Tag Archives: biblical hermeneutics

“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.


Secrets & Lies: Uncovering the Truth

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!”

(James 3:5)


Indeed, this small member has potential for great damage – but also carries with it the potential to counter and repair the damage.  It is this potential for recovering truth that interests me more, but first, we must review the nature of the problem. There are many kinds of lies: outright falsehoods, lies of selective truth, and lies of omission among them.  For us as lesbian & gay Christians, some examples of each are well-known.ttongue

Perhaps the most egregious of the downright falsehoods is that the destruction of Sodom was God’s vengeance on the homosexual sins of its populace.  As many modern scholars have shown, there is absolutely no basis for this. The true sin of Sodom were pride, indulgence and sloth, which motivated the visit of the angelic messengers.

“As I live, saith the Lord God, Sodom thy sister hath not done…. as thou hast done….. Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and her daughters,  neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.”

(Ezek 16:48-49, KJV)

The direct trigger for the destruction, was either the refusal of the inhabitants to show proper hospitality to  travellers, or the threat of violent rape of the angels. There is no indication, anywhere, that it had anything do do with consensual same sex relationships. .

A good example of lies by selection are the often quoted verses from Leviticus, noting that for men to lie with men is an “abomination” – without noting at the same time that this is part of an extended list of  ”abominations” in the Jewish purity code, which also includes such other well-known abominations as cutting one’s beard, eating shellfish and rabbits, or wearing clothing of mixed fibres.  Nor do the people quoting from Leviticus remind us that in the Acts of the Apostles, it is made clear that the old Jewish purity laws no longer apply to gentiles – or to modern Christians .

And by the third type of lie, I mean the simple fact that our opponents steadfastly ignore what to me are the most important parts of Scripture – the message of love, inclusion for all, and redemption in Christ – for all. For those willing to look, there are also many passages in Scripture that endorse or support same sex relationships – passages conveniently ignored by our opponents.  But all these examples of lies in talking about Scripture and same sex relationships are well known, and have been extensively dealt with elsewhere.

I am more interested in other lies, less well recognised and discussed.  In investigating these, I should make clear that my starting point is the Catholic Church, with its strong emphasis on “tradition” and Magisterium.  This is my own particular branch of Christianity, but in practice many of the assertions I discuss are made explicitly by the Catholics, and assumed implicitly by many others.

Let us start with the most fundamental:

On homosexuality, the catechism of the catholic Church states plainly,

“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”  They are contrary to the natural law”

Now, these seem to be well-known and uncontroversial, but contain two direct falsehoods.  The medieval scholar Mark D Jordan has noted that the standard rhetorical device of the Vatican is not to attempt reasoned debate, but to simply repeat endlessly its own assertion until its opponents are bludgeoned into submission.  This is what is going on here.  We are so used to hearing that the Christian church has “always” opposed  homosexuality, that we assume it to be true, just as for so long we assumed the truth of traditional interpretations of the clobber texts.

In fact, Christians have not always been against us:  the historian John Boswell has clearly shown how in the early church, Christian emperors not only tolerated but even taxed homosexual prostitution; revered churchmen like Paulinus, 4th Century Bishop of Nola, wrote notably erotic love poems to his boyfriend;  and others revered as saints are known to have same sex lovers – some in celibate relationships, others not.  As late as  1098, the church consecrated as Bishop of Orleans a man who was known to be the lover of another Bishop, Ralph of Tours, and to have been previously the lover of other bishops. There was strong opposition to this appointment (on the grounds of his youth, not his sexuality) , but the Pope of the day did not stop the consecration, nor did his successor attempt to overturn the it.

There was of course some opposition – the Magisterium traces this back through Augustine, Alain de Lille, Peter Damian, and Thomas Aquinas, claiming this as support for the argument that the church has “always” opposed  us.  What they neglect to say, though, is that in their own day, all of these were minority views. Peter Damian in particular was notable for an impassioned plea to the Vatican for harsh penalties against clergy who indulged in homosexual acts (for he saw it as primarily a sin amongst the clergy), but his request to the Pope was firmly rejected. It was not until the 3rd Lateran Council, in the 12th century, that the church as a whole took a stand against homosexuality.

