by Thomas Cranmer
If only they had opted for the KJV, or the Good News, or even the NIV (2011). But the 1984 translation of the New International Version has done it for three church groups in Wanstead, who all find themselves ‘suspended’ from using their usual venue – Wanstead High School – for whom this translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is unacceptable:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
It concerns the interpretation and translation of the troublesome Greek terms ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoitēs’. which Paul considers to be among those categories of people who will not enter the Kingdom of God. The 1984 edition of the NIV renders the latter as ‘homosexual offenders’, which the school considers to be ‘homophobic’. The term was apparently used on leaflets pushed through people’s doors which invited them to attend the church services ‘to learn about forgiveness and salvation’.
The Headteacher of Wanstead High said that ‘groups showing any types of racist or homophobic attitudes should not be permitted in the school’.
And so the church groups, which includes the East London International Church of Christ, are ‘suspended’.
His Grace is a bit perplexed by this, for while the juxtaposition of ‘homosexual’ and ‘offender’ may be deemed a tad ‘homophobic’ to the modern ear, surely the greater homophobia is expressed clearly in all translations – namely that neither ‘malakoi’ nor ‘arsenokoitēs’ are going to heaven.
The terms have been translated a variety of ways over the centuries: ‘effeminate’ and ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ (KJV); ‘those who participate in homosexuality’ (AMP); both participants in same-sex intercourse (CEB); ‘who engage in active or passive homosexuality’ (CJB); ‘a pervert or behaves like a homosexual’ (CEV); ‘those who make women of themselves, nor who abuse themselves with men’ (Darby); ‘men who let other men use them for sex or who have sex with other men’ (ERV); ‘homosexual perverts’ (GNT); ‘the effeminate, the pervert’ (Phillips); ‘passive homosexual partners, nor dominant homosexual partners’ (LEB); ‘those who are male prostitutes, or men who have sexual relations with other men’ (NCV); ‘men who are prostitutes or who commit homosexual acts’ (NIRV); ‘male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders’ (NIV 1984); ‘men who have sex with men’ (NIV 2011); ‘homosexuals, nor sodomites’ (NKJV); ‘men who act like women, or people who do sex sins with their own sex’ (NLV); ‘male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals’ (TNLV); ‘they that do lechery with men’ (WYC)…
Paul is simply reminding the Corinthians of their pagan past, when they were (among other things) ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoitēs’. It is unhelpful to translate either term ‘homosexuals’, since the word only originated in the 19th century. And it is not even clear that ‘malakoi’ is a sexual reference, since its basic meaning is ‘soft’, with ‘cowardly’ and ‘effeminate’ as derived meanings. Thus the KJV’s rendering as ‘effeminate’ may be truer to the ancient world, though it must be observed that effeminacy is not considered a moral category in the modern world. If this term has a sexual connotation, it most likely refers to the passive (‘soft’) partner in homosexual acts – a male performing the female role.
There is further debate over the meaning of ‘arsenokoitēs’. The word may be broken down, such that ‘arsen’ may be rendered ‘men’, and ‘koitai’ as ‘bed’, thus (in modern idiom) ‘those who sleep with men’. But even here there is dispute over which term is the object and which the subject. Taking ‘men’ as the object, we get ‘one who lies with a male’; taking ‘men’ as the subject (ie the gender of those actively engaged in the activity), we arrive at possible reference to active male prostitutes in the context of pagan ritual practice. The most convincing refutation of this is the observation that Paul includes the prostitute-inclusive word (‘pornoi’), but lists it separately. Further, the translation ‘a man who lies with a man’ has a firm foundation in the LXX, where the terms ‘arsen’ and ‘koitai’ both occur (Lev18:22; 20:13). The Pauline fusion of the two terms may therefore be a conscious and deliberate allusion to the Levitical holiness code.
If this is correct, it may be deduced (from Paul’s deliberate inclusion of some words and the exclusion of others) that there is in this sentence an allusion to the outright condemnation of all kinds of homosexual relations – the active (but more general) participant (‘arsenokoitēs’), the passive participant (‘malakoi’), and the prostitute (‘pornoi’). In the absence of any mention by Paul of a context-specific cultic prostitution, he seems to make it clear that all homosexual relations are incompatible with Christian discipleship.
As pastorally sensitive as this may be, it is what this passage says. The principal dispute centres now upon whether this is God’s word to all people for all time, or a reference back to the Levitical holiness code, and so the reapplication of the Old Testament condemnation of male homosexuality to the specific situation of the Church in Corinth.
Either way, it seems bizarre that a school should presume to determine which translation of the Bible a church group must use before it may hire its premises. One wonders if the Headteacher of Wanstead High would be as discerning of Arabic and as disputational in the use of certain translations of the Quran before admitting a Muslim group into his school.