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Christian Mission to the West: Observations on Homosexual Orientation in Antiquity

Introduction

The subject of sexual orientation in antiquity is discussed here as a topic of a 'mission to the West' because recent, revisionist interpretations of the Church's consistent teaching on homosexuality through the millenia undermine the Gospel that a culture going through its own revisions and becoming increasingly post-Christian needs to hear: God transforms sinful human beings through the good news of Jesus Christ.  Even sinful orientations, entrenched as they are (Aristotle called them, among other things, 'states of character'), can be transformed.  Here, the subject is that Paul would have known about the idea of sexual orientation since his culture did.  Thus, he does not oppose homosexuality in ignorance of orientation--as though we know more today and can therefore ignore Paul's teaching.

John Shelby Spong believed, along with any number of other persons discussing Christianity and homosexuality, that the ancient world knew nothing of sexual orientation.  This was one of his key arguments in trying to revise the Church’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin:

any reference to same-sex practice by a Biblical writer or a Greco-Roman writer has no knowledge or understanding of the concept of “same-sex orientation.” There is no Hebrew or Greek cognate word in the Biblical text to reflect the modern term “same-sex orientation” or “homosexuality.” Moreover, there were no discussions or arguments concerning sexual orientation in the ancient and late ancient world, conversations that would only arrive in the modern era of psychology. Instead, ancient writers believed any wanton sexual behavior of any variety is a mismanagement of one’s appetites. The apostle Paul, in the New Testament, follows this pattern.’[1]

Victor Paul Furnish concurred:

The ancient writers were operating without the vaguest idea of what we have learned to call “sexual orientation.”[2]

This view, like certain other views about what ancient writers at the time of Scripture supposedly did not know (such as loving, committed homosexual unions in antiquity), can only be held by those who have failed at the scholarly task of researching primary sources in antiquity.  Sadly, one finds this misrepresentation of the early Christians' social context among 'scholars' often enough.  The following essay summarizes material mentioned in Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition and in an earlier article, but it also offers a few other quotations of interest for this subject.[3]

1. Sexual Diversity Already in Youth

Martial mentions developing orientations in youth: a heterosexual youth (?), a transgender boy, a homosexually active youth [pederasty?], ‘soft’/effeminate boy wanting to be more masculine, effeminate boy from earliest childhood:

Martial, Epigrams XII.75: Polytimus is hurrying to the girls, Hymnus doesn’t like admitting that he’s a boy, Secundus has buttocks acornsated [receives anal sex], Didymus is effeminate (mollis) but doesn’t want to be, Amphion could have been born a girl….

2. Romantic Love (not just sexual gratification) in Pederasty

In our day, pedophilia is generally considered a matter of sexual deviancy.  In antiquity, love of grown men for boys was not only thought of in terms of sexual desire but also in the same way as heterosexual romance—attraction, desire, and romantic love.  Here is one major difference between pedophilia and pederasty.  Plato explored the ideal of love itself, in either heterosexuality or homosexuality (in this case, pederasty) (cf. Phaedrus)In pederasty, argued Plato’s character Pausanias in the Symposium, a higher love—a celestial love that was wholly male—proved superior to love between a man and a woman.  This love went beyond sexual indulgence, and the discussion goes beyond any limitation of male love to boys.  Such philosophical arguments demonstrate that love and sex were understood in far deeper ways than just acts or pederasty, and the discussion of a male love moves firmly in the direction of the notion of sexual orientation.  As Virgil says,

Cruel Alexis, heed you naught my songs?
Have you no pity? You’ll drive me to my death….
…. beauteous boy (Virgil, Eclogue II).[4]

3. Medical Theory / Physiognomy and Dispositions / Orientations

In the 4th century BC—well before the New Testament authors wrote—Aristotle noted that the homosexual’s nature was expressed in particular behaviors.  Homosexuality was not considered merely in terms of an act—it was a whole way of life that could be related to physical characteristics.  He says,

