[Unsure of origin of this text]
Stephen Carlson: Boswell's Analysis of ARSENOKOITHS in 1Co6:19 and 1Tm1:10
One controversial statement from Boswell's seminal book, Christianity,
Social Tolerance & Homosexuality (1980), is that the
term ARSENOKOITHS in 1Co6:19 and 1Tm1:10 means a male
prostitute rather than a homosexual (that is, an engager in sexual
activity with a member of the same sex) as it is commonly translated.
While this could have remained a rather arcane point among scholars,
its doctrinal implications make this quite relevant today.
Before going into Boswell's analysis, I would like to address
some methodological considerations. Determining what a word means
in a particular context is quite tricky. Words change meaning
over time, and the author may use them metaphorically, idiosyncratically,
or with a specialized meaning as jargon. Thus, when considering
the meaning of a word, the closer the evidence is to the word's
context--textually, culturally, and chronologically--the stronger
that evidence will be.
The New Testament was written in the Koine Greek dialect for a
Hellenized Jewish/Christian community in the first century. This
cultural and chronological context plays a strong role in investigating
the meaning of a word in the New Testament. The best evidence
is the textual context of the word itself within the document's
literary genre. Next in strength is the author's other uses of
the term. After this, that word's usage throughout the rest of
the New Testament becomes important. Since the early Hellenistic
Christian community relied on the Greek translation of the Hebrew
Scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX) is also very important. At this
point, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, or Patristics, of
the next few generations after the Apostles become relevant. After
that, the word's usage by the contemporary Hellenized Jews, Philo
and Josephus, can be considered. Evidence by pagans in the Hellenistic
world comes after that. Among the last of the kinds of evidence
to be considered is the word's meaning in earlier Attic Greek
dialect and in the later Byzantine Greek dialect. Words change
meaning over time and culture so one must be careful with the
There are two additional means of analysis which one must use
at one's peril. The first is an etymological argument that analyzes
how the word is constituted. This is difficult because a word
may have changed meaning since it was created, and there is also
the problem of knowing the meaning of the constituent parts at
the time of creation. For example, the English words, pioneer, pawn, and peon have the same etymon, Medieval
Latin, pedo, a foot soldier, but that is not useful in
determining the meaning of those three words.
The second argument is the argument from silence, and it is even
more problematical. Obviously, it cannot indicate a word's meaning
but only give some inference about what it might not mean. For
this to be at its most effectiveness, there has to be evidence
that an author would have used it but chose not to. The rarer
the word in the word in question is the more the argument from
silence has to contend with the author's not knowing what it meant
or how to use it.
Unfortunately, Boswell only gives a cursory treatment of the most
relevant information, generally in footnotes and parentheticals,
but spends a much greater portion of his analysis on the least
probative--the etymology and silence. As a result, his analysis
is weak and unpersuasive and his conclusion unlikely.
The relevant New Testament verses are:
9 . . . Be not deceived: neither fornicators [PORNOI],
nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [MALAKOI],
nor abusers of themselves with mankind [ARSENOKOITAI],
10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor
extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for the righteous man
but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners,
for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and for murderers
of mothers, for manslayers, 10 for whoremongers [PORNOIS],
for them that defile themselves with mankind [ARSENOKOITAIS],
for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there
be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.
Boswell first tries to plant the suggestion that ARSENOKOITHS is about prostitution. He only makes the most minimal examination
of its context, by noting that ARSENOKOITHS appears next
to PORNOS meaning whore, or fornicator in 1Tm1:10, and
that Paul talks about prostitution a lot. [Boswell at 341.] Whatever
the initial strength of his point is, it must be attenuated by
the fact that ARSENOKOITHS follows MALAKOS in
1Co6:9, not PORNOS. Since MALAKOS is commonly
taken to mean a catamite, a pederast's boy partner, the juxtaposition
of MALAKOS and ARSENOKOITHS in 1Co6:9 could
just as well favor the conclusion that ARSENOKOITHS means
a homosexual, possibly the one who takes the "active"
In addition, the Greek word PORNOS itself has connotations
of male prostitution, as in Xenophon for example. The use of PORNOS in the masculine plural would encompass both male and female prostitutes.
While PORNOS is commonly generalized in the New Testament
to all sexually immoral people, the context of 1Co6:9 suggests
that prostitution is covered by PORNOS not ARSENOKOITHS.
