Ancient Near East


Hebrew Bible

Same-sex relations existed in ancient Israel as attested by biblical laws that attempt to regulate and stories that seem to admit them. The homoerotic, however, often remains veiled because the text is not sexually explicit.

Affirmative Case for Same-Sex Relations.

A biblical case affirming same-sex relations must examine creation and the putative “gender” of God. Although Hebrew grammar refers to God with masculine possessive suffixes, pronouns, and verb forms, the Bible hides God’s genitals (Exod 33:18–23) and grammatical gender is not always used consistently. Sometimes God displays feminine attributes (Isa 66:13). In the first creation story God creates humanity in his image (Gen 1:27): “In the image of God he created them [lit. him]; / male and female he created them.” This poem places male and female in parallel with the image of God, suggesting divine gender is androgyne (male + female). Nevertheless, the hiddenness of God’s genitals leaves indeterminate the question of gender. Thus, the four genders understood by early Rabbis (male, female, androgyne [m. Bik. 1:5], and indeterminate [not male, not female; m. ʿArak. 1:1]) are present in God. Any person of any gender stands in same-gendered (homophilic) and cross-gendered (heterophilic) relationship to the Deity who contains all genders and no gender. Might gendered human relations reflect the variety of divine-human relations?

Jay Michaelson (2011, p. 32) argues that same-sex sexual relations are part of creation. God “spread out the earth and what comes from it” (Isa 42:5), including numerous species that exhibit same-sex relations. Likewise, God creates the 1.7 percent of humans who are intersex (Mollenkott, 2001, p. 40), calling the whole of creation “very good” (Gen 1:31). The Deity gives life and breath and pours out God’s “spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28; 3:1 [Heb.], emphasis mine).

The Traditionalist Case against Same-Sex Relations.

The traditionalist view is that same-sex relations are forbidden in the Hebrew Bible. The strongest evidence for this view is found in two legal prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and the “prime directive” of Genesis 1:22, 28, and 9:1, 7, “reproduce and multiply.” Following Marvin Ellison (2004, pp. 67–72), several presuppositions undergird this view: (1) a binary biosex/gender framework where “opposites attract,” which depends on (2a) gender hierarchy in a patriarchal society or (2b) gender complementarity where gendered roles are different but significant; (3a) that same-sex relations are gender nonconforming (where partners play “active” or “passive” roles contrary to gendered sexual norms) or (3b) perverse; and (4) a heterosexual/homosexual duality. The Hebrew Bible, when read closely and inductively, brings into question these presuppositions. The “prime directive,” as affirmative law, does not exclude nonreproductive sexual relations. Indeed, the Song of Songs celebrates sex.

Sexual Landscapes.

The biblical landscape of sex and sexuality differs from modern “Western” sensibilities. “Homo-” and “heterosexuality” are nineteenth-century coinages. The Hebrew Bible views sexual relations as behaviors ranged on a scale. At one end five behaviors—incest within certain relations, adultery, sex with menstruants, (metaphorical) sexual relations with divine beings, and bestiality—are forbidden. Of these, three behaviors draw the death penalty—adultery (Lev 20:10), four kinds of incest (Lev 20:11–14), and bestiality (Lev 20:15–16). At the opposite end, sexual relations in marriage are celebrated, including levirate “marriages” and polygamous relations. Between these two poles, sex with prostitutes, premarital heterosex, and sex by force are reprehended but not categorically forbidden; sex with slaves is implicitly permitted. Nearly all sexual relations cause temporary ritual impurity (Lev 15:2, 18). However, two nondischarging women after their period of “cleansing” (i.e., nonmenstruating, nonhypermenorrheic, or nonpostpartum) would be an exception. Sexual relations are also regulated by social class (Lev 21:7–15; Lev 19:20–22; Deut 21:10–16) and location (Deut 22:23–27).

Key Texts and Documents.

Biblical narratives concerning same-sex relations include the Noah and Ham story (Gen 9:20–27) with its inner-biblical commentaries (Gen 19:30–38; Lev 18:3, 6–8; Hab 2:15; Lam 4:21); the incident at Sodom (Gen 19:1–11), its parallel story in Judges (Judg 19:15–25), and its inner-biblical exegesis (e.g., Isa 1:9–11, 3:8–9; Jer 23:14; Ezek 16:46–50; Job 31:31–32); Ehud and Eglon (Judg 3:12–30); Deborah and Jael/Yael (Judg 4—5); David, Jonathan, and Saul (1 Sam 18—2 Sam 1); Ruth and Naomi; Temple qĕdešîm (1 Kgs 14:24, 15:12, 22:46 [V. 47 Heb.]; 2 Kgs 23:7); and the eunuchs in Esther (chs. 1–2, 4, 6–7) and Daniel (chs. 1 and 3). Key legal texts include Leviticus chapters 15, 18, and 20 (especially vv. 18:3, 6–8, 14, 22; 20:13) and Deuteronomy 23:10–15, 18–19; from ancient Near Eastern law: Hittite Law [HL] §§ 189–190 (ca. 1650–1180 B.C.E.) and Middle Assyrian Laws [MAL] A 19–20 (ca. 1076 B.C.E.). From biblical poetry, key texts include the “sex-positive” Song of Songs.

Homoeroticism in the Biblical World.

The Hebrew Bible gives little attention to homoeroticism. Possible texts include the story of Sodom in Genesis 19, alleged prohibitions of homosexual relations at Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, “cross-dressing” at Deuteronomy 22:5, the seduction between Ehud and Eglon (Judg 3:12–30), and passages thought to address ritual male prostitution (1 Kgs 14:24, 15:12, 22:46 [v. 47 Heb.]; 2 Kgs 23:7). The translation of qĕdešîm as “male prostitutes” is unsustainable (Stone, 2006, pp. 234–235). Although it is difficult to read “silence” or sexual innuendo, the fact that biblical texts only explicitly treat cases at behavioral boundaries (rape, relations in the royal court, incests) suggests the central issue of permission is not in question.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and queer biblical interpreters have advanced alternative interpretations for the passages above and offered homoerotic readings of David and Jonathan and lesbian readings of Ruth and Naomi. If one construes the relative silence of the Hebrew Bible to mean that same-sex relations were not the most important matter or not aberrant except in boundary cases, then “traditionalists” are too exuberant in their readings. Paradoxically, they also fail to recognize all the prohibitive texts (Lev 18:6–7, 14).

First boundary case—rape.

The “parade” boundary case is the story of Sodom in Genesis 19:1–11. Although within the story the men of Sodom want to rape Lot’s male visitors (v. 3), the hearer or reader knows the visitors are angels. The reader who imagines the men of Sodom inviting the visitors for sex play misses the horror of male-on-male rape and angel rape, which inverts the hospitality of Abraham and Lot. Hospitality may also motivate the Ephraimite in Gibeah, who takes in the Levite and his second-rank wife (Judg 19:15–21). In this parallel story, the men of Gibeah demand the Levite for sex, but are satisfied when he pushes his secondary wife outside. These men rape her all night. The “outrage at Gibeah” is a partial commentary on Genesis 19, stressing the woman’s rape and not the male object of initial desire (vv. 22–25). One might say, from a modern perspective, that the rapists of Gibeah were “bisexual” if crimes of violence were about sex. Inner-biblical readers of Genesis 19 stress quite different matters from contemporary readers. When Isaiah alludes to Sodom, he sees hypocrisy (1:9) and public avowal of sin (3:9); Jeremiah, adultery and false-dealing (23:14); and Ezekiel, the Sodomites’ offense against hospitality as arrogant neglect of the poor and needy (16:49).

Genesis 19, as a story of an attempt to rape angels, resonates with the picture of “sons of god” cohabiting with “daughters of men” (Gen 6:1–4), the prohibitions of metaphorical “whoring” after ghosts and spirits in Leviticus 20:6, and the sexual innuendos associated with passing “seed” to Molekh (Lev 18:21 with v. 20). Concern about divine-human sex appears elsewhere in the ancient Near East: Gilgamesh is the fruit of sexual congress between a human and a goddess, but spurns relations when propositioned by the goddess Ishtar to focus on his intimate male friend, Enkidu.

Second boundary case—royal court.

Setting aside the encounter of Eglon with Ehud (Guest, 2006, pp. 162–174; Judg 3:12–30), Jonathan and David provide the parade example of male homophilic or erotic relations in the royal court. Anthony Heacock (2011, pp. 35–39) argues that readers of this story fall into three main camps. (1) The political-theological reader stresses Jonathan’s and David’s “covenant love” that allows for a transfer of Jonathan’s royal inheritance to David. Jonathan subordinates himself to David and so moves along the narrative of David’s rise to kingship. (2) The homoerotic interpretation stresses eight texts: 1 Samuel 16:12 (David is handsome); 1 Samuel 18:1–4 (Jonathan loves and covenants with David); 1 Samuel 19:1 (Jonathan delights in David); 1 Samuel 20:17 (Jonathan loves David); 1 Samuel 20:30 (Saul accuses Jonathan of a treacherous relationship with David); 1 Samuel 20:41–42 (the pair kiss and weep with each other); 1 Samuel 23:18 (the two mutually covenant); and 2 Samuel 1:26 (David laments Jonathan’s death while praising his love). (3) The homosocial interpretation suggests that “warrior-buddy” friendship stands in the foreground but the texts are ambiguous about a homoerotic dimension. Heacock argues that whether there was “homogenitalic” contact remains unknowable because the text is not explicit. Indeed, Heacock notes that any love relationship between Jonathan and David is weakly evidenced by David. Heacock labels it a “one-sided affair” on Jonathan’s part. But Stone (2006, p. 208) contrasts David’s and Jonathan’s declarations of love with the “heterosexual” acts found in 2 Samuel, all corrupted by power politics.

Ken Stone (2011) suggests that “few parts of the Bible are more beholden to notions of virile manhood than the David narratives” because of their focus on “military valor and traffic in women” (p. 94). At ancient Sparta warrior eroticism was part of the militaristic mix—so possibly here (Stone, 2006, p. 207). Those who read this way often assign Jonathan a passive or feminized role. Tempting as it is to read passive/active sexual roles into the Bible, are they really indigenous to Israel or the ancient Near East? The Middle Assyrian Laws (ca. 1076 B.C.E.) require, “If a man sodomizes [lit. ‘fornicates with’] his comrade and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall sodomize him and they shall turn him into a eunuch” (Roth, 1997, p. 160; Mal A20). Here the “comrade” is a social equal (not a slave or half-free) and implicitly is raped (cf. Mal A19). The punishment includes a “measure for measure” component—to be sodomized—plus castration. The punishment itself shows that male same-sex relations are not automatically forbidden. What is at question here may be a violent crime or a violation of social class rather than someone accepting a passive sexual role. But what is at question for Jonathan and David?

Saul (who also loves David, 1 Sam 16:21) suspects something is amiss when he accuses Jonathan at 1 Samuel 20:30. The phrase attributed to Saul, “the shame of your mother’s nakedness,” recalls the tradition of Leviticus 18:6–16. “Uncovering nakedness” is technical language for incest and menstrual sex—not all sex—and implies that Jonathan literally or metaphorically commits incest with his brother-in-law David and, by extension, exposes his father and mother.

Third boundary case—incest.

There are six major competing interpretations of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: (1) These verses condemn all forms of homosexuality for all people, as in, “Do not practice homosexuality” (New Living Translation); (2) they condemn only male homosexuality: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman”; (3) they condemn only male-male anal intercourse (Boyarin, 1995); (4) they condemn males in the sexually passive role but not males in the active role (Olyan, 1994; cf. Mal A19); (5) they condemn male-on-male incest (Aaron ben-Elijah, 1972; Stewart, 2006); and (6) they apply only to those who live in the Land of Israel because sexual sins pollute the Land—a locational view (Milgrom, 2000; Lev 18:25–28).

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 do not refer to female same-sex relations. If this is not apparent to the reader from the male-focused context of the text, it should be from the direct object phrase that starts the verse: wĕʾet-zākār (with respect to a male). The New Living Translation above overlooks this.

Interpretations of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are troubled by grammatical anomalies in the Hebrew original—by the absence of an “as” (Heb., k-) and the disconcerting plural, “lyings of a woman” (miškebêʾiššâ), that Ibn Ezra called “the whole interpretive problem.” Rashi, in his comment on Leviticus 20:13, emphasizes the shared element that allows an analogy: “penetrating, as one sticks a brush in the tube of paint.” But the translators’ use of “as” disguises the technical nature of the phrase “lyings of a woman.”

That “lyings of a woman” is technical language becomes clear in two ways: first, the singular, “lying of a male,” refers to male-female copulation and specifically defloration (e.g., Num 31:17). The similar phrase in the plural, the “lyings of your father,” refers to Reuben’s lying with his stepmother Bilhah (i.e., male-female incest [Gen 49:4]). These two phrases refer to male-female sexual relations from the male perspective. It is the male who is the sexual subject, including the father whose bed is defiled, although “women’s lyings” are mentioned.

This technical argument about the Hebrew phrasing can be coupled with a contextual argument. Leviticus 20:13 nests within a section that requires death for certain incests: verses 11–12, stepmother and daughter-in-law incest; verse 14 taking both mother and daughter sexually. Analogously, verse 13 should be about incest with father, son, and son-in-law, giving us a possible translation for “lyings of a woman” as “male-male incest analogous to male-female incest.” As a solution to the grammatical anomaly, the fourteenth-century Karaite, Aaron ben-Elijah offered “incest” (The Crown of Torah, 1972).

The problem of reading Leviticus 20:13 as a prooftext in isolation from context is compounded when done with Leviticus 18:22. Its immediate context places it fourth in a summary list of forbidden practices: menstrual sex (v. 19); adultery (v. 20); “seed to [the god] Molekh” (v. 21), and a prohibition of male and female initiated bestiality (v. 23). The earlier part of the chapter consists of incest prohibitions (vv. 6–18) primarily focused on women victimized by males. However, verse 14 specifically forbids incest by the male persona, to whom the commands are addressed, with his paternal uncle. Verse 7 also appears to equate the son’s incest of his mother with incest of the father. Verse 6, when read with Leviticus 21:1–3 listing one’s near kin, prohibits father-son and brother-brother incest (as well as mother-son, father-daughter, and brother with virgin sister). After this extensive incest list—the largest extant in the ancient world—one expects that in the summative list of sexual sins that follows (i.e., vv. 19–23), incest should also find a place.

