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Loving, Committed, Same-Sex Unions and Marriages in Antiquity: What Early Christians Knew When Calling Homosexuality Sin

Introduction

The argument that Paul and other early Christians would not have known about loving, committed, long-term homosexual relationships, unions, or even marriages is false.  A myth has developed in contemporary ‘scholarship’ about what antiquity understood on these matters, perpetuated by scholars who refuse to do the heavy lifting work of actual research in the primary sources rather than just quote one another.  It is as though the argument has been hermetically sealed by those pushing the revisionist agenda of same-sex unions: actual research would be highly inconvenient were it to reveal the myth.

The mistaken scholarship seems to have begun in the 1980s with Robin Scroggs, who argued that

… pederasty was the only model [for homosexuality] in existence in the world of [Paul’s] time.” And “at the risk of seeming endlessly repetitive, I close with the observation that Paul thinks of pederasty, and perhaps the more degraded forms of it, when he is attacking homosexuality.[1]

This led to the argument in the 1980s that Paul was not speaking about loving, mutual, committed, adult unions or marriages.  Within a decade, Scroggs’ claim about what ancient society knew of homosexuality—that pederasty was the only model—was overturned, but the argument that Paul could not have had loving, committed unions in view has persisted.  It was recently a major reason cited by Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales for his approval of same-sex unions.[2]  Various alternatives to Scroggs’ focus on pederasty emerged, such as that Paul was speaking of prostitution or temple prostitution or sexual lust (loose sexual practices or passions out of control), or something else.  One related assertion—that antiquity did not know about or understand sexual orientation[3] (which I have addressed elsewhere)—should be noted.[4]  Not only do such alternative interpretations of Paul fail to make sense of what he says, they also fail to investigate ancient literary sources adequately—or even to engage them at all.  The failure to interpret Paul in his literary context has led to interpretations that favour this or that contemporary conclusion a scholar wishes to purport, but they are typically lacking in scholarly research.

One line of enquiry not adequately researched in the literature is the one studied here: the presence of long-term, adult homosexual relationships in antiquity, even same-sex unions and marriages.  The quotations offered here are from literature that happened to capture some story gaining the attention of one writer or another in antiquity: we have no knowledge of how many such examples existed.  They are sufficient, however, to take the wind out of any argument that early Christians were not in a position to contemplate loving, long-term, committed same-sex unions in their cultural context or that they would not have been aware of same-sex marriages.  Quite the opposite.  What we find is that awareness of such relationships was likely at the same level of what the West is now considering—without the fanfare of a media to keep it in our faces on a daily basis.

What the Evidence Means

Before presenting the evidence, a few brief points about what the evidence means for today’s revisionist interpreters of the Church’s long-standing teaching on homosexuality might be noted.  First, the data demonstrates that antiquity knew of other ‘models’ (to use Scroggs’ term) of homosexuality in antiquity than pederasty for adult homosexual relationships.  This is so whether the long-term, adult homosexual union was loving or not.  Second, the data demonstrate that there were loving homosexual unions in antiquity.  Third, the data demonstrates that antiquity could speak of and knew of some homosexual marriages, whether loving or unloving.  Thus, the data shows that early Christian (and Jewish, for that matter) opposition to homosexuality in Gentile contexts would have been aware of same-sex unions and marriages.  They condemned the relationships all the same.  The argument against homosexual acts was against such acts whether as acts or in same-sex unions or marriages.

Failed Scholarship

All this means that the perpetuated myth that Paul could not have intended to decry homosexual marriage is a matter of failed scholarship.  (Other failures are not the subject of discussion here, such as adequate ministry training, commitment of clergy to orthodoxy, or incompetent denominational leadership.)  The truth is that Paul handled the question differently: in terms of natural unions as God intended for a male and female in marriage versus unnatural unions of any sort.  He did not base the legitimacy of marriage on love—Jesus’ insistence on no divorce pressed the early Church to consider marriage covenantally, not romantically—even if the marriage were to an unbeliever.  (To be sure, love was a goal in marriage (e.g., Eph. 5.20-31), but it was not the basis for marriage or divorce when things got rough.)  But that Paul could not have known of loving, committed, unnatural unions is a contention against concrete evidence.  (Readers should note that additional texts on love between homosexuals is also relevant but not discussed here as the focus is on adult homosexual unions.)

