Homosexuality in the Ancient World

ROMANS 1 In Romans 1:24-32 Paul described the depravity of the Gentiles. He cited homosexuality as the prime example and proof of their reprobation.ln this behavior they demonstrated the reality that rejecting God leads to a perversion of everything that is good and right. Indeed, widespread homosexuality remains irrefutable proof that a culture stands under divine judgment.

Today, however, many interpreters assert that reading Romans 1 in light of the cultural backdrop of the Greco-Roman world reveals that Paul was not really condemning homosexuality itself but was reproving a particularly lustful, promiscuous version of this sexual inclination. In other words, ac-cording to these scholars homosexu-ality in the context of a caring, loving relationship is not only acceptable but outside the realm of Paul's concern.

This interpretation is based upon a distortion of what we know of ancient practices and beliefs. Homosexuality was extremely common in the Greek world and by New Testament times had become widespread in the Roman world as well.Then,as now,there were homosexual orgies, but many other varieties of homosexual behavior were practiced as well, and we cannot say with certainty that pagan homosexual behavior was strictly of the orgiastic type. Greek men often engaged in homosexual relationships with adolescent boys; many, in fact, regarded this as a coming-of-age experience. Some homosexual attraction was described in highly romantic terms; both male and female poets celebrated their love for members of their own sex (Sappho,c. 630 B.c., was the most famous poet of this genre, although the precise nature of her relationship with the women of her poems is debated).The Roman emperor Hadrian was so overcome with passionate love for a young man named Antinous that when the object of his affection drowned, the grief-stricken emperor decreed that he be worshiped as a god.

The Jews, by contrast, regarded homosexuals as by nature depraved—an attitude founded upon Biblical texts such as Leviticus 18:22. Jewish writings of this period treat-ed homosexual activity as meriting death and damnation. Paul, far from dissenting from this viewpoint, vigorously endorsed it (1Co 6:9). It is important to note, however, that neither Paul nor his Jewish contemporaries distinguished between lawful and illicit homosexuality. For them, such a sexual preference was by nature wrong in any context.

Evidence exists that even the Greeks may have been aware that this behavior was deviant. Aristophanes, the Greek comic poet, mocked homosexual behavior (even as he employed it as a comic device). For example, in Women at the Thesmophoria he ruthlessly ridiculed the notorious homosexuality of the poet Agathon. It would be an overstatement to claim that Aristophanes opposed homo-sexual practice, but his comedy betrayed an uneasy conscience about such behavior within the culture he inhabited. Plato, on the other hand, in his earlier dialogues spoke approvingly of homosexual behavior. Yet near the end of his career he observed in his Laws that homosexual intercourse was widely recognized to be unnatural.


ROMANS 2 During the first century A.D. Rome boasted a population of approximately one million people. The city was home to numerous temples, such as the temple of Concord, the temple of Castor and the temple of Vesta, the last a modest but ancient structure dedicated to the hearth goddess and served by the vestal virgins.The ancient center of religious, cultural, commercial and political life was the Roman Forum, although in the first century several other large fora (such as the Forum of Augustus and the Forum of Julius Caesar) stood nearby.

Augustus Caesar and his lieutenant M. Vispanius Agrippa had overseen a great deal of construction in Rome a century earlier, during the late first century B.c., Their works included the Pantheon (a temple dedicated to all of Rome's gods),2 the Altar of Peace, the imperial residence on the Palatine hill, the temple of Julius Caesar, a triumphal arch, new aqueducts and sewer systems and numerous other structures. Augustus boasted that he had found Rome a city of stone and left it a city of marble.

Even so, many of Rome's residents lived in squalor. Massive apartment buildings called insulae (lit., "islands") were interspersed throughout the city.3 Besides being crime-ridden, these areas were firetraps, and in A.D. 64 a massive conflagration gutted three of the fourteen regions of the city, leaving only four unscathed. Nero, who was emperor at the time, used the denuded land to build an extravagant residence for himself that he called the domes awed ("gold house").4 The famous Colosseum, an amphitheater seating 50,000, was dedicated in A.D. 80. The Arch of Titus, constructed in A.D. 81, commemorates the Roman sacking of Jerusalem.

