• Paul on Homosexuality: PART SIX

    February 13, 2012

    A couple years ago I was talking with a fairly well-known pastor and author. Not Philip Yancey (he’s not a pastor) and not Jim Pace (stop trying to guess who). I was trying to figure out what I thought about the whole gay issue in Scripture, and I wanted to know this man’s opinion. I had enjoyed his books a great deal.

    He said, “Well, what does your gut tell you?”

    I honestly didn’t know. “My gut kind of goes both ways right now,” I said. “Hence my confusion.”

    He said, “Well what do you think Paul means when he says homosexuals will not enter the kingdom of heaven?”

    He wasn’t being snarky. He really wanted to know if I’d considered this and what conclusion I’d reached. Still, I was rather stunned by the question. It seemed as though this pastor and author to thousands didn’t have the first clue that there was considerable disagreement concerning the translation of the term “homosexuals” in the verses this pastor/author was referencing. I knew because I’d been reading up on the subject. I guess I should not have been surprised by this man’s ignorance. Most modern Bibles include no mention of the uncertainty in translation. Had I not gone a-diggin’ to figure this stuff out, I never would have known, myself.

    Beyond Romans 1, Paul makes two other brief mentions of what may refer to male homosexuality: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. In both cases, the references are contained within vice lists, a cataloguing of sinful behavior. The Greek terms Paul uses are malakoi and arsenokoitai. What do they mean? It’s difficult to say; scholars have changed their minds over the years, and translations have repeatedly differed on how best to render the words in English. One author has rightly said that as people’s prejudices have changed, so have their translations of malakoi and arsenokoitai.

    The 1952 version of the Revised Standard Version translates 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 this way:

    “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (Greek: oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

    The 1977 revision of the Revised Standard Version changed “homosexuals” to “sexual perverts.” Homosexual or heterosexual or both? The translators did not say. The 1989 revision translated malakoi and arsenokoitai separately: “male prostitutes and sodomites.” So the problem in view became not just homosexuality or sexual perversion, but male prostitution (homosexual or heterosexual, the translators didn’t say) and homosexuals (active or passive sexual partners, or both—again, the translators did not say). This is a questionable translation at best since it would include female homosexuality as a vice, and, as we’ll see, the Greek doesn’t allow for this. Also, the term “homosexual” is a 19th century creation. No such word existed in Greek.

    As for the 1 Timothy reference, malakoi doesn’t appear. Only arsenokoitai is mentioned, which the New Revised Standard Version renders as “sodomites.”

    In general, today’s translators seem to prefer combining the two Greek terms in 1 Corinthians, rendering them as “practicing homosexuals,” or something of the like, and without an asterisk indicating uncertainty as to the exact meaning. This is extremely misleading. In Paul’s day, malakoi literally meant “soft.” It was often a term used derisively to describe people who were lazy, lovers of luxury, or morally loose. Sometimes the word was used specifically to refer to male call boys—boys and young men who were free citizens, not slaves, but who chose prostitution as their profession, dressing effeminately to attract older men looking to pay them for sexual favors. Whichever usage Paul has in mind here in the New Testament, I can see no justification for combining malakoi with arsenokoitai. If malakoi does refer to homosexual behavior, the reference is most likely to the passive call boy. It is hardly fair to compare first century male prostitutes to twenty-first century gay marriages.

    The word arsenokoitai is even harder to translate with confidence. The word only appears twice in the Bible, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. There is no recorded use of the term in history before these references, and historians can only find a handful of uses after the New Testament, a few of which (according to one historian I read) do not appear to be referencing homosexual practice. Did the word change meanings over time? Did it have meanings we do not know of today?

    The most reasonable theory I found on the origin of this word is that early Greek Christians coined the term as a shorthand Hebrew-to-Greek translation of the prohibition in Leviticus, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” Arseno- means “men” and –koitai means “lying.” Though entirely speculative, this seems like a solid, plausible theory for how arsenokoitai came to be a word. It would also make sense that the word would not appear often outside of the New Testament if it was a Greek Christian invention.

    But what exactly does arsenokoitai mean in Paul’s context? The Levitical prohibition likely has in mind some form of pagan sex rites used in the worship of Canaan’s gods. Is that what Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy? Or does he intend a broader meaning, male homosexuality in general? Maybe, but every other sin in the vice list has an exploitative nature to it. In other words, someone is being hurt by the other actions—greed, drunkenness, stealing, etc. What is the demonstrable harm in homosexuality itself? For the vice list to have continuity, Paul must have had some abusive or exploitative characteristic in mind. Some scholars have argued that, just as malakoi might refer to the passive call boy prostitute, arsenokoitai might refer to the older male customer who hired the call boy. This makes sense to me and preserves the continuity of the vice lists, but without Paul here for us to ask him, no one can say for sure what interpretation is exact.

    And that’s it. We’ve now examined all the biblical passages that mention homosexuality. (Some people find a veiled reference in the brief letter of Jude, but most scholars believe this is not the case, so I’ll pass on blogging about it.) We have the Sodom story which is about rape, not homosexuality. We have a couple verses in Leviticus that gave instructions on how the Israelite people were to separate themselves from their pagan neighbors. We have some discussion of homosexual acts in relationship to idolatry in Romans. And we have a verse a piece in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy that probably deal with some form of likely abusive homosexual acts. There is nothing in all the Bible that describes or discusses homosexuality as we most often hear of it today—two people of the same sex seeking a loving, respectful relationship with each other.

    At this point, we have some serious questions to consider: what then does the Bible mean by sexual immorality? What sexual behavior is acceptable to God and what isn’t, given that the passages on homosexuality are unclear at best? What was Jesus’ approach to applying the Old Testament Law to our New Testament reality? What is sin if not the violation of a hard and fast rule that always and continually says “no”? And for me, and for all gay Christians, if the Scriptures aren’t crystal clear on how we should view and respond to our sexuality, how do we proceed in life? Much to discuss as we continue on from here.

    Posted in: The Gay Posts

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