When I attended Hope College (1995-99), one of our textbooks was A Guide to the New Testament World by Albert A. Bell, Jr. It was published in 1994 by Herald Press.  Dr. Bell teaches at Hope College (affiliated with the mainline Reformed Church in America). The book primarily uses the NRSV, and the foreword is by the esteemed Bruce Metzger (who calls the book “a veritable marvel of craftmanship”). In other words, this book is not the product of an amateur historian and does not come from an excessively conservative wing of the church.

Which is what makes Bell’s description of sexuality in the New Testament world all the more striking. I pulled the book down from the shelf last week to get some background information for my sermon on Acts 15. While flipping through the book I stumbled upon this sub-section called “Sexual Deviance” in the chapter on “Greco-Roman Morality and Personal Relations.”

In modern discussions of moral standards, a popular argument is that, when it comes to sex, nothing is “abnormal” or “deviant.” Whatever consenting adults wish to do with or to one another is acceptable. Such an attitude is certainly not biblical. The OT sets out specific rules, governing even some of the more exotic varieties of sexual behavior (as in Lev. 20:10-16; Deut. 22:5), and Jesus raised the standards even higher when he said that whoever thinks of doing such things is as guilty as if having done them (Matt. 5:27-28).

Lacking this religious base for moral decisions, the Romans could justify virtually anything they wanted to do, for the novelty of it if for no other reason. On the basis of what we’ve seen thus far of their behavior, Paul’s description of Roman morals doesn’t seem too far off the mark:

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. . . . They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Rom. 1:26-31)

The “unnatural” relations which Paul denounces were obviously homosexual, a form of personal interaction with which the church historically has never been comfortable. The Greeks had exalted male homosexuality as the most meaningful form of personal relationship because women were too uneducated to form an intellectual bond with a man. On the other hand, some women, left to themselves at home and denied any active participation in Greek society, resorted to lesbianism as an outlet for their emotions. The writings of the poetess Sappho (ca. 600 B.C.), praising the beauty of the female students in her school, became popular among some groups of women.

By the time the Romans began imitating Greek culture in the second century B.C., homosexuality had been an accepted part of Hellenic life for centuries. The elite brigade of the Spartan army was the “Lovers,” men who were required to join in pairs on the theory that no man would turn in battle and disgrace himself in front of his lover. Thebes had a similar corps. The Athenian tyrants Hipparchus had been murdered by two men with whom he was involved in a romantic triangle. His murderers became national heroes. Sophocles, Socrates, and other leading intellectuals of Greece had male lovers even when they were quite elderly.

The Romans began to engage in homosexuality as something of a fad, but they were never as comfortable with the practice as the Greeks were. Even though it remained slightly scandalous behavior, it was widely, if less openly, practiced among both sexes by the Romans. Juvenal’s bitter second satire is devoted entirely to a denunciation of male homosexuals. Martial and other sources make it clear that women also took lovers from their own gender.

Imperial leadership was sometimes an incentive to homosexual behavior. Nero engaged in numerous liaisons with persons of both genders. The emperor Hadrian, though married, preferred the company of his male love Antinous, whose untimely death he commemorated in a poem. Those who sought to advance their own careers by flattering the emperor were more likely to adapt their moral to his.

It is clear for the artwork in Pompeii and from literary references that the Romans regularly engaged in sexual activities generally considered immoral in our day. Writers like Petronius and Martial are quite explicit in describing the sexual proclivities of their times, and we cannot entirely dismiss their accounts as mere literary conventions. Sexual aggression plays a large part in Roman humor. What is lacking is a sense of shame. These are merely diversions for a jaded and amoral society, one which differed fundamentally from ours in its attitude toward sexuality.

This is the society to which the early church had to proclaim the teachings of Jesus. How strange his words must have sounded: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Paul’s description of the “degrading passions” and “every kind of wickedness” among the Romans hits right at the mark once we see from their own records what they were like in this era. (242-44)

Besides being an important historical summary, these paragraphs demonstrate how much the culture has changed in 20 years. The ancient world’s attitude toward sexuality is looking more and more familiar. What seems strange now is that anyone would dare to retell this history and draw these conclusions.

[Note: For ease of reading, I left out Bell's footnotes. Besides the parenthetical citations, he references 15 other works. They can be found on pages 244 and 245 in the book.]

