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Bringing Some Balance to Israel Folau’s Reading about Homosexuals

Israel Folau

There’s a lot of heat being generated in Downunder Australasia with a Bible verse being bandied around by everyone from sports heroes to journalists saying that homosexuals will go to hell. But, what if the Bible verse they so casually quote doesn’t mention homosexuals at all? Are the journalists actually doing their job responsibly? Where are the bishops and church leaders saying: “Hang on a minute – your translation from Greek to English just may not be correct?!”

It began with a question to Australian professional rugby player, Israel Folau, on his Instagram. Israel is married to NZ Silver Ferns (the national team) netball player, Maria. Rugby and Netball are like religions in sport-loving Australasia.

The question on Folau’s Instagram that he chose to respond to was: “What was God’s plan for gay people?” Folau decided to respond: “HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.

Some of the balance we need to bring to the heated debate is to emphasise the importance of freedom of speech and the right of diverse religious beliefs. This is also an invitation to reflect on the appropriate edges to this freedom. When does freedom of speech tip over into hate speech? There’s a lot in the Bible about executing people for doing what is pretty commonplace in NZ today (disobeying your parents, collecting sticks on Saturday, a woman who is not a virgin on her wedding night,…). When does advocating for such biblical ethics tip over into being unacceptable? NZ has very limited legal restrictions on speech – attacks on religion and sexuality are not included. Is this an invitation to review our law?

Others have focused on those issues, and are doing so well. But, I want to focus somewhere else. Israel Folau expanded his original response and pointed to the Bible’s teaching “specifically 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10” which he gives as:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor the drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

This is from the ESV translation, the translation that I have previously called, “the Bible as some people wished God had written it”.

Let’s look at what the ESV translates as “men who practice homosexuality”. [Already NB: no mention in Folau’s quote of lesbians. Oops, I forget, “men” can be inclusive of women in the ESV.]

The word Paul uses here (that Folau’s translation has as “men who practice homosexuality”) is ἀρσενοκοῖται (arsenokoites). First important point: this occurence in Paul’s letter to Corinth is the FIRST TIME this word ever occurs in Greek literature. Ever! Maybe Paul didn’t make the word up – maybe it was used by people in conversations – but as there is no earlier usage in writing, we have no idea from that what the word means. It is only used once more in the New Testament (1 Tim 1:10), and the usage there is no help at all to trying to work out what St Paul might mean by this neologism.

After the New Testament period, the word is little used – mostly quoting the New Testament texts!

The best scholarly guess is that Paul made up the word by combining two words, “male” (ἄρσην) and “bed” (κοίτη) from a sentence in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) that he was using:

καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν (Leviticus 18:22)

There is no use of arsenokoites in those early centuries after the New Testament to mean homosexual activity. In fact, arsenokoites is used to describe the sexual relationships of men and their wives (Jonannes Jejunator, 6th century). And whenever, in those centuries, writers explicitly write about homosexual activity, they do not use arsenokoites.

Only in the 13th Century, long past the word’s common usage – if there was one – does arsenokoites become used by some people to describe homosexual activity.

The English Bible does not use the word “homosexual” until 1946, and even then, not for this verse. The first English Bible to use the word “homosexual” in this verse was the 1971, the Living Bible, a paraphrase by Kenneth N. Taylor and not a translation from the Greek at all.

In case readers now point to Leviticus 18:22 (the possible origin of Paul’s neologism), ripping it out of context and oversimplifying translation principles – let me emphasise that, again, the best scholarly guess for that complex verse is an admonition against pagan sexual worship practices and shrine prostitution.

So, now to the two groups who could do better.

I sat through the first few minutes of TV news coverage of this (0:27-3:16):

In the clip, NZ Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, of Mormon background, can be forgiven for not being theologically agile, but the KJV Bible she grew up with would not have mentioned the word “homosexuals” at all – including in the verse constantly referred to.

Tom McRae concludes the story (2:59-3:16) with:

We thought it was worth noting that according to Corinthians it’s not just practising homosexuals who will miss out on inheriting the Kingdom of God, the list also includes adulterors, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, and swindlers, among others.

Well – no, Tom. Some of those others may be clear “according to Corinthians”, but whether the list actually includes “practising homosexuals” is not at all clear. That is strongly disputed.

If people cannot see that this is journalists not doing their job properly: imagine such treatment around some heatedly disputed Muslim text or practice, and tell me that it is responsible journalism to not indicate that there is significant debate around. The controversy around homosexuality in Australasia, particularly between Christians, is well known – notably to journalists. Journalists could have checked with Christians holding a different perspective. Or even just looked on Wikipedia which presents the controversy around this particular Bible verse.