Rome was home to an ethnically mixed population, including a significant number of Jews.6 Ethnic groups tended to cluster in distinct neighborhoods,and the city suffered from severe disparity of class. One-third to one-half of Rome's residents were slaves or recently freed slaves, although slaves were not necessarily at the bottom of the social ladder.' It is likely that the free poor experienced the most difficult lot and lived in the direst of conditions. The needy depended upon government largess and could quickly become a mob (thus the common saying that the people demanded "bread and circuses").

Rome, the center of trade within the empire, was easily accessible via a vast network of roads and seaways. Similar to the ethnic neighborhoods, the marketplace was organized into quarters that were clustered according to categories of trade.This made it easy for the foreign visitor to find others who shared in his craft and for consumers to locate items for purchase.Those who shared a particular profession frequently formed clubs and associations, enabling a shared social life as well as a shared business community.' The Church of Saint Peter is located at the traditional (but unsubstantiated) burial site of the apostle Peter, while the Church of Saint Paul, outside the city walls, marks the traditional burial place of Paul; a slab found there dating to the time of Constantine is inscribed with the words PAULO APOSTOLO MARTYRI] ("to the Apostle Paul, martyr")

Circumcision in the Ancient World

ROMANS 3 The significance of circumcision among non-Israelites of the ancient world is debated among scholars (whether circumcision was a rite of marriage or of puberty or was practiced for hygienic purposes). But for Israel the rite served as a "sign" of the people's covenant pledge to "walk before [Yahweh], and be blameless" (Ge 17:1,11). The procedure was performed on the male reproductive organ in order to remind the recipient that the oath of allegiance was binding on both himself and his is also probable that the cutting ritual within the covenant context (cf. Ge 15:7-18; Jer 34:17-20) pointed to the curse of being "cut off"that was to be brought upon all covenant violators (cf. Ge 17:14; Ex 4:25).

Israel's full removal of the foreskin made its brand of circumcision a mark of ethnic distinction, setting apart Israelite males from the Egyptians and from many of Israel's western Semitic neighbors (cf. Jer 9:24-25), who performed the rite only by slitting the foreskin; from the "uncircumcised"Philistines and the eastern Semites of Mesopotamia, who did not practice the ritual at all; and, finally, from the Greeks and Romans of the intertestamental and New Testament periods, who were repulsed by all forms of circumcision.

It is not surprising that for Israel the term "foreskin" bore a negative connotation, representing all that was opposed to God and his people. In contrast, the term "circumcision" was used metaphorically to point to one who had renounced pagan practices and was now fully devoted to Yahweh (Dt 10:16; Jer 4:4). Following the establishment of the Christian faith, all national markers such as physical circumcision lost their value, and God's people became distinguished solely by faith working itself out in love—the true sign of their identification with the Messiah through the transforming work of the Spirit (Ro 2:28-29; Gal 5:6; 6:14-16; cf. Dt 30:6; Jer 31:33; 32:39; Eze 36:26-27).

The Roman Empire

ROMANS 4 Tradition claims that Rome was founded in 753 B.C. and originally ruled by a series of kings.' Located at a cluster of Nos on the Tiber River in central Italy, Rome from its earliest years pressed against the Etruscans to the north and the Latin and Greek colonists to the south in a lengthy process of gaining control of the Italian Peninsula. The Roman monarchy ended mound 509 s.c. and was replaced by the republic. Most of Italy was under Roman control by the mid-third century B.C., and in the latter part of that century Rome fought a series of wars against the North African city of Carthage (the Punic Wars). In the Second Punic War (218-201 s.c.) Rome suffered a series of catastrophic defeats against the Carthaginian Hannibal but ultimately prevailed due to sheer force of will,thereby gaining control of the western Mediterranean. Moving into the eastern Mediterranean, the Romans subdued the Greeks, Anatolia (Turkey), Syria and the Holy Land. Egypt's independence ended when the last pharaoh, Cleopatra, committed suicide before the onslaught of Roman forces in 30 B.C.

