It’s that time of the month when I become extra EXTRA obsessive compulsive and so I jumped in to a conversation about homosexuality, against my better judgment, with a fundamentalist Christian. He seems like a really nice guy who means well. And of course it was like banging my head against a brick wall. What else would it have been?
The Christian movement was initially a liberation from the oppressive rules of Judaism and Rome, but once it became the only religion of Rome, it also became an oppressor. And that’s just the way it is. So why do I get into arguments with fundamentalist Christians who, to this day, uphold the Roman hierarchical patriarchy? I know better. But like I said, it’s that time of the month so it’s the fault of my period, I swear!!
But I did end up learning a lot, afterward, because I obsessive-compulsively had to look everything up to make sure I wasn’t just talking out my ass. And here is what I discovered…
Sexual orientation was not used as a social identifier in Ancient Greece and Rome like it has been used in Western cultures for the past 100 years or so. Stop and think what that means. Sexual orientation is the pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to men, women, both genders, neither gender, same gender or different gender. In modern Western society, this gives you a particular social identity – heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual… In Ancient Greek and Roman societies, it did not. There is no word in either Latin or Ancient Greek for what we think of today as homosexuality. It’s not that it didn’t exist, it was simply regarded completely differently than we regard it today. The ancients were relatively indifferent to the sex of one’s partner. What mattered most was role, age and status.
In Ancient Greece, pederasty was common. This is categorized as a form of age-structured homosexuality. Older mentor/student relations, etc. While we typically lump pedophilia and pederasty together, the two were differentiated in Ancient Greek culture. Like today, pedophilia was considered grossly pathological carnal behavior by the Ancient Greeks. But pederasty was thought to be of a spiritual nature. I didn’t dig deeply enough to find out what differentiates the two.
In the Early Roman Republic, pederasty was generally condemned. It was thought to be a degenerate Greek practice. Around 100 BC and into the time of Jesus and Paul, a new form of same-sex relations emerged. It became acceptable for male masters to penetrate their male slaves, and slaves were considered legitimate male partners whether they wanted to be penetrated or not. The master was the penetrator, the slave (usually an adolescent slave, by the way) was the penetrated. So make sure you are getting this, because it’s important. It wasn’t considered unnatural for a master to penetrate his slave. But it was considered unnatural for a slave to penetrate his master.
After Christianity became the main religion of Rome, homosexuality became punishable by death (around 390 ACE).
Jesus never says a word about homosexuality. Not one thing. Neither do any of the Jewish prophets. There is hardly anything mentioned about it in the Bible at all. Just for grins, I went through the verses that Fundamentalists refer to the most and tried to sort them out:
- Genesis 19: Story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ultimately God destroys Sodom because of greed, not because of homosexuality.
- Leviticus 18:22: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” Seems to be a pretty clear condemnation of homosexual activity between men, but Leviticus is part of the Mosaic Law. There are laws for everything! Don’t eat pork or shrimp but it’s ok to eat beetles and grasshoppers. Males must be circumcised. Don’t sleep with women on their period (punishable by societal excommunication). The cross-breeding of plants is forbidden, which means no GMOs or tangelos. Don’t sell food for a profit. Cancel debts every 7 years. So if Leviticus 18:22 is so important, why aren’t fundamentalists insisting upon the cancellation of third world debts, demanding an end to the food industry, and shouting down GMOs? But hypocrisy aside, to read this as being about homosexuality is probably taking it out of context. The verses before it are about ritual worship of the Cannaan god Molech. The followers of Molech believed that by engaging in ritual sex, they would please Molech which would bring them fertility and prosperity. Verse 21 forbids ritual sacrifice of children to Molech. So it follows that Verse 22 is specifically forbidding ritual sexual activity meant for Molech. It’s forbidding idolotry. (I don’t know if this is true or not, because I don’t know anything about Ancient Hebrew and I’d have to research more reliable sources, but somewhere I read that “zimah” is the Hebrew term for something that is considered wrong, in and of itself. In the original text, the term that is used for “detestable” is not “zimah” but is “toevah”, which refers to taboo/idolotry.)
- Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” Again, it seems pretty clear. But just a few verses before this (20:9) it states that everyone who curses their mother or father will be put to death. So again, it’s pretty hypocritical to use this verse to condemn homosexuality in today’s world. This verse in its original form is very similar to 18:22. So this is likely part of the purity code that the Israelites held to in order to differentiate themselves from the Canaanites. Jesus put an end to all of the purity laws, so both verses in Leviticus shouldn’t matter to fundamentalist Christians, anyway.
- Romans 1:26-27: This is the verse that gets thumped the most and it’s the trickiest: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” This is written by Paul. Remember at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that it had become popular for masters to sleep with their adolescent male slaves, whether the slaves concurred or not? Yet throughout his letters, Paul frequently tells slaves to obey their masters but never qualifies it by saying, “except when they want to penetrate you”. And as was mentioned at the beginning of this post, in ancient Rome, what was considered natural in terms of sexual intercourse had very little to do with gender and far more to do with roles, age, and status. It was unnatural for a master to be penetrated by a slave, but natural for the slave to be penetrated by the master. So maybe that’s why Paul doesn’t add any qualifiers when he tells slaves to obey their masters. If the verses in Leviticus do refer to ritual sexual activity (which was still quite common during Paul’s time), then I wonder if that might be what Paul is referring to here, as well? Or, maybe he’s referring to specific kinds of sexual acts that were considered unnatural at the time? There were major philosophical debates between what differentiates carnal sex and erotic/spiritual sex in Ancient Greece and these were not gender specific discussions. Sex based on lust is a very different thing than sex shared by two people who love and cherish one another. So maybe he is referring to ritual orgies. Or maybe he is talking about exactly what it is we think he is talking about, but his point isn’t that these people should be singled out, but rather forgiven. I mean look at all of the verses in that first chapter of Romans. He’s pretty much condemning everyone to sin. In 2:1, he then writes, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” So whatever it is Paul means in Romans 1:26-27, it sure doesn’t seem that he is giving fundamentalists the right to judge homosexuals, does it? Then later, in 3:21, he writes ” But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” What is this, if not Paul’s way of reminding us that Jesus has put an end to the purity code? This is the verse people quote the most as proof that the Bible condemns homosexuality. But what Romans seems to be saying is that God condemns those who judge others! Jesus said this too, didn’t he? “Judge not lest ye be judged?” And one final point – what human beings consider natural is confined to space/time. It changes within various cultures and generations. So even if Paul is condemning homosexuality (which I’m not convinced he is – I think it’s very likely that he’s condemning ritualized sex performed for the favors of Pagan gods), that doesn’t meant he would condemn it if he lived in our day and age.
- 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Again, written by Paul. And since Ancient Greece did not have a term for “homosexual”, clearly, this NIV translation is somewhat faulty. The KJV reads, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” Issues with what is effiminate would not necessarily be about homosexual behavior. In the times of Paul, it was not considered effiminate to penetrate another male, but it was considered effimate to be penetrated. Roman males did not want to be effiminate because it was viewed as lacking verility or being “soft”. So what acts are being discussed? “Abusers of themselves with mankind” is translated from arsenokoitai. But the meaning of this term has been lost so the best interpreters can do is guess and they guess different things. Scholars have looked at other writings about homosexuality during Paul’s time and this term never comes up. Many have concluded it means is one male raping another male, and that it probably has to do with child molestation. I mentioned earlier that the Greeks engaged in pederasty but still viewed pedophilia as pathological, carnal behavior. If Paul had wanted to refer to homosexuality as practiced in his day, he would likely have used the term paiderasste. But he doesn’t. So again, fundamentalists have no right to use this passage against homosexuals because nobody really knows that it actually IS about homosexuals.
- 1 Timothy 1:9-10: “We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.” This is the NIV translation, but in other translations, homosexuals is substituted for perverts. Again the problem is that the term “arsenokoitai” is used. And this probably refers to forced entry, not consensual sex. What interests me is that the NIV is one of the more conservative translations, yet it does not use the term, “homosexuals”.
- Jude 1:7: “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Again – we encounter translation issues. This is the NIV, but here is the King James Version: “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” There is an ancient Jewish legend that some of the women of Sodom engaged in sexual relations with angels. If that’s the case, then this passage is about bestiality, not homosexuality. The term “sodomize” came about because of a faulty translation of the story of Sodom and Gemorrah in Genesis 19 (see above). So we automatically assume homosexuality in this verse, but that’s based on a modern bias.