Unconditional Love

    May 2000

    Philo's and Paul's Views on Pederasty
    By Bernadette J. Brooten

    Bernadette J. Brooten begins Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism by noting that "ancient authors often saw male homoeroticism through the lens of pederasty."

    We have to remember that [classical authors] use different terms to designate the active and passive male partners in a male-male relationship. For example, they call the active male partner the "lover" (Greek: erastês) and the passive male the "beloved" (Greek: erômenos). Greek and Latin authors also use the terms kinaidoi and cinaedi respectively to designate passive males as a category of person. According to the cultural ideology behind this terminological distinction, one male partner always plays the active, that is, penetrating role, while the other always plays a passive, receptive role in sexual, particularly anal, intercourse. Social reality was, however, more complex than the ideology.1 Ancient authors often saw male homoeroticism through the lens of pederasty, within which the adult male was the play the active role and the boy the passive role. While we cannot know whether males always conformed to the ideology, that is, whether the same male always penetrated his partner (rather than alternating roles), this is the model upon which ancient Greek and Latin authors based their terminology for male homoeroticism.

    Brooten later offers an extended commentary on Romans 1:18-32, traditionally believed to refer to male and female homosexuality. In her commentary on Romans 1:27b ("Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error"), Brooten argues that neither St. Paul nor the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo opposed homosexuality on the grounds that pederasty was abusive to boys.

    "Men . . . with men." The Greek term for "men" is literally "males," which includes males of all ages. This language calls to mind both Gen 1:27 (that God created humanity "male and female") and Lev 18:22; 20:13 (on lying with a male as with a woman). Romans, like Leviticus, condemns same-sex relations between males of all ages, not only pederasty. Like Leviticus, it demonstrates that the category of male homoeroticism existed in antiquity. Just as Lev 20:13 categorically places under the death penalty sexual intercourse between any two males, so too does Rom 1:27 condemn sexual acts on the basis of the partner's gender. I suggest that Paul, like Philo and many other Greek-speaking diaspora Jews, considered male-male intercourse a transgression of social roles, which he would understand as dictated by nature. The passive male has allowed himself to play the part of a woman, while the active male has taught his partner effeminacy and participated in his becoming effeminate.

    Robin Scroggs has argued that in Rom 1:17 Paul was opposing the principal form of homosexuality known in the Roman world, namely pederasty.2 Scroggs and Victor Furnish3 believe that Paul's condemnation of sexual relations between males constituted a humanitarian opposition to the inhumane and humiliating institution of pederasty. If Paul directed Rom 1:27 mainly against pederasty out of humanitarian concern for the passive boy partner, several interpretive problems emerge. Why does Paul apply the phrase "deserve to die" (Rom 1:32) to all of the foregoing acts, not distinguishing between victims and perpetrators? Ancient Jewish readers would probably have assumed the boy partner's culpability, since Lev 20:13 commanded the death penalty for both males. Contrary to Scroggs and Furnish, Philo actually assumed that his readers would judge the boy deserving of death, but might not condemn the active partner (probably because the active partner remained culturally masculine). For this reason, after condemning the passive boy partners as "rightly judged worthy of death by those who obey the law, which ordains that the man-woman who debases the sterling coin of nature should perish unavenged, suffered not to live for a day or even an hour, as a disgrace to himself, his house, his native land and the whole human race," Philo feels constrained to add that the active partner is also subject to the same penalty.4 For Philo, whereas a death penalty for the boy is obvious, the same penalty for the pederast (paiderastês) requires explanation. Philo explains the pederast's culpability as pursuing "an unnatural [para physin] pleasure," "destroying the means of procreation" and becoming leader and teacher in "the grievous vices of unmanliness [anandria] and effeminacy [malakia]."5 Paul's ancient Jewish readers would have had similar views and assumptions about pederasty similar to Philo's, that is, many would have condemned the passive boy partners as soft, effeminate, unmanly androgynes. Rom 1:27, like Lev 18:22 and 20:13, condemns all males in male-male relationships regardless of age, making it unlikely that lack of mutuality or concern for the passive boy were Paul's central concerns.

    1. For examples in which, even within the context of male-female relations, the man was designated with a passive term, see John Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (New York: Villard, 1994) 57f, no. 18. 

    2. Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).

    3. Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979) 52-83.

    4. On the Special Laws 3.37-39; F. H. Colson, Philo, vol. 7 (LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937) 498f. 

    5. On the Special Laws 3.39; Colson, Philo, vol. 7, 498-501. 

    The above passages are reprinted from Bernadette J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

    Related Links

    Brooten, Bernadette J. Early Church Responses to Lesbian Sex [Home Page]

    . Response to Panel on Love Between Women at Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. [Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Jews and Christians]

    Furnish, Victor Paul. "Under the Judgment of Scripture": What Paul Had in Mind in His Passages on Homosexuality. [Unconditional Love]

    Scroggs, Robin. Paul's Condemnations: "Not . . . Homosexuality in General, nor Even Pederasty in General" [Unconditional Love]

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