Pederasty and Arsenokoitai

One argument that is sometimes offered by Christian advocates of same-sex marriage is that the Apostle Paul was not thinking of loving, monogamous adult relationships, and only intended to condemn Greco/Roman pederasty. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading ancient Greek texts on sexuality recently, and that has gotten me thinking in general about Paul’s historical context and, more specifically, about this argument.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that relationships between adult men and adolescent boys or young men were the most commonly attested same-sex relationships in the ancient world. There are exceptions—Plato’s Symposium discusses committed, lifelong same-sex relationships—but this is by far the most common kind of relationship. We should therefore acknowledge that the Apostle Paul was likely most familiar with this kind of same-sex sexual activity.

It’s worth observing, however, that precisely because this form of same-sex sexuality was so common, there was standard terminology in Greek for talking about these relationships—the older man was the erastes (lover) and the younger man the eromenos (beloved). If these relationships were Paul’s target, it would have been reasonable for him to use these standard Greek terms.

Instead, he used an apparently novel term, arsenokoitai, which either he invented or which he took from Helenistic Judaism. The most logical derivation of this new word is from the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18:22, which says that you shall not lie with (koiten) a man (arsenos) as with a woman.

In both Greek and English, verbs can be transformed into nouns. Thus, in English, swimmers are people who swim. In Greek, the koitai are men (-ai is a masculine ending) who koiten—that is, “lie with” in a sexual sense. So the arsenokoitai are men who lie with other men in a sexual sense.

There is an additional reason for thinking that arsenokoitai is derived from Leviticus 18:22. In 1 Timothy 1:8-11, the Apostle Paul writes,

we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the Law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.

Paul is listing various disobedient groups of people who have been given the Law to tell that their acts are contrary to God’s will. Thus, we would expect the arsenokoitai to correspond to some prohibition in the Law. The obvious candidate prohibition, for reasons given above, is Leviticus 18:22.

It’s important not to misunderstand the context of this prohibition. Paul is no harsher in his condemnation of homosexual activity than he is of sexual immorality in general. And just a few verses later, he writes, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16). Anyone who uses these verses either to single out homosexual sin for unique condemnation, or who fails to speak with humility of God’s love for all, is misusing the text.

However, it’s also important not to misunderstand the prohibition itself. While pederasty was the most common form of same-sex activity recorded in ancient writings, Paul doesn’t use the common language of pederasty. Instead of condemning age or power differences, he coins a new word which focuses particularly on relationships that involve two men.

These kinds of considerations, it seems to me, make the claim that Paul was only condemning pederasty—rather than same-sex sexual activity more generally—much more problematic.

ron50Ron Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

41 thoughts on “Pederasty and Arsenokoitai

  1. The reference to female homosexuality in Romans 1 further makes such a pederastic reading in _that_ text difficult as well–as such a relationship was not known, so far as I am aware, to be common among women.

    Since female homosexuality (Rm 1:26) is used as a parallel for the male sexuality (Rm 1:27), blanket condemnation of same-sex acts seems likely.

    Even pro-inclusion scholars like Robert Jewett and Beverly Roberts Gaventa have written similar things about this regarding Romans 1 (which, incidentally, is not mostly about sexuality but directed to Jewish Christians to help them see Jewish and Gentile sinners are equal in the eyes of God–using agreed upon sins as an example)..

    • Actually, Paul may not have had female homosexual behavior specifically in mind when wrote 1:26. We tend to read both vs 26 and 27 through the modern lens which sees sexuality as divided into 2 categories, heterosexual and homosexual, based on primary attraction. We then read that back into Paul’s language about “natural” and unnatural” lusts.

      The early Church, however place primary emphasis for sexual identity on behavior, rather than attraction and had a much broader category of “unnatural” than merely homosexual.

      The early Christian writers included in the “unnatural” category: adultery, homosexual sex, beastiality, prostitution and even any kind of sex within a marriage that intentionally precluded conception.