Although the diagnostic term tôʿēbâ (abhorrence) shows up in verse 22, it also appears in the rhetorical close of the chapter in verses 26, 27, and 29, making it clear that all the sexual behaviors of the chapter are abhorrent. They form a frame with verse 3 that prohibits Israelites repeating the practices of Egypt and Canaan. In Egypt adultery was the “great sin” and brother-sister marriage a common Pharaonic practice. Tôʿēbâ can semantically “diagnose” other domains (e.g., idolatry [Deut 13:14–15] and unjust weights and measures [Deut 25:15–16]). However, if tôʿēbâ diagnoses all the sexual behaviors of Leviticus 18, why is it repeated in verse 22? Within its ancient (patriarchal) context the key violative relationship is between father and son (Lev 18:6–7). From this all other incests are permutations. Thus, verse 22 recollects and stresses male-male incest.

The reference to Egypt and Canaan signals us to return to their first mention in Genesis 9:22 and 10:6 as sons of Ham and grandsons of Noah. When Noah becomes drunk and passes out, Ham sees his father’s nakedness. When Noah awakes and “knew what his youngest son had done to him” (v. 24), he curses his grandson Canaan. The biblical editor places a veil over the scene. But something sexual has happened—something more than a casual view by Ham of Noah’s nakedness. He mocks, or gazes too long, or castrates—as suggested by early commentators. Or possibly he has sex with his father or mother. Later we see Lot’s daughters incesting their father when he is drunk (Gen 19:30–38).). Habbakuk decries getting one’s fellow drunk to gaze at him naked (2:15). This very phrase “nakedness of his father” (ˁerwat-ʾābîw, Gen 19:22) is echoed by “nakedness of your father” at Leviticus 18:7 (ˁerwat-ʾābîkâ) and the repeated use of ˁerwat with a kin term for incest throughout verses 7–16. The curse seems out of place—and disproportionate—unless “something was done,” as Genesis 9:27 implies. Leviticus 18, with its reference to Ham’s son Canaan and reuse of the nakedness language, seems to expand upon a concern about incest in the Noah/Ham story.

The concern for male-male incest also shows up in the only other attested list of forbidden incestuous relationships in ancient Near Eastern law. Hittite Law 189 reads, “If a man sins (sexually) with (his) son, it is an unpermitted sexual pairing [ḥurkil]” (lit.). Like Leviticus 18, the list also forbids son-mother, father-daughter, and, at HL 190, son-stepmother incest. Like Leviticus 18:22, it adds a diagnostic term—ḥurkil—the Hittite equivalent of tôʿēbâ.

Same-sex relations among women.

If a veil is drawn over what happens between Noah and Ham or David and Jonathan, the more so for women. Monique Wittig (1992, p. 32) argues that “it would be incorrect to say that lesbians…live with women, for woman has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought.” Thus a “lesbian-identified hermeneutic…operates from…hetero-suspicion in order to counter the general erasure of women’s interests” (Guest, 2006, p. 178), including homoerotic relations. One lesbian response to why women’s same-sex relations are not covered in Leviticus is that they have been erased—or that interpretations erase them.

In Judges Deborah and Yael act as subjects. Guest points out that Deborah and Yael meet in a midrash-like retelling of the story by Sara Maitland. Maitland’s women write the “Song of Deborah” for women to sing together when they work, exulting in women’s triumphs (p. 180). We need such new midrashim because what we have in Judges is what “men thought about women rather than a representation of women’s authentic lives” (p. 178).

Thus we are left to our imaginations to reconstruct such lives. Did purity restrictions surrounding women’s discharges foster relationships when prevented from general social intercourse? Did matriarchs in polygamous households act in solidarity? When women shared work—as in the weaver’s workshop (Lev 13:47–58)—was there also intimacy?

The parade example of an intimate women’s world is what West calls “the closest physical relationship between women expressed anywhere in the Bible” (2006, p. 191). Ruth pledges to Naomi, “where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16B–17a). Ruth certifies this with an oath: “May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (v. 17b). This pledge and oath are richer than those of Jonathan and David (cf. 1 Sam 20:42; 23:18). Ruth names her relationship and stays with Naomi. Naomi takes on the role of mentor, showing Ruth how they should survive and suggesting strategy that provokes Boaz to act as levir. The three form a family. When Ruth has her first child, Naomi becomes co-mother. “A son has been born to Naomi,” neighbor women declare when she takes him to her breast (Ruth 4:16–17). Ruth loves Naomi and makes this happen (Ruth 4:15).

Women’s same-sex relations are not legally symmetrical with men’s. Male sexual discharge (Lev 15:2–18) pollutes on every occasion, including relations with a wife (Lev 15:18). But only some vaginal discharges (lochial, menstrual, and dysmenorrheal) ritually pollute. Thus it is possible for women to have sexual relations together when pollution from discharges is not an issue; men cannot. This is one possible reason women’s same-sex relations are not included in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 when these verses are understood according to their linguistic sense. Boyarin (1995, p. 339) notes the lack of interest by the Babylonian Talmud in female same-sex relations except when it might stimulate women to illicit sex with men (b. Yebam. 76a; b. Šabb. 65a–b).

Same-sex relations among eunuchs.

The Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature recognize several categories of individuals that might loosely fall under modern categories of “transgender,” “intersexual,” or “asexual”: eunuchs made or born so, celibates by God’s demand (Jer 16:1–2), women or men with incomplete or disabled genitals (Num 5:27; Lev 21:20; Deut 23:1; v. 2 [Heb]), androgynes (ha-Adam), and persons with indeterminate gender (Stewart, 2011, pp. 78–81). Some scholars argue for eunuchs as a “third gender” (West, 2006, p. 280). In Esther and Daniel, communities of eunuchs act in coordination (Esth 1–2; 4; 6–7; Dan 1; 3); thus one could presuppose homosocial relations. Although homoerotic relations are possible for eunuchs, the Bible remains silent about them.

Summary and Conclusion.

Within the Hebrew Bible same-sex relations are a bounded practice. They are not permitted as rape or incest, nor are they permitted with numinous beings or beasts. The key forbidden homoerotic relationship is between father and son. Parties to two representative same-sex relationships, whether sexually active or not, make pledges and use “love” to describe how one feels for another: Jonathan for David; David for Jonathan after death; Ruth for Naomi. Although Malachi 2:14 refers to a covenant of marriage, no different-sex characters are shown making similar covenants and pledges except “Solomon” and the Shulamite in the Song of Songs. The Hebrew Bible tends to draw a veil over homoerotic details, leaving only sexual innuendo or symbolic traces to hint at something more. The boundary cases suggest that same-sex practices were permitted or overlooked in the biblical eras. In the history of reception of the Bible, further controls are put in place.




  • Aaron ben Elijah. Keter torah: Sefer vayikra (The Crown of Torah: The Book of Leviticus). Ramleh, Israel: Hayyim ben Yitshaq ha-Levi, 1972. [Hebrew].
  • Boyarin, Daniel. “Are There Any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’??” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, no. 3 (1995): 333–355.
  • Ellison, Marvin M. Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 2004.
  • Guest, Deryn. “Judges.” In The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache, pp. 167–189. London: SCM Press, 2006.
  • Heacock, Anthony. Jonathan Loved David: Manly Love in the Bible and the Hermeneutics of Sex. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011.
  • Michaelson, Jay. God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. Queer Action/Queer Ideas. Boston: Beacon, 2011.
  • Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 17–22. Anchor Bible 3A. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
  • Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 2001.
  • Nissinen, Marti. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.
  • Olyan, Saul M. “‘And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman’: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, no. 2 (1994): 179–206.
  • Roth, Martha T. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997.
  • Stewart, David Tabb. “Leviticus.” In The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache, pp. 77–104. London: SCM Press, 2006.
  • Stewart, David Tabb. “Sexual Disabilities in the Hebrew Bible.” In Disability Studies and Biblical Literature, edited by Candida R. Moss and Jeremy Schipper, pp. 67–87. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Stone, Ken. “Queer Reading between Bible and Film: Paris Is Burning and the ‘Legendary Houses’ of David and Saul.” In Bible Trouble: Queer Readings and the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, edited by Teresa Hornsby and Ken Stone, pp. 75–98. Semeia Studies 67. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.
  • Stone, Ken. “1 and 2 Samuel” and “1 and 2 Kings.” In The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache, pp. 195–250. London: SCM Press, 2006.
  • West, Mona. “Ruth” and “Esther.” In The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache, pp. 190–194, 278–285. London: SCM Press, 2006.
  • Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

David Tabb Stewart

Greek World

Greece of the archaic, classical, and Hellenistic periods featured a widespread, but not universally practiced culture of same-sex love and sexuality.


The Greek language had no one term corresponding to the modern “homosexuality” (Halperin, 1990, pp. 15–53). What we would now cover with that designation comprised at least three separately constructed but in some respects parallel sets of behavior: (1) pederasty, referring to transitional relationships usually between young men prior to the age of marriage and adolescent boys; (2) age-equal relationships either among adolescents or, less commonly, among adult men; and (3) lesbian relations either between adult women (as seen on several vase paintings) or between a mature woman and an adolescent girl prior to marriage (as implied in the poetry of Sappho). Most of our literary sources, which are written from the standpoint of elite adult men, emphasize pederasty, but the age boundaries at which one ceased to be the younger “beloved” (erōmenos) and became a more assertive “lover” (erastēs) are not clearly defined: beard growth marked the end of physical attractiveness for many poetic sources, but we also know cases of men who shaved their beards to remain youthful looking (Agathon, Alcibiades), and vase painting frequently shows unbearded youths actively courting either a younger adolescent or another youth at approximately the same stage of physical development. Relationships between adult men are far less common in the visual record, but a number of literary texts suggest that some adult men did enjoy adopting the passive sexual position relative to another adult man (Ps.-Aristotle, Problems 4.16; Caelius Aurelianus, Chronic Disorders 4.9). Perhaps the most famous example of such a relationship is that between the Iliadic heroes Achilles and Patroclus, which came to be interpreted as homosexual in fifth-century B.C.E. and later sources (Aeschylus, Myrmidons; Plato, Symposium 179e–180b); such a lifelong relationship also appears to have bound together the historical Pausanias and Agathon, who appear together as a couple in both Plato’s Protagoras (dramatic date of 431 B.C.E.) and Symposium (416 B.C.E.), and left Athens together after 411 (Aelian, VH 2.21).

Origins and Social Contexts.

Some scholars trace the origins of pederasty back to Indo-European or Minoan origins, based on anthropological constructions of pederasty as an initiatory rite or form of bonding between experienced and neophyte warriors (see Hubbard, 2003, pp. 14–15, 58). The relative paucity of evidence among other early Indo-European cultures weakens the Indo-European genealogy; however, the seventh-century B.C.E. bronze figurines of ithyphallic warriors holding hands, one of visibly shorter stature than the other, does lend some support to those who claim an early Cretan origin. Aristotle (Politics 2.10; in support of his view, see Percy, 1996, pp. 59–72) also suggests the practice originated in Crete as a measure for controlling overpopulation, possibly by facilitating a delayed age of marriage for males. This localization of the origin in Crete may be mistaken, but behind it is perhaps a more profound insight about Greece as a whole: poor fertility of the land did impose certain limits on the carrying capacity of the environment, encouraging an adaptive cultural strategy of lower population growth through delayed age of marriage and, in turn, the evolution of alternative sexual outlets for young men and adolescents. In a classic 1907 article, Erich Bethe suggested that it was the highly militarized culture of Sparta, dependent upon strong bonds of mutual support among an elite warrior group, that was the formative influence, and that the early Cretan manifestations of pederasty were derivative of a broader diffusion of Dorian military practice in the southernmost parts of Greece. It should be noted that the earliest datable written evidence for pederasty is found in graffiti carved into a rock face on the island of Thera (Hubbard, 2003, pp. 82–83), which was settled by the Spartans.

It should be noted, however, that both the Kato Syme figurines and the Thera graffiti were not found in archaeological locations that had any particular military significance but near sacred precincts of Hermes (a god of transitions), Aphrodite, and Apollo (associated with male adolescence). Sappho’s poetry, also from the seventh century B.C.E., suggests some connection with the cult of the love goddess Aphrodite on the island of Lesbos (see especially frags. 1, 2, 94.21–22, 96.26–30 V); other poems emphasize themes of marriage or loss of formerly beloved girls to marriage, as if the homoerotic liaisons in Sappho’s circle fulfilled a social function of educating girls into a romantic and musical sophistication that would make them attractive as future brides. Some critics have proposed a similar scenario behind the equally archaic Maidens’ Song of Alcman (frag. 1 PMG), a long lyrical narrative and encomium performed by a chorus of Spartan girls as part of a ceremony worshipping the goddess Dawn (also invested with erotic powers in Greek mythology), but there is much about this complex and fragmentary poem that remains disputed. At the very least, the poem, including allusions to the girls’ mutual attractions, seems designed to showcase their beauty before an appreciative public that might include male suitors and their families.

The growing institutionalization of athletics in the seventh and sixth centuries should be viewed as a corresponding opportunity for displaying the physical excellence and erotic appeal of boys and young men (see Scanlon, 2002). Athletic nudity and the addition of a special division of competition for boys both date to this period. One of the original uses of commemorative statuary in the archaic period was to preserve for eternity the idealized nude form of a victorious athlete in his physical prime. Vase painting also featured young athletes as a favored theme, sometimes accompanied by either age-equal or clearly older male admirers; some vases suggest that athletic trainers had an erotic interest in their pupils, raising the possibility that pederastic motives may have led some to sponsor the training and travel of talented young athletes whose families were not wealthy enough to pay for it (Hubbard, 2005). Other vases suggest that the gym was a place where pederasts might encounter and court youths they fancied. Graffiti written by the lovers of competing athletes decorated a tunnel leading into the stadium at Nemea, the site of one of the four major pan-Hellenic athletic festivals (Hubbard, 2003, p. 84).

