Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?

I guess some of you sensed this post was coming right on the heels of the previous  one about how to do responsible exegesis, huh?

In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul mentions male and female behavior that he expects his readers to disapprove.  But what was the sin he was ranting  about?  Read the whole passage and track it back.  In Romans 1, Paul ridicules Gentile religious rebellion in typical Jewish polemic saying that they knew God but worshiped idols instead of God.   Paul knew the Mediterranean world well and knew exactly what he was doing in selecting this illustration for his ridiculing of idolatry.

As we know, Paul’s journeys along the travel routes of the eastern Mediterranean world brought him into direct contact with many varieties of Gentile paganism  and their cults.  Writing on “The Apostle Paul and the Greco-Roman Cults of Women” in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. Catherine Kroeger, New Testament scholar, noted expert on Ancient Greek culture, and professor of classical and ministry studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary from 1990 until her death in  February 2011, made the following comments about “the deliberate sex reversal practiced in some of the pagan cults.”  She said:

“Sex reversal was a specific distinctive of the Dionysiac cult and by the second century A.D. was considered to be indispensable to the religion.  Men wore veils and long hair as signs of their dedication to the god, while women used  the unveiling and shorn hair to indicate their devotion.  Men masqueraded as women, and in a rare vase painting from Corinth a woman is dressed in satyr pants equipped with the male organ.  Thus she dances before Dionysus, a deity who had been raised as a girl and was himself called male-female and ‘sham-man.’”

Kroeger goes on to say:

“The sex exchange that characterized the cults of such great goddesses as Cybele,  the Syrian goddess, and Artemis of Ephesus was more grisly.  Males voluntarily castrated themselves and assumed women’s garments.  A relief from Rome shows a high priest of Cybele.  The castrated priest wears veil, necklaces, earrings and feminine dress.  He is considered to have exchanged his sexual identity and to have become a she-priest.”

We know from a myriad of credible sources that cult prostitution was associated  with the Temple of Aphrodite in the high hill above Corinth.  Corinth, of course, was precisely where Paul wrote his letter to the Romans.  Aphrodite was another name for Cybele.  B.Z. Goldberg, author of the four-volume “Sacred Fire: The Story of Sex in Religion, says the following of Aphrodite:

“She is both male and female — a bearded face with full maiden breasts… They who come to worship her must hide their sex.  Males come in the female attire and females in the clothes of males.  The greatest glory they can bring to Aphrodite … is to physically efface their sex.”

Whether worshipers called her Aphrodite, Cybele, Astarte, or Ishtar, they practiced erotic flagellations, same-sex orgies, and climaxing castration rites in her temples all along the sea coasts of Paul’s missionary journeys.  Goldberg gives quite a colorful description of the rites of Aphrodite:

“When the human being reaches the stage in which he is neither man nor woman, then he is closest in tune with the spirit of the great goddess of love.”

Meanwhile, Attis, Aphrodite’s son and sometime consort, was said to have castrated himself and committed suicide.  Goldberg describes the rituals of his young priests.  At the beginning of the “erotic blood-letting” rites, one of the young priests resembling Attis or Adonis would be found stabbed to death.  He says:

“The sight of the dead priest … aroused others to give of their own life fluid for the sake of the son of their goddess. The high-priest drew blood from his arms and presented it as an offering. And the inferior priests, wrought to the height of passion by the wild, barbaric music of cymbal, drum, and flute and by the profusion of blood around them, whirled about in furious dance. Finally, overcome by excitement, frenzied, and insensible to pain, they savagely thrust the knives into their bodies, gashing themselves in violence to bespatter the altar with their spurting blood.”

Goldberg continues:

“The frenzy and hysteria of the priests spread to the worshipers, and many a would-be priest fell into the wave of religious excitement. He sacrificed his virility to the goddess, dashing the severed portions of himself against her blood-besmeared statue. … With throbbing veins and burning eyes, they flung their garments from them and with wild shouts seized the knives of the priests to castrate themselves upon the very spot. Then, insensible to pain and oblivious of everything, they ran through the streets of the Sacred Ring, waving the bloody pieces and finally throwing them into a house they passed. It became the duty of the households thus honored to furnish these men with female clothes, and they, made eunuchs in the heat of religious passion, were to serve their goddess for the rest of their lives.”

