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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Romans 1, Part 3 "Passion Fruit, the Aphrodisiac of Idolaters"

(Please read Parts 1&2 to make the most of this post if you haven't already.)

In an earlier post I mentioned that one of the most egregious errors people make in trying to understand the Bible is to think that what they are reading is as understandable as today's newspaper.  This view which I call the "face value" way of reading situates the ancient text in the modern era.  So one expects that what words meant then (two to three thousand years ago) are what words mean today.  (Or what we mean today is what was meant back then.) Ever try to cross a three thousand year old bridge?  Be very, very careful!  It could collapse on you at any moment.  Such is the danger of trying to access meaning across cultures separated by millennia.

This couldn't be truer than with interpreting Romans 1.  

The history of interpreting this chapter has taken a turn in recent scholarship.  One of the most important insights came from asking a simple question: If what we know as sexual orientation (that is, heterosexuality, homosexuality and the like) is a product of modern psychological study, and are foreign concepts in biblical days, have we misread the Bible? Another way of putting the question is, Have we assumed that Paul has these modern categories in mind in Romans 1?  If we do not, and I believe we should not or we are invoking anachronisms, then a whole new outcome is revealed, one that can no longer support the view that Paul is denouncing gays and lesbians.  How can this be?  

Not only did Paul not work the the unknown categories of sexual orientation, he did not even think in terms of homosexual behavior, either.  Sex for him and his Greco-Roman contemporaries was either ethical or unethical, appropriate or inappropriate.  Worst of all was sex that was driven by passion. (For those of you who want to dig deeper into this, a good starting place is an article by New Testament scholar, David E. Fredrickson, found here:

and in the book, Homosexuality, Science, and the Plain Sense of Scripture, by David L. Balch)

A revealing notion from Dio Chrysostem (a contemporary of Paul) is that he assumed that the same lust that drove men to women prostitutes would lead the same men to male prostitutes.  Lust, or passion, was considered the most harmful of the influences on one's life.  The ideal man (sic) is the one who is virtually passionless, who is always in full control of one's emotions.

This is easily seen in the way that Luke (the author of this Gospel is a classically trained Greek) excises the emotions from Mark's depictions of Jesus.  Here are just a couple of examples.  
Mark 4:20  And these are the ones sown on the good soil; they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.  Luke adds the description of the ideal person. Luke 8:15  But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. 
Mark 3:5  He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”  Luke omits the emotions altogether.  Luke 6:10  After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.”  Take out your concordance and see for yourself how many times Luke disregards Mark's emotional Jesus.  His Jesus is the Hellenistic perfect man, virtually devoid of emotion.
With this in mind let's take a closer look at 1:26-27 (NRSV) 
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 committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
If we don't immediately assume lesbianism at work here in Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, it is not necessary to import it.  It's open to a variety of meanings. And the expression in the same way also the men means that passion invaded their bodies just like it invaded the women's bodies.  So the due penalty for their error was indeed received in their own persons, that is, in their own bodies, that despicable source of all evil, passion. 

Interestingly, Paul did not say the devil made them do it.  Indeed, according to Paul, this behavior is the direct work of an offended God.  It's God who allows the passion fruit to be eaten and wreak its vengeance. 

When we delve deeply into the prevailing context of the biblical era, we discover an almost impenetrable distance.  So different, in fact, that we end up comparing apples with oranges, or in this case, modern sexual orientation with a Stoic distaste of emotions, and think they are the same thing.  They are not.  The notion that two people of the same sex could love each other and be as committed to one another as any heterosexual couple was as foreign to him as his idolatry/passion related explanation is to us.Surely we can not be so stubborn as to say that our present day LGBTs fit this description.  We must look elsewhere for the source of their orientations and remove Romans 1 from the index of charges against them. Yes, idolatry has its casualties; let's not add LGBTs to that list.

MONDAY:  The Ex-Gay Proof-text: "And Such Were Some of You!"  1 Corinthians 6:9-11

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