The other specific word that is critical to Paul’s meaning appears only in one of the two letters. In 1 Corinthians, before the word arsenokoites, is the word malakoi. Unlike arsenokoites, malakos is a very common word, with lots of uses. Generally speaking it means ‘soft,’ ‘flexible,’ or ‘delicate,’ as in fine (expensive) fabric, gourmet delicacies, gentle breezes. Matthew (11:18) and Luke (7:25) use it. It also refers to morals, where ‘flexible’ is not so good a thing, including dissolute, cowardly, lazy, weak, unstable, easily influenced – all qualities that were seen as feminine. In the culture of the time, women were culturally seen to be pretty, delicate … and worthless, far below the level of men, barely above the level of children and slaves.
Paul was speaking to a culture and world phenomenally different from ours. That culture, with apologies to modern sensibilities, made an absolute virtue of misogyny; male domination of women was a part of the natural order. Except as child bearers, women were chattel, not even remotely on the same level as men. And to share any womanly characteristics was utterly unmanly. In this context, womanizers, who were interested in things that were worthless by definition, were considered effeminate. By contrast, male-male sex – associated with athletics and learning – was far more manly than what resulted from the love of a woman. And male-male sex between a master and his slave was not a matter of being homosexual at all; it was a matter of domination, of power. Greeks (and the Romans who absorbed their culture) took it for granted that everyone both could and might want to take part in either kind of sexual activity. The Greek idea of effeminate had very little in common with the modern notion – it reflected pervasive cultural misogyny.
When paired with arsenokoitai, malakos seems to refer to a person that is a victim of sex with men – a slave, a prostitute, a catamite, a victim of rape – someone perhaps drawn into temple sexual rituals, and not necessarily male. With this word Paul is referring to the victim of sexual (and financial?) coercion, whether pederasty, pedophilia, rape, or forced prostitution. And if malakos indicated an underage male prostitute, the following arsenokoites would mean the one who forced himself on the youth. This would apply to heterosexual gay-for-pay prostitutes as well, as it would in any case where a male was subjected to forced sexual activity.
Had Paul wanted a word that applied to the penetrated partner (i.e., female-like), there was a perfectly specific Greek word for that. And if Paul had really condemned someone for being ‘effeminate’ in the context of his time, he would have meant something very different from what the word means two millennia later, and we would consider him sexist and alien to a (modern) Christian’s belief system.
The word malakos was simply not the same as effeminate with its current homosexual stereotype overtones. Feminine, or womanly, perhaps, along with some less complimentary adjectives; but not effeminate. Early versions of the Bible in English translated malakos as a general weakness of character or degeneracy (weaklings, wantons); however, with the translation that was named for King James, the dominant translation shifted to effeminate, where it stayed until the mid-20th century. Thereafter, purely out of sexual ideology, the translation has shifted to particular sexual acts/orientation. There is no more evidence to support this shift than there was the earlier one to effeminate.
That some people persist in insisting that both of these words condemn homosexuality despite some clear evidence to the contrary is driven by an ideological interest in marginalizing gay/lesbian people rather than devotion to religion or any sort of accurate translation. And any attempt to stake an ethical position based on the Bible as the “word of God” without explicitly acknowledging the intermediacy of a translator exposes the speaker not so much as insecure but rather as at best ignorant and thoroughly lacking in credibility.
In his site, Gary Zeolla comes to a conclusion about the meanings of these two words that looks well reasoned and researched. He is definitely to be commended for his apparent objectivity and even-handedness, a refreshing breath of humility about a topic that so many find it so easy to be so rude about (no matter which particular political solution they advocate). There is only one problem – his conclusion is based entirely on sources from the King James Version onwards; the original Greek and the culture for and in which it was used do not appear, with the result that his conclusions are adrift in (contemporary) air rather than being firmly grounded.
The fact is that these passages which are so often misused to abuse homosexuals are not the Bible’s main position on the subject. Jesus’ message itself is actually quite different, as you may see with the four other passages.