As the Anglican Church draws closer to General Synod and an impending vote on changing the marriage canon, it is startling that those on the conservative side of the debate have abandoned the Bible in their opposition to same-sex marriage. As three recent blog posts on The Living Church site have demonstrated, argument has now shifted to more theological and somewhat tendentious discussions about the nature of the church and the supposed sanctity of genealogy. (You can read responses to these articles here and here). It is somewhat perplexing that a debate that seemed originally to be rooted in certain Biblical passages has now—at least by its leaders—been shifted into the realm of theology, ignoring Biblical texts altogether.
However, for many people in the pews, the people with whom I have spoken on this topic across the country, there is a hunger for solid Biblical engagement with the texts that supposedly forbid same-sex relationships. In order to meet that hunger, this piece will briefly consider the classic texts that are used to oppose same-sex marriage.
We need to start our discussion of these texts where we start with any other interpretation of the Bible: with the differences between our context and the context in which the Bible was written. For instance, when we talk about the clear depictions of tax-collectors as sinners in the gospel accounts, we put that in its context. We describe the way that tax-collectors were collaborators with the occupying Roman forces, and how these taxes impoverished the people of Galilee and Judea. If we are doing responsible reading, we are careful to distinguish those tax collectors from the people today who work for Revenue Canada or the Internal Revenue Service in the United States. This attention to context and the difference between ancient and contemporary context is part of the task of interpretation.
How does this affect our discussion? First of all, in biblical times the idea of same-sex orientation would not have made any sense. The assumption was that men were attracted to women and vice versa. This was the natural order of things. The idea of having a sexual orientation towards people of the same gender was unknown because any notion of sexual orientation was unknown. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t homoerotic sex going on. Temple prostitution was a common place for that. In addition, in the Roman world, the world of Paul, the sexual abuse of boys, slaves and freedmen was widespread and accepted. Such pederasty and sexual use of slaves and freedmen was considered perfectly natural by most of Paul’s contemporaries. Does this context have any implications for interpreting our texts? We will see that it does below.
I also need need to point out that sex was often rooted in power in the ancient world. (Of course, this is true not just in the ancient world.) Sex was often used as a tool to demean and humiliate.
That humiliation is at the heart of some of the texts that have traditionally been appealed to in the debate over same-sex marriage. For instance, consider the story of Sodom, where the men of the city demand that Lot send his visitors outside, so that the townsmen could gang rape them (Genesis 19). These were not gay men, looking for a good time. They were men who were interested in humiliating and demeaning the strangers who had come to their town. And the fact that Lot offers up his virgin daughters to them suggests that he knew they weren’t looking for gay sex: they were looking for violent and abusive control. (Just as an aside, have you ever wondered why Lot’s despicable offer to send his daughters out to a bunch of gang rapists gets rather less air time than the issue of homosexuality in our discussions? Why isn’t this flagged more often as a deeply troublesome part of this story?)
In Judges 19 we have a similar story where the violence is heightened. When the men of the city demanded to sexually abuse a visiting Levite, the man’s concubine was pushed out the door to satisfy their violent demands. She is gang-raped all night long and dumped on the doorstep in the morning in an act of derision: if you come to our town, here is what will happen to your possessions. Clearly these were not men looking for other men to satisfy their sexual desire; they were men looking to engage in an act of violent humiliation. That story escalates into more and more violence, particularly against women. You can read the disturbing tale in Judges 19-21. Neither of these texts are about gay sex: they are both about using sex in violent and humiliating ways to assert power and control.
Interestingly enough, when later biblical passages talk about Sodom, they never mention homosexuality. Here is what Ezekiel says about Sodom: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezek 16.49). It is pretty hard to help the poor and needy if your attitude to strangers is a violent one.
In Jude 7 Sodom and Gomorrah are condemned for sexual immorality and going after other flesh–a good description of gang rape. In fact, the use of sarkos heteras in Jude 7 emphasizes that this is different flesh, not defined by sameness. Some suggest this may refer to the angelic flesh of the visitors, or to the fact that they were strangers. At any rate, homosexuality does not seem to be in the sights of Jude either.
There are two other Old Testament texts that have traditionally been used to argue against homosexuality: Leviticus 18.22 (“You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination”) and Leviticus 20:13 (“If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”). As we have noted above, there were power dynamics involved in sex in the ancient world. When a man and a woman engaged in sexual intercourse, the man was considered dominant, and the woman submissive. This was the “natural” order of things. For two equal men to engage in a sexual act meant that one would be submissive, and thereby “unnatural.”
