Monday, January 23, 2012

Homophobia and the Politics of Biblical Translation

Christianity is rather unusual in the family of Abrahamic/Middle Eastern religions in the role of scripture and language. For Judaism and Islam, and I suspect traditionally for Zoroastrianism too, the language of scripture, i.e. the language in which it was written, is also the language in which it must always be read. So countless Jews and Muslims have grown up learning something of Hebrew and Arabic and not just any Hebrew and Arabic but the Hebrew of the Torah and Tanakh and the Arabic of the Qur'an, even if it means just memorising slabs of text (as a pre-Vatican 2 Catholic child I have a resonance with this because I remember being taught the responses of the old Latin Mass, which I regard nowadays as a valuable bit of rudimentary childhood second language teaching). For Jews and Muslims too any translation of scripture is counted as an interpretation, it does not share in the authority of the 'original' text. Christians, on the other hand, have always read their scriptures in translation.  Christian bibles are comprised of two parts: an Old Testament comprising texts originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; and a New Testament comprising texts originally written in Greek. Early Christians used as their Old Testament the Greek translation/version of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts known as the Septuagint, together with those texts Protestants term apocryphal that were written in Greek. Just about all of the ancient Christian translations of the Old Testament were from this Greek text. Only the Syriac and Jerome's Latin Vulgate included translations from (some of) the Hebrew version shared with Rabbinic Judaism. So from the very beginning Christians have been involved in the project of translation. For many cultures too, ancient and contemporary, their first body of written literature  has been a translation of one canonical version or another of the Christian Bible.

So for Christians, unlike Jews and Muslims, linguistic questions of meaning, equivalence and translation, can become highly fraught theological and political questions. And with the rise of indentitarian fundamentalism, most prominently in  the US, it can even lead to bizarre contradictions between bigotry and faith. This story from the Christian Post shows how for US fundamentalist Protestants even their core doctrine of biblical inerrancy must submit to homophobic prejudice.  The story tells how debate about the 1984 edition NIV translation of various passages in the Christian (Protestant) scripture has caused a revision to the translation of those passages in the 2011 edition, which is designed to make them unambiguously homophobic in meaning. What I find disturbing as a gay man and morbidly fascinating both as a biblical scholar and as a Catholic Christian who does not believe in biblical inerrancy, let alone sola scriptura, is the way in which homophobic bigotry has won out over the central dogmatic tenet for many Evangelical Protestants of biblical inerrancy. Because these revisions have clearly and radically changed the meaning of the texts which hitherto could have been regarded as only ambiguous possible references to homo-eroticism.

In this post I'll address the most obvious, and probably the most egregious case, which concerns two related passages in the Pauline epistles and hinge on the meaning of two ancient Greek words, one of which is quite common and the other is pretty rare and first appears in Paul, who might even have invented it himself. I'm talking, of course, of the sinners lists 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.  According to the Christian Post story

The latest version of the popular NIV Bible translation has had its verses on homosexuality reworded, making them clearer in denouncing the practice, a theologian who helped with the translation says. These clarifications include the verse in 1 Corinthians 6:9, where the 1984 NIV version uses the phrase “homosexual offenders,” while the 2011 translation changes the phrase to "men who have sex with men."
I'm not quite certain what the difference is here but for good measure the updated NIV translates both words with  "men who have sex with men" so that the reader would think the Greek used a similar clause. The Evangelical theologian, Dr. Douglas J. Moo, "who also serves as Wessner Chair of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College", goes on to explain why and what the 'problem' was

“The 1984 NIV rendering … did not make clear whether homosexual activity per se was being condemned or whether only certain kinds of ‘offensive’ homosexual activity was being condemned.,” said Moo.
“The updated NIV makes clear that the Greek words here indicate any kind of homosexual activity. The updated NIV also reflects the fact that the key Greek word here refers to males.”

He also observed that

“Debates among Christians about the teaching of the Bible on homosexuality over the last twenty years sparked considerable scholarly interest in relevant words and texts... This research showed that two Greek words in this verse referred, respectively, to the passive and active participants in male homosexual activity.”
However the fact of the matter is that this is not true. There has been a debate over the last 30 years when scholars including the late John Boswell highlighted the problems in understanding the two passages as a clear condemnation of homosexuality. Some conservative Evangelical scholars, most notably Robert Gagnon, have argued that these passages condemn male homosexuality and that the two words (which I'll come to shortly) refer to both the "passive and active participants" but there is by no means a consensus amongst scholars and in fact, Gagnon's argument relies strongly on a set of assumptions that these words must unequivocally refer to homosexuality, even though one of the words does not in ancient or even modern Greek and the other is a neologism, rarely used after Paul first wrote it and which, in its  usage in subsequent centuries, remains unclear in its meaning, much of its subsequent usage being simply quotations of the Pauline verses in question.

