Malakoi, Arsenokoitai, and "Homosexuality" at 1 Corinthians 6

This article was written approximately three years ago but has now been re-edited and re-worked. There was a good basis for a decent post in the old article but it needed updating. I began with the very first sentence and did not stop editing and re-working the entire piece until the very end statement. In essence, then, this is a fresh piece and not an offering I decided to re-post. Moreover, this brief article was in need of corroborating well with recent pieces I have written on this subject, and so a re-working was required.

I was raised to believe with conviction that a traditional understanding against (even monogamous) homosexual relationships can be argued and defended from Romans 1, perhaps even more so than 1 Corinthians 6:9 (cf. arsenokoitais at 1 Timothy 1:10); but the evangelical tradition does not indicate that how St Paul perceives of homosexuality in the first century is how we perceive homosexuality today: the traditional understanding of ancient homosexuality versus homosexuality in the modern era are not in agreement. Evangelical scholars are wrong, in my opinion, to use Romans 1 in order to condemn monogamous homosexual relationships. (See the post: "Exchanging the Natural for the Unnatural: Homosexuality in Rome.") But what about 1 Corinthians 6 (and 1 Timothy 1:10)?

On a personal level, I have been disappointed with some deductions from both sides of the homosexuality debate, but I think the affirming position is more honest with the historical sense of the biblical texts regarding the subject of homosexuality and the so-called clobber passages. Those opposed to homosexuality, perhaps even from a predisposed prejudice, often fail to admit the difficulty in translating the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai, taken from 1 Corinthians 6:9, as is evident from various English Bible translations (see list below). Thus, emotion may be driving their conclusion in proscribing homosexual relationships, which is unfortunate at best and damaging to homosexuals at worst.

However, the other extreme maintained by pro-LGBTQ advocates can build a hermeneutic promulgated by emotion, as well. An argument is submitted through the lens of empathy, while the text of Scripture is indebted to promote any other reading than one concluding that homosexual sexual activity is proscribed. For example, Matthew Vines begins his argument -- that homosexuality is not condemned in Scripture -- by vying for the empathy of his audience. Because some have not been given "the gift of celibacy" (Matt. 19:11), and because God said that Adam's loneliness is not a good state in which to live his life (Gen. 2:18), then God cannot and does not expect same-sex attracted persons to remain celibate. Is this a fair argument? Better stated: Is this a proper interpretive hermeneutic?

The answer to both questions is no, in my opinion. The argument is not fair because our reasoning and logical deducting methods alone do not determine God's standards. Any NAMBLA advocate (those older men desiring young, under-aged boys) could use the same argument to make their case as does Vines: "God doesn't want me to be lonely; I am attracted to younger boys and, so, I should have the right to form a relationship with a young boy." Nor is the argument a proper basis for one's hermeneutic -- the science and art of interpretation. (link) One must first investigate the claims made in Scripture, including proper word studies, etymology, historical context, and the various, historical ways words are used, and then shape his or her worldview based on what is discovered in the texts.

When considering the latter, we should acknowledge the difficulty of interpreting into English the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai respectively found at 1 Corinthians 6:9 without sensing an abandonment of Christian sexual ethics. Doing so keeps all parties involved in the debate honest and non-combative. St Paul writes to the Corinthians:
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators [i.e., those who engage in sex prior to marriage -- we acclaim our word "pornography" from this Greek word, pornoi], idolaters [those who worship idols and attend pagan shrines where the male worshiper engages in sex with either a male or a female temple prostitute], adulterers [those who engage in sex outside of marriage], male prostitutes [malakoi], sodomites [arsenokoitai], thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers -- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor. 6:9-10 NRSV)
The New Revised Standard Version translators choose to use the English word "sodomites," borrowed from the Hebrew sedomah, for the Greek word arsenokoitai, which is absolutely shocking, given that the men of Sodom are actually heterosexual men who anal-rape foreign men deemed as a territorial threat. (link) The difficulty in translating these two Greek words should be obvious from even a cursory glance at various English translations. Consider the following, where malakoi is presented first, and arsenokoitai follows:

  • effeminate / abusers of themselves with mankind (KJV, ASV, ERV, Darby, Douay-Rheims, Webster)
  • effeminate / sinners against nature (Knox Bible)
  • effeminate / homosexuals (NASB)
  • effeminate / sodomites (Young's Literal Translation)
  • effeminate / pervert (J.B. Phillips New Testament)
  • effeminate call boys / homosexuals (Orthodox Jewish Bible)
  • men who act like women / people who do sex sins with their own sex (New Life Version)
  • men who have sex with men (NIV 2011)
  • male prostitutes / homosexual offenders (NIV 1984)
  • male prostitutes / homosexuals (ISV, World English Bible, NLT, Mounce)
  • male prostitutes / sodomites (NRSV)
  • male prostitutes / practicing homosexuals (TNIV)
  • male prostitutes / men who have sexual relations with other men (NCV)
  • lechers [promiscuous] against kind / they that do lechery with men (Wycliffe)  
  • any who are guilty of unnatural crime (Weymouth)
  • homosexual perverts (Good News Translation)
  • homosexuals (God's Word)
  • homosexuals / sodomites (NKJV)
  • men who practice homosexuality (ESV, HCSB, Amplified Bible)
  • sexual molesters / males lying down with males (Aramaic Bible in Plain English)
  • sexual perverts (RSV)
  • a pervert / [someone who] behaves like a homosexual (CEV)
  • passive homosexual partners / dominant homosexual partners (Lexham English Bible)
  • passive homosexual partners / practicing homosexuals (NET Bible)
  • both participants in same-sex intercourse (Common English Bible)
  • [those] who engage in active or passive homosexuality (Complete Jewish Bible)

