This is part 9 of a series of blog posts looking at the issue of the Bible and how Christians should approach the issue of LGBT people and same sex relationships. You can find the full index of the series here.
Words matter. The Bible wasn’t written in English. In fact, the languages it was written in are no longer used anywhere in the world. In order to understand the Bible, we therefore need to trust that the words we read today have been accurately translated for us, and that we understand their meaning and the meanings of idioms and phrases we find in the Bible. Sometimes the experts will argue – often at length – about the meanings of particular words and phrases. They do this so that we can be sure that we understand what God meant us to understand in the words of the Bible. They do this because words matter.
My New Testament lecturer when I was at seminary, Prof. Jack Wiid, had written a Masters thesis of about 600 pages on the translation of just one word in the New Testament. He consulted with the NIV translation team on that particular word, convincing them of the correct interpretation. Words matter.
Take for example two words we’re going to meet again later in this series: “helpmate” and “head”.
In Genesis 2:18, God decides to create woman. In the King James Version, the verse says, “And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” In the use of English at that time, this verse meant that God would make a helper for Adam who would be suitable for him. “Meet” means “suitable”. But many people have created a new compound word from this phrase, helpmeet or helpmate, believing that women are meant to be a “helper” for men. By this, some mean that women are to serve men, and/or to be subservient to men, and/or that men are meant to be the leaders over women.
Actually, the word for “helper” (ezer, Hebrew: עֵ֫זֶר) is used 21 times in the Old Testament. Twice it is used in the context of the first woman. Three times it is used of people helping, or failing to help, in life-threatening situations. Sixteen times it is used in reference to God as a helper. Without exception, ezer refers to a vital, powerful kind of help. In most cases, the phrase was used to depict dominant military forces or armed men. Some go even further to show that when ezer is combined with kenegdo, as it is in Genesis 2:18, that it actually refers to mightier power or greater strength. See here for a detailed look at this usage, concluding that a better translation might be, “I will make a power [or strength] corresponding to [or more powerful than] man.”
Another word that is discussed a lot when talking of the different roles of men and women, is the Greek word kephale (Greek: κεφαλή). This word means “head”. But just like in English, the word “head” in Greek can mean different things. It can mean leader, the one in charge, boss, or it can mean the source (as in “the head of the river”), or it could refer to the head on top of a body. Which meaning of “head” is meant in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23 makes a real difference, for here Paul says that Christ is the kephale of the man, and man is the kephale of women (even this is a debatable word, as gynaikos is often translated “wife”, when in fact it should be “woman”). Is the man the “boss”, “chief” or “ruler” of the woman, or is he the “source” (because Adam was created first), or the “authority over”, or does he have “superior rank”? What Paul meant is not entirely obvious. I am not going to deal with this issue here – I am simply illustrating that words matter, and that taking the time to discuss individual words is indeed an important part of Biblical exegesis and understanding.
Surely God knew that words matter? And surely was capable of inspiring the Biblical authors to use words and phrasing that didn’t leave things as open to interpretation as they sometimes are? If God chose to use words with ambiguous meanings, then we must step back and ask why. In the case of the role of women in the church and in life, it is very dangerous to build a theology that prohibits women from certain roles, ministries, positions and giftings based on a misunderstanding of a “creation ordinance” and a word that is ambiguous in meaning at best.
The same is true when we look at the words Paul chooses to use in his vice lists of 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1 and Romans 1. These have traditionally been translated to prohibit homosexuality, but I believe these are incorrect translations.
We saw in the previous post in this series that Paul wrote to the Corinthian and Ephesian churches about not indulging in cultic prostitution, and referred back to Leviticus and the commands about temple prostitutes given there, using the word arsenokoitēs. In 1 Corinthians 6, he also uses another term which needs some translation work: “malakos” (Greek: μαλακός). This word is considerably easier to translate than arsenokoitēs, since it is much more common. The problem is that it literally means “soft”, and, on the face of it, this doesn’t make sense in the context Paul uses it:
- “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor those who use temple prostitutes, nor the soft nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-10, NIV with upgraded translation for arsenokoitēs and literal translation for malakos.)
So again, we find Paul using a word unusually. As before, we need to know why Paul uses this word, “soft”, what it means in a metaphorical sense, and what Paul wanted us to understand by using it.
Where else ‘Malakos‘ is used
Let’s start by looking elsewhere in the Bible. Malakos is used three other times in Scripture: two in Matthew 11:8 and one in Luke 7:25. Each of these uses is similar:
- “If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.” (Matt. 11:8, NIV)
This is Jesus talking about John the Baptist, who had been imprisoned by King Herod at the time. Jesus is comparing John and Herod. The word here for “fine” clothes is malakos, and better translated “soft” (as most translations do). Jesus asks the people what had attracted them to listen to John in the first place. Was he “a reed shaken by the wind”? Or “someone dressed in soft robes”? Both terms are direct references to Herod, who had printed coins with the image of a reed on them, and was known to play back and forth politics to keep himself connected to both the Jewish religious leaders as well as the Romans. He lived in luxury in the royal palace, wearing soft (“malakos“) robes as a symbol of his status. We can’t get much more from these verses, except to know that the term is used disparagingly of someone living a life of abundant excess. There’s probably a hint of moral and ethical weakness there too.
How ‘malakos‘ is used in other classical literature
Biblical usages of this word are not that conclusive, so let’s look next at classical references, as “malakos” was widely used in both Greek and Latin literature.
