1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11
Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth includes a list of actions that will keep someone from inheriting the Kingdom of God; the first letter to Timothy includes a listing of unrighteous people. Neither list claims to be all-inclusive (for a seemingly inclusive list, see Matthew 15:18-20).
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
1 Timothy 1:9-11
Unlike all of the previous passages, the critical meanings of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:9-11 depend less on context and more on the meanings of two specific words.
In both letters, Paul uses an obscure Greek term (the New Testament is almost entirely in Greek) that has lately been translated with prejudice. The particular word is the rare gutter word arsenokoites, a compound word composed of arsen meaning man in the sense of ‘male adult,’ and koites meaning ‘bed’ (with undertones that suggest having sex). Its meaning is impossible to be specific about (it is not found anywhere else in the Bible and almost nowhere in all Greek literature.
Different bibles translate it differently.
‘pederast,’ ‘child molesters,’ ‘those who are immoral with … boys,’ ‘men who lie with men,’ ‘abusers of themselves with mankind,’ ‘them that defile themselves with mankind,’ ‘men who sin sexually … with other men,’ ‘(sexual) perverts,’ ‘sexually immoral,’ ‘sin against nature,’ ‘sodomites,’ ‘homosexual offenders,’ ‘homosexual perverts,’ ‘homosexuals,’ ‘people … who live as homosexuals,’ ‘people … who have sexual relations with people of the same sex,’ and ‘practicing homosexuals’
(A list of these from 26 different translations can be found here.)
Quite aside from the fact that word meanings change over time – sometimes swiftly and dramatically – this is clearly translation with an agenda. The fact is that none of these translations are solidly justified by anything but prejudice. And though the same word appears in both letters, a handful of bibles translate the same word differently in the two letters.
No matter what it means, the use of the word ‘homosexual’ to translate it – i.e., including females – is a knowingly wrong translation, since arseno in Greek means ‘adult male’ (the translators were again possibly correcting God’s oversight). This, of course, shows fairly significant disregard for the meaning of the original Greek (not to mention the word of God). To proclaim confidently that it applies to homosexuals generally is to proclaim one’s prejudice on the subject (not to mention ignorance when compared to experts in ancient Greek).
So what does it mean?
Many modern Greek dictionaries translate this word as a slang for “masturbation” (for hundreds of years before the Reformation, this was generally thought to be its meaning). Others translate it as “men watchers” (that is, someone who ogles men).
Referring to the meanings of the two parts – ‘adult male’ and ‘bed’ – would logically yield ‘manbedder,’ but trying to determine what the word means from the meanings of its parts is linguistically naïve. Consider the parts of ‘butterfly,’ a fly that eats butter, or ‘ladykiller,’ a murderer that goes after polite women. This method has its drawbacks.
There are, given how few times the word occurs in any texts, not a lot of options to help figure out its meaning. Click here for a fuller discussion of the search for the meaning of ‘arsenokoites.’
This site opts for a simple explanation. Paul had considerable rabbinical training, and he would be familiar with the two passages in Leviticus that this site focuses on, notably through the third century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures called the Septuagint.
If Paul had wanted to condemn homosexual behavior in general, the word for it at the time was paiderasste. What he did, rather than simply use one of the many existing, quite precise Greek terms for aspects of homosexuality (or for homosexuality in general) – words that he would have been quite aware of – is to coin a new word from the Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13.
In the Septuagint, Leviticus 20:13 is something like hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gunaikos (And not lie-down with mankind [in] beds [of] a woman/wife). Notice the words arsenos koiten together there? It would have surprised no one for the scholar Paul to have compounded the noun arseno with the following Greek verb koiten into a new word, thereby repeating the prohibition of the abuse of temple prostitution in Leviticus – and it would be no surprise that his learned audience had no need of a translation or an explanation of the new word for an old idea; they, too, would have been familiar with the passage in Leviticus. (This would not be Paul’s only reference to earlier Scriptural phrasings; for example, when he wanted a phrase for ‘female’ and ‘male’ other than more common pairs, he used thelusi and arsen, words that had appeared together in the narrative of creation in Genesis.)
Once Paul’s warnings helped temple prostitution disappear from the landscape, the force of his words very likely caused later Christians to extend the meaning of arsenokoites to cover other behaviors that Christians found regrettable. Early Christians and Jews also applied the word to incest and orgiastic conduct. For a time it designated masturbation (arseno is singular, as masturbation generally is…). The only certain statement that can be made about the word is that it has changed in its perceived meaning and translation over time.