Monthly Archives: January 2017

Greek grammatical gender, via Sextus Empiricus

Writing in the second century CE, Sextus Empiricus comments that the gender of Greek nouns was not universally accepted.  He notes, for example, that σταμνος (jar) is ‘η σταμνος (feminine) in Athens, but ‘ο σταμνος (masculine) in the Peloponnesus (Against the Professors 1.148).  He further notes that one writer can use the same noun with two different genders (1.149).  What is most worth noting here is that the form of the noun does not change in order for the gender to change: only the article does.  While certain forms of nouns are typically of a particular gender, the form does not determine the gender

Life can also get tricky if we assume that we can identify the gender of a noun via the gender of another accompanying adjective.  We have examples of attributive and substantive not matching gender in Iliad 18.514-5, Euripides’ Medea 853, Xenophon’ s Memorabilia 2.7.2, Sophocles’ Trachiniae 206-7, and the Orphic Argonautica 263.  Quite often, the attributive will help, but do not bet too much on it.

To return to Sextus Empiricus, he very flatly states ουκ αρα φυσει των ονοματων τα μεν αρρενικα τα δε θελυκα (“So it is not by the nature of the nouns that some are masculine and others feminine” 1.150).  He reinforces this by pointing out τας αρρενικας φυσεις θηλυκως καλουμεν και τας θηλυκας αρρενικως (“for things masculine by nature we use feminine names and masculine names for things feminine” 1.151), and that a similar problem exists in referring to sexless things via masculine or feminine nouns.  Greek noun gender, he assures us, is a grammatical concept not tied to the nature of the noun’s referent.

To demonstrate this, he gives examples of words which are always masculine even when used for a female creature: κοραξ, αετος, κωνωψ, κανθαρος, σκορπιος, and μυς (raven, eagle, gnat, beetle, scorpion, mouse).  He gives examples of words which are always feminine even when used for a male creature: χελιδων, χελωνη, κορωνη, ακρις, μυγαλη, εμπις (swallow, tortoise, crow, locust, shrew, mosquito – 1.151).  If we pair some of those up, we can see just how arbitrary grammatical gender is: ravens are always masculine but crows always feminine; mice always masculine, shrews always feminine; gnats always masculine, mosquitoes always feminine.

To sum that all up, Greek noun gender did not demonstrate the sex of the referent.



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Homosexuality and that word in the Bible

Having already considered homosexuality and the Bible, let us turn to the ancient-period use of the term αρσενοκοιτης, and related expressions.  While some people try to read the Bible as if it were an isolated linguistic and cultural event, it made sense in its own time to people who were speaking and writing the very language in which it was written, and their understanding gives us a better sense of what it actually said.

To do so, we shall examine not only αρσενοκοιτης, the noun for a man who has sex with men, but also αρσενοκοιτεω, the verb for a man having sex with men, and αρρενοκοιτια, the noun for the activity of men having sex with men.  These are as different from one another, and as useful for understanding one another, as the English words “singer”, “sing”, and “song”.

Quite possibly the earliest usage outside of the Bible is in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, ουτε πορνοι ουτε μαλακοι ουτε αρσενοκοιται βασιλειαν θεου κληρονομησουσιν (“neither the sexually-immoral nor the soft nor man-bedders will inherit the kingdom of G-d”, 5.3).  The terms πορνοι and μαλακοι refer to ideas connected to sexuality, the first being generally used for “unfaithfulness” and “fornication”, the latter being coherent with Philo’s comment on effeminate men (On Special Laws 3.37-8).

Origen (185-254), writing in the 200s, refers to people τας παρα φυσιν ‘ηδονας μετερχονται αρσενοκοιτειν επιζητουντες (“they pursue pleasures contrary to nature, seeking to have male-male sex”) και αλλων τινων απαγορευομενων (“and other forbidden things” – Expositions on Proverbas 7:12).  Note the echo of Paul and Philo in the reference to nature, and note also that this is about pleasure.  There is no reference to cultic or commercial activity here.  This is not a reference to temple prostitutes.