The two words I'm referring to are malakoi and arsenokoites. The first is a fairly common word which basically means 'soft' while the second appears for the first time in history in 1 Corinthians and then again in 1 Timothy - its meaning is really unclear. The words are used to denote two types of sinners in the long list that is 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10. Here's how the passage is translated in the King James:

(9) 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,
(10) Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

Here is the 1984 NIV translation:

(9) Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders
(10) nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

The new edition renders it thus

(9) 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
(10) nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

And here's the equivalent passage in 1 Timothy:
(9) 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, (10) For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;
And in the 1984 NIV

(10) for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers-- and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

And in 2011

(10) for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

I've italicised the the English translations of the two words and also underlined the translation of malakoi,  rendered in the KJV as 'effeminate' (and 'male prostitutes' in the 1984 NIV). As I said above, malakoi literally means soft and that's how the word is translated in the Latin Vulgate, 'molles'. So a literal translation of both Greek and Latin would be something like soft men or soft people (the Syriac translates it with a word meaning 'corrupt' or 'corrupter'). But malakoi had a range of meanings, not one, including gentle, weak (three 16th century English translations, the Tyndale, Coverdale and Bishop's Bibles translate it as 'weaklings') , sickly, cowardly; it also has the meaning  luxurious. That last meaning might come as a surprise to many people but I personally think it might be a clue as to how to translate the word and in a way that fits the other earlier English translations, such as the King James and the Douai-Rheims, both of which use 'effeminate' to translate malakoi. Dale Martin explains how this word functioned in the Greco-Roman world as a term of moral condemnation:

Evidence from the ancient sources is abundant and easily accessible. malakos can refer to many things: the softness of expensive clothes, the richness and delicacy of gourmet food, the gentleness of light winds and breezes. When used as a term of moral condemnation, the word still refers to something perceived as "soft": laziness, degeneracy, decadence, lack of courage, or, to sum up all these vices in one ancient category, the feminine. For the ancients, or at least for the men who produced almost all our ancient literature, the connection was commonsensical and natural. Women are weak, fearful, vulnerable, tender. They stay indoors and protect their soft skin and nature: their flesh is moister, more flaccid, and more porous than male flesh, which is why their bodies retain all that excess fluid that must be expelled every month. The female is quintessentially penetrable; their pores are looser than men's.
Does the word specifically refer to a man who takes the 'passive' role in sex with another man? Martin explains:
a man could, by submitting to penetration, leave himself open to charges of malakia. but in those cases, the term refers to the effeminacy of which the penetration is only a sign or proof; it does not refer to the sexual act itself. The category of effeminate men was much broader than that. In philosophical texts, for example, malakoi are those people who cannot put up with hard work. Xenophon uses the term for lazy men. For Epictetus and the Cynic Epistles, the term refers to men who take life easy rather than enduring the hardships of philosophy. In Dio Cassius, Plutarch, and Josephus, cowards are malakoi. Throughout ancient literature, malakoi are men who live lives of decadence and luxury. They drink too much wine, have too much sex, love gourmet food, and hire professional cooks. According to Josephus, a man may be accused of malakia if he is weak in battle, enjoys luxury, or is reluctant to commit suicide (War 7.338; Antiquities 5.246; 10.194). Dio Chrysostom says that the common crowd might stupidly call a man malakos just because he studies a lot —that is, a bookworm might be called a sissy (66.25)
So rather than a specifically homosexual meaning, the word instead has the meaning of a person who is self-indulgent (which is how New Jerusalem Bible translates it) or too much devoted to pleasure or who is dominated by their own desires. Thus a womanising, heterosexual man is just as much malakos as a man who gets fucked. And of course in the gendered way of thinking of that era such a man, by avidly pursuing  his desires for sex with women, might well be considered effeminate too because he has surrendered his self-control. Self-control signifies manliness and virility, not being a Lothario. Such thinking continued in the Christian medieval period and into the Renaissance. Consequently the 17th century English translations use effeminate for malakoi. Some aspects of this thinking even continue to this day. In Australia, a bookworm might still be considered a sissy or at least a nerd, which might be understood as a kind of modern toned-down sissy.

Over the last two to three hundred years our understanding of gender has changed from the older hierarchical, multi-layered continuum of masculine and feminine to a more dualistic, heterosexually-complementarist, sexual binary of female and male. Thus gender categories have taken on a much more sexualised meaning so that effeminacy is now and increasingly associated with homosexuality, the deviant sexuality. And so some more modern translations used catamite to translate malakoi, while others counted it together with arsenokoites and translated both with the single word sodomite. Most recent Protestant translations from the US, including the 1984 NIV, however, now translate malakoi as male prostitute, .  And yet for so many Christians raised on the King James and thus familiar with reading 'effeminate' here I'm surprised that no one has raised questions about that semantic shift. Well, not really because they're already used to associating effeminacy with homosexuality. To them a male prostitute is simply a commercial homosexual.

I think that to associate malakoi with any sort of specific homosexual (or even sexual)  meaning is actually a seriously misleading translation.  I wonder even just how much the emphasis on gender and effeminacy itself might derive from much later impositions on Paul's use of the word which might still best be rendered luxurious or self-indulgent (after all the ancient translations didn't use such explicitly gendered terms). Perhaps the King James and Douai-Rheims are themselves evidence of a gendered semantic shift in 16th/17th century England itself. But based on the ancient semantic gestalt for the word, I think the New Jerusalem is correct to translate with self-indulgent; other possibilities could be pursuers of luxury or selfish/narcissistic hedonists. Perhaps even a Buddhist take on the word might be appropriate, too, as it really is about being a slave to desire, not sexual desire as such, but desire more broadly. As the Buddha taught, desire or craving is behind the attachment to transitory existence that gives rise to suffering. I suspect there may well be an aspect of that here (there is a rich Christian literature dealing with the problem of such broad based desire from the days of the early Church onwards) but it's been hidden by Christian homophobic sex obsessions.

