Terms pertaining to Homosexuality and the Bible

By Larry G. Overton

July 6, 2019

Mike, an old friend that no longer lives in Corpus Christi, recently asked me a question via my Facebook page. The topic on his mind was an argument he’d recently encountered regarding homosexuality.

He was dealing with a friend whose father is a homosexual. This friend was playing up on a current presidential candidate who is a homosexual that claims “his god likes [homosexual] people.” This friend of his posted (on Facebook?) an article claiming that the word homosexual is a recent invention, and that the places where it is found in English translations are examples of erroneous and self-serving translations to suit the preconceptions of mainstream Christianity.

Here is the portion that Mike quoted to give me an idea of what he was facing in the way of argumentation.

“The word ‘homosexual’ did not appear in any translation of the Christian Bible until 1946. There are words in Greek for same-sex sexual activities, yet they never appear in the original text of the New Testament.”

Mike anticipated this argument would be used a lot during the upcoming presidential election, and he wanted to educate himself.

That quote is a perfect example of how the unregenerate people of this world treat Biblical truth. In many cases, the Bible is rejected outright, based on the view that there is no God, no absolute truth revealed from God. According to this mindset, the Scriptures are viewed as the archaic and unenlightened writings of men in ancient times, nothing more.

Then there are others that try to claim a semblance of religion, but what they are really doing is seeking to justify their own opinions and lifestyle. And so they work feverishly to redefine Biblical terms and retell Biblical stories with their own spin, to make it all say what they want it to say. At best, they tell half-truths in order to tell a whole lie.

The quote above falls into this latter category of perverting Biblical truth. The two sentences in that quote represent to claims: the first, a partial truth; the second, an outright lie. Let’s break that down point by point.

The wordhomosexual

The English compound term “homosexual” etymologically is derived from a combination of both Greek and Latin terms: ὁμός (spelled with English characters, homos), Greek for “same” + sexus, Latin for “sex.” The two terms were combined to form the compound word homosexual in 19th century Germany, then adopted into English. It was a term coined in 1869 and used primarily by German psychiatrists and psychologists. English physician and author Henry Havelock Ellis could write at the turn of the 20th century that the terms homosexual and homosexuality had largely superseded previous psychological terms and descriptions.[1]

It is true, then, that the terms homosexual and homosexuality are relatively late terms and were at first primarily psychological terms. So, while invented in the late 19th century Germany, and used in both German and English psychiatric and psychological literature well into the 20th century, they were generally not widely used outside of those disciplines.

Accordingly, these terms did not find their way into English dictionaries until the mid-twentieth century. The earliest lexical entry in a Merriam-Webster publication I’ve found was in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, first published in 1961.

In my copy of that massive dictionary, the definition of homosexual is “one who is inclined toward or practices homosexuality.” Of course, that leads me to look up the definition of homosexuality, which is defined in that same dictionary in the following manner:

1 : atypical sexuality characterized by manifestation of sexual desire toward a member of one’s own sex 2 : erotic activity with a member of one’s own sex—compare LESBIANISM”[2]

So, it is true that the words homosexual (whether adjective or noun) and homosexuality (noun) are relative latecomers to the English language. The terms are just about 150 years old. Did I just say, “just 150 years old”? That sounds almost oxymoronic. In a very real sense, 150 years is old. For most anyone alive today, the span of a century and a half goes back at least three generations in their family. From a personal perspective, my great-grandfather was born the year the terms homosexual and homosexuality were coined. But I will grant you that from the perspective of English vocabulary development, words coined 150 years ago are relative latecomers.

And since these terms were coined in the context of psychological and psychiatric study, and not in theological circles, it is not surprising that these terms are not found in English Bible versions until well into the 20th century. But the relative lateness of these terms does not mean that they are inaccurate, that they do not convey the concept expressed in Biblical terms that address same-sex sexual intercourse. There are indeed terms in the original languages of the Bible that convey the idea of same-sex intercourse, and homosexual and homosexuality accurately translate those ancient words into English.

The Outright Lie

Okay, now I will address the second part of that claim: “There are words in Greek for same-sex sexual activities, yet they never appear in the original text of the New Testament.”

Actually, I have already addressed this matter of Greek terms “for same-sex sexual activities,” in another article I wrote several years ago. My views have not changed; that article expresses my current position on the subject of homosexuality. Here is a link to that article. https://www.larryoverton.com/observations-on-homosexuality-and-the-bible/

It is clear to an honest and unbiased observer that such terminology does in fact appear in the original Greek text of the New Testament. (Well, it is clear if said honest and unbiased observer can read the original Greek text of the New Testament.) And though it’s a bit repetitive, I want to address again two such Greek terms that speak to “same-sex sexual activity,” otherwise known as homosexuality.

