Subsidiary SourcebooksAfricanEastern AsianGlobalIndianJewishIslamicLesbian/GayScienceWomen

Special ResourcesByzantiumMedieval MusicSaints' Lives
Ancient Law
Medieval Law
Film: Ancient
Film: Medieval
Film: Modern

About IHSPIHSP Credits

Boswell Reviews

[Unsure of origin of this text]

Stephen Carlson: Boswell's Analysis of ARSENOKOITHS in 1Co6:19 and 1Tm1:10

One controversial statement from Boswell's seminal book, Christianity, Social Tolerance & Homosexuality (1980), is that the term ARSENOKOITHS in 1Co6:19 and 1Tm1:10 means a male prostitute rather than a homosexual (that is, an engager in sexual activity with a member of the same sex) as it is commonly translated. While this could have remained a rather arcane point among scholars, its doctrinal implications make this quite relevant today.

Before going into Boswell's analysis, I would like to address some methodological considerations. Determining what a word means in a particular context is quite tricky. Words change meaning over time, and the author may use them metaphorically, idiosyncratically, or with a specialized meaning as jargon. Thus, when considering the meaning of a word, the closer the evidence is to the word's context--textually, culturally, and chronologically--the stronger that evidence will be.

The New Testament was written in the Koine Greek dialect for a Hellenized Jewish/Christian community in the first century. This cultural and chronological context plays a strong role in investigating the meaning of a word in the New Testament. The best evidence is the textual context of the word itself within the document's literary genre. Next in strength is the author's other uses of the term. After this, that word's usage throughout the rest of the New Testament becomes important. Since the early Hellenistic Christian community relied on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX) is also very important. At this point, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, or Patristics, of the next few generations after the Apostles become relevant. After that, the word's usage by the contemporary Hellenized Jews, Philo and Josephus, can be considered. Evidence by pagans in the Hellenistic world comes after that. Among the last of the kinds of evidence to be considered is the word's meaning in earlier Attic Greek dialect and in the later Byzantine Greek dialect. Words change meaning over time and culture so one must be careful with the extra-dialectal evidence.

There are two additional means of analysis which one must use at one's peril. The first is an etymological argument that analyzes how the word is constituted. This is difficult because a word may have changed meaning since it was created, and there is also the problem of knowing the meaning of the constituent parts at the time of creation. For example, the English words, pioneer, pawn, and peon have the same etymon, Medieval Latin, pedo, a foot soldier, but that is not useful in determining the meaning of those three words.

The second argument is the argument from silence, and it is even more problematical. Obviously, it cannot indicate a word's meaning but only give some inference about what it might not mean. For this to be at its most effectiveness, there has to be evidence that an author would have used it but chose not to. The rarer the word in the word in question is the more the argument from silence has to contend with the author's not knowing what it meant or how to use it.

Unfortunately, Boswell only gives a cursory treatment of the most relevant information, generally in footnotes and parentheticals, but spends a much greater portion of his analysis on the least probative--the etymology and silence. As a result, his analysis is weak and unpersuasive and his conclusion unlikely.

The relevant New Testament verses are:

9 . . . Be not deceived: neither fornicators [PORNOI], nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [MALAKOI], nor abusers of themselves with mankind [ARSENOKOITAI], 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

[1Co6:9-10 (KJV)]

9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for the righteous man but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and for murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 for whoremongers [PORNOIS], for them that defile themselves with mankind [ARSENOKOITAIS], for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.

[1Tm1:9-10 (KJV)]

Boswell first tries to plant the suggestion that ARSENOKOITHS is about prostitution. He only makes the most minimal examination of its context, by noting that ARSENOKOITHS appears next to PORNOS meaning whore, or fornicator in 1Tm1:10, and that Paul talks about prostitution a lot. [Boswell at 341.] Whatever the initial strength of his point is, it must be attenuated by the fact that ARSENOKOITHS follows MALAKOS in 1Co6:9, not PORNOS. Since MALAKOS is commonly taken to mean a catamite, a pederast's boy partner, the juxtaposition of MALAKOS and ARSENOKOITHS in 1Co6:9 could just as well favor the conclusion that ARSENOKOITHS means a homosexual, possibly the one who takes the "active" role.

