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Did Paul know anything about “homosexuality”?

I still have a lot of marking to do, so I’ll keep this to the point again. A good friend with an interest in these matters came across Keith Giles’ argument that Paul is referring to something other than “homosexuality” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. He wants to know what I think of it.

Giles says that the word “homosexual” doesn’t appear in English translations of the Bible until 1946 when the RSV used the phrase “nor men who practice homosexuality” for Paul’s oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai. I don’t know if this is correct: the Biblegateway RSV has “nor sexual perverts”. But the ESV certainly has the phrase—and a footnote saying that the two terms together refer to “the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts”.

Giles maintains that this is a bad translation. Drawing on comments made by David Bentley Hart on the passage in his translation of the New Testament, he argues that the reference is to effeminate men (malakoi) who shaved their beards and grew their hair long, and to men who sexually abused young boys or “engaged in pagan temple sex rituals” (arsenokoitai). Hart’s “guess” is that the word reflects “the reality that in the first century the most common and readily available form of male homoerotic activity was a master’s or patron’s exploitation of young slaves”.1

If we are to keep telling the story of the difficult witness of the people of God in the world with integrity, I think we have to factor in the epochal transformation and the radically different futures that it opens up.

For this reason Giles concludes that Paul was thinking not of “homosexuality”, as we moderns understand it, but of certain patterns of abusive same-sex behaviour prevalent in the ancient world; and of course, no one today thinks that a man will be debarred from the kingdom of God on the grounds that he is a clean-shaven or long-haired.

Now for what I think of it—along with a barefaced (clean-shaven?) promotion my book End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission.

  • The word malakoi is likely to refer to (ostentatiously?) effeminate men. The association with “homoerotic acts” is not intrinsic to the meaning (the word does not mean “catamite”), but it is more than an “unwarranted supposition”, as Hart maintains. In a strongly homoerotic culture, it was natural for feminised men to be identified as male prostitutes or assumed to be sexually “passive”.
  • Giles appears to disregard the connection between arsenokoitai and Leviticus 20:13 LXX (cf. Lev. 18:22): “whoever lies with a male (meta arsenos) in a bed of a woman (koitēn gynaikos), both did an abomination” (my translation). Although grammatically distinct, the two words arsenos and koitēn fall together in the sentence, making it probable, in my view, that Paul (perhaps for the first time) combined them to form the single word arseno-koitēs, as a shorthand reference to the severe Old Testament prohibition, after the pattern of similar words, such as mētrokoitēs (a man who lies with his mother) and doulokoitēs (a man who lies with a slave).
  • There is, therefore, a ready association between the words malakoi and arsenokoitai, but probably not to the extent that they constitute a straightforward sexual pairing (catamite and sodomite, passive and active partners). I think it more likely that Paul refers to two distinct types of offence: an exaggerated effeminacy with sexual connotations and the basic act of a man lying with another as with a woman. I don’t think that there are good reasons for restricting the latter to abusive or flagrantly promiscuous sexual relations.
  • Giles highlights the particular forms that effeminacy took in the ancient world (beardless men with long hair) and insists that these are “cultural norms” that we are free to disregard in the twenty-first century. This is not much of an argument. The objection of first century Jews such as Philo—and presumably also Paul—was to the feminisation of the man. If the outward signs or cultural markers of feminisation change somewhat, the objection remains. In the modern western context beardlessness and long hair are no longer unambiguous signs of effeminacy, but it is exhibited in other ways.
  • There is, however, a more fundamental “cultural” dimension to Paul’s opposition to “homosexual” behaviour that I think gets overlooked. I argue in my book that same-sex relations feature so prominently in Paul’s analysis of paganism in Romans 1:18-32 because he regarded the phenomenon (perhaps principally but not exclusively in the form of pederasty) as definitive of a “Greek” civilisation that was under judgment and passing away (cf. Rom. 1:16; 2:9-10). The controlling narrative is eschatological: effeminate men and men who lie with men as with women “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9).
  • We then have to ask the difficult question—very difficult for evangelicals—whether we share the same eschatology. To my way of thinking biblical eschatology is more about history than about the end of history. The rule of Israel’s God over the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē was established in the fourth and fifth centuries and endured—not always gloriously—for 1500 years or so. Modernity has brought that to an end, completely changing the rules of social existence. If we are to keep telling the story of the difficult witness of the people of God in the world with integrity, I think we have to factor in the epochal transformation and the radically different futures that it opens up. The final end doesn’t change—a new heaven and a new earth. But the proximate ends, the modern horizons, are far beyond anything Paul could have imagined. Nature is not what it used to be. The book tries to tell honest stories about same-sex relations that make sense under these changing conditions.

If you’re interested in reviewing the book, get in touch with Wipf & Stock and you might get a free copy from them. For the argument about Romans there’s also The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, which gets more and more ahead of its time as the years go by.

  • 1. D.B. Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (2017), 328.