I have devoted so much space to the meaning of malakoi and its varying translations through time because in these contemporary debates the meaning of malakoi has been used to help determine what the other word, arsenokoites, actually means; this is the word whose 1984 translation as "homosexual offenders" and "perverts" caused so much  difficulty for not being sufficiently anti-homosexual. The problem with this word is that we don't really know what it means. Paul is the first writer to use it and he nowhere gives an explanation of its meaning; presumably he expects his audience to know its meaning. The word is a  compound of two Greek words 'arsen' man and 'coites' bed so literally it might mean 'man-bed' (the Latin translation breaks it up again into the two component words 'masculorum concubitoribus') but does that designate a man who beds or a man who beds men? Neither of the two passages give us anything more to go by as to what Paul might mean. A number of scholars have pointed out that the word does not sit unambiguously in a list of sexual sinners. In 1 Corinthians it could even be said that malakoi meaning luxurious or self-indulgent marks a shift from sexual sins of adultery etc to other sins including robbery, drunkenness, slander, greed, fraud etc. In 1 Timothy the word sits amongst a list of sins primarily of violence, abuse and injustice. Granted it does sit beside 'pornois' which in 1 Corinthians is part of the sexual sin list. But it's curious that the King James translates that word here as 'whoremonger'. I'd like to know why but in the meantime that does give a more 'professional' or commercial meaning to it. It's not someone just having sex or even personal sex work but trading other people's bodies, pimping.

As I said above many of the subsequent usages of arsenokoites in later centuries are simply quotes by later writers of one or other of these two passages. (You can see a listing of these here.) But there are a couple of instances in the second century where the word is used in a new context and again it sits amid a list of crimes to do with abuse and violence. In the Sibylline Oracles 2.77-78 we find

Strike not the scales oneside, but draw them equal. Forswear not ignorantly nor willingly; God hates the perjured man in that he swore. A gift proceeding out of unjust deeds Never receive in hand. Do not steal seed; Accursed through many generations he Who took it unto scattering of life.Do not arsenokoitein, slander not, nor kill.Give the toilworn his hire; do not afflict The poor man. Unto orphans help afford And to widows and the needy. Talk with sense; Hold fast in heart a secret. Be unwilling To act unjustly nor yet tolerateUnrighteous men. Give to the poor at once And say not, "Come to-morrow." Of thy grain Give to the needy with perspiring hand.

The online source I'm quoting uses the clause 'Indulge not vile lusts' to translate arsenokoitein but that clearly reflects a long history of Christian reading of the word. However the context here is not a sexual one at all but rather one of justice and injustice. The same sort of pattern is found with the other instance in  Acts of John 36 which also uses a form of malakoi and clearly without any sexual meaning at all

36 Thou that rejoicest in gold and delightest thyself with ivory and jewels, when night falleth, canst thou behold what thou lovest? thou that art vanquished by soft (malakai) raiment, and then leavest life, will those things profit thee in the place whither thou goest? And let the murderer know that the condign punishment is laid up for him twofold after his departure hence. Likewise also thou poisoner, sorcerer, robber, defrauder, arsenokoitai, thief, and as many as are of that band, ye shall come at last, as your works do lead you, unto unquenchable fire, and utter darkness, and the pit of punishment, and eternal threatenings. Wherefore, ye men of Ephesus, turn yourselves, knowing this also, that kings, rulers, tyrants, boasters, and they that have conquered in wars, stripped of all things when they depart hence, do suffer pain, lodged in eternal misery.

The English text I'm quoting from translates the word with 'sodomite' but two thousand years ago any form of 'sodomite' would simply mean resident of Sodom, just as Jerusalemite mean a person of Jerusalem and there is, in fact no reference to Sodom in this passage and so again the translation of arsenokoitai here is dependent on much later Christian history of reading and tells us nothing about what the word, arsenokoitai, actually means. The word appears twice in Theophilus' book, To Autolychus

(1.2) As a burnished mirror, so ought man to have his soul pure. When there is rust on the mirror, it is not possible that a man's face be seen in the mirror; so also when there is sin in a man, such a man cannot behold God. Do you, therefore, show me yourself, whether you are not an adulterer, or a fornicator, or a thief, or a robber, or a purloiner; whether you do not arsenokoitei; whether you are not insolent, or a slanderer, or passionate, or envious, or proud, or supercilious; whether you are not a brawler, or covetous, or disobedient to parents; and whether you do not sell your children; for to those who do these things God is not manifest, unless they have first cleansed themselves from all impurity.

(1.14) But to the unbelieving and despisers, who obey not the truth, but are obedient to unrighteousness, when they shall have been filled with adulteries and fornications, and arsenokoitaii, and covetousness, and unlawful idolatries, there shall be anger and wrath, tribulation and anguish,and at the last everlasting fire shall possess such men. Since you said, Show me your God, this is my God, and I counsel you to fear Him and to trust Him.
The English translation I'm quoting translates the word as '(do not) corrupt boys' and 'filthiness' respectively. But the actual passages it occurs in don't give a clear sexual association with the word. In the first case it is not included in a list of sexual sins while in the second it could be argued to mark a shift from sexual to non-sexual and even violent offences. Another second century text, Aristides Apology uses the word in a possibly sexual context but also in association with theft

For behold! When the Greeks made laws they did not perceive that by their laws they condemn their gods. For if their laws are righteous, their gods are unrighteous, since they transgressed the law in killing one another, and practising sorcery, and committing adultery, and in robbing and stealing, and arsenokoitiai, and by their other practises as well. For if their gods were right in doing all these things as they are described, then the laws of the Greeks are unrighteous in not being made according to the will of their gods. And in that case the whole world is gone astray.
The English translation renders it as 'lying with males' and it's likely a reference to Zeus' abduction of Ganymede. But at the same time, Zeus is not alone in his abduction of males. The goddess of dawn, Eos, has been described as a serial rapist, carrying off Cephalus and Tithonius amongst others, the latter himself an older brother of Ganymede. So the context here does not allow for a simple sexual meaning, let alone a homosexual one!