Most scholars on both sides of the debate agree, however, that these texts in Leviticus refer to to cultic prostitution, and are therefore condemning the use of slaves and men by other men as temple prostitutes. This is such a far cry from a conversation about committed same-sex marriage, that it is clear these texts are not applicable in this discussion. In addition, the language of abomination is applied in other texts in Leviticus to those who do not distinguish between clean and unclean animals (e.g. Lev 20.25), a distinction that the church abandoned in New Testament times. It is difficult to insist that one thing is an abomination if another is not. It is no wonder that these texts are no longer appealed to on the conservative side of the conversation.
More common is an appeal to the New Testament texts, particularly Romans 1. We begin, however, with 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 and 1 Timothy 1.9-10. Essentially the issue is how to translate two Greek words: malakoi (in 1 Cor. 6.9) and arsenokoitai (in both passages). A cursory glance at various English translations will see that there is no universal agreement on the translation of these words, but that they are individually and sometimes together often translated with reference to homosexuality. The NRSV translation of these words in 1. Cor 6.9-10 can be representative for this discussion: “Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakoi), sodomites (arsenokoitai) … none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” While the translation of malakoi as “male prostitute” has some merit, the very use of the English word “sodomite” is deeply problematic. As we have seen, the story of Sodom does not refer to gay sex. By using the ill-conceived English term “sodomy” the translators end up stacking the translation against homosexuality.
However, it isn’t easy to say exactly how these terms should be translated. Malakoi carries with it a sense of someone who is soft, lazy, self-indulgent and given to decadent living. That much is pretty clear from any lectionary. Arsenokoitai seems to be a word coined by the apostle that brings together the unusual combination of the words for “male” (arsen) and “bed” (koitē). Since the same words appear in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18.22, it is possible that Paul simply put them together into a new compound word.
This, then, is a clear reference to some sort of homoerotic act. The question is, what kind? While scholars on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate agree that Leviticus is referring to cultic prostitution, it isn’t clear whether Paul is talking about cultic prostitution here. The historical context, however, and the combination of arsenokoitai with malakoi in the Corinthian reference, both suggest that Paul is talking about some form of pederasty, some form of sexual predation on pre-pubescent boys. The malakoi, the “soft ones” are likely the boys who were used for sexual pleasure by the arsenokoitai. So translating malakoi as “male prostitute” might have some merit, though not all of these boys were paid for their services. But if they are male prostitutes then this gives an even more disturbing overtone to the meaning of arsenokoitai. In 1 Timothy 1.10 arsenokoitai appears in a list between “fornicators” and “slave traders” (NRSV), or “whoremongers” and “men stealers” (RSV), suggesting that these are men who delight in unbridled sexuality and will even stoop to enslaving little boys into prostitution to fulfill their desires while also filling their pocketbooks.
While these verses clearly refer to sex between two men, the context of pederasty and prostitution bears no resemblance to our discussions of committed same-sex marriage.
But what about Romans 1.26 & 27? This is the New Testament text that the debate is currently focussed on because it appears to refer to sexual acts involving two women as well as sexual acts involving two men.
In Romans 1.18-31 Paul describes how the wrath of God is revealed against the injustice and ungodliness that is evident all around him. In this passage Paul assumes that anyone can see and has seen that idolatry and ingratitude to God will invariably descend into sexual debauchery, and an unrestrained ruthlessness and violence in everyday life. But where would Paul’s readers have seen such a clear and pervasive outworking of the wrath of God? Where would they see people whom God has “given up” to the excesses of insatiable sexuality, together with the kind of violent injustice that he here depicts? For those who received this letter, who lived at the heart of the Roman empire, it is evident that Paul’s language in these verses would most naturally be seen as referring to the decadent and sexually excessive lives of the Caesars, particularly Caligula and Nero.
Caligula (37-41CE), lived a life of violence and extravagance, not least in matters of sexuality. He not only engaged in incest and the rape of elite women, he also engaged in sexual escapades with various men, acting as both the passive and active partner. It is no surprise that Gaius [Caligula] was stabbed through the genitals when he was murdered. One wonders whether we can hear an echo of this gruesome story in Paul’s comments in Romans 1:27: “Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own person the due penalty for their error.”
