Paul’s View on Homosexuality

I heard this quoted the other day and wanted to check it out and make a note of it. This came from an online encyclopedia on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer culture.  You can see the source here.

Verses from two of Paul’s epistles are important for gay men and lesbians. From the earliest days of the new religion, they shaped the attitudes of Christians to male and female homosexuality. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance and influence of these texts.

Romans 1:26-27

Writing in 58 C. E. to the Christians in Rome, Paul broadened the prohibitions of the Hebrew Bible to include same-sex acts of women. “For this cause [their unbelief], God gave them [the Gentiles] up to dishonorable passions: for not only did the women exchange natural intercourse for that which is against nature (para phusin), and likewise males, forsaking natural intercourse with women burned with lust for one another: males with males working shame, and receiving the punishment in themselves that their error deserved.”

That Paul meant to condemn female homosexuality along with male is confirmed by the first Latin commentator, a still unidentified author writing about 370 and known as Ambrosiater or Pseudo-Ambrose: “What Paul says explicitly about men, namely that males burn with desire for each other, makes clear the sin of the women. Woman pursues woman with filthy desire and lusts to use her in ways other than nature has commanded.”

Paul’s language will reverberate, directly or indirectly, in almost every later Christian reference to male and female same-sex eros.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

The second Pauline text about homosexuality mentions only males. At 1 Cor. 6:9-10, Paul lists a heterogeneous group of sinners whom he bars from the kingdom of God. The sexual offenders consist of fornicators, adulterers, and two kinds of men: malakoi and arsenokoitai–the nouns are plural and masculine.

The meanings of these Greek nouns have been the subject of lively debate, largely provoked by gay authors anxious to show that Paul and the early church had not intended to condemn homosexuality per se as harshly as has been traditionally supposed, but only a degraded type of pederasty associated with prostitution and child abuse.

Recent scholarship has shown conclusively that the traditional meanings assigned to these words stand. So do the traditional translations: the Latin translation “commonly used in the church,” and therefore known as the Vulgate, and the English King James Version (KJV).


Malakoi (Latin Vulgate: molles) should have caused no problem. There is ample evidence that in sexual contexts, in both classical and post-classical times, malakos designated the receptive partner in a male same-sex act, a meaning decisively reconfirmed in late antiquity by the physician Caelius Aurelianus when he tells us that the Greeks call malakoi males whom the Latins call molles or subacti, males, that is, who play the receptive role in anal intercourse.

Paul’s malakoi, we can say with certainty, are males–boys, youths, or adults–who have consented, either for money or for pleasure, for some perceived advantage or as an act of affectionate generosity, to be penetrated by men.


The word is a verbal noun, and its earliest attestation is in this verse of Paul’s. It is a compound of arsen = “male” and koités = “a man who lies with (or beds).” And so we have, describing Oedipus, metrokoités, “a man who lies with his mother,” doulokoités, “a man who lies with maidservants or female slaves,” polykoités, “a man who lies with many,” and onokoités, “a man who lies with donkeys,” said of Christians in a graffito from Carthage of about 195.

Arsenokoitai are therefore “men who lie with males,” and the Vulgate’s masculorum concubitores (where masculorum is an objective genitive), renders the Greek exactly to mean “men who lie with males,” “men who sleep with males,” “men who have sex with males.”

The source of arsenokoitai is in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (finished around 130 B. C. E. for the use of Greek-speaking Jews). The Septuagint of Leviticus 18:22 reads: Kai meta arsenos ou koiméthés koitén gynaikeian, and of Lev. 20:13, Kai os an koiméthé meta arsenos koitén gynaikos . . . ; Englished we have, “With a male you shall not lie the bed/intercourse (koité) of a woman,” and “Whoever lies with a male the koité of a woman, [both have done an abominable thing, they shall be put to death.]”

The dependence of Paul’s arsenokoitai on the Levitical arsenos koitén demonstrates unequivocally its source and confirms his intended meaning. The word was almost certainly coined by Greek-speaking Jews. Understood in the context of what we know about role playing in most ancient same-sex relationships, malakoi are the receptive parties and arsenokoitai the inserters in male-male anal intercourse.

The bad news from the Christian Bible is that it condemns same-sex desire and same-sex acts without qualification of age, gender, role, status, consent, or membership in an ethnic community.

This may seem less drastic when we recall that Paul outlawed all sex except that between married couples and preferred celibacy to marriage for himself.

1 Comment

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One response to “Paul’s View on Homosexuality

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