It would seem then that the opposition of the church as a whole goes back only eight  centuries – a long time, but a far cry from the two millenia implied by the Catechism word “always”.

The second outright lie often promulgated during the heated debates on marriage equality is that marriage has “always ” and “everywhere” been between opposite sex couples.  This is not a specifically religious argument, but can in fact be refuted on both religious and secular grounds.

The simple historical fact is that same sex marriages were contracted, and formalised in law, in Rome (by the emperors Nero and Elegabalus among others), in parts of classical Greece, among Egyptians, Assyrians, and Mesopotamians.  Some Greeks also reported that same sex partners were taken by the Celts, Gauls and Germans. In later history, and outside Europe, the native American berdaches, men who took on female roles and married male partners,  had an honoured place in society.  Same sex unions have also been recognised in Japan, in China, and in many other non-Western societies.  The claim that marriage was “always” between men and women is simply without foundation.

Nor is the claim true for the Christian church.  John Boswell and Alan Bray have both written of the existence of liturgical rites for church blessing of committed relationships between same sex couples. In the Eastern church, this was known as “adelphopoeisis“, or rite of “making brothers”,in the Western church it was known as “ordo ad fratres faciendum“, known as the “order of sworn brothers”.  Now, both writers are careful not to call these relationships “marriage”. Boswell calls them simply “same-sex unions”, and Bray is even more cautious, simply calling them “friendships”.  He notes that there could be three distinct reasons for entering such a commitment – they could be political,between heads of state or others in Royal families; they could be commercial arrangements to protect property; or they could be erotically based.

However:  I see no reason to assume that any single relationship need have only a single motivation, nor that one motivation applied universally – that between Edward II and Piers Gaveston was certainly erotic, as was that between James I and Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham.  Other nobles may have combined erotic attraction with affairs of state, those lower down the scale may have combined eroticism with property considerations.

We must also remember that if it is inappropriate to think of these same sex unions as directly comparable to modern marriage – the same must be said of opposite sex unions at the time.  Marriage as we know it, as the culmination of romantic love, is a modern invention.  In earlier times, marriage for the rich and powerful was about protecting property and commercial affiliations, or uniting royal dynasties. For the poor, often marriage simply did not exist – it was not considered a sacrament of the church until late.  Although same sex unions in the early church and medieval times clearly did not resemble modern marriage, they have resembled more closely opposite sex unions of the same period.

Nor are the lies and half truths confined to those against us as lesbians and gay men.  The church’s denial of ordination of to women is based on the claim that this has “always” been the practice of the church? This too is at best a half truth.  The womenpriests movement has pointed to evidence supporting the claim that in the early church, there were indeed female deacons, preists and bishops.  The church does acknowledge the existence of female abbesses – but is entirely quiet on the power they wielded in the medieval church, power which frequently rivalled that of bishops. This is a clear example of lies by omission. Worse, there is some suggestion that there may have been lying by outright falsification of the evidence.  Bernadette Brooten has written about Junia, who would appear from teh earliest evidence to have been female.  But it seems that later editors of the text have amended it to make it appear that Junia was a masculine name.

“Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7): To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”

John Chrysostom (344/54-407)(2)

How, then, do we counter these lies, how do we uncover, or recover the truth?  Fortunately, for lying tongues to do their damage, they need to be partnered by listening ears.  As we open our ears to hear, we have the choice to open them also to other tongues, the tongues of history, enabling us to hear again some of  the truth. For centuries, voices from the distant past were buried. Official church history, forming the basis of the Magisterium of the Catholic church, and accepted without question by many others, was compiled only by clerical scholars selectively producing evidence in support only of their own preconceptions.

Fortunately, in the modern world we also have secular scholars delving into history, and thereby allowing fresh new tongues to speak.

Let us open our ears to hear them.


earsBoswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality

Bray, Alan:  The Friend

Jordan, Mark D. : The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology

Jordan, Mark D. : The Silence of Sodom

Nissinen, Marti : Homoeroticism in the Biblical World.