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Greek Culture and Homosexuality

From an original article by Jeramy Townsley.

Was pederasty the only form of male homosexuality known to St Paul?

Until recently, many believed that the only type of homosexuality St Paul would have known about, was pederasty. This is a custom that is practised in many cultures, but is offensive to modern Western sensibilities. In the ancient Greek world, an older man, an erastes would take an eromanos, an adolescent boy as a student. The relationship envisaged by his parents involved the man teaching hunting, warfare, and adult male customs to the boy. An integral part of this relationship was anal or intercrural intercourse, with the teacher being the active partner and the student playing the passive role. The rationale of this was two-fold. First, in classical Greek culture, semen was believed to contain important spiritual, masculine qualities that would be passed on to the student during intercourse. Second, male dominance was a part of nature, and must be expressed in every aspect of the male-female relationship. In the erastes - eromanos relationship, the student was inculcated with skills in domination.

More recently, several authors, have argued that pederasty was not the only form of homosexuality known in Greek and Roman culture in the first century AD. Smith and Boswell especially give numerous examples of homosexual relationships that were not age structured, and were based on mutual consent. Moreover, both Roman and Greek cultures accepted homosexuality, and at times instituted it in non-pederastic forms. For example, Polybius (2nd century BC, Rome) reports that "most young men had male lovers" [Greenberg, 154]. Further, "many of the Roman emperors had homosexual tastes," and "in Greece, sexual preferences were frequently not exclusive," to the inclusion of Julius Caesar (Cato states that he was "every woman's husband, and every man's wife") [Greenberg, 155-56].

It has been argued that Paul's use of "arsenokoites and malakos" is for lack of a better expression for homosexuality in general. Paul wanted to condemn not only pederasty, but all forms of homosexuality, so he could not have used the words erastes and eromanos because to do so would have apparently limited his condemnation to pederasty. However, current scholarship indicates that the terms "erastes and eromanos" were not used exclusively for the boy-man, subordinate dominant relationship. On the contrary, these terms could refer to a relationship of long-lasting duration and equality between partners [Dover, 84-7]. Moreover, other specific pairs of words certainly did exist to describe active and pasive homosexual partners: "drwntes and paschontes", and  "paiderastai and paidika".

St Paul's use of arsenokoites is obscure

It has been argued that the Apostle Paul invented the arsenokoites because there was no word that referred to all (active) homosexuals, regardless of the type of relationship they were in. This is quite wrong. He had many different words at his disposal for referring to homosexuality in general, not just pederasty. Hence, we must search further for the meaning of this word. The best way to learn the meaning of this word is to look at its usage in other contexts. The problem is that we primarily find arsenokoites in lists, which give us little information as to the meaning of the word. A search of the Thesaurus Lingua Graecae (TLG) database as of 1997 shows 73 usages. Most of these are in lists that are of the same basic pattern as that found in St Paul, using mostly the same words. The few contexts in which we find these words do not require that the word means "all (active) homosexuals".

One method of interpreting the word is to try to discern some meaning from the use of arsenokoites in the lists. Sin lists tend to congregate words of similar type together. For example, "first are listed, say, vices of sex, then those of violence, then others related to economics, or injustice" [Martin, 120]. In most of the TLG listings, the order is fairly standard:

pornoi, moixoi,
malakoi, (arsenokoitai),
kleptai, pleonektai, methusoi,
loidoroi, or arsenokoites
andrapodistais kai epiorkrois
Translated, the pattern is as follows:
temple prostitutes, adulterers,
the morally weak (malakos), arsenokoites,
thieves, the greedy, drunkards,
the foul-mouthed or arsenokoites,
slave traders, perjurers.
In the TLG lists, the division is not very clear, other than they seem to start off with sexual sins, then include malakos and possibly arsenokoites, before passing on to sins of social injustice and impropriety. If this were all we had, then we would not know on which side to classify arsenokoites: whether sexual, social or some mixture of the two. However, there are two non-TLG texts, both of which are early usages of arsenokoites:
"Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed (to generations of generations, to the scattering of life). Do not arsenokoites, do not betray information, do not murder.  Give one who has laboured his wage. Do not oppress a poor man."
[The Sibylline Oracle: 2; in Martin, 120]

"And let the murderer know that the punishment he has earned awaits him in double measure after he leaves this (world). So also the poisoner, sorcerer, robber, swindler, and arsenokoites, the thief, and all of this band..."
[The Acts of John: 36; in Martin, 121]

In neither of these texts do we find any hint of sexuality. While we may think that we know that arsenokoites is some type of sex related sin, translating it as "homosexual" in these lists makes no sense. It just doesn't fit with the other categories.

Now, if the placing of arsenokoites in the TLG texts in between the sexual sins and social sins is not an accident, we would know that arsenokoites somehow related to sexual injustice. This is interpretation is compatible with all the lists quoted. For example, the placement of arsenokoites just before slave trader is particularly appropriate, since homosexual slaves were normative in classical societies. The interpretation of arsenokoitai in terms of  homosexual subjugation and/or exploitation, rather than referring to all homosexual behaviour, seems appropriate from these contexts.

This translation for arsenokoites fits well within two other TLG texts, both of which are early uses of the word. The first is from the Apology of Aristides, chapters 9 and 13. It relates the myth of Zeus, and his relationship with the mortal boy Ganymede. In the story, we are told that the myth is evidence that Greek gods act with moixeia (adultery) and arsenokoites. Similarly, in Hippolytus' Refutatio chapter 5, we are told the story of the evil angel Naas, and how he committed adultery with Adam in the Garden, which is how arsenokoites came into the world. Hippolytus then compares this story with that of  Zeus and Ganymede [Petersen, 284]. In both of these stories an aggressor forcibly takes advantage of a weaker individual.

"Zeus in B186 and R348* commands Ganymede in a manner that will not accept refusal .... and in R405, R829*, R833* he simply grasps Ganymede, who struggles violently." [Dover, 93]
Dover later mentions two texts, one by Ibykos fr. 289, and the other, The Hymn of Aphrodite 202-206, which interprets the story of Zeus and Ganymede as rape by drawing the parallel between it and that of Dawn and Tithonos [Dover, 197].

The human rights violations that are clear in the above uses of arsenokoites gives us a fairly clear indication of the meaning of the word, a meaning which matches the meaning we surmised from our lists of sins. It seems clear that arsenokoites does not refer to mutually respecting gay relationships, but to a powerful aggressor subjugating a weaker individual, whether in the context of rape, or slave trading.

Concise Bibliography of Sources Quoted:

Greenberg, David. The Construction of Homosexuality. University of Chicago Press: London, 1988.
Dover, Kenneth. Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press: 1989.
Martin, Dale. Arsenokoites and malakos: Meanings and Consequences. Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality, Robert Brawley. Westminster Press: Louisville, 1996.
Petersen, William. On the study of homosexuality in Patristic sources. Studia Patristica 20 (1989): 283-88.