A careful study of how arsenokoitai was used in ancient Greek texts can tell us quite a bit about what it meant and how it should be translated today.
Arsenokoitai does not appear in any Greek text before Paul used it, so he probably coined it. Arsenokoitai is a combination of two Greek words, arsen, which is a common Greek word for a man, and koite, which literally means bed but figuratively means sexual intercourse, as in our expression "go to bed with." Most likely, Paul took arsenokoitai directly from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Greek text of Leviticus 20:13 begins "kai hos an koimethei meta arsenos koiten gunaikos bdelugma epoiesan amfoteroi."2 Apparently Paul combined arsenos and koiten to get arsenokoitai. The English Standard Version translates Leviticus 20:13 as "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them."
The death penalty was required for Jews, because it was part of the Law of Moses, but it does not apply to Christians because it was not repeated in the New Testament. Instead, in the case of the woman caught in the act of adultery, Jesus said, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." John 8:7 ESV.
Some claim that sex between men is condemned in Leviticus 18 and 20 only because it was part of pagan rituals. However, Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of both Jesus and Paul, used these verses to condemn a Greek sexual custom that was clearly not part of a pagan ritual. In Philo's commentary on Leviticus 18 and 20, Special Laws, Book III, Section VII, he gave the example of paiderastein, translated "love of boys" by Charles Younge, DD,3 which referred to the Greek custom of pederasty. An adolescent male, with the consent of his father, moved into the home of a prominent man for mentoring. The relationship also involved sex. Philo condemns pederasty partly because teenage boys were made up to look and act effeminate when they should have been trained for strength and acts of courage.
Philo also gave the example of male temple prostitutes from the temple of Ceres, some of whom wanted to become like women so they castrated themselves. Philo described both the adolescent males and the male temple prostitutes with malakia, which has the same root as malakoi, the word preceding arsenokoitai in I Corinthians 6:9.
Another false interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is about the word abomination. Some downplay the significance of abomination, even though it deserved the death penalty, because certain unclean animals are also called abominations in the dietary laws of Leviticus 11. However, different Hebrew words are used for unclean animals, either shaqats or sheqets. The Hebrew word translated abomination in Leviticus 18 and 20 is towebah.4 It usually refers to sexual sins or to idolatry as in Deuteronomy 7:25-26. It is the word translated abomination in Ezekiel 16:50 which describes the reason Sodom was destroyed.
Arsenokoitai is used only twice in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. It also is used by Early Christian writers, usually as they quote Paul's usage. In most cases, arsenokotai appears in a list of sins with no description of its meaning. But there are a few instances where there is enough context to indicate the meaning of arsenokoitai and its related words. Arsenokoitia (singular) and arsenokoisias (plural) are the act. Arsenokoites (singular) and arsenokoitai (plural) are the males who perform the act.
Aristides of Athens used arsenokoisias in the Apology of Aristides in Section 13 of his speech defending Christianity to Emperor Hadrian about AD 124. Arsenokoisias, which is translated "lying with males," is in a list of sins committed by Greek gods and there is no context to define its meaning.
However, some try to link arsenokoisias to the story of Zeus and the rape of Ganymede which is found back in Section 9. But Section 9 does not use arsenokoisias. Instead, Section 9 is summarized using arrenomaneis, translated "lying with males," and androbaten, translated "come near to lie with males." Other than adultery, the Greek words for the four sins in Section 9 and the five sins in Section 13 are completely different. There is nothing to link the story of Zeus and the rape of Ganymede to the meaning of arsenokoisias.5
Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170-235) used arsenokoitia in The Refutation of All Heresies in Book 5, Chapter 22, when he described the heresy of the Naasenes. The heretical passage describes how Naas, the serpent, encountered Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. F. Legge, FSA, translated the passage: "But Naas had transgression, for he went unto Eve and beguiled her and committed adultery with her, which is a breach of the Law. And he went in also unto Adam and used him as a boy which is also a breach of the Law. Thence came adultery and sodomy." Thus arsenokoitia is translated sodomy and refers to how Naas went to Adam and "used him as a boy," that is, had sex with Adam.6
Eusebius of Caesarea, (about AD 265-340) in Preparation for the Gospel, Book 6, Chapter 10, quotes a 2nd-3rd century Christian, Bardesanes, who used arsenokoites in a section describing the different moral standards of various nations. E. H. Gifford, DD, translated the passage: "From the river Euphrates, and as far as the Ocean towards the East, he who is reviled as a murderer, or a thief, is not at all indignant: but he who is reviled for sodomy avenges himself even to the death: among the Greeks, however, even their wise men are not blamed for having favourites." Favourites is a translation of eromenos which referred to an adolescent male in a pederastic relationship with an older man. Arsenokoites is translated sodomy and is compared to pederasty.7
Arrenokoitia, the spelling in the Attic dialect, is used in The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, which is now attributed to Pseudo-Macarius, who was most likely Symeon of Mesopotamia and certainly written before AD 534. Homily 4, Section 22 describes the depths of sin reached by the men of Sodom. George A. Maloney, SJ, translated the passage: "This is what happened to those of Sodom. They committed many sins and refused to be converted until they committed, by their wicked design upon the angels, that crime of sodomy." Arrenokoitia is translated sodomy and referred to the desire of the men of Sodom have sex with the angels. Ezekiel 16:49-50 lists the sins of Sodom: pride, failure to help the poor and needy, haughtiness and an abomination (towebah), which is singular in the original Hebrew text. Of these sins, only sex between men is listed in the Law of Moses as an abomination (towebah) which deserved the death penalty, Leviticus 20:13.8
John the Faster (?-AD 595) used arsenokoitia twice in Penitential where he described how a priest should speak to someone confessing his sins. John Boswell translated these passages: "Likewise one must inquire about arsenokoitia of which there are three varieties. For it is one thing to get it from someone, which is the least serious; another to do it to someone else, which is more serious than having it done to you; another to do it to someone and have it done to you, which is more serious than either of the other two." In a later passage, "In fact, many men even commit the sin of arsenokoitia with their wives." John the Faster used arsenokoitia for both active and passive roles when it was between two men. He also added a new meaning to arsenokoitia by applying it to a man and a woman. In the same document, John the Faster also made a distinction between arsenokoitia and mutual masturbation.9
A word's meaning can change over the centuries. John the Faster used arsenokoitia in a somewhat different way than it was used in earlier centuries by including husbands and wives. That is why I say "possibly" heterosexuals. Later, someone reasoned that since arsenos was singular, then arsenokoitia must refer to self sex, that is, masturbation, which is how it was translated during the Middle Ages. This is another example of how the meaning of a compound word cannot always be determined by the meanings of its component words. The only dependable way to determine a word's meaning is to see how it is used in context by writers in a close time and place. Unfortunately, these usages were spread over 500 years because arsenokoitai was rarely used. I found less than twenty uses of arsenokoitai before AD. 600 and most were in lists of sins without enough context to indicate the meaning.
