HOMOSEXUALITY: ASSESSING THE PAULINE WITNESS
What Paul has in view in Rom. 1:26-27 and 1 Cor. 6:9, moreover, is markedly different from what contemporary Christians understand by the term "homosexuality." The modern concept of homosexuality hinges upon a concept of sexual orientation, thought to come in two varieties, heterosexual and homosexual. Yet as a highly influential body of historical scholarship has shown, the concept of sexual orientation, along with corollary division of human beings into bipolar sexual categories, heterosexual vs. homosexual, is a relatively recent development, stemming from the sexological research of the late nineteenth century and its popularization during the early decades of the twentieth. (For an accessible introduction to this scholarship, see Katz.)
The ancients, however, did not operate with a concept of sexual orientation. In principle, any sexually mature human being was eminently capable of desiring sexual relations with any other human being. "Unnatural" sex, for the ancients, was not the result of two individuals with the same anatomical equipment engaging in sex acts; rather, it was the result of certain sex acts inverting or subverting social hierarchies. The predominant view of sex in the Greco-Roman world was that it centered on the act of penetration, and that act was an expression of social hierarchy, which automatically placed the partners in a relationship of domination or submission. The essence of unnatural sex, for the ancients, was the spectacle of a free man voluntarily submitting to sexual penetration, and hence to symbolic subjugation. (For detailed information on Greek and Roman sexual ideology, see Winkler; Halperin; and Williams; and for a summary of this scholarship, see Moore: 135-46.)
This view of same-sex relations comes to explicit expression, not only in the writings of numerous pagan moral philosophers from antiquity, but also in the writings of Paul's famous Jewish contemporary, Philo of Alexandria. It is reasonable to suppose that Paul's passing comments on homoeroticism in Rom. 1:26-27 are powerfully informed, as were Philo's more extended pronouncements on the topic, by the sexual ideology that permeated ancient Mediterranean culture. Indeed, Rom. 1:26-27 might plausibly be glossed as follows:
Their women exchanged natural relations (of domination versus submission, designed to display social hierarchy, they themselves assuming the inferior position by accepting penile penetration) for unnatural relations (in which no display of domination or submission occurred and consequently no social hierarchy was exhibited, because no penile penetration took place), and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women (the male assuming the dominant position, penetrating the woman and thereby exhibiting and reaffirming his social superiority over her) and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men (in which one partner would necessarily end up the loser in the zero-sum game of honor versus shame, passively accepting penetration and thus defeat at the hands of the other).... (From Moore: 147, glossing the RSV)
Two important points emerge from the foregoing analysis. First, the prevalent view of sex in the Greco-Roman world was, at base, a brutal one, difficult or impossible to reconcile with the contemporary humane view of sex as the quintessential expression of romantic love, affection, and mutual respect. Second, in Rom. 1:26-27 (and even more perfunctorily in 1 Cor. 6:9) Paul merely gestures in passing to the conventional, but ethically questionable, understanding of sexual activity that predominated in his world. He could have rethought homoeroticism in Romans, and sexual relations more generally, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as he rethinks so many other crucial dimensions of human existence in that letter, but he did not do so. As such, it is left to subsequent generations of Christians, not least ourselves, to bring homoeroticism (or homosexuality, in the modern conception) fully within the compass of Jesus Christ's gospel of love and care for the marginal and the outcast.