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"Homosexuals" in 1Corinthians 6:9
By Gary F. Zeolla
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 homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God (1Cor 6:9-10; NKJV).
In the above verse "homosexuals" and "sodomites" are translations of two different Greek words: malakos and arsenokoites. But there seems to be some difficulty as to their exact meanings as they are variously translated in different versions.
Consider the renderings of these two words respectively in the following versions:
KJV: effeminate - abusers of themselves with mankind
NKJV: homosexuals - sodomites
MKJV: abusers - homosexuals
LITV: abusers - homosexuals
NASB: effeminate - homosexuals
NIV: male prostitutes - homosexual offenders
NRSV: male prostitutes - sodomites
Which of these translations is best? Why does Paul use two different words that apparently refer to homosexuality? To answer these and related questions on this passage, I did some research.
Hardcopy Reference Works
First I consulted the many hardcopy, Greek reference works I have in my library. The first, I referred to was A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament by Walter Baur. This is the standard Greek reference work which we were told to use when I took Greek at Denver Seminary.
For malakos Baur writes, "1. of things: clothes … soft garments … soft clothes … 2. of persons, Soft, effeminate, esp. of catamites, men and boys who allow themselves to be misused homosexually" (p.488). For arsenokoites Baur writes, "A male who practices homosexuality, pederast, sodomite" (p.109).
Next I checked Johannes Louw’s and Eugene Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon. This lexicon was highly recommended by one of my Greek professors at seminary.
Louw and Nida give two basic definitions for malakos: "soft" and "homosexual" (Vol. 1, p.156). The more description definition for the "homosexual" sense then reads, "the passive male partner in homosexual intercourse - 'homosexual' … As in Greek, a number of other languages also have entirely distinct terms for the active and passive roles in homosexual intercourse" (Vol. 2, p.772).
For arsenokoites the only basic definition given is "homosexual" (Vol. 1, p. 35). The more description definition then is, "a male partner in homosexual intercourse - 'homosexual' … It is possible that arsenokoites in certain contexts refers to the active partner in homosexual intercourse in contrast with malakos, the passive partner" (Vol. 2, pp.772-3)
I next consulted another reference work I have found to be particularly helpful: Fritz Rienecker. A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. Rienecker comments on these words in 1Cor 6:9, "malakos soft, effeminate, a technical term for the passive partner in homosexual relations … arsenokoites a male who has sexual relations with a male, homosexual" (p.402).
Then I checked the lexical notes in The NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament, by Arthur L. Farstad. The note on 1Cor 6:9 for malakos reads, "Adjective meaning soft. Its normal use is to describe things, such as ‘soft garments’ (Luke 7:25). Here it is used substantively to mean effeminate ones, the passive partners in homosexual intercourse."
For arsenokoites the note reads, "Noun used only here and in 1Tim 1:10, derived from the adjective arsen, male, and the noun koite, bed, coitus, thus meaning a male homosexual. Specifically, it refers to the male homosexual partner who takes the active role in distinction from the malakos, the passive partner."
The interlinear reading then translates the words the same as the NKJV: homosexuals - sodomites (pp. 596-7). I checked several other hardcopy, Greek reference works but they yielded nothing different from the above.
So, according to a variety of lexicons, it seems both of these words have reference to homosexual behavior or any kind of male-male sex. The first (malakos) more specifically refers to the passive partner. The second (arsenokoites) can refer to homosexual or male-male sexual behavior in general and more specifically to the active partner, depending on context.
And note that none of these volumes give any indication of "prostitution" being involved in the words. So the rendering of "male prostitutes" in NRSV and NIV for malakos appears unjustified.
Software Reference Works
After exhausting my hardcopy resources, I turned to my two Bible software programs. The lexicon on my Online Bible had some interesting information. What made it interesting is that it seemed to give some justification to the rendering of the NIV and NRSV.
