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Part 8: Listening to God's Word — The Epistles of St. Paul
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Feb 10, 2016)
The following is the eighth in a series on Homosexuality and God's Merciful Love. You can follow the entire series here.
Perhaps the clearest biblical teaching on the subject of homosexual relationships is found in the letters of St. Paul. Remember that St. Paul was specially chosen by Jesus Christ Himself to be the great apostle to the Gentiles: "for this man is a chosen instrument of mine, to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites" (Acts 9:15). In I Cor. 6:9-11 and I Tim 1:8-11, St. Paul warns his readers that homosexual acts are spiritually self-destructive, for without repentance such actions can even keep a person from "inheriting the kingdom of God":
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived, neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the spirit of our God (I Cor 6: 9-11).
We know that the law is good, provided that one uses it as law, with the understanding that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and unruly, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane, those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the unchaste, practicing homosexuals, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is opposed to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted (I Tim 1: 8-11).
Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity (Rom 1:26-27).
Some biblical scholars now claim that these texts are ambiguous. St. Paul might be referring here only to homosexual relationships with boys (in I Cor 6) or to the kind of shameless sexual orgies involved in pagan cults (in Rom 1). Thus, it is said, these passages do not necessarily condemn faithful and loving same-sex relationships.
The whole debate surrounds St. Paul's use of two key words: the Greek words malakoi and arsenkoitai in I Cor 6:9, and arsenkoitai used on its own in I Tim 1:10.
Saint Paul seems to have been the first one on record to use the word arsenkoitai (translated as "sodomites" and as "practicing homosexuals" in the NAB, above). It was almost certainly a term he invented himself (something he often did—some scholars claim as many as 179 times in the New Testament!), so it is useful to see the sources from which he probably derived it:
Arsenkoite [arsene, the Greek word for "male," combined with koite, the word for "bed" or "couch"] is ... the Greek counterpart to the Hebrew phrase mishkah zakur. Mishka is Hebrew for "bed" or "couch" with a sexual connotation; zakur in Hebrew means "male" or "males." The phrase mishka zakur is found in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, where sex between men is expressly forbidden. This makes it impossible to accept [the] suggestion that Paul meant anything other than [male] homosexuality when using the term arsenkoite, considering that it is derived directly from the Hebrew prohibitions of that very thing!
Indeed, the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses the terms arsene and koite when translating prohibitions against homosexuality in these same Levitical passages (Dallas and Heche, The Complete Christian Guide to Understanding Homosexuality, p. 138).
Peter Fitch notes that in 70 usages of the term "arsenkoites" in Greek literature from the time after the NT was written, mostly in lists of sins, one of them refers to an act that men carry out with their wives. This he sees as important evidence that we cannot know for sure what the word means, and so should not allow these verses to be read as a warning against all forms of homosexual partnership; they might be condemning only a more limited range of sexual behavior.
This seems to me to be a very weak argument. In biblical exegesis, to argue for a remotely possible interpretation of a word is not very helpful; the real question is what the probable or even overwhelmingly probable meaning might be. On the one hand, it seems likely that in that one single case out of 70, the ancient author simply misused the word. On the other hand, if the word really refers to something sinful that men can do in bed both with men and with women, it could refer to anal intercourse — which would fit St. Paul's apparent use of the term to warn against male homosexual acts.
The New Catholic Answer Study Bible (NAB) takes a different approach. Noting that in I Cor 6:9 arsenkoitai is preceded by malakoi, and that the latter can be translated as "boy prostitute" — and that such abuse of boys was not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world — they proceed to translate malakoi as "boy prostitutes" (see above), making arsenkoitai (which they translate here as "sodomites") actually refer only to "adult males who indulged in homosexual practices with such boys" (p. 244 NT). The idea is that the passage condemns only the homosexual abuse of boys, not all kinds of same-sex behavior.
This reading of I Cor 6, however, is dubious on several grounds.
First, as we said earlier, St. Paul actually invented the word arsenkoite, so why would he use the word to mean "men who have sex with boys" in I Cor 6:9 and then use the very same word in a different way in I Tim 1:10, where there is no indication that it has such a limited meaning (even the NAB, above, translates the word in I Timothy simply as "practicing homosexuals").
Second, as DeYoung points out, there would be no reason for St. Paul to invent his own, special term to refer to "men who have sex with boys" because ancient Greek already had a word for that: paiderastes (from which we get the English word "pederasty"). Besides, "if Paul wanted his readers to know he was referring only to exploitative forms of homosexuality, he wouldn't have coined a term [for it] from a portion of the Mosaic law where all sex involving a man with a man is forbidden" (DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality, p. 65).
Third, none of the other major English translations of the Bible translates malakoi in I Cor 6:9 as "boy prostitutes." According to the standard Greek lexicons, the word usually means "yielding to touch," in the sense of being effeminate, or "passive in a same-sex relationship." That may include boys or boy prostitutes, but there is nothing in the context of St. Paul's comments that restricts the meaning of the word to such cases alone.
In short, St. Paul's use of malakoi followed by arsenkoites in I Cor 6:9 almost certainly refers to men who have sex with other men, the passive and active partners, no matter what age groups they may be. The passage is clearly a blanket warning about homosexual behavior — as is I Timothy 1:10.
So far in this series we have looked at several biblical passages related to homosexuality: Mark 7:21; Matthew 19:4-5; Leviticus 18 and 20; Genesis 19:4-5, Jude 7; I Corinthians 6:9-11; and I Timothy 1:8-11. All of these passages state or imply that homosexual acts are morally wrong, but none of them clearly spells out for us precisely what it is about same-sex erotic relationships that makes them sinful. In other words, while it is helpful to know that God's inspired Word, the Holy Scriptures, warns us against homosexual acts, we need to know more than just "the Bible says so." We need to know why.
And it is St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, who begins to answer that question for us.
Next week: Listening to God's Word — The Letter to the Romans
You can follow the entire series here.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.