Did modern translators add homosexuals to Paul's list of sinful people?

by Luke Wayne

If you read a solid modern translation like the NASB, NIV, ESV, or HSCB, you will find "homosexuals" or "those who practice homosexuality" alongside fornicators, adulterers, and other sinful people on Paul's list of those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. You will find a similar list in 1 Timothy 1:10 denounced as "contrary to sound teaching." The word "homosexual" is a modern word, of course, and so it would be impossible for older translators to have used that word. Some have insisted, however, that older translators didn't even see the concept of homosexuality in these passages, and that modern translators have improperly read this idea into the text due to their bias on the issue. This accusation, however, is demonstrably false. Older translations used the terminology of their own day to say precisely the same thing.

The accusation stems primarily from the fact that the King James Version uses the term "abusers of themselves with mankind," (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) of "those who defile themselves with mankind," (1 Timothy 1:10). It is argued that this terminology could be used for a variety of abusive or exploitive relationships or actions and does not actually apply to homosexual acts, especially those in loving and mutually committed relationships. They argue that modern translators have simply read homosexuality into Paul's words while these earlier translators clearly saw those words in a different category. We will return to the phrasing in the KJV shortly. First, it would be helpful to briefly note how other early translators rendered this verse.

  • The 14th century John Wycliffe Bible is generally credited with being the first complete English translation. It renders the terms in question with the phrases "lechers against kind," and "those that do lechery with men." The word "lechery" means sexual desire or active sexual indulgence of those desires. Lechery "against kind" and "with men" are clearly referring to homosexual acts, and plausibly include homosexual desires.
  • The 16th century Geneva Bible utilized the term "buggerers." Buggery is an old English word for anal intercourse, most often between a man and another man. This would certainly encompass male homosexual acts and was probably a specific reference to them in this context.
  • The 18th-century Wesley New Testament and the 19th-century Young's Literal Translation utilize the word "sodomites," which is a straightforward reference to those who commit homosexual acts.
  • James Murdock, translating in 1851 from the ancient Syriac Peshitta (An ancient translation of the New Testament into Syrian Aramaic, one of the earliest translations of the New Testament into another language) rendered the term "liers with males." George Lamsa similarly translated from the Peshitta with the phrase "men who lie down with males."

So there is a consistent understanding among translators that spans back through history that these passages refer to homosexual acts in their list of sins. Does the KJV represent an exception to this? Hardly. The translations of "abusers of themselves with mankind," (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) and "them that defile themselves with mankind," (1 Timothy 1:10) were first offered by William Tyndale, whose work was the basis for an ongoing chain of English translations including the Matthew Bible, the Coverdale Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, and of course the KJV. If you look at any of these translations, you will find these same phrases. If you go on to look in these translations at Leviticus 18:22, you will find:

"Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is an abomination."

and then in verse 24:

"Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you."

To "lie with mankind [or men]" the way you "lie with womankind [women]" is to defile yourself. Thus, in Tyndale's English, to "defile yourself with mankind" means to defile yourself sexually with a man, i.e., to commit a homosexual act. We can even see this spelled out in the 17th-century revision of the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims Translation, which drew on the KJV here and clarified it with the term "liers with mankind." For a man to "lie with" (or commit a sexual act with) another man is to defile and abuse himself. This is not how we would say it today, which is why today's translations use different words, but the idea is clearly the same. Translators of the New Testament have always understood Paul to include homosexual acts in these lists of sins. This is because Paul did include homosexual acts in these lists of sins. Whether we like it or not, this is what the New Testament teaches.