Phil Robertson, Duck Dynasty, the Bible and Homosexuality
Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty believes in the Bible and he told Drew Magary of GQ, who wrote about it in the magazine. Now everyone is shocked, shocked I tell you, to find out what is in the Bible and what Phil believes. But first question first: what is Duck Dynasty? I have never watched the show, but I have heard about it and if you want to be filled in on what the show is about and what the Robertson clan is about, you can read the GQ piece. They made their money, though, and all of the subsequent fame which followed, from inventing a duck caller and from duck hunting. They are a part of a new type of reality TV which focuses on southern people who talk funny and, as a result, are probably “stupid” and ought to be mocked. I do not watch reality TV, any of it, as I believe ultimately it is about exploitation, even if everyone’s in on the game: the so-called stars, the TV networks and the people who watch them. The magazines and TV shows which cover the reality TV stars are also in on the game, so that they can say things like “far smarter than they appear” and “they really believe these things.”
Phil apparently crossed a line, however, in his downhome belief system. What Phil and his family believe in is the Bible. The reason why Phil hunts, it seems, is even based on the Bible.
As we drive out into the woods, past a sign that reads parish maintenance ends, Phil is telling me all about the land around us and how the animals are a glorious gift from God and how blowing their heads off is part of His plan for us.
“Look at this,” he says, gesturing to the surrounding wilderness. “The Almighty gave us this. Genesis 9 is where the animals went wild, and God gave them wildness. After the flood, that’s when he made animals wild. Up until that time, everybody was vegetarian. After the flood, he said, ‘I’m giving you everything now. Animals are wild.’”
Phil knows the Bible. In Genesis 1, human beings and animals are created as vegetarians:
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
But after the flood, it all changed. Genesis 9:1-7 says,
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.
6 Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind.
7 And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”
You can see the similarities between the two passages, with the main difference being that instead of just green plants, now “every moving thing that lives shall be food for you” (Genesis 9:3). It is true that Genesis 9:3-4 commands people not to eat the blood of an animal, which Acts 15:20, 29 upholds, but that might be a discussion for another blog post.
Hunting animals, though, is not what got Phil Robertson in trouble, so no one seems to have brought up his interpretation of Genesis 1 and 9. What got Phil Robertson in trouble, and suspended from A&E television, are comments which have been interpreted as anti-gay or homophobic. Here are the relevant sections of the interview.
Out here in these woods, without any cameras around, Phil is free to say what he wants. Maybe a little too free. He’s got lots of thoughts on modern immorality, and there’s no stopping them from rushing out. Like this one:
“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”
“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine.”
What, in your mind, is sinful?
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
Phil certainly equates homosexuality with sin in the first citation (“But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”), but he would not be the first Christian to do so (see CCC 2357, which references Genesis 19:1-29; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:10; 1 Timothy 1:10 for support.) His language is crude as he discusses sex, but he would not be the first American celebrity to speak coarsely about sexual preferences. It seems to me that the major culprit for the outrage regarding Phil Robertson is found in the second citation in which he begins to define sin as homosexuality, but then seems to relate homosexuality to other sexual sins. I am not certain if he is connecting homosexuality to other sexual sins, or if it was simply a list of sexual sins that jumped into his mind. It is possible, of course, that the connection to bestiality was made based on Leviticus 18: 22-23, in a chapter which groups all sexual sins together in one passage, but in these two verses particularly places homosexuality beside bestiality.
Phil then paraphrases 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, which I reproduce below in the NRSV version:
9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Phil’s paraphrase from the end of 1 Corinthians 6:9b-10 is actually quite accurate. He does not miss a category in Paul’s vice list. So his rendering is fairly accurate, but what are we supposed to make of Phil’s views? They were the mainstream views of Christianity for over 1,900 years and they remain so for many Christians today, as official or dogmatic teaching of the Church or the Bible. No one it seems took any issue with Phil for citing 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 on the sinfulness of theft, drunkenness, and greed, for instance, but all of the outrage is for his view of the sinfulness of same-sex relations. Is Phil wrong to hold these views or are TV networks playing a bit of a game with us? We want you to enjoy these backwoods hillbillies in all of their down to earth glory, as long as it’s about Louisiana slang and big ZZ Top beards, camouflage, guns, and dead ducks, but if you actually get to the content of their Bible belt beliefs, why, who knew they were homophobic rubes? Off with their show!
The Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is clearly a difficult teaching for the modern West, but is it possible to oppose homosexual behavior and still be open and accepting of gays and lesbians? Certainly, Pope Francis believes so, as CCC2357 cites the same passage which Phil does in support of its teachings that homosexual acts are “gravely disordered” and Pope Francis is Advocate’s person of the year (though read the comments to see how people feel about that choice).
Later in the interview Phil actually mimics Pope Francis when he says,
“We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”
I see what he’s saying and to me it sounds a lot like, “who am I to judge?” Phil suggests that the task of judgment belongs with God. But it seems for many that this stance is not sufficient.
Many Christians, Anglicans, Lutherans and others, formally welcome open and out gays and lesbians into their churches, marriage and ministry, but many others, the Roman Catholic Church and many evangelical and fundamentalist churches included, do not. In those churches which do not welcome open and out gays and lesbians, there are significant differences of opinion, often breaking on age lines, among clergy and laity. The issue of acceptance of gays and lesbians in Christianity and what acceptance means is going to continue to be a major issue in the years to come. And, realistically, acceptance has a lot to do with how one reads the Bible on homosexuality.
First, the word homosexuality is a neologism which emerged in the 19th century. It did not exist in Paul’s day and it is in Paul’s letters where we find passages which speak against “homosexual” behavior (Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10). This means that Paul would not be aware of sexual identity as we understand it today; Paul simply speaks against behaviors which he understands to be forbidden in the Old Testament. Second, the issue has to do with the Bible and its interpretation and the weight one assigns to the Bible on deciding any particular moral question. Most Christians understand the Bible as the Word of God, but many do not believe that every assertion made in or by the Bible is intended to apply in every historical or cultural situation. Still, many Christians see the claims of the Bible as having universal applicability – that any attempt to water down the clear meaning of a biblical injunction is to play fast and loose with the understanding of the Bible as divine moral guide. When we add to this the Roman Catholic claim that homosexual relations are “contrary to the law of nature,” we can see that there are arguments not just from the Bible, but Tradition and the Magisterium. Third, and finally, we must nevertheless read and interpret biblical passages in the historical context in which they appeared and understand the social and cultural context in which they made sense to their first readers in order for them to make sense to us today.
I want to use 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 as an example where biblical scholarship helps us understand the ancient context of a passage. There are two words from 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 which scholars struggle to translate. The words are malakoi (male prostitutes by NRSV and Phil) and arsenokoitai (homosexual offenders by Phil; sodomites by NRSV). These words are found only in this passage in Paul’s letters. What do these words mean in Greek? Malakoi means “soft.” Arsenokoitai is a combination of arsēn, “male,” and koitē, which is a word that stems from “bed,” but comes to refer to sleeping with someone or having sex with someone. It appears in a number of verbal and noun forms. Paul’s form is actually a neologism itself: this is the first appearance of the word in Greek.
John Boswell’s study in 1980 devoted an appendix to understanding arsenokoitai (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian era to the Fourteenth Century.Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 341-353). Boswell concluded that Paul was referring to male prostitution when he used this word and that it could also relate to sexual relations of men with boys (353, n.1). John J. McNeill, S.J. published a few years prior to Boswell, but was dependent upon his conclusions (The Church and the Homosexual, New York: Pocket Books, 1978). In the paperback edition, published two years after the hardcover edition, McNeill notes on page 214, n. 39 that Boswell’s “unpublished research on the Pauline texts is one of the principal sources of the material I use here.” Fr. McNeill also claimed that arsenokoitai did not refer to “homosexuals” or “homosexuality,” but to male prostitutes or “concubines” (64). With respect to malakoi, McNeill argued that its literal meaning, “soft,” need not have particular connotations with respect to male homosexual behavior, but could reflect immorality in general, including sexual behavior in general (63).
