So far, we have seen that we cannot look to the specific Old Testament references to homosexuality nor to OT stories usually associated with homosexuality for assistance in our primary goal of discovering whether monogamous LGBT relationships are acceptable to God. As we move to the New Testament, three things immediately strike the reader: (1) none of the NT authors quote or refer to the OT laws about homosexuality; (2) there are no stories of the church dealing with homosexual individuals, even though we know it was absolutely pervasive in the prevailing culture; and (3) Jesus himself has nothing directly to say on the topic.
There are, in fact, only three verses that refer directly to homosexuality in the New Testament: Romans 1:18-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11. Most scholars agree that 1 Cor. 6 and 1 Tim. 1 are ambiguous at best, and it is to these that we now turn.
Why Did Paul Make Up a Word – and What Does It Mean?
In both of these passages, the author, Paul, uses a particular word to describe people who engaged in activities he considers to be sinful. The Greek word is arsenokoitēs and scholars agree that Paul actually made this word up. Consider this carefully. In a cultural context where homosexuality was considered acceptable and was commonplace, Paul had a number of options for the words he could have used to describe whatever was in his mind. These included, for example, paiderastēs, pallakos, kinaidos, arrenomanēs, and paidophthoros. There are also technical terms, such as the lover (erastēs), the beloved (erōmenos, paidika), to give the body for purposes of intercourse (charis, charidzesthai), as well as slang terms that could have been used to indicate various forms of culturally accepted homosexuality, or even homosexuality in general. Paul doesn’t use any of these.
We saw in the previous section of this study that homosexuality was referenced extensively in ancient literature. Greek and Roman writers such as Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle and Plutarch all talk about homosexuality, discussing it’s merits and demerits, and none use arsenokoitēs. First-century Jewish writers, Josephus and Philo, wrote about homosexuality, including the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but did not use arsenokoitēs in their works. Early Christian writers like Tatian, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom all wrote negatively about homosexuality, but they used different words and phrases.
If it was Paul’s intention to deal with general homosexuality or any of these specific activities, he would surely have selected one of the more common and less ambiguous terms available to him. Instead, he chooses to make up a word that previously did not exist in the language. He clearly had something specific in mind. We need to be clear what that is.
Let’s start by seeing how other ancient Greek writers used the word. We only have 77 usages of this word in other literature, almost all of which are copies of the New Testament vice lists employed by Paul (see below for more on these). John Lein has done an analysis of the half dozen instances it is used in different contexts (in “Gay Marriage and the Bible: Male-Bedders in 1 Timothy 1“):
- Accusation against pagan gods as violating Roman law – Aristides (2nd century)
- Male rape/enslavement – Hippolytus (3rd century)
- A reference to “behaviour that was very shameful for a man” (unspecified, but implying a male lover) – Bardesanes, cited by Eusebius (4th century)
- A despised sexual act regardless of gender; likely anal intercourse: “And many even practice the vice of arsenokoites with their wives” — Jonannes Jejunator (6th century)
- Accusation of pederasty between bishops and young boys – Malalas (6th century)
- Accusations included in lists of economic sins and injustice, including robbery, swindling and unjust exploitation of others – in the Sibylline Oracles, Acts of John and Theophilus To Autolychus (2nd to 6th century)
None of these references is conclusive as to the meaning of the word in classic literature, except to say that the word has a general negative connotation largely associated with sexuality. Of course, the literal etymology implies it is sexual, but there are two specific texts which indicate that this may not be the only meaning:
- “Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed (to generations of generations, to the scattering of life). Do not arsenokoitēs, do not betray information, do not murder. Give one who has laboured his wage. Do not oppress a poor man.” The Sibylline Oracle: 2
- “And let the murderer know that the punishment he has earned awaits him in double measure after he leaves this (world). So also the poisoner, sorcerer, robber, swindler, and arsenokoitēs, the thief, and all of this band…” The Acts of John: 36
In neither of these texts do we find any hint of sexuality. In a detailed analysis of many related texts, Dale Martin indicates that the word usually infers some form of economic injustice, most probably related to male prostitution. He concludes:
- “I am not claiming to know what arsenokoités meant, I am claiming that no one knows what it meant. I freely admit that it could have been taken as a reference to homosexual sex. But given the scarcity of evidence and the several contexts just analyzed, in which arsenokoités appears to refer to some particular kind of economic exploitation, no one should be allowed to get away with claiming that ‘of course’ the term refers to ‘men who have sex with other men.’ It is certainly possible, I think probable, that arsenokoités referred to a particular role of exploiting others by means of sex, perhaps, but not necessarily, by homosexual sex. The more important question, I think, is why some scholars are certain it refers to simple male-male sex in the face of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps ideology has been more important than philology.” (In “Arsenokoités and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences“, an essay in Brawley, Robert, ed. “Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture“)
We cannot confidently translate this word based on its usage in linguistic context. Nor is the etymology of the word conclusive. The word itself is a compound of two others: arsen (men) and koitē (sexual intercourse). But just like in English, Greek compound words are not simply the combination of their component parts. Think of “butterfly”, “firearm” or “lady killer” as examples.
