It is becoming more and more popular to argue that the Bible speaking against homosexuality is a recent innovation that was added to the Bible to make Scripture anti-gay. One very common iteration of the argument is that the word “homosexual” was not in any Bible prior to 1946. The implication of such argumentation is that the Bible does not speak against homosexuality, and that the church should therefore accept a gay lifestyle as being compatible with biblical teaching.
Those who put forward such argumentation typically point to Luther’s German translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9, which uses the word Knabenschänder, or “boy molester” rather than the typical idea of homosexual found in modern translations. Additionally, proponents point to the KJV translation, done in 1611, which translated 1 Corinthians 6:9 as, “nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.” It was not until 1946 with the translation of the RSV that the term homosexual came to be utilized in Bible translations.
How should Christians respond to such argumentation? Is it true that the Bible is accepting of homosexual behavior, and that it was only recently (after 1946) when the Bible was twisted to be anti-gay?
There are multiple arguments which are important to work through in order to think accurately about this issue.
First, a translation does not determine meaning, but is a reflection of the translator(s) understanding of a text, conveyed through the capacity of a target language.
This is a very important point at every level. Every translation is ultimately an interpretation by the translator, but it is also limited by the target language. Anybody who knows more than one language understands this. Each language has its own idiosyncrasies, common vocabulary, and idioms which must be accounted for. Most languages do not represent ideas in the same ways.
With regard to Bible translation specifically, there are plenty of examples where Bible translations convey a meaning which is not exactly in line with the original meaning of the Greek or Hebrew. For example, the use of James instead of Jacob in the NT, or even the KJV’s use of “Appearance” in 1 Thessalonians 5:22. In other words, translation is not a simple issue, and there will often be differences in how translations are done.
I would argue the idea of using a particular word in a translation is less important than the question of meaning. Ultimately, the most important question to ask is, what does the text mean. In other words, what did the author mean when he wrote the original words in Greek or Hebrew. Our translations are supposed to be a window through which we can discern that answer, but translations can be imperfect (though thankfully we normally have very good translations). Regardless, the most important question relates to meaning of the original text. The issue of word choice in a target language is secondary because words change and develop in the target language over time.
Let me give a rather easy example to demonstrate how this works. Substitute the word gay for the argument relating to homosexuality in the Bible. The Bible is not against gays, because the Bible doesn’t use the word gay. Obviously, the fact that our Bible translations do not use the word “gay” has little to nothing to do with whether the Bible speaks against the gay lifestyle.
Second (and most importantly), the Bible unequivocally speaks against homosexual behavior.
This is the most important point. Whether English had developed or used the term homosexual is really an unimportant point, because homosexual behavior is described and prohibited in Scripture. For example, the term homosexual is not used in Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13, but it is clearly what is in view, since the sexual relationship described is compared to how a man lies with a woman.
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.Leviticus 18:22
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.LEviticus 20:13
The very fact that Leviticus 20:13 speak against both active and passive partners shows that it is the homosexual act itself that is condemned, not a certain aspect of it. Historically pro-LGBT scholars have tried to argue against this point by theorizing that Leviticus 20:13 was a later update of the original law, Leviticus 18:22. Although there is no evidence of such an update, obviously it is necessary to argue that way since the text is problematic the way that it reads for a pro-LGBT viewpoint.
Some pro-LGBT scholars argue that the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality are outdated and the church has moved beyond those antiquated notions. The problem is that Paul utilizes Leviticus both in Romans 1 as well as 1 Corinthians 6 to formulate his sexual ethics.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.Romans 1:26-27
In fact, the link between Paul and Leviticus is so strong, Beradette J. Brooten, herself a lesbian commentator writes the following:
Rom 1:26–32 directly recalls Lev 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”) and 20:13 (“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”) Even though Romans 1 does not explicitly cite Leviticus 18 and 20, they overlap at three points: (1) Romans 1 and Leviticus 18 and 20 use similar terminology; (2) both Romans and Leviticus contain a general condemnation of sexual relations between men; and (3) both describe those engaging in such relations as worthy of death.Brooten, Love Between Women, 282–83.