Paul probably was keying off of the first item in his list when
he illustrated it with an example a man going to a prostitute
[1Co6:15-16]. Thus, while it is true that PORNOS in both
lists does bring in a context of prostitution, it actually cuts
against Boswell's analysis. Paul does not repeat any other vice
in the list, so it is quite unlikely that he was being redundant
in this case.
From the 1 Corinthians passage one can no more conclude that the ARSENOKOITAI are male prostitutes than that the idolators,
or even the drunkards and revilers are. The 1 Timothy passage
is more interesting-- the ARSENOKOITAI are law breakers.
The Mosaic law certainly prohibited active homosexuality [Lv18:22
and 20:13] but is less clear about prostitution. Dt23:17 seems,
as most commentators agree, to be more about temple cult prostitution
than prostitution per se, and Lv19:29 is not about male prostitution
but pandering one's daughters. Therefore, the immediate context
of the New Testament attestations of ARSENOKOITHS better
suggests an engager in homosexual activity than Boswell's denotation
of an active sexual agent of any orientation.
Boswell's next argument is etymological, which is one of the weakest.
Since Paul is one of the first to ever use the term, the strength
of the analysis relies on the meaning of the first part, the meaning
of the second part, and the meaning the whole. [See generally,
Goodwin, A Greek Grammar 191-95 (1968)] Furthermore,
a coined word might allude to another context. Boswell is correct
only for the meaning of the first part (
means male) and ignores a possible provenance of the word.
Much of the strength of Boswell's conclusion that ARSENOKOITAI means "male sexual agent,
, active male prostitutes"
[Boswell at 344] relies on a one sentence analysis of the second
"The second half of the compound, KOITAI, is a coarse
word, generally denoting base or licentious sexual activities
(see Rom. 13:13), and in this and other compounds corresponds
to the vulgar English word 'fucker,' i.e., a person who, by insertion,
takes the 'active' role in intercourse."
[Boswell at 342.]
Boswell's undocumented assertion misrepresents the meaning. KOITAI is best understood as a euphemism for sexual activity. While Paul
certainly uses it in the plural in Rm13:13 to describe "chambering"
(KJV) or "debauchery" (NIV), that is the most vulgar
the term ever gets. Paul also uses it to describe how "our
father Isaac" conceived both of Rebecca's children [Rm9:10].
Luke uses it quite neutrally to describe a bed. [Lk11:7 "my
children are with me in bed" (KJV)]. The final use of this
term in the New Testment can hardly be less vulgar: "Marriage
is honourable in all, and the bed [KOITHN] undefiled
. . . ." [Hb13:4 (KJV)]. Thus, one can see that Paul uses
it generally as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, which is also
how the Septuagint uses it, especially in Lv18:22 and 20:13. A
better translation for KOITAI with the same degree of
vulgarity is something like the English word "bedder."
This word is usually used in composition to describe those who
sleep or engage in sexual activity:
- consorting with slaves,
- incestuous person,
- seeking illicit sex,
- having intercourse with a man,
- sleeping by day,
- sleeping on the ground,
- with ears large enough to sleep in,
- in the mud--relating to a kind of frog,
- to have a bedfellow,
- sleeping with many men or women,
- incest of brother or sister,
- luller of winds, etc.
[Examples taken from Wright, 38 Vigiliae Christianae 125-53 (1984)] Many of these words are neologistic, coined and
only used by their author. This does establish, however, a pattern
of using KOITHS in composition with sexual connotations,
much like the English phrase "to sleep with" has.
The first part of the word ARSENOKOITHS is simply "male,"
as Boswell recognizes, so a rough English calque could be something
like "male-bedder." Greek compounds, like English, can
be either objective (and thus would mean "someone who beds
males") or determinative ("a male who beds"). While
Boswell spends the next three pages arguing for the latter, the
choice for the former is obvious. If a Greek writer wanted to
refer to a male actor, the masculine grammatical gender is enough
to make his point, unless it is something only women do. Although
Boswell does provide examples of the prefix ARSENO- in
determinative compounds (ARSENOMORFOS = of masculine
form; ARSENOGENHS = (born a) male; ARSENOQUMOS = man-minded; and ARSENWMA = seed of the male), they
are not germane because none of these examples are for male actors
or activities involving male actors.