Origen uses the word in his Expositions on Proverbs (7.74), no full online text available but cited here):

On the other hand some were roaming widely--adulterers, temple prostitues and thieves will receive judgment; some wander outside--the ones who pursue lusts contrary to nature, who arsenokoitein  and any other parade of forbidden things they can receive; see that there is no accusation against an holy man. Anyone who can't keep still but roams, shares in the accusation of the shameless woman. (Patrologiae Cursus Completus, ed. JP Migne, Patrologiae Graecae Tomus XVII, Origenes, 1857; p. 181-182)

Jeremy Townsley translates it as 'who seek non-procreative sexual intercourse' and points out that early Christians took a strongly procreative view of sex (I'll say more on this below) and so any form of non-procreative sex, oral or anal, between men and women or between men was likely denoted here. Certainly  Townsley's brief excerpt gives nothing specifically or exclusively homoerotic to the context of the word. Nevertheless Origen's use opens up a trajectory of a specifically sexual meaning to the word without any connotations of violence. Thus Porphry, in his Against the Christians, uses the word when critiquing Paul:

For we are surprised and truly perplexed in mind at such things, if a man, when once he is washed from so many defilements and pollutions, shows himself to be pure ; if by wiping off the stains of so much weakness in his life, fornication, adultery, drunkenness, theft, arsenokoitiai, poisoning, and countless base and disgusting things, and simply by being baptised and calling on the name of Christ, he is quite easily freed from them, and puts off the whole of his guilt just as a snake puts off his old slough (023 88.13).

The English translation here renders it 'unnatural vice' but the context of theft and poisoning doesn't immediately suggest that, especially given that this is a pagan author. Clearly something nasty is intended, but what? In contrast, the Christian author, Hippolytus, in the same century uses the word in the context of a story about a Satan-like entity, Naas (from the Hebrew for serpent), having sex with both Adam and Eve and would appear to be a quite straightforward reference to sex between men:

Now the meaning is, that he should obey the rest of the eleven angels of Edem, for the eleven possess passions, but are not guilty of transgression. Naas, however, has committed sin, for he went in unto Eve, deceiving her, and debauched her; and (such an act as) this is a violation of law. He, however, likewise went in unto Adam, and had unnatural intercourse with him; and this is itself also a piece of turpitude, whence have arisen adultery and arsenokoitia (Refutation of All Heresies V.21).
This translation uses 'sodomy' for arsenokoitia and while sodomy was invented as a word many centuries after Hippolytus perhaps its use here is justified. But it's interesting to contrast Townsley's translation of this passage

[Naas] deceived [Eve] and committed adultery with her, violating the Law. Then he went to Adam and had him like a boy, again violating the Law. In such a way adultery and homosexual rape (arsenokoitia) came to exist and from that point evil ruled over humans and goodness withdrew, which had come from a single source, from the Father.

This is one of the few occasions when Townsley allows a more sexual meaning to arsenokoit* - his usual translation is 'the traders in homosexual slaves' but clearly that doesn't work here. The story that Hippolytus relates is a Sethian origin myth and it clearly echoes the story of the Watchers in Genesis 6 and 1 Enoch not to mention later Jewish stories of the bad angel Samael seducing Eve and fathering Cain. In this account, Naas deceives Eve so as to have sex with her. Does he also deceive Adam? If so, it would be an appropriate parallelism. Like the Watchers, Naas is also an angelic being; how much choice does Adam have in this encounter? Certainly in the story of the Watchers all agency is theirs and not the human women they take as wives (although some later misogynist retellings had the women enticing and seducing the Watchers down from heaven). I'm not certain that Adam here is fully consenting but I wonder whether he, and Eve. have been bewitched into sex with Naas (and sorcery/black magic is something included in some of the lists in which we find arsenokoit*). The other parallelism here, too, concerns breaches of a patriarchal procreative order. Adultery is a property crime, breaching of another man's ownership of a woman's womb. Thus adultery can only take place with another's woman, in this case Eve. The other crime is non-procreative sex, the most obvious being anal sex whether with a man or a woman. I think in this case, and allowing for an odd gender egalitarianism of attributed responsibility, Adam's lot is non-procreative sex, through him being sexually subjected by the angelic being, Naas. This is the sexual equivalent of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of God and Evil in the Genesis account. And so while we see two male beings having anal sex, the important thing here is the act not the gender of the participants. There is an ambiguity here both as to issues of consent as much as to what is signified by the sex with Adam. But I think the ambiguity is part of the gestalt around arsenokoit*. When most explicitly sexual  it seems to refer to anal sex, not necessarily with the full consent of the person who is fucked, and not necessarily only between men. Thus in the 4th century, Eusebius can use it to refer to nonprocreative sex in his Demonstration of the Gospel 1, 6.23, while in Preparation of the Gospel 6.10, I think Eusebius intends a more clearly homoerotic meaning (although Townsley wouldn't agree). After Eusebius, Pseudo-Macarius uses the word in his 49th Sermon to describe the attempted rape of the angels in Sodom. Then in the 6th century, the Penitential of John the Faster discusses a variety of sexual sins in which arsenokoitia is used in both discussion of sex between men and also of anal sex between a man and wife -  "In the same way, some [do this] to their own foster son and some offer it to their daughter. Also, many even achieve the defilement of non-procreative (anal) sex (arsenokoitia) with their wives"  (Townsley's translation). This statement concludes the penitential and comes after a discussion of incest which follows a paragraph about sex between men. Interestingly this text also uses malakia with the specific meaning of masturbation (I believe malaka is the modern Greek equivalent to the English 'wanker')  but I really don't think that would make sense in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10. So we also have evidence of  a possible semantic shift in this penitential too.

