The word that we translate as the perverted has puzzled Bible translators for years. Usually translators assume that it’s something to do with homosexuality, yet the next listed type of person is about homosexuality. So, is homosexuality listed twice? If so, why?
We say that no, homosexuality is probably not listed twice, and this first mention is really talking of something else. However, most Bible translators do not share this belief, and think that there’s two mentions of homosexuality.
So they speculate that this first mention is actually talking about male prostitutes (as in the New Living Translation). Others say that this first mention is specifically talking about effeminate gay men (as in the King James Version). A few even say that it’s talking about the passive role in gay sex, whereas the next listing is the active role in gay sex (as translated in the Berean Study Bible). The New International Version combines both terms into one, ‘men who have sex with men,’ hiding the fact that two separate things were listed. The New King James Version really confuses things, by listing them as ‘nor homosexuals, nor sodomites.’ Huh?
Here’s an alternative answer, found in the Aramaic word (and from a little critical thinking).
Not so specific
1 Corinthians may have originally been penned in Aramaic. The Greek text may be an ancient translation. Now, the Aramaic word used is ܡܚܒܠܐ (m’hab’leh), which comes from a root which literally means to injure. The exact spelling means to be defiled, or to be corrupted. Other words derived from this same root have meanings including to disfigure, to act perversely, to be perverted, and even to deflower.
Put this all together, and it sounds like the Apostle was listing people who corrupt or pervert either themselves or others. Or as we would say in English, perverts.
This would also solve a small puzzle. Fornication, adultery, and homosexuality all got their own special mentions by Paul, but not incest, bestiality, rape, voyeurism, pedophilia, or prostitution. Why? Well, they are all probably covered by this word.
Also, in the old law, cross-dressers were specifically condemned to a death sentence, yet in the New Testament, there’s no mention of it. How puzzling that a capital offence in Israel, would now be permitted among Christians by Paul. Why the change? Was it just forgotten? Or, in the Apostle Paul’s mind, was such a thing actually covered by this word? Perhaps, but we don’t know.
What explains the Greek?
But what about the word used in the Greek version? That says something quite different. It’s μαλακοί (malakoi). It’s the masculine plural word for soft, and so can literally mean, soft males. It could indeed be translated as effeminate males or passive males. Basically, it’s slang: softies.
However, if this was merely the choice of an Ancient Greek translator, then it may be a mistranslation. How so?
When our Ancient Greek translator – probably Jewish – saw the word m’hab’leh (the perverted), what may have first come to his mind was how, in Ancient Greece, it was quite normal for older men to ‘court’ teenage boys and enter a relationship with them, which was often sexual. We call this pederasty. Such relationships would often be illegal today due to age-of-consent laws. Yet the Ancient Greeks celebrated it. We can only imagine how much it must have shocked Greek-speaking Jews!
Ancient Greek culture also featured male prostitutes who shaved their beards off to make themselves look more feminine. Even being clean-shaven was against the Jewish Law, never mind being a male prostitute! In the Old Law at Leviticus 19:27, all men must have beards (with a exception of a cleansing ritual in Leviticus 14:9). This ordinary part of Greek culture would have also shocked the Jews.
So when our Jewish Christian translator, who perhaps lived among the Greeks in Corinth, saw the Aramaic word for the perverted, it’s not surprising that he translated it as the Greek term soft males. To him, the pederasty and effeminacy he saw every single day were shocking perversions. Yet, by doing this, he likely mistranslated.
The term, the perverted, can cover many persons, including many heterosexuals. By mistranslating it as soft males, he was seriously limiting what Paul said to apply to just one group. And this was probably a mistake, as 2,000 years later, translators are puzzling over why we have two mentions of same-sex relations. Yet, it seems that we actually don’t.
What is perverted?
Exactly what things are the perverted guilty of doing in the Apostle’s mind? Well, it would very likely cover all of the sexual crimes in the Old Law; so incest, bestiality, and so on, would be included. Beyond that, it’s up for debate.
We may get some clues from the root word, meaning to injure or perish. If an activity would injure or even kill someone’s innocence or moral purity, then it might be covered by this word. It may also imply something more rare and unusual than mere fornication, adultery, or homosexuality, which are mentioned separately and are very common.
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