Gay Sex, Ancient Culture, and the Church

In debates about LGBTQ people in the church today, a key argument that progressives make goes like this:

because same-sex sexual behavior in the ancient world was so different from how it is practiced in our culture, we need to recalibrate what the biblical prohibitions would mean for us now and therefore allow same-sex sexual activity within covenantal relationships.

The vast majority of progressives (e.g., Vines, DeFranza, Brownson, Loader, Rogers) argue

Warren_Cup_BM_GR_1999.4-26.1_n2
The Warren Cup – man having sex with boy

this line of reasoning in some form. Essentially they build off of the cultural distance argument to say that while the bible disallows much same-sex activity for us today – just as it disallows much heterosexual activity today –  it does not prohibit same-sex monogamous, covenantal relationships because it did not know about those types of relationships.

Traditionalists are split in how they approach the argument from cultural distance. Some (e.g., N.T. Wright, Hill, DeYoung, Shaw) argue that the cultural distance is not very great between us now and the ancient Greco-Roman context, so all same-sex sexual activity is still sinful. Others (e.g., Hays, Paris, Holmes) argue that there is indeed a large cultural gap, but that the solution is still not to allow same-sex behavior in the church.

So which of these options is it?

I invite you to do some thinking for yourself here. Below is a catalogue of what I’ve found to be the very best ancient citations around LGBTQ issues, culled from dozens of books, a hundred articles and a zillion blogs and online libraries. You can decide for yourself how large the cultural gap is between the ancient context and ours.

Types of Homosexuality in the Greco-Roman World

In a survey of anthropological work on sexuality, Jenell Williams Paris, professor of Anthropology at Messiah College, discerns four main types of same-sex sexual activity observable across the spectrum of human cultures. Steven Holmes summarizes her work:

  1. Age-structured relationships, like those familiar from classical Greece, require an age difference between partners, typically an adult inducting an adolescent into adult ways.
  2. Profession-based relationships are those in which generally nonstandard patterns of sexual behavior are legitimated for prostitutes or people in certain religious roles.
  3. Gender-structured relationships are based around complex, non-binary [meaning exclusively male or female], cultural gender patterns. 
  4. Egalitarian relationships are between equals. Crucially, almost every cultural instance of “egalitarian” relationships outside of the modern West is temporary and occurs before or alongside a heterosexual marriage. Lifelong, exclusive, equal same-sex partnerships are virtually unknown to human history and anthropology outside the contemporary West. Same-sex sexual activity is common, but it almost never takes this cultural form. Realizing this is very important for understanding contemporary ecclesial debates over sexuality.
    – from Steven Holmes’ chapter in Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church

As I’ve looked at the original ancient writings, Paris’s four categories make a ton of sense. So here’s how I’d summarize the material in regards to the types of minority gender/sexual expression in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

  1. Pederasty (adult males having sex with adolescent boys) was very common and even celebrated in the Greco-Roman world (see 1.1-1.4 below). This is Paris’s ‘age-structured’ category.

    NAMA_Courtisane_&_client
    Greek urn, 430 BC. Paying for sex.
  2. Sex with household slaves was assumed in the Greco-Roman world as the right of the slave owner (see 2.1 below). Prostitution at temples was a well-known part of the cultural context of the Greco-Roman world (see 2.2 and 2.3 below). These are Paris’s ‘profession-based’ category.
  3. Eunuchs were not uncommon in the ancient world (see the three types of eunuchs that Jesus mentions in Matthew 19:12, for example). In terms of sexual activity, they were most often assigned roles in #2 and #3 above (slave sex or prostituted). Additionally, they played a role of breaking down how most people viewed gender as either male or female. Since eunuchs took on aspects of both masculinity and femininity, and were even called ‘the third gender,’ they subverted cultural norms and opened up new ways of seeing sexuality and gender. See 8.1-8.3 below. This is Paris’s ‘gender-structured’ category.
  4. References to consensual, committed, adult, same-sex sexual behavior are rare and complicated at best. There are some references that could be construed to indicate there were examples of such mutual relationships, but they are contested and not particularly clear (for example, whether Achilles was an adult in reference 4.1 below). I could find no clear references to same-sex adults in consensual long term relationships (for example, Euripides and Agathon are sometimes referenced, and evidence suggested they had a long term relationship, but I struggle with that because it began while Euripedes was an adult and Agathon was a boy). I included the Sappho fragment dealing with lesbianism, but I couldn’t find a lot that clearly indicated adult, long term, consensual, committed lesbian relationships (I need to do more study here). This is Paris’s ‘egalitarian’ category.