The drinking party, or symposium, was another context of male socialization that facilitated erotic bonds between older and younger men. Only here the qualities that made a youth desirable extended beyond the merely physical to include musical and verbal aptitude, as well as the self-confidence and poise to consort on an equal footing with men of more experience and wisdom. The rather substantial collection of wisdom poetry attributed to the sixth-century Megarian aristocrat Theognis consists of political and social advice directed by the poet to his sometimes unfaithful beloved Cyrnus; these poems, like most Greek elegy and monodic lyric, were intended for performance and re-performance at elite symposia. Fifth-century vase painting often shows men and youths reclining together comfortably on a single banqueting couch. Such sympotic scenes also reveal the presence of much younger, even preadolescent boys as naked servants serving the men wine or wiping them with sponges; the boys’ nudity and the evident attention that the men pay them suggest that the symposium could also play host to a less pedagogical and more hedonistic flirtation with slave boys, as also documented in the famous anecdote about the tragic poet Sophocles kissing the wine boys of Ion of Chios (Athenaeus 603d–604f).

Evaluation and Social Criticism.

Some critics (e.g., Halperin, 1990, pp. 15–53, basing his views on the earlier work of Foucault [1985]) have viewed pederasty through the same lens as male-female and master-slave relationships, that is, as an unequal pairing between a privileged citizen male (in the active, penetrative position) and a social inferior at his disposal (in a passive, penetrated position). However, this view may be too much influenced by negative modern constructions of child sexual abuse. It is best to evaluate the institution of pederasty within the terms and constructs that ancient sources themselves set up for its description. Pederastic verse describes the pursuing lover as the one who is “yoked” (Theognis 1357–1358), “dragged” (Theognis 371–372), or “burned” (Theognis 1359–1360) by passion. Vase painting never shows boys engaging in oral sex, shows anal sex only among age equals, but more often depicts men looking at boys’ genitals or fondling them, as if to suggest that their chief interest was in appreciating boys’ growing masculinity. The most intimate acts that we find in clearly pederastic scenes are kissing and intercrural intercourse, in which the man bends himself rather awkwardly to rub between a boy’s thighs (see Lear and Cantarella, 2008, pp. 106–138); these scenes contrast markedly with depictions of heterosexual coitus, which place the man in a much more dominant posture.

Literary sources ranging from the elegies of Theognis to Plato’s Symposium suggest a pedagogical function for pederastic relationships of the best type, although acknowledging that not all pederasty conformed to this ideal. The most common gifts that we see on courtship vases are consistent with a pedagogical intention: lyres (for encouraging musical pursuits), crowns (rewarding athletic or musical talent), fighting cocks (to promote a spirit of unsentimental competition), and wild game (suggesting a shared interest in hunting, culturally coded as an important rite of passage for adolescent males). More broadly, the principal social benefit of pederasty appears to be the assimilation of male adolescents, especially those of elite class, into the pursuits of young gentlemen: masculine activities like hunting, athletics, even gambling and drinking. It should be noted that demographers estimate as many as a third to a half of Athenian boys would have lost their own fathers by the age of eighteen, especially during and after times of war. Pederasty may thus have offered many boys and youths older role models who could, in lieu of a father, oversee and facilitate their entry into the adult community.

This is not to say that pederasty was either practiced or approved universally among the Greeks of the classical period. Plato’s Phaedrus attributes to the orator Lysias a speech intended to persuade a youth to avoid the company of lovers, who can be so possessive as to manipulate a beloved into dependency or so jealous as to keep him away from the company of other good men. The two literary genres that can be said to appeal most directly to the prejudices of the common man were comedy and forensic oratory: both depict pederasty with suspicion and ridicule, implying its association with prostitution, effeminacy, overindulgence, and upper-class privilege (Hubbard, 1998). Behind both genres lurks the nested premise that all pederasty, inasmuch as it involved giving lavish gifts, was a form of prostitution, thus training boys in the arts of manipulation and bribery.

The orator Aeschines prosecuted his political rival Timarchus in 346 B.C.E. based on what he claims to be a law of Solonic origin barring former male prostitutes from political participation. It is unlikely that the premonetized economy of Solon’s period had any clear concept of “male prostitution” in contradistinction to the traditional gift giving that was typical in artistic depictions on black-figured vases of the sixth century, and in 399 B.C.E. the earlier orator Andocides (1.100–101) briefly mentions this law without identifying it as Solonic, suggesting that he did not regard the law as archaic, but of more recent origin. Our first reference to use of such a law comes in a comic allusion to the demagogue Cleon’s erasure of one Grypus/Gryttus from the citizen rolls based on these grounds (Aristophanes, Knights 875–880, dated to 424 B.C.E.). The law likely emerged in the context of Athens’s attempts in the mid-fifth century to redefine eligibility for citizenship; being a prostitute, male or female, would be classed as more befitting the status of a metic (a migrant to Attica, holding no citizen rights). Aeschines’s apparently successful prosecution of Timarchus produced no clear evidence of actual prostitution, but inferred it merely from his having consorted with multiple men of varied backgrounds when he was young. That a majority of the large Athenian jury would find this convincing evidence of guilt itself reveals the degree to which negative popular attitudes toward pederasty had developed by this point in Athens’s democratic development.

Our literary record of both comedy and forensic oratory begins in the last decades of the fifth-century B.C.E. Interestingly, red-figured vases ceased showing explicit scenes of pederastic courtship (and heterosexual pornography as well) around 460 B.C.E. (Shapiro, 1981), possibly due to the moralizing influence of the austere, personally aloof democratic leader Pericles, who dissociated himself from the city’s sympotic culture completely (Plutarch, Pericles 7.4–5). Scholars have argued (Hubbard, forthcoming) that Pericles’s policy of aggressive expansion of Athens’s overseas empire both gave more political influence to the lower classes (who were needed to row the ships) and encouraged a growing birthrate among fully Athenian families (whose children would be needed in loyal service to the Athenian state’s increased manpower needs). As we have seen before, postponement of male marriage age was a response to pressures of overpopulation; underpopulation would encourage the opposite move. We do have some evidence of much earlier male marriage ages during the late fifth century (Xenophon, Symposium 2.3). Subtle social pressures against sexual alternatives to marital intercourse and procreation would tend to develop in such a demographic and political environment. These could range from a general caution in artistic representations to political attacks on opponents because of wild or self-indulgent sexual behavior when young.

Platonic Love.

The examination of pederasty in philosophical literature of the fourth century B.C.E. should be interpreted within the context of the increasingly hostile social and political environment of the time. The trial and death of Socrates in 399 B.C.E., allegedly for “corrupting the youth” (in a nonsexual sense), piqued philosophical discourse about the proper relations between a master and student as well as the legitimacy of pederasty more generally. The setting of early works like Plato’s Lysis and Charmides in private wrestling schools, where men and adolescent boys gathered for intellectual conversation as well as naked exercise, foregrounds the audience of philosophy as exactly the sort of elite young men and boys who traditionally formed pederastic attachments. The ubiquity of male love among this social circle is colorfully portrayed in the opening of the Charmides, where the title character’s adolescent charm and beauty causes everyone in the room to fall in love with him, including his age-mates, younger boys, and even the elderly Socrates himself, who “catches on fire” when Charmides sits next to him such that he can see into the boy’s cloak (155c–e). Although Socrates is constantly surrounded by attractive young males and enjoys their company, he is completely continent with regard to any overt physical act, chiding one of his students for kissing another (Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.3.8–14) and refraining from the slightest caress when the brilliant young Alcibiades sleeps with him during a military encampment (Plato, Symposium 219b–d).

Plato’s Symposium is a dialogue in which several characters present their views of love at a dinner party hosted by the tragic poet Agathon to celebrate his first tragic victory in 416 B.C.E. Agathon’s lover Pausanias introduces the influential distinction between what he calls a “heavenly [Uranian] Love” and the “common [pandemic] love.” The latter is purely physical and can be directed toward either boys or women, whereas the former is a loftier love of character, aiming at improvement and personal growth of the beloved; Pausanias says that this love is best directed toward older boys or young men, who are capable of philosophical education. Critics have sometimes made the mistake of identifying Pausanias’s views with mainstream Athenian protocols of behavior, but in fact his view of love, like those of the other characters, is idiosyncratic, reflecting his own love of the now adult but still youthful-looking Agathon, which he defends as based on character and philosophical understanding rather than pure lust. It finds later confirmation in the view of some Stoics, who taught that it was proper to love a youth up to the age of twenty-eight (Athenaeus 13.563e).

Socrates’s speech develops Pausanias’s dyadic understanding of love into a multitiered philosophical conception, encapsulated in the metaphor of the “ladder” (Symposium 211c): love of a person’s beautiful body is but the lowest step on the ladder, while love of two or more bodies is the next step, because it allows the mind to conceptualize physical beauty more generally. Yet another step higher is the love of beautiful character (i.e., Pausanias’s Uranian love), which at a more general level becomes a technology of producing beautiful characters in many men through education, lawgiving, art, or music, what we might consider sublimation of the erotic instinct. The highest step on the ladder is an appreciation of all forms of beauty, such that one can develop a philosophical understanding of Beauty itself. Erotic love of individual persons is thus useful only inasmuch as it can lead toward a depersonalized philosophical comprehension of the transcendental Idea of Beauty.

Plato’s Phaedrus, which is generally assumed to be a bit later than the Symposium, develops this framework further by postulating love as a remembrance of the soul’s prebirth glimpse of transcendental Beauty. Seeing and falling in love with a beautiful boy sparks this long-buried memory of union with the Ideal; souls are imagined as chariots drawn by two horses, one that aims to pull the soul upward toward reunion with this primeval ideal of Beauty and Goodness, and another intemperate horse that merely lunges toward the physical object that awakens our remembrance of Beauty. The skilled charioteer must learn to balance and control these two independent forces. The Phaedrus also marks an advance upon the Symposium by explaining the reciprocal love that the younger partner bears toward his lover as a mirroring of the lover’s excitement (Phaedrus 255b–e).

Despite the common usage of “Platonic love” in modern parlance as an expression for a purely nonphysical bond, physical attraction to beauty was certainly the starting point of love in these dialogues, even if its ultimate trajectory is to surpass the attachment to any one human body by engendering contemplation of Beauty at the most generalized level possible. As such, it reflects the protreptic intent of Plato’s exoteric writings generally: an inducement to the educated young to pursue the quest for philosophical understanding. In this way, Plato’s discussions of male love aim to recuperate the social prestige that pederasty had enjoyed in the archaic and early classical periods by appropriating it for goals of a higher pedagogy.

Homosexuality and “Nature.”

One of Plato’s latest works, the Laws, presents the Athenian Stranger voicing a less benign view of pederasty as an act para physin (not so much “against Nature,” as it is usually translated, but “to the side of Nature,” that is, off the road of Nature); he also proposes that it has no role in the ideal state that this dialogue aims to construct (636b–d, 835e–842a). Some critics have seen this view as a shift of attitude toward physical sexuality in Plato’s old age; others have suggested that physical consummation of sexual desire with other males was already implicitly censured in the earlier dialogues. However, the Athenian Stranger does not translate the unmediated voice of Plato any more than other characters in his dialogues; his views may rather reflect what Plato saw as the typically “Athenian” judgment of his time, in contrast with the more tolerant approach of the Spartan and Cretan interlocutors, who praised their institutions of male commensality and fraternity. This text nevertheless represents the origin of a negative interpretation of homosexuality as a violation of the natural order, a view that becomes influential on Stoicism of the Roman period and in the writings of Saint Paul.

The “unnatural” character of homosexuality was by no means universally accepted: the pseudo-Aristotelian Problems 4.16 proposes that some men enjoy the passive position in anal intercourse because their anatomy is deformed in such a way as to make the anus a seat of pleasure (see also Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 7.5.3–5). The late Roman medical writer Caelius Aurelianus (Chronic Disorders 4.9.134–135) attributes to the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides the explanation that such sexual and gender disorders stem from a failure of the male and female seed to blend properly at the moment of conception (see Hippocrates, On Regimen 1.28–29 for a slightly different genetic explanation). The speech of the comic poet Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium parodies these medical theories with a colorful myth of sexual preference predetermined at birth, depending upon our genetic descent from primeval ancestors who were double-sexed (male-male, female-female, or male-female). Cumulatively, these texts show that there was a substantial body of opinion that same-sex attraction was a quality endowed to some individuals by natural processes composing our genetic makeup; the same texts, however, consider it a deviation from the normal path of development.

An alternate strategy adopted by some defenders of pederasty was to concede the point that it was not practiced by animals and therefore was not grounded in Nature, but to make a virtue of it by arguing that pederasty was a mark of advanced civilization, a superior invention to improve upon the bare requirements of human subsistence (Lucian, Erotes 33–36).




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  • Shapiro, H. A. “Courtship Scenes in Attic Vase-Painting.” American Journal of Archaeology 85 (1981): 133–143.

Thomas K. Hubbard

Roman World

Extant sources for same-sex relations, also known as homoerotic activity, in Roman culture are largely produced by and for a small elite of male citizens, and this limited perspective may account for the monolithic view of sexuality preserved both in artistic representations and in an array of legal, scientific, philosophical, and literary texts. As a result, it is difficult to determine the extent to which this perspective represents that of the population as a whole, much less the range of sexual activity that would have taken place in private.

Active versus Passive.

In ancient Rome this dominant elite paradigm conceived of erotic attraction and sexual activity as determined less by the biological sex of the object of desire than by the relative social status of each participant. In recent decades, scholars have appealed to a so-called penetration model to explain Roman sexual dynamics: according to this model, every sexual pairing, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, and whether oral, anal, or vaginal, involves partners with diametrically opposed and noninterchangeable roles, one active and insertive, the other passive and receptive. According to this model, the division between insertive and receptive roles tends to be rigid—the ability to penetrate assists in defining the identity of the insertive partner, and vice versa—and the sex of the receptive partners is largely irrelevant. As a result of these key distinctions, modern notions of “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality” become inadequate to describe Roman sexual practice, since these terms presuppose that the biological sex of the actors serves as a defining characteristic of each actor’s identity.