While I think Paul's use of malakoi is probably a straightforward 'self-indulgent' and/or 'luxurious' it seems that  arsenokoit*, like sodomy, is to us a thoroughly confused category and perhaps was even then, with a range of meanings that might even be contradictory. Certainly in its earliest appearances it is usually associated with words referring to violence and dishonest dealings, as well as sorcery. It also has some sexual association and one that becomes more pronounced over the centuries so that in the 6th century it clearly refers to anal sex whether with a man or a woman. In the Christian Post article Dr Moo was quoted saying that scholarly "research showed that two Greek words in this verse referred, respectively, to the passive and active participants in male homosexual activity.” This 'research' is based on two or three associative steps. First of all, arsenokoites is composed from the two words used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the two Leviticus passages condemning anal sex between men. The sinners lists in which it is found in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy echo the types of sins described in the larger Holiness Code of Leviticus and so "clearly" Paul has Leviticus in mind. The second Levitical proscription of male male anal sex condemns both the active and passive partner to death (20.13). Consequently Paul links arsenokoitai with malakoi to re-affirm the Levitical condemnation of both the active/insertive partner and the passive/insertee.

I think these steps are highly speculative and based on very vague connections. The word may well have a semantic link with the Septuagint Greek words in Leviticus but it tells us nothing of its meaning (and those proscriptions in Leviticus are not all that simple and clear either). It's also not clear that what ever Paul meant was the same as what the word meant several centuries later either but at that later period it clearly refers to anal sex and not to what we might call homosexuality. And to try and pair it with malakoi, a common word with a range of meanings that don't require any connection to arsenokoit* is really a step too far and one not made in the subsequent usage of arsenokoit* even in texts that use forms of malakoi as well. I think Christian homophobia has seriously misled people, distracting them from a serious matter of sexual ethics to expend great quantities of ink fantasising about what we poofters do in bed together. And curiously I think malakoi might even give a clue as to what this man-bed business is all about.

It struck me several years ago, when teaching a class about the debates surrounding homosexuality and scripture that what might be behind arsenokoit* is some kind of phallic aggressive behaviour. The more I accepted malakoi as meaning self-indulgent or luxurious, the more it made sense of it serving as a transition point to crimes of violence, the first being arsenokoitai, which I believe denotes a kind of sexual violence which can be considered a kind of self-indulgent form of living. The self indulgent person puts their needs first paying no attention to the other. Hence the connections between desire/cravings and attachment and suffering in Buddhism, say (but also Hinduism, Christianity etc; James Alison suggests that desire in this broader sense is a key issue for Paul). And while one can be poor and self indulgent, by taking a class perspective malakoi takes on a whole new perspective; it takes aim at the upper classes, the wealthy, the rich householders and patricians of the Roman imperial state (and of the older Hellenic imperial realms in the East under/collaborating with/profiting from Roman rule). It's easy to forget too that the Roman state was a slave economy. One figure I saw for ancient Corinth, that out of a population of 400,000, 250,000 were slaves. In the Greco-Roman world, the patriarch of the household had the right of sexual access to all who lived under his roof. What this effectively meant was that your slaves were fair game, whether they were male or female. Being a slave meant being liable to be fucked by your owner, especially if you were young and pretty, male or female. Obviously the males would be fucked anally and possibly the females too  - it's the most secure form of contraception after all.  And given that Christianity was a religion popular among slaves (and women too) I suspect that this might be the context for divining the meaning of arsenokoites/ai. It is related to malakoi/self indulgence being a quite specific form of it, as well as being a form of rape - the slave has no  right to give or withhold consent. Furthermore how many ancient brothels made use of sex slaves? Even in our (Australia's) semi-regulated sex industry, sex trafficking and sex slavery are common. So, as Townsley insists, an arsenokoites could also be a sex slave trader (but not just of male or homosexual slaves) or the owner of a brothel staffed with slaves or even the customer of such slave-staffed brothels. It's a semantic gestalt which involves power, violence, self-indulgence, as well as anal sex, and ranges from the private domestic sphere to the public sphere of commerce and consumption. And, of course, this reading does not condemn the slaves subjected to this regime, unlike that of conservative Christians for whom such questions of power and consent are immaterial when it comes to homosexuality. My reading makes much more sense of the context plus the subsequent use of the word over the next 6 centuries during which I think there was a shift in meaning so that it became much more about anal sex per se.

As I was preparing this post I stumbled across Andrew Wallace's Blog  Theo Geek and was pleased to discover that he had been thinking along similar lines  although with a slightly different emphasis. In a post on this very issue he has this to say:

The second of Paul's difficult words is "arsenokoites" (literally "man-bed") which has the opposite problem - this word does not occur enough times in surviving documents for us to tell clearly what it means. The evidence provided by these occurrences is confusing. It appears in some listings of economic sins. Elsewhere it is said to be something mainly done by men with men but which can even be done to a woman. A meaning that explains a lot of the evidence (but not all) is "anal rape" or "having sex with someone in order to prove dominance over them" (bear in mind that in the ancient world this was a somewhat common practice for heterosexuals to engage in)
At the end of the bracketed clause he embedded a link to a comment he had made in an earlier discussion about Sodom and Gomorrah regarding male rape in honour-shame cultures such as those of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East. He quotes from various studies on male on male sexual violence in the ancient world and male rape in general and here are two excerpts:

“The idea of phallic aggression as a manifestation of male dominance is well known in the ancient world (as it is in contemporary prisons and ethnic warfare). Indeed it is not unknown to occur among the gods, as the Egyptian tale of Seth and Horus makes clear. In that tale too, Seth seeks to demonstrate his dominance of Horus through anal rape and nearly succeeds, save for a trick played by Horus. His defense includes dismemberment (his own hand, which had caught the semen), and he winds up getting his semen into Seth, who then appears to be feminized (made pregnant indeed) by Horus.” (Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative In The Literature Of Ancient Israel by Theodore W. Jennings pg 49)

It therefore appears that the existence of male rape is evident across a wide variety of cultures. Jones (1992) maintains that within these cultures, these acts are more likely to manifest themselves within the realm of power relations rather than sexual ones. This notion can be correlated with more modern thinking around male rape, particularly around homosexual rape in institutions, where the acts are best seen as acts of dominance and power.” (From ch2 of this thesis on "Describing Non-Institutionalised Male Rape")
- the author of the thesis in question is Richard Hull

In my own work on Sodom and Gomorrah, I read most of the available literature on male rape and I agree with these observations and think they are very pertinent to the possible context for arsenokoit*. Male rape is a feature of the honour-shame societies of the Mediterranean and usually is expressed across lines of dominance/power such as class and age and also outsider status. In these societies, too, female virginity is highly prized and so these societies tend to be strongly homosocial. Women are sequestered or strongly controlled to minimise interactions with unrelated men to ensure their commodity/exchange value on the marriage market.  Add to this the sexual power dynamics of a slave economy and then I think we have a  very suitable context to make sense of arsenokoit*. It describes well the phallic aggressive behaviour of some masters to their slaves, of sex traffickers with their human wares, of the customers of sexual slavery businesses and also of men who rape other men or take advantage of the lower age or class status of other males to force sex upon them. And I would add too that in many parts of the Greco-Roman world, Jews would also have had outsider or foreigner status, so poorer and younger Jewish males might also have been targets of such phallic aggression. Arsenokoitai, then, is linked to malakoi, not as gay tops and bottoms, but as a distinctive type of nasty and violent sexual self-indulgence, that might be more commonly expressed towards other males, but targetted females too when they were available, and hence the associations with anal sex.

Over the centuries, the semantic gestalt changed so that the associations with anal sex became the dominant context. In that time, too, both Christianity and Roman society had changed. John the Faster was Patriarch of Constantinople, capital of the Greek Byzantine/Roman empire (he's counted as a saint in the Orthodox Church). He is in fact the first of the bishops of Constantinople to claim the title Ecumenical Patriarch, which definitely upset the Patriarch of Rome. The Western Latin Empire was long gone and replaced by a number of barbarian Germanic kingdoms, most holding some form of Arian or Orthodox Christianity but some were also pagan. Old Rome itself was in fief to Constantinople. Christianity, Orthodox, 'Monophysite', Nestorian, Arian, was the dominant religion of the Mediterranean and Middle East and much of Europe and also of the kingdoms of the upper Nile/Ethiopia and in the Caucasus. This shift in the social status of Christianity was reflected in changes in Christian sexual ethics. 

It's fair to say that early Christianity was none too impressed with sex, let alone marriage and the patriarchal family. The Christian ideal was a world without marriage and without the phallic hierarchy of men over women made manifest every time they had sex together. Reading early Christian literature, there is definitely a preferential option to celibacy and there was a strong and continuing radical celibacy trajectory in which the equality of women with men as brothers and sisters was a major vision. At least in the literature, it seems that some women took on quite radical roles challenging the patriarchal confinements they were expected to submit to. Nevertheless as Christianity spread it had to make compromises with existing marriage/family structures. We can see that process unfolding in the New Testament literature itself. The origins for this option for celibacy were complex and not solely out of some form of 'feminist' or gender egalitarian concern. I think part might  be due to the Christian conviction that they were a new priesthood and that they comprised a new Temple that was replacing the old and corrupted one in Jerusalem. So I think some type of Temple esoteric traditions might also lie behind the Christian impulse to celibacy (c.f. the Qumran 'community'). Nevertheless, the Christian community comprised both men and women (the men only religion of Mithraism shows that ancient religious movements did not have to open to both sexes)

