Sunday, November 1, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.1): Arsenokoites

With this post, I am beginning a blog series on homosexuality and the church where I will offer some historical-critical and theological insights into the so-called "clobber passages.”  There are essentially six key verses in the entire Bible that supposedly deal with homosexuality.  I intend to offer my view on each of them in five posts. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are the passages I will deal with in the next two posts.  I will then write two posts on the Old Testament verses, concluding with Romans 1:26.

While I agree with mainstream scholarship that sees 1 Timothy (along with the other pastorals, 2 Tim. and Titus) as definitely pseudo-Pauline, they are in our sacred text and must therefore be actively engaged regardless of authorship questions. 1 Corinthians, on the other hand, is widely affirmed to be authentic Pauline material. With these issues in mind, we will be considering the two passages in 1 Cor. and 1 Tim. in the following two posts.  The primary challenge in both passages revolves around two Greek words: malakos and arsenokoites.

Below are the two relevant verses (NRSV):

1) "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes [Greek: malakos], sodomites [Greek: arsenokoites], thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor. 6:9-10)

2)"...the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites [Greek:
arsenokoites], slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me." (1 Tim. 1:9-11)

Let's start with the word arsenokoites, a somewhat mysterious word that has been translated differently throughout the 20th century. After centuries of being more particularly recognized as describing something distinctly male, biblical translators went broad in their interpretation. The word became variously translated as homosexuals, sodomites, sexual perverts, or homosexual offenders. In the case of the Corinthian passage, some translators even collapsed the two words malakos and aresnokoites into one phrase, defining it as homosexual perverts, homosexual perversion, or practicing homosexuals (an obvious attempt to separate sin from sinner...). Yale professor Dale Martin comments on this perplexing trend in his book Sex and the Single Savior (note his sarcasm):

"Between the end of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth century therefore, the translation of arsenokoites shifted from being the reference to an action that any man might well perform, regardless of orientation or disorientation to refer to a "perversion," either an action or a propensity taken to be self evidently abnormal and diseased. The shift in translation, that is, reflected the invention of the category of "homosexuality" as an abnormal orientation, an invention that occurred in the nineteenth century but gained popular currency only gradually in the twentieth. Furthermore, whereas earlier translations had all taken the term (correctly) to refer to men, the newer translations broadened the reference to include people of either sex who could be diagnosed as suffering from the new, modern neurosis of homosexuality. Thorough historical or philological evidence was never adduced to support this shift in translation. The interpretations were prompted not by criteria of historical criticism but by shifts in modern sexual ideology."

In order to uncover this peculiar word's meaning, we must see it used in a wide variety of contexts – something we unfortunately do not have the luxury of.  Using the very few sources that we do have, including uses of the word in the non-canonical Acts of John and the Sibylline Oracle, it appears to be a word that refers to economic exploitation by means of sex, but not necessarily homosexual sex. Arsenokoites appears in lists of sins that group different kinds of sins together, and it is always tied to other economic sins in these texts. This can also be seen in our canonical texts in 1 Cor. and 1 Tim., as the word is always followed by economic sins.  However, matters are somewhat unclear in these passages since sexual sins precede the word in both cases - not so in Acts of John and Sibylline Oracle!  There, the word is clearly marked off as an economic sin. In the non-canonical texts, there are clearly separated lists of sexual sins where arsenokoites does not appear – it only appears within other lists of economic injustices. A similar situation is observed in a second century document written by Theophilus of Antioch. The word there is separated by three other words that specifically refer to economic injustices. It is used once more later in that text, but it is immediately preceded by sexual sins and immediately followed by economic sins (like in our two canonical passages above).

There are two other known sources which use arsenokoites.  These texts might imply that it is related to sexual activity. One is a Gnostic myth and the other is a letter from Eusebius in the 3rd century. Neither are clear in their meanings, but sexual activity - and not necessarily homosexual activity - could be inferred from these other two passages.

Still, scholars do not know for sure what is meant by this word.  Its meaning is permanently lost to us today, barring future archaeological discoveries of ancient texts that use the word in more helpful contexts. We have a small handful of ancient texts using it, and it seems very unlikely to refer to homosexuality more generally.  As we have seen, it probably refers to a kind of economic exploitation, perhaps of a sexual kind.  Even considering the ambiguity of the word, there is absolutely no defensible reason to translate arsenokoites as referring more broadly to homosexual sex, or in more narrow terms as sex between two men, as some earlier translators did.  Whatever the word meant, it has nothing to do with the kinds of same-sex relationships that are based on commitment, mutuality, and love between two responsible adults.