Same-sex Marriage and the Redefinition of the Greek: Malakoi and Arsenokoitai

Same-sex marriage is a new creation out of the last several generations of post-modern social life. There are countless arguments, both for and against. The question of homosexual persons who wish to enter into lifelong committed partnerships appears to provide a moral framework for a Christian structure of same-sex relationships, but it denies (and ignores) the most essential component of the problem – the objective morality of sexual activity outside marriage. And in seeking to answer this question in the affirmative so that a Christian same-sex marriage ethic can be found to exist, good scholarship is replaced with a subjective and unsound approach to Scripture.

I recently read a book entitled The Children are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relatioship, by Rev. Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley (Found Pearl Press, 2008). Both authors identify themselves as gay men in committed relationships, and moreover, they are styled as ministers and religious thinkers within a particular Christian denomination (the Metropolitan Community Church).

While the book does not confine itself to a single argument, I’ve summarized the best and most convincing one as follows: St. Paul’s proscription of homosexuality (based upon 1 Corinthians 6:9-11) is really a mistranslation of two words in the Greek text, malakoi and arsenokoitai, and these two words actually do not refer to a loving, committed relationship between two persons of the same sex. The authors argue that in using these words, St. Paul actually meant homosexual rape, and not committed, consenting, homosexual monogamy.

Caravaggio-The_Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus“Do not be deceived….” St. Paul is actively warning the Christians in Corinth to beware of certain forms of behavior. He’s telling them that if they do the things he lists, there are very grave consequences. “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolators nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God”. (NAB).

The NAB footnote for this verse states that “The Greek word translated as boy prostitutes may refer to catamites, i.e., boys or young men who were kept for purposes of prostitution, a practice not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world. In Greek mythology this was the function of Ganymede, the ‘cupbearer of the gods,’ whose Latin name was Catamitus. [My note: Consider the KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon: Malakos: 1. soft, soft to the touch 2. metaph. in bad sense — a. effeminate — 1. of a catamite — 2. of a boy kept for homosexual relations with a man — 3. of a male who submits his body for unnatural lewdness — 4. of a male prostitute.] The term translated Sodomites (arsenokoitai) refers to adult males who indulged in homosexual practices with such boys.”

Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Greek states that arsenokoi (translated in NAB as sodomite) actually consists of two words: arsen (male/man) and koite (bed, marriage bed, repeated (immoral) sexual intercourse. From keimai – a couch, bed, chambering, cohabitation).

Fornicator in Greek is pornos. According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Greek it means a male prostitute, a debauchee (libertine), fornicator, whoremonger. According to the NAS Exhaustive Concordance of the Greek it is used to describe fornicators and/or immoral people. We commonly define fornication as sex among the unmarried.

The list also includes idolators (idol worshippers), adulterers (Greek word moichos: a paramour — a married person who has sex with someone other than their spouse), malokai, arsenokoitai, thieves (pleonektes: holding, eager for gain, avaricious, defrauder, covetous), the greedy, drunkards, slanderers (loidoros: a blackguard, railer, reviler – those who bear false witness against others, liars), and robbers (harpax: rapacious, an extortioner).

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the authors’ premise that over the past two millennia the Church actively perpetuated a false translation of the words malokai and arsenokoitai, thus buttressing the prohibition of homosexual activity when in fact these words more appropriately describe something akin to “male-to-male rape”.

The problem with this is that if one reads the “traditional” meanings for malokai and arsenokoitai (i.e. homosexuality, sodomy, etc.) then St. Paul has set forth a list of predominately non-violent forms of sin, prevalent at the time (and to some extent, somewhat acceptable among the non-Jewish Corinthian population) which actively threatened the good of the Christian community.

The only other item which contains in its definition something that approaches violent crime is the word robber, Greek harpax, which can be understood to include rapacious or taking by force, but again, the emphasis is on the taking not the use of force. Harpax can be used to describe conduct requiring no violence at all, since the object is to obtain something that someone is not entitled to take, the use of force being secondary to the object.

However, if one adopts malokai and arsenokoitai as referring to male-to-male rape, then the list is suddenly out of proportion with the other things St. Paul is talking about. Perhaps if St. Paul had stated: “Do not be deceived; neither murderers nor wife-beaters nor molesters…. (nor men who rape men)” then the argument advanced by the authors would be convincing. Instead, by arguing for a different interpretation of these two words (for which there is no direct English translation) St. Paul’s admonition suddenly loses its context and importance.

We can also examine the context of arsenokoitai in other passages of scripture. In 1 Timothy 1:9-10, St. Paul states: “…with the understanding that law is meant not for a righteous person but for the lawless and unruly, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane, those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the unchaste, sodomites, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is opposed to sound teaching.”

In this passage, St. Paul employs arsenokoitais for the modern sodomites translation and sets forth some very violent crimes in this group along with some non-violent crimes as well. Although the use of arsenokoitais might fare better being interpreted as male-to-male rape here, it is not without difficulty that such an interpretation could be adopted. Why? Because again, St. Paul precedes arsenokoitais with pornos (fornicators/the unchaste). As a result, the interpretation of arsenokoitais as meaning male-to-male rape requires us to draw the inference that same-sex activity is only “opposed to sound teaching” when it occurs under the context of rape but that opposite-sex activity is always illicit if it occurs when one is unmarried.

This argument becomes even less likely if we read Romans 1:16-28:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek. For in it is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous by faith will live.” The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper.”

This passage is absent the arsenokoitais term, but what remains is reference to consensual sexual relations among members of the same sex which is not treated by St. Paul as positive.

Penance_detailNumerous early Church Fathers, most (if not all) of whom were native Greek speakers, never had a problem recognizing that these passages refer to homosexual activity and not male rape. Consider St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 16: “What sayest thou? When discoursing about covetous persons, have you in upon us so vast a crowd of lawless men? ‘Yes,’ says he, ‘but in doing this, I am not confusing my discourse, but going on in regular order.’ For when discoursing about the unclean he made mention of all together; so again, on mentioning the covetous he brings forward all, thus making his rebukes familiar to those who have such things on their conscience. For the continual mention of the punishment laid up for others makes the reproof easy to be received, when it comes to conflict with our own sins.”

Even without Tradition or magisterial teaching, I think that Scripture remains extremely clear on this point. The fact that various Christian denominations have given way to cultural pressure (which has led to manifold errancies in other theological and doctrinal areas) cannot change the intended meaning of St. Paul, or for that matter, Jesus Christ. If Protestant churches have been illuminated by truth on this one point (i.e. whether or not there is any sinfulness in homosexual activity among two committed persons), must we also admit the possibility that likewise, the Church’s teachings on abortion, contraception, sex outside marriage, etc., are also incorrect? Scripture can always be reinterpreted, whereas truth is truth.

I am reminded of the Bread of Life discourse in John. “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”… “Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.'” There can be no doubt that these hard sayings have resulted in an exodus away from the Catholic Church and created a substantial market for the various “pick-and-choose” flavors of Christian Protestantism. But this exodus is not in favor of Truth. To quote St. Paul, such an exodus exchanges the truth of God for a lie and reveres and worships the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Ironically, at the end of their book, the authors invoke the Gospels again, asking the reader to consider whether “By their fruits you will know them…” The authors assume that if we simply look to the “fruits” of their Christian discipleship, we will be convinced that their position that God blesses relationships of same-sex individuals living together in lifelong committed partnerships is correct, moral, good, and holy.

Although the Metropolitan Community Church to which the authors belong does not advance “official” positions on issues outside its embrace of “the basic doctrines of Christianity”, and beyond the “basics”, the MCC leaves “it to each individual to work out the details of his or her faith”, a large number of its clergy have publicly declared support for “A faith-based commitment to sexual reproductive rights, including access to… abortion.” While this is a small part of any church’s social justice framework, it exemplifies a belief system awash in its own relativism — a belief system that has abandoned its moral voice because of inconsistency and error (and utterly ignores the entire point of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans).

In reading another book on this topic, I came across an interesting question: “Is having a close relationship to a brother exactly the same as having a close relationship to a sister? Is having a close relationship to an aunt exactly the same as having a close relationship to an uncle? What about grandfather and grandmother? Mother and father? Son and daughter? Is having a close friend who is a guy the same as having a close friend who is a girl?” This author goes on to conclude that a marital relationship differs from a deep and intimate father-son or mother-daughter relationship, just as various forms of homosexual relationship differ from traditional marriage. As much as the committed same-sex couple might long for equivalence with traditional marriage, it is not the same, and this is so not simply because the relationship is composed of two people of the same gender.

Rather, it is because sacramental marriage is truly a form of the sacred. A sexual relationship between two people of the same sex can never be understood in terms of complementarity, because two males and two females are not complementary to one another. The best that can be achieved is mutuality among the partners, which only exalts femininity or masculinity to the exclusion of the other half of human sexual existence. According to Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, this leads to profound loneliness because in the inner core of our being we “know” that a man or a woman biologically is not completely human: each of us lacks either the masculine or the feminine qualities and virtues to make us whole and fully human.

