Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Homosexuals shall not inherit the kingdom of God?

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 gives a list of those who shall not inherit the kingdom of God. There are two different Greek words in this sentence sometimes translated "homosexual", but there are translation difficulties with both these words.

Various ancient Greek writers discuss homosexual behavior quite a bit, and so we have a good knowledge of what the culture of the time thought about homosexuality and what words they used to describe it. The words Paul uses are not the normal words used to speak of homosexuality.

The first of Paul's two difficult words is "malakos" which literally means "soft" and is a fairly common Greek word that depending on context can mean virtually anything: (1) "soft" grassy meadows, (2) "gentle" or "mild", (3) "cowardly", "lacking self-control", (4) low pitched music, (5) poor logic or reasoning (6) "weak", "sickly". The context of Paul's list is moral vices and so meanings from definition 3 above are appropriate ones and thus "lack of self control" seems best. Some people appear to have decided that the word can mean 'soft' in a sexual sense and thus mean 'effeminate' or 'passive homosexual partner', which I suppose is possible. There seems no reason to think the context here merits such a translation though.

The second of Paul's difficult words is "arsenokoites" (literally "man-bed") which has the opposite problem - this word does not occur enough times in surviving documents for us to tell clearly what it means. The evidence provided by these occurrences is confusing. It appears in some listings of economic sins. Elsewhere it is said to be something mainly done by men with men but which can even be done to a woman. A meaning that explains a lot of the evidence (but not all) is "anal rape" or "having sex with someone in order to prove dominance over them" (bear in mind that in the ancient world this was a somewhat common practice for heterosexuals to engage in). In short, Greek usage provides no reason at all to think that the word means "homosexual". No study I have ever seen has concluded that the word meant "homosexual" in Greek.

However Christians who have studied Greek are rather infamous for never reading or paying attention to any Greek documents outside of the Bible. So often their policy is: Using the Bible alone, what does this word mean? I would like to stress that such methodology, in general, is incredibly bad. The bible was written in Koine ('common') Greek and it uses normal words from the common Greek of the time. It was NOT written in some heavenly language that came into being for the sake of writing the bible and then immediately disappeared (as a few scholars once wildly speculated!). Its original readers when reading it would have understood the meanings of the words it uses because they already knew what the words meant from their knowledge of Greek, just as we who read it in English understand it because we already know how to speak English.

At any rate, people have searched the bible from top to bottom to see what arsenokoites (man + bed) means in the 'bible' language and discovered a passage that uses 'man' and 'bed' in the same sentence in the bowels of Leviticus. Therefore it must be a reference to that, right? (Because, of course, Paul would invent a word his Corinthian readers didn't know and expect them to search the bible from top to bottom to find the sentence that most closely matched it... not!) The sentence in Leviticus is generally believed to be condemning homosexuality and therefore "arsenokoites" in Paul's writings is translated "homosexuality".

In short, I see no reason to think either malakos or arsenokoites in 1 Cor 6:9 have anything to do with homosexuality whatsoever. Such translations are simply a result of poor scholarship.

PS. It has been brought to my attention that a lot of the evidence regarding ancient usage of 'arsenokoites' was only discovered in the last 30 years, and that therefore the scholars who in the past concluded it meant homosexuality based on the above-critiqued argument were engaging in reasonable speculation based on the lack-of-evidence they had at the time.


Blogger Nathan said...

Yeah, I have often considered such logic as comparing Greek words across the bible to be ridiculously bad logic. Have they never heard of consistent error?

So you're saying that if it's anything close to condemning homosexuality, it's condemning homosexual rape.
In which case, it does have a little similarity to homosexuality, but it's completely different to homosexual orientation, or even consensual homosexual behavior, which the verse is used to condemn.

Blogger Drew said...

Building a bit on what Nathan says...

A third option is that the word clearly does refer to sexual relations between men. But the gentile context of those relations is the important piece here and not just the sex per se. Just as there are quite repulsive sex acts between men and women, the context is in terms of rather repulsive and domineering sex act between men. No where in the bible do we hear of condemnation of supportive and mutually uplifting relationships between people of the same gender as being sinful. So the mistake is to focus on the sex too much.

But that is part of Christianity's problem. We tend to focus on the dirtiness of sex so much that we translate verses like these in kind.

Blogger David said...

You've expressed more eloquently than I the problems I have with 'arsenokoites was spawned from Leviticus' - as if a document can exist in a linguistic vacuum, and as if such methodology were ever a scholarly way to look at word meaning. I don't know whether you've looked into it, but it seems to me that 'paidophthoros' is a similar word used also by Jewish and early Christian authors, having apparently the same distribution (appears in Didache in almost identical context as 1 Cor) and is a somewhat better attested word, and these make me guess that the two were synonymous. Though truth be told this is a debate I am so tired of having.