In addition, the Greek word PORNOS itself has connotations of male prostitution, as in Xenophon for example. The use of PORNOS in the masculine plural would encompass both male and female prostitutes. While PORNOS is commonly generalized in the New Testament to all sexually immoral people, the context of 1Co6:9 suggests that prostitution is covered by PORNOS not ARSENOKOITHS. Paul probably was keying off of the first item in his list when he illustrated it with an example a man going to a prostitute [1Co6:15-16]. Thus, while it is true that PORNOS in both lists does bring in a context of prostitution, it actually cuts against Boswell's analysis. Paul does not repeat any other vice in the list, so it is quite unlikely that he was being redundant in this case.

From the 1 Corinthians passage one can no more conclude that the ARSENOKOITAI are male prostitutes than that the idolators, or even the drunkards and revilers are. The 1 Timothy passage is more interesting-- the ARSENOKOITAI are law breakers. The Mosaic law certainly prohibited active homosexuality [Lv18:22 and 20:13] but is less clear about prostitution. Dt23:17 seems, as most commentators agree, to be more about temple cult prostitution than prostitution per se, and Lv19:29 is not about male prostitution but pandering one's daughters. Therefore, the immediate context of the New Testament attestations of ARSENOKOITHS better suggests an engager in homosexual activity than Boswell's denotation of an active sexual agent of any orientation.

Boswell's next argument is etymological, which is one of the weakest. Since Paul is one of the first to ever use the term, the strength of the analysis relies on the meaning of the first part, the meaning of the second part, and the meaning the whole. [See generally, Goodwin, A Greek Grammar 191-95 (1968)] Furthermore, a coined word might allude to another context. Boswell is correct only for the meaning of the first part ( viz. that ARSENO- means male) and ignores a possible provenance of the word.

Much of the strength of Boswell's conclusion that ARSENOKOITAI means "male sexual agent, i.e. , active male prostitutes" [Boswell at 344] relies on a one sentence analysis of the second part:

"The second half of the compound, KOITAI, is a coarse word, generally denoting base or licentious sexual activities (see Rom. 13:13), and in this and other compounds corresponds to the vulgar English word 'fucker,' i.e., a person who, by insertion, takes the 'active' role in intercourse."

[Boswell at 342.]

Boswell's undocumented assertion misrepresents the meaning. KOITAI is best understood as a euphemism for sexual activity. While Paul certainly uses it in the plural in Rm13:13 to describe "chambering" (KJV) or "debauchery" (NIV), that is the most vulgar the term ever gets. Paul also uses it to describe how "our father Isaac" conceived both of Rebecca's children [Rm9:10]. Luke uses it quite neutrally to describe a bed. [Lk11:7 "my children are with me in bed" (KJV)]. The final use of this term in the New Testment can hardly be less vulgar: "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed [KOITHN] undefiled . . . ." [Hb13:4 (KJV)]. Thus, one can see that Paul uses it generally as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, which is also how the Septuagint uses it, especially in Lv18:22 and 20:13. A better translation for KOITAI with the same degree of vulgarity is something like the English word "bedder."

This word is usually used in composition to describe those who sleep or engage in sexual activity:

consorting with slaves,
incestuous person, i.e. with mother,
seeking illicit sex,
having intercourse with a man,
sleeping by day,
sleeping on the ground,
with ears large enough to sleep in,
in the mud--relating to a kind of frog,
to have a bedfellow,
sleeping with many men or women,
incest of brother or sister,
luller of winds, etc.

[Examples taken from Wright, 38 Vigiliae Christianae 125-53 (1984)] Many of these words are neologistic, coined and only used by their author. This does establish, however, a pattern of using KOITHS in composition with sexual connotations, much like the English phrase "to sleep with" has.

The first part of the word ARSENOKOITHS is simply "male," as Boswell recognizes, so a rough English calque could be something like "male-bedder." Greek compounds, like English, can be either objective (and thus would mean "someone who beds males") or determinative ("a male who beds"). While Boswell spends the next three pages arguing for the latter, the choice for the former is obvious. If a Greek writer wanted to refer to a male actor, the masculine grammatical gender is enough to make his point, unless it is something only women do. Although Boswell does provide examples of the prefix ARSENO- in determinative compounds (ARSENOMORFOS = of masculine form; ARSENOGENHS = (born a) male; ARSENOQUMOS = man-minded; and ARSENWMA = seed of the male), they are not germane because none of these examples are for male actors or activities involving male actors.

