Boswell on Malakos and Arsenokoites in I Corinthians 6:9

I finished John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.  I said a couple of posts ago that I was not overly impressed by Boswell’s interpretation of the biblical passages that appear to criticize homosexuality.  The exception to that would be Boswell’s interpretation of I Corinthians 6:9.

There are two Greek words in I Corinthians 6:9 that translators have applied to homosexuality.  The first is malakos, and one of the meanings of that word is “soft”.  The second is arsenokoites, which is a combination of “man” and “bed”.  A common view is that the malakos is the passive party in the homosexual act, whereas the arsenokoites is the active party.

Boswell states that, within Greek, malakos can have a range of meanings: “soft”, “sick”, “liquid”, “cowardly”, “refined”, “weak willed”, “delicate”, “gentle”, “debauched”, “licentious”, “loose”, “wanting in self-control”, “unrestrained”, and “wanton” (pages 106-107).  According to Boswell, while malakos is used to describe certain homosexuals, it is also used for other kinds of people, and so there is no integral connection between malakos and homosexuality.  Boswell argues that the term is not used for homosexuality in ancient literature.  Boswell also notes that a prominent Christian interpretation has been that malakos pertains to masturbation (in which case, I say, there will be no men in the Kingdom of God!).  But Boswell appears to believe that Paul means prostitution, since that is a concern of Paul in I Corinthians.

Regarding arsenokoites in I Corinthians 6:9, Boswell interprets it to mean a male prostitute, one who sleeps with men and women.  As I said, the word is a combination of “man” and “bed”.  Boswell thinks that the point of the word is that the man is having sex, not that one is having sex with a man.  Boswell states on page 344 that “In no words coined and generally written with the form ‘[arseno-]’ is the prefix demonstrably objective”, which means that the man is the subject when the prefix is used, not the object.  Boswell also looks at Greek and early Christian literature and says that arsenokoites is never used for homosexuality, and that even those discussing homosexuality do not use that word.  Boswell states on page 353: “The Carolingian theologian Hincmar of Reims was the first medieval moralist to make use of I Corinthians 6:9 in writing about homosexuality, and even he seems to have understood the Vulgate’s reference as involving prostitution as well.”

I did not fact-check Boswell, but I may do that sometime in the future.  If I have a criticism based on what I know now, I’d ask why Boswell thinks that I Corinthians 6:9 uses two words for prostitute.  Isn’t that redundant?  But I did find Boswell’s discussion of these Greek words to be the clearest I’ve read from someone arguing that they do not relate to homosexuality.

(UPDATE: On pages 219-220 of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Boswell cites scholarly critiques of his arguments regarding arsenokoites.  Boswell says that he did not consider the use of the word in Eusebius, who connects it with Sodom.  But Boswell goes on to refer to a time in ancient literature when the word refers to a heterosexual encounter.  Boswell also says that fewer translators rendered the word as “homosexuals” after Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.)


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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3 Responses to Boswell on Malakos and Arsenokoites in I Corinthians 6:9

  1. Pingback: James White and Barry Lynn Debate about Homosexuality and Christianity | James’ Ramblings

  2. bill skeat says:

    Don’t understand you use of the word ‘redundant’. There are many words that meant the same thing.


  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Of course there are. But I’m asking why Paul would refer to male prostitutes twice in a single passage listing people who will not enter the Kingdom of God.


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