What are the Arsenokoites?
Jumping straight over the Gospels and Acts, which contain no direct comments against homosexuality, we begin our first New Testament study in the book of 1 Timothy.
Our first two out of the three passages both use our focus word, translated "sodomites" above, but the second passage in 1 Corinthians adds a second word, so I decided to swap the book order for the purposes of this essay. We will build on the word study in the next section.
Here are my questions for our discussion of 1 Timothy:
- Is there anything different about our study of the New Testament, compared to the Tanakh?
- What is this arsenokoites word? What does it mean?
- What is the author's* teaching intent in this passage?
* While some Bible scholars believe that 1 Timothy was written by an anonymous disciple of Paul in his name posthumously (an accepted practice at the time), we’ll use the traditional attribution of Paul for this chapter.
Studying in the New Testament
Now that we're moving into the New Testament, there are a few differences we'll find in our study methods. I'll try to explain how and why I'm approaching things in this section.
Cross-referencing in the canon is not possible
As you've seen, I've spent a lot of time in cross-referencing studies for our first three passages in the Tanakh. I hope you'll agree that it was helpful to pull together a variety of references for each passage to help us get at the meaning of the instructions.
Unfortunately, we simply cannot do that in the Bible for our three New Testament passages. There are no other places where the same words are used, or other sections that refer back to them. We are left with three brief sets of verses that seem to stand alone.
What we can do is:
- Realize that these passages are written with deep knowledge and reverence for the Tanakh.
- Cross-reference Greek and Roman texts of the era for both language and cultural cues.
- And read the verses in their broader contexts to under- stand how they contribute to the overall message.
A Brief Summary of What We've Learned in the Tanakh
Now, you may not accept my reading proposals for the Tanakh at this time. However, I'd like to say that for myself the prohibition foundation against all homosexual behavior does not seem as concrete as we might have assumed from a surface-level reading.
Hopefully we can agree that, at minimum, the first three passages are strongly against:
- violent inhospitality toward "outsiders", including examples of both same-sex and opposite-sex rape
- male-with-male sex that is labeled an abomination, which may be linked to sexual worship rituals
- all cult prostitution, for both male and female Israelites
While women are banned from bestiality there doesn't seem to be any concern over them entering into lesbian relationships. We don't know if this is because it didn't happen at the time, or the men writing down the codes didn't know it was happening, or if it just wasn't a concern because they didn't see this as missing an opportunity for procreation (which was a big deal at the time). Certainly prostitution in idolatry was a concern for both genders.
While the concern about idolatrous rituals could be carried forward to our third New Testament passage, what we encounter in the first two passages may come from Jewish exposure to a whole new world of vice and immorality.
Changing languages and cultural settings
It's important to remember that the Israelites of Paul's day lived in a completely different cultural and linguistic environment from those of earlier times.
As we saw discussed briefly in our first Leviticus passage, rules of morality often are in response to the surrounding environment. Israel was commanded to be set apart from the practices of Canaanite idolatry, and the acts of violence common to the time.
By the time Paul wrote his epistles, so much had changed for his people.
- The rise and fall of the kings of Israel and Judah (1,000-600 BCE).
- The exile and assimilation of the Ten Lost Tribes by Assyria (750 BCE)
- Exile under Babylon (586-538 BCE)
- The exiles return under Persian rule (538-333 BCE)
- Alexander the Great conquers Persia and the Greeks rule Israel (333-160 BCE)
- When Antiochus IV Epiphanes tries to replace Judaism with Greek religion, the Maccabees successfully revolt and priest-kings rule briefly (160-63 BCE)
- General Pompey besieges Jerusalem, and Judea becomes a Roman kingdom (63 BCE)
- Judea is converted to a Roman province in 6 CE.
From the 3rd century BCE, a massive cultural exchange with Greece was started. The Jews began to be exposed to Greek culture, philosophy and religion, while also translating the Tanakh from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek. During this period the Greek translation, known as the Septuagint, became a primary source for many, and additional writings which we now know as the Apocrypha were added. Judaism expanded out dramatically, putting synagogues in far off regions and develop- ing significant new centers of learning and study in locations like Alexandria in Egypt.
