Notions of Homosexual Orientation in Antiquity and the Christian Hope of Transforming Grace

Published on July 20, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

B&H, 2016 | 448 pages

A Guest Blog by Rollin G. Grams


In the 1980s, certain scholars in mainline denominations began to assemble a case for homosexuality. They claimed, among other things, that what we mean by ‘homosexuality’ is not what Biblical texts meant. One aspect of this claim was that antiquity did not know anything about sexual orientation. This essay, on the contrary, presents a variety of ways in which persons spoke of homosexual orientation and its causes in New Testament times. The importance of understanding this matter for the Church today lies in seeing that Biblical texts do speak to the same issue and, therefore, that they offer a word of hope.

Perhaps the first name coming to mind in the 1980s when one thought of the field of New Testament ethics was Methodist scholar Victor Paul Furnish, a New Testament professor at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. His The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues, while not a piece of academic research, was nevertheless a popular text after its first publication in 1979. He wrote,

“…the concepts “homosexual” and “homosexuality” were unknown in Paul’s day. These terms like “heterosexual,” “heterosexuality,” “bisexual,” and “bisexuality” presuppose an understanding of human sexuality that was possible only with the advent of modern psychology and sociological analysis. The ancient writers were operating without the vaguest idea of what we have learned to call “sexual orientation.”[1]

One of the most significant scholars writing on the issue in the 1980s was Robin Scroggs, a Presbyterian and professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Scroggs’ book, The New Testament and Homosexuality, was first published in 1983 by Fortress Press. It has all the appearance of being academically robust, with its reference to primary sources. Unfortunately, however, it was woefully inadequate and put forward incorrect conclusions that affected ecclesiastical thinking and even scholarship for over a decade. Scroggs maintained that

“…pederasty was the only model [for homosexuality] in existence in the world of [Paul’s] time.”[2] He further stated: “at the risk of seeming endlessly repetitive [sic], I close with the observation that Paul thinks of pederasty, and perhaps the more degraded forms of it, when he is attacking homosexuality.”[3]

The argument that antiquity did not know of homosexual orientation or of homosexuality in a broader sense than just pederasty, however, was simply false. On the contrary, antiquity saw a variety of homosexual practices and ways people discussed and thought of homosexual orientation—as they do today. Thus, when Paul speaks of homosexual acts and ‘depraved minds’ in Romans 1.26-28, he was speaking in a historical and cultural context in which there was and had long been a robust discussion of sexual orientations. The contours of this discussion might be outlined through the presentation of several primary witnesses.


1. Romantic and ‘Celestial’ Love in Pederasty

In our day, pedophilia is generally considered a matter of sexual deviancy. In antiquity, love of grown men for boys was not only thought of in terms of sexual desire but also in the same way as heterosexual romance—attraction, desire, and romantic love. Here is the difference between pedophilia and pederasty. Plato explored the ideal of love itself, in either heterosexuality or homosexuality (in this case, pederasty). In pederasty, argued Plato’s character Pausanias in the Symposium, a higher love—a celestial love that was wholly male—proved superior to love between a man and a woman. This love went beyond sexual indulgence, and the discussion goes beyond any limitation of male love to boys. Such philosophical arguments demonstrate that love and sex were understood in far deeper ways than just acts or pederasty, and the discussion of a male love moves firmly in the direction of the notion of sexual orientation. As Virgil says,

Cruel Alexis, heed you naught my songs?
Have you no pity? You’ll drive me to my death….
…. beauteous boy (Virgil, Eclogue II).[4]


2. Medical Theory and Sexual Orientation

Temperaments and attractions were the subject of medical theory in antiquity. The 2nd century medical author, Galen, built on earlier theories about the relation between body types and temperament. Maria Michela Sassi summarizes one of the orientations that Galen identified (cf. Opera Omnia 13.662): “the phlegmatic and cold/wet categories include the constitutions (all of them soft and white) of women, children, fair-skinned men, eunuchs, and peoples that live in cold regions.”[5] Kyle Harper’s recent examination of primary sources reaches the similar conclusion that “folk belief had long held that women were underheated and incompletely formed men: moist, clammy, the female body had been contrived by nature to play its role in the continuous regeneration of the species, ‘born to be penetrated.’ For men, too, manliness was a matter of degree, and the insufficiently masculinized male became damp, soft, in extreme cases an “androgyne” [man-woman].[6] The attempt to relate body types to sexual preference was an attempt to explore sexual orientation in antiquity.


