One of the most controversial elements of Paul’s description of sin is his statement that “God gave them over to dishonorable passions” (1:26-27). These dishonorable passions are sexual relations which are “contrary to nature.” “Relations” (χρῆσις) is a rare word, used only here in the New Testament but regularly used for sexual relations in non-biblical literature. The consensus view is that Romans 1:26-27 refers to homosexuality. Fitzmyer, for example, says to deny Paul means homosexuality here is to deny the plain meaning of the text (Fitzmyer, Romans, 286).
Since this text is extremely controversial in contemporary western culture, many have sought to find a way to explain Paul’s statement without equating homosexuality and idolatry. There are several options for understanding what Paul means by “giving up natural relations.” Some argue Paul has in mind heterosexuals who have homosexual relations (John Boswell, 109). Homosexual sexual activity is therefore the natural thing for a homosexual to do and not sinful. Others have argued Paul is condemning pederasty, adult males who sexual exploit boys (See Miller). However, Paul does not use different nouns, he says “men and men” not “men and boys.”
But it is critically important to read this text in Paul’s context, now ours. This includes both Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman world. Homosexuality is routinely condemned in both the Old Testament (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Deut 23:17). Leviticus 18:22 calls homosexual practices an abomination (תּוֹעֵבָה), “abominable actions which are considered to transgress the basic commandments” (HALOT). Tikva Frymer-Kensky lists both homosexuality and bestiality as sexual sins of “commingling,” and improper mixing. God designed things to “go together,” and if things intended to be separate are put together, it is “not right.” Certain mixed breeding of animals are forbidden, not because “God hates mules,” but because the result is a sterile animal.
Second Temple period Jewish views on homosexuality were equally clear (For additional Jewish examples, see Dunn, Romans 1-8, 65-66). Test.Naphtali 3:3-5 cite Sodom as an example of people who have “departed from the natural order,” as did the Watchers, the angels who left heaven to have sex with the daughters of men (1 Enoch 6-36).
Testament of Naphtali, 3:3-5 The gentiles, because they wandered astray and forsook the Lord, have changed the order, and have devoted themselves to stones and sticks, patterning themselves after wandering spirits. 4 But you, my children, shall not be like that: In the firmament, in the earth, and in the sea, in all the products of his workmanship discern the Lord who made all things, so that you do not become like Sodom, which departed from the order of nature. 5 Likewise the Watchers departed from nature’s order; the Lord pronounced a curse on them at the Flood. On their account he ordered that the earth be without dweller or produce.
Wisdom 14:26 includes “a change of nature (γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή, NRSV “sexual perversion,” see the vice list cited below). The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo refers to homosexuality in his description of Sodom as “a country full of innumerable iniquities, and especially of gluttony and debauchery, and all the great and numerous pleasures” (Abr. 135-136).
Philo, On Abraham (135) As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire; (136) and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they made also their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of man, as far as depended on them. At all events, if the Greeks and barbarians were to have agreed together, and to have adopted the commerce of the citizens of this city, their cities one after another would have become desolate, as if they had been emptied by a pestilence.”
The Greco-Roman world in the first century was open to homosexual sex, although long-term homosexual relations were not accepted as normative. Jewett refers to Rome as “a culture marked by aggressive bisexuality” (Romans, 180-1). Plato, Laws, 636a-b: “The gymnasia and common meals corrupt the pleasures of love which are natural not to man only but also natural to beasts” and 636c: “Pleasure in mating is due to nature (kata physin) when male unites with female, but contrary to nature (para physin) when male unites with male (arrenōn) or female with female (thēleiōn)” (Cited by Kruse, Romans, 101, note 67). Seneca condemned homosexual exploitation (Ep. 47.7–8), referring to abuse of slaves. Plutarch regarded homosexual practice as “contrary to nature” (The Dialogue on Love 751c-e; 752b-c).
Within Paul’s Jewish world, homosexuality was a practice that was associated with uncontrolled lust and living outside of the natural design of creation.
But this is not exactly what contemporary culture might say about homosexuality. How do we take Paul’s clear language in Romans 1 and use it in contemporary discussions on sexuality? It does not seem appropriate to ignore Paul or only accept the parts we agree with already, but it is also problematic if we let contemporary definitions of sexuality change our understanding of the Gospel.
Bibliography: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Sex and Sexuality,” in ABD 5: 1145; James E. Miller, “Pederasty and Romans 1:27: A Response to Mark Smith,” JAAR 65 (1997): 861-865.