Attraction, Orientation, and Morality in the Greco Roman World

Besides the various ways that same-sex activity was structured in the ancient Greco-Roman world, it’s worth looking at how that world viewed sexual attraction. So in addition to my above 4 summary statements about types of same-sex activity, here are four summary statements of how I perceive the source material relating to questions around attraction, orientation, and morality.

5. Sexual attraction in the Greco-Roman world was often based on ideals of beauty regardless of the sex of the object (see 5.1 below). While this might seem like an unusual form of bi-sexuality to us today, in that world it was seen as normal.

6. The Greek/Roman authors who objected to same-sex sexual activity did so on three primary grounds. The first was if it was illegal. Both same-sex and heterosexual sex was illegal in the Roman Empire between non-married free adults. It was legal with slaves or minors of a different social standing. The second criticism of same-sex behavior was criticized rested on excessive/unrestrained desire. In that culture, lack of restraint was deplorable (see 6.1 and 6.2 below). The third reason for criticizing same-sex sexual activity was directed specifically at the passive partner. Being penetrated (vs. being the penetrator) was abhorred because it meant not being dominant but, rather, ‘womanly.’ Dominance, strength, and manliness were highly prized in that culture (see 6.3 and 6.4 below).

7. Jewish authors in the Greco-Roman world universally reviled same-sex sexual activity. This is important because it helps us understand the cultural backgrounds of authors like Paul (see 7.1-7.5 below).

8. In ancient Greece there was a theory as to the origin of sexual attraction, which included same-sex attraction (see 8.1 below). This supports that that there was some understanding in the Greco-Roman world of ‘orientation’ and not just attraction.

The source material is quoted below for you to read and draw your own conclusions. If you want a more extensive, though less curated, list click HERE.

1.1 Plato, Symposium, the speech of Pausanius, (Greek, written in Athens in 380 B.C)

…this is that love which is of youths… Those who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature [than women]… they love not boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow. And in choosing young men to be their companions, they mean to be faithful to them, and pass their whole life in company with them.

1.2 Sibylline Oracles, 3:596-99 (Jewish authorship, 2nd Century BC, written in Greek)

Above all men they are mindful to keep the bed undefiled; they have no unholy intercourse with boys, as do the Phoenicians, Egyptians, the Latins and wide Hellas and many nations besides, the Persians, Galatians and them of all Asia.

1.3 2 Enoch 10:2 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)

…those who dishonor God, who on earth practice sin against nature, which is child-corruption after the sodomitic fashion.

1.4 Philo, Contemplations, 59-61 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)

But the entertainment recorded by Plato is almost entirely connected with love; not that of men madly desirous or fond of women, or of women furiously in love with men, for these desires are accomplished in accordance with a law of nature, but with that love which is felt by men for one another, differing only in respect of age; for if there is anything in the account of that banquet elegantly said in praise of genuine love and heavenly Venus, it is introduced merely for the sake of making a neat speech; for the greater part of the book is occupied by common, vulgar, promiscuous love, which takes away from the soul courage, that which is the most serviceable of all virtues both in war and in peace, and which engenders in it instead the female disease, and renders men men-women, though they ought rather to be carefully trained in all the practices likely to give men valour.  And having corrupted the age of boys, and having metamorphosed them and removed them into the classification and character of women, it has injured their lovers also in the most important particulars, their bodies, their souls, and their properties.

