Sunday Morning Greek Blog

July 2, 2021

μαλακός (malakos) “soft,” “weak,” “effeminate”: A Look at Classical and Biblical Greek Usage

Filed under: Greek — Scott Stocking @ 12:31 am

[If you like this post, you may also like “Rachel Weeping”: The Objectification of Gender and Children.]

One of the main goals of a word study in an ancient language is to understand how the writer used the word in the original context and, where possible, to discern contextual clues that provide the historical and cultural background of the recorded events, descriptions, and deliberations. We cannot change what the historico-cultural background of the time was, nor should we presume to impose modern concepts and ideas on an ancient text or its author, although further study may reveal a more thorough understanding of the historico-cultural background and cause us to look anew at certain texts.

With this in mind, I set out to understand more fully the implications and ideations surrounding the use of μαλακός (malakos) in the ancient Greek texts, and more specifically how that understanding would have carried over into biblical texts of the day in its few uses in Matthew 11:8 (par. Luke 7:25) and 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) does not have a separate entry for μαλακός, so the average student of the Bible whose Greek knowledge is limited to Koine is left wanting if they want more information about the broader historico-cultural use of the word.

My purpose here is not so much to comment on the 21st century state of affairs surrounding the concepts behind the word, although I freely admit that is the reason why I undertook this study in the first place. Rather, in the spirit of TDNT, I want to give a more dispassionate, unbiased look at the use of the word in the historical context so the student of the Bible has a fuller understanding of the word and can therewith draw their own conclusions. As with all of my writings on biblical texts, my goal is that we have a fuller understanding of the Word of God and God’s love for us so we can better and more fully love our neighbor as God loves us.

My methodology for this study is simple: I looked at standard Greek annotated Lexicons such as Liddell & Scott (LS) and the online Perseus resource (the Greek texts and any corresponding English translations of the text where available) in addition to standard biblical reference works (UBS 3rd & 4th editions) that indexed the use of the word to its various contexts, then examined the surrounding context to understand the writer’s tone and intention surrounding the use of the word. Where the word was used in contrast, comparison, or in parallel (synthetic or antithetic) with other words or ideas, I examined those as well to better understand the contrast or comparison.

I want to keep this brief so the busy pastor or researcher can get a broad overview of the word’s use in the ancient world. As such, I have chosen representative examples from the entries in LS and other resources to illustrate usage rather than an exhaustive treatment of lexical entries. Most of these resources are publicly available online or in your local college library, so nothing should stand in the way of those who want to dig even deeper. I have organized the article on the basis of the word’s semantic domains rather than by source so the reader can more readily access the section relevant to their interests.

Soft (in the sense of physical touch)

One of the more benign meanings of the word is “soft,” especially when referring to animals or nature. Xenophon (Hiero the Despot 1.5) speaks generally about experiencing the extremes of sensation: cold vs. hot; light vs. heavy; pleasure vs. pain. In the list, he contrasts “soft” with “hard” (σκληρὰ sklēra). In his writing about Horsemanship (1.9a), he makes the same word contrast regarding the condition of a horse’s jaw. Xenophon also uses the word to describe the soft coats of the hunting hounds and the hare, the need for a soft collar for the hunting hound to prevent chafing (Hunting 4.6, 5.10, 6.1), and the softer “double back” on dappled horses (Horsemanship 1.11c).

Xenophon also uses μαλακός to describe the turf on which a horse should be trained (Horsemanship 8.6) and soft turf that makes it easier to track the quarry (Hunting 10.5). Homer (Iliad 9:615–619) uses the word to describe a soft couch on which to lie and in the Odyssey to describe soft fleece (3:38). Herodotus (Histories 9.122.3) also uses the term twice in a zeugma with respect to land somewhat metaphorically in his phrase “Soft lands breed soft men”; the second use of the word in that zeugma is covered in the next domain of meaning below.

The word is used three times in the NT in parallel passages (Mt 11:8 [2x]; Lk 7:25) to describe the “fine clothes” worn by those in palaces. There is one use of the word in this domain in Proverbs 26:22, although used metaphorically: “The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels, they go down to the inner parts of the body.” This seems akin to Xenophon’s usage (although perhaps a bit more abstract) in Hiero the Despot 1.23: “Don’t you look on these condiments, then, as mere fads of a jaded and pampered appetite?” Note that the phrase in the Greek here for “jaded and pampered” is μαλακῆς καὶ ἀσθενούσης, the latter word often translated “sick” or “weak.” This is an important pairing for two reasons. In Xenophon’s Horsemanship 1.3, the superlative of the adjective is contrasted with ἰσχυροτάτῳ (“strongest”) in describing two parts of the horse’s foot (hoof and flesh). Second, the substantive cognate of μαλακός, μαλακία, also means “sickness,” “weakness,” or “pain,” especially in several OT passages (e.g., Ex 23:25; Dt 7:15, 28:61; 2 Chr 16:12; Is 53:3) and three times in Matthew’s gospel (4:23; 9:35; 10:1), all of which have some overlap with the next domain discussed.

Soft (as a character attribute or abstraction), often translated “weak”

The most extreme example of “soft” as a character attribute in my mind is Homer’s description of defeated (and deceased) Hektor in Iliad 22.373 as the victors continue to defile his body with spear jabs: “It is easier to handle [lit. “softer to touch”] Hektor now than when he was flinging fire on to our ships.” In Laws 666b-c, Plato describes the “convivial gatherings [that] invoke Dionysus” where the men over 40 may drink wine without moderation such that “through forgetfulness of care, the temper of our souls may lose its hardness [σκληρὰ sklēra] and become softer and more ductile” (my literal translation). R.G. Bury’s English translation (much less literal and perhaps more poetic than my own) of the same passage describes the wine “as a medicine potent against the crabbedness of old age, that thereby we men may renew our youth.”