At least Robin Scroggs attempted to do primary source research—those were early days for revisionist interpreters, and we might perhaps forgive some failure on his part to collect adequate evidence at that time, but not today.[5]  Scroggs’ inclination as a New Testament scholar was to study primary sources, and he is to be commended in this even if his research was fatally inadequate.  Many scholars who have followed since, however, particularly theologians and ethicists as opposed to Biblical scholars, appear to lack the basic training in primary source research to earn the right to be heard on a matter of interpreting Scripture in its context (a prime example would be Jack Rogers’ Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality).[6]

However, even Biblical scholars at times have relinquished their training in primary source research to be sure that they are on the politically correct side of the argument (a prime example would be Victor Paul Furnish—a capable Biblical scholar who does no serious research on the subject but who has written on it as a supporter of the revisionist view).[7]  The result is that too many denominations in the West have been dealing with arguments about homosexuality based on inadequate and inept scholarship.  One of the key arguments for revisionists—that antiquity did not know loving, committed, homosexual relationships—is an example of failed scholarship.  Anyone making this argument should be required to state what actual primary source research he or she has done and then should be asked to engage the evidence presented here.

Long-term, Sometimes Loving, Adult Homosexual Unions or Marriages in Antiquity

Aristotle, Politics 2.96-97 [1274a].  Philolaus “was the friend and lover of Diocles, an Olympic victor who left Corinth in disgust at his mother Halcyone’s incestuous passion for himself, and he accompanied Diocles to Thebes, where they lived and died together.  Their tombs are still shown today: they stand in full view of one another, but one of them can be seen from the soil of Corinth, and the other cannot….”[8]

Xenophon (c. 430-354 BC), 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.[9]

Cicero, Philippics 2.44-45: You [Antonius—Mark Antony] assumed the manly gown, which you soon made a womanly one: at first a public prostitute, with a regular price for your wickedness, and that not a low one. But very soon Curio stepped in, who carried you off from your public trade, and, as if he had bestowed a matron’s robe upon you, settled you in a steady and durable wedlock.[10]

Suetonius, Nero 28: Having tried to turn the boy Sporus into a girl through castration, he [Emperor Nero] went through a wedding ceremony with him—dowry, bridal veil and all—which the whole Court attended; then brought him home and treated him as a wife.  He dresses Sporus in the fine clothes normally worn by an Empress and took him in his own litter not only to every Greek assize and fair, but actually through the streets of Images at Rome, kissing him amorously now and then….  29. Nero practiced every kind of obscenity, and after defiling almost every part of his body finally invented a novel game: he was released from a cage dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes. After working up sufficient excitement by this means, he was dispatched - shall we say? - by his freedman Doryphorus. Doryphorus now married him - just as he himself had married Sporus - and on the wedding night he imitated the screams and moans of a girl being deflowered. According to my informants he was convinced that nobody could remain chaste or pure in any part of his body, but that most people concealed their secret vices; hence, if anyone confessed to obscene practices, Nero forgave him all his other crimes.[11]

Martial, Epigrams 1.24: Decianus, you see that fellow there with the rough hair, whose beetling brow frightens even you, who talks of Curii and Camilli, freedom’s champions? Don’t believe his looks. He took a husband yesterday.[12]

Martial Epigrams 12.42: Bearded Callistratus married rugged Afer in the usual form in which a virgin marries a husband.  The torches shone in front, the wedding veil covered his face, and Thalassus, you did not lack your words.  Even the dowry was declared.  Are you still not satisfied, Rome?  Are you waiting for him to give birth?

