sin. If this is correct, then gay marriage is a non-starter.”

Dr. Witherington is not correct. Sexual activity between two females is not mentioned in the OT. I shall be arguing that it is not mentioned in the NT, either. There are strong arguments that the one verse that everyone thinks prohibits female-female sex – Rom 1:26 – is not about lesbians but about non-vaginal sex between females and males, especially anal. That is how it was understood by the first Christian commentators. And if there is no biblical condemnation of lesbians, then there is no overall biblical category of “same-sex” or “homosexual.” If that’s true, then the verses that condemn male-male eroticism are not condemning one half of a blanket category, “homosexual,” but something else. What to make of this “something else” would then become the evangelical church’s challenge.

Most readers of Roll To Disbelieve will know that only a handful of biblical passages address same-sex activity. The chief “clobber passages” are Lev 18:22 and 20:13, Rom 1:26-27, I Cor 6:9, and I Tim 1:10. I leave out the story of the Sodomites because their sin is a matter of controversy. The one verse about female activity, Rom 1:26, runs like this: “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature” (KJV). I had in the past assumed that this verse condemns female-female sex because the next verse condemns male-male sex, beginning, “And likewise also the men …” Paul, however, does not state that these women of Rom 1:26 are having sex with other women. That’s an inference, and there is much reason to call it into question.

In what follows, I shall give evidence that supports the “anal/oral” interpretation of Rom 1:26 against the “lesbian” interpretation. It was common in antiquity for women to have anal or oral sex with men, often to avoid pregnancy or to preserve the hymen and thus, technically, their virginity. Trying to explain how Genesis 24:16 is not redundant when it recounts that Rebecca, future wife of Isaac, was a virgin and “had not known man,” Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, ca. 250 C.E., could say, “The daughters of the gentiles had been careful to protect the virginity of their vaginas, but they were quite free with themselves at other orifices. But this one [Rebecca] was ‘a virgin’ as to the vagina, and ‘no man had known’ her under any other circumstances either” (Midrash Rabbah Genesis LX:V 2.B, translated by Jacob Neusner). These gentile girls are like Rebecca because, technically, they are virgins. They keep their hymen intact. They are unlike her because they find ways to “know” men anyway. Tamar had unnatural sex with Onan so she wouldn’t conceive and thereby lose some of her beauty (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 34b).

I shall argue that the language of Romans 1 supports the “anal/oral” interpretation. That language is hard to square with the “lesbian” interpretation. We’ll see that the earliest Christian commentators held the “anal/oral” interpretation of Rom 1:26. We will see that except for Plato, none of the the influences from wider Greco-Roman culture support the “lesbian” interpretation. In Leviticus, only male-male anal sex is forbidden, but later rabbinic prohibition of spilling semen supports the view that Paul too was condemning “anal/oral,” where the man spills seed. After a review of how Conservative Judaism has found a scriptural mandate to welcome LGBT Jews and celebrate their marriages, I will suggest some ways an evangelical ethic of sexuality may affirm same-sex relations. I am building on work done by Strack-Billerbeck, James Miller, Dale Martin, David E. Fredrickson, Thomas D. Hanks and David Balch. I thank Rabbi Howard Handler and Professors Judith Hallett, Menahem Luz, and Amy Richlin for their suggestions. Translations are my own unless indicated.

Those of us who propose hypotheses about historical and exegetical questions must shoulder a positive burden of proof, and in ancient studies, we usually can only manage to make a likely case. For moral theology, though, I suggest that the “lesbian” interpretation must meet a higher standard of proof than do its challengers. Protestants generally hold the principle that a significant doctrine, which affects many people, needs much more support than one disputed verse. “Non-affirming” churchmen need to show that it is the case that the Bible condemns lesbians. All I need to do is to meet the negative burden of casting doubt on that claim. If there is strong doubt about it, evangelicals have room to approach lesbians within a much broader scriptural ethic. And the principles of such an ethic will inevitably embrace gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. The authenticity of someone’s Christian faith need not stand on whether she or he opposes LGBT relationships.

I. Textual/linguistic arguments.

Paul begins in Romans by seeking to establish that everyone, Gentile and Jew, is sunk in sin. Although not all peoples had the law of Moses, he says, everyone in the past knew God from Creation. Deserting God for idols, people became corrupt. Therefore God “handed them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity” (1:24) and to “passions/experiences (pathe; see I.7 below) of dishonor. For both their females (theleiai) exchanged the natural use (chresin) for the [use] contrary to nature, and in like manner (homoios) also the males, having let go of (aphentes) the natural use of the female, blazed up in their appetite for each other, males on/in males working unseemliness …” (1:26-27).

In favor of what I call the “anal/oral” interpretation of 1:26 are these textual points:

1. The text has no language of mutuality about the females. It does not state that the females do anything with females.

2. The females are accused of changing “the natural use/benefit/enjoyment”chresis in Greek—to the one contrary to nature. If you do something with one category of person and change the chresis, you change what or how, not necessarily with whom.

3. The noun chresis is formed from the Greek verb chraomai, to “use, have dealings with, enjoy,” and both noun and verb could be applied to sexual relations. Its role in our passage creates a problem for the “lesbian” interpretation. Plutarch talks about husband and wife together as “using,” chresthai, their procreative act (Conjugal Precepts 144b), and various texts speak of people using/enjoying “erotic things,” aphrodisia, or “pleasures,” hedonai. When it refers to one person’s sexual activities with another person, though, chresis is assigned to the man, who was expected to penetrate someone and thus, “use” that person—a woman, a boy, a male slave. Early Christian writers as well speak of the husband’s having “use” of the wife (Clement, Stromateis 3.11.71.4; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 110; Athenagoras, Legation 32.1). As far as I have found in the sources, chresis as sexual activity always is associated with penetration. This assumption was so strong that in a reference to two subordinate males penetrating superior females—ass on horse and man on goddess—the males are said to have chresis “of” these powerful females, however perilous that “use” might prove to be (Dio Chrysostom, Orations 10.21). I do not know a case where the penetrated partner is said to have sexual “use” of the penetrating partner. It is not surprising, then, that David E. Frederickson has found no case where chresis refers to female homoeroticism (“Natural and Unnatural Use in Romans 1:24-27,” in Homosexuality, Science and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, ed. David L. Balch, Grand Rapids 2000, 197-222: 201).

