uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Romans 1:26-27: A Clobber Passage That Should Lose Its Wallop

Papyrus codex of the Pauline Epistles,
Chester Beatty Library
Whenever I’m debating with someone who authoritatively declares that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and who cites the infamous Romans 1:26-27 as proof, I almost always offer this rejoinder: “What do you make of the vocative at the beginning of Romans 2?”

The question is admittedly pretentious on my part but I’ve found it effective, because those often most eager to wield the Bible as an authoritative weapon are also often those who have read it only in translation, and not very closely at that.

But it’s not an idle question.


Anyone who has engaged the issue of sexuality and the Bible has at some point contended with Romans 1:26-27, in the NRSV: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. 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. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Sounds pretty bad, and indeed, so does the entire last half of the first chapter of Romans. Who, broadly, is being described here? Most agree it’s the Gentiles, and most agree that what is being represented here is boilerplate, Hellenistic Jewish material that attacks the Gentiles. But the condemnatory nature of the verses from 1:18-32 also fits awkwardly, if at all, with the spirit of the rest of the epistle, which goes from talking about the “uprightness of God” in the early verses to suddenly referring to the “anger of God” here, an anger that God uses to “hand over” these people to all manner of horrible behaviors.

But then, they’re Gentiles. They’re rotten, horrible individuals. Did you hear the sorts of things they do? In fact, as pointed out by scholar Calvin Porter, “they” recurs in this section with striking concentration, with repetition of the third-person pronoun αὐτός thirteen times, the reflexive (“themselves”) once, and third-person plural verbs over and over: “No other section of Romans contains such a concentration,” he observes.

What’s even more striking, notes Porter, is what comes next: an abrupt change to the second person in Romans 2:1:

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Here, then, is the vocative in the Greek, “Oh man,” a grammatical case used for direct address: ὦ ἄνθρωπε. And this takes us to the question I have posed to those who repeat 1:26-27 in condemnation. Who’s the ἄνθρωπος that Paul’s addressing here?

It’s actually a very big question.

Scholarship has been preoccupied often with the content of verses 1:26-27 to the distraction of its context. Scholars such as James Miller and Mark D. Smith have gone back and forth as to whether the behavior described in those verses can be considered “homosexual” from our culture’s standpoint, or whether they refer to something else entirely. But an even more interesting angle surfaced in Roy Bowen Ward’s entry into the fray: “It is still open to question whether these two verses represent Paul's voice or the voice of a rhetorical spokesperson in Rom 1:18-32, whom the apostle criticizes beginning in Rom 2:1.”

That’s right. Some scholarship of late, of which Porter's article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute. Building off of the scholarship of J.C. O’Neill (who calls it “a traditional tract which belongs essentially to the missionary literature of Hellenistic Judaism”) and E.P. Sanders (who explains that “Paul takes over to an unusual degree homiletical material from Diaspora Judaism”), Porter ultimately concludes that “in 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.”

Other explanations of what ὦ ἄνθρωπε is doing here are less satisfactory. Some have suggested that Paul is sincerely making these condemnations, stressing here (but only here) God’s anger instead of his kindness (as in 2:4), and then he imagines some onlooker applauding what he’s saying and turns to address him, condemning him for judging but somehow still agreeing with the content of what was just said.

Porter’s argument (which he thoroughly supports with rhetorical models from antiquity) makes much more sense: that the arguments present in the last half of Romans 1 were typical of those made by Hellenistic Jews to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles (thus the repeated use of “they” as noted before), and Paul, as an apostle to the Gentiles, finds this condemnation problematic and thus seeks to refute it, leading up ultimately to his similar conclusion in Romans 14:13, using strikingly similar language to that in 2:1: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Paul goes on to offer advice on healing the rifts between Jew and Gentile, so Porter’s reading is compelling, and certainly the best I’ve seen for answering the question of who’s being addressed in 2:1: “The shift to the direct address, the second person singular, along with the coordinating conjunction, διό, indicates that the reader who agrees with or is responsible for 1.18-32 is now the person addressed.”

Of course, there will be all sorts of arguments apologizing for the words of 2:1 so that one can keep the words of 1:26-27 as a straight-up, unambiguous condemnation, which one can then rely upon to rationalize all manner of discrimination against gays and lesbians. But the flurry of scholarship on this score, not to mention all of that preoccupied with the words of 1:26-27 themselves, should in the very least make it clear that it’s not all that clear.

It's yet another example of how close study of the Bible  in this case, the function of a single word  raises far more questions than it does answers.

