In this section, I will review the pertinent findings of my extensive research into the subject of the ethics of the society into which the Letters of Paul were sent. This is of vital significance to the quest for understanding those Letters. Paul knew the language and their culture very well, he spent his life speaking the language and immersed in the culture. If I write a Letter to the culture I know, I use words that I have some hope will be understood by the listeners. If they do not understand, there is no hope that a concept will be built in their beings. Our concepts must be built on the understanding that Paul wrote his Letters with full intention of communicating into their understanding, using words in ways they would understand.
So we must do our best to form our concepts in alignment with the concepts held by the people reading Paul’s Letters.
To start this section, I am discussing the question of ethics from a perspective of unknowing, as if I had become somehow capable of evaluating objects of ethics without bias. Some readers can easily change to that perspective, for others it is difficult. For those who find difficulty switching perspective, please consider that I am discussing the subject from an alien, pagan or intellectual perspective. Trust me, I will switch back to the Kingdom of Heaven perspective.
History Teaches … something
In this world of turmoil, one dominant characteristic of all society is the group condemnation of classes of people, because of physical traits or behavioral traits or language traits.
No set of behavioral traits causes more condemnation than sexuality. The rules about sexuality vary between groups, on every nuance in the continuum of sexual behavior.
It is tempting to apply democracy to sexuality, to study the broad range of sexual ethics throughout history and then to allow the most common prohibitions to occupy the status of Evil in our concepts. In other words to allow history to dictate my ethics based on the highest percentage of votes from cultures in history. For example, choosing to believe that marriage is a vaguely binding sexual and financial contract because it is such in most cultures in history. [Recall that I am evaluating without using my concepts developed through knowledge of God, so I will refrain from asserting that perspective here.]
But, as with all issues decided by democratic vote, the minority is subjected to the dominance, or tyranny, of the majority.
Tyranny is a pertinent subject. The word “Tyranny” comes to us from ancient Greek, where it originally simply referred to a ruler who acquired rulership through a means other than the approved method. To use a general case as example: someone taking control through a tricky political maneuver when succession of rulership was intended through appointment or inheritance. Now, in the current era, the word “Tyranny” is better understood to mean abuse of power, which can be described as the application of authority outside the approved boundaries. Using power obtained through one source to force control of behaviors or thoughts not granted from the same source. This second case of “tyranny” is just as common as the first case.
In both definitions, the “approved” method or boundary becomes the key defining criteria. And the question of establishing authority quickly becomes a paramount question. If the authority that defined the method of succession of rulership was itself outside the realm of approval of the preceding authority, who is the tyrant?
How does “tyranny” enlighten us as to sexual ethics in history?
This subject serves as an illustration of the fundamental difficulty of sexual ethics. To accurately understand and use the word “tyranny” we must arbitrarily select some authority at a point in time and assign non-tyrannical authority to that principle or ruler or government. We ought not regress further into history where that authority itself likely is shown to be supplanting a previous concept. If we do regress further into history from that point, our assumed defensible attack of tyranny might itself be shown to be tyranny.
By parallel and direct association, sexual ethics follow the same course. Societies define rules about sexuality and selectively punish rule-breakers. Each society presents itself as certain about the rules and despises preceding and concurrent societies, all based on certainty that its authority that has defined the current rules is not tyrannical.
As a person pursuing the God Most High, I choose to believe that the Bible is a primary source for developing concepts about reality. I choose to believe that God Most High has communicated through that method. And I choose to believe that God Most High continues to communicate, directly in various methods.
The people living in the Greco-Roman 1st century culture would feel certainty similar to mine, but based in their culture, not in the books of the Bible. We will explore that culture briefly.
Studying the various cultures of which we have records, I clearly see a dominant theme: hatred of people for common activities of all sorts: language, pronunciation, attire, hair, property ethics, marriage ethics, alcohol ethics, political ethics, war ethics, environment ethics, diet ethics, and sexual ethics. In every group throughout time people have been involved with sexual activities that are assessed by their society as not acceptable, even if the same activities are assessed as acceptable in previous times or in concurrent times in other locales. The persons accused of such activities are the focus of extreme hatred, social exile and penalty.