The second group that I think deserves to be challenged is bishops and other significant Christian leaders in Australasia: it’s fine and nice to stand up for freedom of speech. But where are the high-profile public statements that the verse being bandied around may not at all mean what Folau says it means?

Once again, the narrative that has won the day in Australasia (and beyond), both within the church and for those who do not call themselves Christian, is this time not that Christianity is anti-science, but that Christianity is also condemnatory of committed same-sex couples, and that those Christians who hold positions either in favour of science or who are supportive of committed same-sex couples do this by ignoring the Bible’s teaching.

ps. If you want to see the attitude of Newshub presenters to this story, here’s Newshub presenter, Ingrid Hipkiss’ tweet retweeted by the story’s presenter (above) Tom McRae:

Folau Tweet

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image source: By https://www.flickr.com/photos/125524007@N08/ [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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17 Responses to Bringing Some Balance to Israel Folau’s Reading about Homosexuals

  1. Hmm. Good post overall, but unfortunately the dispute over this word’s full meaning doesn’t yet appear to have been settled, from my understanding. And checking through several translations of the verse, we go from ‘effeminate’ in the KJV to ‘sodomites’ in the NRSV (difficult not to equate that with homosexual behaviour, though I suppose it could be male/female sexual behaviour) to various things in between. The strong disputing about this word seems mostly to have arisen in the 20th/21st centuries. That may well be fair enough, but we still have to deal with its correct meaning…and of course it’s not the only place in the Bible where homosexuality is spoken about. And of course, ALL those references are now disputed as well…curious!
    I understand your argument; just not quite convinced yet!

    • Yes, Mike, you are reinforcing my point: the meaning of this word is not settled. I don’t see what you are not convinced about. Easter Season Blessings.

  2. I hope some day someone will explain to my why it makes sense to refuse to sell cakes to gay people because of a highly ambiguous translation of a Bible verse, but those same people don’t have a problem in the least selling cakes to idolaters, adulterers, thieves, liars, swindlers, etc. It’s my impression that the translation from Greek that gets to idolaters, adulterers, thieves, etc. is much less ambiguous.

    But, it must be admitted that I don’t have much imagination. I’ve yet to figure out how a story about someone’s offering his daughter to be raped by rowdies at his door turns into an object lesson on the evils of homosexuality. Oh, and also that that said someone was the only righteous man in town. I love the Bible, but there is some profoundly weird stuff in there, stuff which my spouse would prefer I not mention in polite circles.

    • Thanks, Larry. The inspired prophet, Ezekiel, was clear what the Sodom story was about – the sin of Sodom was that they had “excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy”. As you indicate – there’s plenty in the Bible that is perfectly clear – having excess of food, and prosperous ease, but not aiding the poor and needy is condemned consistently throughout the Bible. Jesus said nothing about homosexuals, but plenty about justice and our attitude to money. Easter Season Blessings.

  3. Also, I think the problem with journalists, at least in the U.S. at any rate, is that they don’t know that there are any kinds of Christians other than our southern, white evangelicals and perhaps Roman Catholics. To them, our Episcopalians, Congregationalists, United Methodists, etc. are all just a vague shadow from olden times…or something.

    • Yes, Larry, I sort of make that point towards the end, and it helps to make it explicit. It is certainly a point I regularly make: that those more at the fundamentalist end of the spectrum are much better organised in presenting their perspective on media – from the internet, through TV, and even by accosting people on the street. Easter Season Blessings.

  4. Thank you this excellent response Bosco.

    I think that time has come for Church leaders to speak out in response, stating clearly what the gospel teaches, what Jesus taught and did, and what our Christian faith is. It is certainly not the toxic anti-theology that God’s plan for gays is “HELL, unless they repent” (which is technically blasphemy).

    When the Churches are silent and the All Blacks are more effective in preaching the gospel response we have to ask ourselves if we are really doing our job in terms of a proper Christian response.

    https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/sport/rugby/watch-all-blacks-black-ferns-new-lgbt-video-campaign-supporting-rainbow-communitys-battle-against-discrimination

    On the scriptural understanding of the controversial passages I recommend these excellent videos:

    http://timeforlove.co.nz (this is very beautiful and very well done and deserves the widest possible circulation. It is historically significant in terms of changing evangelical understandings of the controversial passages).

    http://jamesalison.co.uk/video/reading-scripture-and-the-lgbt-question-video/

    Many Blessings

    • Thanks for these points and resources, Chris, which I heartily endorse. And, yes, I often find Good News proclaimed and lived far better outside the church than within it, the All Blacks included. Easter Season Blessings.

