What did Paul mean when he used the Greek word arsenokoitai?

by Rene

Philo of Alexandria <br>helps us define arsenokoitai

Philo of Alexandria
helps us define arsenokoitai

Philo of Alexandria <br>helps us define arsenokoitai

That's a great question because Paul could have used many words if he intended to blast gays and lesbians. Yet Paul used none of those available words, choosing instead to coin an interesting new word, arsenokoitai.

Despite what some scholars allege, arsenokoitai is never used in any extant Greek literature with our modern meaning of homosexual. The best evidence available today indicates that arsenokoitai described shrine prostitutes. That is the learned opinion of Philo, a contemporary of both Jesus and the apostle Paul and one of the most widely read Jewish intellectuals in the first century.

The apostle Paul, also a brilliant intellectual, was one of the most successful authors who ever lived. He wrote 14 short books in our New Testament, each of which has sold more than one billion copies. Paul received an exceptional education through private tutors including Gamaliel, the leading Jewish teacher of the first century, Acts 22:3.

Romans 1 indicates Paul had read and was familiar with Wisdom of Solomon, a book which is not part of inspired scripture and with secular writers of his day. Paul quotes at least three heathen writers in his inspired epistles, Epimenides, Aratus and Menander. He quotes Epimenides and Aratus in Acts 17:28, Menander in 1 Cor 15:32 and Epimenides in Titus 1:14.

Because Paul, AD 4 - 67, and Philo of Alexandria, 20 BC - AD 50, were contemporaries and because Paul was well educated and widely read, it is reasonable to believe that Paul was familiar with the writings of Philo, a fellow Jew and public intellectual, although not a fellow Christian. Philo understood Moses, in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, to be condemning shrine prostitution.

Philo's understanding that arsenos koiten refers to shrine prostitution is 2000 years old. It was a Jewish belief with which the Apostle Paul was familiar because Paul coins a new word describing temple prostitution using the Septuagint Greek words of Leviticus 20:13. Believing that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 refers to shrine or temple prostitution is not a modern belief invented by gays to alibi their "sin." It is the ancient Jewish and Christian belief for thousands of years.

Leviticus 18:22 - meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten gunaikos

Leviticus 20:13 - hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gunaikos

A Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13, arsenos koiten, is probably the source of the Greek word Paul used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. Many Christians believe Paul borrowed arsenokoitai from the Septuagint translation of Lev 18:22 and 20:13. Therefore, it is vitally important to understand how ancient Jews and Christians understood these verses.

Understanding arsenokoitai as a reference to shrine prostitution was the normal first century viewpoint, when Paul used his new Greek word, arsenokoitai, in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10.

Dr. Gordon Fee, a leading conservative heterosexual Greek scholar, points out that arsenokoites is rarely used in Greek literature

"especially when describing
homosexual activity."

-The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The First Epistle To The Corinthians, Eerdmans, 1987, Dr. Gordon D. Fee, p. 244.

Philo on shrine prostitution.

“(40) And I imagine that the cause of this is that among many nations there are actually rewards given for intemperance and effeminacy. At all events one may see men-women (androgynes) continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals;

and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres

(Ceres is another name for Cybele, the fertility goddess first century Romans referred to as the Mater Deum or Mother of the gods. Remember, Philo probably wrote this around AD 35.)

(41) And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes...

(Philo describes castrated Galli priests who served Cybele and other fertility goddesses throughout the Roman Empire and links them to Lev 18:22, 20:13 and Deu 23:17).

(42) But if there was a general indignation against those who venture to do such things, as was felt by our lawgiver..." (Moses was the Jewish Lawgiver. Philo refers to Moses' writings in Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 and Deuteronomy 23:17).

Philo, The Special Laws, III, VII, 40-42.


When we remember that ancient Judaism did not view Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as applicable to lesbians, we must conclude that the Apostle Paul would therefore not have used words from Lev 18:22 and 20:13 to condemn lesbians in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 because there was no basis in Old Testament law or Jewish thinking to do that.