However, before I address these words that are homosexuality specific, I want to point out a fact that is often obscured by the claims of those fomenting the homosexual perversion agenda. While there are indeed specific ancient Greek words that refer to homosexuality, most references to homosexuality in Scripture are represented by descriptive statements. This is true whether you are talking about the Hebrew Old Testament or Greek New Testament Scriptures.

These descriptive statements are rendered in slightly different ways in the many Bible versions that have been published over the centuries. Their meaning, however, is unmistakably clear: “females exchanged the natural sexual function for what is contrary to nature,” “males also abandoned the natural sexual function of the females, and were inflamed in their appetite for one another,” “unnatural sexual vice,” etc.

ρσενοκοίτης. All right, now to study the aforementioned homosexuality-specific terms. The first one I’ll mention is ἀρσενοκοίτης. I’ll assume that many of my readers cannot read Greek, so I’ll transliterate that word, that is, render the same Greek word with the corresponding letters of the English alphabet, rather than the original Greek characters. So this word transliterated looks like this: arsenokoitēs. Yeah, I know…it’s still all Greek to you, right?

Anyway, this is a compound Greek term, made up of two Greek words: ἄρσην [arsēn], which means “male,” and κοίτη [koitē], meaning literally “bed,” but used euphemistically (as we do in modern English) to mean “sexual intercourse.” So this ancient compound Greek word, this masculine noun meant males bedding (or having sexual intercourse with) males. The masculine plural form of the noun occurs twice in the original Greek New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10) and clearly means just exactly that: males having sexual intercourse with other males, or, in a word, homosexuality.[3]

Before moving on to another homosexuality-specific ancient Greek term, it should be observed that at least one definition of arsenokoitēs includes the word “pederast.” Specifically, Timothy & Barbara Friberg’s Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (electronic edition, 2000). To quote the lexical entry, “ἀρσενοκοίτης, ου, ὁ an adult male who practices sexual intercourse with another adult male or a boy homosexual, sodomite, pederast.”

That last aspect of the overall definition might make some wonder if the term arsenokoitēs has less to do with homosexuality and more with pederasty, which means homosexual sex with a boy as the passive partner. Since pederast is not a term used very often these days, let’s take a closer look at the word, at where it comes from and what it means.

Returning to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary again, we find that this term is taken straight from an ancient Greek word, παιδεραστής [paiderastēs]. I introduced earlier the concept of a word that is transliterated, that is, a Greek word rendered into English using the characters of the English alphabet rather than Greek. That is what the word pederast is, a transliteration of a Greek word written with English letters. That Webster’s lexical entry references the Greek term, points out that it means “lit., a lover of boys,” and then defines the noun as “one that practices pederasty.” The definition of pederasty, the very next entry in Webster’s, is “anal intercourse esp. with a boy as the passive partner.”[4]

So, the definition of arsenokoitēs includes pederasty, since that specific act of perversion involves homosexual intercourse. But the primary aspect of arsenokoitēs is not focused on the sexual abuse of a minor, but on same-sex sexual intercourse, or homosexuality. Paiderastēs is the Greek word for that form of sexual perversion, the sexual abuse of a minor. It is a word known in Greek literature, but not found in the Greek New Testament.

Μαλακός. One more word used for same-sex sexual activities that is indeed found in the Greek New Testament is μαλακός [malakos]. The principle meaning of malakos is “soft.” But this quality of “softness” was applied to different things, under different categories of application.

For example, malakos referred to things soft to the touch, such as: “…a soft and fallow field, fertile spacious farmland…” and “…a soft grassy meadow…” Malakos was also applied to things not subject to touch, such as soft or fair words, sleep (“to sleep softly”), or something considered gentle or mild.

But malakos was also used of persons. And while in some cases the use of malakos when applied to persons held no negative connotation, such as describing a soft (i.e., youthful) appearance, in many cases, these applications took on a negative connotation, a bad sense. Examples found in Classic Greek refer to a softness of attitude toward war, of being weak or sickly, faint-hearted, incapable of bearing pain, cowardly.

