Did Paul Know about Homosexuality?

A comment on the blog this week argued that when the Bible was written, “homosexuality was not a concept,” and that therefore, the behavior the Bible is really against is not the kind of loving relationships between same-sex partners we see today (this is the main argument currently being made by those trying to reconcile homosexuality with Christianity).

If you haven’t yet read Kevin DeYoung’s book on the Bible’s view of homosexuality, I very highly recommend it (you can also listen to Greg’s interview with DeYoung here). Here’s an excerpt from his chapter titled “Not That Kind of Homosexuality” responding to this argument:

Every kind of homosexual relationship was known in the first century, from lesbianism, to orgiastic behavior, to gender-malleable “marriage,” to lifelong same-sex companionship. [Non-Christian classics professor Thomas K.] Hubbard’s summary of early imperial Rome [in Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents] is important:

The coincidence of such severity on the part of moralistic writers with the flagrant and open display of every form of homosexual behavior by Nero and other practitioners indicates a culture in which attitude about this issue increasingly defined one’s ideological and moral position. In other words, homosexuality in this era may have ceased to be merely another practice of personal pleasure and began to be viewed as an essential and central category of personal identity, exclusive of and antithetical to heterosexual orientation.

If the ancient world not only had a category for committed same-sex relationships but also some understanding of homosexual orientation (to use our phrase), there is no reason to think the New Testament’s prohibitions against same-sex behavior were only for pederasty and exploitation….

Nascent ideas about orientation were not unknown in the Greco-Roman era. Consider, for example, Aristophanes’s oration in Plato’s Symposium (ca. 385– 370 BC), a series of speeches on Love (Eros) given by famous men at a drinking party in 416 BC. At this party we meet Pausanias, who was a lover of the host Agathon—both grown men. Pausanias applauds the naturalness and longevity of same-sex love. In the fourth speech we meet the comic poet Aristophanes, who proposes a convoluted theory, including notions of genetic causation, about why some men and women are attracted to persons of the same sex. Even if the speech is meant to be satire, it only works as satire by playing off the positive view of homosexual practice common in antiquity.

Suggesting that the only kinds of homosexual practice known in the ancient world were those we disapprove of today does not take into account all the evidence. Here, for example, is N. T. Wright’s informed conclusion:

As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which  is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato. The idea that in Paul’s day it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever . . . of course there was plenty of that then, as there is today, but it was by no means the only thing. They knew about the whole range of options there.

Read more of what Kevin DeYoung had to say on this subject here or in his book.


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Amy K. Hall