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07. I Corinthians 6:9 / I Timothy 1: 9-10: Words Matter

If the word homosexual appears in your Bible in either passage then you have a version that was written after 1946. Prior to the 1946 Edition of the Revised Standard Version, the words that homosexual had begun to replace in many modern versions included boy prostitutes, effeminate, those who make women of themselves, sissies, the self-indulgent, sodomites, lewd persons, male prostitutes, and the unchaste. Daniel Helminiak writes that "until the Reformation in the 16th Century and in Roman Catholicism until the 20th Century, the word malakoi was thought to mean masturbators" (What the Bible Really Says About homosexuality). Among the early Greek-speaking Christian theologians who condemned homosexuality the words malakoi and arsenokoitai were never used. When John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) and other contemporaries preached against homosexuality, they're not recorded as referring to these two passages, and likewise, when Clement of Alexandra preached on these passages, homosexuality was never mentioned (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, pages 335-353.)

If church tradition is to be part of what shapes our Christian theology then we need to recognize that church tradition and the understanding of earlier Christian theologians doesn't support the more recent translations that have placed the word homosexuals or practicing homosexuals within the context of I Corinthians 6 or I Timothy 1. At different times within church history there have been varying understandings of these passages and their exact meaning has changed from one generation to the next, and now in our present time these two separate words have been collapsed into one to mean homosexual. Along with this acknowledgment, it seems both helpful and honest to recognize that what often finds it's way into current biblical interpretation is not a more informed understanding of the biblical text based on years of accumulative knowledge but on imposing our own culture, complete with its prejudices into the interpretative work. What else would explain the shift in meaning and the narrowing of focus in the interpretation of these two passages over the last fifty years?

IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME

The first appearance of the word arsenokoitai in any ancient Greek literature is found in I Corinthians 6:9. While it might have been a word common in Paul's time, it hasn't been located in any other material predating or contemporary to Paul's use of it in these two passages. It only begins to make its appearance in literature following Paul. An important tool in discovering the meaning of a word is to trace how it's used within context. Were I to ask you to give me the definition to an unfamiliar word, you would most likely ask, "Use it for me in a sentence." The problem with arsenokoitai is that prior to Paul's usage we have no record of it's use and in Paul's case the word is used independently within a long list which offers no insight into its meaning.

The times arsenokoitai does appear following Paul yet it's usage seems dependent on Paul's usage of the word. In the Latin Vulgate that follows Paul some 500 years later, Jerome translates it as a male concubine although nothing in the word specifies whether the concubine was involved with a same-sex or opposite-sex individual. What we do know is at the time Paul was writing there were terms common for persons involved in homoeroticism and Paul chose to not use those words but to instead use a word that remains mysterious to us. What this means is that Greek scholars and theologians come to arsenokoitai with no previous context for understanding it's meaning and so the best that anyone, whether pro-gay or anti-gay can reason is a guess.

In the early work the "New Testament and Homosexuality," Robin Scroggs comes to an understanding of arsenokoitai by looking at the two separate words it combines; arseno (men) and koitai (bed). From this Scroggs concluded that the literal meaning of arsenokoitai was male bed which he understood as descriptive of the active male (penetrator) in same-sex intercourse. The problem with this method of interpretation can be seen with examples in English like lady-killer, manhole or butterfly. You don't arrive at the true meaning of the word butterfly by defining and then combining the words butter and fly anymore than it's possible to define the accurate meaning of arsenokoitai by combining and defining male and bed. Again, the very best anyone can do is hazard a guess at what arsenkoitai might mean but a guess is a fragile thread especially when lives hang in the balance.

Malakoi, on the other hand was a common word in the Greek language and there's a long history of its recorded use both before and after Paul uses it in I Corinthians 6 and I Timothy 1. Jesus is recorded as using the word malakoi when speaking of "a man dressed in soft (malakoi) raiment" (Matthew 11:8). While historically, church tradition has often understood malakoi to imply a moral weakness, it was repeatedly used within ancient Greek culture to define those who were considered effeminate. It was occasionally used as a descriptive word for eromenos; eromenos being the passive partner in a relationship between an older mentor and the younger boy or the beloved (Refer to pederasty). Malakoi was also used in a much broader sense than exclusive to a homoerotic relationship but was used as well to describe those men who had too much sex with women for in ancient Rome, the effeminate looking man often presented himself that way to attract women rather than men since effeminate men were looked down upon by the male culture.

In the ancient world being effeminate had a much broader definition than in our time and included such behavior as bathing frequently, shaving, frequent dancing or laughing, wearing cologne, eating too much or wearing fine undergarments! Effeminate is the best understanding of the word and in its cultural context was threatening to the whole structure of society by crossing the fragile line between man and woman in a world where to be male was to be superior and to be woman was to be intrinsically inferior. Clearly, the times have changed and the chances of a preacher condemning aftershave and silk boxers from the pulpit are slim to none.

MALAKOI AND ARSENOKOITAI ON THE MAP

Some scholars would argue that where malakoi and arsenokoitai are located in these passages should be considered when attempting to understand their meaning. I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1: 9-10 are lists of vices. Vice lists appear through Paul's writings (Romans 1:29-31, Galatians 5:19-23, Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:21-6:9 and 2 Timothy 3:15) and was a common literary style in both Greco-Roman and Jewish literature (Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, page 113). Rather than being a random tossing together of sins, vice lists often appear to be in a categorical order as would seem apparent in both I Corinthians 6 and I Timothy 1.

I Corinthians 6 orders the vices as: fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, malakoi, arsenokoitai, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners.

I Timothy 1 orders the vices as: murderers, manslayers, whoremongers, arsenokoitai, menstealers (slave traders), liars, perjurers.

In the essay Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences, included in Sex and the Single Savior, Dale Martin proposes that most vice lists, both in the Christian Testament and in ancient contemporary writings, separate vices in three categories: sexual sins, sins of violence and economic or injustice sins and he proposes that with this in mind, arsenokoitai, if referring to homosexuality doesn't normally appear in the category of sexual sins but is in, or on the edge of, the economic category. Though uncertain as to the date of this particular oracle, Martin provides a reading from Sibylline Oracle 2.70-77 that is labeled under the heading "On Justice."

"(Never accept in your hand a gift which derives from unjust deeds.) Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed (to generations of generations, to the scattering of life.) (Do not arskenokoitein, do not betray information, do not murder.) Give one who has labored his wage. Do not oppress a poor man. Take heed of your speech. Keep a secret matter in your heart. (Make provision for orphans and widows and those in need.) Do not be willing to act unjustly, and therefore do not give leave to one who is acting unjustly." (page 120).

No sexual sin is listed in the above writing but all the sins are of economic injustice, whether through the oppression of the poor, the withholding of wages or accepting gifts from unjust deeds. It seems a possibility that in this context arskenokoitein refers to money earned through sexual behavior, which would also appear to make sense in that it follows prostitution (whoremongers, pornos) in I Timothy. Perhaps it has nothing to do with sex. It remains uncertain. Whether arsenokoitai is defined by this source in the same way as defined by Paul is equally uncertain. What is certain is that there seems sufficient evidence, or the lack thereof, to leave this word and it's appearance in I Corinthians 6 and I Timothy 1 as ambiguous in meaning. With so much uncertainty surrounding these words it's of painful concern that it's been used by some within the church with absolute rigidity to condemn gays and lesbians.

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