All this matters for our passage because, consistently with what I’ve just said, the males in v. 27 start out with “the natural use of the female.” And consistently again, Paul does not say, when the females in v. 26b start out with “the natural use,” that they have use of anyone. This asymmetry between v. 26b and v. 27 reflects typical gender expectations, in which Paul looks at the penetrative act from the point of view, first, of the penetrated female, and then, from the standpoint of the penetrating male. Only the male has use “of” the other partner. In other words, in “natural chresis,” the females start out being penetrated by males, and they do not have “use” of anyone. In “unnatural chresis,” the females again are penetrated by males, and again they do not have “use” of anyone. They have only switched the orifice they presented for penetration. If we have to say what they have use “of,” aphrodisia, “sexual relations,” is a good answer.

On the other hand, this symmetry between the chresis phrases within v. 26b makes problems for the “lesbian” interpretation. What is supposed to happen in “chresis against nature” if we have two females? If neither penetrates the other, there is no chresis. If one is the active partner and one is passive, as Greek and Roman males tended to imagine in lesbian sex, we have “use” of the female. But the “of the female” qualifier does not appear. Eisegesis, anyone? To read in the very term that is the point of the “lesbian” interpretation is a massive case of circularity.

4a. In general in Greek, the adverb, homoios, “likewise/in like manner” (v. 27), asserts similarity between two actions, not between groups of people. In our passage, the point of similarity is intercourse or chresis contrary to nature. Homoios tells us that sex was performed in both v. 26b and v. 27 in an unnatural way. It doesn’t tell us anything about the gender of the persons who are being “used” unnaturally.

4b. When a Greek author compares two actions using homoios, the first action is not regularly explained by the second action. On the contrary, the first action presents a point of similarity that explains the second action. For example, at Matt 26:35, Peter says he will not deny Christ, “and in like manner, homoios, all the disciples spoke.” Examining every instance of homoios in the NT, Jamie Banister did not find a case where the comparison is made backwards, as it needs to be in Romans 1 for the “lesbian” interpretation to work (“ὁμοίως and the Use of Parallelism in Rom 1:26-27,” Journal of Biblical Literature 128 [2009] 569-590). To read female homoeroticism back into 1:26 because we have male homoeroticism in the next verse is to ignore the way homoios functions.

5. Rom 1:27 may seem to leave the men only two alternatives: sex with females or sex with males. But that conclusion would create a false dichotomy. Paul does not say that the males “let go” the female, or even that they “let go the usage of the female.” What they let go was “the natural usage of the female.” We are not told that they let go of unnatural sex with females. The adjective “natural” is in one of the positions called “attributive,” and coming directly between the article and the noun, it stands in the most emphatic of attributive positions. In such a place the adjective often helps pick out the noun item from a larger class, as when Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate,” to distinguish it and only it from among all gates. To conclude from 1:27 that the females let go of all sex with males and took up sex with females requires auxiliary premises that the text does not supply. The males drop the natural sex act with females, do the unnatural act with females, and then go more crazy doing the unnatural with other males.

I may sound overly literal; perhaps Paul is just collapsing two claims: men let go of natural sex; natural sex is only with females. But consider historical background. Paul and his audience will have been inundated with imagery celebrating male sex with women and boys—frescoes, mosaics, lamps, bawdy performances, graffiti, poetry … The readers of Paul’s letter can hardly have imagined that idolatry led men to seek out only men, or women only women. Men pursuing perversions with both females and males fits both Rom 1:27 and real life.

6. A more speculative point. The Greek preposition en has a range of senses, but its root meaning is “in.” “Males in males” at Rom 1:27, construed literally, creates a picture of oral or anal penetration. Compare en as a prefix in Herodas’ mime, when the mistress accuses her male gigolo slave, “you lie with”—literally, “lie in,” enkeisai—another woman (5.6). On the symmetry of actions created by homoios, females’ being penetrated at 1:26 is more consistent with 1:27 than would be females’ stimulation of each other in other ways, practices that the ancient rabbis merely called “rubbing” (see V.2.c below).

7. One may wonder, if the females act out of desire (1:24), why would they exchange hetero vaginal intercourse for anal or oral penetration? Wouldn’t that be less pleasurable, and wouldn’t it risk loss of status? After all, when the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus was having only anal sex with his second wife, her family thought it such dishonor that a civil war resulted (Herodotus 1.61). But Paul tells us that the idolators’ actions and their consequences were punishments from God. “God … handed them over to impurity of dishonoring their bodies among themselves” (1:24) and again, “God handed them over to pathe of atimia” (1:26). As Augustine says about our passage, “iniquity is its own payback” (On Nature and Grace 22.24). A pathos is something that happens to you, either an emotion or a state or experience, which you don’t control—as in “passive,” from the Latin cognate of this Greek word. And atimia, “dishonor,” is loss of status. God in his wrath (cf. 1:18) hands the females over to bad choices, which dishonor them and their families. And Paul may have known that women can receive pleasure in anal intercourse, for nerve endings make that possible. Augustine, again discussing our passage, acknowledged that couples could find that “that use against nature perhaps would delight them … and that praiseworthy sex drive would whinny after this pleasure also” (On Marriage and Concupiscence 2.35.59). In any case, on Paul’s scheme, the females need not have made these choices primarily for physical pleasure. Consistent with the “dishonor as punishment” theme, then, are both the “anal/oral” and the “lesbian” interpretations.

Considering only language, I suggest that the “anal/oral” interpretation accounts for the text’s features without overriding linguistic usage or inserting terms that are not there. The males do two things: abandon natural sex acts with females and have sex with males. The females do one thing: change natural sex acts with males to unnatural ones with males.

The strongest support for the “lesbian” interpretation, in my view, is extra-textual: a parallel in Plato and a possible influence from the kind of thinking seen in the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides. We shall look at these in III.1 and V.1 below. As far as I can see, noteworthy textual arguments for the “lesbian” interpretation boil down to two.

1. The action of the females is ill-defined, so we need the next verse to explain what the females do. Homoios, “in like manner,” bridges the two verses. Paul’s audience will be in suspense about the females’ sin until they figure out from the next verse that the females are having sex together. Although the “lesbian” interpretation is simple—it asks us only to look at what the males do—I believe points 1-5 above nullify this advantage.