Meanwhile the government in the Roman Republic, which had been designed with a complex set of checks and balances, became increasingly paralyzed and characterized by political strife. Generals such as Gaius Marius (c. 157-86 B.c.) and Lucius Cornelius Sulla (c. 138 — 78 B.c.) demonstrated that a successful general could control Roman politics solely with his army., Gaius Julius Caesar (c. 100-44 B.c.) exploited this to the full and, after conquering Gaul (France) and then defeating his rival Pompey the Great (c.1 06 — 488.c.) in a civil war, was declared dictator for life in Rome. Conservatives in the Senate assassinated him in an attempt to restore the republic, but it had run its course. In a series of civil wars, Octavian (Augustus Caesar), great-nephew and adopted heir of Julius Caesar, established himself as sole ruler of the Roman world.;

This began the period of Roman history known as the Principate (27 B.C. —A.D.285), during which the Roman world was ruled by a series of emperors. After a long decline, Emperor Diocletian (A.o.245-316) restored order and divided the empire into four administrative districts. Diocletian's abdication was followed by another period of war and confusion, from which Constantine the Great (c. 280-337) emerged victorious. He moved his capital city to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople (modern Istanbul), and declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. The western empire declined and collapsed in 476 with the abdication of Romulus Augustulus, but its eastern counterpart survived as the Byzantine Empire until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The Roman Principate provides the political and cultural framework for the writings of the New Testament. Cities that fell under Roman control had various histories of relations with Rome. Tarsus, for instance, was a free city that was not taxed,5 and Corinth and Philippi, as official Roman colonies, were permitted certain legal benefits., Roman citizenship, although widely extended, was not granted to all who lived under Roman control.' An extensive system of roads benefited both the military and commercial pursuits of the empire.8 With an economy based largely upon agriculture and slavery,the ranks of the lower classes swelled.

The Roman world incorporated a confusing array of religions, cults and superstitions. In addition, Roman emperors were deified at death, and all within the empire were expected to manifest their loyalty to Rome by participating in the imperial cult, paying homage to the current Caesar as lord., When Christians refused to do so, they were accused of treason), Even so, the peaceful conditions that prevailed at this time (the pax Romana or "peace of Rome"), the common Greco-Roman culture and the vast transportation system allowed Christianity to flourish.

Jewish Eschatology in the First Century A.D.

ROMANS 6 Eschatology refers to the"study of the last things" and the ways in which particular religious communities conceive of the end or goal of history. The Bible does not use the abstract term "eschatology" but suggests this idea with phrases like"the coming days," "the latter days,""the end of time"or"the day of the LORD" and its abbreviated version, "on that day"(Dt 4:30; lsa 11:11; Da 2:28;Joe 12:1). Within Judaism and early Christianity, eschatology was a necessary consequence of the dual convictions that one true and living God has created the universe and intends to redeem it.

Although Jewish eschatological beliefs in the first century A.D. were tremendously diverse, certain key concepts were held in common:

    • Israel awaited restoration and the divine reversal of all that was wrong in the world.

    • Pagan empires and their idols would be cast down and Jerusalem glorified.

    • Corrupt leadership within Israel would be removed and the true Davidic King installed.

    • Israel's sins would be forgiven, and God would pour out his Spirit upon his people so that the nation would become obedient.

    • As a result, light would go forth from Jerusalem and summon all nations to worship the Lord of all the earth. An important aspect of this general picture is the notion of a personal Redeemer, an authorized representative who mediates the relationship between God and his people. This Anointed One, or Messiah, is understood variously as a second Moses, a royal son, a suffering servant or a chosen high priest. All of these concepts are deeply indebted to the Old Testament prophets and reflect a general outlook common to the diverse groups that existed in Israel. Some Jewish parties actually expected two messiahs: a priestly messiah and a royal messiah.

