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.