Last week, I made an overarching argument that the “homosexuality” passages in the Pauline corpus are actually expressing Paul’s condemnation of married men who abandon their wives and substitute them with other males. For years, I was in support of the interpretation that Romans 1.26-27, 1 Corinthians 6.9, and 1 Timothy 1.10 all referred to any sexual intercourse between people of the same gender. However, last week, I changed my mind. What leads to that change of mind?
There are three parallel reasons. Firstly, at the level of critical thinking, I am aware that in various social conflicts, there is the tendency to appeal to authorities that legitimate our perspective and to develop a rigid understanding of those authorities. In other words, in Christian conflicts on matters of theology and ethics, there is a pronounced tendency to see specific Scriptural passages as supporting our theology and we tend to become rather resistant to reading those passages in different ways. We overlook some of the details in a passage that may challenge our interpretations so as to keep our views fixed.
This is true across the board and not simply a statement against evangelicals in regards to homosexuality, because I witness it just as pervasively on the progressive wing of the conflict over sexuality. In fact, to be forthright in my opinions, I think progressives minded Christians may be more susceptible to trying to do this. While appealing to Scriptures about love and justice, they developed a way of interpreting the “homosexuality” passages that avoided two ideas that provided the most likely foundation for understanding those passages: the resemblance of the gender language in Romans 1.26-27 with Genesis 1.27 and the resemblance of the term ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.10 with Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13.1 Even the best argument I saw for a reinterpretation of the “homosexuality” passages failed on these two points. Claiming that Paul was talking about pederasty was not sufficient to make sense of the language Paul used: Paul uses the gender language of Genesis 1.27 and Leviticus 18.22/20.13, rather than the language that would have conventionally been used to describe pederasty. Paul addressed this sin from his Jewish background in the Scriptures, not as a Greco-Roman expressing contempt for pederasty. These are important exegetical details that I feel confident in saying that they should not be glossed over, but they rarely are present in the arguments I have seen by those who sought to reinterpret these passages as not addressing homosexuality.
Nevertheless, even if people in the other “tribe” become rigid in their interpretations, it doesn’t take away from the reality that my “tribe” does it or that I do it too. However, it is next to impossible to identify the way we become rigid in our interpretation in such a way that we overlook important details when we are in a state of rigidity. We are not conscious of most of the cognitive processes of construal and interpretation, nor are we consciously aware of how we unconsciously devalue and ignore the details that would challenge our present thinking. The best we can do is be aware of this reality and seek to be open to adjusting and changing when solid warrants are presented in favor of changing. This entails us paying close attention longer than we might otherwise be inclined to do so because we think we already know the truth or see the error because most of the time our entrenchment in a specific way of thinking and interpretation is unconsciously reinforced by feelings of anger, derision, incredulity, arrogance, etc. that would lead us to stop directing attention in a way that we are open to learn more deeply: instead, our attention becomes directed as figure out all the problems with those people or that interpretation. However, besides this, we can’t know from the inside where our errors might be; we can only try to push work against those feelings that instinctual arise in a way that exceeds actual harm that would keep us entrenched in our line of thinking.
