Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 5: The "Vice List" of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Critics of the traditional Judeo-Christian rejection of homosexual practice never tire of pointing out that biblical texts explicit in such rejection are "few" in number.  Apart from such critics' underestimation of the number of such texts, such an observation has little argumentative value.  For, the question begs asking, how many explicit statements and/or prohibitions are sufficient to establish the biblical authors' views on a matter?  To cite a parallel case, does the paucity of explicit biblical prohibitions of bestiality breed uncertainty as to Jewish and Christian attitudes about the practice?  Does the fact that, in the New Testament, only Paul speaks out against incest (1 Cor 5:1-13) give potential wiggle room for anyone who feels inclined in that direction ("After all, Jesus never said anything about it")?  As only a moment's reflection will make clear, there are any number of reasons why a particular matter is addressed only infrequently in Scripture, not least the observation that the few texts that do address it are both clear and decisive.  That, as I have argued, is indeed the case with the Levitical prohibitions against homosexual behavior that formed part of the religious and theological inheritance of Jesus no less than it did of the Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus.

Not surprisingly, it is to the latter of these that we must look for the two prima facie clear texts in the New Testament in which homosexual practice is clearly portrayed as behavior counter to the revealed will of God, viz., 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Romans 1:24-27.  In the present post I will discuss the former of these texts, reserving the latter for a following installment.

These three verses conclude Paul's discussion of the second of three moral problems in the Corinthian church that underlined the need for the church to discipline offenders who compromised the holiness of God's covenant people: incest (5:1-13), lawsuits (6:1-11), and coitus with temple prostitutes (6:12-20).  For us (post)moderns, it comes as something of a surprise that the first and third of these issues even needed to be discussed.  The second, however, begets the opposite reaction.  Few Christians today would hesitate to take a brother or sister to court, perhaps hoping that their religious identification is hushed up, but always with the intent of upholding one's personal honor and/or protecting one's financial interests.

For Paul, however, the matter was a serious one.  By appearing before pagan, "unrighteous" (adikoi) judges, the failure of the the Corinthian litigants was, in the words of Gordon Fee, "primarily a failure of the church to be the church" (The First Epistle to the Corinthians [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987] 230).  To rebuke them, the apostle turns to eschatology.  Perhaps making a deduction from the "Son of Man" vision of Daniel 7, he argues from the premise that the "saints" will ultimately judge both the the world and angels to the conclusion that they should be competent to appoint "judges" of their own — like Moses in Exodus 18:13-26 and (especially) Deuteronomy 1:9-17 (cf. Brian S. Rosner, Paul, Scripture, & Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7 [Leiden: Brill, 1994] 94-122) — to adjudicate such trivial intramural property disputes (1 Cor 6:1-6).

Even more fundamentally, followers of a crucified Messiah should prefer to be "wronged" (adikeisthe) and "defrauded" (apostereisthe) rather than to file a lawsuit against a brother or sister at all (6:7-8).  Paul concludes with a terrifying eschatological warning based on what likely was part of their common catechetical instruction ("or do you not know?" [ē ouk oidate]):  the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (6:9a).  The Corinthians, Paul is more than implying, were acting just like the "unrighteous" ones whose wickedness will preclude them from entering God's kingdom.  The point could not be clearer: the notion of wicked people inheriting the rule of God is an oxymoron.  Therefore, those who consider themselves Christians must actively work to rid themselves of their anomalous sinful practices that mimic the behavior of the "unrighteous" and are thus alien to God's kingdom

In order to aid the Corinthians in avoiding self-deception in such matters, the apostle provides a list of such "unrighteous" people: 
Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor malakoi, nor arsenokoitai, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (6:9b-10)
I have intentionally left the two disputed expressions untranslated.  The KJV translated the terms, respectively, as "effeminate" and "abusers of themselves with mankind."  Despite the obscurity of the latter translation, the reference to homosexuals, or at least to people who engage in homosexual acts, is obvious.  The NRSV translates them "male prostitutes" and "sodomites."  The new NIV translates the two terms together as "men who have sex with men."  The REB likewise combines the two expressions in their rendering, "sexual perverts." All these translations interpret the expressions as references to some form or other of homosexual practice.  Thus, on the face of it, Paul is quite clear at this point.

