Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, by Martti Nissinen #1: Introduction


I was recently lent Marti Nissinen’s Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, trans. by Kirsi Stjerna (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998). The book is twenty years old this year so I’m not sure how up to date it is, but it seemed like topical work and one that is worth writing about. This first post addresses the framework that Nissinen opens with in his introduction.

After a brief comment on the need for such a book, Nissinen orientates his readers to the problem of bridging the gap between two worlds, ancient and modern, in biblical interpretation. It cannot now be denied that “homosexuality” exists today, that is, being “primarily or exclusively … oriented sexually toward persons of the same sex” (5). And yet, while this surely existed in practice in the ancient world,the concept of homosexuality as we know it today did not. Today, questions relating to homosexuality are treated from scientific (biological), psychological, and sociological points of view.  This leads to the contexts of gender, body, and society in which homosexuality exists.

Unlike sexuality (perhaps sexual orientation is meant here?), gender identity was of particular importance in ancient times. With this, Nissinen designates the social expression of sexual difference. Gender identity today can be generalised into four areas: sexual orientation (e.g., homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, etc.); gender identification (masculine, feminine, third gender, transgender, transsexual, intersex, etc.); gender roles (how gender identification is actualised in the roles people play in society, so masculinity is associated with toughness, for example, or femininity with the domestic sphere); and sexual practice (“both public and private eroticism, and, broadly conceived, also autoeroticism [e.g., masturbation] and sex fantasies” [13]). Following this, Nissinen outlines “general expectations” for gender identity in society. Gender identification and sexual orientation are thought to correspond, so that being masculine is associate with orientation to the feminine; and gender roles and sexual practice are thought to correspond, so that performance of the masculine gender is associated with masculine sexual practice, for example.

Reconstruction of Nissinen’s chart (p.13).

Whereas modern, Western society tends to emphasise the horizontal line, however, finding gender roles and sexual practice to arise out of pre-determined psychological and biological factors, namely sexual orientation and gender identification (though these are also not strictly biological but social as well), “in many modern and ancient non-Western cultures the vertical axial is emphasized. For instance, justification for homoeroticism depends on whether same-sex contacts have an established place in society and whether the participants assume an appropriate role. ‘Naturalness’ means in this view first of all conformity with the dominant culture, in which case gender identification and the gender of sexual partners are related to roles rather than to biology” (14). Of course, it is not as if bodies (the biological aspect) did not inform these roles at all. It is only to say that the roles rather than bodies were the primarily determinative factor. This will become clear in the following chapters where Nissinen provides concrete examples.

Finally, Nissinen differentiates between homosexual, homoerotic, and homosocial relations. He will use the first in the general sense to designate that which is between or related to the same sex (rather than in the modern sense designating sexual orientation). Homoerotic will refer to mutual, erotic, sexual encounters between persons of the same sex, and it is not assumed that these people are homosexual in the modern sense, that is, being primarily/exclusively sexually attracted to the same sex. Homosocial refers to important social relations between members of the same sex, these not necessarily being erotic.

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