Giving Context to a Clobber Passage: An Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

1 Corinthians 6:9b is part of a vice list which contains two words that have often been taken as a condemnation of homosexual behavior and used to justify all manner of discrimination and mistreatment toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in our own time. In fact the exact meaning of these terms is far from clear; the second in particular is not found outside the Pauline corpus and thus cannot be attested to in any independent source. The apostle Paul was a product of his day, a Hellenistic Jew of the first century C.E. whose writings reveal many of the prejudices that were widely current in his milieu, some of which are very much in evidence today. The object of this brief exploration will be to examine one passage in the context of similar references, in order to reveal some of the underlying assumptions which contributed to its inclusion in the canon of the New Testament.

Above all it must be remembered that this epistle was addressed to a Christian community in Corinth, a city on the Grecian coast that had been resettled during the previous generation as a Roman resort. The Mediterranean world in which Paul wrote was a heterogeneous society not unlike our own in many ways. Although dominated by the Roman Empire it was, in fact, made up of many ethnic groups with different mores and attitudes. In addition to their reputation for contentiousness and squabbling, the citizens of Corinth were known for liking food and wine, extravagant parties and an attitude of permissiveness summed up by the slogan “all things are lawful” (1 Corinthians 6:12, NRSV). These are some of the concerns that Paul, with his strict background as an observant Jew, attempted to address in his correspondence.

It may be helpful to remember that Paul’s letters to Corinth were public documents, works of rhetoric intended to persuade and sway his audience to certain specific actions. In this particular instance he is calling them to account for tolerating what he sees as sexual immorality or porneia. The specific incident that Paul refers to is explained in 5:1 as a man living with his father’s wife. This type of sexual immorality would indeed have been deeply abhorrent to a man like Paul who, before his conversion experience, was particularly devoted to upholding what he understood as the Law of Moses.

Going back to the time of David succeeding Saul, it was especially insulting for a man to use the wife of his father, but in the patriarchal society of the time, vestiges of which linger to this day, the insult was not to the woman but to the husband. Honor being a male concept, it was in fact impossible to dishonor a woman, who had no status outside her relationship to a man. There are indications that some of this traditional understanding was changing by the time of Paul: under Roman law, women could own property in their own names and were able to divorce their husbands. This may, in part, account for some of the prominence of women in the early church.

For all of his boasting about his self-control, Paul’s writings evince a strong distaste for sexuality in general. In light of the imminent parousia, Paul’s preference would be for the faithful to remain unmarried and thus in a state of bodily purity to await the coming Christ: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am” (7:8). We have seen that Paul’s notions of what constitutes ritual purity were profoundly influenced by his experience as a Pharisee attempting to uphold the Holiness Code of Leviticus in his daily life. In his book, Dirt, Greed, and Sex, L. William Countryman has argued persuasively that the Holiness Code did not merely present a blueprint for a world of perfect cleanliness, but rather provided mechanisms for restoring purity to a repeatedly transgressing society. The point is not that it is ever possible to remain perfectly pure, but that through certain ritual observances one can temporarily attain a state of cleanliness which allows one to worship God in a world of imperfections.

Under Hebrew law, as redacted by the Priestly writers, anything that crosses boundaries creates defilement; thus bodily emissions are unclean, and women in particular are impure because of menstruation. It is quite clear that in the Hebrew Scriptures at least, homosexual acts between men were considered unclean, in the same way that certain foods were undesirable. The same section of Leviticus contains prohibitions against sowing fields with two kinds of seed or wearing garments made of two different materials (19:19). This may give us some idea of the relative severity of the offence. Moreover, the purpose of this often misinterpreted passage is to distinguish between the people of Israel and the practices of other nations: by prohibiting them the passage tacitly acknowledges their occurrence. Paul’s task in much of his correspondence is to negotiate his way among the sometimes conflicting moralities of the various cultures he desired to reach. Issues of diverse practice were “hot button” items in the newly forming Christian groups, and questions of daily living such as who to eat with and how to order the communal life were hotly debated from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome. Indeed, such controversies have left their marks throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts.

In his missionary work, Paul seems to have been proud of his ability to be all things to all people, and he chose the specific issue of circumcision as being particularly emblematic of his approach. In fact, he spends a great deal more time on circumcision than he ever does on sexual relations in his extant writings. We know that Greeks did not practice circumcision, just as engaged in certain forms of homosexual behavior which Jewish customs frowned upon. Yet Paul, in this instance, is at great pains to impress upon his readers that they should not be anxious about external details. Let those who are married stay married, let those who are unmarried stay unmarried; it is Ok to be circumcised, it is ok to be uncircumcised (7:18). None of this matters, “for the present form of this world is passing away” (7:31). In vv. 32-35 Paul explains his preference for the unmarried state, all other things being equal. Because unhindered devotion to God is the ideal, all worldly attachments are potentially distracting. This idea is not unlike the Buddhist notion of attachment as being a hindrance to the attainment of heaven. Buddhists practice non-attachment through spiritual discipline as a way of freeing their spirits to enter the realm of heaven; Paul’s idea appears to be similar, and he shares the Buddhist preference for celibacy where it is conveniently attainable.