For malakos the lexicon states:
1) soft, soft to the touch
2) metaph. in a bad sense
2a1) of a catamite
2a2) of a boy kept for homosexual relations with a man
2a3) of a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness
2a4) of a male prostitute.
Note, "catamite" means, "A boy who has a sexual relationship with a man."1
So according to this lexicon, malakos can include the idea of "male prostitutes" (along with pedophilia); but even here its meaning is not restricted to this sense. And note, "male prostitute" is the last of the definitions given. So the rendering of the NIV and NRSV is simply too restrictive.
As for pedophilia, Baur also mentioned "catamites" (along with a couple of other hardcopy reference works I checked); but again, in none of these was this the only definition given. In all of them, the more general idea of any male who submits himself to another male for sex is given.
So an appropriate translation for malakos should be broad enough to include male prostitutes, pedophilia, and any other case where a male is the "passive" partner in homosexual sex.
In any case, for arsenokoites, the lexicon on the Online Bible says simply, "one who lies with a male as with a female, sodomite, homosexual." And this agrees with the above lexicons that the word is referring to one who engages in male-male sex, though some of the above references indicate that in certain context it may more specifically refer to the "active" partner in male-male sex.
I next checked my PC Study Bible. The only lexicons it are Strong's and Vine's. Neither of these are exactly what you would call scholarly resources. however, the information on Strong's and Vine's was basically similar to that seen above.
That completes my study of Greek lexicons. But while I had my PC Study Bible open, I checked to see if the other study aids on it had any relevant information. The only one that did was Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary. This resource I have found to be very helpful. I had it in hardcopy form before getting my PC Study Bible. The entry reads:
A person who is attracted sexually to members of his or her own sex. The apostle Paul listed homosexuals among "the unrighteous" who would not inherit the kingdom of God <1 Cor. 6:9>, and declared that God's wrath stands against such behavior, whether practiced by men or women <Rom. 1:26-27>.
So this dictionary confirms Paul is discussing homosexual behavior in this passage.
So how should these two words be translated? The possible translations from each of the versions cited at the beginning of this article will now be looked at.
Out of all of the cited possibilities, "homosexuals" seems to be the best. It is the one English word that exclusively refers to same-gender sex. And it seems legitimate to translate either of these words as "homosexuals." So there is no contradiction in the NKJV rendering malakos as "homosexuals" and the MKJV, LITV, and NASB translating arsenokoites the same way.
But this translation raises an important question, what is a homosexual? Is a homosexual a person who engages in homosexual sex; or is a homosexual a person who simply has homosexual desires?
In the context of 1Cor 6:9, the Greek words are rather specific: malakos refers to the passive partner in male-male sex; arsenokoites can refer to the active partner. So both of these words are referring to a person who is a "partner" in sex. So these words would clearly be referring to a person is who engaging in male-male, sexual activities.
In today’s terms, Paul is referring to practicing homosexuals, bisexuals, or anyone else who is engaging in male-male sex. Paul is not addressing people who just have a homosexual or bisexual orientation. In other words, Paul is discussing the behavior, not just desires.
However, the word "homosexual" means, "adjective, Of, relating to, or having a sexual orientation to persons of the same sex. noun, A homosexual person; a gay man or a lesbian." So the word "homosexual" can be used as an adjective or as a noun. The adjectival meaning describes the "sexual orientation" of a person; the noun meaning refers to the person himself. In 1Cor 6:9 both Greek words are nouns.
So in common usage, the noun "homosexual" refers to a person with a same-sex orientation. It does not necessarily refer to one who engages in male-male sex. So to make it clear that Paul is discussing the behavior, maybe "practicing homosexuals" would be a better rendering for these words.
Since the lexicons indicate that both words refer to male-male sex, to be even more specific, the translation could be, "practicing, male homosexuals." To be even more expressive, it could be "participants in male-male sex." This rendering would then include not just those who claim to have a solely homosexual orientation but also those who say they have a bisexual orientation, or any "male who has sexual relations with a male" as Rienecker's lexicon put it. But such a rendering would be too expansive for a regular translation. It also would not bring out the distinction between these words.
