Two Deadly Words: Part Two
What Kind of Soft Are We Talking About?
Many hearts together
© Lisa C. Farrell
As we said in Part One of this blog, anyone 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 be absolutely convinced that homosexuality is condemned in the bible. This is because of the mistranslation of two deadly words, arsenokoitai (man-bed) and malakoi(soft). We’ve already talked about the almost impossible to translate arsenokoitai. Today it’s time to go “soft.”
There are two Greek words that mean “soft.” One is kinaidos. The other one is malakoi.
A man accused of being kinaidoswas absolutely 100% being accused of being gay. It was a favorite political slander, because the word doesn’t just mean gay. It means the passive partner in male sexual intercourse. It’s like calling someone a fag or a pansy. The passive partner took on the role of a woman. Women were inferior. Ergo, any man doing the same was inferior.
Malakoialso means soft. It is used in the New Testament to refer to soft clothing. Matt. 4:23, 9:35 and 10:1 use malakoito refer to illnesses Jesus healed. Since the sense of “softness” was also interpreted negatively as weakness, one might make an educated guess that these were debilitating conditions. No one mistranslates the word in this context as “homosexual.” It would make very interesting reading if they did!
So how on earth did these two words get mixed up?
In the writings of the Early Church Fathers malakoiis used in a variety of contexts. It is to describe liquid. It is used to describe a person who is cowardly, or delicate and refined, or weak-willed, or gentle, or debauched. Generally speaking, in a moral sense this word is NOT a compliment. Someone who is malakoiis licentious, self-indulgent and lacking in self-control. The person who is malakoiis a self absorbed lover of luxury. It is an adjective. A gay man may be malakoi, but so may a straight man. A gay man may be malakoi(fastidious about appearance and vain), but so may a straight man. That the accusation of being womanish was part of the slander is clear. Women were scorned.
So what could make you malakoi?In the Republic,Plato, (429–347 BCE) has Socrates express the opinion that too much music causes a warrior to become malakoteroi, or soft and sensitive.Aristotle, (384-322 BCE) in the Nichomachean Ethicsdescribes malakoias lack of restraint and excessive enjoyment of bodily pleasures.”Roughly contemporary with Paul, Josephus, (37-100 CE) used malakoito describe men who neglected fighting in favor of cultivating their land and seeking luxury.Philo in his Special Lawsactually describes a man who marries a divorced woman as malakoi.Dio Chrysostom (40-120 CE) reflects on the frustration of being the victim of criticism and gossip, noting that bookishness is enough to earn the term malakoifrom some.
Problems with meaning began with the switch from Greek to Latin. Jerome’s Vulgate (405 C.E.), virtually the only bible translation for centuries, translated malakoiwith the word molles, which also means soft. It was used in an insulting way to describe men who were unmanly, although not necessarily in a sexual way. They just weren’t macho enough. Masculinity in the Roman Empire was associated with virtue, and femininity with moral weakness. But while effeminate homosexual men could also be labeled molles, the word did not specifically mean homosexual men. In fact, it only started to shift in the 6thcentury, and surprisingly, in another the direction. For a very long time people thought malakoi referred to masturbation! This interpretation remained the dominant one for centuries, because the Roman Catholic Church thought masturbation was a great sin.
When the bible began to be translated into English translators had to figure out what to do. Molles/malakoiwas translated in the King James Version of 1611 as “effeminate.” At the time it was a pretty good translation because this is the word that was used to describe the vain peacocks at court strutting around in lace and eating delicacies. These men were straight, but totally self-indulgent. Over time, however, the meaning of the word effeminate changed. By the nineteenth century the concept that effeminate meant gay men was firmly embedded in the social consciousness. The next intuitive leap was automatic. The two words must be connected. The effeminate was the “passive” partner, and the other word, arsenokoitai, must mean the “active” partner.
Isn’t mistranslation wonderful?
We have come full circle. Two words—one obscure and probably referring to pagan temple practices, and the other blatantly incorrect, have been identified as referring to same sex behavior. The result for the GLBTQIA community has been devastating. Throughout history, it has even proven fatal.
Look for future blogs on what was considered “unnatural” behavior in Romans, and how the only people scripture calls Sodomites were citizens of Sodom.
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), 106.
Plato, Republic 3.387c (Greek) John Burnet, 1903. ed. Gregory R. Crane, Tufts University Perseus Digital Library.com(2011) <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0167%3Abook%3D3%3Asection%3D387c> (accessed December 14, 2011).
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics7.4.4 The Internet Classics Archive <http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.7.vii.html> (accessed December 14, 2011). For Greek see Aristotle, “Nichomachean Ethics” 7.4.4 (Greek) ed. J. Bywater and Gregory R. Crane, Tufts University. Perseus Digital Library. (2011) <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0053%3Abekker%20page%3D1148a%3Abekker%20line%3D10> (accessed December 14, 2011).
Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 5, 2.7 ed. Peter Kirby, Early Jewish Writings <http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/josephus/ant5.html> (accessed January 25, 2012).
Philo, Special Laws, Book 3, Chapter 5, Parts 30-31. ed. Peter Kirby, Early Jewish Writings. <http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book29.html> (accessed January 25, 2012).
Dio Chyrsostom, Discourses66:25 from the Loeb Classical Library ( 1951) (© William P. Thayer 2008) <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/66*.html> (accessed January 25, 2012).