Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men . . . . (1 Corinthians 6:9; updated New International Version [NIV])
Guest post by Dr. Craig Blomberg
One of the more depressing studies one can undertake with a computer program or website that allows you to compare a large number of translations of a given Bible verse is a survey of the ways the last two nouns in the Greek of 1 Corinthians 6:9 (malakos and arsēnokoitēs) have been rendered in English. The King James Version read, “nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.” I have no idea what a person fluent in Elizabethan English in 1611 would have understood by that last phrase, but it doesn’t communicate much to me! The New King James Version reads “nor homosexuals nor sodomites.” But what’s a sodomite? The Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary defines sodomy as “anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex.”
The Revised Standard Version decided to replace the two Greek nouns with the one English expression “sexual perverts.” The New Revised Standard Version returned to two expressions, “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” The New Jerusalem Bible makes it sound like malakos has nothing to do with sex at all, translating it as “self-indulgent,” and it returns to “sodomite” for arsēnokoitēs. The New American Standard Bible has “effeminate” and “homosexuals.” But with so many individuals who self-identify as homosexuals, and with most theologians and psychologists distinguishing between a person’s sexual orientation and actual sexual actions, even if same-sex activity is in view, just to use the noun “homosexual” without further qualification can be misleading.
The original NIV read “male prostitutes” and “homosexual offenders.” At least here, there is a word qualifying “homosexual,” but it leaves open the question of what a homosexual non-offender would be. The New American Bible makes one further improvement with its “boy prostitutes” and “practicing homosexuals,” the latter expression at least suggesting a contrast between those who are sexually active and those who are celibate.
But does anyone really know what these words mean? Have modern translations at time been influenced more by supposed historical backgrounds than by the actual meaning of the words used here? Malakos is a word that often means “soft.” Its only other use in the New Testament comes in the passage in which Jesus talks about those wearing soft clothing living in kings’ palaces (Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:26). Arsēnokoitēs does not occur in Greek literature prior to Paul; most likely he coined the word. Etymologically it comes from two words that refer to “male” and “coitus,” so it would most naturally be taken as male homosexual intercourse.
There is a growing consensus among evangelical scholars, however, that by combining the two words, what Paul meant was to refer to the more passive and more active partners in a male homosexual relationship, respectively. Thus the New English Translation appropriately translates the first word as “passive homosexual partners” but then curiously generalizes with the second to “practicing homosexuals.” The English Standard Version does better still with “those who practice homosexuality” as its way of rendering the two words put together. The Complete Jewish Bible gets it almost exactly right with “people . . . who engage in active or passive homosexuality,” although one could ask if a person practices or engages in homosexuality (an orientation) or if a person performs homosexual actions (actual behaviors).
The updated NIV, therefore, appears to be the best of all the options thus far: “men who have sex with men,” with the footnote that goes on to explain, “The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.” The Common English Bible (CEB) also catches almost all the necessary nuances with “both participants in same-sex intercourse,” rephrasing things in their footnote, “submissive and dominant male sexual partners.” The only possible quibble here would be that nothing in the CEB text limits the referents to men as the updated NIV does, but those who bother to read the footnotes will catch on. And it’s not as if Paul endorses lesbianism (see Romans 1:26).
Having established the most probable translation, we next need to interpret the entire sentence (which continues into 1 Corinthians 6:10)! But that will have to await our next blog on the topic.