Malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Timothy
1 Timothy 1:9 again refers to malakoi arsenokoitai which has been variously translated as homosexuals, sexual perverts etc. Again, the original meaning of the text as been lost.
Dr. Rembert Truluck writes of arsenokoitai:
The word translated as “homosexual” or “sexual pervert” or some other similar term is Greek arsenokoites, which was formed from two words meaning “male” and “bed.” This word is not found anywhere else in the Bible and has not been found anywhere in the contemporary Greek of Paul’s time. We do not know what it means. The word is obscure and uncertain. It probably refers to male prostitutes with female customers, which was a common practice in the Roman world, as revealed in the excavations at Pompeii and other sites.
When early Greek speaking Christian preachers condemned homosexuality, they did not use this word. John Chrysostom (A.D. 345-407) preached in Greek against homosexuality, but he never used this word for homosexuals, and when he preached on 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, he did not mention homosexuals. See the full discussion of this in John Boswell’s book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Appendix 1), “Lexicography and Saint Paul,” pages 335-353.
The word arsenokoitai (sometimes translated “abusers of themselves with mankind”) literally means male-bed. “Bed” is a euphemism for copulating. This word is extremely rare in Greek. Paul was apparently the first author to use this word. The word taken literally (male-copulator) is very ambiguous.
Take, for example, the word “lady-killer.” Does it mean “a lady who kills” or “someone who kills ladies”? In our language it means the latter, but even then it is not clear because we do not mean that someone literally kills ladies but that their charm “kills” them. So taking the word arsenokoitai or “male-copulator,” does it mean “a male who copulates men,” does it mean “a man who copulates with women,” does it mean “a man who is copulated?”
The Bible does not clarify. These are the only two passages in the whole Bible where this word is used. Apparently there is no known contemporaneous literature in which this word is used. However, relatively close to the time Paul wrote it was used to refer to a male copulator connected with temple prostitution. It probably had this meaning until the late fourth century after which it came to mean a lot of different things, including homosexual activity. (See The Bible and Homosexuality, Michael England, and Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, John Boswell, University of Chicago Press, 1980, page 42)
Even if the words malakoi and arsenokoitai could be connected with male homosexual sex acts, it still would not tell us what kind of homosexual act is being condemned. They could refer to sex practices connected with the worship of idols, pederasty, or some other sexual act which is exploitative.
It is clear that the translation of either of these two words as “sodomite,” “pervert” or “homosexual” has very little, if any, sound basis and is a result of homophobia.
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.