Monday, August 13, 2012

The Male Bed

For the stout-hearted, here's a rather technical article by the New Testament scholar Dale B. Martin, discussing possible meanings of the Greek words arsenokoites and malakos, which I referred to in my previous post about homosexuality and the Bible.  Martin explains why the meaning of the words is so unclear, and why they can't be translated simply as "homosexuals."  (You don't need to know Greek to be able to follow it.)  On the other hand, Martin argues that, judging by the contexts in which arsenokoites occurs outside of the New Testament,
It is certainly possible, I think probable, that arsenokoit├ęs referred to a particular role of exploiting others by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily by homosexual sex. The more important question, I think, is why some scholars are certain it refers to simple male-male sex in the face of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps ideology has been more important than philology.
 Malakos is easier at first glance: literally it means "soft."
There is no question, then, about what malakos referred to in the ancient world. In moral contexts it always referred either obviously or obliquely to the feminine. There is no historical reason to take malakos as a specific reference to the penetrated man in homosexual intercourse. It is even less defensible to narrow that reference down further to mean "male prostitute." The meaning of the word is clear, even if too broad to be taken to refer to a single act or role. malakos means "effeminate."
This reminds me of a current word in English: faggot.  Quite a few straight men have tried to claim that it doesn't refer to men who are penetrated by other men, but to men who are weak, weak-ass guys, unable to take care of themselves or their women or children, kneelers, and so on.  I suspect that a similar smearing of boundaries occurs in the case of malakos.  (Martin is aware of this.)  What matters most is not being penetrated (though that still matters, quite a lot), but being unmanned.

And that brings up an argument that gay Christians often use -- it turned up in the meme I criticized before -- that what the Bible condemns is not nice, loving same-sex relationships between normal guys, but only trashy, low-rent queers riding half-naked on the back of a float in some Gay Pride parade, looking for their next sexual conquest.  What they forget is that the Bible is not an impartial, disinterested philosophy text on sexual ethics, but a strongly partial work of propaganda.  The most likely reason the Biblical writers never mention committed loving relationships between men is that they considered them the expression of lust, not love.  There were neutral or positive terms, in Greek and Latin at least, for erotic relations between males, so the fact that only negative ones turn up in the New Testament isn't due to a lack of them; it's a sign of the writers' attitudes to sex.  It's the same reason the Bible caricatures worshipers of gods other than Yahweh as "idolaters."

Martin concludes:
My goal is not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts but to highlight the ideological contexts in which such discussions have taken place. My goal is to dispute appeals to "what the Bible says" as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments. It really is time to cut the Gordian knot of fundamentalism. And do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to "what the Bible says" without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism, whether it comes from a right-wing Southern Baptist or a moderate Presbyterian.
My only quibble with this judgment is that it applies just as much to pro-gay Christians.  They also believe that if we just understand the Bible correctly, it will not condemn homosexuality; it will even endorse our acceptance in the Church.  And that, too, is fundamentalism.