The premise of the film, "1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture," is that the biblical translators of the Revised Standard Version made an error when they chose to use the word “homosexual” in a couple of verses that appear in two of Paul’s New Testament letters. The contention is that those working on the text should have rendered the Greek term in the manuscripts to be something that represents an abusive form of sex vs. what eventually appeared in the English RSV translation.
The real question is not whether those working on the RSV made a mistake in translation but rather what was the Apostle Paul originally saying in those verses. To do that, we need to push past all the emotional baggage and cultural TNT that accompany the LBGTQ+ debates and take a vanilla, academic approach using the literal-historical-grammatical method of interpretation, which aims to discover the meaning of a particular passage as the original author would have intended and what the original hearers would have understood.
When we do that, what do we find?
Investigating what Paul wrote
Let’s first take a look at the verses in question that are found in Paul’s first letters to the Corinthians and Timothy:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10).
“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted” (1 Tim. 1:8–11).
The Greek word in question – the one translated as “homosexual” by the RSV translators – is arsenokoitēs. We need to ask why Paul used that word, along with what is its origin and meaning.
Some say this is the first case of that word ever being employed, although a few historians point to earlier uses of the expression. Even if used for the first time, Bible scholars note that Paul coined over 100 terms in the New Testament, which is not uncommon for a learned man. The critical question is, what was he trying to convey with it?
The word is a compound term made up of arsēn, which means “male” and koitē which means “bed”, with it referring to a bed being used in a sexual manner (our word ‘coitus’ for sexual intercourse from it). If Paul did devise the term, where would he get the idea to mate those two words together?
The Bible used by Paul and others in the first century was the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. And in the Septuagint’s translation of Leviticus 20:13, which speaks to homosexual behavior, the terms arsēn and koitē are side by side and form the compound word that Paul used in his New Testament epistles.
Given that evidence, the most straightforward, hermeneutical conclusion we can come to is that Paul was against the idea of males engaging in sexual intercourse together.
This argument becomes stronger when one reads Paul’s discourse in Romans where he speaks to the same subject without using the word arsenokoitēs. As with his other New Testament letters, some argue that Paul was preaching against temple prostitution or pederasty in the passage.
However, those contentions make a number of interpretative mistakes and fail to be convincing. There is no explicit biblical, textual evidence in Romans or 1 Corinthians/Timothy that I see to support the assertion that these verses of Paul are describing abusive forms of sex.
So where does this leave us?
Most every Christian I know, including myself, will tell you we have no axe to grind or agenda to push on this subject. Frankly, it would be far easier for many of us if the "1946" film was correct in its conclusion.
But it isn’t.
The bottom line is that when the literal-historical-grammatical method is used to interpret the writings of Paul on this topic, we find the Apostle can’t be used to validate homosexual behavior. That being the case, the most logical thing to do for those wanting to justify homosexuality is to stop trying to modify what the Bible says on the subject and instead assume the position of the late atheist Christopher Hitchens who once remarked, “What do I care what some Bronze Age text says about homosexuality?”
Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.