Gay sex is a sin. The New Testament makes that abundantly clear.
Or does it?
According to one of the UK’s most prominent evangelicals, if Christian scholarship engages with archaeological evidence from the rediscovered ancient city of Pompeii, much of St Paul’s teaching on sexuality must be radically reinterpreted.
In a new online video for the Open Church Network, Revd. Canon Steve Chalke argues that by studying the remains of Pompeii, and understanding the ancient Roman world’s highly sexualised culture, we can find new meaning in chapters such as Romans 1, which have traditionally been misinterpreted to condemn same-sex relations.
Revd. Canon Steve Chalke says, “For too long the remains of Pompeii have been little known to members of the general public, but when the chance to examine them is taken, it becomes abundantly clear that in ancient Rome, sex was everything. 80% of the artwork recovered from Pompeii and its sister town of Herculaneum is sexually explicit and also reveals a fascination with the image of the stiff, erect penis – a symbol of power and pleasure. This is the context into which the New Testament was written.
“If you were a man in Roman culture, so long as someone was your social inferior – a slave, a gladiator, a woman etc. – it was considered socially acceptable and respectable to penetrate them. A married man would have a mistress for pleasure and a non-Roman boy for ecstasy. They called these people ‘infames’; those utterly lacking in social standing and deprived of most protections accorded to citizens under Roman law. There is also much evidence that Roman women also engaged exploitative sex – typically with female slaves, gladiators or male castrated slaves – whose testicles had been removed or rendered inoperative, so that they could not produce sperm and lost their desire for sex but still had the ability to perform it. Juvenal, the poet, tells us that bored Roman women took these eunuchs as lovers.
“So engrained was this way of thinking and behaving that it became incorporated into religion. Drug and alcohol fuelled orgies featuring men sleeping with women, men sleeping with men and women sleeping with women and men were even classed as acts of worship.”
Chalke argues that against this backdrop, verses such as the often quoted Romans 1 v 27 (“In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error”) should be understood to condemn the power-driven sexual hierarchy and abuse so common to Roman life, with the rest of the chapter condemning their sex-driven approach to worship and idolatry.
“Every Christian believes God to be a God of love. It is no wonder that these abusive practises are condemned by inspired scripture. But, it is a disingenuous misreading of the text to conclude that what Paul describes in Romans 1 can be used to prevent people forming loving, faithful and nurturing relationships with people of the same-sex.”
The video, containing graphic images that were discovered in Pompeii, which also deals with the three other passages in the New Testament that have traditionally been used to condemn any kind of homosexual activity or even orientation has been released and is available at openchurch.network.
Chalke continues, “The content of the video is so graphic that we’ve had to place a parental warning label on it – however I have not released this out of any desire to provoke or shock for the sake of it. Because of widespread ignorance of the ancient world and Greco-Roman culture in churches across the West, we throw Bible verses around without understanding their context. We misunderstand Paul’s criticism of rituals that exploit power and abuse people and then, out of ignorance, use them to try to prevent people of same-sex orientation from finding loving, committed and fulfilling partnerships and of entering into, what I believe is, the holy institution of same-sex marriage. For the Church, the Bible is the corner stone of faith and practise. It is time we took it more seriously. The Church has a duty to use every tool of modern scholarship available in this task.”
The ancient city Pompeii was buried - although not, as we now know, destroyed - when the nearby, supposedly extinct, volcano Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, covering it and the nearby town of Herculaneum and their inhabitants in many tons of pumice and volcanic ash. Although the disaster remained in people's minds for many years it was eventually forgotten, until the exploration of the ancient site started in 1748.
However, work to excavate the city still continues today and it is only in relatively recent years that there has been sufficient public access to allow the findings to influence theological and cultural scholarship.