Advancing religious literacy

What the New Testament Says about Homosexuality

William O Walker Jr.
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From The Fourth R
Volume 21-3
May-June 2008

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Mainline Christian denominations in this country are bitterly divided over the question of homosexuality. For this reason it is important to ask what light, if any, the New Testament sheds on this controversial issue. Most people apparently assume that the New Testament expresses strong opposition to homosexuality, but this simply is not the case. The six propositions that follow, considered cumulatively, lead to the conclusion that the New Testament does not provide any direct guidance for understanding and making judgments about homosexuality in the modern world.

Proposition 1: Strictly speaking, the New Testament says nothing at all about homosexuality.

There is not a single Greek word or phrase in the entire New Testament that should be translated into English as “homosexual” or “homosexuality.” In fact, the very notion of “homosexuality”—like that of “heterosexuality,” “bisexuality,” and even “sexual orientation”—is essentially a modern concept that would simply have been unintelligible to the New Testament writers. The word “homosexuality” came into use only in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and, as New Testament scholar Victor Paul Furnish notes, it and related terms “presume an understanding of human sexuality that was possible only with the advent of modern psychological and sociological analysis.” In other words, “The ancient writers . . . were operating without the vaguest conception of what we have learned to call ‘sexual orientation’.”1 (In the rest of this article I shall use the terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality” strictly for the sake of convenience.)

Proposition 2: At most, there are only three passages in the entire New Testament that refer to what we today would call homosexual activity.

None of the four gospels mentions the subject. This means that, so far as we know, Jesus never spoke about homosexuality, and we simply have no way of determining what his attitude toward it might have been. Moreover, there is nothing about homosexuality in the Book of Acts, in Hebrews, in Revelation, or in the letters attributed to James, Peter, John, and Jude. Further, homosexuality is not mentioned in ten of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul. It is only in Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, and 1 Timothy 1:8–11 that there may be references to homosexuality.2 The paucity of references to homosexuality in the New Testament suggests that it was not a matter of major concern either for Jesus or for the early Christian movement.

Proposition 3: Two of the three passages that possibly refer to homosexuality are simply more-or-less miscellaneous catalogues of behaviors that are regarded as unacceptable, with no particular emphasis placed on any individual item in the list.

1 Corinthians 6:9–10 says that certain types of people “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” The list of such people begins with fornicators, idolaters, and adulterers, and it ends with thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers. Near the middle—between adulterers and thieves—are the two Greek words translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “male prostitutes” (that is, homosexual male prostitutes) and “sodomites.” But no special emphasis is placed on these people; they are simply listed along with the others. Similarly, 1 Timothy 1:8–11 says that the law was given not for good people but for bad people, and it then provides a list, giving representative examples of who these “bad people” might be. Included in the list—this time near the end but again without any special emphasis—is the Greek word translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “sodomites.” In both texts, such people are mentioned simply in passing, in more-or-less miscellaneous catalogues of unacceptable behaviors, but with no special emphasis or attention called to them.

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Such miscellaneous lists of “vices” are fairly common not only in the New Testament and other early Christian literature but also in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Jewish writings.3 They appear to have been somewhat stereotypical in nature, representing a kind of laundry list or grab bag of negative labels that could be trotted out and used for rhetorical purposes with little attention to individual items in the lists. As something of an analogy, I cite a passage from Arlo Guthrie’s famous ballad, “Alice’s Restaurant.” In speaking of his own arrest for littering and his assignment to “Group B” in the jail, Guthrie characterizes this group as follows:

Group B is where they putcha if you may not be moral enough to join the army after committin’ your special crime. There was all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly-lookin’ people on the bench there. There was mother rapers . . . father stabbers . . . father rapers . . . Father rapers! sittin’ right there on the bench next to me!

In somewhat similar fashion, the catalogues in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–11 list “all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly-lookin’ people.”

It should also be noted that different catalogues tend to be remarkably similar in content. They typically list the same kinds of “vices.” Furthermore, it appears that authors often took over and adapted such lists from earlier documents. This means that the New Testament writers may not actually have composed the lists in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–11. These may simply be conventional lists, taken and adapted from earlier documents and used here for rhetorical purposes. If so, then inclusion of the words translated as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” may be little more than coincidental.

In any case, neither of the catalogues—1 Corinthians 6:9–10 or 1 Timothy 1:8–11—singles out homosexual activity for any special attention. They just list, in miscellaneous fashion, various types of behaviors that are regarded as unacceptable.

Proposition 4: It may well be that the two lists of unacceptable behaviors—1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–11—do not refer to homosexuality at all.

The New Revised Standard Version translates 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 as follows:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

For our purposes, of course, the two key terms here are “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” It may well be the case, however, that these are not the most appropriate translations of the underlying Greek in the text.4

The Greek word translated as “male prostitutes” is the adjective malakoi (plural of malakos). This adjective means “soft,” as in a “soft” bed or a “soft” pillow. When applied to people, it can mean “lazy,” “self-indulgent,” “cowardly,” “lacking in self-control,” and the like. When applied to males, it generally refers to what are commonly regarded as feminine-like “weaknesses:” such men might be regarded as “soft,” “flabby,” “weak,” “cowardly,” “unmanly,” or “effeminate.” But to call a male “effeminate” might or might not carry implications of homosexuality. Sometimes it did, but certainly not always. When it did, it may have referred to the so-called “passive” or “effeminate” partner in the homosexual relationship. But we cannot be at all certain that malakoi refers to homosexuality in First Corinthians 6:9. It may refer to “softness” or even “effeminacy” in some other sense. In any case, the use of the adjective malakoi to describe males should probably be seen not as “homophobic” but rather as essentially “gynophobic.” It reflects a fear of women or at least of woman-like—that is, “soft” or “weak”—behavior on the part of men.5

People have assumed that malakoi does refer to homosexuality in 1 Corinthians primarily because the next term in the list is arsenokoitai (defined below)—the assumption being, of course, that the two words are somehow linked in meaning because they appear side by side in the list. This, however, is by no means necessarily the case. “The greedy” and “drunkards” are also juxtaposed in the list, and it would be difficult to see any link between them.

But even if malakoi and arsenokoitai are somehow linked in meaning, it is not at all clear just how arsenokoitai should be translated. It comes from two Greek words: arsen, which means “male” (as opposed to “female”), and koite which literally means “bed” but by extension can be a euphemism for sexual intercourse (like “going to bed” with someone). This would appear to suggest that arsenokoitai refers to males who “go to bed” with other males. But Dale B. Martin has pointed out that the meaning of a compound word cannot necessarily be determined by breaking it apart, looking at the meaning of each of its parts, and then simply combining these meanings to determine the meaning of the compound word. As an example, Martin cites the English word, “understand,” which has nothing to do with either “standing” or “being under.”6

Numerous other examples could be cited, but I want to mention one that is closer to the topic under consideration. The word I have in mind is the vulgar term, “mother-fucker.” We know what this word means literally. But when people use it, they typically are not referring to someone who has sexual intercourse with his mother (or even with someone else’s mother). In fact, the word normally does not refer to sexual activity at all. Though generally viewed as highly pejorative, it is sometimes used in a more-or-less neutral sense or even, in some circles, as a term of admiration or perhaps affection. The point is, however, that its original sexual meaning is often not apparent in its actual usage. And the same thing may very well be true of the Greek word arsenokoitai. Martin has made a study of how the word is actually used in ancient Greek literature. It is a rare word.

First Corinthians 6:9 is probably the earliest occurrence that we have, and most other occurrences are merely quotations from or allusions to 1 Corinthians 6:9 and/or 1 Timothy 1:10 (the only places the word occurs in the New Testament).

According to Martin, though, when the word does appear independently, it is typically found in conjunction not with sins of sexual immorality but rather with sins related to economic injustice or exploitation. Thus, Martin concludes that arsenokoitai most likely refers not to homosexuality as such but rather to the “exploiting of others by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily by homosexual sex.”7 I would suggest, however, that it might even refer to exploitation that has nothing at all to do with sex. We often use sexual language to talk about things that have nothing to do with sex. For example, someone might say, “I really fucked up!” without having sex in mind at all. Or think about how we sometimes use the word “screw.” If I say, “I really got screwed on that business deal,” I’m not talking about sex, but I am talking about exploitation. And this is consistent with Martin’s conclusion that arsenokoitai appears to refer more precisely to exploitation than to sexual activity. The bottom line is that we simply do not know what the word meant or how it was used in the first century.8

So, malakoi means simply “soft,” perhaps “effeminate,” and it might or might not refer to homosexuality. And arsenokoitai might or might not refer explicitly to homosexuality. Therefore, we cannot be certain that First Corinthians 6:9–10 refers to homosexuality at all. The same is true of First Timothy 1:8–11, which has the word arsenokoitai but not the word malakoi. It might not refer to homosexuality either.