The literary persona of the god Priapus has provided scholars with a fitting paradigm for this sexual dynamic. The god’s prominent erection underscores the fascination with large penises evidenced elsewhere in the material and textual sources, a fascination that also distinguishes Roman views from Greek, where small penises represent the aesthetic ideal of tender youth, with large penises and erections characterizing the inhuman sexuality of beasts such as satyrs. Roman versions of Priapus employ the phallus to threaten penetration in the vagina, anus, or mouth for those who interlope on his territory. Regardless of the sex of the persons performing the receptive role, they are identified with a subservient status that contributes to their identity in the larger society. Priapus’s ithyphallicism has further figurative meaning in the arts as indicating potency of the male not only in the realm of sex, but in those of politics and business as well. To demonstrate a less than masculine attitude in one area invites accusations of a general lack of virility in others. This is the situation to which the first-century B.C.E. poet Catullus responds in one of his more abusive works. The gentle nature of his verse—presumably his famous love poetry to his mistress, Lesbia—has led his friends Furius and Aurelius to accuse the poet himself of having “insufficient sexual integrity” (16.4: parum pudicum), as any man who expresses himself so delicately in his verse as Catullus does must be the type who prefers to serve as the penetrated rather than as the penetrator. Catullus defends himself by asserting verbally his sexual dominance over these two friends: “I will fuck your anuses and fuck your faces, you pathicus Aurelius and cinaedus Furius” (16.1–2). The active force of the verbs describing Catullus’s actions, combined with the passive associations of the words describing his friends, mirror the active/passive dichotomy that pervades mentions of sexual activity in Latin texts. Catullus, as both the grammatical and physical subject of the verbs meaning, respectively, to insert a penis into another’s mouth and anus (irrumare, pedicare), transforms his friends into the sexual deviants. Furthermore, Aurelius’s epithet pathicus underscores his receptive role in sex, while cinaedus is the common noun used in Latin to describe a man who enjoys being penetrated by other men.

Extensive discussion of how sexuality is perceived in medical literature is restricted to one Latin text, Caelius Aurelianus’s De morbis chronicis (On Chronic Diseases, fifth century C.E.?). Adhering to the dominant paradigm, Caelius diagnoses the adult man who wishes to be penetrated (and, in passing, women who have intercourse with women) as having a mental imbalance that drives him to pursue sexual pleasure in all ways possible (4.9). This diagnosis of general sexual wantonness irrespective of the sex of one’s partner demonstrates once again that same-sex relations among men and women do not resemble modern conceptions of the “homosexual.”

Female-Female Sexual Activity.

The overarching conception of sexual intercourse as an insertive act informs literary representations of female-female homoerotic activity as well. From the earliest extant allusion in a play of Plautus in the early second century B.C.E. on through to the end of the classical era, the language and imagery for sexual activity between women necessitates that one of the participants adopt a male, insertive, role in intercourse. Indeed, what may seem a literary trope used by the poet Ovid well reflects the nonliterary record. The young girl Iphis dismisses her love for another girl by using examples from nature to “prove” that such a conception is unnatural and impossible; as a result, the only solution to her erotic dilemma is for the goddess Isis to transform Iphis into a man, thereby retaining the natural dichotomy of the sexes (Metamorphoses 9.666–797).

The common designation of the insertive woman by the noun tribas, from the Greek verb meaning “to rub,” echoes her anatomical role. The tribas appears most frequently in the satiric texts of Juvenal and Martial, where the presumed impossibility of a distinct female-female sex act informs the humor. In these portrayals, verisimilitude dictates that sex change must occur figuratively to the tribas through the use of a phallus substitute, either a dildo or an enlarged clitoris. The conception becomes particularly clear in a legal declamation from the Augustan era preserved by Seneca the Elder concerning a husband who caught his wife in bed with another woman. The orator quotes the husband’s imagined reaction: “I first looked at the man, to see whether he was natural or sewn on” (Controversies 1.2.23; all Greek and Latin translations by author). It is important to note the double standard: although playing the insertive role in intercourse, the dominant woman in same-sex relationships does not, like the man, deserve respect but rather prompts shock, disapproval, and disgust.

The paucity of source material makes it impossible to decide the degree to which this consistent bias in the literary evidence echoes any real experience of female homoeroticism, since none of the women mentioned are attested as historical. There is also no unambiguous mention in legal texts, while astrological texts chiefly allude to the various planetary alignments under which the tribas, like the cinaedus, could be born. In his Interpretation of Dreams Artemidorus classifies dreams of women having sex with one another as dreams of unnatural acts, but it is difficult to ascertain whether Artemidorus imagines any real-world correspondence, since other dreams in this section include having sex with a god or a corpse (1.80). The sparse visual record offers only unverifiable hints; worth mentioning is an Augustan-era funerary relief of two women joining hands in a gesture that, in male-female contexts, normally signifies marriage.

Objects of Desire.

A description of the restrictions that delimit a free man’s sexual practices occurs early in the literary record of the Romans, and its strictures continued to be valid throughout the classical period. In the early second century B.C.E., a slave character in a comedy of Plautus offers to his young master the following piece of romantic advice: “Nobody stops any man from going on a public road. As long as you don’t make your way through a fenced-in area, keeping away from brides, widows, and virgins, young men and free boys, you may love anything you want” (Curculio 35–38). The distinctions made by the slave would have been familiar to the Roman audience hearing his words. His listing underscores an important point in Roman sexuality: social and civic status plays a greater role in the choice of a sexual partner than biological sex.

Slaves and freedmen.

The category of sex partners that the slave characterizes as “anything you want” encompasses slaves and freed slaves (freedmen). Plautus’s own comedies contain many jokes that rest on the assumption that no legal or ethical barriers prevented a master from using a slave sexually, provided that the master plays the insertive role. Moreover, there is no indication that the sex of the receptive partner reflects negatively on the master’s masculinity. For sons of the master, the existence in households of a concubinus, a young male slave that the boy retains as lover and companion, ideally until marriage, appears to have been widespread. Several examples also survive of men retaining concubini even after marriage. The treatment of slaves as property to be exploited at will extends throughout the classical period and explains why law prohibits the sexual use of another’s slave without the owner’s permission, since this would constitute improper use of another citizen’s private possession. Indeed, occasional visits to prostitutes—typically slaves—are condoned in the sources, since they allow release for young men of the elite, and prevent them from pursuing those people on Plautus’s taboo list. The sex of the prostitute is unimportant; the only provisos are that the free citizen must take the active role in any encounter and that he not overindulge emotionally, physically, or financially.

The most celebrated male-male couple from Roman antiquity that has firm historical support fits into this pattern, but only to an extent. The emperor Hadrian had a celebrated relationship with the young boy Antinous, who died mysteriously at the age of twenty (130 C.E.). While a Greek-style pederastic relationship would certainly be in line with Hadrian’s well-known philhellenism, it seems more likely that the relationship follows the distinctly Roman model and that Antinous was a social inferior—not only younger, but presumably a former slave. When Roman sources criticize this bond, it is on account of Hadrian’s reaction to the loss of his beloved. In addition to grieving in a manner characterized as excessive, Hadrian marked his love as special by honoring Antinous after death with numerous statues and shrines, eventually deifying him. The unemotional use of pretty male slaves as prepubescent sex objects (deliciae) was ubiquitous in Roman society; through his actions, Hadrian takes the unusual step of sublimating this practice into an affective relationship between men.

Freeborn women, boys, and men.

Approximately two centuries after the proclamation of Plautus’s slave, the elder Seneca preserves in pithier form an analogous sentiment from the late first-century B.C.E.: “The sacrifice of sexual integrity (impudicitia) is a crime for the freeborn, a necessity for the slave, and a duty for the freedman” (Controversiae 4, preface 10). The term impudicitia recalls the charge of “insufficient sexual integrity” (parum pudicum) that caused the poet Catullus to assert his masculinity by threatening to rape his male friends. The epigram in Seneca shows that, while sexual subservience is expected of slaves and freedmen, such a situation threatens the freeborn status of a Roman male. Catullus was defending more than just his sexual identity. This distinction separates most clearly Roman sexuality from the Greek practice of pederasty, by which both the older and younger lovers had free status. At Rome, a sexual relationship between freeborn males was not only deemed inappropriate, but was subject to legal penalties throughout the Roman period (see below).

By silently including slaves, both male and female, along with freedmen under the category “anything you want,” Plautus’s slave implies that these two groups are accessible to the freeborn male without distinction regarding their sex. The truth of this implication is confirmed by abundant testimony that it was normal to view women, girls, and young boys as equally valid receptive partners for the insertive male. Remarks about men indiscriminately penetrating boys and females occur across the range of textual sources, from graffiti, to oratorical invective, to staged comedies, to satirical poetry, to serious works of history. Craig Williams succinctly describes the underlying assumption: “Men’s desires are normally aroused by boys and women, who function simultaneously as stimulant, object, and receptacle” (2010, p. 27).

Amid this apparent lack of discrimination, the male slave or freedman who is an adult stands out as distinct from boys and women. This contrast emerges most tellingly in the shadowy figure of the exoletus. Textual evidence makes clear that relations among free adult males, while not infrequently attested, always retain charges of being nonnormative, if not deviant (Seneca, Natural Questions 1.16.1–3; Suetonius, Galba 22). As a result, those desires are often met by a category of nonfree men, including slaves, freedmen, and paid prostitutes, deemed exoleti. This group of postadolescent males pleasured other adult men by adopting both the insertive and the receptive positions in intercourse. Meaning literally “outgrown,” the very word exoletus attests that he acts outside the aesthetic norm.


References in legal texts reinforce the two principal biases emphasized thus far: that homoerotic activity between males was conceived of as nonreciprocal and that social status played a key role in determining legality. Same-sex activity among females nowhere receives explicit mention.

The concept of stuprum underlies the legal status of same-sex relations among men. The term stuprum can apply to the sexual violation by an adult male of either another freeborn male or of an unmarried female. None of the many sources citing this charge imply that one type of rape was different from the other. The violation committed is not, however, dependent upon the use of force—consent on the part of each actor can still constitute stuprum—but upon whether the receptive partner possesses freeborn status. If the receptive partner is a freeborn male, the violator could receive the death penalty. The earliest evidence for legal intervention in male-male sexual relationships dates to sometime in the mid-second century B.C.E. with passage of the Lex Scantinia, a law still enforced during Domitian’s reign in the late first century C.E. The precise application and penalties of the law remain unclear, but it is generally agreed to have made sexual activity between two male freeborn persons a crime. Despite the paucity of evidence, analogous texts from the classical period make it likely that punishment would have been meted out only to the receptive partner (e.g., Valerius Maximus 6.1.5; Paulus, Opinions 2.26.13). The Augustan adultery law of 17 B.C.E. adds to the law by punishing anyone who allows his house to be used for an assignation between two adult men (Papinianus, Digest 48.5.9[8]).

A legal principle dating at least to the early empire, and probably earlier, groups with pimps, disgraced soldiers, and assorted persons deemed disreputable by the state any freeborn man who “has played a woman’s role with his body,” that is, who has played the receptive role in male-male intercourse, regardless of whether the act involved payment or not (Ulpian, Digest–6). Such men received severe restrictions to their civic rights but were not, it should be stressed, hunted down for punishment or considered criminals if penalized. It is apparently only in 559 C.E. that Christian principles contribute to the establishment of the death penalty for any male involved in same-sex relations, regardless of whether he played the insertive or the receptive role (Justinian, Novels 141).

For every law there are always exceptions, and in Roman history that would normally be the emperor. Allegations of emperors sexually violating freeborn boys or men with impunity proliferate in historical and biographical sources, with especially opprobrious remarks concerning Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero.


The earliest unambiguous allusion to marriage between men occurs in a context of oratorical invective. In his Second Philippic, Cicero remarks that a male lover had rescued the young Marc Antony from a career as a female prostitute and placed him in a “stable marriage” (44). Although the remark is intended to be amusingly hyperbolic, the way in which Cicero imagines the relationship reflects a trend also attested to in the early empire. As the satirist Juvenal narrates in elaborate detail (2.117–142), and as epigrams of Martial confirm (1.24, 12.42), an all-male marriage is conceivable only if one of the men is figured as “bride.” Just as the logic of Roman sexuality must supply one phallic partner to create a relationship between women, conversely an all-male marriage necessitates that one man play the woman’s part. This metaphorical bride thereby ineluctably occupies the receptive, female, role in sexual activity.

It is difficult to assess the truth behind Juvenal and Martial’s poetic attacks. Historical texts, however, offer details that seem derived from actual events. Once again, it is the emperors who possess the ability to transcend cultural strictures, although in this instance they are still constrained by the notion that the marital union of members of one sex necessitates the creation of two opposing genders. Two marriages with men involved Nero (who was during his life married to three women). In one of these he played only the man’s role, using a castrated boy “as a wife in all things” (Dio 62.28.2–3). In the second, our sources make explicit that Nero was the designated female: he wore the characteristic bridal veil, supplied a dowry, and even, according to one source, imitated on his wedding night the wailings of a woman being penetrated (Tacitus, Annals 15.37.4; Suetonius, Nero 29). A similar portrayal characterized the wedding of the emperor Elagabalus (Augustan History 17.10.5, 17.11.7). Each of these weddings appears to have been publicly celebrated, and is unlikely to have been solely the product of a hostile tradition.

Lower down the social ladder, no publicly celebrated male-male marriages are attested, although artistic evidence provides intriguing possibilities (Haeckl, 2001). It is unclear whether a law from 342 C.E. preserved in the Theodosian Code punishing by death “a man marrying as a woman” refers to actual marriage—and thereby implies that such marriages did occur—or whether the phrase simply offers a metaphor for sexual relations (9.7.3).


To attempt to reconstruct popular attitudes, written texts need to be read through for biases. A perspective less restricted by class boundaries lies in material remains, but their inherent silence and often unclear context offer their own interpretive challenges. Generally, art seems to support text. In depictions of male-male sex, the receptive partner is nearly always a boy, visibly younger than his lover, and details often indicate servile status. Moreover, the vast majority of poses depicted have close analogues in depictions of male-female lovemaking (and not infrequently on the same work of art), with the boy and woman exchanging roles. Visual equivalence of boy and woman seems to reflect the same ideological perspective on the receptive partner that occurs in the textual evidence.

