An upcoming documentary film claims the RSV translators of the Bible wrongly inserted the word “homosexuals” in a New Testament passage back in 1946. The film, titled 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted a Culture, tells the tale of how a 21-year-old seminary student wrote a letter to the translation team to alert them of the alleged error. Although the RSV translators ended up changing the translation in 1971, it was apparently too late. The film claims that subsequent English translations followed the RSV’s lead and wrongly used the word “homosexuals,” which led to decades of mistreatment of the LGBTQ community.
The good news is that it’s easy to spot the fallacies in this film. The bad news is that many people won’t.
Though the film has not been released, I’ve watched the trailers, read the film’s website, and have closely followed the news of its development. I admit that my assessment is limited to the aforementioned information, but some of the central claims of the film appear evident based on what they’ve made available on the website.
If you watch the trailer and the other videos on the film’s website, you get the sense the film contains all the ingredients to satisfy today’s theological conspiracy theorists, much like Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code did when it came out. In 1946, you have old, white men deciding what the Bible says. Scripture has been adulterated. There’s a false theological narrative that’s been wrongly imposed on an unsuspecting church population. You have a young seminary student who (in 1959) confronts the authority of an entire Bible translation team, thereby speaking truth to power. Finally, there are the noble and honest researchers who travel to Yale University to scour 90 boxes of notes and discover clues that reveal the truth. After three days, they find the letter the seminary student wrote. It’s signed by “David S.” Who’s that? Digging deeper, they discover his last name. Guess what? He’s still alive, and they even interview him in the film!
All the excitement generated by the trailer, however, is unwarranted. Even if the film’s claims are true, it doesn’t matter. The entire documentary is a non sequitur. Nothing follows from the fact that a seminary student called out the RSV translation team. There are two reasons why.
First, the Greek word in question does appropriately condemn homosexual sex. One of the central claims of the film centers around the Greek word arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Don’t be distracted by the film’s big hubbub about a 21-year-old seminary student’s corrective letter 62 years ago. Whether his rebuke was right or wrong is irrelevant. What matters is what today’s best scholarship says about the Greek word.
Pro-gay theology advocates, like the ones who created this film, love to point out that Paul invented a new Greek word (arsenokoitai) in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Since there are no instances of that word being used in Greek literature elsewhere, they often call into question any translation that implicates homosexuals. There are, however, at least two reasons why translators have chosen “homosexuals” (or something equivalent) for the English rendering.
One reason is that the word arsenokoitai is formed by combining two Greek words, arsen, meaning “male,” and koite, meaning “lying.” Arsenokoitai literally means “men who lie with a male.” It’s not surprising that the most prominent English translation today—the NIV (2011 revision)—translates the Greek as “men who have sex with men.” Since such behavior is consistent with what male homosexuals do, it’s not a stretch to see why many translation teams (not just the 1946 RSV) chose to render the Greek word as “homosexuals.” Personally, I don’t care for the translation “homosexuals,” but instead prefer the more literal rendering of “men who lie with a male.”
It’s also worth noting that ancient Jews used the Hebrew phrase mishkav zakar, which means “lying with a male,” to describe male-to-male sexual contact. Therefore, having a Jew invent the Greek term arsenokoitai follows the same pattern of condemning homosexual behavior by referring to the euphemism “men who lie with a male.”
But there’s a second reason that solidifies this translation. The Greek words arsen and koite appear together in two Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) verses:
kai meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten gynaikos bdelygma
kai hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gynaikos bdelygma…
These sentences are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the very two verses in the Mosaic Law that condemn homosexual behavior. In other words, Paul invents a new Greek word that literally means “men who lie with a male,” and the two component words that are used to create this new word are found together in the two Mosaic prohibitions of homosexuality.
That’s why modern translation teams (composed of expert scholars, not 21-year-old seminary students) have rendered the Greek word as “homosexuals” (NASB, ESV), “men who have sex with men” (NIV, CSB), “practice homosexuality” (NLT, HCSB), or “sodomites” (NRSV). It’s also why the film’s claim about a seminary student’s corrective letter doesn’t matter. Maybe the RSV translators were right. Maybe they were wrong. Who cares? What matters is what today’s best scholarship reveals about the meaning of arsenokoitai. We know the Greek word is referencing the sexual behavior of homosexuals. This, however, is not the only reason the film’s claim is irrelevant.
Second, there are many other passages in Scripture that corroborate the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual sex. Even if it were true that the 1 Corinthians passage was poorly translated, it still wouldn’t mean that homosexual sex was biblically permitted, which is what the filmmakers want you to eventually believe. There are several passages in Scripture that rule out homosexual sex or condemn it specifically.
For example, in Matthew 19:4–6, Jesus teaches that marriage is about one man, with one woman, becoming one flesh, for one lifetime. That alone rules out homosexual sex since he’s quoting the Genesis account of creation, which presupposes male-female sex and marriage. Furthermore, Jesus specifically condemns porneia (“sexual immorality”) in Mark 7:21—a Greek word his Jewish listeners would have understood to mean the prohibited sexual behaviors of Leviticus—one of which was homosexual sex.
Not only is homosexual sex ruled out by the Bible’s teaching on sex and marriage, but there are also multiple passages that specifically prohibit homosexual sex. Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, and Romans 1:26–27 are just a few. In other words, the Bible indirectly rules out homosexual sex by virtue of its teaching on sex and marriage and directly prohibits homosexual sex by citing it as sin.
This is why the film is a non sequitur. It doesn’t matter that a seminary student offered the RSV translation team a corrective. The translators could have been correct or incorrect. Either way, we can look at the Greek text (as legions of scholars have since 1946) and determine the correct meaning of arsenokoitai. But even if it was mistakenly translated, it wouldn’t have any impact on the Bible’s teaching on homosexual sex since the Mosaic Law, the apostle Paul, and Jesus himself taught that homosexual sex is a prohibited behavior.
Despite Scripture’s clear teaching, I’m afraid many people will be misled by this film. It’s ironic that the trailer quotes the 21-year-old seminary student warning the RSV translators, “Misinformed and misguided people may use the RSV translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 as a sacred weapon.” The real problem is that this film will misguide and misinform people by casting doubt on the univocal voice of Scripture and 2,000 years of church teaching on the matters of sex, marriage, and homosexuality.
Scripture warned us that a day will come when those who profess the name of Christ will reject the teaching of Christ. It even explains why they’ll make films like 1946. Prior to his execution, Paul warned his protégé, Timothy, that a “time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). Same-sex attraction is the desire, the filmmakers are the teachers, and Scripture’s teaching on sexuality is the sound doctrine they’re unwilling to endure. This film will tickle their ears, turn many more away from the truth, and perpetuate the myth of pro-gay theology.
That’s why it’s important to inoculate believers against the false claims of this film. That way, when Christians come across them, they won’t be caught off guard. Believers need to know and understand the claims of this film (and why they’re wrong) before they come across them in conversation.
Look, I get it. Nobody wants the Bible—God’s word—to rebuke their behavior. I certainly don’t. I prefer my immoral thoughts and deeds to be condoned, not condemned. But when we find our lives at odds with God’s will, the solution is not to change his words or their meaning. It’s to change our life, no matter how significant the change. Jesus said that if we want to be his disciples, we have to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him (Matt. 16:24). The cross represented Jesus giving up his life. We’re called to do the same. No matter what, following Jesus will cost us, but he promises it’s worth it.