Sexuality and Slavery – Part Four

In my previous post in this series I looked at the Greek word arsenokoites. We looked at what it’s literal meaning was, what the first century context of the word was and we explored a number of revisionist arguments about what St Paul might have meant when he uses the word in two of his letters. We discovered that the contemporary Rabbinic discourse understood the word to refer to all male to male sexual activity, and we found out that none of the other literature from the period provided an alternative meaning, despite the suggestion of some revisionists that arsenokoites referred to a narrowed range of sexual activity (eg rape or cultic prostitution). Indeed, some of the revisionist arguments were shown to refer to passages where the word arsenokoites or its derivatives didn’t even occur!

In this post we will turn to the second word that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6 – malakoi. We will use the same criteria to examine the meaning of the word as before – literal translation, contemporary understanding in Hellenistic and Roman culture and its use in Scripture and other literature.

The Literal Meaning of Malakoi

The literal meaning of malakoi is “soft”. This means that in many Bible translations where it is translated as “homosexual”, such a translation is subjective and not immediately supported by the Greek. This point should be a primary consideration when deciding what Paul actually means by using the word in 1 Corinthians 6.

It’s Usage Elsewhere in the Bible

The word malakoi or other words built from the root stem is used elsewhere in the New Testament and the Septuagint (including the Apocrypha) as the following table shows. Hold the cursor over the Bible passage to read the full verse.

Verse Commonly Accepted Meaning
Job 23:6 Make soft
Job 41:3 (Speak) Soft (words)
Proverbs 25:15 Soft (tongue)
Proverbs 26:22 Whisperer / Gossip
4 Maccabees 6:17 Cowardice
Matthew 11:8 Soft (clothing)
Luke 7:25 Soft (clothing)

The word is also used in the aorist to mean “be softened” and it’s usage in the Septuagint is fascinating.

Verse Commonly Accepted Meaning
Genesis 42:38 Harm happen to
2 Samuel 3:15 Pretend to be Ill (lit. [appear] be softened)
2 Chron 16:12 Diseased
Job 24:23 Give rest (in a positive sense)
Isaiah 38:1 Became Sick
Isaiah 38:9 Had been Sick
Isaiah 39:1 Had been Sick
Isaiah 53:5 Crushed – As in “Crushed for our Iniquities”
Daniel 8:27 Fell Sick

These two lists raises a number of issues of interpretation, because immediately it can be seen that there is no other use in Scripture of malakoi that has a sexual connotation. Furthermore, in some cases the word is used in a positive sense (Job 24:23) and in one case is used in a Messianic Servant Song to refer to the crushing of Jesus on the cross. Although malakoi is sometimes used in Scripture as a perjorative, it is seemingly never used as a sexual slur.

Our conclusion thus far based on the rest of Scripture (and Apocryphal texts) is that to translate malakoi as “homosexual” is a subjective choice that has no support in the rest of the Bible (unlike arsenokoites where an argument can be made linking back to Leviticus).

The Possible meanings of Malakoi given the Judean/Hellenistic and Roman context

Here we have much less to go on then with arsenokoites. As we have shown above, the Scriptures use the word malakoi (and other words from the same stem) in an number of different ways. It seems that the most common understanding in the first century would be to refer to a man as being effeminate, but we then need to ask ourselves that if Paul had this meaning in mind, why would such an action (effeminacy) be so serious a sin as to place one’s self outside of the promise of salvation?

The argument that the readers of Paul would have understood malakoi to mean “effeminate” is backed up by the writings of Clement of Alexandria who used it in this sense on a number of occasions.

“A true man must have no mark of effeminacy visible on his face, or any other part of his body. Let no blot on his manliness, then, ever be found either in his movements or habits.” St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.289.

“What is the purpose in the Law’s prohibition against a man wearing woman’s clothing? Is it not that the Law would have us to be masculine and not to be effeminate in either person or actions–or in thought and word? Rather, it would have the man who devotes himself to the truth to be masculine both in acts of endurance and patience–in life, conduct, word, and discipline.” St. Clement of Alexandria (c. l95, E), 2.365.

“Therefore, we also reckon that the woman should be continent and practiced in fighting against pleasures, too. Women are therefore to philosophize equally with men, though the males are preferable at everything, unless they have become effeminate. To the whole human race, then, discipline and virtue are a necessity, if they would pursue after happiness.” St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.419, 420 (12)

It may be, as Scroggs argues, that malakoi refers to a specific sexual practice, but there is little contextual evidence to suggest what that might be. Scroggs proposes that those engaging in malakoi are essentially rent boys, most likely young male slaves, but this leaves us in a very uncomfortable theological position because what Scroggs is therefore arguing is that these slaves, through the situation that has been forced upon them, are denied eternal life. Others (for example Garry Williams) argue that malakoi refers to passive homosexual partners (i.e. in sodomy) and that the arsenokoites are those who are the active partner, but this interpretation reveals a naivety on the variety of homosexual practices. There are also far more suitable words in Greek (like pathikoi) which would have indicated exactly that meaning instead of the more ambiguous malakoi.

