Linguistic Grounds for Translating Arsenokoitai as “Homosexuals”
Such researchers as Wright and Henry Mendell have definitively shown that arsenokoitai must be defined broadly. One cannot limit arsenokoitai to pederasty or to active male prostitution. It also includes same-gender orientation, condition or mutuality.
A major difficulty with the studies of Petersen and those before him lies in their applications of linguistics and philology to the modern term homosexuals. Petersen has an erroneous conception of meaning and dictionaries when he claims that the English and Greek meanings are incompatible.
Although homosexuality was (and still is) popularly understood in terms of sexual acts, historical evidence does not allow limiting ancient ideas of homosexuality to acts alone. Both acts and orientation or desire fit the total secular and biblical use of arsenokoitai — especially in light of the contexts of Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 1, and 1 Timothy 1. Paul was not ignorant of the immorality in the secular cultures of Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians includes strongly implied references to homosexuality (cf. Ephesians 4: 17-24; 5: 3-12; these verses include lists of vices similar to the lists in 1 Timothy 1 and 1 Corinthians 6).
The subsequent question arises: Does modern usage limit the meaning of homosexual to orientation or inclination, excluding acts or behavior? Petersen answers in the affirmative and cites as support the meaning that the coiner of the word assigned to it and its meaning in the standard Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. In a footnote, however, Petersen acknowledges that Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1971) includes a reference to the one who “practices homosexuality” and “same-sex sexual activity” after the definitions referring to inclination and preference. He dismisses this as “popularized, perhaps Americanized usages,” as “slang,” and as a “corruption of the original meaning.” He indicts Webster’s lexicographers as “ignorant of the psychological facts of the case, even though they may be correctly recording the use of the word in popular speech.”
The problem is that Petersen has overlooked several important principles. The first principle concerns lexicography: Once a word has entered the stream of society it becomes defined by its entire context — what the users mean by it, regardless of the coiner’s definition. Dictionaries reflect usage, staying abreast of changes in meaning.
Popular and scholarly usage of homosexuals today includes same-gender sexual behavior; perhaps this has become the predominant definition. It also covers adult mutuality in homosexuality, If this be so, then the terms homosexuals and arsenokoitai cover a similar breadth of meaning.
A second principle is that meanings of words continually change. The earlier unabridged second edition of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Langugage (1965) does not allow for “practice” under the defintion of homosexual and uses only the words “sexual relations between individuals of the same sex” as the second definition of homosexuality. But only six years later, as we have seen, the third edition (1971) included “practice” and “same-sex sexual activity.”
For Petersen to insist on restricting the meaning to the earlier dictionary and to call the later defintion a “corruption” is to ignore the realities of any dynamic language. Nor is change always a degrading of meaning. The meaning of a word may become deeper and more profound in implication. It can take on new value, take on a new meaning, or be given a new concrete application.
In the case of the term homosexual, several kinds of change apparently occurred over the last half of the twentieth century because of the increasingly frequent use of the word in contexts ranging from popular speech to scholarship. Total usage, not just scholarly usage, determines meaning.
A third principle is that words usually mark out a field of meaning. Words usually do not have or keep a narrow definition or point of meaning. The historical-cultural research reflected shows that homosexuality — under whatever name — existed in various forms, including prostitution, pederasty, lesbianism, orientation, and mutuality of relationship. The Greeks and Romans employed scores of terms to describe the orientation and behavior. Therefore, although the strict etymology of arsenokoitai is simply “male-bed” or “lying with a male,” it is plausible that it has a general, broad meaning when the context does not appear to restrict it narrowly.
A fourth principle is based on the first three. No two words have or keep exactly the same area of meaning, so there are no true equivalent synonyms within a language and no exact equivalents between languages. This suggests that arsenokoitai may be translated “homosexuals” even though there may be some imprecision. Terms of the past and of today can never be exactly equivalent because the cultural contexts can never be identical, especially given the span of time since Paul’s day. It may well be that “sodomites” represents better the idea of arsenokoitai since these two terms with their moral and biblical settings represent contexts closer to one another. Yet this usages would not well match contemporary popular understanding.
Actually, it may be that Benkert in 1869 misread the history of homosexuality in ancient times, or was unacquainted with this history. He may have unwittingly altered the whole discussion of homosexuality by limiting his new term to the homosexual condition.
Petersen asserts that the cultures are so different that the words arsenokoitai and homosexuals are anachronistic. The ancients had no concept equivalent to homosexual desire, while the English term is more limited to homosexual desire. This stretches the cultural equivalence argument too far, for Petersen clearly is in error, as our look at historical-cultural evidence and linguistic principles have shown. Certain terms, such as arrenomanes, “mad after males.” used in the fourth century A.D., show that a “cognitive structure” for the homosexual condition existed long before 1869. In 1 Corinthians 6: 11, Paul refers precisely to that condition when he writes, “and such were some of you.”
The most that can be said in favor of Petersen’s position is that no ancient term is known to have referred precisely to exclusive sexual categories, as can be conveyed in terms homosexual or heterosexual, whereas moderns are more likely to refer to homosexuality or heterosexuality as one’s primary attraction. Our concept of a homosexual probably differs to some small extent from that of the ancients, who tended to speak of what they considered to be a number of equal options. Given that caveat, references appear in ancient writings to a condition that can best be described as mutuality, among persons they identified as exclusively homosexual. Greeks had terminology with definitions sufficiently broad that they cannot be limited to acts. Petersen goes too far in restricting the definitional ranges of both ancient and modern terms.
De Young, J. B. (2000). Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature and Law. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications