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Afterword: Pushing the Boundaries of Biblical Interpretation


In: Biblical Interpretation
Author: Callie Callon1
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This afterword draws several conclusions about the implications of the essays in this special issue individually as well as discusses the merits of utilizing an interdisciplinary method more generally. The first encourages critical biblical scholarship to engage classical studies in light of the shared geographical, temporal, and cultural context of their ancient subjects. The second proposes that biblical studies embrace a fuller range of evidence by removing the unfortunate interpretative divide often separating “canonical,” “patristic,” and “apocryphal” material into different disciplinary fields.


Abstract

This afterword draws several conclusions about the implications of the essays in this special issue individually as well as discusses the merits of utilizing an interdisciplinary method more generally. The first encourages critical biblical scholarship to engage classical studies in light of the shared geographical, temporal, and cultural context of their ancient subjects. The second proposes that biblical studies embrace a fuller range of evidence by removing the unfortunate interpretative divide often separating “canonical,” “patristic,” and “apocryphal” material into different disciplinary fields.


This special issue of Biblical Interpretation had its origins in a panel session on the theme “Engaging the Work of Page duBois.” The very presence of such a theme on the work of a classicist at a conference predominantly for biblical scholars indicates the recent advances in interdisciplinary work for both fields. The papers collected in this volume, in particular, attest to the fruitful and, by extension, highly promising work that has been and can be done under such an enlarged methodological framework challenging the traditional perimeters of what duBois herself describes as a “regrettable division of labor between classical studies and religious studies.”


The works in this special issue are to be commended for challenging not only the dichotomy between “classics” and “religious studies” in antiquity, but also the line that biblical scholarship tends to draw between Scripture and non-canonical works. It is undisputedly a move in the right direction to have a journal entitled Biblical Interpretation to include articles that address early Christian authors beyond the canon. Patristic authors are, of course, themselves interpreters of the Bible, and provide evidence of the way Scripture was sometimes utilized to meet the needs and rhetorical purposes of their respective situations. They thus give access to the lived experience of negotiating between biblical texts and historical context for early Christians in this period of antiquity. Too often, scholars privilege canonical texts as having more reliable information for the study of early Christian communities, and non-canonical materials are considered to be beyond a biblical scholar’s scope, or deemed to have no relevance for what is often erroneously perceived as more “mainstream” Christianity. Yet this is an anachronistic and limiting distinction to make. As Juan Chapa has demonstrated in his examination of the ancient transmission of Christian texts, up until the late fourth century some apocryphal materials were as popular as, if not more so than, the majority of books comprising the canon as we have it today.1 As he states, “[I]t should be stressed that the term ‘canonical’ applied to a collection of books, in so far as it implies authority, is not a historical, but a theological concept.”2 Thus the clear popularity and use of these works should itself be an impetus for scholars to include them when looking to explicate the first few centuries of Christianity, as this volume does.


The contributions in this volume address varied subjects, time periods, and primary authors, yet all demonstrate the applicability and utility of duBois work on torture, truth, and slavery to sources beyond her initial primary scope. The contributors correlate these three phenomena that duBois explicates to yield fresh and innovating insights, and ones that would have likely gone undetected by more traditional approaches, which have tended to view early Christianity through a religious and cultural vacuum. The majority of these papers demonstrate how early Christians and their attempts to think through the ancient logic of torture and truth seldom varied significantly from their polytheistic contemporaries.3 In instances where differences appeared, the scholar nonetheless took this presupposition as a premise on which to build. This insightful collection, as a whole, demonstrates the rewards found in pushing the traditionally constructed boundaries of biblical scholarship and, in particular, the merits of challenging the “classics” vs. “early Christian” divide that has long impeded dialogue among and restricted the potential mutual advancement for scholars of antiquity. Each essay individually makes substantial contributions; when added together, they collectively comprise the volume’s main achievement of demonstrating the value found in interdisciplinary work.