Proposition 5: Even if 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–11 do refer to homosexuality, what they likely have in mind is not homosexuality per se but rather one particular form of homosexuality that was regarded as especially exploitive and degrading.9

Some scholars have suggested that malakoi designates attractive young men, or boys, whose sexual services were either purchased or coerced by older men, and that arsenokoitai designates these older men who thus “used” or exploited the younger men. According to this interpretation, malakoi and arsenokoitai do refer to male homosexuality, but the objection is not necessarily to male homosexual activity per se, but rather to the prostitution, coercion, and/or exploitation that typically accompanied one particular type of male homosexuality. And this, too, is consistent with Martin’s conclusion that arsenokoitai refers more specifically to exploitation than it does to sex. Furthermore, if this is the case, then we simply have no way of knowing what the New Testament writers might have said about a non-exploitive, non-coercive, loving, committed, monogamous homosexual relationship. We cannot know because New Testament writers are not talking about that kind of homosexual relationship.

In the final analysis, we cannot be certain that these passages refer to homosexuality at all. And if they do, they do so only in passing in more-or-less miscellaneous catalogues of various types of behaviors that are regarded as unacceptable.

Proposition 6: The one passage in the New Testament that almost certainly does refer to homosexuality is based on some highly debatable presuppositions about its nature and causes.

The passage in question is Romans 1:26–27. Earlier in this chapter, the author is talking about idolatry, the worship of false gods. Then, beginning in verse 24, he talks about the results of idolatry. Verses 24 and 25 identify the results of idolatry as lust, impurity, and the degrading of one’s body. Then, verses 26 and 27 spell out in more detail the nature of this lust, impurity, and bodily degradation as follows (New Revised Standard Version):

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. 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. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Following verses 26 and 27, the remainder of the chapter lists some of the other results of idolatry, and the list is rather similar to the catalogues in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–11. In other words, homosexuality is but one among other types of unacceptable behaviors.

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What must be emphasized, then, is that the passage, taken as a whole, is not about homosexuality. It is about idolatry. The only reason it mentions homosexuality at all is because the author assumes that it is a result of willful idolatry. Knowing full well that there is one true God, people nevertheless freely choose to worship false gods. As punishment for this idolatry, God “gives them up” to homosexual activity. Thus, in a sense, homosexuality is not so much a sin as it is a punishment for sin. This should mean, however, that no monotheist would ever take part in homosexual activity—no practicing Jew or Christian or Muslim. Only worshippers of false gods would engage in such activity. This was a fairly common assumption within first-century Judaism, and it is one of the dubious presuppositions that underlie Romans 1:26–27. Clearly, however, it is not consistent with what we can observe in the world around us.

The passage also makes at least two other assumptions that point to its essential irrelevance so far as modern discussions of homosexuality are concerned. First, it assumes that homosexuality is somehow “unnatural”—contrary to nature—or a better translation would be “beyond what is natural.” In other words, it isn’t just unusual for people to engage in homosexual activity. It is abnormal; it “goes beyond” that which is natural. According to the American Psychological Association, however, “most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive, and biological factors.”10 Moreover, psychologists tend to be extremely cautious about using such categories as “natural” and “unnatural,” “normal” and “abnormal” when talking about human behavior.

Second, the passage assumes that homosexuality is an expression of insatiable lust. People turn to homosexual activity because heterosexual activity simply fails to satisfy them. They want more! As Dale B. Martin points out, it is somewhat like gluttony: gluttony is too much eating, and homosexuality is too much sex.11 People engage in homosexual activity because they “can’t get enough” of sex otherwise. And this, of course, is related to the notion that homosexuality “goes beyond” that which is natural. Homosexuality is essentially excessive sexuality. Together with the author’s emphasis on the verb “exchange,” this suggests that, in modern terms, the reference in the passage may be more to bisexuality than to homosexuality. If such is the case, then the passage would appear to have little relevance for people whose sole orientation is homosexual.