It is important to note at this point, as we’re looking at the etymology of the word that even if this word is about “men who lie with men”, it is not clear what the meaning would be. Is “man” emphasizing the gender of the sexual agent: male? Or is “man” to indicate the object of a sexual act? In other words, does arsenokoitēs refer to a man who has sex with others, or does it mean a man who has sex with men, or a man who allows men to have sex with him? In the first case the word would refer to a man who is the active partner in intercourse with anyone, female or male. In the second case the word would refer quite specifically to a man who is the active partner in a male-male anal sex. In the third case, specifically to a man who is the passive partner in such a male-male sexual encounter. From the word itself there is no way of telling which of these meanings – or any other meaning – might have been intended. Each of these sexual situations had a Greek word commonly used to describe it. So why did Paul make a new one up?
So, the ancient usage and the etymology can’t help us. To understand this word we need to know why Paul chose to use it, and where he got it from.
Where The Word ‘arsenokoitēs‘ Comes From
Knowing that Paul was trained and steeped in both the original Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Greek translation known as the Septuagint, we should look there for an answer. In Leviticus 18:22 we previously have seen the strange phrase “with a man do not lie lyings of a woman”. This is because Hebrew has no specific word for homosexual activity. Jewish rabbis had apparently been using a shorthand to talk about such same-gender sexual activity, referring to mishkav zakur (lying of a male) or mishkav bzakur (lying with a male). Translated literally for the Greek-speaking Jews, the result gives us something close to arseno-koitai. In the Greek Septuagint, Lev. 18:22 looks like this (transliterated): kai meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten gynaikos (Greek: καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός). You will see the words “arsen” (men) and “koiten” (sexual intercourse) close together.
There can be little doubt that Paul was thinking of the passages in Leviticus when he coined this term. No other source makes any sense. As such, Paul would have had in mind the context of male temple prostitutes and the Holiness Code’s focus on distinguishing the Israelites from the surrounding nations. And this is what he would have wanted us to have in mind as well.
A study of the earliest translations of the New Testament into Latin, Syriac and Coptic lends some support to this interpretation.
How It Has Been Translated
With thanks to Matthew Vines and John Lein, here’s a list of how this word has been translated into English Bible versions over the centuries. You will see that until the past century, the translations attempt to honestly portray the difficulty of translating the word by using English phrases that are not typical or commonplace:
|Wycliffe||1382||“to them that do lechery with men”|
|Geneva Bible||1587, 1599||“buggerers” – specifically referring to penetrative anal sex|
|King James Version||1607, 1611||“abusers of themselves with mankind”|
|Mace New Testament||1729||“the brutal”|
|Wesley’s New Testament||1755||“sodomites” – as we saw earlier in this series, this referred to sexual sins in general at this time|
|Darby||1890||“sodomites” – by this stage, the word had begun to be used of homosexual and anal sexual activity|
|Young’s Literal Translation||1898||“sodomites”|
|Douay-Rheims||1899||“liers with mankind”|
|American Standard Version||1909||“abusers of themselves with men”|
|Revised Standard Version||1946||“homosexuals”|
|Today’s English Version||1966||“homosexual perverts”|
|Worldwide English||1969||“men who have sex with other men”|
|The Living Bible||1971||“homosexuals”|
|New International Version*||1973||“homosexual offenders”|
|New Revised Standard Version*||1989||“sodomites”|
|Good News Translation||1992||“sexual perverts”|
|Contemporary English Version*||1995||“who live as homosexuals”|
|New Living Translation*||1996||“who practice homosexuality”|
|Holman Christian Standard Bible||1999||“homosexuals”|
|English Standard Version*||2001||“men who practice homosexuality”|
|Today’s NIV*||2001||“for those practicing homosexuality”|
|New English Translation*||2006||“practicing homosexuals”|
|Expanded Bible||2011||“who have sexual relations with people of the same sex
[are practicing homosexuals]”
|New American Bible RE||2011||“sodomites”|
|New International Version*||2011||“those practicing homosexuality”|
I hope this is not too tedious for you, but this is how translation work is done. You have to work through each of the steps we’ve outlined above to get to the right interpretation. So far, it seems clear that Paul is using this new word he created to refer to male-male sexual activity in the context of cultic rituals, echoing the use of these words in Leviticus. He uses a new word in order to specifically direct us back to Leviticus, and its context of ritual or cultic prostitution.