2. Bernadette Brooten, in her magisterial Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago 1996, 248 n. 99) notes that James Miller, who argues an anal interpretation (“The Practices of Romans 1:26: Homosexual or Heterosexual?” Novum Testamentum 37 [1995] 1-11), does not cite an ancient source that brands male-female anal as unnatural. One source is the second-century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr. He tells the story of a woman, newly converted, who thought it would no longer be holy to sleep with her licentious husband because “against the law of nature and against justice, he continually kept trying to create passages of pleasure,” i.e. to exploit all her orifices, as commentators recognize (Second Apology 2.4-5). A century earlier, the poet Martial had said that a woman’s vagina, not her anus, is the place she should use for sex (11.43.11-12, 12.96.11-12), although he did not use the word “nature.” Anyone influenced by Plato’s view that nature makes male seed the vehicle for carrying the new human (see below, Part III.1), or by Aristotle’s (partially wrong) dictum that the same part is made by nature for urination and sex in both males and females (Parts of Animals 689a5ff.), could call male-female anal “contrary to nature.” Stoic philosophers downgraded all non-procreative sex as contrary to nature.

Although I believe my remarks on chresis (above, 2-3) dispose of Preston Sprinkle’s recent argument from that word, I mention it as work of a fellow Patheos blogger. Rev. Sprinkle does not affirm same-sex relations but does want a fair shake for LGBT people. He comments on his own blog post:

if Paul wanted to critique men for having non-procreative sex with women, he probably would not have referred to women as the subject of the “exchange” in 1:26 … those who argue for the anal/oral sex view of Romans 1:26 … force Paul to make a claim that would have been historically unparalleled: ‘women exchanged the natural use (i.e. coitus) of their husbands for the unnatural (i.e. anal and oral).’ We have no evidence of women forcing their husbands into performing such sexual acts.

As I pointed out above, the women are “the subject of the ‘exchange’” however you slice it. When the female changes the male’s “natural use” of her into something else, she affects him. His “use” is no longer what it was—no matter whether she is still with him or is off with her home-girl. In addition, Rev. Sprinkle doesn’t do justice to Paul’s rhetorical strategy. The apostle is not writing history. His account is quasi-mythical, an imaginative construction set in a distant past to explain how humanity is under sin—an “archaeology” of idolatry. And it is a common rhetorical topos to accuse an opponent’s women of sexual forwardness. We see this in the OT and among the Greeks, as when Athenians portrayed Spartan women as wanton and bossy. It fits Paul’s purpose to suggest that gentile women introduced perversions into marriage, but we need not think only married women “changed the use.” In Greek, as in Hebrew, the word “woman” also is used for “wife” or refers to a woman who has been married. Paul’s choice of “females” instead of “women” expands the sexual sphere beyond marriage.

Paul’s vagueness compels defenders of either interpretation to try to recover his meaning by inference. In the next three parts I shall give evidence from outside the epistle that non-standard male-female sex is more likely to be what he had in mind.

(Back to the top.)

II. The “anal” interpretation of Rom 1:26 prevailed first in the early church.

1. The first Christian commentator known to me to make use of Rom 1:26-27 was Clement of Alexandria. In his Paedagogus, “Instructor,” usually dated to the late second century, Clement teaches that the only function of sex by nature is to procreate children. An act in which semen does not go to the uterus is contrary to nature. Arguing from the (incorrect) belief that animals do not display homoeroticism, Clement has to tackle the case of the hyaena, because many people believed it changed its genitals at different times or had both male and female genitals. Clement explains, on the contrary, that hyaenas produce so much semen that both sexes have an empty sack near the anus, looking like female genitals, in which a male hyaena can deposit its excess semen. After quoting Romans 1:26-27 about females’ and males’ acts contrary to nature, Clement notes that hyaenas are not performing anal sex, as many think, since nature does not grant to libidinous animals to mount the passage for excrement. The lesson for humans is that non-procreative couplings ought to be avoided: “mixings of males and fruitless sowings and ‘lyings’ from behind and androgynous couplings that aren’t naturally fitted together” (2.10.87.3).

While Clement directs most of his invective against male-male sex, his Pauline quotation, “their females …etc.,” and phrases like “lyings from behind,” include females. He cannot mean female-female sex, in which no semen is ejaculated. If Clement believed Paul had attacked lesbian sex, he would be introducing confusion if he inserted without explanation Paul’s words on females into a discussion of anal sex in which he attacks non-procreative male ejaculation. Clement explicitly condemns married couples who have sex but avoid having children: “But marriage is the desire for procreating children, not the unlawful and irrational disordered expulsion of semen.” He follows immediately into a condemnation of using abortifacient drugs (2.10.95.2-3). Clement does pillory female-female relationships, too, as we shall see, but he does not again quote Romans 1:26.

2. Tertullian in On the Military Garland (c. 201-211), wrote cryptically that Paul, “in the earlier part of his epistle makes a point of defending natural use, saying that males and females between themselves had changed the natural use of creation/the creature (conditionis) into one not natural, as a punishment for their error” (6). My sense from Tertullian’s placement of “between/among themselves” after “males and females” (masculos et feminas inter se) is that he means a change worked between males and females, not one done by males between males and females between females. I cannot press this point, however.

3. In the late 320s, Athanasius in Against the Nations associates our passage with temple cult prostitution. Athanasius describes women who sit in temples in Phoenicia and prostitute themselves for the goddess, offering as first-fruits the wage-earning of their bodies. He describes men who, no longer wanting to be males, fashion the nature of women in honor of the mother of their gods. Then Athanasius quotes Rom. 1:26-27 and says that idolatry leads to all sorts of evils (Contra gentes 26).

4. Over several decades, Augustine continued to interpret Rom 1:26 as a condemnation of hetero couples who have non-procreative sex. In On the Good of Marriage (401 C.E.), he says married couples should not have sex “against nature,” which the Apostle forbade. Augustine embeds Rom 1:26 into his teaching that spouses should not turn away God’s mercy by having sex on fast days, etc., “or ‘by changing the natural use into that which is against nature’, which is more damnable when it is done in the case of husband or wife” (11). Twenty years later, in On Marriage and Concupiscence, Augustine quotes our verse for the same purpose: “But as regards any part of the body which is not meant for generative purposes, should a man use even his own wife in it, it is against nature and flagitious. Indeed, the same apostle had previously said concerning women: ‘Even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature;’ and then concerning men he added, that they worked that which is unseemly by leaving the natural use of the woman” (2.20.35, transl. Holmes). In Against Julian, Augustine repeats this distinction. Hetero vaginal sex with a prostitute is unlawful but natural, but hetero anal sex is always unnatural, as not serving procreation (5.17). This distinction lies at the root of statements in the middle ages like that of Thomas Aquinas, who says masturbation is a sin “more grave” than rape (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae Quaest. 154, art. 12). Of course, like other ancient men, Augustine also considers it against nature for men “to be treated as a woman” (City of God 6.8).

