SURPRISE NUMBER SIX
WHAT PAUL SAYS ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY1
Most people apparently assume that Paul expresses strong opposition to homosexuality, but I want to argue that this is simply not the case. I plan to set forth six propositions, and I think these propositions lead to the clear conclusion that Paul has absolutely nothing to say directly about how we should understand and make judgments about homosexuality in the modern world.
Proposition 1: Strictly speaking, Paul says absolutely nothing at all about homosexuality, and, in fact, this is true of the entire New Testament. 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 including Paul. And, as a matter of fact, the English words, “homosexual” and “homosexuality,” did not appear sometime in the nineteenth century. So, strictly speaking, Paul says absolutely nothing about homosexuality.
Proposition 2: At most, there are only three passages in Paul’s letters that refer to what we today would call homosexualality. And I should note that, outside of the letters that are attributed to Paul, the subject is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. 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, or Jude. Further, homosexuality is not mentioned in ten of the thirteen letters that are attributed to Paul. It is only in Romans 1:26-27, First Corinthians 6:9-10, and First Timothy 1:8-11 that there may be references to homosexuality,2 and I need to remind you that First Timothy was probably not written by Paul. This scarcity 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 in general. So, there are at most only three passages in Paul’s letters—and, for that matter, in the New Testament as a whole, that may refer to homosexuality.
Proposition 3: Two of the three passages that possibly refer to homosexuality are simply more-or-less miscellaneous catalogues of behavior that is regarded as unacceptable, with no particular emphasis placed on any individual item in the list. First Corinthians 6:9-10 says that certain types of people “will not inherit the kingdom of God” and gives a list of such kinds of people. The list 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” (i.e., homosexual male prostitutes) and “sodomites.” But no special emphasis is placed on these people; they are simply listed along with the others. Similarly, First 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.” But both in First Corinthians 6:9-10 and in First Timothy 1:8-11, such people are mentioned simply in passing, in more-or-less miscellaneous catalogues of unacceptable behavior, but with no special emphasis or attention called to them.
Now, such more-or-less miscellaneous lists of “vices” were 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 simply 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 W” in the jail, Guthrie characterizes this group as follows:
Group W 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 First Corinthians 6:9-10 and First Timothy 1:8-11 simply list “all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly-lookin’ people.”
I should also note that many of these lists are remarkably similar in content. They typically list the same kinds of “vices.” Furthermore, it appears that authors often simply took over and adapted such lists from earlier documents. This means that the New Testament writers may not actually have composed the lists in First Corinthians 6:9-10 and First Timothy 1:8-11. These may well be simply “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—First Corinthians 6:9-10 or First Timothy 1:8-11—singles out homosexual activity for any special attention. They simply list, in miscellaneous fashion, various types of behavior that are regarded as unacceptable.
Proposition 4: It is entirely possible that the two lists of unacceptable behavior—First Corinthians 6:9-10 and First Timothy 1:8-11—do not refer to homosexuality at all. The New Revised Standard Version translates First 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.” But it may well be the case 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 simply “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 any 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 First Corinthians 6:9 primarily because the next term in the list is arsenokotai—the assumption being, of course, that the two words are somehow linked in meaning because they appear side by side in the list. But this 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 in meaning 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: arsên, which means “male” (as opposed to “female”); and koitê, 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—“male-bedders,” you might say.6 But Dale B. Martin, who is a professor of religious studies at Yale University, 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.”7
I could cite a number of other examples, but I want to mention one that is closer to the topic we are discussing. The word I have in mind—and I apologize in advance if any of you are offended by it—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. It is generally viewed as a highly pejorative term but sometimes it is used in a more-or-less neutral sense or even, in some circles, as a term of grudging admiration or perhaps even affection. But the point is 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. Dale 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 of it that we have, and most other occurrences are simply quotations from or allusions to the New Testament texts. 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.”8 But I would suggest 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. But the bottom line is that we simply do not know what the word meant or how it was used in the first century.9
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. This means that we cannot be certain that First Corinthians 6:9-10 refers to homosexuality at all. And the same thing is true of First Timothy 1:8-11, which has the word arsenokoitai but not the word malakoi.10 It might not refer to homosexuality either. So, two of the three passages that are typically regarded as being about homosexuality may not actually refer to homosexuality at all.
Proposition 5: Even if First Corinthians 6:9-10 and First 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.11 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. And 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 this is not the kind of homosexual relationship the New Testament writers are talking about.
But remember too, 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 behavior that are regarded as unacceptable.
Proposition 6: The one passage in the New Testament that almost certainly does refer to homosexuality appears to be based on some highly dubious presuppositions about the nature and causes for homosexuality. The passage is Romans 1:26-27. Earlier in chapter one, 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 [that is, because of their idolatry], 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 First Corinthians 6:9-10 and First Timothy 1:8-11. In other words, homosexuality is but one among other types of unacceptable behavior.
But what I need to emphasize is that, if we look at the passage as a whole, it is not about homosexuality at all. It is about idolatry, the worship of false gods. In addition, the passage is talking about Gentiles, not Jews. The only reason it mentions homosexuality at all is because the author assumes that homosexuality is a result of idolatry. In fact, you could even say that homosexuality is God’s punishment for idolatry: because people worship false gods, God “gives them up” to homosexuality. But this should mean, of course, that no monotheist—no worshipper of the one true God—would ever engage 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.
The passage also makes two other assumptions. 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. 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 Martin points out, it is somewhat like gluttony: gluttony is too much eating, and homosexuality is too much sex.12 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.
And so Romans 1:26-27 appears to presuppose that the root cause of homosexuality is idolatry, that homosexuality is “unnatural” or “abnormal,” and that homosexual activity is an expression of insatiable lust—in short, that homosexuality is caused by idolatry and represents an unnaturally excessive form of sexuality. But contemporary psychological thought would seriously challenge these presuppositions. According to the American Psychological Association, “most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive, and biological factors.”13 In addition, psychologists tend to be extremely cautious about using such categories as “natural” and “unnatural,” “normal” and “abnormal” when talking about human behavior.
Perhaps, then, the question to be raised when reading Romans 1:26-27 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? And I think the answer has to be that we simply do not know, because, once again, the author is talking about something quite different from this.
Conclusion: Paul—and, for that matter, the New Testament as a whole— really does not provide any direct guidance for understanding and making judgments about homosexuality in the modern world. To the extent that Paul does talk about homosexuality, he appears to be talking about only certain types of homosexuality, and he speaks on the basis of assumptions about homosexuality that are now regarded as highly dubious. Perhaps, then, we could paraphrase what Paul—and the New Testament as a whole—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?
But if homosexuality is not necessarily any of these things, then it would appear that Paul and the New Testament have nothing to say about it in any direct sense. Victor Paul Furnish, a retired professor of New Testament at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, 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.14
In short, there is nothing in Paul’s letters, or in the New Testament as a whole, that tells us directly whether homosexuality per se is a good thing or a bad thing or simply a fact of life.
But I do think that Paul, and the New Testament, provide some indirect guidance regarding homosexuality in terms of their overall message. In fact, I myself am inclined to think a twenty-first-century “Paul” would probably re-write 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 not homosexual and heterosexual; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.