Martti Nissinen critically considers the role, and even definition, of sexuality in the ancient world. Originally published in Finish in 1994, and in English in 2001, Nissinen approaches homosexual relations from a historical perspective, because he recognizes how the modern person’s thoughts of sexuality differ from how the ancient world thought of sexuality. Throughout his work, he explores texts of Assyrian, Greek, Roman, and biblical origins. In analyzing concepts from a multitude of ancient texts, he clearly shows, with strong evidence, the basics of how the ancient world thought of sexuality and gender. He also demonstrates how the modern reader of the Bible, especially the Christian, must take seriously the cultural significance and meanings behind the texts, which are so rooted in another time.
His conclusions of ancient views on sexuality ultimately show how sexuality, biological sex, gender, and life all inter-relate. For example, he demonstrates the assinnu of the Assyrian and Babylonian deity Ishtar. The assinnu was a priest-like person who was neither male nor female. That said, the assinnu cannot either be a “transgender” in the most modern terms because their roles within society had nothing to do with sexual orientation, which is, in and of itself, a 19th century creation. He goes on to show how homoerotic relationships, not to be confused with homosexual relationships, existed and were viewed in classical antiquity, the Hebrew Bible, and Judaism.
Challenging the traditional view of Christianity, Nissinen challenges any interpreter of the Bible to reconsider his or her approach to the Bible, even suggesting that the modern view of homosexuality is under “the authority of the Hellenistic Jewish synagogue” rather than the Bible (124). Although his view and study pose a significant challenge to more conservative Bible readers, it is important to understand the history if any person hopes to make a reasonable, honest, and well-thought out argument for or against—or perhaps somewhere in the middle— homosexuality in the 21st century.
Though it is well-written, well-researched, and in depth (often times it is quite explicit), it is also accessible to any reader without too much use of technical language to limit the audience to be scholars. If you are a scholar, a student, or simply hope to study the history of sexuality for answers on life, this book is perfect for you. Though it is about 20 years old, the scholarship is still relevant for today and essential for understanding how same-sex relation were understood in the ancient world. And, if you’re a theologian, there is even an appendix specifically exploring the theological implication of the historical overview and practical applications for what can be done in light of them.