Last time, we talked about the Greco-Roman concept of self-mastery, and Paul’s use of it in Romans 1. His seemingly straightforward condemnation of same-sex behavior is based not in a sense of universal standards of morality but in a heavily culture-dependent notion of masculinity.
Let’s dive into that culture a little more.
Self-mastery was such a dominant concept in the Roman world because it was not only associated with true manliness, but because it was linked to the success of the empire itself.
Roman leader Octavian’s greatest victory was the defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. It marked the ultimate transition of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, gave Octavian nearly unlimited power, and ultimately led the Senate to give him the title Caesar Augustus, by which he was known at the time of Christ’s birth.
So what story did Augustus tell about his victory over the Egyptian forces commanded by Antony and Cleopatra?
According to Plutarch, “when Caesar had prepared sufficiently, a declaration of war was voted against Cleopatra, and to take away from Antony the authority to rule which he had given up to a woman. And Caesar added that Antony was drugged and not master of himself, and that Romans would be at war with Mardion the eunuch … and Iras, the hair stylist woman of Cleopatra.” Dio wrote that Augustus’ goal was “to conquer and rule all humankind, and to allow no woman to make herself equal to a man.”
As Stanley K. Stowers writes in A Rereading of Romans, this had the effect of equating femaleness with weakness and foreignness. Augustus used Antony’s worship of the god Dionysus to portray him as “lost in a piety of drunken foreign and eastern debauchery,” while playing up his own worship of Apollo, “who could be presented as god of reason and traditional morality.”
Augustus then embarked on a campaign of traditional morality – reinforcing his interpretation of the victory over Antony through art and coinage while using his dominance over the Senate to legislate a kind of social morality that had the added benefit (perhaps the primary benefit) of keeping in check the elite social classes and ensuring the continued inheritance of land from generation to generation.
Readers in Paul’s time could be expected to understand that a key to almost any aspiration or ambition was the cultivation of self-mastery. Roman rule intensified an ancient Mediterranean ethic of self-restraint and promoted the hope of reward for those “by nature and training” fitted for such discipline. Philosophy had become the science of self-mastery. … The philosopher’s message said that the same training that made one most able to control oneself and others also made oneself free from the control of others. Again, these counter themes of freedom and control were played out in circles of the elite. Jews and Christians elaborated their own versions of these themes as they struggled for a place in the empire.
With Egypt having been made an example of – “Octavian’s propaganda saddled Egypt with the stigma of being an incestuous, effeminate nation drenched in luxury and wicked passion” – their near neighbors, the Jews of Palestine took notice. Jews could not and would not take part in the deification of the emperor that was occurring throughout the rest of the empire, so they took a different tack in their effort to ingratiate themselves with the ruling elite who controlled their fates.
If Jews could not promote the imperial cult, they could ally themselves with philosophy and present themselves as a uniquely self-mastered people; a people with just the sort of virtues valorized in Augustan ideology. It comes as no surprise, then, that Jewish writings of the early empire, in contrast to other Jewish sources, place great emphasis on an ethic of self-mastery and present Jewish law as a means to that goal.
Philo of Alexandria, an older contemporary of Paul (he died around the time Paul started writing his letters), takes this route, writing of the Roman leaders in the same way – Gaius lost control of the republic because of his failure to master his desires, while Augustus is the paragon of strength and virtue. “The wages of self-mastery are strength and health,” Philo wrote in a phrasing that should sound familiar to most of us today, “but lack of mastery [leads to] weakness and sickness bordering on death.”
Philo engaged in a kind of Jewish apologetic, arguing that true self-mastery and divinity could be found only in the Jewish law. Jewish law was superior to Greek or Roman law because it “requires all who live according to the sacred constitution of Moses must be free from every unreasonable passion and every vice to a higher degree than those who are governed by other laws.” According to Philo, desire is a “treacherous enemy and the source of all evils.” Moses was the ultimate philosopher because he “put off emotion, loathing it as the vilest thing and the cause of evils, above all denouncing desire as like a destroyer of cities to the soul, which must itself be destroyed and made obedient to the rule of reason.” Josephus similarly wrote of Jewish law as a superior philosophy to that of the Greeks at controlling one’s own desires.
Perhaps this helps put Paul’s words in Romans 1 in better context. On the one hand, the Greco-Roman ethic of self-mastery was steeped in the rigid, male-dominated gender roles of the day. On the other, Jews argued the Law was in essence the ultimate Greco-Roman philosophy, designed to provide self-mastery.
Just as modern interpreters of the Bible unconsciously read modern psychology, values and institutions into the text, so Jews in the Greco-Roman world saw their assumptions about human nature in the writings of ancient Israel. For Jews like Paul and Philo, the 10th commandment showed that the law was concerned with the Greco-Roman ethic of self-mastery. As one might expect, Philo, Paul and the author of 4 Maccabees wrote from the perspective of male ruling elites in this ethnic subculture of the Greco-Roman world. The discourse of desire and self-mastery is the language of their social location. … Greek writings represent barbarians as being dangerously different, incapable of controlling passions or desires. So gentiles, including Greeks, suffer the same depictions at the hands of Jewish writers.
In other words, when Paul writes Romans 1, he and his audience both understand that he is tapping into intersecting strains of first-century thought – the Greco-Roman priority on self-mastery and the Jewish apologetic – in order to propagandize the superiority of Jewish law over the untrammeled passions and desires of those living without it.
And what, in this heavily hierarchical culture, is the worst of desires with which to be tarred? The subversion of gender norms, of course – in which men play the role of women, introducing the “disease of femaleness,” in Philo’s words, and placing the culture at risk for destruction at the hands of barbarians, just as Antony’s effeminacy and unbridled desires led to the destruction of Egypt at Augustus’ hands.
If Paul’s polemic in Romans 1 is not intended to be a universal statement of proper moral behavior, what did he mean it to be? Why does Paul so quickly engage in Greco-Roman and Jewish propaganda when he writes his letter to the Christ-followers of Rome?
We’ll pick that up next time.