Christy Cobb’s work builds on duBois’ insights regarding the inherently intertwined relations among slavery, torture, status, and concepts of gender in antiquity. Cobb is thus able to explain an otherwise curious aspect of the apocryphal Acts of Andrew, which depicts cases of male slaves not being tortured to provide truth (which is readily accepted as such), in contrast to the case of a female slave who must be subjected to torture for her testimony to be believed. Here Cobb judiciously includes contemporaneous evidence from the ancient novels to provide parallels of the topoi of torturing female slaves in particular, demonstrating that early Christian authors engaged in broader literary conventions, including those pertaining to the representation of slaves. Cobb’s finding highlights duBois’ insight about torture articulating interwoven strands of ancient thought regarding gender, class, and status. Cobb complements the work of duBois by focusing on the new twist on this thinking from an early Christian text – the female slave’s status as a believing Christian kept her body inviolate, at least in literary imagination. Building on duBois’ work regarding who is touchable and who is not, and what factors contribute to determining this, Cobb furthers new avenues of research.


J. Albert Harrill demonstrates that the correlation between slavery and truth and its metaphorical use is also attested in ancient Christian thought, notably in Origen’s use of the trope to teach biblical exegesis. Harrill shows how Origen’s exegetical recommendations are part of the broader metaphorical use of slavery in antiquity, where the surface level of a text corresponds to the slave’s flesh that must be “tortured” to reveal the hidden, sub-surface truth, making this an excellent analogy for Origen to employ given his championing of allegorical interpretation. Citing other ancient literary authors who likewise employed this analogy as a guide to discerning truth from their sources, Harrill shows how Origen’s use is similar to those of his contemporaries, albeit applied to religious texts. Again, here is a work that builds on duBois’ scholarship to show not only that such interdisciplinary approaches help illuminate texts beyond those she herself addresses, but also provides a potential new genre to explore with this new knowledge.


Chris L. de Wet’s contribution elaborates on duBois’ point of slavery being hidden in plain sight in sources from antiquity, adding a new example of this phenomenon that has not received the scholarship it deserves. In addressing John Chrysostom’s treatises against the subintroductae, de Wet shows how assumptions regarding status, gender, and slavery that duBois identifies informed Chrysostom’s rhetoric, including his biblical interpretations. Like Harrill, de Wet shows how ancient Christian authors drew on the metaphorical use of slavery (which, as duBois has shown, helped to sustain actual slavery) to support their exegesis of, and reading paradigm toward, biblical texts. Rather than being at odds with the prevailing culture of established hierarchy and social codes surrounding slaves, gender, and status, Chrysostom reinforced such ideologies, differing from non-Christians only insofar as Chrysostom bolstered this hierarchy by adding scriptural interpretation to support it. His advice to reduce the number of slaves owned by ascetic Christians was not predicated on emancipatory leanings or care for slaves in and of themselves. Rather, it was a concern to maintain the prevailing social and gender hierarchies among church audiences that motivated his exhortations.


If those contributions demonstrate early Christian participation and utilization of this broader thought that non-Christian contemporaries shared, Virginia Burrus’ work identifies how some early Christians subverted this thinking. However, assuming the veracity of the ideology that duBois identifies as permeating the ancient social context allows Burrus to shed light on the agonistic nature of truth in an early Christian martyrdom context. Burrus identifies several ways she and other scholars of early Christianity have benefited from utilizing duBois’ work within a framework of early Christian texts and martyrdom. Her article in this volume builds on the connection duBois has demonstrated between torture and truth, yet also identifies ways that early Christian martyrdom modified this underpinning assumption to suit particular theological ends. In arguing that the torture of martyrs was not solely punitive but also engaged in this broader discourse and praxis regarding the revelation of truth, Burris simultaneously adds new insights derived from duBois’ work as well as opens up news lines of scholarly inquiry. Torture, according to Burrus, now attests to the truth of the martyr – the tortured body attesting to the truth of Jesus and providing evidence against the torturer – and Jesus now stands in the place of a legal and literal master of which the tortured person is providing witness. Enabling the tortured person to maintain some degree of power and agency identifies the potentially subversive powers that the endurance of torture did and potentially still does imply. Building on the understanding of the inherent relationship among truth, torture, and slavery, Burrus identifies what duBois had shown is necessary for this subversive strategy to occur. Even in instances where the ideologies of this relationship differ, the shared ideology allowed for the very differences to exist side by side in ancient texts.