When Caligula was succeeded by Claudius (41-54CE), things didn’t get much better, especially in terms of a rule of an extreme violence that did not leave exempt members of his own family. As we have seen from the story of Caligula, those who live by violence and deceit invariably breed a violence and deceit that rebounds upon themselves. Claudius was poisoned by his wife Agrippina, so that her son, Nero, could become emperor (54-69CE). Nero continued with a life of sexual violence and excess, raping both men and women and engaging in humiliating sexual predations on those around him.
In these verses Paul is condemning the sexual violence and excess that Nero and the other emperors engaged in, including the deliberate use of oral and anal sex to overturn the “natural order” of things and to deliberately demean someone.
It is important to remember in this discussion how differently sexual acts were viewed in the first century than they are today. For instance, oral sex and anal sex were considered “against nature” when they happened between people of equal status. To penetrate another person anally or to have someone else perform oral sex on you was to be in a position of superiority over that person. To flip it around, as it were, is to be submissive, either receiving an aggressive sexual penetration or performing the embarrassing act of oral sex. This was acceptable if it was a young boy or a woman or a slave on the submissive side of things. But when Nero committed such acts against other men who were free Roman citizens, then this was “against nature.”
So when Paul described men who “committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error,” people in Rome would not have thought of any kind of homosexual marriage, but of the kinds of unequal and oppressive sexual behaviour witnessed in pederasty, and the homoerotic excesses seen in the imperial household during their own time. Take a look at Nero’s court! Look at how he flaunts in public his sexual degradations! Look at this out of control sexual licentiousness!
But they didn’t have to look even that far. The exploitive sexuality of the imperial rulers was mirrored in the exploitive sexuality of the regular household, where the Paterfamilias, the master, had sexual rights over not only his wife, but also all of his slaves, both male and female. Moreover, when a dinner party was held, the slaves of the household were made sexually available for the dinner guests as part of their duties. It was also the case that masters often sexually used both their female and their male slaves; and occasionally their male slaves were made to dress like women, for the sexual enjoyment of their dinner guests. In short, this was a society where sexual abuse of boys and slaves of both genders was widespread and usual.
When Paul wrote in Romans 1.27 about men giving up natural relations with women, and committing shameless acts with men, this is what his hearers would have thought of. Nothing even remotely like a homosexual orientation or a committed same-sex relationship would have been in Paul’s mind.
And although many modern commentators have seen references to sex between two women in verse 26, a look at the church fathers reveals that they interpreted this verse to refer to acts between men and women,” particularly the idolatrous sexual practices of the goddess religions where women would engage in oral or anal sex with men in ways that were considered “against nature. Athaniasius in Contra Gentes and Chrysostom in his Homily on Romans both clearly thought that these verses referred to cultic prostitution and the sexual rites in festivals to pagan gods. It wasn’t until the late 4th century that this verse was first interpreted as referring to same-sex relations between women, and when that interpretation was introduced, it had to be argued for.
This verse is not only inapplicable to a covenantal same-sex marriage, it appears that Paul did not even intend for it to refer to women engaged in sexual acts with women, but rather in “unnatural” sexual acts with men.
If none of the traditional texts that are used to condemn same-sex marriage actually apply to same-sex attraction, or to same-sex marriage, then on what Biblical grounds can the church make a decision on this issue? For those on the conservative side who are no longer discussing these classic texts, there has been a shift first to the text of Genesis 1 and the creation of male and female in the image of God, and secondly to a broadly theological argument about marriage that seeks to root God’s salvific work among us in the institution of marriage. The latter argument has been superbly critiqued by Christopher Brittain here. The former argument will be addressed in a forthcoming post on this site.
In conclusion, let me say only this. As faithful Christians, who seek to ground our lives in the grand sweep of the Biblical story, any use of the text that fails to take the context of the Biblical texts into consideration is deeply suspect. Faithful reading always occurs in the context of the whole narrative, centred on Jesus. In a subsequent blog post, we will show how that grand narrative can help us move forward in the path of faithfulness.
For a more in depth discussion of Romans 1 and creation order in relation to gay marriage, see Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, chapter 9.
17 Responses to “What ever happened to the Bible in the Marriage Canon Debate? A Look at the Classic Texts”
Great stuff, Sylvia. It certainly answers those (liberals as well as conservatives) who assume that the acceptance of same-sex marriage can only be purchased with the abandonment of serious engagement with scripture. Thank you.
Thank you for yet another rehearsal.
I am a bit caught off guard by the suggestion that we just need to turn to the Bible and all will be well, as yet one more time a fresh run-through is set before us. This terrain has been plowed and plowed and barns are already filled to the brim with the harvest, including versions of your own, and those that persuasively argue against yours (NT Wright, R Hays, Robert Gagnon; and scores of progressives who believe the Bible has been correctly interpreted but is just wrong). So this isn’t something new that alters much of anything.
