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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Romans 1, Naturally (Part One)

Let's clear some of the debris out of the way, in Part 1, before we get into the specifics of this most vitriolic of rants by Paul, Romans 1:18-32. 

The first observation is that there is no word or combination of words that can be translated "homosexual," or its synonyms, in Greek (or Hebrew, for that matter). Linguists know what sociologists prove, that without a word there is no concept. So to believe that what we know as homosexuality today existed in the same form 2000 years ago is quite wrong. To use the word homosexual (sodomite,etc.) in an English translation is to put words in apostles' mouths (or in their pens, as it were).

Some translations that use the "Dynamic Equivalent" mode of translation think they found the equivalent in either homosexual or Sodomite, but there is no equivalent extant today. Even the NRSV, a non-DE translation, mistranslated the word and has no excuse. So the people who can quote their translation thinking they are quoting the Bible, are only misquoting the original. 

So, point number one is that whatever it is that Paul is talking about here, it is decidedly not homosexuality as we know it today. The Bible cannot condemn that which it does not know.

The Greek word for nature, physis (φύσις), as used by Paul, is not at all what conservative interpreters want it to mean, that is, equivalent to Natural Law, or the way God made things. Quite to the contrary, as seen in Paul's use of the word in 1 Corinthians 11:14, Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him.  One is entitled to ask,  in what way does nature teach this?  Well, it doesn't.  Paul came to his belief about the length of hair by way of his culture's teachings which are received as the way things are (or should be!).  My mother was roundly condemned by her mother when she "bobbed" her hair (cut it short) as a young woman in the Roaring Twenties.  Grandmother was simply put off because she and her peers were taught that short hair on a woman meant she was "loose."  Today, short hair is considered inconsequential.  Nature has nothing to do with it.

Troy W. Martin, a medical historian, in an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, 123/1 (2004) tells us how Paul and his contemporaries came to this conclusion about hair.  Since the time of Hippocrates to well beyond Paul's day, hair was considered to be a sexual object.  The words for hair and testes are the same.  That's why women were to cover their hair.  Hair also had a procreative function.  It was thought to be hollow and therefore created a vacuum.  This was thought to pull the sperm into the womb.  Women who were not able to conceive had pungent suppositories placed in their vaginas and told to return the next day.  If the physician could smell the odor in the woman's mouth, she was thought able to conceive; if not, she was impotent.  

Naturally (if you'll forgive the pun), it worked the same way in the male.  Long hair pulled the man's sperm away from the source making procreation more difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, long hair would be deemed unnatural and degrading to a man.  Short hair on a woman  was, likewise, degrading 
(why it was often punishment).  Both were rejecting their "natural" roles as procreators.  

So, my second point is that we need to be very careful when we follow Paul's lead when he appeals to "nature."  He is certainly reflecting the notions of his (Hellenic/Jewish) culture and not giving us truth fallen from heaven.  That doesn't mean he's wrong; only that his information is only as good as his culture can make it.

TOMORROW: Part Two, The Nastiest People on Earth!

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