Boswell (was Re: Lexicons)
> I would be interested in reading your critique of John Boswell's book.
> Actually, I would be interested in reading ANY critique of John Boswell's
> book. I've seen excerpts floating around on mailing list in which the
> paraphraser uses Boswell to refute both OT and NT prohibitions against
> homosexual activity. I don't see how one can get around Leviticus 18 (you
> shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination) but perhaps
> that's a question for the b-hebrew list.
> I am willing to approach this topic with an open mind; to that affect, I would
> be interested in reading any available critiques of Boswell's work.
What I have prepared (see attached) is a critique of Boswell's analysis of
the term 'arsenokoites' not his entire book. Boswell's technique of getting
around Leviticus 18 is to assert that it is the part of the Old Mosaic Law
that no longer applies to Christians. At this point, the meaning of arseno-
koites becomes crucial because 1Co6:9 may allude to and renew this specific
Boswell's Analysis of 'Arsenokoite:s' in 1Co6:19 and 1Ti1:10
One controversial statement from Boswell's seminal book, CHRISTIANITY,
SOCIAL TOLERANCE & HOMOSEXUALITY (1980), is that the term 'arsenokoite:s'
in 1Co6:19 and 1Ti1:10 means a male prostitute rather than a homosexual
as it commonly translated. While this could have remained a rather
arcane point among scholars, its doctrinal implications make this quite
Before going into Boswell's analysis, I would like to address some
methodological considerations. Determining what a word means in a
particular context is quite tricky. Words change meaning over time, and
the author may use a metaphorically, idiosyncratically, or with a
specialized meaning as jargon. Thus, when considering the meaning of a
word, the closer the evidence is to the word's context--textually,
culturally, and chronologically--the stronger that evidence will be.
The New Testament was written in the Koine Greek dialect for a Hellenized
Jewish/Christian community in the first century. This cultural and
chronological context plays a strong role in investigating the meaning of
a word in the New Testament. The best evidence is the textual context of
the word itself within the document's literary genre. Next in strength
is the author's other uses of the term. After this, that word's usage
throughout the rest of the New Testament becomes important. Since the
early Hellenistic Christian community relied on the Greek translation of
the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX) is also very important. At
this point, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, or Patristics, of the
next few generations after the Apostles become relevant. After that, the
word's usage by the contemporary Hellenized Jews, Philo and Josephus, can
be considered. Evidence by pagans in the Hellenistic world comes after
that. Among the last of the kinds of evidence to be considered is the
word's meaning in earlier Attic Greek dialect and in the later Byzantine
Greek dialect. Words change meaning over time and culture so one must be
careful with the extra-dialectal evidence.
There are two additional means of analysis which one must use at one's
peril. The first is an etymological argument that analyzes how the word
is constituted. This is difficult because a word may have changed
meaning since it was created, and there is also the problem of knowing
the meaning of the constituent parts at the time of creation. For
example, the English words, "pioneer," "pawn," and "peon" have the same
etymon, Medieval Latin, "pedo," a foot soldier, but that is not useful in
determining the meaning of those three words.
The second argument is the argument from silence, and it is even more
problematical. Obviously, it cannot indicate a word's meaning but only
give some inference about what it might not mean. For this to be at its
most effectiveness, there has to be evidence that an author would have
used it but chose not to. The rarer the word in the word in question is
the more the argument from silence has to contend with the author's not
knowing what it meant or how to use it.
Unfortunately, Boswell only gives a cursory treatment of the most
relevant information, generally in footnotes and parantheticals, but
spends a much greater portion of his analysis on the least probative--the
etymology and silence. As a result, his analysis is weak and
unpersuasive and his conclusion unlikely.
The relevant New Testament verses are:
9 . . . Be not deceived: neither fornicators [pornoi], nor
idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [malakoi], nor
abusers of themselves with mankind [arsenokoitai], 10 nor
thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor
extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for the righteous
man but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly
and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of
fathers and for murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10
for whoremongers [pornois], for them that defile themselves
with mankind [arsenokoitais], for menstealers, for liars,
for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that
is contrary to sound doctrine.
Boswell first tries to plant the suggestion that 'arsenokoite:s' is about
prostitution. He only makes the most minimal examination of its context,
by noting that 'arsenokoite:s' appears next to 'pornos' meaning whore, or
fornicator in 1Ti1:10, and that Paul talks about prostitution a lot.
[Boswell at 341.] Whatever the initial strength of his point is, it must
be attenuated by the fact that 'arsenokoite:s' follows 'malakos' in
1Co6:9, not 'pornos.' Since 'malakos' is commonly taken to mean a
catamite, a pederast's boy partner, the juxtaposition of 'malakos' and
'arsenokoite:s' in 1Co6:9 better favors the conclusion that 'arsenokoite:s'
means a homosexual, possibly the one who takes the "active" role.
