Perspectives

Paul, Homosexuality, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Brian J. Dodd


Biblical teaching on homosexuality is sparse, limited to a few OT texts (Gen 19:1-29; Lev 18:22; 20:13) and writings associated with Paul (Rom 1:18-32; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:9-10; cf. 2 Pet 2:7-8; Jude 7), but in each case the judgment on homosexual behavior is negative. Recently, however, doubts have been expressed over the relevance of 1 Cor 6:9-11 for the church’s position on homoeroticism, mostly for reasons of Greek lexicography. The purpose of this article is to summarize and evaluate the critical issues regarding 1 Cor 6:9-1 1, and to examine its context and cotext for clues to its relevance to the current debate, and then finally to note the caution this passage gives to those who hold to the traditional view of human sexuality: “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”

Translating Arsenokoitai

The main issue highlighted in recent debate over 1 Cor 6:9-11 concerns the correct way to render the Greek term arsenokoitai that occurs here. The NRSV reads, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites (arsenokoita), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers— none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

In this recent critical translation arsenokoitai is taken as a reference to those who practice homosexuality. Arsenokoitai poses a problem to the translator because this is its earliest known occurrence in Greek literature. Robin Scroggs has plausibly suggested that Paul created this new word by combining the two terms found in the Greek version of Lev 18:23 (LXX 18:22) and 20:13: arsen = “male,” and koite = “bed,” which translate the Hebrew for “lying with a male” (mishkav zakur; The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate [Fortress, 1983] 106-8). With the likelihood that these Levitical prohibitions are echoed in 1 Cor 6:9, the NRSV is justified in translating the term as a reference to homoerotic intercourse, even if the English “sodomites” is somewhat archaic.

The most vociferous critic of taking arsenokoitai as a reference to homoerotic practice is the late, gay scholar J. Boswell (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality [University of Chicago Press, 1980] 335-53). He concludes that arsenokoitai refers to male prostitutes without specifying the gender of their partners. Boswell’s theory has been popularized by the widely known work of gay Catholic J.J. McNeil, who confesses his dependence on Boswell even though his work appeared earlier (The Church and the Homosexual [Sheed, Andrews & McMeel, 1976] 200). Boswell’s broader thesis, that the Bible does not justify the later homophobia that appealed to it, has not been challenged, but his lexicography has come under unfavorable review.

David F. Wright has devoted an article demonstrating the inaccuracies of Boswell’s presentation of the data (“Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of ARSENOKOITAI (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10),” Vigiliae Christianae 38 [1984] 125-53). Wright and Boswell engage in highly sophisticated and detailed lexicographical argumentation, which space prohibits representing in this brief article. Wright’s most telling argument is that Boswell seriously underestimates the use of arsenokoitai in early Christian writers, and he is especially negligent in his highly selective and inaccurate use of the early, Greek-speaking bishop John Chrysostom. Wright points out how the very texts from Chrysostom cited by Boswell, when viewed in light of their surrounding texts, both undermine Boswell ‘s interpretation and support the traditional view that arsenokoitai refers to homosexuality.

W.L. Petersen agrees with Wright’s dissection of Boswell’s lexicography but draws attention to an anachronism evident in the alternative that Wright offers (“Can ARSENOKOITAI Be Translated by ‘Homosexuals’ (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10)?” Vigiliae Christianae 40 [1986] 187-91). Petersen criticizes Wright for using “homosexuals” and “homosexuality” as appropriate English terms for arsenokoitai when this is clearly anachronistic. The Oxford classicist K.J. Dover has demonstrated that there was no Greek term for homosexual identity, and the concept of sexual identity itself is a recent phenomenon (Greek Homosexuality [Duckworth, 1979]). The terms in Greek refer to homoerotic practice, not sexual identity. With this in mind the NRSV is not far off the mark, though “sodomites” wrongly draws attention to an intertextual echo suggested by the English term (to Sodom and Gomorrah), when instead arsenokoitai echoes the prohibitions of Leviticus. The NRSV translation is problematic and needs to be revised, but it is more accurate than some critics have allowed.

Homoeroticism and the Corinthian Social Context

Petersen’s criticism of Wright centers on anachronistically importing twentieth-century concepts of homosexual identity into the translation of ancient texts. This leads us to consider what practice exactly Paul is referring to. Scroggs has argued that Paul did not think—and could not have been thinking—of anything other than the practice of pederasty, intercourse between an active and older man (usually called an erastes, but here an arsenokoitos) and a passive younger man or boy (usually an eromenos but here malakos). Scroggs’ own suspicion is that Paul was against the more degrading forms of this practice that employed a young male prostitute (malakos) or the sexual domination of a master with his slave (109-18). Scroggs rightly points out that pederasty, prostitution, and a master’s sexual abuse of his slaves are clearly documented as the most common homosexual practices cited in the known literature and portrayed on vase paintings, but extrapolates from this that these are all that Paul could have known of homoeroticism.

There are two reasons why we should not accept Scroggs’ reconstruction. First, Paul stands in line with a long ethical tradition of Judaism that condemned all homosexual practice (as Scroggs is well aware [66-98]), and Scroggs himself acknowledges that Paul identifies with this OT tradition as echoed in his coinage of the lexeme arsenokoitai.