The various ways in which scholars and linguists have sought to translate malakoi and arsenokoitai into English is evidence of the inherent difficulty, obscurity, and correct historical usage of the words. But can we know anything of these two Greek words?

Noted New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays explains that the word malakoi is "not a technical term meaning 'homosexuals' (no such term existed either in Greek, or in Hebrew), but it appears often in Hellenistic Greek as pejorative slang to describe the 'passive' partners -- often young boys -- in homosexual activity."1 In this sense, then, the malakoi are not necessarily homosexual in orientation, or attraction, but are exploitively used for the gratification (as a "house boy" or for temple prostitution) of another male (typically an older male). Advocates of either side of this debate can agree that the context of malakoi in this sense is improper. No human being ought to be used for sexual exploitation.

The arsenokoitai may refer to male-to-male sexual activity when one considers that its use in the Septuagint at Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, as well as in rabbinic texts, refers to homosexual intercourse of some sort.2 (link) But both words, malakoi and arsenokoitai respectively, are plural masculine in Greek. One wonders why only men are singled out in this proscription since female-to-female sexual activity is explicitly named and condemned in some sense as sin in Paul's letter to the Romans (cf. Rom. 1:26) -- at least, the type of homosexuality referred to by Paul is considered sinful, whatever type of homosexuality he has in mind. (link) One wonders, as well, if this particularity in the 1 Corinthians 6:9 text bears any weight contextually on the referents. Why, for example, do some English translators (noted above) choose to translate malakoi as "prostitutes" in lieu of "effeminate"?

The practice of Greco-Roman cult prostitution is rife in first-century culture, and the temple of Aphrodite is located in Corinth.3 Men visiting the temple engage in sex acts with either women or young men -- young men who are submitted or submit themselves, passively, to be engaged by a male worshiper. These young, male temple prostitutes, in effect, take up the passive, sexual role of a woman in the sex act. For any Christian to visit the temple, in order to offer a sacrifice or to worship in such a sexual manner, is scandalously idolatrous. Note that idolatry hangs amidst the (sexual) vices listed in the 1 Corinthians 6:9 passage: fornication, idolatry, adultery, male prostitution [malakoi], sodomy [arsenokoitai], etc. Even the Greek word leading the list (pornoi) may have reference to male prostitutes. (link) One wonders if pornoi refers to heterosexual male prostitutes (who engage female worshipers) while malakoi refers to homosexual male prostitutes.

We know that the Greek word malakia is used to refer to weakness, even sickness, without referring to effeminacy as a characteristic of one's nature. This Greek word occurs three times in the New Testament as weakness and/or sickness (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 10:1), neither of which imply an effeminate, homosexual nature or orientation. Verlyn D. Verbrugge notes that malakia, in classical Greek, euphemistically "came to be used of effeminate men."4 That the apostle Paul uses the plural malakoi, in a list of sexual sinful vices of an immoral nature at 1 Corinthians 6:9, rules out any notion of mere weakness or sickness.



While malakia maintains the notion of outward, bodily weakness, according to BDAG, it may also refer to a "condition of inner weakness, faint-heartedness, despondency, lack of energy."5 The word malakós in the passive, with a negative connotation, again, according to BDAG, refers to being softened, being made effeminate, showing cowardice."6 Malakoi being made effeminate, then, represents males assuming the passive, seemingly weaker, role in a sexual event. Whether the connotation at 1 Corinthians 6:9 refers to all forms of male-to-male sexual engagement is not explicitly detailed. Affirming proponents want to know whether the apostle Paul, by use of malakoi, has in mind the proscription of what we refer to as "loving, monogamous, homosexual relationships." If so, how do we know?

If fully understanding malakoi appears difficult, then understanding arsenokoitai is even more so. From a compound word arsén, meaning male (men), and koité, meaning bed (implying sexual intercourse as well as sleep or rest), lit. "male-bed," we have the noun arsenokoités. What can we know about this word? The word arsén is used three times in Romans 1:27, a passage which condemns some sort of male-to-male sexual engagement. Is the apostle Paul referring to that same male-to-male sexual engagement at 1 Corinthians 6:9? Dr. Verbrugge grants three English words in describing the noun: "a male homosexual, pederast, sodomite."7 The last two words, pederast and sodomite, fit the temple prostitution motif well, since, usually, older men who worship at Aphrodite's temple in Corinth engage (penetrate) the young, male temple prostitutes (pederasty); meaning that the malakoi are being made effeminate and made to be passive and submissive by the arsenokoitai.