Jewish eschatological belief was hardly a secret. Even the Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus were aware of the Jewish hope for Messianic salvation.The synagogue liturgy also included daily prayers that focused on Israel's hope.'

Despite the broad unity of Jewish eschatology, a wide array of opinions existed regarding the exact timing and precise manner in which these great events would transpire (1 Pe 1:10-12). Individual authors articulated Israel's hope for the future through a range of images and metaphors, the sum total of which can be difficult to reconcile. Different religious groups held widely divergent understandings as to the necessary precursors of the Messianic age, as well as unique perspectives on how their own movements stood in relation to it:

    • The Pharisees, who seem to have acknowledged the broadest eschatological scenario, understood faithfulness to the Torah as the divine prerequisite for Israel's visitation (Ac 15:5).2 4.

    • The Sadducees denied the resurrection (Mt 22:23), and their attitude toward eschatology in general remains uncertain.

    • The Essenes of Qumran believed that their own community was the beginning of the fulfillment of the age of redemption.The Essenes set themselves apart both from Gentile oppressors and from Jewish apostates, with whom they expected a final conflict.

    • Josephus considered the Zealots to be a fourth sect within Judaism. Its members thought of themselves as followers of Phinehas, Elijah and the Maccabees in believing that active resistance was the necessary antecedent for the eschatological age.

The diverse interpretations of prophecy in first-century Judaism serve to instill caution in modern interpretations of prophecy. The primary message of the New Testament is that the hope of Israel is fulfilled in Jesus (Mk 1:15; 1Co 10:11; Heb 9:26; We 1:20), and it was precisely this critical point that many Jewish leaders, despite their close reading of prophecy,failed to recognize. Recent efforts to employ Biblical prophecy to describe with precision how and when the events of the world's end will take place may well prove to be as misguided as those of first-century interpreters.

Adoption in the Roman World

ROMANS 8 Adoption was widely practiced in the ancient world; examples have been found from Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and ancient Jewish sources. For example, according to Exodus 2:10 Moses was a foundling adopted by Pharaoh's daughter. Generally speaking, only free men (not women or slaves) could adopt, and the adoptee was often an adult rather than a child. Sometimes adoption was undertaken partially for the benefit of the adopter. For example, an older man whose natural children had already died might adopt a younger man as his heir; the adoptee would be responsible to care for the adopter in his old age.

Roman law recognized two kinds of adoption: adrogatio, in which a man and all those under his authority were adopted into another family, and adoption, in which an individual was adopted into a family. In adrogatio the adopted family in effect ceased to exist as a separate entity and became a part of the adopter's family.

An adopted man or boy no longer belonged to his father's household and legally became a child of the adopter.The adoptee in the Roman world took the adopter's name and rank and became his legal heir. Adoption had to be carried out under a specific proto-col (e.g., in the presence of the governor), and a will was often prepared in conjunction with the official process. The association of these two activities reveals the connection between the legal, familial status of the adoptee and his inheritance rights. Paul embraced the metaphor of adoption in Romans 8 in order to describe the status of Christians in relation to God. God as the Father of his adopted children has authority over them, while they in turn have taken on his identity. Paul also wrote of the inheritance that belongs to believers because God has adopted them as his children (Gal 4:5-7). The redemption of the body is one aspect of the Christian's inheritance that Paul highlighted in Romans 8:23.

Roman Taxation

ROMANS 13 In the Roman Republic the regular tax was called the vectigalia, although an extra levy called the tributum could also be raised.The Senate annually set the amount of revenue to be collected. With the expansion of Roman power, however, an enormous amount of wealth poured into Rome from the prov-i\ii inces, and the empire was less dependent upon taxes raised from its own citizens. Governors raised taxes for Rome from the provinces, enriching themselves in the process. Provincials suffered grievously under this arrangement, but a governor who showed restraint and fairness could earn the admiration of the local people (as did Cicero when governing Cilicia in Asia Minor)

With the establishment of the empire, Augustus Caesar created a regular bureaucracy for conducting the census and collecting taxes (see Lk 2:1).2 The provinces were subjected to both a poll tax and a land tax. The revenue supported the army, the imperial household, government salaries, road maintenance and public works,as well as the dole of grain for the Roman masses.

