In my last post I looked at one specific example of how understanding the contemporary context of a passage can help discern its true meaning. We looked the use of the word pais in Matthew and Luke and saw how the only way that the Centurion’s servant could be a male lover would be if he was a child.
Our attention now turns to a word that has far more controversy around it – arsenokoites. The word is found in two forms, one in 1 Cor 6:9 (with malakos, to which we will return) and one in 1 Timothy 1:10. In this post we will examine the word using the same tools as we did with pais.
The Literal Meaning of Arsenokoites
This is a fairly easy question to answer. The Greek word arsenokoites seems to derive itself from two other words – arsen and koite. Arsen literally means “man” and koite is usually translated as marital bed, sexual impurity (i.e. Rom 13:3) or sperm (and see Rom 9:10 where Paul uses the words koiten exousa to mean “get spermed”, or “conceived”). So the literal meaning is “man sex bed” which we would render as “man who has sex with man”.
The Possible meanings of Arsenokoites given the Judean/Hellenistic and Roman context
Though a literal translation is fairly obvious, the actual meaning of the word is much more controversial. While a literal translation would seem to cover all forms of homosexual activity, there is a great deal of debate as to whether such a strict translation of the word accurately describes what its usage in the first century was. We need to ask ourselves whether this word, or others like it, were used in contemporaneous literature, and if so, how?
There are plentiful revisionist arguments that attempt to so such a thing, and in doing so to help us discern what arsenokoites might mean. For example, one popular argument focuses on Philo:
Around 35 A.D., the Jewish philosopher Philo (a contemporary of Paul’s) held that arsenokoites 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.
When one reads Philo’s Special Laws however, one discovers that the word arsenokoites does not even occur in the passage referred to. Here is the text (in it’s most often rendered English form with relevant Greek added):
And I imagine that the cause of this is that among many nations there are actually rewards given for intemperance and effeminacy (malakia). At all events one may see men-women (androgynia) continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres. (41) And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes, like those who, having been the cause of great blessings to their native land, walk about attended by body-guards, pushing down every one whom they meet. (42) But if there was a general indignation against those who venture to do such things, such as was felt by our lawgiver, and if such men were destroyed without any chance of escape as the common curse and pollution of their country, then many other persons would be warned and corrected by their example. For the punishments of those persons who have been already condemned cannot be averted by entreaty, and therefore cause no slight check to those persons who are ambitious of distinguishing themselves by the same pursuits.
The word arsenokoites never occurs in this passage. The closest we get is the Greek arrenos (sometimes arsenos and meaning “manly”) in section 37:
Moreover, another evil, much greater than that which we have already mentioned, has made its way among and been let loose upon cities, namely, the love of boys (to paiderastein), which formerly was accounted a great infamy (oneidos) even to be spoken of, but which sin is a subject of boasting not only to those who practise it (hoi drontes), but even to those who suffer it (hoi paschontes), and who, being accustomed to bearing the affliction of being treated like women (nosos thelia), waste away as to both their souls and bodies, not bearing about them a single spark of a manly character (tes arrenos geneas) to be kindled into a flame, but having even the hair of their heads conspicuously curled and adorned, and having their faces smeared with vermilion, and paint, and things of that kind, and having their eyes pencilled beneath, and having their skins anointed with fragrant perfumes (for in such persons as these a sweet smell is a most seductive quality), and being well appointed in everything that tends to beauty or elegance, are not ashamed to devote their constant study and endeavours to the task of changing their manly character into an effeminate one.
While the passage may (or may not) refer to shrine prostitution, the word arsenokoites does not appear within it. Indeed, the shrine prostitution (if it is, for there is no reference in this passage in Philo to anything cultic about the prostitution) is so very clearly pederastic in nature and the text does not indicate whether the androgynia actually engage in sex as a cultic practice, even though they do parade themselves as part of religious ceremonies. What Philo is condemning here is pederasty and pederastic prostitution, and the word arsenokoites is not involved at all in the discourse.
Furthermore most damning for this revisionist argument is the simple fact that koiten does not appear in this section of Philo’s work at all. One cannot argue that Philo’s Special Laws can inform us in any way about arsenokoiten or arsenos koiten because any variant of that word(s) simply does not occur in the text referred to.
Excursis – John the Faster of Constantinople and Arsenokoites
Although not from the first century, this treatment of an excerpt from John the Faster of Constantinople demonstrates the same kind of hazy thinking around the use of arsenokoites in Greek texts. Here is a translation from Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality”.
John Nesteutes (the Faster), was Patriarch of Constantinople 582-595. This is from a penitential usually ascribed to him.