Physiognomonica 6: Shrill, soft, broken tones mark the speech of the pathic, for such a voice is found in women and is congruous with the pathic’s nature.[5]

Temperaments and attractions were also the subject of medical theory in antiquity.  The 2nd century medical author, Galen, built on earlier theories about the relation between body types and temperament.  The phlegmatic person could be a soft male.  Maria Michela Sassi summarizes one of the orientations that Galen identified (cf. Opera Omnia 13.662):

the phlegmatic and cold/wet categories include the constitutions (all of them soft and white) of women, children, fair-skinned men, eunuchs, and peoples that live in cold regions.[6] 

Kyle Harper’s recent examination of primary sources reaches the similar conclusion that

folk belief had long held that women were underheated and incompletely formed men: moist, clammy, the female body had been contrived by nature to play its role in the continuous regeneration of the species, ‘born to be penetrated.

For men, too, manliness was a matter of degree, and the insufficiently masculinized male became damp, soft, and, in extreme cases, an “androgyne” [man-woman].[7]  The attempt to relate body types to sexual preference was an attempt to explore sexual orientation in antiquity.

4. Astrology and Sexual Orientation

Astrology is the attempt to explain human orientations and events with reference to the movement of the planets and stars.  In antiquity, it also tried to explain sexual orientation, including homosexuality.  The following explanation of natural and unnatural sexual orientation from the perspective of astrology uses terminology (‘against nature’ and ‘according to nature’) also found in Paul—that is, the language for orientation was well established.  (Of course, Paul did not follow the astrological explanation for orientation.)
Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos III.14.171-172: But if likewise Mars [planet/god of war] or Venus [planet/goddess of love] as well, either one of them or both, is made masculine, the males become addicted to natural [kata physin] sexual intercourse, and are adulterous, insatiate, and ready on every occasion for base and lawless acts of sexual passion, while the females are lustful for unnatural congresses [para physin—also Paul’s phrase in Romans 1.26], cast inviting glances of the eye, and are what we call tribades; for they deal with females and perform the functions of males [andrōn erga]. If Venus alone is constituted in a masculine manner, they do these things secretly and not openly. But if Mars likewise is so constituted, without reserve, so that sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful “wives.
5. Philosophy, Mythology, and Sexual Orientation

There was a significant difference between Platonic and Stoic philosophy on the issue of homosexuality.  Platonic philosophy, as already noted, thought in terms of ideals, such as Beauty and Love, whereas Stoic philosophy thought in terms of living according to nature.  Thus, Platonism could idealize love for teenage boys and preference it over sex with women if the attraction was the ideal of Beauty and not purely physical lust.  Stoic philosophers, such as Musonius Rufus and Epictetus, on the other hand, saw homosexuality as ‘contrary to nature’ (Paul’s term, too, in Rom. 1.26).  Plutarch, for example, saw homosexual orientation as an internal disorder peculiar to humans and not found in other animals:[8]

Not even Nature [physis], with Law [nomos] for her ally, can keep within bounds the unchastened vice of your hearts; but as though swept by the current of their lusts beyond the barrier at many points, men do such deeds as wantonly outrage Nature, upset her order, and confuse her distinctions (Plutarch, Whether Beasts are Rational 7).
In Romans 1.18-28, Paul, too, argues from nature that idolatry and homosexuality are against the Creator’s design.

