Robert Gnuse on Romans 1: 75% Almost Right

homosexuality lgbtq romans May 27, 2023


"Romans 1:26-27 condemns the Cult of Isis, not Homosexuality," by Robert Gnuse, published in the International Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Studies, V8, I3, 2021.
To download the article, go here.

This was quite an interesting article. I learned a lot about the Cult of Isis and was walked through a different interpretation of Romans 1, which helped me kind of see things in a new light. While I am unconvinced, as I will explain, I definitely encourage you to read it. It's reasonably short; 8 academic pages, plus the footnotes. Before this, I knew nothing about the Cult of Isis; I'm actually not sure if I had even heard of it before. And thanks to Robert Gnuse, I have another book added to my wishlist: Isis in the Ancient World, by R E Witt.

To be clear, this is NOT the ISIS organization of today. This is about the Egyptian god Isis. I add that note because while researching it, well, I learned to be careful what I Googled. lol

Article Outline

Let's break down the article. Robert Gnuse is a pretty good writer, so things flowed from one piece to the next, but there were still pretty big pieces that can help us see how everything fits together:


Introduction (p33)

He covers the subject at hand: Romans 1:22-27. He covers the reason: "conservative religionists" who use the passage for LGBTQ arguments. And he presents the text of Romans 1:22-27 itself.


Argument from Theriomorphic Imagery (p34)

The next section is the actual argument. This is the first paragraph on page 34, where he focuses on verse 23.


The Cult of Isis and Paul's possible motivations (p34-36)

The majority of pages 34-36 are taken up with describing the Cult of Isis and Paul's possible knowledge of and reactions to it.

On page 35, he does mention other biblical commentators and actually confesses that most scholars disagree with him.

Other contemporary religious practices (p37-38)

Most of pages 37-38 are taken up with describing other religious practices of Paul's day and how he might have responded to them.


Robert Gagnon (p38-39)

The second half of page 38 through the start of 39 is a response to Robert Gagnon's publication on the subject.


Closing (p39-40)

The rest of 39 through 40 is summary, additional suggested interpretations, a reminder to focus on the theriomorphic imagery, and some early church father references.



The rest of page 40 through 41 is footnotes.

Three main pieces

Given that outline, there are two sections containing three pieces that make up his argument:

Theriomorphic imagery

Theriomorphic imagery portrays things, in this case, deities, as animals. Gnuse ties this to Paul's description in Romans 1:23: "they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles." His argument is that the Cult of Isis is the only religious group in Paul's time known to have used theriomorphic imagery, the birds and animals, in their portrayal and worship of their deities.

The Cult of Isis

Gnuse spends a decent amount of time explaining what the Cult of Isis was and how it operated. He walks through what deities they worshipped, a bit of where they came from, how sexuality was a part of their worship, and how they were seen by both Paul and the Romans. He talks about their processions/parades, what they would wear, and how familiar the people of Rome, to whom Paul addressed his epistle, would have been with the Cult of Isis.

Paul's Response to the Cult of Isis

Gnuse also spends an extensive amount of time walking through Paul's probable responses. He covers how Paul's monotheism would have been offended, what his different phrases regarding sexuality might refer to, and possible interactions between Paul's preaching and "traditional Roman piety."


A possible interpretation is not a definitive interpretation

Here's where we get to the problem: a possible interpretation is not a definitive interpretation.

If you read the article, Gnuse's *entire* argument hinges on how we are to understand and interpret one clause and only one clause. Not only that but not even the whole clause: he leaves out a quarter of it. Everything hinges on the Romans 1:23 clause: "images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles."

Gnuse's argument relies on Paul *only* talking about the theriomorphic references, birds and beasts, and then tying that to the only theriomorphic cult at the time. If that is what actually happened, then I would probably find this argument pretty compelling. But this isn't what happened.

Paul starts by including man. Paul did *not* only talk about theriomorphic imagery. Given that most of the deities at that time were sculpted in the image of man, that Paul included specific mention of "images resembling a mortal human being," and that Paul was certainly also opposed to the other religions for any number of reasons, it seems very unlikely that he would make a core argument about mankind in general (Romans 1:18-21), but then suddenly switch and only condemn one specific group while continuing to use the same generalized language.

Nothing else in the passage is unique to the Cult of Isis. It accommodates the Cult, sure, so I'm not saying he's pulling this out of nowhere. But the fact that it can be seen through the lens of the Cult of Isis doesn't mean that is the right lens to use.

