History of Arsenokoites
Around 35 A.D., the Jewish philosopher Philo (an early contemporary of Paul’s) held that the Leviticus use of arsenos koiten referred to shrine prostitution (Philo, The Special Laws, III, VII, 40-42). This is the origin this site suggests for it (see comments on the letters to Timothy and Corinth), though the context suggests that Paul may have been condemning pederasty, group sexual orgies, and/or people who are not innately gay/lesbian/bisexual but who engage in homosexual acts. Philo apparently felt that the word condemned pederasty and incest as well.
Somewhat later appeared the apocryphal Acts of John (a 2nd-century Christian text) and the Sibylline Oracles (a third- or fourth-century Jewish text); in both the word occurs among sins related to economics, i.e., sex induced by a need for money. A meaning reflecting homosexual rape appears in the second century Apology of Aristides (chapters 9 and 13) and the third century Refutatio Omnium Haeresium of Hippolytus. The Apology tells of the rape by Zeus of the mortal boy Ganymede; in a somewhat similar tale in Hippolytus (chapter 5), a fallen (male) angel named Naas forcibly rapes Adam in the Garden. Both of course share the common thread of an aggressor forcing himself on a weaker individual – a meaning that would also fit the other contexts quite well.
A revealing use of it appears around 575 A.D.; Joannes Jejunator (John the Faster), the Patriarch of Constantinople, used the word in a treatise that instructed confessor priests how to ask their parishioners about sexual sin. Here it appears in the context of a paragraph dealing with incestuous relations, and if translated as ‘homosexuality,’ the sentence containing it would read “In fact, many men even commit the sin of homosexuality with their wives.” (Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Graeca, 88:1893-96) Though at the time it apparently referred to anal or oral sex or to sex forced upon a woman, it pretty clearly had nothing to do with homosexuality.
And, because arsen is singular, there was a long period leading up to the Reformation in which the term was taken to refer to masturbation (i.e., involving only one male), a translation that persists in some Greek dictionaries today.
Other Meaning Evidence
Paul’s obvious knowledge of the Jewish scriptures makes the analysis of arsenokoites as referring to shrine prostitution compelling for an objective researcher.
Suppose, however, that such simple logic is set aside in finding the word’s meaning.
In Greek culture, relationships between men (and particularly between a master and his pupil) were common; they were an important theme in literature, and there was a range of very specific Greek words that Paul could have chosen among. The argument has been made that Paul coined a new term because he wanted to condemn more than just, say, pederasty, and his new term avoided using a multitude of specific Greek terms in order to cover the whole subject. This demonstrates both prejudice and a solid ignorance of ancient Greek; Greek also had general words to refer to homosexuality.
Trying to figure out what the word means by looking just at its component parts is linguistically naïve. Of course, at one time the meaning of any compound word did depend on some aspects of the parts, but language change and usage quickly alter and can obscure this. Consider the parts of ‘chairman,’ which did indeed begin with ‘chair’ (meaning ‘throne,’ something it doesn’t mean nowadays) and ‘man’ but now is compounded to produce a very different word that doesn’t necessarily involve either chairs or men.
A case can be (though usually isn’t) made that arsenokoites does apply to homosexuality by using the analogy of some other (mostly very rare) compound words of similar vintage. Arsenokoites – the first part of which means ‘adult male’ – appears to fit neatly within a pattern:
• doulo·koitEs consorter with slaves (slave-bedder) • deuteron·koite to have a bed-fellow (two-bedder) • polu·koitos promiscuity (many-bedder) • homo·koitos
with ears large enough to sleep in (ears·bed)
Unfortunately for such a scheme, there is already a combination for sex with a male:
• andro·koitEs having intercourse with a man
and it is a feature of languages that they do not create different forms for identical meanings.
In addition, consider the parts of enOto·koitEs. A logical meaning for this word, if the key were analogy to the others in the set, would be something like ‘a person with a (sexual) ear fetish.’ The morphology of a word provides clues to how it was originally made, but in terms of meaning, it only shows how very fertile the process of language creation is. A similar process could produce arseno + koites = man + bed, ≈ man sleeping → couch potato.
Certainly, some aspects of each of the components, ‘male’ and ‘bed,’ were originally present, but a sounder process for finding its meaning would be to make inferences about it from contexts in which it appears. Unfortunately, this has not been very productive either. In 1997 the Thesaurus Lingua Graecae database listed 73 usages of arsenokoites, but most of these appear in contexts similar in pattern and vocabulary to Paul’s lists. None of them indelibly mark the word with a single meaning (though for at least one context the meaning ‘homosexual’ would be impossible). It is both claimed and disputed that the term tends to occur between listings of sexual sins and social sins, which would suggests that the term originally had some sort of relationship to sexual injustice – and all of the usages found are compatible with this interpretation. In all of them the term could indicate subjugation to and/or exploitation by a powerful aggressor, whether in the context of rape or of treatment of slaves – i.e., coercive, non-procreative sex. Still, even this meaning is not absolutely forced on us – and meanings do change with time.
The force of Paul’s warnings very likely were instrumental in helping eliminate temple prostitution. This left behind a word of uncertain meaning that Paul had sternly disapproved of … and audiences were left with filling in the blank. Child molestation, anal/oral intercourse with one’s wife, and masturbation were three topics that certainly, at different times, became associated with the word; the latest simply is (male) homosexuality.
The end result of a lot of research is simply that – in spite of a lot of claims – the meaning of arsenokoites is obscure. One prominent investigator of the meaning of arsenokoites, Dale Martin of Yale University comments, “I should be clear about my claims here. I am not claiming to know what arsenokoites meant, I am claiming that no one knows what it meant.”
Not many others are so humble; most have their favorite candidates for its meaning and, in the case of anti-gays, the meaning is confidently given as something akin to ‘(practicing) homosexual’ (variations on this theme depend on the writer’s political leanings). All such translations betray a serious ignorance – often intentional – of both ancient Greek and the culture in which the word was used; and they also basically reveal an entrenched political position – nothing more.
The other word that is critical to understanding Paul appears only in 1 Corinthians: malakos.