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In a previous article I reviewed Paul’s use of the term arsenokoites (“one who ‘beds’ a man”) as a description of homosexual behavior (1 Corinthians 6.9;  1 Timothy 1.10).  In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul employs a second term, malakos, which been regularly translated as a reference to homosexuality, condemning homosexual behavior per se.  Those who favor homosexuality and same sex marriage argue that this is a mistranslation and that the term is actually referring to homosexual prostitution.

The word malakos has the basic meaning of “soft” or “weak” and can refer to sitting on a soft cushion or wearing soft clothing.  It came to be applied in a figurative way to the personality to denote someone who was “soft” in the sense that he gave in easily out of faintheartedness or cowardice.  By extension of this concept it came to denote a man who was effeminate, and in several writings contemporary with the New Testament the word was used expressly to describe effeminate homosexual behavior.  Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – AD 50) was a Jewish philosopher who used malakos this way.  The passages are long but I quote them at length because they make the point that the Jewish community used malakos to denote one who practiced homosexuality (particularly the man who played the sexually passive role).  Commenting on the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah Philo writes:

…for not only did they go mad after women and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature [i.e. they didn’t regard the fact that they were both males]…and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil;  for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they also made their souls ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of man…  (Philo, On Abraham, 135-136)

 

In this passage malakos is translated effeminacy and denotes a male playing the role of the female in a sexual encounter.  An even longer passage describes practices that Philo observed among his contemporaries.

 

               (37) Moreover, another evil…has made its way among and been let loose upon cities, namely, the love of boys, which formerly was accounted a great infamy even to be spoken of, but which sin is a subject of boasting not only to those who practice it, but even to those who suffer it, and who, being accustomed to bearing the affliction of being treated like women, waste away as to both their souls and bodies, not bearing about them a single spark of manly character to be kindled into a flame, but having even the hair of their heads conspicuously curled and adorned, and having their faces smeared with vermilion and paint and things of that kind, and having their eyes penciled beneath, and having their skins anointed with fragrant perfumes…and being well appointed in everything that tends to beauty or elegance, are not ashamed to devote their constant study and endeavors to the task of changing their manly character into an effeminate one.   (38) And it is natural for those who obey the law to consider such persons worth of death since the law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption…

               (39) And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys submit to the same punishment, since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature…and moreover, being a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and effeminate lust, stripping young men of the flower of their beauty, and wasting their prime of life in effeminacy, which he ought rather on the other hand to train to vigor and acts of courage…

               (40) And I imagine that the cause of this is that among many nations there are actually rewards given for intemperance and effeminacy.  At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals;  and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites…

               (41)  And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes…  (Philo, On Special Laws III, selected from 37-41)

 

Sexual love of boys, Philo says, had in the past been considered so horrendous enough that it was not publicly mentioned.  But in his day it was boasted about it by the older men who used the younger men, AND by the younger men who submitted to be penetrated!  In (38) Philo states that this practice is condemned by the prohibitions of Leviticus and the problem is the male’s assumption of the female’s sexual role.  In (39) Philo says that BOTH participants are condemned by the law, the elder because he is playing the role of teacher and guide to the younger man regarding “unmanliness and effeminate (malakos) lust”.  It could hardly be clearer that it is homosexual behavior that is condemned both in Leviticus and in Philo. 

 

Those who favor homosexuality and same-sex marriage point to (40) where Philo describes these “men-women” as being involved in temple prostitution.  But Philo is not arguing that prostitution is the problem.  He is arguing that a man being penetrated by another male is;  that a man playing the role that nature gives to a female is the great sin.  Temple prostitution is ONE EXAMPLE of that, but it is a problem, not because of its idolatrous connections but because it was a common and publicly accepted example of a male behaving like a female for sexual purposes.
 
Because our society is sensitive to the AGE of sexual participants, some read that perspective back into the ancient world and say that the problem was not homosexuality, but pedophilia.  But that is not how Philo argues.  His argument is that the great sin is the overturning of nature – the man behaving sexually like a woman and being penetrated.  The age of the participant was not the issue in the ancient world and definitely not in Philo’s discussion.
 