Having just completed an extensive review of the first century Greek and Roman culture(s), I see clearly the same societal struggle problem that the Bible brought to our attention in its first chapters: Acceptable behavior.
Moving our story forward in history from the first chapters of the Bible, after an extended period filled with other events, the Greek and Roman cultures developed in parallel, becoming significant less than an eon before the time of Jesus the Christ. Greece conquered a lot of the regions around the Mediterranean, taking them from the previous conquerors. Then Rome conquered Greece. As mentioned above in discussing “tyranny” it is a mistake to consider their respective cultures as if they materialized from nothing. Rather, we can see a chain of culture extending further back, either to a starting point or to complete obscurity, dependent on your chosen concepts of ancient history.
But the further we regress into past cultures, the more our observations of culture become the product of our biased imaginations.
In fact, much of what we ascertain from the Greek and Roman cultures is extrapolated through our logic. We have many Greek and Roman writings that purport to originate in the centuries before the Christ and after. Most of the documents are not about Law. Of the documents from which we can derive understanding of Law, most are accounts of court cases. These accounts were written for various purposes, often as expressions of hatred to disgrace and shame participants for their behavior.
But from these writings we do get some understanding that appears to be fairly reliable. We will review some of the concepts that appear fairly certain. The ancient cultures focused on these subjects, just as today. There are other subjects as well, but I will focus on the subjects that are pertinent to the development of our perception of the context of the New Testament letters to the Greek and Roman churches. And attempt to align focus on the subjects related to pagan acceptability as referenced by the Apostle Paul.
Greek and Roman Concepts of Sexuality
I caution the reader before this section. Some will find it offensive to discuss these topics and question the utility of discussing this. It is not possible to proceed without offense. But … Because shame is specifically mentioned as starting in the shade of the Tree in the Garden, I will proceed. Because shame is specifically mentioned as being shame of sexuality, I will proceed. Because I see Jesus as the Christ promised in the shadow of the Tree in the Garden, I will proceed. Because I see Jesus as the Christ who came to free us from the terrible bondage of shame and guilt, I will proceed.
I invite those who cannot think about sexuality without anger, fear, revulsion, or other shame derived emotions, to attempt to lay all those aside. There is another Tree in the Garden, the Tree of Life. The healing for shame is forgiveness. Take of the Life offered by Jesus the Christ and rise above the shame.
These culture observations are important to help us understand the mindset, the intrinsic concepts, of most people joining the Church in the 1st century, the believers in Jesus the Christ.
The Pertinent Details
Both the Greek and Roman cultures held in high esteem the practice of a fully adult man and a puberty age male engaging in a serious relationship including penetrative sex (coitus). The cultures varied slightly in some aspects, but a clear commonality was their intense focus on a component characteristic of manhood – as the taker of pleasure. The indications and allusions strongly imply that, according to their culture, a man does the penetrating and it is a disgrace for an adult male to be the giver of pleasure, the penetrated.
This attitude carried forward into relations with women, wherein the woman is perceived, just as the pubescent male, as the giver of pleasure.
For the upper class woman, the cultural expectation was for her to remain faithful to her current husband and only do coitus with him, giving pleasure via penetration only to him.
The role of man as a giver of pleasure to woman was despised. [I must add my own comment here: how terribly sad and twisted. How far from the design of God Most High.] This fact proves significant for understanding of other Bible passages.
These concepts were pervasive in the Greco-Roman world. Such pervasive concepts have results in the attitudes of a society. As one should expect in a culture of this sort, writers of that era dismiss sex as meaningless. Because it is, from their perspective. Compulsive – it will happen; but meaningless.
But meaningless or not, sex presented a huge target for public accusation and disgrace, the manipulation of public opinion through communication skills. We will see more of this when we look at Greek and Roman Law.
As mentioned, the woman was to remain faithful to her current husband. This only applied to Roman higher class women or Greek “freeborn” women – a parallel concept in the 2 highly integrated cultures. This ethic of faithfulness was not expected in slave or low-born women. Divorce was acceptable in various situations, and common, but while bound in the religious-governmental institution of marriage, the higher caste woman must refrain from coitus with other men. And, as we can derive from the implications of court cases surrounding the goddess cults, the limitation was precisely coitus and precisely men.
