Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Does Romans 1 allow "homogenital" sex?

The Journal of Biblical Literature is one of the leading journals in the field of biblical studies. In a recent issue, Jeramy Townsley analyzes Romans 1:23-28, arguing that “several lines of research converge to allow an interpretation that rejects the assumption that Paul here condemns “gays” and “lesbians” (Townsley, Jeramy. “Paul, the Goddess Religions, and Queer Sects: Romans 1:23-28.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 130, n.4, (2011): 708).

The “Several lines of research” to which Townsley refers are the following:

First, Townsley argues that it is dubious that first century people thought in terms of gay or lesbian identities.

Second, Romans 1:26 does not refer to “female homogenitality” (i.e. sex between women).

Third, Romans 1:26-27 refers to actions, not “identity” or sexual orientation.

Fourth, the unnatural behavior which Paul discusses refers to “non-procreative sex (or perhaps an inversion of patriarchal gender norms).”

Fifth, the usual interpretation of this passage makes the passage incongruous.

Sixth, Paul’s “era witnessed the wide growth of goddess sects whose cross-gender and sexual practices violated patriarchal norms” and this is what Paul was referring to in Romans 1.

Townsley says that this last line of evidence is the core of his article and supports his “first five pieces of evidence” (708-709).

Townsley’s first and third “pieces of evidence” are not evidence at all.  They are merely asserted, not argued, and have little relevance to Townsley thesis (In fact, they are points on which I agree)!

Townsley’s second and fourth “pieces of evidence” are actually part of the same argument. Townsley goes to great lengths trying to show that Paul was not condemning lesbian sex in Romans 1:26b (“For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature”). Townsley says that what was really being condemned is heterosexual sex that does not lead in procreation (for example, men having anal or oral sex with women). Townsley says it is necessary to “problematize the ‘lesbian identity of the subjects in 26b” in order to understand that Paul is continuing his attack on idolatry.

It is difficult to understand why Townsley thinks an understanding Romans 1:26 as a reference to lesbian behavior jeopardizes the view that Paul is continuing his attack on idolatry, nevertheless, Townsley frames the argument saying, “Not until John Chrysostom (ca. 400 C.E.) does anyone (mis)interpret Romans 1:26 as referring to relations between women. Early commentators interpreted this passage as a reference not to female homogenitality but to nonproductive heterosexual acts” (710-711). In the last paragraph of the article Townsley writes, “at least six sources from the early church imply or state that v. 26b is a reference to heterogenitality…” (728).

Townsley’s first source is Clement of Alexandria who writes that “we should reject sex between men, sex with the infertile, anal sex with women, and sex with the androgynous.” Townsley’s conclusion from this passage is that the issue for Clement was the wasting of sperm and that sex between women was not the issue. While the spilling of sperm for non-procreative reasons was certainly an issue for Clement, this church father simply does not tell us how he interpreted “their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.”

For a second source, Townsley says, “Bernatette J. Brooten quotes an early Christian commentator, Anastasios, who, in a marginal note on the above passage, dismisses the view that Paul was describing female homogenital acts, specifying that women were not going to each other, but ‘offer themselves to men” (712). I must admit that I was not familiar with Anastasios so consulted some reference sources. I didn't find anything. For example, the massive 1,786 page Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church lists no one named Anastasios and only three named named Anastasius. Those three lived lived in the sixth, eighth and ninth centuries, long after the time of Chrysostom.

The second century Apocalypse of Peter is the third source Townsley uses to demonstrate that Romans 1:26 is a reference to heterosexual sex. Townsley writes, “the text specifies men with men, and some kind of relationship between men and women, but absent is any clear reference to relationships between men and women” (emphasis mine). 

In other words, Townsley himself acknowledges that the Apocalypse of Peter does not interpret Romans 1:26 as a reference to heterosexual sex. But remember that Townsley said that “at least six sources from the early church imply or state that v. 26b is a reference to heterogenitality…” (728). The Apocalypse of Peter was one of those sources.

The fact is that the Apocalypse of Peter says nothing about how the writer interpreted Romans 1:26. In fact, the Greek text of the Apocalypse of Peter (as opposed to the Ethiopic text which Townsley cites) discusses the eternal torture of women "who behaved with one another as men with a woman” (Schneemelcheer, Wilhelm, ed. New Testament Apocrypha  vol. 2, 631; emphasis mine). 