More probable explanation

When we account for all other factors, it seems that the more probable explanation is that Paul was condemning all cults. While it may very well be that Paul had the Cult of Isis chiefly in mind while writing the epistle, he makes no direct reference to them, and most of his statements would apply to most of the cults of the time. Even if we assume that Gnuse and Witt are right, that the Cult of Isis was the only cult to use theriomorphic imagery, that's not enough to ignore the first quarter of the clause or to dismiss that none of the other clauses or passages are specific to said cult.

As I alluded to above, Romans 1:23-27 is a part of a larger passage, Romans 1:18-32. Since all of the rest of the passage uses generalized language that seems clearly against any and all who hate God and practice wickedness, why should verse 23 suddenly restrict it to only one group? And why wouldn't we see further indication of an exclusive target throughout the rest of the passage? This is especially clear since all of the specific things Paul mentions were practiced by more than just the Cult of Isis, except the theriomorphic imagery itself. Specifically, all of the other sins (v29-31) were not limited to one group and were part of the initial condemnation, but for some reason, Paul was only condemning one group? That doesn't seem like the most probable

So, I would reiterate: if we have first determined that the Cult of Isis was Paul's target, then yes, interpreting the passage through the Cult fits. However, there seems to be very little reason why we should accept such a determination since reading this as generally against non-Christian beliefs and practices fits the context just as well, if not better, and requires far less speculation.


While that addressed the bulk of his argument, I do want to highlight two key other things.

Forgiveness and baptism

Gnuse makes the following comparisons between Jesus and Isis:

"Perhaps what offended him the most was the similarity between the beliefs of the Isis cult and Christianity. Both religions spoke of a god, Osiris or Serapis and Jesus, who died and was yet alive, and devotees would experience immortality with Osiris or Jesus beyond the grave. Both Isis and Jesus offered forgiveness of sin. Both Isis and Jesus were said to have deep compassionate love. In both religions the initiation was a water baptism. Both Christ and Isis created a radical egalitarianism of all believers. Isis healed the blind, as did Jesus. Dreams and visions were popular modes of revelation in both religions (Witt 85-86, 257-58, 268). This “copycat” imagery in the Isis cult would have angered Paul greatly, though he would never have mentioned it directly, lest he give any credit to the Isis cult."

As I said before, I have not previously studied the Cult of Isis, so I cannot challenge this directly, but it smells false. The same type of claims are made about Horus and Mithras and Dionysius and virtually every other lesser well-known deity from yesteryear, and the vast majority turn out to be something made up within the last 150 years or so.

Even pro-LGBTQ Progressive Christian Keith Giles refutes these myths. And, interestingly enough, both of us found this entry on the Richard Dawkins website with atheists actively trying to prove such theories and confessing they have no primary sources for such claims.

So, again, I haven't studied the Cult of Isis myself, but I am very suspicious of claims between Jesus and other deities that go into as many details as Gnuse covers, as most of them have been completely debunked by theist and atheist alike, unless such claims are made with reference to specific primary sources.

Having said that, if you know of any primary sources that affirm these connections, please share! Not that I would like the possible consequences for the truth of Christianity, but I would love to finally be able to say that some of these similarities are real.


My second errata is that Bart Ehrman himself seems to challenge the thesis of this paper:

"There is not a stitch of evidence to suggest that mystery cults played any role whatever in the views of the Pharisees or, for that matter, in the views of any Jewish group of the first century: the Sadducees, the Essenes (who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls), the revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the Romans, the apocalyptic prophets like John the Baptist (and their followers), or the common people. So not only do we not know whether mystery cults were influenced by “the” (alleged) ancient view of the world—whatever that might be—there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that these cults played the least role in the development of early views of Jesus. Rather, we have plenty of reasons, based on our early Jewish sources, that just the opposite was the case."
Did Jesus Exist, by Bart Ehrman


In summary: I do recommend this article as a place to learn about the Cult of Isis and a way to challenge your understanding of Romans 1, to help you see where you may have biases. But, ultimately, the central thesis hinges on only 7 words while ignoring the 5 preceding words of the same clause.

So, it is possible that this is what Paul was talking about, but it's not probable that Paul only really meant to address the one cult. It's actually substantially more probable that Paul was talking about most, if not all, of the cults and religions outside of Christianity at the time, then that he used such general language before and after the one identifying part of a clause.