New Thoughts on Romans 1
There is a creative freedom to my reading of the Bible’s homosexuality texts that began when I realized that none of the six passages are essential. Everything necessary for a non-affirming stance can come from Genesis 1-3. God has created humans in his image in distinctly complementary sexes. Men are men in the image of God insofar as their relations to women are distinctly male, and Women likewise with men. Genesis creates basic assumptions about the purpose and function of men and women as distinct, sexed, and complimentary products of God’s creation. These basic assumptions continue to resurface throughout the canon. For example, Ephesians 5 is not a text that mentions homosexuality, but I think it matters more in our theology of sexuality than any of the texts that outright name the topic. I think even if the standard six texts — Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1 — did not exist, the Biblical prohibition of same-sex marriage would remain.
In that light, I have come to love the exegesis of these chapters. The pressure is off. They can say whatever they really say, and any number and combination of the affirming or non-affirming interpretations may be right for any of the texts. None of it will lead to an affirmation of same-sex marriage anyway, so some texts may be truncated in their reach by the affirming interpretations. And that’s okay, if the interpretations are convincing. I do not think many of them are, but some, here and there, are actually great exegetical observations. In this post I want to talk about 5 valid considerations on Romans 1 which should shape our understanding of that passage. None of these points are intended to indicate that I’ve changed my mind on the topic as a whole. Instead, I love the text too much to misread it whenever a better reading is on the table.
1. Wisdom of Solomon
I can’t describe my shock when someone first showed me this point. Paul’s discussion of idolatry and sexual sin in Romans 1 looks a whole lot like Wisdom of Solomon’s discussion of those same topics (ch. 13-14). The logic of that text works like this: sexual sin is caused by idolatry. Gentile nations worship idols, which is why we also see that Gentile nations practice wild sexual sin. Israel does not practice idolatry, and so, does not have widespread sexual sin. This is also why marrying Gentiles is so bad. Not because it defiles the bloodline (a 19th/20th century concept), but because it leads to idolatry with their foreign gods and so also sexual immorality.
What Paul, then, is really doing is Romans 1 is this. He is agreeing with Wisdom of Solomon in its straightforward observation that idolatry leads to sexual sin, but he is going to disagree with the reason for that, or that Israel is any less sinful. If that is true, then Wisdom of Solomon, while not scripture, is essential to understanding the argument of Romans. It is a crucial piece of the background noise of 1st century Judaism against which we have to read the New Testament.
There is a book called God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul by Jonathan Linebaugh that I really, really, need to read, which makes this argument at full academic level. In the meantime, reading those two chapters in the link above is a great place to start.
2. Shape of the Discourse in ch. 1-3
That point leads into this point. Romans 1:26-27 is part of the larger context of Romans 1:18-31, and this is often acknowledged. Less often, though, is it put into the even wider context of Romans ch. 1-3 in their entirety. There is a shape to this whole discourse that helps us understand not just what Romans 1:18-31 (and so, 1:26-27) is saying, but also how that content functions in Paul’s argument.
The shape, roughly, goes like this. Paul agrees with the author of Wisdom of Solomon in Romans 1 that idolatry is stupid and that sexual sin and even all kinds of other sins result from idolatry. But in ch. 2 he abruptly pivots to another perspective (“But you”). Where before he had been railing against the Gentiles, he now turns to his fellow Jews and says, “Yes, that’s true about them, and sure you don’t have idolatry, and you even have the perfect embodiment of the law in Torah, but you STILL practice all the same sins as the Gentiles.” Even though Paul has agreed with the content of Wisdom of Solomon’s basic claim, he here disagrees with its argumentative function. The idolatrous Gentiles’ sin is actually not reason to gloat and be proud for our (Jewish) righteousness, Paul thinks. Instead, Paul introduces a different theological principle in ch. 3. Everyone is sinful. The everyone here is not intended to mean “every individual single person,” although that is also true, but it is mainly meant to say “both Jews and Gentiles.” Every national group is sinful.