29 comments:

  1. Insightful, and conciliatory. Thank you for this.

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  2. Thanks for the article. It was mentioned in a discussion today at Scot McKnight's blog Jesus Creed as part of a review of TORN by Justin Lee: Can Gays Change?#comments

    I have a copy of Miller's paper on Romans 1:26 but haven't read Smith's apparent counter-argument. Maybe the next time I get to a seminary library I'll look it up.

    FYI, you wrote:

    Here, then, is the vocative in the Greek, “Oh man,” a grammatical case used for direct address: ὦ ἄνθρωπε. And this takes us to the question I have posed to those who repeat 1:26-27 in condemnation. Who’s the ἄνθρωπος that Paul’s addressing here?

    I think that should be "O man" rather than "Oh man."

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    1. Assuming you are Kathy Baldock: I mentioned your blog in a thread at Jesus Creed today: Can Gays Change #comments

      I found your blog via a Facebook comment you made re: the guy who was outed on Grindr (Christian Post?).

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  4. Another wonderful example of academics as worship! Thank you for your willingness to admit that the Bible is a lot more complicated than our cut-and-dry interpretations in the American vernacular.

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  5. Wait. So Paul wants to combat a prejudice among Roman Jews that *all* gentiles are wicked and horrible and so forth.

    So, doesn't the illustrating litany of sins still imply that such behavior is awful?

    I see how 2:1ff likely reacts against the boilerplate rhetoric of 1b, but I don't see how it overturns the content of that rhetoric. More likely, it seems aimed at opposing a prejudicial application of that rhetoric.

    Thoughts?

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    1. Could be. I think the important aspect of it is that it is, precisely, boilerplate rhetoric, and the vocative as a response to it complicates any reading that sees it as definitively (and singularly) Paul's. It might be Paul's views. It might not be. But to hang a set of modern prejudicial thoughts on a set of verses that are ambiguous at best is problematic.

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    2. I agree that it's complex and requires nuanced consideration, and post-facto justification of bias via scripture is always problematic. However, I don't see how it matters whether Paul presents the view as his own. If my inkling is apt, if Paul's only speaking against unfair prejudicial opposition against all gentiles, then Paul isn't strictly opposing the ideas. Just their application.

      Again, unless I'm missing something...

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    3. Porter thinks he's specifically refuting the litany in Romans 1. But ultimately, who knows? My point is that it is indeed complex and nuanced, as you suggest, so using it as a proof text of one's prejudice is indeed problematic, as I'm glad you agree.

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    4. First of all what's more troubling is your constant use of the word "prejudice" in reference to those who recognize the biblical prohibition of homosexual relationships; ie a not so subtle allegation that if we could just overcome our prejudices then we would let go of our belief that same-sex relationships are condemned in scripture. I might suggest that the use of such rhetorical language betrays your own prejudice. Secondly the "nuanced" element of this passage hardly refutes the biblical prohibition of homosexual relationships contained within the passage; to say nothing of the various other scripture passages in which homosexual relationships are prohibited.
      Finally, even if it is not Paul's voice but a rhetorical voice of the gentiles created by Paul as an illustrative critique of the gentiles for their judgement of the Hellenists (a suggestion which I seriously doubt) there is nothing in the passage that would infer that Paul does not also consider homosexual relationships sinful. And given the various other places where he does express such a conviction then I think it's hardly a stretch to suggest he is conveying the same conviction in Romans. More than likely this would be similar to 1st Cor 5:12 where Paul exhorts believer not to judge non-believers but rather to focus on proclamation. Of course right after this Paul says that we are to judge those within the church.

      Sorry, but nothing you have alleged does anything to cast any serious doubt that Romans 1:26-27 condemns homosexual relationships.

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    5. You again end with the desire to take 1:26-27 in isolation. But it does, in fact, matter if this is quoted material, and if Paul is arguing against it, as he seems to be doing at least in part in 2:1.
      Yes, it is indeed prejudice. When one eschews all scientific, medical, and psychological data to cling to a "belief" that something is bad, it is prejudice, regardless of one's ability to proof-text said prejudice using an ancient text. When the South used the Bible to support slavery, it was morally wrong, even though scholars by and large agree that their reading of the Bible (that slavery is an accepted institution in their world) is correct. So even if you are correct that the Bible is homophobic, in the same way that it is often chauvinistic and OK with slavery, to use those ancient prejudices to buoy one's own prejudice is still prejudicial.