Martial, Epigrams 12.95 [Warning against same-sex acts with boys leading to same-sex marriage]: Read, Istantius Rufus, the ultra-pathic little books of Mussetius, which vie with the little books of Sybaris [i.e., ‘how to’ books for same-sex intercourse], pages tinged with prurient wit [pederasty]. But have your girl with you, lest you make lustful hands sing your wedding song and become a husband without a woman.

Juvenal, Satire II, lines 117-140: Gracchus gave a dowry of four hundred thousand sesterces to a trumpeter—or maybe he performed on a horn that was straight. The marriage contract has been witnessed, felicitations offered, a huge company invited to the feast, and the new bride reclines in her husband’s lap. O nobles! Is it a censor or a soothsayer that we need? Would you be more horrified, would you think it more monstrous still, if a woman gave birth to a calf or a cow to a lamb? He’s wearing the bride’s flounces, long dress, and veil—the man who carried the sacred objects swaying from the mystic thong and who sweated under the weight of the sacred shields. O father of Rome, where has it come from, this appalling outrage that afflicts the shepherds of Latium? Where has it come from, this itch that taints your descendants, Gradivus? Look: a man illustrious in family and fortune is handed over in marriage to another man—and you’re not shaking your helmet, or striking the ground with your spear, or complaining to your father? Off with you, then—withdraw from the acres of the stern Campus which you don’t care about. “Tomorrow at sunrise I have a ceremony to attend in the valley of Quirinus.”  “What’s the occasion?” “Oh, just a friend of mine marrying a man, and he’s invited a few guests.” If we are allowed to live just a little longer, those marriages will take place, they’ll take place openly, they’ll even want to be reported in the news. Meanwhile, the fact that they can’t give birth and use their babies to hang on to their husbands is a huge torment which these brides cannot escape. But it’s better that nature grants their minds no power over their bodies: they die infertile, and swollen Lyde with her secret medicine box is no use to them, no more than holding out their palms to running Lupercus.  Yet even this outrage is surpassed by Gracchus, wearing a tunic and with a trident in his hand, who as a gladiator traversed the arena as he ran away, a man of nobler birth than the Capitolini and Marcelli, than the descendants of Catulus and Paulus, than the Fabii, than all the spectators in the front row, even if you include the very man who staged that net-throwing show..[13]
Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, III.14.171-172: But if likewise Mars [planet/god of war] or Venus [planet/god 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], 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.”[14]
Lucian, Vera Historia 1.22 [This fictional story describes a voyage to the moon where men marry men]: In the interval, while I was living on the moon, I observed some strange and wonderful things that I wish to speak of. In the first place there is the fact that they are not born of women but of men: they marry men and do not even know the word woman at all! Up to the age of twenty-five each is a wife, and thereafter a husband. They carry their children in the calf of the leg instead of the belly.[15]
Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans, 5.1-4: [In this passage, Megilla, a lesbian, lives as a male (short hair, with a wig in public to appear as a woman) and has Demonassa as her wife.]

Iamblichos, Babyloniaka (lost work, 2nd c. AD): [This novel depicted Berenike and Mesopotamia as a married, female couple.  We lack the original source.  As told by Photios (Bibliothēkē 94.77a-b), the text says that Berenike ‘came with’ (sunegineto) and ‘made marriage of’ someone named ‘Mesopotamia’.  One might question whether the evidence supports the interpretation that this was a lesbian marriage or merely that the two sponsored wedding festivities.]

Aelius Lampridius, Elagabalus 10.5: With this man [Zoticus,] Elagabalus [Elagabalus Antoninus, or Varus, a Roman emperor, early 3rd c.] went through a nuptial ceremony and consummated a marriage, even having a bridal-matron and exclaiming, "Go to work, Cook" — and this at a time when Zoticus was ill. 6 After that he would ask philosophers and even men of the greatest dignity whether they, in their youth, had ever experienced what he was experiencing, — all without the slightest shame. 7 For indeed he never refrained from filthy conversation and would make indecent signs with his fingers and would show no regard for decency even in public gatherings or in the hearing of the people.[16]

[Emperor Elagabalus insisted that courtiers also marry other men if they wanted advancement (Lamparidius 10-11).]

