Back to Faithful to the Truth

Boswell on St Paul

Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, pp. 106-114
Footnotes omitted, Greek text transliterated.

Saint Paul, whose commitment to Jewish law had taken up most of his life, never suggested that there was any historical or legal reason to oppose homosexual behavior: if he did in fact object to it, it was purely on the basis of functional, contemporary moral standards.

There are three passages in the writings of Paul which have been supposed to deal with homosexual relations.  Two words in I
Corinthians 6:9 and one in I Timothy 1:10 have been taken at least since the early twentieth century to indicate that "homosexuals" will be excluded from the kingdom of heaven.

The first of the two, "malakos" (basically, "soft"), is an extremely common Greek word; it occurs elsewhere in the New Testament with the meaning "sick"  and in patristic writings with senses as varied as "liquid", "cowardly", "refined", "weak willed", "delicate", "gentle", and "debauched".  In a specifically moral context it very frequently means "licentious", "loose", or "wanting in self-control".  At a broad level, it might be translated as either "unrestrained" or "wanton", but to assume that either of these concepts necessarily applies to gay people is wholly gratuitous.  The word is never used in Greek to designate gay people as a group or even in reference to homosexual acts generically, and it often occurs in writings contemporary with the Pauline epistles in reference to heterosexual persons or activity.

What is more to the point, the unanimous tradition of the church through the Reformation, and of Catholicism until well into the
twentieth century, has been that this word applied to masturbation. This was the interpretation not only of native Greek speakers in the early Middle Ages  but of the very theologians who most contributed to the stigmatization of homosexuality.  No new textual data effected the twentieth-century change in translation of this word: only a shift in popular morality.  Since few people any longer regard masturbation as the sort of activity which would preclude entrance to heaven, the condemnation has simply been ransferred to a group still so widely despised that their exclusion does not trouble translators or theologians.

The second word, "arsenokoitai", is quite rare, and its application to homosexuality in particular is more understandable.  The best evidence, however, suggests very strongly that it did not connote homosexuality to Paul or his contemporaries but meant "male prostitute" until well into the fourth century, after which it became confused with a variety of words for disapproved sexual activity and was often equated with homosexuality.

The remaining passage, Romans 1:26-27, does not suffer from mistranslation, although little attention has been paid to the ramifications of its wording: "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:  And likewise, also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet" (KJV).

It is sometimes argued that the significance of the passage lies in its connection with idolatry: i.e., that Paul censures the sexual behavior of the Romans because he associates such behavior with orgiastic pagan rites in honor of false gods.  This might seem to be suggested by the Old Testament condemnations of temple prostitution.  Paul may have been familiar with temple prostitution, both homosexual and heterosexual, and it is reasonable to conjecture that he is here warning the Romans against the immorality of the kadeshim.  The fact that the overall structure of the chapter juxtaposes the sexual activities in question with the superstitious beliefs of the Romans adds further credence to this theory, as do possible Old Testament echoes.

Under closer examination, however, this argument proves to be inadequate.  First of all, there is no reason to believe that
homosexual temple prostitution was more prevalent than heterosexual or that Paul, had he been addressing himself to such
practices, would have limited his comments to the former.  Second, it is clear that the sexual behavior itself is objectionable to Paul, not merely its associations. Third, and possibly most important, Paul is not describing cold-blooded, dispassionate acts performed in the interest of ritual or ceremony: he states very clearly that the parties involved "burned in their lust one toward another" ([Greek text omitted]).  It is unreasonable to infer from the passage that there was any motive for the behavior other than sexual desire.

On the other hand, it should be recognized that the point of the passage is not to stigmatize sexual behavior of any sort but to
condemn the Gentiles for their general infidelity.  There was a time, Paul implies, when monotheism was offered to or known by the Romans, but they rejected it (vv. 19-23).  The reference to homosexuality is simply a mundane analogy to this theological sin; it is patently not the crux of this argument.  Once the point has been made, the subject of homosexuality is quickly dropped and the major argument resumed (vv.  28ff.).

What is even more important, the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons.  The whole point of Romans I in fact, is to stigmatize persons who have rejected their calling, gotten off the true path they were once on.  It would completely undermine the thrust of the argument if the persons in question were not "naturally" inclined to the opposite sex in the same way they were "naturally" inclined to monotheism.  What caused the Romans to sin was not that they lacked what Paul considered proper inclinations but that they had them: they held the truth, but "in unrighteousness" (v. 18), because "they did not see fit to retain Him in their knowledge" (v. 28).

This aspect of the verses, overlooked by modern scholarship, did not escape the attention of early Christian writers.  Noting that Paul carefully characterized the persons in question as having abandoned the "natural use", Saint John Chrysostom commented that Paul thus: " deprives them of any excuse, . . . observing of their women that they "did change the natural use".  No one can claim, he points out, that she came to this because she was precluded from lawful intercourse or that because she was unable to satisfy her desire she fell into this monstrous depravity.  Only those possessing something can change it ....

Again, he points out the same thing about the men, in a different way, saying they "left the natural use of the woman".  Likewise he casts aside with these words every excuse, charging that they not only had [legitimate] enjoyment and abandoned it, going after a different one, but that spurning the natural they pursued the unnatural.