By the time of Christ, Aramaic was the language spoken locally in Judea, but Greek was the international language. Not only was Paul writing in Greek, which he would have grown up with as a Hellenized Jew and Roman citizen, but he was writing to those who were saturated in Greek and Roman culture whether they were ethnically Jewish or Gentile. The cultural assumptions and environments were vastly different from those in Genesis and Leviticus.
Greco-Roman Sexuality, and Pederasty
Men’s roles were to be heads of house-holds (for the wealthy this could include wife, children and slaves). Wives were the source of progeny, but there was broad acceptance for and sometimes even a foundational assumption that sexual pleasure for men was to be sought outside the family. This could include either opposite-sex or same-sex liasons.
It’s clear from many Greco-Roman authors that certain forms of same-sex relationships were accepted and encouraged by many, though not by all. The most idealized form was known as paiderastia ("pederasty") which dates back to the 7th century BCE. This was a very specific relationship between an older man (the "lover" – erastês) and a young man (the "beloved" – erômenos) 13-20 years of age. In theory it could be a purely platonic relationship between a mentor and someone seeking wisdom, but it often included sex too. (You might start with referencing Wikipedia articles if you want to read more about Greek or Roman ideas.)
There were several unique characteristics which make this relationship very different from that of most modern same-sex couples:
- Not exclusively homosexual: The lover was usually married to a woman at the same time. The marriage bond was for property and progeny, and pleasure was assumed to be sought elsewhere (whether from men or women). It wasn’t until the 20th century that marriage was seen to be about complete sexual fulfillment.
- Inequality: The sexual relationship was completely one-sided in favor of the lover. The beloved was not expected to have pleasure.
- Impermanence: The beloved was usually rejected and replaced by a "younger model" after outgrowing their youth.
- Humiliation: There was always great potential for humiliation and abuse in this relationship, which was generally under the control of the lover. Both Plutarch and Plato discuss the potential for abuse toward the beloved, and hatred in return.
- Male-dominated: Yes, there was some recording of lesbian activity, but the (almost exclusively) men doing the recording didn't spend much time discussing it. It certainly was not the normal cultural practice in the same way that male relationships were.
Being perceived as a passive partner in a relationship between those of similar ages was predominately seen as humiliating and inappropriate for adult men because they would be associated with the culturally “inferior” women. It was socially acceptable for men to take this role only as a youth, and then find their own erômenos as they became an adult. There were some famous partners who broke these rules, but it was not the normal behavior and at least one of the men would risk losing his reputation.
There were at least two other forms of same-sex arrangements recorded in Greco-Roman culture.
The second option was for men to seek sex with male youth either in brothels or in their own households as slaves. In these cases there was quite clearly no choice for the slave boy (at least the erômenos had a choice to begin with). Some men were so taken with these boys that they would be castrated to preserve their more feminine appearance longer. The emperor Nero is famous for doing so with a slave named Sporus around this time period, and then marrying him in an elaborate ceremony.
This owner/slave relationship is decidedly one-sided and not comparable to a reciprocal relationship between two equal partners. I think we would all agree it is not something we’d ever want to support.
I’ll leave the third (and most despised even by the Greeks and Romans) form of same-sex relationships for our discussion of 1 Corinthians since it may be more directly encountered there.
Epistles as unique literature
Finally, we should not forget that we are now looking at a completely new form of literature compared to the rest of the canon. Unlike the various histories, poetry, laws, and narratives, Paul is writing letters.
These letters were written for specific reasons to specific audiences, at a specific time. While there is disagreement among scholars as to the date (either ~65 or ~150 CE) and therefore the exact author and recipient, we know that it is generally written to a community in Ephesus that was started by Paul and led by Timothy.
The most important thing to know for our current topic is that the letter was originally intended for those living in the middle of Greco-Roman culture, and that they might understand various references and terms from their context in ways that we may not today.
Finally – we get to that weird Greek word: ἀρσενοκοίτης
Now that we’ve established some background for our New Testament study, let’s dig into the text by examining the Greek word arsenokoites. This time we have some real digging to do.