However, a natural argument might also be turned in favor of homosexual orientation if one argues for different ‘natures’ being created in the first place (a view contrary to Scripture, of course [cf. Gen. 1.27-28; Gen. 2.24]).  The pre-Platonic myth of the creation of more than two genders (males with a heterosexual orientation, females with a heterosexual orientation, males attracted to males, and females attracted to females) was mentioned in Plato’s Symposium.  The speaker, Aristophanes, says,[9]
Plato, Symposium 191: “Each of us, then, is but a tally of a man, since every one shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him. All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, [191e] whence likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses. All the women who are sections of the woman have no great fancy for men: they are inclined rather to women, and of this stock are the she-minions. Men who are sections of the male pursue the masculine, and so long as their boyhood lasts they show themselves to be slices of the male by making friends with men and delighting [192a] to lie with them and to be clasped in men’s embraces; these are the finest boys and striplings, for they have the most manly nature….
6. The Acquisition of Homosexual Orientation through Social Factors

We should not limit the notion of ‘orientation’ to natural inclinations or biology in the arguments from antiquity.  The discussion of orientation is not only a biological one: it might also be a matter of nurture and therefore a concern of psychology and sociology.  This perspective, too, was well discussed in antiquity.  Plato, for example, suggested that a culture of unbridled sexual passion led to sexual deviancy against nature, and that this was encouraged by the introduction of the gymnasium into Greek society: [10]

Plato, Laws 1.636b-c: … this institution [the gymnasium, with its naked males], when of old standing, is thought to have corrupted the pleasures of love which are natural not to men only but also natural to beasts. For this your States [Lacedaemon and Crete] are held primarily responsible, and along with them all others [636c] that especially encourage the use of gymnasia. And whether one makes the observation in earnest or in jest, one certainly should not fail to observe that when male unites with female for procreation the pleasure experienced is held to be due to nature [kata physin], but contrary to nature [para physin] when male mates with male or female with female, and that those first guilty of such enormities were impelled by their slavery to pleasure.

Philo, a first century Jewish philosopher in the Platonic tradition, relates uncontrolled desire, socialization, and homosexual orientation: [11]

Philo, Abraham 1.135-136:… 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, an intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy [malakotēti kai thrypsei], became like women in their persons
Herodotus, too, had earlier spoken of societies that took on certain practices that led to new orientations, including homosexuality:[12]

Herodotus, The Histories 1.135.1: But the Persians more than all men welcome foreign customs. They wear the Median dress, thinking it more beautiful than their own, and the Egyptian cuirass in war. Their luxurious practices are of all kinds, and all borrowed: the Greeks taught them pederasty.

The practice of pederasty, moreover, knew a variety of distinctions in antiquity—there were social and cultural distinctions that could be observed.  Xenophon, for example, distinguishes three different practices:[13]

Xenophon, The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians 2.12: I think I ought to say something about intimacy with boys, since this matter also has a bearing on education. In other Greek states, for instance among the Boeotians, man and boy live together, like married people; elsewhere, among the Eleians, for example, consent is won by means of favours. Some, on the other hand, entirely forbid suitors to talk with boys.

Sextus Empiricus noted different social attitudes towards pederasty, and in so doing identified the cultural contribution to sexual orientations (as we also find, note, in Genesis 19.9):[14]

Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3:198-200: For example, amongst us sodomy is regarded as [199] shameful or rather illegal, but by the Germanic they say, it is not looked on as shameful but as a customary thing. It is said, too, that in Thebes long ago this practice was not held to be shameful, and they say that Meriones the Cretan was so called by way of indicating the Cretans’ custom, and some refer to … the burning love of Achilles for Patroclus. And [200] what wonder, when both the adherents of the Cynic philosophy and the followers of Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes and Chrysippus, declare that this practice is indifferent?

7. Artistic Temperament and Homosexual Orientation

As today, the argument for sexual orientation in antiquity was also made with respect to artistic temperament.  Aristophanes represents this view with respect to homosexual orientation in his play, Women at the Thesmophoria:

Women at the Thesmophoria 1.35.159ff: Besides, it is bad taste for a poet to be coarse and hairy. Look at the famous Ibycus, at Anacreon of Teos, and at Alcaeus, who handled music so well; they wore head-bands and found pleasure in the lascivious and dances of Ionia. And have you not heard what a dandy Phrynichus was and how careful in his dress? For this reason his pieces were also beautiful, for the works of a poet are copied from himself.

