This is the fourth of a series of posts examining Dr. Daniel Helminiak’s book, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. The first three posts are located here, here and here.
Some may wonder why I bother preparing these posts. Such persons may believe that these Biblical passages should simply be ignored, and that any effort to interpret them in a different light than that used by religious bigots is a waste of time and effort.
I, however, believe that, given the background of most people who read this blog, i.e., Mormonism and perhaps other conservative Christianisms, it is more than worth the time and effort to educate ourselves about differing interpretations of these offensively-used scriptures.
BTW, the picture above is of the so-called Warren Cup in the British Museum.
There is only one New Testament passage that discusses homogenital acts at any length: the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, from which the title of this post comes (verse 27 from the King James translation):
“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 recompence of their error which was meet.”
Helminiak’s chapter dealing with this passage has as its thesis that, far from condemning same-sex acts, Paul is actually teaching that such acts are ethically neutral, neither right nor wrong in themselves.
In support of this proposition, Helminiak advances three propositions: First, the vocabulary Paul uses describes homogenital acts as “impure,” subject to social disapproval, but not as ethically wrong. Second, the structure of the passage sorts out and separates the impurity or social disapproval of homogenital acts, on the one hand, from real wrong or sin, on the other. Third, analysis of the overall plan to the letter to the Romans reveals that Paul’s purpose with respect to his mention of homogenital acts is to teach that in Christ, the purity concerns of the Old Law no longer matter and they should not be dividing the Christians in Rome. This post addresses the first of these propositions, with the remaining two to be considered in a follow-up post.
A Word about Homosexuality in Ancient Rome
It has been noted that the term “homosexuality” is anachronistic for the ancient world, since there is no single word in either Latin or ancient Greek with the same meaning as the modern concept of homosexuality, nor was there any sense that a man was defined by his gender choices in love-making; as James Boswell has noted, "in the ancient world so few people cared to categorize their contemporaries on the basis of the gender to which they were erotically attracted that no dichotomy to express this distinction was in common use” [Wikipedia: Homosexuality in Ancient Rome].
Helminiak states that “the Greeks and Romans saw nothing improper about sex between two men … In the Roman mind, there was a pecking order; a hierarchy of social status was the rule. Adult male citizens could have penetrative sex with women and with male and female noncitizens, slaves and youth. Male-male sex was fully accepted, except for this restriction: adult male citizens were generally not to have penetrative sex with one another nor be penetrated by anyone else. Such sex would disrupt the pecking order … Those were the mixed social expectations that Paul was addressing in Romans 1.”
What’s In a Word?
Helminiak begins his analysis of Paul’s vocabulary by focusing on the two central verses of Romans 1 dealing with homosexuality, i.e., verses 26-27 [New Revised Standard Version translation] (with original Greek words bracketed where indicated):
For this reason God gave them up to degrading [atimias] passions.
Their women exchanged natural [physiken] intercourse for unnatural [para physin],
and in the same way also the men,
giving up natural [physiken] intercourse with women,
were consumed with passion for one another.
Men committed shameless [aschemosyne] acts with men
and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
Paul did not use the word “nature” in our abstract sense of “Nature and the Laws of Nature.” For Paul, the “nature” of something was its particular character or kind. Helminiak gives examples from several other Pauline writings, in each case using the term to imply what is characteristic of peculiar in this or that situation.
“For Paul, something is natural when it responds according to its own kind, when it is as it is expected to be. For Paul, the word natural does not mean ‘in accord with universal laws.’ Rather, natural refers to what is characteristic, consistent, ordinary, standard, expected and regular. When people did something surprising, something unusual, something beyond the routine, something out of character, they were acting unnaturally [i.e., uncharacteristically].”
Next, the Greek word para usually means “beside,” “more than,” “over and beyond.” “So when Paul refers to exchanging “natural” intercourse for “unnatural”, it means that these women and men were engaging in sexual practices that were not the ones people usually perform. The practices were beyond the regular, outside the ordinary, more than the usual, not the expected. There is no implication whatever in those words that the practices were wrong or against God or contrary to the divine order of creation or in conflict with the universal nature of things. For Paul, those words do not mean ‘unethical.’ … Rather than ‘unnatural,’ the words para physin in Romans would more accurately be translated as ‘atypical’ – unusual, peculiar, out of the ordinary, uncharacteristic.”
As further evidence of this approach, Helminiak cites other passages where the same term, para physin, is used with reference to God himself. For example, in Romans 11:24, Paul describes how God grafted the wild branch of the Gentiles into the cultivated olive tree that is the Jews. “Usually, one grafts a branch of a cultivated tree into the stock of a wild tree ... But God acted in reverse order, acting para physin – unnaturally, or atypically. “Paul’s point is that God is not bound by standard expectations. God goes beyond what culture and society prescribe.”
Helminiak next considers Paul’s use of the Greek word atimia, translated as “degrading,” and aschemosyne, translated as “shameless.” Just like the words para physin, these words have no ethical connotation and simply refer to societal disapproval. Atimia means something “not highly valued” or “not respected.” Paul uses this word in 1 Corinthians 11:14 to suggest that it is “degrading” for a man to wear long hair. As to the word aschemosyne, the word literally means “not according to form,” again referring to social regard, not a moral judgment.