Sunday, January 12, 2014

No, Mr. Robertson, malakoi ≠ Homosexuals, (and neither does arsenokoitai)...Ancient Greek didn’t have a word for that

No, Mr. Robertson, malakoi ≠ homosexuals, (and neither does arsenokoitai)
Ancient Greek didn’t have a word for that

All the hoopla surrounding Phil Robertson’s unvarnished comments about homosexuality in a GQ interview have, more than anything, underscored the deep divide in US opinion regarding homosexuality.

A youth pastor penned one of the best responses I’ve seen, “What You Believe About Homosexuality Doesn’t Matter.”  He gets to the REAL moral point.  Our words might actually be the difference between life and death, especially for young gay teens.  Whatever one’s personal position, it’s an article worth reading for the reminder.  Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will break my heart…and could lead to my death from despair.

Next to that blog entry, mine is esoteric to pointlessness.  But as both Greek and church history are what I do, I want to discuss the translation of two Greek words in the quoted text from Corinthians.  Please follow me down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland (called the past).

An unfortunate chasm exists between Greek history and Biblical studies.  Few Greek historians deal much with Biblical history, and few Biblical historians have an extensive background in either Greek history or contemporary Second Temple or later rabbinical literature (if any knowledge at all).  This chasm has narrowed in recent years, but still exists, and few (American) seminaries offer any classes (much less required ones) on Greek or Roman history and culture, even if they offer the Greek language…despite the fact that within a generation of Jesus’s life, most Christians were not Jews, and they brought their culture with them into Christianity.  (The Gospel of John and Paul’s own letters are evidence enough of that, as are the Epistle of Barnabas and various writings of the Church Fathers who came after.)

When translating from one language to another, there’s always some interpretation because no two languages are a complete match.  One-to-one translations are impossible.  When we add not just different languages, but 2000 years of history, it only compounds the problem.  In order to make the appropriate interpretative leap, one must have a good working knowledge of the cultures involved, not just the vocabulary of the languages.

In short, if one can read the Greek words but knows little-to-nothing about ancient Greek history or culture, reading the language is worthless.  Unfortunately, I know too many preachers and NT scholars to whom that applies.  They look up a word in Strong’s or Young’s Concordances and think they understand it.

No.  In the wonderful world of translating, one can spend literally pages justifying the translation of a single word (and not just in the Bible).

Hence, this blog post.

The whole matter erupted over Robertson paraphrasing of I Corinthians 6: 9-10, which lists sins that could keep one out of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Paul wrote this letter to the Greek church at Corinth, a hub of trade in his day, with a long, complicated history.*

The list itself is a bit jumbled, in that a bunch of different things are thrown into one pot, like a stew.  The Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates it so:

“Neither the immoral (pornoi), nor idolaters (eidōlolatrai), nor adulterers (moikhoi), nor sexual perverts (malakoi & arsenokoitai), nor thieves (kleptai), nor the greedy (pleonektai), nor drunkards (methusoi), nor revilers (loidoroi), nor robbers (arpages).”

The New Revised Standard Version (NSRV) separates “sexual perverts” into “nor male prostitutes, nor sodomites,” respecting the two Greek words malakoi (μαλακοί) and arsenokoitai (ἀρσενοκοῖται), whereas the original RSV bunched them together.  But despite the separation, I think the RSV more honest in the tendency of NT translators to interpret the two together (incorrectly, as I will show).

The New International Version (NIV), favored by many conservative Christians, has one slightly different English term from the NRSV: “homosexual offender” instead of “sodomite,” but clearly the same gist.

Common translations of both Greek words are problematic, but especially the translation of malakoi.  The only way one could get the translation "male prostitute" out of malakoi would be to walk into it with preconceptions.

That is BAD bad translating, and back-assward methodology.

We START WITH THE CONTEXT.  Always.  Not what we want to prove.  Instead, it looks like they started with their assumptions of what it meant (based on prior translations, such as the KJV), and simply failed to consider what it usually means, then assess the context carefully.

Argh!  The scholar in me practically froths at the mouth.

