Ian Paul notes that, in the recent past, two responses to same-sex relationships have been prevalent:
- In the wider society, same-sex marriage has provided gay relationships with the respectability and status that many desired;
- In the UK church, questions have been asked about whether the New Testament writers understood sexuality in the way that we understand it today, and, consequently, whether their negative assessments are well-founded.
Today (Ian Paul is writing in 2019), another response has come to the fore:
- Is the teaching of Scripture (and of Paul in particular) sufficiently clear and coherent for us to be able to follow its teaching on same-sex relationships?
This view has been popularised by Matthew Vine (following the work of John Boswell).
But the argument is ill-founded.
At a popular level, the argument sometimes relies on a history-of-translation approach (which assumes that we can arrive at the meaning of words and texts by examining how they have been translated, rather than by looking at their prehistory, context and canonical place).
At a more scholarly level, Jonathan Tallon imports modern ideas and concepts (such as ‘homosexuality’), and assumes that Paul meant what we mean today. One effect of this is to obscure any distinction between same-sex sex and same-sex attraction.
When Tallon looks at the ‘vice list’ of 1 Cor 6:9f, which includes the much-discussed terms malakoi and arsenokoitai. But,
‘he makes no comment about how such vice lists function in Paul’s writing, how they relate to the immediate context in 1 Corinthians, how they connect with Paul’s pastoral strategy in the letter, or more broadly how they relate to vice lists in either first century Judaism or wider culture.’
With regard to malakoi and arsenokoitai, Ian Paul agrees with Tallon (and against a number of recent interpreters) that the two words are not counterparts (referring to the receptive and penetrating partners in a homosexual relationship. Malakoi had a wider moral sense.
But (against Tallon) Ian Paul agrees with the scholarly consensus that arsenokoitai is a Pauline neologism derived from Lev 18:22; 20:13 (LXX) to refer to all forms of same-sex sex. Other, more specific, words were available to Paul – paidophthorēseis (referring to Greek and Roman practice of older men having penetrative sex with younger males); and erastus and eramenos (the usual pair of terms for same-sex lovers) – but he does not use these.
Ian Paul adds:
‘It is also worth noting that we, like later Christian writers, think that SSS between age-unequal partners the least acceptable, because of our focus on questions of consent and equality. But in the ancient world, this was seen as the most acceptable, and the idea of anal sex between adult males was shocking and unacceptable, since the passive partner was the inferior, and this offended against the idea of the free adult male.’
The understanding that arsenokoitai refers to generic sexual activity between males (and not merely to sex between adult men and adolescent boys) is supported by the scholarly work of authors such as David Wright and Robert Gagnon.
The only other reference to arsenokoitai, in 1 Tim 1:10, roots the term even more securely in OT Jewish law.
‘That Jews of the period construed the Levitical prohibitions of male-male intercourse absolutely and against a backdrop of a male-female requirement is beyond dispute. For example, Josephus explained to Gentile readers that “the law [of Moses] recognizes only sexual intercourse that is according to nature, that which is with a woman. . . . But it abhors the intercourse of males with males” (Against Apion 2.199). There are no limitations placed on the prohibition as regards age, slave status, idolatrous context, or exchange of money. The only limitation is the sex of the participants. According to b. Sanh. 54a (viz., tractate Sanhedrin from the Babylonian Talmud), the male with whom a man lies in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 may be “an adult or minor,” meaning that the prohibition of male-male unions is not limited to pederasty. Indeed, there is no evidence in ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, or rabbinic Judaism that any limitation was placed on the prohibition of male-male intercourse.’
Summarising the conclusion of E.P. Sanders, Ian Paul states:
‘That Jews of the period construed the Levitical prohibitions of male-male intercourse absolutely and against a backdrop of a male-female requirement is beyond dispute. For example, Josephus explained to Gentile readers that “the law [of Moses] recognizes only sexual intercourse that is according to nature, that which is with a woman. . . . But it abhors the intercourse of males with males”… There are no limitations placed on the prohibition as regards age, slave status, idolatrous context, or exchange of money. The only limitation is the sex of the participants. According to b. Sanh. 54a…, the male with whom a man lies in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 may be “an adult or minor,” meaning that the prohibition of male-male unions is not limited to pederasty. Indeed, there is no evidence in ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, or rabbinic Judaism that any limitation was placed on the prohibition of male-male intercourse.’
But, cautions Sanders,
‘Diaspora Jews had made sexual immorality and especially homosexual activity a major distinction between themselves and gentiles, and Paul repeated Diaspora Jewish vice lists. I see no reason to focus on homosexual acts as the one point of Paul’s vice lists that must be maintained today.’
William Loader thinks that Paul’s teaching is unambiguous:
‘It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order.’
Loader’s solution to the ‘problem’ posed is not that Paul is unclear, but that he is wrong!
Walter Wink agrees:
‘Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.’
Translation. Christianity so thoroughly accepted Jewish views relating to sexuality, and so thoroughly rejected Greco-Roman attitudes and practices, that that latter were largely ignored, only to be re-discovered during the past two centuries by painstaking historical research. Earlier translators, then, were largely ‘flying blind’ regarding these issues. If we are to utilise this research, while avoiding modern ‘baggage’, then we will understand malakos to mean both ‘effeminate’ and ‘morally weak’, and arsenokoitai as meaning ‘men who have sex with men’.
Confusion. We need not agree with those who say that ‘It’s all too confusing; we cannot come to any firm conclusions about Paul’s teaching on this subject.’ Clarity comes when we pay proper attention to the OT background, and the cultural context of Paul’s argument.
Decision. E.P. Sanders is by no means alone amongst scholars when he is clear about what Paul says and means, but is willing to reject apostolic teaching at this point. But Sanders is quite right to say that we may not pick and choose between items in Paul’s vice lists:
‘Paul’s vice lists are generally ignored in church polity and administration. Christian churches contain people who drink too much, who are greedy, who are deceitful, who quarrel, who gossip, who boast, who once rebelled against their parents, and who are foolish. Yet Paul’s vice lists condemn them all, just as much as they condemn people who engage in homosexual acts.’
Pastorally, we might agree that we face a different solution compared with that of Paul. He may have faced no actual instances of same-sex sex at Corinth (‘such were some of you. But…’ (1 Cor 6.11). His references to such activity may, then, have served a rhetorical purpose: to mention those behaviours that everyone would agree were wrong in order to introduce others (such as greed) which were prevalent.