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Is “Christian” Homophobia Based on Mistranslation?

Bible Mistranslation

Over the 2023 Christmas season, Kathy, who is the co-superintendent of the Sabbath School class I attend, asked if I had watched 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture, which was streaming at the time. I hadn’t. The $12.95 I later paid to view it was one of the better gifts to myself during the holidays. The documentary traces the origin and circumstances leading to the introduction of the word “homosexual” in an English Bible. According to Wikipedia, there are currently almost 900 different Bible translations in English alone. Going back to John Wycliffe’s translation, in 1382, “homosexual” was absent in every English version, until 1946.

The film chronicles the sleuthing activities of Kathy Baldock (a heterosexual engineer turned reconciliation facilitator between the gay community and its antagonistic Christian Right) and Ed Oxford (a gay graduate seminarian activist who now works in finance). Frustrated by the increasingly violence-prone attacks against homosexuals by Far Right “Christians” and politicians, the pair investigated why the twenty-six academics on the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translation committee introduced this word into the biblical lexicon in the 1946 edition. Their primary interest was the internal discussions by the committee members before incorporating this word into the RSV.

Their search took them to the Yale University Library archives where the translation committee documents are housed. There, after examining over 60,000 pages of material, they came across a 1959 correspondence between David S. of Canada and Dr. Luther Weigle, the translation committee chair who was then also Dean of the Yale Divinity School. Their exchange gives us a window into the committee’s rationale for adopting the new word.

In his five-page letter challenging the committee’s adoption of “homosexual,” David, then a barely 20 year-old gay seminary student, took issue with the committee’s translation of the Greek words, malakoi and arsenokoitai. Arsenokoitai is an ancient Greek compound word comprised of arsen (male) and koite (bed). When they are joined, we get the literal and somewhat nonsensical phrase “male bed.” This Greek word appears only twice in the entire New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1-9-10). Because of this paucity, it is difficult to ascertain its meaning because there is no way to reference its use in ancient Greek literature. So, translators resort to inferences. The other Greek word from the above texts, malakoi, has a larger meaning base: “soft,” “delicate,” “weakness,” “cowardice,” “unmanly,” etc. English translators have added these meanings to arsenokoitai’s “male bed” imagery and traditionally translated these two words as “effeminate,” “sexual pervert,” “male prostitute,” etc.

David concluded that the translators’ use of “homosexual” was contextually unwarranted and thus inappropriate. More importantly, he worried that this “new” word could be weaponized against all same-sex arrangements. His concern would be validated when, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Republican right-wing politicians teamed up with evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell in their ideological crusade against homosexuals. With the insertion of “homosexual” into the Bible, religious zealots now pointed to “God’s own word” to justify bigotry.

Dr Weigle was persuaded by David’s analysis and concerns. His committee admitted their error and eventually voted to replace “homosexuals” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 with a more suitable phrase: “sexual perverts.” But this did not happen until 1971, by which time the barn door had been open for 25 years, and subsequent English Bible translations and paraphrases followed the RSV, in their new versions, by using the word “homosexual.”

Some of these new translations/paraphrases went further than the RSV and extended the “homosexual” tag to other so-called “clobber” passages in the Bible. The widely popular paraphrase, New English Bible, standardized using the word in its three main publications that targeted a diverse demographic. The Evangelicals’ preferred Bible, English Standard Version, not only maintained “homosexuals” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, but doubled down and expanded its use in five other Bible passages. And, as proof that the word served a strategic and ideological purpose for some, when the RSV revision committee later reversed itself, many of the versions that followed its original lead in the use of “homosexual,” largely ignored this positional change.

So, what important lessons can we learn from these events that have contributed to generations of gays facing additional shame and persecution?

First, the RSV translation incident clues us in to the fact that humans have always been intimately involved in the shaping of scripture. Instead of bemoaning it, this awareness should be cathartic because the Bible is not a dictation from God. The books in our different versions were written over thousands of years by many different human writers from different backgrounds. More importantly, these documents were written at a time when copying by hand was the only way to extend the lives of the manuscripts that would become part of Scripture.

Over the years, minor and sometimes significant changes have resulted from this human interaction with the copies. Many such changes have been benign. But occasionally alterations have occurred by design from copiers, editors, and redactors. By comparing extant manuscripts, we find that whole additions were made to earlier manuscripts because a copyist did not like something about the original. For example, the last eleven verses of Mark’s gospel were added by a redactor, possibly because he did not want the book to end in “fear.”

So, there are errors, either of additions or omissions, found throughout the Bible, which serious Bible students should at least be cognizant of. When the Bible undergoes translations, the errors are compounded. It is almost an expectation that when a document is translated, something gets “lost” in the process. Typically though, such losses do not seriously impact our overall understanding of a passage. Take the contrasting color comparison of “scarlet” and “white” and the reference to “snow” in Isaiah 1:18: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

What is a translator to do with “snow” when attempting to convey its imagery to a people who have no experience with, or conception of, snow? This problem occurred when the Bible was translated into the Fanti language. Fantis are a tropical Ghanaian tribal people with no experience of snow; so the Fanti language does not have a comparable word. The translators opted for a close imagery to snow, that a Fanti reader could identify with. They used “mist.” Though “snow” and “mist” are quite dissimilar, the substitution does not materially alter the passage’s meaning.

