By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul (in the second case, probably a pseudonymous “Paul”) deploys two “vice lists” — a common enough rhetorical strategy in the Greco-Roman world — to communicate to his readers condemnation of sinful behavior. With regard to 1 Corinthians, most scholars agree that Paul is dealing with an especially unruly congregation, some of whom have fallen prey to moral laxity, including in sexuality. Paul writes to correct that, and to make it perfectly clear that the salvation offered by grace does not also offer an exemption from basic moral requirements. Then follow 10 types of people who, Paul warns, will not “inherit the kingdom of God.” In 1 Timothy 1, the context for the vice list is more obscure. It falls under a discussion of “the law,” and the author’s concern about false teachers apparently focusing overmuch on the law. Paul says that the law is mainly intended for the godless. Then follow seven examples of such godlessness.
In both vice lists the Greek word arsenokoitai is used. In the first list, the word malakoi is directly in front of it. A vast, highly contested scholarly literature exists to parse out the meaning of these two odd little words.
Consider malakoi. This is a Greek word whose English translations range wildly from “weakling” to “wanton” to “debauchers” to “licentious” to “sensual” to “effeminate” to “male prostitutes” to a composite of malakoi + arsenokoitai translating them together as “men who have sex with men” or “homosexuals.” The word literally means “soft” and is used elsewhere in the New Testament only to describe the “soft” or “fine” clothing worn by those who are rich (Matt. 11:8/Luke 7:25).
William Loader says the word does basically mean “soft,” and if applied to a man would be a pejorative attack on his masculinity. Dale Martin finds that the meaning could be extended to mock men who allowed themselves to be treated like women sexually; e.g, to be penetrated, though a wide variety of other terms were more commonly used for this, leading him to doubt whether that meaning should be assumed in this case. He instead focuses on a broader semantic range related to “soft,” such as self-indulgent, sexually undisciplined, luxurious living. On the other end of the spectrum, Robert Gagnon reads the term to apply precisely to the passive partner in male same-sex relations (penetrated men), and not just to “male prostitutes,” the translation offered in the New International Version. But William Loader again points out that if Paul wanted to say precisely that he had other terms available to him.
As for arsenokoitai, the only two times the word appears in the New Testament are found in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, and most scholars believe Paul coined the phrase. It appears only very rarely in ancient Greek writings after Paul, mostly also in vice lists. The word arsenokoitai (plural for arsenokoites) is a composite word, made up from two previously existing words that do not seem to have been put together before in Greek literature.
A significant number of scholars, such as Richard Hays, think Paul is not being altogether original, but instead alluding here to the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Hebrew Bible’s Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Or perhaps, suggests Anthony Thiselton, if Paul is not directly alluding to those texts, he is at least pointing to traditional Jewish sexual ethics — which he wanted now to teach as Christian sexual ethics.
In the Septuagint, both Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 contain the terms arsenos and koiten; Leviticus 20:13 is more important here because it puts the terms directly together. Many scholars find that linguistic parallel or connection conclusive evidence as to Paul’s source and meaning, even though there is no evidence it had ever been done before.
As Marti Nissinen summarizes the overall scholarly conversation: “These attempts…show how difficult it really is to determine the actual meaning of this word in different contexts.”
But because there is an English-language Christian community, the Greek New Testament does indeed need to get translated into English, and translators have to come up with some kind of word to translate arsenokoitai.
Here are examples of how the word arsenokoitai has been translated into English over 425 years, with appreciation to Matthew Vines for this compilation:
• Geneva Bible (1587): “buggerers”
• King James Bible (1607): “abusers of themselves with mankind”
• Mace New Testament (1729): “the brutal”
• Wesley’s New Testament (1755): “sodomites”
• Douay-Rheims (1899): “liers with mankind”
• Revised Standard Version (1946): “homosexuals”
• Phillips Bible (1958): “pervert”
• Today’s English Version (1966): “homosexual perverts”
• New International Version (1973): “homosexual offenders”
• New American Bible (1987): “practicing homosexuals”
Working from most English interpretations/translations of a Pauline neologism, most English-reading Christians and most English-speaking preachers have naturally concluded that Paul is condemning either/both all “homosexual” people or all people who perform same-sex acts. (Sometimes in harshly derogatory terms, such as in the unforgivable TEV and Phillips translations.) Some have also concluded from 1 Corinthians 6:9 that all such people are simply excluded from heaven; e.g., heading straight to hell. This despite other New Testament texts related to the criteria for eternal life, such as those emphasizing God’s grace for forgiven but imperfect sinners who believe (consider John 3:16). And few who cite 1 Corinthians 6:9 to say that “practicing” gays are going to hell also say that “practicing” greedy people or drunkards are going to hell.
Most English-speaking Christians would have no idea that the Greek word being translated was a new word that Paul coined whose meaning and translation are contested.
They would not know of the intense debate among classics scholars and New Testament interpreters as to what Paul was thinking about when he was (apparently or clearly) talking about same-sex activity in the Greco-Roman world. Consensual adult sex? Man-boy sex/abuse? Prostitution? Rape? Abuse of slaves? They would not, for example, have read biblical scholar Michael Vasey’s observation that in imperial Rome same-sex activity was “strongly associated with idolatry, slavery, and social dominance … often the assertion of the strong over the bodies of the weak.” Is that what we think today when we hear the term “homosexual”?
They would not know of the claim of New Testament scholar Dale Martin that of the few uses of the term arsenokoites in Greek literature outside of the New Testament, in four instances it concerned economic exploitation and abuses of power, not same-sex behavior; or more precisely, perhaps, economic exploitation and violence in the sex business, as in pimping and forced prostitution. (Check the Sibylline Oracles, Acts of John, and To Autolychus.)
But then neither would they know that William Loader’s magisterial study says it is probably better to take the term as having a broader range than that.
But what then to make of New Testament scholar James Brownson’s attention to the fact that the vice list over in 1 Timothy 1:10 “includes three interrelated terms in reference to male-male erotic activity”? He puts them together to suggest that the list is collectively referring to “kidnappers or slave dealers (andropodistai) acting as ‘pimps’ for their captured and castrated boys (the pornoi, or male prostitutes) servicing the arsenokoitai, the men who make use of these boy prostitutes.”
How might the history of Christian treatment of gays and lesbians have been different if arsenokoitai had been translated “sex traffickers” or “sexual exploiters” or “rapists” or “sexual predators” or “pimps”? Such translations are plausible, even if not the majority scholarly reconstruction at this time. And they are at least as adequate, or inadequate, as “homosexual,” a term from our culture with a range of meanings including sexual orientation, identity, and activity, and not a word from Paul’s world.
It might have been nice if in our English Bibles the genuine uncertainty about how to translate Paul’s neologism arsenokoitai, or the two words malakoi and arsenokoitai together, at least had been mentioned in a footnote.
But alas — most of the translations we got read as if every “homosexual” person was being condemned — to eternal fire. This overly confident translation decision then shadowed the lives of all LGBT people, most sadly gay and lesbian adolescents rejected by their mothers and fathers (and pastors and youth ministers) as hell-bound perverts.
Very high-level scholarly uncertainty about the meaning and translation of these two Greek words, exacerbated by profound cultural and linguistic differences between what we (think we) know about Paul’s world and what we do know about our own, undermines claims to the conclusiveness of malakoi and arsenokoitai for resolving the LGBT issue.
I deeply lament the damage done by certain questionable and sometimes crudely derogatory Bible translations in the lives of vulnerable people made in God’s image.