So I want to start there, with “malakoi,” or “malakos” in the singular, because its translation is—in my humble opinion—flat wrong.

Their translation assumes malakoi should be understood relative to the word behind it: arsenokoitai (more on that word in a bit).  BUT that assumes the list has an organized development…and it doesn’t.

If it were organized by sin “type,” then “fornicators” and “adulterers” would be back-to-back without “idolaters” in between, as should “greedy” and “robbers,” and “thieves,” yet those three are not in order, either.

In fact, Paul’s list doesn’t have an order, or coherent organization.  It’s just a collection of sins as he thinks of them that he’s telling the church at Corinth will keep them out of heaven.

That’s the context.  There is no order to the list.

Thus, translating “malakoi” as “male prostitute” in relation to the word after it (arsenokoitai) is a bit of a stretch.

In classical Greek, malakos does not usually mean “male prostitute.”  By the Hellenistic age, yes, it could mean that (like kinaidos), but it would be a somewhat specific, ideosyncratic translation that requires context…and I don’t think we have it here.  There’s a bunch of stuff in this list, half of which has no sexual overtones.  Ergo, assigning a sexual definition to malakoi—even coming before arsenokoitai—is plain blinkered presumption.  There are better (e.g., more typical) translations.

See, traditionally, malakos just means “soft” or “gentle.”  If one does a check of Liddell and Scott (even the “Great Scott”—the big, unabridged sucker), the definitions range:

In a good sense: soft, gentle, light, mild, slow, dainty, tender, youthful (also such things as a fresh-ploughed field, a soft fleece, etc.)
In a bad sense (as Paul would intend): soft, yielding, morally weak, lacking self-control, feeble, indulgent, weak in body, weak in reason, sickly, faint-hearted, effeminate, cowardly

Nowhere in that list do we find “male prostitute.”  Could it euphemistically mean that?  Sure.  But only in specific contexts. 

Truth is, I think “lacking self-control” or “cowardly” probably the best translation.

Self-control and moderation—the Golden Mean—were crucial to Greek notions of virtue.  “Everything in moderation,” (to quote Apollo).  We know Paul was strongly influenced by Greek philosophy.  In Galatians, he talks about “body, mind, and soul” which was a GREEK division of the human being (his comments there suggest a familiarity with Plato, which wouldn’t surprise for an educated person of his era).  This trifold view of human nature was not a traditionally Jewish view, which saw human beings as a body formed by God from the “dust of the ground,” then animated by ruha/ruach—the breath of God.  Other allusions to Greek philosophy thread his letters like bits of Tyrian purple thread.

In any case, to find Paul including “a person who lacks self-control” in a list of vices is not only not surprising, it’s downright predictable.  But I think “coward” would be an equally possible translation.  Both fit the era and culture…and don’t require a translation of malakos that would need a better contextual justification.

But, but!, you say—there IS effeminate in L&S’s list!  Surely that justifies the translation as a passive homosexual!

Er, no.

And here’s where it’s important not to confuse ancient Greek culture with modern American.

Popular assumption for at least some Americans is that gay men are womanish/want to be women/act more feminine.  This is incorrect, of course—but the point isn’t whether it’s right or wrong, but that a notable number of Americans assume it.  One can “tell” a gay man because he acts feminine.  This leads to the equation that liking traditionally feminine things is a sign that one is gay.

Problem.  The Greeks didn’t make that assumption.  Being womanish certainly was a bad thing in ancient Greek thinking, because women were seen as "less than men."  But the disconnect comes with the notion that men who have sex with men are womanish by definition.

In fact, the Greeks were more inclined to assume that completely heterosexual men, especially those who chased skirt (or peplos) constantly and spent too much time in the company of women instead of (properly) with men, would be womanish.


Not what you expected, huh?

Greek society was strongly gender-divided, even in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.  Men spent most of their time with other men, and women with other women.  Furthermore, malakos was the natural assumption made of women: soft, weak-willed, cowardly.  So a malakos male threw down his shield in combat and ran for his life (thus endangering his comrades in arms).  He couldn’t stand up for what counted.  That’s a major moral flaw.

