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“Inheriting the Kingdom of God”—1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:9-10, and Jude 7

Studies in Hermeneutics —Lesson 19

By Reta Halteman Finger

Anzio Apollo Statue

So-called “Anzio Apollo” – Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original of the 4th or the 2nd century BC, first half of the 1st century CE. – From the imperial villa in Anzio (Wikipedia)

“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, malakoi, arsenokoitai, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

“The law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient…for those who kill their father or mother, murderers, fornicators, arsenokoitais, slave traders, liars, perjurers…”
1 Timothy 1:9-10

“Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which…indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” Jude 7

Using what we have learned from Greco-Roman standards of sexual behavior and the views of their philosophers, we are in a better place to evaluate how to translate—or not to translate—these two Greek terms from the first two scripture passages quoted above:  malakoi and arsenokoitai. To use the term “homosexual” for either one, as some Bible versions do, is anachronistic because Rome was a bisexual culture. Marriage was naturally heterosexual for procreation, but it was also natural for socially superior men to use persons of either gender for their sexual pleasure, so long as they controlled their passion.

Translation difficulties

So what can these words mean? A typical understanding is that they are the passive and active partners in male-on-male sexual activity. Malakoi is the plural form of malakos, which means “soft.” The Greek New Testament uses this term only twice more, in Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25. Both come from the same saying of Jesus, who is contrasting the prophet John in his camel’s-hair shirt with those who live in royal palaces and wear soft (malakois) clothing. Several Bible versions translate malakoi as “effeminate.”

But David Fredrickson, whose scholarly work I introduced in Lesson 16, argues that malakos can refer not only to the passive role in male-on-male sexual activity, but to the broader problem of self-control. “Even men who were too interested in having sex with women, their wives included, were deemed soft, as also were adulterers” (D. E. Fredrickson, “Natural and Unnatural Use in Romans 1:24-27:  Paul and the Philosophic Critique of Eros,” in, Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, ed. D. L. Balch, Eerdmans, 2000, p 219). Aristotle connected malakia with luxury and excess, which later moralists adopted. This interpretation fits well with the “greedy, drunkards, and carousers” of 1 Corinthians 6: 10.

Translating the second word, arsenokoitēs, is notoriously difficult because no occurrence before Paul has been found. It includes the words “man” and “bed,” leading some to assume homosexuality (“sodomites” in the NRSV). The post-Pauline usage of this word meant “one who has a boy as an eromenos” (pederasty). David Fredrickson considers it likely that “Paul is picking up a thread of Greek and Jewish tradition which regarded pederasty as an illegitimate form of erotic love, not only because of the lover’s loss of self-control, but also because of the younger male’s disgrace at being penetrated” (p. 221). In his book, A Time to Embrace, William Stacy Johnson notes that Romans influenced by Stoicism were especially critical of this exploitation of boys and young men (Eerdmans, 2006, p. 133).

The literary context of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

These two verses comprise a vice-list that follows Paul’s criticism of believers suing other believers in Roman courts ( 1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Paul forbids this because the court system was inherently unjust to people of lower social standing. Bribery was rife, and one could never sue a person of higher status. Thus, elite men of these house churches would always win their cases over lower-class members in a Roman court. This is already happening because Paul says, “You yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that!” (6:8). He follows this with a list of adikoi, unjust persons (“wrongdoers” in the NRSV), as we have quoted above.

The list itself is not Pauline but is “a standard enumeration of actions that many in the Greco-Roman world considered unacceptable,” according to William Stacy Johnson (A Time to Embrace, p. 132). In other words, Paul is using traditional Greco-Roman morality to shame the higher-class members of the Corinthian house churches. He further challenges their cavalier attitude toward “Christian liberty” in the next paragraph. The more powerful men in the church say, “All things are lawful for me”; but Paul counters this by saying, “Yes, but all things are not beneficial” (6:12).

In fact, throughout this letter, Paul keeps confronting this elite class of persons in his Corinthian house churches who pull rank over others who are lower-class laborers, tradespeople, and slaves. Some use their newfound “Christian liberty” to manipulate or abuse others in their house church. Whoever arsenokoitai are, their sexual behavior is unjust to those with less power and status. 

1 Timothy 1:9-10—another vice-list

Arsenokoitēs is used in one other vice-list in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. It confirms the abusive and hedonistic meaning from 1 Corinthians. However, here it is followed by the term “slave-traders.” Johnson discusses the lucrative and lively trade in boys that existed in Roman culture at that time. In their military campaigns, the Romans took many prisoners. They would often castrate the young male prisoners to keep them looking boyish as long as possible. Those who survived the mutilation were sold at the slave market for the arsenokoitai. Eventually, the Romans banned the practice, but it nevertheless persisted (p. 133). The string of terms in the vice-list—fornicators, men-who-have-sex-with-men, slave-traders—make this interpretation very likely.

Jude 7—“unnatural lust”

This oft-cited text used to condemn lesbians and gay men cannot refer to same-sex desire. The Greek term is sarkos heteras, which means “other flesh,” from where we get our term “heterosexual.” According to James Brownson in Bible, Gender, Sexuality (Eerdmans, 2013), “The sin envisioned in the text is not lusting after someone of the same sex, but the sin of lusting after the angelic visitors—who are not human” (p. 42, n. 2).

Conclusion

Many Christians still read these three texts as a handy, short-cut way to condemn all persons with any same-sex orientation or who are in committed, same-gender relationships. In light of these cultural and literary contexts, it is inappropriate to translate either malakoi or arsenokoitai as “homosexuals.” Instead, they identify specific types of sexual obsession or exploitation. Johnson comments at the close of his reflections on 1 Timothy 1:10 that sex with castrated slave boys “is hardly the kind of behavior involved in exclusively committed same-gender love” (p. 133). And pursuing sex with an angel is definitely “unnatural”!

Questions for reflection or discussion

1. How can this lesson help you respond to non-affirming Christians who say, “What is there to argue about? The Bible is clear that all homosexuals are sinful”?

2. What is the problem with translating malakoi as the passive partner in a same-sex encounter? If he is an enslaved victim, is he also a sinful perpetrator?

3. If castrated slave boys were the abused victims of Greco-Roman times, how does this compare to the sex trade today, primarily—though not exclusively—in girls and women? What has created the gender difference in modern sex trafficking?

 

 

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