The words sometimes translated "effeminate" and homosexual in these passages are obscure and difficult to translate. The first word identifies someone who is morally weak, and has nothing to do with nellie gay men. The second word probably means people who use power to obtain sex, though the word is so rare that a confident translation is impossible. Neither word refers specifically to gay men or lesbians.
Another passage of Scripture sometimes used against gay people is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which reads as follows in the King James Version:
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived, neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God.
In this passage there are two key phrases relevant to our discussion. First there is the reference to effeminate persons, which is often viewed as a reference to nelly gay men. In truth, however, the Greek word translated effeminate in verse 9 is quite broad. The word is malakoi, and it literally means soft. (See note 1.) So Paul is saying soft people will not inherit the kingdom of God. Since we know Paul was not talking about the Pillsbury Dough Boy, we have to ask what he meant.
This common Greek word had different connotations depending on the context in which it was used. In terms of morality, it generally referred to something like laziness, degeneracy, decadence, or lack of courage. (See note 2.) The connotation was of being soft like a woman or like the delicate expensive fabrics worn by rich men. In the patriarchal culture of the time, women were thought to be weaker than men, more fearful, more vulnerable, and more vain. Thus, men who ate too much, liked expensive things, were lazy, or liked to dress well were considered soft like a woman. Although this type of misogynistic thinking is intolerable in our modern society, it was common in ancient times and explains why the King James Version translated malakoi as effeminate.
But it is important to understand the difference between ancient and modern notions of what makes one effeminate. Paul wasnt condemning men who swish and carry purses; he was condemning a type of moral weakness. The ancient Roman and Greek understanding of what it meant to be manly or womanly was quite different from today. First-century Romans didnt think of effeminacy as merely a homosexual trait. In that culture, any man who was more interested in pleasure than in duty was considered to be woman-like. And men who worked to make themselves more attractive, whether they were trying to attract men or women, were called effeminate. (See note 3.) They saw all pleasure-seeking men as effeminate, whomever they sought pleasure with. In first-century Roman terms, most pro-wrestlers in the WWF (manly men by our definitions) would be considered effeminate, because of their apparent interest in fancy, hyper-masculine costumes and posturing. From this perspective, Paul was condemning men who are vain, fearful, and self-indulgent.
In recent years, however, some have suggested that, in the context in which it appears in 1 Corinthians 6, malakoi may refer specifically to male prostitutes, who would have served as the receptive partner (i.e., soft, woman-like) in sexual intercourse. This translation is reflected in two of the most widely used modern English translations of the Bible, the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version. Since malakoi was used to refer to men who exhibited the negative traits associated with women in first-century culture, its not hard to see how the term might also be used to refer to male prostitutes. They would be viewed as sexually indulgent (a trait associated with women) and as the ones who played a receptive role in intercourse (again, associated with women). Because here Paul uses malakoi in a list of sexual sins, it is possible to infer that he may have been referring specifically to male prostitutes, rather than soft men in general.
However, regardless of whether Paul intended to refer specifically to male prostitutes or more generally to all men considered morally soft, it is apparent that the term malakoi has nothing to do with the question we bring to Scripture. We are not defending prostitution, nor vanity or self-indulgence. Our question is whether same-sex couples may live in loving, committed relationships with the blessing of God. The term malakoi does not address that.
The next key phrase in this passage is rendered in the King James Version as abusers of themselves with mankind. A similar phrase appears in a list of sins in I Timothy 1:10. Both phrases are derived from a single Greek word, arsenokoitai, which is quite rare. In fact, these two biblical references may be the first examples we have of this word being used in the literature of the time. (See note 4.) Because the word is so rare, its exact meaning is probably lost forever. However, some scholars have worked hard to make an educated guess.
One translation technique is to look at the root words alone. Arsenokoitai is a combination of two existing words, one meaning bed and referring to sex, and another meaning male. (See note 5.) Thus, some scholars surmise the term has something to do with male sexual expression perhaps exclusive male sexual expression, since no woman is mentioned.
Unfortunately, this method of translation often leads people astray. For example, imagine a future translator coming across the word lady-killer two thousand years from now and wanting to know what it means. Its clear the phrase is made from two words, lady and killer. So, it must mean a woman who kills, right? Or is it a person who kills ladies? The difficulty in obtaining a good translation is clear particularly when we know lady-killer was a term used in the 1970s to refer to men whom women supposedly found irresistible. (See note 6.)
A better way to understand what Paul may have meant by arsenokoitai is to look for other instances of the word in the subsequent writings of his time. This approach yields several telling facts. First, two early church writers who dealt with the subject of homosexual behavior extensively, Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom, never used the word in their discussions of same-sex behavior. The word shows up in their writing, but only in places where they appear to be quoting the list of sins found in 1 Corinthians 6, not in places where they discuss homosexuality. This suggests they did not believe Pauls term referred to homosexual behavior. (See note 7.)
A similar pattern is found in other writings of the time. There are hundreds of Greek writings from this period that refer to homosexual activity using terms other than arsenokoitai. (See note 8.) If Paul had intended to refer generally to homosexual sex, or to one of the partners in gay-male sex, he had other commonly-used, well-known words at his disposal. He wouldnt have had to resort to this ambiguous compound word, which future generations would find difficult to translate. Apparently Paul was trying to refer to some more obscure type of behavior.