The actual task of gathering revenues in the provinces was farmed out to private companies of tax collectors called publioni or conductores,These tax collectors accumulated enough money to meet the demands of the state and also to retain a profit for themselves. As the New Testament reflects,publicani were hated by the people (Mt 18:17; Lk 18:11). Taxation could be heavy and unfair, and the publicani were regarded as greedy traitors serving foreign overlords. Issues involving taxation appear repeatedly in the New Testament. Jesus himself paid taxes, although his means of raising the money to do so was unusual (see Mt 17:24 — 27; this tax was levied upon the Jews for the upkeep of the Jerusalem temple). The very image of Caesar on Roman coinage caused something of a religious dilemma for the Jews, although Jesus considered scruples concerning the matter to be more contrived than sincere (Mt 22:15-22).3 Paul, in Romans 13:6-7, was clear that the collection of taxes by a government is legitimate and the payment of taxes by Christians imperative. Set against the backdrop of the Roman taxation of the times, this was clearly a stand based upon principle and not upon popular satisfaction with the system.


ROMANS 14 On August 24,A.D.79, Mount Vesuvius, a volcano on the western coast of Italy, erupted violently, spewing lava, rock and ash as high as 12 miles (19 km) into the air and burying a number of cities that lay near its base. Among these was Porn peii.The historian Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption from an island off the coast and described in detail how the daytime sky turned pitch black. Late that night Vesuvius emitted a tremendous pyroclastic surge of noxious gas and ash that covered all but the tops of a few structures and instantly killed anyone who had not yet escaped.The site was abandoned and eventually forgotten. Pompeii was rediscovered briefly in 1594, but regular excavations of the site did not begin until 1748. With a few interruptions, archaeologists have been working continuously there ever since.

What amounted to a tragedy for the original inhabitants turned out to be a boon to Roman archaeology. Beneath its 30-foot layer of ash, Pompeii was wonderfully well preserved. Excavations revealed a large, relatively wealthy city laid out in a grid pattern. Inside the houses researchers uncovered beautiful mosaics, colorful frescoes and even the familiar warning Cave Canem ("Beware of dog"). Utensils and artistic objects revealed a great deal about the culture of Pompeii.

Another exciting discovery within the ash was the existence of pockets that had once been occupied by the corpses of those killed by the pyroclastic surge.The bodies had eventually decomposed, leaving cavities within the dried ash. Scientists poured plaster of Paris into these cavities and created three dimensional casts of the victims' bodies that were so exact that specialists were able to estimate the age, probable occupation and overall level of health of these individuals.

Taken together, these architectural, artistic and human remains have proven to be an invaluable resource for historians in reconstructing life in a Roman city during the New Testament period. Excavations have also commenced below the level of the Roman city, in order to learn more about the development of Pompeii over time. A great deal of effort and expense is being directed toward conservation as well, since pollution and human traffic pose serious threats to these ancient treasures.

The New Testament texts

ROMANS 15 No other ancient text is substantiated by such a wealth of ancient textual witnesses as is the New Testament. Roughly 5,500 separate manuscripts are available, variously containing anything from the entire New Testament corpus to a slight fragment of a single verse. There are also hundreds of copies of ancient translations (or versions) of the New Testament that reveal the form of the text known to their translators, as well as numerous New Testament quotations in the writings of the early church fathers that disclose the form of the particular texts known to them.

    • The oldest known copy of any portion of the New Testament is the John Rylands papyrus, officially designated p52 and dated to approximately A.D. 125. It contains John 18:31-33, 37-38.'

    • The oldest complete, or nearly complete, manuscripts of the New Testament are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, both from the fourth century.

