This is the fifth in a series of articles, by The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, and visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, examining the Biblical texts traditionally used to address the issue of homosexuality from a religious (Jewish and Christian) perspective.
“Homosexuality” in I Corinthians and I Timothy
Finally, we turn to two other letters of Paul, one to Timothy and the other to the Christian community in Corinth, passages which are used to condemn homosexuality in modern times. A closer look at those identified as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” (in the New Revised Standard Version translation) reveals serious questions about who is being talked about in these passages.
In the letter to the Corinthians, amid the list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God, Paul uses two Greek words: malakoi arsenokoitai. The first is a common Greek word meaning “soft,” and elsewhere in scripture is used to describe a garment. Nowhere else in scripture is it used to describe a person. The early church seems to have understood it as a person with a “soft” or weak morality. Later, it would come to denote (and be translated as) those who engage in masturbation, or “those who abuse themselves.” In our own time, with masturbation having been more popularly accepted, this word has often been used to denote homosexuals. All we actually, factually, know about the word is that it meant “soft.”
The Greek word arsenokoitai is an even greater mystery. It is found nowhere else in Scripture – NOR is there any record of its being used in any other contemporaneous text. We have nothing, either internal to the scriptures nor external to them, to give us guidance as to its meaning.
When such a mysterious word appears in an ancient text, the translator must do something with it. Even with commonly understood words, a translator has choices to make about which English word best communicates the word’s meaning. In the case of a completely unknown word like arsenokoitai, the danger of mistranslation is heightened. Many translators have chosen to take the two words together, understanding the Greek word for “soft” as applying to the receptive partner in male-to-male anal intercourse, and have taken the arsenokoitai to mean the active partner. This is speculation at best.
Others have speculated that this receptive/active relationship applies to a practice (which would have been known to Paul) in which an older man took a teenaged boy “under his wing,” taught him the ways of the world, and used him sexually. If this were its true meaning, we would all condemn such a practice as child abuse! No one is arguing for acceptance of such a practice.
The same pairing of words is used in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, with no further light being shed on its meaning. Whatever its meaning, there is no reason to believe that homosexual men, as we now understand them, are the target of Paul’s condemnations.
Yet, we can understand the prejudice and bigotry that has resulted from the ambitious, if erroneous, translations of these words: depending on the translation, the words “pervert,” “sodomite,” and even “homosexual” have been used. If an unsuspecting believer picks up his Bible and reads the word “homosexual” in one of these passages, the reader assumes that Paul meant what we mean by that word, and the condemnation of homosexuals seems unequivocally clear. The fact is, we simply can only speculate about what Paul meant in his use of these words. What we do know is that when the meaning of a word or passage is unclear, the translator’s own prejudices are apt to play a part in the words used to translate the unknowable meaning of the Greek. Do we really want to base our condemnation of an entire group of people on a shaky translation of an unknowable Greek word? A reasonable person, not to mention a compassionate Christian, would not.
Whatever one makes of these seven “texts of terror,” it seems clear that they must not be used in the service of condemning homosexuality as we know it today. Simply stated, the Bible does not speak to the questions we are asking today about men and women who are affectionally oriented toward people of the same gender. Taken in their own contexts, these texts speak to situations and from understandings different from our own.
Let me be clear. I am not asserting that the Bible speaks affirmatively of same gender, intimate, sexual relationships. All seven of these passages are negative. They simply are not addressing the questions we are asking in light of modern understandings of psycho-sexual relationships.
There is much, however, in scripture about compassion for one’s fellow human beings, a call for empathy and justice for the marginalized, and a standard of honesty, mutuality and love in all relationships. Therefore, I would argue that Holy Scripture gives us great and lasting guidance for the conduct of our relationships, one with another, whether they be with strangers, friends, or intimate, life-long partners. But a wholesale condemnation of the loving relationships of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people? No!
Read the relevant passages below:
I Corinthians 6
9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers–none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
I Timothy 1
8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. 9This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching 11that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.