David Instone-Brewer wrestles with the key biblical texts that appear to condemn gay sex


The Bible clearly and unequivocally condemns homosexual promiscuity and rape (Romans 1:26-27; Genesis 19; Judges 19). However, finding a text that similarly condemns a wider range of homosexual practice is tricky. 

Everything hinges on a strange word Paul uses for homosexuality – arsenokoites (1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10). It’s a word he seems to have invented, although his readers would have recognised the unusual pair of adjacent words from their Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13: “If someone with a male (arsenos) lies (koitén) [like a] woman, they commit an abomination.” 

Jewish authors in Paul’s time universally agreed that all homosexual activity was condemned by God. They often referred to it as “sodomy”, but this term was problematic because it might, arguably, only refer to homosexual rape, as described in Genesis 19. 

To clarify this, more explicit language was also used, such as “men mounting men” (Philo, Abraham 1.135-136), and “male intercourse” (Josephus, Against Apion 2.199-273). The question that has puzzled Bible scholars for years is why Paul chose to use a new word, rather than language that already existed in these non-biblical texts. Perhaps it was because he wanted his readers to listen carefully to his definition rather than assume they already knew what he meant. 

Who Paul included

Paul gave a detailed description of what arsenokoites referred to in Romans 1: “God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men” (Romans 1:26-27). 

The context is Paul’s exposition of the gospel, and his first task is to demonstrate that we are all sinners who need saving. He names a wide variety of sins, from general “sexual impurity” (v24) to gossiping (v29), concluding that everyone sins, or approves of those who do (v32), and so all are guilty. In chapter 2 he continues with the harder task of convincing Jews that they, too, are sinners, before moving on to the solution in chapter 3. 

This passage about homosexuality is surprising because Paul doesn’t include everyone we would call homosexual today, even though his aim is to show that everyone is sinful. Firstly, he only condemns those who actually have homosexual “relations” – not all those with a same-sex orientation. This is very important for those believers who feel guilty merely for having sexual feelings, whether gay or straight. 

Secondly, he confines his condemnation to those who changed to homosexual activity from previously having heterosexual partners. Paul specifically describes men who had “abandoned natural relations with women” (italics added) before they “committed shameful acts with other men”; as well as women who “exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural” (italics added). 

This kind of hedonism by heterosexuals was sadly common in the Roman world. Most brothels had male and female prostitutes available, and anyone who owned a slave of either sex had sexual power over them without legal or moral condemnation. Men did not normally take their wives to dinner parties because a diligent host would provide both women and boys for sexual entertainment. 

Why doesn’t Paul include men and women who have always been same-sex orientated? Both Jews and Greeks knew that such people existed. Some men were simply not aroused by women – “they could not mount their mare” (as Plutarch delicately described it to young bride Eurydice in his book Morals). Jewish laws said such men should not share a blanket with another man (Mishnah Kiddushin 4.14) – just in case. 

Who Paul condemned

Paul condemned the practice of homosexuality by heterosexuals as “unnatural”. But does this refer to an unnatural type of sexual act or an unnatural pair, such as man with man? If it referred to a specific type of act – eg anal sex – this would also condemn married heterosexual couples who engage in this activity. Therefore, most commentators conclude that Paul is referring to a specific type of pairing as unnatural. In this passage, he specifically refers to men and women who have had heterosexual relations, and yet abandon these for same-sex relations. That is, he identifies the pairing of a heterosexual with a homosexual as “unnatural”. 

Paul condemned the practice of homosexuality by heterosexuals as ‘unnatural’

Like other writers, Paul used “unnatural” in different ways throughout his letters. It can refer to something culturally abnormal – such as men with long hair (1 Corinthians 11:14), or “natural” can describe the way we’re born: “we who are Jews by nature” (Galatians 2:15, NKJV; usually translated “born Jews”). This is the meaning often used by Jewish authors (eg “David was in his nature, just” – Josephus, Antiquities 7:110). However, Jewish writers also used it in a third sense: something universally recognised as abnormal and against universal laws. Paul might mean that here, although he doesn’t use “natural” in this sense anywhere else. 

We still use all three meanings: we might refer to a male bank executive having “unnaturally long hair” for that culture; a person who is born “naturally blond” or an albino’s hair as being “unnaturally white”. Today we tend to avoid the third meaning because we wouldn’t want to imply that a person born without pigment in their hair or skin is “unnatural”. Paul similarly appears to avoid condemning those who are born with a homosexual orientation. But why didn’t he state this plainly? 

Paul’s proof text?