Softness (womanliness) and poetic talent in a man, the argument goes, go together.

8. Unrestrained (Natural) Sexual Desire Becoming Unnatural Desire

The following quotations show that the notion that lust is not merely to be thought of in terms of quantitative desire but also qualitative desire—desire that goes beyond natural boundaries.  This point now needs to be emphasized, since James Brownson has suggested that Paul’s concern in Romans 1.26-27 is about unrestrained lust, not unnatural, homosexual practice: the distinction is artificial.[15]

Philo, Abraham 1.135-136 … 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, an intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy [malakotēti kai thrypsei], became like women in their persons….

Plutarch, Whether Beasts are Rational 7 Not even Nature [physis], with Law [nomos] for her ally, can keep within bounds the unchastened vice of your hearts; but as though swept by the current of their lusts beyond the barrier at many points, men do such deeds as wantonly outrage Nature, upset her order, and confuse her distinctions.

9.     A Corrupted Nature/Orientation

The notion of a sexual orientation is discussed in literature that focusses on the corruption of nature.  Ancient philosophy made the discussion of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ a major subject of debate.  (The topic will be explored in more detail at a later date.)  Consider Plutarch’s comments about the nature of animals and humans in his work on love:

Plutarch, De Amore Prolis [On Affection for Offspring] 493B-E: … we seek among horses and dogs and birds how we ourselves should marry and beget and bring up children (as though we had no plain indication of Nature in ourselves) and that we term the traits which brute beasts have “characters” and “emotions,” and accuse our life of a great deviation and departure from Nature [kata physin], confused and disordered as we are at the very beginning concerning even the first principles? For in dumb animals Nature preserves their special characteristics pure and unmixed and simple, but in men, through reason and habit, they have been modified by many opinions and adventitious judgements so that they have lost their proper form and have acquired a pleasing variety comparable to the variety of perfumes made by the pharmacist on the basis of a single oil. And let us not wonder if irrational animals follow Nature more closely than rational ones; for animals are, in fact, outdone in this by plants, to which Nature has given neither imagination nor impulse, nor desire for something different, which causes men to shake themselves free from what Nature desires; but plants, as though they were fastened in chains, remain in the power of Nature, always traversing the one path along which Nature leads them. Yet in wild beasts versatility of reasoning and uncommon cleverness and excessive love of freedom are not too highly developed; and though they have irrational impulses and desires and often wander about on circuitous paths, they do not go far afield, but ride, as it were, at the anchor provided by Nature, who points out to them the straight way, as to an ass which proceeds under bit and bridle. But in man ungoverned reason is absolute master, and, discovering now one way of deviation and innovation and now another, has left no clear or certain vestige of Nature visible.

10.  The Designation of Certain Males as ‘Soft’

As with the previous point, there is much literature that could be cited in reference to ‘soft males’, a term (malakos) that Paul uses in his sin list in 1 Corinthians 6.9.  The point here is that this is an ‘orientation’ term, not a term that has to do only with acts.[16]

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 7.5-7: One who is deficient in resistance to pains that most men withstand with success, is soft [malakos] or luxurious (for Luxury is a kind of Softness): such a man lets his cloak trail on the ground to escape the fatigue and trouble of lifting it, or feigns sickness, not seeing that to counterfeit misery is to be miserable…. But we are surprised when a man is overcome by pleasures and pains which most men are able to withstand, except when his failure to resist is due to some innate tendency [dia physin tou genous], or to disease: instances of the former being the hereditary effeminacy [malakia] of the royal family of Scythia, and the inferior endurance of the female sex as compared with the male.