At other times, art provides a perspective that is rare or unknown in the written record. A particularly provocative wall painting from a tavern in Pompeii, depicted with captions, appears to show two men in effeminate clothing (perhaps cinaedi?) ordering drinks from an aggressive barmaid, but uncertainty of text and image makes firm conclusions impossible (Clarke, 2005). Two other painted scenes, from Pompeii’s Suburban Baths, depict sex acts unparalleled elsewhere: an adult male being anally penetrated while simultaneously penetrating a woman. In one case the woman’s penetration is vaginal from the rear; in the second it is oral (a woman, in turn, performs cunnilingus on her). This appearance of man as both penetrator and penetrated challenges the model for Roman masculinity that dominates written texts. Similarly surprising—and unique—is a panel that depicts a fully clothed man (who wears a toga, confirming his status as a citizen) performing cunnilingus on a woman. The subservient position of the man—like a fellator, a male cunnilinctor is universally reviled—would have been intolerable by the code one can construct from elite texts.

Similar uncertainty over interpretation prevails over the well-known Warren Cup, an exquisite silver goblet from the early first century C.E. adorned with two scenes of male-male anal penetration. One side offers little controversy: a young slave boy is anally penetrated by an older freeborn youth (social status is clear from hairstyles). On the opposite side, however, is depicted anal intercourse between two men of different ages, but clearly adult and freeborn. Agreement over why this representation differs from expectations presented in the written record has not yet been reached—is the younger man a prostitute? does the image satirize Roman moral legislation? or is this a rare instance of the acceptable display of lovemaking between two adult males?

The Real Story.

Despite the full variety of references to same-sex relations, no source reveals what went on in the privacy of the bedroom. Although even nonliterary sources, such as graffiti and material evidence, seem to confirm the prevailing view that male-male intercourse was limited concerning who could act as penetrator and who as penetrated, hints at an active subculture of cinaedi occur in several sources. These hints have prompted some scholars to argue that there were indeed adult men in Rome who actively sought to be penetrated by other men, and that perhaps even reciprocal relationships occurred in ways akin to modern conceptions of homosexuality. The possibility continues to provoke heated debate (Richlin, 1993, and Taylor, 1997, vs. Williams, 2010, pp. 209–224).




  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Butrica, James L. “Some Myths and Anomalies in the Study of Roman Sexuality.” Journal of Homosexuality 49, nos. 3/4 (2005): 209–269.
  • Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 b.c.–a.d. 250. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Clarke, John R. “Representations of the Cinaedus in Roman Art: Evidence of ‘Gay’ Subculture?” Journal of Homosexuality 49, no. 3/4 (2005): 271–298.
  • Dalla, Danilo. Ubi Venus mutatur: Omosessualità e diritto nel mondo romano. Milan: Giuffrè, 1987.
  • Haeckl, Anne E. “Brothers or Lovers? A New Reading of the ‘Tondo of the Two Brothers.’” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 38, nos. 1–4 (2001): 63–78.
  • Hallett, Judith P., and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. Roman Sexualities. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Richlin, Amy. The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Richlin, Amy. “Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, no. 4 (1993): 523–573.
  • Skinner, Marilyn B. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
  • Taylor, Rabun. “Two Pathic Subcultures in Ancient Rome.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 7, no. 3 (1997): 319–371.
  • Williams, Craig A. Roman Homosexuality. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Anthony Corbeill

New Testament

New Testament references to same-sex relations are scattered and elusive, since modern categories and perspectives on sexuality are not easily mapped onto ancient terminology, practices, and attitudes. Still, it is possible to identify two broad categories of references to same-sex relations in the New Testament: general references to same-sex activities and specific references to characters that might be interpreted as participants in same-sex relations. The former have received a great deal of scholarly and popular attention as a result of contemporary debates about homosexuality. This attention revolves around the question of whether these references can or should be read as injunctions against homosexuality.

Ancient Homoeroticism.

Current scholarship on ancient sexual practices and attitudes toward same-sex relations emphasizes that perspectives on socially acceptable sexual activities and partners are historically determined. Modern categories of “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” are problematic for describing ancient attitudes and practices, since sexual practices and preferences in ancient Greek and Roman contexts typically were not categorized in terms of the participants’ sex. Sexual activity between two people of the same sex was not considered significantly different than between two people of differing sexes, and the social appropriateness of particular sexual activities and relations was gauged primarily by social and political concerns (Williams, 1999). The modern idea of “sexual identity,” moreover, is problematic for understanding ancient individuals or groups, as the idea reflects the modern tendency to define individual identity in relation to sexual relations and to imagine “sexuality” as a domain distinct from one’s social and political identity. David M. Halperin suggests that modern scholars should “de-center sexuality from the focus of cultural interpretation of sexual experience” (1989, p. 271).

In Greek and Roman contexts, sexual activity in general was understood as involving an active (penetrating) participant and a passive (penetrated) participant. The social understanding of who should inhabit these roles was not determined primarily by the individuals’ sex. Instead, the division into active and passive roles reflected political and social distinctions related to citizenship, status as slave or free, and age. Still, ancient Greek and Roman perspectives on sex were phallocentric, privileging sexual activity that required the insertion of a penis into a vagina, anus, or mouth; thus it was assumed that females were biologically, socially, and politically, more suited for the passive sexual role. However, possession of a penis did not ensure one’s status as “active,” since certain groups of biological males (e.g., male slaves) were understood as naturally passive (Parker, 1997).

Male homoeroticism.

In classical Greece, pederastic relations between freeborn males played a significant cultural role, introducing freeborn males into the social and political realm. Participants included an adult male lover (erastēs) and a youth or boy (pais), sometimes described as the beloved (erōmenos), reflecting a distinction between social superior and inferior. These relationships were warranted only among free male citizens, solidifying this group’s bond and distinguishing them as social superiors over others, including women and foreigners (Halperin, 1989). Pederastic relationships in classical Greece were associated with the gymnasion, where male youths trained and exercised in the nude. Even after the classical period, Roman authors who disapproved of the Greek acceptance of same-sex relationships with citizen boys associated the gymnasion with pederasty (Williams, 1999). Pederastic relationships were understood differently than same-sex relations with male prostitutes. Both were socially acceptable, as long as the freeborn male remained the active partner; however, a citizen boy risked losing his honor if perceived as a prostitute (Nissinen, 1998).

For Romans male same-sex relationships were socially acceptable only between citizen men and male prostitutes, male slaves, and noncitizen boys, as long as the citizen male was (or was perceived as) the active partner. Citizen boys and men were generally off-limits as passive sexual partners to freeborn males, although there were exceptions in practice. The first-century B.C.E. poet Catullus, for example, expressed love for the freeborn Juventius in his verses. The Roman poets in general reveal that same-sex desire between men was considered natural, although there existed some limits regarding how one acted upon this desire.

While many scholars discussing ancient same-sex relations resist the notion that there was an ancient sexual identity, Amy Richlin (1993) maintains that references to certain men who liked to be penetrated (kinaedi) implies that ancients did identify homosexuality as a category. Negative appellations such as pullus (“chick”), effeminatus (“effeminate”), or mollis (“soft”) used for adult men who inhabited the passive sexual role reflect the Roman assumption that appropriate masculine behavior was marked by exercising power over another and not vice versa. To be the passive partner in any sexual relationship signaled inferiority and a lack of honor vis-à-vis one’s partner. In this way, Roman gender hierarchy, which associated masculinity with power, dictated perspectives on appropriate sexual practices and partners.

Like Greeks and Romans, ancient Jews did not distinguish between homo- and heterosexuality. Daniel Boyarin (1995) suggests that this allows for a range of male-male intimacy, including physical contact between males. However, the rabbis typically spoke against male-male anal intercourse, affirming the prohibition in Leviticus. However, according to Boyarin, this reflected a concern with hybridity and the possibility of a man being treated as a woman. Michael Satlow (1994) adds that some among the ancient rabbis understood male-male intercourse as an act of arrogance (using something that does not belong to one) and excessiveness. The association between same-sex acts and excessiveness appears throughout Second Temple Jewish descriptions of gentiles.

Female homoeroticism.

Less scholarly work has been done on female same-sex relationships in the ancient world, although Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women (1996) makes a substantial contribution to the field, drawing upon references to lesbianism in Greek and Latin literature, postbiblical Jewish traditions, ancient art, love spells, and ancient astrological texts. Still, ancient women’s own perspectives on same-sex relations are difficult to find, although there are a few fragmented evidences, including the suggestive lines by the Greek poet Sappho (seventh–sixth centuries B.C.E.) of Lesbos, providing the term “lesbian.”

Since sexual relations were imagined as including active and passive roles, same-sex relations between women were assumed to include an active and penetrating partner (tribas) along with a passive partner. (Passive partners were not identified through particular nomenclature, because they were understood as acting as “women.”) A woman who adopted the active or categorically masculine role, the tribas, violated traditional gender categories. At times this social deviance was imagined as having anatomical effects, as the tribas was occasionally described as penetrating her partner with an enlarged, penis-like clitoris. According to Diane Swancutt (2007), the image of the tribas was deployed mainly by elite Roman males anxious about the changing social landscape of the empire including the growing political influence of Roman matrons. In addition to tribas, other terms for female homoeroticism include frictrix/fricatrix and Lesbia (Brooten, 1996). It is possible that tribas and frictrix derive from verbs meaning “to rub,” reflecting ancient male assumptions about the mechanics of female homoeroticism. This linguistic possibility underscores that most ancient descriptions of women in same-sex relations reflect the assumptions of men.

General References to Same-Sex Practices.

Among the texts possibly referring to same-sex practices in the New Testament are three general references situated within the Pauline and deutero-Pauline writings. These instances appear in contexts in which the primary topic is not homoerotic activities, and therefore the implications of these texts are hotly debated.

Romans 1:26–27.

Scholarly conversation around Romans 1:26–27 tends to break down into debates about whether these verses describe same-sex practices or not. For some, the text describes unambiguously Paul’s belief in God’s condemnation of homosexual activity, female and male, linking same-sex eroticism to humanity’s “fall” (Hays, 1986). Other interpreters highlight the uncertainty about the text’s meaning and raise the question of whether these verses, embedded within a larger argument about gentile sinfulness, should be taken as Paul’s teaching about same-sex eroticism.

Discussions of Romans 1:26–27 often revolve around the meanings of “natural” or “nature” and “unnatural,” as Paul describes women “exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural intercourse” in v. 26. Some interpreters suggest that “unnatural” intercourse or, more literally, “beyond nature” (para physin) could include any number of sexual practices that would have been considered unnatural for women in the ancient context, including women allowing themselves to be anally penetrated by men (e.g., Thomas Hanks, “Romans,” in Guest et al., 2006). Despite this, since v. 27 compares women’s unnatural intercourse with men who have passion for one another, most scholars read v. 26 as a reference to homoeroticism as well. As Brooten (1996) observes, Paul’s negative characterization of women’s homoeroticism reflects the assumptions of his historical context, which understood female same-sex relations as necessarily transgressing natural gender roles.

In v. 27 Paul describes men who give up what is natural, presumably using females (thyleias) for sex, and who burn with passion with one another, implying some type of male homoeroticism and associating this with shamefulness and error. The question is whether or not Paul understands all examples of male same-sex practices as shameful or only particular acts or participants. John Boswell (1980) famously argued that Paul’s description of those engaging in “unnatural” intercourse precluded those for whom same-sex eroticism was natural, namely homosexuals. In other words, Paul describes heterosexuals participating in same-sex acts. While some interpreters have found this persuasive, Boswell’s view assumes a modern view of sexual identity that cannot be easily mapped onto these verses.

Still, other scholars note that Romans 1:26–27 does not offer a condemnation of same-sex desire per se, for in the ancient context there is no distinction between same-sex and other-sex desire. Dale B. Martin suggests that these contested verses reflect Paul’s belief in the “corruption inherent in sexual passion itself” (1995, p. 348). In other words, these verses can be understood as similar to ancient Jewish traditions that cast gentiles as excessive, especially in sexual matters, characterizing this excessiveness especially in terms of same-sex eroticism. This, Martin suggests, is implied in Paul’s use of the phrase para physin, or “beyond nature.”

1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:9–10.

Both of these texts offer vice lists including terms traditionally translated as forms of male homoeroticism, arsenokoitēs and malakos. The former, arsenokoitēs, appears in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, but it is an uncommon term attested mainly in texts influenced by New Testament traditions. Given its rarity the term’s translation is uncertain, and consequently it has been translated variously as “abuser of themselves with mankind” (KJV), “sodomite” (NAB; NRSV), and “homosexual offender” (NIV). Each of these translations draws upon the fact that the term seemingly combines arsen (male, man) and koitē (bed). However, scholars are unclear as to how these components relate, whether the term refers to a male prostitute who might be “bedded” by males or females or a man who has sex exclusively with men (Nissinen, 1998). Martin argues that “the etymology of a word is its history, not its meaning” and prompts interpreters to determine the word’s meaning within its literary context (2006, p. 39). Doing so reveals that arsenokoitēs is typically grouped with economic sins, implying that part of its connotation is economic. Martin concludes that the term’s precise meaning cannot be determined and, consequently, it should not be read through a modern heterosexist lens that presumes a reference to male homoeroticism.

In addition to arsenokoitēs, Paul includes malakoi (which precedes arsenokoitēs) in his list of those who will not “inherit the kingdom of God,” along with fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, and the like ((1 Cor 6:9–10). This term, which has been translated as “effeminate” (KJV; NAS), “male prostitutes” (NIV; NRSV), and “homosexuals” (NKJV), is well attested in comparison to arsenokoitēs. Despite the varied translations into English, contemporary scholars highlight that the term literally refers to softness and was used metaphorically to describe men who acted effeminately. This might include allowing oneself to be penetrated by another male, although not necessarily. Thus, while some modern interpretations explicitly link this term to prostitution or same-sex relations, it is better understood as a reference to those who do not conform to ancient gender expectations.

Same-Sex Characters and Pairs.

Given the differences between ancient and modern perspectives on same-sex relations and practices, it is difficult to make definitive statements about whether a particular same-sex dyad in the New Testament can or should be understood as a possible same-sex kinship pair (i.e., sisters) or same-sex erotic pair. Traditionally, male-male and female-female pairings in the New Testament have been interpreted through the lenses of heterosexual norms. As a result, female pairs might be described as sisters (e.g., Tryphaena and Tryphosa) and males as master and slave or father and son (e.g., the Roman centurion and his pais). In light of this, a number of scholars have begun to revisit references to same-sex dyads in the New Testament, asking whether or not these can be understood in terms of same-sex relations and activities.

