Are these passages about homosexuality or sexual immorality in general?
There are three passages in the New Testament associated with same-sex behavior. Two are in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. The passages contain two Greek words, arsenokoitai, and malakoi, crucial to understanding the intent of the verses, yet challenging to translate into modern-day English. Consequently, not all English Bibles agree on how the words malakoi and arsenokoitai should be translated. Many translations, such as the NIV below, combine the two distinct words into one word. We’ll see why this is problematic.
Here are 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 with malakoi and arsenokoitai(s) inserted:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals [malakoi], nor sodomites [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, NKJV)
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 [arsenokoitais], for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:9-10, NIV 2011)
Let’s start with arsenokoitais in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 before we move on to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, where both arsenokoitai and malakoi are used. Arsenokoites was rarely used in Greek writings. Paul seems to have coined it from two words: arsen, meaning male, and koites, meaning bed. Some have speculated that the word Paul used comes directly from, and has the same meaning as, arsen and koiten in the Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13: “males who lie with males.” The Hebrew words arsen and koiten used to describe events 1,600 years before Paul, suggest pederasty, or men having sex with young boys.
As used by Paul in the first century, arsenokoitai likely means pederasty. Pederastic relationships, inherently abusive and exploitative, are not equivalent to committed, loving, and monogamous same-sex relationships today. To say that they are would be like saying sex trafficking of young girls is equivalent to marriage.
But how can we verify the essence of arsenokoitais in this passage? The only way to get closer to the intended meaning is to find it used in context in other texts around the same general time period—in this case, the first century. This, too, is problematic. Arsenokoites is found in fewer than one hundred writings over a period of six hundred years, and in most cases, it is in lists that don’t provide narrative clues. Most frequently, arsenokoites was associated with money and exploitative sex; for example:
- In the Sibylline Oracle, a collection of writings from the second to the sixth centuries, arsenokoites were listed along with stealing, lying, and murder.
- In the Acts of John, a document dating from the second century, arsenokoites appeared in context with robbery, cheating, and sex with shrine prostitutes.
- In all translations of nonbiblical texts prior to the 1500s in which arsenokoites were used, it was most closely connected to exploitative sex for money.
English translations of the Bible have used the following words (not an exhaustive list) to represent the concept of arsenokoitais:
- bugger (1557)
- liers with mankind (1582)
- sodomites (1735)
- abusers of themselves with mankind (1885)
- those who abuse themselves with men (1890)
The closest meaning of arsenokoitai over five hundred years of translation was men who took the active role in nonprocreative sex. Arsenokoitai did not define what we would call the sexual orientation of a person; it indicated the role played in the sexual act.
A curious shift began to happen for the first time in the late 1940s: Arsenokoitai was translated in the 1946 Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible as “homosexual.” This meant that the translation changed the meaning of the original word from a condemnation of any kind of man who played the dominant role in sex with another male to a condemnation of one specific kind of man—a gay person.
After the RSV translated arsenokoitai to “homosexual,” the floodgates opened. Arsenokoitai was soon translated variously:
- pervert (1962)
- sexual pervert (1966)
- sodomite (1966)
- those who practice homosexuality (1978)
These changing translations directly reflect the evolving perceptions of gay people in the culture surrounding the American translators of the Bible.
The late 1930s America saw the beginning of discrimination against “sexual inverts” by medical professionals, law enforcement, and the mainstream culture. By the 1940s, the government joined in with deliberately discriminatory policies. By the 1950s, the Lavender Scare was in full swing and the “sex pervert” paranoia began sweeping the country. By the late 1970s, when the conservative Christian community turned its full focus on “the homosexuals,” the word arsenokoitai, without benefit of any additional historical information or biblical scholarship, came to be translated, almost universally in English versions of the Bible, as “homosexual.”