In the early 300s, Eusebius Caesariensis (260-340) uses quite similar language, saying that Moses διεταττετο το μη μοιχευειν, μηδε αρσενοκοιτειν μηδε τας παρα φυσιν ηδονας διωλειν (“commanded not to commit adultery, and not to have male-male sex and not to pursue pleasures contrary to nature” – Demonstration of the Gospel  1.6).  Just as Origen did before him, he talks about “nature” and about pleasure, not prostitution.  Later in the same text, he uses a slightly different term, referring to Greeks talking in their tales about σφων αυτων μοιχειας και αρρενομιξιας μητρογαμιας τε και αδελφων εχθεσμους κοινωνιας (“their adulteries and man-beddings and mother-marryings and also unlawful communion of siblings” – Demonstration of the Gospel 5 proem).  Αρρενομιξια is the αρρενο- (“male”) root conjoined with a noun from μιγνυμι (“have sex with”), and is thus a synonym for αρρενοκοιτια.  Note here his focus on sexual relationships.

Slightly later, Basil the Great (330-379) uses another variant in listing those whom he considers deserving of exclusion from communion (cf 1 Corinthians 5:5).  These include Αρρενοφθοροι και ζωοφθοροι και φονεις και φαρμακοι και μοιχοι και ειδοωλατραι (“Man-bedders and beast-bedders and murderers and potion-makers and adulterers and idolaters” – epistle 188, canon 7).   This list is somewhat reminiscent of Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

Around the same time, Macarius of Egypt (300-391) makes reference to the story of Sodom in Genesis 19, saying that the Sodomites’ wilful sinning so corrupted them that προσεκοψαν επι τηι των αγγελων κακηι βουληι (“they struck upon the evil wish concerning the angels”) αρρενοκοιτιαν εις αυτους εργασασθαι θελησαντες (“desiring to inflict male-male sex upon them” – Spiritual Homilies 4.22 ).  In Macarius’ representation, it is particularly the inflicting which is shown to be wrong (q.v. Ezekiel 16:49), but he is using the same term as Paul in a context when there is clearly nothing to do with temple prostitution.

A little later, Nilus of Sinai (d. 430) refers to Παν ειδος ακαθαρσιας ‘οιον πορνεια μοιχεια ασελγεια και αρσενοκοιτια και τα ‘ομοια τουτοις  (Every appearance of uncleanness, such as fornication, adultery, licentiousness, and male-male sex and things like these” –Letters, book 4 2.282).  Note the set which he forms: these are activities – usually ongoing – involving sexual relationships outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

Some time thereafter, John Malalas (491-578) records an event in which Bishops Isaiah of Rhodes and Alexander of Diospolis were arrested and tortured after διεβληθησαν […] ‘ως κακως βιουντες περι τα σωματικα και αρσενοκοιτουντες (“they were discredited […] for living wickedly concerning the flesh and male-male sex”).  He goes on to say that συνεσχεθησαν εν αυτωι τωι καιρωι πολλοι ανδροκοιται (“many men-who-had-male-sex were arrested in that same time”) και καυλοτομηθεντες απεθανον (“and having been emasculated died”).  Και εγενετο εκτοτε φοβος κατα των νοσουντων την των αρρενων επιθυμιαν (“And thereafter came fear on the ones afflicted with the lust for men” – Chronicle 18.62).  Note how Malalas connects this activity with desire, not religion, and that he blames them for a failing of the flesh and not for violence of any kind.

There is another useful text, a penitential ascribed to John IV of Constantinople (“Jejunator”, d.595 – although the penitential may be C9th), which talks about αρσενοκοιτια and marks differences between feeling attracted to another man, having sex with another man (which it describes as a graver sin), and both attracted to and having sex with another man (which it describes as the gravest).  It also advises asking the penitent how  often and how many times he has engaged in such activities and whether it predated or postdated the experience of having sex with a woman and whether it happened before or after he was thirty years old (i.e. an adult).  All of this very obviously addresses a same-sex relationship, not merely an encounter with a temple prostitute.

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Paul versus homosexuality

The following is not an expression of a particular agenda: it is a consideration of linguistic and textual issue.

Christianity is currently facing a cultural crisis in that it traditionally condemns homosexuality but the cultures within which it is practised are increasingly accepting of gay people and gay rights.  So far as much of the human population are concerned, this difference of view has put much of the Church squarely on the moral lowground.

Naturally, there are some Christians who see nothing wrong with being gay, and some Christians who are gay (although these two groups are unfortunately not coterminous).  In such circles, there has been an attempt to prove that the Bible is not anti-gay, so as to validate both being gay and reading the Bible.  Since the New Testament gives Christians licence to ignore the laws in the Old Testament, not much attention is paid to Leviticus 18:22.  Since Jesus never mentions homosexuality, the focus is on the epistles, and that is where the misreading starts.