This conclusion is reinforced by a survey of the actual uses of arsenokoitai in Greek literature. Scholars have identified only 73 times this term is used in the six centuries after Paul. (See note 9.) (There are no known instances before Paul.) In virtually every instance the term appears in a list of sins (like Pauls) without any story line or other context to shed light on its meaning. There are, however, a few helpful exceptions. In one instance, a Greek author uses the term when cataloguing the sins of the Greek gods. (See note 10.) In this context, the term is probably intended to refer to the time Zeus abducted and raped a young boy, Ganymede. Arsenokoitai is also used in an ancient legend in which the snake in the Garden of Eden is said to have become a Satanic figure named Naas. Naas uses a variety of means (including sleeping with both Adam and Eve) to gain power over and destroy them. In this story, Naas is said to have gone to Adam and had him like a boy. Naas sin is called arsenokoitai. (See note 11.) These examples suggest that arsenokoitai refers to instances when one male uses his superior power or position to take sexual advantage of another.
This premise is reinforced by yet another translation technique. As noted above, most of the times when arsenokoitai is used in early Greek literature, it occurs in a list of sins (just like in 1 Corinthians 6). (See note 12.) Common experience tells us list-makers tend to group similar items together. (When Tyler makes a grocery list, he puts the vegetables at the top, the dairy at the bottom, and everything else in-between.) In these lists, arsenokoitai is often placed at the end of the list of sex sins and the beginning of the list of economic sins or vice versa. (See note 13.) For example, in 1 Corinthians 6, we find it between malakoi (which may refer to male prostitutes) and thieves. In I Timothy 1:10, the word appears between fornication and slave traders. This is consistent with the meaning suggested above that arsenokoitai describes a male who aggressively takes sexual advantage of another male. Examples of this type of behavior would include a man who rapes another (as in the Sodom story or the story of Zeus and Ganymede) or a man who uses economic power to buy sex from a male prostitute who sells his body to survive. This latter example is an especially neat fit if malakoi is understood to be a reference to the prostitute, in which case Pauls list would include a reference both to the male prostitute (malakoi) and the man who takes advantage of the prostitute (arsenokoitai). This type of person is a close kin to the thief and the greedy the two Greek words that most often follow arsenokoitai in the lists of sins.
A thief, a greedy person, and one who uses power to obtain sex are all seizing something that does not rightfully belong to them.
Thus, we conclude that aresenokoitai is best understood as a reference to men who force themselves sexually on others. This conclusion is consistent with the New Revised Standard Version, the English translation of the Bible often regarded as most scholarly. The New Revised Standard Version translates arsenokoitai as sodomite. As we have already seen, the men of Sodom were the ultimate example of sexual aggression and oppression. Even the New International Version, a more conservative English translation, appears to have been uncomfortable translating aresenokotai as a general reference to homosexuality. Instead, in 1 Corinthians 6 they translate the term as homosexual offender, suggesting that to commit the sin referred to here one must use homosexuality in an aggressive or offensive way.
Finally, there is one more approach for finding the meaning of an obscure word relevant to the present discussion. Etymology is an attempt to trace the origins of a word not just its component parts or uses after it was created, but where the word originally came from. For a word as old as arsenokoitai, doing etymological research is often quite speculative, but some scholars have pointed out that the two Greek words scrunched together to form this new word appear next to each other (as separate words) in Leviticus 20:13 in the Septuagint. (The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Paul would have read.) From this, they gather that the word was created by people familiar with this passage, and that Paul was probably referring to the same behavior prohibited by Leviticus 20:13. (See note 14.)
This brings us full circle. As weve already seen in our discussion of Old Testament law, Leviticus 20:13 was written in the context of cultic sexual practices, including temple prostitution. In Romans, we saw that Paul was addressing homosexual behavior that occurred in similar cultic situations, where people had abandoned the one true God to worship pagan idols. If Paul derived the term arsenokoitai from Leviticus 20:13 (and thats a big if), it would follow that Leviticus 20 and Romans 1 would provide the best evidence of the type of homosexual behavior he was intending to prohibit, i.e., cultic sexual practices.
Given the existing state of the literary evidence, it is impossible to know whether Paul was intending to refer to Leviticus 20 or was using the term arsenokoitai more broadly to refer to a man who aggressively forces himself on another. For us, it is not necessary to resolve the question. It is sufficient to note that Pauls terminology manifestly does not address the type of behavior we are asking about two people of the same sex who love each other dearly and live in committed relationship.
Note 2. Dale B. Martin, Arsenokoitês and Malakos: Meaning and Consequences (Source: Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture edited by Robert L. Brawley; Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville Kentucky, 1996), page 124. Nissinen also offers frailty of body or character, illness, sentimentality, or moral weakness as other possibilities for the meaning of this word in other contexts (page 117).
Note 4. Some have suggested an earlier use of the word in a piece of literature called the Sibylline Oracles, a collection of oracles written by many people over a number of centuries. However, the dating of the particular oracle in which this word appears is uncertain. For more on this topic see Dale B. Martins article, page 120.
Note 5. Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1998), page 114. John Boswell, on page 342 of Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, states that the second half of this word, is a coarse word, generally denoting base or licentious activities (see Romans 13:13), and in this and other compounds refers to the vulgar English word f***er.
Note 9. For a good list of all the instances of arsenokoitai and its derivatives in ancient Greek literature, go to All known references to arsenokoit*.
Note 14. Robin Scroggs makes this argument on pages 85 and 86 of The New Testament and Homosexuality (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1983). David Greenberg makes a similar argument on page 214 of The Construction of Homosexuality. Although Scroggs, Greenberg, and Nissinen believe the term may refer to some type of homosexual behavior, they do not agree on the type of behavior. For example, Scroggs suggests this may be a reference to male prostitution. Moreover, Nissinen makes the point, on page 117, that our translation of obscure words is always informed by our ideological preconceptions.