Does the NRSV Compromise on Homosexuality? – Mark Ward

I regularly roll my eyes at English Bible translation freak-outs. I have many times seen Christians hunt for the “errors” in contemporary translations such as the NIV or ESV. Often what they come up with can only be called errors if one views them through malicious eyes and ties them to some concocted narrative of doctrinal downgrade. Our major modern evangelical Bible translations are very good. Not perfect, but very good.

The truth is, our major modern mainline Bible translations are good, too. I think of the RSV from the 1950s, the NRSV of 1989, the CEB of 2011. Though I have less experience with these translations than with the evangelical ones, I feel confident saying they’re produced by serious people who aimed at faithful translation. When I check them, which I have done many times, I repeatedly encounter translation choices that are obviously responsible. I encounter God’s Word. The KJV translators tell us in their famous preface that even the “very meanest” translation of God’s Word is God’s Word. They also tell us to judge Bible translations by their predominant character. They say, “A man may be considered handsome, though he have some warts upon his hand” (my slightly updated translation of their archaic English). And if I make this kind of generous judgment, mainline English Bibles are good.

But sometimes warts can grow rather large. The Revised Standard Version had warts in several passages, especially Isaiah 7:14 (“Behold, a young woman shall conceive. . .”), that have caused most evangelicals to set it aside. Likewise, the freshly published “updated edition” of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSVue) will, I predict, be rejected by today’s evangelicals because of two warts: its renderings of 1 Timothy 1:10 and, especially, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10.

I work hard to make sober judgments about English Bibles, but I’m forced to conclude that the NRSVue has removed two Pauline condemnations of homosexuality—though it has kept other biblical prohibitions of the practice.

Translating 2 Key Greek Words

Here’s how that latter passage reads in the (usually literal and definitely evangelical) New American Standard Bible. I’ve bolded the key words to watch for:

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 greedy, nor those habitually drunk, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9–10)

Those two English words translate two Greek words. The word “effeminate” translates the word malakoi; the word “homosexuals” translates the word arsenokoitai (which appears also in 1 Tim. 1:10).

These two words almost certainly refer to the passive and active partners in a male homosexual pairing. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to translate. Responsible translations go different ways.

The ESV, CSB, NIV, and NASB 2020 take the two Greek words and turn them into one thing expressed in one phrase: “men who have sex with men” (NIV; CSB has “males”) or “men who practice homosexuality” (ESV). Other translations are more like the NASB, assigning one-word equivalents to each of the two Greek words at issue.

I have studied these two Greek words carefully, and if I had to pick my favorite rendering, the award would go to the Berean Study Bible:

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who submit to or perform homosexual acts . . .

This is a translation touchdown: accurate and readable.

But the NRSVue doesn’t just punt at 1 Corinthians 6:9; it lies on the field and forfeits the game. Here is its rendering of the passage:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex . . .

Paul says that active and passive partners in a homosexual pairing will not inherit the kingdom of God. The NRSVue does not say this. It first, in my judgment, obfuscates matters by including a footnote on malakoi and on arsenokoitai: “Meaning of Greek uncertain.” Then, despite their admitted uncertainty, the NRSVue translates malakoi as something too specific (“male prostitutes”) and arsenokoitai as something too general (“men who engage in illicit sex”). It does the same with arsenokoitai in the one other place it appears, 1 Timothy 1:10, where Paul lists among other sinners,

. . . the sexually immoral, men who engage in illicit sex, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching . . .

I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that the NRSVue removes three of Paul’s clear condemnations of homosexual acts—two in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and one in 1 Timothy 1:10.

But don’t freak out yet.

Not the Whole Story

I’m a theological conservative. I believe the NRSVue is dangerously wrong on these two passages. But it’s not correct to say, “The NRSVue removes Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality!” That isn’t the whole story; it requires some caveats.

The first and most important is that the NRSVue translates all other major passages regarding homosexuality with notable clarity. It’s impossible to tie the NRSVue as a whole to a story of doctrinal downgrade when Romans 1 in this version reads,

God gave them over to dishonorable passions. Their females exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the males, giving up natural intercourse with females, were consumed with their passionate desires for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (Rom. 1:26–27)

In Leviticus, too, in both places where condemnations of homosexuality appear in the law of Moses, the NRSVue says what the Hebrew says:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Lev. 18:22)

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them. (Lev. 20:13)

Don’t miss this: the NRSVue clearly communicates Moses’s and Paul’s condemnations of homosexual acts in passages aside from 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.

