I Corinthians 6:9 and the Anthropology of Same-Sex Sexuality

Two words (μαλακοὶ and ἀρσενοκοῖται) from the list of moral evils in I Corinthians 6:9 likely refer to persons engaging in forms of same-sex sexuality. But these words do not closely correspond to, or translate into, modern concepts like “homosexuals” or “gays.” And despite historians and classicists having devoted considerable attention to same-sex sexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, it is not entirely clear how these words would have been understood in New Testament times. The Roman Empire encompassed diverse peoples with variable traditions, languages, beliefs, and cultures. And this variability included, not least, varying sexual ideologies, identities, lifeways, and concepts.

This paper draws from cultural anthropology and its research findings on variable same-sex sexualities across a wide variety of the world’s traditional cultures. It demonstrates that same-sex sexualities in the Roman Empire diverged significantly from modern constructions of homosexuality, but corresponded rather closely to patterns studied in traditional societies the world over by anthropologists. It suggests that anthropology provides helpful analytic tools for making clearer sense of the cultural backdrop for interpreting this text. Furthermore, anthropology helps us reframe the presumed interpretive challenge entailed by translating ancient “prescientific” concepts into the modern world with its supposedly more scientifically grounded concept of “homosexuality.” It does this by demonstrating that “homosexuality” as a modern construct cannot be understood as an “it-entity” with worldwide validity. Instead, it turns out that the modern construct of homosexuality (as a naturally occurring in-born orientation defined by same-sex object focus) fails to make sense of the contours of actual same-sex behaviors across the vast majority of cultures and through time. Thus it represents but one culturally contingent socio-cultural formation, and should not be privileged as conveying sexual truth not understood by biblical writers.

By reframing our anthropological understandings of same-sex sexuality both in the Greco-Roman world and across cultures in space and time, this paper allows us to critique our own culture’s taken-for-granted assumptions about homosexuality and to rethink several issues raised in this passage, not least how we should make sense of the phrase “such were some of you.”

1 thought on “I Corinthians 6:9 and the Anthropology of Same-Sex Sexuality”

  1. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Same-Sex Anthropology
    Seems to be a well-thought out proposal on a passage of debated translation and understanding. An anthropological approach that seeks to bridge ancient and modern conceptions that impacts readings of the text.

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