Tim Keller Got it Wrong: Greek Understandings of Same-Sex Eroticism

Tim Keller is someone I respect. Center Church taught me to think differently about cities, evangelism, and church planting. Prodigal God expanded my view of the gospel. But his post “The Bible and Same Sex Relationships” left much to be desired. In it, he reviewed Matthew Vines’s book God and the Gay Christian and Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation. For a full review of Tim Keller’s article, please see this post by Matthew Vines.

Key to theological view that affirms LGBT sexuality is the idea that what the scripture is speaking of in the few passages that address same-sex eroticism is something that is not directly relevant to today’s understanding of LGBT sexuality and same-sex relationships. I’ve presented information on why the Torah understands of same-sex eroticism as assault and exploitation. But some argue that extra-biblical literature reveals that ancient Greeks did have an understanding of sexual orientations.

Keller argued that there are references to mutual, committed same-sex relationships around the time the New Testament was written. Other often make the same claim. Yet I’m still waiting for a credible reference. Today I would like to address the specific reference Keller shared. It’s also come up from time to time in the comments of my blog. I’m drawing from and expanding on responses I’ve already made in the comment section.

 Tim Keller made the following claim in his post:

Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, for example, tells a story about how Zeus split the original human beings in half, creating both heterosexual and homosexual humans, each of which were seeking to be reunited to their “lost halves” — heterosexuals seeking the opposite sex and homosexuals the same sex. Whether Aristophanes believed this myth literally is not the point. It was an explanation of a phenomenon the ancients could definitely see — that some people are inherently attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex.

This section of Aristophanes’ speech was also quoted in the comments of my post “Are There ‘Homosexuals’ in the New Testament.”

[192b] they are boy-lovers, and have no natural interest in wiving and getting children… [192c] the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment. These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another.

At first blush, this appears to be just the evidence non-affirming folks need to validate their claims. It may be the only one in Greek literature that seems to speak of same-sex commitments. But I invite you to look at the whole of Aristophanes speech, from which this is taken, and also to search and find all the references to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. You will quickly see what the scholars note, which is that Aristophanes is the comic relief, and his speech is a joke. This is even noted by non-affirming theologian Robert Gagnon, who nonetheless makes a misguided attempt to portray it as favorable to the non-affirming cause.

It’s easy to look up for yourself. Earlier in the symposium Aristophanes is asked to speak to the idea of love, which is being addressed by various philosophers whose speeches are than being discussed and critiqued. But Aristophanes can’t because he has the hiccups. He consults the doctor who tells him that he should sneeze to get rid of his hiccups. Later, after recovering, Aristophanes does make the speech he’s asked for, which is referred to as “charming” and is not discussed by the others present because it’s understood that the intention is not serious.

Here’s another section of Aristophanes’ speech. I hope you can see the humor:

In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

Even though humor doesn’t always translate from one culture to the next, the image of a round human with two of everything tumbling along in order to run fast is funny. How else would he run with legs facing in opposite directions? You can read all of the symposium and search for Aristophanes here:


When laypeople use this passage and perhaps haven’t looked at the full quotation, it’s excusable ignorance. But when someone of Keller’s reputation makes such a misapplication, it seems disingenuous. When something so serious and people’s mental health and the legitimacy of their families is at stake, I expect better. Queer people deserve better.

Taking this humorous account seriously leads to the wrong conclusion. Far from arguing for same-sex relationships in a serious way, this was a comic who was making a joke by being absurd. In other words, the thought of same-sex romance and commitment never crossed their minds.

Furthermore, Plato’s Symposium was written 400 years before the time of Paul’s writing. Drawing from this quotation the inference that ancient Greeks had any concept of same-sex committed romance, let alone a positive one, is like arguing that Don Quixote is a good description of the modern soldier.

Yet Symposium is not without relevance. There is a serious speech in this same document made by Hesiod in which he says:

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour.

Hesiod does not believe there is a way for an army to be made up of lovers and their loves, because armies are made up of men, and in ancient Greece they did not hold even the possibility that men could be lovers. Could they perform sexual acts together? Yes. But could they be lovers, in love and committed to each other as the context of Hesiod’s speech makes clear? No.


  1. Interesting! I love the thoroughness of your research! This is quite a bold and thought provoking write-up.
    I was under the impression that there were actually some examples (although few) of long-term same-sex relationships from Greek, as well as, Roman culture/history. I am now charged with exploring the original sources responsible for that notion, and then research their validity to prove and learn for myself the truth, whatever that may be.
    I do feel that I must tentatively disagree with your assertion/conclusion (summarized from several posts, but initially expressed in your first post) that no [long-term, committed,] same-sex relationships between adults existed or occurred during Biblical times (within cultures known to the Hebrews). There may be no surviving evidence or reference of them, and the concept of modern homosexuality certainly did not exist; but I find it hard to believe that feelings of same-sex attraction and love are modern phenomenons which were not experienced by the ancients. So, I contend that there must have been those who somehow found a way of expressing and living out their love and their truth.
    Perhaps I have misunderstood you, and it is also quite possible that our definitions of ‘same-sex relationships between adults’ vary more significantly than I presume, but I am a bit surprised that you seem to be so quick to dismiss the possibility with what I interpret as resolute conviction and certainty.
    In closing, disagreement is unavoidable at times; I cordially and respectfully disagree with many of my closest friends about a number of things, and in most cases the discussion of the point(s) of contention leads to deeper understanding, knowledge and empathy of the topic and one another.

    In any case, I am grateful to you for providing the catalyst to re-examine and evaluate assumptions and to increase my knowledge and understanding!

    By the way, are you at all familiar with the (now extinct) long-standing homosexual tradition that apparently thrived for centuries in the isolated microcosm of western Egypt’s Siwa oasis?
    It has no particular or direct/specific relevance or significance to the current topic, but it is quite a unique and fascinating enigma within the history of homosexuality that I feel warrants acknowledgement and consideration. Although there is limited information available online, what has survived and evaded suppression provides an unprecedented historical example of unabashed homosexuality which is much more similar to the modern model than anything else I am aware of from the history of mankind. And I also find the reports of its longevity particularly remarkable. I would like to learn more of the phenomenon, and I am sure that some sources must exist but I am not sure where they may be or of their accessibility to the public.

    1. If I’ve said there were never such relationships I overstated, but there was no cultural understanding of such relationships between equals. There was pederasty that continued throughout the lifetime, but that was begun and continued as a man of age and resources getting sexual favors from a younger man, and there were clear understandings of who was sexually the active partner and who the passive partner, plus they were looked down on by culture at large. The between equals part is important, because in Roman culture sex wasn’t so much between men as is was what one man did to another man.

      I’m not familiar with this aspect of ancient Egypt. That would be interesting. I find the Native American expression of two spirits to be beautiful, and that apparently was around for thousands of years. If only Western culture had been so wise as they were and are.

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