And let’s not forget that the New Living Translation, a widely used evangelical version, does with malakoi just what the NRSVue does. It, too, goes with “male prostitutes.” The NIV 1984 and the International Standard Version (a less successful evangelical version) did likewise. Serious evangelical scholars have made this choice—though I do believe it to be wrong (“male prostitutes” wrongly includes men who sell sex to women, and it leaves out those who consent to homosexual activity with no money involved).

Reason for Concern

The standard Greek-English lexicon, Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich (BDAG), has a lot to say about malakoi and arsenokoitai. In one short paragraph for each word, BDAG packs all kinds of references—to Greek literature, to relevant articles, to prominent books. Interestingly, unless I’m mistaken, the most recent editor of BDAG, the late legendary lexicographer Frederick W. Danker, was something of a theological moderate. And yet he clearly rejects the arguments behind the renderings in the NRSVue.

According to Danker’s argument in BDAG, malakoi here means “pertaining to being passive in a same-sex relationship”; a good translation, he says, would be “effeminate.” Danker goes on to criticize the NRSV rendering as “too narrow,” as I just did, and to say that the word refers to “men and boys who are sodomized by other males in [a same-sex] relationship.” (I go through the argument in this video.)

Arsenokoitai, however, is a word Paul invented. This means we have to look to etymology (word history) and context to define it. The two etymological parts of the word arsenokoitai, arsen + koitai, amount to men + bedders (as in “bedding someone down”). These parts are used as two separate words in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in the very passages in Leviticus that condemn homosexuality. Almost certainly, a Jew like Paul had these passages in mind when he coined this word.

There were other koitai compounds in the Greek of Paul’s day. There were “brother-bedders,” “sister-bedders,” and “mother-bedders.” Their meaning was established: the first part of each word named the object of the bedding, the penetrated partner. “Men-bedders,” then, is the name for the active partners: men who penetrate men.

In context, arsenokoitai is set in contrast with malakoi, making it incredibly likely Paul is naming both partners in a male homosexual pairing.

There is some uncertainty with regard to the meaning of nearly any word if you look hard enough. This is especially true of neologisms like arsenokoitai. But why would Paul need to condemn “men who engage in illicit sex” when he just condemned “immorality”? And given the Bible’sincluding Jesus’s—pervasive condemnation of any sexual activity aside from one-man-one-woman-till-death-do-they-part, why adopt a tiny minority interpretation?

You can always find loopholes in language. But I don’t believe there is enough uncertainty to justify the NRSVue’s choice. Out of love for my homosexual neighbors, I must call the NRSVue’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 6 what it is: a removal of something Paul said by the inspiration of the Spirit.

Gospel Issue

I discovered the NRSVue’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 6:9 several months ago, but I waited to talk about it publicly. I wanted to hear an official statement from the NRSVue leadership on their reasoning regarding this passage, and I wanted to be sure I was seeing the final text. I have now seen the final NRSVue text as submitted to Logos Bible Software, and it’s consistent with what’s been up on BibleGateway.com for months. I also reached out to an NRSVue editor who responded promptly and courteously. I encourage you to read this piece by Jennifer Knust; it makes arguments you will continue to see (and which I have interacted with in this piece).

It can’t be an accident that a translation associated with the Protestant mainline is the first major English Bible to suddenly find arsenokoitai impossible to translate.

But these arguments amount to a punt and a shrug as people walk past on the broad road to destruction. I don’t have to concoct a narrative of doctrinal downgrade. It can’t be an accident that a translation associated with the Protestant mainline is the first major English Bible to suddenly find arsenokoitai impossible to translate. It’s tempting for everyone when God says inconvenient things to act as if several interpretations are equally viable—and then to throw up one’s hermeneutical hands and conclude nothing.

But at the end of the day, our understanding of homosexuality is a gospel issue. Whatever (unrepentant) malakoi and arsenokoitai are, they are kept out of God’s kingdom. I cannot be merely academic when I discuss this passage, precisely because I want my neighbors to “inherit the kingdom of God” with me.

The moral status of homosexuality is, quite obviously, a significant battleground in Western culture. This sin is condemned explicitly in a small number of well-known biblical passages. Effectively removing three of them is worth a translation freak-out.

 

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