5. One of the commentators used by Augustine was an unknown writer dubbed “Ambrosiaster” by Erasmus. Ambrosiaster worked in Rome in the 370s and commented on Romans as well as other NT books. In the 380s, he seems to have revised his commentaries, for three versions come down to us through the complicated manuscript tradition. The prevailing theory is that Ambrosiaster himself produced these editions one after the other, known as alpha, beta, and gamma (Heinrich Vogels, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum vol. 81, p. 51). On Rom 1:26, Ambrosiaster in alpha anticipates what Augustine will write: “[Paul] bears witness that these things came upon the human race because God was angered at their idolatry, so that women offered themselves to men otherwise than how nature dictated. He shows the quality of the deed’s uncleanness, about which he goes on to declare, ‘similarly the men…’”

In edition beta, however, Ambrosiaster completely switches to the “lesbian” interpretation, and he expands his argument in edition gamma. (James Bray’s translation, published by InterVarsity Press, follows beta here, so you won’t get all of the following from Bray.) I translate at length:

… so that woman in shameful desire went after woman, for the purpose of ‘use’ [usum, the Latin word for chresis]. And some people interpret this differently, not perceiving the force of what is said. For what is it to change the natural ‘use’ into that ‘use’ which is contrary to nature, if not to take away the ‘use’ that is granted and have a different ‘use,’ so that one and the same part of the body should offer itself for ‘use’ differently than has been allowed? Therefore if that is the part of the body [that those interpreters think, i.e. the anus], how did they [the women] change the natural use, when it does not have a use of this sort given by nature? Therefore he had already said above, that they were handed over into impurity, but he had not shown what this work of impurity itself was like: which he now declares, [v. 27], ‘Now in like manner also the males …’ Now he has made clear, how what he said above about the women ought to be understood. Now when he added, ‘Now in like manner also the males blazed up in mutual desire for one another,’ he openly showed the sin of the women. Finally, he did not say about the men that they exchanged the natural use toward one another, because this sort of use has not been granted to this part [i.e. anus]. Why should one wonder—since today also such women are found—that just as that [usage] was invented by the men, so this was invented by the women?

In other words, he now argues that women changed the natural use of their own genitals into an unnatural use of their own genitals.

It is one thing to argue the “lesbian” interpretation. It is another to produce bad exegesis for it. Jerome had sneered that Ambrosiaster did not know Greek (Epistle 27.3), and clearly the man was working only from one of the then-current Latin translations that preceded Jerome’s. I will point to only the most obvious problems.

First, although it makes sense to say that the women change the “use” of their genitals if they offer them to women and not men, the “of” term in Ambrosiaster’s “use of the same part of the body” is not in Paul. Ambrosiaster has read that in. Second, he does not show why it is wrong to think the women change the “use” of vagina into the “use” of anus. Third, he forgets that on either interpretation, the males, like the females, change the “natural” use of their bodies into what for a Christian was unnatural, i.e. insertion of penis into mouth or anus. Ambrosiaster has really made only one valid move, to note the males’ same-sex relation. His evidence from “use” of body part does not compel the “lesbian” interpretation but is merely consistent with it. His argument, then, is left begging the question.

Ambrosiaster is not recovering an earlier, traditional interpretation but is cobbling together a new one. He keeps mum that the interpreters he now opposes include himself. I do not doubt that he believed that his revised interpretation was more accurate, but it was not usual for him to reverse an earlier position; his other revisions generally expand or reinforce or clarify his earlier expositions. Was there a catalyst? A convincing case has been made that Ambrosiaster revised things he said about the nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit to come more explicitly into line with doctrines promulgated at the Council of Constantinople in 381. At the same time, St. Jerome had come to Rome and had made a splash among wealthy women by promoting virginity and celibacy, against the Roman clergy’s emphasis on Christian marriage. Jerome got into trouble over this and had to leave town under suspicion of sexual misconduct and money-hunting. Ambrosiaster, whom he had called one of the “two-legged asses” (Epistle 37), was one of Jerome’s opponents. (On this scandal see Andrew Cain, The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity, Oxford 2009.) My suspicion is that while he was revising his commentary on Romans, Ambrosiaster reinterpreted 1:26 to swing the spotlight off bad things that can happen in a marriage and onto bad things that women can get into when they are not under men’s control. “[S]ince today also such women are found …” in Christian Rome in c. 384?

6. Around 391, St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Hom. 4, PG vol. 60, p. 417), stated that the females were not prevented from natural intercourse or from fulfilling their desires when they set sail for “this monstrously other sort of madness; for changing lies in the power of those who have.” And like the females, he goes on, the males have no excuse, because they let go of what they had and, despising natural intercourse, ran off to the type that is contrary to nature—which is even less pleasurable! Chrysostom does not at first make clear what the females did, but later he says that they should have had more shame than the men and not have also sought “these mixings.” The “monstrously other sort of madness,” then, is lesbian sex.

After Chrysostom, the “lesbian” interpretation becomes dominant. By this time, the Church was politically in the ascendant, and apologists were hitting hard at Greek philosophy. Paul’s invective against those who “were reduced to vanity in their reasonings … claiming to be wise, became fools” (Rom 1:21-22) was picked up by Chrysostom and others who presented Greek civilization as Satanic lies. I do not doubt that Chrysostom, like Ambrosiaster, thought he had interpreted 1:26-27 correctly, but we should note that the new, “lesbian” interpretation strengthened the anti-homoerotic slant of Paul’s attack on philosophy, since pederasty was associated with philosophers. With the spread of monasticism, churchmen felt more concern about female-female sex; Augustine, without changing his view of Rom 1:26, warns nuns against practices that might lead to love affairs (Epistle 211.13-14).

