Romans 1:27: Patriarchy, Penetration, and Penalty

Romans 1:27: Patriarchy, Penetration, and Penalty September 30, 2015

Daniel Kirk has been offering a fantastic survey of what the Bible says about homosexuality, contextualizing it in the context of ancient patriarchy, which considered it shameful for a man to take on characteristics of weak, passive females. In his latest post, he notes the modern tendency to read Romans 1:27 as a reference to sexually-transmitted diseases. And yet that is very unlikely in its ancient context. And so he comes up with a better interpretation:

The idea that men “receive in themselves the due penalty” is a rather literal and graphic depiction of what a first century Roman would consider to be “shameful” in a same-sex encounter. The “due penalty” is the shame that comes from being penetrated itself.

In an honor/shame culture the shame arises from having one’s position undermined through one’s own actions or the actions of another. In this case, being the passive partner in a same-sex encounter makes a man play the part of a woman, a degrading of his standing–because women were thought to be inferior to men.

Click through to read the entire post, and indeed the whole series.

Of related interest, see Jeremy Smith’s post interacting with me and others on the idea that Paul, in Romans 1, is quoting or mimicking a viewpoint that others hold which is not his own.

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  • SocraticGadfly

    I think the Rev. Smith is very wrong in his claim that these are not Paul’s words and ideas. I believe, rather, these are Paul’s actual thoughts.

  • John MacDonald

    Paul seemed to have some progressive views about women. According to Bart Ehrman , Paul praises Junia as a prominent apostle who had been imprisoned for her labor. Junia is “the only female apostle named in the New Testament”. Ian Elmer states that Junia and Andronicus are the only “apostles” associated with Rome that were greeted by Paul in his letter to the Romans (Rom 16:7) .
    Steven Finlan says Paul greets this couple as “kinspersons and fellow
    prisoners” and says that “they are outstanding amongst the apostles.” According to Ian Elmer, the fact that Andronicus and Junia are named as apostles suggests a priori that they were evangelists and church-planters like Paul.

    This is somewhat at odds with the characterization of Paul’s understanding of women as “weak and passive.”

    • Michael Wilson

      Paul need not have believed women were irreparably weak and passive to use the terminology. The use of gay and bitch to describe things lacking substance is common even among people thst don’t believe gays and women universally lack strength. I don’t see any indication that being penetrated was seen as shameful in women, it was expected, it was being a woman that made you lesser, even if you were a virgin.

      • Bethany

        In his online Yale course Dale Martin observes that the idea that being penetrated is female and therefore negative lives on in our use of terms like being “f**ked” or “screwed”… the language persists even though many people don’t hold that view anymore or even realize it was once common.

  • Gary

    Best diatribe against being on the receiving end is in the OT. But the old Northern Kingdom/Southern Kingdom again. So this kind of diatribe seems to be a common occurance with people that are (or think they are, depending upon your persuasion) a prophet. Regardless of male, female, or symbolic Isreal and Judah.

    Samaria is Oholah, and Jerusalem Oholibah

    Ezekiel 19-21:19 Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prostitute in Egypt.20 There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. 21 So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled.

    • Gary

      Sorry about that…too early in the morning. That’s Ezekiel 23:19-21.

  • Michael Wilson

    Thats an interesting suggestion that Paul is using a sort of canned argument, but it doesn’t seem that he disagrees with the thinking. Despite the satisfaction anti-gay Christians get from these “clobber” verses I don’t think that in this instance we can legitimately remove it from Paul’s opinions. Rather than argue with conservative Christians that Paul didn’t mean it or think it, the notion that Paul’s opinion is the last word should be argued against. I don’t think it serves the interest of Christians to try and present the Bible as really an unassailable source of wisdom once we correct for scientific and historical error(poetry! But the meaning is still good!) The idea that idolatry happens because people reject the truth of nature and idolatry leads to unatural sex and so forth just doesn’t hold up. In the same way we feel comfortable rejecting the arguments of more contemporary church leaders when we learn new things, we should be willing without remorse to reject teachings from apostles when they conflict with facts.

    • Bethany

      Even if people see parts of the Bible as the infallible word of God, it’s always puzzled me that they see the letters of Paul that way. I mean, we KNOW that these are letters written by some guy who was not, himself, God. There’s at least one spot where he makes a distinction between which things he’s saying are coming from Jesus vs. which are coming from him, which implies he himself didn’t see those as being one and the same. We know he at points had disagreements with Peter and James, who obviously didn’t think he was infallible, and if people who knew both Paul and Jesus didn’t think Paul was infallible, why should we?

      Of course there’s also the fact that Paul clearly thought the Kingdom would be occurring in his lifetime and that of his listeners and, yeah, not so much. But if you go there then the next logical step is that in some of the Gospels Jesus also clearly thinks the Kingdom is coming in the lifetime of his listeners…

      • John MacDonald

        And remember Jesus identifies himself as a fallible prophet, not as a God, when he can’t perform miracles in his home town: “4 Jesus
        said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown
        and among his own relatives and in his own household.’ 5 And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them (Mark 6:4-5).”