“Catamites and Sodomites” (Again).

A reader has alerted me to the inclusion in today’s Mass readings of some superficially nasty lines from Corinthians. She writes:

Thank God I’ve been pre-warned in a homily that Tuesday’s readings apparently condemn catamites and sodomites, so will miss Mass for once, as this terrible translation needs explanation by a competent priest.

I’m no priest, but based on my extensive reading of several eminent bible scholars, I’ll do my best.

Let’s begin with final paragraph of the text, as it appears in “Universalis, Mass readings for today” , and taken from the Jerusalem bible.

 You know perfectly well that people who do wrong will not inherit the kingdom of God: people of immoral lives, idolaters, adulterers, catamites, sodomites, thieves, usurers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers will never inherit the kingdom of God. These are the sort of people some of you were once, but now you have been washed clean, and sanctified, and justified through the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and through the Spirit of our God.

Other translations vary. These are the relevant lines from the lectionary at the USCCB site:

neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves

There’s “sodomites” again, but catamites has become “boy prostitutes”. (That reference to commercial sex is important, to which I’ll return later).

The details vary between translations, but the general sense appears to be clear – men who have sex with men are included in this list of reprobates. We must remember though, that none of these are the words that Paul actually wrote: he was writing in Greek, and we are looking at translations through a filter of 2000 years. The New International Version attempts to explain, with this translation and its footnote:

Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlerswill inherit the kingdom of God.

  1. 1 Corinthians 6:9 The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.

That seems to settle it. The attempt however, is deceptive, because it is not at all clear that the “two Greek words” referred to, “malakoi” and “arsenekotoi” really should be translated in the way described. That may well be the most common translation in modern bibles, but it has not always been so, and is not the onlly reading, as many professional biblical scholars are beginning to acknowledge.

Dr Renato Lings is not only a biblical scholar, but also a linguist, In “Love Lost in Translation”, he examines minutely the various translations, and how they came about. Modern translations have been heavily influenced by earlier English versions,such as the King James and Geneva Bibles.

The King James Version (1611) has

neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

In the Geneva Bible (1599), we find

neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor wantons, nor buggerers,

10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God.

These in turn were initially based on Jerome’s fourth century Vulgate, translated from the original Greek into Latin. Every translation risks some loss of accuracy of meaning, and that applies as much to the Vulgate as to the earliest English translations, more than a thousand years later. The further back we go, it seems, the less clear is the connection that is so widely taken for granted today – that “malakoi” and “arsenekotoi” refer to men who have sex with men.

“Malakoi” is the easier to deal with, translated in the Vulgate by the Latin adjective “mollis“, usually translated as “soft”, which also seems to be a reasonable view of the Greek “malakoi“. But how did this come to be written as “catamites”, or “boy prostitutes” in the English and American lectionaries, or even with Wycliffe’s 1388 translation as “lechers against kind”? As Lings notes, this is surprising, and we need to look for alternative translations for “mollis”. In Latin (but not in the Greek counterpart, which Paul used), these alternatives include “effeminate”, “womanish”, “unmanly” and “weak”. From a modern perspective, conscious of twentieth century stereotypes of homosexual men as “pansies”, we can see how the connection of “effeminate” and “passive homosexual” was made, but that was not the view of the Romans, and still less of the Greeks.

John Boswell, Dale B Martin and others have noted that for the Romans, “effeminate” could apply more readily to men with an excessive lust for women, as to passive homosexuals, for whom there was an alternative, much more widely used word – “cinaedus“. In addition to the sense of “effeminate”, there were also other senses for “mollis”, including an excessive devotion to luxury, indolence and sensual indulgence in general (calling to mind the description in Ezekiel of the nature of the real sin of Sodom). Lings also notes that 1 Corinthians 6 is not the only text in which “malakos / malakoi” occurs. It also crops up in Matthew 11.8.where it refers unambiguously to clothing, and so is translated as fine, delicate, or soft.

Yet another important further translation of “malakoi” is “weakling” – which is the word used by the first English translators (Tyndale, 1526, followed by Coverdale, 1535 and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568) before the Geneva and King James versions introduced the sexual connotations that later came to be taken for granted. Paul wrote “malakoi” in Corinthians in the mid first century, but it took a millenium and a half for that term to be construed as referring to male homosexuality, in any form.

If the link from “malakoi” to the standard modern translations is tenuous, that for “arsenekotoi” is even more so, because nobody knows just what the word meant. Paul’ usage here is the earliest recorded use, anywhere. It could be that he coined the word deliberately for his purpose, but we are unable to ask him what he meant. The modern interpretation as “sodomite” or “active homosexual”, rests on two based. One, is that it is paired with malakoi – so that if malakoi refers to passive homosexuals, then its counterpart as active partners is reasonable. But if, as shown above, that interpretation for malakoi is incorrect, then that for arsenekotoi will be, too. The other is based on a linguistic analysis which argues that as the two parts of the Greek word refer to “men”, and to “bed”, then the sense must be men who like to bed other men. That conclusion is shaky: it could equally refer simply to men who are too fond of sleeping, or if bed is accepted as euphemism for sex, to men who are too fond of sex, in any form.

An alternative modern interpretation, accepting “malakoi” as applying to boy prostitutes, rests on the pairing of the two terms, and irs proximity in this list and also in 1 Timothy 1:10, to assorted forms of pecuniary sin – frauds, swindlers and usurers. That reading suggests that just as “malakoi” refers to boys who are exploited sexually for commercial gain, then its counterpart “arsenekotoi” applies to those who exploit them, either as pimps, or as slave traders dealing in male slaves for sexual use.

The simple truth is that we just don’t know with any certainty just what these troubling words in 1 Corinthians 6 really refer to – but we can be fairly sure that they do not refer to equality – based, mutually loving and non- exploitative same – sex relationships as we know them today, because these simply did not exist in Paul’s day. Gay Christians and their allies are often accused of twisting the bible to suit our own ends, but the reality is the reverse. As Dale B Martin has argued, it’s the late translations that have read the words from a heterosexist perspective, imposing their own hostile reading on two Greek words which may have had nothing whatever to do with male sexual relationships.

I end with an extract from Gay Christian 101

The Remarkable Semantic Shift

The remarkable semantic shift in the meaning of malakoi, which by 1958, came to equate malakoi with homosexuality instead of softness, moral weakness or effeminacy, was not prompted by new linguistic evidence. Instead, cultural factors influenced modern translators to inject anti-homosexual bias into their translation.

In ancient times, the malakos word group never referred exclusively to homosexuals and lesbians. The malakos stem rarely, if ever, referred to homosexual behavior. In ancient times, it was sometimes used to refer to heterosexual men who followed the Greek custom of shaving the face daily.

For example: “Until Scipio Aemilianus (185-129 BC) made it fashionable, daily shaving was considered an affectation of the effeminate Greeks.” (The Immense Majesty, A History of Rome and the Roman Empire, Thomas W. Africa, 1991, Harlan Davidson, Inc, p. 148). How times have changed. Few these days regard daily shaving of facial hair as effeminate.


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