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8: How Matthew Vines Misrepresents Ancient Understandings of Homosexuality

O41 minutes into the video, the presenter informs us that –

“… the concept of sexual orientation is very recent; it was only developed within the past century, and has only come to be widely understood within the past few decades.” 

He does not tell us how he reached this conclusion, nor does he tell us how he can be confident that this is the case across all cultures of the world.

The presenter attempts to reinforce the argument that the author of Romans one believed homosexuals to be heterosexuals with excessive lust, by claiming that his interpretation matches understandings of homosexuality at the time the New Testament was written. He quotes Dio Chrystostom of that era, to illustrate an argument that homosexual behaviour was perceived not as an orientation, but as an excess of lust that anybody may experience. Indeed, based on the excerpt, Dio Chrystostom did appear to believe this for males. Philo made comments that align with this in Abr. 135. But if you read the entire presentation from Dio Chrystostom, you notice several things. One is that the context of the section the presenter quotes from, is of how sexual immorality arises. It was not the intention of Dio Chrystostom to explain whether homosexuality is an orientation, or to distinguish whether it is practised by some males or all males. Those familiar with citing from external sources know that if you quote someone and are not citing their main point, the basis of your citation is much weaker than if you were citing their main point. This is because when people try to make a point they often use only simplified or one-sided illustrations in support. IE their supporting arguments are often true in the original context, but are less likely to be balanced if removed from that context to be applied broadly. A second point, is that the presenter misrepresents the meaning a little by abbreviating the quote and not including surrounding sentences. In the sentence before the section quoted, Dio Chrystostom states “But the further developments, I presume, are perfectly evident, since we see so many illustrations.” On the one hand, he says there are many illustrations, but on the other hand, he says “I presume”, as though there is a degree of uncertainty. So was he sure of his statement? And another part of the except which was missed by abbreviation, states “… and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals …” Yes the original is referring to pederasty; to sex with youthful males, rather than to homosexual sex in general. And Dio Chrystostom was Greek. The author of Romans however, was Jewish – a close, yet different culture at a time when cultures were more distinct. And we know that even the Jews were not homogenous in their general outlook.

So were Dio Chrystostom’s perceptions of homosexuality shared by all, or were there others of that era with differing understandings? Yes, historian Flavious Josephus, also lived in the first century and being Jewish, is more likely to have shared the same cultural perspectives as Paul, the writer of Romans 1. In Against Apion, Book II (section 25), Josephus wrote in the context of a section about marriage, that a relationship between males is rejected by Jewish society. Given that the context of section 25 is marriage, perhaps Josephus was referring to a marriage-like relationship between males. That the possibility of such a relationship is raised by Josephus, suggests that Jewish people were aware of the concept of men who wanted such relationships. The concept of a man marrying a man was later also raised in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud of the 3rd to 5th centuries, where it states (in Chulin 92a, b);

Ula said: Non-Jews [litt. Bnei Noach, the progeny of Noah] accepted upon themselves thirty mitzvot [divinely ordered laws] but they only abide by three of them: the first one is that they do not write marriage documents for male couples, the second one is that they don’t sell dead [human] meat by the pound in stores and the third one is that they respect the Torah.

And there were others in the first century who mentioned homosexual characteristics also. Philo for example, wrote a lengthy description in The Special Laws IIIOne of the presenter’s favourite theologians; James Brownson, later cited this text as authoritative (Bible, Gender, Sexuality, chapter 11) –

“Moreover, another evil … has made its way among and been let loose upon cities, namely, the love of boys, … which sin is a subject of boasting not only to those who practise it, but even to those who suffer it, and who, being accustomed to bearing the affliction of being treated like women, waste away as to both their souls and bodies, not bearing about them a single spark of a manly character to be kindled into a flame, but having even the hair of their heads conspicuously curled and adorned, and having their faces smeared with vermilion, and paint, and things of that kind, and having their eyes pencilled beneath, and having their skins anointed with fragrant perfumes … and being well appointed in everything that tends to beauty or elegance, are not ashamed to devote their constant study and endeavours to the task of changing their manly character into an effeminate one. …  the man who is devoted to the love of boys … pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature, and since, as far as depends upon him, he would make the cities desolate, and void, and empty of all inhabitants, wasting his power of propagating his species … At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, … And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes …”

Clearly at least some of these men, those who were “devoting their constant study and endeavours” to becoming effeminate to the point of castration, or not being at all procreative, had no interest in being heterosexual. Craig Williams seems to have referred to the same subculture of people in his 1999 book, describing them as “ever conspicuous” in the early Roman Empire, so it makes sense that the wider community would be aware of them. There are further details of historical references to homosexuality here.