2.1 Artimedorus, The Interpretations of Dreams, (Greek, writing from Ephesus in the 2nd century AD)

Having sexual intercourse with one’s servant, whether male or female, is good; for slaves are possessions of the dreamer, so they signify, quite naturally, that the dreamer will derive pleasure from his possessions.

2.2 Strabo, Geography (Greek, writing from Turkey in 20 AD)

The temple of Aphrodite was once so rich that it had acquired more than a thousand prostitutes, donated by both men and women to the service of the goddess. And because of them, the city used to be jam-packed and became wealthy. The ship-captains would spend fortunes there, and so the proverb says: “The voyage to Corinth isn’t for just any man.”

2.3 Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae Book XIII (Greek author writing in the 2nd century AD)

[referencing temple slaves] …those trained fillies, stripped for action and posted in battle-line, stand in scarfs of finest weaving… From them, constantly and securely, you may purchase your pleasure for a little coin.

3.1 Marial, Epigrams 6:67 (Roman poet, first century AD)

Do you ask, Panychus, why your Caelia only consorts with eunuchs? Caelia wants the flowers of marriage – not the fruits.

3.2 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 11:48-50 (Roman writing in the 1st century AD)

In humans, [testicles] are weakened/broken both by injury and by the source of nature. And for that reason they acquire the third gender, on the side of hermaphrodites and eunuchs.

3.3 Josephus Jewish Antiquities, 4.8.40 (Roman-Jewish historian writing in the 1st century AD)

Let those who have made themselves eunuchs be held in detestation; and avoid any conversation with them who have deprived themselves of their manhood, and of that fruit of generation which God has given to men for the increase of their kind: let such be driven away, as if they had killed their children, since they beforehand have lost what should procure them; for evident it is their soul is become effeminate, they have withal transfused that effeminacy to their body also.

4.1 Plato,  Symposium (Greek author writing in Athens, 4th century BC)

…the true love of Achilles towards his lover Patroclus-his lover and not his love. The notion that Patroclus was the beloved one is a foolish error… for Achilles was surely the fairer of the two, fairer also than all the other heroes; and, as Homer informs us, he was still beardless, and younger far.

4.2 Plato,  Symposium (Greek author writing in Athens, 4th century BC)

Those who start a love affair with boys of that age are prepared, I think, to be friends, and live together, for life. The others are deceivers, who take advantage of youthful folly, and then quite cheerfully abandon their victims in search of others. There ought really be a law against loving young boys, to stop so much energy being expended on an uncertain end. After all, no-one knows how good or bad, in mind and body, young boys will eventually turn out.

4.3 Sappho, fragment 1 V, (Greek female poet, 6th Century BC)

…You, Blessed One,
With a smile on your unaging face
Asking again what I have suffered
And why I am calling again
And in my wild heart what did I most wish
To happen to me: “Again whom must I persuade
Back into the harness of your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?
For if she flees, soon she’ll pursue;
She doesn’t accept gifts, but she’ll give;
If not now loving, soon she’ll love
Even against her will.”
Come to me now again, release me from
This pain, everything my spirit longs
To have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
Be my ally.

5.1 Plutarch, Moralia (Greek, writing from near Athens in the 1st century AD)

The noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail. The lover of human beauty [will] be fairly and equably disposed towards both sexes…

6.1 Plato, Laws (Greek, writing from Athens in the 4th century BC)

The pleasure enjoyed by males with males and females with females seems to be beyond nature, and the boldness of those who first engaged in this practice seems to have arisen out of an inability to control pleasure.

6.2 Musonius Rufus, (Roman, writing near Rome 1st century AD)

Not the least significant part of the life of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess. For example, those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves, not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men; sometimes they pursue one love and sometimes another, and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible.

6.3 Plutarch, Moralia (Greek, writing from near Athens in the 1st century AD)

We class those who enjoy the passive part as belonging to the lowest depth of vice and allow them not the least degree of confidence or respect or friendship.