The priest stands by [the penitent's] side and questions him as cheerfully and kindly as possible, and if he can, he kisses him and puts the penitent’s arms around him, especially if he sees that he is overcome with grief and shame, which might wrongly dominate his thoughts, and he speaks to him in a soft and serene voice:
“In what way, my brother, did you first lose your virginity ? By fornication, lawful wedlock, masturbation ["malakia"], or one of those sins which are against nature ["para phusin"] When he has confessed and said thus and such, [the priest] questions him further: How many women had he had when he was married, and how many of these were slaves, how many were vidows, how many were married, how many were nuns – for some who wear the habit indulge in such things – and so forth. It is a small matter if the women were whores ["pornai"] a great one if they were married. . .Before all else the number of persons should be ascertained, and the types of person. There are six types: it is one penance if they were slaves, another if freeborn; one if they were whores, another if virgins; one thing if they were widows another if married; one thing if they were nuns, and another if they were married to priests.
Likewise one must inquire about arsenokoita ["anal intercourse" is Boswell's suggestion] of which there are three varieties. For it is one thing to get it from someone, which is the least serious another to do it to someone else, which is more serious than having it done to you; another to do it to someone and have it done to you, which is more serious than either of the other two. For to be passive only, or active only, is not so grave as to be both. One must inquire into which of these [practices] the penitent has fallen, and how often, and for how long, and if it happened before marriage or after, if before the age of thirty or after. It must be ascertained further whether he has penetrated an animal, of which sin there is only grade.
Likewise there are two types of masturbation [malakia]: one wherein he is aroused by his own hand and another by someone else’s hand, which is unfortunate, since what the parties begin by themselves ends up also harming others to whom they teach the sin.
One must also ask about the perplexing, beguiling , and shadowy sin of incest, of which there are not just one or two varieties but a great many very different ones. One type is committed with two sisters of the same father or mother (or both). Another involves a cousin; another the daughter of a cousin; another the wife of one’s son; another the wife of one’s brother. It is one thing with a mother-in-law or the sister of a mother-in-law, another with a stepmother or a father’s concubine. Some even do it with their own mothers, and others with foster sisters or goddaughters. In fact, many men even commit the sin of arsenokoitia with their wives.
Going back to the same website that raised the claim of Philo using arsenokoites to refer to temple prostitution, we find the following explanation of the above:
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.
Once again, the word arsenokoites is not used anywhere in relation to the subject that it is claimed it does. The paragraph on incest is completely unconnected with. It is very clear from reading the Penitential that this is a list of areas to question parishioners about. Arsenokoitia refers to anal sex (as Boswell himself argues) and the paragraph on incest is an entirely separate source of inquiry. These two paragraphs are themselves separated by a paragraph dealing with masturbation. The word arsenokoitia when used in the final paragraph here clearly refers to anal sex and is being used in the context of the first paragraph where it refers to same sex activity (“have it done to you” – an act which a women could not perform) and this explains the statement in the third paragraph ( “In fact, many men even commit the sin of arsenokoitia with their wives.”) as being in reference to the first where it clearly denotes same-sex activity (of a particular kind). What the text says then is this – “You need to ask the man about whether he has engaged in incest. These are the different kinds on relationships incest occurs in. Remember, as well as vaginal sex, some even commit anal incest.”
Rabinnic and Early Patristic Use of Arsenokoites or Equivalents
The academic consensus is that the most likely explanation of the emergence of the word arsenokoites is that Paul is the originator of the word. The only possible exception to this may be the use of arsenokoiten in The Sibylline Oracles (2.73) but the date for this is much disputed and probably post-dates 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. David F Wright in his essay “Homosexuals or Prostitutes?” argues that arsenokoites was created by Hellenistic Jews from the LXX rendering of Levitcus 18:22 and 20:13. Scroggs (a revisionsist) himself observes that the Rabbinic literature of the time uses the Hebrew “miskab zakur” to refer to all homosexual intercourse, which is a close a literal rendering of arsenos koiten (LXX Lev 20:13) as can be achieved. In the Babylonian Talmud, b. Sanhedrin 54a teaches that arsenos koiten (LXX Lev 20:13) refers to the active partner in pederastic sex and both partners in adult same-sex activity. B. Sanhedrin does not make any reference to prostitution or cultic activity, as the full quote below shows.
MISHNAH. HE WHO COMMITS SODOMY WITH A MALE OR A BEAST, AND A WOMAN THAT COMMITS BESTIALITY ARE STONED. IF THE MAN HAS SINNED, WHEREIN HAS THE ANIMAL OFFENDED? BUT BECAUSE MAN WAS ENTICED TO SIN THEREBY,28 SCRIPTURE ORDERED THAT IT SHOULD BE STONED. ANOTHER REASON IS THAT THE ANIMAL SHOULD NOT PASS THROUGH THE STREETS, WHILST PEOPLE SAY, THIS IS THE ANIMAL ON ACCOUNT OF WHICH SO AND SO WAS STONED.