While this volume demonstrates the considerable overlap between Christian and non-Christian thought in antiquity, there are of course differences between them that duBois identifies as part of the reluctance, or at least justification, for classicists not to include Christian sources in their scholarship. The temptation to minimize these differences in order to facilitate the process of interdisciplinary work should be resisted. Rather, as duBois advocates, addressing the ideological tensions that do appear, and indeed often become more apparent when studied in a cross-disciplinary way, is an important component of reconstructing the historical situation of these ancient subjects.


While maintaining the importance of recognizing that Judeans, Christians, and “polytheists” co-existed and are most fruitfully understood together, duBois notes that, for many classical scholars, some early Christian ideas and rhetoric come as something of a “shock and a scandal,” the literature produced by early Christians “seeming to have nothing to do with texts of classical antiquity.” She cites two striking examples of this divergence in ideologies that have likely played a role in discouraging interdisciplinary approaches from the perspective of a classicist. Most important is the seemingly insurmountable gap between polytheistic reverence for powerful gods and an exclusive worship and valorization of one physically humiliated man. DuBois’ noting of this cultural divide itself encourages further interdisciplinary work. She finds, for example, the research of Brent Shaw, a Roman historian studying ancient Christianity, to be particularly helpful in crossing the disciplinary divide. Similarly, duBois addresses the seeming strangeness of Paul unabashedly referring to himself as a doulos of Christ Jesus from a classicist’s perspective, and by engaging the works of scholars of such different disciplines as Giorgio Agamben and J. Albert Harrill. Locating this “slave” language in an individual’s privileged relationship with God enables duBois further to connect with Hebrew Bible scholarship.


To be sure, some biblical scholars share the same reservations about in­terdisciplinary work that classicists like duBois express. Although this divide has rightly started to shrink in recent years, as this volume attests, there has been a tendency in biblical scholarship to privilege early Christian texts as being somehow unique, or created in a vacuum divorced from – or at least in stark contrast to – their social and religious contemporaries of the ancient Mediterranean. Perhaps this claim results from an unarticulated theological wish to view early Christianity as having its origins in a context that immediately demarcated Jesus followers as privileged, if not to say divinely inspired. Indeed, the establishment of “religious studies” as an academic discipline in the nineteenth century took as its very premise the superiority of Christianity. Regarding the project of comparative religions in this period, Tomoko Masuzawa states the problem well. She writes:


[The project of comparative religions] has been deemed not scientific on the grounds that it either presupposed or invariably drew the self-same conclusion as Christian theology, that Christianity was fundamentally different from all other religions, thus, in the last analysis, beyond compare … In the opinion of the theological comparativists, Christianity alone was truly transhistorical and transnational in its import, whereas all other religions were particular, bound and shaped by geographical, ethnic, and other local contingencies … [They] admitted that Christianity did have a temporal beginning just like any other religion, yet it alone was said not to have been determined or constrained by the accidents of its historical origin.4

Studies on early Christianity, given that they primarily occur in religion departments, are thus a product of this legacy. Promoting Christianity as distinct and, indeed, superior to all other religions was a rhetorical strategy of Christian biblical interpretation from its origins in antiquity.5 The same hermeneutics have often been at play today, particularly when facing those aspects of antiquity that a modern exegete may find unsavory and less noble as a heritage for Western culture.6 Nowhere is this clearer than in early modern scholarship on the Bible and slavery.


