Historical Grounds for Translating Arsenokoitai as “Homosexuals”
Proper understanding of the translation of arsenokoitai as “homosexuals” begins with the historical and cultural evidence. There is a general agreement that arsenokoitai does not appear before Paul’s usage, so no earlier historical settings for this particular word can be compared. Yet we have already begun to see much evidence that homosexuality was understood before the lifetime of Paul.
Petersen, Bailey, Boswell, Scroggs, Countryman, and others claim that arsenokoitai cannot be defined by the homosexual condition, desire, propensity, or inversion. Nor can arsenokoitai refer to the modern idea of commited adult mutuality. First, these advocates believe we must limit the term to acts of a particular kind, whether male prostitution (Boswell, Countryman) or pederasty (Scroggs). Or, second, we must see that the ancients did not know of the homosexual condition or adult mutuality (Bailey, Petersen, Countryman, Nissinen). They knew homosexual behavior only as pederasty or prostitution. They only knew it as something that was opposed to one’s biological sex.
Both of these positions are faulty. The first position will be addressed on linguistic grounds. Regarding the second view, one may ask: Did not the homosexual condition exist before 1869? Adult mutuality in homosexuality would not seem to be a modern phenomenon, particularly if, as some claim, these patterns are universals. Universal patterns must have existed in ancient times, even if the people of the times lacked sophistication in discussing them. Indeed, there is evidence that the ancients, unbelieving and first-century Christians, knew about all forms of same-gender activity, including transvestitism, and same-gender orientation and mutuality. Even Petersen admits that Plato in Symposium could be the “sole possible exception” to ancient ignorance. He discounts even Plato’s understanding, however, believing that even in Symposium, “acts appear to be the deciding factor.” If Plato in any sense an exception, he is a significant exception; given his influence he could hardly have been a “sole possible exception.” From Plato and from other quarters, substantial evidence can be found for a knowledge of both the homosexual condition and mutuality.
Plato’s Symposium is a collection of speeches by several friends of Socrates on the subject of love, and at the end includes Socrates’ own thoughts. Symposium frankly acknowledges the homosexual condition and its language would extend to adult mutuality. Aristophanes posits that from the beginning there were three kinds of human beings — male, female, and a third gender composed of male-females or men-women (androgynon). The three types of human beings were part of the “original nature” (palai physis). Zeus sliced these human beings in half to weaken them so that they would not be a threat to the gods. Since then, each person seeks his or her other half, either one of the opposite sex or one of the same sex. The speech of Aristophanes then declares,
Each of us, then, is but a tally of a man, since every one shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him. All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, whence likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses. All the women who are sections of the woman have no great fancy for men: they are inclined rather to women, and of this stock are the she-minions. Men who are sections of the male pursue the masculine, and so long as their boyhood lasts they show themselves to be slices of the male by making friends with men and delighting to lie with them and to be clasped in men’s embraces; these are the finest boys and striplings, for they have the most manly nature. Some say they are shameless creatures, but falsely: for their behavior is due not to shamelessness but to daring, manliness, and virility, since they are quick to welcome their like. Sure evidence of this is the fact that on reaching maturity these alone prove in a public career to be men. So when they come to man’s estate they are boy-lovers, and have no natural interest in wiving and getting children but only do these things under stress of custom; they are quite contented to live together unwedded all their days. A man of this sort is at any rate born to be a lover of boys or the willing mate of a man, eagerly greeting his own kind. Well, when one of them — whether he be a boy-lover or a lover of any other sort — happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment. These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another.
Should someone offer these two persons the opportunity to be fused for as long as they live, or even in hades, Aristophanes says that each “would unreservedly deem that he had been offered just what he was yearning for all the time” (192e).
Several observations about this passage are in order. First, the author gives consideration to lesbianism, as well as male homosexuality (191e). “Natural interest” (ton noun physei, 192b) reflects modern ideas of propensity or inclination. The words translated “born to be a lover of boys or the willing mate of a man” (paiderastes te kai philerastes gignetai, 192b) reflect the modern claims “to be born this way (homosexual).” The idea of mutuality (“the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, ” 192b) is present. Aristophanes even speaks of “mutual love ingrained in mankind reassembling our early estate” (ho eros emphytos allelon tois anthropois kai tes archaias physeos synagogeus, 191d). He knows the idea of permanency (“These are they who continue together throughout life,” 192c). There is further mention of, and/or allusion to, permanency (see 181d and 183e), mutuality, “gay pride,” pederasty, homophobia, motive, desire, passion, and the nature of love and its works.
Second, clearly the ancients could think of love (homosexual or heterosexual) apart from actions. The speakers in Symposium argue that motive is crucial in homosexual affection: money, office, and influence bring reproach (182e-183a, 184b). They mention the need to love the soul, rather than simply the body (183e). There are two kinds of love in the body (186b), and each kind has its “desire” and “passion” (186b-d). The speakers discuss the principles or “matters” of love (187c), the desires of love (192c), and being “males by nature” (193c). Especially noteworthy is the speech of Socrates, who gives much attention to explaining how desire relates to love and its objects (200a-201c). People feel desire for “what is not provided or present; for something they have not or are not or lack.” This is the object of desire and love. Socrates clearly distinguishes between “what sort of being is love” and the “works” of love (201e). This ancient philosopher could think of both realms — sexual acts as well as disposition or being or nature. His words have significance for more than pederasty, as the speeches show.
Third, in Symposium, Plato anticipates virtually every element in the modern discussion of love and homosexuality. Petersen, Countryman, and others err when they claim that the ancients could think only of homosexual acts, not inclination, orientation, or mutuality. In addition, the evidence for ancient knowledge of the homosexual condition extends widely beyond Symposium, as historican K.J. Dover, Boswell, and others demonstrate.
Fourth, the Bible takes into account homosexual inclination and mutuality in the contexts where writers describe homosexual acts. In Romans 1: 21-28 Paul’s concern for disposition and inclination is shown by his choice of terms: reasoning, heart, become foolish, desires of the heart, lie, passions of dishonor, burned in the desire, men with men, knowledge, and reprobate mind (see also vv. 29-32). The catalog of vices (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11; 1 Timothy 1: 8-10) are introduced by words describing how people “are” or “were,” and not by what they ‘do.” The habits of people betray them for what they are within, as also our Lord taught (Matthew 23: 28). The inner condition is as important as the outer act; one gives rise to the other (Matthew 5: 27-30; 15: 10-20).
Petersen makes other errors. The ancients apparently engaged in transvestitism. Canaanites, Syrians, people of Asia Minor, and Greeks, practised it, according to S.R. Driver and other scholars. Apparently, only a few moralists and Jewish writers condemned the practices. Seneca (Moral Epistles 47.7-8) condemns homosexual exploitation that forces an adult slave to dress, go beardless, and behave like a woman. In some detail, Philo describes the cross-dressing practices of homosexuals (On the Special Laws 3.37-41). In On the Virtues (20-21) Philo argues for the legal prohibition of cross-dressing. Even the Old Testament forbade the interchange of clothing between the sexes (Deuteronomy 22: 5).
Another error is that Christianity came up with the “new labels” of natural and unnatural for sexual inclination and behavior. These terms did not begin with Paul in Romans 1: 26-27 but extend far back into ancient Greece. Paul’s non-Christian contemporaries used them. Plato, the Testament of Napthali, Philo, Josephus, Plutarch, and others used these words and related concepts.
De Young, J. B. (2000). Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature and Law. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications