If we know one thing about guys in ancient Rome, it’s that they swung both ways. “Roman society almost unanimously assumed that adult males would be capable of, if not interested in, sexual relations with both sexes,” as John Boswell noted back in his 1980 book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.
This isn’t new or controversial. Roman bisexuality is on view in innumerable sources. Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura (4.1052-57) refers to a “normal” man’s love for “either a boy or a woman.” Cicero notes that to bribe male jurors with erotic favors, both women and young men were required. It goes on and on… and on.
But then why, one might wonder, are men from the New Testament somehow imagined to be — divinely heterosexual?
Scholars have been probing the issues around same-sexuality in the New Testament era and narratives. There are several questions. Did Jewish men of the New Testament period have same-sex sex?
In a 2011 paper, Alan Cadwallader noted that, in 257 BCE, a Jewish leader of an aristocratic Palestinian family is recorded to have sent to the king of Egypt a gift of four young male slaves, two of them circumcised, apparently for erotic use.
Was this really a community that avoided same-sex everything?
Herod the Great, the Jewish official who looms over the New Testament narratives, “had some eunuchs of whom he was immoderately fond because of their beauty.” The fact is recorded by Josephus, the Jewish historian. He mentions it in passing.
Josephus mentions that, in 37 BCE, the famous Roman general Mark Antony had fallen for Aristobulus, a 16-year-old Jewish boy from a good family in Judaea. He was “in love” with him, “filled with admiration of his height and beauty…”
Cleopatra would be on the watch for female lovers, but by the rules for bi guys in Ancient Rome, the teen heartthrob Aristobulus would be all right. Antony sent for him — which presented Herod with quite a problem. Antony was known to beat up his tricks, and the youth’s prominent family would throw a fit were that to happen. Herod made up a story about Aristobulus being unavailable.
Christopher B. Zeichmann discusses these scenes in a 2020 paper, “Same-Sex Intercourse Involving Jewish Men 100BCE–100CE,” and he notes that “Herod’s objections to Aristobulus’ travel to see Mark Antony are not grounded in any fear or contempt for same-sex intercourse.”
And one might have to note that Roman moralists, just like their Jewish counterparts, regularly insisted that Roman men are ruggedly ‘straight’. As Zeichmann notes, Cicero, Plutarch, and many others assert “that same-sex penetration was incompatible with Roman identity…”
Such claims are typically brushed aside as bluster, except in one case — Jews.
In a cave in Beth Gurvin, there is some touching graffiti: “Here Philinus the youth buggered Papias, Craterus’ stepson.” These were names used by Jews.
There’s a curious scene in the Talmud, recorded around the early 4th century but apparently taking place earlier. As it reads: “Judah ben Pazzi once went up to the attic in the study hall and saw two men having intercourse. They said to him, ‘Rabbi, make note that you are one and we are two.’ ”
This might not be an actual memory, but rather, a story to deal with a curiosity about Old Testament law. If Leviticus 18:22 is a reference to homosexual sex, then it becomes a capital crime, and prosecuting infractions requires “two or three witnesses” on God’s strict standard (Deut 17:6, 19:15; cf. Num 35:30). These convictions are rarely obtained when men have sex in a cave or in the attic. Even if a rabbi catches a glimpse — it is not enough.
On this episode of Bible Law and Order, one might even wonder if Leviticus 18:22 is actually about male-male sex. The English translation is clarity itself, of course, but a literal scholarly translation of the verse can leave one scratching one’s head, or anywhere else one wishes to scratch:
And-with a male not you-will-lie ‘lyings-of’ a woman.
It’s all so unfamiliar. What is this ‘lyings’—plural?
Scholars and rabbis puzzle over the enigmatic phrase, as David Brodsky described in a 2009 paper, “Sex in the Talmud: How to Understand Leviticus 18 and 20.”
So then, how did Jesus, or Peter, Paul or Mary, understand Leviticus 18:22? Because Christianity likes to assert these figures read the verse as a prohibition on male-male sex and makes the further claim that same-sex narratives are therefore absent from the New Testament narratives — even when concerning Gentiles.
Back in 2004, Theodore W. Jennings Jr. and Tat-Siong Benny Liew had suggested that the Roman centurion and his slave, as narrated in three gospels, looked like a same-sex relationship. The case was updated in 2008 Eric Koepnick. It might have seemed an eccentric view, even so, because the Bible was assumed to be somehow remarkably, magically cleansed of non-heterosexuality.
In a 2018 paper, “Gender Minorities in and Under Roman Power,” Zeichmann returns to the case of the centurion and his ‘boy’. (His scholarly specialty is the Roman army and the New Testament.) A sexual relationship, he notes, would have been common for the period. The Centurion calls his slave a Greek word, παῖς, that can suggest a sexual relationship. In Luke 7:2, the boy was “dear” or “precious” to him.
Could it be that only Christian insistence prevents the text from being read with the apparently obvious suggestion? If the young slave is Jewish, the narrative might easily be a same-sex analogue to the story of Esther. But back since Hagar in Genesis 16, the Bible often relies on narratives of affections for sex slaves as key turning points for the faith.
Near the end of the New Testament is a tiny letter by the apostle Paul that tells a story about — a runaway slave? Efforts to identify the plot tend to run the gamut. A 2011 paper by Joseph A. Marchal, “The Usefulness of an Onesimus: The Sexual Use of Slaves and Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” followed up by a 2019 book, Appalling Bodies: Queer Figures Before and After Paul’s Letters, suggested that the basic terms have been misread.
Marchal works off the slave’s name: ‘Onesimus.’ In the Bible, names tend to set out the core of a character. Christian commentary typically says that Onesimus means ‘useful.’ But apparently this is not quite right. The name ‘Onesimus,’ Marchal says, means ‘good for use,’ ‘well-used,’ or ‘easy to use.’ To a person in the world of the New Testament, he writes, this suggests “the erotically available (or sexually vulnerable) enslaved person…”
Christianity broke its own rules in translating the slave’s name, for “use” is often seen as a cue to sex. If “natural use” in Romans 1:26–27 is “intercourse,” as often supposed, then ‘Onesimus’ means — ‘good for intercourse.’ If Onesimus is a sex slave, then he may be young, ‘pretty,’ long-haired, and castrated.
The slave owner’s name, ‘Philemon,’ is as meaningful. It suggests the Greek word phileo, or ‘love,’ and also philema, which means ‘kiss.’ Philemon seems to be a man made for love. He seems to be a very ‘loving’ person — who has a male sex slave. Thus we see a conflict — both in Christian anti-slavery teachings, perhaps, and in traditional Jewish views on same-sexual eroticism. It might be either which Paul steps forward, acting as a theologian, to help resolve.
We read in v.16 in the NIV translation Paul speaking of the slave: “He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.”
But is this right? The men could not be “dear” as “fellow men” — or Paul, also male, would be as “dear.” Marchal provides a literal translation. As dear as Onesimus is to him, Paul writes: “how much (more) especially to you, both in the flesh and in the lord.”
Onesimus and Philemon are close in spirit and in flesh. That is as close as anyone can be. Paul’s counsel is for the men to love each other on terms of Christian quality and equality. He sends Onesimus back home to Philemon, as he writes: “that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” (RSV)
It seems that Onesimus makes a cameo appearance in Colossians 4:9, where Paul notes he will be arriving as “our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you.”
Christians of the time — and still — need a little reminder of the reality of the culture for which we claim.
Jonathan Poletti has been published in Roctober, Tablet, the New Oxford Review and Salon and is currently a religion blogger and editor on the topics of LGBTQ, music, books, feminism, history and art at Medium.