Homoeroticism in Ancient Israel and Early Jewish/Christian Thought

This is the second post in a five part series on same-sex relationships. The series is intended to be read in order. Each essay is essential for understanding the full picture. Click here to see all posts.

What does the Bible say about same-sex relationships? The first crucial step to answering that question is exploring the context of the biblical authors. What did they think about homoeroticism? In the current debate both traditionalists and progressives can fall into anachronistic interpretations. That is, each side tends to project modern ideas onto the Bible that are foreign to the biblical authors. As a result, our interpretations are that of our own imagination rather than the meaning the divinely inspired authors intended to convey. As Hebrew Bible scholar Marc Brettler puts it, we must first read Scripture like an Israelite (or an ancient Jew or Christian).[1] Once we understand what the biblical authors believed about sexuality, then we can determine our reasons for retaining, discarding, or expanding upon that tradition.

Homoeroticism in Ancient Israel and Early Jewish/Christian Thought

Homoeroticism is rarely mentioned in ancient Near Eastern texts, including the Old Testament. Middle Assyrian Laws (c. 1076 BCE) condemn same-sex rape and punish false accusations of same-sex intercourse (A 19-20). However several ANE law codes are silent on the matter. Little evidence is available to determine whether same-sex activity was generally rejected or accepted at least until the Greek period when pederasty was tolerated. Notably, almost all references pertain to males. Perhaps the earliest undisputed reference to females is from Plato’s Symposium in the 4th century BCE (7th century poet Sappho is debated). 

In the Old Testament, we find two legal citations on homoeroticism; both prohibit male-male sexual intercourse on penalty of death (Lev 18:22; 20:13). Possibly, a few verses refer to male temple prostitution (e.g. Deut 23:17-18), but the existence of religious prostitution in the ancient Near East and Israel has been debated in recent scholarship.[2] In any case, the Old Testament authors only speak negatively of homoeroticism. The writers do not provide an explicit reason for this, but if their wording is any indication (“lying with a man as with a woman”), the concern probably included transgression of gender expectations.

Discussion of homoeroticism increases in the Greco-Roman period. Again, most references are to male activity, especially pederasty, for which our earliest evidence is from 8th century BCE Crete.[3] Men had sex with boys approximately 12-17 years old. The age differential was not unusual; in that culture girls commonly married in their teens to much older men. Among Greeks, male-male relationships often had a pedagogical component and were not permanent. Roman law was more restrictive than Greek statutes, prohibiting pederasty with free-born boys.[4] Sex also occurred with male slaves and prostitutes who typically took the passive role.

Only the older, more powerful, and active partner was expected to achieve sexual gratification. Consensual relationships are rarely mentioned. Overwhelmingly, homoeroticism during the Greco-Roman period consisted of pederasty. When 1st century Jewish writers Philo and Josephus, spoke against male-male sexual relations, they typically had pederasty in mind.[5] Consensual relationships between adult men were offensive because a grown man who took the passive role lost his masculinity in the eyes of Greco-Roman culture. Boys, on the other hand, were not yet men. When they did reach adulthood, they were no longer considered appropriate objects of sexual gratification. The exception to age limits was men of lower status (e.g. slaves), or in the case of the Romans, non-citizens. However, such adult slaves, prostitutes, or non-citizens no doubt carried the stigma of being “feminized.”

Homoeroticism was not accepted by everyone. Greco-Roman writers sometimes condemned it for violating gender norms (taking a female role) or perceived excess passion. Some also objected to the lack of procreative potential. The Pythagoreans, Plato, and Musonius Rufus were among those who believed sexual desire should be ordered toward procreation.[6]

In the New Testament, all mention of homoeroticism is negative. Most of these references provide scant information, appearing only in vice lists (1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:9-10). Paul likely had in mind the activity he saw around him, namely pederasty or sex with male slaves and prostitutes. However, Romans 1 provides the most information for analysis and remains the text in the church’s debate on same-sex relations. This text will be discussed in greater depth in the next post.

Why Did the Biblical Authors Condemn Homoeroticism?

I have given a brief overview of the historical context because we cannot understand why the biblical authors rejected homoeroticism without attending to the world they lived in. Significantly, there is much agreement between traditionalists and progressives on reasons for the prohibition, namely, the biblical authors were concerned about:

Old Testament:

  • violation of gender norms (i.e. a man acting [or lying with a male] like a woman; Lev 18:22; 20:13).
  • lack of procreative potential (more on this below).
  • participation in an alleged pagan practice (e.g. Lev 18:3, 24, 30; 20:23).[7]
  • participation in common or religious male prostitution (but evidence for this is questionable).

