The Jesus Blog is honored to, once more, feature a guest post from Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King's College, London.
Her latest book, by the way, is fascinating. Have a look:
On April 10, the Tongan-Australian Rugby star Israel Folau expressed on social media his views on God’s plan for gay people, namely: “HELL – unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.” He stated that "hell waits" for drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators.
For this, he was hit with immediate censure. Rugby Australia decided to terminate his $4 million contract for breaching their code of conduct. The media and huge numbers of people around the world have joined together in condemning his remarks. He has now notified Rugby Australia of his intention to contest their decision.
He posted a saying from Jesus: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (Matt. 5:10-11). He has apparently expressed that he wants to do what God wills, and would sacrifice his rugby career. He is determined to follow what is written in the Bible.
And frankly it looks quite a lot like he is being severely condemned for quoting the Bible. This is a man of faith who wants to do the right thing.
In my view, the central problem is not with what is written in the Bible, but with certain Bible translations. The Bible was not written in English, and what is being quoted by Israel Folau as God-given wording is in fact a very dubious rendering of the original Greek. As someone who has spent my academic career working on the Bible and its historical context, I have long been worried about the way that passages of the Bible have been translated and/or interpreted to justify oppression rather than liberation, abuse rather than care. Over history, the Church has condoned numerous heinous crimes by basing itself on wrong understandings of what was written in the Bible. In this case, there is a glaring problem in the verse that Israel has used to justify his views. But he is, it seems, in a faith context in which this has not yet been explored. It is vital this is explored right now.
I am sure that Israel thinks he is abiding totally by what was written by the apostle Paul, using words that are part of Holy Scripture. When he stated that drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators were bound for Hell he is resourcing a translation into English of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (6:7-10), written in Greek. There is a picture online of Israel Folau reading the Bible as translated into English in the King James version, produced in 1611, and here the passage reads:
7.Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? 8 Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren. 9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.The trouble is that the Bible as quoted here is an old English translation that has been identified as seriously faulty.
So let’s look at Paul, to begin with. He was on a mission to spread the word about Christ and worked hard to found churches. These were made up of men and women who were both slaves and non-slaves, Jews and non-Jews. Here in this passage he wanted to advise them about the right way of behaving, and deal with situations when they were harmed. Paul’s letter here is to the church he co-founded at Corinth, a Roman city in Greece, and this was a city in which men could behave badly. He starts off in this passage saying that Christian men should not go to court to challenge when they were defrauded of money. Actually, only free men could do this, but Paul says that even they should not try to seek justice in the court system. He then lists actions of men who were unrighteous and harmful and says – effectively – that they would not inherit the Kingdom of God. There was no point in seeking redress in court when harmed by them, because they would not be included in God’s perfect world when it came about anyway.
This is not ‘Heaven’: the Kingdom of God’ is a kind of utopia, and there was a kind of karmic concept of good following good, bad following bad, though with the difference that God can intervene and forgive at any time with repentance and changed actions, and you try to live now as if living in the Kingdom. And it is full of surprises. As Jesus said to the legal experts of his time, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt. 21:31).
Would the wrongdoers go to Hell? In Paul’s way of thinking there was not really ‘Hell’ as such. “Hell”, as a later concept, was a blend of Roman Tartarus (a place of punishment), Gehenna (a rubbish tip where things got incinerated), and Hades/Sheol (a shadowy world of death-sleep). The King James version often translates the words Gehenna and Hades as “Hell”, so it is easy to get the wrong idea. Paul thinks of new life in Christ, in community, and a new way of being; the opposite of this was the punishment of destruction/death, given God’s anger about evil actions. This is not great, but it is not Hell (as in a place of torture), see 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10.
In terms of the apostle Paul’s own concerns with sexual immorality, Paul wanted people to be celibate like him, and even marriage was a concession (see 1 Corinthians 7), so he does not map on to contemporary understandings of relationships very well. Nevertheless, a key concern for Paul was love and respect. If I don’t have love, he said, I am just a sounding gong and clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1): all noise, nothing else. I am convinced that what Paul wanted to see was loving relationships. The concern for loving, respectful behaviour underpins everything he says about how people relate to each other. Even the threat of death/destruction was designed to make people realise there was a chance for true life, here and in the future, and in this passage it is actually a prod towards forgiveness. The point is: do not seek redress in court. Let it go. Turn the other cheek.
