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Dale Martin's "arsenokoites and malakos" tried and found wanting.

In the multifaceted debate regarding homosexuality and the church, an issue that has surfaced is the proper interpretation of 1 Cor 6:9-10, where Paul writes that neither "homosexuals nor sodomites" (NKJV) shall inherit the kingdom of God. At first glance, the meaning of "homosexuals and sodomites" seems rather clear. But "Not so!" say those who advocate the normalization of homosexuality. Thus, this passage has become a hot issue with scholars aligning themselves along two basic lines of thought.

Some say that the original words in Greek have been translated in an unnecessarily harsh way that condemns all homosexual behavior when in fact, they contend, Paul was merely condemning homosexual rape and other forms of sexual exploitation. This would be a revisionist approach/perspective.

Others reject this revisionist interpretation and hold that the traditional translation of the text (for example, as rendered above in the NKJV) is fair and accurate. This would be a traditionalist approach.

So, who's right? Who most accurately represents the perspective of Paul regarding this text and the perspective of Scripture as a whole? And what implications might our findings have not only for the church's deliberation on this issue but for our understanding of how Scripture itself is to be approached?

Rather than rely on the conclusions of others, I felt challenged to do my own research on the debate. I sought material that would enable me to look at both sides of the debate in order to sort through the issues. In the process, I came across an article that seemed to represent well those who are critical of the traditional interpretation--an article by Dale B. Martin titled "Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences." (1) This article appealed to me because the key words in the title, arsenokoites and malakos, are precisely the two controversial words from the passage that are often translated deprecatorily as "homosexuals and sodomites." I therefore decided to do an assessment of Martin's article to see how well it stands up under scrutiny. I share my findings here with the understanding that space limitations prevent my dealing with all of the issues of Martin's essay. (2)

Martin's article refocuses the debate over the Bible's view of homosexuality by offering a new perspective regarding the interpretation of the Greek words arsenokoites and malakos. However, more significantly, as one reads the article one finds that Martin is offering more than a difference of opinion regarding the nuances of meaning for these words; he is proposing a whole new litmus test for interpreting Scripture and determining which passages have abiding validity for today.

Arsenokoites: divide and conquer

We begin with the dissection of the word arsenokoites. Martin notes how interpreters have frequently split the word into its two root words, arsen (=male) and koites (=to bed or sleep with sexually; like the English word coitus). Thus, they have tended to assume that it refers generally to any man having sex with another male.

This is a faulty assumption, Martin says, because the meaning of a compound word is usually more than the sum of its parts. He gives as an example the word "understand" and notes that understand does not mean to stand under. Or, consider the word "chairman." Martin says, "None of us ... takes the word 'chairman' to have any necessary reference to a chair, even if it originally did." Therefore, to leap to the conclusion that arsenokoites refers to men having sex with other males is "linguistically invalid," Martin says. It is "naive and indefensible."

Martin is correct in cautioning against jumping to conclusions regarding the meaning of compound words. To conclude that the meaning of a compound word is simply the sum of its independent parts is not always a justifiable conclusion or method. However, to assert as Martin does that this method is linguistically invalid, naive, and indefensible clearly goes too far. Anyone who has ever studied German knows that German words often are created by combining two or more previously independent words. For example, the words zusammen (adv.--"together") and binden (verb--"to bind or tie") combine nicely to form zusammenbinden, "to bind or tie together." So, in translation, it is perfectly legitimate to begin by looking at the two words that combine to form the compound word as a clue to its meaning. However, that method does not always reap entirely satisfactory results. For example, zusammenbrechen is made up of zusammen and brechen (verb--"to break"), but to translate this word as "to break together" would make no sense. One must look further to discover its actual meaning--"to crumble, smash or break to pieces." It is other than the sum of its parts. (However, further examination reveals that zusammen also carries the meaning of "altogether" in the sense of "completely," so zusammenbrechen could mean to break altogether/completely as in "to crumble, smash or break to pieces.")

We find the same thing in English. Consider the word "airport." We know it is a port/harbor/haven for airplanes. Or "jetengine"--an engine that produces jet propulsion. Looking at the roots of a compound word only makes sense!