6.4 Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes, (Roman, writing in Rome in the 1st century BC)

Everything comes down to this: that you rule yourself… [do not] do anything in a base, timid, ignoble, slave-like, or womanish way.

7.1 2 Enoch 34:1–2 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)

…sin which is against nature, which is child corruption in the anus in the manner of Sodom” and “abominable fornications, that is, friend with friend in the anus, and every other kind of wicked uncleanness which it is disgusting to report”

7.2 Sibylline Oracles, 5:166-68 (Jewish authorship, 2nd Century BC, written in Greek)

Among evil men thou shalt suffer evil, but shall remain desolate for whole ages, loathing the soil of the land: because thou didst seek after enchantments, adultery was in thy midst, with unlawful intercourse with boys, thou woman-hearted city, unrighteous.

7.3 2 Enoch 34:1 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)

…have laden the whole earth with untruths, offences, abominable lecheries, namely one with another, and all manner of other unclean wickedness, which are disgusting to relate.

7.4 Pseudo-Phocylides 188-193 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)

Do not outrage your wife by shameful ways of intercourse. Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits set by nature. For even animals are not pleased by intercourse male with male. And let not women imitate the sexual roles of men. Do not surrender wholly to unbridled sensuality toward your wife.

7.5 Philo, On the Life of Abraham, 135 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)

As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire.

8.1 Plato’s Symposium, (Greek author writing in Athens, 4th century BC)

For our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. In the first place, there were three kinds of human beings, not merely the two sexes, male and female, as at present: there was a third kind as well, which had equal shares of the other two, and whose name survives though, the thing itself has vanished. For ‘man-woman’ was then a unity in form no less than name, composed of both sexes and sharing equally in male and female…

[Zeus said] ‘I propose now to slice every one of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs. If they continue turbulent and do not choose to keep quiet, I will do it again,’ said he; ‘I will slice every person in two, and then they must go their ways on one leg, hopping.’ So saying, he sliced each human being in two, just as they slice sorb-apples to make a dry preserve, or eggs with hairs…

Now when our first form had been cut in two, each half in longing for its fellow would come to it again; and then would they fling their arms about each other and in mutual embraces yearn to be grafted together…

If in their embracements a man should happen on a woman there might be conception and continuation of their kind; and also, if male met with male they might have satiety of their union and a relief, and so might turn their hands to their labors and their interest to ordinary life. Thus anciently is mutual love ingrained in mankind, reassembling our early estate and endeavoring to combine two in one and heal the human sore.

Each of us, then, is but a tally of a man, since every one shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him. All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, whence likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses. All the women who are sections of the woman have no great fancy for men: they are inclined rather to women, and of this stock are the she-minions.

Men who are sections of the male pursue the masculine, and so long as their boyhood lasts they show themselves to be slices of the male by making friends with men and delighting to lie with them and to be clasped in men’s embraces; these are the finest boys and striplings, for they have the most manly nature. Some say they are shameless creatures, but falsely: for their behavior is due not to shamelessness but to daring, manliness, and virility, since they are quick to welcome their like. Sure evidence of this is the fact that on reaching maturity these alone prove in a public career to be men. So when they come to man’s estate they are boy-lovers, and have no natural interest in wiving and getting children, but only do these things under stress of custom; they are quite contented to live together unwedded all their days.

A man of this sort is at any rate born to be a lover of boys or the willing mate of a man, eagerly greeting his own kind. Well, when one of them—whether he be a boy-lover or a lover of any other sort— happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment. These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another. No one could imagine this to be the mere amorous connection, or that such alone could be the reason why each rejoices in the other’s company with so eager a zest: obviously the soul of each is wishing for something else that it cannot express.

 

 

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Author: Bill White

I am a pastor at City Church of Long Beach, a friend to many LGBTQ people, and a conversation partner for people all over the spectrum of beliefs about how being LGBTQ and Christian fit together.

2 thoughts on “Gay Sex, Ancient Culture, and the Church”

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