Thursday, January 08, 2009

Lost in Translation

Two words are disputed here in the translations of KJV, NAS, NIV, and NRS. The Greek words malako,j and avrsenokoi,thj are translated as “nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind” (KJV), “nor effeminate, nor homosexuals” (NAS), and “nor male prostitutes nor homosexual” offenders (NIV) .

“Malakos” can be translated as 1) soft, soft to the touch or 2a2) of a boy kept for homosexual relations with a man 2a3) of a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness 2a4) of a male prostitute (“Malakos”). “Arsenokoites” means 1) one who lies with a male as with a female, sodomite, homosexual (“Arsenokoites”). On the surface, these two words look as though Paul is condemning pederasty, condemning the passive partner, malakos, and the active partner, arsenokoites.

These two words have been notoriously hard to define. I will attempt to here.

Paul cannot be talking about homosexuality as the Greco-Roman world understood sexuality as a continuum of possibilities. Heterosexuality was assumed the default status, but the sexual expression was not limited to male to female (Crompton). There was a top and bottom to the spectrum; from the male end (associated with strength, rationality, self-control, activity, and perfect) exercising natural dominance over the female end (associated with weakness, sexuality and procreation, passion, passivity, and imperfection) (Bassler 45). What Paul as talking about was not homosexuality as we understand it no long term committed relationships could exist between members of the same sex. Men having sex with men were viewed as lust only, no love or loyalty needed. The concept was only alluded to in the ancient world and the word homosexuality itself is an invention of the late 19th century (Gomes 148).

Paul could have been talking about pederasty. The problem with assuming pederasty is that there was a word in Paul’s time to describe the action and Paul doesn’t use it. Instead Paul uses two words that translated literally poses a different set of problems. The literal approach is simply linguistically invalid as a word’s meaning is more than its components. For example, to understand has nothing to do with the basic meanings of either “stand” or “under” (Martin 39). Providing a figurative translation is the best method to understand these two troublesome words.


Anonymous said...

What is Paul saying then - in your estimated interpretation? I don't think its the way we understand 'gay' in this era - but what do you think Paul means by the wording?

Chris E said...

I like the "Under" and "stand" illustration - very direct to the argument (this is about understanding) and very easy so...yeah...I understand. Understand?

Anglican Boy said...

"but the sexual expression was not limited to male to female"

We still have gender associations with us today. My wife fancies herself as a feminist and has helped me understand this. I think you do a good job with the gender roles in Paul's time. I am liking what I am reading so far. Makes sense.