The idea of same sex relationships wasn’t well recognized in the region in Paul’s time. What was recognized was same sex activity. Paul had not yet gained that understanding of relationships, nor did the later church. Some things gain understanding slowly before change occurs. Things that are dehumanizing often taken time for us to recognize.
F or the Middle Eastern and Western World it took until the 1800s to understand that slavery wasn’t love, but was dehumanizing. In the 1900s people began to recognize that same sex relationships weren’t about promiscuity. People are the way God-nature made them. Without that understanding, temple prostitution between all sexes, and destructive man-boy sexual relationships, and promiscuity between same sexes, and committed relationships were all the same.
Jesus didn’t tell us everything because we couldn’t bear it. We wouldn’t have been able to understand. He didn’t come to change everything but to change our hearts so that we would change things that are not love. Even today we’re having difficulty with recognizing that many things are dehumanizing.
The Jews had a better handle on this in ancient times and today with their concept of “the dust of lashon hara” [avak lashon hara], as in saying “do not mention so-and-so for I do not wish to tell in what he was involved.”” We live in a society in which many love scandal and gossip. Doing this often ruins other’s lives.
Paul and a new word for same sex
It’s very useful to understand word usage and etymology.* In a previous article I explained that the entire region lacked a word for same sex relationships prior to the time of Paul.
* Etymology: the history of a word or word element, including its origins and derivation. [And changes in meaning.]
Rome spoke Latin as the predominant language. There was no specific word in Latin for homosexual, and the word pairings Paul used was not found in previous Greek literature. Like the ancient Hebrews, it was a patriarchal culture about dominance over females. Men were free to have sex with men as long as it was in a dominant relationship. – Homosexuality in ancient Rome. Was this lack of a word simply acceptance of these sexual encounters based on male privilege in a patriarchal society? Sex is sex?
Generally people feel that sex in an uncommitted relationship is not a good thing, and the experience of individuals in those types of casual sex relationships the 20-21st Century generally confirms this.* But ancient Jews loosely distinguished between a prostitute who gets paid, a person who commits adultery, and those who have sex casually. It had a lot to do with culture, just as it does today.
* How Casual Sex Can Affect Our Mental Health. Psychology Today
Jesus said something that might have astonished some in Judaism. In the context of divorce he said, “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”” – Matthew 19:12 (NASB)
Society of the time thought differently. “… eunuchs from birth were widely derided as incomplete and unmanly men.” For the Jews, procreation was an imperative that couldn’t legally be overlooked. Some of the apostles advised followers not to get married, if possible, because the end was near.* Suddenly there was all kinds of cultural and situational chaos about marriage and sexuality. For those who thought the end of Judaism and the beginning of tribulation for Christians meant the very end, resurrection in Heaven would be neither male nor female – androgynous. Matt. 22:30, Gal. 3:28.
Arsenokoitês – Paul’s word to describe same sex
The Apostle Paul said: “Or do 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, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9. He repeated and expanded in 1 Timothy 1:10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching …” (NASB)
There it was: “effeminate.” This could have referred to those young men who acted as homosexuals in order to get money. But the word translated simply means “soft male,” which is ambiguous in meaning.
While we can look at individual words, this is another contextual clue. In 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul lumps same sex activity in with other things such as being a “soft man” (malakoi). This gives the flavor of what Paul was getting at: not being a masculine, dominant man. To Paul, God could not look favorably at a man who wasn’t masculine. Well, then why did God create them?
Koitēs always means sexual activity in ancient Greek. “… all definitions of arsenokoitês that derive its meaning from its components are naive and indefensible.’” “… the word arsenokoitēs appears nowhere in Greek literature prior to Paul’s use of it.” – Christian Studies.
Arsenokoitês is not only ambiguous, it’s not seen before Paul in literature to give it a reference, it’s a word in search of a more specific meaning.
It does appear later in Greek literature with a different meaning: “arsenokoitai commit seems to revolve around an episode in Greek mythology: Zeus with Ganymede, the beautiful shepherd boy. “In the taking of Ganymede, Zeus is the model of someone who commits ἀρσενοκοιτία.” Except Zeus was not ‘homosexual’, as Petersen notes, but “seduces women and men with equal relish.” The crime in view was . . . abduction.” – Arsenkowhat?!: Does a Greek word in the Bible really mean ‘gays’?
As already shown in previous articles, some Hebrew words regarding purity can mean their exact opposite, depending on usage. Word etymology and usage are not easy to ascertain. And they have to be seen in cultural context, for example male dominance. Paul’s cultural orientation as an educated and practicing Jew, and his zealot attitude, have to be taken into account. Also to be taken into account is his insistence that all things are legal even if not good for you or others.
What do you want the Bible to say? Do you want interpretation to fit into society as the Rabbinical Jews made happen for the Hebrew Bible?
There is no absolute on “men lying with men,” in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible origin of that term likely reflected purity laws and that Canaanite Temple prostitution by both sexes should not occur in Yahweh worship. It wasn’t mentioned again for over 1000 years.
Even the destruction of Sodom had no discernable link to homosexual activity. But it does have a clear link to hospitality to strangers, a very important concept in that culture. And to adultery.
There was no restriction on women lying with women in the Hebrew Bible. This may reflect that women were subservient.
Male dominance and male privilege, giving men more sexual opportunities such as sex with unengaged slaves, and in the region sex with other men. This may reflect the lack of a need for a word describing activity that wasn’t restricted – it was just sex. Other activities such as rape and adultery were mentioned, so the idea of this being a hush, hush activity which shouldn’t be mentioned because it put people in a negative light is unlikely.
Paul literally had to coin a new word, or use some slang word in use at the time, to name this type of sexual encounter. He didn’t speak in terms of a permanent relationship.
Jesus mentioned that there is no sexuality in Heaven. To Jesus even becoming a eunuch was suitable for those doing God’s work – this was not impure as it was in Judaism. The imperative to procreate was not an issue for that age – the end was near and indeed came soon.
The Apostle Paul could not condemn any activity or make any new commandments. Everything was legal, not necessarily good for you or others, but for Paul and John all activity was a matter of conscience, between you and God – the law was in everyone’s heart.
It’s likely that Paul referred to sex in uncommitted relationships. The idea of gays being in committed relationships is unlikely to have been on Paul’s radar, and didn’t fit with male dominant relationships and culture.
Later translators grabbed the completely unrelated word, “Sodom” to speak of this kind of sexual encounter. It doesn’t define a relationship. In his use of the word ἀρσενοκοιτία, Paul makes no attempt to tie it to Sodom, which would have been a major error anyway.
So, is it more likely than not that Paul was influenced by Jewish culture and male dominance-privilege, and with this seeming “unnatural” act to speak against men lying with men?
How does you decision fit with the command to love one another?
Take Home Points
Given what is known about men lying with men in these cultures, it’s an uphill battle to conclude that committed homosexual relationships are taboo. A decision against LGBTQIA would likely be cultural, not religious.
Next article: A summary of the articles in this series.
Malakos and Arsenokoitês 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 – Westar Institute National Spring Meeting
μαλακοί and ἀρσενοκοῖται: In Defence of Tertullian’s Translation – Cambridge Core
How to Keep Millennials Engaged in Church – on Patheos
What Is Meant by Truth? – on Patheos
Tabernacle of Hate – False Religion – on Patheos
10 Reforms Christianity Needs to Make Right Now – on Patheos
The standard of belief and conduct for Christianity is love. Legal standard.
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