St Paul — and Israel Folau — in Context

The rugby player Israel Folau most likely compiled his list of sinners for whom Hell awaits from St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, 6:9 (below from King James Bible), although similar warnings are to be found  in Romans 1:18-32 and Galatians 5:19-21:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

The Folau controversy prompted me to read a book by Sarah Ruden, a translator of Virgil’s Aeneid, titled Paul Among the People. She examines what Paul said in the context of the customs, the morals and the laws of his time, using relevant texts of Greco-Roman civilisation. She reveals a world of slavery, everyday brutality and prostitution, and a harsh attitude to life. I discuss here only her account of that which concerns adultery, fornication and homosexual acts, acknowledging that she also analyses what Paul says about women, the State, slavery and the type of Christian communities Paul sought to establish. Also, to keep a proper sense of proportion, I should note that Paul’s words on adultery, fornication and homosexual acts amount to no more than a scant five per cent of his Biblical writings[1].

Adultery: Let us begin with adultery, which Paul condemns in three passages. He does not elaborate on it much, perhaps because adultery was already so widely condemned. I did find an interesting quote from Paul where he puts adultery into the context of love for one’s neighbour:

Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not covet: and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly  comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. — Paul, (Romans 13: 8-9 KJV)

For the Greeks, adultery was illegal. In Athens, the household of an adulterous woman would be broken up. The children of her marriage would be considered illegitimate, they could no longer inherit and were no longer citizens. The adulterous man, however, the real guilty party, was despised as are pedophiles today. The full force of public anger and punishment was aimed at him. Adultery was considered all the more licentious because there were so many prostitutes, and there was no shame about using them. Also, men had many opportunities for free sex with slaves and unmarried freed women. The Romans were less severe, although adultery was usually the end of a marriage and the guilty man could be the target of vengeance and perhaps hired killers.

In all, just about everyone in the empire would have thought Paul had not created a new rule, but had added a new dimension to one that everyone had always known. Indeed, his advocacy of enduring and committed relationships for both the man and the woman tends to be overlooked. 

Fornication: On fornication, Paul’s wrote at greatest length in his first Letter to the Corinthians:

…Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord: and the Lord for the body. And God had both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power. Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them members of an harlot?  What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication…he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body in the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

Paul sees the body as a temple, where flesh and the spirit meet. Fornication, expressed here as sex with a harlot, pollutes and desecrates that temple, making it not worth the price Christ paid for it by his crucifixion.

In Paul’s time, a long-term intimate relationship among slaves, freed people and the poor did not involve an official marriage, a rite normally reserved for the well-off. Therefore, according to Ruden, ‘fornication’ is not the right word to translate porneia which Paul had condemned. This Greek word, which derives from the verb ‘to buy’, meant ‘whoring’. Prostitutes were mostly slaves. Some of the women had to parade naked, and there are Greek vases showing men hitting them. Even in the case of sex without payment, there was frequent brutality and little romance. The author suggests that Paul wished to condemn the use of a person as a mere object. He demanded a new sort of intimate relationship, a true and sanctified union, to which adultery and whoring were utterly alien.

Homosexuality: Let us turn finally to the topic of Paul and homosexuality. He wrote to the Christians in Rome (Romans 1:26-27 KJV):

For this cause [reason] God gave them up to vile affections, for even women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was not meet.

Paul was Jewish, and Judaism had always condemned homosexual acts. For Gentiles, it was customary to use young male slaves for sex. Paul would have seen, among the prostitutes on the street, young boys. At every slave market handsome boys were sold to pimps who paid high prices. The clients, to demonstrate their masculinity and to preserve their reputation, would often act brutally. The boys were used, humiliated and damaged, morally and physically. Wealthy parents had to employ minders to protect handsome sons from sexual assaults while walking to school or to the market.

Ruden notes that Paul had introduced his condemnation of a range of vices, including homosexual acts, thus (Romans 1:18, KJV):

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in their unrighteousness.

Some Bible translations, including the New Revised Standard Version, replace ‘unrighteousness’ with ‘wickedness’. In either case, Ruden argues ‘injustice’ would be a better English translation[2], and that injustice includes the idea of hurting someone. In the context of the homosexual activity most widely practised at that time — pederasty, often violent — slaves, freedmen, the young and the poor would have fully appreciated Paul’s words.

Words in context

Ruden presents Paul not as a Puritan but as a man fiercely angered by debauchery and sexual violence, a man who wanted Christians to live differently in faithful intimate relationships, abandoning selfishness, violence and all trace of exploitation. It was a demanding way of life, in which one showed love and desired only the best for the other person. Her book enriches our understanding of Paul’s time, place and language, and especially of the new way of living which Paul was preaching. It also helps us see what Paul saw in the acts and their likely results for the adulterer, the fornicator or the men who sexually exploited other men.

