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Two Deadly Words: Part One

Two Deadly Words: Part One

What’s a Man-bed?

Many Hearts Together

© Lisa C. Farrell

Any person picking up a modern translation of the bible in America today and opening to 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 or 1 Timothy 1: 9-10 would think beyond a shadow of a doubt that homosexuality is condemned in the bible. And it’s all because of the mistranslation of two deadly words.

A brief look at just a few popular bibles demonstrates the problem in glaring lights.

  • Today’s English Version Good News Bible (1976)

1 Corinthians 6:9

Surely you know that the wicked will not possess God’s Kingdom. Do not fool yourselves; people who are immoral or who worship idols or are adulterers or homosexual perverts

Today’s English Version Good News Bible 1976

1 Timothy 1:10

for the immoral, for sexual perverts, for kidnappers, for those who lie and give false testimony or who do anything else contrary to sound doctrine.

  • New American Standard Version 1971/1995

1 Corinthians 6: 9 

Ordo you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals

1 Timothy 1: 10

and immoral men and homosexualsand kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching

Ø New International Version 1984

1 Corinthians 6: 9

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders

1 Timothy 1:10

for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

Ø  New International Version (2011) with footnote

1 Corinthians 6: 9

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men  Note: footnote added for clarification: “The words men who have sex with mentranslate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.”

1 Timothy 1:10

for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

  • Holman Christian Standard Bible (2001) (produced by the Southern Baptist Convention)

1 Corinthians 6: 9

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals

1 Timothy 1:10

for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching

  • English Standard Version (2007)

1 Corinthians 6: 9 

Or do you not know that the unrighteouswill not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality . . .

1 Timothy 1:10

the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sounddoctrine

For those who aren’t used to bible scholarship, these two bible passages are what is known as “vice lists.” Listing all of the bad things to avoid was a common practice in the ancient world. Listing all of the bad things that your enemies were alleged to be guilty of was reallycommon. The Jews had lists of sins that the Gentiles were supposed to be guilty of, and the Gentiles had lists of the alleged wrongs committed by Jews. It’s sort of like our version of political attack ads.

The two deadly words that have been mistranslated as “homosexual” are in these vice lists. In some cases the words have been combined, because a hugeassumption on the part of translators is that these two words belong together, one being the so-called “active” partner and the other being the so-called “passive” partner. But none of the other words in the lists come in pairs, and I believe it is a mistake to connect these two.

So what are these mysterious words? Both 1 Corinthians 6: 9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 contain the word ἀρσενοκοῖται(arsenokoitai)and 1 Corinthians 6:9 also includes the word μαλακοὶ (malakoi).  

If this sounds like it’s all Greek to you, that’s because it is. Greek, that is.

What’s the first thing we do when we want to look up the meaning of a word? We look in the dictionary. But do we ever think about how the creator of these dictionaries know what the words mean? I never did. The dictionary was like God. You didn’t argue with the dictionary. But dictionaries (called lexicons by the erudite) are created by human beings with their own limitations. We know what a word means only by seeing how it is used in context. The people who put dictionaries together have to do a lot of reading. They have to see how a word is used in order to know all of it’s possible meanings. BUT they also rely on earlier dictionaries, which means that an incorrect definition, particularly of an obscure word, can carry on for centuries. Add to this the fact that the writers of dictionaries are influenced by their own cultural assumptions and prejudices, and the problem becomes circular. Greek New Testament dictionaries in the 20thand 21stcenturies have been translating arsenokoitaiand malakoiwith increasing specificity and increasing homophobia, but this is NOT due to any new scholarship or investigation about what the words actually mean. Instead it is somewhat like a tornado gaining size and speed with each new spiral. As more and more concepts are absorbed from the culture and incorrect interpretations are passed on, the “storm” evolves becoming more and more powerful. In the end the original words barely resemble themselves.

All translators, regardless of the level of scholastic ability they bring to the task, rely on dictionaries, and the result on bible translation is not hard to see. At the same time the blind spots caused by the unexamined homophobia of the translators themselves adds to the problem.

SO WHAT DO THESE WORDS REALLY MEAN?

Arsenokoitai

  1. Arsenokoitai is an extremely difficult word to define because it is so rare. The Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (Greek Language Dictionary) lists only seventy-three instances.[1]By way of comparison, the word “obelus” is rare, so rare, most of us don’t know what it means. (It’s the division symbol.) Yet it appears millions of times in literature. Arsenokoitai turns up 73 times, and most of the time it does, it’s quoting Paul. Many think that Paul coined the word. It is virtually unknownin Greco-Roman erotic literature.
  2. Arsenokoitai literally means “man-bed.” That’s not as helpful as we might think. If we assume it’s a euphemism, we need to consider the nature of compound words. To “understand” does not mean to “stand under.” A butterfly has nothing to do with airborne butter. A ladykiller is neither a person who murders women or a female murderer. A brainstorm is not an event combining brains and bad weather. An earmark is not a mark on an ear. An underdog is not a type of dog. A copycat is not a type of cat, and a cowslip is a flower, not, fortunately for all concerned, a slip designed for a cow.
  3. Among the 73 times it is used when NOT quoting Paul arsenokoitai refers to a pimp, or sex trafficker, which would make sense. In one or two other cases it appears to refer to anal intercourse with women. Sometimes it refers to male-male sexual acts, for the most part in the context of pagan religion. Overall the range of meanings is:
  • Pedophilia[2]
  • Male-male rape[3]
  • Pagan Temple prostitution
  • Heterosexual anal intercourse [4]
  • A pimp or sex trafficer in women and boys[5]
  • Economic exploitation.[6]

