Love in the ancient Mediterranean
BERNADETTE J. BROOTEN is Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis University. A key passage in Paul's Epistle to the Romans (1:18-32) has for a number of years served as a touchstone for her research. Yet the design of her book radiates far beyond the bounds of conventional scriptural exegesis. Her work throws light on the understanding of ancient lesbianism, the status of women in Roman times, and attitudes toward same-sex love in general.
In fact, "Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism" (University of Chicago Press, 1996. 412 pp.) ranks as one of the most important books ever to appear on ancient Mediterranean sexuality. Working with almost superhuman diligence, Professor Brooten has laid bare a surprising wealth of information on lesbian behavior in areas where evidence was previously thought to be scant. Her monograph has important implications for male homosexuality as well. Moreover, despite the subtitle, the very substantial first part of the book (pp. 29-189) deals with attitudes and practice in the Hellenistic and early Romans worlds.
Unlike some who would appear to be seeking to redress the misogyny of our culture by downplaying its instances, Brooten does not shrink from dealing with unpleasant matters. She records the disdain and condemnation of ancient writers, both pagan and Christian, for female-female relations. Fearlessly, she challenges earlier authorities, such as John Boswell and Michel Foucault, whose writings now pass in some quarters as virtually canonical.
Not only does Brooten command the modern scholarly literature, she is at home with original documents written in at least four of the older tongues: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic. While she scrupulously cites the latest secondary literature and the original sources, her erudition is carefully disciplined. The extensive reference notes appear at the bottom of the page where they belong, enabling scholars to check every significant point. Only in a few instances, dealing with controversies in the contemporary conceptualization of same-sex behavior, do the notes seem overlong.
Brooten provides a wealth of material on the condition, status, and behavior of women in Roman and Early Christian times: In this realm there is no substitute for reading her book. The scope of the following remarks is more modest: the bearing of her findings for sexual orientation in general, including that of men.
After first reviewing the familiar texts from Greek and Latin elite authors, including Lucian, Plautus, Ovid, and Martial, Brooten turns to four categories of evidence that have been neglected. The harvest is surprising.
The first area of her original studies is magical spells from Egypt commissioned by the love-sick to elicit compliance from a desired partner. While these have been collected for almost a century from papyri, scholars have been slow to assess the significance of the nonheterosexual ones. Three have so far been published that seek to bind a woman sexually to another woman. The language of these spells is direct, sometimes even violent, affording us a glimpse of the feelings of ordinary people.
The second realm is the astrological literature. The ancients believed that the stars could determine many aspects of the personality, including sexual orientation. While the effects could be quite complex, they show that there could be lifelong sexual orientations, involving several types of male homosexual and lesbian attraction. In the view of these writers such inclinations were not mere preferences to be adopted or discarded at will, but they were even cosmically ordained. Such views posed a problem for some ancient writers who thought that such attractions were "against nature" (para physin). Here, Brooten's findings significantly contradict those of Foucault and his followers who believe that the concept of sexual orientation came into existence only in the nineteenth century.
The third category is the medical. Some handbooks in this field held that same sex behavior, especially that of the female, could be a disease. Again Foucault and his associates are mistaken in their claim that "medicalization" of same-sex behavior took place only in the nineteenth century.
Finally there is the sphere of dream interpretation, especially as seen in the treatise by Artemidorus. Although here the yield is sparser, Brooten makes interesting contrasts between the views of the ancients and modern dream interpretation belonging to the schools of Freud and Jung.
In agreement with most other scholars in the field of ancient Mediterranean sexuality, Brooten sees sexual relations as governed by normative asymmetry in which one partner (the "active" inserter) is superior, the other (the "passive" receptive) inferior. This principle combines with an androcentric one in which the male is superior to the female. In this view no stigma necessarily attaches to male homosexuality because the penetrator maintains the principle of superiority; moreover the male partners, as adolescents or slaves, may be fulfilling the appropriate role as inferior. In this light, however, female-female relations are always suspect, because in accordance with the asymmetry principle one partner should be inferior, the other superior. But women are never supposed to be superior.