Folau’s selective list of sins and sinners to be warned about the torments of hell is blind to the historical context.  It sells Paul and Christianity short:  ‘just avoid these sins, and you won’t go to hell when you die’.

Paul had a far greater vision. He believed that the Resurrection of Christ fulfilled God’s promise to the Jews: to set the world right and to make a new Covenant with his people.  But God’s promise would be fulfilled in an entirely unexpected way: not through force and violence, but through selfless love, freely given. Even more, Paul believed God’s new covenant was made for the people of the whole world[3]. So of course the debased sexual morals of Greeks and Romans, as described by Sarah Ruden, had to change, so that they too could be among God’s people and join in His project for the world.

Michael Dunn lives in Paris and wrote recently for Quadrant Online of the Notre Dame fire


[1] Paul’s Epistles amount to about 43,000 words of which about 2,000 bear directly on adultery, fornication and homosexual acts.

[2]  The Orthodox scholar, David Bentley Hart uses ‘injustice’ in his 2017 translation of the New Testament.

[3] See, for example, the writings and lectures of the Anglican theologian N. T. Wright.

  • IainC

    The New Testament was certainly highly progressive for its time, and probably remained so until the explosion of sexual freedom and diversity afforded by cheap and reliable contraception weakened the need for marriage as a lifetime union, and opened up consequence-free non-marital sex. The need for a man and a woman to make an absolute and inviolable commitment to each other for the 20+ year journey of raising children, then the further roles of grandparenting, and for the man to guarantee to work to supply food and shelter for that period, was a solid and necessary social contract.
    Perhaps some reconciliation with modern day attitudes towards homosexual relationships can be made with slight adjustments to the NT textual interpretation. Perhaps marital union in the traditional Christian sense, both hetero- AND homosexual, can be sanctified if entered into freely, with the intention of lifetime faithfulness towards the other partner, etc, whereas all the other extramarital sins listed by St Paul – adultery, fornication, whoring (nobody seems to have worried too much about them going to Hell in the whole Folau ruckus!), both hetero- AND homosexual – can be safely preached against in the time-honoured fashion. Thus, homosexuality per se would not be a sin, only that practiced outside holy matrimony, along with the heterosexual equivalents, so no discrimination.


    Sex was invented by bacteria two billion years ago as the ideal way to keep up with a changing Earth. The male gives all his genes to the female and then dies. The female inspects the double set of genes and keeps a single set she considers the best. She is no longer a female but the founding member of a new clone. This clone will eventually age and die out. But about one cell in a billion will repeat the process and start a new clone. In humans we call the new clone a baby.
    There are no homosexual bacteria. Sir Samuel Griffith described sodomy as “unlawful carnal knowledge against the order of nature”. Sodomy caused the AIDS epidemic, which was originally called GRID – gay related immunodeficiency. Sodomy still spreads 85% of HIV.

  • talldad

    Folau’s selective list of sins and sinners to be warned about the torments of hell is blind to the historical context. It sells Paul and Christianity short: ‘just avoid these sins, and you won’t go to hell when you die’.

    Sorry Michael, but you are selling Folau short. He responded within the limits of a social medium, whereas you have taken page/s to affirm Paul via Sarah Ruden.

    He took a meme which substantially quoted from Corinthians but remained faithful to the context. He then issued a warning to his readers and offered a Biblically valid way to avoid the consequences of the listed behaviour by changing their behaviour. He finished off with personal desire for them to avoid the judgment. It seems every commentator in the “pile-on” has verballed him on this point by accusing him of judgmentalism.

    Are you trying to damn Folau with faint praise?

    Oh, and a rhetorical question: why do so many commentators persist in quoting the King James Version with its now-obscure Elizabethan language? There are so many modern translations available at say https://www.biblegateway.com/ especially if the discussion involves different renderings from the Koine Greek.

  • Doubting Thomas

    From my point of view, apart from any necessary translation correction that may be present in more modern translations, none that I have read come even remotely close to the majesty of the King James Version which, I believe, still retains its status as one of the truly great English books. I sometimes wonder whether the current parlous state of written and spoken English was a cause or an effect of the publication of the Plain English Bible, truly Philistinism writ large.

  • rod.stuart

    Very interesting and informative, but at the root of the Folau case is the fact that Israel Folau’s ideology, religion, or for that matter his thoughts and opinions, have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the sport of rugby, Rugby Australia, or the sponsors of RA.
    To suggest otherwise is to render praise to the concept of thought police.


    TB LYNCH “Sex was invented by bacteria two billion years ago…..” This is dogmatic scientism!


    Michael Dunn
    “to set the world right….”
    God is not in the business of “setting the world right” but of saving a people out of this condemned world for life in the new heavens and new earth.
    Under The Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20, The first duty of the true Christian is to faithfully broadcast the Gospel. The second duty is to help fellow Christians grow.
    Nowhere in The Great Commission or the Gospels does Jesus preach about making the world a better place.