The rendering of "effeminate" for malakos in the KJV and NASB is an attempt to bring out this difference as malakos refers to the "passive" (or "feminine") partner. But "effeminate" means, "Having qualities or characteristics more often associated with women than men." So "effeminate" is too general as it does not necessarily include the idea of sexual activity in its meaning.
The MKJV and LITV use "abusers" for malakos and the KJV renders arsenokoites as "abusers of themselves with mankind." But again, neither of these renderings are very specific. The word "abuse" does not necessarily include the idea of sex in it, let along homosexual sex.
Looking at other possible renderings for arsenokoites, the NIV adds "offenders" to homosexual. This is probably an attempt to indicate that Paul is referring to behavior and not just an orientation. However, "offenders" is rather vague. It raises but does not answer the question of, offender in what way? So it is not descriptive enough. And none of the lexicons have "offenders" in their possible definitions.
The NKJV and NASB use "sodomites" to translate arsenokoites.
1. Anal copulation of one male with another.
2. Anal or oral copulation with a member of the opposite sex.
3. Copulation with an animal.
So sodomy can refer to male-male sex; but it can also refer to heterosexual sex and even bestiality. But the lexicons above make it clear that arsenokoites refers specifically to male, homosexual sex. So "sodomites" is not exact enough. But in its favor, it does specifically refers to behavior, not just an orientation.
The only other English word that means homosexual in English is "gay." So why not use it?
Arthur L. Farstad (the NT editor for the NKJV) explains why "gay" was not used in the NKJV:
Because sexual sin is rampant in modern society, it seems relevant to retain the Biblical terms rather than to conform to softened secular usages. "Pre-marital sex," "extramarital sex," and "gay sex" are morally anemic substitutes for plain "fornication," "adultery," and "sodomy" (The New King James Version in the Great Tradition; p.87)
In other words, in contexts such as 1Cor 6:9, the connotation of the words is definitely "negative" whereas a word like "gay" has a rather approving sense to it. So "gays" simply would not fit the tone of Paul’s writing. In addition, "gays" would have the same difficulty as "homosexuals" - in popular it usage refers to one with a same-sex orientation, not sexual behavior.
The above should show why there is some difficulty in translating 1Cor 6:9 into English. First off, we do not have specific words to refer to each partner in homosexual intercourse as the Greek language does. Secondly, there are not even two English words for homosexual sex that would be appropriate in this context. Third, it is difficult to indicate simply in English that Paul is referring to behavior, not just orientation.
So what’s a translator to do? Again, the difficulty here is not due to the Greek text being unclear; but the exact opposite. The Greek words are more specific than what we have in English.
Now the NKJV tries to solve this dilemma through the use of textual footnotes. For "homosexuals" (malakos) the note states, "'catamites' those submitting themselves to homosexuals." For "sodomites" (arsenokoites) it reads, "male homosexual."
For my own translation, the Analytical-Literal Translation (ALT), how did I render these words? No solution is perfect. But given the expansive nature of the ALT, I could be as expressive as was needed to make the meaning clear. So for arsenokoites in 1cor 6:9, I used "active partners in male-male sex" and for malakos, "passive partners in male-male sex." These renderings are rather expressive, but they do show the full meanings of the words.
In 1Tim 1:10, I rendered arsenokoites as "participants in male-male sex." The slightly different rendering from 1Cor 6:9 is because the word is probably being used in its more general sense of any male-male sex, rather than the more specific meaning of the "active partner."
Whatever the translation, the Greek text for 1Corinthians 6:9 is clear. Paul in no uncertain terms is condemning all forms of male-male sex. If he had only used malakos then those who are generally the active partner might say, "That does not include me." If he had just used arsenokoites the passive partners would try to say the same. So the reason Paul uses two different Greek words for male-male sex in this one verse is so as not to leave an "out" for either partner.
