Homosexuality in the New Testament

562153f47ccce_King-James-Bible-GHaving dealt with the principal texts in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) which have often been quoted as mentioning or implying homosexuality I now plan to look at the New Testament texts.

There are only two texts in the NT where the word “homosexual” is actually used in some translations, and there are one or two others where it may be implied. Before taking a close look at these verses and the Greek words that are sometimes translated as “homosexual” I should give some history about the English word. No English translation of the Bible used the word “homosexual” prior to 1946 when the Revised Standard Version (RSV) used it for the first time in two places. Prior to 1946 the Greek was translated in a variety of ways, and I will come back to this. In fact, the word “homosexual” didn’t enter the English language until the end of the nineteenth century so it wasn’t even available to be used by earlier translations. The first known appearance of the word was in German, in an 1869 pamphlet arguing against a Prussian anti-sodomy law. In 1886, the Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms homosexual and heterosexual in a book about sexuality, and from there they were adopted into the English language. I find it somewhat comical when I read posts on social media (in support of Israel Folau’s assertion that homosexuals will go to hell) saying that he is simply “quoting the King James Bible”. The KJV was written 250 years before the word homosexual even existed! People would do well to read the Bible before they pretend to quote it.

The two places where the word occurs in some (but not all) modern translations of the Bible are (in the English Standard Version – ESV):

1 Corinthians 6:9-10   Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Timothy 1:9-10 The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.

In 1 Timothy 1:10 the phrase translated here in the ESV as “men who practice homosexuality” translates a single Greek word (ἀρσενοκοίταις arsenokoitais, while in 1 Corinthians 1:10 it is a translation of two words (μαλακοὶ malakoi and ἀρσενοκοῖται arsenokoitai). I will first look at the word ἀρσενοκοίταις arsenokoitais which is common to both (in cognate forms). This is a difficult word to translate for one simple reason: apart from these two places in the NT it does not occur anywhere else in ancient Greek literature; no where else in the Bible, in either the NT or the Septuagint, and no where in classical Greek literature. The technical term for a word which occurs in only one place is hapax legomenon, and they are notorously difficult to translate for the simple reason that we have no other texts for comparison to help us understand the meaning. Let’s take an example from English. If you came across the word butterfly in a text and did not know what it meant you could look at other texts to determine its meaning. It would be useless to try to make sense of it by breaking it up into what might look like its component parts, butter and fly. To do so would simply make a nonsense of it. The word ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs appears to be a combination of two Greek words arsēn a male and koitē a bed, and therefore by implication refers to men “going to bed” with men. But we can’t be sure, and we have no other texts which use the word to help us out. Just like the word butterfly has nothing to do with butter, we can’t be sure this Greek word has anything to do with men in bed. Translators have to guess at a meaning.

IMG_2788When Luther translated the Bible into German in 1534 he translated ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs with the German word knabenschänder which literally means “boy molester.” His translation suggests he understood the term to mean some form of sexual abuse, but like all translators he was still guessing. If his translation is right then perhaps it should have been given more prominence during the scandals (and, in Australia, a Royal Commission) involving institutional abuse of children, and the high profile trial of a Cardinal convicted for sexually abusing choir boys. There is nothing in the context of these verses to suggest that the word has anything to do with a loving relationship between two men, while sexual abuse or violence would make better sense in a list of vices.

The other word which is associated with ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is μαλακός malakos, which literally means “soft”. There is a great deal of diversity in the way the word is translated. For example, the King James Version (KJV) translates it as “effeminate” while the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the term as “male prostitutes” which is actually quite strange. They are clearly guessing, although they may have been influenced by the use of a Hebrew word קָדֵשׁ qadesh which is sometimes translated as “male temple prostitutes.” I referred to this term in an earlier post where I argued that the problem does not seem to be one of men having sex with men, but doing so as part of the worship of God.  How the NRSV translators took the leap from “soft” to “male prostitutes” is anyone’s guess, but probably has something to do with an assumption that the word μαλακός malakos refers to the “passive” [soft(?)] partner in homosexual sex (presumably the receptive partner in anal sex) , and a further assumption that this was the part played by a prostitute. There are quite a few assumptions built into such a conclusion! If Paul did indeed mean “male prostitutes” then it may have been sex-for-pay that was the problem in his mind, and not male-to-male sex per se.