The first point of consideration is Romans 1:18-32, and especially vv.26-7.  Here, Paul says of unbelieving women, μετηλλαξαν την φυσικην χρησιν εις την παρα φυσιν (“They changed the natural use into that against nature”), and then of men, αφεντες την φυσικην χρησιν της θηλειας (“leaving the natural use of women”) εξεκαυθησαν εν τη ορεξει αυτων εις αλληλους (“they burned in desire for one another”) αρσενες εν αρσεσιν την ασχημοσυνην κατεργαζομενοι (“men with men working indecency”).  His representation of homosexuality is narrow, simple, and clear: he regards it as not merely unnatural but anti-natural, and shameful.  His opinion here is not at odds with his culture: Philo Judaeus, writing in the same period, decries the “evil” of those who style their hair, wear makeup and perfume, and την αρρενα φυσιν επιτηδευσει τεχναζοντες εις θηλειαν μεταβαλλειν ουκ ερυθριωσι (“do not blush in the pursuit of changing the masculine nature into the feminine by art”).  Philo, like Paul, comments upon what he perceives as “natural”, including the idea that it is “natural” for anyone who follows the law to consider such people worthy of death (On Special Laws 3.37-8).

The next point of consideration is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, the first passage in the NT to use terms specifically describing men who have sex with men.  The first of those terms is μαλακος, literally “soft”, which the New King James Version renders “catamite” and which fits the type described by Philo.  The second, which reappears in 1 Timothy 1:8-10, is one which has been enthusiastically reinterpreted to mean “male temple prostitute” by those who want the Bible to be gay-friendly.  This word is αρσενοκοιτης.

The first claim about this term is that we cannot really know what it means because Paul’s use of it is the first use of which we are aware (a claim which contradicts the idea that it refers to a male temple prostitute).  While we do not have earlier examples of this word, we do have earlier examples of closely related terms.  Αρσενοκοιτης is a compound term, comprising three parts: αρσενο- (also found as αρρενο- and related to ανδρο- ), denoting “male”; κοιτ-, denoting “bed” and relevant activities; -της, denoting a person.  It could, therefore, be translated “man-bedder”.  That, however, is a very polite way of translating a word which shows significant evidence of being bluntly sexual: related terms include μητροκοιτης (the μητρο- meaning “mother”), δουλοκοιτης (the δουλο- meaning “slave”), and παρακοιτης (the παρα- denoting “beside”, and the term being used for spouses).  Native speakers of a language typically understand vocabulary via analogy: this word is like that one, and so its meaning is similar.  A user of κοινη Greek, on hearing αρσενοκοιτης, would naturally compare it with the likes of μητροκοιτης and thus understand what it meant.  We can do much the same.

The second claim about this term is that it does not refer to loving, consensual relationships.  Often, this claim depends upon a reductive image of Greek male same-sex relationships, claiming that they involved an older man, the εραστης, dominating a younger, the ερωμενος.  The age-dynamic was challenged in ancient times, with Aeschylus describing Achilles – the younger partner – as the εραστης and Patroclus – the elder – as the ερωμενος (Myrmidons, fr. 135-6) and this idea being criticized by others (Plato, Symposium 180a-b).  As for the nature of the relationship, Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, describes different types of pairing, including those where the devotion is excessive (1148b) and those which are based on mutual respect and consideration  (1156a ff).  All of these types are still visible today, and Aristotle describes the best relationships as those in which the partners are equal.  While it is true that same-sex relationships in the classical period were not the same as same-sex relationships now, married relationships were not either: Aristotle lists the relationship between husband and wife in the same category as the relationship between parent and child or between ruler and subject.  He does not assert that different-sex romantic love did not exist, but his categorisation of the best love as an equal love does make it more complicated.

Notably, Greek culture was rather broad in its approach to sexual activity between adults.  In Theocritus’ 2nd Idyll, where a courtesan performs a spell to keep a particular lover and she seeks to make him forget anyone else, she says, ειτε γυνα τηνωι παρακεκλιται ειτε και ανηρ (“whether woman or man has lain beside him”, C3rd BCE).  Similarly, there is a C4th CE written curse, IG III.3.78 of the Defixionum Tabellae Atticae, which says of one Aristocydes, μηποτ’αυτον γημαι αλλην γυναι[κα] μηδε παιδα (“may he never marry another woman or boy”).  In the first, sexual intercourse is the concern; in the second, the use of γημαι, the basic verb for “marry”, is especially salient: these documents mark no differentiation between same-sex and different-sex partnering.

It would also be useful to consider how the term αρσενοκοιτης was understood in its own period, but that will require a separate post.

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