      I believe that Paul is using “homosexual sex” as an illustration of the “unnatural” category rather than as a definitive description. Otherwise he would not have been able to say men abandoned the “natural use of women” because Roman men in no way abandoned heterosexual license.

      Romans 1 only makes sense if Paul is saying that Roman men abandoned the respect for family and commitment to wife in favor of the unnatural of which homosexual behavior was only a part.

      so I think it is unwarranted to read “homosexual” behavior as the sum total of what Paul was talking about and then to read that definition back into vs 26 and say he was talking specifically about female homosexual behavior.

      In fact, what really bothers me about the modern reading of Romans 1 is not that it call my homosexual attractions “unnatural” but that the modern interpretation lets all those straight Christians off the hook by saying, “at least your attraction to women is ‘natural.'”


      ALL TEMPTATION by definition is unnatural and degraded including the majority of desires experienced by straight people.

      Until the Church acknowledges that heterosexual temptation is as perverted and “unnatural” as they make out the gay person to be then the Church can never really claim to be ministering to gay people at all.

      as long as there are two categories of sinners we can not claim to be the Church.

      • Matt, thank you so much for this explanation on natural/unnatural! Sure will make us of this in my conversations on SSA with others. 🙂

      • I agree that this does not refer to temptation but it does nothing to my point.

        Perhaps the best inclusion argument is that Paul is just wrong because he calls homo-erotic desires “unnatural” when we know them to be “natural”.

        However, to say this doesn’t refer to homo-erotic action even if he’s using it as a descriptor rather than a blanket condemnation. In fact, I said that in my text.

        All that is required in that specific _sex act_ they abandoned “natural desire/ order” as Paul calls it. The blanket condemnation is in no way destroyed by the fact many Roman men had sex with men and women.

        Obviously, the point of the text is that both Gentile and Jews are sinners and the Roman Jews need to accept the Gentiles.

        For Paul, that people are “given over” to homosexual action is but one *sign* of idolatry (along with, as you mentioned, other sexual sins).

        I nowhere stated that straight persons sexual sins are lesser or less concerning. I’m only saying the pederastic interpretation of Romans 1 seems unlikely.

        This is a little older, but it’s good. Starting at page 383 is a good explanation of the Romans 1 text

        Click to access Hays_Moral_Vision_Homosexuality.pdf

        ” The language of ‘exchange’ plays a central role in this passage, emphasizing the direct parallelism between the rejection of God and the rejection of created sexual roles…. [When Paul uses ‘nature ‘or ‘natural’] we must recognize Paul is hardly making an original contribution to theological thought on the subject; he speaks out of a Hellenistic-Jewish cultural context in which homosexuality is an abomination, and he assumes his readers will share his negative judgment of it. Though he offers no explicit reflection on the concept of ‘nature’it appears that in this passage Paul identifies ‘nature’with the created order. The understanding of ‘nature in this conventional language does not rest on empirical observation of what actually exists; instead, it appeals to a conception of what ought to be, of the world as designed y God and revealed through the stories and laws of Scripture.” (Hays 387).

        Do I wish Paul would’ve put his argument differently? To be honest, sometimes I do. But there’s not much to go off of to say, as you do, that it’s about abandoning family– the implications of ‘natural’ appear to be broader..

      • Jonathan,

        Sorry, I should have been more clear that I wasn’t arguing against your main point, just correcting the statements that Paul was referring to female homosexuality in vs 26.

        Sorry, just sort of one of my pet peeves as I deal with pastors all the time who try to narrow Romans 1 down to a discussion of homosexuality only and who use “female homosexuality” in 1:26 to do so. While you did not state that heterosexual sex acts were less sinful, unfortunately, many of these pastors I deal with DO say that. I’ve even had pastors say point blank to my face that my temptations are “perverted” and at least their own are “natural.”