Despite the fact that the word malakos speaks of homosexuality in first century literature, some still argue that in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul was using the term to speak of some other form of softness – perhaps being weak-willed or cowardly.  This is not impossible.  But given the list of sins – which otherwise seem quite heinous – does cowardliness seem sufficient to warrant exclusion from the kingdom of God in the mind of someone who was raised in the tradition of the Jewish law?  Is that the likely meaning of the word in 1 Corinthians 6?  Likewise, given that malakos occurs between “adulterers” and “homosexuals” (arsenokoites), does it not seem highly likely that malakos refers to some sort of sexual sin?  Most who believe that both terms refer to homosexual behavior suggest that malakos refers to the male who plays the female role of being penetrated and arsenokoites refers to the man doing the penetrating.  This does not seem unreasonable or a violation of the context or the usage of the words in first century literature.

 

Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that either one or both of the terms employed in 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 refer not to rape or pedophilia or prostitution but to homosexual behavior in general as immoral and worthy of condemnation (along with the other evils in the list).

Two lists of vices in Paul’s letters include terms that are usually translated as denoting “homosexuality”.

 

…Do not be deceived:  neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (malakoi), nor sodomites (arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.  (I Corinthians 6.9-10 NKJV)

 

knowing this:  that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites (arsenokoitai), for liars for perjurers…  (1 Timothy 1.9-10 NKJV)

 

Both passages depict homosexual behavior as a sin.  But those who favor homosexuality and same-sex marriage argue that the terms Paul employs (arsenokoitai and malakoi) do not denote homosexuality per se but should be translated either in a broader sense (e.g. “effeminate men”, not necessarily homosexual) or a narrower one (e.g. “male prostitute” or “call boy”). 

 

The first word – arsenokoitai – is formed from two Greek words:  arsen (male, man) and koite (bed).  “Bed” is often an idiom for sex (e.g. “conceive” in Romans 9.10 is literally “had a bed”;  today we say “went to bed with”) and for sexual promiscuity (e.g. Romans 13.13 – “lewdness and lust”).  The compound word (“man-bedder”) certainly appears to mean “one who has sex with males”.  The word is not found in Greek literature prior to these occurrences in the New Testament so it is not unlikely that someone of Hellenistic-Jewish background (many believe it was Paul) coined the word to depict “homosexuality” using the Greek words found in Leviticus 18.22 [“With a male (arsen) you shall not lie to bed (koite) as a woman”] and which are a clear prohibition of homosexual behavior.  Early translators of the New Testament into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic (Egyptian) all translated arsenokoitai as “men who lie with men” (i.e. homosexuals).

 

Most commonly arsenokoitai appears in lists of vices and sins;  rarely is it defined.  A few passages, however, give explicit descriptions of arsenokoitai.  I present here the two earliest which are the most clear and the most helpful.

 

Hippolytus, bishop of Rome around AD 200, expounded the temptation of Adam and Eve as follows:                

 

 Naas [the name Hippolytus used for the serpent]...has committed sin, for he went in unto Eve (i.e. had sex with her), deceiving her, and debauched her; and this is a violation of law. He, however, likewise went in unto Adam, and had unnatural intercourse with him...whence have arisen adultery and sodomy (arsenokoitia).

 

Hippolytus’ interpretation of the temptation of Adam and Eve as sexual is beside the point.  Our interest is how he uses his terms.  Hippolytus claimed that the serpent had sex with Eve (which correspondingly gave rise to adultery, he says) and that the serpent also had sex with Adam, giving rise to arsenokoitia.  If the serpent had sex with Eve and this corresponds to adultery, it would appear that the serpent is seen as male.  So when the male serpent had sex with Adam, thus giving birth to the sin of arsenokoitia, it is difficult to escape the inference that arsenokoitia is homosexual behavior.  Clearly arsenokoitia in the context is neither pederasty nor prostitution.

 

A second text comes from around the same period from Bardesanes (AD 155 – 220), an Assyrian Gnostic teacher, whose work is quoted by the church historian, Eusebius.  Bardesanes, discussing the cultural practices of various regions, writes:

There is a law in force in Hatra, that whosoever steals any little thing, even though it were worthless as water, shall be stoned.  Among the Cashani, on the contrary, if any one commits such a theft as this, they merely spit in his face.  Among the Romans, too, he that commits a small theft is scourged and sent about his business. On the other side of the Euphrates, and as you go eastward, he that is stigmatized as either a thief or a murderer does not much resent it; but, if a man be stigmatized as a homosexual [arsenokoites], he will avenge himself even to the extent of killing his accuser.  ... Again, in all the region of the East, if any persons are thus stigmatized, and are known to be guilty [of homosexuality], their own fathers and brothers put them to death; and very often they do not even make known the graves where they are buried.  Such are the laws of the people of the East.  But in the North, and in the country of the Gauls and their neighbors, such youths among them as are handsome the men take as wives, and they even have feasts on the occasion; and it is not considered by them as a disgrace, nor as a reproach, because of the law which prevails among them.

The passage is lengthy but not difficult to follow.  Bardesanes points out that different societies assess vices differently.  Some find theft grievous;  others do not.  Throughout the East (where Bardesanes lived) being called an arsenokoites was considered far more shameful than being called a thief or even a murderer.  But according to Bardesanes the tribes in the northern regions (Europe) find no stigma whatsoever in arsenokoitia.  On the contrary, northern men shamelessly take handsome young men as wives (or lovers) and celebrate the occasion.  In other words, a man having a young man as a lover is arsenokoitia!  Thus arsenokoitia is neither rape nor child molestation but (in this case) mutual consensual homosexual sex and possibly same-sex marriage.

 

I could cite additional similar sources but that would be unnecessarily redundant.  It is highly likely that arsenokoite refers to homosexual behavior, presented as a sin in 1 Timothy 1.9-10 and as a sin that prevents one from entering the kingdom of God in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10.

 

The case is not exhaustive but is very strong that arsenokoitia is homosexual behavior which Christians saw as forbidden because they were following at least some of the principles of Jewish law.  What other sin under this name would be thought to make one unfit for the kingdom of God by someone with a background in Jewish law?

 

Speaking of Jewish law – in my research I turned up yet another text that indicates that Leviticus 18.22 prohibits homosexual behavior rather than male prostitution.  It is found in Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, who writes regarding Jewish marriage laws:

 

But, then, what are our [Jewish] laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature has appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children. But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male; and if anyone does that, death is its punishment.  (Josephus, Against Apion, 2.25)

 

 

Leviticus 18.21 says:  “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God:  I am the LORD.”  The next verse prohibits homosexuality:  “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman;  it is an abomination.”  Those who favor homosexuality and same sex marriage argue that Leviticus 18.21 indicates that the chapter is concerned with idolatry, not sexual behavior.  They claim that what is prohibited in Leviticus 18.22 is not the mutual homosexual love but homosexual prostitution in the service of idols that was common in the ancient Near East.

 

A handful of scholars argue that there was no sacred prostitution in the ancient Near East, but most accept that male prostitution was a part of the worship of several goddesses in the ancient world.  Robert Gagnon provides a helpful summary of what is known of these male prostitutes.

 

…there was a certain acceptability in Mesopotamian society for sex with an assinnu, kurgarru, or kulu’u (words sometimes translated as “male cult prostitutes”).  They were closely connected with the goddess Inanna (her Sumerian name) or Ishtar (her Assyrian name, who was identified with Venus (masculine as the morning star and feminine as the evening star) – hence, a goddess possessing androgynous features and traits. …  In keeping with their role in the myth, their liminal state between two sexes, and their status as devotees of the goddess, they were thought to possess magical power that could deliver people from sickness or other troubles, or bring people success against enemies.  They dressed like women, wore makeup, carried with them a spindle (a feminine symbol) and engaged in ecstatic dance and ritual self-torture (probably including self-castration…).  Some may have been born hermaphrodites.  The goddess, it was believed, had transformed each into a “man-woman” or even a “dog-woman” (with “dog” denoting a disgusting transformation of masculinity and possibly also intercourse in a doglike position).  There is good evidence that they offered their services for a fee as the receptive partner in anal intercourse.  Ideally, a man who had intercourse with an assinnu did so as a means of accessing the power of the goddess herself.  Although the role of the [male prostitutes] was institutionalized, they were often treated with great disdain.  [Pastor Chris’ note:  Job 36.14 mentions these prostitutes and describes their lives as troubled, miserable, and brief.]  In addition to the epithet “dog”, they were said to have been created from the dirt under the god Enki’s nails…  One text speaks of them as those “whose masculinity Ishtar changed into femininity to strike horror into people – the bearers of daggers, razors, pruning-knives and flint blades who frequently do abominable acts to please the heart of Ishtar.”  (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, pp. 48-49)


