Thursday, July 31, 2008

Doug Chaplin on Scripture and Homosexuality II

Doug Chaplin has continued his exploration of the Scriptures and Homosexuality. His latest post discusses 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11, both of which seem to include "sodomites" in a list of sins. Here are highlights from Doug's excellent analysis:

Here are 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11 from the NRSV.

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:8-11)

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers– none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

. . .

Embedded within both lists as one of these “typical” sorts of sinner, is the one the NRSV chooses to translate as “sodomites” – ἀρσενοκοῖται (arsenokoitai). As far as I can see, whether reading conservative authors like Robert Gagnon, or liberal ones like Dale Martin, in the end what we think this word means is a best guess. The argument from etymology (not one I normally like) is, in the absence of better arguments from usage, something to which we have to give more weight. That etymology indicates something like “those (men) who go to bed with men”. It seems to me quite likely that it’s a made up word, possibly within Jewish or Christian circles (based on the language the Greek Bible used to translate Leviticus), and probably as a term of abuse. Since the first use of the word we know about is in these lists, and much of its subsequent usage is also in lists, we don’t have much help in finding out whether it had a precise or a general meaning. It could have a very broad context, and include a wide range of sexual activity between men. It could have a much narrower context, whether in the context of allowing oneself to be a passive partner, the abuse of a slave, rape or the “educational relationships” between men and boys, or something else. The point about a best guess is that we don’t know. Most of the English translations not only make it sound as though we know.

I haven’t said anything about the other word sometimes enlisted in the argument. That malakoi (μαλακοί) means “soft ones” or “the effeminate” is fairly clear. However, since effeminacy could also mean anything from being far too interested in women’s company, and dressing up to seduce them, through cowardice, to being a man willing to be penetrated by another and so on and so on, we need more context to know how to translate it here. It could just as easily be paired with the preceding adulterers (μοιχοί) as the following arsenokoitai (ἀρσενοκοῖται.) It is better, probably, to look for a neutral and inclusive term such as the NJB’s “the self-indulgent” than risk being wrongly specific.

This is where it is important to remember just how much interpretation goes into reading and translation. If “the Bible said” what the NET says: “The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God” – if that was the text, we might all know better where we stood. But it does not, and there is far too much interpretation in such a translation. It is this sort of sure and certain over-interpretation which raises a suspicion (however unjustified) of other influences affecting the reading.

In short, I find that these texts have comparatively little to say. Some form of not entirely clear sexual activity between men is listed in two vice lists, one aimed at distinguishing the behaviour of pre-conversion Gentiles from the life that fits the kingdom of God, the other at distinguishing the sort of sinful behaviour that might characterise false teachers. Both lists appear to be associated with what one can be redeemed from. But whatever the behaviour is, the writer(s) of these vice lists take(s) it as axiomatic that it is wrong, and seriously wrong at that. But in my view that’s part of the problem. There’s no hint of theological reflection at all, so we have no idea why they’re saying what they’re saying about whatever form of sexual activity between men they have in view. We’re not quite sure precisely what is condemned, and we’ve no idea why, not on the basis of these texts. We are however, pretty sure it’s condemned. That makes the task of faithful interpretation more difficult than is often admitted.

Read it all here. Here are links to the other posts in this series:

Gay questions to straight answers

Texts of Queer Terror (1)

The stranger angel: texts of queer terror (2)

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