by Josh Gould
Greek is a strange language. It’s very difficult to translate, let alone interpret. It’s no wonder the idiom “it’s all Greek to me” is a popular phrase because Greek is literally a pain to understand. I personally prefer to study in the Hebrew language because it’s a bit easier to understand. Greek is just messed.
In this article we’ll be looking at the Book of Romans, which is delightfully written, in Greek. Oh joy! In my last article, we looked at chapter 18 in Leviticus and discovered that verse 22 is directly linked to sexual temple worship and involves male prostitutes. Not exactly a prohibition of homosexuality. Like Leviticus, Romans contains within its pages one of the most commonly used passage in all of scripture to condemn homosexuality.
The Book of Romans is in reality a letter (aka an epistle) written to the congregation in Rome by the Apostle Paul. This included Jews who followed Jesus’ teachings, Gentiles who converted to Judaism to follow Jesus and Gentiles who were pagans until hearing about Jesus. Most scholars agree that Paul wrote the letter while staying in the city of Corinth before travelling to Rome.
Paul sets up his letter to Rome by discussing his calling as an apostle to spread the Gospel of Jesus to them. (v.15) He wastes no time getting to the heart of the chapter and immediately begins talking about the sin of the people. Verse 26 and 27 is where we read what Paul has to say about apparent homosexual behavior.
“…Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty of their error.” (v.26, 27 TNIV)
The TNIV translation isn’t an inaccurate translation like the Leviticus passage is; however, it isn’t the best translation either. I won’t bore you with the entire Greek rendering of the two verses because we’re only going to look at a couple of words that might help illuminate the passage.
The first word we’ll look at is the word “exchanged.” In the original Greek language it is the word “metallasso.” Its root words are “meta” which is a primary preposition that generally denotes the channel of an act. In this instance it means “with.” The second root word is “allasso,” which means “to change,” so “metallasso” literally means “to change with.” As it turns out, “exchanged” is an accurate translation. This will come in handy later.
The next word of interest has caused a great deal of controversy but is fairly simple to translate. “Natural” in the Greek is the word “phusikos.” It translates as “produced by nature” and finds its roots in the Greek word “phusis” which is literally “nature” or sometimes translated as “birth.” So while “natural” is not wrong, it doesn’t fully capture the essence of the word in the original language. The simple idea is that “phusikos” is the way something or someone has been created.
Now, the word that gets translated as “sexual relations” is the word “chresis.” Chresis literally means, “use,” but more specifically, the sexual use of a woman. This is the same word used in verse 27 when it says men abandoned natural relations. Strange. It’s also strange to note that in verse 27 the verse continues to say natural relations “with women,” but there is no mention in verse 26 of women exchanging relations with men. Why is this?
I think the key is in the word “chresis.” Chresis is the sexual use of a woman. What is, or was, the sexual use of a woman in the first century? As we discussed in the last article, a woman’s primary sexual function was to be a carrier of life and that all of life was in the man’s seed. They were essentially storage containers for a man’s child. It would have been no different to Paul. He would have understood that the sexual use of a woman was to carry a child for a man. To exchange that would be to engage in non-procreative sex with men, either with some sort of contraception or possibly through anal sex.
Perhaps this idea can carry over into verse 27. Men abandoned sexual use of a woman and were “kindled with desire” (the more accurate translation of “burned with lust”) for one another. Note that it doesn’t say burned with lust for other men. That’s just an assumption that has been subtly woven into the exegesis of the passage. Considering that men abandoned the natural function of a woman, i.e procreation, it makes much more sense that they still desired woman and craved non-procreative sex with them, which connects with the previous verse. Again, we see the idea of non-procreative sex, such as anal sex or with some sort of contraceptive. How does this all tie together?
Let’s look at the broader context of the passage. Verse 21 through 25 helps illuminate this for us. Verse 23 states that they exchanged the glory of God for images of humans and animals. Verse 25 continues this theme and says they worshipped and served created things. Interesting. This sounds a lot like the idolatry found in Exodus and Leviticus. Golden calf anyone? We see in verse 24 that the worship they conducted was of a sexual nature. What exactly was sexual worship like? It was similar to that of the Canaanites, but a little different.