3. Physiognomy and Sexual Orientation

In the 4th century BC—well before the New Testament authors wrote—Aristotle noted that the homosexual’s nature was expressed in particular behaviors. Homosexuality was not considered merely in terms of an act—it was a whole way of life that could be related to physical characteristics. He says, ‘Shrill, soft, broken tones mark the speech of the pathic, for such a voice is found in women and is congruous with the pathic’s nature’ (Aristotle, Physiognomonica 6).[7]


4. Astrology and Sexual Orientation

Astrology is the attempt to explain human orientations and events with reference to the movement of the planets and stars. In antiquity, it also tried to explain sexual orientation, including homosexuality. The following explanation of natural and unnatural sexual orientation from the perspective of astrology uses terminology (‘against nature’ and ‘according to nature’) also found in Paul—that is, the language for orientation was well established. (Of course, Paul did not follow the astrological explanation for orientation.)

But if likewise Mars [planet/god of war] or Venus [planet/god of love] as well, either one of them or both, is made masculine, the males become addicted to natural [kata physin] sexual intercourse, and are adulterous, insatiate, and ready on every occasion for base and lawless acts of sexual passion, while the females are lustful for unnatural congresses [para physin], cast inviting glances of the eye, and are what we call tribades; for they deal with females and perform the functions of males [andrōn erga]. If Venus alone is constituted in a masculine manner, they do these things secretly and not openly. But if Mars likewise is so constituted, without reserve, so that sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful “wives.” (Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos III.14.171-172).


5. Philosophy, Mythology, and Sexual Orientation

There was a significant difference between Platonic and Stoic philosophy on the issue of homosexuality. Platonic philosophy, as already noted, thought in terms of ideals, such as Beauty and Love, whereas Stoic philosophy thought in terms of living according to nature. Thus, Platonism could idealize love for teenage boys and preference it over sex with women. Stoic philosophers, such as Musonius Rufus and Epictetus, on the other hand, saw homosexuality as ‘contrary to nature’ (Paul’s term, too, in Rom. 1.26). Plutarch, for example, saw homosexual orientation as an internal disorder peculiar to humans and not found in other animals:[8]

Not even Nature [physis], with Law [nomos] for her ally, can keep within bounds the unchastened vice of your hearts; but as though swept by the current of their lusts beyond the barrier at many points, men do such deeds as wantonly outrage Nature, upset her order, and confuse her distinctions (Plutarch, Whether Beasts are Rational 7).

In Romans 1.18-28, Paul, too, argues from nature that idolatry and homosexuality are against the Creator’s design.

However, a natural argument might also be turned in favor of homosexual orientation if one argues for different ‘natures’ being created in the first place (a view contrary to Gen. 2.24). This idea was explored in Plato’s Symposium through an ancient myth. The speaker, Aristophanes, says,[9]

“Each of us, then, is but a tally of a man, since every one shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him. All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, [191e] whence likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses. All the women who are sections of the woman have no great fancy for men: they are inclined rather to women, and of this stock are the she-minions. Men who are sections of the male pursue the masculine, and so long as their boyhood lasts they show themselves to be slices of the male by making friends with men and delighting [192a] to lie with them and to be clasped in men’s embraces; these are the finest boys and striplings, for they have the most manly nature…. (Plato, Symposium 191).

Had Furnish and Scroggs simply contemplated this passage’s concept of orientation, they would have had to rethink their entire arguments.


6. Artistic Temperament and Homosexual Orientation

As today, the argument for sexual orientation in antiquity was also made with respect to artistic temperament. Aristophanes represents this view with respect to homosexual orientation in his play, Women at the Thesmophoria:

Besides, it is bad taste for a poet to be coarse and hairy. Look at the famous Ibycus, at Anacreon of Teos, and at Alcaeus, who handled music so well; they wore head-bands and found pleasure in the lascivious and dances of Ionia. And have you not heard what a dandy Phrynichus was and how careful in his dress? For this reason his pieces were also beautiful, for the works of a poet are copied from himself (1.35.159ff).