Paul makes up words
Paul may or may not have been the first to use the word in speech, but he appears to be the first to write it down. It’s only found in twice in the Bible, both times in a list of various immoral behaviors. There are very few recorded uses of arsenokoites after his time as well. Most of the other usages are from Christian texts which simply quote Paul’s writings, which makes it very difficult to have confidence in our definition of it today.
Before we discuss the likely origin, I would like to emphasize that much of the conservative doctrine against homosexuality is based directly on this single word on which contemporary scholars, both liberal and conservative, agree we can never be absolutely sure what it meant when Paul wrote it down.
The most common conservative argument for the derivation of the word is the hypothesis that Paul created it based on the early Greek translation from Hebrew of Leviticus 18:22 found in the Septuagint:
καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν
It's a compound made up of the Greek words for "male" (ἄρσην 730) and "bed" (κοίτη 2845), as highlighted above. The word for “bed” can be a euphemism for sex, and that’s how it was used by the 3rd century BCE translators of the Septuagint. Some think that Paul used this word as a short- ened reference to the entire prohibition in Leviticus. This would bring the concepts we’ve been discussing in the last few chapters into the New Testament—with all the implications that might provide us for interpretation. Others suggest the combination means nothing more than “male-bedder” or “male-who-has-sex” which describe a sexually-active, possibly promiscuous, man. Of course, words can have a different meaning from their root components (e.g. “understand” does not mean standing under something), so it could mean other things.
Another suggestion is that the root word choices come from this verse, but are used to directly translate the 1st century rabbinic term "mishkav zakur", meaning "lying with a male", into Greek. The general connotation is the same as with the first suggestion, except that it may be a broader concept than a specific reference to the one command in the Law.
There is general, though not universal, agreement that some form of male-with-male sex is being condemned in the context. The next question is, why did Paul make up a word when he had plenty to pick from in existing Greek and Roman vocabulary?
What would the Greeks and Romans have written?
While it is possible that arsenokoites was a commonly-used word in conversations of the time, given its absence in contemporary writings it is more likely that this word is unique to Paul or the small Christian communities at the time.
There were no exactly equivalent words for "homosexual" in Greek. The word itself is very modern, having been first used in German in 1869 in a pamphlet advocating for the repeal of sodomy laws in Prussia. It was translated into English scientific literature in 1892. Before this time, there was little concept of innate binary orientation. It was generally assumed that most people could desire sex with either gender, and the terms were mostly used to describe very specific sexual behaviors and forms of relationships. Some terms and commentary did seem to acknowledge that some people were more inclined to same-sex relationships than others, but that wasn't considered a requirement for the behaviors. We also see a focus on male-with-male sex, with only one mention of female-with-female sex in the entire Bible, so broadening out to "homosexuality" is not directly supported by the original language. We'll cover this further in our discussion of Romans 1.
There were many terms used for different aspects of either homosexual relationships or sexual acts during the time of Paul which he chose not to use in this passage. We have extensive examples from earlier Greek writers such as Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle and Plutarch. The first-century Jewish writers Josephus and Philo wrote about homosexuality, including the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but did not use arsenokoites in their work. Early Greek-speaking Christian writers like Tatian, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa and Saint John Chrysostom all wrote negatively of homosexuality, but they used different words and phrases.
Out of the roughly 77 times that this word is found in Koine Greek literature, almost all are exact copies of the vice lists in the New Testament without any additional context that would help us understand the original meaning. The few that use it independently include:
Accusation against pagan gods as violating Roman law,
at a time when same-gender relationships and sexual activity were not illegal but prostitution among the upper classes was. — Aristides (2nd century)
Accusation included in lists of economic sins and injustice, including robbery, swindling and unjust exploitation of others. — Found in the Sibylline Oracles, Acts of John and Theophilus’ To Autolychus (2nd to 6th century)
Male rape/enslavement — Hippolytus (3rd century)
A 3rd century reference by Bardesanes to behavior that was very shameful for a man, cited by Eusebius in the 4th century with added commentary that may or may not tie the behavior to having a male lover in some form.
