I have been engaging on and off in the debates about sexuality and Christian discipleship since around 1978, when Buzz magazine (which eventually morphed into Christianity magazine) produced a slightly risky exploration of the issues at stake. Since then, I have noticed that the discussion has shifted ground, both in wider society and within the church. In wider society, it is quite surprising that we have ended up with same-sex marriage, since that had not really been the main demand in the recognition of gay rights, but it has afforded gay relationships with a respectability and status that was desired. Within the church in the UK, much of the debate has been whether the writers of the New Testament either encountered the kinds of relationships that we know, whether they understood the psychology of sexuality in the way we now do—and whether their negative assessment of same-sex sexual relationships in the very few references that we have is correct.
But more recently, another response has come to the fore, and it is one I encounter almost every time I speak on this issue. ‘The question of what the texts say is all so complicated—and can we really be sure of what Paul actually meant?’ The reason for this is the explosion of literature (in texts like Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian) which popularise the questioning of what has been a strong consensus that the texts are fairly clear, consistent with one another, and offer a uniformly negative assessment of same-sex sexual activity. Vines’ text is written in an accessible style, and comes with supporting YouTube footage, so has sold well and been very influential—but I find it a very hard read, since there are pretty excruciating and basic errors on just about every page, for anyone who knows about how to read ancient texts. But of course most of Vines’ readers don’t, and Vines himself does not even have a first degree in theology. In relation to the New Testament, he often draws on the work of John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality first published in 1980. Boswell’s work did not at the time have much impact on the scholarly consensus of the meaning of the biblical texts, since his methodology was so poor, picking sources that suited his argument and ignoring those that didn’t support his view. But times change, and nearly forty years on much of the church has forgotten some of the basic disciplines of how to make sense of texts.
I have been thinking about two recent examples of this kind of argument—that the texts in Paul are either unclear or do not mean what we thought—one popular and one more scholarly. The popular one can be found in an interview with someone called Ed Oxford, which serves to trail a forthcoming book. It is accessible, and is written in a ‘whodunnit?’ style in which we are led through Oxford’s amazing discoveries about the history of translation of the key terms in Paul. But the methodology is pretty shocking; Oxford seems to think that we understand what terms in the Greek text mean by means of looking at the history of translation, rather than by looking at the prehistory, context and canonical place of these terms. (A similarly poor approach is taking by the substantial Love Lost in Translation which I bought and read and quickly realised why it had been self-published.)
The more scholarly approach is that of Jonathan Tallon, who teaches at Northern Baptist College. Tallon has set up a website with a series of articles on the different texts and issues that arise from them; here I am just considering his article on 1 Cor 6.9.
For me, the problems start with the opening sentences. Tallon poses the issues in these terms: ‘What does Paul say about homosexuality in 1 Corinthians?’ This assumes that there is such a thing as ‘homosexuality’, that we are agreed on what it is, and that Paul thought in such terms. I think each of these assumptions are highly questionable. The next sentence goes on: ‘Is he saying that those who are gay or lesbian won’t enter God’s kingdom?’ He seems immediately to be assuming that, if Paul is expressing a negative assessment of same-sex sex (SSS), then he is also then expressing a negative assessment of same-sex atrtacted people, as if our identity and our patterns of desire and action are fused and can never be separated. As with much discussion on this subject, the assumptions here are implicit rather than explicit, and so might not be noticed by many readers—but they make a massive difference to the shape of the argument and to what is seen to be at stake.
He then points us to Paul’s ‘vice list’ in 1 Cor 6.9–10, which includes the contested terms malakoi and arsenokoitai, but he makes no comment about how such vice lists function in Paul’s writing, how they relate to the immediate context in 1 Corinthians, how they connect with Paul’s pastoral strategy in the letter, or more broadly how they relate to vice lists in either first century Judaism or wider culture (vice lists were common in Stoic literature of the period). Locating the texts in their wider context in the NT and Paul, and locating Paul within his world are actually vital aspects of the task of making sense of texts; I realise that Tallon’s piece is aimed at a popular audience, but this exploration would still be possible in a popular format.
Tallon then discusses the term malakos, the least contentious of the two, and I think I would broadly agree with his conclusions; I am not persuaded by the common conclusion of Tom Wright and others that this is a reference to the passive, ‘receptive’, partner in anal intercourse, with arsenokoites referring to the active, penetrating, partner. This is a possible meaning grammatically, but Tallon is right to point out that it also had a wider moral sense—and the two terms are not grammatically paired with one another, since all the terms in the list are simply separated with ‘neither…neither…neither…’ (oute), a feature which gives the list a particularly high rhetorical impact. But the wording of Tallon’s conclusion is interesting:
My view? I think Paul was referring generally to the morally weak, those who choose to let their lusts lead their actions.