11.  The Existence of Homosexual Unions and Marriages

This is a subject not fully explored in the literature.  Those arguing that Paul knew nothing of loving, committed homosexual relationships in his day are simply claiming things they really know nothing about.  I shall present this evidence at a later point but will offer one of the relevant quotations from antiquity on the matter.  The presence of such texts demonstrates that Paul argued against homosexual practices in a context that did know of homosexual marriage or unions.  Consider Juvenal on this:

Juvenal, Satire II: I have a ceremony to attend,” quoth one, “at dawn to-morrow, in the Quirinal valley.” “What is the occasion?” “No need to ask: a friend is taking to himself a husband; quite a small affair.” Yes, and if we only live long enough, we shall see these things done openly: people will wish to see them reported among the news of the day. Meanwhile these would-be brides have one great trouble: they can bear no children wherewith to keep the affection of their husbands; well has nature done in granting to their desires no power over their bodies.

Conclusion

The discussion of sexual orientation, including homosexual orientation, was present in antiquity and is not some modern discovery through the social sciences.  A variety of views were offered to explain the sexual orientation that some have for same-sex relationships.  This orientation was expressed not only in terms of the desire for an act of same-sex intercourse: it was also discussed in terms of orientation.  As I argue in Unchanging Witness,[17] Paul, too thought in terms of both homosexual orientation and acts when he stated in consistent interpretation of the Old Testament that this was sinful. 

He also thought in terms of nature and nurture.  He offered a religious and moral interpretation of homosexuality.  At the root of his understanding of sexuality stood convictions about God’s order in creation and human sinfulness.  He also offered hope for change through the transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ’s liberating death to sin and resurrection to new life.  Thus, one cannot argue that Paul’s views on homosexuality can be dismissed because antiquity knew nothing of sexual (including homosexual) orientation.  Indeed, antiquity had much to say on the subject.  Nor can one argue that Paul would have counselled someone struggling with same-sex attraction simply to avoid acting out such desires.  His view, as expressed in detail in his letter to the Romans, of the transforming power of God in the Gospel of Jesus’ Christ’s death and resurrection was far bigger than that.[18]



[1] Lee Jefferson, ‘What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gay Marriage?’ A New Christianity for a New World (30 June, 2011).  Online: http://johnshelbyspong.com/news/what-does-the-bible-actually-say-about-gay-marriage/ (accessed 10 November 2016).  This website promotes Spong’s views.
[2] Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teachings of Paul: Selected Issues, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1985), p. 85.
[3] See further, S. Donald Fortson, III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016).
[4] The Internet Classics Archive by Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics 1994-2000. Accessed 4 May, 2011: http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/eclogue.mb.txt.
[5] The Works of Aristotle, trans. T. Loveday and E. S. Forster, ed. W. D. Ross, Vol. VI (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913).
[6] Ibid., p. 158.
[7] Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 33.
[8] Plutarch, Moralia, trans. Harold Cherniss and William C. Hembold (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).
[9] Plato in Twelve Volumes, Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 9, translated by Harold N. Fowler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925).
[10] Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 10, translated by R.G. Bury (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1967 & 1968).
[11] The Works of Philo Judaeus, the Contemporary of Josephus, trans. C. D. Yonge, 4 vols. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854-55).
[12] Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920).
[13] Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 7, Loeb Classical Library, trans. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Rev ed. 1925; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1984).
[14] Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trans. R. G. Bury (Loeb Classical Library 273; Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1933).  Also, a Sibylline Oracle (3.595-600) states that the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Galatians, and the people of Asia Minor practiced pederasty. Plato, too, suggests that same-sex eroticism, particularly pederasty, arose among the Cretans (Laws 1.636b-c). Philo argued that the love of boys was a social development (Special Laws 3.37-42). Plutarch speaks of the practice as particularly notable among the Spartans (Lycurgus 17.1; 18.4).
[15] James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).pp. 155-156, 166, 172, 178.
[16] See further, S. Donald Fortson, III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness, ch. 15.
[17] S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness.  See especially chapters 16, 17, and 18.
[18] For a detailed discussion of Paul’s theology of the power of the Gospel and transforming grace, See Ibid., chapters 17 and 18.