This leads to a second and decisive reason why we cannot accept Scroggs understanding that Paul’s conception must have been limited to pederasty. Pederasty occurred between men and boys, but in Rom 1 Paul condemns a practice that cannot be identified as pederasty: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another” (Rom 1:26). Under no conditions can this verse be reduced to a reference to mere pederasty as Scroggs seeks to do. Furthermore, Scroggs cites the evidence from other Greek writers from Plato to Plutarch and Pseudo-Phocylides who refer to female homoerotic acts (130-39). Against Scroggs’ contention, there is evidence for homoerotic activity that was not pederasty. He deals with the evidence that contradicts him with the disclaimer, “What the female part of the slogan may have included is beyond recovery” (133). Scroggs has clearly succumbed to the reductionism he claims he avoids (139). The evidence—which Scroggs himself cites—shows Paul could and did have something besides pederasty in mind, and he condemns both male and female homoeroticism as against the will of God.

The Cotext of 1 Corinthians 5-7

It has often been pointed out that the so-called vice list embedded in 1 Cor 6:9-10 is somewhat stereotyped, probably adapted from Hellenistic Judaism. Furthermore, there is evidence that this list is combined with elements of a baptismal liturgy that Paul has adopted, describing the effects of being baptized into Christ. Paul asserts that conversion and baptism (“you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified”) effect an elimination of the sins listed. The list is not exhaustive nor is it exactly duplicated elsewhere (cf. Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 5:10-11; Gal 5:19-21), but it points to the character change brought by the Spirit’s presence in a believer’s life: “And this is what some of you used to be.” The past tense verb indicates that Paul believed that spiritual conversion wrought ethical transformation that includes a reconstruction of one’s sexual practices (cf. Gal 5:16-25; 1 Thess 4:4).

There is a further, perhaps even more important, observation to make about the larger cotext of 1 Cor 5-7. The first two terms of the vice list in 1 Cor 6:9, “fornicators” (pornoi) and “idolaters,” link this brief passage with the unifying themes of 1 Cor 5-10. At 1 Cor 5:1 the issue of sexual immorality (porneia) is announced, a theme that is addressed in various ways from 1 Cor 5:1-6:20, and the issue of porneia (cf. 1 Cor 7:2) is developed in relation to marriage in 1 Cor 7:1-40, while chs. 8-10 engage the issue of idolatry and idol meat. Thus “the sexually immoral” and “idolaters,” the first two terms of the vice list in 1 Cor 6:9, are representative issues of the teaching of 1 Cor 5:1-10:33.

In this larger cotext Paul gives multiple indications of what is included in the scope of the catch-all term “sexual immorality” (porneia—cf. Gal 5:19; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 4:3), including incest (1 Cor 5:1) and involvement with prostitutes (1 Cor 6:13-20). In 1 Cor 6:9-10 the list is expanded to include adultery, and passive and active homoeroticism. But we find in 1 Cor 7:2 the most revealing passage about what Paul considers porneia: “on account of porneia let each man have his own wife, and each woman have her own husband.” Paul here sets “sexual immorality” against the broader biblical framework of marriage as the proper context for sexual expression. Appeal to Gen 2:24 is to the point since Paul cites this very scriptural tradition in 1 Cor 6:16 as an explanation of the marital-sexual bonding between man and woman: “The two shall become one flesh.” It is this marital expression of sexuality that Paul sets at the rhetorical climax of this section (1 Cor 7), building up to this solution after thoroughly portraying the plight of improper sexual expression in the previous two chapters. Thus homoeroticism is not singled out as somehow worse than other forms of porneia, but merely as one other example of it. For Paul, sex is for marriage, which by biblical definition is consummated by sexual intercourse between one man and one woman.

A Cautionary Conclusion

Even though it is clear that Paul, like Judaism before him, identifies homoeroticism as another instance of sexual immorality, its inclusion in this vice list is incidental to the heterosexual immoral practices that he must treat in an extended way in this section of 1 Corinthians. This does not reduce the relevance of 1 Cor 6:9-1 1 as support for the traditional Christian stance, but it does point out a log-in-the-eye syndrome that currently plagues those who are rightly convinced of the biblical foundation for maintaining “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”

Recent statistics, in addition to the balance of Paul’s text, suggest that pastoral stress needs to fall upon heterosexual indifference to the biblical teaching about the appropriate expression of sexuality. By the mid-1980s one-half of all couples getting married had cohabited. In 1990 there were 2.9 million households in America where the partners were not married, and a third of those had children under fifteen living with them (L.F. Bouvier and C.J. DeVita, “The Baby Boom—Entering Midlife,” Population Bulletin 46.3 [Population Reference Bureau, 1991]), and this is to say nothing of the predominant ethos of a sex-crazed society characterized by promiscuity. Homosexuality is a small issue by comparison, comprising less than 10 per cent of the population (a recent survey funded by the Wellcome Trust suggests that 2 per cent of the population has had at least one homosexual partner in the last five years [A. Johnson et al., Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1994) ch. 7]).

In our quest to understand and embody scriptural holiness we must be evenhanded in our application of Scripture with the full conviction that the moral change Christ brings affects all people alike: “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, those who practice homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” (1 Cor 6:9-10). These things we were, but baptism into Christ yields a cleansing and conversion through the power of the Spirit to live in holy obedience to God (1 Cor 6:11).

Posted Feb 01, 1996       /      /   Google Plus    /