The “anal” interpretation did not wholly die out, for in the Byzantine period Anastasius explains Clement’s quotation of Rom 1:26 (see II.1 above) in this way: “for clearly the females were not mounting each other but were making themselves available in this way to the men” (Arethas’ scholion on Clement, Paed. 2.87, quoting Anastasius’ commentary on Corinthians; it is not clear which Anastasius of several is quoted). Did Anastasius consider things like cunnilingus but not consider them chresis?

We saw Justin Martyr condemn male-female anal as “against the law of nature.” A few decades earlier, the Epistle of Barnabas had condemned oral sex as unlawful and impure, although it did not use the term “against nature” (10.8). At the same time, though, homoeroticism also found condemnation in Christianity. Clement inveighs mostly against male-male sex, uniting philosophy and the Torah as Philo had done (on Philo see next section), but he also upbraids women who “play the man contrary to nature, penetrating women and being penetrated” (Paed. 3.2.21.3; on the meaning of the verb here, see Alan Cameron in Greek Roman & Byzantine Studies GRBS 39 [1998] 137-156). The Greek version of the second-century Apocalypse of Peter, which was known to Clement, depicts the torments in hell of women who “had slept with each other as a man with a woman” (32). The language of the Ethiopic version is vaguer, and the Greek manuscript has been dated to the sixth century, so questions remain about what this Apocalypse said in the second century. As these anti-homoerotic views found more widespread expression, one may assume that they eventually colored the church’s view of what the females were doing in Rom 1:26. General sermonizing against homoeroticism, however, does not tell us how Rom 1:26 was read.

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III. “Nature” as an evaluative construct in Greek philosophy

1. Plato. The strongest extra-textual support in favor of the “lesbian” interpretation, in my opinion, comes from Plato, who formulated the categories, “according to nature” and “contrary to nature,” as moral constructs. Hebrew had no words for “pleasure” or “nature.” The closest phrase to “against nature” in Hebrew rabbinic writings is “not according to the way of,” which encodes an entirely different system of analysis. “Nature” and “pleasure” as terms of moral evaluation are Greek, and they came into Hellenistic Jewish thought from there.

In his dialogue, Symposium, Plato puts in Aristophanes’ mouth a speech about the original “nature,” physis, of the human race (189c-193d). Humans originally had double bodies of different gender combinations, and today, when we seek our “other half,” some of us seek an opposite-sex lover, and some, a lover of our own sex. In his late dialogue, the Laws, though, Plato hammers home the message that pleasure, being irrational, is the source of many evils. Pleasure from sex that aims at procreation is “according to nature,” but sex between males or between females yields pleasure that is “contrary to nature” (Laws 636c). Later in the same dialogue come laws telling male citizens to abstain from sex with males and from murdering the race by wasting their semen. Wasting semen includes having sex with women from whom one would not desire children (838e-839a). The earlier statement that male-male sexual pleasure is contrary to nature is expanded to its corollary, that male-male sexual activity is “contrary to nature” (841d5), although female-female sex receives no more mention. Like other Greek thinkers, Plato applies the word chresis, “use,” to procreative sexual relations (Laws 838e5-6) and to general enjoyment of sexual activity (841a9).

Plato did not formulate his procreation requirement for “natural” sex until late in his career. Although he never approved of effeminate men, it is also only in the Laws that we encounter a second feature that makes male-male pederasty “unnatural”: it makes both males “soft.” The active partner surrenders to lust, and the passive partner takes on “the likeness of the image of a female” (Laws 836e). In saying that the active partner in pederasty becomes “soft,” Plato is stricter about gender roles in sex even than were most Greeks and Romans. The usual view was that the male rules, the female is ruled; the male penetrates, the female is penetrated. Women who were imagined as “penetrating” their partners, and mature citizen males (not boys or slaves) who were penetrated, were equally despised, feared, and called “unnatural,” but the active male penetrator was not except by philosophical moralizers. Plato might have applied these gender expectations also to female-female sex, but he doesn’t say anything except that their pleasure is contrary to nature.

2. Stoics. Plato is the only ancient philosopher I know who explicitly brands some aspect of female homoeroticism as “contrary to nature.” The Stoics shared and developed Plato’s doctrine of natural law, and Paul pretty clearly was acquainted with Stoic views (Acts 17:18 portrays him debating with Stoics and Epicureans). Musonius Rufus, a Roman Stoic of the first century C.E., taught that the only just and lawful sexual relations occur in marriage for the begetting of children. Sex for “bare pleasure” is unjust and unlawful, even in marriage (Discourse 12). The law Musonius has in mind is the law of nature (Discourse 14). The only “couplings” that he explicitly calls “contrary to nature” are male-male, however (12.12), and he does not give the passive male’s presumed femininity as a second reason for this. Musonius later says, however, that “marriage of all things seems most according to nature, for the maker of mankind divided the race into two, with two [kinds of] genitals, and imparted a strong desire of the other sex in each, male for female and female for male, so that they should live together and have children” (Discourse 14). It follows, although Musionius does not make this consequence explicit, that the only “natural” penetrative sex is husband-wife penile-vaginal for procreation. Musonius cannot be enlisted on the side either of the “lesbian” or of the “anal/oral” interpretation, for he would denounce all those couplings with equal gusto! Though we cannot be sure that Paul knew Musonius’ views, which only survive in a student’s compilation, he would have been acquainted with Stoicism’s general disapproval of pleasure.

Another Stoic active during Paul’s lifetime was Seneca. Teacher and advisor of the young Nero, Seneca involved himself in various nastinesses before Nero forced him to commit suicide. Still, he was prone to attack other people’s morality. These days, he wrote, “women overcome their nature by rivalling men in lust … [A]lthough born to be passive, they fabricate such a perverse type of unchastity that they even penetrate men” (Moral Epistles 95.20-21). Here Seneca repeats the stereotype of the “tribad,” a woman who was believed to have an enlarged clitoris with which she could penetrate other women or even males. Seneca enjoyed recounting lurid tales, such as the story of Hostius Quadra. Eventually murdered by his slaves, Hostius had special mirrors like those in a modern fun house, which enlarged the image of himself “taking” it in mouth and anus while penetrating someone else. Hostius, says Seneca, boasted of how his debaucheries went beyond “the limit of nature” (Natural Questions 1.16.8). Unlike Musonius, Seneca appeals to gender role boundaries rather than procreative goals to determine which sex acts are “natural.”