In the culture in which arsenokoitai originated, the meaning was closest either to pederasty or to a man engaged in exploitative sex with a male with some sort of trade or money involved. Such relationships were not and are not equal-status relationships; one partner has power, while the other is being used and degraded. Furthermore, no one knows the fully nuanced meaning of arsenokoitai, but it is clear from all its contexts that it does not refer to women in any way. Yet, when arsenokoitai was mistranslated to “homosexual,” it immediately, by definition, came to include women as well as men. The translation shift of arsenokoitai from men who engage in exploitative sex with males to “homosexual” referring to both men and women appears to have been “prompted not by criteria of historical criticism”—a respected form of literary scholarship—“but by shifts in modern sexual ideology.”
Now to malakoi, which is paired in context with arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Malakoi is easier to translate because it appears in more ancient texts than arsenokoitai, yet it suffers other complications when translated to modern English. Older translations for malakoi are:
- weaklings (1525)
- effeminate (1582, 1901)
- those who make women of themselves (1890)
- the sensual (1951)
Then, just as happened with arsenokoitais, there was a radical shift over just a few decades. Following cultural stereotyping of gay people, malakoi was translated as follows:
- those who participate in homosexuality (1958)
- sexual perverts (1972)
- male prostitute (1989)
So, how did malakoi shift from its association with character traits to association with specific kinds of people performing sexual acts?
The answer lies in another Greek word, malakos, which means “soft.” A modern reader might consider malakos to highlight the finer qualities of a woman and perhaps then assume an association with “softer,” more feminine men. But this is an ancient word with ancient meanings.
Malakos is associated with the traits of women as women were seen in the ancient world: morally weak, given to unnatural vices, lazy, unchaste, lustful, whorish, impure, and taking a submissive role in sex. Malakos was used to characterize men who lived lives of decadence; partook in excesses of food, drink, and sex; were weak in battle; prettied themselves for sexual exploits with women; or even were simply too bookish. Additionally, men who fell deeply in love with women and lost control of their passions or neglected their business pursuits were thought to be effeminate.
Malakos and “effeminate,” although they did in part describe men who took the role of a woman in sex, encompassed traits beyond just sex roles. Malakos and “effeminate” described a disposition associated with all the negative traits assigned to women.
The ancient system and culture of patriarchy, where men ruled, and gender hierarchy, where men dominated women, form an inextricable backdrop to the meanings of malakos and “effeminate.” In those historical social structures, the worst way one could treat a man was to treat him as if he were a woman, and the worst thing a man could act like was a woman.
The historical meaning of malakoi presents a modern translational problem because the most consistent and best historical translation of malakoi really is “effeminate”—but not our modern understanding of “effeminate.” So when the 1552 Douay-Rheims Bible and the 1901 American Standard Version translated malakoi as “effeminate,” the word still included the sense of all the ugly traits thought to be associated with women; it had nothing to do with gay men. Nothing. Today “effeminate” means “having or showing qualities that are considered more suitable to women than to men.” The modern word doesn’t carry the baggage of ancient negative views of women. But Paul was not writing to a world where women were of equal status to men, a world where to be a woman, or to be like a woman, was to be honorable, or to behave honorably. In light of all this, the best modern translation of malakoi would include in its meaning an indulgent or excessive disposition which may at times include sexual excess.
By now it should be clearer why translating malakoi as “homosexual” is completely inaccurate. There are several translators and modern Bible commentators who compound these inaccuracies by further asserting that malakoi refers to the passive partner in gay sex and that arsenokoitais describes the active partner in gay sex. This appears to be a highly biased translation of words to suit modern conservative presumptions.
 Greek has five cases for nouns; two such cases are nominative and dative. When a noun is the subject, it is in the nominative case. When it is the indirect object and modified by “to” or “for,” the noun is in the dative case. In 1 Corinthians, the Greek word stem arsenokoites is written in the nominative case, arsenokoitai, because it is the subject. In 1 Timothy, the word describes for whom the law was written and thus is in the dative case; hence, arsenokoitais.
 Dale B. Martin, “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meaning and Consequences,” Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, edited by Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 120-122.
 In 1735, “sodomite” meant those who participated in non-procreative sex. In 1966, the word meant gay men.
 Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, 119.
 Ibid., 128-129
 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/effeminate.
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