But there have been occasions when a mistake in word choice has led to incorrect theology, and sometimes “violent” disagreements within English speaking Christian communities. For example, the 1611 King James Version (KJV) “mistakenly” translated the Hebrew word almah, in Isaiah 7:14 (also referenced in Matthew 1:23), as “virgin.” This would align with the theological notion of “immaculate conception,” a Christian apologetic for why Jesus’s mother, Mary, gave birth without having had sex. But a better translation of almah, scholars contend, is “young woman” or “maiden.” The RSV adopted the more accurate “young woman” translation in Isaiah, but inexplicably retained “virgin” in Matthew.

A second lesson we learn from the 1946 mistranslation issue is that, once an error is made, even when it’s later acknowledged as such, it seems to acquire a “grandfather” status in perpetuity. That is why, in spite of contemporary scholarly consensus that almah was wrongly translated as “virgin,” an overwhelming number of English Bibles still retain the error, and why “homosexual” still dominates in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 English bibles.

Translation errors like almah into “homosexual” are a reminder that biblical literalism, a contributor to much agitation against homosexuals, is tenable only if one believes that God directly wrote the Bible or verbally inspired its individual authors. This is a claim fewer people make these days. Yet the evangelical/fundamentalist community seems to have a homophobia obsession. They seem comfortable with scriptural passages that specifically name homosexuals as deserving death, not salvation. If it turns out, as demonstrated by the documentary, that this theology is based on a translation error, where does that leave the purveyors of this condemnatory theology?

Many people in the homophobic communities point to the word being in scripture as proof that their opposition is biblically inspired. Theirs is a knowledge, or text-based, religion in which salvation is predicated on knowing and believing the “right” information. But for most of earth’s history, very few people could read or write. The illiterate have always relied on the erudite to help shape their world. They had no ability to verify for themselves what was imparted to them. A text-based religion then is unhelpful to non-readers because they are unable to personally apply Paul’s admonition to “prove all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) to discriminate between good and bad, and in this case, poorly translated words in the Bible. They necessarily have to trust literate scholarship to validate scriptural assertions/translations.

It is worse when we no longer can rely on presumed intermediaries—priests, pastors, academics etc.—who have leveraged themselves as knowledgeable truth tellers. Since 1971, these people could have known that the RSV revision committee, who originally and unwittingly introduced the Trojan Horse word “homosexuals” into an English Bible, had reversed themselves. But their constituencies remained largely uninformed. Such scholars/leaders have continued to behave as if nothing had changed and allowed homophobia to permeate the larger whole. Believing that they were doing the Lord’s work, they preached a message of exclusion to the church.

I believe “Christian” homophobia is contrived. The political and Religious Right find homosexuality to be an easy target that arouses their bases. The context for the 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 statement casts Paul as heaven’s stingy gatekeeper. The two verses list 10 categories of people Paul says will not inherit God’s Kingdom: wrong doers, the sexually immoral, idolators, adulterers, males who have sex with males, thieves, greedy, drunkards, verbally abusive, and swindlers. If we took Paul literally, one wonders who would actually make it into the Kingdom.

Yet the Right stokes its fury only on homosexuals. Why don’t we see the same hateful campaign waged against “wrongdoers,” “thieves,” “drunkards,” and “adulterers”? They refer to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 to justify their views of who will inherit God’s Kingdom, solely on the basis of behavior, but ignore this same Paul, whose contention is that “by the deeds of the law, shall no man be justified” (Gal 2:16).

It is baffling that purported Christians would dedicate so much of their time to disparaging a whole group, to the point of advocating their imprisonment or even death, because they see homosexuals as sinners. If they are sinners, what better place for them to be, than in church? When we demonize a vulnerable minority to project our self-righteousness, we diminish ourselves. We cannot adopt a policy of devaluing homosexuals as a strategy for gaining God’s favor. After all, no one has seen God, and therefore what we believe about him may not matter. How we treat each other though, is what tells us about the God we claim to believe in. It was Jesus who implored his followers to “love one another,” and challenged those who are perfect to “cast the first stone.”

Ultimately biblical translations depend on linguistic experts to uncover meaning. But no translation is sufficiently pristine and reliable enough to support legislating imprisonment or death, as some Christians in Ghana and Uganda advocate. As the controversy over the meaning of malakoi and arsenokoitai illustrates, if we must err, it should be on the side of moderating our positions due to the possibility that we may be wrong. Then judgment resides with God alone, where it belongs.

About the author

Matthew Quartey was born and raised in Southern Ghana and obtained graduate and postgraduate education in Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States. His academic interests center around post-independence African literature as well as British/American literature of the 19th century. Quartey works in healthcare management and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with his wife Sophia. More from Matthew Quartey.
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