3. Philo. A Jew from Alexandria who wrote in the first half of the first century C.E., Philo tried to harmonize the Torah and philosophy. Again, we do not know whether Paul used Philo, although both men employ the then-common method of allegorical interpretation of scripture. Philo follows Plato in a full-blown defense of procreation as the only natural goal of sex. Men who marry known barren women are impious (On Special Laws 3.34-36), and it is “contrary to nature” as well as against the Torah for a man to have sex with a menstruating woman (3.32). Although Philo explains at length why pederasts are worthy of death (3.37-42, On the Contemplative Life 59-62), his only statement about a woman’s effect on another woman is obscure: prostitutes infect the souls of men and women with licentiousness (Spec. Laws 3.51). That lone statement does not give us enough to infer with confidence that the prostitute services female clients, since the ensuing description of clients is only of males. The prostitute “overvalues the short-lived comeliness of the body” by painting herself, etc. Since prostitutes were often slaves owned by an older woman, Philo may mean that the business drags down its female participants and women who are influenced by them. Compare the lines, “she imitates the bad behavior of bad women,” of the enslaved prostitute in Plautus’ comedy, Casina (657).

Like Plato, Philo denounces male homosexuality both for its waste of semen and for making the passive partner like a woman. Philo adds that a thing is “contrary to nature” because it mixes kinds or categories (Spec. Laws 4.205). This is the very principle that underlies the primitive notion of “taboo,” which, we shall see in Part V, infuses Leviticus.

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IV. Greek and Roman attitudes toward female eroticism.

We have already noticed ancient attitudes about women’s sex lives, which one assumes were known to Paul and his audience. Women were known to have sex with women. Men often imagined female sexual relations on the model of normative male sexual acts, as though there were active and passive females. Except in Plato (we don’t know enough of his views), active females were singled out as violating nature. Women and girls also had non-vaginal sex with men on a wide scale. It was a way of avoiding pregnancy, especially by prostitutes, and it appears in art (Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, 2nd ed. NY: Shocken Books 1995, 48, 68-69, 144). On these vast topics I give only a few brief references.

1. Anal or oral sex was regularly given to men by females, including prostitutes: e.g. Plautus, Casina 921-930, a comedy where a client asks a girl for anal sex but she is really a dude in disguise; Carmina Priapea 19, on a female contortionist, and “pathic girls,” i.e. who perform oral or anal, at 25.3 and 40.4; Athenaeus, Sophists at Dinner 579a, quoting Machon (3rd cent. B.C.E.) on a courtesan who gives anal sex to a famous warrior for a price; the poet Martial (latter first century C.E.) on a girl who will do any sex act, even “the boyish one,” Epigrams 9.67.3; Martial 3.87 and 4.84 on women who prefer to give oral sex, and 9.4 and 11.61 on women whose job that is; Apuleius, Metamorphoses 3.20, a girl offers “the boyish garland,” i.e. her anus.

2. Writers also talk about anal sex in marriage, giving as reasons:
a. a young wife is afraid of vaginal sex: Seneca the Elder, Controversies 1.2.22; Martial, 11.78.5-6; Carmina Priapea 3.7-8.
b. a wife is jealous of her husband’s taste for boys, Martial 12.96.7-12. The speaker chides her, “let them use their part, you use yours.”
c. wives just do it, even famous heroines and Juno to Jove, Martial 11.104.13-22 (also female “on top” and female masturbation)
d. a husband’s inexperience, being accustomed to penetrate boys, Martial 78 (he tells the young husband to seek instruction from any common prostitute).
e. a husband’s unwillingness to have more children, story of Peisistratus (see above)

3. As Judith P. Hallett has argued, literary texts, expressing elite male attitudes, are problematic sources for lesbianism in Rome (“Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature,” Yale Journal of Criticism 3 [1989] 209-227). We know enough, however, that I do not need to document the existence of female-female sex in Paul’s time. I also see no reason to deny that there were long-lasting lesbian relationships, if we can judge from fiction (e.g. in Iamblichus’ romance, Babyloniaca), but we do not know that there were many, or that the public was familiar with them, or that women were married to each other by law. In Juvenal, a Roman matron denies that women have sex together (Satires 2.47-50). The long-standing bond between an excessively masculine woman (who actually sounds like a transsexual in our conception) and her female lover is treated as almost unheard-of in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans (5). Since we hear of those two women from a prostitute whom they hire for an undescribed threesome, the pair are not just like a committed lesbian couple who may seek to join an evangelical church!

4. Ancient writers who link female-female sex with things “against nature” do so because they conceptualize female-female sex like sex involving a man, as though with an active partner who somehow penetrates a passive partner. Thus, they think the “active” woman acts against nature by taking man’s role. Unless I have missed a reference, this scheme prevails in all the cases cited by proponents of the “lesbian” interpretation of Rom 1:26: the orator Seneca the Elder, poets Martial and Ovid, astrologers Ptolemy, Vettius Valens, and (probably) Dorotheus of Sidon, and dream interpreter Artemidorus. In Ovid’s myth (Metamorphoses 9.720-797), the story ends happily because the girl, Iphis, in love with a girl, actually changes into a youth. None of these writers parallel Paul’s scheme in Romans, where there is no distinction between active and passive female. They do not support the “lesbian” interpretation, according to which both females would be unnatural.

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V. Other Jewish influences (on Philo, see III.3).

1. The Sentences of “Pseudo-Phocylides” was a Jewish production in Greek from between 30 B.C.E. and 40 A.D. Among a list of sexual injunctions it says, “male ‘lyings’, eunai, are not pleasing even to beasts, and let not females imitate the bed, lechos, of men in any way” (191-192). Lechos stands for sexual actions as it does also in lines 181 and 188-189, where the author forbids sex with one’s father’s concubine, bestiality, and outrage against a woman. It is not clear whether the “outrage” is rape or sex during menstruation (see Walter W. Wilson, The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, Berlin/NY: DeGruyter 2005, 195). Similarly, it is not clear what exactly is meant by imitating the “bed of men.” In Wilson’s view, the author’s focus is on women “who try to imitate … sexual roles that are properly male,” reflecting “prevailing tendencies to conceptualize female sex, including sex between women, in male terms”—i.e. as though one female takes an “active” role like a man. Wilson has to be right. The author’s switch from “male” to “of men,” andron, shows that he is thinking of the man’s penetrative role. This seems to be a Jewish version of the Greco-Roman revulsion against tribads. Like the Greek and Roman writers in IV.4 above, Pseudo-Phocylides does not provide a parallel for Paul’s scheme because he singles out the supposed active female.