Softness (womanliness) and poetic talent in a man, the argument goes, go together.


7. The Acquisition of Homosexual Orientation through Social Factors

We should not limit the notion of ‘orientation’ to natural inclinations or biology in the arguments from antiquity. The discussion of orientation is not only a biological one: it might also be a matter of nurture and therefore a concern of psychology and sociology. This perspective, too, was well discussed in antiquity. Plato, for example, suggested that a culture of unbridled sexual passion led to sexual deviancy against nature, and that this was encouraged by the introduction of the gymnasium into Greek society: [10]

… this institution [the gymnasium, with its naked males], when of old standing, is thought to have corrupted the pleasures of love which are natural not to men only but also natural to beasts. For this your States [Lacedaemon and Crete] are held primarily responsible, and along with them all others [636c] that especially encourage the use of gymnasia. And whether one makes the observation in earnest or in jest, one certainly should not fail to observe that when male unites with female for procreation the pleasure experienced is held to be due to nature [kata physin], but contrary to nature [para physin] when male mates with male or female with female, and that those first guilty of such enormities were impelled by their slavery to pleasure (Plato, Laws 1.636b-c).

Philo, a first century Jewish philosopher in the Platonic tradition, relates uncontrolled desire, socialization, and homosexual orientation: [11]

… they were overcome by violent desire; 136 and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, an intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy [malakotēti kai thrypsei], became like women in their persons… (Philo, Abraham 1.135-136).

Herodotus, too, had earlier spoken of societies that took on certain practices that led to new orientations, including homosexuality:[12]

But the Persians more than all men welcome foreign customs. They wear the Median dress, thinking it more beautiful than their own, and the Egyptian cuirass in war. Their luxurious practices are of all kinds, and all borrowed: the Greeks taught them pederasty (Herodotus, The Histories 1.135.1).

The practice of pederasty, moreover, knew a variety of distinctions in antiquity—there were social and cultural distinctions that could be observed. Xenophon, for example, distinguishes three different practices:[13]

I think I ought to say something about intimacy with boys, since this matter also has a bearing on education. In other Greek states, for instance among the Boeotians, man and boy live together, like married people; elsewhere, among the Eleians, for example, consent is won by means of favours. Some, on the other hand, entirely forbid suitors to talk with boys (Xenophon, The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians 2.12).

Sextus Empiricus noted different social attitudes towards pederasty, and in so doing identified the cultural contribution to sexual orientations (as we also find, note, in Genesis 19.9):[14]

For example, amongst us sodomy is regarded as [199] shameful or rather illegal, but by the Germanic they say, it is not looked on as shameful but as a customary thing. It is said, too, that in Thebes long ago this practice was not held to be shameful, and they say that Meriones the Cretan was so called by way of indicating the Cretans’ custom, and some refer to … the burning love of Achilles for Patroclus. And [200] what wonder, when both the adherents of the Cynic philosophy and the followers of Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes and Chrysippus, declare that this practice is indifferent? (Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3:198-200).


8. The Acquisition of Homosexual Orientation through Psychological Formation

Finally, the connection between a soft life (sexual profligacy, luxury, self-indulgence) and soft males (homosexuals) shows a psychology of homosexuality in antiquity. The relaxing of norms and practices increases the desire for novel indulgences, including homosexuality. Musonius Rufus says,[15]

Not the least significant part of the life of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess; for example those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves, not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men; sometimes they pursue one love and sometimes another, and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible, and invent shameful intimacies, all of which constitute a grave indictment of manhood. Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage. But of all sexual relations those involving adultery are most unlawful, and no more tolerable are those of men with men, because it is a monstrous thing and contrary to nature (Musonius Rufus, Fragment 12.1-2).