A despised sexual act regardless of gender, likely anal intercourse: “And many even practice the vice of arseno- koites with their wives”. — Jonannes Jejunator, 6th century
Accusation of pederasty between bishops and young boys. — Malalas (6th century)
Careful scholars on both sides of this debate agree that there is currently no way to conclusively define this word by referencing usage in other literature, beyond a general negative connotation largely associated with sexuality. From these sources we cannot either affirm or refute a direct connection with same-gender sexuality with full confidence.
It wasn’t until the 13th century that commentators like Saint Thomas Aquinas began to directly associate arsenokoites with some forms of homosexual activity (not orientation), far past the period when the word was commonly used.
At this stage in our discussion, I’m left with two questions:
If Paul, inspired by God, wanted to make a prohibition against all same-gender relationships and sexual activity very clear for all time, he had many other word choices to pick from. Plenty of Greek writers had negative things to say about various forms of same-gender activity in their world, using a variety of explicit words and descriptive phrases. Why is something that seems so important left so ambiguous?
If we accept the theory that Paul derived the word arsenokoites from the Greek translation of Leviticus in the Septuagint, how would our prior exploration of that text as possibly referring to temple prostitution practices affect our reading of 1 Timothy 1:9-10?
How has it been translated in various Bible versions?
As we discussed in the very beginning, every translator has to make interpretation decisions based on their expertise, research, and always informed (consciously or not) by their surrounding culture and colleagues. I've chosen a list of various translations that are all available to read for free online, from a range of years and with a variety of interpretive choices. I put the popular NIV/TNIV on the list three times because it has been through a number of revisions since first published:
|Wycliffe||1382||"to them that do lechery with men"|
|King James Version||1611||"them that defile themselves with mankind"|
|Young's Literal Translation||1898||"sodomites"|
|American Standard Version||1909||"abusers of themselves with men"|
|Worldwide English||1969||"men who have sex with other men"|
|The Living Bible||1971||"homosexuals"|
|New International Version*||1973||"perverts"|
|New Revised Standard Version*||1989||"sodomites"|
|Good News Translation||1992||"sexual perverts"|
|Contemporary English Version*||1995||"who live as homosexuals"|
|New Living Translation*||1996||"who practice homosexuality"|
|Holman Christian Standard Bible||1999||"homosexuals"|
|English Standard Version*||2001||"men who practice homosexuality"|
|Today's NIV*||2001||"for those practicing homosexuality"|
|New English Translation*||2006||"practicing homosexuals"|
|Expanded Bible||2011||"who have sexual relations with people of the same sex
[are practicing homosexuals]"
|New American Bible RE||2011||"sodomites"|
|New International Version*||2011||"those practicing homosexuality"|
* The marked versions above use gender-inclusive language as appropriate for the context. Note that some decide this term only refers to men, and some expand it to include women.
It seems that we have a general drift in translation from the older to the newer translations. The older translations could be seen to generally imply an abusive situation, from "abusers of themselves with mankind" to "sodomites" which could imply rape. Obviously most modern translators, starting in the 1970s, see this word as generally describing all homosexual people, or at least all homosexual acts by men. Our question remains: is this accurate, or is it driven by our traditional modern Christian cultural environment and assumptions?
What can we learn from the use of the word in context?
Returning to our text, let's expand out from this one isolated word and look at our context.
The First Epistle to Timothy
We don't have time or space to dive in deep on the entire book. Let's remember that this is a short letter from one man to another (inspired by God of course), written in a specific time and place, with a particular set of goals. Many epistles are to address a specific question or struggle that a given community has. This one appears to be more general advice for the leader of an early Christian church.
Paul's Main Point in the introduction
Paul begins with a greeting in the name of "God our savior and Christ our hope", and then immediately dives into his concerns about proper teaching in the church.
His goal in correct teaching is love – love that comes from a pure heart, clear conscience and sincere faith. He's concerned that some have missed this goal, and started teaching about laws instead, not understanding the words or matters they assert.