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13 thoughts on “Sexuality in the New Testament World”

  1. Paul Reed says:

    Very true. And interestingly enough, there is sex presented as moral in the Bible that modern standards would consider immoral. For example, sex between a master and slave. (i.e. Judges 21:7-11, Numbers 31:1-18)

  2. a. says:

    thank you for being under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish – those who even though they know the ordinance of God and know God, do not do not see fit to acknowledge God, honor Him as God, or give thanks

    I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written,“But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

    …Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

  3. alex says:

    Nobody should expect the Bible writers to know anything about the science behind something like sexual ORIENTATION, which IS what we are talking about in our culture. Nobody should expect the Bible writers to be aware of what is happening at the level of the brain. So Rule #1 is do not expect more from the Bible than it is prepared to deliver.

    Also, it should come as no surprise to anyone that ancient Jewish culture would be prejudiced/biased against homosexual behavior. What else would you expect of ancient religious people groups?

  4. Melody says:

    Science behind sexual orientation?

    Alex
    So you are saying that God did not think that one through?
    That He is behind the times?

    So a man lusting for numerous women would still be wrong but because they didn’t have ‘science’ during that time, man lusting for numerous men isn’t wrong because we understand it better?

  5. hamoncan says:

    So is it notable that the Bible has relatively little to say about it all unlike the constant focus by the church in our time? The 5 verses from Romans 1 notwithstanding, isn’t 99+% of the NT is focused inward within the church instead of outward? (No I’m not trying to make an argument to approve of it or something- I’m just not comfortable with the way the church ends up looks so hostile and self-righteous on this issue, and then doubly bad when so many of us are exposed to be no better in so many other ways)

  6. alex says:

    God is not “the bible.”

  7. anaquaduck says:

    God, the author of the Bible & life giving Spirit created us as sexual beings. God’s accountability & justice is keeping track of history. The placement of the prophets, His son & the church is His means of redemption via its witness. Science, with its presupposition & which has no moral basis can lead us to anywhere without distinctive uniqueness as things become blurred between human & animal.

    Focusing on our intellect alone cannot help us fathom God & his intended purpose for us. The irony is God has provided in so many ways for our enjoyment, yet we wander, even as portions of Israel did & the church at times. Like a lover, God is spurned, like the women of Greece…tragic.

    In all of this, God restores & renews, such is His love & strength, He lights up my life.

  8. Steve says:

    Paul Reed, you quote two thought-provoking references. Of course the passage from Judges that you mention ends, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” I wouldn’t call that a ringing moral endorsement by the writer.

  9. “In modern discussions of moral standards, a popular argument is that, when it comes to sex, nothing is “abnormal” or “deviant.” Whatever consenting adults wish to do with or to one another is acceptable. Such an attitude is certainly not biblical. The OT sets out specific rules, governing even some of the more exotic varieties of sexual behavior (as in Lev. 20:10-16; Deut. 22:5), and Jesus raised the standards even higher when he said that whoever thinks of doing such things is as guilty as if having done them (Matt. 5:27-28).”

    Yep, but we’ve got to go further than that.

    Did Jesus impose us arbitrary commands about our sexuality according to his good pleasure?

    Did God make man for obeying the law?
    Or did God make the law for the sake of man’s well-being?

    If we believe that the latter option is the case, we should be open to possible empirical data showing that certain Biblical commands are actually harmful for man’s well-being, even if this means revising our doctrines of Biblical inspiration, as I presented here:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/on-the-sinfulness-of-homsexuality-von-der-sundigkeit-der-homosexualitat-deutschunten/

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  10. MC62 says:

    @ Alex: Perhaps you could cite the empirical diagnostic test that is used to prove one’s sexual “ORIENTATION”?????!!!!! Is it a blood test? How about an MRI or CAT Scan? Possibly DNA testing? Or, is it only a subjectively derived self-identified trait with absolutely NO EMPIRICAL AUTHENTICATION?

  11. alex says:

    Well, there is that pesky hypothalamus that has been known to respond to pheromones. In heterosexual males, this part of the brain lights up in response to female pheromones, and vice versa. This also happens in homosexuals when pheromones of the SAME sex are sensed. (you can look up the science for yourself)

    The point is that all of this is happening at the level of the brain. And human sexuality is often more fluid and nebulous than we would like to admit. Things like this should not be flippantly dismissed just because it’s inconvenient for us, or because we don’t know how to square it with our preconceived notions of sexuality. You would do well to seriously consider what it is that makes our fellow humans so unique.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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