2. An obvious influence on Paul, though, is the Torah. There, male-male anal sex is the only homoerotic activity forbidden. Nothing is said about female-female sex. This biblical limitation is major. We need VERY strong evidence to read a condemnation of lesbians into Paul’s thinking at Rom 1:26, when Paul’s own scriptures did not mention them.

In an influential article, Saul M. Olyan gave a literal translation of the Leviticus prohibitions (“And With a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5.2 [1994] 179-206). Lev 18:22 reads “And with a male you shall not lie the lying-down of a woman; it is a to’evah.” Lev 20:13 is similar, but instead of addressing the insertive partner, it stipulates that both males have committed a to’evah and shall be put to death.

a. What is “the Lying Down of a Woman”? The expression, “the lying down,” is typical for penetrative sex, as Olan shows for many instances of “the lying down of a male” in scripture (184). In Lev 18:22, the operative qualification is “of a woman.” This phrase makes the whole expression refer to the role in penetrative sex act that is unique to the woman. The relevant difference is in genitalia. The controlling concept in “the lying down of a woman,” then, is penetration of vagina by penis. But a secondary meaning must be transferrable to a male, otherwise God would be issuing a prohibition of nothing. Since both sexes have a mouth, “lying down of a woman” cannot pertain to the mouth. We are left, then, with a transference from vagina as primary to the male’s anus as derivative in sense. As I understand it, this is the reasoning behind the general rabbinic agreement, from the Tannaitic commentators of Palestine in the first to third centuries C.E. to today, that the biblical prohibition is of male-male anal. Out of the impulse to create “a fence around the law,” different rabbis go on to issue different rulings against other homoerotic actions on various grounds, but those rulings are not biblical prohibitions. (For evidence, see Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, Berkeley/LA/London: U Cal Press, 1993, 109-119, and “Are There any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’?” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5.3 [1995] 333-355).

b. What is to’evah? This is the Hebrew word translated as “abomination.” Over 100 things or actions are classified as to’evah in the OT, ranging from eating shellfish and rabbit to using wrong kind of Temple incense to marrying a non-Jewish woman to having sex with the wrong person to unethical dispositions like haughtiness. Paul takes a subtle approach to forbidding things as “unclean.” Although he teaches that Christ is the end of the Law, he has made “uncleanness” or “impurity” a leading concept in Romans 1—thus retaining the concept of to’evah, which implies, religiously unclean. Among several explanations of to’evah, the clearest and most comprehensive I have seen is Boyarin’s: to’evah goes back to the ancient notion of taboos, a boundary system that a people observes and surrounding peoples do not. By adhering to the boundary, the people mark themselves off as separate from “the others.” For the Hebrews, what made something to’evah, on this theory, is that it was a sort of hybrid. It mixed categories and thus confounded boundaries—just as we saw Philo explain (above, III.3). That’s why it’s to’evah to breed a donkey with a horse, to mix fabrics, plant different seeds together, eat an animal that does not cleave the hoof but chews the cud, or for a man to wear a woman’s garment. “Lying the lying of a woman with a male” crosses boundaries.

Although other books of the OT apply to’evah to ethical prohibitions, the Torah holiness code in which to’evah is central is not an ethical code. Its focus is not on other people, how to treat them with justice and love. Its focus is on avoiding contact with things that make the Israelite and the community defiled. The Gospel puts love among everyone in the world ahead of puzzles about what was forbidden before the gospel.

c. What about other homoerotic relations? In a nutshell, only vaginal or anal penetration count as intercourse because only they fall into the “lying the lying of” category. Since women don’t have penises, what they do with each other counts as something else, which the rabbis put under the heading, “rubbing.” Some rabbis said “rubbing” falls under harlotry, but others ruled it only licentiousness (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 76a). The fact that it is not a biblically prohibited act is revealed when rabbis who opposed “rubbing” appealed to Lev 18:3, which just said that Israel should not conform to the customs of Egypt or Canaan. The only mention of female-female sex I know from the pre-Talmudic period is Midrash Sifra Acharei Mot 9, ch. 193. That text appeals to Lev. 18:3 to denounce, in this order, marriages of male-male, female-female, man-mother-daughter, and woman-two-men. Female-female sex is not mentioned in the earlier Mishnah or Tosefta. Similarly, males who have homoerotic sex other than by anal penetration gain rabbinic disapproval as “children of the Flood,” a catchall term for masturbation. (“Flood” refers to “those who destroyed their way upon the ground,” Gen 6:12, which the rabbis connected to spilling seed.) A male having sex with a male “between the thighs” falls into this category of masturbation (see Boyarin 1995, 336-337). These things are forbidden by Jewish religious law, halakhah, but not by the Torah.

d. Jewish law also forbids husband-wife anal sex if it comes to ejaculation, because spilling seed outside the vagina is halakhically forbidden (e.g. Babylonian Talmud Niddah 13a, Yevamot 34b; Ronald H. Isaacs, Every Person’s Guide to Jewish Sexuality, Northvale NJ: Aronson, 2000, 52-53.). The consensus in the Babylonian Talmud is that “turning over the tables” is not forbidden in marriage, but the most plausible philological interpretation of “turning over the tables” is vaginal with woman on top (Boyarin 1993, 118).

Paul’s scheme does not overlap that of the rabbis of the centuries after him. As pointed out earlier, the rabbis do not appeal to the notion of “against nature.” It is hard, though, to square the “lesbian” interpretation of Rom 1:26 with rabbinic tradition. The rabbis do not explain female-female sex as intercourse, since there is no penile penetration. It is lewdness but only “rubbing.” It does not fit into Paul’s chresis category in Rom 1:26-27, which must dovetail with penile penetration. To the extent that rabbinic sources may transmit earlier traditions that may have influenced Paul, they favor the “anal/oral” interpretation of Rom 1:26.

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VI. “On Vot Theory?”

We need to bring Henry Kissinger’s patented question now to Paul. On what theory does he disapprove of the females who “changed the use?”

Let’s go back and suppose that Paul is condemning lesbians. On what theory? Not a verse in the Hebrew scriptures. Not, as far as we can tell, from later currents in Palestinian Judaism or from Greco-Roman culture, for those currents presuppose active and passive female partners and are not parallels. From a special revelation? Paul would have spoken very differently.

