Sexual Misconduct in Romans 1: Two Background Traditions

Here’s a topic that will be old hat for some but new and hopefully insightful for others. In Romans 1, as he begins sketching an explanation for why the world is messed up, Paul drops some highly charged rhetoric:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:21–32, ESV)

Kyle Harper remarks that this “thundering introit” of the epistle reveals how “for Paul the sexual disorder of Roman society was the single most powerful symbol of the world’s alienation from God.”[1] For such a controversial passage, however, some of Paul’s points seem implied or not fully explained (e.g. the famous “due penalty for their error”). With that in mind, I want to suggest a few data points that have shed light on this passage for me.

First, if you know some of the cultural debates of the time, Paul’s comment about idolatry—“mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things”—immediately registers as an anti-Egyptian polemic. Not a few Greco-Roman commentators appear to have found the Egyptian worship of sub-human life revolting. Of course, Paul has cleverly worked in anthropomorphic deities as well, as if to say, “Yes, that Egyptian religion is bizarre and backward—just like the worship of Zeus and Friends, in fact!”

Next, have a look at this rather sexually-explicit passage from Philo (a contemporary of Paul who was also a Hellenistic Jew) as he discusses Sodom:

The land of the Sodomites, a part of the land of Canaan afterwards called Palestinian Syria, was brimful of innumerable iniquities, particularly such as arise from gluttony and lewdness, and multiplied and enlarged every other possible pleasure with so formidable a menace that it had at last been condemned by the Judge of All. The inhabitants owed this extreme licence to the never-failing lavishness of their sources of wealth, for, deep-soiled and well-watered as it was, the land had every year a prolific harvest of all manner of fruits, and the chief beginning of evils, as one has aptly said, is goods in excess. Incapable of bearing such satiety, plunging like cattle, they threw off from their necks the law of nature and applied themselves to deep drinking of strong liquor and dainty feeding and forbidden forms of intercourse. Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbours, but also men mounted males without respect for the sex nature which the active partner shares with the passive; and so when they tried to beget children they were discovered to be incapable of any but a sterile seed. Yet the discovery availed them not, so much stronger was the force of the lust which mastered them. Then, as little by little they accustomed those who were by nature men to submit to play the part of women, they saddled them with the formidable curse of a female disease. For not only did they emasculate their bodies by luxury and voluptuousness but they worked a further degeneration in their souls and, as far as in them lay, were corrupting the whole of mankind. Certainly, had Greeks and barbarians joined together in affecting such unions, city after city would have become a desert, as though depopulated by a pestilential sickness.[2]

To my mind, the resemblances of this text to Romans 1 are strong enough to all but guarantee that Paul and Philo are working with the same basic tradition (maybe even a book which they both had read) and that Paul specifically has the Sodom story in view. This I think helps us hear the main beats of the passage. For instance, there is a very long tradition going back to Hippocrates about what the “female disease” is, and Philo himself has multiple references in his corpus. It appears to be 1) a metonymy for pederasty and 2) a breaking of one’s “nature” or physis as man. Particularly for the passive partner, this has biological consequences, such as the inability to conceive children.[3] I suspect something along these lines is what Paul has in mind. As he remarks elsewhere (see 1 Cor. 11:14) Paul worried about the fragility of physis and its relation to gender roles.

So Jewish opposition to pederasty as reflected in the Sodom story is one tradition Paul’s drawing on, but there’s arguably a second: Genesis 6. In a long but highly persuasive article, Brett Provance argues that Romans 1:26 has less to do with lesbianism than with human women coupling with the angels “against nature.”[4] As I explained in a prior post, the Enochian tradition was a vibrant one that commanded healthy respect in Jewish and early Christian circles. Down to its Greek conjunctions, Paul’s language closely mirrors how a number of these sources handled the tradition of the Watchers. In fact, Provance finds that it was almost a theological trope to discuss the Watchers’ sin in tandem with that of Sodom: both were the most direct, dramatic cases of God’s wrath being “revealed against unrighteousness,” with the flood on one hand and the fire from heaven on the other.

I close with a brief anecdote. A decade ago as an undergraduate, I took a seminar on the Greek of Galatians. In addition to introducing us to Paul’s koine, the professor (a superb Hellenist) also had hermeneutical-theological thesis, which she pushed fairly forcefully. It went something like this: if we apply Paul’s anti-nomian reasoning about “law” in Galatians consistently, then we should imagine that Paul would have had no real objection to same-sex eros had he lived in the present day. In other words, Paul’s view of sexuality was essentially the result of socio-determinism: an accidental, vestigial piece of ideology nowhere near as central as his apparent anti-nomianism. Leaving aside whether that’s a persuasive account of Paul’s relation to the Torah, the obvious parallels between Romans 1 and other Jewish sources lead me to believe that my professor’s Sachkritik missed the mark. Read alongside these other traditions, Paul’s view of sex appears completely inextricable from his anthropology and cosmology.

  1. Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Revealing Antiquity 20 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 94.
  2. On Abraham 26, trans. F. H. Colson (Harvard University Press, 1935.)
  3. Elsewhere, in Philo’s On the Contemplative Life 7, he comments that Plato’s Symposium is chiefly “occupied by common, vulgar, promiscuous love, which takes away from the soul courage, that which is the most serviceable of all virtues both in war and in peace, and which engenders in it instead the female disease (θήλειαν δὲ νόσον ταῖς ψυχαῖς ἐναπεργαζόμενος καὶ ἀνδρογύνους κατασκευάζων), and renders men men-women, though they ought rather to be carefully trained in all the practices likely to give men valour. And having corrupted the age of boys, and having metamorphosed them and removed them into the classification and character of women, it has injured their lovers also in the most important particulars, their bodies, their souls, and their properties; for it follows of necessity that the mind of a lover of boys must be kept on the stretch towards the objects of his affection, and must have no acuteness of vision for any other object, but must be blinded by its desire as to all other objects private or common, and must so be wasted away, more especially if it fails in its objects. Moreover, the man’s property must be diminished on two accounts, both from the owner’s neglect and from his expenses for the beloved object.” Trans. C.D.Yonge, The Works of Philo, (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854).
  4. Brett Provance, “Romans 1:26–27 in Its Rhetorical Tradition,” in Greco-Roman and Jewish Tributaries to the New Testament, ed. Christopher S. Crawford, Vol. 4, Festschrift in Honor of Gregory J. Riley (Claremont Press, 2018), 83–116.


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