Paul Hated Sex (But Thought You Should Enjoy It)

This is the fourth installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender.  Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago.  In this series, which originally appeared in The Fourth R, I share with you the results of that scholarship.  SP


St. Paul Hated Sex (But Thought You Should Enjoy It)  

St. Paul hated sex.  I don’t mean that he hated having sex.  No one knows if the famous apostle ever had sex and whether or not he liked it.  I mean that he hated the idea of sex.  He was, by his own account, a sexual ascetic, who believed that others would benefit from this choice as well.  Sex was part of family life and involved a wife and children—things that could distract one from single-minded devotion to the Lord.  So if you can, give it up.  But if you get horny and can’t, well, go ahead, knock yourself out.  Find a wife or a husband and get to it.  That’s what it’s for (not procreation, but recreation—so says Paul, 1 Corinthians 7, no kidding).

Funny how Paul’s views about marriage and family life seldom come up in Christian discussions about sex.  Not that Christians make a regular habit of discussing sex.  Maybe this is a remnant of the famous apostle’s own perceived prudishness.  But if sex generally is a taboo subject among the faithful, gay sex is not.  Gay sex—or at least those who engage in it—is the battleground for the true believer in the 21st century.  For the evangelical, homosexuality is a sin.  Why?  For many, it is because Paul says so.

He says so in two passages, Romans 1:26 and 1 Corinthians 6:9.  But does he really say so?

1 Corinthians is a letter that Paul wrote to a cluster of churches he founded in the Greek city of Corinth.  In the sixth chapter a rather banal question seems to have come to Paul’s attention: Just how good do we have to be?  To this Paul offers a banal answer: “Wrongdoers will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9).  He then provides a list of “wrongdoers.”  It includes what you would expect: adulterers, drunkards, thieves, etc., and then these two types: “male prostitutes and sodomites.”  Through the years modern English translators have used various words to convey what they believed was Paul’s meaning here: sexual perverts, homosexuals, homosexual perverts, or “abusers of themselves with mankind,” as the King James Bible delicately puts it.  But in truth, we don’t really know what the Greek words behind these translations mean.

The first of the two words, in Greek, is malakos, an adjective meaning “soft.”  Here it is used as a masculine plural noun, so it means something like “men who are soft.”  Would that have meant “gay?”  Not as far as we know.  It might mean something like “womanly,” since ancients generally thought women’s bodies were softer than men’s.  But ancients also thought that a lot of sex could make a man soft.  The over-sexed man was not depicted as a chiseled stud, but a foppish pansie—a “softie.”  This is why some scholars translate the word “male prostitutes.”  But prostitutes weren’t the only people who had lots of sex.  The “softies” Paul is talking about could well be the over-sexed, the horny, a man constantly “on the make.”  But softie does not mean “gay.”

The second word—the one often rendered “homosexuals”—is a very odd word.  Scholars call it a biblical hapaxlegomenon, that is, a word that occurs just once in the Bible.  It occurs rarely outside the Bible, but when it does, it is only in lists—lists of vices, like this one.  This is the sort of word that gives lexicographers headaches.  If a word is not used in an actual sentence, it is almost impossible to know what it means.  The word is arsenokoitai.  It has two parts, arseno-, which means a male human being, and koitai, which means what it sounds like: coitus.  But here is the question: are the wrongdoers in this case men (arseno-) who have sex (koitai)—presumably too much sex—or men who have sex (koitai) with men (arseno-).  In other words, is the word arsenos, folded into this word, meant to indicate a man who has sex, or a man with whom a man has sex?  (Technically, it is a question of the objective or subjective sense—but now I risk tedium.)  You get the problem.  The word itself is ambiguous and it is never used in a context that might clarify its actual meaning.  We know it has to do with sex, and that it is bad, but beyond this we can only guess.

Most people today think that a man who has sex with a man must be gay.  But ancients did not think this way.  They did not know about sexual orientation—gay, straight, or bi.  They assumed, rather, that a person’s sexual appetite could be expressed with either gender.  A person with a normal sex drive would usually have sex with a person of the opposite gender.  But people with voracious sexual appetites and weak self-control might go further and have sex with a person of the same gender—excess sex, you might say.  Same-gendered sex was not a sign that someone was homosexual.  It meant that someone was lacking in self-control.  That is how Paul thinks of same-gendered sex. 

One can see this in the other passage where Paul mentions same-gendered sex, Romans 1:26-27.  In this part of the Epistle to the Romans, Paul is ranting about the sinful lives of Gentiles.  They are so bad, he says, that God decided to “give them up to degrading passions.  Their women exchanged normal intercourse for abnormal, and in the same way men, giving up normal intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another” (Romans 1:26-27).  Notice that the men and women he is talking about here are not gay.  They are heterosexual.  But excess passion has led them to give this up and exchange “normal intercourse” for “abnormal.”  Normal sex is one thing—and bad enough in Paul’s mind.  But excess passion leads to more than this and worse—abnormal sex!  What exactly does this mean?  Excess sex—so much sex than one gender won’t do it.  One recent study has suggested that “abnormal sex” refers to anal sex (for women and men).  Anal sex was a way for women to have lots of sex without getting pregnant.  And it was a way for men to have sex with men.  To moderns, this might mean “gay sex.”  But to Paul, it just meant a lot of sex.

Paul, it turns out, did not hate gay people.  He did not yet know about gay people.  What he hated was sex.  To him, sex was just raw passion.  One ought to be able to resist it.  Sex is for spiritual sissies, he thought.  But he knew that most of us are sissies, so he made a concession.  In 1 Corinthians he writes, “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).  If Paul had known about the whole range of human sexuality, he would have despised all of that too, but perhaps no more than any other sexual expression.  Perhaps he would have said to anyone, both straight and gay: “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

Note: Most of what I know about any of this comes from Martti Nissinen’s excellent book, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress, 1998).  I know of nothing better on the subject.  This post originally appeared in The Fourth R.  To subscribe to this informative publication, visit the Westar Institute on-line.