People turning to the Bible for answers about same-sex relationships often believe they find references to LGBT people in two particular passages in the New Testament. They are both lists of vices, and they share the same very unique vocabulary.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality” 1 Corinthians 6:9 (ESV).

and

“The sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” 1 Timothy 1:10 (ESV).

Rare Vocabulary

In order to understand the meaning of the New Testament vice lists that have been translated as referring to sexual minorities, it’s important to learn a little bit of Greek vocabulary. Specifically, you need to know the word arsenokoites. This is the word Paul uses in both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 that is sometimes translated “homosexuals.”

The reason you need to have some understanding of this Greek word is that there are some translation issues that need to be explained. Most of the time the translation of the Bible you have is beyond excellent. Understanding of the Greek usually adds nuance but doesn’t change the meaning of your translation. However, one exception is when a text contains a very rare word.

arsenokoites is translated in these passages as “men who practice homosexuality” and is often applied to LGBT people and the sexual intimacy in our relationships. These two verses are the only places the word arsenokoites shows up in the New Testament. It is also the first time the word shows up in any Greek text anywhere and it wasn’t used again until much later. Yet Paul assumes his readers understood it. So it is possible that the term was used exclusively by the Christian community. So where did they get it?

Reference to Leviticus

The New Testament Christians used a Greek translation of the Old Testament. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, verses translated “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman,” the author uses the words aresenos and koite. Many believe arsenokoites is Paul’s simple shorthand to refer back to these verses by combining the two words: arsenos + koite = arsenokoites.

This is what I think Paul was talking about, and I share this understanding with non-affirming scholars (see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice or Richard Davidson, The Flame of Yahweh).

I differ with them on the nature of what behavior Leviticus references. I’ve written two blogs on the topic to demonstrate that when scripture is allowed to be its own interpreter, it leads us to the conclusion that Leviticus is referring to aggressive actions for the purpose of domination through humiliation, the specific humiliation of forcibly treating men like women through abuse of power.

These acts would be wrong regardless of the gender configuration. It is difficult for those of us who have or desire loving romance with someone of the same gender to understand why our relationships would be compared to such violent acts.

Additional References to Exploitation

In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul gives another indication that this relationship is an abuse of power by using the word malakoi. This is the second Greek word that is important to know, and it refers to being weak, passive, soft, or effeminate. Often it is used to describe a passive partner in a same-sex erotic encounter.

According to what is probably the best lexicon for understanding New Testament Greek (BDAG, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament), malakoi was often used of a catamite, a boy slave that Romans used for sex. It could also refer to pederasty, a common Roman practice in which an older man would initiate an early teenage boy into sexual experience. The boy always took the so-called passive role because the relationship was unequal.

The difference between a catamite and pederasty was not a difference in kind, but degree. A boy who was a victim of pederasty had more advantages because of it and there was less stigma attached to him, but he was still a victim of the abuse of power. Paul’s use of arsenokoites connected the contemporary Greco-Roman practices to the levitical prohibitions, all of which were based on humiliation and abuse of power.

These were not familial relationships, but sexual relationships. They involved no commitment and took advantage of difference in power and social status. They were sexually exploitative relationships taken on by men who also had wives at home. In short, the behaviors were lustful and selfishness on the part of the arsenokoites and humiliating for the powerless malakoi.

The Problem with Equating These Verses to Queer People

These relationships dishonored the sacredness of God’s creation. They violated the humanity of the boys and young men who were socially expected to accept this abuse. They insulted the wives these older men left at home. Nothing about this situation is holy or good. They are violations of the primary biblical mandate to love all people as God’s sacred creation.

For those straight folks who are reading this: If someone were to tell you your relationships were wrong because of a biblical story like the one found in Genesis 19, where Lot’s daughters get him drunk and rape him so they can get pregnant, you wouldn’t accept it. Just because the daughters are women and Lot is a man doesn’t mean it applies to you. It’s wrong because of incest and rape, not because of their genders. This much is obvious.

It’s not much different as a queer person to read that disgusting sexual practices in ancient Greece and Sodom and Gomorrah have any relevance to you and your relationships. Sure, the genders are the same, but that’s where comparisons end. Our desire isn’t to sexually dominate someone else. We don’t want to humiliate someone. We aren’t looking for a straight marriage plus a young kid on the side. These behaviors are unrelated to us and our lives.

The difficulty is that unlike opposite-sex sexuality, there are so few stories of any type of same-sex eroticism in the Bible that they all get lumped together and applied to us. That’s because we’re trying to find a direct answer for a question the Bible never directly asks. That’s dangerous.

As much as we want a “thus say the Lord,” there are all kinds of issues on which we don’t have one. Is democracy a legitimate form of government? What about socialism? Is birth control okay to use? Is healthcare a human right in the modern economy? Should there be limits on social media use? God has given us principles to apply and live by, not a manual with the answer to every question we will ever ask.

In the New Testament, they never asked whether it would be wrong for two men to marry. They never considered that women could fall in love and have a family together. The Bible does address abusive same-sex eroticism that men who were married to women were engaging in on the side. That’s what we find in these texts.

Whether you are gay or straight, the way to honor the intent of these verses is to honor the dignity and humanity of all people, to never use sexuality to exploit another human being, and to honor the commitments you have made to a partner. That is biblical sexuality.

For those of us who are queer: Go in peace. Be affirmed. These verses aren’t about us.