Robin Scroggs believed the word malakos, which he defines as “literally meaning soft and by extension ‘effeminate’,” referred in Paul’s vice list to those youths who sold themselves to older men and so represents “a specific dimension of pederasty which, as we have seen, neither proponent nor opponent of pederasty ever defended” (Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual background for Contemporary Debate. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983, 106). Scroggs understood arsenokoites to mean “one who lies with a male,” but acknowledges the oddness of the term which makes its first literary appearance in Greek in this passage in 1 Corinthians (107-108). I believe that Scroggs figures out the origin of this term in Greek by tracing it to the Hebrew phrase mishkav zakur, “lying with a male” (108). He believes the word designates “the adult, who took the active role in the sexual encounter” and malakos indicates the youth who is hired for sex (108). Victor Furnish follows Scroggs carefully, translating the phrase in 1 Corinthians 6:10 as “effeminate males” and “men who have sex with them” (Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979, 67-72). This is also the belief of Frank Matera, New Testament Ethics. Westminster John Knox Press, 285, n.25, who wrote, “I am of the opinion that Paul has adult homosexuals and the young boy prostitutes who service them in view.”
Other scholars saw these translations as too narrow. David F. Wright argued that arsenokoitai was best understood as broadly defining sexual relations between two males, not specifically an act of prostitution (David F. Wright, “Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of Arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10)” in Vigilae Christianae 38 (1984) 125-153). He, like Scroggs, draws his understanding of arsenokoitai from Hellenistic Judaism, particularly the Septuagint, where the two parts of the word, arsen and koitē, appear in conjunction in both Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (129). He states that “Christian writers and teachers identified arsenokoitai with by far the commonest form of homosexuality current in the Hellenistic world, that is, the relationship between an adult male and a youth of teenage years” (136). Wright’s examination of the linguistic evidence was extensive and he has been followed, and was preceded, by a number of scholars (Craig S. Keener, 1-2 Corinthians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 54-55; Charles H. Talbert, Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1987, 25; Hans Conzelmann, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Hermeneia.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975, 106-07; Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 242-44 wants to see malakoi as referring to “call boys” and arsenokoitai as referring to those who perform homosexual acts in general).
The positions I have laid out above are the two basic positions that scholars take: 1) Paul in 1 Cor. 6:9 refers to a specific form of male prostitute and the men who have sex with them; or 2) Paul refers to sex between males in a more general manner. If one chooses the first approach, it makes sense of the two terms, malakoi and arsenokoitai, as explaining one another, the one being the partner, thought to be youthful, who sells himself, the other being the adult partner who purchases the services of the young man. If one chooses the second approach, one would see the terms more generally, with malakoi referring to the “passive” partners and arsenokoitai denoting the “active” partners, with no particular focus on prostitution.
With respect to malakoi, there are good reasons to see it as referring to younger males, who generally did function as partners to older males in the common Greek and Roman practice of pederasty. These boys were often described as ”soft” or “effeminate” (see the 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, Special Laws., 3:37-40; On Abraham 136 ). Bernadette J. Brooten demonstrates how the “soft” male was viewed in the ancient context as the “passive” partner (Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 122, 126, 148, and 256). As Brooten says, “soft” could refer to effeminate men or women. Women were expected to be “soft,” but “soft” men were shamed. Stanley K. Stowers in “Paul and Self-Mastery” in Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook (ed. J. Paul Sampley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2003) speaks of ancient peoples being ranked on scales of “femaleness” and “maleness,” with male being ideally “hard” and “active” and female being “soft” and “passive,” though full of desire and passions. Stowers understands malakoi to reference “soft men.” He states that “male homoeroticism was considered manly for the active partner and an expression of femaleness by the passive partner” (544). He adds, though, that malakoi could also refer to an unhealthy male desire for sex with women also.