    A subtle corruption has grown in churches that Jesus’ Great Commission is about social justice and making the world a better place through Christianity. It is not.
    The world hates Jesus and true Christians: (John 15:18-19) “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you”.

    Your statement: “Folau’s selective list of sins and sinners to be warned about the torments of hell is blind to the historical context”. Invokes a misapplication of historical context. Sin is sin regardless of history. Israel Folau correctly lists the sins from the Bible and is in agreement with Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16. Here Paul says: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”.

  • Matt

    Nice try. Gay theology only convinces the willfully blind. The subtext of the article is clearly that God is ok with proscribed sexual relationships that are not exploitative or abusive and so long as no-one gets hurt it is all fine. The God whom I worship sees things quite differently. There is no mitigating context that inverts the face-value meaning. Don’t agree? Then take it up with God.
    The one-word summary of the gospel Jesus preached to the masses was not ‘love’. It was ‘repent’.
    Of all the sins condemned in the Bible the one that appears most consistently is actually not related to sexual relationships. It is this: False teaching!


    STJOHNOFGRAFTON:- Unlike global warming science, the science of sodomy, GRID and its sanitized alias AIDS is rock solid. I used that real science to discover the first mutated chemokine receptor in my own laboratory, as the result of screening my 4 million patients for novel antigens. Mutated chemokine receptors are the basis of natural immunity to HIV, and the basis of the only cure to date, Timothy Brown in Berlin a decade ago. Mutated chemokine receptors were the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year for 1996. HIV still kills one million patients each year, four decades after its discovery.
    You are a ball of electricity, which actually holds you together, a bag of interacting chemicals which make binding decisions, a colony of cells, which as you age, diversify into a series of related degenerating clones, a cluster of compatible deteriorating organs and finally a brain which processes speech and logic.

  • pgang

    A rather droll liberal exegesis, conveniently changing the odd word to suit the liberal meme and conflating a Scriptural message with secular mores.

  • Stephen Due

    We have the benefit of two thousand years of biblical scholarship and exegesis by the best minds of every generation. None of them thought the apostle Paul said anything different from what Folau said he said.

    These days there is a rash of pseudo-scholarship attempting to distort the Christian message to bring it into line with modern pagan thinking – an enterprise that has been going on in fits and starts since the rise of humanism following the rediscovery of classical literature in the Renaissance. It is a pointless exercise.

    The plain fact is that what the entire Bible teaches is no different from what Paul in particular teaches. The message is that God permits only unadulterated monogamous heterosexual marriage or singleness. Like it or lump it.

    I recall hearing Phillip Jensen, as archbishop of Sydney, being asked on radio whether he did not think the biblical view of homosexuality would make the church unpopular. He gave the correct answer, which was: “I hope so”.

  • jasonmasters

    Thanks for your article, and some of the responses are not unexpected.

    Most people don’t realise that that in most regions around the world more women have HIV than men, to the concept that HIV is a gay disease is actually a falsehood.https://www.who.int/hiv/data/2018_ART-coverage-by-sex.png?ua=1

    Context in using religious text is important, and also understand words, and their history.

    The word homosexual (and heterosexual) were developed in Germany in circa 1868 and their meanings have actually changed over time.

    There is emerging evidence that the introduction of the word homosexual into the English Bible via the RSV Bible circa 1946 was through translation error, and there was little if any academic or theological work for its introduction. The subsequent NIV translation which introduced the word homosexual it appears relied upon the RSV.

    Given that the words that Paul introduced into his writings did not previously exist in literature, and didn’t survive in subsequent literature, the ability to make absolute surety statements on translation, meaning and purpose is not possible. Therefore, the approach of looking into the context and culture is absolutely appropriate, and the blind adhereance to a translation of choice is in my view, and indication of peoples personal views and biases to condemn a minority group, which fails to follow the key principles that Jesus himself taught and was the key underlying messages of Paul’s writings.

    Anyone who says that the Bible is absolute in the area of LGBTIQ people is displaying their own preferred position and unwillingness to explore the wonder and grandure of the Bible.

    Scholarship, in the area of theology, as in any area of scholarship evolves as our understanding and .knowledge expands. Gay people were thought to have a mental illness on the basis of a flawed study, and it took a woman to undertake a proper study to show that it wasn’t, but her knowledge and research was rejected by a male run institution, because she was a women.

    Some Churches is becoming unpopular around their positioning on LGBTIQ people (and women more broadly) because they refuse to contemplate evidence that is not consistent with their opinions. A number of major diocese or denominations have recently called Transgender people an ideology, when in fact their existence is real. These organisations are the ones with an ideology that had drafted away from the core message of Christ himself, to Love one another, and there was no * with a list of exclusions at the bottom of the page.

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