That homosexuality could be a psychological orientation was, at times, demonstrated by contrasting human sexuality to that of other animals. The latter could be studied to determine a natural, sexual order, whereas human sexuality involved more than biology. It became complicated by psychological factors. Plutarch says,[16]

For in dumb animals Nature preserves their special characteristics pure and unmixed and simple, but in men, through reason and habit, they have been modified by many opinions and adventitious judgements so that they have lost their proper form and have acquired a pleasing variety comparable to the variety of perfumes made by the pharmacist on the basis of a single oil. And let us not wonder if irrational animals follow Nature more closely than rational ones; for animals are, in fact, outdone in this by plants, to which Nature has given neither imagination nor impulse, nor desire for something different, which causes men to shake themselves free from what Nature desires; but plants, as though they were fastened in chains, remain in the power of Nature, always traversing the one path along which Nature leads them. Yet in wild beasts versatility of reasoning and uncommon cleverness and excessive love of freedom are not too highly developed; and though they have irrational impulses and desires and often wander about on circuitous paths, they do not go far afield, but ride, as it were, at the anchor provided by Nature, who points out to them the straight way, as to an ass which proceeds under bit and bridle. But in man ungoverned reason is absolute master, and, discovering now one way of deviation and innovation and now another, has left no clear or certain vestige of Nature visible (Plutarch, De Amore Prolis [On Affection for Offspring] 493B-E).



The discussion of sexual orientation, including homosexual orientation, was present in antiquity and is not some modern discovery through the social sciences. A variety of views were offered to explain the sexual orientation that some have for same-sex relationships. This orientation was expressed not only in terms of the desire for an act of same-sex intercourse: it was also discussed in terms of orientation. As I argue in Unchanging Witness,[17] Paul, too thought in terms of both homosexual orientation and acts. He also thought in terms of nature and nurture. He offered a religious and moral interpretation of homosexuality. At the root of his understanding of sexuality stood convictions about God’s order in creation and human sinfulness. He also offered hope for change through the transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ’s liberating death to sin and resurrection to new life. Thus, one cannot argue that Paul’s views on homosexuality can be dismissed because antiquity knew nothing of sexual (including homosexual) orientation. Indeed, antiquity had much to say on the subject. Nor can one argue that Paul would have counseled someone struggling with same-sex attraction simply to avoid acting out such desires. His view, as expressed in detail in his letter to the Romans, of the transforming power of God in the Gospel of Jesus’ Christ’s death and resurrection was far bigger than that.[18]


Editor’s Note:  See our Blog Post about Unchanging Witness and our Author Interview Part 1 and Part 2.


[1] Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teachings of Paul: Selected Issues, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1985), p. 85.

[2] Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 139.

[3] Ibid., p. 117.

[4] The Internet Classics Archive by Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics 1994-2000. Accessed 4 May, 2011:

[5] Ibid., p. 158.

[6] Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 33.

[7] The Works of Aristotle, trans. T. Loveday and E. S. Forster, ed. W. D. Ross, Vol. VI (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913).

[8] Plutarch, Moralia, trans. Harold Cherniss and William C. Hembold (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).

[9] Plato in Twelve Volumes, Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 9, translated by Harold N. Fowler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925).

[10] Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 10, translated by R.G. Bury (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1967 & 1968).

[11] The Works of Philo Judaeus, the Contemporary of Josephus, trans. C. D. Yonge, 4 vols. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854-55).

[12] Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920).

[13] Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 7, Loeb Classical Library, trans. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Rev ed. 1925; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1984).

[14] Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trans. R. G. Bury (Loeb Classical Library 273; Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1933). Also, a Sibylline Oracle (3.595-600) states that the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Galatians, and the people of Asia Minor practiced pederasty. Plato, too, suggests that same-sex eroticism, particularly pederasty, arose among the Cretans (Laws 1.636b-c). Philo argued that the love of boys was a social development (Special Laws 3.37-42). Plutarch speaks of the practice as particularly notable among the Spartans (Lycurgus 17.1; 18.4).

[15] Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Fragments, trans. Cora Lutz (Yale Classical Studies; New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1947).

[16] Plutarch, On Affection for Offspring, Moralia, Vol. 6, trans. W. C. Helmbold (Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 337; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939).

[17] S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016). See especially chapters 16, 17, and 18.

[18] For a detailed discussion of Paul’s theology of the power of the Gospel and transforming grace, See Ibid., chapters 17 and 18.

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Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition

B&H, 2016 | 448 pages