Goldberg concludes:

The priest … who castrated himself in religious frenzy assumed feminine dress not without purpose.  He continued in the service of the temple and like the priestesses served man for the required fee.  They were male priests serving males in the temples of all the gods.”

Doesn’t all this sound like what Paul had in mind in the beginning of his letter to the Romans with an attack on pagan idolatry when he wrote:

Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.  In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.  Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty [e.g., castration] for their perversion.” (Romans 1:27)

Doesn’t this better describe these pagan cultic rites of Paul’s day than it does the mutual love and support in the everyday domestic life of committed gay Christian couples today?   At any rate, even in this illustration, whether of these repulsive cultic rites of the pagan
temples or, if you insist, homosexuality as such, we must be careful to note that Paul was just setting up his self-righteous readers for his theological kill that comes at the beginning of the next chapter:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2:1)

Paul wants us all to know we are not to condemn each other.  We are all guilty of doing the same things we accuse others of doing, says Paul.  But Paul’s great message of Romans is grace.  Grace in exchange for guilt.  Grace for living graciously with everyone else.  Grace to live the Golden Rule.  Grace to love others as we love ourselves.

But do we really grasp this grace when we try to dump ancient texts about gang rape, pagan prostitution and idolatry onto the heads of our gay brethren?  If you were gay, would you want them dumped onto you?  The clear commandment is this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Clearly, there’s a very wide spectrum of human experience between the extreme situation Paul describes in Romans 1 depicting those who’ve turned their backs on God and resort to a depraved lifestyle, and those at the other end of the spectrum, who have turned to God and seek after Him with all their heart.  Those Paul speaks of had refused to acknowledge and worship God and for this reason were abandoned by God to their lustful depravity.  The Christian gay people I know have not rejected God at all; they love God and thank  Him for his grace and His gifts. How then could they have been abandoned  to homosexuality as a punishment for refusing to acknowledge God?   Those Paul speaks of  were constantly lusting after each other and in their actions were only following their lusts.  The Christian gay people I know don’t lust after each other anymore than heterosexual people lust after each other. They seek abiding personal companionship, enduring love, shared intimacy and complete trust from each other just as heterosexual people, at their best, do.

Paul’s point is not about homosexuality, but idolatry, worshiping false gods.  Paul is talking about idolatrous people engaged in prostitution.  He is talking about temple idolatry and cultic rites that were marked by gruesome sex exchanges.  It is hardly fair to apply his judgment on them to Christian gay and lesbian people who are not idolaters and no more lustful than anyone else.

Those who insist that our gay brothers and sisters in the church are conspicuously  ungrateful to God, foolish, futile, impure or debased, or that they are uniquely prone to the sins that Paul describes here have simply not bothered to get to know their fellow Christians.  That’s lazy on two counts: exegetical and communal.  It’s a claim that barely deserves a hearing.

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About Alex Haiken

Born to a Jewish family in New York City, I came to faith in Christ in 1982 after trying to disprove the Bible. I found so much evidence in support of the claims of Jesus and the Bible that it required more faith to reject it than to believe it. I hold a Master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and among other things am a lecturer, teacher, blogger and conference speaker. I came out as gay at a young age but was taught when I came to faith that I could not be both Christian and gay. I served for a time as a leader of an ex-gay ministry but shifted my views after recognizing that when the few passages generally appealed to in this debate are examined more closely and in context, the traditional anti-gay interpretations do not hold up to scrutiny. I learned that the ex-gay route is a scripturally unsound mirage, a specious illusion that deceitfully draws people not to a life-giving oasis but to a deeper and deeper spiritual desert. Seeing the immense need for education in this area, I began to speak and write about my experience and new-found convictions. I am also passionate about helping the Church better understand her rich Jewish roots; helping other Jewish people understand Jesus as their Jewish Messiah; and helping other gay people integrate a theologically sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality. It is my hope that the reflections in this blog will prompt you to explore the paths they suggest, leading to your own more eloquent thinking, exploration and action. If you want, visit the “Contact” page and let me know what you think.
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21 Responses to Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?