So, does the fact that Leviticus or Romans does not use the English term homosexual mean anything? Any honest student of Scripture would say no. The Bible speaks clearly on the issue, even without using the term homosexuality. Nor has the church moved beyond the sexual ethics of the Old Testament world. Paul seems to rely heavily on Leviticus 18 and 20 in Romans 1, and that connection is even stronger in 1 Corinthians.
Third, Paul’s use of the word translated homosexuals in 1 Cor 6:9 (ἀρσενοκοῖται) is reliant on the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality.
It is obvious from a study of the surrounding text that Paul had the Levitical prohibitions against same sex relationships in mind when he wrote the book of 1 Corinthians. This is demonstrated in two ways—big picture and small picture.
Related to the big picture, anyone who studies the book of 1 Corinthians notes Paul’s reliance on Leviticus to formulate his ethics on many of the issues. Note the following examples.
|Incest||Lev 18:6–18; 20:11||1 Cor 5:1–13|
|Homosexuality||Lev 18:22; 20:13||1 Cor 6:9|
|Idolatry||Lev 18:21; cf. 19:4||1 Cor 10:7; cf. 6:9|
|Imitating God||Lev 19:2||1 Cor 11:1|
|Not Causing Stumbling||Lev 19:14||1 Cor 8:9|
|Warning Against Spiritual Prostitution||Lev 20:5||1 Cor 6:12–20|
Clearly Leviticus was on the mind of the Apostle as he worked through the issues that the church of Corinth faced. But there is also evidence in the small details.
In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul uses terminology in describing the incest problem at Corinth in a way that matches with the Greek Old Testament text from Leviticus 18.
|Lev 18:7a||Lev 18:8||1 Cor 5:1c|
ἀσχημοσύνην πατρός σου καὶ ἀσχημοσύνην μητρός σου οὐκ ἀποκαλύψεις, μήτηρ γάρ σού ἐστιν. (LXX)
You shall note uncover the nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother, for she is your mother (my translation).
|ἀσχημοσύνην γυναικὸς πατρός σου οὐκ ἀποκαλύψεις, ἀσχημοσύνη πατρός σού ἐστιν. (LXX) |
You shall not uncover the nakedness of the wife of your father; it is the nakedness of your father (my translation).
|ὥστε γυναῖκά τινα τοῦ πατρὸς ἔχειν. (NA28) |
That someone is having the wife of his father (my translation).
The wording that Paul uses indicates that what was in mind in 1 Corinthians 5 is incest between a son and his mother-in-law, not the biological mother.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9, the text in view on homosexuality, we have another example where Paul relies on the Greek Old Testament for his word choice. The word ἀρσενοκοῖται did not exist prior to its Pauline usage, and is recognized by scholars as a term that Paul invented from the base text of Leviticus 18 and 20.
|Leviticus 18:22||μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός|
|Leviticus 20:13||ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός|
|1 Corinthians 6:9||ἀρσενοκοῖται|
The idea that Paul coined the term ἀρσενοκοῖται in reference to the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality is increasingly prevalent among scholars. It is not strange at all for Paul to form new theological words. There are 179 words found in Paul that occur nowhere else in pre-Christian Greek literature. Eighty-nine of those terms occur only one time. This data seems to support the idea that Paul was very comfortable with introducing new terminology. Greek is, after all, very conducive to creating new words easily. Given the fact that Paul was heavily influenced by the LXX and Jewish law, it seems a rather logical conclusion that Paul coined the term ἀρσενοκοῖται (which we translate “homosexuals”) so as to call to mind the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality.
Conclusion on Homosexuality
The argument that translations did not use the word “homosexual” until 1946 is a red herring which distracts from the real issue. The real issue is not whether the word homosexual was used in English translations, but whether the Bible speaks against the issue of homosexuality. When examining the biblical data, there is really no other conclusion—the Bible rejects the idea of homosexuality as compatible with God’s design for humanity.
Photo by Johannes Krupinski on Unsplash