The meaning of arsenokoitai is based on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Philo linked these verses to the Greek custom of pederasty and also to male temple prostitutes. Aristides linked arsenokoitai to the sins of Greek gods. Hippolytus linked it to a story of sex between Naas and Adam. Bardesanes compared it to pederasty. Pseudo-Macarius linked it to the desires of the men of Sodom. John the Faster used it to describe sexual intercourse between men and also practiced by some men with their wives.
Since only Philo mentioned male temple prostitutes and no other writer mentioned them, then arsenokoitai does not mean just male temple prostitutes. Philo and Bardesanes both mentioned pederasty. These prominent Greek men most likely also had wives so they were bisexuals, not homosexuals. The men who committed arsenokoitia with their wives definitely were not homosexuals. Therefore, arsenokoitai does not mean just homosexuals. The men of Sodom were not seeking sex with adolescent males, so arsenokoitia does not mean just pederasty, either.
Arsenokoitia does not mean any of these things exclusively, but it includes all of them. The one thing that ties together all of these uses is not the sexual orientation, but the sex act: anal intercourse. Therefore, the best single English word to translate arsenokoitai is sodomites as it is defined in England. However, in the United States, sodomy includes both anal intercourse and oral intercourse.10
Only six of the fifty-nine English language Bibles listed at biblegateway.com use sodomites to translate arsenokoitai. Thirty-one use homosexuals or homosexuality, which are poor translations because they include lesbians while arsenokoitai is clearly male, and they do not include bisexuals which arsenokoitai does include. These are not accurate translations and should be changed. Of all of the other translations, the next most accurate is "men who have sex with men." I believe the most accurate and best translation of arsenokoitai is "men who have anal intercourse."
Arsenokoitai accurately describes bisexual, homosexual, and possibly heterosexual men, who practice anal intercourse. However, it does not apply to everyone in the gay community. Some homosexuals practice mutual masturbation instead of anal intercourse. Lesbians certainly are not arsenokoitai, although the unnatural sexual relations condemned in Romans 1:26-27 still applies to both groups. People with same sex attraction who practice celibacy are not condemned by the Bible any more than unmarried heterosexuals who practice celibacy.
Consider the full context of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. "Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." NIV
"And that is what some of you were." The Corinthian Christians were guilty of many sins. Likewise, we are all sinners saved by grace. God is able to take us from where we are, and move us into a sanctified relationship with Him through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Not long ago, alcoholics and divorced people were not welcome in most churches, but Alcoholics Anonymous brought many alcoholics into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Christians should reach out to everyone and encourage them to give their hearts to Jesus, then continue to teach and encourage each other to more closely follow His example.
1 All Bible quotations are taken from the English Standard Version, ESV, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, or from the New International Version, NIV, copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.
2 The Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/chapter.asp?book=3&page=20
3 Philo of Alexandria The Specical Laws III 37-42.The Works of Philo Judaeus, translated by Charles Duke Yonge, London, H. G. Bohn. 1854-1890. earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book29.html, Section VII
The Greek text of Philo of Alexandria The Specical Laws III 37-42 can be found at http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book29.html in Section VII.
4 Strongs Exhaustive Concordance by James Strong, Royal Publishers, Inc, pages 8-9, 121, 123
5 The Greek text and an English translation can be found at textexcavation.com/iframearistides.html.
6 Legge's translation of this passage can be found at archive.org/stream/philosophumenaor01hippuoft#page/176/mode/2up at the bottom of page 176.
The Greek text and Latin translation by Patricius Cruice can be found at babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044081740169;view=1up;seq=284, page 234, lines 8-12.
7 Gifford's translation of the passage can be found at tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_pe_06_book6.htm, Chapter 10, in the 26th paragraph.
The Greek text edited by Guilielmus Dindorfius (German: Karl Wilhelm Dindorf) can be found at archive.org/stream/opera02callgoog#page/n370/mode/2up, page 318, lines 25-30.
8 Maloney's translation can be found at scribd.com/doc/50321688/Pseudo-Macarius-the-Fifty-Spiritual-Homilies-and-the-Great-Letter page 46, Section 22.
The Greek text edited by J. P. Migne can be found at books.google.com/books?id=GxURAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false, page 489, section 22.
9 Boswell's translation can be found at sourcebooks.fordham.edu/pwh/johnnest.asp.
The Greek text edited by J. P. Migne can be found at books.google.com/books?id=jh1BAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false, middle of page 1893 and top of page 1896.
10 legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/sodomy. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sodomy.
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