Sean McDowell | April 28, 2021

Has "Homosexual" Always Been in the Bible?

Along with my normal blog, I occasionally have guest bloggers address pressing topics. Matthew Tingblad is a speaker and author at Josh McDowell Ministry with an M.Div. from Talbot School of Theology. In the post below, he addresses the question of whether or not the word “Homosexual” has always been in the Bible. You can follow Matthew on YouTube and Twitter.

Has "Homosexual" Always Been in the Bible

by Matthew Tingblad

Some time ago, I got an email from someone asking about an interview with Ed Oxford, published as a blog post on Forge titled "Has 'Homosexual' always been in the Bible?" Mr. Oxford argued that the idea behind our English word "homosexual" was not always in the Bible, and that the church has made a grave mistake when they started to convey the idea in their translations.

At the time I had never heard of this author or his writing, but I have since noticed Oxford's writing popping up elsewhere, and I was fascinated by the fact that he graduated from Talbot School of Theology, a conservative Evangelical seminary, the very place where I graduated and where Sean McDowell teaches.

Clobber Passages

People may be attracted to reforming the Church's interpretation of the Bible's position on same-sex relationships because they have seen its abuse. Often times, they refer to the verses used against same-sex relationships as "Clobber Passages," no-doubt because Christians with same-sex attraction have been clobbered with these verses by others in the church.

But if the traditional position is right (that same-sex unions are not in God's design) then there is hope for the person experiencing same-sex attraction. There is hope that God can restore this person to a way of life that is better than what they have ever known in their own sexual pursuits. This has happened many times already, and these people would probably never have found freedom if they were convinced that the Bible validated their same-sex desires. In light of this, I offer a critique of Mr. Oxfords position, not because I want to shut down hope for Christians with same-sex attraction, but because I think Oxford is incorrect and I want people to find freedom in God's design.

“Homosexual” in the Bible

Those who believe that same-sex relationships are not prohibited in Scripture often mention how there was a cultural context in Biblical times where men would have sex with young boys. In this article, Oxford supports that line of thinking by arguing that the historical church always understood this, and only until recent times have we used the word "homosexual" in our Bible translations. The argument is based on old translations of the Bible which translate arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 as something along the lines of "boy-molester."

Methodologically, his approach is problematic. Despite the author's fascination with old lexicons and translations, there are reasons biblical scholars don’t approach the text this way, at least not as a primary approach. One reason is that words change over time. If you look up the word "incredible" in Webster's 1820 dictionary, you will see that it means something that cannot be believed. Today, we use incredible to express our amazement of something we believe to be true! Here is another, more relevant example: If you look up the word "boy" in the online English etymology dictionary, it will tell you that the word's older usage was sometimes given without reference to any age.

Use the Right Sources!

What’s the point? We shouldn’t go to old dictionaries/lexicons unless we have a good knowledge of what the words meant at the time the old sources were written. Older lexicons make the same mistake when they attempt to define the Greek words of the New Testament. They see a Greek word and they give a modern Greek definition, making the mistake of reading a modern definition into an ancient language (i.e, the fallacy of Semantic Anachronism).

The New Testament was written in what's called "Koine" Greek. Our best sources for Koine Greek are the more modern lexicons that have performed all of the lexical work necessary to bring us back into the first century. If we wanted to study Classical Greek, or the Septuagint (Greek translations of the Old Testament, written before Christ), then we would need different lexicons specific to those time periods because those Greek words don't mean the same thing in different eras. They are often close, but there are important nuances. This is true for any spoken language.

The author cites an old lexicon from 1483 which likely contains errors of reading modern definitions into Koine Greek. It gives a Latin definition, and that Latin definition is translated again into English for us. There are just too many ways that something could get skewed in the process. (Granted, it's possible that Oxford has done enough deep lexical work to confirm the usage of these old definitions, though I worry that is not the case.)

A Better Approach

A much better approach is to look up arsenokoitai in BDAG, the "industry standard" lexicon of Koine Greek among scholars. BDAG tells us that the word could mean "a male who engaged in sexual activity with a person of his own sex," or it could mean "pederast." It also says that Paul's use of the word cannot be limited to contact with boys, citing important sources for why this is so.

Maybe the reason that modern translations use "homosexual" is not because of an anti-homosexual bias, but because we have a better understanding of Biblical Greek. Have we not learned more about Biblical Greek since the 15th century?

Another Concern

Another yellow flag I see is that Oxford spends a lot of time saying that "boy-molester" must mean what these two words mean when we put them together. This might be true, but not necessarily. "Peanut butter" is typically more than just butter-ified peanuts. "Cupcakes" are like a cake made in a cup, but in modern times they are typically made in a tray. "Butterfly" is not flying butter. Words don't always come together like this to form hard definitions, and to assume this could lead to a fallacy of composition. The author mentions an "ah-ha" moment where Luther's translation of arsenokoitai is: "knabenschander. Knaben is boy, schander is molester." Aside from the fact that "Knaben" and "schander " may have had different nuances in Luther's time, is it really proper to combine these two words to create a hard definition? Whatever the case, it should be noted that Luther did not believe that same-sex relationships were permissible. He expressed opposition to adult same-sex relationships in his commentary of Romans, and he claimed that Sodom's sin was homosexuality in his lectures of Genesis.

Oxford's article doesn't go into Romans 1:26-27, which is another important passage on the topic. I know you can't cover everything in a single blog post, but I find it important to briefly mention here. Paul says that men (Greek: arsen) went after one another or each other (Greek: allelon), that is, after other men (Greek: arsen. Same word.) If Paul wanted to refer to men going after young boys, he would not have used "one another" and he would have used a better word for "boy" such as huios or paidon.

Additionally, in the passage in Romans, the men were engaging in the same behavior as the women (“the men likewise”). Since there was no female equivalent of pederasty, then the men whom Paul condemns must not have been engaging in pederasty either.

A Better Way

I do respect Mr. Oxford for his willingness going against the grain of the Evangelical church on an issue that we all can agree is important to discuss. Sometimes the church needs correction, and it takes boldness for that to happen. In this case, however, I believe that Oxford's attempt at recasting the translation of "homosexual" is misguided.

By God's grace, we will find a better way to help our dear brothers and sisters in the church with same-sex attraction to find life in the truth of God's Word.

For more on this topic, check out Sean’s video: “Has "Homosexual" Always Been in the Bible: An Interview with Preston Sprinkle

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.