Saturday, January 2, 2010

Zachar, Arsen, Koitai, Malakoi, Aresenokoites and translation

Debby Berkley over at her blog "Taking the Ring" kindly hosted a bunch of us talking beyond the intent of her blog.  I, along with several others, descended (or ascended?) into linguistics  At least we were talking about the meaning of words and not how nasty and wrong each other was which was the point of Debbie's blog.

But Debbie said it was time to close.  So if anyone still wants to talk about the meaning of words in literary and historical context in Hebrew, Greek, German, English and other languages come on over!  We can continue talking about what Paul and the writer/editor of Leviticus meant (if we can indeed discover what they meant) and how those passages might apply today.

I suggest the following:

1. That the word zachar in Hebrew basically means male and that in 18:22 and 20:13 the word can only mean male, not boy or male prostitute.

2.  That the LXX used two words in Lev. 18: and 20: arsen and koitai to talk about men having sex together.

3. That the LXX in Paul's time included the words arsen and koitai and that Paul combined them in 1 cor. 6:9 into one word meaning men who have sex together.

4. That the word malakoi is a much more complicated word as it can mean everything from soft clothes to men who wash regularly, wear fancy clothes and oil and comb their hair so as to attract women into adultery.  It can also mean a man who has sex with another man and is on the receiving end of anal intercourse.

I am willing to be convinced I am wrong.  So let's have at it again.  Unless everyone is bored with the subject for now.  And if some want to move from translation to application in the modern world that's okay too


Jodie said...


That those words CAN have sexual connotations is not in dispute. Every modern translation gives them SOME kind of sexual connotation.

What has been added to the discussion is that it is also possible that these words have different sexual connotations from what most people assume, or even possibly do not have a sexual connotation at all.

There seems to be no hard evidence that they do.

The logic that makes them have sexual connotations is merely a self referential assumption. A matter of projecting into Scripture what someone at one time wanted to read, rather than reading what is actually there.

The conservative Evangelicals and the Christian Fundamentalists rest their entire fight-to-the-death-to-defend-the-faith posture regarding homosexuality on their assertion that these words are a) the Word-of-God and b) that they have specific sexual connotations.

And yet neither assumption can be demonstrated.

The first is a matter blind doctrine, and the second as it turns out, is a matter of flimsy conjecture, and questionable tradition.

You would think that given those two facts, people would be more cautious in their ethical choices. That if a congregation wanted to call a pastor who in every other way was a typical pastor, maybe even specially gifted in one area or other, except for the fact that he or she is gay, that this would not be a matter of contention from other churches and leaders in the church.

At least not a theologically based contention.

And even if you could by some stroke of luck or miracle make a case for a) and b) to be true, once you go down all the same kind of biblical lists of condemnations and find that nobody gets left out, that all of us are unrepentant of at least one item on the list, one would think that the parable of the Publican and Pharisee would be enough to stop the arguing. Or the story of the woman caught in adultery. Or the answer Jesus gives to who can be saved. Or any other number of stories or teachings that evoke a more humble posture on what God allows and does not allow among his people.

One would think that the most conservative theological position the Church could take is one of "no opinion".

One would think that values and teachings that are much easier to draw out of Scripture would take precedence.

One would think...

Pastor Bob said...


I agree that all of the words, taken out of context, can mean something entirely different than any kind of sexual activity except maybe arsenokoitai and since that word occurs only once in the Bible and is not used prior to 1 Cor we have to find context to translate it. It is difficult to find any word in the Bible that always has a sexual connotation. So and so knew his wife. So and so went into his wife. Now in context one can infer that the author meant to talk about sex. So and so knew his wife and she became pregnant.

So the question at hand for the translator is what do these words mean in the context of the sentence and the context of the surrounding sentence? 1 Cor. presents us with a difficult problem because malakoi and arsenokoitai are simply words in a list of sins. So unless we insist that the words have specific meaning by themselves, or that we know the meaning of arsenokoitai which therefore gives malakoi context we have a rather weak case for saying the words mean specific things in this context.

The sentences in Leviticus give us more information. Yes, zachar has no sexual connotation of its own, unless we mean sexual in the sense of sex as meaning an identifying word. "He is male and she is female." In all the places where zachar is used in Lev. it means male (although sometimes translated as "he." In the sentence under question it takes on meaning. To lie with a man as with a woman takes on a sexual connotation particularly since the word "lie" also appears in 18:20 to talk about sex with the neighbor's wife and is also used in 18:23 to talk about sex with animals. I suggest that we can make a pretty good case that the sentence means a man having sex with a man. And the only way to get a sexual meaning in 1 Cor. for arsenokoitai is to take the LXX translation that uses arsen and koitai and say that the two words are put together by Paul.

As to application, particularly in the context of life today, is a another step. If we can agree that Lev. 18:22 forbids sex between two men (or at least sex between two men that includes anal penetration) can we prove that we are to use the sentence to talk about morality today?

Enough for one post.

Pastor Bob said...

This responds to the second section of your post.

"The Bible is the Word of God." Of course that is a theological or faith statement. One even needs to take a step beyond that and say that the Bible has meaning in instructing people on what to believe and how to live. The statement cannot be proven as factual. But if we don't affirm that then the whole conversation is historical (what did the writers/editors mean) and sociological (why does a particular group in today's society act they way it does?).

If we apply only this question to calling a pastor it is a highly appropriate question to ask. If the pastor says that the Bible has no meaning for her/his faith and life then the congregation (and the presbytery in the case of the PCUSA) has evidence on which to decide whether to call that person or not. As a member of a presbytery I would have to vote against the reception of a person into the presbytery who says that the Bible has no meaning for his/her faith or life. On the other hand if a candidate says the Bible is the Word of God I would want some explanation.

As to the question of the meaning of the words and their application in the Church (and the churches), I thought that was what we were talking about here!

In the passages you mention, in each case people are called to repentance or repent. Certainly we are saved by the grace of God and not our own behavior. But both John the Baptist and Jesus preached repentance. One of the tasks of the Christian is to seek sanctification. Repentance is part of that process.

And yes, all of us have sin for which we have not repented because we don't know that the behavior is sin, we confess regularly that it is sin but keep doing it, or just keep the behavior hidden. Maybe an interesting question for a COM to ask a candidate would be "What sin do you commit concerning which you do not repent?" It would make for really long COM meetings, at least if candidates speak the truth!

In the case of homosexual sexual sin the issue is before at least the PCUSA. Someone seeks ordination or membership in a presbytery and clearly says that sex between two men is not sinful and that he is involved in a long term relationship in which he has sex with his male partner. Here the individual in question says that his interpretation of Scripture is that there is no Scriptural reason to say that sex between two men is sinful. The COM and the presbytery have to decide if they agree with the candidate on the translation and interpretation of the Bible around the question at hand.

If we were to consider a different sin, like committing adultery we might have grounds for comparison. If a candidate came before the COM and the presbytery and said that he had three wives and five concubines, enjoyed having sex with a variety of women (variety, after all, is the spice of life) and saw no Biblical warrant that such behavior was sinful what should the COM and the presbytery do? Is there better Biblical evidence that having more than one wife or having concubines is sinful than two men having sex?