Over at Roll to Disbelieve, Cassidy has featured a fantastically detailed guest post titled “Is Romans 1:26 Really About Lesbians?,” written by David Murphy (Ph.D. in Classics from Columbia University).
There’s a lot of excellent background discussion there; but in the interest of space, I’m going to jump right into the heart of the issue of contention. David writes
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. 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.
Instead, Murphy favors what he calls the “anal/oral” interpretation of this verse, following the lead of scholars like James Miller and Peter Tomson¹: that “for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature” (as KJV translates it) means that these women were foregoing vaginal sex in favor of non-vaginal sex (anal/oral), which was perceived as “unnatural” by the speaker/author here.
First off, before delving into Murphy’s arguments, it might be helpful to quote the larger context of the verses in Romans. Romans 1:23-27 reads
they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts [ἐν ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις τῶν καρδιῶν αὐτῶν] to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 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. 26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions [εἰς πάθη ἀτιμίας]. Their women exchanged the natural function [of sex] for that against nature [θήλειαι αὐτῶν μετήλλαξαν τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν εἰς τὴν παρὰ φύσιν], 27 and in the same way [ὁμοίως] also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, burned in their desire [ἐξεκαύθησαν ἐν τῇ ὀρέξει αὐτῶν] for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (NRSV, slightly modified, with Greek added)
Now that we have that to refer back to, if need-be: Murphy offers a multitude of considerations re: these verses that both challenge the “traditional” interpretation here, and support the revised one (anal/oral). I’ll list a few of these (many in abbreviated form), and then respond.
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. . . . As far as I have found in the sources, chresis as sexual activity always is associated with penetration…
4a. In general in Greek, the adverb, homoios, “likewise/in like manner” (v. 27), asserts similarity between two actions, not between groups of people….
4b. When a Greek author compares two actions using homoios, the first action is not regularly explained by the second action...
About (1), Murphy states that the text “does not state that the females do anything with females.” Again, the line in question here—from Romans 1:26—was “Their women exchanged the natural function [of sex] for that against nature.” To be sure, this indeed does not explicitly say anything about (something women do to) other women.
Now, if we were to accept that Rom 1:27 sort of fills in the gaps of what was not explicitly stated here in 1:26, we would of course have a clearer indication that women are doing something to other women in 1:26—just like men were “consumed with passion for one another” in 1:27. But for the time-being at least, I’ll just leave this particular point aside. (I return to it later.)
That being said, there’s another consideration re: (1) that at least slightly weakens Murphy’s objection here: this is that there are sentences elsewhere in Greek/Jewish literature involving the same word that’s translated as “exchange” in Rom 1:26—from the Greek root allassō (which can also be translated as “leave” or “depart”)—but in a sort of idiomatic usage, wherein there was no indirect object clause or anything of the sort; despite that it might be implicitly understood who or what the object was there. See, for example, Testament of Naphtali 3.3-4:
The Gentiles, because they wandered astray and forsook the Lord, have changed their order [ἠλλοίωσαν τάξιν αὐτῶ], and have devoted themselves to stones and sticks, patterning themselves after wandering spirits. But you, my children, shall not be like that. In the firmament, in the earth, and in the sea, in all the products of his workmanship, discern the Lord who made all things, so that you do not become like Sodom, which departed from the order of her nature [ἥτις ἐνήλλαξε τάξιν φύσεως αὐτῆς]. Likewise (Ὁμοίως), the Watchers departed from their natural order [ἐνήλλαξαν τάξιν φύσεως αὐτῶν]…
This also ties in with Murphy’s (2), where he reiterates how, when language about the (ex)changing of the “natural use” is referring to “one category of person,” this suggests “what or how, not necessarily with whom.”