And, speaking as Martin does of the word "chairman," if we do an etymological study we find that it does indeed have its root in the word "chair." Its origin is in the Latin word cathedra, from which we get the word cathedral, which refers to the bishop's seat/chair, because it was from the cathedra that the bishop exercised his authority regarding the affairs of the diocese. (3) From that usage, "chair" also came to refer to a professor's chair, the chair from which the professor lectured and exercised his authority. A carryover would be the endowed chair that is found in departments of study in most colleges and universities ("the Joe Blank Chair of Humanities at Such & Such University"). From that application it came to refer to a person who sat in a chair to preside at a convened meeting. Often s/he was the only person seated during the meeting and was thus referred to as "the chairman" or "chairwoman." (4)

Martin recognizes as much when he says in the conditional clause already referenced, "None of us ... takes the word 'chairman' to have any necessary reference to a chair, even if it originally did" (emphasis added). But the fact that "it originally did" is precisely the point! In doing etymological research, whether for a word like chairman or one like arsenokoites, the purpose is not how anyone of us presently takes the word. The reason for doing such research, which is a key point in Martin's essay, is to discover what a word meant in the context being studied--in this case 1 Cor 6:9-10. This is true not only for a simple word but also for a compound word like arsenokoites, the combination of two or more formerly independent words. In short, Martin fails to make his point even with regard to the word "chairman," which he uses as a primary illustration. It matters not how you or I might want to take the word arsenokoites; what matters is what it originally meant for Paul in his context.

Thus, Martin clearly goes too far when he says that this methodology (interpreting a compound word by first looking at its root words) is not only linguistically invalid but also naive and indefensible. In fact, we could say that one not only may start there but probably should! However, one ought not base one's final conclusions entirely on that method or tool. It is necessary also to consider the context in which the word is used, both in the specific verse referenced in the text being considered and as the culture used that word at the time the verse was written. When we do so, context would certainly seem to indicate that the traditional translation of arsenokoites is both defensible and justifiable, as I demonstrate below.

Arsenokoites and ancient lists of vices

Martin examines various lists of vices that are found both in and outside the Bible--lists in which the word arsenokoites appears. He writes, "As others have noted, vice lists are sometimes organized into groups of 'sins', with sins put together that have something to do with one another."

Martin notes that while preparing his article he discovered that arsenokoites is not always listed along with other sexual sins, as he had expected it would be, but often appears with lists of "vices related to economic injustice or exploitation." He admits, "This provides little to go on." Nonetheless, he proceeds to assert that arsenokoites had a more specific meaning in Greco-Roman culture than we can be aware of and that "it seems to have referred to some kind of economic exploitation by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily homosexual sex."

As an example, he refers to a list from the Sibylline Oracles (2:70-77, a third- or fourth-century Jewish and then Christian source--see Martin notes that arsenokoites appears here in a list of "economic sins." However, he admits, the list also includes other sins such as murder, betrayal of information, and abusive speech--sins that seem to have little in common with sins of "economic injustice or exploitation." Nonetheless, he argues that even these sins (murder, betrayal ...) probably referred to economic sins in their day but that their meaning is lost to us.

The reader will notice that Martin is making quite an assumption here. There is no evidence whatsoever from the text to indicate that murder, betrayal, and abusive speech should be included in the category of economic sins, yet Martin says they probably had some (unknown to us) hidden exploitative/economic meaning and thus should be included in the category of economic sins--and we are simply to accept that as fact!

He also analyzes a list of sins from a portion of a second-century work called "The Acts of John" (see, which, among other things, mentions "the poisoner, sorcerer, robber, swindler, and arsenokoites, the thief and all of this band." Martin summarizes, "arsenokoites occurs in a list of sins related to economics and injustice." Granted, "robber," "swindler," and "thief" all deal with economics, but how "poisoner" and "sorcerer" relate to economic justice, or how they even relate to each other, Martin doesn't say. We are simply to accept his assertion as fact.

Regarding "lists of vices," in checking other such lists both in and outside the Bible (although originating at about the same time period as the biblical text we are considering), we find that these lists are all over the map in terms of the consistency of their subject matter. The subject matter seems quite random in many of them. For example, consider this quote from the Sibylline Oracles, chap. 2. Starting with verse 75, notice the issues that are raised: "When you judge, remember God will judge you; avoid false testimony; maintain virgin purity; guard love; and do not use false measures or scales." What do the issues listed have in common apart from some general category of virtue?

Likewise, consider the biblical Book of Proverbs. There are times when individual themes are elaborated on almost as if in an essay (see much of chapters 1-9). But if we look at chap. 10:1-7, we find that each verse/proverb deals with a completely different issue than the proverb that precedes or follows it. All these proverbs have in common is a general category of virtue.

