Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality Curbing Abusive Homosexual Sex Specifically, not Homosexuality in General
Our society has many laws that govern sex. In general, sex is legal. You can’t have it in public though. If force is used to initiate sex—rape—that is illegal. If there is the potential for an abusive power dynamic between an adult and a minor—statutory rape—that is illegal. These laws (among many) are designed to protect people not to discourage sex in general.
Read the way the author intended, both 1 Corinthian and 1 Timothy contain attitudes about homosexual sex; however, these target abusive male-male sex, not homosexual sex in general. Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality makes this case for the content in these two Bible books. His argument hinges on the wide variety of translations of two important Greek words: malakoi and arsenokoitai. Both words point to something evil, but the rub is that there is not enough context to appreciate what exactly they refer to.
Depending on which current Bible translation you read—Helminiak mentions 1977 and 1989 versions—these words range in meaning from “homosexual” to “sodomites” to “sexual perverts” (arsenokoitai) as well as “effeminate” to “sissies” to “boy prostitutes” (malakoi) (106). A 1985 translation, however, translates malakoi to mean the “self-indulgent.” To show just how wide-ranging these the interpretations of these two words has been, Helminiak points that until the Reformation, malakoi was understood to mean “masturbators.”
He takes this point a step further by stating that a recent Catholic New American Bible translates arsenokoitai to “practicing homosexual” (106). The problem with this particular change in meaning reflects a concept that did not exist when the Bible was written: no such sexual orientation existed. Furthermore, it also folds in women, when the original content speaks directly to men (106-7).
As Helminiak points out, Bible translations appear to reflect changing prejudices, not the author’s intent (106).
To support these points, Helminaiak examines other places these two words surface in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. Malakoi refers to “effeminacy” and to being “loose.” With this use, Helminiak understandably sees the earlier use referring to a particular way of engaging in homosexual sex—those acting effeminate (like women) and being on the receiving end. Therefore, what is being discouraged is not homosexual sex in general but rather acting a particular way that appears to act against male “masculine” nature, a behavior typically exhibited by prostitutes during this era (108).
By why is there so much debate about what these two words mean? As far as arsenokoitai, the issue lies in how obscure the word is—1 Corinthians is the earliest example of its use and it appears in only 6 other works (not including 1 Timothy). True, it always appears in a list of vices, but Helminiak argues that the way the two parts of the word function suggest that it refers to male prostitutes (111). Helminiak also suggests that this typical vice list did not belong to Paul; rather, when writing these letters, he borrowed this list in order to encourage people to be better individuals, using common vices with which they would be familiar.
Think of a foreigner coming to the US and referring to the first ten Constitutional amendments in order to explain where our priorities lie.
Understanding a bit about first century Roman society is also crucial: sex was everywhere and men often sought out other men and boys for sex. This was embraced, for the older man often mentored the younger boy. It was viewed as a positive relationship. However, men also kept and abused boys for sex, even kidnapping boys and girls and selling them into sexual slavery (113). Given this situation, Paul’s points speak to discouraging this practice, not homosexual activity in general.
This historical context demonstrates that we can’t inject our own meaning into words when we translate the Bible, choosing to massage words so they fit ideas we have; we need to better understand exactly what the author intended. To do that we need to take into consideration the culture in which particular words—like malakoi and arsenokoitai—were used. The Bible encourages love and understanding and condemns abuse; this is what the supposed gay content in these two Bible books addresses.