Modern scholars, no doubt under implicit pressure from the culture at large, have proposed various explanations for Paul's apparent condemnation of homosexual behavior in the effort to mitigate its force.  E. P. Sanders, for instance, simply attributes Paul's attitude to his having not given the matter much thought (Paul [Oxford: OUP, 1991] 116).  Others, noting the terms' presence in traditional vice lists, think the apostle simply took over Hellenistic, especially Stoic, lists without more ado (cf. Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983] 85-97).  More recent studies, however, have demonstrated both the Jewish background of the lists (e.g., Rosner, 53-55) and the probable relation of the listed vices to the specific situation at Corinth (e.g., P. Zaas, "Catalogues and Context: 1 Cor. 5 and 6," New Testament Studies 34 [1988] 622-29).

Others, noting the use of the term malakoi — an adjective meaning "soft" which, when applied to men and boys, refers to "effeminate" males and catamites who were on the receiving end of sodomitic activitity (BDAG, 613; "passive homosexuals" [EDNT 2:381]) — have suggested that Paul limits his revulsion here to "call boys" and specific types of pederastic practices (e.g., Scroggs). By implication, so it is argued, it would be inadmissible to assume Paul would have disapproved of all types of homosexual practice.  However, if such was the case, one wonders why the apostle could not have stated so more clearly.  There is no contextual reference to male prostitution; moreover, there was a Greek word for pederasty available (paiderastēs) to Paul had he wished to use it.  Furthermore, even if Paul had pederasty primarily in mind, it begs the question to assume that the only thing he found problematic with it was its pedophilic and/or abusive aspects.  As a Shammaite rabbi, there is little or no likelihood that such would be the case.

Perhaps the most famous example of revisionist lexicography in this matter was performed by the late, openly gay Yale historian, John Boswell.  According to Boswell, the Old Testament, specifically the Levitical regulations, held no sway over the first Christians, and thus it would be wrong to assume they would have a negative attitude toward gay sexuality per se (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980] 105).  In keeping with this presumption, he argues that malakoi refers to "masturbators" and arsenokoitai to"male prostitutes." With regard to arsenokoitai Boswell idiosyncratically understands "male" to be the implicit subject rather than the object of the compound word, as had previously been assumed (338-53, 363-64).

Interestingly, the way forward to a definitive understanding of the twin terms malakoi and arsenokoitai was provided by Scroggs, himself a defender of homosexual practice.  He was the first to notice that the latter term, the earliest known occurrence of which in Greek literature is found here in 1 Corinthians, is a translation of the Hebrew term mishkov zakur ("lying with a male"), derived from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and utilized in rabbinic discussions as a reference to homosexual intercourse (The NT and Homosexuality, 106-108).  The same conclusion could easily be drawn from the LXX of the two Levitical texts:
  • Leviticus 18:22 — "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman, for it is an abomination" (kai meta arsenos ou koimēthēsē koitēn gynaikos; bdelygma gar estin)
  • Leviticus 20:13 — "Whoever lies with a man as with a woman, they have both committed an abomination; they are liable to be put to death" (kai hos an koimēthē arsenos koitēn gynaikos, bdelygma epoiēsan amphoteroi; thanatousthōsan, enochoi eisin)
Thus, as David Wright has persuasively argued, Paul's inclusion of arsenokoitai in this vice list both indicates that the term refers, contra Boswell, to "(males) who lie with males," and, by implication, picks up and confirms the prohibition of same-sex intercourse found in the Levitical Holiness Code (David F. Wright, "Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of Arsenokoitai [1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10," Vigiliae Christianai 38 [1984] 125-53).  The Torah, it would seem, is not irrelevant for Christian morality.  This ethical relevance of the Old Testament law was argued persuasively two decades ago by Rosner in his Cambridge Ph.D. thesis on 1 Corinthians 5-7.  As a case in point, in the immediately preceding context Paul condemned a case of incest in the church (1 Cor 5) and enjoined the excommunication of the offending party on the basis of the Torah.  In particular, the apostle came to his decision by analogically applying the deuteronomic motifs of holiness, covenant, and temple exclusion.  The Corinthians, according to Paul, were to "expel the wicked man from among" them (1 Cor 5:3 [Deut 17:7, etc.]) because, like Israel under the Sinai Covenant, they constituted the sanctified, covenant community, indeed, the very temple (1 Cor 3:16-17!) of the holy God.  By analogy, homosexual behavior — here the syntagmatic relationship of malakoi and arsenokoitai points to the pair referring to the active and passive participants in homosexual intercourse [cf. C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians {BNTC; London: Black, 1968} 140: "catamites and sodomites"] —  is viewed by the apostle as inconsistent with the church's identity as the sanctified, covenant people of God.