So yes, effeminate certainly meant “like a woman,” but it did NOT designate who one preferred to have sex with.

THAT is where their assumptions and popular modern American assumptions DON’T MESH.

Greek sexual behavior generally assumed one went through stages throughout life, taking different roles at different points.  One didn’t switch roles as the mood struck.  Additionally, there was no conception of sexual “identity.”  That simply wasn’t a way the ancient Greeks defined themselves.  Who one had sex with was defined by social status and age, not by “orientation.”  To them, sex was a matter of choice, not inborn predisposition.  They didn’t even understand that concept, much less have a term for it.

In short, the ancient Greeks had no concept of “gay” in our modern sense.  And no word we can, today, translate cleanly as “homosexual.”

The stages of Greek sexual expression involved both same-sex and opposite-sex pairings, depending.  Ergo, men who preferred only one or the other were seen as, well, a little weird.

Greeks also tended to assume one was drawn to what one wanted to be: education/instruction being essential to same-sex pairings.  The younger partner learned from the elder, and strove to emulate him.  The Spartans made that abundantly clear in their unique terms for these pairs; the elder was the “inspirer,” the younger, the “hearer.”  Older Spartan lovers were encouraged to choose brave, physically tough boyfriends because if the boy proved cowardly or weak, the lover was punished!  Why?  He’d failed in his proper role as inspirer, or course.

But it wasn’t just Spartans.  Plato believed that love between a man and woman would be lesser because, well, women were naturally inferior, so it led to an inferior love.  Love between two men was best “naturally.”  Last, the Theban Sacred Band—one of the most fearsome fighting groups in the Classical Greek world—was composed of 150 pairs of pledged male lovers.

Hmmm.  Spartans and Theban Sacred Band members.  Not exactly the stuff of sissies, eh?

In contrast let me throw out Dionysos, fertility god of grove and vine, wine, theatre, and divine madness.  He’s routinely portrayed in artwork dressed in women’s clothing.  Furthermore, as time went on, his iconography moved from showing him in his 40s or 50s with a beard, to being young and feminine-looking, typically with long hair and no beard.  To most moderns, he would epitomize a “fairy,” and quite a few of my students just automatically assume he’s “gay.”


VERY wrong, in fact.

Dionysos is among the few male “Great Gods” who had virtually NO relations with men.**  None.  Nada.  (There’s one peculiar, rather late tale, but that’s it.)

Instead, the exceptionally beautiful Dionysos’s various lovers were women.  Even more, he remained loyal to his (mortal) wife Ariadne.  That may not have required much, as in most myths, she didn’t live long, but still.  It’s saying something, compared to the rampant philandering of Father Zeus, no?  Fidelity was not an assumed attribute of Greek husbands.  That Dionysos evinced it makes him odd.

By contrast, the more admirable masculine Greek gods had multiple lovers, including boys: Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes.

Again, Hmmm.

Clearly their assumptions are not our assumptions.  Dionysos looks so feminine not because he’s gay, but because he’s consummately heterosexual and spent most of his time with women.  His chief worshipers were women (the maenads).  THAT’S why he’s portrayed as feminine, with typically “feminine” characteristics, among them an inability to evince self-control (in behavior, drink, or sex).  And THAT, folks, is “malakos.”


Did you just say, “Wow,” because you should have. *grin*

You are who you have (too much) sex with?  We're back to what is restrained and "proper" for one's age and social class = appropriate moderation in all things.  E.g. … the Golden Mean.

In short, my point is that one could be “malakos” while being quite heterosexual.  There are places where the term is used to mean an especially effeminate (usually) boy in a sexual pair, but CONTEXT is required for that alternative translation.

Instead, the most common translation should be used: “coward” or “morally weak”—which would certainly have been regarded as a vice or sin.

Back to Greek assumptions about sexuality…which informed their language, and what words were available.  The usual pattern (at least for a man) was to be the eromenos (beloved, or younger member of a pair, presumed to be the passive partner) in youth up to roughly the time one could grow a beard, then to change to the erastes (lover, or older and “active” member of a pair), up till roughly 30, at which time one should be getting married and settling down to raise a family.

