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Christian Mission to the West: Sexual Orientation in Antiquity and Paul


According to James Brownson, Paul does not have in mind sexual orientation in Romans 1.27 but persons consumed with desire.[1]  The issue is ‘insatiable lust’, not orientation.  He further asserts, without any proof, that there was no concept of sexual orientation in Paul’s day among Jews and Christians (pp. 155-156, 166, 172, 178).  Brownson is aware that some Greek and Roman writers did have a concept of sexual orientation (e.g., Plato, Symposium 189C-193D), so his point is that the problem is with Jews and Christians, not antiquity as a whole.  This is a slightly nuanced version of a long-standing argument put out by revisionist interpreters of Scripture that antiquity knew nothing of sexual (and therefore homosexual) orientation.  This is patently false.

Brownson’s argument involves several flaws, including an inadequate awareness of classical texts.  Two of the avenues that revisionists who claim antiquity did not think in terms of sexual orientation need to consider are (1) literature on nature and (2) literature on desire/passion.  Four texts will be mentioned here as briefly as possible—readers are encouraged to read the cited passages in context and pursue the topics in antiquity in other literature.

The Connection between Creation/Nature, Genital Use, and Heterosexuality/Homosexuality

First, Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher (1st/2nd c.), says something very similar to what Paul says in Romans 1.18-28—the argument linking the failure to acknowledge the Creator’s workmanship to homosexual acts.  Epictetus’ overall philosophy involves living conformably to nature and being thankful to the Creator for making the world the way it is (gratitude).  He applies this to gender.  As Rom. 1.18-28 and vv. 26-27 in particular, he notes how desire is related to the construction of biological parts for their proper use in heterosexual unions by males and females and that this handiwork of the Creator declares God’s purposes by which we should live:

And the existence of male and female, and the desire of each for conjunction, and the power of using the parts which are constructed, do not even these declare the workman? (Discourses 1).

This passage is very similar to Paul’s statement that, by not acknowledging the Creator, females and males were given over to using their parts in ways for which they were not constructed (unnatural acts).  Paul says,

Romans 1:24-27 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,  25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature;  27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

The problem is not insatiable lust in a quantitative sense but with dishonorable and shameless passions in a qualitative sense: desire that is unnatural because it involves the misuse of genitals in same-sex unions.  What is transgressed is the boundary between natural and unnatural.  Indeed, Paul’s point in Romans 1.18-28 is that the natural laws of creation are broken as humans pursued idolatry and homosexuality against nature. 

The Quantitative and Qualitative Progression from Idolatry to Other Sins

The quantitative argument does not, moreover, undermine the qualitative argument: the progression of sin, the multiplication of sins, and the extreme degree of sinfulness involve both an evolutionary expansion of the quantity or number of sins and the particular types of transgressions.  Romans 1.18-28 has a parallel in the Jewish apocryphal work, Wisdom, the second pertinent text to consider.  The connection between turning from worship of God to idolatry leads further to other sins associated with idolatrous practices (including, note, homosexuality—‘disorder in marriages’):

For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works; 2 but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world….14.12 For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life…. 22 Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace.  23 For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs,  24 they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery,  25 and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury,  26 confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery.  27 For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil (Wisdom 13.1-2; 14.12, 22-27).

The Psychology of Orientation: Rationality and Passion

The third text to consider comes from a Greek author, Plutarch, (1st/2nd c.), in his De Virtute Morale.  Overall, Plutarch argues in this work that humans have a rational and an irrational faculty, reason and desire, that explain how they are each ‘governed’ (orientation).  That is, he is exploring the psychology of orientation in terms of reason and desire.  Moreover, he understands that orientation may be acquired (nurture) or come naturally.  His view is that a person’s rational faculty needs to rule (not eradicate) irrational desire.  In concluding his argument, he says,

And in general … in this world some things are governed by an acquired disposition, others by a natural [physis] one, some by an irrational soul, others by a rational and intellectual one; and in practically all these things man participates and he is subject to all the differences I have mentioned. For he is controlled by his acquired disposition, nurtured by his natural disposition, and makes use of reason and intellect’ (De Virtute Morale 12).

Paul’s argument in Romans 1.24-28 is that the rational faculty is suppressed as an unnatural, irrational disposition takes hold when humans act against nature.  The result is that people begin to see the unnatural, such as female and male homosexuality, as natural: their minds become depraved.

The fourth passage to consider is from Philo, a 1st century, Hellenistic Jew, like Paul.  In his Special Laws, Philo links excessive ‘desire’ (epithymia)—quantitative—to disordered sexuality—qualitative. He discusses not lust and its excesses alone (quantitative), but also and especially the type of sexual perversion (qualitative) illustrating wrongful desire.  Thus, one cannot make the sexual perversion acceptable by eliminating lust (too much desire).  One cannot, for example, say that adultery or bestiality can be acceptable if done in moderation or without lust any more than one can contend, as Brownson attempts to do, that homosexuality is only said to be wrong because it illustrates excessive lust without an awareness of orientation.  Philo goes through a list of sexual sins, discussing them as examples of transgressing God’s laws on sexuality in book 3 of Special Laws.  He expounds the commandment not to commit adultery under several headings of sexual immorality in general (not limiting it to adultery per se, cf. 3.8).  Philo primarily has in mind the discussion of particular types of sexual morality in Leviticus 18 here (though he includes Dt. 34.1ff).  Naturally, then, he discusses homosexuality, since it is mentioned in Lev. 18.22.  Note how Philo combines the idea of passion to crossing the boundary of what is natural (heterosexuality) and unnatural (homosexuality, illustrated by pederasty and adult homosexuality):