In addition, the Greek word 'pornos' itself has connotations of male
prostitution, as in Xenophon for example. The use of 'pornos' in the
masculine plural would encompass both male and female prostitutes. While
'pornos' is commonly generalized in the New Testament to all sexually
immoral people, the context of 1Co6:9 suggests that prostitution is
covered by 'pornos' not 'arsenokoite:s'. Paul probably was keying off of
the first item in his list when he illustrated it with an example a man
going to a prostitute [1Co6:15-16]. Thus, while it true that 'pornos' in
both lists does bring in a context of prostitution, it actually cuts
against Boswell's analysis. Paul does not repeat any other vice in the
list, so it is quite unlikely that he was being redundant in this case.
>From the 1 Corinthians passage one can no more conclude that the 'arseno-
koitai' are male prostitutes than that the idolators, or even the
drunkards and revilers are. The 1 Timothy passage is more interesting--
the 'arsenokoitai' are law breakers. The Mosaic law certainly prohibited
active homosexuality [Lv18:22 and 20:13] but is less clear about
prostitution. Dt23:17 seems, as most commentators agree, to be more about
temple cult prostitution than prostitution per se, and Lv19:29 is not
about male prostitution but pandering one's daughters. Therefore, the
immediate context of the New Testament attestations of 'arsenokoite:s'
better suggests an engager in homosexual activity than Boswell's denotation
of an active sexual agent of any orientation.
Boswell's next argument is etymological, which is one of the weakest.
Since Paul is one of the first to ever use the term, the strength of the
analysis relies on the meaning of the first part, the meaning of the
second part, and the meaning the whole. [See generally, Goodwin, A
GREEK GRAMMAR 191-95 (1968)] Furthermore, a coined word might allude to
another context. Boswell is correct only for the meaning of the first part
(viz. that arseno- means male) and ignores a possible provenance of the word.
Much of the strength of Boswell's conclusion that 'arsenokoitai' means
"male sexual agent, i.e., active male prostitutes" [Boswell at 344]
relies on a one sentence analysis of the second part:
"The second half of the compound, 'koitai,' is a coarse word,
generally denoting base or licentious sexual activities (see
Rom. 13:13), and in this and other compounds corresponds to the
vulgar English word 'fucker,' i.e., a person who, by insertion,
takes the 'active' role in intercourse."
[Boswell at 342.]
Boswell's undocumented assertion misrepresents the meaning. 'Koitai' is
best understood as a euphemism for sexual activity. While Paul certainly
uses it in the plural in Ro13:13 to describe "chambering" (KJV) or
"debauchery" (NIV), that is the most vulgar the term ever gets. Paul
also uses it to describe how "our father Isaac" conceived both of
Rebecca's children [Ro9:10]. Luke uses it quite neutrally to describe a
bed. [Lk11:7 "my children are with me in bed" (KJV)]. The final use of
this term in the New Testment can hardly be *less* vulgar: "Marriage is
honourable in all, and the bed [koite:n] undefiled . . . ." [Heb13:4
(KJV)]. Thus, one can see that Paul uses it generally as a euphemism for
sexual intercourse, which is also how the Septuagint uses it, especially
in Lv18:22 and 20:13. A better translation for 'koitai' with the same
degree of vulgarity is something like the English word "bedder."
The first part of the word 'arsenokoite:s' is simply "male," as Boswell
recognizes, so a rough English calque could be something like "male-
bedder." Greek compounds, like English, can be either objective (and thus
would mean "someone who beds males") or determinative ("a male who
beds"). While Boswell spends the next three pages arguing for the
latter, the choice for the former is obvious. If a Greek writer wanted to
refer to a male actor, the masculine grammatical gender is enough to make
his point, unless it is something only women do. Although Boswell does
provide examples of the prefix 'arseno-' in determinative compounds
('arsenomorphos' = of masculine form; 'arsenogene:s' = (born a) male;
'arsenothumos' = man-minded; and 'arsenwma' = seed of the male), they are
not germane because none of these examples are for male actors or
activities involving male actors.
There are plenty of other words with the 'arseno-' prefix (or in its
Attic form, 'arreno-') which use it in objective compounds for actors or
actions, such as:
'arrenogamew' = to marry men,
'arrenogonew' = to bear male children,
'arrenokoite:s' (Attic form) = a sodomite,
'arrenokuew' = to bear male children,
'arrenomane:s' = mad after males,
'arrenomikte:s' ~ 'arsenomikte:s' = sodomite,
'arrenomixia' = sodomy,
'arrenoomai' = to become a man, and
'arrenopipe:s' = one who looks lewdly on males.