Here's the point. Martin claims that the lists he refers to fit an overarching theme, such as economic injustice or exploitation. However, we have seen how a consistent theme is maintained neither in the passage from Sibylline Oracles, which he quotes, nor in the excerpt from Proverbs. In fact, there are many such exceptions to Martin's rule, and we may conclude that lists of vices, whether in the Bible or in extracanonical material, are not as consistent in terms of subject matter as Martin suggests. To argue as he does that this is a template that demands the reinterpretation of 1 Cor 6:9 simply does not have much merit with regard to this issue.

The only template of consistency we can use is the internal consistency of the text being considered, not the imposition of some external standard. That being the case, Martin may be right in saying that arsenokoites may at times refer to sins of economic injustice or exploitation, especially in texts written a century or two after Paul. However, the operative word is may. It does not necessarily mean that we must force that understanding of arsenokoites ("economic exploitation by means of sex") upon 1 Cor 6:9. There simply is not enough evidence that would compel us to do so.

In addition, regarding the list he quotes from the Sibylline Oracles 2.70-77.10, Martin has argued that the word arsenokoites appears in a list of "economic sins." However, if we do not simply accept that statement at face value and instead read the list for ourselves, we find several offenses that are not at all "economic" in nature: "murder," "betraying of information," and "taking heed of one's speech." Certainly murder may be committed for economic reasons, but it may also be committed for a variety of other reasons--jealousy, revenge, greed, rage, etc. What's more, it is quite a stretch to include betraying information or taking heed of one's speech or keeping a secret matter in one's heart in a list of "economic sins." What is necessarily economic about any of these?

Martin must have recognized that all of these do not fit his category of economic sins, because he writes, "I would argue that other sins here mentioned that have no necessary economic connotation probably do here." That's another rather big assumption by Martin, isn't it? Would Martin accept it if someone said, "Well, xyz normally doesn't fit the category of sexual sins, but we can assume it does here." I doubt he would accept such a claim, and he would be right. In his trying so hard to reduce these disparate issues to a category of "economic sins," the category ends up meaning nothing distinctive at all.

However, out of fairness I should say that Martin's analysis of other second-century material--for example, his analysis of some Syriac fragments of a Bardesanes text--is well done. Nevertheless, all the analysis of Bardesanes' text does is to speculate on possible meanings for arsenokoites vis-a-vis other texts of that period. Some of this analysis is interesting, but, like the other lists we have already examined, this one too is far from conclusive or satisfactory. The best we can say after examining Martin's argument regarding later material is that arsenokoites might have been occasionally used in texts considerably later than Paul to designate homosexual rape or sex by economic exploitation. On the other hand, it may also have been used to refer to homosexuality in general. More than that we cannot say.


Arsenokoites in Leviticus

More important for us is to see how the word was being used in an Old Testament Jewish context, which probably would have been the greater influence on Paul and his understanding of the word. So let us consider those passages in Leviticus that prohibit a man from lying with a male as with a woman.

Although originally written in Hebrew, we look to see how these OT passages were rendered in Greek. In the Septuagint (a third-century B.C. Greek translation of the OT), we find that Lev 18:22 and 20:13 both use the two Greek words arsenos and koiten together (the root words for arsenokoites). The phrase from Lev 20:13 is rendered in Greek: kai os an koimaythay meta arsenos koiten gunaikos bdelugma etoiesan amphoteroi ("and if a man might lie with a male as with a female, abomination/desecration they both have done"). Notice that arsenos and koiten not only both appear in this sentence, but arsenos immediately precedes koiten. Thus, it is no stretch to see how Paul, who undoubtedly would have been familiar with these verses from the Septuagint, could have from their influence put the two words together to form a new word, arsenokoites, and as he did so, clearly had in mind "a man bedding a male as a female" (Lev 20:13).

This conclusion is not based on arsenokoites appearing in unrelated lists from a century or two after Paul and then speculating on what might have been the intended meaning. It is based directly on analysis of a text Paul would have been familiar with and whose meaning was and is clear. Even though at the time the Septuagint was written the two words had not previously (so far as we know) been joined together to make the single word arsenokoites, the essential meaning had already been established in the Septuagint's rendering of these verses. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Paul would have been referring to and proscribing male homosexuality in general in the sense of a male lying with a male as with a woman as did Leviticus.