This set of principles leads her to conclude that among pagans of the early Roman period, which are her focus in the first part of the book, lesbian relations were reproved. For this she finds considerable evidence. "Monstrous, lawless, licentious, unnatural, and shameful — with these terms male authors throughout the Roman Empire expressed their disgust for sexual love between women" (p. 29). If these principles prevailed during this period, however, they must have appeared earlier, in classical Greece, for example. Why did dislike of lesbian behavior apparently increase in the concluding centuries of the pre-Christian era?
"Brooten provides a wealth of material on the condition, status, and behavior of women in Roman and Early Christian times. Our way of reading is not necessarily the way ancient authors and their audiences would interpret ... Romans 1:26-27. Roman society strongly disapproved of lesbianism, while remaining relatively tolerant of male homosexuality. The scriptural tradition took an opposite approach."
We now turn to the passage from Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which Brooten addresses only after her assemblage of the highly significant background materials reviewed above. The core of the Roman's passage is the following (1:26-27) in the rendering supplied by Brooten which, in my judgment, follows the Greek closely:
"[a] For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. [b] Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural. [c] And in the same way [homoios] also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameful acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error." [punctuation slightly altered]
It is clear that [a] represents the topical sentence. Instances illustrative of the general principle so stated, two of them, follow. As the second example [c] is more explicit than the first [b], and as modern interpreters are likely to perceive lesbian behavior as the almost inevitable counterpart of male homosexual behavior, it is difficult to resist the impulse to read the content of [c] back into [b] which is then interpreted as a condemnation of lesbianism. We tend to see lesbianism and male homosexuality as paired — as does Brooten in this instance. However, elsewhere she produces evidence that ancient writers were capable of pairing male homosexuality with female promiscuity, including prostitution.
Thus our way of reading is not necessarily the way ancient authors and their audiences would interpret the sequence of argument in Roman 1:26-27. For one thing, given the general androcentrism of the era, why would Paul mention women first? Possibly, there is another reason for the order, that this is a temporal sequence: First the women transgressed in some way, and then later the men.
More direct light is afforded on this passage in a short section of the Testament of Naphtali, belonging to a category of ancient writings that Brooten, exceptionally, did not exploit sufficiently. This text belongs to the so-called Intertestamental writings, a body of texts originating in Jewish circles during the period of the Second Temple (ca. 500 B.C.E to 70 C.E,). The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs were probably written in the period 150-100 B.C.E. and thus available to Paul. The writer is elaborating on a text in First Enoch, another Intertestamental writing, which has to do with the Watchers, the sons of God who mated with human women in the time before the flood. In Hellenistic Judaism they were increasingly identified with the fallen angels and their offspring with demons, the source of evil.
"Sun, moon, and stars do not alter their order. The gentiles, because they have wandered astray and forsook the Lord, have changed the order. ... But you, my children, shall not be like that. ... [D]o not become like Sodom which departed from the order of nature. Likewise the Watchers departed from nature's order" [Testament of Naphtali, 3; ed. J.H. Charlesworth, p. 812]
Several assertions anticipate the animadversions of the Romans passage. First is the central idea of the order of nature, against which we transgress at our peril. The notion of nature is wholly Greek and is foreign to the Old Testament. While the Greek word physis does occur in 3 and 4 Maccabees and in the Book of Wisdom, these text were originally written in Greek and are not currently accepted as part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Accordingly, the idea of nature as a cosmic norm is part of the Greek heritage that insinuated itself into Jewish thought during the Hellenistic period. Violations of nature, of course, need not be sexual. However, in a late work, The Laws, the philosopher Plato specifically stigmatized both male and female homosexuality as "against nature" — para physin, the same expression used in Paul's text. In effect, works of Hellenistic Jewish provenance, such as the Testament of Naphtali, "predigested" the Greek material for the use of interpreters like Paul.
Elsewhere in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs we learn that women scheme treacherously to entice men. Because of this proclivity they seduced the Watchers (equivalent to the Nephilim of Genesis 6), who were induced to mate with them before the Flood. Ever since the birth of the Giants from these unions, the earth has been visited by two types of spirits: the spirits of truth and the spirits of error. In this view, the tendency of women to seductiveness caused disaster at a particular point of human history; it continues to this day. Hence the need to call attention to the capacity of women for misdeeds.
