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Did Christian homophobia come from a mistranslation of the Bible?

What if all the anti-gay, homophobic rhetoric that has come from the Christian right over these past few decades was rooted in a mistranslation of the Bible?

In the documentary, 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted Culture, researchers and scholars delve into the 1946 mistranslation of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and explore how it fuelled the Christian anti-gay movement that still thrives today.

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The film hinges its premise on the fact that the word “homosexual” appeared for the first time in the Bible in 1946, in an apparent mistranslation of the ancient Greek words malakoi – defined as someone effeminate who gives themselves up to a soft, decadent, lazy and indolent way of living – and arsenokoitai – a compound word that roughly translates to “male bed”. While people could take it to mean man bedding man, within the context of the time, scholars believed that arsenokoitai alluded more to abusive, predatory behavior and pederasty than it does homosexuality.

The director and producer Sharon “Rocky” Roggio documents the journey of the Christian author Kathy Baldock and Ed Oxford, an advocate and gay man who grew up Southern Baptist, as they dug through archives at the Yale Sterling Memorial Library. There, they discovered correspondence between the head of the translation committee and a gay seminary student in which the committee head conceded with the student’s point about the mistranslation. In the next translation in 1971, the committee changed the translation from homosexual to “sexual perverts” – but by then the damage was done. Hundreds of millions of Bibles with the wrong translation had been published, and conservative religion and conservative politics soon banded together to push an anti-gay agenda.

Roggio melded this research with her own personal story. When she was a teenager, her pastor father discovered that she was a lesbian and responded with a letter full of Bible verses imploring her to repent and forsake her identity. With the documentary, she filmed her father attending talks by Baldock and overall standing by his belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. “I can’t compromise conviction,” he says in the film.

“Prior to even knowing about the 1946 mistranslation, I was led to it because I knew I needed to use scripture to be able to have a conversation with my parents to affirm my reality and my identity,” Roggio said.

That didn’t make it easy. “I knew what my dad was going to give us,” Roggio said. “I have been around for a while and I’ve been dealing with this for a while and I’ve put up enough armour to be able to go back and have those conversations. And it was extremely painful, just as I’m sure it was painful for my dad.”

The documentary goes beyond this very personal throughline by focusing on the academia and research, featuring interviews with language experts and biblical scholars to provide context not just for the mistranslated verse, but the other “clobber” verses that have been cited by the Christian right as a condemnation of homosexuality. They explore Sodom and Gomorrah, and the historical context behind the Leviticus verse denouncing when “a man lies with a male as with a woman”; scholars believe the verse is not alluding to homosexuality, but to ritual pagan prostitution.

“What we need to do is see that this is a text that is time-bound, that is determined by the culture in which it was written, and that our sense of God, our sense of the Holy Spirit, isn’t time-bound,” the Rev Dr Cheryl Anderson says in the documentary. “We have to ask ourselves again: what’s the word of God for this time and this place? We’re not used to doing that, but that’s the task because that is what the Bible does. It’s reinterpreting itself.”

Between the research, however, Roggio wove in the emotional repercussions for all members of the LGBTQ+ community – showing what it meant to feel as if they had been declared an abomination by sacred text and to grow up hearing that even God doesn’t love you. Oxford has a poignant moment in the film where he admits that even as outspoken as he has been on the topic of religion and sexuality, he has not been able to allow himself to experience intimacy with anyone.

“I don’t get depressed about damaging theology any more,” he says. “I have been damaged and I get depressed over how that affects me today, the here and the now.”

The documentary, which opens this week, first premiered in 2022 and has already won 23 festival awards. But Roggio admitted that the film was struggling to get wider distribution. Even before its premiere, the documentary received a lot of backlash in the form of conservative articles, radio shows, videos and sermons all attempting to debunk the research – despite some never having watched the documentary, Roggio said.

But Roggio and the film has also received an outpouring of support from viewers in general. The film has received more than 1,700 donations, totalling more than $150,000, on GoFundMe, to help spread its findings. Roggio is hoping for more – she’s looking to screen the film at churches and community centers. They have put together a workbook to help with the study of this material after viewing the film. Just as Mark 15:16 called for Christians to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”, Roggio is trying to spread the film’s message as far and wide as possible. “We want millions of people to be able to access this information,” she said.

Because for gay Christians like Roggio, this mistranslation means everything. It means that “no one can dictate your relationship with God,” she said. “We’ve been told how we have to live as Christians, by putting away our identity, a part of ourselves. But you can totally be gay and Christian.” But the film’s findings also hold significance beyond Christianity. “Whether you’re Christian or not, or whether you’re religious or not, the Bible impacts you,” said Roggio. “It’s the most published book in the world, translated into multiple languages for millennia.”

In one of the conversations Roggio has with her father in the film, he expresses sadness and disappointment in what he saw for his child’s future before learning she was gay. He tells her that he recognizes how alike they both were, and at one point, he saw her following in his footsteps and becoming a minister.

“Maybe this is my ministry,” Roggio responds.

  • 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted Culture is out now in London, New York and Los Angeles cinemas