What Paul does in these chapters is level the ground beneath the feet of Jews and Gentiles alike, affirming the types of sin that result from idolatry, but asserting that non-idolaters also sin anyways. (Later in ch. 5 he goes into why, which is Adam’s original sin impacting all humanity).
I first got this point from a podcast interview with Tim Gombis. He thinks, and he is right, that we need to follow “the whole thrust of the logic of Romans.” Gombis argues (35min mark &f.) that the discourse structure of ch. 1-3 is shaped to condemn exactly the kind of people who would use 1:26-27 as a clobber passage to condemn gay people. How ironic. So then, it would seem that the shape of the discourse in ch. 1-3 would prevent us from taking 1:26-27 out of its argumentative function and using it to isolate one class of people as uniquely sinful.
3. No Concept of Sexual Orientation
There was no concept of sexual orientation in the first century. There wasn’t such a concept until the late 1800’s, for that matter. So, what is Paul referring to in 1:26-27 when he clearly describes men having sex with men and women with women?
I don’t mean they didn’t understand what homosexuality was. I mean that in Greco-Roman society same-sex sexuality was socially constructed differently than we socially construct it today. Today, it is a categorical mark of personhood because it is fixed from birth/puberty/biology and defines how the rest of society interacts with you for your whole life. In our society, in the popular understanding, you are either straight, or gay. If you are bisexual, you are mentally lumped in with gay as “non-straight,” because our society is highly heteronormative.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, same-sex sex was common between male masters and their male slaves. Similarly, adult male tutors would have pedophilic sex with male children students, and it was not condemned as a part of 1st century sexuality. Gay sex was also common in temple prostitution for the local gods and in mystery cults. None of these are “sexual orientation” like we think about that concept today. I have even heard it claimed by someone, I forgot who, that “everyone was just vaguely bi” back then, because there was no defining standard for heterosexuality, and polyamory and free sex were common practices anyways. The Greco-Roman world was far more sexually diverse than 2019 America, and whether that is hard to accept says more about you than it says about Paul’s social context.
So it has been proposed that what Paul must mean in 1:26-27 is not “gay people,” or anything to do with sexual orientation, but instead basically straight people who are so full of lust that they turn to gay sex. I say “basically straight people” because sexual orientation did not exist, and to be male (per Genesis) is to relate to women in a way that is distinctly male, and vice versa. You are attracted to women not because you are straight, but because you are a man. In this reading of the text, Paul must mean that gay sex is not a lesser form of straight sex but a further, more powerful, more raw and lustful form of sex. Paul is criticizing this practice after vv. 24-25 because same-sex sex is an even greater example of the sexual fallenness he describes in those verses.
Notice my move there. I just accepted the affirming argument that sexual orientation did not exist in the Greco-Roman world, but still argued that Paul sees the sex described in vv. 26-27 as sinful, and even, more sinful.
4. Break between vv. 24-25 and vv. 26-27
Shorter point here. One significant feature of the text in 1:24-27 is that they should never be grouped this way because there is an intentional break between them. Paul finishes his point about people serving the creation (idols) with their bodies (sexual sin), then mentions the name of God and promptly lets out a hearty ὅς ἐστιν εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν. ([God] who is forever praised, amen). Even without the amen, this sentence would neatly divide 24-25 from 26-27. But with the amen, they become entirely separate points with distinct content and distinct rhetorical functions. We should read 1:24-25 as not being about gay sex at all, which only enters the conversation at 1:26. The payoff of this idea is that now Paul spends as much space in 1:24-25 criticizing straight sexual immorality as he does in 1:26-27 criticizing same-sex sexual immorality. Not that that equalizes or levels the two forms of immorality to be the same. Instead, it makes the second a “step further” than the former. They (1:24-25 and 1:26-27) are not the same point, and the first is logically prior to the second.