There are plenty of other words with the ARSENO- prefix (or in its Attic form, ARRENO-) which use it in objective compounds for actors or actions, such as:

to marry men,
to bear male children,
a sodomite,
to bear male children,
mad after males,
to become a man, and
one who looks lewdly on males.

[See Liddel, Scott & Jones]

Boswell's explanation that the ARRENO- form is for objective compounds but that ARSENO- prefix is for determinative compounds is bizarre. It ignores that the difference is merely one of dialect; it ignores that the same word appears in both dialectal forms (ARSENOKOITHS ~ ARRENOKOITHS and ARRENOMIKTHS ~ ARSENOMIKTES); and that there exists a word with ARSENO- that is in an objective compound (ARSENOBATHS, paedicator = pederast [LS&J suppl.]). Generally, the prefix in either form is used make a sexual distinction, and this prefix is used several times for compounds relating to sodomy or homosexuality. Even though Boswell recognizes that his proposed distinction has "not been carefully examined," [Boswell at 343] he hangs his entire analysis on this flimsy nail.

Also, Boswell tries to side-step the embarrassing existence of ARRENOKOITAS in a Byzantine inscription in a confusing footnote. [Boswell at 344 n.22]. He wrongly assumes that ARRENAS cannot be used as an adjective (attested by Aristotle among others [see LS&J]), and does not consider that it could be used in apposition. In any event, the inscription is directed against the Arabs, who were accused of being sodomites according to the footnote in the Loeb Classical Edition.

In any event, Boswell never mentioned the most obvious source for compound word, ARSENOKOITHS in the first place: Lv20:13. The Septuagint translates that verse, which imposed the death penalty for acts of homosexuality, as follows:


[Lv20:13 (LXX) (emphasis added), see Boswell at 100 n.28]

Not only are both parts of the compound used in the Septuagint translation, but they are juxtaposed in the exact same order. Paul has simply used (or even coined) a word that strongly alludes to the Levitical verse. Moreover, this is not a technique unknown to Paul. In 2Co6:14, Paul coopted the compound HETEROZUGOUNTES which normally meant "mismatched" in the Greek world to allude to Lv19:19 and all of its connotations in being "unequally yoked." [See Bauer, Gingrich & Arndt] Similarly, Paul probably used ARSENOKOITHS to pick up both the genericity of the the activity (a man lying with a man as with a woman) and its accompanying moral condemnation.

Boswell's next six pages are an argument from silence and a complete waste of time. The word is rarely used, and its facial meaning of "men-bedders" may have been judged too weak or obscure by later writers, so it is hard to conclude much from this silence. His argument from silence can also cut the other way, as an argument against it meaning a male prostitute, because no one chose to employ it in that context either.

Not only is the argument from silence weak in general, Boswell's particular argument from silence is unpersuasive. This kind of argument is strongest when there are powerful indications that an author would have used the term but didn't.

  1. Silence among Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch is simply not relevant. [Boswell at 345] The first three are way too early to use a term probably coined by Paul or someone within a Pauline community. Plutarch, a Gentile, was certainly unfamiliar with Christian or Pauline terminology.
  2. Philo and Josephus are not helpful either [Boswell at 346]. There is no Pauline (or Christian) influence upon their writings. Josephus, in fact, did not use characteristically Christian language in his Testimonium about Jesus. [See Meier, The Marginal Jew.]
  3. Since Didache 5:1-2 is a list of sins, with no literary dependence on 1Co6:9-10, it is hardly relevant to the meaning of ARSENOKOITHS. [Boswell at 346]. After all, vice lists are hardly exhaustive.
  4. Tatian's and Justin Martyr's use of the more common Hellenistic terms [Boswell at 346] is not surprising considering the polemical and apolegetical nature ( i.e. , written for non-Christians to read) of their words. Of course, they chose a less obscure term.
  5. Boswell's use of Eusebius's silence ("yet nowhere does he use the word with supposedly mean 'homosexual' in Paul's writings" [Boswell at 346]) is misleading because Eusebius did use the verbal form in a context suggesting homosexual behavior. [See infra ]
  6. Clement of Alexandria is the most interesting [Boswell at 346]; however, he had a penchant for provocative language against homosexuality, likening it to the behavior of a hyena for example, so it is not surprising that he did not use such a rare and euphemistic word.
  7. John Chrysostom (4th cen.) is really too late to be probative, but his only use of the term is to distinguish them from male prosititutes (hHTAIRHKWS). [Boswell at 347-48, 51-52]