Because the Jewish view was that Lev 18:22 and 20:13 (Deu 23:17) prohibited shrine prostitution, it is highly unlikely that Paul would have used arsenokoitai with a meaning unfamiliar to most of his readers.

And because arsenokoitai is never used in any extant Greek text from AD 57 to AD 1450, to refer to two men or two women in committed partnership, it is highly unlikely that Paul would have used arsenokoitai with that meaning, which would have baffled his first century readers.

Viewing 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 as universal prohibitions of lesbianism and homosexuality and interpreting these verses to mean that lesbians and homosexuals cannot go to heaven is a relatively recent interpretation. It is certainly not the predominant view for 2000 years of church history.

Based on these historically and Biblically accurate facts, we conclude that neither God, nor Moses nor Paul intended anyone to understand that committed, faithful same sex partnerships are wrong, sinful, out of bounds, against God's will or unscriptural.

Our spiritual honest faithful to history and "faithful to scripture rightly divided" (2 Timothy 2:15) conclusion therefore is that 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 are not a negative blast against gays and lesbians.

They are instead, warnings against temple prostitution. Paul is saying, 'God saved you out of pagan religion so live in that reality and serve only the true God. Do not go back to worshiping false gods.'

What is the historical meaning of arsenokoites?

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This page updated February 2, 2012

Rene's Original Question:

"Dear Rick - May I just ask you one more question? I got in some trouble when rethinking a passage of your excellent book and I feel I really need your help.

I understand that the noun 'arsenokoites' in 1Cor 6:9 is a neologism from the apostle Paul. But I think Paul alludes most probably to the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament of his times, where we find in Lev 18:22 – dealing with male-male sex as well as 1Cor 6:9 – the two separate words 'arsen' (Strong 730) and 'koite' (Strong 2845) appearing in the contextual meaning of 'man having sex with man'. Combining these words into a new noun, the meaning Paul intended could well have been 'men who engage in male sex'. Whatever the circumstances are.

The crucial point is: If Paul makes intentionally allusion to Lev 18:22, isn't he by doing so not implicitly confirming the validity of this verse for us today? As a general rule? But how could this be if the Holiness Code was restricted to Israelites only and not binding on us? Or has the ban on cult prostitution which seems to be the common context of both the cited OT and NT passages nothing to do with the Holiness Code but with the first commandement?

You see I am rather confused and I would appreciate very much if you could give me some hints to find out.

Thank you very much. God bless you. - Rene"

Comments for What did Paul mean when he used the Greek word arsenokoitai?

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Feb 02, 2012
Thank you
by: Susan

Hi. Thank you for posting this information and for keeping this site going. I wish I could "Like" this page on Facebook and have the information here flowing down my page.

I appreciate the history you've given for the Greek word arsenokoitai. I was just clobbered on FB with 1 Tim 1:9-10. Reading this information helped alleviate a lot of the confusion. There are so many negative perspectives on the web, it was a relief to find this one.

God bless you.

Feb 02, 2012
There's a Facebook button at the bottom of each page
by: Rick Brentlinger

Hi Susan- Thanks for your kind comments. I'm always blessed to know this website has been a blessing to someone.

There is a Facebook button at the bottom of each page where you can share the page plus buttons for other social media if you use them. Many thanks!

Feb 17, 2012
About arsenokoitai
by: mary lillis

Always knew there was more to it than the surface. Didn't make sense to sentence a generation of people to hell "just because" especially when I believe some homosexuality and lesbianism came about because of being sexually molested.

Apr 12, 2012
Not sure this applies
by: Cary Bass

Hi Rick, As a queer Christian seminarian, I appreciate the work you're doing here. I was really curious about the link between Philo and Leviticus, and I'm not sure, even after reading this essay, that I am convinced that this completely settles the matter. Philo could very easily be speaking about general male-male intercourse in "such things" even if he's referring back to the cultic practices.

Rick's comment: What settles the matter for me is the way the Greek word arsenokoitai was used in the first six centuries of church history. It was never used as a general reference to gay people.

