1946, Sharon 'Rocky' Roggio
Still courtesy of Sharon 'Rocky' Roggio

Director Roggio on Exposing the Bible’s False Narrative About Homosexuality

Director Sharon ‘Rocky’ Roggio discusses her documentary, 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture, and how the Bible has been weaponised against the LGBTQIA+ community.

1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture
Sharon "Rocky" Roggio
17 March 2023 (BFI Flare)

From the hustle and bustle of the BFI Southbank, a woman emerges, wearing a t-shirt under a jacket that reads, “1946”. The woman is Sharon ‘Rocky’ Roggio, the director of 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture. Carrying herself with a casual air, she’s at the 2023 edition of the BFI Flare Festival to present an important critique: how the mistranslation of the term “homosexual” in Biblical translations has enabled the weaponisation of the Bible against the LGBTQIA+ community.

Perched at the side of the foyer, on a sofa against a wall, we’re weary of distracting announcements from the Tannoy. In hindsight, the way the speaker system loomed over us, was the metaphorical presence of the loud and oppressive status quo – ready to shout down our progressive voices as we discussed Roggio’s important and essential film.

“I am a lesbian woman who grew up with a pastor father. We grew up very religious, and so I would consider myself a product of religious trauma,” she shares with me. “I’d been trying to find common ground with my parents my entire life. The only way to communicate with them is through the Bible because they’re literalists – they believe the inherent word of God.” She adds, “It’s very hard to be seen and recognised as a full person in those spaces [the church], so I left the church and hadn’t been back in twenty-plus years. I ended up revisiting church through a relationship.” 

Returning at the behest of a Christian she was dating in 2017, the time shift dramatically affected the adult Roggio. She recognised the injustice of a space she’d always been critical of. “I was at a church that was welcoming and not fully inclusive. It was infuriating to be part of a group that I felt was lying to me. They will take your money and let you serve, but you can’t lead.”

In 1946, the director explains that from the outside, these hip and modern churches offer inclusivity, yet inside, they deny members of the LGBTQIA+ community equal rights. If you’re not straight, you can’t get married in the church, nor have access to couples counselling. When she says, “My new church used the same verses used on me as a teen to justify their official policy”, she reveals how these institutions are stuck in the past.

The young Roggio was always labelled the troublemaker because she’d question – a characteristic that has not faded with age. Frustrated by the experience of her new church, she became more vocal, and learned of historian Kathy Baldock, who would become 1946‘s lead researcher, and the work she was doing around the scriptures that “clobber or condemn the LBGTQ community”. Here she learned about the mistranslation and the tangible evidence that Baldock and 1946‘s second lead researcher, Ed Oxford, had uncovered, proving the word “homosexual” does not belong in the Bible.

The conflict comes from a translation of the two Greek words, Malakoi and Arsenokoitai, that in 1946 were combined and translated as “homosexual”. In a lecture documented in the film, Baldock explains, “In First Corinthians, Paul is writing to the Gentiles and the Israelites that have become believers. He’s saying, here are the people that are not entering the Kingdom of God. ‘Do not be deceived, nor fornication, nor idolaters, nor the Malakoi, nor the Arsenokoitai, shall inherit the Kingdom of God.’ The problem is these two Greek words, Malakoi and Arsenokoitai, that in 1946 were combined and translated as “homosexual”. It took a sin that was an act and made it into a kind of person.”

“For the first time in my life, I had tangible evidence to start a real conversation around this issue,” explains Roggio. “[1946] looks at how homophobia has been amplified ever since ‘homosexual’ was put into the Bible, but more specifically in the ’80s. We see the arc of when it was first mistakenly inserted. Then we look at other translation teams that have amplified homophobia in the church, using the Bible as a weapon against the LGBTQ community.”

The director humorously quips, “In short, to find common ground with my parents led to this bigger thing.” She believes 1946 conveys a global message, and while impossible to change everybody’s minds, she tells me, “There are enough people in those church buildings – we call them the ‘moveable middle’ – that will see the truth, and hopefully stop the persecution of LGBTQ people through scripture.” 

A common misconception is that the scriptures have historically advocated against homosexual practices. New evidence, however, contradicts this belief, dating to the inclusion of the word in the 20th century. The documentary encourages conversation around the historical significance of the animosity towards homosexuality, which is not wholly influenced by scripture, but by an incorrect reading based on human prejudice and discrimination. 

There are examples from the Bible where same-sex relations are discussed, but the Bible does not advocate against it, instead, in First Corinthians 6:9 through 10 texts, it criticises abuse in these relationships.

In another recorded lecture, Angela N. Parker, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek at the MacAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, explains, “Corinth is on a seaport city, so when you think about seaport cities, you want to think about a happening city. In the context of Roman Corinth, there was a system called pederasty – the idea that an older man would initiate a younger boy into Roman society. The older man, the ‘Arsen’ of ‘Arsenokoitai’ was also penetrating the younger man or Malakoi. So when we talk about the Greco-Roman age, where it’s men who have power that are allowed to penetrate any other person, be it a woman, child, or enslaved person, I think what we’re seeing is people having a difficult time making a proper translation of these words.

