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Arsenokoitēs (αρσενοκοίτης) is a Greek word found in the New Testament, specifically in some verses that are generally considered a prohibition against homosexuality. It is a portmanteau of arsen, one of the Greek words for male, and koite, the Greek word for bed, echoing the phrasing of the Septuagint rendering of Leviticus 18:22.
The verses in question are in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, both thought to be part of Paul's writings (although there is some debate about this in the case of Timothy - see 'Forgery' below). In context, the lines say "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 malebedders..." and "and immoral men and malebedders and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching..."
Arsenokoites is extremely rare in ancient Greek - so rare, there is no other extant use predating or contemporary to the Bible (a linguistic phenomenon known as a hapax legomenon). Philo is often claimed to have used it around 35 CE. Some believe the claim to be false. The context in which it is used in Corinthians suggests that it is the dominant partner of a homosexual relationship (of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opp. μαλακός). Some liberal Christians insist it refers specifically to pimps or pederasts, but there's no more evidence to support this meaning than any other.
"Malakoi", (as used in 1 Cor 6:9 just prior to "arsenokoites") means literally "squishy." Linguists generally understand this word to be a form of showy effeminism; it may also indicate cowardice. Malakos is used in Matthew to describe the unnecessarily fine and showy clothing of the King. Unlike "arsenokoites," malakos is found in other writers of the time, indeed as an indictment of cowardice, or sometimes vanity, or other "feminine" vices; the sexual sense of effeminate is typically referred to not by this word, but "kinaidia."
Over the centuries, there has also been a range of interpretation of how best to translate "arsenokoites" into the different European languages.
The medieval Latin translation in the Vulgata Clementina was "masculorum concubitoribus," implying concubinage or pimping, not homosexuality specifically. Martin Luther's 1545 German translation employs the word "Knabenschänder" (from "Knaben", boys or young children), implying that "arsenokoites" was interpreted as pedophilia as early as the 16th century. A modern German translation speaks of "Kinder sexuell missbrauchen" ("to abuse children sexually"). The 1649 Giovanni Deodati Bible in Italian refers to "quelli che usano co' maschi". The term "maschi" can refer either to men or boys, but has a more general sense of boys, as in the traditional Italian expression "Auguri e figli maschi" (literally, "Congratulations and may you have many male children.")
Though no European translator before the 20th century approved of homosexuality (least of all Martin Luther), the rendering of the word "arsenokoites" into modern European languages clearly does not imply a clear consensus on whether this specific term covers homosexuality in general. Yet the avoidance of the term "homosexual" might also have been merely to provide euphemisms for something considered "unspeakable" by many, and thus might have been a form of mere bowdlerism on the transators' part:
- Danish: "Syndere imod Naturen" (sins against nature)
- French (Martin, 1744): "ceux qui commettent des péchés contre nature" (those who commit sins against nature)
- French (Ostervald, 1744): "les abominables" (the abominables)
- French (Louis Segon, 1910): "les infâmes" (the infamous)
- Irish (William O'Domhnuill, 1602): "dáoine míonadúrtha" (unnatural people)
- Spanish (Sagradas Escrituras, 1569): "los que fe echá con machos” (those that lay with males)
- Spanish (Reina Valera, 1909): "los sodomitas" (sodomites, a term that in itself is open to wide interpretation)
- Swedish (1917): "för dem som... onaturlig vällustsynd" (those who sin unnaturally)
- English (Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible, Challoner Revision, 1749): "them who defile themselves with mankind"
The variety of translations made across time and place have helped to shape contemporary perceptions of homosexuality, and these translations were clearly products of their time, struggling against the strictures and limitations of any given language. Regardless, the original Greek word remains ambiguous.
Arsenokoitia for male-female sodomy
In a penitential by Saint John the Faster, there is a section of penances for certain sexual acts, and he says: "If any man perform arsenokoitia upon his wife, he shall be penanced for eight years, faring the while with xerophagy after the ninth hour and doing two hundred metanies daily." While he does mention arsenokoites between males, it's not exclusive to male-male sex.
Some scholars consider 1 Timothy a forgery. It disagrees with other letters that Paul wrote, and 1 Timothy tries to refute 'false teachings' that became important with the Gnostics well after Paul's time.
The genuineness of Pauline authorship was accepted by Church orthodoxy as early as c. 180 AD, as evidenced by the surviving testimony of Irenaeus and the author of the Muratorian. Possible allusions are found in the letters from Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (c. 95), Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians (c. 110) and Polycarp to the Philippians (c. 130).
- School apologises over Bible and homosexuality worksheet This deals with how a school approached 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11.
- The septuagint leviticus 18
- 1 Corinthians 6:9
- 1 Timothy 1:10
- Louw & Nida, ‘Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains’, volume 1, p. 771 (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition 1996)
- Brown, ‘New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology’, volume 2, p. 562 (1986)
- Canons of the Holy Fathers. Holy Trinity of Orthodox.
- The Bible: So Misunderstood
- Holmes, MW, "Polycarp's 'Letter to the Philippians' and the Writings that later formed the NT," in Gregory & Tuckett, (2005), The Reception of the NT in the Apostolic Fathers OUP, p.226 ISBN 978-0-19-926782-8
- Berding, K. (1999). "Polycarp of Smyrna's View of the Authorship of 1 and 2 Timothy". Vigiliae Christianae 53 (4): 349–360.