Plutarch, Moralia: Erotikos (Dialogue on Love) 761d: [Two men, Epaminondas and Caphisodoros were lovers and buried together as a married couple]: Epaminondas, in fact, loved two young men, Asopichus and Caphisodorus. The latter died with him at Mantineia and is buried close to him….[17]

Judaism and Early Christianity

We might add a few additional texts from Judaism and early Christianity to note the presence of loving, committed, homosexual unions and marriages in antiquity.

Sifra Ahare 9:8 [before AD 220; Commenting on Leviticus 18.3—the chapter that mentions male homosexuality—Lev. 18.22: The commentary understands Leviticus to speak of men marrying men and women marrying women.].

Genesis Rabbah 26.6 and Leviticus Rabbah 23.9: [both texts refer to marriage between males].

bHullin 92b [5th/6th c. AD]: [This text prohibit drawing up marriage contracts between males].

Theodotian Code 9.7.3 (16 December, 432): [Now in the Christian era of the Roman Empire, a law is passed forbidding a man marrying another man as though he were a woman]: When a man “marries” in the manner of a woman, a “woman” about to renounce men, what does he wish, when sex has lost its significance; when the crime is not profitable to know; when Venus is changed into another form; when love is sought and not found?  We order the statutes to arise, the laws to be armed with an avenging sword, that those infamous persons who are now, or who hereafter may be, guilty may be subjected to exquisite punishment.’[18]

[Theodotian Code 9.7.6 calls for burning to death men practicing homosexual sex.  6 August, 399.]

Conclusion

The evidence speaks for itself: antiquity at the time of Paul—well before and afterwards—knew examples of same-sex unions of adults that were committed and long-term and sometimes loving.  Claims by scholars doing inadequate research that antiquity knew no such thing are just that—claims without consideration of the evidence.  Thus, when Jews and Christians spoke against homosexuality in antiquity, it cannot be argued that they did so without awareness of loving, committed, same-sex unions or marriages.

For early Christians, the issue of homosexuality was not decided on the basis of whether relationships were loving, even if marriage ideally expressed love.  They were not legitimated on the basis of commitment, even if marriage meant commitment.  The understanding of sexuality and marriage was based on what Scripture said: marriage is the ‘one flesh’ union of a man and a woman.  Were someone to argue in the 1st century at a Christian church that homosexuality should be permitted if in a loving, committed marital union, the response would have first been that this was contrary to Scripture.  The debate over homosexuality in our day is not just about sexuality and marriage: it is ultimately about the authority of Scripture in the Church’s theology and practice and its use in pastoral teaching.

One can, of course, argue from the notion of ‘loving, committed unions’ for other things than homosexual marriage.  Certainly incestuous marriage could be affirmed on this basis.  One might make a case for open marriages—sex among friends—on this basis as well (unless some concern for marriage per se is added).  Be that as it may, the argument in favour of homosexual unions or marriages based on this criterion cannot appeal to the alleged irrelevance of Biblical texts on the grounds that the authors supposedly did not know of loving, committed homosexual unions and marriages in their day.  The evidence that these were present in antiquity is clear, and Paul, the preeminent traveller throughout the Roman Empire, would not have been unaware of this.




