Sexuality is a hot topic. In current debate, the ancient world’s experiences are often drawn upon to strengthen conclusions. Unfortunately, such appeals can be too simplistic. One must take into account diversity among ancient cultures and in different time periods. Blackwell’s Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities is an excellent introduction to this topic.
The volume contains thirty-seven articles covering a wide variety of topics, including masculinity, marriage, prostitution, pederasty, same-sex issues, sexual renunciation, abuse, and the portrayal of sexuality in religion, literature, and art. Allison Glazebrook and Kelly Olson contribute an article on “Greek and Roman Marriage” (pp. 69–82). They begin chronologically with Classical Greece, where “marriage was primarily a transaction between men, namely, the father of the bride and the future husband” (p. 70). The main purpose was to provide heirs (p. 71). However, it was also seen as a way to control women and their sexuality (p. 70). Since producing legitimate heirs was essential, a woman’s sexual virtue was her “most important quality” (p. 71). Thus, any extramarital sexual activity by a woman was a serious offense (adultery) (p. 71), and sexual exclusivity was not as important for a man (p. 71). Nevertheless, women were not without recourse in bad relationships. A woman could initiate divorce if necessary, and her dowry was hers if she left the marriage (pp. 71, 72).
Glazebrook and Olson then move to the Hellenistic period after Alexander the Great, when the rise of larger kingdoms brought an increase in the practice of polygamy among the ruling elite, though monogamy was still the norm for most people (p. 74). Marriage during this time “becomes equally a focus for men and women, as citizens looked to personal relationships to fulfill their needs” (p. 74). This more equal partnership is illustrated by a marriage contract from Tebtunis (PTebt 104 [92 BC]) that puts in writing the responsibilities of the spouses towards one another, including a demand that the husband is not to keep another lover (p. 75). The final section, just over half of the article, is on Roman marriage. This is very relevant for the New Testament. As with other ancient marriages, the reason for marriage was procreation (p. 77). The wedding ceremony could be rather elaborate and concluded with the marriage being consummated in a room decorated for the occasion (p. 77). In the early republic period, the most common type of marriage was cum manu, in which the wife came under the authority and into the family of her husband. In the late republic and into the empire (including the New Testament period), however, the main type of marriage was sine manu, in which the wife never really legally left her father’s household (p. 78). The wife would maintain her own property and inheritance, but she was not legally related to either her husband or her children.
Probably one of the most difficult practices of the ancient world for the modern reader to understand is pederasty, the sexual relations between an adult man and an adolescent boy. Andrew Lear’s article, “Ancient Pederasty: An Introduction,” serves as a helpful overview of this topic (pp. 102–27). Extant records reveal that this practice occurred in the Greek world from its earliest recorded periods until Justinian’s Christian laws punished two bishops for the practice in AD 528/529 (p. 119). The Romans restricted it to boy slaves and prostitutes (p. 117).
Pederasty was not the only type of same-sex practice in the ancient world. Two articles explore this theme in differing ways with different types of people. Thomas K. Hubbard discusses same-sex love among peers in “Peer Homosexuality” (pp. 128–49). His article focuses on art and literature, which yield many representations of same-sex activity. Male-male scenes on vases are primarily pederastic; however, adults are portrayed in this way on occasion (p. 144). As with pederasty, Romans did not idealize or sanction adult freeborn men having same-sex relations with other males of any age (p. 146), although it was condoned with male slaves of any age (p. 146). It appears also possible that higher rank soldiers used low rank soldiers for this purpose (p. 146). Although not explicit here, it seems likely that as long as a freeborn male was the active partner, it was not shameful. Hubbard’s article has a short section concerning women.
In “Female Homoeroticism” (pp. 150–63), Sandra Boehringer surveys literature that begins with Alcman of Sparta (male, 7th century BC) and Sappho (female, 7th–6th century BC) and goes well into the Roman imperial era. Sappho’s poems present this activity in a positive light. Martial’s satires (early 2nd century AD) are crude and poke fun at same-sex activity (pp. 156–57). Although Boehringer acknowledges the rarity of such material in the Hellenistic period, it would have been helpful for the reader without background in this literature to be made aware that overall, same-sex activity between women is far less attested than male-male relations.