Romans 16:12 and Philippians 4:2–3.

In a 1990 article Mary Rose D’Angelo suggests that the female pairs Tryphaena and Tryphosa and Evodia and Syntyche referenced by Paul in Romans 16:12 and Philippians 4:2, respectively, should be understood not only as female missionary pairs but as possible kinship pairs and even, perhaps, erotic partnerships. She raises this possibility in light of a Roman funerary relief in the British Museum depicting two freedwomen grasping hands (dextrarum inuctio) in a way indicative of marriage portraits.

Tryphaena and Tryphosa, described as those who “labor in the Lord,” are mentioned by Paul in an extended greeting at the conclusion of Romans. The similarity of this pair’s names suggests some relationship between the two, although it remains unclear whether they are biological sisters, freed slaves from the same familia who have been given similar names, or women who have adopted similar names signaling a personal bond. D’Angelo notes that the greeting includes a number of male-female missionary pairs, including husband and wife partners. Thus, she maintains that scholars should not preclude the possibility that these two might have a similar type of relationship.

Evodia and Syntyche are mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which he calls the women to be of the same mind in the LORD (4:2). Interpreters traditionally assume that the two women are quarreling and in need of some reconciliation between them. However, the text is not clear, and some suggest Paul perhaps calls the women to share the same mind with him. In 4:3 the two women are depicted as a pair, in fact, who struggle and work alongside Paul and others. The fact that they are described as a pair raises the possibility for D’Angelo that Evodia and Syntyche should be understood as co-missionaries and as existing in a same-sex relationship. While the text only offers a brief glimpse into the lives of these two women, the nature of their relationship should not be circumscribed by heteronormative assumptions.


Paul’s letter to Philemon, concerning Onesimus, a slave of unclear status (perhaps runaway or manumitted), has not traditionally been read in terms of homoeroticism. However, Joseph A. Marchal (2011) makes a case for reading the letter in light of ancient assumptions about the sexual use (chrēsis) of slaves by masters and masters’ family and friends. Marchal points out that the language of “use,” employed in reference to Onesimus, as a term for sexual intercourse is assumed in Romans 1:26–27. Read in light of historical assumptions about sexual desire and protocols about appropriate sexual partners, the letter to Philemon raises the possibility of a homoerotic relationship between Paul and Onesimus, as well as Philemon and Onesimus.

Matthew 8:5–13.

This healing story revolves around a Roman centurion’s request that Jesus heal his “boy” (pais). In making his request, the centurion suggests that Jesus perform the miracle from a distance, claiming that he is not worthy to have Jesus enter his home. Although in Greek traditions pais is often understood as the younger partner in a male homoerotic pair, in this story it has traditionally been translated as “servant” (KJV; NIV; NRSV) in alignment with Luke’s version of the story (7:1–10), which uses the term doulos, “servant.” Recognizing that pais does not necessarily mean “servant” and that Matthew typically uses doulos to refer to servants, some scholars suggest it be understood as the centurion’s son. In a cowritten article, Theodore W. Jennings and Tat-siong Benny Liew, however, argue that the pais should be understood as the centurion’s favorite “boy,” suggesting that this story includes a homoerotic relationship (2004). The centurion’s request that Jesus heal the pais from a distance reveals, according to Jennings and Liew, the centurion’s anxiety about Jesus as a competitor for the boy’s affections. If Jesus were to heal the boy, the centurion would be indebted to him as a client, and, if Jesus demanded, the centurion would then have to allow Jesus to have a sexual relationship with the pais. Finally, reading this text in terms of same-sex relations does not preclude a slave and master relationship, given the assumption that slaves are available for their masters’ sexual use.

The beloved disciple.

In contrast to many other same-sex pairings in the New Testament, the relationship between the “beloved disciple” and Jesus, referenced in the Gospel of John (13:21–26; 19:25–27; 20:1–10; 21:20–24), has received attention in the interpretive tradition. Although not necessarily imagined as a sexual relationship, the relationship between the beloved disciple, assumed to be John, and Jesus was understood in terms of John’s virginal devotion to his master, teacher, and friend in medieval Christian tradition. Robert E. Goss explains, “For nearly two millennia, men attracted to the same sex have intuited a homoerotic relationship between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” (“John,” in Guest et al., 2006, p. 560).

Although the beloved disciple is not explicitly identified by name in the text, many scholars connect him to John the son of Zebedee. This traditional association persists, even though scholars have suggested that the beloved disciple might be Thomas, Lazarus, or even Mary Magdalene (although references to the beloved disciple and Mary together preclude such an identification). Whoever the beloved disciple might be, the relationship between him and Jesus is characterized in terms of intimacy, including physical closeness. During a meal that Jesus shares with his disciples, the disciple reclines next to Jesus (13:23), resting in his bosom or lap. While reclining to eat was traditional within the historical context, the emphasis on the physical closeness between the disciple and Jesus and the reference to this event at the end of the Gospel (21:20) highlights the importance of this moment and the uniqueness of this relationship, according to Jennings (2009). The imagery of two men reclining in a meal setting, moreover, evokes classical Greek and Etruscan depictions of the symposium, where a beloved (erōmenos) male youth sits against the chest of his older male lover (erastēs).

The fact that the beloved disciple is singled out by Jesus from the cross, when Mary and the disciple are told, respectively, “Woman behold your son” and “Behold your mother,” similarly underscores the privileged relationship between Jesus and John (19:26–27). Although it has not traditionally been read as such, the text can be read as an adoptive relationship between the beloved and Jesus’s mother—the beloved as the adoptive son taking care of his “mother-in-law” in her time of grief (Jennings, 2009).

Mark 14:50–52.

Mark’s account of Jesus’s arrest includes a cryptic reference to “a certain young man” wearing only a linen cloth, who runs off naked after someone pulls off his cloth. Some interpreters read this as a reference to a possible same-sex encounter, given the use of a term suggesting the male’s youth (neaniskos) and the reference to his nakedness (gymnos). Jennings (2009) suggests that these references would communicate to a gentile audience that the character is an object of desire, while a conservative Jewish audience might be scandalized by the reference to the youth’s nudity, a symbol of the decadence associated with Hellenistic practices, including pederasty.


In a response to Nissinen (1998), Stone (2001) suggests that the impulse to identify and explain references to “homosexuality” in the biblical world perpetuates the problematic notion that there is an ancient understanding of this modern category. Such investigations assume that modern interpreters can identify ancient eroticism and that genders referenced in texts align with the genders of historical characters. While the interrogation of New Testament passages that might refer to homoeroticism continues to be necessary since they carry weight in contemporary discussions, biblical scholars engaged in questions related to same-sex relations and homoeroticism are moving away from focusing primarily on “what the Bible says about homosexuality” and beginning to explore the various ways that biblical texts reflect the concerns and perspectives of same-sex-oriented persons and communities.




  • Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • Boyarin, Daniel. “Are There Any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’??” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, no. 3 (January 1995): 333–355.
  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • D’Angelo, Mary Rose. “Women Partners in the New Testament.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 6, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 65–86.
  • Guest, Deryn, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache, eds. The Queer Bible Commentary. London: SMC, 2006.
  • Halperin, David M. “Is There a History of Sexuality??” History and Theory 28, no. 3 (October 1989): 257–274.
  • Hays, Richard B. “Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans 1.” Journal of Religious Ethics 14, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 184–215.
  • Jennings, Theodore W., Jr. The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 2009.
  • Jennings, Theodore W., Jr., and Tat-Siong Benny Liew. “Mistaken Identities but Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap, and the Christ in Matthew 8:5–13.” Journal of Biblical Literature 123, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 467–494.
  • Marchal, Joseph A. “The Usefulness of an Onesimus: The Sexual Use of Slaves and Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 749–770.
  • Martin, Dale B. “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18–32.” Biblical Interpretation 3, no. 3 (1995): 332–355.
  • Martin, Dale B. “Arsenokoitês and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences.” In Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, pp. 37–50. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006.
  • Nissinen, Martti. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective. Translated by Kirsi Stjerna. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.
  • Parker, Holt N. “The Teratogenic Grid.” In Roman Sexualities, edited by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, pp. 47–65. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Richlin, Amy. “Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, no. 4 (April 1993): 523–573.
  • Satlow, Michael L. “‘They Abused Him Like a Woman’: Homoeroticism, Gender Blurring, and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, no. 1 (July 1994): 1–25.
  • Stone, Ken. “Homosexuality and the Bible or Queer Reading? A Response to Martti Nissinen.” Theology and Sexuality 7, no. 14 (March 2001): 107–118.
  • Swancutt, Diana M. “Still Before Sexuality: ‘Greek’ Androgyny, the Roman Imperial Politics of Masculinity, and the Roman Invention of the Tribas.” In Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, edited by Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele, pp. 11–61. Biblical Interpretation 84. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.
  • Williams, Craig A. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lynn R. Huber

Early Judaism

Neither the Hebrew Bible nor any of the texts of the Rabbinic Period (the first seven centuries of the Common Era) make any mention of sexual orientation or identity, although they mention opposite-sex and same-sex sexual activity. In fact, until the Medieval Period, anal intercourse was the only male same-sex interaction that was prohibited, and female same-sex intercourse was not considered sex, let alone prohibited.

Male Same-Sex Relations.

Leviticus 18 and 20, which are part of the Holiness Code, contain the only exhortation against same-sex intercourse in the Hebrew Bible. Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a man the ‘lyings’ of women; it is an abhorrence (to‘evah).” Along with the other sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18, this prohibition is reiterated in Leviticus 20: “If a man lies with a male the ‘lyings’ of women, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall both be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them” (Lev 20:13). This prohibition has often been mischaracterized as a blanket prohibition against “homosexuality.” Yet the subject of this verse is clearly not female homosexuality, and it likely is not even male “homosexuality.” Instead, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 seem to be prohibiting some specific form of male same-sex intercourse.

No evidence exists that the rabbis of the Rabbinic Period read the Torah as prohibiting any form of sexual or sensual interaction between men other than anal intercourse, nor is there any evidence that they chose to outlaw other forms of same-sex sexual or sensual interactions as a “fence” around this Torah prohibition. On the contrary, rabbinic sources imply that no such prohibition existed during the Rabbinic Period. That the rabbis prohibited male same-sex anal penetration but no other same-sex sexual or sensual interactions corresponds with the cultural mores of the Rabbinic Period, which evince a strong reaction to male-male sexual penetration but little concern for other intimate contact between men. In fact, until Maimonides’s innovation in the twelfth century of distinguishing between sensual contact with and without desire, prohibiting same-sex contact would have been impractical to implement.

Rabbinic vilification of anal intercourse between men.

The rabbis felt extreme opprobrium for the act of anal intercourse between men and for those who engaged in such acts. Because men who engage in anal intercourse with other men willingly violate a law so serious that it carries the death penalty (Lev 20:13), the rabbis assumed that they would also commit murder, idolatry, and other immoral acts (e.g., y. Sanh. 23b–c [6:6]).

What lies behind the rabbis’ opprobrium for same-sex anal intercourse? In Genesis Rabbah (63:10), the Jewish people cry out before God, “Master of the Universe, it is not fair that we should be subjugated to the seventy nations [of the world], but certainly not to this one [Rome] which is penetrated like women.” In this passage, the penetrated male is likened to a woman and viewed as inferior by virtue of his sexual position. The one who is penetrated is not fit to rule, and it is a disgrace to be ruled by someone who has been so subjugated (see also y. Qidd. 61a [1:7]). For the author, being penetrated by other men makes Roman men “like women.” If penetration is a form of “conquest” of the Other, then to be conquered by men who have been penetrated is like being conquered by those who themselves have been subjugated.

Ironically, this rabbinic disdain for Romans is itself closely related to Roman attitudes. In Roman culture it was deemed appropriate for adult male citizens to penetrate their social inferiors—women and male slaves—but penetrating their equals or their superiors was considered to be a disgrace to the one penetrated, and to be ruled by one who himself was penetrated was an added humiliation. According to the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sanh. 73a), from one perspective, for a male to be raped is worse than for a female, since it is “not his normal way.” Rashi (ad loc.) explains that it is not a man’s way to be penetrated, and therefore there is a great disgrace involved in having been penetrated. This explains why the rabbis felt a need particularly to prohibit anal intercourse between men. While the rabbis may not have approved of two men being amorous with one another, if such activity did not include anal intercourse it did not violate the rabbinic sensibility that an adult Jewish male (the rabbinic analog to the Roman male citizen) must never be sexually penetrated.

The rabbis were reluctant to mete out the death penalty, however, which led them to restrict the biblical prohibition to its most narrow interpretation. Whenever the Torah called for the death penalty, the rabbis read the Torah prohibition (de-oraita) in its most limited sense. Often they would then add a rabbinic prohibition (de-rabbanan) or use more minor prohibitions in the Torah (which did not result in the death penalty) to cover the broader scope of the prohibition. As with the other sexual transgressions in Leviticus 18 and 20 (incest, adultery, and bestiality), the rabbis read Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as limited to the act of penetration itself.

Because they assumed that the Bible could only be prohibiting anal penetration, they were puzzled by the purpose of the additional phrase in the verses: “the lyings of women.” Once the Bible stated that it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man, it was obvious to the rabbis that the only form of penetration between men could be anal penetration. Therefore, the Bible had no need to add the extra phrase “the lyings of women.” The rabbis interpreted the plural “lyings of women” to mean that when a man has sexual intercourse with a woman who is prohibited to him, both vaginal and anal intercourse are prohibited; and each carries the same penalty.

Thus, the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sanh. 54a–b) quotes the Sifra (Qod. 10:11): “‘The lyings of women’—the verse teaches you that there are two forms of sex with a woman [i.e., vaginal and anal]. R. Ishmael said, ‘Behold this came to teach [about men] and it turned out to have already been taught.’” This phrase “it came to teach [about X] but turned out to have already been taught” appears a number of times in rabbinic literature, always meaning that the point the analogy has been brought to make has already been made or is intuitively obvious. Since the assumption is that the Bible would not make an analogy unnecessarily, if the analogy between heterosexual and homosexual sexual acts sheds no light on the latter, it must have been brought to shed light on the former. The plural “lyings of women” (mishkevei ishah) is not needed to teach about male-male sex since there is only one form of sex between men: men have only one orifice that falls under this prohibition. Rather, it comes to teach that women have two orifices the penetration of which count as sex: one (the anus), which they have in common with men, and the other (the vagina), which they do not (thus Rashi on Sanh. 54a, s.v. harei zeh ba le-lamed).