  1. Andinho. says:

    Wow man! That’s amazing! I was sure that Paul didn’t say anything about homosexuality, neither gays, nor lesbians behaviors. He was pointing about people changing their natural behavior (homosexual and heterosexual) to idolatry and sex-cult. However he was such worried about the worship to gods and prostitution. And he was also worried about people judging the others, because there’s nothing loveable in this, while people should really love the neighbors as themselves.

  2. Alex Haiken says:

    Andinho, we also must be careful about what we read into Paul’s use of the Greek terms translated in the English as “natural” and “unnatural”. We know from linguistic studies that in Paul’s day the terms natural and unnatural referred simply to what was, or was not, expected. Phrased differently, research into the Romans’ understanding of what it is or is not “natural” does not support attempts to stigmatize gay sex as “unnatural. What Paul means by natural is what other writers of his day meant by it: it simply meant “what one expects.” Notably, Paul also applied the very same Greek term “para physin” to God’s action in Romans 11:24, when God engrafted Gentiles onto the Jewish olive tree — and there “para physin” was an appreciation, not a reproach. So, if same-sex coupling is, in Paul’s terms “unnatural”, so is the salvation of every Gentile believer in Christ. 🙂

  3. Hey Alex,

    I have written a reply to this post and it will be up on Monday.

    Travis (anotherchristianblog.org)

  4. Alex Haiken says:

    Thanks, Travis. I have read your reply and left a comment over at your blog.

  5. Liza Jane says:

    For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. Rom 1:26,27

    Nothing could be more plain. But “…ye have perverted the words of the living God.” Jer 23:36

    You may fool yourselves for a time but you cannot fool God. God knows what He said and He will not be mocked by perverted interpretations of His Word. His condemnation of homosexuality cannot be more clear, as are your perversions. Will God ‘really’ recompense? I beg that you not just wait and see….

  6. Alex Haiken says:

    Liza Jane, though I have to doubt you’re sincere in your conviction, with all due respect your stance is exegetically unsupportable. Exegesis requires that we seek to “draw out” FROM the text what it originally meant to the author and to the original intended audience, without reading INTO the text the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it. In contrast to this, I submit what you are doing instead is what theologians refer to as “frontloading”, that is to say, you’re reading your own personal, political and prejudicial beliefs back into the Bible, instead of reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying. This process of reading one’s own ideas into interpretation of the Bible is called “eisegesis”. Exegesis and Eisegesis are conflicting approaches to interpreting the Bible. The former is about reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying; the latter is about reading one’s own ideas or prejudices back into the Bible. Exegesis is about getting out of the text what is truly there in the first place; eisegesis is about putting into the text something never intended by the author.

    As for your presupposition that Paul’s ridiculing of pagan rite cultic prostitution here in Romans 1 is a blanket condemnation of homosexuality per se, it should also be noted that arguments against “nature” have not carried their own weight. As noted above, research into the Romans’ understanding of what it is or is not “natural” does not support your attempts to stigmatize homosexual relationships as “unnatural”. What Paul means by natural is what other writers of his day meant by it: it simply meant “what one expects.” Notably Paul also applied the very same Greek phrase “para physin” to God’s action in Romans 11:24, when God engrafted Gentiles onto the Jewish olive tree– and there “para physin” was an appreciation, not a reproach. So, if same-sex coupling is, in Paul’s terms “unnatural”, so is your salvation.

    Sorry my dear. We don’t get to rip passages from their context and replace them in another age for the sake of convenience. And we don’t get to make things up as we go along. As always, we are stuck with the internal interpretation of the text as the primary meaning.

