Paul’s Gaydar

I used to think Jesus was controversial to the modern world. I was wrong. Paul is way more vilified. If you do a search for Jesus the Rabbi, you will still get a smattering of the Jesus-was-a-good-moral-teacher-but-not-God kind of sites. But Paul, wow. Go do a google search on Paul and Christianity and pretty soon you will find that way more people hate Paul than Jesus. He was a homophobe. He was a iconoclast (and not the cool kind either). He invented modern Christianity and co-opted the Jesus movement for his own purposes etc. Here’s the incredibly badly named LGBT bible quote:

Christianity owes its evil homophobia to the closet homosexual known as the Apostle Paul, the father of all homophobic bigotry. The Apostle Paul was a devoted Pharisee who persecuted and murdered countless of Jewish Christians for a period of 20 years before he defected from the Pharisaic Law and became a Christian. The reason behind the Apostle Paul’s defection to Christianity is quite simple. The Pharisees were a family obsessed ultra conservative religious cult of Jewish homophobes. The Pharisaic Law required all Jewish men to marry and raise children. The Apostle Paul was a closet homosexual with no interest in women. For many years the Apostle Paul had concealed his homosexuality from the Pharisees by promoting homophobia as a means to conceal his own homosexuality.

If you are waiting for some shred of evidence for this historical verdict you will be waiting along time. Now this particular site may not represent the opinions of none but one middle-aged man in his parents basement or not. I really don’t know but it is parroting a tale told by many that Paul was homophobic at the least, and probably gay and full of self-loathing. But that’s not the only story told. Some of the Academic elite don’t think Paul was a homophobe at all. What about that giant rant against unnatural acts in Romans 1?

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Well of course, it was directed not at homosexuals but bi-curious heterosexuals who abandoned their own nature. in her new book Paul Among the People Sarah Ruden quotes the late John Boswell of Yale:

The persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons. The whole point of Romans 1, in fact, is to stigmatize persons who have rejected their calling, gotten off the true path, they were once on. It would completely undermine the thrust of the argument if the persons in question were not ‘naturally’ inclined to the opposite sex in the same way they were ‘naturally’ inclined to monotheism.

Wow. I’m starting to admire those just willing to hate Paul rather than twist Romans 1 like a pretzel. Ruden actually comments with gentle humor and aplomb: “I’m trying as hard as I can to picture Paul standing outside the assembly, like a bouncer outside a nightclub, scanning with his gaydar (keen or otherwise) for the mere metrosexuals. I’m failing.”

Ruden then begans to dismantle the myth of Rome as a gay paradise where homosexual acts were the norm. What she says was the reality is the stuff of horror films. I will have to summarize carefully here because of children reading the blog and because some of you have very sensitive filtering software. Ruden does not pull any punches at all and perhaps we should get as graphic as we dare because as Flannery O’Connor says, “To the deaf you shout, but to the half-blind you draw really big pictures.” Very well. Here’s the jist of just what “homosexual acts” were sanctioned:

A pious Jewish family, as Paul’s probably was, would not have condoned sexual abuse of any of its slaves, but he would know from his non-Jewish friends that household slaves normally were respected as outlets for bodily functions than were the household toilets . . . Flagrant pedophiles might have pestered him and his friends on the way to and from school, offered friendship, offered tutoring . . . but adults he trusted would have told him that even flirting could ruin his reputation, and at worst get him officially classed as a male prostitute, with the loss of all his civic rights . . . After his conversion as he preached what Jesus meant for human society, he wasn’t going to let anyone believe that it included any of this.

Ruden interjects that her readers may think her depiction exaggerated because they may have heard of “Platonic homoerotic sublimity of festive or friendly couplings.”  Her answer is blunt but spoken as a well respected classicist who knows both the Greek and Roman world through its literature: “None of the sources, objectively read, backs any of this up.” Contrary to the gay paradise idealized by Boswell and others, Ruden says, there was no gay culture in ancient Rome at all. In fact, engaging in consensual homosexual acts was a source of embarrassment for Greek generals like Alcibiades. To be called a cinaedus or to receive sex as a passive partner was to be vilified.

The point is that there was no gay paradise of loving couples carrying on life long partnerships. There was violence and domination. The active partner in this violence was not denigrated however. He was the manliest of men. Roman soldiers would brag about the enemy soldiers they had humiliated through rape. Boswell’s “homosexual acts” were a kind of punishment sometimes divinely sanctioned by deities such as Priapus (whose wikipedia page I can’t in good conscience link this blog to). This was hard for me to understand how a culture could denigrate the passive partner but not the active one. Poets, both Greek and Roman, made fun of the cinaedus mercilessly but you will not find a single poem of love offered to one.

So that’s the picture. You might be thinking, uh oh. So if that’s what “homosexual acts” meant then is Ruden going to go the route of others who say, Paul condemns only violent homosexuality in Romans 1 as President Obama’s appointee to the faith-based initiative committee argued.  I know, I was worried about the same thing. Ruden however, does not take the bait:

Paul places on a par all the male participants in homosexual acts . . . clearly implying they are all morally degraded and that they all become physically debilitated from the sex act with each other. Such effects were unheard of among the Greeks and Romans when it comes to active homosexuals.

Paul could have made the distinction between active and passive homosexuality. He would have known of this double standard as he looked out the window and wrote his letter to Roman Church made of up former pederasts, abusers and probably quite a few slaves and ex-slaves who had experienced this gay paradise first hand. Paul had strong words for this kind of culture in 1:18:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.

I’m sure I had read it before but Ruden shocked me when she reminds us that “wickedness” is the Greek word adikia. It is translated unrighteousness but mainly had the connotation of “injustice.” The gay paradise of Rome was unjust and everyone who suppressed the truth, upheld the double standard, were guilty whether sex was consensual or not. Here’s Ruden’s final word on the subject:

All this leads to a feeling of mountainous irony. Paul takes a bold and effective swipe at the power structure. He challenges centuries of execrable practice in seeking a more just, more loving society. And he gets called a bigot.

That’s a good place to stop for this post. I’ll leave with the image of Paul the iconoclast not so much inventing Christianity as applying it to the paradise that was Rome in his target sites. The irony is that Paul is painted as a firebrand homophobe who can’t live and let live except when it comes to slavery where apparently his fire deserted him and he did nothing to condemn slavery. Or did he? Next time, we’ll look at Ruden’s take on Paul’s supposed ambivalence or acceptance of slavery. In the mean time, we can discuss the objection that Harry Knox, the President’s appointee, offers: Modern Homosexuality is not the horror that Rome was so Romans 1 doesn’t apply to loving gay couples?


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