The suggestion is that you believe you have succeeded in segregating these texts onto a very narrow band-width of exotic and/or malevolent kinds of sexual conduct.
The broad band width of our present LGBT couples is not like unto any of this. So your argument. It is a familiar one.
Leaving aside the barns already saying otherwise. Leaving aside the long halakic reception history of Leviticus in Jewish circles, certainly including in their range people like Jesus, the Twelve, Paul and the synagogues where he preached, there is an obvious question: where is this broad band LGBT version in the same time period and context? Why such a stunning silence?
Why don’t Paul, Jesus, Israel differentiate it, when they then proceed to condemn the various specious versions you have argued are really in place? In short, why are there no voices that look like yours?
One ought to see these conducts condemned and set alongside them as illustrations the very good examples of same-sex relationships. The Jewish ideas of the day ought to be called out, where they exist, and be declared wrong. Acts 15 should not speak of rules for Gentiles that correspond exactly to injunctions laid done on sojourners in Leviticus 18-19: torah for the newly baptized. The condemnations we find there ought to be clarified as not having to do with LGBT faithful relationships. Why the silence?
It is also an odd idea, to my mind, that the Bible can be treated as if it has no reception history.
(Footnote: Ezekiel 16:49 is not the end of his reference to Sodom. There is Ezekiel 16:50 after it. The same word used there to’evah as is found for illicit sexual conduct in Leviticus.)
Well, the deliberations in the ACoC will soon be upon us. My hunch is that having aired all of this, not many minds will have changed. It is not an issue amenable to to that kind of resolution.
Grace and peace.
Rev Elizabeth Metcalfe
Here is an interesting stand alone interpretation of the Sodom text from a Jewish perspective. Care to comment?
This is a great article and describes very well the biblical and rabbinic tradition that I based my exegesis on. Thanks for the link.
Thanks for the engagement with this texts.
And, I write in a spirit (I hope) of respectful engagement.
However, I wonder, when reading this, if you’ve missed the broader point:
The etymology of particular genres of sins is helpful for bringing clarity for a historical reading of text, but at best there is no scholarly consensus on this. I think Robert Gagnon and Richard Hays – both established biblical scholars – would challenge your arguments in their own ways. To my knowledge, their work has not been overturned by anyone. I can refer you to their specific books and relevant sections if you have not read them.
The sum of your argument, as I understand it, is this: Whenever any kind of same-sex activity is mentioned in Scripture, it is condemned. However, this is inapplicable to what we are discussing when we are thinking about covenanted same-sex unions because they are not present in Scripture as we understand them. Further, all of the same-sex activity in Scripture is condemned because of additional factors (ex. it’s exploitative, abusive, etc.).
Am I understanding correctly?
If so, I will grant your point for the sake of argument. But still, do you really want to leave it at that? That everywhere any kind of same-sex activity is mentioned in Scripture, it’s explicitly condemned?
As a conservative, I don’t think anyone who has engaged deeply with Scripture is coming to their traditional convictions by reading the texts you suggested. They come into play, for sure, but not immediately. And I can only speak for myself, but I’ve stopped making scriptural arguments because those with whom I’ve engaged on them have said either that Scripture doesn’t matter or (as in the case at GS 2016) folks have asked me not to refer to Scripture. Even the official report This Holy Estate, which was tasked with finding whether same-sex marriage was “theologically possible” has been roundly critiqued for its engagement with Scripture, most of which amounted to saying that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about this subject as we understand it.
I think – even without resorting to theological or figural readings of Scripture – we can get a long way. Let me sketch this very briefly:
1. While Scripture, in its historical sense, does not refer to modern same-sex marriages because the human authors did not conceptualize it as we do, it consistently, throughout both Testaments, defines marriage as between men and women.
2. Furthermore, both the OT and NT treat sexual intercourse as something that is intended for the covenant of marriage, so that there are commands against adultery, and Jesus intensifies this by suggesting that adultery in one’s heart matters as well.
3. As you have argued, same-sex activity (along with other extramarital sexual activity) is consistently condemned throughout the OT and NT.
4. Just because every instance of same-sex activity in Scripture has additional issues that on their own call for condemnation (abuse, etc.) it does not logically follow that therefore same-sex activity (in any context) is permitted. To be fair, it also does not logically follow that it is not permitted, but given points 1-3 above, I think my case is clear.