    • Brian says:

      Alex
      I have spoken to you on another blog but basically I am looking for a word for verse by verse analysis of this passage in Romans 1 and one that draws upon the original Greek meaning so that I can get a clear understanding of exactly what it is that you believe Paul is saying. I want to know not from mere curiosity but because I have two daughters who are gay. So if mainstream Christianity has got this wrong it will bring me great relief

      • Alex Haiken says:

        Brian, I would indeed encourage you to seek out additional exegetical material on this. The Bible tells us to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). We’re not to presume that something is true simply because we’ve been taught it is. This is how ignorance proceeds to ignorance. Jesus warned that if the blind lead the blind, they will both fall into the ditch. But I do believe that if you prayerfully do your homework and explore both sides of the argument, you’ll discover that in the final analysis the “antigay” position is simply not exegetically supportable unless you read things into the few passages that generally get appealed to in this debate that simply are not there.

        As stated elsewhere, if we could stand Moses and Paul before us — the only two biblical authors who have been attributed as having said anything pertaining to or about homosexuality — and applaud or deride them for their condemnation of homosexuality, they would almost certainly stare at us in blank incomprehension. Why? Because homosexuality per se simply isn’t anything they’d ever been aware of. No kidding.

        If you have not done so already, I’d suggest you read the following three posts: (1) “Exegesis: Not for the Faint in Heart,” (2) “Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality” and (3) “Leviticus 18: What Was the Abomination?” You can find links to those and other pertinent posts on my “Archives” page. They will give you a much clearer understanding of why I, and ever-growing numbers of evangelicals, Bible scholars, theologians and others conclude that the traditional “antigay” interpretations of these passages are not exegetically supportable.

  7. Liza Jane says:

    Alex, so you think when God said that Gentile believers would be grafted into the Jewish Olive tree that means the two will perform vile affections of men lying with men and receiving in themselves their due penalty?

    So….this Olive tree becomes Sodom? Not much to look forward to there!

    Wow, what ‘exegesis’! LOL

    • Alex Haiken says:

      Liza Jane:

      Nope, that’s not what I think, nor is it what I said.

      You can balk as much as you like, but we’re still stuck with the internal interpretation of the text as the primary meaning. I’ll remind you again that biblical exegesis requires that we seek to “draw out” from the text what it originally meant to the author and to the original intended audience, without reading into it the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it.

      While you protest much, you offer no exegetical support to substantiate the biblical soundness of your own position. You simply presuppose it to be true — despite the exegetical evidence that reveals it actually does not hold up to strutiny — and then you expect everyone else to do the same. If you have some exegetical support, kindly bring it forward and present your case. If not, stop wasting everyone’s time by attempting to post on this site under multiple names. As blog owners, we do receive the email and IP addresses of each person who leaves a comment. It doesn’t require rocket science to discern when comments come in under different names but the same email and IP address.

  8. B_rad says:

    Hey, great article and very informative!

    Been planning on presenting a lesson for homosexuality in my church, and have just finished reading Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality”. I don’t know if you are familiar with it, but in the book he says that the explanation of cultic ritual is probable but a weak argument, mainly because it seems like he is not discussing the cold passionless rituals of a religion (though from the above descriptions, the rituals do sound full of passion). I was curious as to how you would address Boswell’s statement?

    “…under closer examination, however, this argument proves to be inadequate. First of all, there is no reason to believe that homosexual temple prostitution was more prevalent than heterosexual, or that Paul, had he been addressing himself to such practices, would have limited his comments to the former. Second, it is clear that the sexual behavior itself is objectionable to Paul, not merely its associations. Third, and possibly most important, Paul is not describing cold-blooded, dispassionate acts performed in the interest of ritual or ceremony: he states very clearly that the parties involved “burned in their lust towards one another”. It is unreasonable to infer from the passage that there was any motive for the behavior other than sexual desire.” -John Boswell.

    Now granted, it was published in 1980, so he may not have had access to information that we do today.

  9. Alex Haiken says:

    Brad, I don’t think the issue is so much whether male shrine prostitution was more prevalent than female shrine prostitution — though there are reasons to suggest it was since the rationale behind the rituals of the pagan fertility cults was the perceived need to secure “power” and “life-force.” They believed they got that power through their sado-masochistic multi-sexuality, the drinking of blood, semen and other body fluids, and through numerous sexual acts. Since based on their undertanding power and life-force were to be found in semen (among other body fluids), the more semen the more power and life-force could be secured. They believed man is capable of capturing the powers of fertility and life in nature by partaking in these rituals. The trick for man was to catch the life-force from the above gods. How they did this (and how awful it became) is one of the nasty secrets of the ancient world. There were reasons why the righteous Hebrew kings ground the pagan orgy sites (holy places) to fine dust and scraped the ground down to bedrock.