That doesn’t look too far away from a critique of people who let their patterns of desire form their identity.
Tallons’ discussion of the second key term, arsenokoites, is much more problematic. The strong consensus, following the detailed and technical argument of David Wright in in 1984 (in which he comprehensively responds to the arguments of John Boswell) is that Paul has coined the term from the Greek (Septuagint, LXX) of Lev 20.13 in order to describe in the most general terms all forms of SSS. Even if you are not a reader of Greek, you can probably see the very close parallel:
Lev 20.13: καὶ ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός, βδέλυγμα ἐποίησαν ἀμφότεροι
1 Cor 6.9: …οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται οὔτε κλέπται…
Paul is using a plural form here; the singular arsenokoites is even closer to the text of Leviticus, differing in only one letter from the actual text. To coin a contemporary example, if I exclaimed ‘You are just a to-be-or-not-to-be kind of person’, it is likely that you would recognise a citation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1, even if you could not give the reference. It is an unusual phrase; it stands out from my usual terminology; and it refers to a very well-known expression. All these things apply in the same way to Paul’s language here.
Tallon notes that words do not in later use derive their meaning from their constituent parts:
But working out meaning this way is dangerous – a cupboard doesn’t necessarily have cups inside; the chairman of the board doesn’t necessarily refer to an item of furniture. And as for butterflies…
The problem here is that, whilst later use is not determined by the elements of a word, the original coining of the term obviously did. As Wikipedia helpfully points out:
The term cupboard was originally used to describe an open-shelved side table for displaying dishware, more specifically plates, cups and saucers. These open cupboards typically had between one and three display tiers, and at the time, a drawer or multiple drawers fitted to them. The word cupboard gradually came to mean a closed piece of furniture.
Given that there are simply no examples of the word arsenokoites before Paul, or after him except where Christian authors appear dependent on him, it is the original sense of the word we are interested in—and Tallon’s argument here actually undermines his subsequent discussion of later use!
Tallon mentions David Wright’s argument that it comes from Leviticus, but dismisses it quickly, commenting:
Just looking at the construction of the word, and its possible source from Leviticus, suggests that it is referring to those who bed males. But those who bed males, not men.
The reason for that, as Robert Gagnon has pointed out, is that the Leviticus text itself is referring back to the creation text, where God made humanity in his image, ‘male and female he created them’ (not, in Gen 1.27, ‘man and woman’). In other words, Paul is citing Leviticus citing Genesis, and so the rejection of SSS is rooted in the sex dimorphic creation of humanity, something that Paul refers to explicitly in Romans 1.18f.
Tallon then suggests that arsenokoites is often associated with economic exploitation (this is the argument of gay scholar Dale Martin, whose article he lists at the end) but this language is actually absent from the text in Paul. (Martin, in a 2008 biographical article, argues that all sex is ethical as long as the way you have sex reflects the nature of your relationship, be that committed, casual or a one-night stand. I think that would be quite difficult to justify from reading Paul.) Tallon also points to the later Christian concern about paidophthorēseis, translated as ‘corrupting children’, but actually referring to what was thought of as the usual practice in Greek and Roman culture, of older men have penetrative anal sex with younger, receptive males. What is most striking here is that Paul himself does not use this term, nor does he use the usual pair of terms for same-sex lovers, erastus and eramenos. Paul appears to have coined a general term, on the basis of Lev 20.13, to refer in the most general way to SSS. (It is also worth noting that we, like later Christian writers, think that SSS between age-unequal partners the least acceptable, because of our focus on questions of consent and equality. But in the ancient world, this was seen as the most acceptable, and the idea of anal sex between adult males was shocking and unacceptable, since the passive partner was the inferior, and this offended against the idea of the free adult male.)
David Wright’s rather technical article reaches this conclusion:
[I]t is probably significant that the word itself and comparable phrases used by Philo, Josephus and Ps-Phocylides spoke generically of male activity with males rather than specifically categorized male sexual engagement with paides. It is difficult to believe that arsenokoitia was intended to indict only the commonest Greek relationship involving an adult and a teenager. The interchangeability demonstrated above between arsenokoitia and paidophthoria argues that the latter was encompassed within the former. A broader study of early Christian attitudes to homosexuality would confirm this.