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  6. I think there are a couple of things going on here. First, Christians should not be in the business of condemning anyone; we are supposed to judge those inside the church, not outside--but never condemn as that is God's business. Also, as I read this passage, what jumps out is that Paul does not condone the sinful behavior of homosexuality, but he does correct the self-righteousness of those who want to condemn those who practice it.

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  7. Immediately after Rom. 2:1, Paul goes on to say (addressing the same person: ὦ ἄνθρωπε): "You say, 'We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.' Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed." (Rom. 2:3-5).

    The contrast drawn in verse 3 is of the person's judgment of others for engaging in the acts just listed, with the fact that the person being addressed nonetheless himself engages in them, and moreover gives the appearance of believing that he, unlike those others, will escape God's judgment for doing so. Verse 4 explains this as presuming on God's "kindness and forbearance and patience", which are "meant to lead you to repentance"; well, we may ask, repentance of what? Is it not of the very acts for which the person addressed judges others? Verse 5 states that this presumption of God's kindness and forbearance and patience, and the impenitence (again, of what, if not of the acts just listed?) resulting from it (contrary to God's intent), is in fact going to bring God's wrath and righteous judgment on the person addressed.

    I fail to see how this can be understood as anything but a condemnation both of hypocrisy and of presuming on God's kindness and forbearance to remain impenitent of the acts just condemned.

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    1. Maybe. It depends on whether you think that the point of the diatribe is the behavior that is listed or if that behavior is listed as symptomatic of rejection of God within the context of "natural theology;" or both. Is "guilty of the same thing" meant to refer to those specific acts or to the general rejection of God? What you have proposed is a possible reading; but again, no one solution has presented itself to solve the riddle of who precisely is being addressed in 2:1, and that would seem like an important point if one is wanting the material in Romans 1 to speak to modern sensibilities.

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  8. Mr. Burrows, you write that "to hang a set of modern prejudicial thoughts on a set of verses that are ambiguous at best is problematic". In what sense are the "prejudicial thoughts" you allude to here specifically "modern"? Doesn't the evidence of Romans 1 in fact show that these "thoughts" (whether they are prejudicial are not, and even if as some apparently argue Paul himself didn't hold them) are far from specifically "modern"? Doesn't the evidence of history also amply show that? Prejudicial or not, it is clear that these "thoughts" reflect long-held beliefs. (I suppose you might by "modern thoughts" mean "thoughts held since ancient times that happen also to be held at present", but in that case I see no reason to specify them as "modern" at all.)

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    1. There is a large debate as to whether the ancient world had a concept of "gay identity" in the way we do in the modern world. Even among those who would argue there was, however, they would not argue that it is 100 percent consistent with the modern view. And even among those essentialists who would argue there have always been those of (for lack of a better phrase) "homosexual orientation," they would not also argue that the prejudices held against those viewed to hold said orientation would be the same as those of today. In short, the ancients are not us; we are not them. So no set of attitudes/prejudices are the same then as now. There will always be shades of both the familiar and the foreign.

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  9. The structure of Romans 1 and 2 may have been modeled on Psalm 50. See the advice to the wicked beginning in verse 16. These 'wicked' are those who "recount my statutes and... bear my covenant in your mouth."

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  10. It's convincing that Paul is telling his hearers to stop talking about the Gentiles that way -- but that doesn't really say anything about his opinions of such acts or behavior, supposing it were true of someone.

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    1. That's right; with the peculiarities of these passages, it's difficult to nail down exactly what he thinks about the individual behaviors condemned rhetorically in Romans 1, much less modern, same-sex relationships, given our benefit of modern science, psychology, and medicine.

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  11. I think the point of the "diatribe" is that we are not to presume on God's kindness, forbearance, and patience as excuses to remain impenitent of our own sins. Let me turn the question around and ask you: of what is the person being addressed impenitent (v.5), and of what are God's kindness, forbearance, and patience intended to lead him to repent (v.4)? Is it not these "such things as they do and you o man do yourself" (to paraphrase verse 3)? These verses don't say that it is the man's prejudices that are "storing up wrath" for himself, they say that it is his "hard and impenitent heart". Again, impenitence of what?

    Nor do they say that this man has "rejected" God: it says rather that he is presuming on God's "kindness and forbearance and patience": that is, he is relying on his _acceptance_ of God and of God's kindness, forbearance, and patience as an excuse to remain impenitent.

