The Bible and Homosexuality; some New Testament Passages

1 Tim 1

8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. 9 This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

and 1 Cor 6

9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

These passages are dealt with together because they use the same Greek word, arsenokoitai  (underlined in the text), and because, in both passages, that word appears in a list of vices.  Some[1] have made some mileage out of the fact that these ‘vice lists’ are purely rhetorical devices – lists of common social sins that every right-thinking person (i.e. a Hellenistic Jew or a gentile convert to Judaism – the vast majority of the Christians to whom Paul was writing) would condemn, and that he has likely cribbed them from other sources without paying too much attention to their specific content.  In other words, while homosexuality is mentioned in these lists, it isn’t the point of the argument, and we shouldn’t make these passages bear the weight of condemning homosexuality when that is not their purpose!  There is some reason to this argument; we ought not make homosexuality the primary point of these passages when they clearly have other purposes, but nor can we ignore the fact that they do mention homosexual acts, and it is extremely unlikely that Paul would have included material that he didn’t think truthful in what it condemned as well as what it affirmed.  So what is condemned here?

The 1 Timothy passage is an argument for the appropriate use of the Jewish law against those who “occupy themselves with myths, …genealogies, …speculations rather than the divine training” that aims at “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith”.  False teachers, says Paul, “desire to be teachers of the law.”  He then goes on to say that the law is not for the righteous, but sinners, whom he then lists.  He then goes on to give thanks to God for forgiving him his own sin, and making him an example of God’s patience with egregious sinners.  Our main interest is in Paul’s list of sins; many have seen there an echo of the ten commandments as a representative selection of the Law.  The connection is possible, but unnecessary; certainly it is Jewish law that is referred to here, which part is not specifically important.  What is significant for our purposes is the reference to arsenokoitai.  Almost all exegetes agree that this refers to those who practice homosexual acts of one kind or another arising out of the Leviticus 18 commandment as it was translated in the Septuagint – the Greek Old Testament[2].

Pederasty as the ‘normal’ homosexual relationship: The big question here, as with the Old Testament texts, is whether the actions condemned here are those which we are thinking of when we think of homosexual relationships.  The debate in this area is strongly defined by Robin Scroggs[3], who carefully examines what we know about homosexual behaviour at the time the New Testament was written.  He argues that the biblical writers would have found it practically impossible to think about homosexual behaviour in any other terms than those of their surrounding culture.  The practices of the day were essentially those of pederasty – sexual relationships between men and boys or young men.  This relationship was intended to have an element of tutelage to it, and was frequently referred to in highly romanticised terms, much as heterosexual love is today.  Scroggs emphasises that the culture was extremely masculine[4], and that women were thought to be unfit companions for men[5], thus leading to the idealisation – and sexualisation – of same-sex relationships.  Within these relationships the junior partner always served the pleasure of the senior, receiving in return patronage, education and training, gifts, and an introduction to society[6].

Social Standing in Roman Times

The difference between a free-born man and a freeman or freedman is significant; a free-born is a citizen of the state with legal rights, property, and a voice.  The apostle Paul was a ‘citizen’ of Tarsus – see how he uses this status in Acts.  The freeman is a slave who has been given their freedom, but is still bound to the household of their former owner or some other patron as a ‘client’ They owe allegiance to their patron, and would not legitimately be able to refuse sexual demands.

Men ‘loving’ a boy was ok, but being the boy was not – especially for an older male.  Whilst ‘loving’ a boy was generally thought normal and even lauded, being the boy was more ambiguous.  Marc Antony was a cause of scandal as he had been the junior partner of a pederastic relationship in the household of a wealthy patron (who was the same age as himself, but still his social superior at the time).  Nero scandalised society by seducing the sons of citizens[7].  Julius Caesar was ridiculed by opponents as “every woman’s man – and every man’s woman”[8].  The Romans banned pederasty involving freeborn boys, and legislated against freeborn men taking the passive role.

Male citizens could use anyone of lower social standing for sex.  Jewett, commenting upon Greek/Roman homosexual practices, notes that there was a high demand for boy prostitutes, and goes on to say that “sexual freedom was granted to freeborn males, with regard to all slaves, clients, and persons of lower standing, so that sexual relations were clearly an expression of domination[9]”.  The Roman writer Seneca the Elder is quoted as saying “Sexual servicing is a crime for the freeborn, a necessity for a slave, and a duty for the freeman[10]

Does 1 Tim refer mainly to pederasty?  In the 1 Timothy passage Scroggs sees pederasty hinted at by the grouping of the sins in the vice list; each sin is listed with one or two others that go with it.  Thus, ‘lawless and disobedient’ go together, as do ‘godless and sinful’, ‘unholy and profane’.  ‘Patricides’ and ‘matricides’ go together, and so do ‘liars and perjurers’.  But what about “fornicators, sodomites, and slave traders” (or ‘kidnappers’)?  Scroggs suggests that these three terms should be seen together[11] as pornos (‘fornicators’) in Hellenistic culture often meant male prostitutes or possibly those despised free-born youths or men who prostituted themselves[12], He notes also that, as a primary function of kidnapping (andrapodistai) in Paul’s day was to supply brothels with children for use by adults, that the three terms together are likely to be a (stylised) condemnation of male prostitution.

