Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Not That Difficult

“Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

There are actually two different Greek terms translated into English here with the phrase “men who practice homosexuality”. The first is malakos and the second is arsenokoitai. In recent years repeated attempts have been made to redefine the meanings of these words in order to explain away what the apostle Paul is saying in the clearest possible terms.

Short version: the allegation is that Paul is condemning abusive, coercive or recreational sexual relations between men, but not loving, faithful same-sex relationships.

The Brazen Alter-ation

Folks, this is not that difficult. But the redefinition campaign is a brazen effort, and if you are reading liberal Christian blogs like that of the late Rachel Held Evans you have surely come across it. Such contortions are not performed to engage in serious debate with believers possessing even the most rudimentary study skills, but to fool the sort of Christian who has never cracked a Vine’s in his life and is already on the fence about such matters. Not surprisingly, modern churches have plenty of those.

For me the answer is obvious. Translation teams have been dealing with this for years, combing through not just the writers of the New Testament but also their Greek contemporaries like Dionysius and Diogenes to figure out what sorts of behavior the apostle was condemning. As a result, there is not a single respectable English translation to be found that is not perfectly clear on the matter, translating the Greek as follows: “men who have sex with men” (NIV); “men who submit to or perform homosexual acts” (Berean Study Bible); “nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind (KJV); “neither sexual molesters, neither males lying down with males” (Aramaic Bible in Plain English); and so on ad infinitum.

The Language Issues

Still, let’s say you don’t always trust translators and want to examine the language issues for yourself. Probably the best short answer I have seen to this is available at the GotQuestions website in an article that asks “Does the Greek word arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 really mean ‘homosexuals’ or something else?” The writer has dealt succinctly and clearly with the language issues and concludes as follows:

“Paul’s reference to ‘homosexuals’ [arsenokoitai], together with a reference to ‘effeminate’ men [malakos] in the same verse (in the NASB), effectively covers both active and passive homosexual behavior. God’s Word is not open to personal interpretation in this matter. Homosexuality is wrong; it always has been, and it always will be.”

Boom. Mic drop. I’m not sure I would even try to top that. The Greek is not the least bit equivocal, and nobody says it is except people with an agenda.

The Argument from History

But let’s leave aside the language. There is another argument against the tomfoolery of the text corrupters that I find even more persuasive, though perhaps a little more complex, and that is the argument from history.

You see, there is a very good reason first century Greek is equipped to so eloquently describe various aspects of homosexual relationships, and that is that, like the Romans, their culture had a history of not only tolerating but celebrating committed sexual relationships between men and boys. Wikipedia’s page on the subject begins as follows:

Pederasty in ancient Greece was a socially acknowledged erotic relationship between an adult male (the erastes) and a younger male (the eromenos) usually in his teens. It was characteristic of the Archaic and Classical periods [from about 800 BC to the mid-300s — Ed.]. The influence of pederasty on Greek culture of these periods was so pervasive that it has been called ‘the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens’.”

“Principal cultural model.” Yeesh.

Creepy Plutarch

Plutarch’s Lives breezes by discussion of these relationships with such frequency and casualness that I actually didn’t register what he was talking about in his first few biographies of the ancient Greek and Roman greats. Creepy as I find it, many of these relationships were the very definition of loving, committed and long-term, to the point where the jealousies and even murders they inspired were quite literally the stuff of legend. Perhaps because of this, by the first century the practice was more critiqued than celebrated, which may explain why the apostle Paul felt no need to dwell on the issue at length in his epistles to Gentile churches: pederasty had fallen out of fashion even among the Greeks. Nevertheless, the Greek language of the first century was well-equipped to describe both the passive and the aggressive homosexual, and Paul has done both.

Now, if day-to-day Jewish culture or the religion of Judaism tolerated or celebrated these sorts of relationships as their neighbors did, we might have to concede the redefiners a point or two. But in fact we know this was not the case. History shows no such thing. The Law of Moses strictly forbids male same-sex relationships in language that has nothing to do with abuse or coercion: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” And the first chapter of Romans makes it clear that Judaism considered same-sex female relationships to be on the same degraded level.

Practicing What You Preach

Now, that is not to say that the ancient Israelites always practiced what they preached, as some sources have pointed out. For example, the book of Kings makes reference to “male cult prostitutes” in Judah during the reign of Rehoboam. But my point is not that there were no homosexual or bisexual Hebrews in ancient times, but that their lifestyle was regarded as an “abomination” by devout Israelites, which is precisely how the writer of Kings refers to it. Yes, it went on, but it went on in the knowledge that far from being “the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens”, it was a violation of the law of God and a vile cultural artefact picked up from the Canaanites. It was also a historical blip: King Josiah would later break down the houses of the male cult prostitutes, signaling the unacceptability of the practice to devout Israelites even as the surrounding culture continued its moral decline. Even Talmudic Judaism repudiates sodomy, saying it causes solar eclipses and earthquakes. (I’m not saying that’s supportable from scripture, but it does show that even liberal Jews in previous centuries took a dim view of homosexuality when compared to their contemporaries in other nations.)

Unlike in Greece and Rome, homosexuality was never mainstreamed in Israel up to and including the time of Christ. Jewish standards would drop thereafter, but at the time the New Testament was written, no Jew would ever have distinguished between “loving, committed” homosexuality and “coercive, abusive” homosexuality as the Greeks may have done. The act of sodomy was simply considered abominable, because that was what the Law of Moses taught.

All the Information We Need

This being the case, it is impossible that any well-taught first century Christian in receipt of Paul’s letters to Rome or Corinth would have viewed homosexuality any differently than Paul did, though it is quite possible many who had practiced it before their conversion continued to struggle with their impulses, as former homosexuals who come to Christ do today.

In short, the modern distinction between “loving” and “abusive” homosexual behavior that liberal Christians are so at pains to make would have been utterly lost on the first century reader. As GotQuestions puts it:

Arsenokoitai is a compound word: arseno is the word for ‘a male,’ and koitai is the word for ‘mat’ or ‘bed.’ Put the two halves together, and the word means ‘a male bed’ — that is, a person who makes use of a ‘male-only bed’ or a ‘bed for males.’ And, truthfully, that’s all the information we need to understand the intent of 1 Corinthians 6:9.”


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