- Homosexuality Class: Week 1
- Homosexuality Class: Week 2 – Sodom, David, Jonathan, Ruth and…Naomi (?)
- Homosexuality Class: Week 3—Catfish, Blended Fabric, & Gay Sex in Leviticus
- Homosexuality Class – Weeks 4 & 5: Jesus & Homosexuality
- Homosexuality Class – Week 6: An Evening with Matt Jones
- Homosexuality Class – Week 7: Truth & Love from Bill Henson & the Apostle Paul
- Homosexuality Class – Week 8: Excluded from the Kingdom?
- Homosexuality: Have I Changed My View?
After two weeks of listening to testimonies and putting flesh on the “issue,” we dove back into the text last Tuesday night in week 8 of our Homosexuality class. As I warned my students, this week was going to involve some nitty gritty, in-depth, bust-out-your-lexicon interpretive questions.
After finding our classroom (you had to have been there…), we spent the first half of class finishing our discussion of Romans 1. Last week, we summed up the logic of Paul’s argument, and this week, we answered all of the “what about this” and “what about that” sort of pushbacks to the traditional view. Isn’t Romans 1 just about idolatry? Or lust? Or heterosexuals having homosexual sex? Or isn’t Paul just talking about pederasty (sex with boys), or prostitution, or other forms of non-consensual, exploitative sex? If he is, then Romans 1 would be irrelevant for gay men and women seeking a consensual, monogamous, no-sex-until-marriage sort of relationship.
But after looking at the historical situation, literary context, rhetorical context, and the meaning of the phrase para physin (“against nature”) in light of its Greco-Roman and Jewish context (yes, it was a tedious first hour of class!), we concluded that Paul’s words do indeed apply to all forms of homosexual sex—not just the bad ones. But I’ve already written a bunch of blogs, perhaps too many, on Romans 1, so I’ll sum up the second hour of class.
I haven’t actually blogged about Paul’s references to same-gender sex elsewhere in his letters. So this part of the class was new territory for me. On two other occasions, Paul mentions some form of same-sex eroticism, but there’s a massive debate about what he’s talking about. Here are the passages:
Or 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 men who practice homosexuality (malakoi and arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)
“the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality (arsenokoitai), enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:9-10)
In these passages, Paul mentions some sort of homosexual activity in a long-list of vices, and the words he uses—malakoi and arsenokoitai—have been subject to much debate. Hence Daniel Helminiak’s evaluation that “There is no real certainty about what these texts mean…Nobody knows for certain what these words mean, so to use them to condemn homosexuals is really dishonest and unfair” (Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 107).
I appreciate Helminiak’s interpretive honesty, but I’m afraid that his conclusion is terribly overstated. The Greek word malakoi (and its Latin equivalent) was widely used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to effeminate men. The word doesn’t describe guys who were artistic and bad at sports, but men who crossed gender boundaries in significant ways. Malakoi were men who dressed like women, acted like women, talked like women, shaved their body hair like women, and—not always but most of the time—were known for having sex with other men, just like women. Not everyone who was malakoi (lit. “soft”) received sex from other men, but many did. And since the word is listed after sexual immorality and adultery, and before arsenokoitai (a sexual term as we’ll see), it’s almost certain that Paul had in mind not just men with a limp wrists who couldn’t throw a football, but precisely men who received sex from other men. Or, as the note in the ESV correctly states: “the passive partner in homosexual sex.” Such usage was common in Paul’s Greco-Roman world.
This interpretation is confirmed by the meaning of arsenokoitai. Now, to be fair, arsenokoitai never occurs in all of the ancient Greek literature prior to 1 Corinthians 6. Paul creates this word, but not ex nihilio. That is, he coins this term by smashing two Greek words together: arsen (male) and koite (bed), or “one who lies with another male.” Where does Paul find his inspiration for such a word? Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the two passages in his Bible that mention and condemn consensual homosexual sex.
The Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13 reads:
kai hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gynaikos.
Even if you don’t know Greek, you can tell that the two words arsenos (“male”) and koiten (“lying”) look a lot like the one word arsenokoitai used in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1. That’s because Paul’s word is created out of Leviticus’ two words. In fact, the Hebrew original (mishkab zakur) of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 was widely used in Rabbinic literature to refer to male-male homosexual sex (b. Sanh. 54a; ib Sabb. 17b; b. Sukkah 29a; y. Ber 9.50.13c) and its likely that Paul—a Hebrew of Hebrews—is forging a Greek version of the Hebrew phrase. Most importantly, Paul is creating a term about homosexual sex from a passage (Leviticus 18 and 20) that prohibits consensual, same-gender sex.
The fact that 1 Timothy 1:9-10 references “the law” and also uses the term arsenokoitai, derived from Leviticus 18 and 20, suggests quite strongly that Paul is thinking of Leviticus 18 and 20 when he mentions homosexual sex in his list of vices.
Sure, there’s work to be done here. But after the words are studied, it seems clear that malakoi and arsenokoitai refer to the passive and active partners in homosexual sex. I don’t think Paul’s audience would have been terribly shocked or thrown off by Paul’s words. Paul is simply assuming the view held unanimously in Hellenistic Judaism that same-gender sexual relations are against the Creator’s will.
But—and here’s what it gets dicey—so is greed. So is heterosexual immorality (porn?). So is stealing (burning the latest Coldplay album and giving it to your friend). So is slander (Facebook comments?). Whatever we say about homosexual relations, we must also say about all the other sins mentioned in Paul’s list of vices.
Consistency. It’s a tough and often unpracticed virtue.