Paul makes this point explicit in his remarkable verse 11:
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Such vices as enumerated in verses 10-11 were illustrative of what the Corinthians, despite their manifold problems, used to be.  Paul's decisive use of the imperfect tense (ēte) implies that a definitive change had taken place in their lives.  What this change involved is described in three affirmations. 


First, the Corinthians had been "washed" (apelousasthe).  This is a transparent allusion to baptism (perhaps a true middle voice should be reflected in the translation, i.e., they "had themselves washed"), and points them to the act that marked the definitive end of their old life and identity and symbolized their incorporation, by the Spirit, into Christ.  For Paul, this cleansing incorporation is the fountain from which the following two blessings flow.

Second, the Corinthians had been "sanctified" (hēgiasthēte).  Like the covenant people of old, they had been set apart as holy for God's service, with all the behavioral implications that follow upon that consecration. 

Third, the Corinthians had been "justified" (edikaiōthēte).  Whereas they had once been "unrighteous" (adikaios), they had, by divine judicial declaration, been placed in right relation with God as his forgiven, covenant people. 

The point Paul is making is clear: it is not simply that identity informs behavior (Rosner).  It is that transformed identity must fundamentally determine behavior.  As Richard Hays writes,

Paul emphasizes that those who are baptized into the community of faith have been transferred out of one mode of existence into another.  The behavior is to leave behind the behaviors characteristic of that old mode just as the butterfly leaves behind the cocoon and the habits of caterpillar life. (First Corinthians [Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1997] 100)
Living like adikoi is not an option for those who name the name of Christ and have been "justified" in union with him.  And this applies to all of the vices enumerated by Paul in verses 9-10 as well as the (implied) greedy litigious activity that called forth the apostle's rebuke in these verses.

In applying this text to contemporary discussions about homosexuality, it must be emphasized that homosexual practice occupies only two of ten slots in Paul's vice list. Indeed, malakoi and arsenokoitai do not occur in the majority of such lists in the New Testament.  Those of us with heterosexual orientations might be tempted to view such acts as particularly reprehensible acts of a magnitude greater than such ordinary sins as greed, thievery, drunkenness, and reviling, and worse than more "natural" sins of a heterosexual variety such as adultery and fornication.  This text gives no warrant for such assumptions.  Indeed, as Raymond Collins remarks, these two vices "are no more egregious than fornication, adultery, greed, and drunkenness" (Sexual Ethics and the New Testament: Behavior and Belief [New York: Crossroad, 2000] 92).  True.  Unfortunately, however, most will read that statement in a way that lessens the seriousness of homosexual acts.  It would be better to read it as St. Paul intended, viz., to cause us to realize the true heinousness of such "mundane" sins as greed, drunkenness, and reviling as well.


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