    It’s also true that in Ancient times, one of the worst insults one could do to a man would be to treat him like a woman, i.e., to penetrate him. Men were the “penetrators” and women and slaves were the “penetrated.” Penetration and power were associated with the prerogatives of the ruling male elite. Surrendering to penetration was a symbolic abrogation of power and authority — but in a way that posed a polarity of domination-subjection, not heterosexual-homosexual, as many have been want to suggest. This is why in biblical times men — and the kings — of conquered tribes were sometimes raped by the invading army as the ultimate symbol of defeat and humiliation. This male-on-male rape was a way for victors to accentuate the subjection of captive enemies and foes and a way of humiliating visitors and strangers. If we miss this, we not only miss what was going on in the renowned Sodom and Gomorrah passage (Gen 19), but we also miss the meaning in such passages as 1 Sam 31:4 and 1 Chron 10:4 in which Saul, gravely wounded by the Philistines, instructs his armor-bearer to: “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it lest these uncircumcised come and abuse me.”

    There is a famous picture from Greece that celebrates the victory of the Athenians over the Persians in 460 B.C. In the picture a Greek soldier with erect penis in hand approaches from the rear a distressed, defeated Persian soldier who is bent over waiting to be raped by the Greek. The picture was intended to show, through the imagery of male-male sexual intercourse, that the Greeks now dominate the submissive Persians. This picture was not pornography; it was politics. In myth, law, treaties, monuments, and pottery decorations, political and military domination was often conventionally symbolized by sexual domination between men.

    How important is context? What we think the Bible teaches, and what it actually teaches can sometimes be at odds with one another. Writing in their book “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth,” evangelical scholars Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, say:

    “WE TEND TO THINK THAT OUR UNDERSTANDING IS THE SAME THING AS THE HOLY SPIRIT’S OR HUMAN AUTHOR’S INTENT. HOWEVER, WE INVARIABLY BRING TO THE TEXT ALL THAT WE ARE, WITH ALL OF OUR EXPERIENCES, CULTURE, AND PRIOR UNDERSTANDINGS OF WORDS AND IDEAS. SOMETIMES, WHAT WE BRING TO THE TEXT, UNINTENTIONALLY TO BE SURE, LEADS US ASTRAY, OR ELSE CAUSES US TO READ ALL KINDS OF FOREIGN IDEAS INTO THE TEXT.”

    How important is context? Grant R. Osborne also answers that question in his award-winning book, “The Hermeneutical Spiral.” Osborne says:

    “THE INFORMATION WE GLEAN FROM THE [HISTORICAL] SOURCES BECOMES THE FILTER THROUGH WHICH THE INDIVIDUAL [BIBLICAL] PASSAGES MAY BE PASSED … ITS PURPOSE IS TO NARROW DOWN THE INTERPRETIVE LAWS SO THAT WE MIGHT ASK THE PROPER QUESTIONS, FORCING US BACK TO THE TIMES AND CULTURE OF THE ORIGINAL WRITER AND THE SITUATION BEHIND THE TEXT. WE WILL THEREFORE HAVE A CONTROL AGAINST READING TWENTIETH-CENTURY MEANING BACK INTO FIRST-CENTURY LANGUAGE. SUCH AN [HISTORICAL] APPROACH LEADS TO THE PROPER TYPE OF PRE-UNDERSTANDING, LINKED AS IT IS TO THE TEXT AND ITS BACKGROUND.”

    What happens when we ignore the historical context of Scripture? As the old time radio teacher, Dr. J. Vernon Magee, used to say, “A text without a context is a pretext.” The dictionary defines a pretext as, “An effort or strategy intended to conceal something.” In other words, unless we consider the context of Scripture — the entire context including the historical setting — we are, purposely or not, engaging in a strategy to conceal the teachings of the Bible.

