In this post, one in a series that examines Daniel Helminiak’s book, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, we look at two passages from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
(King James Version) Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate nor abusers of themselves with mankind [oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
(New International Version) Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men [oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai] nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Timothy 1:9-10
(King James Version) Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind [arsenokoitai], for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.”
(New International Version) We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality [arsenokoitai], for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.”
These two passages are among the handful of passages from the Bible that Christian homophobes love to hurl at gays. Like most of these passages, however, what appears to be obvious to the average close-minded bigot proves not to be so obvious upon examination. The “nut” of these two passages centers on the meaning of two Greek words: malakoi and arsenokoitai. The first word is used only in Corinthians, the second in both passages.
The King James Version translates these two words, respectively, as “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind.” The New International Version translates the two words together as “men who have sex with men” – noting in a footnote that the two Greek words used refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts (based on the conclusions of certain commentators). Helminiak, after reviewing several translations, points out that virtually every translation of the Bible translates these two words differently and that there is no real certainty among scholars about what these texts actually mean.
The best translation for malakos, in Helminiak’s view, is probably “effeminate.” But, he points out: “… there is very little evidence – and it is forced – that the term malakos was specifically linked with this effeminate homosexual style. Effeminacy was simply not associated with male-male sex in the ancient world, though a man who allowed himself to be penetrated might be called ‘effeminate.’ But on the other hand, malakos was also applied to men who primped themselves in order to attract women or who were lazy, wanton or loose.”
Helminiak’s conclusion is that malakos simply does not refer to same-sex activity, but is used to make a general condemnation of moral looseness and undisciplined behavior. He believes the New Jerusalem Bible accurately translates malakos as “the self-indulgent.”
As to aresenokoitai, it is even more difficult to explain or translate. The compound word is used only twice in the Bible, in the two passages under consideration. Arseno- refers to men and Koitai comes from a word that refers to the active partner in sexual intercourse. Thus, says Helminiak, the literal English translation might be “man-penetrator,” but it is not clear at all from the text whether the object of the penetration being referred to is a man or a woman.
It has been suggested, in part based on the rare use of the compound word and the mystery surrounding its exact meaning, that the Greek-speaking Jews coined the term by translating literally a rabbinical phrase denoting “those who lie with a male”, i.e., as that term is used in Leviticus. Thus, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 may be repeating the prohibition in Leviticus 18:22 against men having penetrative sex with other men.
But, Helminiak concludes, no one really knows for sure. He suggests that the lesson from these two passages can perhaps be summarized as follows:
“Biblical opposition to prostitution, incest or adultery does not forbid male-female sex acts as such. What the Bible opposes throughout is abuse of heterosexuality. Likewise, if aresenokoitai does refer to male-male sex, these texts do not forbid male homogenitality as such. In first-century, Greek-speaking, Jewish Christianity, arsenokoitai would have referred to exploitative, lewd and wanton sex between men. This, and not male-male sex in general, is what the term would imply. This, then, and not male-male sex in general, is what these biblical texts oppose.”
Similar conclusions were reached by Jimmy Creech, a former Methodist minister who was “defrocked” by the United Methodist Church in 1999 for performing a “holy union” of two gay men in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Creech was and is a pioneer for gay rights in the church and was Chairman of the Board of Soulforce for five years after being kicked out of the Methodist ministry.
In his recently published book, Adam’s Gift (about which I plan to write), Creech describes how he conducted an extensive examination of the passages of the Bible that are used to condemn homosexuality and came to the conclusion that “the claim that ‘the Bible says homosexuality is a sin’ is misleading and inappropriate, since the biblical writers had no knowledge of sexual orientation in general, or of homosexuality in particular.” “The biblical writers,” he continues, “had known just as little about sexual orientation as they did about nuclear fission or aerodynamics. In scripture, sex was understood solely as genital activity motivated by lust, love, or the desire to have a child; it was regulated by social custom, not by an innate aspect of the personality.”
As to the passages from Corinthians and 1 Timothy, Creech wrote:
“Because Paul is the first to use arsenokoitai in the Bible, it has no literary history from which its meaning can be determined. Furthermore, no one in the early Christian church after Paul used malakoi and aresenokoitai when talking about same-gender sexual activity. Many of the early church leaders discuss same-gender sexual activity, but they ignore I Corinthians and I Timothy. Eusebius (a theologian of the fourth century CE) interpreted malakoi and arsenokoitai to refer to a male prostitute for women. John Chrysostom (a preacher who was Eusebius’s contemporary), who strongly condemned same-gender sexual activity and wrote commentaries on both I Corinthians and I Timothy, did not see any references to same-gender sexual activity in these passages. Peter Cantor (a twelfth-century) theologian) made a list of all passages in the Bible that he believed referred to same-gender sexual activity and did not include these two. It was not until the thirteenth century that Thomas Aquinas (1224-74) associated arsenokoitai and malakoi with same-gender sexual activity. From then on, the conventional interpretation was that these two words, used separately or together, mean a ‘man who has sex with a man [at p. 35].’”
Finally, the website, Would Jesus Discriminate, contains a lengthy article dealing with these two passages from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. It points out:
“There are hundreds of Greek writings from this period that refer to homosexual activity using terms other than arsenokoitai. If Paul had intended to refer generally to homosexual sex, or to one of the partners in gay-male sex, he had other commonly-used, well-known words at his disposal. He wouldn’t have had to resort to this ambiguous compound word, which future generations would find difficult to translate. Apparently Paul was trying to refer to some more obscure type of behavior.”
The conclusion of the article is that aresenokoitai is best understood as a reference to men who force themselves sexually on others.
Thus, the bottom line is that it is the consensus of most scholars that neither of these passages mean what most people who use them against gays think they mean. They appear to refer to abusive relationships involving male-male sexual contact and go hand-in-hand with a condemnation of abusive heterosexual sexual contact.