        So I am sorry – I didn’t mean to imply that you, personally, had drawn a distinction.

  2. Furthermore it would have been strange to single out the age difference as the major prohibition as there seems to have been no such big issue made of intergenerational heterosexual relations (so long as marriage was involved). The child bride (even pre-pubescent) seems to have been a not-uncommon phenomenon in the Middle and Far East, less so, but not unheard of in Greco-Roman society, and not really rare even among the Jews. I don’t see Paul remarking on this.

  3. Dr Belgau, I’m afraid you’ll need to be a lot more precise. The ending -ai is not specifically masculine (although in this instance its singular -koites is), the term is, I’m afraid found in quite a few poets of the imperial period and not a few papyri, and even one or two stone inscriptions… all from people who had almost certainly never read St Paul. Its semantic range is enormous and very vague (see for instance Sibylline Oracles 2.73). It is of course possible that this was a neologism made up of the two terms found in Lv 18, but there is absolutely no hard evidence that it was. In any other context (i.e. if there was nothing ethical at stake for Christian exegetes), scholars would be wary to translate it definitively, and warier still of using their translation to back up doctrine. I would.

  4. Nice piece. Of course, this should cause us to consider the reasons for the prohibition. Based on the context of Leviticus, it seems that the prohibition relates to violations in gender-role hierarchy (i.e., gender complementarity). Thus, it suggests that gender complementarity is not merely some anachronism of the ancient world that we can ignore: It ought to provide a normative standard for family life in the covenant community even today.

    Speaking as an evangelical, I see little effort by the church to practice gender complementarity today with respect to marriage. For at least the last 100 years, we have moved toward functionally egalitarian marriages. In many instances, we hold seminars that train Christian couples how to inflame sexual passions, often in ways that would be “unnatural” to Paul’s way of thinking. Meanwhile, churches have promoted a sex-centered view of marriage that recreates the institution in a way that makes it far less accessible to gay Christians than it would have been in the past.

    So, it strikes me that many evangelical churches apply something of a double standard. Straights are permitted to toss off the strictures of gender complementarity with impunity. Meanwhile, gays are still expected to live under those strictures. It’s hard to look at this and not see an element of anti-gay bigotry at play.

  5. I think it’s worth noting that the Church has interpreted arsenokoitai as referring to sodomy in general, not just sodomy between members of the same sex. John Boswell notes in footnote 51 of Appendix I of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality that a 4th century Christian text derides “aresenokoitai” between a married man and his wife, and other varied meanings not limited to same-sex sexual acts.

    On a related note, the Church has also interpreted “molakoi” to refer to masturbation (cf., the New Catholic Encyclopedia entry on masturbation).

    Thus, I think that according to the Magisterium, “malakoi oute arsenokoite” (“molles neque masculorum concubitores” in the Vulgate) refers to all non-procreative sex acts, encompassing same-sex sex acts, heterosexual sodomy, contraception, and masturbation.

    • Thanks for your response @ladenheart.

      I think it is certainly true that in one sense Paul wasn’t talking about the type of monogamous same-sex relationships that we have today, simply because of course he lived in a different time and place. I agree with you that context matters. Thus, pushing another level deeper, the question becomes why was same-sex sexual behavior prohibited in 1 Cor. 6? Was it because of its exploitative, hierarchical nature as you suggest? I suppose that’s possible, but I don’t see anything in the text that demands or even really suggests that reading. Certainly some of the things mentioned in Paul’s vice list are problematic on an economic level, but it seems like you would have to work to force in its entirety into that framework.

      I also think you are too quick to dismiss the link to Leviticus 18 in determining the meaning of arsenokoitai. Yes etymology can mislead when it comes to understanding a word’s meaning, but the etymological fallacy especially applies when there is an historical distance between the origin of the word and its use in the text. If this is indeed a word coined by Paul, then etymology is probably our best guide as to what it means. No, we can’t state with complete certainty that this is the case, but among the options available, it certainly seems most likely. It’s rarity outside of Paul and ambiguous later use don’t provide evidence of much other than that it wasn’t a term commonly used before Paul and it was one that may have been used with other meanings in the centuries after.