    As for "who precisely is being addressed", I don't see how that changes the content of what is being said to that person; but in any event, why should we think it isn't precisely to whom Rom. 1:7 addresses the epistle: "To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints"? Surely the call to repentance and renunciation of sin of Rom. 2:3-5 is consonant with addressing those "who are called to be saints", isn't it?

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    1. We can bandy all sorts of ideas about what it means. The fact remains that among the scholars who study these verses and publish on them, there is no clear consensus what is going on here. It's baffling to a great many people. Indeed, the only people who seem convinced they know exactly what it says are conservative Christians who then discover that (surprise!) it affirms their ideologies. With little to no consensus, I remain dubious of anyone using these verses as grist for their ideological mill; that's the entire point of my treatment here, and I've heard nothing to persuade me otherwise.

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    2. "The only people who seem convinced they know exactly what it says are conservative Christians who then discover that (surprise!) it affirms their ideologies." — That works both ways, of course. Prejudices can prompt both undue certainty _and_ undue skepticism.

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    3. Obviously. But what skepticism is at work here? The mere acknowledgment of ambiguity is not excessive skepticism. No honest reader of any text that abruptly shifts from third person plural to second person singular, with no indication of why, would suggest it makes perfect sense. We can try to *make* sense out of it, but in the end we have to acknowledge that it's puzzling. And if there's a degree of puzzlement, then it's hardly a great proof text for hardline ideology. That's it. That's all that's being said here. All other interpretive work can't make (or at least hasn't so far made) the passage any clearer.

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    4. Don, I'm trying to understand what point you are trying to make with your comments. Are you simply trying to create discussion in order to come to a conclusion about these "ambiguous" verses you mention in Romans, or are you trying to use it in a way to express your belief that homosexuality as a sin in the Bible is not condemned.? To me it is the latter. Please clarify this and correct me if I'm wrong.

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    5. I'm not trying to come to any conclusions. I don't know that we ever will. It's a puzzling passage and probably always will be, so using it unquestioningly as a proof-text is problematic. As to "proving" what the Bible says about homosexuality, we're in another bind altogether, namely that the exact parameters of ancient sexuality are still being debated fiercely by two broad camps. One says that sexuality is largely a construction and that their construction of it was hierarchical and so very different from ours that one can't really talk about "homosexuality" at all with respect to the ancients as we understand it today. The other says that no, there were those who understood themselves to have a same-sex attraction "by nature" that was innate. The modern condemner of homosexuality is at a loss on both fronts, however; if on the one hand homosexuality is a construction, then today's sexuality is not analogous to the ancient world and what the ancients say is immaterial. If there was a sort of "gay identity" of sorts, however, that only illustrates that such an "innate" identity is trans-historical, and gives weight to the notion that it is a biological state. The "biblcial" condemner of "homosexuality" is then in the position to say God is condemning of something perfectly natural within the human condition, and that's a problem.

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  12. "No honest reader of any text that abruptly shifts from third person plural to second person singular, with no indication of why, would suggest it makes perfect sense." — I was going to let this go, and will do so after this, but I simply have to say that I don't see how this is true. In saying (to paraphrase) "_they_ (3rd pers.) do these things for which you judge them, therefore why do _you_ (2nd pers.) who do these things think you will escape God's judgment", I think the reason for the change in person is obvious: it is precisely intended to drive home the point that the "you" being addressed is both hypocritical and presuming on God's mercy. How does that not make sense?

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    1. Again, that's a *way* you can make it make sense, but it remains an odd passage to a great many scholars. It's abrupt, it's sudden, and we don't know who the interlocutor is who's being addressed. It is not as smooth as you're making it in the English, and does indeed lead one to believe that Paul is responding to quoted material.

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  13. This is an older (over a year old) post, but it was recently shared on facebook, hence the flood of new comments. The comments are starting to devolve into predictable remarks about homosexuality. There are plenty of blogs and resources out there for those who think the Bible unambiguously condemns modern, same-sex relationships. I don't think it does so (unambiguously), and even if I were persuaded by such a position, I still wouldn't think using the Bible's ancient prejudices to proof-text one's modern prejudices would be appropriate. All this blog post set out to to was to show the level of ambiguity and debate surrounding one of the most popular "proof-texts" for condemning homosexuality. Whether one agrees with Porter or not, the passage is puzzling enough to make its use in this regard suspect. Perhaps I'll write more on this subject again, but for now I'm closing comments. I don't blog full-time, and don't have time to moderate all of these and respond to them in kind. As stated, there are plenty of online resources for people who take a "Biblically" hostile view of same-sex relationships. This is not one of them. Thanks for reading!

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