While the Bible and, in particular, passages from the New Testament were used in earlier periods to justify the practice of slavery,7 a later cultural and perhaps also confessional motivation tried to distance Christianity from this inhumane aspect of its history. Jennifer A. Glancy observes, for example, regarding slave collars that bore Christian iconography: “[S]o discomforting are these objects that nineteenth-century scholars described them as dog collars rather than acknowledge that ancient Christians regularly bound other persons in such a crude manner.”8 Even when confronted with tangible material evidence, these early scholars still sought to disavow early Christian participation in this practice.


The triumphalist ideology duBois identifies at work in the use of classical scholarship to support Western culture also arguably fuels biblical interpretation, when certain faith commitments predetermine the subject parameters and desired conclusions. I was struck by her observation regarding the NRSV’s translation of Paul’s self-identification of doulos as “servant,” and other uses, with only a footnote to attest to the alternative translation of “slave.” On this norm in translation, she states in her response:


[T]he elision, this erasure, condenses much for me: the gap between classical Attic and koine; the gap between those who work on the so-called “pagan,” or traditional cults, or the polytheist world of the ancient Greek and Romans and those who study the New Testament, composed in the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans; this historic avoidance by classicists and religious scholars of the presence; the ubiquity of slaves in that ancient world … .


DuBois points here to a further disconnect, the subsequent problem of rendering the Greek language of the New Testament in isolation from the wider Hellenistic Koinē. The difference between the suggested translation of malakos in a variety of New Testament lexicons (many of which are used in an academic context) and the lexicon by H.G. Liddell, R. Scott, and H.S. Jones9 (preferred by classicists) is one extremely salient example with significant implications. Regarding the translation of the term as employed by Paul (1 Cor. 6:9), New Testament lexicons offer only a small variety of options regarding how it should be translated.10 These are clearly very limited, and indeed highly selective, translation options for a term well attested to have a much fuller scope of meaning in broader Greco-Roman usage. The LSJ attests a wide variety of translation options capturing the meaning of a perceived lax morality (in some sense) in antiquity, including ways that clearly do not map onto modern conceptions of homosexuality.11

Other English translations of the New Testament reveal to what extent, to employ duBois’ language, the ubiquitous presence of slaves and the typical ancient cultural assumptions regarding them are “hidden in plain sight” by translators of the texts. To cite but a few examples, the ASV, ESV, NIV, NLV, and RSV translate the doulos in Luke 12:47 who will receive a severe beating for disobeying his master with the more palpable “servant”; in Matt. 18:33-34 the doulos whose master hands him over to be tortured until he pays his entire debt is, according to these same translations, again, a “servant.”12 These translations are, to be sure, not the preferred versions for academic study (although some of these do make an appearance on course syllabi in the field as recommended translations). They represent nonetheless a broader cultural sentiment in our field, a resistance on the part of modern ideologies of biblical interpretation to acknowledge the pervasiveness of ancient slavery. As any instructor of an undergraduate introductory course on the New Testament will readily attest, students, even in secular institutions, often come up with extremely creative strategies to gloss over negative aspects of the Bible, especially those passages presuming the validity of owning a fellow human being as property.


Just as duBois’ work challenges and deconstructs a previous tendency to idealize the Greeks and to create a more palpable cultural legacy, so too must biblical scholars not idealize the early Christians. This is especially needed in regard to less savory aspects of Christian history. DuBois challenges the ancient legacy of torture’s truth. It originated with the “good” Greeks. Scholarship on early Christianity must, likewise, acknowledge that this ideology was not the sole prerogative of “bad” polytheists in contrast to “good” Christians. Rather, it belonged to the wider and unquestioned socio-historical framework of both Christians and non-Christians, as the casual abuse and torture of domestics in the slave parables of Jesus (see above) make clear. An interdisciplinary approach offers the strongest methodological tool to resist this tendency to demark ideological, and rather anachronistic, boundaries. Recent scholarship has come a long way in doing so.13 This volume amply demonstrates that there are still extremely important lines of inquiry which this methodological framework can and should address.


