Surely the homosexual activity prohibited by the Bible was totally different to what we're familiar with today?

By Peter Ould

Same-sex attraction and sexual relationships are nothing new. Even though the term “homosexual” wasn’t used until the mid-19th century, history is full of examples of people who would fit that description.

Around the time of Jesus, the New Testament writers lived in a world that was dominated by Roman and Greek practices and philosophical concepts. Independent of the rise of a Christian moral culture, homosexual practice was beginning to be frowned upon, but it still existed in many forms and in all strata of society. For example, the Roman Emperors Nero and Salba were widely reported to have taken male lovers (most prominently, Nero was said to have “married” his lover in a public ceremony) but these relationships almost always involved a socially superior partner and a socially inferior one, and this was often linked to the specific roles in penetrative sex. Part of the criticism of Nero was not that he engaged in homosexual practice, but that he was willing to be the receptive partner in penetrative sex, the role normally taken by the socially inferior person in the relationship.

Earlier on, in the mid-Roman Republic period (300 -150 BC) there was even wider acceptance of same-sex sex. Rome is reported to have had specific sectors of the red-light district that catered for male prostitutes. Graffiti has been uncovered in Pompeii that advertises the sexual abilities of specific male prostitutes, indicating that such practices were common well into the first century AD. It appears from the legal framework of this period of Roman rule that, while homosexual activity was increasingly being viewed as inferior to heterosexual activity, it was accepted as long as people adhered to the social norms of its practice, such as that the socially superior partner was the active one when it came to penetrative sex.

From 300 BC onwards the one thing, however, that was completely frowned upon in Roman society was pederasty. This was in contrast to the Hellenistic cultures of Greece, Asia Minor and the near Middle East, where it had a long and favoured history. From Homer onwards, the adoration of youth in Greek culture permeated the cultural understanding of sexual expression in general. Greek men often took teenage wives for themselves when they were in their late 20s or even older. Such practice displays a marked difference between the ideals of Roman and Greek societies. That Greek and Roman ideals differed can easily be seen in the contrast between the portrayal of the male body in their respective artistic cultures. In Greek erotic art, the male penis is almost always displayed as small and pre-pubescent, even when erect. In Roman erotic art, the bigger the penis the better!

In Ancient Greek society, pederastic relationships of the Erastes-Eromenos format were the most favoured (erastes means lover, i.e., the older male; eromenos means  “beloved” and referred to the younger male - though these are not perfect translations). Depending on location and time period, these could be chaste or sexually active. A perfect Erastes would not generally be overly interested in the sexual component of the relationship (though that sometimes featured and had a role in the education of the Eromenos) but rather would see his position as a sponsor and educator in a wider sense. Indeed, writers like Plato highlight the moral difference between an adult male who takes on an Eromenos to educate and sponsor and who engages very occasionally in sexual activity, and that of an adult male who pays for sex with teenage boys.

Pederasty, where practised, can therefore be seen as less a demonstration of innate homosexual attraction and more as a social construct to facilitate the life of the community. In Ancient Greece, one model would be of teenage girls from high society being married off to older males (usually aged 30 and above), while the boys would enter into pederastic relationships with men ten to 15 years their senior (i.e., in their 20s). These boys would then graduate to being Erastes themselves, until finally marrying teenage girls once they reached the necessary age. They would then refuse any further affection for younger men and boys. These relationships, even at their highest moral points, cannot possibly be described in the same language as contemporary gay relationships.

Elsewhere in the Ancient Greek world, homosexual relationships between adult males were frowned upon (to say the very least), where only a century or so before they had been accepted. The few cases that have come down to us have been viewed as fitting both the older / younger model (e.g., Euripedes and Agathon), and the idea of two equal males engaging in a sexual relationship. It was only later that equal relationships became so socially problematic that Greek writers had, for example, to re-interpret the myth of Achilles and Patroclus to make it similar to a pederastic relationship. This was complicated by the fact that Patroclus was older, but Achilles was the dominant partner. Previously, the classical tradition had understood this simply as a homosexual relationship of equals.


So, whilst it is quite true that much of the homosexual activity prohibited by the Bible is totally different to what we’re familiar with today, it is impossible to argue successfully that the Bible’s prohibitions on it no longer apply, for two reasons.

First, amongst the many different expressions of homosexuality present in the New Testament environment there were certainly consensual “permanent, faithful, stable” ones. There is no evidence to suggest that the New Testament writers were ignorant of these.

Second, whilst it is quite true that the dominant form of homosexual practice was of an older and younger male, at the time these forms were not seen as oppressive in the slightest but rather as consensual and mutually beneficial. Therefore it is not possible to argue that the New Testament writers ruled out these relationships simply because they included underage partners. The relationships may have been very different to consenting, adult gay relationships today, but they were not understood differently. So for both these reasons, what the biblical writers thought they were ruling out therefore would include even consenting adult same-sex relationships in today’s terms.