There was a saying floating around the Greek and Roman empires at that time. “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food.” Paul illustrates this in his first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter six verse thirteen he addresses this catch phrase directly by saying “the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord.” What does food have to do with sexual immorality? The idea is this. You have a stomach and food satisfies hunger. You also have a sex drive and sex satisfies that desire.
The Greek culture of Corinth believed that people were a collection of physical needs and sexual desire was a hindrance to walking with God. There was no distinction between physical necessity and physical pleasure. If you were sexually distracted then you were unable to be fully present with God so all you had to do was go to the temple and become sexually involved with the temple prostitutes. Paul mentions this in verse fifteen of chapter six. Once this urge was dealt with, you could continue to serve God at a more intimate level.
The sexual culture in Corinth echoed what went on in Rome. So it’s no surprise when Paul says they sexually degraded their bodies with one another. (Rom 1:24) The key here is to remember that Corinth and Rome were alike in their sexual worship and that the sexual acts referenced by Paul in verse 24-27 involve temple worship.
Rome worshipped a fertility goddess named Cybele. Cybele is an interesting deity because of her back-story with Attis, her lover. Cybele was believed to be a virgin and Attis castrated himself out of guilt from infidelity and consequently died. Now, priests and priestesses strived to be like their gods in all religions at that time and Rome was no exception. Woman remained virgins and men castrated themselves. In those days a virgin was not a woman who has not had sex like it is in our culture, but a woman who had not given birth. So it was very simple for priestesses to engage in sex and not conceive (remain virgins) by the means of anal sex.
Likewise, for men, the castrated priests (called “galli”) would serve as male prostitutes for other men. Sound familiar? Is this why Paul says men committed shameful acts with other men? Is he making a connection to the “zakhor”(male with religious duties) of Lev. 18:22? Perhaps Paul saw men sexually engaging with castrated priests in the temple for worship and called it shameful because he knew such a practice was prohibited in the Law.
However, there is one more word we should consider. The Greek word used for “shameful acts” is the word “aschemosune.” It certainly does mean shameful acts, but has a specific implication to the “pudenda,” which is a technical term for a woman’s genitals. So the phrase is actually “shameful acts of a woman’s genitals.” Men performed shameful acts (or unseemly deeds) of a woman’s genitals with other men. Perhaps this is a reference to the orgiastic celebrations that went on in Rome as part of the cultic rituals to worship Cybele.
Let’s sum everything up. Considering the historic culture of Rome and surrounding nations we know that there were all kinds of sexual perversions circulating within the cities. Woman gave up their natural function of childbirth and instead chose to remain childless (a virgin) by engaging in anal sex with men. Simultaneously, men who participated in the anal sex with these female priestesses were also abandoning the natural function of childbirth. Orgies were a strong part of this cultic religion and so it would be common to see multiple men committing shameful acts with woman as an act of worship. It was also common for men to have sex with castrated male priests, which is exactly what the prohibition in Leviticus eighteen forbids.
While on the surface it seems that Paul is calling out the homosexual sin of the Romans, but if you dig a bit deeper and understand the culture in which the words are written you quickly realize that not only did Paul not utter a single word about homosexuality, it wasn’t even on his radar. Just like Leviticus chapter eighteen, Romans chapter one is dealing with very specific cultic worship.
Rome isn’t the only place this sort of worship took place. As I mentioned before, the city of Corinth echoed these rituals to their goddess Rhea, who is the Greek equivalent to Cybele. Similar practices also occurred in Ephesus with regards to the “galli” and worship of Artemis.
Once again we see that the underlying theme in a “clobber passage” is in reality about cultic worship (idolatry) and not homosexuality at all. If you’re like me, you’re beginning to wonder if the Bible condemns homosexuality at all and if it doesn’t, how in the world did it ever enter our mainstream exegesis? Regardless of how, it has bred all kinds of hate and division among our LGBT brothers and sisters and as Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes says, is invalid.