Archidamus “had gained credit for weakness” (or as Jowett’s translation has it, “was also thought not to have been energetic enough”) when attacking the Athenians at Oenoe, seemingly procrastinating the attack and perhaps thinking he could spare any damage to the surrounding land that full-on aggression might bring (Thucydides, Histories [The Peloponnesian War] 2.18).

In Herodotus Histories 3.51.2, Periander desires “to show no weakness,” and later in the same book (3.105.2) Herodotus says “the mares never tire, for they remember the young that have left.” (It is interesting to note that the latter reference could be an unintended word or semantic play, as the word for “mares” [θῆλυς] could also be translated “weak” in some contexts.) In 6.11.2, Herodotus recounts that Dionysius addressed his slave army, contrasting the potential for hardship in a battle that could win them their freedom or a “weak and disorderly” response which would lead to continued slavery and perhaps even humiliating death. Recall also the zeugma mentioned above found in 9.122.3: “Soft lands breed soft men.”

One final reference to Herodotus Histories (7.153.4) will tie us in to the other NT usage of the word. Herodotus describes a man named Telines, who “is reported by the dwellers in Sicily to have had a soft and effeminate [θηλυδρίης τε καὶ μαλακώτερος] disposition.” This is Godley’s translation. The words are used in parallel with a double conjunction, so it’s not clear at first glance if the Greek word order is switched in the English translation. Regardless, the words are used in parallel, so (as shown in the previous paragraph), it makes little difference in the translation, and Telines is certainly not portrayed in a positive light by Herodotus. The use of μαλακός in this domain is primarily a negative trait when ascribed to a human person. It is important to keep this in mind as we look at NT usage of the word (and its parallel) when applied to people in lists of, to put it softly, unflattering persons.

I believe it is, in part at least, this use here in classical Greek that informs Paul’s use of the word in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 (NIV), and the context in Paul’s letters bear this out: “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men [οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται] nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” The King James Version (KJV) is a little more literal with the translation of the target phrase: “nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.” Lowe & Nida, in their Greek-English Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains, distinguish the two words by saying the former is “the passive male partner in homosexual intercourse,” and the latter is “the male partner in homosexual intercourse” or in this context, the “active” partner. (Could Herodotus have implied a similar distinction with his dual description of Telines?)

The latter word in the Corinthian text (ἀρσενοκοίτης) is a masculine compound meaning “lying with men” in Liddell & Scott’s abridged lexicon. This word is also used in 1 Timothy 1:10 in a similar list: “for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.”


Short of an Orwellian feat of doublethink, then, it is nearly impossible to give any positive twist on the use of the words for persons practicing homosexuality in the NT. Some try to argue μαλακός means “morally soft” apart from any sexual connotations in the 1 Corinthians passage, but the context in Paul’s letters does not really allow for a generic description like that. I’m not trying to be cruel or bigoted here; I’m just stating the obvious facts as revealed in the historical usage of the words. However, I would remind my Christian siblings that Jesus’s attitude toward those on whom Jewish society generally looked down on (e.g., tax collectors) was not one of hatred, judgment, or spite, but of love and acceptance with a view toward repentance. My encouragement to my readers is to have the same attitude of Jesus toward those practicing homosexuality.

My opinions are my own.

Scott Stocking


  1. “Homosexuality” was first used/coined in the 19th century. IMO it is improper to use “homosexual” or “those who practice homosexuality” to translate the Greek words, especially since not all homosexuals engage in same-sex sexual activities. It is probably anachronistic to use in our translations of the NT a word that implies our understanding of “homosexual” and its use in sociological and medical, etc., literature.

    Comment by EricW — July 2, 2021 @ 9:59 am | Reply

    • Just because we only developed the English word doesn’t mean the concept didn’t exist prior to that. I will concede it is a term of art of sorts in lieu of a more literal translation. I used “those who practice homosexuality” in the same way a medical professional would use “person with diabetes” as opposed to “diabetic” to try to avoid labeling. I may not have done that consistently, though, especially in direct quotes.

      Comment by Scott Stocking — July 2, 2021 @ 10:34 am | Reply

      • I understand. But if one is homosexual, how does one “practice homosexuality”? By learning to shop or talk or dress like a homosexual? Homosexuality is a sexual preference or orientation, not a sexual act. For many with same-sex attraction, “practicing [their] homosexuality” may include having same-sex relations, but not only or always. How do you and I as heterosexuals “practice heterosexuality”? I just think it’s a clumsy and inapt phrase or translation.

        Comment by EricW — July 2, 2021 @ 11:42 am

      • “Practicing homosexuality” is akin to “practicing medicine.” The only thing implied by the term is the sexual act or the pursuit and maintenance of a sexual relationship. In other words, there’s no stereotype implied on either side (Herero-/homo-) about dress, habits, or mannerisms, as my own experience disproves such stereotypes. It would seem awkward to use “effeminate,” because there is nothing inherently sinful about having such features naturally apart from the sexual aspect, and it wouldn’t make sense in a list of other sins.
        “Male coitus,” the literal translation/transliteration of the “active partner” word, would seem a bit vulgar as well and focuses more on the act when the word seems to refer to a person. I’m open to other terms if you can find or coin them. I’m simply using the common vernacular to make clear the subjects. Peace to you, and thank you for your always thoughtful comments.

        Comment by Scott Stocking — July 2, 2021 @ 8:20 pm

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