But nowhere in the New Testament are the terms eromenos or erastes used.  And not because they wouldn’t have been known to Paul (or other authors).  They are THE most common terms in Greek for members of a same-sex pair.  The most common.  If Paul or other authors wanted to talk about male lovers using Greek, these would be the natural words to use.  Not using them but meaning them would be a little like describing a singer as “that person who uses her voice in melody to convey a meaning.”

I mean…huh?

And that’s what the other word—arsenokotai—is a bit like.  Paul invented it.  It’s not found in Greek literature prior to its use here.  In fact, we can detail how he came up with it, as it’s the Greek verb used in Leviticus in the Septuagint, or Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The Greek word “arsenokotein” means literally, “to sleep/lie with men.”  Paul makes it into a noun, which would translate then as “the male ones who have sex with men.”***

This is a really strange thing to do.  And I want to underscore that.  It’s what keeps getting left out of this damn discussion.

Why does Paul essentially invent a word when there are other words that he might have used and almost certainly would have known…unless he means something different?

THAT’S THE REAL QUESTION, to my mind.  He DIDN’T use erastes/eromenos, much less kinaidos and/or katapugos….  And if he were really referencing male prostitutes, he’d just USE the word for prostitute in the masculine: pornos.

But…but he DOES.  Look back at the list of terms from I Corinthians with the original Greek word.  The very first one listed is “pornoi,” typically translated in English Bibles as “fornicators,” or (as in the RSV) “sexually immoral.”  Yet pornai/pornoi is the usual term in Greek for a common prostitute (female or male).  That’s what Paul’s saying there: “prostitutes.”  Not just “sexually immoral” or “fornicators,” but PROSTITUTES.  (The masculine plural was used because, for them, as in English, masculine plural was gender neutral).  Pornoi could have a more general meaning, but given the list, why they didn’t translate it as “prostitutes, both male and female,” I don’t know.  That would, in my opinion, be the obvious translation.  One might also get away with “whore.”

I picked that because it’s symptomatic of the whole translation issue with Biblical texts.  The obvious or usual translation is sometimes ditched in favor of something that’s either peculiar or too broad, based on prior assumptions from previous translations.

So we should ask that bigger question: why does Paul use the word he does (arsenokoitai), and what does he really mean?  Why not use better/more recognizable terms?

This is a case where we should be asking about what’s NOT there, as much as what is there.

First, let me say that I don’t think we can get away from the idea that Paul IS condemning men who have sex with men.  Bluntly, that’s what the word means.  And he coined it specifically TO mean that.

The salient question, as noted, is why?

It may be because erastes and eromenos had overtones, or connotations, of actual affection.  Love.  The words didn’t have to mean that, but it was the underlying assumption, which is why we translate them as “lover” and “beloved.”  The Greeks used “eros” the same way we use love now, for a wide range of implications.  One could “love” (eros) a well-grilled piece of tuna just like we might say we “love” pizza.  We mean we desire it—and that’s what eros meant, too: love of the “desire” variety.  They viewed it akin to a physical illness (and talked about it so).  Ergo, eros was a flexible word, but the implication of emotional attachment was very much a part of the terms erastes and eromenos.

Arsenokotein (the verb behind arsenokoitai) is just sex.  No affection implied.

It might be nice to assume Paul was condoning sex between men when love was involved.  Certainly that’s his admonition when he talks about sex between husbands and wives: they should have affection for one another—which was NOT an automatic assumption about husbands and wives in the ancient world.  The more common assumption is articulated by the lawyer and popular Athenian demagogue Demosthenes: “For this is what living with a woman in marriage is: for a man to beget children by her and present his sons to his fellow clansmen and members of his district and to give daughters as his own in marriage to their husbands. Mistresses we have for pleasure, concubines for daily service to our bodies, but wives for the procreation of legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of the household.” (Dem. 59)

Love was not assumed.  Yet Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives (and the reverse).

That’s kinda radical!