An Alternative Point of View

Grenz  (1998, 56-59) rejects those like Scroggs who argue for a specific interpretation of the terms in 1 Cor and 1 Tim, but fails to provide any reasoning for a more general interpretation!  Marshall (2003, 12) does better in relation to Romans 1, where he says that “If Paul is thinking of pederasty, it is surprising that neither here nor elsewhere does Paul use one of the several words and phrases in common use at the time to refer to pederasty…” (more from Marshall below).   As Scroggs has shown, that’s not completely accurate in this case, but it is true that the words that are used are allusive to pederasty rather than definitive of it; Arsenokoitai and Malakoi probably refer to the senior and junior partner of a pederastic / prostitution relationship, but not necessarily, as the words erastes (lover) and eromenos (beloved) would have done.  It may be that the biblical writers are simply being modest in using language that is allusive rather than definitive, or it may be that Paul wants to include this primary form of homosexual behaviour and every other form as well, and so uses broadly general terms.

And again in 1 Corinthians?  Scroggs sees the same relationship reflected  in the 1 Corinthians passage, where the two words used are malakoi and arsenokoitai.  Translated variously as ‘male prostitute,’ ‘homosexual’, ‘effeminate’, or ‘pervert’ the word malakos simply means ‘soft one’.  Scroggs says that while malakos was definitely not a ‘technical’ term for the younger partner in a pederastic relationship,

…through the linkage of the metaphorical meaning of “effeminacy,” however, malakos is used to point in a negative way to people who engage in pederasty – not with great frequency, but often enough for it to be clear that this was a convention.  While the specific word is not frequent in texts which denounce the free prostitute, the general charge of effeminacy [theludria] is a common pejorative.  Thus the use of malakos would almost certainly conjure up images of the effeminate call-boy, if the context otherwise suggested some form of pederasty[13]

 His point is that alongside arsenokoitai in a culture that was rife with pederasty, it would be natural and logical for these two terms together to refer to the senior and junior partners in a pederastic relationship, either voluntary or commercial (prostitution).

Does this mean that these passages can’t be taken to refer to other forms of homosexuality?  In his conclusion Scroggs questions

…the legitimacy of using New Testament judgements about a particular form and model of homosexuality to inform decisions about the acceptability of a contemporary form of homosexuality, which projects an entirely different model.  Since the models are so different, some would say mutually exclusive, it cannot be a foregone conclusion that the New Testament can be helpfully used in today’s discussion without seriously violating the integrity of the New Testament itself.” … “Paul’s judgements may …be eternally valid but can, nevertheless, be valid only against what he opposed. [14]

Not everybody agrees with Scroggs that the passages should be interpreted narrowly like this, but the question of how we interpret these texts should await our examination of both Leviticus and Romans.  As the term arsenokoites almost certainly arises from the Leviticus prohibition of homosexual acts, we should now refer to that text, to discover what its meaning might be.


[1] (Furnish 1994, 24) (Scroggs 1983, 101 – 104)

[2] (Scroggs 1983, 83)

[3] (Scroggs 1983)

[4] (Scroggs 1983, 17-28)

[5] “There were important, if occasional, male voices of intercession on behalf of women, as when Plutarch argues for the superiority of marriage over pederastic relationships.  Nevertheless, these voices are mostly concessive.  One hears them saying, “women are not so bad,” or “they do have the potential of becoming respectable companions”.” (Scroggs 1983, 21)

[6] (Scroggs 1983, 32-35)

[7] (Jewett 2007, 173)

[8] This may or may not be evidence that Julius Caesar took the junior role in homosexual relationships – what it does tell us is that an adult citizen taking these roles was seen as despicable.

[9] (Jewett 2007, 181)

[10] (Jewett 2007, 180)

[11] (Scroggs 1983, 118 – 121)

[12] (Scroggs 1983, 42)

[13] (Scroggs 1983, 64 – 65)  In this Scroggs is supported by Hays, who writes “[Malakoi] …appears often in Hellenistic Greek slang as pejorative slang to describe the “passive” partners  – often young boys – in homosexual activity.” (Hays 1996, 382)

[14] (Scroggs 1983, 122 & 125), italicised in original.

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