      Finally, I wonder if it isn’t just as helpful to consider the Hebraic context as the Hellenistic in thinking about sexuality in Paul’s writings. Certainly Paul carries with him many of the assumptions and worldview of the Torah in his writings, and places where he reads them in light of the cross and resurrection tend to be fairly evident. I’m not sure then that we can dismiss the problem here as “passivity” in light of the Hebraic worldview that condemned same-sex behaviors on other grounds.

      Okay, sorry for my essay-comment. Those were just some of my thoughts as I read through your piece.

    • Ladenheart, I appreciate your clear and cogent writing. I am wondering what your thoughts are on two issues:

      1. A primary reason for prohibition of same-sex intercourse appears to be because its “unnatural” and unnatural included the fact that the act was not procreative. Matthew Vines admits this in his book too and provides quotes from Plato, Philo, and Josephus (although he misses the implication of it). So Paul’s proscription seems to be in part to the fact that same-sex intercourse is not procreative. Jesus also ties marriage to procreation (e.g. Matt 19:11-12; Luke 20:34-36)

      Does it matter whether or not a relationship is monogamous, consensual in our current understanding of same-sex relationships if the prohibition against same-sex intercourse is tied, in part, to procreation as an essential piece of the definition of marriage?

      2. If antiquity did not have any concept of sexual orientation, what do we make of Plato’s Symposium here:

      “It is from that time that the innate Love [Eros] of humans for each other came to be, and draws us to that primeval nature, and as a consequence makes one out of two [“hen ek duoin”] and heals humanity’s nature. Each of us then is a symbol of humanity inasmuch as we are hewn like a flat fish – out of one, two [“ex henos duo”]. So they each seek their [other] symbol. All those men who are sliced from the most common [sex], which was called androgynous, are lovers of women and many of the unfaithful [or adulterers] come from this species, as all women who love men and are unfaithful do come from this species. Women who were hewn from a woman pay no attention whatsoever to men; however, they turn exclusively to women, and the hetairistriai come from this species. All those men who are hewn from a man, chase after men, and are like that from boyhood; being slices of a man, they love males and delight in lying down together and being smitten with men, and are therefore the best boys and young men, being of such manly natures.”

      • Very quick response to both Kyle and Karen – but to be honest, this was partly the reason I didn’t want to say anything at all, because I don’t have the time – nor energy – to respond to people at the moment, and so I’m just going to point you to the secondary literature that, I think at least goes some way in providing answers, here goes:

        Kyle, on arsenokoites/ link with Lev. etc. Dale B. Martin’s article that I referenced deals with most of your questions.

        And on the Jewish background, the Daniel Boyarin article that I linked to on twitter today, also provides some necessary background.

        Karen, I’ll state immediately, that I don’t believe that procreation is intrinsic and essential to a Christian definition of marriage. I agree with you in part that it was quite bound up with many ancient definitions, the *telos* of something being quite important for a number of the philosophies of the Hellenistic schools, e.g. Stoics. But, I just don’t see that as essential given the full sweep of (even orthodox) Christian teaching on the topic of marriage.

        To the second point – so many ancient historians, classicists, and readers of Plato etc. have made the point infinitely better that I could, so I’d encourage you to read them. The best place to start, if you can get hold of it, because its quite obscure, is M. Lambert and H. Szesnat, “Greek Homosexuality: Whither the Debate?” Akroterion 39 (1994) 46-63. Otherwise the bibliography I linked to has all the main names, Halperin, Winkler, Parker, Williams etc. – many of them deal with Plato and orientation questions.

        Sorry, I know that this is a bit of a cop-out, but really, if you’re serious about the topic, my half-formed sentences in a WordPress comment box are not going to convince you – so I’d rather point you to the articles the formed my thinking on the topic – that way you can read them closely and at your leisure.

