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Was it a mistranslation to add the word homosexual to the Bible in 1946?

translate podcast 1946 homosexual added Bible

Terms such as homosexual did not appear in English Bibles until the twentieth century. Those who claim Scripture fails to condemn same-sex intercourse note this with emphasis. Some, such as the creators of the 2022 film 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture, point to 1946 as the year the word homosexual was first used; those translations eventually became the Revised Standard Version. A form of this criticism suggests Christians came to condemn same-sex intercourse only after words like homosexual were published in Bibles. The implication is that modern translators inappropriately inserted the concept: that prior to 1946 no one thought Scripture criticized homosexual sex.

Such arguments are deeply flawed. The question of which word circulated in the ancient world is distinct from whether ancient people understood the actions in question. Language and history both provide consistent, strong evidence that Scripture was always understood as condemning physical acts associated with the modern term homosexual. The Bible does not confuse pedophilia with homosexuality, as some claim. The Bible has the same broad prohibitions against sexual deviancy in the Old and New Testaments. In multiple passages, the wording specifically includes the concept of same-sex intercourse.

Imagine a medieval knight scolding his squire for condescendingly lecturing an elderly seamstress about sewing. Modern English might summarize that thirteenth-century encounter as, “The knight rebuked his squire for mansplaining.” The word mansplaining refers to a male presumptuously lecturing a woman about her own area of expertise as if he knows better than she. But this term only appeared in English around 2008. It would be absurd, on the basis that the word did not exist in the Middle Ages, to claim the knight could not have possibly thought that mansplaining was wrong. Yet this is precisely how modern critics attempt to interpret the absence of the word homosexual in English Bibles prior to 1946.

Truly “new” expressions arise to name something recently discovered or to summarize a recurring idea. Words such as vaccine, radar, microprocessor, quark, and submarine were coined to identify something previously unidentified. Those words label things effectively unknown—even nonexistent—in prior cultures. To say ancient writings can’t directly comment on vaccine efficacy or social media ethics is reasonable only insofar as those ideas were totally unknown.

However, some new words are simply novel ways of denoting old concepts. For thousands of years, people knew ideas could rapidly spread within a society. The use of commonly understood symbols and caricatures was well established. Technology boomed in the late twentieth century, making the rapid spread of ideas a common point of discussion. Richard Dawkins effectively coined the term meme in 1976. Afterwards, the word came to mean “an image spread rapidly on the internet.”

To suggest there was no concept of reusing certain words and images as commentary prior to 1976 would be nonsensical. So would be a claim that, until the word meme appeared in print, no one had a notion that ideas could quickly spread. The word meme took its present form only after the turn of the twenty-first century. Yet quickly referencing ideas by putting words and images together was a well-established practice long before. Fully fledged internet memes, as currently known, didn’t exist prior to the late 1990s. But the term meme isn’t entirely wrong when describing characters like Uncle Sam and Alfred E. Neuman or graffiti such as “Kilroy was here” or “for a good time, call. . . .”

Writers in the biblical eras did not categorize sexual orientation exactly as does modern culture. Yet they obviously understood the physical acts in question. Biblical phrases are deliberately broad, as to clearly rebuke erotic contact between persons of the same sex. Modern re-interpreters may twist contexts and conjure ad hoc exceptions for every passage to suggest otherwise. The need for such effort shows how clearly and consistently Scripture presents the same truth.

The consistent historical stance of both Judaism and Christianity further proves this interpretation. Until very recently, almost no one denied that Old and New Testament Scripture define same-sex behaviors as immoral. The subject in question is not part of a shadowy prophecy. It requires no advanced scientific perspective to grasp in full. It does not depend on deep metaphor or symbolism. “Do not do such-and-such a thing with your body” is well within the understanding of any era of history. Arguing that only those living in the modern era can correctly understand that concept is preposterous.

Conceptual definitions such as “sexual orientation” are relatively new. This does not mean persons with various orientations-as-defined-today never existed. In parallel, the modern word neurodivergent refers to persons with conditions such as autism. The word may be new, but the reality it denotes is not. Ironically, the fact that biblical authors lacked modern definitions for sexual orientation counters claims that, because they did not use a certain word, they could have no part of the idea in mind. If the recent origin of the word homosexuality is evidence the Bible doesn’t condemn it, the same thing could apply to racism or misogyny. Words such as homosexuality weren’t part of the English language at all until the late 1800s. Yet what the words describe was part of human experience prior to human use of certain syllables.

The word meme wasn’t used until the end of the twentieth century. But notions of duplicated images and rapidly spreading ideas predate the expression. Mansplaining, racism, and misogyny all existed—and were denounced—before the invention of current English appellations. People did not suddenly begin obsessing over celebrities only after the term stan emerged. For all of history leading up to 1946, Scripture and consistent biblical ethics stood against same-sex intercourse in every context.

Sin is sin, no matter what term it goes by. Use of a new term does not change millennia of Judeo-Christian thinking. Suggestions otherwise amount to a baseless conspiracy theory.

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Was it a mistranslation to add the word homosexual to the Bible in 1946?
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This page last updated: April 23, 2024