There are plenty of other words with the ARSENO- prefix
(or in its Attic form, ARRENO-) which use it in objective
compounds for actors or actions, such as:
- to marry men,
- to bear male children,
- ARRENOKOITHS (Attic form)
- a sodomite,
- to bear male children,
- mad after males,
- ARRENOMIKTHS ~ ARSENOMIKTHS
- to become a man, and
- one who looks lewdly on males.
[See Liddel, Scott & Jones]
Boswell's explanation that the ARRENO- form is for objective
compounds but that ARSENO- prefix is for determinative
compounds is bizarre. It ignores that the difference is merely
one of dialect; it ignores that the same word appears in both
dialectal forms (ARSENOKOITHS ~ ARRENOKOITHS and ARRENOMIKTHS ~ ARSENOMIKTES); and that there
exists a word with ARSENO- that is in an objective compound
(ARSENOBATHS, paedicator = pederast [LS&J suppl.]).
Generally, the prefix in either form is used make a sexual distinction,
and this prefix is used several times for compounds relating to
sodomy or homosexuality. Even though Boswell recognizes that his
proposed distinction has "not been carefully examined,"
[Boswell at 343] he hangs his entire analysis on this flimsy nail.
Also, Boswell tries to side-step the embarrassing existence of ARRENOKOITAS in a Byzantine inscription in a confusing
footnote. [Boswell at 344 n.22]. He wrongly assumes that ARRENAS cannot be used as an adjective (attested by Aristotle among others
[see LS&J]), and does not consider that it could be used in
apposition. In any event, the inscription is directed against
the Arabs, who were accused of being sodomites according to the
footnote in the Loeb Classical Edition.
In any event, Boswell never mentioned the most obvious source
for compound word, ARSENOKOITHS in the first place: Lv20:13.
The Septuagint translates that verse, which imposed the death
penalty for acts of homosexuality, as follows:
KAI hOS AN KOIMHQH META ARSENOS
KOITHN GUNAIKOS, BDELUGMA EPOIHSAN AMFOTEROI;
QANATOUSQWSAN, ENOIXOI EISIN
[Lv20:13 (LXX) (emphasis added), see Boswell at 100 n.28]
Not only are both parts of the compound used in the Septuagint
translation, but they are juxtaposed in the exact same order.
Paul has simply used (or even coined) a word that strongly alludes
to the Levitical verse. Moreover, this is not a technique unknown
to Paul. In 2Co6:14, Paul coopted the compound HETEROZUGOUNTES which normally meant "mismatched" in the Greek world
to allude to Lv19:19 and all of its connotations in being "unequally
yoked." [See Bauer, Gingrich & Arndt] Similarly, Paul
probably used ARSENOKOITHS to pick up both the genericity
of the the activity (a man lying with a man as with a woman) and
its accompanying moral condemnation.
Boswell's next six pages are an argument from silence and a complete
waste of time. The word is rarely used, and its facial meaning
of "men-bedders" may have been judged too weak or obscure
by later writers, so it is hard to conclude much from this silence.
His argument from silence can also cut the other way, as an argument against it meaning a male prostitute, because no one
chose to employ it in that context either.
Not only is the argument from silence weak in general, Boswell's
particular argument from silence is unpersuasive. This kind of
argument is strongest when there are powerful indications that
an author would have used the term but didn't.
- Silence among Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch is
simply not relevant. [Boswell at 345] The first three are way
too early to use a term probably coined by Paul or someone within
a Pauline community. Plutarch, a Gentile, was certainly unfamiliar
with Christian or Pauline terminology.
- Philo and Josephus are not helpful either [Boswell at 346].
There is no Pauline (or Christian) influence upon their writings.
Josephus, in fact, did not use characteristically Christian language
in his Testimonium about Jesus. [See Meier, The
- Since Didache 5:1-2 is a list of sins, with no literary dependence
on 1Co6:9-10, it is hardly relevant to the meaning of ARSENOKOITHS.
[Boswell at 346]. After all, vice lists are hardly exhaustive.