The fact that the ARSENOKOITHS is already a rare term, euphemistic, and apparently coined within a small Christian community to allude to a Levitical prohibition readily explains why other Christian writers would use words that were either more current or provocative.

Boswell's treatment of the Patristic evidence is very brief. He dismisses for example, Polycarp's Epistle to the Philipians (PPhp) (early 2d cen.) by asserting that it provides no context. [Boswell at 350 n.42]. Some additional information, however, can still be gleaned from the passage. After setting out the high moral standards of the deacons [PPhp 5:2], Polycarp says that "[l]ikewise also let the younger men be blameless in all things," and avoid "every lust." [v3] Then Polycarp quotes from 1Co6:9 three kinds of people who will not enter the Kingdom of God: the fornicators [PORNOI], the effeminate [MALAKOI], and the sodomites [ARSENOKOITAI]. Polycarp clearly tailored Paul's list for his concern of young unmarried men, because he omitted adulterers from the list. If Polycarp understood ARSENOKOITAI to refer to male prostitutes, it makes little sense that he would ignore two main reasons for engaging in it: the religious reasons, for which the idolaters would also be appropriate, or perhaps for money, for which the covetous would also be mentioned. As scanty as the Patristic evidence is, it nonetheless tends to refute Boswell's interpretation of the term ARSENOKOITHS.

The rest of Boswell's analysis is a discussion of the later Byzantine usage of the term. From a methodological standpoint, this evidence is not all that probative, because words can change meaning over time. In fact, this appears to be the case: after the word dropped out of use for some time, it was brought back to mean "anal intercourse," similar to the sense development of the English word "sodomy." This later meaning makes more sense if the term originally related to homosexuality rather than prostitution.

Not only is his Byzantine analysis methologically poor, his treatment of one of the examples is positively misleading: He buries the argument into a footnote, makes a mild concession ("though somewhat ambiguous"), boldly asserts the meaning he wishes it would say ("strongly implies an equation . . . with GUNAIKES ATIMOI, i.e. , female prostitutes" [ sic , actually "shameless women"]), presents the word within a seven-line mass of untranslated, untransliterated Greek, and then says it is of too late origin in any case. [Boswell at 350 n.43].

While this technique may intimidate the average reader, who does not know Greek, the quotation actually has a very interesting clause:

But those who roam outside of these, they seek after pleasures against nature, desiring to [ARSENOKOITEIN]. (Translation mine.)

Compare the similar phrase "PARA FUSIN" (against nature) in Rm1:26. The connection between the arsenokoitai and the GUNAIKES ATIMOI is far from clear: "KAI TIS ME: hHSUKAZWN ALLA REMBOMENOS, TOIS KATHGORHMASI KOINWNHSEI THS ATIMOU GUNAIKOS." (and anyone who is not quiet but roams, shares in the accusations of the shameless woman.) (Translation mine). The roaming is referring to those "roaming the streets who accept the designs of adultery, fornication, and theft" also in the passage.

Often the evidence about a word's meaning in a certain context is not conclusive but merely indicative. When the best and strongest evidence consistently points to the same conclusion, however, we can become more confident. In this case, the immediate context of the word ARSENOKOITHS, all throughout the New Testament, its Septuagint parallels, and its usage among the Apostolic Fathers, like Polycarp, all point to a meaning of a homosexual and not a male prostitute. Boswell's general argument, apart from a facile consideration of the context, relies too much on the argument from silence and an egregious etymological analysis. Whatever one thinks of the residual uncertainty in concluding that ARSENOKOITHS means a homosexual, one can say that this sense is much more probable than Boswell's.

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 20 January 2021 [CV]