I see no reason to assume, as the anti-gay crowd does, that Philo intended to condemn every same sex relationship without exception. He may have felt that way but he may not have felt that way too. Philo did carefully place his disapproval in the context of the Levitical prohibitions and tied his understanding to the shrine prostitutes he personally observed.

Also, it's important to note that while Philo and Paul were contemporaries, Philo came from and was in Alexandria, where such cultic practices were widespread, while Paul's context was predominantly Jewish/Pharisees.

Rick's comment: Paul did interact with Jews and the Pharisees but he was also God's apostle to the Gentiles. 13 of his 14 epistles were written to Gentiles.

While he may have known of cultic practices, it is really his understanding of these practices would be related to his interpretation of the law? The section in the holiness code is not about temple practices, but about general sexual behavior of the Hebrews.

Rick's comment: There is no contextual reason to assume your statement is true. The context indicates just the opposite, that the Levitical prohibitions were aimed at temple prostitution. Even our most ardent anti-gay foes admit that. See my shrine prostitutes page for more information.

That being said, I'd like to find a new understanding of arsenokoitai, and of Paul's reason for using it. Given that I have evidence in my own life and of those I know that one can be a faithful Christian and be in a lifelong committed monogamous relationship. The living spirit of Christ is always fundamental to understanding the written word.

Sep 23, 2013
Cultural climate
by: Jim Johnson

One point that may help to illuminate the issue is that Paul lived in a period, when there was a LOT of sex happening between males in Greek culture; much of it between older men and teenage boys (the eromenoi), as had been the case for centuries. It was more or less normal for a middle-aged man to acquire a teenaged male lover, with guidance on how to be a man, professional instruction and other favors included as compensation to the young man. The latter were expected to marry at a certain age and beget children, such that the sexual nature of their relationship(s) with one or more older men / mentors were not permanent. Given that Paul grew up in a Greek city (Tarsus) and spent years of missionary work among Greeks all over the eastern Mediterranean, he was undoubtedly aware of the practice.

If Paul viewed that sort of homosexual activity as an overwhelming evil, it is remarkable that his letters and sermons contain nothing directed at it. Instead, as you point out, the mortal sin was to unite oneself with the temple prostitutes, because that represented complete abandonment of the True God.

Dec 29, 2013
Great read on this topic
by: Tony

Here is a great read on this very topic.


Rick's comment: I reference Dr. de Young's paper on my Arsenokoites page. We disagree on conclusions.

Dec 11, 2014
not true
by: Lincoln

Arsenokoite may come from Leviticus 20:13. Jut look at the verse in the Septuigint. Paul identifies it as something the law condemns. Leviticus forbids a man from laying with a man as one does with a woman. There is no statement that this is only a sin if idolaters do it. God was telling Israelites not to do that. Sleeping with your mother, also in Leviticus 18, is also a sin even if you aren't worshipping a Buddha statue while doing it.

This passage shows us also that it was a sin for Gentiles to do this and that they were being driven from the land for this kind of wickedness.

Homosexual relationships also don't fit at all with the design God has for marriage as revealed in the Bible. Marriage is supposed to communicate something of the mystery of Christ and the church. Male and female are necessary for a marriage in the Biblical sense.

Rick's comment: Hi Lincoln - You've made assertions which are consistent with anti-gay teaching but which ignore cultural historical religious and biblical context. If your mind is open to God's truth, you will find it eye-opening to read through the other comments and click on the links to additional info.

Jun 14, 2015
Comment given to Lincoln.
by: Allen

"Rick's comment: Hi Lincoln - You've made assertions which are consistent with anti-gay teaching but which ignore cultural historical religious and biblical context."

I don't know if you actually read Lincoln's comment, but I think he does consider the cultural and most importantly the biblical context while you merely assert that he doesn't and call it antigay as if that has any bearing whether what he is say is true.

"If your mind is open to God's truth, you will find it eye-opening to read through the other comments and click on the links to additional info."