Secondly, at a personal level, I have some degree of empathy with Christians who have an exclusive same-sex attraction and nevertheless feel a commitment to celibacy. While I am opposite-sex attracted, due to personal trauma, I have experienced the emotional pain of being unable to even form emotional intimacy, much less see anything approaching marriage on the horizon. This is a pain that can largely be experienced in a Western society that has hypersexualized us through music, film, advertisements, and politics, which supersaturated our society with appeals to sex that has the power to grab our attention, sell products, and trigger emotions useful for political movements. In such a society, there is an extreme pain that can from being celibate, straight or gay/lesbian, even as we recognize the theological goodness of such a path of life: we experience the conflict of culturally heightened desire with our celibacy and the social judgment that comes from being celibate in a society where a heavy importance is laid on our sexual identities and experiences. In addition, the response from evangelicals to this hypersexualization has been to try to “purify” themselves more and more from sex, without a lot of success I might add, which meanwhile leads to the harsh judgment of even those same-sex attracted people who are celibate because of the type of desire that they have. I have long felt there had to have been a better reading and understanding of the passages on sexuality that they were often given in some evangelical circles.2
This brings me to the last and the most important reason when it comes to Biblical interpretation: what ultimately lead to the change in my interpretation of Romans 1.26-27 was my research on the intertextual between Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon. Many scholars have observed there are a lot of similarities between Paul’s language in Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon, especially in Romans 1.18-32. One of my research goals was to find all the passages in Romans that we could argue has echoes of the Wisdom of Solomon in mind. Over time I found many of them. However, I could not find any passage in the Wisdom of Solomon that resembles Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1.26-27. The closest I could find was this in Wisdom of Solomon 14.22-31:
Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace. For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. For their worshipers either rave in exultation, or prophesy lies, or live unrighteously, or readily commit perjury; for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm. But just penalties will overtake them on two counts: because they thought wrongly about God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness. For it is not the power of the things by which people swear, but the just penalty for those who sin, that always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous. (NRSV)
The overriding focus of this passage is adultery and the disruption of marriages. While the language of “sexual perversion” (γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή) and “debauchery” (ἀσέλγεια) may be applicable to what Paul describes in Romans 1.26-27 and Paul uses the similar term μεταλλάσσω to describe what the women, there is a dearth of gender language for Paul’s gendered discourse to echo. Instead, it seems to me that Paul’s gendered language is better understood as simultaneously echoes Genesis 1.27 and the judgment expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon 14.24-26 against marital infidelity and disorder.
This observation and interpretation is strengthened by the fact that each of the five sins attributed to the hypothetical Jewish sage in Romans 2.21-23 are mirrored in Romans 1.18-32, except in reverse order. The failure of the Jewish sage to teach themselves appropriately is paralleled by the reputedly wise of 1.18-32 to teach others to do things that deserve death by applauding them in 1.32. Then, the concern about the sage stealing echoes some of the sins in 1.29-31, particularly those related to theft such as covetousness and envy. Additionally, many of the other sins listed in verses 29-31 were instrumental in the ungodly oppressing the righteous our of greed as described in Wisdom of Solomon 2.6-20, further strengthen the connection between the sage’s sins in 2.21-23 and the condemnation of Gentiles in 1.18-32. Skipping the adultery for the moment, we also see that the abhorrence of idols and sacrilege of the temples in Romans 2.22b can be considered to correspond to the idolatry condemned in 1.23. Finally, the Jewish sages’ boast in the Torah in 2.23 is reflected in the boasting of wisdom in 1.22.
With these four aforementioned correspondences between 1.18-32 and 2.21-23, this would suggest that the charge about the Jewish sage’s potential adultery in 2.22 corresponds to 1.26-27. If Paul’s concern in 1.26-27 is about expressing condemnation of homosexuality in all forms, this would not fit with the concern about adultery: adultery was about the violation of the marital covenant, not simply any sexual sin. If Paul (a) is drawing a parallel between 1.18-32 and 2.21-23 and (b) was directly speaking about homosexuality in any form, then the parallel between the two would suggest the language of fornication in 2.22, not adultery. Therefore, if the parallel between the two passages holds, it is more plausible to suggest that what Paul describes is one way in which marriages in the Greco-Roman world would have fallen short of the Jewish ideal of marital fidelity and integrity. Add on top of this (1) the routine echoes of the Wisdom of Solomon that focus on marital infidelity and (2) the usage of the word ἀφίημι in 1.27 that could be used in terms of marital isolation and abandonment, we have a strong basis to think Paul is portraying the way in which marriage has been devalued in the wider society, particularly in Rome.
Rather condemning solely on the grounds of saw between males, what seems to take the focus for Paul is to describe the way that the change in sexual behavior and passions of the reputedly wise reflects their fall into idolatry. In 1.24, Paul describes them as (1) exchanging (μετήλλαξαν) God for the lie and (2) as their hearts in worship being drawn to these idols. These two ascriptions are reflected in the female’s exchange (μετήλλαξαν) in 1.26 and the male’s passion for other males in 1.27.