    • Sixty-five other New Testament partial manuscripts from the fourth century or earlier are also extant, along with many complete manuscripts from later centuries.

This textual support is far superior to that available for any other ancient documents, such as the classical texts from Greek and Roman writers (e.g., Plato, Aristotle and Cicero). Only partial manuscripts have survived for many works of antiquity, and it is not unusual to find that the only complete manuscript for some ancient writing is a copy dating from 1,000 years after its composition.

The original New Testament manuscripts probably would have been recorded on papyrus, the most common writing ma-material of the time, and would have been read and copied continuously until they were no longer legible.2 As was invariably the case in antiquity, no two copies of a manuscript were exactly alike, despite meticulous care on the part of copyists. Although we can no longer consult the original manuscripts, the richness and antiquity of those that are at the disposal of scholars are such that it is usually not difficult to determine what the original authors wrote. In most cases we can also discern how and why variations arose in the manuscripts. In no case does a fundamental Christian teaching depend upon accepting one manuscript reading over another.

The history of the manuscript tradition at the end of Paul's letter to the Romans is one of the most complicated in all of the New Testament. The closing benediction found in Romans 16:25-27 appears in three other places in the various manuscripts: either immediately following chapter 14, immediately following chapterter 15 or at the end of both chaptersters 14 and 16.To complicate the situation, some manuscripts do not include the doxology at all. This evidence has led to a wide array of suggestions about the history of the writing of Romans:

    • Some scholars conclude that the letter originally had only 14 or 15 chapters, ending with the doxology. They hold that the remainder was added later, probably by Paul himself when sending a later edition of the Roman letter to another church.

    • Most scholars, however, concur that the letter originally included all 16 chapters but that shortened versions were circulated among some churches.

Some believe that the doxology itself was a later addition, originally written to provide an appropriate ending to one of the

shorter forms but subsequently added to the end of the other forms as well.

It is just as likely, however,that the doxology was the original ending of Romans and that it was later moved to the end of the shorter versions, leading to the complicated situation found in the history of the manuscript tradition.

The Erastus Inscription

ROMANS 16 Erastus was a first-century Christian who worked with Paul.The earliest mention of him is in Acts 19:22: Paul, at Ephesus on his third missionary journey around A.D.53-55,"sent two of his helpers,Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia."Then, in Romans 16:23, Paul wrote (probably from Corinth around the year 57) that"Erastus, who [was] the city's director of public works," sent greetings. Finally, in 2 Timothy 4:20, when Paul was writing from prison in Rome toward the end of his life (around 66-67), he gave a status report on his coworkers, including the statement that "Erastus stayed in Corinth." It appears that Erastus was a resident of Corinth and, if so, most likely became a believer as a result of Paul's 18-month ministry in that city on his second missionary journey, around A.o. 50-52 (Ac 18:1—17).

In 1929 an inscription was discovered at Corinth mentioning an Erastus who may have been the same one referred to in the New Testament., Located in a paved area northeast of the theater and dated to the mid-first century A.D., it reads,"Erastus in return for his aedileship laid [the pavement] at his own expense." An aedile, an elected official, was a city business manager responsible for such property as streets, public buildings and markets, as well as for the revenue gleaned from them. He was also a judge who decided most of the city's commercial and financial litigation. In addition,an aedile was responsible for the public games taking place within a city.

Thus, Paul's term "director of public works" in Romans 16:23 probably describes Erastus's position as an aedile. Some have argued that since the Greek word Paul used, oikonomos, may not have been the exact equivalent of the Latin aedile, Erastus may— -have held a lower position at the time of Paul's writing. On the other hand, it is possible that Paul first encountered Erastus while he was discharging his fiscal responsibilities and thus perceived him primarily in this role. Also, Corinth was distinctive in that the games there were run not by the aedile but by a different set of officials.Thus,the aedile at Corinth basically functioned as a city treasurer (the rendering used in some translations, such as the NASB).