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THE ORIGINS OF “AS WITH A WOMAN”
Where, then, did the English translations derive the meaning so frequently interpreted as a prohibition against same-sex relations. We need look no further than the Vulgate, the Latin translation of scripture ascribed to St Jerome in the early fifth century. The version most widely used, however, and that from which the following verse comes, is the Clementine version from approximately 1590. The earliest known relatively complete copy is from the 800’s, and many attempts have been made over the centuries to rectify earlier versions with the original languages. Needless to say, the Vulgate has been as much a work in progress as English versions, and needs to be compared with the Greek and Hebrew for validating assumptions. The King James Version in English relied heavily on the Vulgate for its translation, the significance of which will appear later.
Leviticus 18:22 from the Vulgate reads “cum masculo non commisceberis coitu femineo quia abominatio est.” Translating gives two possibilities:
you will not mingle with a male to have sexual intercourse like a woman …
you will not mingle with a male at/on a woman’s bed …
The two words that cause some confusion are coitu femineo. Coitu can either be a supine verb (like an infinitive in English – to eat, to drink, etc) or a noun. The verb describes what is done – to have sex, in modern language – while the noun describes where it is done – literally, a sexual meeting place (bed). Femineo means either ‘like/as a woman’ or ‘of a woman’. The clue is in the word form of femineo – an adjective. Adjectives modify nouns. Coitu is the only noun that qualifies to be modified by the adjective, necessitating the second of the two translation possibilities. This, then, makes the Latin version in complete agreement with earlier Hebrew and Greek scriptures. The King James Version, however, opted for the first translation, in which coitu is supine, and translated the entire verse as:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
Herein lays the origin of the Levitical prohibition against same-sex relations – the KJV of 1611. Neither the Hebrew scripture of Leviticus, nor the Greek Septuagint, addressed same-sex relationships directly, and the Vulgate is, at best, ambiguous. Successive interpretations of the scriptures, most notably of the Vulgate between the fifth and sixteenth centuries during which time it was the only official Bible, resulted in an English translation assuming significant cultural bias. The anti-homosexual understanding of Leviticus developed as a cultural response of generations of ensuing interpreters, culminating in the strongest prohibition against same-sex relations in scripture. The only problem is that the prohibition is unscriptural when a literal translation of the original languages is undertaken. Of course, the problem for literalists is which version, translation or interpretation to accept as literal and unerring.