(Mis)Translation in the Bible
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,
Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
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. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
So reads the King James version of the Bible. There has been enormous controversy over the last word in the first verse (6:9). What are “abusers of themselves with mankind”? The word is commonly translated as “homosexuals.” The New Revised Standard Version renders the list as “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, [and] sodomites…” while the New International Version lists “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men…”
The original word used by Paul for that fourth term was arsenkoitai, a word he appears to have created. Some scholars argue that if he had meant “homosexual,” he would have used the word in common use, paideraaste. Others argue that this second word refers specifically to pederasty, and that there was no word for homosexuality in Greek, so Paul had to make one up. Still others note that the word arsenkoitai is feminine, and thus unlikely to refer to a male person at all.
Even more interesting is the previous word in the list, which KJV renders as “effeminate,” NRSV translates as “male prostitutes,” and NIV combines with arsenkotai into “men who have sex with men.”
This word, malakoi, appears twice in the Gospels, both times in its adjective form meaning “soft” or “luxurious” (as in cloth). When used as an characteristic of people, it means “softness or weakness,” and its opposite is “perseverance.” Aristotle is quoted as saying, “One who is deficient in resistance to pains that most men withstand with success, is soft (malakos) or luxurious, for luxury is a kind of softness (malakia)…”
With respect to its use in Paul’s letter, the 18th century Wesley’s Notes on the Bible says of malakoi that it includes people
“Who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship. But how is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites! We may learn hence, that we are never secure from the greatest sins, till we guard against those which are thought the least; nor, indeed, till we think no sin is little, since every one is a step toward hell.”
Interestingly, one argument that arsenkoitai must refer to a sexual act is that it ends a list of sexual acts. Yet it would seem that malakoi has no sexual connotation, but rather refers to lazy Christians!