Arsenokoites

So far I’ve looked at the three biblical passages that arguably condemn homosexuality: first the story of Sodom and then the instances of homosexuality in the Levitical law code. The real heart of the debate lies in the three texts which appear in the New Testament, and whether or not they really do condemn homosexual activity as sinful. I’ll leave the text in Romans for my next post, but here are the two others:

9 Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, 10 or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 NLT)

9 For the law was not intended for people who do what is right. It is for people who are lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy, who kill their father or mother or commit other murders. 10 The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching.  (1 Timothy 1:9-10 NLT)

On a quick sidenote, this again reinforces what I said in my post about a bit of perspective on the homosexuality debate. Many would pick out homosexuality as a particularly detestable sin, but look at it even in the few times it does arguably appear. It is buried in a list of other sins, including my personal opinion as the biggest problem in North American society, greed, which does appear in Scripture hundreds of other times.

Back to the main point. Those who are particularly astute readers of this blog may have already noticed something different. I always quote in either NIV 2010 or in NRSV – NRSV is more accurate in general but I can get NIV 2010 online for easier copying and pasting. This time I quoted in NLT, a more paraphrased version. The reason for this is that there are clear translational issues, so I was looking for one closest to what most of you probably regularly hear – that is, a clear statement in opposition to all homosexual activity.

There are two contentious words in the Corinthians text: arsenokoitēs (no, I’m not going to bother copying the Greek script but you can find it online if you want) and malakos. The first is the primary one of interest here, also appearing in the Timothy text, and while the second is interesting I’ll mostly ignore it here because it isn’t as relevant to the discussion.  Looking at the first, arsen means male and koitēs means sexual intercourse. So, put the two together and you have something like “sexual intercourse with a man” or “sexual intercourse by a man” or both, hence homosexual activity. That might make it seem pretty clear-cut, but there are some other problems with it.  For one, that there were other words in Paul’s current Greek culture which clearly meant men having sex with men but he uses one that rarely appears anywhere else. Some argue that Paul actually made up the word arsenokoitēs. Why would he do that if there was already at least one word for what he wanted to say?  This could imply that he meant something else.

One paper I found referenced counted the total number of uses of arsenokoitēs in early Church literature at only 73.  Most are ambiguous with what they mean.  Some of those texts suggest it means pederasty (child rape), a common problem in Greek culture and one that Jesus addresses as well. One 6th century reference points to the meaning being anal sex of any kind, so of course that would include gay men. I didn’t find the reference again, but I recall also seeing somewhere that Philo (a Jewish philosopher in Alexandria approximately contemporary to Jesus, so wrote a generation or so before Paul) used it to mean pagan temple prostitution. Whether you believe those early church teachers are authoritative or not – I personally value tradition but at a much different level than Scripture – it helps give a grasp of what the translational issue is here.

So some render arsenokoitēs as “homosexual”, including both orientation and activity, which would seem to coincide with a Side X view. This is despite that there wasn’t really any defined concept of “sexual orientation” until the 1800’s. The orientation existed of course, but there wasn’t any definition of it. I would therefore have no doubt in saying that these texts are not condemning orientation because he cannot condemn a concept that has yet to be defined. Others render it as above as “those who practice homosexuality”, which would line up with a Side B stance, and the reasoning for that is the simple linguistic logic of pairing “man” and “sex” into one word, as well as that one single 6th Century text.  The Side A stance would usually argue that it is referring to either pederasty, based on its usage elsewhere, or male prostitution in the temples, also based on usage elsewhere as well as on its pairing with malakos (which without going into more, is the word translated as “male prostitutes” above). They would also argue that if Paul meant to make a blanket condemnation, he would have used a less-ambiguous word like one of the others that already existed in the Greek language of his day.

In summary, I don’t entirely reject the Side B translation, which is what appears in most modern translations (not in older ones, like the KJV which actually condemns being “effeminate”). I am willing to say that this may be a valid translation, although it really should be accompanied by a footnote briefly explaining the issue since most readers assume it is more straightforward than it actually is. I personally have to take the Side A friendly interpretations, however. From what I’ve seen, there is that one 6th Century text (and that was post-Augustine who basically said all sex was inherently evil) which uses the word as all anal sex and thus all homosexual activity. I’m sorry, but one text 6 centuries later doesn’t cut it for me, especially compared to the multiple other uses that do not use it that way, or that use it in an ambiguous way. The interpretations to do with pederasty or male prostitution in pagan temples may not be 100% certain linguistically either, but at least they’re more certain, and at least they’re evident issues in other places of Scripture. I’d be inclined to say “we don’t know what it means” but if you made me pick a side, then the modern translations as homosexuality or homosexual activity just don’t make sense to me.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.