This is the fifth post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here. A discussion of relevant Hebrew Bible texts is here. A study of Romans 1:26-27 is here.
In the last post, the discussion turned around Romans 1, specifically verses 26-27 and the immediate context thereof. The discussion in this post will take us to the remaining two New Testament passages that are normally discussed when homosexual practice is discussed in the church. While not as often quoted as Romans 1, the similar passages of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 have served as verses to reject homosexual practice. It is to those we now turn.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”
The two Greek words that are in question here are the words that the NRSV translates “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” The word translated as male prostitute is the Greek “malakoi.” Literally, it means soft, as in fine clothing. But was often used to refer to “soft” men. These “soft men” have been interpreted in various translations, in addition to “male prostitutes,” as “effeminate men,” “adulterers,” “wantons,” and “those who make women of themselves.”
Malakoi has also been used to mean loose or flexible, bringing to mind the implication of someone with “loose” morality. According to a few studies and a few passages from books I have been exposed to, the early Church Fathers used malakoi in reference to both those who were easliy influenced and unstable, as well as referring to those who masturbate (because they were self-indulgent and of weak character). Please note that I have not confirmed this in the Church Fathers, so if anyone wants to examine the Greek writings of the Fathers, to refute or support this claim, I welcome that. Extra-Biblical texts from the same era use malakoi to refer to the lazy, those who didn’t like hard work, and the cowardly.
John Wesley’s Bible Notes says this about malakoi (and I only bring this up to note that the idea of “malakoi” being used for homosexual is very recent):
“Who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship. But how is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites! We may learn hence, that we are never secure from the greatest sins, till we guard against those which are thought the least; nor, indeed, till we think no sin is little, since every one is a step toward hell.” 3
So while Wesley condemns “sodomites,” malakoi isn’t the word he claims to be referring to when he says it. In today’s terms, it seems more responsible to translate “malakoi” as “those who are lazy, with lazy morality, who don’t work for the common good, but take the path of least resistance through life, fulfilling their own desires. Using this word to refer to effeminate or homosexual is simply a poor (and biased) translation.
The second word in question is the word that is translated “sodomites” in the text above. This is the Greek word “arsenokotai.” In other translations, this word is translated as “homosexuals,” “homosexual perverts,” and “homosexual offenders.” Just by those various translations, you can see a bias developing. The literal translation is “male-bedders.” While it is very clear that this term refers to sexual sin, as bedding was a euphamism for sex, it is however unclear if it refers to those who are male and commit sexual sin or those who commit sexual sin with males. Since the term is masculine, it could mean, literally, a man-whore or a man who sleeps with men. That is simply the literal translation, however. And as we can see with English idioms like “hot dog,” “under the weather,” and “no dice,” the literal words aren’t always what the idiom refers to.
One example of arsenokotai being used in another context is a non-Biblical work, the Sibylline Oracles, which uses the word to refer to an economically abusive sexual relationship, not necessarily homosexual. In the LXX, the Hebrew word “quadesh” is translated similarly to arsenokotai, (using forms of arsenos and koitn) and and is used of temple prostitution, not homosexuals.
But perhaps most important is the way that this word is used in Biblical contexts. So i’d like to put this word on hold as we turn to the 1 Timothy passage, which also contains “arsenokotai,” and see if its usage in that passage makes this word any clearer.
1 Timothy 1:9-10
As a purely indulgent and silly point – I can’t be the only one who thinks that it is sort of coincidental that both the 1 Timothy passage and the 1 Corinthians passage are verses 9-10… I digress.
The passage is as follows: “This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites (arsenokotai), slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching”
First, a note about the structure of this passage. The passage is in reference to those to whom the “law” is for. Not for the “innocent,” but for the following group of folks. This group is broken down into groups of closely related societal ills that have some sort of parallel or common thread. The groups break down thus:
lawless and disobedient (synonyms, both break rules), godless and sinful (those who are godless will be sinful, and vice versa), unholy and profane (synonymns, both mean that which is un-sacred), fornicators, sodomites, and slave traders (this is the crux of the discussion below), and liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching (these folk abuse the truth and act accordingly).
In order to get an understanding of what exactly is being condemned here by the word arsenokotai, we need to find out what “fornicators (pornoi), sodomites (arsenokotai), and slave traders have in common.
Pornoi refers to a prostitute, or other person who either has sex for money or is sexually exploited for money. And “slave trader” is fairly common sense. But why lump these together?
The only explanation that I have been exposed to that makes sense of this, as well as taking the cultural usages of arsenokotai into account, is the view that says that sexual sin is not the common denominator for this grouping of words in 1 Timothy, but rather that the three of these words are connected in regards to sexual exploitation for profit. In other words, the verse could be responsibly translated thus: “the law is laid down not for the innocent but for…. those who are prostitutes, the men who sleep with them, and those who procure them for profit…”
This makes sense of the word arsenokotai and how Paul might have used it, and is consistent with the earlier discussion, having to do with idolotrous or temple/ritual prostitution. Paul here, is not offering a blanket condemnation of homosexuality, but rather a scathing indictment on a system that abuses people and their sexuality for gain.
To further this point, if Paul had wanted to be more clear in a condemnation of homosexuality, there are a number of other Greek words that he could have used in order to be less ambiguous (although as I have stated above, if homosexuality isn’t Paul’s concern, then the verse is not ambiguous at all). The list of words Paul could have used are as follows:
arrenomanes (crazy for men)
erastes (usually older men who love younger men)
eromenos (usually younger man who loves older men)
euryproktoi (men who dress as women, also often used a vulgar reference to anal intercourse)
kinaidos (effeminate submissive sexual partner)
lakkoproktoi (vulgar reference to anal intercourse)
paiderasste (sexual behavior between males)
paiderastes (lover of boys)
paidophthoros (corruptor of boys)
pathikos (submissive male sexual partner)
So while Paul does have a bone to pick with those who sleep with other men/boys in an exploitative way, neither of these verses give an unequivocal condemnation of homosexuality as such. In fact, perhaps a few of the translations above were closer in meaning than they intended. Perhaps “homosexual offender” is not a poor translation of “arsenokotai,” as long as “fornicators” gets translated as “heterosexual offenders.” However, since the terms heterosexual and homosexual are severely anachronistic to use in translating ANY Bible verse, I think arsenokotai should properly be understood as “sexually exploitative.”
In the next post, I would like to turn to a related Biblical discussion that does not have to do with homosexual ethics directly, but will have a deep impact on how we understand those ethics. Next time, I want to touch on Biblical Marriage, gender roles, and what it means to take the Bible as a norm for our culture. See you then.
Jump to part 6, A discussion about marriage in the Bible, here.