He affirms the goodness of the Law, but only if used carefully to convict those who are unrighteous. He throws out a quick list of sample behaviors that exemplify those who need the Law – criminals, rebels, godless, profane, those who kill their fathers and mothers and anyone else, for those who have sex outside of marriage, arsenokoites (often translated sodomite implying rapists?), slavers/kidnappers, and liars.
Does this seem to describe someone who is a dedicated Christian, loving God and doing good, who is faithfully and lovingly married to someone of the same sex? Are they in need of the Law in a way that I am not simply because I'm married to someone of the opposite sex?
What else does Paul instruct in this Epistle?
If we're spending so much time on wondering how to apply one word in this Epistle, it doesn't seem reasonable to ignore the remainder of the instructions Paul gives. We should consider applying the same standard to everything else in the book, or we risk allowing the assumptions we bring to the text become tools to fit our personal agenda.
What are a few other things Paul instructs Timothy about? Well, there's quite a bit you can read on your own, so let me pull out a few topics that might help us in our discussion.
- Instructions for women:
- Dress modestly with no jewelry (2:9)
- Must be silent and submit in learning (2:11)
- Not allowed to teach or have any authority over a man (2:11)
- ...because man was created first and women fall to temptation (2:13-14)
- ...but they can be saved through childbearing if leading modest/sensible lives. (2:15)
- Oddly, after being told not to have leadership positions, women are instructed to dignity and faithfulness in the middle of instructions about Deacons. (3:11)
- While celibacy is man's highest calling in service to God elsewhere, young widows can't be trusted to stay unmarried and righteous. (5:11-14)
- Everything God has created is good
- False teachers will come in Timothy's future, forbidding marriage... (4:3)
- ...forbidding food. (4:3)
- Nothing God created is to be rejected if received with thanksgiving (4:4)
- Instructions for slaves
- Slaves should honor their masters...
- ... and work harder if they are owned by believers. (6:1-2)
- No instructions given here for the slave-owners to care for the slaves in return.
- Polygamy is a disqualification for leadership in the church (otherwise ok?) (3:2, 12)
I won't do much more than bring these things up, as we could spend a long time talking about them. I'll simply point out two things:
- I believe it's safe to assume that some of Paul's instructions were intended for a specific set of issues or environments experienced by the church of Ephesus. Certainly many faithful Christians do not consider the specific instructions about women to directly transfer to our churches today even if their denomination doesn't go so far as to ordain them. We say the same things today about the instructions to slaves, though not all Christians have always recognized that.
- Paul seems to have a concern about those who teach overly limiting some things, because all things created by God are good and should be enjoyed. (Given the main topic we're discussing, it seems a bit ironic that Paul warns against future teachers forbidding marriage, though I'm sure he didn't have gay marriage in mind at the time!)
List of related word groupings?
When doing research on this passage, I found a number of suggestions for how to figure out what Paul meant when he wrote against arsenokoites. The recommendation I've found the most straightforward and helpful comes from a short booklet (about 35 pages long) called "The Bible, Christianity and Homosexuality" by Justin R. Cannon. The basic idea and argument structure I'm discussing here is deeply indebted to my reading of his book, which is freely available online.
The list of immoral behaviors in 1 Timothy could be seen as isolated prohibitions, but there is an interesting pattern which could help work through the meaning of our crucial word. Let's look at the entire passage in 1 Timothy 1:8-11 and break it down. I'm going to use Young's Literal Translation here because it represents the original Greek structure more accurately:
"and we have known that the law [is] good, if any one may use it lawfully; having known this, that for a righteous man law is not set, but • for lawless and insubordinate persons, • ungodly and sinners, • impious and profane, • parricides and matricides, men-slayers, • whoremongers, sodomites, men-stealers, • liars, perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that to sound doctrine is adverse, according to the good news of the glory of the blessed God, with which I was entrusted."