Although the idea that homosexuality represented a congenital physical characteristic was widespread in the Hellenistic world--and undoubtedly well known to Chrysostom--it is not clear that Paul distinguished in his thoughts or writings between gay persons (in the sense of permanent sexual preference) and heterosexuals who simply engaged in periodic homosexual behavior.  It is in fact unlikely that many Jews of his day recognized such a distinction, but it is quite apparent that--whether or not he was aware of their existence--Paul did not discuss gay persons but only homosexual acts comitted by heterosexual persons.

There is, however, no clear condemnation of homosexual acts in the verses in question.  The expression "against nature" is the standard English equivalent of Paul's Greek phrase "para physin" which was first used in this context by Plato.  Its original sense has been almost wholly obscured by 2,000 years of repetition in stock phrases and by the accretion of associations inculcated by social taboos, patristic and Reformation theology, Freudian psychology, and personal misgivings.

The concept of "natural law" was not fully developed until more than a millennium after Paul's death, and it is anachronistic to read it into his words.  For Paul, "nature" was not a question of universal law or truth but, rather, a matter of the character of some person or group of persons, a character which was largely ethnic and entirely human: Jews are Jews "by nature", just as Gentiles are Gentiles "by nature". "Nature" is not a moral force for Paul: men may be evil or good "by nature", depending on their own disposition.  A possessive is always understood with "nature" in Pauline writings: it is not "nature" in the abstract but someone's "nature", the Jews' "nature" or the Gentiles' "nature" or even the pagan gods' "nature" ("When ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature [i.e., by _their_ nature] are no gods", Gal. 4:8, KJV).

"Nature" in Romans I :26, then, should be understood as the personal nature of the pagans in question.  This is made even clearer by the strikingly similar passage in the Testament of Japhtali, a roughly contemporary document whose comment on this subject was obviously influenced by (if not an influence on) Paul's remarks.  "The Gentiles, deceived and having abandoned the Lord, changed their order.... [Be ye not therefore] like Sodom, which changed the order of its nature. Likewise also the Watchers changed the order of their nature . . . (3.3.4-5).

"Against" is, moreover, a somewhat misleading translation of the preposition "para".  In New Testament usage "para" connotes not "in opposi- tion to" (expressed by "kata")  but, rather, "more than", "in excess of"; immediately before the passage in question, for example, what the King James renders as "more than" (the creator) is the same preposition. Finally, this exact same phrase "para physin" is used later in the same epistle to describe the activity of God in saving the Gentiles: "For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature [para physin] into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?" (Rom. I l :24, KJV).  Since God himself is here described as acting "against nature", it is inconceivable that this phrase necessarily connotes moral turpitude.  Rather, it signifies behavior which is unexpected, unusual, or different from what would occur in the normal order of things: "beyond nature", perhaps, but not "immoral".  There is no implication of the contravening of "natural law" in Paul's use of this phrase, and for Christians familiar with all of the books which now comprise the New Testament the phrase may have had no negative implications at all; in 2 Peter 2 :12, for example, a similar passage employs "natural" as a term of derogation.

Paul believed that the Gentiles knew of the truth of God but rejected it and likewise rejected their true "nature" as regarded their sexual appetites, going beyond what was "natural" for them and what was approved for the Jews.  It cannot be inferred from this that Paul considered mere homoerotic attraction or practice morally reprehensible, since the passage strongly implies that he was not discussing persons who were by inclination gay and since he carefully observed, in regard to both the women and the men, that they changed or abandoned the "natural use" to engage in homosexual activities.

In sum, there is only one place in the writings which eventually became the Christian Bible where homosexual relations per se are clearly prohibited--Leviticus--and the context in which this prohibition occurred rendered it inapplicable to the Christian community, at least as moral law.  It is almost never cited as grounds for objection to homosexual acts (except allegorically; see chap 6). The notion that Genesis 19--the account of Sodom's destruction--condemned homosexual relations was the result of myths popularized during the early centuries of the Christian era but not universally accepted until much later and only erratically invoked in discussions of the morality of gay sexuality.  Many patristic authors concluded that the point of the story was to condemn inhospitality to strangers; others understood it to condemn rape; most interpreted it in broadly allegorical terms, only tangentially related to sexuality.  There was no word in classical Hebrew or Greek for "homosexual", and there is no evidence, linguistic or historical, to suggest that either the kadeshim of the Old Testament or the arsenokotai of the New were gay people or particularly given to homosexual practices.  On the contrary, it is clear that these words merely designated types of prostitutes: in the case of the former, those associated with pagan temples; in that of the latter, active (as opposed to passive) male prostitutes servicing either sex.

Romans I did not condemn homosexual behavior as "against nature" in the sense of the violation of "natural law".  No clear idea of "natural law" existed in Paul's time or for many centuries thereafter. To Paul, the activities in question were beyond nature in the sense of "extraordinary, peculiar", as was the salvation of the Gentiles, described with the same phrase.  Moreover, the persons referred to were considered by influential early Christian theologians to have been necessarily heterosexual (i.e., "naturally" attracted to the opposite sex).  There was no implication in the passage that homosexual acts, much less homosexual persons, were necessarily sinful.

 Back to top
Hosted by