        Hope that helps.

  6. To add to what Karen said, here is a good link:

    The issue is very important, since the Vines-Brownson thesis depends very much on the claim that the biblical authors had no understanding of sexual orientation. But, that claim is, at best, quite precarious.

    Intuitively, the affirming thesis makes little sense. Gays would have had all the same desires then with some wanting and indulging in promiscuity and some choosing lifelong monogamy.

    What Paul was saying is that sexual desire for one’s own sex is inherently lustful and excessive. Such a desire, whether resulting from biological or other factors, is the result of the fall. It is appropriate to desire close same-sex friendship and platonic affection, but not homosexual sex.

  7. Why should arsenokotai be “men who like to bed with men” and not simply “men who spend a lot of time in bed” regardless of gender? It’s all speculation, which is fine in Biblical scholarship but not when you’re casually writing off the legitimacy of a category of people.

  8. Ladenheart–thanks for your reply. I think where we differ is that I am not comfortable discarding the biblical teaching on marriage. The Old Testament, Paul, and Jesus all affirm that procreation is essential to the definition. I would have to believe Scripture is only a cultural product in this regard, and while there are certainly cultural aspects to the writing of the Bible, I do not see this as based in culture. Throughout church history procreation has been essential to the definition. Its only been recently in modern times (with seeds in the Reformation) that marriage came to be seen as primarily companionship divorced from procreation. The advent of contraceptive technology is a major aspect of that. However, even still 49% of all pregnancies in America today are unintended. So even just based on that stat, I would have difficulty conceding that we can separate the procreative from the unitive.

    I held to the primarily companionship view of marriage until last summer when I did some fairly intensive study and thinking around this issue. I have since come to believe that Protestants have gone way off the mark in diminishing the procreative aspect. The Catholic church is more in line with Scripture and the tradition of the Church. To be clear I believe marriage is more than procreation as Scripture also asserts. It is also kinship and sexual release. But its never less than procreation. But I understand that sounds foreign to many people these days.

    Anyway, thanks for giving a response. I am always curious how folk handle certain aspects of Scripture. If I understand you correctly, it sounds like you see the biblical emphasis on procreation in relation to marriage as a cultural artifact of antiquity, including Jesus’ understanding. But I don’t want to misunderstand you. So please correct me if I am wrongly stating your view.

    • Let me be clear – I do not “discard the biblical teaching on marriage” – I merely interpret what Scripture says on the topic differently to you (clearly). Procreation is clearly not necessary for marriage to be so defined – otherwise childless marriages would not be considered as legitimate marriages; similarly, what we understand by “procreation” might take on new meaning(s) in the NT era, for example, “spiritual children” could be in view as much as actual physical children.

      • Ladenheart, I am sorry–I didn’t mean to imply that you are discarding biblical teaching. But now that you have pointed it out to me, I see that is what I did. I should not have presumed that without hearing more of your biblical interpretation. I would be interested in hearing from someone of your standpoint (although I know you personally don’t have time right now) a biblical discussion on marriage.

        Yes, there is the sense of spiritual children–although Paul and Jesus seem to find that reason for their celibacy. And the early church championed celibacy for that reason also. But I have not sat down and done a more thorough study on that–so would be interesting to do.

        As for infertile couples–that is often brought up–but I don’t consider tragedies to represent what is ontological. Many couples don’t realize they are infertile until after they marry. One cannot guarantee children, but that doesn’t negate openness to procreation as a posture for entering marriage. There is more that could be said on this (reasons why infertile couples are distinct from gay couples on this matter) but I am not sure it would be helpful at this point since it would require more than a blog exchange to get at the heart of things.

    • Karen, Where does Jesus “affirm that procreation is essential to the definition” of marriage? Also, where does Paul?

