LGBTQ+ Writing: Liberating Scripture #4

In the previous three posts, I have shown that the interpretive landscape with respect to human sexuality is changing as biblical exegetes join with those in the physical sciences to liberate Scripture from a theological/cultural captivity that inaccurately leads to anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs. New discoveries at the micro and macro levels of existence enable us to recognize the previous errors, and correct them. In the previous posts I showed how a misconception about the creation and a misinterpretation of biblical texts in Leviticus and Romans have been exposed, and replaced with new information which removes anti-LGBTQ+ bias from the Bible.

There is one more thing to point out, and I turn to it in this post—a mistranslation of two Greek words found in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. This is the newest liberation among those I am writing about. In fact, it is an ongoing investigation. Several aspects are noteworthy here.

First, let’s name the Greek words, so we can see what the issue is. In 1 Corinthians 6:9, they both appear: malakoi and arsenakoitai. In 1 Timothy 1:10, only arsenakoitai is there. The main thing to emphasize at the outset is that the meaning of both words is uncertain, as textual notes point out. The problem is that translators have to deal with them somehow, which means that any Bible version of these words is an educated guess. [1]

Second, with respect to LGBTQ+ matters, we can focus on the 1946 Revised Standard Version translation, where the word ‘homosexual’ was used in the Bible for the first time. The reasons are complex and problematic, as the translators themselves reveal in process notes preserved in the archives at Yale University.

But the conclusion of it all, after the RSV was published, is this: using the word ‘homosexual’ was a mistake. Luther Allan Weigle, head of the RSV translation committee, wrote “The RSV committee decided the word ‘homosexual’ was an inaccurate translation of malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9.” [2] This is a stunning admission, but given it came after the 1946 RSV was in print, the damage was done, seized upon by conservative Christians, so that even to the present the words are taken to identify homosexuality itself as sinful.

But remember….the meaning of both words is uncertain. Uncertain. So how did ‘homosexuality’ end up being used?

It begins with a treating of the two words as if they were one. So in 1 Corinthians 6:9 the 1946 RSV used one word (homosexuals) to translate two. This obscures the specificity of each words. At the least, we should study them individually.

Malakoi….This word (used outside the Bible) means ‘soft.’ It has nothing to do with sexuality, as John Wesley pointed out in his comment on 1 Corinthians 6:9. He saw it as a word describing self-indulgence. [3] In the context of sexuality, it would mean lust, and in terms of practice it would refer to prostitution and pederasty. Orientation is not in this picture.

Arsenakoitai….This is an even harder word to translate because it only appears in the two verses of the New Testament, leading some to think Paul may have coined the term. If so, what might he have had in mind? Again, the meaning is uncertain. But it most likely describes an aggressive, abusive behavior—further strengthening the idea of lustful sexuality. Orientation is not in the picture.

What Paul is most likely denouncing is lustful, abusive sexuality. Some scholars include the practice of sex-trafficking in the interpretation. Let there be no doubt—Paul strongly denounced illicit sex [4] but did not associate it with LGBTQ people. Illicit sex is a perversion of practice, not one of orientation. My previous three posts further confirm this view.

Third, the correction effort is underway. But it is being resisted and caricatured by conservative Christians. This is not surprising because it sinks one of the ships in their anti-LGBTQ+ flotilla.

But truth is truth, and the fact is, neither 1 Corinthians 6:9 nor 1 Timothy 1:10 are about homosexuality, and the very ones who created the problem through their mistranslation are trying to tell us so. They are trying to liberate two Scripture verses from the trap they themselves set. The question is this, “Are we listening to them?”

[1] Textual notes about the uncertainty of word meanings, in both Hebrew and Greek, are found often in biblical texts. If you have a reference Bible (text with notes), you will see this. This is inevitable. The problem comes when words with uncertain meanings become the foundation for alleged certain interpretations, elevating texts to an unsupported status. This is not good exegesis, and it is a misuse of the phrase “the Bible says,” when the fact is, it doesn’t.

[2] Ed Oxford, “My Quest to Find the Word ‘Homosexual’ in the Bible,” Baptist News Global. Augustv0 19, 2020.

[3] John Wesley, ‘Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament’ (1755). His notes on the Bible (the Old Testament too) are still available in various formats.

[4] The latest RSV-family translation, the New Revised Standard Version, updated edition (NRSVue) published in 2021, seeks a return to a more-likely message from Paul, translating malakoi as ‘male prostitutes’ and arsenakoitai as ‘men who engage in illicit sex.’—taking the verses back lust and abuse, not orientation.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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