In a footnote Townsley simply dismisses the Greek version arguing that the Ethiopic text is original (712 n.15). Whether the Ethiopic text is the original or not (the issue is disputed), the Ethiopic text simply does not support Townsley’s contention and the Greek text clearly contradicts Townsley’s interpretation.

Townsley’s fourth Source is Augustine who writes:

“But if one has relations even with one’s wife in a part of the body which was not made for begetting children, such relations are against nature and indecent. In fact, the same apostle said the same thing about women, For their women exchanged natural relations for those which are against nature” (712; emphasis his).

In the passage by Augustine under consideration (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 35 [XX]), Augustine clearly regards any kind of sex to be sinful if it is “not meant for generative purposes.” This is true, Augustine says, whether a man has anal sex with his wife, or whether women are exchanging “natural relations for those which are against nature.” Augustine seems to be contrasting sex between a man and his wife with sex between women. In other words, Augustine actually seems to contradict Townsley’s interpretation of Romans 1:26.

Townsley’s fifth source is from Didymus the Blind (AD 309-398) who comments on Romans 1:26-27 saying that “Men, having intemperate desires for other men, working disgrace; and their females left the natural use of females for that which is unnatural and pathological; and women had whorish desires for women” (713, emphasis mine).

Since this quote clearly contradicts Townsley’s assertion that no one before Chrysostom interpreted Romans 1:26 as lesbian sex (and, therefore, one has to wonder why he included it as part of his six sources) Townsley tries to explain it away by asking why Didymus “would add the clarifying note that ‘women had whorish desires for women,’ if this was already implied in the previous clause, i.e. that “their females let the natural use of females” (The obvious answer, of course, is that Didymus felt the previous sentence needed clarification).

Townsley’s answer is to speculate that in the fourth century there must have been a “controversy regarding Paul’s intent and that Didymus added what he felt Paul had mistakenly failed to include in his original condemnation of deviant sex” (713). 

Whether Didymus misunderstood Paul is entirely beside the point. The point is that in Didymus we have someone writing prior to Chrysostom who interpreted (Townsley would say, misinterpreted) Romans 1:26 as a reference to lesbian sex.

As a sixth source, Townsley notes that “Ambrosiaster is cited as an early source documenting Romans 1:26b as clearly referring to female homogenitality” (713). Townsley argues, however, that this is only true in the two later recensions of Ambrisiaster. In another place, however, Ambrosiaster also wrote, “Paul tells us that these things came about, that a woman should lust after another woman, because God was angry at the human race because of its idolatry” (Ancient Commentary on Scripture. Vol VI Romans. 46). It seems clear that Ambrosiaster, contrary to Townsley, understood Paul as condemning lesbian sex.

Finally, Townsley was apparently unaware that as early as Tertullian (AD 160-220), Romans 1:26 has been read as a reference to lesbian sex. Specifically mentioning Romans, Tertullian writes, “Yes, and also in the first chapter of the epistle he authenticates nature, when he asserts that males and females changed among themselves the natural use of the creature into that which is unnatural” (Tertullian. De Corona. Ch. 6; emphasis mine).

The fact is that Townsley’s assertion that no one before Chrysostom interpreted Romans 1:26 as lesbian sex is factually wrong as is his statement that “at least six sources from the early church imply or state that v. 26b is a reference to heterogenitality…” (628). Unfortunately for Townsley, no one before Chrysostom interprets Romans 1 the way Townsley does (in fact, I suspect that no scholar or church father has ever interpreted Romans 1 the way Townsley does until very recently when interpreters with ulterior agendas have come along).

Townsley’s fifth “piece of evidence is that the usual interpretation of this passage makes the passage incongruous.

The first major section of Townsley’s article (Roman numeral I) is entitled, “Romans 1:23-28—Gays or Idolaters?” In this section, Townsley emphasizes how the structure of Romans 1:23-28 centers around the three parallels of “exchanged” and “God ‘surrendered’ them” (or “gave them up”). The first and second parallels specifically address the idolatry that was so common in the first century: “In each passage, the people actively exchange something holy and true to worship that which is not YHWH, and God surrenders them to eroticisms” (709).