Additionally, while the language of nature used here (φυσικός) in 1.26-27 could be used by ancient philosophers to describe the order of the world, in Second Temple Jewish literature it was more commonly that the word for nature (φύσις) was used in connection with the emotional, behavior, and cognitive impulses of humans, animals, and maybe even God (Wis 7.20, 13.1; 4 Mac. 1.20, 5.7-8, 5.25, 13.27, 15.13, 15.25, and 16.3). Therefore, instead of describing the violation of a specific gender-order in creation, Paul describes the change of the natural desire that husband and wife have for each other for other sexual activity and desires.
Taking this all together, a Jew hearing Paul’s discourse in 1.26-27 would have been much more likely to hear Paul condemning the devaluation of the marital bonds rather than our modern concerns about homosexuality. The language of the discourse and the various echoes present evidence that is closer to adultery was being described.
That said, it is important to know that this interpretation does not simply explain away the sexual intercourse between two men as mentioned in 1.27 as simply being incidental to Paul’s discourse. Paul says that reputedly wise have degrading (ἀτιμίας) passions in 1.26 that reflects the degrading (ἀτιμάζεσθαι) of their bodies mentioned in 1.24. Degradation is a term of dishonor, which puts one in ill repute for one is doing and has done. The language suggests that in general, the men and women have brought a social dishonor upon themselves for what they have done. Given that shame was connected to a social hierarchy of status, such language suggests that these women and men have actively lowered themselves in their status by the specific behavior attributed to them. They didn’t simply violate the marital bed, but they did it in a way that was beneath who they were. Such language from Paul does not simply describe the sin of adultery, but focuses on the very manner in which they were devaluing their marriage bed.
This language of degradation probably echoes the idea of “abomination” in Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13. The Greek term for “abomination” in the Septuagint in those passages is βδέλυγμα. This is the same term used in the Wisdom of Solomon 12.23 to describe the torment God brings upon people for their own “abominations” (βδελυγμάτων). While the Wisdom of Solomon uses such language as a description of people’s idolatrous behavior here and in 14.11, it has a consequence in trapped people in sin. Paul’s language about the men’s own actions bringing punishment upon themselves in Rom 1.27 echoes this similar idea. While the evidence here is more spotty, there is certainly grounds to think that Paul considered the degradation of the body in idolatry and of the degradations of sexual passions to correspond to each other, just as the language of idolatry in Wisdom of Solomon and in the Leviticus prohibition in 18.22 and 20.13 share the similar language of βδέλυγμα. If that is the case, Paul is not just concerned about marital infidelity, but the very way the marital infidelity has occured.
A close look at the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 would be in support of this particularly egregious form of marital infidelity. While most translations of the Hebrew render those passages in a way that the gendered phrase מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה (Lit.: “bed/couch of a woman/wife”) in an adverbial way that is used to describe the way a man lies with a male (“as with a woman”), this is neither necessary reading of the Hebrew nor the natural way the Greek Septuagint would read. In Genesis 49.4, the similar Hebrew phrase מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ (Lit.: “bed of your father”) is used to describe the way in which Reuben violated the sexual boundaries of his father Jacob’s relationship with his concubine Bilhah previously mentioned in Genesis 35.22. Such a phrase is used to describe the violation of a sexual boundary, which can support understanding Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 as the violation of the marital relationship between husband and wife. However, for our purposes here in understanding Paul, the Greek Septuagint is more important as the usage of cognates to describe the sexual transgression (κοιμηθήσῃ and κοίτην) suggests that the accusative κοίτην is the grammatical direct object, meaning that the principal focus of the action in Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 is how a man wrongly lays upon the “bed/couch of the woman/wife” (κοίτην γυναικός). Rather than function as an adverbial phrase, it is the principal description of the action, whereas the prepositional phrase μετὰ ἄρσενος (“with a male”) provides additional information as to how this action is performed. In other words, Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 could have, if not likely would have, been read as a form of a violation of the marital relationship in both the Hebrew and the Greek by a married man having sexual relations with another male.3
If Paul has Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 in mind in Romans 1.27, especially if he interprets those passages as describing a particularly egregious form of marital infidelity, then intercourse between two members of the same sex is not just a throw-away bit of information that is largely irrelevant to what Paul says except as a way to describe a form of adultery, but that this specific type of marital infidelity is particularly degrading. However, this form of degradation would be best understood against the backdrop of the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2, where the “natural” attraction of male and female is rooted in the way God created humanity. The point being here is that while Paul does not express a condemnation all of what we refer to today when talking about homosexuality, his language and the possible echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures make the best sense only if there would be considered something deviant about sexual relations between two people of the same gender. At the risk of using somewhat sexually objectifying language, the two genders are not considered equivalent substitutes in terms of sexual partners.