There is a good argument though for suggesting that in the context of 1 Cor 6 malakoi is linked to sexual activity. As Colin Smith on his website “Gays and Slaves” points out:

By placing malakoi immediately next to arsenokoitai (men who have [active] sex with men), Paul seems to have invited the readers or hearers of his letter to think of men having passive sex with men when they read or heard malakoi, especially since they knew that some effeminate men did have passive sex with other men.

Malakoi is situated between the perpetrators of two sexual vices and so it would be logical for it to have a sexual nature also.

Paul’s readers would probably share the Greco-Roman view that it was shameful and unmanly for an adult man to be the receptive participant in sex with another man. Some readers would also be aware of the similar condemnation in Leviticus 20:13.

This third point is crucially important, because as we have seen before a correct understanding of the cultural context around the issue of homosexual practice helps us to get a better interpretation of particular passages. Smith (by no means conservative on the issue) comes to the conclusion that it is most likely that Paul is using malakoi to refer to those who engage in homosexual activity passively. In particular, his argument that malakoi most likely refers to sexual activity because it is in between two words which explicitly deal with sexual sins is highly convincing. That said, it is still debatable what the specific sexual sin is.

In some senses we are coming back to issues of masculinity which we touched on in my first post in this series. It might be that Paul is using malakoi to refer not so much to a specific sexual activity (for he has covered all homosexual practice using the word arsenokoites) but rather to an attitude towards sexual activity. This perspective would seek to bring into play the theology of sex and its signification of Christ and the Church which Paul raises in Ephesians 5. Is the sin of the malakoi less a specific sexual activity and more to do with the refusal of a “soft” man to behave (sexually) like a man (i.e. to engage in heterosexual sex) and in doing so to undermine the way that a man should signify Christ in the sexual union of husband and wife, essentially engaging in an act of idolatory? Would such an interpretation link with the criticism in Romans 1 of those who:

“although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking … And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done”
Romans 1:21,28


Realistically, we are less certain about the meaning of malakoi then we are about arsenokoites. Although the position I have presented at the end of the discussion argues for a conservative perspective, it is fair to point out that the translation of the word as “homosexual” in many English versions of the Scriptures has little warrant. While it is most likely that the word has some sexual connotation (given its position), what that specific sexual act is is less clear.

Please feel free to comment below.

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  • James

    Arguing that μαλακoá½· literally means soft is just like arguing that “gay” literally means “happily carefree” or “fun-loving”.

    No-one today has any illusions what “gay” really means. Similarly no-one had any illusions about μαλακoá½· — see Philo, Soranus, Pseudo-Aristotle, Ptolemy etc.

    See also an exhaustive analysis in Rob Gagnon’s books ( Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 303-36; some updating in Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003) ).

    • Hi James,

      While there are some contemporary texts which treat malakoi as being explicitly about homosexual behaviour, there are others that don’t. On that basis we can’t automatically assume one interpretation.

    • Peter_Cornstalk

      Don’t forget that gay is now commonly use as a derogatory description of something or someone and does not necessarily mean the person or thing is actually a homosexual.

      But it would be rather odd to argue in a list of sins, if one saw the word “gay” that it would mean “happy” or “a person disliked by other people”. That would be contrary to scripture just as the other definitions of malakoi would not fit other than a homosexual of some type.

  • Nice post. Of course it is all Greek to me. Is that why I agree with your conclusions?

  • Hi Peter,
    Your link for 4 Maccabees 6:17 goes to Genesis, so I tried to find it elsewhere. Here is the translation I found:

    4Mac 6:17
    Let not us who are children of Abraham be so evil
    advised as by giving way to make use of an unbecoming

    Is this just a really bad translation or am in on the wrong verse? I am wondering where malakoi was used in this passage. Was is translated here as “be so evil advised” or was it “giving way” or “unbecoming”?

  • Blair

    Hello Peter and all,

    must say i broadly agree with your argument here Peter, though might put a bit more weight on the uncertainty over exactly what Paul meant. Not sure that the penultimate paragraph quite ‘works’ but I like the conclusion.

    Just a handful of other comments / quibbles:

    1) Thank you for the link to Colin Smith’s site – I’d not come across it before. Having skimmed thru it he seems to do a fine job of presenting some good arguments clearly, though as an incurable pedant I’m not sure about one or two points he makes. Might use the contact form to recommend Steven Greenberg’s work to him – he doesn’t refer to him.

    2) I mentioned on the ‘arsenokoites’ thread that the Vulgate translates that word as ‘masculorum concubitores’, and wondered if that had any bearing on the debate. Have just found a searchable online Vulgate and it renders ‘malakoi’ as ‘molles’ – ‘the soft’ (masc form), I think, ie a literal translation. Not sure if this is of any great significance, though perhaps it’s notable to compare that with later translations which as you rightly point out, are quite happy to render it as ‘homosexual’.

    3) I don’t think that Paul “has covered all homosexual practice using the word arsenokoites” – he has not even covered all kinds of male-male sex. Following the arguments I put on the ‘arsenokoites’ thread, he’s covered anal sex between men, perhaps not even in all contexts.

    Time for bed, said Zebedee…

    in friendship, Blair