Moreover, the Greek words are rather general. They are not restricted to male prostitution or man-boy sex as some try to claim about this passage. These concepts are included in the words but the words are not restricted to them. Both words include all forms of male-male sex behaviors.
What if the reader is a practicing homosexual, a bisexual, or anyone regardless of their sexual orientation who has or does engage in male-male sex? What should you do in light of the condemnation Paul is warning about in this passage?
In the next verse after the passage under discussion, Paul declares, "And such WERE some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (1Cor 6:11).
Notice the word "were" emphasized in the quote. Among the Corinthian saints were some who used to be homosexuals. But they no longer are. So God says homosexuals or bisexuals can change. But what does it mean to "change?"
In the context of this passage Paul is talking about male-male sexual behavior behavior. I do believe someone can have a homosexual orientation and not act on those desires. There are many with a heterosexual orientation who refrain from immoral sex. I do not believe the homosexual desire is any stronger than the heterosexual one. So if those with a heterosexual orientation can refrain, so can those with a homosexual or bisexual ones, or anyone who is tempted to engage in male-male sex.
Is it easy to resist your desires? No. As an unmarried Christian I know how difficult it can be to resist sexual desires. But with God’s help I know it can be done. But one must first admit that giving into your desires is wrong and that you need to refrain.
If someone is currently involved in a male-male sexual relationship, is it necessary to end the relationship? As one who as been involved in improper relationships in the past, I know it can be very difficult to end such a relationship. But end it one must if he desires to go on with a relationship with the Lord.
Lastly, can a homosexual or bisexual change in the sense of ceasing to have desires for sex with someone of the same gender and even attain or have exclusively heterosexual desires? I know the homosexual community says this is impossible; but I have heard of many cases where it has happened. Again, would this be easy? No. But with God all things are possible.
Does this article make me a "homophobe?" First off, the bulk of this article has simply been digging into the Scriptures to determine exactly what God has said. I do not see how doing Greek word studies can be "homophobic."
Moreover, I am not addressing this subject as on standing on a soapbox proclaiming my own righteousness and condemning others for their struggles. As indicated above, I have had my own struggles with my sexual desires. So I know how distressing this subject can be.
What I will stand on a soapbox and proclaim though is that forgiveness and salvation are available through the atoning death of Christ. I want to make one point clear, I do not believe that one needs to cease to engage in homosexual behavior to become a Christian. To say one must stop sinning and then God will accept you would be salvation by works, which the Gospel of Jesus Christ most definitely is not.
What is necessary though is to acknowledge that you are a sinner that needs forgiveness. For the practicing homosexual or bisexual, yes, one sin you need to confess is your male-male, sexual behavior. Once God has forgiven and saved you, then He will change you. On rare occasions I have seen dramatic changes in people as soon as they have been saved. But, more often than not, the changes come slowly, but surely.
I know this has been the case in my life. I am not the same person today that I was over ten years ago when God first saved my soul. And one area where God has most definitely changed me is in my attitudes and actions in regards to sexuality.
For another article on homosexuality, see "But I was Born this Way".
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved.
Baur, Walter. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. 2nd ed. Trans. and rev. by William Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Fredrick W. Danker. Chicago: University of London Press, 1979.
Farstad, Arthur L. et.al. The NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994.
Farstad. Arthur L. The New King James Version in the Great Tradition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993.
Louw, Johannes and Eugene Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1988.
Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. (Copyright (C) 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers).
Online Bible 7.01. (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1995).
PC Study Bible: Complete Reference Library. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996.
Rienecker, Fritz. New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament. Trans. and ed. by Cleon Rogers. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980.
Thayer, Joseph H. Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon. Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 1981.
"Homosexuals" in 1Corinthians 6:9. Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
The above article was published in posted on this website March 19, 1998.
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