However, there is nothing inherently sexual about this word, let alone homosexual. The only other time it is used in the NT is in the parallel texts of Matthew 11:8/Luke 7:25, where it appears twice as a substantive neuter plural, malaka (literally meaning “soft things”) which in the context denotes “soft clothing” and has no sexual connotation whatsoever. In that context the writer used the term with reference to rich people who wore “soft” clothing in much the same way as we might refer to the privileged elite as “softies” – out of touch with the down-to-earth general population. Paul may have been condemning the rich who lived luxuriously at the expense of others, and this would be consistent with other terms in his list, “thieves, greedy persons, robbers.” We can’t be sure what he meant and there seems to be an almost endless range of possibilities including being rich. In my opinion, homosexuality is the least likely of the possibilities and seems to have been influenced more by prevailing social or religious attitudes in 1946 than by good scholarship.

To be continued …

3 comments on “Homosexuality in the New Testament

  1. Stephen,

    Thanks for delving into this topic, which is highly controversial and sensitive in contemporary Christianity but also very important. There are two criticisms I would make concerning this post. The first is that it seems too preoccupied with the English word ‘homosexual’/’homosexuality.’ As you’ve pointed out, this is a relatively new word in our language. It is also a problematic word in various ways. Consequently, I share your belief that it should not be used in English translations of 1 Cor. 6.9-10 and 1 Tim. 1.10, and I think most contemporary biblical scholars who have closely studied these texts would agree with us, regardless of their views on the meanings of the words μαλακοὶ and ἀρσενοκοῖται.

    The second is that there seems to be a lack of attention to detail, perhaps even lack of effort, in interpreting these Greek words. ‘Translators have to guess at a meaning’—is that all that can be said about ἀρσενοκοῖται? What about the various studies that have appeared in the last 40 years claiming to offer convincing interpretations of this word? Are they nothing more than guesses, one no more rooted in evidence than the next?

    Allow me to make a few observations that I think are helpful in arriving at the meaning of ἀρσενοκοῖται.
    (1) The most likely etymological background of ἀρσενοκοῖται is that it is a compound word formed from ἄρσενος (‘male’) and κοίτην (‘bed’, euphemism for sex) in Lev. 18.22 and 20.13 LXX. It could have been coined by Paul himself or other Hellenistic Jews of the period. Supporting the claim of intertextuality here are that (i) in 1 Cor. 6.9, Paul has a few sentences earlier alluded to precisely this portion of the Levitical code to condemn another form of sexual immorality, namely intercourse with one’s father’s wife (1 Cor. 5.1 cf. Lev. 18.8; 20.11); (ii) in 1 Tim. 1.10, the vice list is given specifically in context of the significance of the law (i.e. Torah) for Christians (cf. 1.7-9). Now, I’m aware of your previous post in which you’ve challenged the traditional interpretation of Lev. 18.22 and 20.13 in the Hebrew Bible. But the more specific issue for interpreting ἀρσενοκοῖται is how Lev. 18.22 and 20.13 were interpreted in the first century C.E., especially in their LXX translations by Hellenistic Jews. At this point, the evidence of Philo and Josephus is very important (see, e.g., Philo, Spec. 3.37-39; Abr. 135-36; Josephus, C. Ap. 2.199; A.J. 3.275; 4.290-91).

    (2) It is true that some compound words/phrases cannot be interpreted simply by combining their parts, e.g. in butterfly or greenhouse. However, in many cases combining the parts does bring us very close to the meaning, e.g. in housecoat, moonlight, menstealer (Old English), etc. So, given that ἀρσενοκοῖται is a compound word that appears to be rooted in Lev. 18.22 and 20.13 LXX, ceteris paribus it seems the best option would be to seek a contextually plausible meaning by combining the parts, leading to something like ‘going to bed with men’ (your first suggestion) rather than throwing up our hands in despair of recovering the meaning of the word.