Malakos was also used of the effeminate. In some instances, malakos could simply refer to an “effeminate” man, in the sense of one with perceived feminine mannerisms. But often malakos was used to mean “effeminate, of a catamite, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness.”[5]

That definition is by Joseph Henry Thayer, published in 1889 in his A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. (Thayer’s work was a translation of an earlier German work, Clavis Novi Testamenti Philologica.) Due to the age of Thayer’s lexicon, there are two observations I want to make about that definition.

First, that English definition uses a term that itself probably needs defining, namely, catamite. Returning again to Merriam-Webster’s, we are told that the English form derives from the Latin word Catamitus, which was the Latin form of the Greek name Γανυμηδης [Ganymēdēs].[6] After giving that etymological information, Webster’s proceeds to give this definition to the term catamite: “a boy kept for purposes of sexual perversion.”[7] The third edition (2003) of the Oxford English Dictionary defines catamite as “a boy as the passive or receiving partner in anal intercourse with a man.”

My second observation about Thayer’s definition of malakos is that it is 130 years old. Given its age, I would expect those predisposed to rejecting it might try to maintain that this definition is out of date and inaccurate. Accordingly, I want to take the time to see this ancient Greek term defined in other reputable Greek-English lexicons published during the 20th century.

1921, 1950, G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 277: “soft, effeminate, prob. In obscene sense.”

1957, 1979, Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker [BAGD], A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 488: “of pers. soft, effeminate, esp. of catamites, men and boys who allow themselves to be misused homosexually.”

1988, Louw-Nida, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, #88.281, μαλακός, electronic edition: “the passive male partner in homosexual intercourse.”

2000, Friberg’s Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, #7719 μαλακός, electronic edition: “figuratively, in a bad sense of men effeminate, unmanly; substantivally ὁ μ. especially of a man or boy who submits his body to homosexual lewdness catamite, homosexual pervert.”

Those quotes are from the most important lexical sources I have in my library. Each lexicon did more than just provide a definition; each included citations of works in ancient Greek literature that use the term, as well as referencing the New Testament verses in which it occurs. I don’t have access to but I am aware of other reputable lexicons, and have no doubt that their findings/lexical entries for malakos would confirm the gist of the above quotes.

So that’s the consensus of philologists and lexicographers specializing in Biblical languages, with their findings published over the course of more than a century, right on into the 21st century. Malakos was an ancient term that was used in an obscene sense for unnatural, homosexual lewdness, for those allowing their bodies to be misused homosexually. It applied to catamites, to homosexual perverts.

Conclusion

And there you have it. An article about the words used in a war of words. This has been primarily an article focused on word study, not the study of Biblical texts, per se. Still, the words in question are about words used in Bible translation, and about the specific words found in the Scriptures. And the subject matter those words address is the repulsive subject of homosexuality.

To recap, those practicing, advocating and/or defending homosexuality as a lifestyle argue against the word homosexuality being in Bible translations at all, simply because it did not appear in Bible versions until well into the 20th century. They also claim that ancient Greek words for “same-sex sexual activities…never appear in the original text of the New Testament.” But as we have seen, the relative lateness of the terms homosexual and homosexuality does not mean that they are inaccurate translations of original terms. Furthermore, the claim that those ancient Greek words addressing homosexuality “never” appear in the Greek New Testament is just an outright lie. And it also bears repeating that the Bible, in addition to specific terms speaking to homosexuality, addresses the subject with descriptive phrases that are clear.

This subject is controversial in our culture today, but it shouldn’t be. At least, what the Bible teaches on the subject should not be debated. If Biblical terminology and its contextual descriptive statements on the subject are represented accurately, it is clear that the Bible calls homosexuality sinful, unnatural, perverse and an abomination, a loathsome, detestable practice. One might choose to reject the Bible altogether, but one cannot honestly claim to present the teaching of the Bible regarding homosexuality as doing anything but condemning the practice.


[1] Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Volume II. Sexual Inversion. Third edition Revised and enlarged. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis Company, 1901, 1915. Pages 2-4.

[2] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, p. 1,085.

[3] Timothy & Barbara Friberg, Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (electronic edition), #3665 ἀρσενοκοίτης; Johannes E. Louw & Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (electronic edition), #88.280 ἀρσενοκοίτης; Henry George Liddell & Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, pgs. 223f.; Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 75; G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 61; Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich & Frederick W. Danker [BAGD], A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 109.

[4] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, p. 1,664.

[5] Thayer, p. 387.

[6] In Greek mythology, Ganymēdēs was a beautiful Trojan youth abducted by Zeus to be his companion. According to the fourth century AD Roman historian Festus, in Latin mythology Catamitus was the “concubine” (Latin, concubinus) of Jove.

[7] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, p. 350.