An update to the Bible translation used by many mainline Protestant churches has stirred accusations of “gaywashing” over how an ancient Greek word is translated.
At issue: Does arsenokoitai (ἀρσενοκοῖται), a Greek word used only twice in the New Testament, mean all same-sex relations or only illicit ones?
The question of how the Bible treats homosexuality, in terms of sexual orientation and conduct, has become a hot-button topic. Gay rights activists say so-called clobber verses condemning same-sex relations refer to temple prostitution and forced sex, not committed partnerships. Evangelicals and others with more orthodox views reject that position. They say the Bible clearly prohibits homosexual acts of any kind.
The New Revised Standard Bible Updated Edition, called “NRSVue” for short, appeared in digital form last month. Printed versions are expected from a range of Protestant and Roman Catholic publishers in May. The updated NRSV is the product of the National Council of Churches, which last revised the text in 1989.
The 2021 update translates arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 as “men who engage in illicit sex” — a change from the 30-year-old NRSV edition’s translation of “sodomites.”
Jennifer Knust, the general editor for the 2021 edition’s New Testament and professor of religious studies at Duke University, told The Washington Times that “sodomite” was an “anachronism” and was “seriously misleading.”
“The terms’ sodomite’ and ‘sodomy’ were first used in English in the 11th century and have nothing to do with the term arsenokoitai, an obscure Greek term coined from other terms meaning ‘man’ and ‘bed,’” she said via email. “1 Corinthians 6:9 in no way refers to Sodom (the biblical city).”
Michael L. Brown, who hosts the Christian radio talk show “The Line of Fire” and holds a doctorate in Near Eastern languages and literatures from New York University, said Ms. Knust is partially correct. He said the final translation of arsenokoitai in the NRSVue is deficient.
“While the translation of ‘sodomites,’ is anachronistic,” Mr. Brown said in an emailed statement, “translating arsenokoitai as ‘men who have sex with men’ is accurate while rendering it [as] ‘men who engage in illicit sex’ is meaningless. … This new translation, virtually unknown before now in the history of Bible translations, is as misleading as it is misguided, and it must be recognized as a capitulation to culture and a rejection of the authority of Scripture.”
Laura Nasrallah, Yale Divinity School’s Buckingham professor of New Testament criticism and interpretation, was the update’s translator for 1 Corinthians, a message to believers in the ancient city of Corinth written by the Apostle Paul. Speaking with The Times via telephone, she said someone else suggested the “illicit sex” translation.
“I did not suggest that translation. They evidently rejected my translation,” Ms. Nasrallah said.
She said she didn’t know about the change until a reporter emailed questions.
“That’s all fair game,” Ms. Nasrallah said. “There’s a larger editorial board that’s trying to make translations consistent and reconcilable across multiple texts. And I don’t know the inner workings of that editorial board other than to express my deep respect for those editors,” she said.
Ms. Knust said, “I do not remember precisely who proposed this change.”
Friendship Press, the publishing arm of the National Council of Churches, says on its website that it “commissioned the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), a diverse and learned group of biblical scholars, to direct the revision.”
John F. Kutsko, the society’s executive director and an affiliate professor of biblical studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said he and Ms. Knust were part of a team that reviewed the work of book editors such as Ms. Nasrallah. Without singling out any individual, he said the panel made the change to the text.
Mr. Kutsko said the team’s consultations were “really pretty robust” and there was no agenda to “produce a political-social” revision of Scripture.
Whoever made the change has done readers a disservice, said Robert A.J. Gagnon, a professor at Houston Baptist University.
The word “sodomites,” Mr. Gagnon said, was “not the most felicitous translation, but at least it had the benefit of making clear to readers exactly what Paul was making clear to his readers: that the behavior has to do with male homosexual practice.”
He said the new interpretation makes Paul’s meaning “so obscured in their new so-called updated translation that nobody has any inkling that it has any reference at all to homosexual practice. That’s intellectually dishonest or intellectually ignorant.”
Mr. Gagnon, who has offered to debate Ms. Knust online or in person, wrote “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics,” a 2001 analysis of biblical texts relating to homosexuality. Asked whether he had an agenda in opposing the “illicit sex” translation, he replied, “The agenda I have is to arrive at what the biblical text originally means.”
“I’m not interested in lying for the Bible in order to suit my ideology. Unfortunately, they appear to be willing to do just that,” Mr. Gagnon said. “If the evidence for the biblical text doesn’t support the conclusion that arsenokoitai homes in on male-male sexual activity, then I don’t want to buttress an erroneous argument. I’m not going to make an argument just to support some prior ideological position that I want to reach.”
The Rev. Jim Winkler, National Council of Churches executive director, said he was aware that changes “were discussed at the committee [level],” but “who discussed what, I don’t know.” He said all updates in the new release grew “out of a group process.”
The National Council of Churches, which has headquarters in Washington, calls itself “an ecumenical partnership” of 38 Christian communities in the United States, including Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, African-American and “Peace” churches. The council’s current leadership is drawn from the United Methodists, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Community of Christ and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of times the Greek word “arenokoitai” is translated as “sodomite” in the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition.