Way back in Part 1 of this series, I concluded from the sayings of Jesus and writings of Paul that faith in Jesus and love for God and our neighbors are core principles that ought to drive our hermeneutics.
As we’ve further dug into the text, focusing on the Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on sexuality and marriage, we’ve found that Jesus and Paul also consider Genesis 1 and 2 as core principles for Christian ethics. Again and again, when confronted with a question regarding marriage or sex, they begin their explanation by inquiring regarding God’s creation of Adam and Eve.
And they never once contradict the idea that the relationship of Adam and Eve in Eden is normative — how Christians ought to live out their sexual lives and marriages. The one caveat is that neither consider marriage an obligation and both recognize that some might live unmarried and chaste for the sake of the Kingdom. That is, Jesus and Paul, when they depart from Genesis 1 and 2, apply even strict ethical guidance — finding additional reasons in the gospel for chastity.
Both Jesus and Paul condemn “sexual immorality” and do nothing to change the understanding of the term as among their Jewish listeners. And the Jews certainly considered homosexual activity to be sexually immoral.
When Gentiles are part of the audience, Paul sometimes adds particular forms of sexual immorality to the list, not because they are not included within the term “sexual immorality” but because Gentiles who converted from paganism came out of a culture where many acts considered immoral by God (and Jews) would be considered perfectly acceptable. Paul therefore feels compelled to be more specific so that there is no misunderstanding.
(1Ti 1:8-11 ESV) 8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
Paul could hardly be more plain in saying that the Law’s prohibition of homosexuality is still applicable. That conclusion would be true if he’d only said “the sexually immoral,” but he removes all doubt when he adds “men who practice homosexuality.”
The Grecian attitude toward homosexual activity
We’ve also begun an investigation into the sexual attitudes of the pagan world, and we find that prostitution, adultery (by the husband), and homosexuality were considered entirely acceptable, even commendable, by many.
We turn to the Symposium, a series of fictionalized lectures composed by Plato to discuss love. Plato predates Jesus by about 400 years, and yet his influence in the Roman Empire was enormous in the First Century and for centuries afterwards. He was the philosopher’s philosopher. And the Greco-Roman educational system taught Plato to all educated children.
The first fictional speaker is Phaedrus, who addresses the power of love on the ability to wage war.
He also believed that there were many military advantages to the love stemmed from male-male couples, especially since both men want to impress one another and therefore fight harder.
The next speaker is Pausanias —
Pausanias … says that Athens’ [legal] code is not easy to understand, but claims that it cheers on the [male] lover, so long as he does not pursue the boy in secret and does not rush him into it. He says you would never know that the law explicitly approves the lover’s conduct by the way fathers behave when they get wind of the fact that a man is showing interest in his son, or by the way the boy’s playmates tease him about having a lover. He adds that these contradictions are easily explained (183d). He claims that males are more intelligent and therefore more attractive (181c).
Pausanias says that Athenian law makes a firm distinction between the lover who should be encouraged by the boy and the lover who should be discouraged. He says that when a boy surrenders to sex out of hope for money, political favors, or in a cowering fear that he will suffer abuse (physical or verbal) from the lover, his surrender is contemptible (184b). Only when the boy is hoping to become wise and virtuous is his surrender to the man not offensive to human decency.
Aristophanes attempts to explain heterosexual and homosexual love by suggesting that mankind was originally created as either bodies composed of two women, two men, or one man and one woman. Zeus divided these bodies in two. As a result, we are all anxious to find our primal other half. (Many consider this a satire.)
The women who were separated from women run after their own kind, thus creating lesbians. The men split from other men also run after their own kind and love being embraced by other men (191e). He says some people think homosexuals are shameless, but he thinks they are the bravest, most manly of all (192a), and that many heterosexuals are adulterous men and unfaithful wives (191e).
Notice that this speech demonstrates that the Greeks recognized that homosexual and heterosexual inclinations are innate — as the theory, as preposterous as it is, assumes that all people are one or the other.
Alcibiades concludes with a speech expressing his desire to have a sexual relationship with Socrates so that Socrates would teach him wisdom. He complains that Socrates rejected his sexual advances.
Obviously, Plato — and most Greeks — saw no wrong in homosexuality — so long as the relationship was voluntary and reflected a genuine love. Indeed, Phaedrus suggests that the union should be for life — as reflecting true love and not merely lust.
400 years before Christ, the Greeks understood that homosexuality could be abusive — with an older man coercing an unwilling, younger partner — or else could be the equivalent of a heterosexual marriage, with both parties being of age, consenting, and desiring a lifelong commitment.
Indeed, some Greeks considered homosexuality superior to heterosexuality, because homosexual love was not about children and family but purely love for one’s partner.
As the Symposium evidences, there were even municipal laws passed to protect boys from abusive relationships, but permitting consensual homosexual sex between those of age.
This is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy —
Probably the most frequent assumption of sexual orientation is that persons can respond erotically to beauty in either sex. Diogenes Laeurtius, for example, wrote of Alcibiades, the Athenian general and politician of the 5th century B.C., “in his adolescence he drew away the husbands from their wives, and as a young man the wives from their husbands.” (Quoted in Greenberg, 1988, 144) Some persons were noted for their exclusive interests in persons of one gender. For example, Alexander the Great and the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, were known for their exclusive interest in boys and other men. Such persons, however, are generally portrayed as the exception. Furthermore, the issue of what gender one is attracted to is seen as an issue of taste or preference, rather than as a moral issue. A character in Plutarch’s Erotikos (Dialogue on Love) argues that “the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail.” (Ibid., 146) Gender just becomes irrelevant “detail” and instead the excellence in character and beauty is what is most important.
Even though the gender that one was erotically attracted to (at any specific time, given the assumption that persons will likely be attracted to persons of both sexes) was not important, other issues were salient, such as whether one exercised moderation. The passive role was acceptable only for inferiors, such as women, slaves, or male youths who were not yet citizens. Hence the cultural ideal of a same-sex relationship was between an older man, probably in his 20’s or 30’s, known as the erastes, and a boy whose beard had not yet begun to grow, the eromenos or paidika. In this relationship there was courtship ritual, involving gifts (such as a rooster), and other norms. The erastes had to show that he had nobler interests in the boy, rather than a purely sexual concern. The boy was not to submit too easily, and if pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the more noble one. There is also evidence that penetration was often avoided by having the erastes face his beloved and place his penis between the thighs of the eromenos, which is known as intercrural sex. The relationship was to be temporary and should end upon the boy reaching adulthood (Dover, 1989). To continue in a submissive role even while one should be an equal citizen was considered troubling, although there certainly were many adult male same-sex relationships that were noted and not strongly stigmatized. While the passive role was thus seen as problematic, to be attracted to men was often taken as a sign of masculinity. Greek gods, such as Zeus, had stories of same-sex exploits attributed to them, as did other key figures in Greek myth and literature, such as Achilles and Hercules. Plato, in the Symposium, argues for an army to be comprised of same-sex lovers. Thebes did form such a regiment, the Sacred Band of Thebes, formed of 500 soldiers. They were renowned in the ancient world for their valor in battle.
This is from Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity (p. 70) (a standard textbook on the subject) —
The numerous words in the Greek language for sexual relations suggest a preoccupation with this aspect of life. Homosexuality was a common result in Greek society, which considered the noblest form of love to be friendship between men. Some of the greatest names in Greek philosophy regarded it as not inferior to heterosexual love, but it was practiced primarily among males between their early teens and early twenties.
The more we read of their culture, the more it appears that there were two standards — one insisting on limiting the passive role in homosexual sex to someone of inferior standing, such as a male too young to be a citizen, and one that simply accepted homosexual sex without regard to such strictures. And we should hardly be surprised to learn of a society with inconsistent views on homosexuality.
Consider also this quotation from “An Army of Lovers.”
In ancient Greece, Alcaeus, Anacreon and Pindar celebrated love between males in lyric poetry. Aeschylus, writing of the love of Achilles for Patroclus in his tragedy, The Myrmidons, dramatised its heroic possibilities. Philosophers hailed male love as a source of inspiration … . Cities with every kind of constitution took notice if its influence and directed it to their own political ends. Oligarchies, where an aristocracy or a wealthy few held sway, recognised its power to forge bonds between youths and older mentors within the ruling class. (This was the case in Sparta and in Theognis’ Megara). Democracies like Athens, on the other hand, saw in male love a bulwark against oppression, and traced the re-establishment of popular freedom to a famous male couple, the tyrannicides, Aristogiton and Harmodius. But the major source of its prestige was the Greeks’ conviction that such relationships could contribute effectively to military morale.
Grecian attitudes had not changed by the time of Paul.
Similarly, a character in Plutarch’s Erotikos (Dialogue on Love) proclaims, “the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail.”
Plutarch was a contemporary of Paul. And so it’s hard to imagine Paul being unaware of the Grecian attitudes toward sex and marriage, writing in the heart of Grecian culture and debating with Grecian philosophers in Athens and elsewhere.
Yes, there were homosexual prostitutes involved in some pagan temples. And, yes, some homosexual relationships were coerced or involved boys too young to consent. But the Greeks were not only aware of committed homosexual relationships between adults, they celebrated such unions, with some (not all) even arguing that committed, consensual homosexual unions are superior to heterosexual marriage.
And these arguments aren’t limited to fringe or obscure writers and thinkers. Rather, these are the teachings of the most popular and influential Hellenistic thinkers — Plato, Plutarch, and countless others studied in school by all Grec0-Roman youths.
Therefore, it’s easy to see why Paul might sometimes add homosexuality to his lists of sins in addition to “sexual immorality.” Many of his readers would have been unaware that there might be something wrong with homosexual activity. And it’s easy to see why Paul might list the passive partner separate from the active partner.