The Books of Kings depicts the Israelites as accepting the male prostitution of the Canaanites, which was most likely similar to the Mesopotamian prostitution described by Gagnon.  Male prostitutes flourished at the old Canaanite groves and high places even after the construction of the Temple into the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam (1 Kings 14.23-24).  Though driven out by Rehoboam, the male prostitutes were back again during the reigns of Asa (1 Kings 15.12-13) and Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22.46).  Two hundred years after Jehoshaphat we find the male prostitutes yet again, but this time they are living and plying their trade in the Temple until King Josiah removes them (2 Kings 23.6-7). 

 

Religious prostitution, male and female, is explicitly forbidden in Deuteronomy 23.17-18, where the male prostitutes are referred to as “dogs”.  But was Leviticus 18.22 intended only as a prohibition of male prostitution?  Most of the laws in Leviticus 18 address sexual issues.  Leviticus 18.6-18 lists eighteen different types of forbidden incestuous relationships.  Leviticus 18.19 forbids sexual intercourse during the menstrual period.  Leviticus 18.20 forbids adultery.  Leviticus 18.22 forbids homosexuality and 18.23 forbids bestiality.  Tucked in among these prohibitions is the command against offering your children to the god Molech (18.21).  If this command indicates that the context is idolatry (not sexual violation) and turns the prohibition of homosexuality into a prohibition of sacred prostitution, then all of the prohibitions listed in the chapter would have to be read the same way.  In other words, adultery and incest and bestiality are fine as personal or social practices but are wrong and condemned if you perform them as a part of a pagan ritual.  The idea is silly enough to refute itself. 

It is far more likely that the commands are arranged somewhat randomly and stand on their own, or that there was a sexual aspect to the worship of Molech that warranted its inclusion here.  We know next to nothing about Molech worship;  it appears that the children were sacrificed to the god by fire but little is known beyond that.  In any case if there is a controlling idea to the laws, it is far more likely to be sexual violation, not idolatrous practices.
 

Leviticus 20 confirms that the Molech issue is separate from the sexual issues.  The worship of Molech is not among the sexual sins but is dealt with first and separately from the sexual violations (20.1-5).  The sexual sins are all clustered together and dealt with in 20.10-21.  The two sections are separated by a brief section that condemns mediums and necromancers and the cursing parents (20.6-9).  Leviticus 20 thus confirms that these sexual violations are condemned as sexual violations and not because they are idolatrous practices.

 

Another variant of this argument is that since the command to abstain from sex during the menstrual period is listed here, it indicates that these sins are not moral offenses but offenses against ritual purity In other words, homosexuality is on the same plane as eating kosher, wearing tassels, and refraining from cutting the corners of your hair and beard.  But if homosexuality is merely a ritual purity issue, and if homosexuality is made acceptable on that count (since we don’t observe ritual purity in the New Covenant), then it logically follows that incest, adultery, and bestiality (as well as offering your children to Molech!) are also now acceptable.  Likewise, in the next chapter of Leviticus the command to love your neighbor is nestled in among ritual purity commands (Leviticus 19.17), but I’ve never heard anyone argue that we therefore don’t need to love our neighbors.  Jesus certainly said otherwise!

 

However we decide to apply Leviticus, it is clear that an all-or-nothing approach (i.e. claiming that all of the commands are valid or that none of them are) doesn’t work for ANY position.  Interpreting and using Leviticus from a Christian perspective is more complicated than that.  What isn’t complicated is the fact that the prohibition of homosexual behavior is just that – a prohibition of homosexual behavior.

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