St Paul The Apostle is one of history’s most misunderstood characters. Critics call him a misogynist and insist that he condemns all gay people to hell. Fundamentalists twist his letters out of context to fit their extreme right wing agenda; but Paul’s letters are far more complex than that. They are correspondence that reveal the inner workings of the early church, and even puzzle etymologists with their unique use of Greek words. In this post, we will debunk the myths and state the facts surrounding a mysterious word in two of Paul’s epistles.
Around 61-64CE, the Apostle Paul founded the first Church in Corinth (Greece) on his secondary mission trip. When Paul left the Church a few years later, he heard of corruptions within the congregation and promptly wrote the Church authorities residing there, to clarify and condemn certain interpretations of doctrine. The book of 1 Corinthians is the first of two epistles written by Paul to the Church authorities in Corinth.
1 Corinthians 6:9 states
Ἢ ἄδικοι κληρονομήσουσιν βασιλείαν θεοῦ πλανᾶσθε οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ ἀρσενοκοῖται
ē adikoi klēronomēsousin basileian theou planasthe oute pornoi oute eidōlolatrai oute moichoi oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals,
Then 8 books later, 1 Timothy 1:10 states
πόρνοις ἀρσενοκοίταις ἀνδραποδισταῖς ψεύσταις ἐπιόρκοις εἴ ἕτερον ἀντίκειται ὑγιαινούση διδασκαλίᾳ
pornois arsenokoitais andrapodistais pseustais epiorkois ei eteron antikeitai ugiainousē didaskalia
and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching,
1 Timothy is the first epistle from Paul to Timothy, and is believed to have been written around 62CE although scholars are unsure of it’s exact date and authorship (possibly around 100-150CE). Paul met Timothy on his second missionary trip in a town called Lystra, Lycaonia (an ancient region of Turkey). He became Timothy’s mentor and he entrusted Timothy with important assignments, such as continuing to govern the church they founded in Ephesus, after Paul left. This epistle was written as a letter of encouragement and at it’s core, as a leadership manual.
1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians are significant books, because they the only ones in the entire Bible containing the word “arsenokoitai”, or more commonly “arensokoités”. In these verses, This is the word that is translated as “homosexuals”.
When we begin to research the origin and stem of arensokoités, we uncover more controversy. This word appears to have been invented by Paul himself, as it appears no where in pre-Christian literature. Furthermore, it wasn’t a word recorded anywhere for another 200 years after that.
the word arensokoités is a compound word, made up of the Greek words “arsen” meaning “man”, and “koités” meaning “beds”, which refers to sex. That translates literally as “man who has sex in many beds” or “male bedder”.
From this, we know that arensokoités does indeed allude to something sexual, but it’s not entirely clear what that something is. In cases such as these, we have to examine the entire verse so that we can find the true meaning of the word in question.
Unfortunately, we can’t do this with 1 Corinthians 6:9 or 1 Timothy 1:10 because arensokoités appears in the context of a list, not a situation.
Anti-gay Pastor John McArthur was only right about one thing when he stated
‘When you don’t have a lot of uses of a word in the Bible you go outside (the Bible) to find out how it was used.’
According to The Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (available through paid subscription), there are only 77 uses of words from the arensokoités stem occurring in the first 2400 years of Greek literature written after Paul’s letters. 46 of those occurrences are references to 1 Corinth and 1 Tim, and don’t specify it’s meaning.
Among these, the arensokoités stem is used to refer to false accusers, temple prostitutes, thieves, interspecies and human rapists, adulterers, drunks and witches to name a few, but never homosexuals.
How this word came to be associated with homosexuality by Biblical translators isn’t clear, but it’s likely origin is Aristides.
Around 125CE, Christian preacher and apologetic Aristides delivered The Apology to then-Roman emperor Hadrian. In this letter, Aristide discusses the religion of Hadrian – Greek mythology – and stresses the sinful and extremely harmful nature of his Greek gods. In verse 15 of his letter, Aristides uses arsenokoitia to discuss the legend of Zeus raping a young shepherd named Ganymede. Besides committing idolatry and adultery, this belief was harmful because the ancient Greeks used it to justify the practise of pederasty.
In fact many scholars believe Paul’s use of arensokoités refers to pederasty, as this was wide spread in Roman/Greco culture. This argument is flawed however, as Paul likely would’ve used the term erastes meaning “lover”, because this was the common word used to describe the adult male in these relationships, during this time.
Whilst professional opinions are divided – the most logical origin of arensokoités, is the Septuagint (A Greek translation of the Tanakh, dating back to 3BCE), in which Leviticus 18:22 is written like this: shall not lie with (koiten) a man (arsenos) as with a woman.
As stated in Part II, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 discuss the practise of pagan cult prostitution, not homosexuality as widely believed; Meaning arensokoités in the context of Paul’s epistle, refers to this idolatrous practise.
With all of this in mind, it is safe to conclude that Paul was condemning something other than homosexuality, likely temple prostitution, in these epistles.