The First Epistle to the Corinthians (“1 Corinthians” in shorthand) is meant to be a letter from Paul the Apostle (and possibly another person) to the Christians in Corinth, Greece. Written about 55 AD, it is meant to be an answer to many questions contained in a letter sent to him by a small community of followers of Jesus.(Elliott) Within this context, a significant part of 1 Corinthians is a series of warnings on immoral behaviors. The pertinent verse which could impact transgender (or homosexual) persons is found in 6:9-10.
9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (King James Version)
However, let’s examine verse 9 using the original Greek words which are of interest to us.
Do you not know that unjust persons will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither pornoi, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor malakoi, nor arsenokoitai,
Given that very few can or will read the original 1st-century Greek in which 1 Corinthians is written, all one can do is rely upon translations. And here we find some problems.
The word of concern here is “effeminate,” which could be interpreted to be an admonition against any male who behaves or acts in a female role. The original Greek word is malakos or malakoi, which could have different meanings:
- Male prostitutes, relating to softness, and has in mind males who take the female role in intercourse. (Nolland)
- Catamites, sodomites, inverts, or effeminate men. (Elliott)
- “Sexual perverts” (RSV, 1971)
- “Male prostitutes, sodomites” (New RSV, 1989)
- “Homosexual perverts” (TEV, 1976)
- “Men guilty of unnatural crime” (Weymouth NT)
- “Masturbators” (John Boswell)
- “Sissies” (Helminiak)
Paul writes that in the verses directly after 6:9-10:
11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
12 All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. (King James Version)
So Paul says that some of the Christians at Corinth were in fact members of the forbidden group in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, but since they were baptized and converted, now they are saved. This is a critical point which shall be elaborated upon a little later here.
However, variations on the word malakos appear elsewhere in the Bible, and there the word malaka is used to designate “soft (rich) clothing.” (Luke 7:25, Matthew 11:8) One could interpret the term “soft males” as being not “effeminate” but “richly decadent.” (Elliott) It could also mean those who have soft skin and features, meaning that they were not part of the lower class who worked at honest labor under the sun, or those who use excess perfume and powder on themselves. (Elliott) Still another argument claims that it might refer to those with “soft heads” or “weak wills,” although I think this is a stretch. 1 Timothy 9:10 also lists a group of persons forbidden to the kingdom of God, but instead of using malakoi, Timothy instead uses a term which translates as “immoral persons/prostitutes.” (Elliott)
The other word of interest in verse 9, arsenokoitai, can be interpreted many ways as well. Namely because it is an unusual word, and is not found in Greek literature before 1 Corinthians was written. In fact, it only appears in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.
9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind (arsenokoitai), for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;
11 According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust. (King James Version)
We see here that there is a somewhat different meaning to arsenokoitai within the bounds of the same Bible translation. This pretty much indicates that the word has at best a very problematic translation, which likely does not explicitly refer to homosexuals. (Pizzuto)
Furthermore, when contemporary Greek and Roman authors talk about male-male relations, the term arsenokoitai is not used. (Elliott) It is suggested that it is a term for male prostitutes, but the evidence seems weak for that. Others believe that it more likely refers to those who have sex with underage male prostitutes or young boys.
Philo, a contemporary of Paul’s in Israel, brings us some unexpected information on the practices of the Corinthians of the time, which may have been the focus of Paul’s admonition. As quoted in Elliot (page 30), Philo describes almost an epidemic of older men having sex with young boys, specifically that the young boys tried their best to look like women for the purpose of homosexual sex.
Mark how conspicuously they braid and adorn the hair of their heads, and how they scrub and paint their faces with cosmetics and pigments and the like, and smother themselves with fragrant unguents. For of all such embellishments, used by all who deck themselves out to wear a comely appearance, fragrance is the most seductive. In fact, the transformation of the male nature to the female is practiced by them as an art and does not raise a blush.
The reason is, I think, to be found in the prizes awarded in many nations to licentiousness and effeminacy (malakias) .Certainly you may see these man-woman hybrids (androgynous) continually strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things, leading the mysteries and initiations and celebrating the rites of Demeter. (Elliott)
But then Philo makes mention of something which may directly impact transgender persons.
Those of them who by way of heightening still further their youthful beauty have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs (ta gennétika), are clad in purple like signal benefactors of their native lands, and march in front escorted by a bodyguard, attracting the attention of those who meet them. (Elliott)
So Paul could have been speaking about “catamites,” or transgender persons, or both. In any event, it’s an interesting historical sidebar to note that transgender persons were documented in 1st-century Corinth. Other interpretations of 1 Corinthians 6:9 believe that Paul intended to only focus on young male prostitutes and the older men who take advantage of them. (Oh, Richie) Sources further claim that most homosexual relationships of the time of Paul’s letter were of the old man/underage boy type, thus it is plausible at least that Paul was really talking about child prostitution. (Oh) This is by no means universally agreed upon. (Malick)
Then we have even more recent interpretations, which claim that the malakoi are “practicing homosexuals.” Helminiak notes “How amazing that a first-century text would now seem to teach exactly what Roman Catholicism began teaching only in the mid-1970’s!” (Pizzuto)
At worst, and taking a historical context of what it meant to be a “soft male,” it is possible that 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 does actually refer to both pederasts and/or catamites – young boys who are the passive partner in a homosexual relationship. Thus, by banning them, Paul was trying to cast shame on a long-standing (although not regular) practice of older men using young boys for sexual pleasure. (Elliott) Furthermore, looking at Paul’s writings in Corinthians from an ethical context, Paul is focused on injustice. Being an underage person involved in sex, or an older person who takes advantage of younger ones, is an injustice then – as well as now. It’s a very great stretch to claim that consenting adults who love each other, or those born with gender dysphoria, are committing any injustice at all. (Elliott)
One point which is often unmentioned is that the Greek terms malakoi and arsenokoitai are decidedly male terms. Reading 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 literally, one cannot find a condemnation for lesbian relationships. Still one could simply argue that although male terms were used, there were no common female terms for “lesbian,” so Paul intended to cover all bases but brevity kept him from doing so.
Another critical point is found in the verses directly prior to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which say:
1 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?
2 Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?
3 Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?
4 If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.
5 I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?
6 But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers.
7 Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?
8 Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren. (King James Version)
These are very critical for placing 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in context – in effect, Paul says that the church should resolve matters of law within the church itself, and not before a secular authority! (Elliott, Oh) So even if Christians still believe that being effeminate or homosexual is a sin, they are to handle it within the church, and not by passing secular laws!
Elliott, John H. “No Kingdom of God for Softies? or, What Was Paul Really Saying? 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in Context” Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology 34 (2004): 17-40.
Helminiak. Daniel What tile Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Tajique, NM: Alamo Square Press, 2000.
Malick, David E. “The Condemnation of Homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9” Bibliotheca Sacra 150: 600 (1993): 479-492.
Nolland, John. “Sexual Ethics and the Jesus of the Gospels” Anvil 26.1 (2009): 21-30.
Oh, Junghwan. Lawsuits In Paul’s Theological Ethics: A Historical And Literary Interpretation Of 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 Dissertation, April 2014. Department of Old and New Testament, Stellenbosch University.
Pizzuto, Vincent “God Has Made It Plain to Them: An Indictment of Rome’s Hermeneutic of Homophobia” Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology 38 (2008): 163-183.