But why is this significant? Because some scholars try to make this case:
1. There were no loving, non-abusive same-sex relationships in New Testament times.
- What relationships there were (so the argument goes), were abusive: master-slave, or older man with younger, teenage boy (pederasty).
2. So when New Testament authors condemn same-sex sexual activity, it's because those relationships were abusive.
3. Therefore, the New Testament does not speak to loving, non-abusive same-sex relationships. As a result, we can affirm loving, non-abusive relationships that involve same-sex sexual activity.
The underlying moral logic to this revisionist argument is: same-sex sexual activity condemned by Scripture is sinful because these relationships are abusive, not because they are two people of the same sex.
This differs from the traditional understanding of these texts, which is: same-sex sexual activity is sinful precisely because it is same-sex sexual activity. It's the objective act and fact that makes it wrong, just as (for example) one could have an adulterous relationship that is loving, mutual, consensual, and non-abusive but still morally wrong.
At the heart of the above argument is the basic historical statement of #1. Is it true? No. Here are some examples of loving, non-abusive, and often lifelong same-sex relationships, ranging from Plato's Greece to the Roman Empire centuries after Jesus:
- From the Attic period of Greek history, we have at least 12 vases with erotic scenes involving bearded men—both partners are men, not boys.
- In Plato’s Symposium, Agathon and Pausanius are adult lovers. They are consenting adults whose age differential is irrelevant and who have chosen to continue mutually loving one another.
- Plato’s Euthydemus: Ctesippus and Cleinias are both younger men and are lovers.
- Charmides: Charmides, a young man is said to be an eromenos of other youths.
- In Xenophon's work: (1) Memorabilia – men using other men as women. (2) Anabasis: Menon, a youth, has a barbarian eromenos, Ariaues, who is a bearded man older than himself. Age and role reversal clearly move this outside the realm of pederasty. Mutual consent is necessary. (3) Symposium – Critobulus and Cleinias, two younger men well-endowed with body hair (a key mark of manhood, not boyhood), are lovers.
- The sacred band of Thebes. This military force was made up of lovers who at first fought while interspersed throughout the regiments but who later who made into a separate contingent of troops. This fighting force made Thebes the most powerful state in Greece. Xenophon observed that, at Thebes, the male relationships were not transitory as in other states where pederasty was much more transitional; rather, male companions lived together “like married people.” Aristotle noted that in his day, Theban male lovers still plighted mutual devotion (as in marriage vows). Plutarch thought the name “Sacred Band” came from this rite.
- Cicero criticizes Marcus Antonius by bringing up his past relationship with Curio, with whom he joined “in a stable and permanent marriage.”
- Martial describes a man, Galba, who had married six or seven cinaedi. He also describes a same-sex marriage complete with torch-lit procession, a wedding veil, a dowry, and the cheers for good luck.
- Juvenal notes that a man of wealth and status was given away in marriage to another man; he surmises that the day is close when male-male marriages will take place and be recorded in the state’s registers.
- A brief narrative in Lucian’s ‘Dialogue of the Courtesans,” describes a marriage between women.
- Funerary relief from the Augustan period depicting two women holding hands in a dextrarum iunctio, the prime symbol of marriage.
- In the 4th century AD, a law issued by Constantius II and Constans prohibited a man from marrying a man “as if he were a woman.” A law like this is generally issued only when this is a real possibility and debate (as in the numerous states in 2004 who passed similar laws).
- Finally, the example of female homoeroticism in the ancient world, though less prominent than male homoeroticism, does not in any way map onto the practice of pederasty or abuse. Female homosexuality is all over the spectrum, including marriage.
Here's how scholar Mark D. Smith summarizes the situation: “Whether the same thing is meant by ‘marriage’ in all these cases is unclear, as is also the legal status of such unions, but the existence of some form of homosexual marriages cannot be doubted, and none of them can be termed pederastic in any meaningful sense.” (“Ancient Bisexuality and Romans 1:26-27,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 2 (1996): 237).
Historian Kyle Harper notes we have “extraordinary testimony” to “durable forms of same-sex companionship. In a peaceful and prosperous society, amid a highly urbanized and remarkably interconnected empire where marriage was valorized as an institution of the greatest moral and emotional fulfillment, same-sex pairs openly claimed, and ritually enacted, their own conjugal rights.” (From Shame to Sin, 36).
So why does the myth of #1 persist? I don't know. Revisionists like James Brownson and Matthew Vines don't mention these historians or address their viewpoints head on. I suspect that many modern people, including scholars, have so bought into the myth of enlightenment--that we moderns are so much more morally developed than the ancient world--that we simply ignore the historical data.
What I find interesting is that historians like Louis Crompton (Homosexuality and Civilization), Eva Cantarella (Bisexuality in the Ancient World), and Kyle Harper (From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity) are top-notch historians who consider the argument made by revisionists--that the New Testament condemns same-sex sexual activity because it is abusive--and explicitly reject it. Rather, these historians, whose focus is on understanding the moral logic of those in the Greco-Roman world, argue that the underlying moral logic of the Bible is indeed what Christians have traditionally held: that same-sex sexual activity per se is wrong, not merely when it takes place in abusive relationships.
So can one make the revisionist case? Perhaps. But it can't be rooted in the historically inaccurate idea that all same-sex relationships in the Greco-Roman world were abusive or exploitative. They weren't. Of course, the other option would be to simply acknowledge that the Bible does intend to condemn same-sex sexual activity per se, but we don't want to. That would allow us to be honest with the historical scholarship and honest about what some are doing with the Bible: setting it aside.