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  • Paul, the Goddess Religions, and Queer Sects:Romans 1:23-28
  • Jeramy Townsley

Romans 1:23-28 is one of the primary texts from the NT used to justify the contemporary condemnation of both male and female homosexuals by some religious groups. This article contextualizes this passage as a unified attack on idolatry by reidentifying the subjects of the "gay" and "lesbian" behavior1 in vv. 26-27 as participants in the widespread goddess cults that posed a direct threat to Paul's ministry. These individuals violated patriarchal norms of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality in very public ways, and also most twenty-first-century readers' predominant experiences of heteronormativity—I refer to the subjects of the Pauline passage with the postmodern term "queer."2 [End Page 707]

Several lines of research converge to allow an interpretation that rejects the assumption that Paul here condemns "gays" and "lesbians." First, the hypothesis that "gay"/"lesbian"/"straight" identities existed in this Greco-Roman-Jewish context is dubious. Second, the interpretation of 1:26b as referring to female homogen-itality should be rejected. Third, the grammatical connection between the females in 1:26 and the males in 1:27 does not imply a relationship in the "identity" of these subjects (female and male homosexuals), but rather in action (the exchange of natural behaviors). Fourth, the natural versus unnatural behaviors (παρὰ φύσιν) likely refers not to an exchange of the identity categories "straight" for "gay" but to non-procreative sex (or perhaps an inversion of patriarchal gender norms). Fifth, the structural and rhetorical unity of the passage seems incongruous if one assumes the dominant contemporary interpretation regarding "gay" and "lesbian" behaviors as archetypal sins followed by a more "minor" list of sins that includes, for example, murder (Rom 1:29). Finally, this era witnessed the wide growth of goddess sects whose cross-gender and sexual practices violated patriarchal norms, giving Paul graphic imagery to refer the audience back to them. This final point is the core of this article, reciprocally supporting the first five pieces of evidence.

I. Romans 1:23-28—Gays or Idolaters?

  1. 1. 23 and [they] changed [ἤλλαξαν] the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of fowls, and of quadrupeds, and of reptiles. 24 Wherefore also God did give them up [παρέδωκεν], in the desires of their hearts, to uncleanness, to dishonour their bodies among themselves;

  2. 2. 25 who did change [μετήλλαξαν] the truth of God into a falsehood, and did honour and serve the creature rather than the Creator. . . . 26 Because of this did God give them up [παρέδωκεν] to dishonourable affections,

  3. 3. for even their females [θήλειαι αὐτῶν] did change [μετήλλαξαν] the natural use [φυσικὴν χρῆσιν] into that against nature [παρὰ φύσιν]; 27 and in like manner [ὁμοίως] also the males having left the natural use [φυσικὴν χρῆσιν] of the female, did burn in their longing toward one another. . . . 28 And, according as [καὶ καθὼς] they did not approve of having God in knowledge, God gave them up [παρέδωκεν] to a disapproved mind, to do [ποιεῖν] the things not seemly.3 [End Page 708]

The structure of Rom 1:23-28 is framed around three parallels bracketed by μετ/ήλλαξαν ("they exchanged": vv. 23, 25, 26b) and παρέδωκεν (God "surrendered" them: vv. 24, 26a, 28).4 Parallelism is common in Hebrew literature and involves repeating a thought in different ways for emphasis and clarification. Paul uses it here to emphasize God's response to idolatry.5 He describes people engaged in philosophies and religions that worship creation and created things, not YHWH. Moreover, and incongruously to the contemporary reader, he infuses each of the parallels with eroticism. He concludes that abandoning Yahweh leads to the "sin list" at the end of the chapter (vv. 29-31).

Both the first and second parallels (vv. 23-24, vv. 25-26a) explicitly describe idol worship common in the first century.6 In each passage, the people actively exchange something holy and true to worship that which is not YHWH, and God surrenders them to eroticisms. In the first, God surrenders (παρέδωκεν) them to some form of ritual impurity (ἀκαϑαρσίαν) to do something with each other (ἐν αὐτοῖς) that disgraces their bodies (τοῦ ἀτιμάζεσϑαι τὰ σώματα αὐτῶν). Robert Jewett asserts, "Almost all commentators . . . assume that the primary reference [of σώματα αὐτῶν]] is sexual."7 In the second parallel, God...


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