The adult male, man, was free to engage in coitus with the other classes of people, with few limitations. One limitation was a man was prohibited from coitus with another man’s slaves without permission from the owner. Another limitation was a man was prohibited from coitus with another man’s wife. And a man was not to engage in coitus with his daughter. The 1st century Greek and Roman ethics were very similar in these issues.
One historical analyst wrote that the Roman mindset/culture about sex would be summarized as precluding a man from engaging in coitus with another man’s wife or his own daughter. All else is at some higher level of acceptability.
Those few facts give us a pertinent view of the range of acceptability.
But modern internet culture very much clouds an important aspect of sexuality in the 1st century: religious integration. In the modern, rapidly expanding, domain of internet culture, sex is mostly a disconnected act like eating: just something people do. Except, of course, where it can be used to shame and destroy people, which is a common goal. But for the 1st century person, especially the Greek and Roman person, the concept of the spiritual realm was integrated with human sexuality. So, for the modern net ethos person, it requires a true intellectual effort to keep that integration intact in one’s concepts while thinking about sex in the 1st century. It is difficult to keep sex and religion connected as we form our concepts of the Greco-Roman world, but they were not separate concepts for them. We will give further examples of that later.
Words They Used about Sex
The Greeks had a very commonly used word for adultery, and it was similar to the definition we use today, sex between a man and another man’s wife.
The Greeks did not appear to ever use the Greek word that means incest in the modern Greek definition. I could not find any use of the word itself, although the Greek accounts have many stories of such activities – coitus with an immediate family member.
The Romans had a word from which the modern word “incest” is descended. But the Roman word incest clearly meant a violation of sanctity (“chastity” – the “cest” part of “incest”). Primarily the word refers to the sanctity of the all-female cults of worship to the goddesses of sex/fertility. This is clear from court cases, for example when Clodius Pulcher is accused of incest for sneaking into the all-female secret festival in worship of a goddess. The crime was called “incest”, but it had nothing to do with coitus with an immediate family member. It was a capital crime, but he bribed his way out of it.
There is another important concept to derive from the story of Clodius Pulcher and the other similar accounts that provide us with our only opportunities to understand the female only goddess cults. Recall into your concepts that the concept of a man giving a woman pleasure was generally despised. Woman need intimate pleasure as much as men do, albeit with differences. Recall that the Greek island of Lesbos gave its name to modern women who embrace the giving of intimate pleasure to each other. Recall that Clodius Pulcher snuck into the all female cult worship event with the express purpose of engaging in sex activities with the wife of a rival important man. How? I’ll leave that to the realm of obvious. Put all those together and we see a possible understanding that the women, with their needs despised by their men, joined together to solve their problems under the auspices and blessings of their goddess. In 1st century Roman language, the word “incest” meant violating the sanctity of this all-female worship. There are certain Bible passages that this understanding clarifies.
The Greeks had a word that is critical in our understanding of the New Testament: porneia. In all writings from Greek authors through the centuries before and after the Christ, it clearly and only means prostitution, and with the absolute cultural tie to religious activity. There are gender variations of the word “porneia”, but the most common usage is of the male gender, following the very widespread use of male prostitutes in the worship activities. But it appears that the word was used inclusively of both genders often. While the tie to religious activity is not always specified, studying the Greek culture and the Roman culture specifically shows that every aspect of their life involved concern for disruption or harmony in the spiritual realm. Pleasing the gods is pervasive in the daily life and thought processes. If someone desired health, victory in war, fertility (strong children), or greater physical success, they would be required to worship Aphrodite specifically, and the other gods as well. If someone’s life was in difficulty, more worship was required as the only hope to recover.
In addition to the strongly implied relationship between daily life and the gods, there are several specific references to porneia being involved in the activities of the temples. The main ancient temple to Aphrodite, who is the Olympian (highest level) goddess of sex, fertility and war, was at Corinth. One Greek historian stated that the temple housed 1000 prostitutes. That temple was destroyed when the Greeks there rebelled against the Romans about 150 years before the Christ, but the Romans rebuilt it about 50 years before the Christ, probably with fewer prostitutes. The Romans, sometime before, had adopted Aphrodite into their own set of gods, calling her Venus. They built many temples to Venus. Worship of her spread quickly and widely – a goddess whose worship involves sexual activity has wide appeal. And there are several allusions to prostitution being highly involved in the worship activities.