Margaret Barker has argued, based on her reading of Plato's Timaeus, that Pythagorean philosophy likely originated in the esoteric Temple traditions of the Middle East acquired perhaps when Pythagoras sojourned in the Levant, Egypt and Babylon. The Temples of Jewish and Samaritan Israel shared in that tradition too, but with their own monotheistic or, at least, henotheistic twist. And it's from these Jewish/Samaritan traditions, too, that Christianity is born. Certainly, and hence perhaps unsurprisingly, early Christianity demonstrates strong Pythagorean affinities. And so it's no surprise, then, that early Christians adopted a Pythagorean solution to the conflict of celibacy and marriage/sexuality. The Pythagoreans were procreationists, sex was only permissible for procreation, for having children. By the 2nd century this was becoming the dominant Christian position, although always in tension with radical celibacy groups and, to a much lesser extent, radical 'libertine' groups too. Anal sex is clearly not procreative; as I said above, it is an absolutely guaranteed form of contraception used by generations of heterosexuals. Early Christianity also gave a strong value to human life; according to the dominant biological thinking of the time, the male semen was seed, the woman through her womb provided the field in which the seed would grow (this is a pretty common agricultural analogy found through much of the ancient world across into ancient India). So if the seed was understood  as a kind of human in miniature, then  the combination of procreationist sexual ethics with respect for human life ruled out any sort of sexual expression except for vaginal sex in marriage. And even then the impulse to celibacy cast such procreational sexual activity in a dubious light so that for a married person to initiate sex with their partner was considered sinful (these ideological conflicts and bad biology lie behind  the ongoing conundrums and contradictions in Roman Catholic sexual ethics). At the same time, the impulse to celibacy itself got institutionalised in the monastic movement, which flourished throughout the Christian realms and beyond even into Persia and the Silk Road even into China. As Christianity moved from the fringe to the centre it also lost/repressed its fringe perspectives and hence the semantic shift for arsenokoit* over the centuries to signify anal sex primarily, without the older associations of violence and exploitation. (It would also be interesting to examine how the  economics of slavery changed in that period with the rise of feudalism in the West and in much of the Byzantine realm as well).

As I said earlier, I came to the conclusion that malakoi and arsenokoitai in the Pauline epistles did not refer to homosexuality, let alone tops and bottoms in hot anal action, several years ago. My thinking was in large part shaped by my own reading of early Christian texts as part of my work on Sodom and Gomorrah. It was then that I became really aware of how much luxury/self indulgence  was an ethico-spiritual issue for early Christians and continued to be so in medieval Christianity, especially in the monastic movement. (And I should add it was not only an issue for Christians; luxury/self indulgence was also an issue for Stoics and other philosophical schools of the time). Even with malakoi removed from the 'phobic homoerotic field, arsenokoitai could still, I suppose, come to stand for all us gay boys, tops, bottoms, versatiles and not into anal at all. But I think the homophobic lens actually serves to dismiss, even trivialise, a serious question  of sexual ethics, the violent use of sex to assert dominance or otherwise exploit people. I think it likely to have been very pertinent to the lives of those first Christians, something some of them might well have had to endure.

Of course, my argument is speculative but then so too is that of conservative homophobes and I think theirs is the more speculative argument in that it relies very much on applying modern categories to ancient texts. I, on the other hand, am at least trying to imagine myself back into the conceptual world of those ancient texts. And, unlike those homophobic Evangelical Christians, I don't believe in biblical inerrancy or the primacy of scripture, let alone sola scriptura. If an ancient text turned up that proved the conservative interpretation of these passages was correct, well I'd simply say Paul was wrong. But nothing of the sort does exist and I think the balance of the textual evidence better supports the non/anti-homophobic position. All interpretation (and translation) is a subjective exercise of some sort; what is most important in such exercises, especially when dealing with texts of terror such as these are and have been, is the moral dimension a person brings to their reading of the text. One can, like Robert Gagnon and other homophobes, bring a narrow and blinkered perspective, a morality of reinforcing a cruel status quo no matter what. Or one can bring a broad moral vision that seeks to enrich and enhance human lives, to promote justice and a more humane way of living. And as my argument shows not only have I resisted the homophobia long brought to these texts but I have given them a new ethical dimension, one also fully pertinent to their time, and one that still has, I would say urgent, relevance to our own, as well as exposing the almost pornographic triviality and vacuousness of the homophobic interpretation of these two texts.


No doubt some will object, what about Romans 1.26-28? I had hoped to include some discussion on this passage and might well do so in future. In the meantime, I'd recommend  James Alison's discussion of the passage here. What's really notable about his discussion is that he shows how the reading of this passage as a reference to lesbianism is a late development in Christianity coming several centuries after Paul and would not become the dominant way of reading for several more centuries. As far as Augustine and Clement of Alexandria were concerned,  Romans 1.26 interpreted straightforwardly meant women having anal sex with men. So there is no reason for anyone to believe that this is a reference to, let alone condemnation of, lesbianism. James also defines what he terms a Catholic method of interpretation based on an official document issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission itself and its condemnation of 'actualisation' to interpret scripture "in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women” (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3). He then gives an interpretation of Romans 1.27 in such a Catholic way using as his guide this principle deduced from the Pontifical Biblical Commission cited above: "given the possibility of a restricted ancient meaning in a text which does not transfer readily into modern categories, or the possibility of one which leaps straight and expansively into modern categories and has had effects contrary to charity on the modern people so categorized, one should prefer the ancient reading to the actualized one."

I would like to think that my reading of 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 and 1 Timothy 1.9-10 likewise fulfills such a Catholic interpretation of scripture too and I look forward to the day when the Vatican and Orthodox Church leaderships will themselves read scripture in such a Catholic way.


  1. Thanks Deane, I'm glad you like it. The more I explore and find out about the 2011 NIV the worse it gets so I think I will have a couple more posts on this topic

  2. Hmm, I thought there had been another comment but nothing else is here

    I've also had the thought that my reading helps make sense of the Sibylline Oracles passage. It could even be understood as a form of double entendre. I'll quote the central part again

    "A gift proceeding out of unjust deeds Never receive in hand. Do not steal seed; Accursed through many generations he Who took it unto scattering of life. Do not arsenokoitein, slander not, nor kill. Give the toilworn his hire; do not afflict The poor man. Unto orphans help afford And to widows and the needy"

    The reference to not stealing seed could be straight out reference to agricultural injustice, it could also be a double entendre for non-procreative sex. In fact it can't be a double entendre without being both/and. Arsenokoitein, then, could be a making explicit of the other meaning or giving a more specific instance which also fits with the subsequent crimes and abuses in the rest of the passage. Thus is could mean simply non-procreative sex or anal sex specifically or the type of phallic aggressive predatory anal sex I discuss in the post.

