What is Paul saying in Romans 1?
A plain reading, the traditional view, has been that Paul is describing the conditions of humanity – perhaps using a specific Roman situation as an example. When Paul condemns the idolatry and homosexual behavior (we’ll try to avoid the anachronism of labeling it “homosexuality” for now) of the men and women about whom he writes, it’s generally considered to be a universal indictment, and therefore universally applicable to today’s culture, as well.
As Stanley K. Stowers describes this view in A Rereading of Romans, “Paul describes the problem so he can announce the solution of righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ.” Believe in Christ, and he will set you free from the passions and lust of this world, right?
Stowers argues this reading is flawed; indeed, some scholars have used the passage to criticize Paul’s “lack of objectivity and his rhetorical exaggeration.” Not everyone has actually done the things Paul lists in Romans 1: 23-32:
They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images that look like mortal humans: birds, animals, and reptiles. So God abandoned them to their hearts’ desires, which led to the moral corruption of degrading their own bodies with each other. They traded God’s truth for a lie, and they worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies. Since they didn’t think it was worthwhile to acknowledge God, God abandoned them to a defective mind to do inappropriate things. So they were filled with all injustice, wicked behavior, greed, and evil behavior. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deception, and malice. They are gossips, they slander people, and they hate God. They are rude and proud, and they brag. They invent ways to be evil, and they are disobedient to their parents. They are without understanding, disloyal, without affection, and without mercy. Though they know God’s decision that those who persist in such practices deserve death, they not only keep doing these things but also approve others who practice them.
In fact, quite a lot of people who don’t believe in God are quite the opposite of what is described, and they certainly haven’t traded one kind of sexual relation for another.
Further, in chapter 2, Paul says the exact opposite!
Gentiles don’t have the Law. But when they instinctively do what the Law requires they are a Law in themselves, though they don’t have the Law. They show the proof of the Law written on their hearts, and their consciences affirm it. … So if the person who isn’t circumcised keeps the Law, won’t his status of not being circumcised be counted as if he were circumcised? The one who isn’t physically circumcised but keeps the Law will judge you. You became a lawbreaker after you had the written Law and circumcision. It isn’t the Jew who maintains outward appearances who will receive praise from God, and it isn’t people who are outwardly circumcised on their bodies. Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally. That person’s praise doesn’t come from people but from God.
Are gentiles utterly without hope, abandoned by God to their insatiable lusts and horrific crimes? Or are there some who follow the law despite not even knowing it, to the extent that they have more of a right to claim Jewishness than some Jews?
So we could conclude, as many scholars have, that Paul is employing gross exaggeration to the point of propaganda in chapter 1, or we could follow Stowers’ argument that the writer is not being as blatantly inconsistent as the text appears on its face.
Stowers instead sees Paul doing something else entirely in chapter 1.
First, Paul is writing to a gentile audience in Rome. Further, Paul himself is a thoroughly Hellenized Jew, which is to say he was born and raised in a culture totally permeated by the influence of Greco-Roman thought. He spoke Greek, he quotes from the Greek Old Testament, he was born in the cosmopolitan center of Tarsus, and his family was important enough in the Roman political system for him to have been a citizen by birth, despite also being Jewish. Paul, as he argued many times, was a Jew’s Jew. But he was also thoroughly Greek, and so was the audience of Romans.
Therefore, Stowers argues, Paul is making an argument they would understand based on two moral codes with which they would be intimately familiar: the Greco-Roman code of self-mastery and the Jewish code of purity. Both codes have something in common, Stowers writes:
These societies share a basic form that centers on the passing of property, power and status through generations of selected men and on the excluding of women and other categories of men from control of this inheritance. … A sociocultural system must work hard to exclude women from claims to property, power and status based upon inheritance, as women, the childbearers, play such an obvious and indispensable role in intergenerational continuity. The two codes subordinate women at the point where men and women meet for procreation and at childbirth. These codes have strongly shaped Paul’s view of the social-moral and theological situation.
To subordinate women, the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures were thoroughly steeped in the language of misogyny. Men who had mastered themselves were true men without any hint of effeminacy; the best women were described as nearly men.
Cultures of the Greco-Roman world understood gender as a sliding scale and maleness as a prize obtained only through self-mastery. Similarly, ancient biological and moral models, unlike the modern idea of two sexes, were based on the idea of one sex but two genders. From the Hippocrates and Aristotle to Galen, biologically and morally a woman was a failed, inferior or weak version of a man. Writers object to male homoerotic acts because one partner must “play the part of the female.” A man could fall into what Plato calls “the disease of femaleness” by losing his male self-mastery and being overcome with passions in “a woman-like way.”
The concept of self-mastery was as ingrained in Paul’s culture as the concept of individual freedom is in ours. You cannot read what he writes without keeping it in mind. For example, Stowers cites 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
Don’t you know that all the runners in the stadium run, but only one gets the prize? So run to win. Everyone who competes practices self-discipline in everything. The runners do this to get a crown of leaves that shrivel up and die, but we do it to receive a crown that never dies. So now this is how I run—not without a clear goal in sight. I fight like a boxer in the ring, not like someone who is shadowboxing. Rather I’m landing punches on my own body and subduing it like a slave. I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others.
Paul was not the only Hellenized Jew to understand his faith in this way, and apply it to the sexual mores of his day.
Philo of Alexandria wrote that sex with other men “robs men of manliness, the virtue most valuable for life both in peace and war, produces the disease of femaleness in their souls and turns into a hybrid of man and woman those who should be disciplined in all the practices that lead to prowess and valor.” Philo prized procreation as the purpose to sex that he argued sleeping with an infertile woman was like sex with a goat or pig. He argued the passive partner in same-sex love – the “woman” – should be killed. That’s because Philo saw sex as the dominance of a socially superior person over a socially inferior person, and for a man to willingly take the latter role was the ultimate dishonor. It’s not clear from Romans 1 that Paul felt any differently.
Much – if not all – of this is lost in our modern-day conversations about Romans 1 because our culture strives for equality between genders. The very idea of a “disease of femaleness” would be foreign to even the most hierarchical Christians in today’s churches. As a result, we read Paul’s passages as straightforward condemnations of actions we filter through our 21st-century lenses, not realizing Paul and his audience shared a mutual understanding that was far different.
“The Jewish, early Christian and broader Greco-Roman focus on sexual behavior,” Stowers writes, “reflects not so much what we moderns like to think of as private and personal ethics as the social and cultural domination of male ruling elites and ethnic politics in the new order of post-Augustinian Rome.”
Still, the argument can be made: Perhaps the basis for the self-mastery concept was egregiously flawed, but isn’t self-mastery itself a good thing? And none of this justifies the giving oneself over to homoerotic lust, which is Paul’s primary condemnation. His argument can still ring true even if the cultural basis for it is no longer intelligible.
So next time, we’ll follow Stowers as he explores the first-century Jewish culture and its response to – and adaptation of – Roman political thought, and how Paul’s thoughts in Romans 1 and elsewhere strongly reflect that culture. Perhaps we’ll find that Paul’s argument is even more heavily indebted to his surrounding context than even this brief discussion has explored.