While there are, of course, differences between early Christians and their historical contemporaries, particularly those differences identified by duBois, the similarities and interconnected ideologies warrant, if not demand, this interdisciplinary approach in future research. To study these ancient groups in isolation from each other, following the rather artificial dichotomy that disciplinary boundaries often draw between them, will only present part of the picture of the history scholars seek to explicate. We must also not uncritically accept the claims of difference and subsequent superiority expressed by the early Christian writers themselves. Such an acceptance is not unlike earlier scholarship on so-called heretics that tended to accept at face value the category of “heresy” as having a concrete and ontological definition, rather than being a subjective category created in the process of an “othering” rhetoric used by early Christian authors against those deemed different. We need to redescribe, as much as we can from a thick description, the lived experience of our subjects. These groups did not live in a cultural vacuum distinct from each other in strictly drawn perimeters. Scholars have a responsibility to study early Christianity in light of, not in contrast to, its ancient context. As duBois aptly phrases it in her response, “[T]he Hellenistic world and the Roman ­Empire encompassed many languages, different juridical traditions, and many religions, ancient and synthetic, which can most profitably be understood together, as a field of forces, of contesting or compatible etymologies and understandings coexisting, sometimes uncomfortably.”


Studying only one group in isolation from others results in a partial (and thus inherently flawed) picture. Of course, scholars must draw perimeters for their research for the sake of focus and manageability. Yet perhaps a better way of approaching this disciplinary problem would be to do so based on geographical or temporal differences and similarities, rather than perceived theological (itself an anachronistic term) ones.14 The knowledge that can be gained from such interdisciplinary study is invaluable, because it demonstrates that the older paradigm of studying polytheistic and early Christian texts in isolation from each other curtails potential insights and the ability to produce new lines of research inquiry for both disciplines. Moreover, the essays in this special issue rightly push the insights of duBois toward a more interdisciplinary approach in biblical interpretation that asks new questions with insights from classics, the study of the “apocrypha,” patristics, and religious studies generally. In so doing, the essays not only identify aspects of these texts that would have otherwise gone unnoticed but also redraw the contours of the field for future research.


Let me conclude with some observations about these new contours. Burrus’ essay raises new interpretative possibilities that locate agency and power in persons subject to physical violence and torture who seem, at first, to be utterly passive and powerless. Appropriating the correlation between truth and torture found in otherwise powerless victims, accounts of martyrdom thus can be seen as a new form of literary resistance that potentially inverted the hierarchy of power. Likewise, Cobb’s work points to a new direction which should be explored in terms of the complex and (to date) rather opaque nature of Christian slave owners’ treatment of their Christian slaves. This raises a new question. Did the distinctions made between a believing slave and a non-believing slave and their physical treatment that she identifies at work in the literary realm of Acts of Andrew potentially ever translate into lived experience? Harrill and de Wet, in turn, also open up new areas for study warranting further consideration. Harrill locates an additional verbal realm – namely, the diction of exegesis – in which the metaphorical relation between truth and torture ­appears as a literary device. De Wet provides a guide to further study into a phenomenon previously deemed inaccessible to modern scholars, namely, that of slaves in lower income households.


Besides opening up these exciting new avenues of investigation, the contributions prompt crucial questions. To what extent did early Christian interpreters of the Bible not only assume the legitimacy of slavery and torture but also contribute to reinforcing the ancient ideologies? In what sense did they “Christianize” slavery, either by appeals to Scripture to support rhetorical points about the status quo of social hierarchies, or by linking the practice of torture to biblical interpretation, thus sanctifying the institution exegetically? Did early Christianity imbue slavery and torture with theological implications not found in texts written by their non-Christian neighbors? Finally, did early Christians become even more responsible for the survival of this inhumane practice? In sum, this special issue does much to advance the dialogue among many academic disciplines that have often, and unfortunately, worked in isolation from one other. Engaging duBois pushes traditional boundaries in biblical studies to build future bridges connecting all scholars of antiquity. This is a noble goal indeed.