  5. Others reading here may have a different view but I find it hard to see why we should have a rush of church leaders to the media (as this post indicates, not the best of onward transmitters of church/Christian statements) saying that Verse X may not mean what some think it does mean.

    That would appear to invite the media to ask church leaders whether that means that Verse X may mean what some think it does mean, to which the church leaders would have to say, Yes, it might. Which then might invite the media to ask whether, by the way, the same church leaders do or do not believe in hell …

    Long story short:
    – I am happy to see church leaders affirm the right to free speech (for if not, then many Christians, Muslims and Mormons are in danger of state-sanctioned persecution, noting the outcry when Israel Folau mentions a view which is, more or less, the view of many adherents of several global religions);
    – I am also happy for church leaders to make a slightly different point than to focus on what 1 Cor 6:9-10 may or may not be saying, essentially the point Michael Jones made, which is to focus on speaking graciously, avoiding soundbites on matters of argument/ambiguity, and above all loving everyone in the whanau.

    • Thanks, Peter.

      I’m struggling to understand what you see to be the problem in your first two paragraphs.

      I’m not indicating a rush of church leaders to the media – I would just like one bishop to put a hand up and say the translation of Folau’s verse isn’t straightforward, and its interpretation is disputed. This is being debated morning to night in newspapers, TV, and social media; church leaders should be part of the debate. And journalists should have also have invited some more Christian diversity into the debates.

      There is no mention of hell even in Folau’s version of the verse, of course, but I have no fear about church leaders expressing differing opinions about hell.

      It is long past time for intelligent Christianity in all its diversity to participate robustly in the public square. As another comment here indicated, and I did in my post, the perception is that Biblical Christianity is homogenous and simple (anti-evolution; anti-gay;…). Nothing is further from the truth.

      Sure – say that we should love everyone in the whanau – but don’t neglect saying that some of the verses bandied about are disputed in their translation and meaning.

      Easter Season Blessings.

    • I tend to agree with Peter that a response by Church leaders to 1Cor6:9-10 may not be the most helpful.

      What I think would be very helpful would be a powerful statement by Church leaders that the idea that “God’s plan for gays is HELL unless they repent” (which is what brother Israel originally said) is NOT Christian teaching.

      It is homophobic, because it condemns a whole class of people, gays, to hell simply because they are gay (and not because of what they do or do not do). As no one is even able to repent of who they are (one can only repent of an act of the will), this statement is contrary to Christian faith, homophobic, likely to incite hatred of gays, likely to drive some to suicidal thoughts, and in fact blasphemy. It is the complete opposite of the gospel and Christian faith.

      OTOH, I agree with Bosco that a statement by an individual bishop(s) or others that the meaning of 1Cor6:9-10 is unclear and disputed would be very helpful.

      These writings from very reputable, and fairly conservative Catholic scripture scholars may be helpful:

      Fr Raymond Collins STD in his Sacra Pagina commentary says: “Malakoi is a term that was pejoratively used in Hellenistic Greek to describe passive partners, often young boys, in homosexual activity”. The link with pederasty seems clear.

      In the Anchor Bible Commentary Fr Joseph Fitzmyer SJ writes: “Arsenokoites should not be translated as homosexual, because that is a modern term for male or female sexual orientation as well as activity, coined only in the 19th century to denote the affectional preference of a person for someone of the same sex, as was unknown as name for sexual intercourse between such persons in antiquity”.

      Blessings

  6. Hi Bosco, and here we go again.. I whole heartily agree, that it would be nice for a Bishop to claim the space of their title and give a point of view from there.My friends and I, who have children in their 20’s and 30’s really need this help, as we as parents want our children to attend church, but the comment we are getting from our children is that the church is very uncaring of how they treat the homosexual community! As parents we are blue in the face from trying to tell them that this is not true.
    Please help us by stepping up WE SUPPORT YOU!
    Easter blessing Ruth

  7. the trouible, Bosco, ios that various sects of the Christian faith do not dig deeply enough into the context in which interpretations of Scripture were first formed. In traditional patriarchal societies, where most Church leaders are men, there is an endemic fear of anything bordering on the prospect of loving relationships between men. Look only at the genreral sense of horror from some of our Kiwi men at the sight on TV of President Macron kissing the President of the U.S. The biggest wonder herer might be thast Trump accepted that at the time.