The manner in which sex was integrated into worship is unknown to us for good reason: all the cults were mystery cults – divulging the secrets of the activities was forbidden, with penalty of death. So nobody wrote about it, since your writings would make for a very short trial ending in your being sown into a large bag with several wild animals and thrown into the river (under Roman law).
The modern English word “fornication” comes from the Greek word porneia, but not by etymological paths of language evolution. Instead it is through substitutionary usage. A “fornix” in Latin is an archway (gate or doorway or portico). Prostitutes (Greek porne – people involved in porneia) often stood in these archways to advertise their services. Hence the activity of visiting them came to be called “Fornication”. When studying ancient words it is important to remember that the modern definition in NO WAY indicates the original meaning. The original meaning must be derived from usage concurrent with the era when the author was writing. The evolution of language, especially word meanings, is evident and is highly influenced by shifting societal ethics. So we can see that in the centuries surrounding the time of the Christ, the Latin word “fornication” paralleled the Greek word “porneia”. Both were related to sex with sex workers, with some higher level of religious significance attached.
The pervasive nature of of Greek (and Roman) religion has a good example in the Bible. In Acts 17, Paul is at Athens and gives a discourse where he shows some thought processes he had about the Greek religious beliefs. He shows great awareness of the Greek religious systems. And he shows education and comprehension of Greek writings. He does this by quoting the Greek poet Aratus. Paul chooses a passage from Aratus where the author is worshiping the highest Olympian god Zeus. Paul said:
27that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ 29″Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. 30″Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all [people] everywhere should repent, 31because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
Note that in verse 28 Paul quotes the poet to the Greeks at the temples on Mars hill, an area that included temples to the goddesses. And then in verse 29 he relates Zeus to the God Most High, who is the God through whom we are saved. Does this mean Zeus and my Lord are the same? Examine their descriptions and decide for yourself. What it does mean is that Paul knew how to talk to people in other cultures. This same technique was used by unknown evangelists when spreading the Gospel to the Northern Europe regions. We can see the results of their cultural awareness in my writing: I often use the word “God” when attempting to communicate about the being I know, when writing in English. The word “God” is not Hebrew or Greek.
The passage from Aratus that Paul quotes says this:
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of god.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to god.
For we are indeed his offspring …
Note that the last line is quoted by Paul.
This poet was immensely popular for 3 centuries before Paul quoted him. And illustrates the pervasive nature of religious thought in 1st century Greece.
The concept that god permeates everything would, beyond doubt, apply to Aphrodite as well. Which then means that sexual actitivites would have strong ties to religious worship. Once the foundational concept of sex as worship is established at the societal level, would not the average person naturally assign religious significance to their sexual behavior in a society where sex is part of the religious concepts? The person would have the desire to bring much greater meaning to life by finding the spiritual world in their passions.
Here is an example from Chamaeleon, a Greek author about 300 years before Paul. The person who translated this text from the Greek chose to use the word “courtesans” instead of prostitutes. These “courtesans” are a higher class of prostitutes. They are “kept women” to use an English term. These are Greek women who dedicated their religious integrated sex activities with either a single man or a couple of men. They did this in exchange for being well provided with gifts and amenities, not necessarily money. It was still a part of the overall Greek concept of prostitution. Here is the text:
Even private citizens vow to the goddess that, if those things for which they make petition are fulfilled, they will even bring courtesans to Aphrodite. Such, then, being the custom concerning the goddess, Xenophon of Corinth, when he went to Olympia to take part in the games, vowed that he would bring courtesans to the goddess if he won.
Note the implication of courtesans as a higher grade of worship “will even bring”. It is reasonable to assume the lower grade is to bring some public prostitutes or just use the official temple prostitutes. As mentioned before, we are never explicitly told what Xenophon did with the courtesans when he brought them to the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of sex. We are not told because it was a mystery cult, by law the activities are secret. But I do not believe we need to be told. Because, for the purposes of understanding Paul’s appeal to pagan acceptability, the important part is the pagan part – worship of another god.
We have done a brief look at the sexual ethics of the 1st century Greco-Roman world. The goal is that we can form concepts similar to those people to whom Paul wrote his letters. The following sections will expand further on these concepts.