- Tatian's and Justin Martyr's use of the more common Hellenistic
terms [Boswell at 346] is not surprising considering the polemical
and apolegetical nature (
, written for non-Christians
to read) of their words. Of course, they chose a less obscure
- Boswell's use of Eusebius's silence ("yet nowhere does
he use the word with supposedly mean 'homosexual' in Paul's writings"
[Boswell at 346]) is misleading because Eusebius did use the verbal
form in a context suggesting homosexual behavior. [See
- Clement of Alexandria is the most interesting [Boswell at
346]; however, he had a penchant for provocative language against
homosexuality, likening it to the behavior of a hyena for example,
so it is not surprising that he did not use such a rare and euphemistic
- John Chrysostom (4th cen.) is really too late to be probative,
but his only use of the term is to distinguish them from male
prosititutes (hHTAIRHKWS). [Boswell at 347-48, 51-52]
The fact that the ARSENOKOITHS is already a rare term,
euphemistic, and apparently coined within a small Christian community
to allude to a Levitical prohibition readily explains why other
Christian writers would use words that were either more current
Boswell's treatment of the Patristic evidence is very brief. He
dismisses for example, Polycarp's Epistle to the Philipians (PPhp) (early 2d cen.) by asserting that it provides no context.
[Boswell at 350 n.42]. Some additional information, however, can
still be gleaned from the passage. After setting out the high
moral standards of the deacons [PPhp 5:2], Polycarp says that
"[l]ikewise also let the younger men be blameless in all
things," and avoid "every lust." [v3] Then Polycarp
quotes from 1Co6:9 three kinds of people who will not enter the
Kingdom of God: the fornicators [PORNOI], the effeminate
[MALAKOI], and the sodomites [ARSENOKOITAI].
Polycarp clearly tailored Paul's list for his concern of young
unmarried men, because he omitted adulterers from the list. If
Polycarp understood ARSENOKOITAI to refer to male prostitutes,
it makes little sense that he would ignore two main reasons for
engaging in it: the religious reasons, for which the idolaters
would also be appropriate, or perhaps for money, for which the
covetous would also be mentioned. As scanty as the Patristic evidence
is, it nonetheless tends to refute Boswell's interpretation of
the term ARSENOKOITHS.
The rest of Boswell's analysis is a discussion of the later Byzantine
usage of the term. From a methodological standpoint, this evidence
is not all that probative, because words can change meaning over
time. In fact, this appears to be the case: after the word dropped
out of use for some time, it was brought back to mean "anal
intercourse," similar to the sense development of the English
word "sodomy." This later meaning makes more sense if
the term originally related to homosexuality rather than prostitution.
Not only is his Byzantine analysis methologically poor, his treatment
of one of the examples is positively misleading: He buries the
argument into a footnote, makes a mild concession ("though
somewhat ambiguous"), boldly asserts the meaning he wishes
it would say ("strongly implies an equation . . . with GUNAIKES
, female prostitutes" [
actually "shameless women"]), presents the word within
a seven-line mass of untranslated, untransliterated Greek, and
then says it is of too late origin in any case. [Boswell at 350
While this technique may intimidate the average reader, who does
not know Greek, the quotation actually has a very interesting
hOI DE ECW TOUTWN REMBOMENOI, TAS PARA FUSIN hHDONAS METERXONTAI,
ARSENOKOITEIN EPIZHTOUNTES, . . .
But those who roam outside of these, they seek after pleasures
against nature, desiring to [ARSENOKOITEIN]. (Translation
Compare the similar phrase "PARA FUSIN" (against
nature) in Rm1:26. The connection between the arsenokoitai and
the GUNAIKES ATIMOI is far from clear: "KAI
TIS ME: hHSUKAZWN ALLA REMBOMENOS, TOIS KATHGORHMASI KOINWNHSEI
THS ATIMOU GUNAIKOS." (and anyone who is not quiet but
roams, shares in the accusations of the shameless woman.) (Translation
mine). The roaming is referring to those "roaming the streets
who accept the designs of adultery, fornication, and theft"
also in the passage.
Often the evidence about a word's meaning in a certain context
is not conclusive but merely indicative. When the best and strongest
evidence consistently points to the same conclusion, however,
we can become more confident. In this case, the immediate context
of the word ARSENOKOITHS, all throughout the New Testament,
its Septuagint parallels, and its usage among the Apostolic Fathers,
like Polycarp, all point to a meaning of a homosexual and not
a male prostitute. Boswell's general argument, apart from a facile
consideration of the context, relies too much on the argument
from silence and an egregious etymological analysis. Whatever
one thinks of the residual uncertainty in concluding that ARSENOKOITHS means a homosexual, one can say that this sense is much more probable than Boswell's.