Robert Gagnon, well-known commentator in this area, offered a substantial argument on the meaning of these terms in response to the interview with Ed Oxford I mentioned earlier:
As for whether *Paul* intended to limit the word arsenokoitai to men who have sex with adolescent boys, consider the following:
(1) Clear connections to the Levitical prohibitions of male-male intercourse. The compound Greek word arsenokoitai (arsen-o-koi-tai; plural of singular arsenokoitēs) is formed from the Greek words for “lying” (verb keimai; stem kei- adjusted to koi- before the “t” or letter tau) and “male” (arsēn). The word is a neologism created from terms used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Levitical prohibitions of men “lying with a male” (18:22; 20:13). (Note that the word for “lying” in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Levitical prohibitions is the noun koitē, also meaning “bed,” which is formed from the verb keimai. The masculine –tēs suffix of the sg. noun arsenokoitēs denotes continuing agency or occupation, roughly equivalent to English -er attached to a noun; hence, “(male) liers with a male.”)
That the connection to the absolute Levitical prohibitions against male-male intercourse is self-evident from the following points: (a) The rabbis used the corresponding Hebrew abstract expression mishkav zākûr, “lying of/with a male,” drawn from the Hebrew texts of Lev 18:22 and 20:13, to denote male-male intercourse in the broadest sense. (b) The term or its cognates does not appear in any non-Jewish, non-Christian text prior to the sixth century A.D. This way of talking about male homosexuality is a distinctly Jewish and Christian formulation. It was undoubtedly used as a way of distinguishing their absolute opposition to homosexual practice, rooted in the Torah of Moses, from more accepting views in the Greco-Roman milieu. (c) The appearance of arsenokoitai in 1 Tim 1:10 makes the link to the Mosaic law explicit, since the list of vices of which arsenokoitai is a part are said to be derived from “the law” (1:9). While it is true that the meaning of a compound word does not necessarily add up to the sum of its parts, in this instance it clearly does.
(2) The implications of the context in early Judaism. That Jews of the period construed the Levitical prohibitions of male-male intercourse absolutely and against a backdrop of a male-female requirement is beyond dispute. For example, Josephus explained to Gentile readers that “the law [of Moses] recognizes only sexual intercourse that is according to nature, that which is with a woman. . . . But it abhors the intercourse of males with males” (Against Apion 2.199). There are no limitations placed on the prohibition as regards age, slave status, idolatrous context, or exchange of money. The only limitation is the sex of the participants. According to b. Sanh. 54a (viz., tractate Sanhedrin from the Babylonian Talmud), the male with whom a man lies in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 may be “an adult or minor,” meaning that the prohibition of male-male unions is not limited to pederasty. Indeed, there is no evidence in ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, or rabbinic Judaism that any limitation was placed on the prohibition of male-male intercourse.
(3) The choice of word. Had a more limited meaning been intended—for example, pederasts—the terms paiderastai (“lover of boys”), paidomanai (“men mad for boys”), or paidophthoroi (“corrupters of boys”) could have been chosen.
(4) The meaning of arsenokoitai and cognates in extant usage. The term arsenokoitēs and cognates after Paul (the term appears first in Paul) are applied solely to male-male intercourse but, consistent with the meaning of the partner term malakoi, not limited to pederasts or clients of cult prostitutes (see specifics in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 317-23). For example, the 4th century church historian Eusebius quoted from a 2nd-3rd century Christian, Bardesanes (“From the Euphrates River [eastward] … a man who … is derided as an arsenokoitēs … will defend himself to the point of murder”), and then added that “among the Greeks, wise men who have male lovers are not condemned” (Preparation for the Gospel 6.10.25). Elsewhere Eusebius alluded to the prohibition of man-male intercourse in Leviticus as a prohibition not to arsenokoitein (lie with a male) and characterized it as a “pleasure contrary to nature,” “males mad for males,” and intercourse “of men with men” (Demonstration of the Gospel 1.6.33, 67; 4.10.6). Translations of arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 in Latin, Syriac, and Coptic also define the term generally as “men lying with males.”
(8) Implications of 1 Tim 1:9-10 corresponding to the Decalogue. At least the last half of the vice list in 1 Tim 1:8-10 (and possibly the whole of it) corresponds to the Decalogue. Why is that important? In early Judaism and Christianity, the Ten Commandments often served as summary headings for the full range of laws in the Old Testament. The seventh commandment against adultery, which was aimed at guarding the institution of marriage, served as a summary of all biblical sex laws, including the prohibition of male-male intercourse. The vice of kidnapping, which follows arsenokoitai in 1 Tim 1:10, is typically classified under the eighth commandment against stealing (so Philo, Pseudo-Phocylides, the rabbis, and the Didache; see The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 335-36). This makes highly improbable the attempt by some to pair arsenokoitai with the following term andrapodistai (kidnappers, men-stealers), as a way of limiting its reference to exploitative acts of male-male intercourse (so Robin Scroggs), rather than with the inclusive sexual term pornoi (the sexually immoral) that precedes it….
