Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Beavis and Butthead Snicker When They Interpret This Verse

1 Corinthians 6:9 gives interpreters and translators something of a challenge. It's a list of sins--Paul loves firing off lists--but what exactly are those sins? Particularly, what are the last two sins listed in the verse? The King James and its updates in particular render the verse in a marvelously obtuse way...heaven is forbidden to the "..effeminate and abusers of themselves with mankind."

You're damned if you're effeminate? But...Alberto Gonzales is such a nice man otherwise.

In the Greek, the last two items on Paul's naughty list are "malakoi" and "arsenokoitai." Read literally, the verse condemns the "soft ones" and the "man-bedders." While Paul coined the word "arsenokoitai" from the Levitical injunction against homosexuality, the term "malakoi" was actually used in the Greco-Roman world to describe a young man who sells himself, typically to older, more powerful men. So why the repetition? Is Paul saying: "I condemn homosexuals, and homosexuals, too!" Or is it the professional gay v. amateur gay distinction? "It's a sin if you get paid for it, and a sin if you don't!"

Some have suggested that it refers to the passive versus the active role in the relationship. Others have interpreted it as specifically condemning homosexual practices at the time, which usually involved wealthy and powerful men indulging themselves with young men-- "arsenokoitai" and "malakoi" referring specifically to that dynamic.

But whichever way you slice it, both of those words are really tangential to Paul's point. He's not talking about sexual sin here. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 deals with the issue of lawsuits among believers, not sexual immorality. He's just firing off a list of commonly known vices, to reinforce to the Corinthians that they're being wicked when they go after each other in court. Paul's fond of "vice lists," because they make for a good, punchy spoken argument. For another example, look to Galatians 5:19-21, where Paul seems to leave being gay off the list entirely. Relying on this verse, or the deutero-Pauline 1 Timothy 1:10, just doesn't give you enough of a solid theological grounding to oppose committed same-sex relationships. 1 Corinthians is a pastoral letter, dealing with pastoral issues in the church at Corinth. Homosexuality just isn't one of the issues that Paul is centrally concerned with in Corinth. It isn't. To argue otherwise is to violate the plain and evident purpose of the text in service of a pointless and idolatrous literalism.

Not that I have any opinion on the subject.

That leaves us with only one passage left to explore, the Mac Daddy of the scriptural teachings on homosexuality, Romans 1.

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