1 Corinthians 6:9-10 | The original Greek
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition)
Editor’s note: Since this essay was first written in the 1990s, more modern Bible translations have emerged that, among other things, attempt to express a truer meaning of verses such as this one while avoiding Biblical translating tropes such as the use of the word “homosexual,” which wasn’t used in Bible translations before 1946. Above is a more traditional word-for-word translation, and at the bottom is the version from The Message, whose overall approach is more focused on total meaning than a traditional point-by-point translation.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul lists a many activities that will prevent people from inheriting God’s realm. One has been variously translated as “effeminate,” “homosexuals,” or “sexual perverts.” The original Greek text reads malakoi arsenokoitai. The first word means “soft;” the meaning of the second word has been lost. It was once used to refer to a male temple prostitute (as in the verses from the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament described above).
The early church interpreted the phrase as referring to people of soft morals — i.e., unethical. From the time of Martin Luther, it was interpreted as referring to masturbation. More recently, it has been translated as referring to homosexuals. Each translator seems to take whatever activity that their society particularly disapproves of and use it in this verse.
It is amazing the number of times that you will see the word “sodomite” or “homosexual” or “pervert” in different translations concerning this text. It is amazing because no one knows exactly what the words of the original text mean!
The layperson, unfortunately, has no way of knowing that interpreters are guessing as to the exact meaning of these words. Pastors and laypersons often have to rely upon the authority of those who have written lexicons (dictionaries explaining the meaning of words) of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words.
The authors of scriptural lexicons search for the meaning of the word within the scriptures themselves and also go outside of scripture and research literature written around the same time the scriptures were written. If the interpreter is already prejudiced against homosexuality, they can translate these words as condemning homosexual sex even based upon little usage of that word in the Scriptures and little if any contemporaneous usage of that word.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 | The false combination
The truth is that the word some translators “transform” into “sodomite/homosexual/pervert” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is actually two words. Some translators combine them because they think they go together but they do not know. This uncertainty is reflected in the fact that other translators keep the words separate and translate them “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind.”
The two words in the original Greek are malakoi and arsenokoitai.
Malakoi is a very common Greek word. It literally means “soft.” It is used in Matthew 11:7-18 and Luke 7:24-25 in reference to soft clothing. Scholars have to look at material outside of the Bible in order to try and figure out just what this means.
The early church fathers used the word to mean someone who was “weak” or “soft” in their morals, and from the time of the Reformation to the 20th century, it was usually interpreted as masturbation. In Greek this word never is applied to gay people or homosexual acts in general.
No new textual data effected the twentieth-century change in translation of this word: only a shift in popular morality. Since few people any longer regard masturbation as the sort of activity which would preclude entrance to heaven, the condemnation has simply been transferred to a group still so widely despised that their exclusion does not trouble translators or theologians. (John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, University of Chicago Press, 1980, pages 105-107)
Note: The Greek language contained no word which compares to the English noun “homosexual,” meaning someone of homosexual orientation. In fact, the word “homosexual” was not even coined until the late 1800s by German psychologists and introduced into English only at the beginning of the 1900s. (See Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, John Boswell, University of Chicago Press, 1980, page 42)
However, during scriptural times there were a number of Greek words to describe homosexual sex acts, and the two words malakoi and arsenokoitai do not appear among them. (On arsenokoitai see Boswell, pp 345-346.)
Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 MSG)
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, the words malakoi and arsenokoitai in the original Greek text have been mistranslated as “homosexual.” Photo by Worshae on Unsplash
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.