A rabbinic fence around the Torah?

Did the rabbis add a rabbinic extension to the prohibition against male-male anal intercourse to cover other forms of sexual/sensual interaction? While it is widely assumed that they did, there is no evidence of such an extension to the prohibition. On the contrary, several passages demonstrate that the biblical prohibition was not extended for same-sex male interactions.

In the Babylonian Talmud (b. Ber. 24a), Rabbi Isaac states that for a man to see merely “a handbreadth of a woman[’s body] is ‘ervah [nakedness/sexual sin],” broadening the heterosexual prohibition beyond the scope of the Torah prohibition. The Palestinian Talmud similarly extends the heterosexual prohibition to include looking at a woman’s body: “One who looks at the heel/rump of a woman is like one who looks at her vagina, and one who looks at her vagina, is as if he has sex with her” (y. Ḥal. 58c). In contrast, when it comes to same-sex interactions, we find countless examples of rabbis naked with one another in the bathhouse without any concern that the Torah prohibition against men having anal intercourse with other men may have been extended to include men looking at other men’s bodies (e.g., y. ʿAbod. Zar. 42b [3:1] and Sem. 12:12).

Numerous stories exist in rabbinic texts of rabbis kissing other rabbis (albeit in a show of platonic love). The rabbis were so comfortable with the notion of two men having intimate contact that they interpreted the “thigh” under which Abraham had his slave put his hand to swear an oath as Abraham’s penis. According to one rabbinic reading of Genesis 24, Abraham had his slave hold his (Abraham’s) penis in his hand and swear by it (Gen R. 59:8 on Gen 24:2; see also Rashi on Gen 24:2). Even though the rabbis did not read anything sexual into this interaction, their comfort with two men having physical contact with one another’s genitalia stands in stark contrast to their prohibition against men and women having far less physical contact with one another. This contrast demonstrates that the fence they extended around the heterosexual prohibition was explicitly rejected for same-sex interactions. It reveals that the rabbis did not prohibit men from contact with one another, not even genital contact.

The reason for their different treatment of same-sex and opposite-sex nonpenetrative physical interactions can best be understood from the Talmud’s explanation of why the sages permitted men to be alone with one another. While a man and a woman are forbidden from being in seclusion with one another, two men are permitted to be alone together (m. Qidd. 4:12). The Babylonian Talmud (b. Qidd. 82a) explains that Jewish men are not suspected of same-sex anal intercourse, and with that statement it dispels any suspicion that it was going to extend the fence around the Torah to other same-sex interactions. Since the rabbis of the Talmudic period understood any extension of the prohibition as applying to all men or to no men, they chose not to extend it.

Of course, the rabbis’ restraint from adding a rabbinic fence around this law was not so that men could have non-anal sex with one another. Rather, their reason was practical: if the rabbinic decree were extended for men with men, as it had been for heterosexual prohibitions, men would lead utterly isolated lives. They could not touch or be alone with anyone, man or woman. Additionally, the rabbis would have to explain why it was that previous sages had violated this rule, as rabbinic literature is replete with stories of men hugging and kissing and going to the bathhouse. Since the rabbis did not have a notion of homosexuality per se, they did not distinguish between homosexuals and heterosexuals, assuming that all Jews are disinclined to male-male anal intercourse. The Babylonian Talmud (b. Qidd. 82a) concludes, therefore, that no rabbinic fence around the de-oraita decree was needed. This left no sexual or sensual interactions between men prohibited (de-oraita or de-rabbanan) except for anal intercourse.

With Maimonides (1135–1204), however, the picture changes entirely. Maimonides distinguished between nonpenetrative sexual/sensual activities (e.g., kissing and hugging) with and without desire (Issurei Bi’ah 21:1 and 21:6). For Maimonides, only engaging in such activity with desire is technically forbidden. With this innovation, Maimonides could extend the prohibition to include sensual contact without casting aspersions on prior rabbis known to have kissed or hugged other rabbis and without having to stop men from all interactions with all other men.

Clearly, the rabbis of the Rabbinic Period understood the Torah prohibition of male-male sexual activity to be limited to anal intercourse. There is no evidence that they instituted a rabbinic decree to expand the Torah prohibition. Indeed, the evidence shows that they explicitly chose not to add a rabbinic decree. It was not until Maimonides, many centuries later, that this ruling was changed.

Female Same-Sex Relations.

No prohibition of female same-sex intercourse exists in the Hebrew Bible, and, as we might expect from the rabbinic focus on penetration (especially of men), the rabbinic opprobrium for male same-sex anal intercourse does not extend to female same-sex sexual activity. In fact, rabbinic discussions of female same-sex sexual activity barely exist. The Sifra (a third-century midrashic commentary on the book of Leviticus) does connect women marrying other women with the actions of the Egyptians proscribed in Leviticus 18:3, but this is the only clear piece of evidence of rabbis in the Rabbinic Period showing marked disfavor for such female-female marriage and, by extension, perhaps for female same-sex sexual activity. The Talmudic discussion of whether female same-sex sexual activity bars a woman from marrying a priest may seem at first sight like evidence of rabbinic disfavor for the activity. Nevertheless, the discussion really centers on whether such “sex” is deemed to be sex, enough to qualify those who engage in the activity as promiscuous (and therefore “whores”) and thereby disqualify them from marrying into the priesthood. The discussion barely touches upon the rabbis’ attitudes toward the activity, although the description of the activity as lewd may go beyond the legal implications for which it is invoked and thus speak to the rabbinic attitude toward the activity and those who engage in it.

The Babylonian Talmud (b. Yebam. 76a) states:

"Rava said, “The law follows neither the son [Rabbah son of Rav Huna] nor the father [Rav Huna]. Regarding the son, as we have said [in the previous statement]. Regarding the father, for Rav Huna said, ‘Women who rub against one another are disqualified [from marrying] into the priesthood.’ And, even according to Rabbi Eleazar who said, ‘an unmarried man who has sex with an unmarried woman not for marital purposes, makes her a whore/promiscuous [and thereby disqualified from marrying a priest],’ that is in the case of a man [who has sex with her], but with a woman, it is merely lewdness [pritzuta be-‘alma].”"

With this statement, the Talmud makes clear that it does not consider women “rubbing” with women (the verb it uses for female same-sex sexual activity) to be forbidden or to change their status, declaring the act to be “merely lewdness.”

On the other hand, the Sifra (Ahare Mot 9:8 on Lev 18:3) prohibits women from marrying other women, stating:

"Like the actions of the land of Egypt…you shall not do, nor like the actions of the land of Canaan…shall you do” (Lev 18:3). I might have thought [that this implies] that we may not build buildings nor plant saplings like they did [since these were among the activities of these peoples], the Torah teaches, “nor shall you walk in their laws” (ibid., loc. cit.). This means their laws which have been engraved to them and to their fathers and to their fathers’ fathers [and not other practices]. And what would they do? A man would marry a man, and a woman [would marry] a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would marry two men. Therefore, it is said, “nor shall you walk in their laws.”"

The Sifra, however, only explicitly prohibits same-sex marriage and not same-sex sexual activity or even same-sex relationships, although perhaps it ought to be understood as implying a prohibition against the sexual activity as well. If the Sifra read Leviticus 18:3 as prohibiting female same-sex sexual activity and not just female same-sex marriage, then it presumably should also be reading Leviticus 18:3 as prohibiting male same-sex sexual intercourse as well as sexual intercourse with a woman and her daughter. These other activities, however, are forbidden by other verses, resulting in a redundancy in the Bible, a hermeneutical problem for the Sifra, given its hermeneutical rules that two verses cannot come to teach the same law. The fact that the Sifra never addresses female same-sex relations implies that it reads Leviticus 18:3 as forbidding marriage alone. Nevertheless, since other biblical verses prohibit sexual intercourse between the parties of the other marriages mentioned in the passage, it is possible that the Sifra understands female same-sex sexual activity as forbidden from another verse as well. That verse is never mentioned, however, leaving it likely that the Sifra considers marriage to be the only thing prohibited between women. While this may seem odd, the fact that the rabbis generally consider penetration to be the only sexual act prohibited by the Torah fits with our findings that the rabbis never treat the nonpenetrative sexual actions between women as prohibited, even if this text prohibits them from marrying one another.

The question remains whether the Babylonian Talmud was aware of this passage in the Sifra when it declared female same-sex activity to be merely lewdness and what this declaration would have meant. Men of the priestly class are forbidden to marry women who have fallen into the category of zenut (whoredom/promiscuity). The debate would seem to be whether same-sex activity puts the women in this category as heterosexual sex does. According to the Palestinian Talmud (y. Giṭ. 49c [8:10]), the school of Hillel, which the law follows, held that same-sex activity did not prevent them from marrying men of the priestly class (implying that it does not qualify as “sex”). Likewise, the Babylonian Talmud rejects Rav Huna’s position, declaring that such activity is “merely lewdness” and does not affect their status.

How should we understand this in light of the Sifra? Scholars have long noted that the Babylonian Talmud had a different version of the Sifra from the Palestinian version that has survived to today, often lacking passages found in the one we have. In this case, not only does the Babylonian Talmud never quote or refer to this passage from our Sifra, it fails to mention the passage in at least two relevant places. The first is in Yebamot 76a (above), and the second is in Hullin 92a–b, in which the Talmud states that gentile men never married other men. Had it known this passage from the Sifra, the Talmud should have quoted it as contradicting that fact, if only to go on to solve the contradiction by means of a limiting of one or the other statement.

Furthermore, we can determine from b. Shabbat 65a–b that female same-sex sexual activity was not understood to be forbidden in the Babylonian Talmud. In b. Shabbat 65a–b we learn that Samuel’s father did not allow his daughters to sleep with one another. Initially, the stam (the anonymous portion of the Talmud) suggests that this practice supports Rav Huna’s position (which was rejected in b. Yebam. 76a) that women who “rub” with one another are forbidden to marry into the priesthood (and that this was Samuel’s father’s concern). The stam concludes, however, that his concern was that his daughters should become accustomed to sleeping with others, presumably because they then might end up sleeping with men (thus Rashi). If the stam understood female same-sex sexual activity to be forbidden, even by rabbinic prohibition, then it should have and would have factored that in to this discussion.

The stam in b. Shabbat 65a–b knew that Rav Huna’s position had been rejected by Rava. They needed to explain why Samuel’s father was known for this practice in spite of the fact that it does not disqualify women from marrying a priest. If the stam in b. Shabbat 65a–b had held that women were forbidden to have sex with one another, they would have had no need to resort to the flimsy excuse that Samuel’s father did not want his daughters to become accustomed to sleeping with other bodies. They could have stated that the reason he did not allow them to sleep together was because having sex with one another is itself an infraction. Thus, whether the redactors of the Babylonian Talmud knew of the Sifra’s prohibition of same-sex marriage or not (and all evidence suggests that they did not), we can conclude that they did not consider women “rubbing” with one another to be prohibited though they did consider it to be “lewd.”

In the twelfth century, however, Maimonides elided these distinct texts/issues with one another, stating:

"Women who rub one another (b. Yebam. 76a), it is forbidden. And this is of the actions of the Egyptians that we were warned against, as it is said, “like the actions of the land of Egypt you shall not do” ((Lev 18:3).). The sages said, “What would they do? A man would marry a man, and a woman would marry a woman, and a woman would marry two men.” (Sifra, Ahare Mot 9:8)" —Issurei Bi’ah, 21:8

Maimonides reverses the Talmud’s ruling, prohibiting women from “rubbing” on the basis of Leviticus 18:3. From this point on, the Talmudic passage would never fully be read independently of the Sifra, and female same-sex intercourse would be seen as associated with the Levitical prohibition.


In the Rabbinic Period, the Sifra outlawed same-sex marriages, though it is not clear whether its authors considered female same-sex sexual intercourse to be prohibited as well. In the Babylonian Talmud, female same-sex sexual activity is not considered under the category of sex and is therefore not considered to be forbidden. Rather, it is considered to be “merely lewd.” In the Medieval Period, Maimonides combined the Talmudic passage with the Sifra, extending the issue far past that of lewdness, declaring female same-sex sexual activity forbidden and connecting it to Leviticus 18:3.




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David Brodsky

Early Church

The practice of and attitudes toward intimate relationships between persons of the same sex in the early church are best understood in the context of Greco-Roman antiquity, in which relationship mores in general, as well as social conditions and practices, were defined by slavery, social stratification, subsistence living in an agrarian economy, imperialism, and communal values. These conditions are generally in contrast to modern Western values, so any study of ancient same-sex liaisons must take these into consideration.

Scholarship has established that the majority of people in the Roman Imperial period (approximately first century B.C.E. through the early fourth century C.E.) lived at subsistence level, and many were in fact slaves, totally dependent for at least part of their lives on owners and patrons. With virtually no control over their own bodies, they were subject to regular abuse and exploitation (Dynes, 1990, p. 1121; Dynes, 1992, pp. xiii–xiv; Martin, 2005, pp. 221–228). Members of the elite strata of society, especially men, controlled most social situations, including interpersonal and sexual relationships, and most of the literature that has survived antiquity was written by such men. Underlying philosophies and traditions, such as active and passive roles, the patronage system, and honor and shame (Brooten, 1996, pp. 208–212), all of which may be unfamiliar to modern people, further defined same-sex relationships in the early church. These differences require careful examination of the evidence but can shed new light on same-sex liaisons between both men and women and help move the current discussion forward in important ways.

Evidence for Same-Sex Relationships in Greco-Roman Antiquity.

It is fairly common knowledge that elite men of antiquity had relationships with boys and young men, both free and slaves (Boswell, 1994, pp. 54–55), and that this behavior was not necessarily viewed as unethical, exploitative, or unnatural. There is also general knowledge about the poet Sappho of the island of Lesbos, her circle of girls, and their types of relationships, although she lived much earlier (at the end of the seventh and the beginning of the sixth centuries B.C.E.) and much of what is known is in fact legend (Reynolds, 2001, passim).