New Testament:[8]

  • violation of gender norms (i.e. a man acting like a woman; Paul’s use of “unnatural”- Rom 1:26-27; more on this in the next post).
  • lack of procreative potential (see below).
  • participation in a pagan practice (common belief in Jewish writings at the time of Paul that homoeroticism was a foreign problem; Rom 1 refers to Gentiles [“they”] before switching to Jews [“you” in 2:1]).
  • unrestrained or excess lust (common belief in ancient writings. So also Paul refers to “inflamed” with passion – Rom 1:27).
  • participation in secular male prostitution and possibly religious male prostitution, but evidence is scant for the latter (New Testament vice lists probably refer to sex with common prostitutes, slaves, or boys – 1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:9-10).

If traditionalists and progressives agree the biblical authors condemned male homoeroticism (and possibly female; more below), then why the debate? Doesn’t that mean the Bible says homosexuality is wrong?[9] Not necessarily. Part of the debate is whether the reasons the biblical authors give for rejecting homoeroticism are universal. For example, even traditionalists recognize some rules in the Bible are culturally based, such as women wearing head coverings. In this case, we might not apply this rule because the meaning of head coverings doesn’t translate from their culture to ours. Or sometimes the rule was intended for a specific audience, such as when the writer of Leviticus gives instructions to priests for how to do their job. But, another possibility might be that the biblical authors do not specifically address an ethical question. Progressives argue that the biblical authors condemned a form of homoeroticism that involved exploitation and misogynistic gender norms. That is, the biblical authors don’t write about the morality of consensual, covenanted same-sex relationships as we know them today. To put it simply, to say the biblical authors object to prostitution or rape is not to say the authors object to monogamous, marital relationships. That would be comparing apples and oranges.

Traditionalists are willing to concede on some of these points, including recognition that homoeroticism in antiquity manifested almost exclusively as pederasty and other exploitative practices. Traditionalists also admit that most people are not attracted to the same-sex because of unrestrained lust (many devout, celibate Christians have testified to same-sex attractions that have nothing to do with excess passion). Some traditionalists also agree that objection to male-male eroticism on the grounds of violating gender norms is rooted in outdated views of women as inferior. However, traditionalists are not persuaded on these grounds alone because the Bible also presents marriage as male and female. The biblical authors appear to be concerned not just with exploitation, lust, or patriarchal customs, but also physical complementarity. Thus, the current debate on same-sex relationships largely centers on anatomical (or bodily) complementarity, including the role of procreation.

Procreation and Homoeroticism

In the next post, I will focus exclusively on the arguments surrounding complementarity as that is the heart of the matter. But, first, it will be helpful to provide some historical context related to that question, specifically procreation.

Scholars agree that the Old Testament authors highly valued procreation. This was common across the ancient Near East as children were essential to economic survival. Genesis 1 highlights reproduction as do Deuteronomic blessings and curses for obedience or disobedience to God (Gen 1:11-12, 21-22, 24-25, 28; Deut 28:4, 11, 18, 41, 51, 53, 56-7, 63). Concern for what happens to semen is also evident (e.g. Gen 38:8-10). This is probably why Israelite men are prohibited from homoeroticism, but women are not. Procreative potential was thought to reside in male ejaculation.

The New Testament authors continue to esteem progeny (e.g. John 16:21; Eph 6:1-4; Col 3:20; 1 Tim 2:15), but the emphasis is not as strong. In fact, Jesus and Paul downplay marriage (and, therefore, procreation) while elevating celibacy. However, what is minimized is marriage. No evidence exists that Jesus or Paul minimized procreation within marriage, an impossibility without modern contraception. There is little reason to believe that when it came to those who chose marriage over celibacy that procreation was not envisioned to be an essential component of that. Jewish and Greco-Roman writings commonly connected sex with procreation. This is not to say Jesus or Paul went to an extreme and valued sex only for procreation, but their views are not likely to be completely divorced from typical Jewish perspectives on the place of children within marriage.[10]

The connection between procreation and the prohibition against same-sex intercourse is important for our current debate. It raises the question of whether procreation should be required for marriage today. Philo, a Jewish philosopher writing close to the time of Paul argued against homoeroticism because it is not procreative:

“Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbors, but also men mounted males without respect for the sex nature which the active partner shares with the passive; and so when they tried to beget children they were discovered to be incapable of any but a sterile seed. . . . Certainly, had Greeks and barbarians joined together in affecting such unions, city after city would have become a desert, as though depopulated by a pestilential sickness. But God. . . . gave increase in the greatest possible degree to the unions which men and women naturally make for begetting children, but abominated and extinguished this unnatural and forbidden intercourse. . . .” (On Abraham 135-137).