We now need to see if this makes sense in the context of the passages and the letters written to Corinth and Ephesus. Or what that context says about the meaning of this word. Let’s look at 1 Cor. 6 first.
In Corinth, Paul is dealing with an especially unruly congregation, some of whom have fallen prey to moral laxity, including sexual sins. Paul writes to correct these, and to make it perfectly clear that the salvation offered by grace does not also offer an exemption from basic moral requirements. The main point of the two letters (there were actually at least four written, but only two remain and are canonised in Scripture) is to answer specific questions asked by the congregation at Corinth. We do not, unfortunately, have the original letters and the questions they asked.
In 1 Cor. 5 and 6, however, the context is very clear. Paul is dealing with three specific issues of sinfulness in the church at Corinth: (1) a man living with his father’s wife (5:1-5); (2) church members suing each other in civil court (6:1-8); and (3) church members going to female prostitutes and engaging in elicit, heterosexual sex (6:12-20). This last issue is of particular importance, as Corinth was one of the centres of the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The temple of Aphrodite was a feature of Corinth (although largely in ruins by the time of Paul’s writings), and involved ritual prostitution. This would have included both male and female prostitutes as we saw previously, and is known to have included sexual slavery – many were slaves purchased by wealthy Greeks and dedicated to the temple as a form of religious offering. As a capital city of the region, Corinth had a large number of Roman military and politicians stationed there, and the general sexual ethic we discussed previously was evident. As a major port city of the region, sailors were a constant feature, fuelling the generally debauched culture of the city. Corinth was a moral cesspit.
At the heart of Paul’s concern, especially in 1 Cor. 5 and 6, is the purity of the Christian community in Corinth. He instructs the church to exclude sinful members, reminds them that they are washed and cleansed of their old pagan practices, and must leave them behind. In this context, Paul makes use of a common rhetorical structure in the Graeco-Roman world known as “vice lists”. These lists were used to condemn socially unacceptable behaviour. In both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul includes arsenokoitēs in the middle of a “vice list”. In fact, this word is almost always used in vice lists throughout the ancient literature, as we saw above.
In 1 Cor. 5 and 6 there are actually three such “vice lists”, and once you know this was a literary device commonly used to make a point, you can see even more powerfully how Paul builds up his argument against being sucked into the morally depraved culture of Corinth. It is easiest to see the flow of Paul’s usage of this device if these are laid out in a table format (all words from NIV, phrases under consideration left untranslated):
|1 Cor 5:10||1 Cor 5:11||1 Cor 6:9-10|
The build up is clear. Paul is building his argument, and using this device to support his main point. The lists are not meant to be exhaustive – he’s not trying to give the Corinthian church a check list they can tick off, and either be “safe” or “sinners”. He’s listing the types of sins Corinth was known for without isolating any of them in particular. He’s not saying, “if you don’t do the things on these lists, you’re fine”, but rather that there is general sinfulness throughout the city and the church, and these are just some examples. As such, he is not so much concerned about the specific sins listed, but is using the items “as a foil to create the contrast between former impurity and present (desired) purity and to serve as a warning of the consequences of sinful living, of allowing further impurity into the community.” (Robin Scroggs in “The New Testament and Homosexuality“).
Having said that, we still need to be clearer on what the arsenokoitēs actually is. There is a strong argument related to the use of malakoi that we’ll come back to in the next section, but for now, notice the structure of the final list. These vice lists typically followed a set structure: usually listing sexual sins first, then violence and abusive sins and then sins related to economics or social injustice. When arsenokoitēs (and the word we’ll look at next, malakos) appears in these lists across ancient literature, it almost invariably occurs between sexual sins and those of social injustice and impropriety, just as it does in 1 Cor. 6:9-10.