Does Paul condemn a wider range of things than we all suppose? Zeno of Citium (fr. 244) and later Stoics bundled adultery and other vices and called them all “against nature.” I suspect Paul’s target in 1:26 is not so broad. First, the females changed “the natural use” to “the one against nature,” with the definite article marking determinate entities and treating them as though known to the audience. Second, Paul’s polarity, although set up on different philosophical principles, recalls the rabbinic polarity of “the lying down according to her manner” vs. the one “not according to her manner,” a reference to vaginal vs. anal penetration.

Does Paul presuppose complementarianism? That is a doctrine gaining a lot of attention among evangelicals who oppose same-sex relationships. Complementarians hold that a central message throughout scripture is that God created each sex to “complete” the other one, putting marriage and procreation at the center of creation. I will say only that in the epistles generally agreed to be genuine (I know many evangelicals take it on faith that Paul wrote all the epistles attributed to him), Paul urges that Jesus is returning soon ((e.g. Rom 13:11-12, Phil 4:5). For various reasons, it is better to remain unmarried (I Cor 7). There is no particular complementarian message in Romans. And James Brownson has dissected Genesis to show how Adam’s need was not that he was incomplete, requiring an opposite sex partner to make him whole, but that he was alone and needed someone like him (Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same Sex Relationships, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

I confess I am not clear “on vot theory” Paul runs down the females’ “change.” My guess is that he opposes spilling seed, like Plato, Philo and later Christian and Jewish commentators. Male seed carries the form of the human in most ancient biology; only a few early thinkers believed in a “two-seed theory” that the female also contributes seed. Female-female sex, on the one-seed theory, would not be a big concern, since no seed is spilled, but male-female anal or oral sex would spill seed outside the vagina if the man ejaculated. Since this theory is not spelled out in the text, I don’t think its consequences have to be normative for evangelicals. On Paul’s apparent “one seed” theory of conception, with wife as husband’s vessel (I Cor. 11:2-16, 14:33b-36, I Thess 4:4), see O. Larry Yarborough, Not Like the Gentiles. Marriage Rules in the Letter of Paul, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985, 68-73. On the other hand, I cannot refute a hypothesis that Paul’s concern is excessive or disordered desire and loss of self control.

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VII. How Conservative Judaism has handled LGBT issues.

The Conservative Movement stands between the more liberal Reformed and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism and the traditional Orthodox. Seeking to follow the Hebrew scriptures, Conservatives believe they take the most faithful approach to rabbinic religious law, halakhah: they regard it as binding but recognize that it is the product of historical development, which never ends. Each new generation must approach the tradition with the questions that its time brings forth.

In 1992, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement repeated its traditional prohibition of homosexual conduct, blessing same-sex unions, and ordaining openly gay/lesbian/bi rabbis. By 2006, though, the CJLS voted 13-12 to allow all but male-male anal activity. The Committee’s reasoning forms part of the understanding of Jewish law that I expressed above in section V.

Male-male anal remained forbidden as the one aspect of same-sex relations prohibited in the Torah, but other expressions of same-sex love, which were forbidden only in rabbinic tradition, were no longer so. Behind their decision to modify the way halakhah would be applied, the committee cited the oft-repeated principle in the Talmud itself, that “Great is the demand of human dignity in that it supersedes a negative principle of Torah” (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 19b, Shabbat 81b, Eruvin 41b, Megillah 3b, Menaḥot 37b).

By 2012, votes were 15-0, with one abstention, to allow same-sex weddings to be celebrated and to create the wording of a ceremony for them. The traditional wording makes many specific references to the husband and the wife, so a new text had to be written. The CJLS took pains to make clear that these new same-sex marriages, although they don’t fit into the traditional mold of marriages “according to the Law of Moses and Israel,” are full and valid.

Why do I think these decisions of Conservative Judaism give good perspectives to Evangelicals? It’s not because I think there should be two classes of marriage in churches. Nor do I think male-male anal sex should be condemned. The main thing I like is the theme, human dignity, that runs through the Conservatives’ revisions of their 1992 ruling. I am inspired by the way these rabbis said, OK, here are people of ours who are hurting, tradition doesn’t speak to grasp fully the issue—what treasures old and new can we bring out of tradition’s storehouse to these, our sons and daughters, who come to us, the judges who are in this day? “When a matter shall arise that confounds you … you shall go and inquire of the judge who shall be in that day, and they will tell you the law” (Deut 17:9, quoted by the Committee in their 2006 ruling).

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VIII. Suggestions for the Evangelical Church

I have tried to give reasons to think that Paul condemns, not lesbians, but non-vaginal male-female activity. If I and others who hold this view are right, there is no category, “homosexual” as such, in the Bible. If the point is doubtful, then evangelicals at least need to stop talking about “the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexuality.” What we can say is clear is that Paul condemns some acts done between males. The challenge of hermeneutics—the step where you say, “this is the message,” after you think you’ve gotten what the text asserts—is to understand that male-male something, what it is and what it is not, and to seek a response. St. John Chrysostom’s description of the “females” and “males” whom Paul portrays (above, II.6) is of people who had the capacity to be attracted to, and pleasured by, the opposite sex. These people consciously gave that up so they could go after even more lust. This picture does not describe most gays and lesbians today as they experience their formative years. If the Holiness Code of Leviticus is not a clause of the new covenant made with the Church, and since “in the same way … blazed up in their appetites” is the fulcrum verb of Rom 1:27, there is a way for evangelicals to affirm same-sex couples AND affirm their faith. A cost will be to give up the doctrine that procreation is a necessary intention of all sexual acts or relationships. But that need not be, and really is not, an evangelical doctrine.

We all have reasons to want an interpretation to be true. We fool ourselves when we close our eyes to the steps that lie between the text and our announcement, “the Bible says.” The interpreter is the one who speaks. I want an interpretation of Romans 1 that helps make peace between the church and LGBT people. How many folks in the church want the Bible to condemn gays and lesbians? I hope I have pointed to potentially fruitful ways of understanding these verses within the sweep of the rest of the biblical texts.


I hope you enjoyed this guest post as much as I did. Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Saturday! — Cas

Response: Stewart James Felker has written a response to this post and David has responded to him there.

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