    (3) We are not in fact limited to this etymological evidence in seeking after the meaning of the word. In this respect I strongly recommend the following detailed study, hot off the (Cambridge University) press:

    John Granger Cook, “μαλακοί and ἀρσενοκοῖται: In Defence of Tertullian’s Translation,” New Testament Studies 65 (2019): 332-352.

    Cook studies other compound words ithat involve one of the two words ἄρσενος or κοίτη, and so arrives at a ‘semantic field’ that ‘includes words comprising the elements of or elements similar to ἀρσενοκοίτης.’ The words ‘share a very important characteristic in common: a male has sex with the person (or animal) referred to by the nominal form that appears first in the construction (e.g. μητροκοίτης means ‘one who penetrates a mother’). The argument from etymology is justified by two fundamental premises: (1) the meaning of the roots themselves; and (2) the usage of the words in question.’

    (4) It is not the case that ἀρσενοκοίτης never occurs in ancient Greek literature apart from 1 Cor. 6.9 and 1 Tim. 1.10. Cook documents a number of occurrences of this word and the related words ἀρσενοκοιτία (abstract noun) and ἀρσενοκοιτέω (verb). The occurrences all post-date Paul but still
    have value for establishing semantics. Cook’s conclusion is as follows: ‘the etymological argument and usage, the semantic word field, the evidence from Bardaisan in both Greek and Syriac, the evidence from Aristides in both Greek and Syriac, and the texts from the Refutatio, John Malalas and Rhetorius, are decisive. ἀρσενοκοίτης, ἀρσενοκοιτία and ἀρσενοκοιτέω all refer to males who penetrate other males. The early Latin translators of 1 Cor 6.9 were well justified in rendering the word as masculorum concubitores (those who have sexual intercourse with males).’

    I could comment further on μαλακοὶ but the comment is already approaching the length of an article, so will just refer you to JG Cook’s treatment of this word.

    Now, if the meaning of these two words in the Greek NT is established, there is still a complex hermeneutical process required to move from the text to implications for a contemporary Christian sexual ethic. However, I think we can be reasonably clear about what the exegetical starting point of that process should be.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Thanks Thomas. First, I don’t agree with your criticism that my post is “too preoccupied with the English word ‘homosexual’/’homosexuality.’” In a 1200 words post, a paragraph of less than 200 words does not indicate a “preoccupation” with the English. My explanation of the origins of the English word, however, was important in order to address the comment frequently made in the Australian media that Folau was quoting “the King James Version.”

      Second, I also disagree with your criticism that “there seems to be a lack of attention to detail” in my post. As you would have noticed, my blog is primarily targetted at a non-academic audience and intentionally avoids the kind of detail which may make it difficult for a general audience to follow. For anyone who is interested in more information I am always happy to answer questions or provide scholarly references.

      I have read J.G. Cook’s article and I don’t think it adds anything of substance to the discussion. It appears that he has read Alan Cadwallader’s chapter on 1 Cor. 6 (Cadwallader, Alan H. “Keeping Lists or Embracing Freedom: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in Context,” in Five Uneasy Pieces: Essays on Scripture and Sexuality. Edited by Nigel Wright. Adelaide: ATF Theology, 2012), although in my view he dismisses Cadwallader’s arguments without properly engaging with them.

      On a possible allusion to the LXX of Leviticus 18:22; 20:1, the context of 1 Corinthians is incest (5:1 “a man is living with his father’s wife”). If Paul is alluding to Leviticus (and it’s a big “if” in my opinion) then it could be because Leviticus also deals with incest (not homosexuality). However, as his list goes on to include “thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” it seems fairly clear that his list is not specifically addressing problems of sexual immorality or incest, but he has moved on to address “vice” more generally. There is no contextual reason why he would appeal to Leviticus at this point in his argument.