Here it might be useful to spend some more time on exactly which sort of “natural [sexual] use” is being “exchanged” here, or whatever this might be hinting at. Now, the academic literature on the ancient conception of “natural” sexual acts (or conversely, those “against nature”) is extensive; but I think one of the more instructive texts to look at in conjunction with Romans 1 is found in Plato, Laws 636c, where the institution/activities of the gymnasium are accused of having
corrupted the pleasures (ἡδοναί) of sex (ἀφροδίσια) which are according to nature (κατὰ φύσιν), not only for humans but also for beasts. . . . Because the female nature and that of the males is for procreative union/intercourse (εἰς κοινωνίαν τῆς γεννήσεως), the pleasure concerning these appears to be allowed according to nature, but is contrary to nature (παρὰ φύσιν) when it is males with males or females with females (ἀῤῥένων πρὸς ἄῤῥενας θηλειῶν πρὸς θηλείας); and of those first to be guilty of this shameful act, it was due to their uncontrolled pleasure-seeking (ἀκράτειαν ἡδονῆς). (Translation adopted from Ward 1997, but modified)
Several themes in common with Romans 1 will be noticed here. In this passage, this “shameful act” is the consequence of “uncontrolled pleasure-seeking,” just as Romans 1 emphasizes the “lusts of their hearts,” “degrading passions,” and that they “burned in their desire.” We also have the association/identification of “natural” sex with procreative sex (with homoerotic acts—including, explicitly, those of “females with females”—being non-procreative and “unnatural”).
To be sure, anal and oral sex are also non-procreative; but the association of homoerotic acts (and their condemnation) and sterility is also attested to by several other Greek and Roman authors, like Philo, Juvenal, and Martial. Interestingly, in the pseudo-Lucianic Amores (Erōtes), lesbians’ dildos are referred to as “monstrous toys of sterility,”² in a passage that has several other resonances where a woman assumes a masculine and active sexual role in her lying “with [a] woman as one would [a] man.”
That being said, while abandoning the “natural use” of sex could certainly include the idea of abandoning its natural procreative function, I think it’s probably safest to see this as hinting at a bit broader conception of “natural.”
Moving on to (3), Murphy suggests that the Greek noun chrēsis in Rom 1:26—the one translated variously as “use/benefit/enjoyment”—refers to sexual activity that is “always is associated with penetration,” and that this poses a problem for the lesbian interpretation. Further he writes
Right off the bat, one thing to notice here is that references to female homoeroticism in Greek literature are rare in general; and so the fact that we don’t have examples of specific vocabulary in conjunction with these isn’t a very weighty objection. But beyond this, Murphy again emphasizes that ‘Paul does not say, when the females in v. 26b start out with “the natural use,” that they have use of anyone’; and
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).
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
But another thing somewhat overlooked here—even beyond the idiomatic nature of “women exchanged the natural function [of sex] for that against nature,” as I’ve already pointed out—is that women are still portrayed as actively doing something here: with the active verb metēllaxan, “exchanged.” It is hard to imagine, then, how 1:26 could be representing the point of view of the passive/penetrated woman—especially considering the general implausibility of portraying being the passive partner in anal sex as an actively initiated act, in the way that 1:26 may hint toward. In short, we have to bear in mind the general ancient stereotype of the reduced choice of women in passive acts like this.
What of oral sex, then? As mentioned, the scholar James Miller had also suggested the anal/oral interpretation; but in response to this, Bernadette Brooten writes that “Miller treats oral intercourse even more briefly and cites no sources that define it as unnatural and no evidence that Paul’s earliest readers took Rom 1:26 as a prohibition of oral intercourse.”³ Now, later in his post, Murphy notes that there are instances—at least in early Christian literature (Justin Martyr)—where this is condemned as unnatural. (Further, might the “unnatural”-ness of oral sex just be assumed simply in light of in its being non-procreative?) But more than this, I also wonder how often giving oral sex is portrayed as an active act of the type where—as is done in Romans here—women could be said to have (actively) “exchanged” the “natural use” in so doing.
(Of course, if one does not accept that “exchanged” really does suggest some sort of active act, this point would be moot.)
It’s here that we might start to look at Murphy’s point (4): the issue of the conjunction between that 1:26 and 1:27. Murphy had written that ‘In general in Greek, the adverb, homoios, “likewise/in like manner” (v. 27), asserts similarity between two actions, not between groups of people’ and that “When a Greek author compares two actions using homoios, the first action is not regularly explained by the second action.” As he suggests, then, this ‘doesn’t tell us anything about the gender of the persons who are being “used” unnaturally’ (in other words, this doesn’t help us establish female-female homoeroticism in 1:26).
But I wonder if Murphy’s point that homoios “asserts similarity between two actions” actually doesn’t help the traditional interpretation in a way, in light of the argument I’ve made above about women “exchanging” the natural function of sex in 1:26. To expand on this even more: the Greek word used for “exchange” here, metallassō, often suggests “exchange by leaving, quit”—and, similarly, its root verb allassō occasionally denotes merely “to leave, quit.” As shown above, 1:27 begins “and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, burned in their desire for one another.” The word “giving up” here comes from Greek aphiēmi, which has a semantic overlap to allassō, the word from 1:26 just mentioned: in contexts like these it means “abandon, give up,” or “leave.”
