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What did Paul know of same-sex relationships?

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Posted by Kirsten Birkett, 15 Jan 2021

Kirsten Birkett examines the claim that Paul would not have known about loving and committed same-sex relationships.

There is an argument that the apostle Paul would not have known about loving, committed homosexual relationships such as those in modern same-sex marriages; rather that he only knew of (and therefore only prohibits) abusive relationships between unequals. I have heard this argument repeated verbally, many times. It does not appear in LLF, although it perhaps lurks in the background of the discussion of some of the NT passages. Perhaps no one actually holds it these days. It’s also something difficult to discuss at all adequately in a short blog, and these limitations are acknowledged.

What is the evidence?
A brief foray into the literature makes clear that this is not a strong argument, mainly because of the contested nature of the evidence. There are two main types of evidence that can be used to argue about relationships in the Greco-Roman world: texts and pictures. From studying these, scholars draw various conclusions about which relationships were known of but not common, known of and common, or accepted.

Greco-Roman literature certainly contains references to homosexual relationships, male-male and female-female. Lesbian relationships appear positively in such diverse cultural contexts as Sparta, in fragments from the poetry of Alcman (7th century BC), and Lesbos, in the poetry of Sappho (c. 610 – c. 570 BC). Aristophanes, in Plato’s Symposium, presents a complicated theory as to why both homosexuals and heterosexuals exist, writing of both men and women. There is also mention in Phaedrus’ Fables 4.16 and Plutarch’s Lycurgus 18. In Latin literature, lesbian relationships are referenced in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 9.720-97; Lucian Dialogues of the Courtesans 5 and Amores 28; Seneca the Elder’s Controversies 1.2.23; Seneca’s Moral Epistle 95.21; and Martial 1.90, 7.67, and 7.70. Examples of adult male relationships include Achilles and Patroklos, who are sometimes considered as having a man-boy relationship (as in Homer), but are described as being adult lovers in Aeschylus’ Myrmidons (Frr 135-7), in Plato’s Symposium (179E-80B) and Aeschines (1.141-50). Also in Plato’s Symposium, Pausanias and Agathon appear to have a long-term loving relationship. Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics (8.4) writes of pairings that start as pederastic, but can develop into lifelong relationships. Xenophon describes the Thessalian commander Meno as being intimate with the ‘bearded’ (i.e. adult) Ariaeus (Anabasis 2.6.28).

Depictions of apparent homosexual relationships also appear on pottery or other drinking vessels. Some are of explicitly sexual acts; some depict what appears to be courtship, the giving of gifts, the pursuit of a lover. What precisely these mean, however, is open to interpretation. Does a picture of two men portray a giving of welcomed gifts, or abusive grooming? Is a pursuit scene amorous play, or a sign of a victim fleeing an aggressor?

What does the evidence show?
Michel Foucault, in his multi-volume History of Sexuality, developed a thesis that came to be very influential. Writing of sexuality as a social construction, he presented a view of ancient Greek sexuality in which male homosexual relationships were normal and accepted, as long as they followed a particular, and what we might call abusive, form. In particular, what mattered in sexual ethics was not whether a partner was male or female, but that the dominant, free male was always the penetrator.

Foucault has been criticised for claiming that this thesis rested on evidence from Greek literature. Although there are many references to sex in classical literature, precise details of who is penetrating whom are not usually described. Foucault’s key influence appears to be the classicist Sir Kenneth Dover, who argued in his book Greek Homosexuality (1978) that same-sex relationships in ancient Greece were approved of when they met the model of an older lover pursuing an adolescent beloved (who was merely accepting, or even unwilling), but that an older man who played a passive role was ridiculed.

Much of Dover’s evidence came from painted pottery; he amassed a large number of images from catalogues and photos. He saw this as adding needed details to the literary texts. There are, indeed, many pictures along the lines of a bearded man with an unbearded one, the unbearded being penetrated and not evidently excited. Foucault took up this idea.
Foucault’s theory has also been challenged on the basis of the pictorial evidence. Scholar Thomas Hubbard has presented evidence concerning portrayals of same-sex love between equals, and argued in a volume published by the Man/Boy Love Association that the images did not present exploitative relationships. Classicist Charles Hupperts studied vases with images of same-sex couples of equal age, and concluded that pederasty between unequals wasn’t the only model. Archaeologist Keith DeVries argued that some pictures showed the younger man welcoming the advances of the older, rather than defending against them. It appears that there is no one model that accounts for all Greek vase-paintings.

Even more recently, the way vase-paintings are used in this debate at all has been questioned. Caspar Meyer, a classical archaeologist from the University of London, has argued that too much of the debate has depended on collections of printed photos, rather than considering vessels as 3D objects used in embodied contexts. Where the image appears on the vessel, for instance, could change the impact on the viewer who was actually using the cup, as opposed to someone seeing the cropped image in a photo. In any case, it could be that what the pictures mean – whether they are setting up a norm, or fantasies, or something else – is yet to be properly examined. ‘What this material cannot reveal,’ Meyer concludes, ‘is the limiting norms of sexual experience – which acts were considered permissible or noble and which ones not’. The pictures show a much wider range of acts than the texts do; and we don’t know how some of these acts were viewed or how much they reflect real life.

So what did Paul know?
Is there anything we can say in the light of this about what the Apostle Paul knew? We can say that at the very least, it cannot be proved that Paul did not know of loving same-sex relationships. We can say that ‘homosexual’ is not necessarily a proper word to apply in the ancient world, when it is a modern construction. And we can say that there is evidence of a range of sexual relationships between members of the same sex, of equal class and age and of different classes and ages.

I am not sure that this adds to our understanding of any of the New Testament texts that restrict sexual acts. We can say that today there are much more comprehensive social constructions of sexuality, and homosexuality, that absorbs a person’s identity in ways that were probably unknown in the ancient world. There is also today the scientific study of sex in humans, that did not exist then. But human beings are sexual, now and then. Desire existed then, on many levels and for many things and concepts of things, and Paul knew about that, even if he could not express it in scientific terms. The apostle calls for Christians to seek to re-order their desires in deep, sometimes identity-challenging ways, recognising that such re-ordering will never be complete before glory. Sex is only one part of this.

There will no doubt be continuing debates about how people in the past understood sexual feelings and sexual relationships. The past matters to us, and even with incomplete evidence humans will, and should, continue to try to understand it. Those seeking a narrative of progress from a more primitive age; those seeking a validation of some essential human nature; those looking for fellowship with people of the past; and those looking for contrast, will all be part of the quest. All have a responsibility to acknowledge why they are looking to the past. It does not mean that good history is impossible.

It does not limit the scope of Scripture, either. God-breathed Scripture has two authors: God and the human writer. Scripture itself acknowledges that in some cases, the human authors have information revealed to them beyond their own knowledge (1 Pet 1:10-12). It is because God is the author that Scripture can be ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Every good work.

Paul, an educated Greek-speaking citizen of the Roman Empire, probably had a good idea of the range of human loves and relationships; but even if he had not, God certainly did. If we are to hold to inspiration of Scripture, the relative amount of background knowledge is not conclusive either way.

Dr Kirsten Birkett is Theological Consultant to Church Society.

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