I often refer to Paul as enigma when I explain why I was drawn to write a novel about him. His writings about a gracious God and Christian egalitarianism–no longer Jew or Greek … slave or free … male and female—have informed and inspired theologian and laity alike over the centuries. But, charges of anti-Semitism, apologist for slavery, misogynist, and gay-bashing homophobe are also levied against his writings. The simple explanation, of course, is that Pauline views were shaped by the cultural context of his ancient world, the 1st century mix of Greco-Roman Hellenism and Hebrew religion.
A recent post on Christian Century blogs (my other blog, Spirit of a Liberal, is also part of the CC blog network) digs much deeper into the cultural influences at play in the oft cited clobber passages at the end of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Professor James F McGrath of the religion department at Butler University offers a succinct but salient commentary into the Romans verses in which “Paul talks about homosexuality not as a sin, but as a divine punishment for sin.”
In Paul’s time, the thinking about nature, gender and intercourse was that men are by nature active and women by nature passive. What would seemed [sic] shameful in this ancient honor-shame cultural context was the transgressing of such gender roles, with men demeaning themselves by taking the passive female role, and conversely women taking on the active role which is by nature male.
Note the link between a misogynist understanding of gender and 1st century homophobia—a relationship that remains present today. Fear of the feminine characterizes both misogynists and homophobes.
Another cultural influence, perhaps Stoic (Tarsus was home to a major Greek university of the Stoic school of philosophy), suggested that same gender sexual behavior was due to an excess of passion. Consistent with the Stoic ideal of all things in moderation, self control was preferred to impassioned emotionalism, and homosexual behavior was understood to be an unrestrained progression of passion beyond heterosexual promiscuity and well beyond cool and dispassionate Stoicism.
Of course, Paul the Pharisee would also have been well-educated in the abominations of Leviticus so his various cultural influences would have coalesced into the untested assumption that same gender sexual behavior was unnatural. The concepts of sexual orientation and mutually affirming and loving same-gender relationships would have been entirely alien to his now 2000-year-old cultural preconceptions.
It is appropriate to repeat the oft-stated assertion that it is unfair to ask 21st century questions of a 1st century man.