Although both the Sodomites and the Watchers were guilty of various errors, the pairing of them in this passage reflects types of sexual activity which would violate the order of nature. The sodomites sought forcible homosexual relations with angels who were the guests of Lot, while the Watchers actually mated with the daughters of men, producing the Giants. Note that in this passage the express "likewise," homoios, links two different sexual transgressions, one (in our terms) homosexual, the other heterosexual. What they have in common is that they risk God's wrath.
In discussing the work of another scholar, James Miller, Brooten briefly mentions the role of the Watchers in the Testament of Naphtali. As she aptly remarks, "[i]ntercourse between the Watchers, who were sons of God, and human women transgressed the order of nature by crossing the boundary between the human and the divine" (note to p. 249). However, she does not seem to see how well this notion fits with Paul's condemnation in Romans 1:26. In fact if one adopts the Watcher interpretation, Paul's offers a spectrum of sexual misdeeds, from those with partners that are too different, extraterrestrial, to acts with partners that are not different enough, same-sex persons, Sexual orthodoxy requires that which is in between: male-female relations.
To return to the Romans passage, in the interpretation offered here, Paul refers first to the historical misdeeds of human women in offering themselves to the extraterrestrial beings. These acts would have been a kind of upwardly mobile counterpart of bestiality since they involve sexual behavior that crosses species lines. Then a modern instance of challenge to the natural order is offered, that of male homosexuality. Of course, it could be objected that this interpretation is only probably, but then the same is true of Brooten's. At the very least, one must conclude, despite Brooten's impressive gathering of materials, that Paul — as distinct from some later interpreters — did not certainly have lesbian activity in mind in Romans 1:26.
Even if Brooten's interpretation is accepted, this would remain, as she acknowledges, the only possible mention of lesbian sexuality in the entire body of scriptures. Mainstream biblical criticism generally agrees that male homosexuality is reproved in a number of passages (Gen. 19; Leviticus 18 and 20; Romans 1:27; and I Cor. 6:9 — to cite only the most salient ones). While it is true that some modern homosexuals and homosexual-friendly writers, including Canon Bailey and John Boswell, have sought to mitigate the force of a number of these passages, Brooten — in my view soundly — seems to accept them.
It is true that much of the later interpretation of the Romans passage is doubly homophobic. As Brooten correctly remarks, "whether or not Western people have ever heard of Paul's Letter to the Romans, it affects their lives" (p. 196). Thus, in the present writer's view, the Romans passage, though not originally lesbophobic, became so, because of the understandable tendency to take the particulars of verse 27 and apply them retrospectively to the preceding verse, which is less clear.
Unfortunately, this expansive interpretation was destined long to flourish; as such, it has been one of our afflictions. But if we look backward toward the complex of ideas that dominated the Hellenistic Judaism in which Paul was trained, we see something different. Man-crazy women, who are even willing to sleep with extraterrestrial beings, parallel man-crazy men, who wish to sleep with other members of their own sex.
Stated briefly, the picture that emerges is this. Roman society strongly disapproved of lesbianism, while remaining relatively tolerant of male homosexuality. The scriptural tradition, certainly of the Old Testament and probably that of the New Testament as well, ignores lesbianism while severely castigating male homosexuality. In expanding its hegemony over a once-pagan Mediterranean environment, Early Christian and medieval tradition imposed a Jewish tradition of strongly disapproving of male homosexuals, while adopting, possibly from Roman sources, a less salient, but still significant disapproval of lesbian conduct.
Since the Protestant Reformation, Christians have been advised to look at Scripture without regard to later commentaries and accretions. If my conclusions are correct regarding the exclusion of lesbian conduct from the sphere of condemnation, a striking asymmetry emerges. To take only the most salient passages (Lev. 18:22, and 20:13; Romans, 1:26-27; and I Cor. 6:9), the Bible condemns male same-sex behavior. Nowhere does it unequivocally forbid lesbian relations. Those who regard the Bible as a coherent guide to ethics and behavior (and not simply a disparate collection of remarkable ancient documents) must explain this inconsistency.