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Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Timothy on homosexuality
Some people use St. Paul’s views in his letters to the Corinthians and to Timothy to say that homosexuality and homosexuals are bad.
What do the Bible verses say?
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor soft men, nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10
We know that the law is made not for righteous people but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinners, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for prostitutes, for men who have sex with men, for kidnappers and liars and perjurers. 1 Timothy 1:9-10
How do we know that these verses criticize only penetrative (anal) intercourse between males and not all male-male sex?
Both verses criticize males who have sex with males. One Greek word (arsenokoitai) used for such people literally means males-bed or male-bedders, i.e. males who go to bed with males for sex. The word comes from the Leviticus verses prohibiting men penetrating men and therefore has a similar meaning here. A second Greek word (malakoi), used in 1 Corinthians only, literally means soft men and, in this context, means men who are anally penetrated by other men.
Therefore the 2 words used in 1 Corinthians cover both the man who does the anal penetration and the man who is penetrated. In 1 Timothy only the man who penetrates is criticized.
What were the reasons for this criticism of male-male penetrative sex?
The 2 main reasons for this criticism appear to be: • It was thought that God made men to sexually penetrate and women to be penetrated. Therefore a penetrated man would be acting like a woman and this would be wrong.
• Men penetrating men reminded people of the practice of strong or unruly men sometimes raping weaker men, as was attempted at Sodom and Gibeah.
What does the criticism of male-male penetration mean for men who are attracted to other men?
If a man is attracted to or loves other men without having sex with them, the criticism of male-male penetration is irrelevant. The Bible has positive stories of non-sexual same-sex attraction and love, e.g. David and Jonathan, Jesus and two of his followers.
What does the criticism of male-male penetration mean for men who have sex with other men?
The criticism of male-male penetration does not apply to straight, bisexual and gay men who have such penetrative sex provided that no one is harmed, directly or indirectly, by the penetration. See how this conclusion is reached.
What is the relationship of these verses to other Bible verses?
Paul’s criticism of male-male penetration in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy repeats his similar criticism of sex between males in Romans 1:27 (shameful lusts and shameful acts and men were inflamed with lust for one another). It also reflects the prohibition of sex between males (don’t let another male penetrate you) in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. In each of these cases, the criticism or prohibition refers only to male-male penetration, not to other forms of sex between males.
What does Paul mean?
In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul uses 2 Greek words to refer to males who have sex with other males. The words are arsenokoitai and malakoi.
Arsenokoitai is one of the Greek words used to mean men who have sex with men (or more accurately males who have sex with males) in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. It refers to the active or penetrating man in anal sex between males.
Arsenokoitai literally means males-bed or male-bedders, i.e. males who go to bed with males for sex. Paul appears to have created it by joining the two words arsenos (male) and koiten (bed or sexual-lying) in the Septuagint Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13, which prohibits the sexual lying of a man with a male. The Corinthian Christians and Timothy would have easily recognized the meaning of the word from its constituent parts. It seems that Paul intended that arsenokoitai cover all penetrating males who have sex with males.
The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature defines arsenokoites as a male who engages in sexual activity with a person of his own sex, pederast 1 Cor 6:9 …… of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opposite malakoi …… 1 Tim 1:10; Pol 5:3. (3rd Edition, p 135).
Arsenokoitai refers only to males who actually have penetrative intercourse with other males. It does not refer to males attracted to other males without the sexual activity. It covers any male who has penetrative sex with another male, whether homosexual, bisexual, or primarily heterosexual but having occasional sex with men.
Malakoi is the other Greek word used to mean men who have sex with men (or more accurately males who have sex with males) in 1 Corinthians 6:9. It probably refers to the passive or penetrated person in anal sex between men.
The basic meaning of malakoi, when applied to people, is soft men with a frequent consequent meaning of effeminate men ie. men acting softly or gently like women in various ways. While it is not clear what Paul really means by malakoi, this discussion may help to clarify its meaning.
The conclusion of the discussion is that the case for malakoi meaning men who have passive sex with other men appears to be stronger than its meaning effeminate men, particularly because Paul criticizes men who have sex with men elsewhere in his letters (Romans 1:27) but does not similarly criticize effeminate men.
