The Historical and Literary Setting for Romans 1:24-27

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Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 14

By Reta Halteman Finger

Arch Of Titus - Digital Image by Jebulon
Arch Of Titus in Rome – Digital Image by Jebulon – from Wikipedia

Our previous two lessons were drawn from three texts in the Hebrew Bible. They showed us how important it was for men in these ancient cultures to maintain public honor and dignity—and that an effective way to humiliate and overpower a free male was to sexually penetrate him, thus treating him like a woman. In this patriarchal culture, no wonder the Levitical law protected male Jews from this dishonor by their peers.

The next two or three lessons will deal with the major New Testament text that describes same-sex sexual behavior in extremely negative terms—Romans 1:24-27. It is also the only text that mentions women’s sexual acts, though females remain subordinate to males as “their women” (v 26). This passage is easily misinterpreted in our Western culture, which until recently has assumed that only heterosexual sexual activity could be proper, legal, and publicly acceptable. Thus, any homosexual acts—sometimes even orientation—could then be described as “impure,” “lustful,” and “degrading” (v 24).

In contrast, the ancient Greco-Roman world was bisexual. Since at least one-third of the Roman Empire’s population was enslaved property, both male and female slaves could be raped at will. Gender was not the issue; domination of the younger or socially inferior person was. Slaves inherently had no honor to defend.

But we cannot do justice to this passage until we understand its purpose in Paul’s lengthy theological letter to the Roman Christians—which is actually composed as a speech to be delivered publicly and passionately. Why did Paul write this speech to believers living in a city he had never visited? It’s a long story, which will take up the rest of this lesson.

The gospel comes to Rome

The Jesus-message came early to Rome, likely brought by Jews who had visited Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:5,10). Returning to their synagogues in Rome, these Jews may have found it easier to convert the God-fearing Gentiles who worshiped with them than to convert their fellow Jews. (This happened repeatedly in Paul’s experience in Asia Minor, e.g., in Thessalonica in Acts 17:1-9.)

But the Emperor Claudius never liked Jews of any kind, and by 49 CE he had evicted them from the city of Rome. Bereft of the synagogues, the Gentile Jesus-believers began establishing their own house churches. But by 54 CE, Claudius was dead and the eviction edict had expired, so the refugees began returning.

The Jesus-Jews who returned to the Gentile house churches in Rome were now on the margins of socio-economic and religious life in these congregations, the reverse of the pattern that had characterized their social status in the previous synagogues. Here, Jesus was worshiped, but Jewish food laws and festivals, perhaps even Sabbaths, were not observed. The stage was set for ethnic tensions on practical, everyday levels. This, at least, is how Robert Jewett and other Pauline scholars today reconstruct the Roman church situation before Paul wrote his letter.

The ancient harbor of Cenchreae on the Agaean Sea, where Phoebe led a house church not far from Corinth in Greece. Phoebe would have traveled at least 700 miles to reach Rome to read Paul’s letter there."Kenchreai" by Heinz Schmitz from Wikipedia
The ancient harbor of Cenchreae on the Agaean Sea, where Phoebe led a house church not far from Corinth in Greece. Phoebe would have traveled at least 700 miles to reach Rome to read Paul’s letter there.
Photo credit – “Kenchreai” by Heinz Schmitz from Wikipedia

By 56 or 57 CE, Paul is back in Corinth and writes a letter to these Roman believers, to be delivered and proclaimed by his benefactor Phoebe, leader of a church in nearby Cenchreae (Rom 16:1-2). Ever the restless missionary, Paul wants to take his gospel of Jesus further west to Spain. He plans to visit the Roman house churches on the way so they can help him prepare for this new venture (Rom 15:23-24).

But how can the believers work together if they are divided by ethnicity and social class? Do the Jews criticize Gentile lack of law-observance? (See Rom 14:1-6.) Have they received inadequate hospitality and financial assistance? (See Rom 12:13.) Are the Gentiles pulling rank over the Jews, since they are now the church leaders? Paul’s letter must be diplomatic and rhetorically persuasive in order to help the divided Roman house churches unite in a common cause to bring the gospel to those who have not heard it.

The literary context of Romans 1:24-27

Paul’s thesis for his entire speech is Romans 1:16-17: the gospel is the power of God to save all those who believe—both Jew and Greek (or Gentile). He provides four proofs (and the book of Romans is organized around them) in 1:16–4:25; chapters 5–8; chapters 9–11; and 12:1–15:13. For our purposes here, we will look only at the structure of Paul’s opening argument in 1:16—3:31.

Here Paul asserts that both Jews and Gentiles need salvation because both groups have sinned equally. Apart from Jewish law, God’s righteousness has been disclosed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. There are no ethnic distinctions (3:21-23).

But first Paul must expose the sins of Gentile and Jew alike. In 1:18 he begins with Gentiles. Their core sin is idolatry, suppressing knowledge of the One God, and instead worshiping the created world by making images of human beings, birds, or animals (1:18-23). Their punishment is that God hands them over to the results of their twisted sexual passions and addictions (1:24-27), as well as to the results of many other kinds of evil, such as envy, murder, strife, deceit, rebellion against parents, and much more (1:28-32).

As Phoebe reads Paul’s speech, we can imagine Jews sitting smug and self-righteous, knowing that they do obey God’s laws against these pagan sins. But in Romans 2:1-3, Paul insists that those who judge others for such sins are actually guilty of the same things! Indeed, there are Gentiles “who do not possess the law,” but who “do instinctively what the law requires” (2:14). It is not hearers of the law but the doers of the law who will be justified (2:13). So in 2:17-29 Paul lays out the sins of Jews, negating even circumcision if they are not obeying other laws of God.

Paul’s point in Romans 1:18–2:29, then, is to show that, though both ethnic groups may sin differently, they have both sinned equally. Only through the faithfulness of Christ can they be made righteous together (3:21-31). In this first proof, Paul is accusing neither Jew nor Gentile believers of all these sins; he is just showing that neither ethnic group is superior to, nor can pull rank over the other.

In the next lesson we will examine Romans 1:24-27 in closer detail. What is the sin, and what is the punishment?

Questions for reflection or discussion

1. Can Paul’s main point of equal sinning by both groups apply to both secular and religious people today? Why do some Christians rank homosexual behavior as worse than most other sins?

2. If you had been a Christian male slave who was often raped by your owner and some of his friends, would Romans 1:24-27 have sounded oppressive or liberating to you? How might Christian slave masters have reacted?

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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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