I wonder given your position if your mind is open to God's truth rather than defending an ungodly position. I wonder how your position would hold up if you actually defended it against true Christians, for example James White or Michael Brown who defend God's Word rather than their sexuality.

Rick's comment: Hi Allen - You don't earn any points with God by being a low infor-mation christian - I'm just saying. BTW, truth is truth even when your anti-gay crowd rejects it.

Aug 17, 2015
Could you
by: Al

Could you do an article that talks about copyright? How do we avoid infringements when we cite other people's compilations over the internet? For example, what if I print-out a paragraph of our Catechism as it has been formatted (text, font, layout, etc.) over the internet by the Picayune, Mississippi, parish St.Charles Borromeo Catholic Church SCBCC. How do I attribute their work? I notice when I leave one portion of their Catechism site, and go to print a paragraph, that SCBCC's "case number" from the Vatican appears giving SCBCC permission to offer an eletronic version of the Catechism. So how do I properly attribute at that level? Thanks!

Rick's comment: Hi Al - I'm not sure I understand precisely what you're asking so I'll refer you to my Copyright page, which, at the bottom of the page, has links to online info about copyright legalities.

In general, if you're quoting a RC catechism to recommend it or to critique it, you provide a link to their website page where the catechism is found. If their website doesn't not permit you to provide a link to the exact page, you provide a link to the website home page.

Copyright info

Sep 09, 2015
Romans 1:27
by: David

... "men with men (arsenes en arsesin)committing indecent acts" ...

Paul is quite clear in this passage. Subterfuge is not good hermeneutics. Otherwise I could use 1 Timothy 5:23 to justify getting drunk every night.

Rick's comment: Hi David - I have an extensive section on Romans 1 on my website, which I hope you will explore.

In any context of Romans 1 that we examine, biblical, cultural, doctrinal, historical, linguistic, literary or religious, we discover that Paul is not discussing gays or lesbians or transgendered individuals or homosexuality.

He is instead, making an argument about Gentile idolatry and then illustrates his argument in v. 26 by describing female shrine prostitutes and in v. 27 by describing male shrine prostitutes.

If you could use 1 Timothy 5:23 - "take a LITTLE wine" - to justify getting drunk every night, you must have a very low tolerance for beverage alcohol and a penchant for ripping verses out of context to defend your anti-gay views.

Sep 10, 2015
by: David

A very harsh reply, indeed.

Anti-gay? My boss is transgender (and celibate). As to low tolerance for alcohol I abstain from drinking.

I will gladly call "brother" any gay who is celibate, and any drunkard who is sober.

With regards to Romans, I have read all of the contrarian viewpoints and they are not dissimilar from the faulty exegesis that asserts G-d destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their inhospitality.

Look, we can't interpret the Bible from the bias of contemporary mores thousand of years removed from the original text.

You can't defend any type of behavior by asserting that the Bible doesn't say what it clearly meant to the ancient peoples to whom it was written.

This is evident in the Halacha (Oral and Written Law) which has preserved the Rabbinic interpretation of Torah that this particular act is to'aiva -- an abomination.

It is not a reference to prostitution nor pederasty, but (as the Talmud concurs) male-to-male sexual intercourse.

Curious how we are so enlightened that the teachings of Augustine, Luther and the Rabbin are irrelevant.

G-d is unchanging, and He will not be mocked.

Rick's comment: Hi David - Sorry that you thought my reply was harsh. My intent was to be truthful. You mentioned inhospitality, as if there is no biblical evidence for that as the sin of Sodom.

What was the sin of Sodom?

Was inhospitality one of the sins of Sodom?

Loving strangers = hospitality

Ancient Jews understood Lev 18:22 and 20:13 as prohibitions of shrine prostitution and incest.

Babylonian Talmud on Sodom

Philo, a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, a fellow Jew although not a fellow Christian, believed that Lev 18:22 and 20:13 indicted shrine prostitution.

What does arsenokoitai mean?

