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Steve Chalke unearths ancient erotica to combat a conservative reading of scripture on sexuality

13 July 2017


Explicit: a fresco of a couple in bed painted onto the wall of a house in Pompeii

Explicit: a fresco of a couple in bed painted onto the wall of a house in Pompeii

EROTIC Roman art recovered from the ruins of Pompeii supports the view that the New Testament passages about homosexuality do not condemn modern same-sex relationships, the leading Baptist pastor the Revd Steve Chalke has argued.

He has released a video in which he suggests that archaeological study of the ancient world gives the proper context to interpret verses that appear to prohibit gay sex.

In the 37-minute talk, Mr Chalke states that the preponderance of carved penises and other explicit imagery found in homes and on the streets of Pompeii underlines how the Graeco-Roman world that St Paul was writing in was utterly saturated with sex.

Mr Chalke’s video talk begins with a “parental advisory — explicit content” warning because it contains images of ancient pornographic material from Pompeii and its sister town of Herculaneum.

“I have not released this out of any desire to provoke or shock for the sake of it,” Mr Chalke said. “Because of widespread ignorance of the ancient world and Graeco-Roman culture in churches across the West, we throw Bible verses around without understanding their context.”

Mr Chalke first spoke openly in support of same-sex relationships in 2013 (News, 18 January 2013). As a result, his charity, Oasis, was thrown out of the Evangelical Alliance (News, 2 May 2014). In the new video, he argues that New Testament verses that are used routinely to label same-sex activity as sinful were, in fact, condemning the abusive and exploitative sexual activity common in the world that Paul’s recipients lived in.

OASISScathing: the Revd Steve Chalke, who has criticised his fellow Evangelicals for using New Testament passages to “destroy” LGBT people

“Eighty per cent of the artwork recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum is sexually explicit, and also reveals a fascination with the image of the stiff, erect penis — a symbol of power and pleasure,” Mr Chalke said.

“If you were a man in Roman culture, so long as someone was your social inferior — a slave, a gladiator, a woman, etc. — it was considered socially acceptable and respectable to penetrate them.

“So ingrained 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.”

In this context, Paul’s warnings in the New Testament against having sex with someone of your own gender do not mean that faithful gay relationships are forbidden for Christians, Mr Chalke suggests.

“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.”

Mr Chalke is scathing about traditional, conservative readings of the key verses on sexuality and says that some scholarship is driven more by “prejudice” than by any real “grappling with the New Testament passages”.

“In Evangelical circles, there has been a lack of intellectualism, which has meant that we’ve not dealt with these biblical passages as we should,” he said. “Some biblical scholarship just has not kept up with archaeological discovery; it’s not kept up with wider cultural research and understanding.”

Instead, the contentious passages have become “weaponised” and used to “destroy LGBT people and their lives and their credibility and their sense of peace”, he argues.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by a sudden volcanic eruption in AD 79. Archaeologists have gained a vivid insight into the ancient Roman culture by digging through layers of ash which blanketed the town in hours and protected the city from decay for 1700 years before it was rediscovered.

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