My experience of discussing this Philo quotation with homosexual activists though, is that they dismiss the passage as irrelevant on the basis that Philo is referring to “the love of boys”. The activists claim that Philo is describing “exploitative pederasty” rather than the “loving homosexual relationships” that are practised today. My response to such activist claims is firstly that if Philo’s reference is invalid to the topic on the basis that it is about pederasty, then the presenter’s reference from Dio Chrystostom is invalid on the same grounds. But although the quote does seem to primarily refer to pederasty, it is still a form of homosexuality and Im yet to find reason to conclude that the pederastic relationships to which Philo refers were without love or were generally not entered into willingly by the younger partner. Large age gaps and relationships between a male teen and an older man still exist for some today, eg between Tom Daley, 19, and Dustin Lance Black, 39, or between the founder of the Human Rights Campaign (66) and a tryst (15). Some voices have expressed that “intergenerational romances” are not harmful and one mainstream gay website has even praised them. And although they are sinful, such relationships  arguably do sometimes continue with the agreement (ref. 2, ref. 3, ref 4, ref. 5) affection and apparent indulgent enjoyment by both partners, or may even be initiated by the younger partner (EG2). And yes, today, sometimes these relationships are exploitative too. I suspect that the breadth of variety of relationships that happen today, is probably not much different to what happened 2000 years ago. Dr Michael Brown cites Corinthians scholar Professor Andy Thiselton on this, where Thiselton writes;

On the basis of distance between the first and twentieth centuries, many ask: “Is the situation addressed by the Biblical writer genuinely comparable to our own?” The more closely writers examine Greaco-Roman society and the pluralism of its ethical traditions, the more the Corinthian situation appears to resonate with our own.

By 2013, the presenter was promoting James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality. In chapter 11 of that book, Brownson states that there is evidence of ancient people grasping the concept of sexual orientation. Brownson writes

“… an awareness of a “natural” orientation toward same-sex relations is attested in some Greek and Roman sources. The myth of human origins presented in Plato’s Symposium (189C-193C) assumes such a view …”

The presenter mandated the reading of Brownson’s above book, for his students at the 2013 Reformation Project. So does this mean that the presenter eventually ate his words?

According to Gagnon, leading New Testament scholar William Loader would agree with the above comment of Brownson (and therefore disagree with the presenter), as detailed 4-5 minutes into this recording. And the esteemed N.T. Wright has said likewise –

As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato. The idea that in Paul’s day it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever . . . of course there was plenty of that then, as there is today, but it was by no means the only thing. They knew about the whole range of options there.

Certainly it’s easy to believe the presenter’s claim that the people of that era considered homosexuals to have excessive lust. Gagnon has said the same (TBAHP chapter 2). Plato referred to homosexual “slavery to pleasure” (Laws. 1.636c) and there are people today who still (ref. 2) believe homosexuals experience excessive love, based on the sexual focus (ref. 2ref. 3, ) and even sexual addiction of many homosexuals. Has there ever been a more sexualised drama on TV than Logo’s homocentric Hunting Season? But excessive lust and inclination towards one’s own gender are two different types of desires, and it’s not clear that the author of Romans was not aware of this, especially since others of previous generations were apparently aware, EG Plato (Laws, 1.636c).

Furthermore, does the presenter’s claim that people would believe that anyone could be “inflamed with lust” for members of their same sex and abandon heterosexual relations, sound sensible? Many (but not all) heterosexual men today would laugh at such a suggestion being valid. So why would men of the New Testament era accept that this as being how all human beings work? A good friend of mine is clearly heterosexual and non-religious, and tells me that he once tried gay sex, but didnt enjoy it, and that he is disinterested in ever doing it again. He’s a perfect example of an open-minded person who would still laugh at Matthew’s perception of ancient understandings on this.  Yes there are people even today, who are not familiar with the idea of a sexual orientation, and who believe that anyone might make a ‘choice’ to “go gay”, (EG as inferred midway through this video). But the Bible presents itself as being “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), IE directed by God. The presenter’s claim that St Paul was complicit with, and was advancing this misunderstanding of homosexual inclination, is counter to a high view of Scripture.

2. The presenter goes on to make another point about Romans 1. He claims that the descriptions of homosexual lust and sex as being ‘unnatural’ and ‘shameful’, have the same meanings as used in 1 Corinthians 11 where they refer to hair length for men, and that both passages are culturally specific. IE that homosexual sex, and long hair for men are both only unnatural and shameful for the cultures that were initially addressed; the Christians in Rome and in Corinth respectively. Well, at present my knowledge of the Greek language is too limited for me to comment directly on the meaning of the Greek words, although others who are more familiar, disagree (ref. 2ref.3) with the presenter’s claim. But I do know that in the 4th century, Christians were using a word meaning ‘nature’ to describe homosexual sex as sinful, and they were basing their case on the laws of Leviticus, not on local cultural mores. The Apostolic Constitutions 6, sections 27-28, state in part –

“… For He that made them at the beginning made them male and female; and He blessed them, and said, Increase and multiply, and fill the earth.” If, therefore, the difference of sexes was made by the will of God for the generation of multitudes, then must the conjunction of male and female be also acceptable to His mind.
But we do not say so of that mixture that is contrary to nature, or of any unlawful practice; for such are enmity to God. For the sin of Sodom is contrary to nature … For the practisers … endeavour to make the natural course of things to change for one that is unnatural … these things are forbidden by the laws; for thus say the oracles: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind.” “

Next topic in the Matthew Vines series

Stasis Online Contents Page for Matthew Vines

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