A fascinating article on translations and their influence on what the Church teaches and what Christians think. The word ‘homosexual’ wasn’t invented until 1869 (in German), and only entered into English translations of the Bible in 1946. This article traces how that happened, and questions why.
Ed Oxford is a gay Christian, a graduate of Talbot School of Theology, and a researcher in how the Bible has been weaponized against LGBTQ people. His first book written with Kathy Baldock, Forging a Sacred Weapon: How the Bible Became Anti-Gay, will be released in 2020.
The [Greek] word arsenokoitai shows up in two different verses in the Bible, but it was not translated as ‘homosexual’ until 1946. We got to sit down with Ed Oxford at his home in Long Beach, California and talk about this question.
You have been part of a research team that is seeking to understand how the decision was made to put the word ‘homosexual’ in the Bible. Is that true?
Ed: Yes. It first showed up in the RSV translation. So before figuring out why they decided to use that word in the RSV translation (which is outlined in my upcoming book with Kathy Baldock, Forging a Sacred Weapon: How the Bible Became Anti-Gay) I wanted to see how other cultures and translations treated the same verses. So I started collecting Bibles in French, German, Irish, Gaelic, Czech, Polish… you name it. Now I’ve got most European major languages that I’ve collected over time. Anyway, I had a German friend come back to town and I asked if he could help me with some passages in one of my German Bibles from the 1800s. So we went to Leviticus 18:22 and he’s translating it for me word for word. In the English it says “Man shall not lie with man, for it is an abomination.” In the German version it says “Man shall not lie with young boys as he does with women, for it is an abomination.” I said, “What?! Are you sure?” He said, “Yes!” So we went to Leviticus 20:13 — same thing, “young boys.” So we went to 1 Corinthians to see how they translated arsenokoitai (original Greek word) and instead of ‘homosexuals’ it said, “Boy molesters will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Next I went to the facsimile copy of Martin Luther’s original German translation from 1534. So my friend is reading through it for me and he says, “Ed, it says the same thing!” They use the word Knabenschänder. Knaben is the part of the word that means ‘boys’. It carried through from there into the next German translation in 1736. This word “boy molesters” carried through the next several centuries of German Bible translations. Knabenschänder is in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. So the interesting thing is, I asked if they ever changed the translation of arsenokoitai to ‘homosexual’ in modern translations. So my friend found it and told me, “The first time ‘homosexual’ appears in a German translation is 1983.” To me that was a little suspect because of what was happening in culture in the 1970s. Also because the Germans were the ones who created the word homosexual in 1862, they had all the history, research, and understanding to change it if they saw fit; however, they did not change it until 1983. If anyone was going to put the word in the Bible, they should have been the first to do it!
As I was talking with my friends I said, “I wonder why not until 1983? Was there influence from America?” So we had our German connection look into it again and it turns out that the company, Biblica, who owns the NIV version, paid for this 1983 German version. So then Americans paid for it! In 1983 Germany didn’t have enough of a Christian population to warrant the cost of a new Bible translation, because it’s not cheap. So an American company paid for it and influenced the decision, resulting in the word homosexual entering the German Bible for the first time in history. So, I say, I think there is a “gay agenda” after all!
I also have a 1674 Swedish version and an 1830 Norwegian version of the Bible. I asked one of my friends, who was attending Fuller Seminary and is fluent in both Swedish and Norwegian, to look at these verses for me. So we met at a coffee shop in Pasadena with my old Bibles. (She didn’t really know why I was asking.) Just like reading an old English Bible, it’s not easy to read. The letters are a little bit funky, the spelling is a little bit different. So she’s going through it carefully, and her face comes up, “Do you know what this says?!” and I said, “No! That’s why you are here!” She said, “It says boy abusers, boy molesters.” And, in fact, in the Norwegian version, she pointed out, that if you were to line up boys of different ages and say which group of these boys is this referring to, it would be the 8–12 year old group. That was how the linguistics were working and it was obviously referring to pederasty.
So then I started thinking that in 4 of the 6 clobber passages, all these national translations were referring to pederasty, and not what we would call homosexuality today.
How did the translations teams work?
Well, they didn’t operate out of a vacuum when they translated something. Last week at the Huntington Library I found a 1483 lexicon. I looked up arsenokoitai and it gives the Latin equivalent, paedico. If you look that up it means pederast, or Knabenschänder, boy molester, in German. 1483 is the time Martin Luther was born. When he was running for his life translating the Bible and carrying his books, he would have used this lexicon. It was the lexicon of his time. This lexicon came from the previous 1000 years with the Church fathers and all of their writings.
So there is historical tradition to show that these verses aren’t relating to homosexuality?
Yes. Sometimes I’m frustrated when I talk to pastors today and they say, “Well I believe the historical tradition surrounding these verses.” My response is, “Which Bible do you use? Oh, you mean the past 50 years of tradition. My Bible is 500 years old.” The ignorance on their part and the arrogance on their part, “2000 years of history!” It just doesn’t line up. The truth needs to come out. Please don’t talk to me about history when you don’t even know history. That’s why I’m collecting these Bibles.
Yes! My brother, who is a pastor, also told me the same thing: that every sector of the church has seen same-sex relationships as sinful for 2,000 years. But the more I read and study though, the more I just don’t see this being true.
What was used before ‘homosexual’ showed up in the RSV version?
The King James Version triumphed the land and they used the phrase, “Abusers of themselves with mankind” for arsenokoitai. If you asked people during that time, they would ask “What does this mean? Masturbation?” No one really wanted to tackle it. So that’s why I’m collecting Bibles, biblical commentaries and lexicons.
In your opinion, how would the Church be different if the RSV hadn’t changed the translation of arsenokoitai and malakoi to ‘homosexual’ in 1946?
In my opinion, if the RSV did not use the word ‘homosexual’ in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and instead would have spent years in proper research to understand homosexuality and to really dig into the historical contextualization, I think translators would have ended up with a more accurate translation of the abusive nature intended by this word. I think we could have avoided the horrible damage that was done from pulpits all across America, and ultimately other parts of the world.
And do you think your life would have gone differently as a result?
Yes, absolutely! I think my life would have been starkly different if the translation would have been translated with the accurate historical contextualization – especially within my own family, since they rely so heavily on the English translation and put a lot of faith in the translators for the final product in English. Since they haven’t studied Greek or Hebrew, they have no concept of challenging a translation, and any potential errors that may have occurred during translation. Therefore, they are unable to think beyond the English translation in front of them.
Based on your research, what advice would you have for LGBTQ Christians today?
My advice to LGBTQ Christians today would be three things:
1) As difficult as it may be, try to extend grace and patience to the Church. The vast majority of pastors in America have not done their due diligence on this topic, so we can’t expect them to be any further along than they are currently. In the same way that God has extended grace and patience with us when we sin, we need to extend grace and patience toward others regarding their error on this topic. Bitterness will only manage to create further damage.
2) Seek out other LGBTQ Christians who have already done their due diligence on this topic and reached a point of peace between their sexuality and God. We can learn a lot from others who are a little further up the trail.
3) Often remind yourself that this mess is not caused by God, but instead is the result of people who have been entrusted with free will.