    Paul is addressing pagan idolatry in Romans 1. As stated, one of the most prominent and pervasive themes weaving its way through virtually every book of the Bible is that of paganism and the constant call to turn from it. There is a continuous call to turn from the worshiping of the false or pagan gods of the day and to turn instead to the one true living God. For more on this, see my post on “Leviticus 18: What Was the Abomination”. You can find a link to this post on my “Archives” page.

  10. Michael says:

    Liza Jane, you are being intentionally ignorant. You are not even reading what Alex has written. Clearly you don’t know any gay Christian couples, or you might have something sensible to say.

    Alex is simply correct, that in context, Paul was addressing the many Greeks and Romans who turned from the invisible Deity taught by their own philosophers, and worshiped Cybele instead using idols of women, lions and serpents. Her male priests received the penalty of their error in castrating themselves. Even the women likewise, who worshiped Cybele, dressed as men, were fitted with artificial phalli, and played the part of men in same-sex temple prostitution to honor the goddess. All that has nothing to do with two Christian males or two believing females who love God, trust in Christ, but who happen to fall in love with each other. 500 years ago, Martin Luther rightly translated 1 Cor. 6:9 as “child molesters”, not “homosexuals”. But then, Liza Jane, you may not wish to learn or know anything other than what you already think.

  11. thelyniezian says:

    Alex,

    You speak much about the need for proper exegesis as opposed to eisegesis, to the point of censuring those who do not do this. But I’m not too sure I see this here. I’d have thought exegesis actually meant bringing out what *the text* itself says, not simply trying to draw parallels with certain aspects of cultural background simply because they exist. I do not see in your article anything which actually shows in precise detail how the text gives an indication that same-sex intercourse as mentioned in Romans 1 is automatically linked with the cultic activity of false gods, or, even if it were, it is wrong- after all, Paul goes on to talk about how, next in the chain of depravity, all manner of evils (covetousness, envy, murder, strife &c.) result which we clearly know are wrong in and of themselves, not imply because they are done as part of pagan worship. It’s just as fallacious as the tendency of some to claim a given practice was wrong simply because it was in some way advocated by the Nazis, not any other reason. Simply comparing things which look similar, without looking at the text in detail- and I find no such discussion in your article- seems just as much eisegesis as ignoring the cultural context.

    I assume there could be something linking the two in the “for this cause” (KJV), but even so, then what? Does that mean the “dishonourable passions” (ESV) are any less so outside of that context? Can anyone be “inflamed with lust” (KJV) simply from going through a religious ritual, with nothing deeper on his desires? And even the very “for this cause (or reason)” (KJV/ESV) ccould just be another way of saying one thing follows another- the more they sin, the more God decided to give up, stop restraining us and let us wallow in our own muck?

    And what was “the due penalty”? The passage doesn’t even hint. Yet again you relate it to these religious rituals to the goddess Aphrodite, which seems to me a bit like jumping to conclusions.

    Think of the inverse of our Nazi argument, and imagine a situation where some future scholar is analysing a polemic against eugenics, and trying to prove that since the Nazis practised eugenics, the author wasn’t actually against eugenics as such but against Nazism. After all, many other contemporary writers made reference to the Nazis when talking about the evils of eugenics, so clearly this author, even despite not mentioning it, must be doing so. This seems to be a similar argument.

    You are however right in showing that one specific thing is not the main thrust of Paul’s passage, presumably he is talking about the general sins of the Gentiles here in order to set up and show how the Jews are just as bad, and so we must not judge but point to God’s grace. Yes, we forget that, though just as Paul does not hesitate to name specific sins, should we?

  12. Alex Haiken says:

    Thelyniezian,

    Doing exegesis, that is to say — “drawing out” from the text what it originally meant to the author and to the original intended audience, without reading into the text the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it — is an investigation. The reader today must somehow try to enter the world of the biblical writer and seek to understand what the writer was saying. If we fail to pay attention to the world in which the Bible was written, we will simply read biblical texts, infuse them with meaning from our social and symbolic world and conclude that the Bible speaks directly to us.