To conclude, this interpretation of Paul in Romans 1.26-27 leaves us in an ambiguous place in regards to our modern discussions of sexuality. On the one hand, Paul is not talking about we refer to as homosexuality. Yet, on the other hand, there is still a pronounced “heteronormativity” that is central to how Paul understands sex and marriage. To say that Paul would only be concerned about marital infidelity would be to force an interpretation on the discourse that does not make good sense of the details of the discourse in Paul’s social, historical, and religious context. In this case, what we would be left with are texts that are not as clear as we traditionally leaning Christians have made them out to be in addressing the modern question of how churches and denominations are to view sexual intercourse and/or marriage between two people of the same gender.
Nevertheless, despite the ambiguity, there are some things any church or denomination that believes the Scriptures are authoritative when interpreted in terms of their original discursive and literary intentions would be able to say. If correct, this interpretation would still strongly reject the push against the idea of “full inclusion” as there is no equivalent substitute for the marriage of a husband and wife for those who take the whole Biblical narrative and texts about marriage and sex seriously. However, at the same time, we would also be able to conclude that Paul does not have in mind people with same-sex orientations, but those men whose sexual passion for their wives changed towards other men *as a result of the idolatry they engaged in.* People who are lesbian or gay absolutely and unequivocally do not deserve to be punished for their same-sex attraction or sexual activity, nor should they be humiliated, harassed, and mistreated. Since the interpretation offered above would also explain Paul’s usage of ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, Paul’s language is not saying that people who consider themselves gays or lesbians are going to hell.4
- As an aside, I would contend that 1 Timothy 1.9-10 strongly supports the idea that ἀρσενοκοίτης refers to the Levitical prohibitions as each of the specific sins listed there can be associated with different parts of the Torah, with Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 the probable reference of ἀρσενοκοίτης. But this is not the space to expand that argument further.
- To be clear, there are many evangelicals who have long recognized the difference between experiencing same-sex desire and actually engaging in such sexual intercourse. But the fact that people who are gay and lesbian, even if they aren’t sexually active, have been the target of condemnation is partly attributable to the exaggerated attempts at sexual purity by the long-prevailing wing of evangelicalism in the US. I am reminding by multiple scholars from my time at Asbury Seminary who took the more nuanced, less judgmental approach.
- At this point, it is important to note that the interpretation of Leviticus 20.13 in the Talmud in Sanhedrin 54a favors the “homosexual” interpretation rather than the “marital infidelity” interpretation. So, even if what I am presenting is a way some Jews like Paul would have understood Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, it was by no means the universal way of interpreting these two passages among ancient Jews. However, the Gemara of the Talmud is a less reliable source for understanding Judaism prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. With the Roman defeat of the Jewish nationalist movements in 70 AD and then after the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 AD, it is plausible that the interpretation of Leviticus 20.13 would have been influenced by a more prevailing “philosophical” way of reading the text. Although, on this point, I am no scholar of Judaism and the Talmud so I say this more as a hypothesis than with any strong evidence in support of this.
- In fact, I don’t even think 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 is describing the future judgment, as much as it is talking about the emergence in people of the way of life of God’s kingdom in this life through the Spirit. People engaged in the listed behavior are actively inhibiting the realization of the love, peace, and joy of God’s kingdom. However, this is not space to exegetically argue for that interpretation.