Are we unduly imposing a temple prostitution motif onto the text -- or even into the historical context -- of 1 Corinthians 6:9? We have to concede that just because Aphrodite's temple is in Corinth does not, ipso facto, indicate that the apostle has homosexual temple prostitution in mind when he uses malakoi and arsenokoitai in the passage in question. But if one should suggest that the apostle would not have had to forbid believers in Corinth to abstain from pagan temple (and thus sexual) worship, do remember his audience, in that he had to address at least one believer who was engaging in sex with his step-mother. (1 Cor. 5:1) Do not be overly-confident that he would not have had to forbid the Corinthians against idolatry and worshiping (sexually) at a pagan shrine. We must take the historical context of the Greco-Roman world into consideration when interpreting these texts. But we must always ask the epistemological question: How do we know what we claim to know?

BDAG informs us that the Romans "forbade pederasty with free boys in the Lex Scantinia [an ancient Roman law that penalized a sex crime], pre-Cicero [106-43 BC];" but boys in temple prostitution are not considered free. BDAG further states that the apostle Paul's "strictures against same-sex activity cannot be satisfactorily explained on the basis of alleged temple prostitution . . . or limited to contract with boys for homoerotic service."8 How do we know if this conclusion is accurate, since this statement is contested, and since BDAG is not an inerrant source?9 Are we to merely take their word on the matter?

Dale B. Martin suggests that the noun arsenokoités refers to economic sins, given its placement in several lists of negative vices void of a (homo-)sexual context or overt (homo-)sexual immorality. (link) For example, the apostle Paul places the word arsenokoitai before kleptai, thieves, at 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. At 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul places arsenokoitai before andrapodistais, enslavers and/or slave traders. Martin suggests that vice lists are categorized, and that the apostle places arsenokoitai at the head of a list of social or economic sins, which "thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers" (1 Cor. 6:10 NRSV) follow; arsenokoitai is also followed by "slave traders, liars, perjurers." (1 Tim. 1:10)

In the Sibylline Oracle (2.70-77.10), the second-century Acts of John, as well as Theophilus of Antioch's treatise to Autolychus, the noun arsenokoités does not carry a homosexual (and an inherently immoral) context, strictly, but is grouped with a list of social or economic vices. Martin argues that the arsenokoitai may refer to "some kind of economic exploitation by means of sex, perhaps, but not necessarily homosexual sex." (link) He concludes:
I am not claiming to know what arsenokoités meant; I am claiming that no one knows [now] what it meant [then, for first-century readers in Corinth]. I freely admit that it could have been taken as a reference to homosexual sex. But given the scarcity of evidence and the several contexts just analyzed, in which arsenokoités appears to refer to some particular kind of economic exploitation, no one should be allowed to get away with claiming that "of course" the term refers to "men who have sex with other men." (link)
I, too, think caution is wise with the degree of dogmatism maintained by traditionalists concerning the words malakoi and arsenokoitai if we are to be honest with history, with the historical contexts in which these texts are presented, and if we care about truth, Scripture, and LGBTQ persons created in the image of God -- people who merely long to love and to be loved. If the authors of various Hebrew and Christian writings intend to communicate, "Men are forbidden to have sex with other men and women are forbidden to have sex with other women," then why do we not read plainly such a proscription? We do not even encounter that sort of blatant ideology from St Paul at Romans 1, where the reason stated for God rejecting certain people is that, though they knew God, they refused to acknowledge or worship the God they knew actually existed. (Rom. 1:21, 23, 24, 25, 28) God did not reject such persons because of their alleged homosexual proclivity.

Disregarding the narrative of Sodom (Gen. 19) and the Levite's concubine (Judges 19), because neither are contextualized within a homosexual framework, the passages at Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:24-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 maintain interpretive problems in proscribing homosexuality, since these passages offer variant conditions and situations regarding the referents. If each text stated clearly a message of homosexual proscription -- that two men or two women are not to love and care for one another in a monogamous relationship (which is how we properly frame homosexuality in a modern sense) -- then the traditionalist approach to the subject would win the case. I fear hubris and presumption has clouded the minds of Bible interpreters regarding a proper use of these words and these texts deserve a careful re-examination.

__________

1 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 382.

2 Ibid.

3 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64.

4 New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Abridged Edition, ed. Verlyn D. Verbrugge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 354.

5 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, BDAG, Third Edition, revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000), 613.

6 Ibid.

7 Verbrugge, 73.

8 BDAG, 135.

9 Cf. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, Eighth Edition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005). See also Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1983).

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.