What can ancient porn discovered in Pompeii tell us about the context behind some of the passages of Scripture used to argue against the normalization of same-sex relationships?
This is the question raised and explored in an article by Carol Kuruvilla, titled “Could this ancient porn change the way we think about Christianity and homosexuality?” In the article, Kuruvilla and her sources discuss an archaeological in Pompeii and what it reveals about sex in the Roman world, and how that might have influenced the Apostle Paul in the three epistles attributed to him that mention homosexuality.
The Christian Scriptures reference same-sex relations three times. The first is in Romans 1:18-32, where Paul talks about the rebellion of humanity and the evil things people have done. In his list of behaviors he includes not only male-on-male homosexuality, but lesbianism too, making this the only place in the entire Bible where female homosexuality gets a mention.
Paul mentions male-on-male sex again in his first letter to the Corinthian church, where it again is listed among a pretty comprehensive list of the ways in which people take advantage of, mistreat and abuse one another. It gets its final reference in 1 Timothy 1:9-10, where the writer expresses a belief that the Torah was given to rein in lawbreakers, patricides, slave-traders — and homosexuals.
With company like that, it’s no wonder my friend Steve the Elder and other Christians interpret these passages in such strident terms. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in their right mind would try to defend someone like John Wayne Gacy by saying that Gacy hadn’t been like other serial killers, but had loved and valued his victims or, as we should call them, “partners.” Why then, one might ask, should we view homosexuality more kindly than its neighbors on that list? A plain reading is clear that same-sex relations are depraved.
Of course, one of the challenges of reading any text, but especially an ancient text from another culture, is that we need to make a deliberate effort to understand the context that the MS comes to us from—the history, the literature, the society, the culture and the religious scene. The “plain reading” of the text often misses important points that can shape our understanding of the reading, especially in translation.
I’ve known women who wear head coverings because the plain reading of Paul’s letter says they should as a sign of modesty. Conversely, a plain reading of Genesis also says that a head covering is how you can tell a woman is a prostitute.
Let’s enhance our plain reading by looking at the passage more closely. In Romans 1:18-32 Paul specifically refers to the wickedness of humanity, and then goes through a laundry list of human behavior that illustrates the wickedness he’s talking about. Items on that list consistently involve mistreating or abusing others: envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, gossip, slander, hating God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, being an “inventor of evil,” disobeying parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness and ruthlessness.
Every one of those behaviors involves a fundamental disregard for the well-being of others. It’s clear that the issue not gay identity or even same-sex relations as our society undertsands and practices those concepts. It’s cruelty. A man who rapes another man in prison (or in the city commons, in the case of Sodom) as a crude exercise in power and domination, belongs in the same category as the other people included in Paul’s lists. Two men (or two women, for that matter) who love one another; support one another; face life’s hurdles and disappointments together; and share one another’s triumphs, joys and sorrows do not. Their behaviors are not the same.
In both those situations, there is some sort of same-sex sexual activity going on, but morally they’re not even in the same universe. If they’re translated the same way, an important and nonsubtle difference has been lost.
The takeaway from Kuruvilla’s article and from research generaelly into Roman culture is that sex often was not about love and commitment, but about power. A Roman man could penetrate a non-Roman, a slave and often underlings. Such actions typically were brutal, nonromantic and would not pass the muster for today’s standards of consent.
Understanding the practices and customs of the Greco-Roman culture helps us to understand that broader context where Paul’s letters are concerned. Given that context, it’s plain to see why he would include male-on-male sexual acts with crimes like murder, patricide, and sowing discord and strife. If male-on-male sex is nonconsensual violent rape, if it involves the coercion of a child by a mentor, if it involves purchasing a slave for the express purpose of sexual exploitatiom,who wouldn’t be repulsed by it?
That’s a long, long way from same-sex relationships by two men in love with one another, or by two women coming together. Abusive relationships do occur in the gay and lesbian communities, but as far as I’m aware they’re no more normative than they are within the heterosexual community. Long story short: The root issue in Christ is how we treat one another, rather than whom people have sex with and how they have it. If someone is gay, trans or identifies somewhere else on the spectrum, it shouldn’t be considered an issue, and we should respect their dignity.
Now you might say I’m wrong, and I’ll concede the possibility. But to be honest, I’d rather err on the side of affirming the dignity of other people and the value of their relationships, because that’s what I see Christ doing time and time again in the gospels.
As it says in the book of Deuteronomy, “Justice, and only justice you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” Justice is our highest calling, and it’s what we need to ensure for the gay community.