Should ancient 'pornography' mean we re-interpret St Paul's teachings on gay sex?

One of the less graphic images excavated from ancient Pompeii.Wikimedia Commons

The erotic 'art' – or ancient pornography  that is now on display in Naples, having been excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneumin the 18th century, is so graphic that to this day minors are only allowed into the exhibition with a guardian or special written permission.

The artefacts, which were preserved after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, were briefly displayed during the sexual revolution period of the 1960s, and again from 2,000 – but only after spending years locked away in a 'secret cabinet' on the orders of King Francis I of Naples when he was shocked by a visit with his wife and daughter in 1819.

Now, a leading London-based evangelical minister has claimed that the highly sexualised culture that they depict means that much of the teaching of St Paul on sexuality must be reinterpreted radically.

Steve Chalke, who has in the past angered some fellow evangelicals by becoming progressively liberal on sexuality over the years, has said that for theologians, the 'art' which demonstrates the exploitative debauchery of the ancient world should shed new light on chapters such as Romans 1, which have traditionally, to use Chalke's word, been 'misinterpreted' to condemn same-sex relations.

'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. Eighty per cent 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,' Chalke says.

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'If you were a man in Roman culture, so long as someone was your social inferior – a slave, a gladiator, a woman... – 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...

'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, verse 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'.

He says: 'Every Christian believes God to be a God of love. It is no wonder that these abusive practices 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.'

Chalke makes the controversial remarks in a video which comes with a parental guidance warning, containing graphic images that were discovered in Pompeii, which is available at openchurch.network.

Chalke says: '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.'

However, Chalke's comments are likely to be discounted by scholars.

Rev Dr Ian Paul, the Dean of Studies at St John's College, Nottingham, told Christian Today: 'Everyone in scholarship has known this for years. And so what? The question is what Paul's texts are criticising...and they include same-sex sexual relations, not just sexualisation as a whole.'

Dr Paul, who is editor of the religious affairs publisher Grove Books, dismissed Chalke's claims as 'a heap of nonsense'.

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