There is absolutely no doubt, based on extant evidence, that the term arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 is correctly translated as “men lying with a male.” If any updating of the NRSV were to be done on 1 Cor 6:9, it should have been done in the direction of translating arsenokoitai as “men lying with a male.” The previous NRSV translation of “sodomites” was not the best translation because “Sodom” is not part of the stem of this Greek noun…. What the NRSVue translators have done is to conform the biblical witness to their own ideological biases, biases that mitigate against the overwhelming evidence from morphology and historical context.
The NRSV has been updated (NRSVue) to make a number of changes. The most noteworthy has been to “gaywash” and eliminate clear reference to homosexual practice in the offender list in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Previously the NRSV translated as among the serial and unrepentant behaviors that could get even self-professed believers excluded from the Kingdom of God “male prostitutes” (the Greek word is malakoi) and “sodomites” (the Greek word is arsenokoitai). They have now changed “sodomites” to the nebulous “men who engage in illicit sex,” which does not indicate to English readers the connection to homosexual practice provided by the Greek word, contrary to both morphology and context. A textual note added by the NRSVue committee claims that the term is unclear. It isn’t.
The word literally means “men lying with (i.e., having sexual intercourse with) a male.” It is a specifically Jewish and Christian term formed from the Greek (Septuagint) translation of Hebrew Levitical prohibitions of man-male intercourse in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
These Levitical texts prohibit absolutely (no exceptions) a man from lying (verb koimaomai) with a male (arsen) as though lying sexually (abstract noun koite) with a woman.* All future uses of the term arsenokoitai in Christian literature that have sufficient context to make a determination involve men lying with a male.
The parallel Semitic expression mishkav zakur (“lying with a male”) was used in the Jewish Talmud to forbid a man from having sexual intercourse with a male of any age (whether adult or minor). Both Josephus and Philo, two first century C.E. Jews, make clear from their discussion of homosexual practice that they understand the Levitical prohibitions as precluding any male same-sex relationships whatsoever.
The term or its cognates does not appear in any non-Jewish, non-Christian text prior to the sixth century A.D. This way of talking about male homosexuality is a distinctly Jewish and Christian formulation. It was undoubtedly used as a way of distinguishing their absolute opposition to homosexual practice, rooted in the Torah of Moses, from more accepting views in the Greco-Roman milieu. (c) The appearance of arsenokoitai in 1 Tim 1:10 makes the link to the Mosaic law explicit, since the list of vices of which arsenokoitai is a part are said to be derived from “the law” (1:9). While it is true that the meaning of a compound word does not necessarily add up to the sum of its parts, in this instance it clearly does.
Paul’s own remarks in Romans 1:24-27 also make clear that any “male with male” sexual contact is expressly forbidden as “contrary to nature” and “shamelessness.” Both Church Fathers and developing rabbinic literature reject even semi-official marriages between males and between females as acts that are contrary to nature even when conducted in the context of love and commitment.
There is absolutely no doubt, based on extant evidence, that the term arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 is correctly translated as “men lying with a male.” If any updating of the NRSV were to be done on 1 Cor 6:9, it should have been done in the direction of translating arsenokoitai as “men lying with a male.” The previous NRSV translation of “sodomites” was not the best translation because “Sodom” is not part of the stem of this Greek noun.
As for the Greek term malakoi, which literally means “soft men” and which NRSV continues to translate as “male prostitutes,” this translation should have been changed to eliminate any restriction to prostitution and any inference that heterosexual relations might be in view. It is more accurately rendered as “males who feminize themselves to attract male sex partners” or even as “male-to-female transgenders.”
What the NRSVue translators have done is to conform the biblical witness to their own ideological biases, biases that mitigate against the overwhelming evidence from morphology and historical context.
*For a more technical discussion of the morphology of arsenokoitai: The compound Greek word arsenokoitai (arsen-o-koi-tai; plural of singular arsenokoitēs) is formed from the Greek words for “lying” (verb keimai; stem kei- adjusted to koi- before the “t” or letter tau) and “male” (arsēn). The word is a neologism created from terms used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Levitical prohibitions of men “lying with a male” (18:22; 20:13). Note that the word for “lying” in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Levitical prohibitions is the noun koitē, also meaning “bed,” which is formed from the verb keimai. The masculine –tēs suffix of the sg. noun arsenokoitēs denotes continuing agency or occupation, roughly equivalent to English -er attached to a noun; hence, “(male) liers with a male.
Robert A. J. Gagnon is Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University. Used with permission.