This, then, is confirming that we are correct that Paul is deliberately referencing the same sins as Leviticus: ritual prostitution – whether heterosexual or homosexual – linked to temples, and forced or abusive. In Graeco-Roman culture, this is made even worse in that the prostitutes are most likely slaves, being forced into prostitution and held in a state of economic and social injustice.
Ritual Prostitution in Corinth
In fact, if we accept this as the correct translation of the term, the rest of the list makes a lot more sense. Each element of the list is an element of the brothel culture of the port and temple city, from idolatry and adultery to greed, drunkenness and swindling. Paul wants the Corinthian church to separate itself from this brothel culture.
This makes a lot of sense too of the very next verses in 1 Corinthians 6:13-15: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body…. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!” (NIV)
Paul’s main point is found in 1 Cor. 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.” He then goes on to use this principle as the basis of a few answers to questions sent to him by the church in Corinth. In 1 Cor. 7 he deals with issues of marriage and sex. In 1 Cor. 8 he deals with food sacrificed to idols. In each case, his answer is that the Corinthian Christians are to differentiate themselves from the culture in which they find themselves, not being sucked into the rituals and idolatry so evident in the temple cults in Corinth (the same was true in Ephesus too).
Seeing this one word, arsenokoitēs as having the same meaning we found when we looked at Leviticus – as a condemnation of temple prostitution – brings 1 Cor. 5 – 8 to life, and helps to shine a light on the holiness Paul was demanding of the Corinthian church. Remember that “holiness” is not so much about right behaviour as it is about being “set aside” for God’s use, and displaying a distinctive culture different from the prevailing culture around you. The “opposite” of holiness is idolatry – putting oneself or something before God. In fact, we see the whole letter carries this theme from beginning to end:
- 1 Cor. 1:2 – “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people,…”
- 1 Cor. 10:6-7 – Talking of the Israelites under Moses, “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were…”.
- 1 Cor. 10:14 – “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.”
- 1 Cor. 15:33-34 – “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning.”
Just as in Leviticus, then, the concern here is about temple cults and the purity of the faith community in abstaining from sexual rituals and exploitative forms of sexual activity. So, the meaning of arsenokoitēs seems very clear in 1 Cor 6. Let’s look at the other usage of the word in the Bible and see if ritual temple prostitution is indeed the best translation.
Men who frequent slave sex boys in Ephesus
In 1 Timothy 1 we see something similar – in fact, even more convincing. Paul’s main point at the opening of this letter to the church in Ephesus was correct teaching, which was to be characterised by love and not law. He affirms the goodness of The Law, but only as a mechanism to convict the lawless of their sin. He then lists some examples of sins, constructed again as a “vice list”. As in 1 Cor. 5 and 6, this is not intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive, but rather illustrative of sinfulness in general. And just like most ancient “vice lists”, this list in 1 Tim. 1 has groupings of sins.
In fact, there is a wonderful symmetrical structure to Paul’s examples, which the NIV and other translations sort-of show (I say sort-of, because they inexplicably break the pattern that is so obvious in the original language when it comes to this word, arsenokoitai). It’s easier to see the obvious pattern if the verse is written with the groupings on separate lines, as such:
- lawbreakers and rebels
- ungodly and sinful
- unholy and irreligious
- father-killers, mother-killers and murderers
- sexually immoral, arsenokoitai and slave traders
- liars and perjurers.
Each of these sets of concepts makes sense, except possibly the slave traders in verse 10. Unless, of course, you see the terms connected with slave traders as related to sexual prostitution associated with temple rituals. NT scholar, James Brownson, in “Bible, Gender, Sexuality” suggests 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.” When seen this way, the lists make perfect sense, the symmetry of the sins listed is obvious and common sense.
The Sin Paul is Condemning
It should be fairly clear that the only translation of arsenokoitai that makes sense of the way Paul uses it in both 1 Cor. 6 and 1 Tim. 1, is that it refers to men who engage in sexual intercourse with young boys, most commonly enslaved in temple brothels.
Robin Scroggs proposes an alternative, but related interpretation, that we will consider in detail in the next section of this series. He takes arsenokoitai to refer to the active partner in male-male sex, but he believes that such sex always occurred between an older man and a young boy. So in his interpretation the sin is not male-male sex per se but child abuse and pederasty. As we will see in the next section, Scroggs takes malakoi to refer to the willing, passive pederast partner. These two words in 1 Cor. 6 therefore constitute a pair, and the “call boys” and the child-abusing men (the arsenokoitai) are both condemned. If Scroggs is right, this constitutes an even more focused evil Paul is condemning.