It is worth reading the whole comment for a comprehensive argument.
I know Robert Gagnon a little; I have attended seminars at which he has spoken, and we once visited the British Museum together. I don’t agree with all of his arguments, and we have very different political outlooks. But what is interesting about his argument here is the number of mainstream, theologically liberal, scholars who cite him. William Loader’s research on sexuality in the New Testament cites Gagnon several times on each page when addressing the issues they both study. Loader recognises the quality of Gagnon’s research and the force of his argument about what Paul actually meant—though Loader takes the diametrically opposite view to Gagnon on the ethical issue of same-sex relationships. He simply thinks that Paul, and therefore Gagnon, is wrong.
Similarly, it is worth noting the approach of the Pauline scholar E P Sanders, in his 850-page magnum opus on Paul from 2015. Sanders had a huge impact on Pauline scholarship with his argument about the nature of first-century Judaism, giving rise to the so-called ‘New perspective on Paul’. This latest volume summarises and draws together his thinking on Paul, rather than engaging with recent arguments—but he has added in (for some reason) a 60-page assessment of Paul and SSS.
Sanders makes some very interesting comments about the function and role of Paul’s vice lists, noting their connections with both Jewish and Stoic lists, though also noting the characteristic emphasis on idolatry and sexual immorality that was a consistent feature of Diaspora Judaism in the period. He also notes the function of the vice lists as a rhetorical device; Paul’s actual pastoral handling of individual cases of sin was quite different—which seems to me to be highly pertinent in the current context. But his conclusion is in line with David Wright, Robert Gagnon and William Loader: Paul is rejecting every form of SSS, drawing on the text of Lev 20.13, and in doing so he sits squarely within the tradition of Diaspora Judaism which took a very similar view. This is striking, Sanders notes, since in many other ways, Christianity adopted many other aspects of pagan culture; this issue was the one where there was sharpest disagreement between Christianity’s two ‘parents’ of Judaism and Graeco-Roman culture, and on the question of SSS, it came down unequivocally on the side of Judaism. He concludes:
Diaspora Jews had made sexual immorality and especially homosexual activity a major distinction between themselves and gentiles, and Paul repeated Diaspora Jewish vice lists. I see no reason to focus on homosexual acts as the one point of Paul’s vice lists that must be maintained today.
As we read the conclusion of the chapter, I should remind readers of Paul’s own view of homosexual activities in Romans 1, where both males and females who have homosexual intercourse are condemned: ‘those who practice such things’ (the long list of vices, but the emphasis is on idolatry and homosexual conduct) ‘deserve to die’ (1.31). his passage does not depend on the term ‘soft’, but is completely in agreement with Philo and other Diaspora Jews. (p 373)
This conclusion is in line with other commentators who have looked carefully at the issue:
It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order. (William Loader, The New Testament and Sexuality, p 323-4)
Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct. (Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible”)
I think the texts in Paul are much clearer than current discussion would have us believe.
To close this longer-than-usual post, I want to offer four final pastoral observations.
The first relates to Bible translation. It is clear that translators have wrestled with the translation of these two terms in Paul, even in different languages, and come up with some very different answers. Ed Oxford talks about how he discovered the history of German translation of key texts in the Old and New Testaments:
So we went to Leviticus 18:22 and he’s translating it for me word for word. In the English where it says “Man shall not lie with man, for it is an abomination,” the German version says “Man shall not lie with young boys as he does with a woman, for it is an abomination.” I said, “What?! Are you sure?” He said, “Yes!” Then we went to Leviticus 20:13— same thing, “Young boys.” So we went to 1 Corinthians to see how they translated arsenokoitai (original Greek word) and instead of homosexuals it said, “Boy molesters will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
I then grabbed my facsimile copy of Martin Luther’s original German translation from 1534. My friend is reading through it for me and he says, “Ed, this says the same thing!” They use the word knabenschander. Knaben is boy, schander is molester. This word “boy molesters” for the most part carried through the next several centuries of German Bible translations. Knabenschander is also in 1 Timothy 1:10. So the interesting thing is, I asked if they ever changed the word arsenokoitai to homosexual in modern translations. So my friend found it and told me, “The first time homosexual appears in a German translation is 1983.”
If this is all true, then it is extraordinary. There is simply no reason to translate the Hebrew zakar in Lev 18.22 and 20.13 with the term ‘young boys’ and I know of no English translation that does so. What is happening here is that the translators have conflated the term arsenokoites that Paul does use with the later term paidophthorēseis that Paul doesn’t use—and, seeing the connection with Leviticus, have then read that concern back into the Old Testament! It is a bizarre approach to translation.