More recent scholarship, using literary and archaeological evidence—including inscriptions, papyri, architectural remains, burials, and works of art—has definitively established that people in Greco-Roman antiquity did engage in what we would today call consensual, adult same-sex relationships. While much of the evidence on such liaisons may be negative, it serves to demonstrate the very existence of same-sex couples and the lives they lived despite cultural disapproval or, in some cases, with the approval of the early church.

There is textual evidence for both deep affection among same-sex couples and cohabitation. Several Greek erotic spells from Egypt, dating from the second through fourth centuries C.E., depict the attempt of one woman to become attracted to another (Brooten, 1996, pp. 73–113). Dozens of astrological texts cited by such ancient writers as Dorotheos of Sidon (ca. 25–75 C.E.), Manetho (probably first century C.E.), the astronomer and mathematician Claudius Ptolemy (second century C.E.), and Ptolemy’s contemporary Vettius Valens of Antioch (Brooten, 1996, pp. 115–130), in generally condemning homosexual pairings, prove their very existence throughout the early Christian era. In the ancient literature of the time one can find many examples of same-sex unions. Some prominent male pairs contemporary with the first Christians included the emperor Hadrian and Antinoüs, Catiline and his lover mentioned by Cicero, and the protagonists of Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon (Boswell, 1994, pp. 58–68). The emperor Nero, who ruled 54–68 C.E., married a man, Sporus, in public and “lived with him as a spouse,” and the poet Martial in the second century penned verse about the “bearded Callistratus [marrying] the rugged Afer / Under the same law by which a woman takes a husband” (Boswell, 1994, pp. 80–81). Lucian in Dialogues of the Courtesans (5.3) has a woman depict herself as being married to a woman for many years, and a novelist contemporary with Lucian describes the marriage between Berenice, the daughter of the king of Egypt, to Mesopotamia (Boswell, 1994, p. 82).

Homosexual pairings can also be seen in various art forms. Greek vase paintings from earlier antiquity provide proof that female and male couples existed prior to the Roman Imperial period and thus might well have been known to early Christians. (Brooten, 1996, pp. 57–59, provides five probable examples of female pairs in erotic poses dating from 650 to 350 B.C.E.) “Many hundreds of Greek vase-paintings” also show male couples, usually older, bearded men conversing with younger men or boys (Dover, 1978, pp. 4–9). In the early Christian era, a funerary relief from the Augustan era (27 B.C.E.—14 C.E.) shows two women clasping their right hands; this posture was generally used to portray a heterosexual union, but the inscription below the relief demonstrates that this was a union between two freedwomen, Fonteia Eleusis and Fonteia Helena (D’Angelo, 1990, pp. 65–72; Brooten, 1996, p. 59). In addition, a wall painting from Pompeii depicts two women having oral sex (Brooten, 1996, p. 60).

Evidence for same-sex relationships in the New Testament.

The New Testament features several same-sex pairs in a relatively positive light. The letters of Saint Paul reflect the earliest stages of Christian development, since they date to the 50s C.E. While we know little about the pairs to whom he refers—Evodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2–3) and Tryphaena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:3–4)—it is fairly certain that they were not fictitious. Mary Rose D’Angelo argues, “Evodia and Syntyche can be seen as a missionary couple, partners in the mission, rather than as individual members of Paul’s missionary team. They may in fact have been independent of Paul…. Second, …the ‘religious conflict’ [mentioned in Phil 4:2] is a dispute not between Evodia and Syntyche but between Paul on the one hand and the two women missionaries on the other” (D’Angelo, 1990, p. 76). In essence, Evodia and Syntyche and Tryphaena and Tryphosa were on a par with the heterosexual missionary pairs of Prisca/Priscilla and Aquila (1 Cor 16:19; also in 2 Tim 4:19), and of Andronicus and Junia, Philologus and Julia, and Nereas and his “sister,” all mentioned in Romans 16. While some scholars have argued that Evodia and Syntyche were fictitious or were real but in conflict with one another, D’Angelo’s conclusions support the other evidence discussed above that they were an example of a same-sex pair in antiquity.

The Gospels were composed and began circulating in the mid-60s through the early second century C.E., long after the death of Jesus; thus some characters portrayed by the evangelists may not have been historical. The same-sex pairs depicted in the Gospels, especially Mary and Martha and Philip and Bartholomew, nevertheless reflect the values of the fledgling church and were acknowledged in the first Christian centuries as important in spreading the Good News.

Mary and Martha, although widely interpreted as biological sisters in the Gospel accounts, lived together in Bethany with or without their brother Lazarus (depending on the Gospel). In later legend, the women traveled (or at least finished their lives) together, preaching the Christian message and winning converts. It is possible that, if they were real-life women at the time of Jesus, they were a nonrelated couple committed to both God and one another, with the designation of “sister” being an early title reflecting nonrelational companionship that only later came to be translated in the biological sense (D’Angelo, 1990, pp. 77–81; Boswell, 1994, pp. 67–71). (Lazarus, similarly, could be a “brother” in the sense of a brother in the faith.) In two translations of the Epistula Apostolorum of the second century, Martha and Mary are mentioned together. The Ethiopic text of the work refers to “Sarah, Martha, and Mary Magdalene” caring for Jesus’s body, while the Coptic reads, “There went to that place <three> women: Mary, she who belonged to Martha, and Mary <Magd> alene” (Duensing, 1963, p. 195). “She who belonged to Martha” suggests companionship rather than kinship.

While it is possible that these women were products of evangelistic imagination and legend, the pairing of Mary and Martha still demonstrates the power of a female pair by merely surviving in the literature. As in the case of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, martyred together in Carthage around 203 C.E., the Martha-Mary stories inspired devotion for centuries in places as distant as France and Spain. Boswell notes that “the precise nature of the relationship between [Perpetua and Felicity] is not clear,” in that it is not known for sure whether they shared a household; their husbands were not mentioned in the official martyrologies; and they kissed each other before they were killed. It was the “paired femaleness” of this couple that seemed to appeal most to Christians who heard their story (Boswell, 1994, pp. 139–141). Mary and Martha share the same traits: they are supposedly widowed; they may have a brother; and they live together. Mary and Martha constituted a popular and compelling pair in early Christianity and won converts to the faith.

The apostles Philip and Bartholomew are mentioned more or less together in the Synoptic Gospels and apocryphal literature and appear in later same-sex liturgies. In those liturgies, with the exception of Saints Sergei and Bacchus (discussed below), it is Philip and Bartholomew for whom there is the most evidence of pairing. There is little about these two men in the New Testament, however, which raises the question as to where the tradition of them as a couple originated. In John 1:43–51, Jesus calls Philip to be his disciple. Philip in turn finds Nathanael, and a dialogue ensues that could be one not just between two casual friends but between two people in a committed relationship. Thus Nathanael and Bartholomew are one and the same person. Among the arguments to support this is the mention of Philip with Nathanael in John 1:45–46 and with Bartholomew in lists of the Twelve (Matt 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:14, Acts 1:13).

Evidence for same-sex relationships in other early Christian literature.

As Christianity grew, stories developed and circulated about New Testament figures and others to promote the faith. Philip and Bartholomew became quite popular both as paired missionaries and as models of love and fidelity (Boswell, 1994, p. 160 and passim). In the Epistula Apostolorum they are mentioned together in a list of disciples (Duensing, 1963, p. 192). In the apocryphal Acts of Philip, Bartholomew accompanies Philip to Hierapolis and Lyconia, along with Mariamne (Santos Otero, 1992, p. 469). The two apostles converse with Jesus in various Gnostic discourses, including Sophia Jesu Christi and Pistis Sophia (Trevijano, 1992a, p. 112). In The Two Books of Jeu, the text reads, “All the apostles…answered with one voice, Matthew and John, Philip and Bartholomew and James, saying: Lord Jesus, thou living one…” (Puech, 1963, p. 262). In the second treatise of the Codex Askewianus, in which portions of Pistis Sophia are found, the text reads, “But…while Jesus was saying this,…Philip and Bartholomew were in the south (with their faces) turned towards the north” (Puech, 1963, p. 258).

Sergei and Bacchus were another pair that grew considerably in popularity and influence. Roman soldiers of high social status who lived in the late third and early fourth centuries, the two men were Christians, devoted to the faith and to each other. What ultimately led to their martyrdom was not their affection for each other but their loyalty to Christ (Boswell, 1994, pp. 147–148). Over time, they came to be seen as “the quintessential ‘paired’ military saints, usually referred to and often pictorially depicted together (sometimes rubbing halos together and with their horses’ noses touching).” A monastery was dedicated to them in Euphratesia and they became the special saints of the Byzantine army (Boswell, 1994, pp. 153–154).

The significance of Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgies celebrating same-sex “marriages,” including documents from the Vatican and Mount Athos, cannot be underestimated (Boswell, 1994, passim). While most of the examples come from the tenth through fourteenth centuries, the fact that they exist and were obviously utilized under church auspices is irrefutable proof that same-sex pairs were approved by the church, at least in certain locales (Boswell, 1994, pp. 283–344). Given other evidence from Greco-Roman antiquity, the liturgies also demonstrate a trajectory of practice from the early church into later times. Same-sex burials in later antiquity provide further evidence for this lifestyle and its approval by the church (Abrahamsen, 1997, pp. 33–56; Boswell, 1994, p. 88; cf. Brooten, 1996, p. 351n205).

Attitudes toward Same-Sex Relationships in Antiquity.

Opinions on same-sex relationships in antiquity varied, as did the reasons for those opinions. While Sergei and Bacchus, for instance, were proof that there was “a widespread and ancient Hellenistic connection between homoeroticism and the military” (Boswell, 1994, p. 145; see also pp. 61–65), long-standing social mores dictated that male and female same-sex pairings be viewed negatively. These negative views are, in part, what contribute to pejorative opinions in the modern West.

In antiquity, gender roles were highly circumscribed. Men were expected to be active, strong, and honorable, while women were expected to be passive, compliant, weak, and devoted to the men of their families and to their children. Deviations from these roles were viewed as unnatural, undermining of the social fabric, dangerous, shameful, and sometimes evil. A man who took on the passive role of a same-sex pair was viewed as overly feminine, while women who bonded with one another were criticized for not fulfilling their passive, natural, familial roles. Since society at large and the patriarchal church approved only of marriages between elite men and women, other types of consensual, adult relationships were often seen as deviant (Dynes, 1990, pp. 1121–1122; Brooten, 1996, pp. 53–57 and 144–146).

Ancient authors, mostly male, made different arguments against male and female homosexuality. Some authors focused on tribades, for instance—women who actively sought sexual relations with or penetrated other women. The term comes from the Greek verb tribein, to rub or wear down (Hallett, 1992, p. 183; Brooten, 1996, p. 126). A number of ancient medical texts depicted such women as mentally ill and needing to be treated with mind control or even clitoridectomy (Brooten, 1996, pp. 143–173). The astrological texts condemned homosexual behavior based upon the “gender” of the planets and how they are aligned: “Opposite positions of the stars can cause female masculinization and male feminization” (Brooten, 1996, p. 129 and passim).

It is such perspectives that provide the context for New Testament passages that devalue the same-sex lifestyle: Romans 1:18–32, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Jude 7—8. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, Paul condemns “homosexuals” using the Greek word malakoi, which can be translated as “men who assume a passive sexual role with other men” (Brooten, 1996, p. 260). Romans 1:18–32 is one of the most influential Pauline texts on sexual behavior, with verses 26 and 27 cited as proof that God condemns homosexuality. Men who are attracted to and have sexual relations with other men, and women similarly, are seen to be “unnatural” and “dishonorable.”

Both 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude 7—8 were written after Paul’s death and reiterate condemnation of sexual perversion and unnatural lust. In a culture that was so defined by the communal values of honor and shame, early Christians who defied traditional mores were viewed as dishonoring not only themselves but also the nascent community, a minority group struggling for survival and identity. The “deviant” individual brought shame upon himself or herself and, even more importantly, on the group.

Modern Debates and Legacy.

In the modern West, especially since the 1970s, the issue of same-sex relationships has been both divisive and unifying. On the negative side, scriptural passages have served to condemn same-sex pairings and the homosexual lifestyle. Gay, lesbian, and transgender youth are still thrown out of their homes by parents who do not approve of them, suicide remains high among this population, and so-called queer people are still at risk of assault and murder. Sermons preached in many churches continue to berate people who live the same-sex lifestyle, and the polity of many established, mainstream denominations forbids same-sex unions and the ordination of openly gay persons to the priesthood.

However, scholarship has demonstrated that the ancient context is in many ways vastly different than the modern one, which requires new ways of thinking about social issues. Western culture is significantly more individualistic than the culture out of which early Christianity emerged; self-actualization is now generally perceived as more important than cultural values such as honor and shame. Gender roles, for the most part, are significantly less stratified than they were in antiquity; modern Western women have become much more active, strong, powerful, and in the public eye, while men are less stigmatized for being sensitive and nurturing. Therefore, the ancient arguments against female action and initiative and against male passivity and gentleness hold considerably less sway.

Significantly, however, scholarship has also shown that the general social mores and perspectives against homosexuality in antiquity were not monolithically negative. As noted above, the ancient world did in fact paint positive pictures of male and female couples, and the early church in a number of significant ways celebrated their lives and contributions.

In the early twenty-first century, whether by court order or the enacting of legislation, several states across the United States allow same-sex unions and marriage. In many communities same-sex couples are almost completely integrated into the social fabric, raising children, owning homes, assuming leadership roles, holding public office, and generally living normal middle-class lives. The positive examples of same-sex couples in early Christianity support this development. The evidence gleaned from recent scholarship can enable the Western Christian to see that our ancestors in the faith valued the contributions of same-sex pairs, not only allowing them to be married and buried together but building churches and monasteries in their honor, depicting them in art, and placing them on their calendar of saints. Whether the argument for equality hinges on current values such as individuality and civil rights or on evidence from ancient cultures, including Christianity, the trend is toward the acceptance, approval, and celebration of loving same-sex relationships between consenting adults.




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Valerie Abrahamsen