The most likely reason for Paul coming up with this obscure term in the first place is that the Septuagint (the most well known Greek translation Old Testament in Paul’s time) used the words arseno (man) and koites (bed) to translate two texts from Leviticus that likely refer to male-male sexual behavior. The Levitical texts are also not as clear as some would want us to believe, and likely reflect the assumption that procreation was paramount and “wasting” seed for any other purpose was to be rejected. In a time of high infant mortality every live birth was essential to the survival of the people as a whole.

In using such an arcane word Paul could also have been thinking of the pagan temple sexual practices of the time, referring to the priests who had sex as part of their worship. The Galli, pagan male temple prostitutes of the Cult of Cybele the Great Mother cut off all their male genitalia when they devoted themselves to the cult, usually in early adolescence.  They wore women’s clothing from that point, and made their flamboyant presence known in all major cities of the Empire. For a Jew like Paul, this was beyond comprehension. Today we might offer these young trans men the option of gender reassignment.

But the strongest argument in favor of arsenokoitai NOT meaning gay as we mean gay, is that if Paul wanted to say that he had at his disposal a lot more accurate (and comprehensible) words. Paul knew all about this type of behavior. He lived among the Greek speaking non-Jewish population. He traveled the Empire, and in the Empire there were a lot of words to describe same-sex activity, about 27 words in fact. There is NO WAY that Paul did not know these words. It would be like living in America and not knowing what “fag” or “queer” meant. Paul would have known these words, and he did not choose any of them.

THE 27 WORDS:

  1. κίναιδος/ kinaedos(common insult for male who is penetrated by another man)
  2. catamitus(Latin version of Ganymede, the youth Apollo kidnapped)
  3. παιδικά/paedika(boy favorite used for sex)
  4. παιδεραστία/paiderastia(love for boys)
  5. παιδικός/paedīco)/pedico(older male partner/active)
  6. ἐρόμενος /eromenos(beloved)
  7. ἐραστής/erastes(lover, active older male partner)
  8. παιδεραστες/paederastes(lover of boys)
  9. παῖς/pais/ puer(slave boy/male slave used for sex)
  • πεπορνευμένος/peporneumenosGreek only (male whore)
  • ηεταιρεκος/hetairekosGreek only (male higher class prostitute)
  • ηεταιριστριαι/hetairistriaiGreek only (higher class lesbian)
  • pathiciLatin only (passive sexual role-male)
  • exoletiLatin only (active sexual role-male)
  • drauciLatin only with Greek equivalents (active sexual role-male)
  • καταπύγων/ katapugon)Greek only with Latin equivalents (active sexual role-male)
  • παεδιξατορες/paedicatores(active sexual role-male)
  • glabriLatin only but from a Greek root (active sexual role-male)
  1. ἄρρενοςμανείς /arrenomaneisGreek only(literally, “mad after men”)
  • ἀνδροβάτης /androbates Greek only
  • ανδρογψνυς/androgynus androgynous (man-woman)
  • τριβάς/tribas(woman who engages in sex with another woman/lesbian, from root word “to rub)
  • fricatrixLatin only (woman who engages in sex with another woman/lesbian, from root word “to rub”)
  • διηεταριστια/dihetaristiaGreek only (woman who engages in sex with another woman/lesbian)
  • λέσβος/lesbosGreek but widely known (woman who engages in sex with another woman/lesbian)
  • viragoLatin only (masculine woman who engages in sex with another woman/lesbian)
  • mesolelotHebrew (woman who engages in sex with another woman, from the root word meaning “to rub”)

More in Part Two of this blog . . .

[1]Thesaurus Linguae Graecae,University of California, ( 2009) <http://www.tlg.uci.edu/> (accessed December 8, 2011).

[2]”Theophilus of Antioch.” Theophilis to AutolycusBook 1, Chapter 2, ed. Peter Kirby,  trans. Marcus Dods, (1871) Early Christian Writings. (2011) <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theophilus.html> (accessed December 6, 2011).

[3]Jeramy Townsley,All known references to arsenokoit* (2010) <http://www.jeramyt.org/gay/arsenok.htm> (accessed December 8, 2011).

[4]John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century(Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1980), 364.

[5]Jeramy Townsley,All known references to arsenokoit* (2010) <http://www.jeramyt.org/gay/arsenok.htm>(accessed December 8, 2011).

[6]Sibylline Oracle 2. 70-77, trans.  J.J. Collins, quoted in Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) 40. Note: This section of the Oracle quotes Pseudo-Phocylides except for verses in parentheses.

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