In light of the assumptions that underlie Romans 1:26–27, perhaps the question to be raised when reading these verses is the following: “Exactly what is it that is being opposed here, and why is it being opposed?” Is it simply homosexuality per se, or is it the idolatry, the “abnormality,” and the insatiable lust that, in the first-century Jewish mind, were associated with homosexual activity? And a second question is this: What would the author of Romans 1:26–27 say about a loving, committed, monogamous homosexual relationship—one that was not rooted in idolatry, one that did not represent a rejection of one’s own true nature, and one that was not characterized by excessive lust? I think the answer has to be that we simply do not know, because, once again, the author is talking about something quite different.

Conclusion: The New Testament really does not provide any direct guidance for understanding and making judgments about homosexuality in the modern world.

To the extent that it does talk about homosexuality, the New Testament appears to be talking about only certain types of homosexuality, and it speaks on the basis of assumptions about homosexuality that are now regarded as highly dubious. Perhaps, then, we could paraphrase what the New Testament says about homosexuality as follows: If homosexuality is exploitive, then it is wrong; if homosexuality is rooted in idolatry, then it is wrong; if homosexuality represents a denial of one’s own true nature, then it is wrong; if homosexuality is an expression of insatiable lust, then it is wrong. But we could say exactly the same thing about heterosexuality, couldn’t we?

If homosexuality is not necessarily any of these things, however, then it would appear that the New Testament has nothing to say about it in any direct sense. Speaking specifically of the Pauline letters but in words that are applicable to the New Testament as a whole, the Pauline scholar Victor Paul Furnish puts it as follows:

[Paul’s] letters . . . cannot yield any specific answers to the questions being faced in the modern church. Shall practicing homosexuals be admitted to church membership? Shall they be accorded responsibilities within a congregation? Shall they be commissioned to the church’s ministry? The Apostle never asks or answers these questions. . . . On these points there are no proof texts available one way or the other. It is mistaken to invoke Paul’s name in support of any specific position on these matters.12

In short, there is nothing in the New Testament that tells us directly whether homosexuality per se is a good thing or a bad thing or simply a fact of life.

To be sure, when we consider its overall message, the New Testament may provide some indirect guidance regarding homosexuality. Indeed, it may well be the case that a twenty-first century “Paul” would revise Galatians 3:27–28 to read as follows:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female, there is neither homosexual nor heterosexual; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Want to know more? Read “When a Man Lies with a Man as with a Woman” by Stephen J. Patterson

 

Works Consulted

American Psychological Association. “Answers to Your Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality.” Washington: The American Psychological Association, 1998.

Furnish, Victor Paul. The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues. 2nd ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985.

Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Notes

    1. Furnish, Moral Teaching of Paul, p. 65.
    2. Some have argued that Mark 10:6–9 and Jude 6–7 should be added to the list, but most scholars agree that these passages have nothing to do with homosexuality.
    3. In the New Testament, see, for example, Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:21–22; Luke 18:11; Romans 1:29–31; 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:10–11; 2 Corinthians 12:20–21; Galatians 5:19–21; Ephesians 4:31; 5:3–5; Colossians 3:5–9; 1 Timothy 6:4–5; 2 Timothy 2:3–4; Titus 1:7; 3:3; 1 Peter 2:1; 4:3, 15; Revelation 9:21; 21:8; 22:15
    4. In much of what follows, I am indebted to Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, pp. 37–50.
    5. In terms of the dominant gender stereotyping, “feminine-like” behavior on the part of men would be seen as “weakness,” while “masculine-like” behavior on the part of women would be viewed as “hybris.”
    6. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, p. 39
    7. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, p. 43.
    8. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, pp. 38–43. To be sure, inclusion of arsenokoitai in a list of “vices” suggests that the root meaning has a negative connotation, but the basis for a connotation may be more complicated than it appears. Just as malakoi may be essentially “gynophobic,” arsenokoitai may also be “gynophobic” and even “misogynistic.” It may refer to males who treat other males like females by dominating or in some way—either literally or symbolically—emasculating them (the implication being, of course, that it is perfectly acceptable and even appropriate to treat females in this way).
    9. For discussion, see, e.g., Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul, pp. 67–72; see also pp. 58–67 and the entire chapter, pp. 52–82.
    10. “Answers to Your Questions.”
    11. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, p. 57.
    12. Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul, p. 78.

William O. Walker, Jr., is Jennie Farris Railey King Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where he served as a member of the faculty and as an administrator until his retirement in 2002. He is the author of Interpolations in the Pauline Letters (2001).