    Thank goodness our local Rugby officials on N.Z. are beginning to recognise the problems of endemic homophobia and sexism – aided and abetted, in the main, by macho interpretation of certain passages found in the Bible referring to the inhospitality of Lot’s friends in the Sodom community who were not too particular about whom they brutalised.

  8. Thanks Bosco. That said, I must say that our local vicar, is very vocal in the church’s opinions and his our in the local paper. He has written quite a few letters to the editor in regard to many issues that the paper have published. He is passionate
    About leadering us to have a personal relationship with God and how we express this. Too right I say! Easter Seasons Blessing Ruth

  9. Hi Bosco, much of what you wrote here I am inclined to agree with. I think the coverage was unbalanced (and would very likely be more balanced if it wasn’t a Christian saying this, as you note), I think Israel Folau’s words on his original tweet/post (even when read in full and not just in the form it was often quoted) was not well spoken (a read of his fuller article on Players Voice gives helpful context, including clearly recognising himself as a sinner like all others, and that could have gotten more airtime, but the original post seems to me too easy to read wrong).

    The only thing I wanted to say is that the combination of malakoi and arsenokoitai may be controversial in some details, but the connection to Leviticus (20:13 as well as, and perhaps even more clearly than [because of word order], 18:22) is quite compelling coming from a Christian Jew like Paul, and the two verses together when combined with Rom 1 (also Pauline) seem to convince a lot of people, even people who end up disagreeing with Paul. Scholars noting other possibilities (which good scholars always do as they canvass possibilities) like the connection of malakos sometimes with pederasty (hard to dispute, but doesn’t do much for our case here, especially as it is not always connected with pederasty, and is used of passive adult male partners in general often enough, see eg BDAG), doesn’t change that much. William Loader, probably the preeminent expert on NT sexuality at the moment, is clear along this line – Paul very likely means what he is usually translated to mean here and in Romans (even if we quibble about how best to express the nuances in modern cultural terms) in terms of homosexual action (which, btw, I suspect is why the NIV2011 has gone with a clearly action related translation in 1Cor 6:9), even though Loader then disagrees with Paul as to the applicability of that to us today (Luke Timothy Johnson is similar, and has similar credentials, from the slightly previous generation of scholars). That is a slightly, but very importantly, different issue than simply the meaning of malakoi and arsenokoitai.

    So I’d like to have seen it approached differently by media, would rather it had not come up in this form at all, and wouldn’t have a problem with pointing to dispute on meaning to some extent, as long as that is done honestly and not in a way that muddies the waters more than they really are muddy – convenient as that would be to me and many of us!

    I am so glad Jesus has mercy on all of us sinners.
    God bless

    • Thanks, Chris.

      Yes – there is much to learn from all this, not least the care we all need to take on social media (this started with 11 words on Instagram). Note, I provide both the original Instagram post and the fuller Players Voice.

      It does not help to say “Paul very likely means what he is usually translated to mean here” when there is no “usual” translation into English – certainly the longest-serving English translation has no mention of the word “homosexual”.

      Connecting 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 with Romans 1, as you suggest, can only happen after one makes a judgment of what arsenokoitai refers to. There is nothing specifically in what you have written that strongly refutes the context of the verse as referring to shrine prostitution. The problem for the general population is that shrine prostitution is unknown to them – but it was well known at the time – Paul’s framing of his list with “idolators” is a helpful pointer. That also looks to be the context of the Leviticus texts alluded to (as well as Romans 1, if you want to bring that into the discussion). First-century Philo is a helpful resource if people want to explore further. Homosexuality, when referred to in these early centuries never uses arsenokoitai, and, as I indicated in my post, arsenokoitai is used to refer to heterosexual sex – upsetting your argument completely. It has been said well that “At the heart of all the problems in the church at Corinth… was a city filled with both temples and brothels — where fornication was literally deemed a religious rite…”

      A further problem occurs for you with using arsenokoitai to mean “homosexual”, and that is in the second occurrence in the New Testament, 1 Timothy 1:8-11. To be consistent, if homosexual activity per se is harmful to humans, then our decriminalisation of it was mistaken. The conclusion follows that ‘homosexual behavior is a proper focus and concern of legislation in society and of the sanction of law, according to the context of 1 Tim 1:8-11. This suggests that “gay rights” is a misnomer. The movement has no legitimate claim to protection by the law.’

      Would you call for the recriminalisation of homosexuality in New Zealand, Chris, and if not why not? [Remembering that in some countries in our church it is illegal.]

      Easter Season Blessings

      Bosco

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