Something is being given up or exchanged in favor of something else. And it may be the case that the actions themselves are what pinpoint the gender and/or sexual orientation here. (More on this in my last paragraph.) Further, if we accept (for the sake of argument) some of the ideas suggested here—e.g. that at least anal sex was not really something that would be portrayed as women actively “doing”/choosing/preferring—then it seems that, if Paul really did have it in mind to condemn anal sex in any way here, the most natural place to have done this would have been in the section about men in 1:27 (who, after all, were the real active partners in this). But then why would anything need to have been said in 1:26 at all?
To me, it still seems most likely that Romans 1:26 uses somewhat idiomatic and circumlocutious language to suggest that these women abandoned what was considered their “natural” passive sexual role], and that—based on some of the insights developed here, and on the parallel in the next verse—we might read the gist of 1:26 as something like “Their women—in abandoning sex with men (though imitating it, with other women)—exchanged the natural function for that against nature.”
To be sure, the way that 1:26 and 1:27 are connected is interesting. But other early Jewish texts also suggest that female homoerotic acts are unnatural and unethical⁴—and, indeed, are imitative of male ones. Walter Wilson translates Pseudo-Phocylides 191 as “Let not women mimic the sexual role of men at all,”⁵ which occurs in the context of (transgression of) “natural sexual unions.” (This is far from a literal translation; but the logic is that the “lyings of men” here is a clear Biblical idiom for the typical sexual role of men in general, as Murphy also notes. In fact, Pseudo-Phocylides 191 is virtually just the reverse of Leviticus 18:22 / 20:13.)
Finally, in light of this, I wonder if there’s something else about the idiomatic nature of Romans 1:26 that might not suggest that the homoerotic referent here may be obvious. Might “exchange” itself suggest not just what sort of items or actions are being exchanged, but the parties who are doing the exchanging, too? Seen this way—and seeing the idiom of 1:26 as parallel to what’s more explicitly said in 1:27—we may not need go further than looking at the phrase “their women” itself: that among themselves, in each sexual act (with each other), it might be understood that they had exchanged out a “natural” sex role for an “unnatural” one. (Note that the prohibition in Pseudo-Phocylides 191 also doesn’t explicitly specify that this sort of “usurping” of the male sexual role is something that women do with each other; but surely this is what it means. See also Apocalypse of Peter 17, and Brooten’s discussion on this, on p. 306.)
Perhaps, at the end of the day, we might split the difference between these different suggestions (Murphy’s and mine, etc.) here and say that the “unnatural” acts of Romans 1:26 actually mean to encompass a variety of acts (in the same way that I’ve suggested is the case for several of the contentious words in 1 Corinthians 6:9). But I still think that, before we do this, we have to contend with the issue of women’s apparent active agency here.
[Edit: I don’t know how it didn’t dawn on me before now, but re: Romans 1:26, if these women had not “exchanged” the natural use here, could we then say—must we say—that they would have been actively participating in “natural” sex? If so, this might put a damper on one of the main things I’ve talked about here. In the meantime, I’ve found that Bernadette Brooten also calls attention to the “striking” usage of the “active verb (metēllaxan) with a feminine subject (hai thēleiai)” (246); though she also doesn’t consider what I’ve just called attention to.]
There are quite a few other issues that Murphy discusses in his post; but I think I might save my response to these for a Part 2.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
 “The Practices of Romans 1:26: Homosexual or Heterosexual” and Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles, 94
 The Greek here is ἀσπόρων τεράστιον αἴνιγμα.
 Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism
 Outside of Jewish texts, Walter Wilson (The Sentences Of Pseudo-Phocylides) also cites Ovid, Metam. 9.733-734 (cf. 9.758): “Among all the animals no female is seized by desire for a female”‘, and “[t]hat female-female sex contravenes the laws of nature could be asserted by Greco-Roman authors as well,” citing Lucian, Dial, meretr. 5.289; Vettius Valens, Anth. 2.17.66-68; Ovid, Metam. 9.745-759; cf. Brooten, Love Between Women, 41-54 and passim.
 The Greek text reads οὐδ’ αὐτοῖς θήρεσσι συνεύαδον ἄρσενες εὐναί.
ἀρρητοποιός (Theopihlus, etc.)?