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Illicit Sex (Word Study)


In 1 Cor 6:9-10, Paul lists several types of wrongdoers who, he warns, will not inherit the kingdom of God. Included in this list are arsenokoitai (singular: arsenokoites). Paul is the first writer in Greek literature to employ this term (see also 1 Tim 1:10), which makes it especially challenging to translate.

How has arsenokoitai been translated?

Arsenokoites is a compound built from the more common Greek words arsen (“male”) and koite (“bed” or possibly “sexual intercourse”). Scholars have offered several proposals to explain this combination, with two emerging as predominant:

a. The Septuagint phrasing of Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13 inspired Paul (or someone else) to coin the term. In Greek, Leviticus may use the terms “male” and “bed” (but not the compound arsenokoites) to forbid Israelite men from sexually penetrating other men (the Hebrew phrase translated by the Greek is also otherwise unattested). Paul may have had these commandments in mind when inventing or using the term.

b. The term was designed to censure the sexual exploitation caused by some men. Men with bad characters were frequently associated with abusing others for their own pleasure.

If option (a) is correct and sex between men is in view, it is still not clear which sexual partner is being condemned by the term and for what. If (b) is correct, the issue may not be sex at all. Neither explanation is satisfactory, however, and scholars remain divided.

When ancient Christian writers after Paul employ the term, they also do not define it. Instead, they either simply cite Paul’s list of wrongdoers, embed arsenokoitai in a different list (such as that in 1Tim 1:10), or link arsenokoitai to other wicked deeds. The Sibylline Oracles, for instance, use arsenokoites in a warning against “stealing seeds,” perhaps building on the Levitical concern for preserving male sperm (Sib. Or. 2.71–73). The second-century Christian apologist Aristides of Athens, on the other hand, uses arsenokoites to denounce the behavior of the Greek gods (Apol. 9.2–3). In these and similar examples, the figure and practices associated with the arsenokoites are treated with scorn, but the specific actions involved are not obvious.

This ambiguity is reproduced in English vernacular translations. The sixteenth-century Tyndale Bible, the first to translate the term directly from the Greek, employs the phrase “abusers of themselves with mankind.” This same translation was preserved in the Authorized (King James) Version (1611) and then adjusted to “abusers of themselves with men” in both the Revised Version (1885) and the American Standard Version (1901). The Revised Standard Version (1952), a direct heir to these earlier translations, chose “sexual perverts” instead, perhaps in response to a psychological understanding of sexuality emerging in the 1950s. The New Revised Standard Version departed from precedent and rendered arsenokoitai as “sodomites.” As is now widely recognized, however, “sodomites” employs a muddled medieval Latin term that unnecessarily confuses matters (in antiquity, a “sodomite” referred to a person from the city of Sodom). The NRSVue chose to translate arsenokoitai as “men who engage in illicit sex,” with an explanatory footnote “meaning of Gk uncertain.” This translation signals the likelihood that the term was coined based on the Greek version of the Levitical commandments while also acknowledging the current lack of consensus about the word’s specific meaning.

What can the translation of arsenokoitai teach us?

The prevailing uncertainty about the term arsenokoites invites further reflection about how words convey their meaning, especially derogatory terms designed to defame. Sexual mores are contested, culturally specific, and variable. Languages and meanings change over time. Caution and parsimony are therefore required.

  • Jennifer Knust

    Jennifer Knust is Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University. She specializes in the literature and history of ancient Christianity and is author of To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story (with Tommy Wasserman, Princeton University Press, 2019), as well as several other books and articles.