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Columns: Biblical misinterpretation confuses moral teaching

By Terri Bednarz
On October 6, 2011

Often in public debates, we hear folks cite biblical texts as "proof" that God does or does not "approve" of a certain stance on some controversial issue. In many cases, these interpretations of biblical texts are taken out of their cultural and social context, and applied to a modern context. This misuse of biblical interpretation is not only faulty at times, but also quite dangerous.

As an example of biblical misinterpretation, we can take the controversial issue of sexual orientation. It is important to note that the biblical references (1 Cor 6:9; Romans 1:27; 1 Tim 1:10; Lev 18:22 and 20:13) that are used by some people to condemn homosexuality are not actually about homosexuality. There are no references in Christian and Hebrew scriptures explicitly condemning homosexuality. Unfortunately, the confusion regarding the New Testament biblical texts comes from English translations of Greek manuscripts and our own cultural bias in interpreting them. Let me provide an example through a brief textual exegesis on 1 Corinthians 6:9. The problematic Greek words in this verse are "malakos" and "arsenokoitai." The collocation of these two terms strongly suggest "pederasty" — a practice often associated with ancient Athens, which involves an erotic relationship between an older male and a young boy. These Greek terms do not refer to homosexuality.

When translators choose to render the Greek into English, they rely on lexicons to inform their decisions. In this process, some translators use (often inadvertently) lexicon definitions that fit their own cultural or religious presuppositions. For example, the Louw-Nida Greek lexicon defines "malakos" as "soft" or "homosexual," while the Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gringrich lexicon includes broader definitions (i.e., "malakos" means "feeble, cowardly, morally weak, soft-sounding, effeminate"). One would be hard pressed to find a definition of "malakos" that includes "boy prostitute or homosexual" in the more substantive BDAG lexicon. Following are some examples of historical translations of "malakos" in 1 Cor 6:9: New American Bible (1970), "boy prostitutes"; Revised Standard Version (1971), "adulterers"; New American Standard (1995), "effeminate"; New King James (1982), "homosexuals"; New International Version, (1984), "male prostitutes."

Note the discrepancies between the translations. In the late 1990s, issues regarding same-sex orientation began to re-surface with renewed focus in public media, and this effect was felt in biblical scholarship. Scholars began to re-visit Greek texts and examine whether modern cultural presuppositions were producing biased translations. In one case, the New American Bible committee's translation of "arsenokoitai" as "practicing homosexuals" was met with severe criticism by mainstream biblical scholars, who argued that "practicing" was not only absent in the original Greek, but its use was indicative of Catholic theology emerging at the time. The Catholic teachings had pronounced homosexuality as acceptable as long as one did not practice homosexuality. Some Catholic versions now opt for "catamite" as a translation for "malakos."

It is important to note that there is no perfect biblical translation available, nor will there ever be. Why? Because biblical interpretation is an ongoing process scholars continue to discover new insights into the cultural world of antiquity, and these discoveries enlighten their understanding of Greek terms and concepts. This process will eventually produce more changes in future biblical translations, if ever so slowly. In addition, biblical scholars are increasingly aware that their own cultural bias must be named and challenged in the process of developing new translations of the Greek manuscripts. It is my hope that future biblical translations will include a more culturally nuanced understanding of "malakos" and "arsenokoitai" in the 1 Cor 6:9 text, but given the conservative tendencies of religious institutions this may take some persistent prodding and lots of patience.

In the meantime, when we perpetuate the notion that biblical passages explicitly condemn homosexuality, I fear we provide fodder for those who seek to legitimate their acts of intolerance, hatred and even deadly violence against others.

Terri Bednarz is a religious studies professor. She can be reached at tbednarz@loyno.edu

On the Record is a weekly column open to any member of Loyola's faculty and staff. Those interested in contributing can contact

letter@loyno.edu 


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