• Paul on Homosexuality: PART FOUR

    February 8, 2012

    Remember Sophia Petrillo sitting around the kitchen table spinning epic yarns for her incredulous roommates? “Picture it! Sicily. 1945.”

    Well, picture it:

    Rome. First century A.D. You walk the city streets by day as you have since you arrived here on your missionary journey months ago. The pagan culture shock you experienced at first finally is subsiding. Somewhat, at least. The ubiquitous idol worship no longer surprises. The pervasive imagery of gods and goddesses, the temple to Artemis high on a hill, the likeness of Cybele on the coins you use to buy and sell–it’s all quickly becoming old hat. Even the stories you hear of public orgies and pagan sex rites, of men having sex with male temple priests–the men hoping for good luck from the gods, the priests hoping to transcend gender, thus becoming more like the gods–even these stories are becoming all too familiar.

    Nothing prepares you, however, for what you see this day. You come upon a crowd of maybe a couple hundred, all singing, shouting, and dancing around a solitary man who stands stark naked at the center of the scene. He appears as though in some sort of a trance. His eyes are fire and frenzy. In one hand he grasps a sword as he sways to the rhythm of the crowd’s chanting. Is the mob attacking him, or is he threatening them? Suddenly, the man looks toward heaven, lets out a piercing cry, grabs his genitals with one hand, and with the other runs the sword between his legs. The throng roars with–is it celebration?–as the man drops the sword and lifts his testicles to the sky. Blood puddles at the man’s feet. You gag, overcome with nausea, as the man runs off through the streets, the crowd chasing after.

    In the apostle Paul’s day, pagan worship and idolatry were everywhere. Read the biblical book of Acts, or even just a history book about the time. The Roman Empire was a hotbed for public, pagan religious celebration. One shocking (though commonplace by some accounts) public display of this religious fervor was the ordination ceremony for male temple priests of many goddess religions who made themselves eunuchs in an attempt to move beyond gender. By the second century A.D., the official Roman calendar even set aside the Day of Blood for this “celebration.”

    Lucian (c. 125 A.D. – after 180 A.D.) describes the scene:

    “Any young man who has resolved on this action, strips off his clothes, and with a loud shout bursts into the midst of the crowd, and picks up a sword from a number of swords which I suppose have been kept ready for many years for this purpose. He takes it and castrates himself and then runs wild through the city, bearing in his hands what he has cut off. He casts it into any house at will, and from this house he receives women’s raiment and ornaments. Thus they act during their ceremonies of castration.”

    Bearing in mind that public orgies and sex rites involving both men and women were just part of the culture of Paul’s day, and bearing in mind these castration ceremonies, let’s go back to Romans 1.

    26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

    Doesn’t it seem possible, even likely, that the “them” and “they” of this passage isn’t humanity in general, but the Gentiles of Rome who, far from engaging in some metaphorical idolatry, were involved in very literal, physical worship of creatures, rather than the Creator? And as for the mysterious “penalty” which men “received in themselves”–rather than the groundless claim that Paul is referring to sexually transmitted diseases–doesn’t it seem more plausible that Paul has in mind the physical consequence to men of becoming like these gods and goddesses, of forsaking all gender, and that “their error” was not homosexuality itself, but the idolatry that led to, among other things, heterosexual male temple priests having sex with men and castrating themselves? If castration is the penalty Paul has in mind, it would make sense that he mentions only men enduring it and says nothing of a penalty for the women involved in these sex rites. If Paul had disease in mind, it should have been a penalty to both men and women.

    Again, I could be wrong, and one can make an argument for the traditional interpretation of Romans 1. I simply think a better argument is made when we acknowledge the world in which Paul was living and how that surely influenced what he said. I just don’t think he was sitting secluded in a library or synagogue somewhere, contemplating metaphorical idolatry and its effects on the human race. I think he was describing the very real scene “on the street,” the reality the early Christians of Rome were facing as they tried to live out their faith in such an idolatrous culture.

    Up next, the structure of Romans as a whole, and whether the interpretation proposed here is in harmony with the rest of Paul’s letter.

    Posted in: The Gay Posts

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