The articles by Lear, Hubbard, and Boehringer are very informative. Hubbard’s use of the term “homosexual” is anachronistic and can lead to misunderstanding (Boehringer agrees, p. 150). Also, the notion of male and female gender roles was probably more influential on this topic than is represented in these articles.
Mary R. D’Angelo considers “Sexuality in Jewish Writings from 200 BCE to 200 CE” (pp. 534–48). Although Jews are known for certain distinctives during this period, such as prohibitions against marrying outside their race and against exposing infants, D’Angelo argues there are parallels to most of these distinctives somewhere in Greek and/or Roman culture (p. 546). This is a helpful observation. It is likely that the similarities of cultures have been underemphasized due to Jewish anti-Gentile polemics. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that these prohibitions were not universal for Greeks and Romans as they were (at least in theory) for Jews. Concerning same-sex relations, D’Angelo correctly notes that in the context of Genesis, the reason that Sodom and Gomorrah are punished is probably not their desire for same-sex intercourse (pp. 535–36). However, she dismisses the Leviticus passages (18:22; 20:13) too easily (p. 535). Further, her suggestion that David and Jonathan were sexual partners in the Old Testament has no real basis in the text (p. 536). D’Angelo is not alone in her interpretation. One wonders if this suggestion imposes a modern perspective on the text. If so, this is in direct opposition to the book’s purpose of using this material to shed modern preconceptions in order to try to understand the text in its own time period.
Christian sexuality is discussed by Kathy L. Gaca in “Early Christian Sexuality” (pp. 549–64). This article provides a brief summary of potential pre-Christian influences in the early church. Israel’s practice of not allowing their women to marry outside the community is transferred to the church (pp. 550–54, 556–57). However, for evangelistic reasons, Paul acknowledges marriages where one spouse is not a believer (p. 556). The issue of sex primarily as a procreative tool is discussed by the Jewish writer Philo, and similar views were held by the church, especially after the New Testament period (pp. 554–55, 557–58). Much of the problem seems to have been the association of sexual pleasure with the goddess Aphrodite (pp. 558–61). Gaca briefly addresses same-sex practices and is not convinced that the primary texts used for its condemnation (Lev. 18:22 and Rom. 1:26–27) have been accurately interpreted (pp. 561–62). She suggests that there was a least some acceptance at the beginning stages of the Catholic church (p. 562). Nevertheless, she is probably correct to point out that fornication, not same-sex issues, was the main sexual concern of the church in late antiquity (p. 562). This seems to be the case in the New Testament as well. However, this does not mean that they had no other concerns in this area, and the term “fornication” is rather broad. This article is necessarily brief and does not account for all the various practices of the early church.
Unlike many other books in the series, this volume does not include a comprehensive bibliography. Rather, each article ends with its own “reference” section. The articles also include a section for “further reading.” The volume concludes with two indexes: ancient works cited (pp. 629–46) and a general index (pp. 647–51)
Although there are similarities, the ancient world’s views and expressions of sexuality were often different from today’s. This excellent introduction to the topic will help bridge this gap. It provides the student of the New Testament with a basic understanding of what its original readers would have been familiar with. This is especially true for the Greco-Roman audience. Although the Jews would have had some of their own customs, they were also part of the Roman empire. Even if they did not share all the same ideas, they would have been aware of most of the Greco-Roman customs. The volume will especially be helpful for contextual study of 1 Corinthians. Those interested in modern debates over sexuality who wish to use data from the ancient world will find this a readable and informative introduction to ancient outlooks and experiences, though necessarily still an incomplete picture of ancient sexualities. Unfortunately, the cost will hinder many from purchasing this book. Blackwell reprints some of their volumes in affordable paperback editions after initial publication, and this volume deserves to be among them.
About the Contributors
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God’s Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ’s love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. Dr. Fantin’s research interests include the first-century world, Greek language and linguistics, exegetical method, and exegesis of the prison epistles. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.