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10 Replies to “Are there “Homosexuals” in the New Testament? The Vice Lists in 1 Corinthians 6:9 & 1 Timothy 1:10”

  1. Dear Alicia,
    thank you for this new article and for all your very helpful studies I’ve read on your website. May God continue to bless you and those who seek the peace of and with the God of the bible who may read your testimonies…

    I have one question. When Paul in 1 Cor 6:9 addresses to ‘malakoi’ with contempt, it means that they where not just victims of the abuses. Is that right?

    Thank you again

    Daniele Pellegrini
    (SDA member from Italy)

  2. Whether or not Paul uses this or any other terms to condemn homosexuality, the assumption that every counsel Paul gave was the direct outcome of a “prophet-like experience” with God should be questioned. If we do not assume the ancient world’s attitudes toward issues uninformed by science should not be taken as divine revelation, why would we assume that in the case of human sexuality and identity we have an exception? Were all the demoniacs Jesus encountered really devil-possessed or were some of them schizophrenic, psychotic or whatever?

    There is no question that penetrating the clearest meaning of NT greek terms is illuminating, but in my opinion, that alone does not always settle the theological significance of the text. We need a view of revelation and the basis of its authority (is it strictly to be based on a prophetic model of inspiration?) that is freed from an almost “slavish” fidelity to the text by itself, devoid of cultural and historical attitudes and presuppositions?

    1. Understanding what a biblical writer was saying on a deeper level rather than simply going based on our first impression of a text is not giving it less authority, but taking it’s authority more seriously.

  3. Dear Alicia,

    Thank you so much for your clear and biblical exposition regarding the same-sex dialogue!
    As a pastor this is very helpful in better understanding the issue from your side of the whole debate.
    It is my intention to continue and with care teach the all love formula our Bible teaches and our Lord Jesus showed!
    Stay blessed and peace be with you 🙂
    Geert

  4. The more I think about it the more like I feel like you are being overly “litteralistic” with the Biblical passages at hand. I understand that it can be dangerous to stray far away from the letter of the law but still…

    If our modern conception of Christian Same-Sex relationship was not in the mind the Biblical authors I’m still not sure that their writings did not also include “proto-homosexuals”.

    I mean, laws are mainly written in reaction behaviors that are occurring or likely to occur. And if Biblical authors categorized sex between two men as being “aggressive actions for the purpose of domination through humiliation, the specific humiliation of forcibly treating men like women through abuse of power”, how did this prohibition not extend to the existing behavior of men that “loved” each other and had sex together ? I mean human “nature” and range of behavior hasn’t really changed… The silence seems weird when Consensual Sane-Sex relationship existed in the Ancient Near East, in stark contrast to their law codes the Bible would then be really really silent.

    1. Please give me a reference for these consensual same-sex relationships that you say exist. I have read quite extensively and haven’t found any. Not the type of outrageously lustful or abusive behavior between men who were married to women, but people who “‘loved’ each other and had sex together.” They certainly are not referenced in the Bible. If we use the Bible to tell us what the Bible is talking about, it isn’t talking about loving relationships. And really, you don’t have to put the word love in quotes when it’s between people of the same sex. We are capable of real love. We don’t “love” each other. We love each other. It happens. It’s real.

      1. This literature of Plato (long before NT), shows that there were men who were in loving homosexual monogamous relationships. Here is one reference for “these consensual same-sex relationships.”

        [192b] they are boy-lovers, and have no natural interest in wiving and getting children… [192c] the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment. These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another.

        (For the complete context)
        http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DSym.%3Asection%3D192c

        Your main argument is that the Bible speaks against only homosexual relationships of dominance abuse, or lust, but the historical reality (long before the NT) shows that there were both abusive and non abusive/loving homosexual relationships. The Bibles statements are therefore against both abusive and non abusive/loving homosexual relationships, without distinction.

        1. People occasionally bring this passage up. It may be the only one in Greek literature that seems to speak of same-sex commitments. I would invite you to look at the whole of Aristophanes speech, from which this is taken, and also to search and find all the references to Aristophanes in Plato’s symposium. You will quickly see what the scholars (and even non-affirming theologians like Robert Gagnon) note, which is that Aristophanes is the comic relief in symposium, and his speech is a joke.

          Earlier in the symposium he is asked to speak about something, but he can’t because he has the hiccups. He has to consult the doctor who tells him that he should sneeze to get rid of them. And after his speech, it is called “charming” and is not discussed as a philosophical argument as the other speeches are.

          Take this section of Aristophanes’ speech, and I hope you can see the humor: “In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.”
          Even though humor doesn’t always translate from one language to the next, the image of a round human with two of everything tumbling along in order to run fast is pretty hilarious. I mean, how else would he do it with legs facing in opposite directions?

          You can read all of the symposium and search for Aristophanes here:

          http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html

          Applying a humorous account as if it were serious is to make the opposite inference about the culture’s values. Far from arguing for same-sex relationships in a serious way, this was a comic who was making a joke by being absurd. In other words, it wasn’t something they believed to be legitimate, but something a comic made up specifically because it’s totally outside of their sociological concepts.

          Drawing the inference that ancient Greeks thought same-sex relationships are good from this quote is like drawing the inference that the average modern person is okay with bestiality because of Louis CK’s ill-advised jokes about sex with chickens. Drawing the inference that this applies to scripture which was written 400 years later is like drawing the inference that Don Quixote is a good description of the modern soldier.

          One final thought I would like to leave you with. There is a serious speech in this same document made by Hesiod in which he says, “And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour.” Hesiod does not believe there is a way for an army to be made up of lovers and their loves, because armies are made up of men, and in ancient Greece they never even considered that men could be lovers. Could they perform sexual acts together? Yes. But could they be lovers, in love and committed to each other as the context of his speech makes clear? No.

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