5. Gay Sex Joke / Play on Words in v. 27
There is no way I am the first person to argue this, absolutely no way, but I can’t find anyone else making this point. I read 1:27 with a certain innuendo. Paul says that men who have sex with men receive “in themselves” what is due for their errors. The phrase is ἐν ἑαυτοῖς , en + the dative 3mp pronoun. I’m not sure how else to read this other than as a Spatial Dative, they received “inside themselves” what is due for their errors, they received “in their physical bodies” what is due for their errors, they received “in their anus” what is due for their errors. I think Paul is intentionally phrasing this sentence to be a play on words so that the “due penalty” is not some abstract punishment from God but instead it is the physical pain of having to receive gay sex.
There is another possible connection here with Wisdom of Solomon 14:26, which normally just gets translated as “homosexuality” but the particular words are interesting as well. There it reads γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή , “inverted nature” [not philosophical nature/essence, but physical nature]. Could Paul be glossing this verse from Wisdom of Solomon and expanding what he thinks it means?
Or alternatively, it could be that “what is due” is that they receive shame (ἀσχημοσύνην, v. 27) and dishonor (ἀτιμίας, v. 26) for having gay sex. In that case, we go back to the Greco-Roman mindset, where it is not shameful to give gay sex, but it is shameful to receive gay sex, because the receiving partner is the “feminine” of the two, and for a man to be cast as feminine in any way is a source of social shame. This would accord well with the joke Paul appears to be making. Shame and dishonor would be the penalty which someone receiving gay sex receives “in themselves.”
We have been over-simplifying this passage since forever, but complicating it does not need to lead in an affirming direction. It can be more complicated than we learned in Jr. High youth group, and still align with the broader assumptions about men and women in the divine image which began in Genesis 1-3 and continued throughout the canon. This post doesn’t answer every question about the affirming hermeneutic, but I hope it demonstrates the kind of stance I take. I am very open to the exegetical claims, but highly skeptical that they lead anywhere in our broader theology of sexuality.
Yes! Great stuff, Ross!
To add to your first two points, there’s a way of reading Romans 1:18-32 as targeted toward Israel. And this would follow Paul’s Gospel principle of wrath and condemnation “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (1:16-17). The target audience is said to be those who “knew God” but “did not glorify him as God” (1:21). That’s more fitting to say of Israel as the only family God knew (cf. Amos 3:2). And when it says that God’s invisible qualities are clearly seen “by the things that are made”, that ποίημα could be read as “by the things that are done” (1:20). That could be a reference to the history of God’s dealings with Israel. Then that point about idolatry from Wisdom of Solomon has a predecessor in Deuteronomy 4. Paul follows the same list of idols in Romans 1:23 (i.e. “corruptible man, and birds, and four-footed animals, and creeping things”) as Deuteronomy 4:16-18. Paul is indicting them of doing everything they were warned against. So, when Paul says “Therefore, you are inexcusable, O man”, in Romans 2:1, he may never have stopped talking about Israelites whose history is marked by doing all the things spoken of in Romans 1:18-32.
On your points 3 and 4, I would add in general that contemporary readers (even contemporary Christians shaped by this culture) are reading it wrong. As you said, our reading of this passage have been overly simplistic for a long time. It’s usually read with a straight vs. gay paradigm that only sees the sex act as an end in itself while mentally sterilizing the act by default and imputing certain motives that aren’t given. It falls far short of what Paul has in mind by a “natural” order of things and the “natural use”. He has a rich creationistic teleology. The same-sex sexual sin he uses as a leading illustration may be at least as much about its obviousness as its blatancy or severity. But when I reflect on the whole arch of the passage and see the long list of “things that are not fitting” (1:28) in the last four verses, I see a lot of things that run fast and hard against a creationistic teleology for Mankind’s social order.
Your proposed sexual innuendo theory in point 5 is intriguing!