But who are the wrongdoers? What Paul wrote in his letters is not always crystal clear. Paul was very concerned here with the right way for men to behave, and Paul’s real concern is with abusive behaviour that attacked the weak. He is particularly concerned with what men should do, because men had the most power in society and could abuse, but we need to understand the behaviours in the light of what happened in the Graeco-Roman world in the first century, and the concerns are quite specific.
So, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 we have a list of male vices. Being a male adulterer, for example, was a huge man-to-man abuse, in that the adulterer was ‘taking’ another man’s wife. My own translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9 would be: “Or do you not know that unrighteous men shall not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: neither whoremongers (pornoi), nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor spineless cowards (malakoi), nor ‘male-bedders’ (arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor covetous, drunk or reviling men, shall inherit the Kingdom of God”.
In the Greek text it seems very clear that the concern Paul has is with damaging male behaviour that would lead to a complaint by another man. All these can easily get lost in translations, done by different committees of translators at different times. So, one of the greatest outrages of Bible translation ever done has been that the word arsenokoitai is translated as ’homosexuals’ in many English Bibles from the 20th century onwards. The problem for all translators is that arsenokoites is a rare word. However, studies have shown that it is always associated with vices of seizing, or raping, and therefore it should be understood as involving male-on-male rape or coercion, and socially at the time it would be more connected with pederasts seizing boys. This behavior does not in any way map on ‘homosexuality’ as we understand it: it is not a word about same-sex love. It is a word describing abusers. To translate arsenokoitai as indicating homosexuals is utterly, totally mistaken, wrong, and itself a kind of abuse by faulty translation.
In the Jerusalem Bible and New Revised Standard Version we have 'sodomites’, which would only be right if the sodomy was understood as forced. The King James Version has more vaguely 'abusers of themselves with mankind‘, which does at least still ensure that the fundamental concern is with abuse (though here it is of themselves). But all these get interpreted as indicating ‘homosexuals’ thanks to certain interpretive trends.
Furthermore, malakoi, literally ‘softies’, indicates spineless cowards and weaklings in other comparable lists of male vices, but is translated in the King James Bible as ‘effeminate’, again making the Bible condemn male to female transgender people or indeed any male who seems to be ‘girly’ in the eyes of certain beholders. This again is wrong translation, and its ramifications are incredibly serious, as we see.
I am summarising here what has been written about by excellent scholars of the Bible and in many books and articles by gay Christians. Among the best work, I recommend: Dale Martin, ‘Arsenokoités and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences,’ in Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. by Robert L. Brawley (1996).
How could such English translations be so wrong, you may ask? The problem is that the King James Bible translators did not have access to all the wealth of comparative Graeco-Roman texts we have today. Then, 20th-century translation teams have tended all too quickly to follow what had already been faultily established. In terms of modern English Bibles, I would like to say there is one that has got it right, but this is not yet so. We have a huge lag between scholarship on this passage and some better Bible edition that will sort out a translation that has been responsible for untold misery and misunderstanding.
The passage in question is not the only one used by Christians to condemn homosexuality, but all of these other texts have also been shown to be either misinterpreted (not taking into account the historical and cultural contexts) or mistranslated. There is resistance to this correction. Once a view is formed, about the right wording, it is incredibly hard to change. But this change is absolutely vital. The Bible was not written in English. We sometimes need to work very hard to understand its meaning.
Truly, however, Paul never wrote that ‘homosexuals’ are going to Hell unless they repent. His Greek words have been lost in translation, bent into a meaning that fitted a world intent on condemning gay people. It is one of the worst things that has ever happened to his words.
And it is truly ironic that Israel Folau is accused of transgressing a code of conduct on account of abusive statements, when Paul was identifying precisely the harm done by abusers.
Our thanks to Joan Taylor for this thoughtful reflection.