Special Laws 3:37-38 VII. Moreover, another evil, much greater than that which we have already mentioned, has made its way among and been let loose upon cities, namely, the love of boys, which formerly was accounted a great infamy even to be spoken of, but which sin is a subject of boasting not only to those who practice it, but even to those who suffer it, and who, being accustomed to bearing the affliction of being treated like women, waste away as to both their souls and bodies, not bearing about them a single spark of a manly character to be kindled into a flame, but having even the hair of their heads conspicuously curled and adorned, and having their faces smeared with vermilion, and paint, and things of that kind, and having their eyes pencilled beneath, and having their skins anointed with fragrant perfumes (for in such persons as these a sweet smell is a most seductive quality), and being well appointed in everything that tends to beauty or elegance, are not ashamed to devote their constant study and endeavors to the task of changing their manly character into an effeminate one.  38 And it is natural for those who obey the law to consider such persons worthy of death, since the law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption, not allowing him to live a single day, or even a single hour, as he is a disgrace to himself, and to his family, and to his country, and to the whole race of mankind.

Notice that Philo speaks of homosexuals wasting away in body and soul, losing the manly character fitting the male gender.  He is discussing sexual orientation in terms of gender dysphoria.  Similarly, Paul says, ‘men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error’ (Rom. 1.27).  Philo makes no distinction between the excess of passion (lust) and the transgression of natural boundaries (such as homosexuality): both illustrate breaking the commandment not to commit adultery, taken as a broad law against all sexual sins.

Clinching this point is the fact that Philo’s discussion of the 10th Commandment not to ‘covet’ does explore sins of ‘desire’ (epithymia, which may be translated as either ‘covetousness’ or’ desire’).  That is, his discussion of qualitative lusts like homosexuality or bestiality comes in his discussion of the commandment not to commit adultery, while his discussion of the quantitative sin of desire, coveting, comes in his discussion of the last of the Ten Commandments.  As with Paul’s discussion in Romans 7 of epithymia and the Law, Philo says,

So great and so excessive an evil is covetous desire; or rather, if I am to speak the plain truth concerning it, it is the source of all evils. For from what other source do all the thefts, and acts of rapine, and repudiation of debt, and all false accusations, and acts of insolence, and, moreover, all ravishments, and adulteries, and murders, and, in short, all mischiefs, whether private or public, or sacred or profane, take their rise?  85 For most truly may covetous desire be said to be the original passion which is at the bottom of all these mischiefs, of which love is one and the most significant offspring, which has not once but many times filled the whole world with indescribable evils … (Special Laws 4.84-85).


The argument that Paul has no concept of sexual orientation is simply wrong.  I believe it was initially put forward in the 1980s when Plato’s Symposium was unknown or ignored by an early revisionist author or two, and it has stuck in one form or another ever since.  In Brownson’s version, Jews and Christians did not know about orientation the way Greeks and Romans did.  (Note: there is far more evidence than Brownson notes for this point about orientation in antiquity, and this should have been explored in full in a book making this point its primary argument.)[2]  The point made here is that Paul knew about sexual orientation in the way Greek authors like Epictetus and Plutarch did.  Also, while he can argue as other Jews about a quantitative progression of sin (as Wisdom), he shares similar views about a qualitative transgression of the natural order argued by Philo.  The argument that Judaism and early Christianity (particularly Paul) were not aware of sexual orientation has seemed persuasive to some because, in part, the literature on nature and desire in antiquity that is so pertinent to Romans 1.24-28 is not engaged.  Indeed, like Philo, Paul is concerned in Romans with the workings of epithymia, desire (the subject of the 10th Commandment), and the human plight; but, also like Philo, Paul is concerned with the particular transgressions of the Creator’s world in sins like idolatry and homosexuality—qualitative, unnatural sins, not just the quantitative sin of excessive lust.  As with Plutarch, a Greek author coming not long after Paul (2nd c.), Paul explains that orientation—the governance of the soul—can become internally disordered when passion, unrestrained by reason, goes so far wrong that it even transgresses the borders of nature itself, resulting in a depraved mind (Romans 1.28) that God alone can restore (Romans 12.1-2).

Brownson is correct about one thing: attempts to distinguish orientation from behaviour, saying only the latter is sinful, are pastorally inappropriate and do not represent Paul.  Yet he resolves the matter in the wrong direction, by dismissing Paul as though he did not understand orientation as a concept, let alone homosexual orientation.  On the contrary, Paul shows a sophisticated understanding of orientation and similarities to other contemporary authors, both Greek and Jewish.  More importantly, Paul proclaimed a Gospel of transforming grace, that no matter the sinful orientation or how it was acquired—by the corruption of nature (Rom. 1.18-28), the failure to discern God’s natural law (Rom. 2.1-16), or the breaking of revealed law (Rom. 2.17-3.20)—God can, through Christ Jesus, bring redemption to sinners (Rom. 3.21-26), break the chains of sin (Rom. 6), and release us from sinful passion in a way the Law could never do (Rom. 7.7-25) by means of the empowering presence of His Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.1-17), such that we might no longer be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can once again discern God’s will (Rom. 12.1-2, undoing Rom. 1.28).  Romans is a letter about the restoration of righteous orientation to Spirit-led believers in Christ Jesus.

[1] James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).
[2] Cf. Rollin G.Grams, ‘Notions of Homosexual Orientation in Antiquity and the Christian Hope of Transforming Grace,’ Books at a Glance (July 20, 2016); online at: (accessed 22 November, 2016).