[See Liddel, Scott & Jones]
Boswell's explanation that the 'arreno-' form is for objective compounds
but that 'arseno-' prefix is for determinative compounds is bizarre. It
ignores that the difference is merely one of dialect; it ignores that the
same word appears in both dialectal forms (arsenokoite:s ~ arrenokoite:s
and arrenomikte:s ~ arsenomikte:s); and that there exists a word with
'arseno-' that is in an objective compound (arsenobat:es, paedicator
= pederast [LS&J suppl.]). Generally, the prefix in either form is used
make a sexual distinction, and this prefix is used several times for
compounds relating to sodomy or homosexuality. Even though Boswell
recognizes that his proposed distinction has "not been carefully
examined," [Boswell at 343] he hangs his entire analysis on this flimsy
Also, Boswell tries to side-step the embarrassing existence of 'arreno-
koitas' in a Byzantine inscription in a confusing footnote. [Boswell at
344 n.22]. He wrongly assumes that 'arrenas' cannot be used as an
adjective (attested by Aristotle among others [see LS&J]), and does not
consider that it could be used in apposition. In any event, the
inscription is directed against the Arabs, who were accused of being
sodomites according to the footnote in the Loeb Classical Edition.
In any event, Boswell never mentioned the most obvious source for
compound word, 'arsenokoit:es' in the first place: Lv20:13. The
Septuagint translates that verse, which imposed the death penalty for
acts of homosexuality, as follows:
"Kai hos an koime:the: meta ARSENOS KOITE:N gunaikos, bdelugma
epoie:san amphoteroi; thanatousthwsan, enoichoi eisin"
[Lv20:13 (LXX) (emphasis added), see Boswell at 100 n.28]
Not only are both parts of the compound used in the Septuagint
translation, but they are juxtaposed in the exact same order. Paul has
simply used (or even coined) a word that strongly alludes to the Levitical
verse. Moreover, this is not a technique unknown to Paul. In 2Co6:14,
Paul coopted the compound 'heterozugountes' which normally meant
"mismatched" in the Greek world to allude to Lv19:19 and all of its
connotations in being "unequally yoked." [See Bauer, Gingrich & Arndt's]
Similarly, Paul probably used 'arsenokoite:s' to pick up both the
genericity of the the activity (a man lying with a man as with a woman)
and its accompanying moral condemnation.
Boswell's next six pages are an argument from silence and a complete
waste of time. The word is rarely used, and its facial meaning of
"men-bedders" may have been judged too weak or obscure by later writers,
so it is hard to conclude much from this silence. His argument from
silence can also cut the other way, as an argument *against* it meaning a
male prostitute, because no one chose to employ it in that context either.
Boswell's treatment of the Patristic evidence is very brief. He
dismisses For example, he dismisses Polycarp's Epistle to the Philipians
(PPhp) (early 2d cen.) by asserting that it provides no context.
[Boswell at 350 n.42]. Some additional information, however, can still
be gleaned from the passage. After setting out the high moral standards
of the deacons [PPhp 5:2], Polycarp says that "[l]ikewise also let the
younger men be blameless in all things," and avoid "every lust." [v3]
Then Polycarp quotes from 1Co6:9 three kinds of people who will not enter
the Kingdom of God: the fornicators [pornoi], the effeminate [malakoi],
and the sodomites [arsenokoitai]. Polycarp clearly tailored Paul's list
for his concern of young unmarried men, because he omitted adulterers
from the list. If Polycarp understood 'arsenokoitai' to refer to male
prostitutes, it makes little sense that he would ignore two main reasons
for engaging in it: the religious reasons, for which the idolaters would
also be appropriate, or perhaps for money, for which the covetous would
also be mentioned. As scanty as the Patristic evidence is, it nonetheless
tends to refute Boswell's interpretation of the term 'arsenokoite:s'.
The rest of Boswell's analysis is a discussion of the later Byzantine
usage of the term. From a methodological standpoint, this evidence is
not all that probative, because words can change meaning over time. In
fact, this appears to be the case: after the word dropped out of use for
some time, it was brought back to mean "anal intercourse," similar to the
sense development of the English word "sodomy." This later meaning makes
more sense if the term originally related to homosexuality rather than
Often the evidence about a word's meaning in a certain context is not
conclusive but merely indicative. When the best and strongest evidence
consistently points to the same conclusion, however, we can become more
confident. In this case, the immediate context of the word
'arsenokoite:s', all throughout the New Testament, its Septuagint
parallels, and its usage among the Apostolic Fathers, like Polycarp, all
point to a meaning of a homosexual and not a male prostitute. Boswell's
general argument, apart from a facile consideration of the context,
relies too much on the argument from silence and an egregious
etymological analysis. Whatever one thinks of the residual uncertainty
in concluding that 'arsenokoite:s' means a homosexual, one can say that
this sense is *much* more probable than Boswell's.
Stephen Carlson : Poetry speaks of aspirations, : ICL, Inc.
email@example.com : and songs chant the words. : 11490 Commerce Park Dr.
(703) 648-3330 : Shujing 2:35 : Reston, VA 22091 USA
- Re: Lexicons
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