This section on malakos is shorter than the section on arsenokoites simply because Martin's treatment is shorter. Martin begins by noting that malakos generally means "soft." In this sense it also appears in Matt 11:8 when Jesus in reference to John the Baptist asks, "Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft [malaka--adj.] raiment?" As Martin points out, in Greek culture malakos was used to refer to "the softness of expensive clothes, the richness and delicacy of gourmet food, the gentleness of light winds and breezes. When used as a term of moral condemnation, the word still refers to something perceived as 'soft': laziness, degeneracy, decadence, lack of courage, or, to sum up all these vices in one ancient category, the feminine."

Martin focuses on this aspect of malakos as referring to what in NT times would commonly be considered feminine characteristics. He goes on to assert that the feminine in Greek culture was considered undesirable because "The female is quintessentially penetrable.... One might even say that in the ancient male ideology women exist to be penetrated. It is their purpose (telos)." Thus, in Greek culture, if a man submitted himself to penetration, he would leave himself open to charges of malakia. However, in those cases, it usually referred to effeminacy, the proof or sign of which would be penetration; it did not refer to the sexual act itself. "To put it simply," Martin writes, "all penetrated men were malakoi [pl. of malakos], but not all malakoi were penetrated men." In fact, some men would even get themselves "prettied up" to enhance their chances of heterosexual conquest.

What point is Martin trying to make? One might say that all Corvettes are sports cars but that not all sports cars are Corvettes. So what? If in Greek culture all malakoi were undesirable, the penetrated male as malakos was undesirable, too. But we are not talking here simply about Greek culture in general. True, Paul was writing to a Greco-Roman setting, but he was doing so out of a Jewish/Christian context in which women, too, were understood as created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28).

It seems that Martin is basically trying to make two points via his analysis. One is that malakos in Greek culture was a derogatory, sexist slur--much like today when one male calls another male a "wimp," or worse. Second, Martin intends "to dispute appeals to 'what the Bible says' as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments."

Is malakos a sexist slur? Martin explains, "I cite these texts not to celebrate homosexual love. What strikes me about them is rather their rank misogyny.... The word malakos refers to the entire ancient complex of the devaluation of the feminine." That being the case, Martin asks: If we are to take the Bible seriously, as so many conservatives say, what are we to tell our congregations regarding malakos? That they should not be effeminate? If so, what then passes for "effeminate"? Long hair? Gourmet cooking? Wearing cologne or aftershave? Playing piano? Taking ballet? Where do we draw the line? Martin concludes, "People who retain Paul's condemnation of effeminacy as ethical grounding for a condemnation of contemporary gay sex must face the fact that they thereby participate in the hatred of women inherent in the ancient use of the term." And this, according to Martin, would be to be driven by male-dominated "heterosexist ideology."

Note how Martin has shifted the argument. On the basis of very little evidence, malakos, rather than referring to the penetrated male in a homosexual act, becomes for Martin a full-scale attack on the feminine in general.

But is anybody who advocates for the traditional understanding of 1 Cor 6:9 advocating an attack on the feminine in general? Martin's is an interesting theory, but to my knowledge no one involved in the debate over how homosexuality is depicted in the Bible is even remotely suggesting an attack on the feminine. Neither is Paul.

It may be a clever ruse to shift attention elsewhere, but there are no grounds for alleging, as Martin and some feminists do, that Paul was a misogynist who hated all things feminine. If he was, there is no way that we would want to carry that over to the church today, primarily because that would be contrary to what Christ modeled for us in his dealing with women.

But Paul was not a misogynist. One would be hard pressed to label Paul, who penned the following words in Galatians 3:28, a misogynist or anti-feminine: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Was Paul, who spoke so highly of Lois and Eunice (2 Tim 1:5), or of Prisca, Tryphaena, and Tryphosa (Romans 16) as "fellow workers in Christ Jesus," anti-female? Paul may not have lifted women quite up to the standards of contemporary Western civilization (and it would be unfair to expect him to do so), but it is clear that Paul raised women far above what was the norm for the culture of his day.

So, whether intentional or not, all of Martin's hypothetical scenarios about condemning femininity only divert us from the real issue--Paul's meaning when he uses the word malakos.

Scripture interprets Scripture

"Scripture interprets Scripture" is an abiding Lutheran principle for interpretation going back to Luther himself. Thus, regardless of how informative digressions into subsequent Greek uses of malakos or arsenokoites might be (most of them being a century or more after Paul), they are virtually irrelevant to the interpretation of 1 Cor 6:9. Instead, we would be better advised to look to Scripture for guidance in understanding Paul's meaning, especially Lev 18:22, Lev 20:13, and Rom 1:22-32, particularly vv. 26-27.

