By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
Several weeks ago I wrote a letter to my ethics survey class here at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. One line read: “Thanks for the name-hugs.”
Imagine a scholar studying the writings of Gushee 2,000 years from now for a new Nepalese translation and commentary. (Humor me here.) This scholar has only a reading knowledge of English, and only a limited understanding of 21st-century American culture. She stumbles upon this phrase “name-hugs.” She does not know what it means. She reads the entire email for context clues. She searches all my correspondence, and then my other published writings. She searches her entire database of all known 21st-century English phrases. She reads that “hug” generally meant: “A near universal form of physical intimacy in which two people put their arms around the neck, back or waist of one another and hold each other closely.” There is a corresponding word for “hug” in 41st-century Nepalese so this is a good start.
But what of this phrase “name-hug”? A search of photos and drawings associated with the phrase “name-hugs” in global culture is inconclusive, though images of a snowman named Olaf come up first. Further searches reveal that he was a character in the animated movie Frozen. Our scholar tentatively concludes that Gushee probably meant to say thank you to his students for providing him with images of Olaf the Snowman. But if she is a careful scholar she will write a footnote acknowledging that his meaning cannot be determined conclusively.
There are only 42 people in the world who until now knew what I meant by that phrase “name-hugs” — the recipients of my email. I now resolve the mystery: I made up the phrase to describe a new name-learning technique. I read off of index cards that each student had given me the names of those few students whose faces I could not identify yet. I then asked each person whose name I was uncertain about to come forward and give me a (brief, public, sisterly/brotherly) hug while I called each by their names. I thought that this would help me break through the anonymity of a large class. Name-hugs. And it worked!
* * *
In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul (in the second case, perhaps “Paul”) deploys two “vice lists” — a common enough rhetorical strategy in the ancient 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. 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 follows 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 also used. Everything I am about to say about the difficulty of translating arsenokoitai is compounded in the case of malakoi, whose English translations here range from “weakling” to “wanton” to “debauchers” to “licentious” to “sensual” to “effeminate” to “male prostitutes” to a newer composite of malakoi + arsenokoitai translating them together as “men who have sex with men” or “homosexuals.” All this for a word that 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).
Sifting through the vast scholarship on this issue, Matthew Vines suggests that the metaphorical use of the term is best understood as connoting the patterns of self-indulgence, softness and moral weakness (unjustly) associated with women in the sexist Greco-Roman world. It is not clear that the term has anything to do with same-sex behavior, though some contemporary scholars believe that it does. It more likely connotes effeminacy or unmanliness, with all the cultural baggage associated with such concepts.
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. Like my new word “name-hug,” the word arsenokoitai (plural for arsenokoites) is a composite word, made up from two previously existing words that had not been put together before, though some scholars think Paul is alluding to the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Leviticus 18:22. Arsen means “male” and koites means “bed” or “lying in bed.” Apparently, so the classicists tell us, koites generally had a sexual connotation, as with our corresponding word coitus. So the term probably communicates some kind of illicit male sex-related behavior. It’s in a vice list, so whatever it is, it’s not good. But as with name-hug, the meaning of a neologism, especially one simply listed rather than described and contextualized, is difficult to determine.
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 the neologism arsenokoitai. So, like our 41st-century Nepalese scholar, they search the text for clues, consider Old Testament and Greco-Roman backgrounds, dig around in databases, study social context as best they can, read other scholars, and so on. Undoubtedly they also reflect their own culture and era and its biases, and unwittingly also reflect the gap between their culture and the culture of the era they are studying.
Here are examples of how the word arsenokoitai has been translated into English over 425 years, with appreciation to Matthew Vines:
• 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 gay people or all people who perform same-sex acts. (Sometimes in harshly derogatory terms, such as in TEV and Phillips.) Some have also concluded from 1 Corinthians 6 that all such people are simply excluded from heaven; e.g., heading straight to hell, despite other New Testament texts related to eternal life that might be cited for other interpretations of the very difficult question of how faith and works relate in determining eternal salvation.
Most English-speaking Christians would have no idea that the Greek word being translated was a new word that Paul coined. They would not know that “the most common forms of same-sex behavior in the ancient world were pederasty, prostitution and sex between masters and slaves,” as Matthew Vines points out. They would not have read about 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.” Nor would they 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, it most often concerned economic exploitation and abuses of power, not same-sex behavior; or more precisely, perhaps, economic exploitation using sex, as in pimping and forced prostitution. (Check the Sibylline Oracles, Acts of John, and To Autolychus.) So today’s readers would not know that the fact that the term is placed next to greedy in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and next to a term often translated slave traders in 1 Timothy 1:10, might turn out to be a highly significant context clue related to the kind of activity being condemned.
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 as plausible as the ones we ended up with — to such grave effect. It might have been nice if the genuine uncertainty about how to translate Paul’s neologism at least had been mentioned even in a footnote. But alas — most of the translations we got read as if every LGBT person was being condemned. 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.
I conclude that uncertainty about the meaning and translation of these two Greek words undermines claims to their conclusiveness for resolving the LGBT issue. I also deeply lament the damage done by certain highly questionable Bible translations in the lives of vulnerable people made in God’s image.