      You have correctly noted that ἀρσενοκοίτης does occur in Greek literature after the writing of 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, but my point still stands that it is a hapax legomenon and there is no prior use of the term. Scholarship is agreed on this. Meanings of words change, and references to later texts are not definitive and in this case not particularly helpful.

      • Stephen,

        I didn’t appreciate the context of Israel Folau’s post and Australian media commentary in which you were writing. In light of that I can understand your emphasis on the English terms homosexual/ity, although in my view this word and its history have little relevance for exegesis of 1 Cor. 6.9-10 and 1 Tim. 1.10.

        I can also appreciate that, when writing for a general, non-academic audience, there is a need to avoid delving too far into the technical details of arguments and the relevant scholarly literature. However, I think that it is very important—especially when dealing with a topic as controversial and sensitive as this one—to give your audience an accurate picture, if only in broad strokes, of the state of scholarly opinion. Instead, on my reading your post gives the impression, particularly in the statement that ‘Translators have to guess at a meaning,’ that biblical scholars have collectively thrown up their hands. I think the state of scholarly opinion can be described as follows: the traditional view, dating back at least as far as the beginning of the third century C.E., understands ἀρσενοκοίτης to denote males who penetrate other males, and μαλακοὶ to denote males who are penetrated by other males. This view continues to be defended by some biblical scholars. However, over the past half century, a number of other views have been proposed in scholarship, which typically assign the words a more specialised semantic scope, e.g. sexual violence, male prostitution, or Greco-Roman customs of pederasty. As a result, these words are disputed in contemporary biblical scholarship, and this is reflected in the diversity in English-language translations of these texts.

        I’ve had a preliminary look at Cadwallader’s work on a Google Books preview. My first impression is that he is unduly dismissive of the relevance of etymology, and as a result engages in over-exegesis of the context to arrive at a speculative conclusion. As JG Cook comments on his work, etymology and context are a both-and, not an either-or. For instance, I have never encountered a biblical scholar who, faced with a hapax legomenon in the HB, ignored the form of the word as irrelevant and focused exclusively on context. Instead, scholars typically consider possible roots and cognates in other ANE languages. This, together with context, is the data from which scholars must infer a meaning, with varying degrees of confidence from case to case. In the case of 1 Cor. 6.9-10, the context tells us that ἀρσενοκοῖται and μαλακοὶ are personal nouns representing vices. The context does not indicate that these words entail abuse or violence.

        You say that ‘There is no contextual reason why [Paul] would appeal to Leviticus at this point in his argument.’ I do not consider Paul to be directly appealing to Leviticus by using the word ἀρσενοκοῖται; what I claim is that when the word was coined, probably at some earlier stage (whether by Paul or by other Hellenistic Jews), it was probably derived from Leviticus LXX. What the wider context in 1 Cor. 5-6 clearly demonstrates is that Paul’s understanding of the scope of πορνεία (sexual immorality) is drawn from the Torah. The term ‘father’s wife’ (γυνή τοῦ πατρὸς) in 1 Cor. 5.1 is clearly drawn from Lev. 18.8/20.11 LXX, and Paul concludes his instructions of the incest case with a quotation of a frequently occurring expression from Deuteronomy LXX: ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν (‘purge the evil person from among you’; cf. Deut. 13.6; 17.7; 19.19; 21.21; 22.21, 24; 24.7).

        Finally, ἀρσενοκοίτης is not a hapax legomenon in ancient Greek literature. It is nearly an NT hapax legomenon (because only two occurrences), but there are a number of other occurrences dating from the second century C.E. on. 1 Cor. 6.9-10 is the earliest extant occurrence of the word, but this does not make it a hapax legomenon. Moreover, the semantic field established by numerous similarly-constructed expressions, many of which predate 1 Corinthians, is highly relevant lexical evidence that studies such as Cadwallader’s ignore. Finally, it appears that Cadwallader relies on an occurrence from the sixth century C.E. to defend his view that ἀρσενοκοίτης connotes sexual violence. How can this evidence be convincing while usage from the second century is dismissed as irrelevant because the meaning might have changed by then?

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