1 Juan Chapa, “Textual Transmission of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Apocryphal’ Writings within the Development of the New Testament Canon: Limits and Possibilities,” Early Christianity 7 (2016), pp. 113-33.


2 Juan Chapa, “Textual Transmission of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Apocryphal’ Writings within the Development of the New Testament Canon: Limits and Possibilities,” Early Christianity 7 (2016), p. 130.


3 See duBois’ contribution in this special issue for a discussion of the problematic nature of terms used to discuss adherents of the traditional Greco-Roman cults. I utilize the term “polytheism” in light and in support of her arguments.


4 Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 23. 


5 See, for example, such early apologists as Tertullian and Justin Martyr who, in a context of religious rivalry and being disdained by their contemporaries, maintained Christianity’s moral and theological superiority. 


6 See Page duBois, Slavery: Antiquity and Its Legacy (Ancients and Moderns; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).


7 See, for example, Larry R. Morrison, “The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830,” JRT 37 (1980), pp. 16-29.


8 Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 88.


9A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 9th edn, 1996).


10 Walter Bauer, “μαλακóς,” in Frederick Danker (ed.), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 488: “of pers. soft, effeminate, esp. of catamites, men and boys who allow themselves to be misused homosexually”; Warren C. Trenchard, The Student’s Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 67: “soft, homosexual”; Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, Neva F. Miller (eds.), Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), p. 252: “figuratively, in a bad sense of men effeminate, unmanly; substantively … especially of a man or boy who submits his body to homosexual lewdness, catamite, homosexual pervert.”


11 See Athenaeus, Diep. 12.540F, for an example of this term being applied to the Lydians who indulged in an inappropriate amount of luxurious food, dallied with too many female prostitutes, and had sexual relations withmen and women, cited and discussed by Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 204 n. 29. On the inherent problems regarding such narrow translations for both malakos and arsenokoitēs, see Martin’s excellent discussion in ibid., pp. 37-50.


12 As duBois notes in her response, there is a wealth of difference between these two terms as rendered in English: “a servant can quit his or her job, move on, stop serving; a slave cannot, and this makes all the difference.”


13 See, for example on slavery in particular, Chris L. de Wet, Preaching Bondage: John Chrysostom and the Discourse of Slavery in Early Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015); Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2006).


14 I thus agree in principle with Walter Bauer’s proposal in his Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (trans. and ed. Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971 [German original, 1934]). While, of course, the particulars of his argument regarding the geographical descriptions he posits have received due criticism, this methodological approach still remains valid. On Bauer’s work, see James Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971); Fredrick W. Norris, “Ignatius, Polycarp and 1 Clement: Walter Bauer Reconsidered,” VC 30 (1976), pp. 23-44 (repr. in Everett Ferguson[ed.], Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Schism in Early Christianity [Studies in Early Christianity, 4; New York: Garland, 1993], pp. 237-58); and Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 172-79.

  • 1

     Juan Chapa, “Textual Transmission of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Apocryphal’ Writings within the Development of the New Testament Canon: Limits and Possibilities,” Early Christianity 7 (2016), pp. 113-33.

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  • 2

     Juan Chapa, “Textual Transmission of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Apocryphal’ Writings within the Development of the New Testament Canon: Limits and Possibilities,” Early Christianity 7 (2016), p. 130.

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     Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 23.

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     See Page duBois, Slavery: Antiquity and Its Legacy (Ancients and Moderns; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

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     Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 88.

  • 11

     See Athenaeus, Diep. 12.540F, for an example of this term being applied to the Lydians who indulged in an inappropriate amount of luxurious food, dallied with too many female prostitutes, and had sexual relations withmen and women, cited and discussed by Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 204 n. 29. On the inherent problems regarding such narrow translations for both malakos and arsenokoitēs, see Martin’s excellent discussion in ibid., pp. 37-50.

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