In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul warns that those who persist in sin will not inherit the kingdom of God. In his list of wrongdoers, he includes two Greek words that connect to some forms of same-sex behavior.
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate (malakoi), nor abusers of themselves with mankind (arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” -1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (KJV)
1 Timothy 1:10 also uses the term arsenokoitai in a similar “vice list.” Given that many Bible translations since 1946 have rendered malakoi and arsenokoitai as “homosexuals” or “men who have sex with men,” it’s worth taking a close look at these two Greek terms.
The term malakoi literally means “soft,” and it was widely used to describe a lack of self-control, weakness, cowardice, and laziness.
- Given that those negative characteristics were unfortunately (and unfairly) attributed to women in the ancient world, the term was also long translated as “effeminate.”
- Although most uses of the term in ancient literature were not related to sexual behavior, men who took the passive role in same-sex relations were sometimes called malakoi, which is why many non-affirming Christians argue that it represents a condemnation of same-sex relationships.
- But even in sexual contexts, malakos was most frequently used to describe men who were seen as lacking self-control in their love for women.
- It’s only in the past century that many Bible translators have connected the word specifically to same-sex relationships. More common English translations in past centuries were terms such as “weaklings,” “wantons,” and “debauchers.”
Even if malakoi doesn’t necessarily refer to same-sex behavior, doesn’t the fact that Paul places it next to the term arsenokoitai make that meaning more likely?
- The term arsenokoites (the singular form) comes from two Greek words: arsen, meaning “male,” and koites, meaning “bed.” Those words appear together in the Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13, leading some to speculate that Paul coined the term arsenokoites in order to condemn same-sex behavior.
- But as New Testament scholar Dale Martin has written, “The only reliable way to define a word is to analyze its use in as many different contexts as possible.”
- After Paul’s apparent coinage of the term, most subsequent uses of it in ancient literature appear only in lists of vices. As Martin has shown, those contexts indicate that the word likely relates to sexual or economic exploitation. So while that may involve same-sex behavior, it would be exploitative forms of it, not loving relationships.
But isn’t it possible that Paul used malakoi and arsenokoitai together to condemn both the active and passive partners in male same-sex relations?
- There were many word pairs in common use in ancient literature to describe both the active and passive partners in male same-sex relations—words like erastes and eromenos, for example. Malakoi and arsenokoitai, however, were not used as a pair by other ancient writers.
- Moreover, even if Paul had intended to condemn both partners in male same-sex relations, it’s critical to remember the major gap between same-sex behavior as it was practiced in ancient societies—where it was based on status, power, and lust—and committed same-sex unions today.
- Some Bible translations render malakoi and arsenokoitai as “homosexuals,” but that term wasn’t even coined until 1869 in German and 1892 in English. Not only that, the concept that the term describes didn’t exist in the ancient world either.
This talk from our 2019 Reconcile and Reform conference tells the story of how the word “homosexual” was first used in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1946—and how a young seminarian successfully challenged it.