If Jesus taught that what comes out of a man defiles him, surely the blatant inaccuracies and lies peddled by many of his most ardent followers must concern him at least a little, especially when they are done in connection with the Bible.
But such was the case yet again recently when Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary, was asked at the SBC’s recent convention to give his “succinct” and “Biblical” view of homosexuality. As per usual when Mohler opens his mouth, what he claims to be the case is almost precisely opposite what any mainstream scholar on the topic would tell you.
Saying that Christians should train themselves to look to the New Testament for answers (as opposed to the Old Testament, I suppose), he directs his disciples to Romans 1 (about which I have already written) and 1 Corinthians 5-6 (presumably especially 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, a well-known “clobber passage”).
He then makes this rather dubious remark:
Especially when you get to 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul uses very specific language that indicates that he is actually very knowledgeable about the homosexual culture of the first century. He uses the words most familiar for the active and passive participant, and it is just that candid.
This is utter garbage, as even an undergraduate classics major could ably demonstrate.
1 Cor. 6:9-10 is the famous passage where, according to the NRSV, Paul proclaims that “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers–none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Of course, our first question should be, what does the original language say? Especially with respect to “male prostitutes” or “sodomites”?
The two words here are μαλακός and ἀρσενοκοῖται. They are not, contra Mohler, the specific words typically used for active and passive homosexuality, and either Mohler is simply unaware of this, or he is aware of it and is simply lying to his audience to make them believe what he wants them to believe.
One of them, ἀρσενοκοῖται, couldn’t possibly be a word used by other classical authors for anything because it’s a well-known hapax legomenon — that is, a word that “occurs once” (though it’s repeated by the author of 1 Timothy). Paul appears to have invented it based on his reading of the Greek translation of Leviticus (and its two well-known clobber passages). So again, how is this a word “most familiar” for any homosexual act at all, when it appears nowhere else?
The same goes (though it is less unclear) for μαλακός. In none of the most well-known books on ancient sexuality is μαλακός, which literally means simply “soft” (and is used plenty of times in just such a perfectly innocuous way), equated exclusively with “homosexuality,” much less “passive homosexuality.” Indeed, the Greeks and Romans had a word for that: κίναιδος (transliterated into Latin as cinaedus), though even here the semantic range can go well beyond just this meaning. If κίναιδος can mean things well beyond mere sexual passivity (“its range seems potentially to include anyone who is perceived as sexually excessive or deviant,” writes Tom Hubbard in his source book Homosexuality in Greece and Rome), the semantic range for μαλακός is even wider, and can include simply notions of cowardice, luxuriousness, or effeminacy in general, all far short of the blanket understanding Mohler would like to take to the text.
Indeed, one wonders, if Paul really was “very knowledgeable” about “homosexual culture” in the first century, why didn’t he, in fact, use the words that come closest to those meanings — κίναιδος for a passive male or παιδεραστής for an active one (and again, these terms are problematic in their own rights)? It would certainly make the debate over “homosexuality” in the Bible a bit easier.
Whatever planet Mohler is living on, in no universe could one argue that Paul is using the words “most familiar” for any form of same-sex eroticism. He in fact fails to use the words “most familiar” and instead he uses a word he invented and a word whose broad range of meanings makes narrowing down what he meant a bit difficult. So again, either Mohler is genuinely ignorant of these facts and will correct his errors, or he is bearing false witness.
But Mohler’s goal here is clearly political, not an honest, academic examination of the text, much less an honest, academic study of its language, much less an honest, academic grounding in the historical reality behind that text, as his off-the-wall closing remarks made clear:
If the first century church could send their 15-year-olds out to pass several orgies on his way to get bread to come back — and if you don’t know about Rome, you don’t … you don’t know the Book of Romans — then we can send our own kids into a world knowing that they’re going to be playing Little League with somebody that’s got two mommies.
Do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of every classicist in America hitting the floor at the same time (we don’t make as much noise as, say, burly geologists — we tend to be very small and mousy people).
One wonders where Mohler’s primary knowledge of antiquity comes from. Cecile B. DeMille?
Keep in mind amid all of this that Mohler prefaces his remarks by saying that he had just finished teaching a class on this — supposedly at an institution of higher learning. But in the SBC, it appears reality is merely dictated by the narrow constraints of Southern Baptist ideology, not by the facts and historical accuracy most of the rest of us take for granted.
About Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and columnist who is now completing his Ph.D. in classical studies, with a graduate minor in religious studies focusing on early Christian literature. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and contends most firmly that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.