GEMARA. Whence do I know that pederasty is punished by stoning? — Our Rabbis taught: [If a man lieth also with mankind, as the lyings of a woman,29 both of them have committed on abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them,]30 A man — excludes a minor; [that] lieth also with mankind — denotes whether an adult or a minor; as the lyings of a woman — this teaches that there are two modes of intimacy,31 both of which are punished when committed incestuously. R. Ishmael said: This verse comes to throw light [upon pederasty] but receives illumination itself.32 They shall surely be put to death: by stoning. You say, by stoning: but perhaps some other death decreed in the Torah is meant? — Their blood shall be upon them is stated here, and also in the case of one who has a familiar spirit or is a wizard:33 just as there the reference is to stoning, so it is here too.
You can read further by following the link and it is obvious that the Rabbinic condemnation is not contextualised in terms of the nature of the relationship (the only exception of course is that he who is forced into the receptive behaviour – i.e. raped – cannot be held guilty). The prohibition clearly lies upon all same-sex activity.
This perspective is reinforced by two other first Century Jewish writers, Philo (who we encounter above) and Josephus. Josephus writes in Against Apion:
25. But, then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children. But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male; and if any one do that, death is its punishment.
Once again we see there is no contextualisation of the general prohibition on same-sex activity – all of it is condemned.
This revisionist website lists the uses of arsenokoites (and other forms) in literature after the New Testament and shows how time and time again no definition of the word is present in the text. The site says that this proves ambiguity in the meaning, but surely such an absence of definition requires us to go further back in time to arrive at the first definition that we have, namely the two passages of 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1? Otherwise the argument is tantamount to suggesting that any twenty-first century text that contains the word “elephant” without defining the word provides ambiguity as to the meaning of the word “elephant”. Given that the texts that the revisionist website refers to are almost all Christian, the obvious reference point for the use of the word arsenokoites is it’s primary origin – the New Testament.
What is more damning to the revisionist argument is that in none of the passages cited above is there any explicit connection between arsenokoites and prostitution or cultic practices. Instead we have arguments like the following:
Define arsenokoites. Aristides, Apology, 13. Aristides, a Christian preacher, delivered his Apology around AD 125. The context is interspecies rape or pederasty, Greek gods killing, committing adultery and arsenokoitia with humans.
The context which Aristides addressed is not homosexuality in the sense of a committed same sex partnership between male equals.
The problem with this line of argument on arsenokoites is that it appeals to the validation of a particular stance on a sexual activity purely from the absence of comment on that particular stance. This is a ridiculous way of arguing as, for example, I could take our passage from John the Faster on incest and argue that since John wasn’t aware of consensual committed incestuous relationships (they occur), he cannot be condemning such sexual activity. This is obviously nonsense.
We are pushed back again to the New Testament passages and our previous exploration that leads us to the most obvious conclusion – that arsenokoites has been derived from the LXX. Of course, this provokes us to examine what the original Hebrew of Leviticus 20:13 is.
וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכַּ֤ב אֶת־זָכָר֙ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה תֹּועֵבָ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם מֹ֥ות יוּמָ֖תוּ דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם׃
A good straight translation is: Man lies down with male instead sexually (lit. on couch) with woman makes abomination – die both persons – blood on them. There is absolutely no reference to prostitution or cultic practices and no limitation on the context of the sex. This fits the first century Rabbinic commentary which we saw placed no such limitations on the same-sex activity it condemned.
We can see that the argument that arsenokoites refers to a specific subset of homosexual activity (prostitution or cultic practices) cannot be supported by any of the post New Testament literature. We have established that arsenokoites first appears within the New Testament and therefore it is reasonable to assume that Paul either creates the word himself, or that it was created by the first Century Rabbinic community that Paul operated in (at least before his conversion). Given this, the most reasonable etymology is that the word is sourced from the LXX, where the verses that it comes from condemn all homosexual activity, or alternatively, a straight Greek translation of the Rabbinic miskab zakur. This is supported by the clear first century Rabbinic teaching that condemned all homosexual activity regardless of context (and supporting teaching in the Babylonian Talmud and elsewhere).
I entered this third part of my study with a genuine openness to the possibility that arsenokoites might refer to a subset of homosexual activity rather than all. If such an argument could be supported then I would need to rest an argument against all homosexual behaviour in the correct translation of Romans 1. However, as I engaged with the revisionist arguments, I was truly shocked at some points by the paucity of the case, especially where reference was made to the presence of arsenokoites in texts that did not actually contain the word or any variations thereof.
That said, I am still open to being presented with Contemporaneous Greek or Patristic texts that show arsenokoites being used clearly to refer to homosexual activity or sodomy and specifically within the context of only prostitution or cultic activities. If you believe that such a reference does exists, please put it in the comments below.