I found your blog through ongoing conversations with a friend, when the topic touched on penal substitution (and the lack thereof). I've had enough fodder for my thoughts wandering around your archives.

Blogger Scott said...


Have you read Gagnon's book on homosexual practice? It's been recognised as a fairly landmark work even by pro-homosex and liberal scholars.

I think your post really doesn't do any justice to the evidence - I think you probably know that anyway. The truth is that there are scholars from a variety of theological camps, and even sexual orientations, who agree that the Bible as a whole, and Paul in particular, is against homosexual practice. You've made it sound as if that is a lunatic-fringe position.

Blogger Scott said...

From this article, p.g. 54 onwards:

"The terms malakoi (literally, “soft men”) and arsenokoitai (literally, “men lying with a male”) in 1 Cor 6:9 also do not suggest any kind of restriction to exploitative practices. The sense of malakoi as “men who feminize themselves to attract male sex partners” is evident from: its place in the vice list amidst other participants in illicit sexual intercourse, its pairing with the immediately following word arsenokoitai, Philo of Alexandria’s use of cognate words, and instances where the parallel Latin word molles is used to refer to effeminate adult males who are biologically and/or psychologically disposed to desire penetration by men. The complaint about such figures in the ancient world generally, and certainly by Philo, centers around their attempted erasure of the masculine stamp given them by God/nature, not their exploitation of others, age difference, or acts of prostitution.126

The word arsenokoitai is a compound formed from the Greek words for “lying” (koite) and “male” (arsen) that appear in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Levitical prohibitions of men “lying with a male” (18:22; 20:13). The rabbis used the corresponding Hebrew abstract expression mishkav zakur, “lying of/with a male,” drawn from the Hebrew texts of Lev 18:22 and 20:13. This way of talking about male homosexuality is a distinctly Jewish and Christian formulation, undoubtedly used as a way of distinguishing their absolute opposition to homosexual practice, rooted in the Torah of Moses, from more accepting views in the Greco-Roman milieu. The appearance of arsenokoitai in 1 Tim 1:10 makes the link to the Mosaic law explicit, since the list of vices of which arsenokoitai is a part are said to be derived from “the law” (1:9)." ... continues

Blogger Andrew said...

> You've made it sound as if that is
> a lunatic-fringe position.

Well that is largely how I regard it. The arguments that are commonly made for it are ludicrous.

> Have you read Gagnon's book

No, although I've looked into it and he appears to be a hard-line anti-homosexuality writer who uses some totally ridiculous arguments. I think you severely misrepresent him as being reasonable.

Blogger Michael said...

I know it's about 4 years later but I thought you'd be interested to read my take on this issue, not least because I cite you a couple of times :-)

Blogger Michael said...

and it would help if I posted the link

Sorry :-(

Blogger Sean Wang said...

I don't think that arsenokoitais or arsenokoites mean anything about homosexuality because from what I read in Leviticus, the law was only made for the Israelites during that time before Jesus established a new covenant. What Jesus established for us is that we love God with all our heart, soul and mind and love one another as we did ourselves. This fulfills all the laws described in the Old Testament. Must we follow all the laws and deny what Jesus had done for us? If we follow all the laws described in the Old Testament, then we don't need Jesus and God will hold us accountable for all the laws. Would you rather be stoned to death, hanged, for breaking the laws in the Old Testament?

Finally, what I think arsenokoitais or arsenokoites means is that 'arsen' means 'man', 'o' is the adjective of 'the', and 'koitais' or 'koites' means 'beds' as a plural form 'many beds'. Then arsenokoitais or arsenokoites means 'male with many beds' or 'male with multiple bed-partners'; promiscuous man and Paul should use 'paid-erasste' for homosexuals during his time as during his time there were many man-boy sexual relationship and we call it pederasty in today's society.

Sorry about renewing the topic again.

Blogger man with desire said...

Arsenos means male and koiten means bed. Lev 18:22 and 20:13 teach that a man cannot lie (sexual act) with another man as he lies with a woman. The origin of the word arsenokoites means homosexual activity and homosexual. Lev 18:22 and 20:13 prove very clearly that arsenos koiten means homosexual sex, because the Jews scribes translated words' arsenos koiten describe men who have sex with other men (homosexuality), which is a sin and against the will of God. Apostle Paul didn't make up the word arsenokoites, but it was already as the concept in the Old Testament, where it meant homosexuality.


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