“They’re importing our ideas of ‘homosexuality’ into the First Corinthians 6:9 through 10 texts because this is one of Paul’s made-up words. So we don’t exactly know [what it means], but because we know the system, we can make an intelligent guesstimate that he’s talking about a particular system of domination, where you have a powerful man over a less powerful young man.” Parker continues, “That background, which is very different to what we would call same-gender loving relationships today, helps us begin to unpack what Paul is saying. In the Arsenokoitai language, it’s probably the older man of a pederast relationship.”

The counterargument is the Bible preaches the virtues of marriage between a man and a woman, but an exploration of this reading is still subject to contradiction. “Even if someone wants to argue about the biblical views of marriage, you’re talking about women who were property. There was no consent, they were given away, and there’s a lot of polygamy in the Bible,” observes Roggio. “For anyone to say that the Bible is clear on any of these subjects, they’re not being truthful to the text.”

Truth is often the casualty of individuals or groups attempting to control the narrative, as seen in the Trump presidency in the US and here in the UK with Brexit. It’s dangerous to reduce truth to a matter of convenience, especially when it leaves our beliefs and ideology vulnerable to being constructed around misinformation.

“Sometimes people like to be told what to think and what to do. We hear it so much that [the Bible] is the word of God, this is the truth, that people don’t need to look any further, especially if it fits their personal narrative”, she offers. “My goal with 1946 is to have people recognise that it’s a false narrative and the Bible does not condemn LGBTQ people. Unfortunately, we must do this work because people use the Bible as a weapon.” 

Referring to recent political trends as an example of the ambiguity or ambivalence of truth, Roggio adds, “In the Trump era, people created those narratives even if they knew they were false. Some people believe their actions are for good, but others do it for power and control. They do it for their own gain and don’t care who they step on or who it hurts.”

The director doesn’t dismiss the Bible; instead, she warns that it has become vulnerable to manipulation by those with ulterior motives. “You can’t follow the Bible literally – it’s impossible. If you say the Bible is correct, it supports slavery throughout and is used for control.” She adds, “The point of it is to find the wisdom in the writing and see how it can apply to our lives. But to say you can follow the Bible plainly is not true.”

The misguided choice has been to give ownership of morality to God when it comes from humanity. The moral fallacy of the Bible compounds our error of judgement, to make the Bible a moral and ethical cornerstone. 

“There must be some sort of power behind the book when a third of the people in the world believe in Christianity. But how are we using the Bible? How are we acting as Christians if we are going to call ourselves Christians in the world? Are we acting Christlike or like the church, the institution that Christ fought against?” She adds, “There’s a lot of hypocrisy, and it’s sad to see people use and abuse the Bible, and that’s the institution’s fault, not the people.”

“I believe our oppressors are mostly our loved ones, our family members. They’re victims of bad theology just like we are”, explains Roggio. “If we can get down to the root of this issue, maybe we can help change Christianity globally and on a more loving scale – clothing the poor and feeding the hungry.” 

She observes a social, cultural, and political toxicity that maligns Christian goodwill. “In our country [America] we’re called socialists if we want to help people. If you want to say anything is clear in the Bible it’s taking care of the poor, feeding the hungry, getting rid of all your possessions, and helping each other. We don’t do any of that because it doesn’t benefit the church or the people. In an American, capitalist society, it’s profit over people.”

Throughout our conversation, Roggio stresses that the guilt belongs to the institution, not the community. “It’s the blind following the blind. They’re told something, and for generations, they believe it. Nobody is doing the homework to say, ‘Maybe we’ve got this wrong.’ So that’s what 1946 is about – maybe we’ve got this wrong, and we should look at this a little bit more closely because people’s lives are at stake.”

One of the ways 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture does this is to look at the history of biblical translation. Roggio acknowledges that this is not the first film to deal with homophobia in the church. “What separates our film is, besides just combatting biblical literalism, we look at how Bibles are made and translated,” she says. “We don’t think about how we got our English Bible today. The Bible was translated from Hebrew to Greek, then into Latin, before multiple languages. It has had thousands of translation revisions before it had even been translated into English.”

The director also points out that many words in Hebrew can mean different things, which requires something from us. “We have to try to be fair to the people of the past who wrote the Bible and the people in the present. Does it apply today, and is it transferable?”

Roggio has every right to be angry about how biblical mistranslation has nurtured a breach in the relationship with her father, Sal, who was writing a book supporting the translation at the time of the making of 1946. She, however, understands the need for a dialogue between the two sides and pursues this throughout the documentary. 

1946 has a hopeful ending; it doesn’t have a happy ending”, she admits. “I have my anger issues, but I let a lot of that go. We didn’t want to make a film that’s message is, ‘We are right, and you’re wrong. The church is bad, and stop beating us up.’ We wanted to make a film that showed empathy and understanding for the other side. As I said, they are the victims of bad theology. We wanted to make a conversation piece, so 1946 takes a purely journalistic, academic, and theological approach to show how a mistranslation impacts our real lives.” 

“I have a representation of the other side, where their voice is authentic and clear, and they had equal status as our other scholars.” One of those representing the other side is Roggio’s father. “His voice is shown in an honest way, and so people will hopefully recognise themselves in Sal, or someone who has a father and mother like Sal will recognise that scenario, and hopefully, it will shed light. I’m very grateful my dad offered to be in 1946, but the film’s tone is not that we want to fight. Rather, we deserve a seat at the table and want to have a conversation.”