So yes, that’s one possible explanation for why he coined a new word rather than using an old, well-known pair of terms.  He already had prostitution and adultery, which covered sex between men and women outside of marriage, so he invents a new word for sex between men outside of the bonds of affection.  Such would be a nice reading, a positive reading, a reading that would make Paul amazingly forward-thinking.

But I don’t think it’s the right one.

When translating the NT, one really needs to be aware of both Greek and Jewish culture, and I’ve so far largely focused on Greek.  On purpose.  Again, it’s the language being used, and therefore, Greek culture strongly affects what words are available.  They don’t make up words for something they don’t conceptualize.

So Paul has to.

I think Paul deliberately avoided erastes/eromenos BECAUSE they had positive connotations.  For all Paul was born in a Greek city and spoke Greek as his native language, he was a “Greek Jew.”  He belonged to a sub-culture that was largely Canaanite, not Greek.  And he did not accept Greek constructs.

But one thing Paul DID share with the Greeks…and with the rest of the ancient Mediterranean and Ancient Near Eastern world—the idea that who one had sex with was a CHOICE.

No ancient culture had a concept equivalent to our modern idea of “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or “bisexual.”  E.g., a fundamental personality trait one is born to.  It wasn’t part of their ideas of self-definition.

Again, there is no word in Greek for “homosexual” or “gay.”

So Paul looks out from his traditional Jewish sub-culture at the larger Greek culture, and just doesn’t approve of all of it.

He is a product of two cultures, oddly meshed, and one of those has a heritage of Levitical law, which disallowed sexual interaction that couldn’t result in reproduction—including coitus interruptus.  (The so-called “Sin of Onan” isn’t masturbation, but failing to get his brother’s wife properly pregnant so she might have a son who could inherit for his dead father…a part of traditional Jewish law.)  The focus was on perpetuation of family, inheritance, and community.  Gay sex didn’t do that in their world.  Ergo, it wasn’t permitted.  Leviticus is very pragmatic.  We may object all we like, but 3000+ years ago, in that culture, it wasn’t so illogical.  Context, context, which means historical perspective.  Leviticus, like Hammurabi’s Code, tends to be dissed today for wholly anachronistic reasons.  At the time in the Late Bronze Age, both were unusually fair and somewhat revolutionary.  Those who get shirty about Leviticus really need to read some of the OTHER lawcodes of the Bronze-Age Ancient Near East. ;>

Yet Levitical law (in all its complexity) was also rejected by the early church.  The Laws of Noah (in Genesis) were substituted by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).

Nonetheless, Paul is a good Jewish scholar, as well as a Christian, so it should come as no surprise that he’d reject parts of Greek culture that he finds offensive to traditional Jewish culture…including Greek homoeroticism.  So he made up a word—deliberately referencing Leviticus—rather than using the more common erastes/eromenos because, simply, he doesn’t want to dignify it that much.

That’s not a pretty reading, but it is, I think, the right one—the culturally informed one.  Culturally informed from both the Greek and Jewish sides, because Paul was both.

So yes, Paul DOES condemn men having sex with men (he’s oddly silent about women but I think he’d have the same attitude).  Yet Paul also believed something that, increasingly, we don’t today.  He believed it was a CHOICE.

Just as we no longer believe (like Aristotle, and Paul) that women are “naturally” inferior, and “incomplete men,” we’ve come to understand that sexual orientation isn’t a choice.  To quote Lady Gaga, we’re “born that way.”

We must also understand that, in Jewish thought, CHOICE is the heart of sin.  Adam and Eve chose to disobey.  There’s some really fantastic Jewish midrash on the Garden of Eden story, but it boils down to choice.  That’s why tragedy isn’t “evil.”  Evil always involves choice.

No choice, no evil.  No sin.

So maybe we should go back to my “nicer” reading of Paul.  Paul is condemning sex between two men (or two women) that doesn’t involve affection.  The weird, awkward arsenokoitai really does mean something different from erastes/eromenos, and we’ve come, or at least are coming, to understand that gay attraction involves love no less than straight attraction—making it much closer to the Greek concept of erastes/eromenos (even if structured differently between their society and ours).