But leaving all that aside for a moment, do we really want to say that Scripture says nothing about modern same-sex relationships? In the same way, I could follow the lines of your argument to make the case the viewing violent pornography is nowhere explicitly condemned in Scripture because it wasn’t conceptualized 2000 years ago in the same way that it does today.
At best, this is just an argument about the Bible’s silence.
Thank you for your comment, Cole, which I take in the Spirit of respectful interaction.
I have indeed read both Gagnon and Hays, whose work has been vigorously engaged and challenged by a number of scholars. In addition to my own book (Romans Disarmed, referred to above), I can recommend James V. Brownson “Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships” (Eerdmans, 2013) should you wish to apprise yourself of the ways in which the conversation has moved forward since both Gagnon’s and Hay’s writings.
While I can see why you interpreted my argument as being an argument from silence, I should point out that I indicate at the bottom of the post that there is another post in the works that will engage the whole of the Biblical narrative around the topic of marriage and a faithful Biblical response to this issue. I trust that when it is up on this site in a day or two it will answer some of your further concerns about what the Bible says about marriage and covenantal faithfulness (and will answer some of your points above). Thanks for responding.
It’s also worth noting (since Sylvia is too humble to admit it here) that Sylvia’s Ph.D was done under Tom Wright, and that Brian Walsh, the author of the previous post, worked closely with Tom on his methodological treatise The New Testament for the People of God. If anyone knows the work of Tom Wright, and is able to engage it critically, it’s these two.
Sadly, Sylvia has departed from the traditional reading of Scripture on this matter, which Tom Wright maintains.
I also would commend to your attention several other scholars. Dr. Bernadette Brooten and Dr. William Loader are two significant “progressive” Biblical scholars that have written on homosexuality in the Bible and the ancient world. Although both of these scholars are in favor of same-sex marriage, they have stated clearly in numerous writings, that the Bible prohibits all forms of homosexual behaviour, including monogamous marriage. They have repeatedly called other Biblical scholars who believe that the Bible can be interpreted to affirm monogamous homosexual behavior to account.
Moreover, historian Dr. Louis Crompton (also a self-identified “gay” man) in his book Homosexuality and Civilization, (Harvard University Press, 2003), has written:
“According to [one] interpretation, Paul’s words were not directed at ‘bona fide’ homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew or early Christian.”
In fact, numerous, what we might call “progressive” scholars (pro same-sex marriage) who have written some of the most important work on homosexuality, the Bible, and the ancient world, have shown us that from the perspective of the Bible, homosexual unions are prohibited.
Thank you Sylvia (and others),
I am familiar with the Wink critique, but simply find it wanting. I am familiar with Brownson’s work as well, and while I think looks at the same-sex debate from some interesting angles, I don’t see how it overturned or defeated the traditionalist perspective. Andrew Goddard’s review in Studies in Christian Ethics covers some of this: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0953946814555320a but what stood out to me was he assumption that when Paul (or others) were writing about homosexuality in Romans or else where they clearly had in mind x, y, or z. It may be the case that they were thinking of a particular version of cultic prostitution, etc. It may be the case they were not. This is disputable, and has been disputed.
To know the mind of an author – what they were thinking about when they wrote a given passage – certainly goes beyond the task of biblical studies into the realm of psychology, however. This complication is only compounded when we are separated by thousands of years, across cultures, scribal copyists, etc. It goes beyond what the text actually says, anyways.
I look forward to reading your coming work, and I know only so much can be said in a given post.
A brother in Christ,
Here are some responses to Gagnon’s book, including the famous Walter Wink critique.
Very interesting and good stuff.It delves more into the Roman practices of sex then a lot of other articles of this nature that I’ve read. Some of which, I know I would certainly call an ‘abomination’ myself.
It always mystifies me that the Ur-example of human partnering in Creation doesn’t receive more regard. The archetype in Genesis has God 1) acknowledging that it is not good for Adam to be alone; 2) creating a series of potential companions, successively rejected by Adam until the creation of Eve; 3) so what is the rationale for the Church to insist on telling human beings who is a suitable companion, when even G-d in our own mythology refuses to do so?