We find that Paul's argument is basically twofold. First, what do we learn about God's intentions from the revelation that comes to us through Genesis and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures? Then, directed by that revelation, Paul looks to nature or the "orders of creation." What is the order God has woven into the fabric of creation? What does nature in the sense of physiology teach us? In doing so, one must consider not only the male and female genitals respectively but also the rectum. What were they designed for? As Christians, we must believe in design and purpose or we fail to be Christian in any meaningful sense.

The answer for Paul was obvious. To play the penetrating male (arsenokoites) or the penetrated male (malakos) in a homosexual act was contrary to revelation (Gen 1:27), nature, and design. That is why Paul in Rom 1:26-27 says, "women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men."

There is nothing vague about this passage unless one wants it to be obscure for deconstructionist purposes. Therefore, when we consider 1 Cor 6:9, it only follows from what we already know about Paul and the Leviticus passage that malakos refers to the penetrated male in a homosexual relationship. It makes no sense to try to make it into an attack on all behaviors that may be considered effeminate, whether in fact they actually are.

Martin's coup-de-grace

Martin writes, "do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to 'what the Bible says' without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism.... We must simply stop giving that kind of argument any credibility." For Martin, the ultimate authority for finding our way through the ethical dilemmas of our day (such as homosexuality in the church) no longer rests on the Bible; it rests on well-meaning conversation among those who call themselves Christian. Martin writes, "The best place to find criteria for talking about ethics and interpretation will be in Christian discourse itself, which includes scripture and tradition but not in a 'foundational' sense."

Thus, for Martin, Scripture is no longer the norm for the faith and life of the church. This is because, according to him, Scripture sometimes hurts people: "any interpretation of scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable."

Notice what has happened here. First he insists on a radically new interpretation of both arsenokoites and malakos--for reasons that simply do not stand up. Then he proceeds to cast a pall of doubt over all previous translations saying that they were in effect proponents of heterosexist narrow-mindedness leaning toward misogyny. And he rejects the guiding principle from the Reformation that Scripture is the norm for the faith and life of the church. Scripture simply becomes one of the players in the great debate, not canon!

What then remains to guide the church as it makes its way through this wilderness of ethical debate? In place of Scripture, Martin puts love. Quoting Augustine, Martin says, "I take my stand with a quotation from an impeccably traditional witness, Augustine, who wrote: 'Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.'"

But without Scripture we have no guiding principle even for understanding what love is. Everyone is therefore free to define it anyway one wants. So we are right back to the antinomian controversy. "All you need is love," Martin seems to be saying; and without any clear point of reference for what love is, we can write any definition we want and advocate almost any behavior we want. In the process, we have done what we ought never to have done. We have cast Scripture aside and allowed ourselves to be driven by other agendas. We have made ourselves judges over God's Word rather than allow the Word to be judge over us. We have, by slight of hand and intellectual contortions, repeated the old satanic deception and, like the serpent in Genesis 3, we have asked, "Did God really say ...?"

No one who seeks to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor 5:20) and to embody the compassion of Christ (Matt 9:36) wants to reject or mistreat homosexuals. We want to treat them as we want to be treated--as sinners in need of God's grace through Christ Jesus. However, when it comes to such analysis as we have just witnessed via Martin's article and which has such a clear agenda to undermine the authority of Scripture in order to push that agenda, we must say "No."

Gary R. Jepsen

Pilgrim Lutheran Church, Puyallup, Washington

1. Dale B. Martin, "Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences," in Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Westminster John Knox, 1996); also at

2. For another assessment of Martin's work see the index of Robert Gagnon's The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).

3. From "c.1225, from O.Fr. chaire, from L. cathedra "seat" (see cathedral). Figurative sense of 'authority' was in M.E., of bishops and professors. Meaning 'office of a professor' (1816) is extended from the seat from which a professor lectures (c.1449). Meaning 'seat of a person presiding at meeting' is from 1647. Chairman is first attested 1654; chairwoman 1699; chairperson 1971."

4. Note that in dramatic representations of Luther before the Emperor at Worms, when he gave his famous "Here I stand" speech, Luther is pictured as standing while the Emperor and the court are seated. This would be consistent with the tradition that royalty sat while those before them stood. The person calling and presiding at a meeting would sit while others stood.
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Title Annotation:Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences
Author:Jepsen, Gary R.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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