False views about these passages
Arsenokoitai should be translated as “homosexuals” (this is false)
There are three reasons why arsenokoitai should not be translated as homosexuals (as appears in TNIV, NASB, Holman, NLT, Net, NKJV)
1. The Third Edition of the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature defines arsenokoites as a male who engages in sexual activity with a person of his own sex, pederast 1 Cor 6:9 …… of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opposite malakoi …… 1 Tim 1:10; Pol 5:3. (page 135) The references to practices homosexuality and sodomite in earlier editions of the Lexicon have been removed.
2. While dictionaries usually define homosexual in terms of both same-sex orientation and same-sex activity, arsenokoitai refers only to the same-sex activity. Using homosexuals incorrectly covers those men of homosexual orientation who do not partake of same-sex activity, i.e. those who are celibate. On the other hand, there are also men who are bisexual or who are primarily heterosexual but have occasional sex with men, eg. in prisons where there is no sexual access to women, or in certain countries where such sex is culturally allowed if the heterosexual is the insertive partner. Such men see themselves as heterosexual or bisexual and would strongly object to being called homosexual. Therefore they would (wrongly) not see themselves as being covered by arsenokoitai if it is translated as homosexuals.
3. The word homosexuals covers both same-sex attracted males and same-sex attracted females. It is therefore inappropriate as a translation of arsenokoitai, which specifically refers to males only.
Malakoi should be translated as “male prostitutes” (this is false)
There are six reasons why malakoi should not be translated as male prostitutes (as appears in NIV, TNIV, Holman, NLT, NCV, NRSV)
1. The Third Edition of the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (page 613) states that male prostitutes is too narrow a rendering of malakoi.
2. There are no known instances of malakoi being used to directly mean male prostitutes in ancient Greek or Greco- Roman times.
3. Paul’s writing style indicates that he would have been more likely to use a direct word such as pornoi if he had meant to refer to male prostitutes instead of using a word (malakoi) with multiple meanings, none of which directly refers to male prostitutes. While Paul did indeed use pornoi earlier in the same verse, its translated meaning of the sexually immoral is more general than prostitutes.
4. The use of male prostitutes (in the sense of effeminate call- boy) was supported by Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians) and Robin Scroggs (The New Testament and Homosexuality). Male prostitutes was Fee’s best guess because malakos is immediately followed by arsenokoitai (244). For Scroggs, the use of malakos would almost certainly conjure up images of effeminate call-boys if the context otherwise suggested some form of pederasty (65), and arsenokoitai provided this context (108). However as both authors recognized, malakos was not a technical term used to describe effeminate male prostitutes (Fee 244) or pederastic people (Scroggs 64). Further, arsenokoitai does not mean just pederasts but all males who have sex with males. Accordingly, neither author has made a convincing case for the use of male prostitutes as a translation of malakoi.
5. Some people might misunderstand male prostitutes to mean men who sell their sexual services to women instead of the male-male sex of Paul’s time. Also, there is nothing in the immediate context to indicate that the selling of sexual services is involved.
6. It is possible that Paul may have used malakoi as a euphemism for pornoi because he used pornoi earlier in the verse. However, this seems unlikely because the derivation would be malakoi’s main meaning of soft, then its associated meaning of effeminate men, a subset of whom are men who have passive male-male sex, some of whom may be male prostitutes. The association is very indirect.
The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance give excellent background accounts and various interpretations of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, rev. and ed. by Frederick William Danker, 2000
Perseus Digital Library
Henry George Liddell & Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie, 1940
John H. Elliott, “No kingdom of God for softies? or, what was Paul really saying? 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in context”, Biblical Theology Bulletin, Spring 2004. This article is also here. It gives a thorough look at the meanings of malakoi and arsenokoitai.
Dale B Martin, “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences," in Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. by Robert L. Brawley, 1996, pp. 117-36.
C T Lee, Paul’s Malakos: Its Evolution from Classical Greece Through the Roman World. This paper is here.
J. B. DeYoung "The Source and NT Meaning of Arsenokoitai, with Implications for Christian Ethics and Ministry", The Master’s Seminary Journal 3/2 (Fall 1992) pp. 191-215. This article is also here (pdf). The article has good detailed background but comes to the wrong conclusion that arsenokoitai should be translated broadly as homosexuals.