It’s about giving one’s self, not just using another person’s body for one’s own pleasure.

And THAT, to me, is the real difference.

Christians talk about Scripture as human words inspired by God.  So for those who grant authority to the Bible (which may not be everybody reading my blog entry), this could be a perfect example of where what Paul accidentally said is closer to what God meant than to what Paul intended it to mean.  By refusing to grant the dignity of the more popular, but positive Greek terms, he wound up underscoring the importance of emotional attachment as part of sexual activity, something he already bluntly states is key to opposite-sex pairings.

Sex is such a remarkably intimate (and honestly, rather strange) thing to do with another human being, that the removal of affection from the equation winds up making it sort of humiliating, or downright frightening and debasing.

“Appropriate vulnerability” and love as part of sex are consistent themes throughout the New Testament.  Sexual partners should be treated with dignity and respect.  When sex becomes just about one’s own pleasure, it no longer respects the dignity of the Other/the partner.

Among the things emerging with the right of same-sex couples to marry is that the desire to be loved and cared-for in a committed relationship is a human universal.  Furthermore, the various stories of this or that sexual scandal that pops up in the media merely underscores that the much-touted “sanctity of marriage” has little to do with the gender make-up of the partners.

In short, how you love matters more than who you love.

So let’s allow Paul to be appropriately ancient and cultural.  No, I don’t think he approved of same-sex relationships, but he also didn’t understand them in the way we’ve come to since.  Remember, he also endorsed slavery and the subjugation of women.  He saw same-sex behavior as a willful disregard of what nature (and ergo, Yahweh) had intended.  A choice.  And therefore, a sin.

If he’d understood it wasn’t a choice, then…who knows?

We have to keep in mind that the ancient world believed a lot of plain wrong stuff about human biology/anatomy.  For instance, the heart was the seat of reason; the brain just cooled the blood.  The “default” gender was male; to be born female was a biological screw-up.  (Today, we know the default human gender is actually female.)  They also, weirdly, thought babies “fought” their way out of the womb, rather than women’s bodies giving birth to them.  And that’s just some of the peculiar (and really wrong) stuff they believed to be true. :-)

We’ve come a long way, baby.

If the church doesn’t change and evolve, then it’s dead.  Only dead things never change.


*Corinth was the mercantile giant of Greece until the end of the Archaic Age, when Athens stole her crown (c. 550-500 BCE).  She remained an important player in Greek history after, but didn’t rise in importance again till the Hellenistic age, when she was the center of the Achaian League, the Greek city-states united against other Hellenistic kingdoms such as Antigonid Macedonia, Ptolemaic Egypt, or Seleucid Asia.  In 146, the League sided against Rome, which was a bad idea, and Roman legions under Mummius leveled the town.  It remained minimally inhabited until Julius Caesar refounded it in 44 BCE, after which it slowly regained its former glory.  Due to its position on the isthmus between the Greek mainland the Peloponnese “almost island” is has always had a significant presence in trade (and still does).  The modern Corinthian canal—an idea first proposed in antiquity by Alexander the Great—allows shipping to avoid a long trip around the Peloponnese, and supplies funds to the city.  In Paul’s day, Corinth was fairly wealthy, if not as a great as its Archaic and Classical ancestor.

**We could also include Hades and Hephaistos, albeit for different reasons.  All three were undesirable male models: Hades because he was antisocial, Hephaistos because he was ugly, and Dionysos because he’s effeminate.  Ares also has few affairs with men, but mostly because he’s seen as too brutal.  Most of his affairs are a matter of rape, not seduction.

***koitein is a euphemism.  It literally translates as “lie beside,” but is used just as we do in English, to mean “to have sex with.”  Yet as I went into such a big stink above about why we can’t assume malakos meant the passive male in sex, let me go back to “context.”  We know that Paul is using the term in reference to the Levitical Greek verb, and we know exactly what the Levitical Greek word was in Hebrew.  Ergo, we have proper context to translate it euphemistically rather than literally.  For a full, academic discussion of the term, see W. L. Petersen, Vigiliae Christianae 40 (1986): 187-91.