You can look at the Jones Ancient Greek Lexicon (LSJ) entry for the word, including literature references for a full list. Here is a summary of the main definitions:
- of things subject to touch: soft (soft grassy meadows, of the skin or flesh, soft-fleeced, opposite of hard or rugged ground, of marsh water, to sleep on soft bedding)
- of things not subject to touch: gentle (soft fair words, tender youthful looks, mild, soft, faint or delicate scent, mild climate)
- of persons or modes of life: soft, mild, gentle (easier to handle, of a fallen hero)
- in bad sense: soft (“attacked him somewhat feebly”)
- faint-hearted, cowardly
- morally weak, lacking in self-control (not to give in from weakness or want of spirit, indulgences)
- of music: soft, effeminate (“tuned to a low pitch”)
- of style: feeble
- of reasoning: weak, loose (to reason loosely)
- weakly, sickly
For example, in “Nicomachean Ethics” (published 350BC), Aristotle uses the word in several ways: “of the dispositions described above, the deliberate avoidance of pain is rather a kind of softness (malakia); the deliberate pursuit of pleasure is profligacy in the strict sense.” And, “One who is deficient in resistance to pains that most men withstand with success, is soft (malakos) or luxurious, for luxury is a kind of softness (malakia).”
In addition to these usages in ancient Greek, the word is used extensively in Latin literature (as “mollis“), with the most common metaphorical meanings:
- Eating or drinking too much, enjoying luxury
- Having long hair, shaving, wearing nice clothes (basically being a modern “metrosexual”)
- Keeping knees together, or swaying when walking
- Dancing, laughing or gesturing too much
- Morally weak, undisciplined or lacking self-control
- Being penetrated sexually by man or woman
- Enjoying sex with women too much — a “wanton” person
- Boy prostitutes – “catamites”
- The effeminate
- Male prostitutes
When applied towards people, the word is almost always derogatory. Although it was sometimes used with a sexual meaning, this is a minority usage. Most often it refers to someone who is morally weak, politically passive or lacking in discipline. Where it is used with a sexual meaning, it is most commonly used to signify masturbation, a womanizer or the passive recipient of penetrative sex.
For example, Socrates, says “the base pederastic love seeks a person who is malthakor” (Plato’s Phaedrus 239C, where malthakor is the poetic version of malakos). In Plutarch’s Erōtikus (751D), we read of a willing youth consenting to pederastic intercourse as one who acts with “malakia”.
According to Robin Scroggs in “The New Testament and Homosexuality“, “Thus, the use of malakos would almost certainly conjure up images of the effeminate call-boy, if the context otherwise suggested some form of pederasty.” (emphasis in original). Since this is what is implied by arsenokoitēs, and in context in 1 Cor. 6, malakos is sandwiched between “male prostitutes” and “thieves”, Scroggs finds this conclusive. He says that “malakos” refers to a young boy who deliberately makes – and keeps – himself looking androgynous and effeminate so that he will be retained as the passive partner in a pederastic relationship. Scroggs suggests the modern term “call-boy” as a good translation.
How ‘malakos‘ has been translated in Greek dictionaries
Many Greek dictionaries translate this word as a slang term for “masturbation”, and this was often how it was translated before the Reformation. Others translate it as “men watchers” (that is, someone who ogles men). In fact, it is only in the last few decades that this word has been translated to refer to homosexuals in general. For most of church history, the word has been seen to refer to sexual abuses and specific male-male activity considered perverted.
What ‘malakos‘ means in 1 Cor. 6
Traditionalist interpreters of this word argue that it refers to the passive or penetrated partner in male same-gender sexual activity. However, if Paul had this in mind, there were other words available to him that would have portrayed this without ambiguity, such as the standard word pairs of erastes + eromenos or paiderastes + kinaides. Instead, he uses arsenokoitēs paired with this term, “soft”. The two most viable options for translation are someone who is self-indulgent, sexually undisciplined and living luxuriously, or the “effeminate call-boy” suggested by Scroggs.
So the conclusion is that malakos simply does not refer to same-sex activity in general. 1 Cor. 6:9 uses malakos to make a general condemnation of moral looseness and undisciplined (and perhaps also lewd, lustful and lascivious) behavior. The New Jerusalem Bible presents a possibly most accurate meaning by translating malakos as “the self-indulgent.”
The NIV translation of 1 Cor. 6:9, “men who have sex with men” takes two separate Greek terms and conflates them into a single concept. One can only assume that this translation choice is driven much more by ideology than good translation or theology. At least they had the decency to footnote their ideological decision, with “The words ‘men who have sex with men’ translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.” As we have seen, this translation decision by the NIV is disappointing. And it is misleading. Malakos refers to particular abusive pederastic relationships and/or to morally weak and ill-disciplined people. There is just no way that it can be taken as a condemnation of loving, consensual, covenantal same-sex relationships.
This has been a fairly complex study of just two words. In summary, it would appear that Paul wants to highlight the evil nature of all forms of involvement in pederasty and abusive sexuality, including prostitution, effeminate call-boys, those who purchase sex and those who trade in sex slaves, and especially finds it reprehensible when all of this is done as a form of temple worship. All forms of abusive relationships that were culturally acceptable in Graeco-Roman times are seen as reprehensible to God – the perpetrators are warned in dire terms that they will “not inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9, 10). However, this can in no way be taken as a blanket condemnation of all homosexual activity, and especially has no relevance to lifelong, loving homosexual relationships.
We therefore turn to the final Biblical reference traditionally used to prohibit homosexuality. Romans 1 contains the traditional hermeneutic against homosexuality, namely, that homosexual activity is contrary to the created order. We look at this next.
Previous article in this series: Male-Bedders – the meaning of ‘arsenokoitai’
Next article in this series: Changing the Way We Read Romans 1
Click here to see the index of the full series of blog posts on the issue of Christians, the Bible and homosexuality.
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