Similarly, 1st century Jewish historian, Josephus, writes:

“But then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature has appointed, of a man with his wife: and that this be used only for the procreation of children. But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male. And if any one do that, death is its punishment” (Against Apion 2.199).

Paul does not name procreation specifically in Romans 1, but like his contemporaries he probably has it in the background when he refers to what is “natural” vs. “unnatural” (para physin).

Concern for procreation could explain, in part, why virtually all references to homoeroticism in the Bible pertain to men. From the biblical authors’ perspective, men’s semen is the essential element of procreation. Women are passive receptacles whose wombs might be open or closed to this seed. Old Testament sex laws do not prohibit female same-sex activity because, for the Israelite authors, sex requires penile penetration and ejaculation. Israelite women are, however, prohibited from having sex with animals, a bizarre act, but one that hypothetically allows for penetration (Lev 18:23; 20:16).

This reasoning is also evident in early rabbinic writing. The Babylonian Talmud records a rabbinic argument concluding that female homoeroticism, though obscene, does not count as real sex. Thus, a priest is allowed to marry a woman who has engaged in such activity (Yevamot 76a). She is still considered a virgin (according to Levitical law, priests are only allowed to marry virgins; Lev 21:13-15). Male homoeroticism was far more troublesome to both the biblical authors and later rabbis than female homoeroticism.

The only possible reference to female same-sex activity in the Bible is Romans 1. However, the text does not specify with whom women exchanged the natural for the unnatural. Theologian Augustine (354-430 CE) speculated that women were having anal sex with men (On Marriage and Concupiscence 35 [XX.]). Thus, when verse 27 says the men did “likewise,” the biblical author intends to make a connection to sodomy with women. If this interpretation is accepted, the concern might have been that anal sex was used to prevent pregnancy, thereby enabling promiscuity. In other words, men were wasting their seed and women willingly participated.[11]

Conclusions

Any discussion on the morality of same-sex relationships today must begin with an examination of the biblical authors’ views on sexuality in their historical context. In the ancient Near East and Israel, homoeroticism was rarely mentioned. However, the Israelites condemned both participants in male-male sexual intercourse (whether active or passive). Some scholars suggest this might have been related to temple prostitution, but the prevalence of religious prostitution in the ancient Near East and Israel has been challenged in recent scholarship. In the Greco-Roman world, homoeroticism primarily manifested as pederasty, as well as prostitution and sex with slaves. Common Greco-Roman and Jewish reasons for rejecting homoeroticism included lack of procreative potential, violation of gender norms, and perceptions of unrestrained lust. Paul rejected same-sex intercourse within this cultural context.

Today, the debate largely hinges on gender and anatomical complementarity, particularly the latter. This includes the role of procreation. Questions currently being asked are: should procreation still be considered a required expectation for sex and marriage? How should we understand gender and anatomical complementarity in terms of morality? I will touch on these questions with greater depth in the coming posts.

Suggested Further Reading:

Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Response to Female Homoeroticism

Thomas K. Hubbard, ed., Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents

William Loader, “Homosexuality and the Bible” in Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, 17-48  (Loader has written several books on sexuality in ancient Jewish and Christian thought. Google his name or see his faculty page)

Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective

Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate

 


[1] Marc Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2010).

[2] There is no evidence for wide-spread fertility cults or temple prostitution in the ancient Near East or Israel. This notion was popularized, in part, by the debunked work of myth-ritual theorist Sir James Frazer, as found in his book The Golden Bough. Various scholars have addressed the lack of evidence. For a start check out S.M. Baugh, “Cult Prostitution in New Testament Ephesus: A Reappraisal,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42 (1999): 443–60; Stephanie L. Budin, “Sacred Prostitution in the First Person” in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, eds. Christopher A. Faraone and Laura K. McClure (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006) 77–92; Martha Roth, “Marriage, Divorce, and the Prostitute in Ancient Mesopotamia” in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, Faraone and McClure, 21–39; Joan Goodnick Westenholz, “Tamar, Qědēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitutes in Mesopotamia,” Harvard Theological Review 82 (1989): 245–65. For a rebuttal see also John Day, “Does the Old Testament Refer to Sacred Prostitution and Did It Actually Exist in Ancient Israel?” in Biblical and Near Eastern Essays, JSOTSupp 375, eds. Carmel McCarthy and John F. Healey (New York: T & T Clark, 2004), 2–21.

[3] Andrew Lear, “Ancient Pederasty: An Introduction” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, ed. Thomas Hubbard (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2014), 119.