    But whatever the sexual connotations they do not require a same sex only meaning. This sort of sexual behaviour a man can perform with other men, other women, even, as John the Faster notes, with his own wife!

  3. An excellent post, well researched.

    I would commend to your attention a new line of interpretation of Romans that reads the early part of Romans as a dialogue between Paul and an opponent. This reading draws on the frequent changes of voice in Romans 1-3, the dialogue clearly present in Rom 3:1-9, the obvious relationship between Rom 1:18-32 and Wisdom of Solomon 12-13, and the diametrically opposed views of gentiles held by Paul and the Wisdom of Solomon. I have come to believe a dialogue based reading of Romans 1-3 is most likely to be Paul's original intended reading. In such a reading, Romans 1:18-32 is a statement made by Paul's opponent, which Paul objects to in whole or part. For a thorough-going defence of such a reading, see Douglas Campbell's recent 1000-page tome, which also functions as a doorstop and an aid to sleep.
    Also for more information about such readings see Stowers' insightful work on interpreting Romans in light of ancient Greek rhetorical techniques and a truly excellent journal article about Romans 1:18-32 by Calvin Porter.

  4. Good post. I'll be mulling it over the next little while as I find a way to distill it into a form that can be brought up in conversation. Would you say "exploitative sex" might serve as a provisional translation of arsenokoitai?

  5. Hi Paul, I suppose 'exploitative sex' could be used but, and this might sound rather strange, I think it might be a tad too vanilla a translation. I'm not certain English has a word or phrase which expresses the full semantic range of the word. Perhaps some kind of form of 'fucker' might come close and I'm thinking of the use of that word in its most aggressive sense. Maybe it's one for the wordsmiths to come up with. Rapist might also work but its semantic range might be a bit too restricted

  6. Thanks for your feedback Andrew and thank you for the references. You made allusions to this in the posts of yours I cited and I wanted to find out more about it.. I suspect James Alison might have picked up on some of this because, even though he doesn't say Paul is quoting another source here, he does say that he uses the passage as something to be torn down. I will definitely follow up that material. And whether or not Paul is quoting someone else it still took several more centuries before anyone thought it had anything to do with lesbianism

  7. Thanks for the background information and educated opinion! With so few references to "arsenokoites", there is probably a long list of meanings that could be inserted and make sense in those contexts.

    The possible meaning that pops out at me is "wife-stealing". Regarding how that meaning would be linked to the etymology, my mental image is of leaving the poor man alone in his bed -- making it just a man-bed, not a marriage bed. The pairing with "adultery" is then obviously fitting, and even the word order ("adultery and wife-stealing" rather than the reverse) is obviously appropriate. The placement alongside adultery and theft becomes perfectly natural since wives were property. It makes the Timothy passage read "... whoremongers, wifestealers, menstealers, ...". It makes the Sybilline Oracles passage highly reminiscent of the prophet Nathan's critique of David's theft of Bathsheba, Uriah's wife.

    Any comment on that idea?

  8. thanks Michael for you studious and insightful post. How easy it is for some christians who only ready an english translation with no knowledge of the historical/cultural context or the original languages to come to the wrong conclusions. The enemy is ignorance.

  9. Thank you, Anthony

    @Noah, I think 'wifestealer' might be a bit of a push, unless perhaps as full on abduction and not just running away with. But I think the range of the subsequent usage of the word would make such a restrictive meaning unviable, especially given that adultery is already listed in the 1 Corinthians verse. At the same time I think David is a good example of an arsenokoites, especially in his dealing with Bathsheba and Uriah. Bathsheba doesn't seem to have been given any opportunity for consent when he summons her. It's his desire that's paramount, no one else's and he is determined to satisfy it. Obviously they didn't only practice anal sex, if they did the crisis might not have developed. But David's solution is also within the semantic range of arsenokoites and that is to have Uriah killed one way or another. So even if I think 'wifestealer' doesn't work I think your hunch that David might well be described as arsenokoites, as also his sons Amnon and Absalom

  10. Great analysis. Very disappointing about the 2011 NIV. I found your post by (vainly) Googling my name (Townsley). I'm glad somebody is taking up the arsenokoites/malakos work, since I have moved into a different field. However, since Romans has been mentioned, JBL recently published a Romans 1 paper I submitted, exploring a "goddess" and "eunuch" reading.

  11. Hi Jeramy, thank you for your appreciative feedback. I should also say thank you for that wonderful resource you set up of all the occurrences of 'arsenokoit*' in the first millennium. It made writing this blog post so much easier. I notice that John Chrysostom quotes the two verses in question quite a lot and I think it would be very important to see what he has to say about them. He does seem to be a textual pioneer anyway of the 'lesbian' reading of Romans 1.26 and also the homophobic reading of Genesis 19 so what he has to say these two words might well be important

    Thanks also for the heads up on your paper. I've gotten a copy from the library and look forward to reading it soon

  12. Dear Michael,

    I have left you a message at your page. This is scholarly business. If you cannot access your profile page at, maybe you can write me at mark(dot)masterson(at)vuw(dot)ac(dot)nz?

    All best, Mark


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