The writings attributed to Paul of Tarsus have a complex history. Like much of the New Testament, they circulated independently and were widely copied in various collections before attaining their present form. In all probability what we call the two letters to the Corinthians were edited together from separate fragments that were brought together throughout the second half of the first century C.E. One passage that exhibits evidence of this process is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The subject appears to be head coverings, and it is likely that the congregation appealed to Paul as an early authority figure for guidance on whether women should cover their heads in worship. We can see that customs of dress communicated symbolic information concerning status and placement in society (as they do today: think of the business suit); unfortunately the text itself is far from clear in this instance. Verse ten in particular makes very little sense as we have it, but the entire passage is riddled with inconsistencies. Nevertheless, there are insights to be gained about the changing roles of women which will have implications for the present inquiry.

While affirming in v. 3 the standard position that the husband is the head of the wife, for instance, it also injects a note of more equitable mutuality in the formulation “just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God” (v. 12). Again in suggesting that “any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head” (v. 5), it appears to reinforce the prevailing gender hierarchy, yet we can also glean from it that it was in fact common for women to pray and prophesy in public assemblies!

For millennia, sexism and homophobia have gone hand in hand, and the Pauline epistles have been unpopular in LGBT communities for the ways in which they appear to lend authority to oppressive and discriminatory treatment of women and sexual minorities. Yet a close analysis of relevant passages reveals a more nuanced position. Why, for instance, are malakoi included in 6:9 among those who will not inherit the kingdom [sic] of God? What is so threatening about men who are “soft” or effeminate? There are religious leaders in our own country today who continue to find the presence of those who subvert or challenge societal gender norms to be disconcerting.

The fact remains that Paul’s Corinthian correspondence puts forth many innovative ideas about the rights of women. In 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 we read that husbands have an obligation to their wives: “the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights…the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” These injunctions are balanced by mutual obligations on the part of women toward their spouses, and stand in marked contrast to the exclusively male-oriented language of the earlier Leviticus passage. Even the infamous Romans 1:26 can be read in a “queer” way as evidence of progress for women, by the fact that women are listed first, and by their very inclusion. The writers of the Hebrew scriptures did not even mention women’s sexual practices among all the various permutations of bestiality and incest in Leviticus 18-20.

In 1 Corinthians 11:14, the writer suggests that it is degrading for a man to wear long hair. Likewise in Romans 1:26-27, in an apparent reference to events related in the history of Israel, it was “degrading” (NRSV) for men to be consumed with passion for one another. Certainly it would have been degrading in the ancient world for men to be perceived as being like a woman.

The “unnatural” passions objected to in Romans 1 appear to be part and parcel with the “natural” place of women and the “naturally” short hairstyles for men in 1 Corinthians 11. But we have already seen that women’s legal rights had changed in Roman civil code, and the same passage of Leviticus 18-20 insists that it is “unnatural” for men to cut their hair! It appears to be an enduring human impulse to record the changing customs of the day in holy scripture in order to freeze them with the force of divine law. These inconsistencies are elucidated not to denigrate the very real respect we have for scriptural guidance in daily living, but merely to suggest that such specific attitudes have altered over time, and that the overall message of God’s loving, revelatory call to liberation and self-fulfillment transcends the time-related limitations of particular textual reference.

Finally, it may be helpful to place the passage proscribing malakoi oute arsenokoitai in perspective according to its usage as a rhetorical device within the context of the epistle. The condemnation of men who are “soft” and those who (presumably) sleep with other men is included as part of a fairly standard listing of various excessive behaviors. The other “wrongdoers” who will not inherit God’s realm are the lustful, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers and robbers. It appears that reference is being made to some of the commandments listed in the several versions of the Decalogue, yet it is well to recall that Paul’s audience here would have been a largely Gentile community in the Greek city of Corinth. One must wonder how much force an appeal to a Hebrew Torah would have had in such a setting; however, listings of virtues and vices were a typical feature of Hellenistic philosophical discourse. In this case, the nature of the overall transgression appears to have been one of degree. In his repeated condemnations of porneia in chapters five and six, the essence of the Pauline objection is that all excessive lust is disrespectful to God’s creation.

The list in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is the third and most elaborate formulation in this composition, and the increasing length of the device identifies it as a largely rhetorical figure of speech. Thus in 5:9 he mentions “the greedy and robbers, or idolaters;” in 5:11 this grows to anyone “who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber,” and finally to the expanded version listing specific sexual misdeeds, including adulterers, the soft or feminine and the apparent reference to those who lie with men. So we can see that this equivocal and offhand mention of possible same-sex activity does not accord it any special or extraordinary weight, but rather buries it among a variety of excessive practices which may be regarded as hindrances to attaining the realm of God. This placement is roughly equivalent to the Leviticus Holiness Code which mentions a man who “lies with a male as with a woman” somewhere between those who sacrifice their children to Molech and those who wear tattoos or visit soothsayers.

In conclusion, we must note that prejudice against women and those who were perceived to act like women was very real in the ancient world, as it is all too common in our own society. Such attitudes should not prevent us from discerning the word of God for us today or living as we were created to be according to our understanding of our nature. Part of the task of textual criticism is separating the essential message of the Gospel from the vestiges of ancient fear and hatred of that which is labeled different. It is hoped that this minor exercise has served in some way to restore a healthy sense of perspective as to this important calling, and perhaps has demonstrated one of the ways that Scripture may be used both to affirm the goodness of our lives as sexual beings, and to identify some sources of the sense of shame which is one of the more equivocal legacies of our heritage.