LGBTQ Agenda: Documentary asks how 'homosexuals' ended up in English-language Bibles

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday January 9, 2024
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Filmmaker Sharon "Rocky" Roggio's documentary explores how the word "homosexual" ended up in a popular English-language version of the Bible. Photo: Courtesy Doc NYC
Filmmaker Sharon "Rocky" Roggio's documentary explores how the word "homosexual" ended up in a popular English-language version of the Bible. Photo: Courtesy Doc NYC

A filmmaker's efforts to find affirmation from her parents led her on a journey culminating in a documentary on how a translation of the Bible lent justification to homophobia.

Sharon "Rocky" Roggio, a 46-year-old self-described proud lesbian living in Los Angeles, is the director and producer of "1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture." The film is in a virtual theatrical release (meaning it can be viewed streaming online) through January 14.

Roggio said she grew up as a nondenominational Christian "close to Southern Baptist." Her father is a pastor. In that context she heard homosexuality was sinful. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible's translation of the first Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, chapter six, stated, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Roggio's documentary points out that the word "homosexuals" was not used in English translations of the New Testament until 1946. The much older King James Bible, for example, uses "abusers of themselves with mankind."

"What we show through the historical context is there were no understandings of homosexuality and heterosexuality," Roggio said. "It wasn't 'I'm gay, I'm attracted to this person.' The things going on in the New Testament and the Old Testament had to do with power and position. If you had powerful status you could penetrate any other person — women, children, enslaved people — as long as they have lesser value."

In ancient Rome, free males were free to have sex with other men, as long as they took the active role in sex; the passive role was considered only appropriate for slaves and teenagers, as Abigail Hudson wrote in an article for the University of Birmingham.

"Homosexuality in ancient Rome was as much about communications of power and status than it was about attraction and emotion, with sex as a vehicle to exercise privilege and dominance," Hudson continued. "The civil freedoms of a Roman citizen allowed him to engage in such relations with any man lower in society than him, whilst demonstrating his virility and ability to conquer others."

The New Testament was originally written in Greek; the words used in 1 Corinthians 6 are arsenokoitai and malakoi. The first is a compound word probably coined by Paul, from the words "man" and "bed;" the second means "soft."

"It [arsenokoitai] mostly refers to men who have sex with men, which is how some translate it today, but really it means abuse of another person," Roggio said. "It could be male-on-male but what's going on here is men abusing their power and position."

Roggio's documentary goes into how the translation of these words as homosexual came about, and the impact it had just as the modern movement for LGBTQ rights was getting underway.

The most extensive dissertation relating to homosexuality in the New Testament is in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, chapter one. These verses don't use the Greek words in question. Roggio said that they are in reference to "prostitution type stuff; not loving, consensual same-sex relationships we understand today," and that the church fathers did not take them to refer to homosexuality. While conservative theologians take them as a blanket prohibition of homosexuality, liberal theologians argue it is a reference to temple prostitution and pederasty.

The documentary also goes into the stories of gay Christians, such as a seminary student who uncovered the mistranslation and wrote the committee in charge of it. A 1971 revision of the Revised Standard Version changed the verse, which in that translation now reads "sexual perverts."

When asked if the documentary changed her parents' minds, Roggio answered, "in all honesty, the answer is no, not with my family, and we showed that in the film to make it as real as possible and to help people understand we're not going to change everybody's mind."

"We're not here to push anything on anyone," Roggio said. "Change takes time and we can afford grace in that regard, but there are thousands of other people who have changed or felt transformed or liberated in that, so it's working and we're not going to change everybody's mind. We wanted to make a conversation piece that is nonthreatening."

Her father was at the film's premiere, however, back in late 2022 at Doc NYC, a documentary film festival in New York City, a news release stated.

The film is Roggio's directorial debut and the process took about four years, she said.

"For an independent film, not bad, four years," she said. "COVID put a damper on it."

Asked if it's coming to San Francisco, she said, "San Francisco is top of my list so I will be contacting some theaters. Unfortunately, we did not play Frameline or any other festival there this year."

Frameline didn't return a request for comment; Roggio said that the film did play Outfest, an LGBTQ film festival in Los Angeles, where it won an audience award.

"'1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture' for me as a director, isn't just a film anymore," Roggio stated in the release. "It's an act of mercy, it's an act of compassion, it's an act of justice, and of empathy, not only for those involved in the creation of the film, for those we interviewed, for the audience who will watch it, but for myself as well. It's an act of grace."

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

Due to the upcoming MLK holiday, the LGBTQ Agenda column will return Tuesday, January 23.

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