Townsley argues, however, that the third parallel does not fit the pattern. In the third parallel, women exchange natural relations for relations that are against nature. Townsley argues that “that the entire passage is about idolatry, with the third parallel referring to sacred sex, a common practice of certain sects in the first century” (710).

Townsley is surely right about the passage being about idolatry (which is certainly what Paul would have considered “sacred sex” to be), but he seems to assume that the passage cannot be simultaneously about idolatry and about sin in general. Townsley seems to ignore the fact that Paul is saying that because of idolatry, God gave people up to do “what ought not to be done” (1:28) which includes not only the homosexual behaviors described in Romans 1:26-27, but also the list of sins in Romans 1:28-32. Townsley seems to be problematizing something which is simply not a problem.

In another place, Townsley asks, “If one assumes that 1:26b is a reference to female homogenitality, the question persists why Paul would bother to mention it, and especially preceding male sex, when female sex is rarely mentioned in ancient literature and not at all in the OT.” 

Ignoring the obvious answer that Paul considered lesbian sex to be a problem in the culture to which he ministered, Townsley writes, “If this passage about sexual deviance is targeting idol worship rather than sex itself, it would not be anomalous” (716).

But again, Townsley has problematized something that is not a problem. Everyone agrees that Paul is discussing idolatry in Romans 1. Paul’s point is that “the wrath of God is revealed…against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” who “suppress the truth” and do not honor or give thanks to God, but rather exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images” of men and beasts. So in his wrath, God gave them up to do what they wanted—to commit “shameless acts,” men having sex with men, women having sex with women, and “committing all manner of unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18-32). 

The fact is that there is nothing in this passage that limits this idolatry to the confines of pagan temples, or that implies that the “shameful” and “unrighteous” acts described are somehow acceptable if not done as part of idolatrous worship!

In the sixth “line of evidence” Townsley says that “Paul would have been familiar with the goddess religions…” (727). Townsley said this would be the core of his article (708) and sure enough, roughly half of the article was spent making this point. 

Even if Townsley had written a 500 page scholarly book proving this point, however, two things would continue to be true: First, no one disputes that Paul would have been familiar with goddess religions; and second, all the scholarly background on goddess religions in the world wouldn’t determine whether or not Paul approved of homosexual behavior. 

In other words, roughly half of the article is largely irrelevant to the point Townsley is trying to prove. Excuse my cynicism, but this appears to be an attempt to overwhelm the casual reader with scholarly background in an attempt to make the reader think that the author has proven his point. It is smoke and mirrors.

The fact is that Paul could hardly have been clearer. In Romans 1:26a he writes, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” Paul then gives two examples of “dishonorable passions.” The first is that “women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature” (Romans 1:26b) and the second is that “the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men....” (Romans 1:27).

The second part (Romans 1:27) about men having sex with men is so clear even Townsley acknowledges that the verse is about sex between men. The word "likewise” or “in the same way” indicates a parallel. While acts “against nature” may include such things as anal sex in general (see Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, 35 [XX]) and pederasty in particular (Philo, Spec. 3.37-39), the comparison in 1:26-27 is clear that Paul has in mind men having sex with men, and women having sex with women. Whether part or all of the reason for this is lack of procreative possibility, as Townsley contends, is really beside the point which is that Paul clearly condemned homosexual sex whether between males or between females.

Townsley tries to escape the force of this argument by arguing that even though 1:27 is about two men, the word "likewise" "does not lead to the conclusion that the clause preceding it involves two women, only that both clauses are examples of some larger idea”. As examples, Townsley cites behaviors like, a woman using a phallus on herself or a man, or “that men were having oral or anal sex with women” (715).

But the parallel in Romans 1:27 involves men having sex with men. Even if the examples Townsley cites above are examples of behavior against nature, this does not exclude the obvious parallel of  men having sex with men and women having sex with women. It would just mean that female homogenital sex and male homogenital sex are not the only kinds of sex "against nature."

The comparison (“likewise,” or “in the same way”) is between two specific types of behavior, not between one specific behavior and some “larger idea.” Townsley’s contention amounts to something like, “women were using phalluses on themselves, likewise, men were having sex with men.” Likewise? 

