Steve Chalke’s new video analyses the New Testament ‘clobber texts’ on homosexuality in the light of artefacts reclaimed from under the volcanic lava at Pompeii.
If you want to see lots of artistic representations of male genitals and sex acts, you will enjoy the video. Alternatively, if you already know what they look like, Chalke shows how those New Testament texts had bigger concerns to address than loving same-sex partnerships. The excavations at Pompeii reveal what a first century Roman city was like and what ordinary people were up to in the minutes before the volcano buried them. It is not a pretty story.
I cite the three New Testament ‘clobber texts’ below. If you genuinely believe that every sentence in the Bible states exactly what God intends for all people at all times, it may seem pretty clear that gay and lesbian sexual activity is forbidden.
In order to believe that, however, you will need to have absolutely no sense either of historical change or of translation issues.
The findings at Pompeii reinforce what historians already knew: that ancient Roman attitudes to sex were very different indeed from ours.
We today have inherited from Christianity a negative attitude to sex which began partly as a reaction against ancient Roman practices. In third century Syria, Christians were even forbidden baptism unless they renounced all sexuality for life.
The negativity has been slowly breaking down. Reformation Protestantism affirmed that marriage was just as holy as being a monk or a nun. The twentieth century, after much debate, permitted remarriage after divorce, then contraception. It began the process of finding same-sex partnerships acceptable.
The ancient Romans knew none of this. As Pompeii shows, they exulted in sexual pleasure for its own sake. Promiscuity, for example, was normal. The evidence is far wider than Pompeii. Here is one of the poems of Catullus, who lived about 100 years before Paul. Cato, to whom he dedicates it, was his boy friend.
A matter for mirth, Cato, and a smile
worth your attention, you’ll laugh
you’ll laugh as you love your Catullus, Cato
listen – a matter for more than a smile!
Just now I found a young boy
stuffing his girl,
I rose, naturally, and
(with a nod to Venus)
fell and transfixed him there
with a good stiff prick,
like his own (Catullus 56).
In other words he spotted complete strangers engaged in a sex act, climbed on top and penetrated the boy at the same time that the boy was penetrating the girl. He considered the event so funny that he shared it with his boy friend and had it published. He took it for granted that his readers would also find it funny. He would have known.
Chalke draws our attention to the most significant feature of all that sexual activity. Ancient Romans had sexual norms, but they were different from ours.
For free adults and citizens, any amount of sexual activity, with any number of partners, was acceptable – but they were expected to be the active partner, not the passive partner.
In that very divided society, the passive partner would be someone of lower social status. Women were of lower social status, but so were a great many slaves, prostitutes and the many people who had absolutely no legal rights. These people had no choice but to provide their bodies as receptacles for whoever wanted to make use of them.
These are the three New Testament ‘clobber texts’, in the NRSV translation.
1) Romans 1.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth (v.18).
There follows a ‘natural law ethics’ argument that everybody should know moral truth. Then,
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committeed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error (vv. 26-27).
2) 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
3) 1 Timothy 1:9-10.
The law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers…
They are translations from Greek. Depending on the topic, it is often impossible to translate a text from one language to another with absolute accuracy. Translating into English is usually easier from Hebrew than from Greek, because Hebrew has a smaller vocabulary: there is usually an English word to match the Hebrew word. Greek is a different matter, especially when it comes to sex acts. Even Latin, let alone Greek, has more words for sex acts than modern English has. This reflects the fact that they spoke more openly about these things.
So translators are sometimes faced with a Greek word that has no English equivalent. A much-discussed example is the word translated ‘sodomites’ in the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy passages.
The Greek word being translated is arsenokoitai. It is a combination word. It first appears in these texts, so we have no guidance from earlier uses of it. Arsenos is a man – definitely male. Koite is a bed. A literal translation would be ‘man-bedder’. Literally, it could mean a man who beds you, or somebody who beds a man. Whether Paul meant exactly one of those, we have no way of telling. It could have been a technical term for a person providing a specific form of sex act.
Hence the importance of other information, about what was actually being practiced in the cities to whom Paul was writing. 1 Timothy was not addressed to a church in a city, but the other two texts were. Rome was the capital of the Empire. Corinth was one of the biggest port cities, with all that implies. We can be sure that, whatever was going on in Pompeii, was going on even more in both Rome and Corinth.
Chalke’s argument is that, when we examine the New Testament texts and compare them with what was actually going on in Rome and Corinth, what Paul was condemning was not sexual activity in itself. He was condemning exploitative sexual activity, people of higher social status making sexual use of powerless people who had no choice in the matter.
If Chalke is right, Paul’s concerns correlate much more closely with the gospels. In the gospels Jesus defends the interests of the destitute and oppressed. Their main problem, in Galilee, was lack of food. In Rome and Corinth the main problem was powerlessness to resist physical exploitation. The practical issue was different, but the underlying principle was the same: to empower the powerless in the name of God’s kingdom.
Sex then and now
Finally, my own reflection on the differences in sexual attitudes.
I don’t think it will do for us to throw up our arms in horror at ancient Roman practices and pat ourselves on the back for being so much more civilised. We have huge divorce rates and endless stories of sexual abuse. Here are a couple of things we might learn.
Talking about sex
I am convinced that our society would cope with sexual tensions much better if we could be more open and honest with each other about them. There have been huge changes in British society over the last 60-odd years, but there is still a long way to go.
One of the most destructive features of our attitudes is the continuing tendency to avoid talking to children about sexual matters. They need to know. Sex education in schools is all the more essential as long as parents and relatives are reluctant to discuss them honestly with pre-puberty children.
Chalke draws out how Paul’s main concern was the powerlessness of those who could cheaply be used as objects for sexual pleasure. This was the product of a society with immense inequalities of wealth and power.
We too – the whole of the industrialised West – are becoming more and more unequal in wealth and power. With zero hours contracts and inadequate pay, increasing numbers of people are starving and homeless while the rich get richer.
By the nature of the case there are no statistics to measure how many people are desperate enough to perform any act, however degrading, in return for something to eat. Nevertheless, we can only expect the number to increase as extremes of poverty become more common.
If we don’t want ancient Roman practices of exploitation to become normal once again, we’ll need to reverse direction. We’ll need to make sure nobody is so desperate that their only option is to submit to whatever a more powerful person wants to do to them.