Romans 1:24-27 and Pornography: “God gave them up…”

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 15

by Reta Halteman Finger

Erotic fresco in Pompeii

We saw in the last lesson how Paul described the out-of-control sexual behavior in Romans 1:24-27 as the result of Greco-Roman idolatry in 1:18-23. For an observant Jew like Paul, this defied the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4) not to make an idol of anything above, on, or under the earth. But what direct connection is there between carved or painted images and the sexuality Paul describes in such negative terms as “lust,” “impurity,” “degrading” of bodies, and “shameless acts” in verses 24-27?

On a tour of Italy in 2001, I visited the well-preserved ruins of Pompeii, a Roman city engulfed by the massive volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. Excavated by archaeologists many centuries later, Pompeii vividly illustrates how upper-class Romans and their slaves and clients lived under the early emperors and during the Apostle Paul’s missionary activity.

Although the streets, shops, and houses of Pompeii brought ancient history alive for me, some visitors were more interested in the pornography. What our Western culture so far submerges under a thin layer of propriety, the Greco-Roman people displayed openly.  Their society was saturated with images of phalluses and erotic scenes involving humans, Roman deities, and animals. The most explicit examples had been moved to a private section of the Archaeological Museum of Naples, but in the excavated city, plenty of titillating paintings still decorate the walls of private homes and public baths.

With Israel living around such cultures, no wonder Yahweh forbade them to create images of their God!

Sex, power, and domination

Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed’s book In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004) explains the politics of male power and domination behind these sexual images. “For Rome,…normative sexual behavior was scripted according to power relations based on gender, age, and status,” they write, “with the adult land-owning male as the most powerful. We can…see that patriarchal-power nexus in the frequent depiction of the phallus as a magic-like symbol of power. It was used to ward off the evil eye, to protect houses from intrusion, and to ensure fecundity” (p 258). Private houses, such as those in Pompeii, had an erect phallus engraved or scratched by the entrance “to ward off curses or serve as good-luck charms” (p 259).  Sanctuaries and larger villas throughout the Mediterranean world were protected by herms, square bronze pillars with a bust of the god Hermes on top and his genitals protruding from the front of the pillar.

Relief carvings demonstrate political power and domination. In one, the Emperor Claudius, nude save for a helmet and flowing cape, stands over the female personification of Britain, ready to pierce her with his sword; in another, Nero conquers the naked body of personified Armenia (illustrations in Crossan and Reed on p 269). Sexual expression as mutuality and equality had no place in Roman culture. It is always portrayed as the domination of the older or superior male over socially inferior or younger persons of either gender. Greco-Roman culture was indeed hierarchical and bisexual.

From ancient porn to Internet porn

A few weeks ago, splashed on the cover of the April 11, 2016, issue of Time magazine was the huge word “PORN.” Underneath were the words, “Why young men who grew up with porn are becoming advocates of turning it off.” The article by Belinda Luscombe featured several of these men who have now written books and/or set up websites to help boys and young men give it up. What motivates them is not religious conversion or moral sensitivity. Their concern sprang from their discovery that when they wanted to have sex with a real woman, their bodies simply could not perform.

Philip Zimbardo, emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University, notes that both porn and video games are finely tuned to be as habit-forming as possible. Although they are not chemically addictive, he says, porn acts like a drug in that some people get addicted to it and stop doing much else. “And then…as you do this more and more, the reward centers of your brain lose the capacity for arousal” (Time cover story, p 46). Gabe Deem, 28, would like to see schools use sex ed classes to teach kids about the possible side effects of pornography. “All superstimulating things, like Internet porn, junk food and drugs,” he says, “can be fun and pleasurable, temporarily. However, they also have the potential to desensitize you to normal, natural things and ultimately rob you of the one thing you thought they would give, the ability to experience pleasure” (As quoted in Time article, p 47).

Actions have consequences

I was stunned to realize that this is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:24-27! A constant exposure to sexual images of pleasure, power, and domination lead to a search for new highs. Normal sexual relationships no longer satisfy, so people experiment with ever more exotic and abusive acts. Their punishment, says Paul, is that “God gave them up to the degrading of their bodies” (1:24) and “they received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (1:27). In other words, the Jewish, law-observant Paul saw in the pagan Greco-Roman world a sex addiction that was not only shameful but ultimately led to an inability to experience normal sexual pleasure. James’s letter agrees. One is lured and enticed by desire, he says, “then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death” (Jas 1:14-15). The point here is not sexual orientation; it’s never-satisfied sexual addiction.

In the next lessons, I will use the work of several biblical scholars to do a detailed analysis of the Greek text of Romans 1:24-27, as well as discuss differences between marriage and family customs then and now.

Questions for discussion or reflection

1.  I have shifted the focus of Romans 1:24-27 away from its traditional, anti-homosexual interpretation. Is this appropriate? What do you think?

2.  In her sidebar on “how porn is changing a generation of girls,” Peggy Orenstein asserts that today’s porn industry profits handsomely by “eroticizing the degradation of women.” Kids learn “that women’s sexuality exists for the benefit of men” (Time, p 47). If you are a woman reading this lesson, what do you think? If you are a male reader, what are your thoughts about Orenstein’s observation?

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.


  1. Great reading and makes so much more sense than what we are used to hearing, that these texts are talking about homosexuality.

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