The comparison of women having sex with women, likewise, men having sex with men, is certainly the most natural reading of the text. Townsley’s conclusion (that “It thus seems unlikely that the original audience would necessarily have heard Rom 1:26b as a reference to ‘lesbians”) seems very dubious (to put it politely) in light of the fact that Romans 1:26b has been understood as a reference to lesbian sex since earliest times.

The reason this point (i.e. that Paul is not condemning sex between women) is so important for Townsley doesn’t become clear until the last paragraph of his conclusion to the article where he writes, “Further, considering that at least six sources from the early church imply or state that v. 26b is a reference to heterogenitality, it seems that the tradition linking this verse to ‘lesbians’ is dubious, thus problematizing the idea that in vv. 26-27, Paul is describing the ‘category of homosexuality” (628).

As we have seen, however, the idea that “six sources from the early church imply or state that v.26b is a reference to heterogenitality” is factually false. And while I agree that Paul is not describing a “category of homosexuality,” that is beside the point. Paul is condemning homosexual behavior, whether by men or by women. Townsley has done nothing to undermine this clear reading of the text.


Townsley began his article asserting that “Several lines of research converge to allow an interpretation that rejects the assumption that Paul here condemns ‘gays’ and ‘lesbians” (708). Of these “five pieces of evidence” (708) we have seen that the first and third are merely asserted, not argued, and have little or no relevance to Townsley’s thesis (and are, in fact, points on which I agree). 

Townsley completely failed in his attempt to prove the second and fourth “line[s] of evidence,” i.e. to demonstrate that Romans 1:26b refers only to heterosexual relations. In the fifth line of evidence, Townsley was problematizing something which was simply not a problem. Finally, the sixth “line of evidence,” i.e. that Paul was familiar with goddess religions—what Townsley described as the “core of this article” (708) is a point which no one would dispute but which does not prove his thesis.

In fact, nothing in this article demonstrated that Paul only disapproved of homosexual sex in the context of idolatrous worship. If that were really Paul's point, however, then one could ask whether Paul was only condemning murder, evil, envy, deceit or the other sins in 1:28-32 when done in conjunction with idolatrous worship. 

Regardless of whether the erotic acts of 1:26-27 are conducted as part of idolatry or not, Paul makes it perfectly clear that he regards such actions as impure (1:24) “dishonoring” (1:24, 26), “shameless acts” (1:27) and “contrary to nature” (1:26). The suggestion that Paul only thought such actions were impure, dishonoring, shameless and contrary to nature if they were conducted as part of a idolatrous  worship service is ludicrous.

Finally, I would argue that Townsley’s article is a brilliant example of sophistry, i.e. overwhelming the reader with a mass of scholarly-sounding discussion to the point that the casual reader (and even the editor of JBL!) thinks the author has made a case.

The thesis for Townsley’s article is that Paul is not condemning homosexual behavior as such, but only in connection with idolatrous worship. But Townsley’s arguments about Romans 1 being about idolatry is a point which no one disputes and which does not prove his thesis. 

Townsley’s arguments about Romans 1:26b even if true, would only mean that Paul didn’t specifically single out lesbian sex. Even Townsley admits that Paul was writing about male homosexual sex in Romans 1:27. 

Townsley’s extended scholarly  discussion of goddess cults in the ancient world was fascinating, but did nothing to prove his point. All the scholarly discussion about ancient goddess cults in the world would not show whether or not Paul approved of homosexuality. 

Absolutely nothing in the article demonstrated that Paul was only condemning homosexual behavior when it occurred in the context of idolatrous worship. When you strip away the extensive scholarly-sounding arguments and the fascinating historical background, all that’s left is smoke and mirrors!

Finally, after a critique like mine, I feel compelled to emphasize that the same apostle who condemned homosexual sex also condemned (in the same passage) covetousness, malice, envy, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, slander, haughty boasting, and lack of faith (Romans 1:29-32). Paul goes on to argue that even the religious teachers have not kept God’s law fully (Romans 2:17-24) and that, in fact, “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10), “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). 

The only hope, says Paul, is to turn our heart over to Jesus Christ in faith (which I would define as a repentant heart of loving devotion). For those who would truly follow Jesus and Paul, there is no room for a self-righteous looking-down-our-noses at other sinners as if we were somehow better than they (and certainly no room for gay-bashing, whether physically or verbally). While we must speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), we must speak the truth in love.