– 1 Timothy 1:8-11 (YLT)
Note that the list could be grouped into logical sets of related terms. Let's look at it line-by-line, observing that I've returned the terms in line 4 to the same one-word format as in the original Greek as the YLT does, but using more common English words:
- lawless – disobedient
- godless – sinful
- unholy – profane,
- father-killers – mother-killers – murderers (patroloas kai metroloas androphonos)
- fornicators – sodomites – slave traders,
- liars – perjurers
It seems reasonable to think that the sets of terms on each of the lines 1-4 and 6 may be intended to be read as related concepts. Is it possible there is some form of connection between the three individual terms in 5? Let's follow Justin Cannon's suggestion to run with this speculation for a bit. Now back to our list of various translations, in the same order, but adding the entire set of three prohibitions (since we are theorizing that there may be a relationship between them) to see how they are interpreted. The original Greek words are listed at the top:
|WYC||1382||fornicators||them that trespass with males against kind||sellers, or stealers, of men|
|KJV||1611||whoremongers||them that defile themselves with mankind||menstealers|
|ASV||1909||fornicators||abusers of themselves with men||menstealers|
|WE||1969||those who use sex in the wrong way||men who have sex with other men||those who steal people|
|TLB||1971||immoral and impure||homosexuals||kidnappers|
|GNT||1992||the immoral||sexual perverts||kidnappers|
|CEV||1995||sexual perverts||who live as homosexuals||kidnappers|
|NLT||1996||sexually immoral||who practice homosexuality||slave traders|
|ESV||2001||sexually immoral||men who practice homosexuality||enslavers|
|TNIV||2001||sexually immoral||those practicing homosexuality||slave traders|
|NET||2006||sexually immoral people||practicing homosexuals||kidnappers|
|EXB||2011||who take part in sexual sins||who have sexual relations with people of the same sex
[are practicing homosexuals]
|who sell slaves [are kidnappers/slave traders]|
|NIV||2011||sexually immoral||those practicing homosexuality||slave traders|
Let's take a closer look at the pair of outside terms to see if they can give us more insight for our cryptic center word.
Male Prostitutes, Sodomites, and Pimps
Now that we've looked at each word separately, let's join them back together and see what we can find.
Our first term seems to be strongly connected to a male prostitute, a man whose body is sold for sex – something forbidden by Levitical law, but available in the Roman world. Our third term is clearly depicting someone who deals in slaves.
Is it possible that arsenokoites specifically describes men who purchase the services of a male prostitute (pornos) who is owned by the andrapodistest? In this case, Paul could be masterfully indicting the entire immoral chain of male prostitution, bundling the three up as equally sinful acts. This might have been shocking and convicting to some Greek believers who may have assumed the only one at fault was the prostitute!
It would also very clearly fit the rare usage of arsenokoites in the few extra-Biblical Greek texts we have access to. A financial transaction for the use of a male prostitute would certainly be a form of sex-based economic exploitation, especially if the prostitute is enslaved to this occupation against his will.
We will encounter arsenokoites in the next section on 1 Corinthians as well. We may learn more there in a different context, and with our word paired with a new term of immoral behavior. For now, here's what I think we might be able to agree on what we've learned in 1 Timothy:
- The Greco-Roman concepts of accepted homosexual behavior that Paul and his audience would be familiar with are inherently unequal, impermanent, hold great potential for abuse, and are adulterous (since at least one partner is likely in a heterosexual marriage).
- Our central term "arsenokoites" is at best a word we cannot be absolutely certain of translating correctly, and in practice it has ranged from describing definitely abusive behaviors all the way to encompassing all homosexual desires depending on the translator.
- Paul seems more concerned about missing the target of Love by abusing the Law through misapplying it than he is about banning specific immoral behaviors.
- There is a reasonable case to be made that arsenokoites can be understood in context to refer very specifically to men who purchase the services of male prostitutes.
What do you think? Does 1 Timothy 1:10 still seem as unambiguously against monogamous gay marriage as it may have in the past? Does it seem reasonable to use this passage authori- tatively against all forms of same-sex relationships today, or is there room for debate and conversation with fellow believers?
Let's see what we find out in a similar list of immoral behaviors in 1 Corinthians.
Page Photo: Man soliciting boy for sex in exchange for a purse containing coins. The inscription reads ΗΟ ΠΑΙΣ ΚΑΛΟΣ (“The Boy is Beautiful”). Athenian red-figure kylix, 5th c. B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source: Wikipedia commons)