Paul probably coined the word, arsenokoitai, from arsenos koiten in Lev 20:13. Had he intended readers to believe he was prohibiting gay and lesbian relations in 1 Cor 6:9 or 1 Tim 1:10, there were many words Paul could have used yet he used none of them.

There is not a shred of historical evidence that anyone in the first century AD used arsenokoitai to refer to gays or lesbians.

I don't mean any of this to be harsh. If you know of any historical evidence that anyone in the first century used arsenokoitai to mean gay or lesbian, I would appreciate you sharing it with me.

Sep 10, 2015
by: David

It is not difficult to find arguments within Reformed Judaism to support your position. However, orthodox Rabbin hold to ancient tradition since G-d is unchanging.

I appreciate your respectful discourse, and offer some rather lengthy insights. Please forgive my lack of brevity as you are the host and I don't want to impose on your goodwill.

Ben Witherington wrote: "The word [arsenokoites] literally and graphically refers to a male copulator (cf. Sib. Or. 2:73; Greek Anthology 9.686), a man who has intercourse with another man... It is true that this term can refer to a pederast (an older man who has sex with a younger man or a youth), but the term is not a technical term for a pederast; rather, it includes consenting adult males who have sexual relationships in this manner, as well as any other form of male-to-male intercourse." (Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Volume 1: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2 Timothy and 1-3 John, 198)

Andreas Kostenberger wrote: "In light of the discussion of teaching in the Old Testament and the book of Romans above, it appears very unlikely that what is universally condemned in the Hebrew scriptures might, in New Testament times as well as ours, be acceptable." Arsenokoitas most likely refers to "the general practice of homosexuality."

"It appears like that the term arsenokoitas, which does not seem to appear in the extant literature prior to the present reference, was coined by Paul or someone else in Hellenistic Judaism from the Levitical prohibition against males "lying or sleeping with males" (Lev. 18:22...). This suggests that the term is broad and general in nature and encompasses homosexuality as a whole rather than merely specific aberrant subsets of homosexual behavior." This is important since some want to make arsenokoitas refer specifically to pederasty.

The argument that Paul's use of arsenokoitas refers to pederasty falls short on six counts: a) There was a clear and unambiguous word for pederasty, the term paiderastes;

b) "The attempt to limit Paul's condemnation to pederasty... is contradicted by Paul's reference to the male partners' mutual desire for one another in Romans 1:27";

c) "In the same passage in Romans 1:26, Paul also condemns lesbian sex, which did not involve children, so that an appeal to pederasty does not adequately account for the prohibition of same-sex relations in this passage.";

d) "Even if (for argument's sake) Paul were to censure only pederasty in the passages under consideration, this would still not mean that, as a Scripture-abiding Jew, he would have approved of homosexuality as such. Quite the contrary. In contrast to the surrounding Greco-Roman world (which generally accepted homosexual acts). Hellenistic Jewish texts universally condemn homosexuality and treat it (together with idolatry) as the most egregious example of Gentile moral depravity.";

e) "Not only is Paul's view of homosexuality as contrary to nature in keeping with the foundational creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2, but it is also illumined by prevailing views of homosexuality in contemporary Greco-Roman culture." (See the entire text for much more on this);

f) "Ancient sources do not support the idea that homosexuality was defined exclusively in terms of homosexual acts but not orientation." Paul refers to both. Some scholars erect a false dichotomy between the two, and then use the false dichotomy to reason that the concept of "homosexuality" has changed."

Rick's comment: Hi David - Your citations do not address my challenge to you. I asked for proof that anyone in the first century used arsenokoitai to mean gay or lesbian.

Witherington and Kostenberger do not answer the challenge either, because there is not a shred of historical evidence that anyone in the first century used the arsenokoit stem to describe two gay guys or two gay gals.

You apparently have already made up your mind on the topic because you didn't bother to read my page: What does arsenokoitai mean?

I have received many comments explaining to me that Dr. So and So says arsenokoitai means homosexual therefore, the case is closed and they refuse to consider any other possibility. Sadly,

A closed mind gathers no truth. - Old Etruscan proverb

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