This entry is part [part not set] of 20 in the series Homosexuality in the Bible

I often hear in recent discussion about the Bible and homosexuality: “Since homosexuality as a sexual category was unknown to Paul, he could not have critiqued it.” The

implication is that when Paul talks about same-sex activity in Romans 1 and elsewhere, he must have had something more specific, something more narrowly defined, in mind. For instance, perhaps he was prohibiting men having sex with boys (pederasty), or male prostitution, or perhaps we was prohibiting heterosexuals from having homosexual sex.

So is this correct? Was “homosexuality” unknown to Paul? And if so, is it inaccurate to make Paul’s speak to our modern category?

It is true that the modern categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality do not fit the ancient Roman worldview. We saw this to some extent in the previous post. However, there is evidence that some ancient Romans were exclusively interested in sexual partners of the same sex.

For instance, the Roman writer Suetonius says that Caesar Claudius “was possessed of an extravagant desire for women, having no experience with males whatsoever.” The fact that Suetonius feels the need to highlight this and even add (the seemingly superfluous statement) that he had no taste for men whatsoever (rare among the emperors), shows that he was a bit of an anomaly. Claudius was totally straight (a 1 on the Kinsey scale). However, another emperor Galba seems to have been into dudes way more (maybe even exclusively) than women. The emperor Hadrian, though married to a woman, also had a lover named Antonius who clearly garnered Hadrian’s affections much more than his wife. Pliny the elder refers to “men who hate intercourse with women.” Firmicus Maternus (4th Cent. AD, astrological writer) talks about men who are “lovers of boys” and who also show an aversion to having sex with women. And Martial writes about some men who only had experience with other men (11.58).

Now again, these men may never have received the charge of being “effeminate” or womanly. As long as they remained the active partner in the union, they would maintain their manly persona. And this is what Rome cared about most. However, I still think it would be accurate to say that if such a person lived today, having exclusive interest in the same sex, we would call them gay. And if the emperor Claudius lived today, we would call him “straight” and not just manly. Craig Williams, author of Roman Homosexuality, rightly says: “If they were alive today, men like this would no doubt be called, and would likely call themselves, straight or gay” (Kindle loc. 3889).

Moreover, some men not only had intercourse with other men (sometimes exclusively), but actually married other men.

Caesar Nero had at least two public wedding ceremonies to other men, and in one case he played the role of the bride: he even wore a veil and played the passive role in sexual intercourse. The same goes for the third century (A.D.) emperor Elagabalus, who was a bride to his husband. The Roman satirist Juvenal makes mention of other similar marriages among men (2.117-42), as does the author Martial (1.24; 12.42). Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, was never married and never praises women with erotic expression. According to historian Martti Nissinen, “A modern reader would easily identify…Plato’s own sexual orientation as predominantly homosexual” (Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 59).

I don’t think it’s accurate then to say that since homosexuality as a category didn’t exist back then, the NT writers could not have been critiquing it. True, they weren’t critiquing our 19th century concept, but they were—or, every well could have been—critiquing a parallel concept expressed in their own terms.

Shifting gears a bit, I’ve often heard people say that the ancients didn’t have any concept of inborn sexual orientation. That is, homosexual acts were simply what some people did and it wasn’t a believed to be an outflow of some sort of biological orientation. Or at least, the ancients weren’t aware that such orientation existed. The implication is this: If Paul only knew that sexual orientation is inborn, he would not have critiqued same sex acts. If Paul was alive today, he’d be okay with consensual, monogamous, Christ-centered gay marriage. Is this true?

We’ll see in the next post.

Series Navigation


  1. What about Sodom and Gomorrah? Homosexuality wasn’t something that just appeared, it was in the OT too. Paul was originally Saul, who was a pharisee. It’s unlikely that he didn’t know about homosexuality even if it wasn’t relevent at the time.

  2. There’s the question of familiarity with homosexuality and the question of familiarity with monogamous gay relationships. I suspect that these were very infrequent if not completely unknown in first century jewish/Christian culture. Peace.

  3. Thanks for dropping in and taking the time to read, brother! Now, to begin with your second line, I would say that monogamous gay relationships were unknown in the Christian/Jewish culture because same-sex erotic behavior was condemned in principle (not just because it was extra-marital). This seems to be the unanimous opinion from Lev 18 and 20, to Josephus, Philo, the New Testament, and the early Church. I’m still researching all of this and while some disagree (J. Boswell), the weight of evidence seems to support this IMHO.

    I’m curious, though, why monogamy is such an important point. Does the NT emphasize monogamy? I guess that’s a whole other discussion. It seems that the Bible is much more lenient on polygamy than on homoerotic behavior.

    Anyway, back to the point. I still think that the category of “monogamous gay relationships” was available to Paul. It wasn’t common, of course, but we’re talking about a hyper-sexual Roman culture. Heck, monogamous straight relationships were few and far between! But what we do have is parallels to a man being devoted to a male lover in a way that would classify him as gay (e.g. Hadrian and Antonius; Socrates and…what’s his name). I think to say that since Paul doesn’t mention marriage in Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6 he therefore may have allowed gay-sex within a monogamous marital relationship is a bit much to ask of Paul. Would we apply the same logic to a couple that is in an incestuous relationship? Mutual love between mother and daughter, mutual commitment, life-giving results, etc.? Just thinking out loud.

    I do agree, though, that there is a compelling ethical case to be made (even if I’m yet to be convinced) from the empirically positive outcome (life not death?) of “some” relationships you may have encountered.

  4. Ya, the “Rom 2:1 wipes out 1:25-27” argument has been made here and there over the last 30 years, but it’s been refuted more than it’s been embraced. Three quick thoughts:

    1) Just because Paul says “and you too are guilty because you judge the pagan” (2:1) doesn’t mean mean that the things the pagans were doing was okay in Paul’s book.

    2) What about all the other sins in 1:29-32? Are those not really a problem for Paul?

    3) The three-fold “exchange” in Rom 1:23ff links homosexual acts with idolatry, which is an outcome of God’s wrath (1:18).

    And many other counter arguments. In any case, there are many good arguments used to say that Paul didn’t have consensual, monogamous, same-sex love in mind in Rom 1. This isn’t one of those.

    It seems best to say that 1:24-32 talks about sins AND 2:1 talks about hypocrisy. Not either/or, but both and.