Sanders makes a very interesting observation, which I have not come across before, but which explains why there has been such difficulty in translation in the past.
Homosexual activity was a subject on which there was a severe clash between Greco-Roman and Jewish views. Christianity, which accepted many aspects of Greco-Roman culture, in the case accepted the Jewish view so completely that the ways in which most of the people in the Roman Empire regarded homosexuality were obliterated, though now have been recovered by ancient historians. (p 344)
It is one of the many ways in which we now know a lot more about the first century than e.g. Christians in the fourth century, not as a matter of modern hubris but as a result of a two centuries of interest in the classical world. (If you want to explore the literature on Roman attitudes to sex, read this remarkable post by my friend John Pike.) Prior to the modern era, translators were, on these two words, somewhat flying blind.
Many English translations, using language like ‘homosexual abusers’ do capture the rhetorical force of Paul’s language—but they add a whole lot of contemporary cultural baggage at the same time. Perhaps the best way to translate the terms might be to use ‘softies’ for the first, capturing the meanings of malakos as both ‘effeminate’ and ‘morally weak’, and ‘men who have sex with men’ for arsenokoites, reflecting both its etymology and its close connection with Lev 20.13.
The second issue is the confusion that has been created in the debate. It suits those who want to see the Church change its teaching for most members of the Church to say ‘It is all so complicated, and the Bible is not really as clear as I thought’. That climate is created by popularised arguments that ignore the whole range of evidence—and give no indication to their readers (who mostly won’t know how to assess this) that there are other issues that need to be considered. For example, I don’t suppose anyone reading Tallon’s article or watching his video will think to ask ‘But what is the cultural context of Paul? And how does his view connect with other Jewish critiques of pagan culture?’ since there is no hint that this might be an important issue. Tallon is right to offer a bibliography—but how many of his readers will actually look up the articles he cites, not least because David Wright’s is published in a specialist journal for which you have to have an expensive subscription? Atomising the debate—isolating one text from another, and isolating the texts from their context—is a common feature of such arguments, and they lead to confusion.
The third issue is our decision in the light of what Paul says. E P Sanders is very interesting in this regard; like many other scholars, whilst he is clear about what Paul means, he does not see Paul’s view as in any sense binding on his own views as a Christian.
Paul’s vice lists are generally ignored in church polity and administration. Christian churches contain people who drink too much, who are greedy, who are deceitful, who quarrel, who gossip, who boast, who once rebelled against their parents, and who are foolish. Yet Paul’s vice lists condemn them all, just as much as they condemn people who engage in homosexual acts (p 372).
Sanders is spot on here: you cannot pick and choose, and if you take Paul seriously on one issue, you must surely take him seriously (or not) on all issues. Sanders’ conclusion is to treat them all as non-binding—but of course there is an alternative response available.
The fourth then is the question of our reception of gay people in terms of our pastoral response. Sanders makes some very interesting observations about the nature and use of Paul’s vice lists.
Homiletically, vice lists gain rhetorical force partly by length and partly by the equation of relatively minor sins with relatively major ones. It might be quite useful for a preacher to gain the audience’s support by condemning major sins (such as adultery and greed), but then to add that there are lots of sins…which are practiced by some of the people in the pews, and that these count as sins too…This has a healthily purgative effect. (p 338).
He also notes that Paul’s own pastoral strategy is not effected by the vice lists, since he handles actual examples of sin in a different way. Besides, the clear assumption is that the things he lists are now in the past: ‘such were some of you. But…’ (1 Cor 6.11). Sanders sums up:
The accusations in his vice lists are not actually directed at the sins of his converts at all (p 339).
Sanders goes further, noting the significance of Paul saying so little about SSS:
[H]omosexual practices are not very important in Paul’s letters. They figures in his vice lists, as do deceit and malice, but he does not elaborate on them; they are only items in a list. We must assume that he did not actually face a case in one of his congregations; if he had, we would hear a lot more about it. (p 345)
Paul’s language on this issue does not offer us a pastoral strategy for relating to gay people, within the church or outside. What it does do, though, is tell us clearly Paul’s understanding of the moral status of SSS, and with him the view both of Judaism and the early church, and following that most of Christian understanding down the centuries. The heated and (in my view unnecessary) debates about these clear texts not only sows confusion, it also makes gay people feel as though they are the subjects of these debates, which I think is unhelpful all round.
So let’s stop constantly debating the meaning of these texts—amongst all exegetical issues in the NT, these are relatively clear. When we do that, we can move on to the more important pastoral issue of how we engage with each other in relationship.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?