    Doing exegesis means we have to ask such questions as: Who was the writer and to whom was he writing? What was the cultural and historical setting of the writer? What was the meaning of the words in the writer’s day? What was the intended meaning of the author and why was he saying it? What should this mean to me in my situation today? Asking these and other questions IS doing exegesis. They cannot be side-stepped if one wants to responsibly interpret the text. To an extent, careful study can open those meanings to us if we are humble enough not to presume we already know. We try hard to get past what we think we already know to find out what we are looking at. To look at the text without asking these questions is the opposite of doing exegesis.

    As I’ve said before, exegesis does not begin with asking: “What DOES it mean?” That is the wrong starting point. You’re really asking, “What does it mean to us today, individually?” and that’s why we end up with many different answers that can be answered by anyone subjectively. If you have 25 people, you’ll end up with 25 different opinions, resulting in 25 different doctrines, every one of which may be wrong, even though they all sincerely and completely believe they are correct. Exegesis always asks: “What DID it mean?” There’s a vast difference in those questions as a starting points. Our job is to somehow try to enter the world of the biblical writer and seek to understand what the writer was saying and what it meant at the time. That means we MUST pay attention to the cultural and historical setting. If we have no idea what the text meant THEN, we’re left to only guess at what it might mean to us NOW. Phrased differently, if we fail to pay attention to the world in which the Bible was written, we will run amuck almost every time.

    • Diana says:

      Alex, I would just like some clarification on a comment you made in a previous reply. Speaking of Moses and Paul, you said “Because homosexuality per se simply isn’t anything they’d ever been aware of.”. How did you come to this conclusion? Was there no homosexuality at that time besides during pagan rituals and when conquering armies raped the soldiers or king they had just defeated? I’ve read everything on this page including all replies but still am confused on this one thing. Thanks

      • Alex Haiken says:

        Yes Diana, this is true, and in fact the few verses in Scripture that proscribe sexual union between men all seek to address sins of pagan idolatry, rebellion, self-indulgence, abuse, or grossly irresponsible behavior. Moroever “homosexuality” as we know it today simply did not exist in the Ancient world. As previosuly stated, if we could stand Moses and Paul before us — the only two biblical authors who have been attributed as having said anything pertaining to or about homosexuality — and applaud (or ridicule) them for their condemnation of homosexuality, they would almost certainly stare at us in blank incomprehension. For more on this, you may want to the post on “Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality.” A link to this and similar posts can be found on the “Archives” page. Hopefully this will shed some helpful light on this for you.

  13. brgulker says:

    Alex, thanks for this post. I was familiar with this from my time in seminary, but I’m very glad to have some of these comments for reference, actually!

    I also appreciate your patience in the comments. If I were in your shoes, I doubt I could endure the way you do.

    Blessings to you!

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  15. Taylor says:

    There is no serious scientific evidence that homosexuality is born or genetic. This is a politacised lobbyist myth in america in order to pass legislation.

    Homosexuality is cut and dry rebellion against gods design, this is according to scripture.

    Let the gays marry, who are we to judge unbelievers. God doesnt recognize that marriage anyway.
    But if one wants to follow Christ he must repent like the rest of us from adulteress desires.

    • Alex Haiken says:

      Your problem, Taylor, is that the position you offer cannot be exegetically supported. As you may know, the word “exegesis” comes from the Greek verb which means “to draw out.” The point being responsible biblical exegesis requires that we seek “to draw out” from the text what it originally meant to the author and to the original intended audience, without reading into the text the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it.

      In contrast to this, what you’re doing is what some theologians refer to as “frontloading” — that is to say you’re reading your own personal, ideological and prejudicial beliefs back into the Bible, instead of reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying.

      Case in point, look at Romans 1:22-23:
      “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

      Now look at Deuteronomy 4:16-18:
      “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground…”

      There is not a Bible scholar in the world who doesn’t read Deuteronomy 4:16-18 as anything but commenting on idolatry. It’s a given. Yet when Paul repeats Deuteronomy word for word in Romans, Romans is only talking about homosexuality and not idolatry?

      Bottom line: When our favored theological positions prove to be exegetically unsupportable in accordance with the common, accepted, traditional and scientific rules of biblical exgegesis, we must be willing to let them go no matter how personally treasured or long held they may be.

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