The expression of the “gift” found in a sacramental marriage is redundant and gratuitous among same-sex partners because each partner is offering something that they already inherently (and totally) possess in themselves. Thus, there is no unitive, procreative, spiritual complementarity; there is no single act that creates the union of two into “one flesh” — there is only a succession of individual actions that occur over the course of same-sex activity, none of which edify the natural order or fulfill any aspect of God’s creative goodness. These hallmarks of sacramental marriage — which go far beyond the parameters of “one man and one woman” — do not exist nor have the possibility of existence within a same-sex relationship, however respectful, loving, and mutual the same-sex relationship appears.

None of this dispels one’s desire or lessens the burden that one experiences in foregoing an intimate relationship with another person. It certainly does not change our innate desire to experience a closeness with someone, to share ourselves, to be vulnerable (and accepted in our vulnerability), and to be loved and loved in return. But in staking out our identity (even something as integral to our sexual identity) we cannot base our identity purely on our own inclination and feelings. We must be capable of observing the objective moral good of our actions, especially actions which impact upon the emotional and spiritual good of someone else.

The Catholic Church is concerned, first and foremost, with the salvation of souls and the care of all people. Salvation history demonstrates that our original creation in the image and likeness of God was clouded by the introduction of inclination to sin. Thus, as much as God still declares the goodness of His creation, we are only traveling along the way to perfection, and this perfection is only achieved by accepting our capacity for transformation through Christ. This isn’t just true for the various lesser aspects of ourselves; rather, Christ casts light on the totality of what and who we are — our entire identity — illuminating and amplifying our goodness, and clearing out the darkness. Telling Jesus, “No thank you, I’m just fine the way you created me” (in any aspect of our life) cuts off the transformative work that is possible and necessary for the fulfillment of His purposes.

To say that the Church does not allow the homosexual person happiness or insists upon a fit which is impossible or untenable, is essentially a denial of the actual, concrete, and supreme Grace that is part of the promise of the Gospel. While one may argue that chastity provides no relief for one’s natural desires, it is true that redemptive grace supplies us with the (sometimes supernatural) ability to do what Christ asks of us, according to His promise. To reduce grace down to something that is incapable of bringing about transformation in our lives is to dismiss salvation itself.

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7 thoughts on “Same-sex Marriage and the Redefinition of the Greek: Malakoi and Arsenokoitai

  1. 1 woman and 1 man, a marriage makes. Homosexuals choose to sin, like anyone else who sins, they are making their choice. Why do people in our government want to reward these gay people by giving them the right to marry? What comes next, rewarding wife beaters or child molestors, or rapist? The gay community is so small , but controls so much,but it is because “when good men sit back and do nothing, evil wins” paraphrasing the BIBLE THERE. GOD HELP US TO TAKE A STAND! Call them out on their repuulsive sin. Remind them of Sodom. I hope all Christians will start reading the Bible more , praying more, and maybe things will change. Roman Catholic Karen

  2. Another thing, these men? and I use the term loosely who are gay and calling themselves ministers off the gospel, are the ones the Bible speaks of perverting the truth, giving heed to false doctrine, seducing spirits etc. These men are not ministers of our gospel, they are what the Bible refers to as anti-Christ.Someone should ask them would they preach that crap if Christ himself walked into their church, or would they bow and ask forgiveness. Also, would they commit Sodomy in front of Christ? Anything that can not be done or said in front of Jesus, is sin.

    • I agree that same sex sexual relations are evil. I disagree that Catholicism escapes
      relativism and societal pressure in morals. She has been de facto silent in the catechism and in Vatican II on wifely obedience which is six times referenced in the epistles and her new position on the death penalty ( despite casuistry that it is old ) omits the wrath of God mentioned in Romans 13:4. So we are rightly telling gays that the epistles are authoritative in Romans chapter one while we circumvent Romans 13:4 which went totally unmentioned in “Evangelium Vitae” on the death penalty ( nor does the catechism mention it ).
      In short, we are undermining the epistles here and here while we are rightly telling gays to submit to the epistles here in Romans one. Wifely obedience and the death penalty are not politically correct in the N.Y. Times nor in the European Union and we have de facto caved in to the world in those matters while ironically our two largest Catholic populations, Mexico and Brazil, have no death penalty and horrid murder rates ( 20+ per 100,000) and no Pope seems aware of our own stats.
      We are telling gays rightly to submit to Scripture but we are not doing so in at least two areas.

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