[1] Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1984), P. 139.  If it did not begin with him, he certainly was an early player misleading many at the time.
[2] See Barry Morgan, Presidential Address of the Archbishop of Wales to the Governing Body meeting at the University of Trinity Saint David, Lampeter, on 14 Sept 2016.  Online: http://www.anglican.ink/article/archbishop-wales-declares-scriptural-support-same-sex-marriage (accessed 15 September, 2016).  I have written a response to Morgan: Rollin G. Grams, ‘Issues Facing Missions Today 59: Exercises in Simple Logic: A Response to the Archbishop of Wales’ Defense of Same-Sex Relationships,’ www.bibleandmission.blogspot.com (15 September, 2016); online at http://bibleandmission.blogspot.com/2016/09/issues-facing-missions-today-55.html.
[3] E.g., Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (New York: Convergent Books, 2014).
[4] See Rollin G. Grams, ‘Christian Mission to the West: Sexual Orientation in Antiquity and Paul,’ bibleandmission.blogspot.com (21 November, 2016); online at http://bibleandmission.blogspot.com/2016/11/christian-mission-to-west-sexual.html.  Also see , 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), ch. 15 (“‘Soft Men and “Homosexuals” in 1 Corinthians 6:9’) and ch. 16 (‘Homosexual Orientation in Antiquity and in Paul’s Writings’).
[5] Scholars were well situated for primary source research in the 1980s, so there really is no excuse for failed research at the end of the day.  Yet doing primary source research in an era of electronic resources is far easier than then.
[6] Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006).  Search for serious primary source research in this work.  Without it, Rogers does not explode myths on the subject, he creates or perpetuates them.  A recent example of a theologian affirming the revisionist interpretation with claims of ‘what the Biblical texts say’ is Nicholas Wolterstorff.  His public lecture on the subject shows virtually no awareness of primary source scholarship, just dependence on other contemporary writers.  He seems to think that persuasion can be based more on the basis of his own authority as a theologian—indeed, one at a prestigious university—but as to scholarship, the lecture is woefully inadequate.  (Of course, university audiences these days, with their need for ‘safe spaces’ and cry-ins, tend to evaluate the persuasiveness of lectures on the basis of authorities saying the politically correct things and the emotional satisfaction they receive rather than the adequacy of proofs for a thesis.  Wolterstorff was, no doubt, persuasive to a number of persons in his audience.)  See: Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘All One Body.’ Online lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiD_Lfy2beo&feature=youtu.be (accessed: October 13, 2016).
[7] Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teachings of Paul: Selected Issues, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1985).
[8] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Ernest Barker, revised R. F. Stalley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
[9] Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, trans. E. C. Marchant, G. W. Bowersock (Loeb Classical Library 183; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.  The Lacedaimonians were a Spartan tribe and, according to Xenophon, opposed to pederasty.  Boeotia is in central Greece, and the Eleians were in northern Greece, i.e., Thessaly.  The marriage-like arrangement would have been a ‘committed’ relationship and perhaps ‘loving’, but later heterosexual marriage followed the arrangement.
[10] Cicero, Philippics (Fragments), trans. John T. Ramsey (Loeb Classical Library 507; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
[11] Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, trans. Robert Graves (Penguin, 1965).  One gets the sense from this text that Sporus was simply brutally abused but that Doryphorus was complicit.  Nevertheless, the point to take away is that antiquity discussed same-sex marriage, whether loving or not—and in this case, probably both.  The emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Galba, Hadrian, and Elagabalus (who also married his lover, see below) all had male lovers.
[12] Martial, Epigrams, trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
[13] Juvenal, Satires, trans. Susanna Morton Braund (Loeb Classical Library 91; Cambridge: Harvard university Press, 2004.
[14] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, trans. F. E. Robbins (Loeb Classical Library 435; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940).
[15] See Lucian, A True Story, The Works of Lucian, trans. A. M. Harmon (Loeb Classical Library 14; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913).
[16] Aelius Lampridius, Historia Augusta 17.  Elagabalus, trans. David Magie (Loeb Classical Library 140; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924.
[17] Plutarch, Moralia.  Dialogue on Love, trans. W. C. Helmbold (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961).  This whole section is about adult ,male, homosexual lovers.
[18] Clyde Pharr, The Theodosian Code and Novels, and the Sirmondian Constitutions (Union, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, 2001), p. 232.