      • Hypatia,
        With regard to Paul, his reference to homosex as “unnatural” in Romans 1 is a reference to procreation. Jewish thinkers contemporary with Paul, such as Philo and Josephus, as well as many Greek philosophers around the 1st century AD specifically refer to same-sex intercourse as “contrary to nature” because it is not procreative, while heterosex is “natural” because it is procreative. Plato also says this (even though he didn’t think the desire itself was a problem per se, but he preferred sublimination).

        As for Jesus see: Matt 19:11-12; Luke 20:34-36. He assumes the eunuch, who doesn’t procreate, will not marry. He also says that in the eschaton there is no marriage. Why? Because people will not die anymore. That is, procreation, and therefore marriage, will no longer needed to maintain the existence of humanity because people will have eternal life. In antiquity, people saw themselves as living on in their offspring.

        Also, in his discussion of marriage and divorce with the Pharisees, Jesus reads Genesis 1 and 2 together (Matt 19:4-5). He only needed Genesis 2 to make his point “man leaves his mother and father,” but he adds Genesis 1, “God made them male and female.” Gay affirming theologians like Brownson and Vines have suggested that we can separate Genesis 2 from Genesis 1 and therefore separate male/female and procreation in Genesis 1 from the kinship union in Genesis 2. But Jesus doesn’t do that. He reads and understands them together.

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  13. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 defines aresenokoitai as the rape of male kidnap victims.

    It therefore has nothing to do with Leviticus 18:22.

    • I’m not sure what you mean by saying that 1 Timothy 1:9-10 defines arsenokoitai as the rape of male kidnap victims.

      1 Timothy 1:9-10 doesn’t define arsenokoitai at all. It just users it in a list of sins.

      Do you mean that you’ve read biblical scholars who say that the word refers to the rape of male kidnap victims?

      • Hi Ron, look at the prose used, the sins are matched as synonyms. Arsenokoitai is a synonym of kidnapping.

        9We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for (lawbreakers and rebels), the (ungodly and sinful), the (unholy and irreligious), for those who (kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers),

        for the (sexually immoral, arsenokoitai, for slave traders) and (liars and perjurers)

      • Even on that theory, why pair arsenokoitai with slave traders rather than with sexual immorality?

        Pornoi appears with arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9, but andrapodistai does not appear in that list.

        In any case, your argument was not that the arsenokoitai were kidnappers, but those who raped kidnap victims. If it’s a synonym for kidnapper, where does rape come in?

        In any case, leaving aside the problem of why you pair with andrapodistai rather than pornoi, why would this paired synonym theory be a more compelling way of figuring out what arsenokoitai means that the analysis I offered above? As I argued, arsenokoitai must refer to something in the law, and the most plausible reference is to Leviticus 18:22.

      • Doesn’t have to be paired, actually the first 4 sins are synonyms. (lawbreakers and rebels ungodly and sinful)

        Pornoi, aresenokoitai and slave trading are used as synonyms in this prose, and therefore aresenokoitai must be the combination.

        The problem with Leviticus 18:22 is that the english words “As with” (a woman) are injected for smooth sentence and do not appear in the hebrew, latin vulgate, or LXX.

        Without this injection we have “With men not lie bed woman abomination”

        Which is more convincingly a prohibition on gang-sex than homosexuality.

      • I should further add that Pornos derives from the verb
        pernemi meaning “to sell”.

        Therefore arsenokoitai in synonymous prose with porno and slave trading is the purchasing of a male slave for sex, and should no longer be used by extremists to clobber consensual relations.

      • Sorry I missed your mention of 1 Cor 6:9. Malakoi could mean “male prostitute” and next to arsenokoitai would then include those who buy them, just as 1 Tim 9:10 gives us the Pornos (male for sale), the buyer (arsenokoitai) and the procurer (slave-trader).

  14. And if you find this argument convincing I would ask you to please state so as I was referred here by an idolater that held you higher than reason.

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