Perhaps there is a key contained in Leviticus 20:13, the verse from which Paul created the word arsenokoites and which he expected his readers to understand. In the NIV translation, this verse clearly forbids all homosexual activity: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.” But other translations are less clear, such as the ESV: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman…” The different words ‘man’ and ‘male’ highlight the presence of two different words in the Hebrew text. The first is the general word for ‘man’ (ish) and the second is “male” (zakar) which emphasises masculinity.

If this text was narrating an event, we wouldn’t read much into two different words used for the same thing. But this is a legal text, so the differences are more significant. And if the point of this law is to forbid people who are similar from sleeping together, why use two words that might differentiate between two different types of men? 

After all, ‘male’ (zakar) might refer to a ‘manly’ or more ‘masculine’ male. In this case, the general word ‘man’ (ish) could refer to a less masculine man. So this interpretation would forbid sex between what we might now call a heterosexual man with any other man (who might be homosexual), while remaining silent about sex between two homosexual men. 

Although this problem has been recognised since the third-century Jewish commentary Sifra, I didn’t explore it until one fateful afternoon when I decided to dig deeper. I ended up writing a paper describing findings that disturbed me (see TinyURL.com/TypesOfMen).

I discovered that the Hebrew word for ‘male’ (zakar) is reflected in Akkadian – a related language spoken by many nations surrounding ancient Israel. Their equivalent word for ‘male’ (zikaru) was also used for a ‘real-male’. These nations didn’t punish men who had sex with other men, although most people did despise them. So this word could be used in a derogatory way; in fact, one Assyrian prince even caused a civil war by insulting his brother: “he is effeminate, not a real-male (zikaru)”. 

Those nations only punished a homosexual man if he forced himself on another man, but if zakar in the context of Leviticus means ‘real-male’, it suggests that Israel’s law was stricter. Leviticus 20:13 punished both men, so this law didn’t refer to rape. It condemned all consensual sex between a ‘real-male’ (a zakar – someone we’d refer to as heterosexual today) and any other ‘man’ (ish) whose sexuality is not specified. However, the use of these two different words implies that it doesn’t condemn them if they are both homosexual. 

This is so different to the traditional interpretation that I was reluctant to agree with this conclusion in my paper. I wrote it merely to lay out the evidence relevant to the issue. However, one thing has made me reconsider: this new interpretation is exactly in line with how Paul described an arsenokoites – the word that comes from this verse – and it fits perfectly with his specific description in Romans 1:27 of a heterosexual who changes to homosexual sex. 

Those nations only punished a homosexual man if he forced himself on another man

This interpretation explains why Paul doesn’t mention those who only had homosexual relationships, and unexpectedly limits his condemnation to heterosexuals who “exchange” or “abandon” their previous heterosexual relationships for homosexual ones. Leviticus condemns both partners in such a liaison, and Paul does too. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 he specifically condemns both the arsenokoites (the heterosexual ‘male lying’) and a type of man he calls malakos

Paul doesn’t define malakos, which had a wide range of meanings from ‘soft’ to ‘effeminate’. However, the NIV is probably correct: in this context they are “two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts”. Paul defined arsenokoites in Romans 1 as a heterosexual who turned to homosexual sex; in which case a malakos is his willing partner. They are equivalent to the heterosexual (zakar) in Leviticus 20:13 and the other man (ish) who have sex together; whether the other is homosexual or not, this is forbidden. 

The willing partner is condemned because his union with a heterosexual male is “unnatural”, while the heterosexual is condemned for hedonistically seeking new experiences to satisfy his sexual appetites. Unfortunately, Paul only gives us this one distinction. He doesn’t go through the whole alphabet of LGBTQIP2SA+. But we can perhaps discern one principle: he condemns those who “abandon” who they are, merely for novel sexual experiences.

Historically, most Christian commentators followed Paul’s words precisely by condemning those who ‘changed’ to homosexuality – but they didn’t realise that some are born this way. Paul’s generation did know that, and today so do we. So now we can again perceive the Bible’s distinction between those whose homosexuality is normal to them, and those who ‘change’ to pursue hedonistic variety – whom Leviticus and Paul condemn. 

You’ll probably gather that I’m still very unsure about this interpretation. If it’s right, we owe a huge apology to a significant proportion of humanity. But if it’s wrong, we might condone sin. Scholarly details like this are usually confined to academic papers. However, in this case, the pastoral consequences are too great to remain in academia, undiscussed.  

Click here to read a response to this article by Rev Dr Ian Paul