The bottom line is that Paul is not condemning homosexuality. He is certainly not condemning loving LGBT relationships. He is not dealing with same gender sexual activity in general. He has a specific form of sexual abuse in mind. And this is the sin that his original readers in Corinth and Ephesus would have related to and understood in the term ‘arsenokoitai‘.
David Gushee asks a truly significant question in “Changing Our Mind“: “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 ‘homosexuals’ – a term from our culture with a range of meanings including sexual orientation, identity and activity — not a word from Paul’s world.” An important question. Words matter. Translations are important. I hope that much is clear.
Paul’s Commands Are Still Valid Today
Before I conclude this fairly lengthy word study, it’s important to note what I am not saying. Some progressive scholars believe that it doesn’t matter what the original words say, and that this level of detailed investigation is unnecessary. They believe that Paul was probably opposed to same-gender sexual activity, and that Paul believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman only. But that this doesn’t matter today. They argue that much of what Paul believed was culturally conditioned, and can be safely ignored today.
They appeal to two statements in 1 Corinthians to establish a higher principle:
- 1 Corinthians 6:12 – “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but I will not be mastered by anything.”
- 1 Corinthians 10:23 – “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but not everything is constructive.”
Although I believe that there is some validity in this line of thinking, and that we do need to interpret some of what is said in the New Testament – looking for principles to apply to our world today rather than constitutional legalities to parse – I do not believe this is how we should look at these verses in 1 Cor. or 1 Tim. The other items in these vice lists are clearly universal, and so, I believe, is Paul’s prohibition against abusive sexual relationships. The fact that we ignore many other commands from the letters to Corinth and Timothy is not really relevant to this discussion, in my opinion. But it certainly adds even more weight to my conclusion.
These texts intend no blanket condemnation of homosexuality, nor even of same-gender sexual activity. Just as they intend no blanket condemnation of heterosexuality. In 1 Cor. 6 and 1 Tim. 1, Paul opposes prostitution, cultic sex acts, incest or adultery – and so should we. This does not mean that men and women can’t have sex, of course – Paul explains the context in which male-female sex is appropriate. In the same way, arsenokoitai refers to pederasty, prostitution and cultic sex acts between men and boys. Paul does not forbid male same-gender sexual activity in general. Nor is he saying anything about LGBT issues, same sex, loving relationships or same sex marriage. If Paul had wanted to condemn homosexual behavior in general, the word for it at the time was paiderasste. He chose a different word, because he had something else in mind.
In fact, given the context in which these letters were written it’s surprising that Paul doesn’t have more to say about homosexual sexual issues, which were so prevalent. Maybe he didn’t see them as a problem – unless they were abusive, exploitative and/or impacted on the marriages of the churchgoers.
In “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality“, Daniel Helminiak concludes:
- “In first-century, Greek-speaking, Jewish Christianity, arsenokoitai would have referred to exploitative, lewd and wanton sex between men. This, and not male-male sex in general, is what the term would imply. This, then, and not male-male sex in general, is what these biblical texts oppose. Across the board in sexual matters, the Bible calls for mutual respect, caring and responsible sharing — in a loaded word, love. The violation of these, but not sex in general, is what the Bible condemns. The lesson in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 is that this principle applies equally to hetero- and homosexuality.”
If I’ve convinced you that Paul was not dealing with loving, covenantal same sex relationships in 1 Cor. 6 and 1 Tim. 1, then you might want to skip the next section and jump to the discussion of Romans 1, and after that the vital discussion about marriage, including how Jesus affirms the creation principle of one man and one woman and what “one flesh” means. These are all coming up later in September 2015.
Otherwise, next up is a look again at 1 Cor. 6 and the other word Paul uses there, malakos, and then we’ll look again briefly at why these word studies are important and how we should approach the “plain reading” of Bible texts. Thank you for taking the time to read this study. I’d love to hear your comments, questions and additions to my study. Please comment below.
Next article in this series: The ‘Soft’ in 1 Corinthians – the meaning of ‘malakos‘
Click here to see the index of the full series of blog posts on the issue of Christians, the Bible and homosexuality.
If you’d like to be alerted when a new post is uploaded, sign up for the Feedburner email alert service.