Marcella Corroeli Jager
I left Christianity as an institution years ago, yet it has not entirely left me. I was sculpted by it in my younger years and I still feel great affection and respect for it alongside my rejection of it as a representation or vessel for my spiritual life. In this context, as an outside/inside observer, I see many brilliant scholars, the likes of Sylvia and Brian and and others insist that the bible, deapite a very different historical and cultural context, somehow still has applicability today. Sure, there are universal principles shared with other ancient sacred texts that are indeed applicable and useful. But to rely on a closed historic and cultural text for permission to do things outside of that historic and cultural context makes not much sense. To articulate, as Sylvia and many others have, the context of the scriptures oft-used to condemn same-sex relations/marriage is imperative and yet, perhaps this is all just a waste of time? Squeezing permission or blessing for a very specific act out of a motely crew of culturally and historically specific documents that have never engaged or addressed this idea does seem a bit of a stretch. I feel as though this ancient set of texts has chained our spiritual selves to a time period that is not our own. If the universal principle of love, which binds humanists, christians, atheists, agnostics, muslims, hindus, zoroastrians, yezidis, jews etc. as one is this not the truth we should pay attention to? Everything else falls away. And we know this is true not only from these ancient texts but also from stories passed on, movies, literature from all cultures and the news of the day – all texts – and science – that love conquers all. That is all the proof you need.
Just a quick PS. You write:
“Paul did not even intend for it to refer to women engaged in sexual acts with women, but rather in “unnatural” sexual acts with men.”
If Paul is condemning “unatural sexual acts” in which women and men are the intended referents, and not women only, how does this come alongside your larger argument? Those who take this view still have to accept that “against nature” means a sexual activity that cannot lead to procreation. Women having such sex with men, if the correct interpretation, remains a form of sexual relating Paul argues that God has condemned.
How, then, would that not extend to similar sexual activity exclusively engaged in, as is the case in LGBT sexual activity, whether consensual or not?
I cannot follow the argument you are making at this point. Can you clarify?
(When I have read learned essays arguing for this interpretation, which is plausible to me, it is not the case that they come alongside modern LGBT advocacy. “Unnatural” sex is still at issue).
Just to clarify, in the ancient world “against nature” did not mean sexual activity that did not lead to procreation. Anal sex, which does not lead to procreation, was fine as long as the one being penetrated was inferior to the one doing the penetration. (So pederasty by men against boys was natural — and it did not lead to procreation). Similarly, as long as oral sex was being performed by the person who was inferior on the person who had higher status, it was also permissible. It was only “against nature” if the person of higher or equal status was performing oral sex on an inferior person. In the goddess temples, sexual acts were taking place between men and women that reversed the “natural” status between them. However, anal and oral sex were permitted between men and women as long as the woman was in the subordinate position. Procreation had nothing to do with any of this. This was, rather about status. I could go into more detail here, but would prefer not to have to spell out all the ways that men and women can engage in unusual sexual practices. I recommend that you take a look at Thomas K. Hubbard, ed. A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2015) if you want to gain some clarity in the distressing world of Greco-Roman sexuality.
I understand what you are saying but fail to see how it gives a green light to “unnatural acts” between “same status” homosexuals. It makes the opposite case. And yes, “unnatural acts” are non procreative, which does indeed distinguish them. They are sexual acts that bear no responsibility for the procreating and raising of children, “in the nature of the case.”
I agree that the primary point of reference for Paul in Romans 1:18-25 is his scriptures. It is for this reason, among others, that an immediate shift at v.26-27 to The Pagan Times and Nero’s leisure activities is and must remain pure speculation. As such, it cannot constrain our interpretation.
“So when Paul described X … people in Rome would have thought of Y: the kinds of unequal and oppressive sexual behaviour witnessed in pederasty, and the homoerotic excesses seen in the imperial household during their own time. Take a look at Nero’s court! Look at how he flaunts in public his sexual degradations! Look at this out of control sexual licentiousness!”
As you will know, others have rejected this as too narrow given the scriptural, cosmic and creational scope of v. 18-25. And of course, most fatally, nowhere does Paul tell us that this is his point reference. Paul speaks generically about men and women and not about status and Roman sexual eccentricities.
Here historicization shows itself to be, ironically, the cousin-once-removed of allegory: a reading requiring a secondary grid above or behind the text that then displaces “the way the words go” (akolouthia).
Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been placed first in his Letter Collection. Its scope distinguishes it. It is dubious, and another form of historicization, to argue he was writing to a specific group in Rome who would in turn need to line up, and then restrict his words in two verses, with lurid imperial conduct gone berserk. Nowhere else in the letter does Paul operate this way.
Your historical contextualization lacks form-critical and hermenutical control. That is because it finds what it is looking for by means of canvassing a cultural milieu rather than following Paul’s argument as such.