[4] Andrew Lear, “Ancient Pederasty,” 117.

[5] See Philo, On the Contemplative Life 59-61 and Laws 3:36-39; Josephus, Antiquities 1.200.

[6] On the Nature of the Universe 4.4; Laws 636c, On Sexual Indulgence (VII: Lutz). See also Karen Keen, “Sexuality, Critical Issues” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2014).

[7] Across the ancient Near East, sexual norms were very similar to Israel (patricentric with tight control of women’s sexuality). The portrait of wildly sexually deviant nations is largely a slur, probably to denigrate the worship of other gods.

[8] Traditionalists and progressives agree on many of the reasons why homoeroticism was condemned. Traditionalist Robert Gagnon and progressive James Brownson give essentially the same answer (although Gagnon emphasizes anatomical complementarity).

Gagnon writes: “Rejection of same-sex intercourse on the grounds that it resulted in an infertile union was commonplace among Greeks and Romans . . . . Among post-biblical Jewish authors, Josephus and Philo also witness this view. . . . By putting themselves in the position of being ‘mounted’ by other men, the passive partners were regarded as willingly taking on not only a gender role contradictory to their anatomy but also the inferior nature and status of the woman. . . . In their descriptions of the sins of the men of Sodom, both Philo and Josephus describe a man’s desire for sexual intercourse with other males as an insatiable overflow of lust beyond heterosexual intercourse” (The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutic [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001], 164, 166, 169-70, 176-77).

Brownson writes: “Almost all studies of homoeroticism in the ancient world recognize that the nearly universal pattern of same-sex erotic relationships in the ancient world (particularly among men) involved status differences between the active and passive partners . . . . For a man, to be penetrated is to be inherently degraded – that is, forced to act like a woman instead of a man. . . .[W]e also find more specific references to same-sex eroticism as an expression of insatiable lust in Greco-Roman sources. . . . The early Jewish philosopher-theologian Philo, writing a bit earlier than Paul, makes a similar equation between same-sex eroticism and self-centered lust that refuses any boundaries. . . . ln the ancient world generally, nature was understood to teach that sex was for the purpose of procreation. There is no reason to think that the references to nature in Romans 1 assume any other frame of reference” (Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships [Grand Rapids: WB Eerdmans, 2013], 82, 154-155, 240).

[9] Homosexuality” is a modern term, as is “gay,” “lesbian,” or “queer.” When referring to the our modern context these terms are acceptable. However, when referring to antiquity these are not accurate or appropriate labels to use. Instead, when discussing the biblical authors in their ancient setting use “male-male sexual intercourse,” “female-female sexual intercourse,” “homoeroticism,” or “pederasty” (if that is specifically called for).

[10] Preston Sprinkle, a traditionalist scholar, acknowledges the strong procreation motif in the Old Testament, but suggests procreation in marriage was minimized in first century Judaism, including the New Testament (Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016, 219-222). For example, he points to Pseudo-Philo 50:1-5, a retelling of Hannah’s story. Hannah says doing the will of God is more valuable than bearing children. Yet, this story does not downplay the importance of procreation. In fact, the story goes on to show Hannah’s prayer for a son is answered. Rather, the writer refutes a common belief that barrenness is a sign of sinfulness. This apology is also found in Wisdom of Solomon (3:13b-4:1-6). Sexual pleasure was affirmed alongside procreation, but without modern technology, the two could not be separated. In antiquity having sex resulted in procreation. Both Paul and Jesus downplayed marriage. They did not envision a new paradigm of childless marriages. The new paradigm was celibacy. Paul counseled celibacy if a person wanted to avoid family entanglements.

[11]  I will not be discussing the debate on whether Romans 1 refers to female homoeroticism. The evidence is ambiguous. For that discussion see Bernadette Brooten (argues for homoeroticism) and James Brownson (argues for heteroeroticism). Since the crux of the debate is complementarity, the inclusion of women is assumed for traditionalists. This blog series engages the conversation with that in mind. However, I believe it’s important to realize that early on Romans 1 was not always obviously understood and interpreted as referring to female homoeroticism. This underscores the importance of entering the world of the biblical authors rather than superimposing our modern assumptions.

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10 thoughts on “Homoeroticism in Ancient Israel and Early Jewish/Christian Thought

  1. Thank you for this series, Karen. As you probably know, some have argued that there were lifelong, committed, same-sex relationships in the ancient world. Plato’s Symposium has been cited for this. I have not read Gagnon’s work, but I have heard him refer to that argument. I read Louis Compton’s Homosexuality and Civilization a long time ago, and he seemed to make such an argument. Your conclusions appear to be different from theirs, but how would you address their argument? Would you say that they are presenting the exception to the rule?

    I apologize that I cannot, at least right now, be more specific about the details of their argument (as opposed to the conclusion), but the argument has been circulating.

    • Hi James, thanks for leaving a comment. Yes, some consensual relationships are known, but these appear to be quite rare. One of the articles I cite (Lear, “Ancient Pederasty”) also mentions this. As I acknowledge in my post, what we know is that consensual relationships were rare. I do not argue that none existed. Overwhelmingly, how homoeroticism manifested is as I describe. This is scholarly consensus. I imagine even Gagnon would acknowledge that the exploitative type was the dominant type. This had every thing to do with Greco-Roman macho culture not permitting adult male consensual relationships.

      Some traditionalists will argue that because consensual relationships might have been known to Paul, that he includes those in his prohibition. Possibly. But it is not the best argument because of their rarity, as well as the fact that those relationships (even if consensual in some way) do not necessarily represent what gay and lesbian people are arguing for in terms of type of relationships today (especially Christian gay folk). The traditionalist argument doesn’t actually depend much on the idea that a few consensual relationships might have existed then. It depends much more on the idea of “natural” and “unnatural” and anatomical complementarity. I discuss that in the next post.

    • James, one more thought: Did you read the quotes in the footnotes where I cite both Gagnon and Brownson? You can see they both give essentially the same picture of homoeroticism in antiquity.

      • Yes, I had read the post in its entirety. I was just raising additional considerations that Gagnon and others have raised. Thank you for addressing them.

  2. Hi Karen. I was wondering something. Did ancient Jews and Christians have the same problems with pederasty as moderns would? Moderns, of course, would focus on such factors as age-of-consent, maturity, and exploitation in their criticism of pederasty. Did ancient Jews and Christians have similar problems with pederasty? I know you talk about other factors, such as procreation, gender roles, and excess lust, and you also say that the age differential in marriages and sexual relationships was common at that time. But I wonder if there is any overlap between ancient and modern problems with pederasty.

    The reason I ask is that, in current debates, some progressives argue that Paul was criticizing exploitative same-sex relationships, not all same-sex relationships, and I wonder if ancient Jews and Christians considered them exploitative. Similarly, when I read evangelical Christian historical fiction (set in the Greco-Roman period), it often acts as if the Christians and Jews had modern criticisms of pederasty. I know they were opposed to it, but were their reasons the same as (or similar to that of) moderns?

    • Hi James, you ask good questions! I doubt the concern was age differential since the ages were about the same as when girls were married off to older men. So to say that having sex with a teenager is exploitative would be from our perspective, not theirs. But, did they find the practice of older men using boys for sexual gratification (a very different situation than marriage) a problem? Yes, there is some writing that notes the pain that such use of boys can cause the boys themselves. While it was deemed deemed pedagogical and advantageous for the boy, there are also some comments acknowledging the unpleasantness for the boy:

      From pseudo-Lucian there is discussion of how sex with women involves mutual pleasure which is better, but that boys do not get this mutuality and instead “No one could be so mad as to say this in the case of boys [i.e. mutuality]. No, the active lover according to his view of the matter departs after having obtained an exquisite pleasure, but the one outraged suffers pain and tears at first.” The writers says even if the pain relents over time, the boy still is deprived of pleasure.

      In Plato’s Phaedrus, the voice of Socrates say of the boy: “Must he not feel the extremity of disgust” and “A boy does not even share the man’s enjoyment of sexual intercourse as a woman does: he is a sober person watching one drunk with sexual excitement. In view of all this, it is no wonder if he even develops contempt for his lover” and “Consider this, fair youth and know that in the friendship of the lover there is no real kindness; he has an appetite and wants to feed upon you.

      In Rome, it was illegal to have sex with a freeborn boy. Parents were protective of their boys and tutors chaperoned them to school. Slaves, whether boys or adults, were not give the same consideration. Male or female could be used for sex by an owner.

      So, while the age difference is not the issue for them, the instrumentalizing of the boys would have been a complaint of some. Certainly, Paul and Jesus considered prostitution a problem, and Jesus’s behavior toward children or female prostitutes suggest he understood and was concerned about their vulnerability. So I think its fair to say that early Christians, including New Testament writers considered pederasty abusive. Some have suggested that when Jesus referred to tying a mill stone around the neck of someone who causes a child to stumble than he is referring to the harm of pederasty.

      • Thank you for taking the time to respond. I’ve appreciated this series, and I will be reading the next post tonight.

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