So which option do I choose? I accept a modified form of position one. Arsenokoitai definitely refers to men who have sexual relations with other males. It seems, however, that understanding malakoi as only referring to “call-boys” or prostitutes skips over a large part of the reality of sexual behavior and social reality in the first century. Mark Golden has shown that a slave, whatever his age, was often considered a “child” (pais) and called a “child” all of his life (“Pais, ‘Child’ and ‘Slave,’” L’Antiquité Classique 54 (1985), 91-104). Indeed, the terms “child” and “slave” were basically interchangeable in Greek. More to the point, Golden has written of the close relationship between slavery and homosexuality at Athens (“Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens” in Phoenix 38 (1984) 308-324). This relationship was at the heart of sexual relations between males across the whole Roman Empire. One of the key elements of the roles which boys and slaves played in the sexual hierarchy is that male children and slaves would be “passive” partners in homosexual activity. As Golden says of ancient Greek sexuality, “homosexual relationships did not involve equals” (“Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens,” 312). Often this relationship was based on age, with the younger partner “thought of as subordinate to the older” (“Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens,” 312).
While free boys would grow to men and so outgrow the subordinate role in homosexual relationships, slaves never would. And it was often slaves with whom owners had sexual relations and who were sold to others for profit. That is, these boys or men had no choice whether to participate in this sexual behavior. This was not limited, either, to classical Athens. In Special Laws 3.37-42, Philo of Alexandria criticizes pederasty. In this extended criticism he discusses both the pederasts and those young men (neoi) who were kept in a state of youthfulness by using make-up, braiding their hair, and wearing perfumes. This is where the connection to “soft” or “effeminate” youth is made. But who were these youths? In On the Contemplative Life, 48-62, Philo spoke of the banqueting common with both Greeks and barbarians (48), in which the focus was placed on beautiful slaves who poured the drinks (50). The sexual nature of their serving is pronounced in Philo’s discussion as it was in Greco-Roman descriptions of symposia (Jan M. Bremmer, “Adolescents, Symposion, and Pederasty,” in Sympotica: A Symposium on the Symposium. ed. O. Murray; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 135-148).
Philo describes boys (pais) who poured the wine, while “older boys,” whose wore make-up, poured the water. In the background were the “teenagers” (meirakion) who, according to Philo, recently had been the “pets” of the pederasts. Philo’s comment that those who were “teenagers” were past prime and standing in the background suggests that attention was on the younger slave boys. Given that young boys, who had smooth, hairless skin, were most desirable to ancient pederasts (see Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002, 23 and Christian Laes, Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within. Cambridge: CUP, 2011) and that slave boys were no longer desirable as objects of sexual pleasure when they became too old, Philo may be pointing at this very constellation of factors in his differentiation of three sets of boys. It is also clear that these slave boys were not “prostitutes,” in the sense that this was their profession, freely chosen.
The issue I want to raise is a simple one: the distinction scholars of Paul have tried to draw between “homosexual activities in general” and “a specific sort of prostitution” might be misleading. Homosexual behavior in the ancient Greco-Roman world involved those who were subordinate and those who were superior. This would often involve younger males and adult males, but it most often involved male slaves in the subordinate role, whether with their owners or being given, or sold, to others by their masters. It is also important to stress that most prostitutes were slaves. Ancient Greco-Roman “homosexuality” is based to a large extent on coercion, force and slavery. Does Paul mention both malakoi and arsenokoitai specifically because he knows that slaves or younger male prostitutes who are in this subordinate role (malakoi)have no choice over their own bodies and whether this sexual behavior continues or stops? That is, if slaves are not free moral agents in this behavior, it is essential for Paul to stress that those who have control of the behavior (arsenokoitai) must cease engaging in it. For the Roman world did not think less of a man and did not see it as morally problematic if he engaged actively in such homosexual relations with boys or slaves, even if he was married, as long as he was not the passive partner. For a freeborn Roman man to take the passive role in same-sex relations was considered dishonorable and shameful (Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). Those who were “passive” in such behavior were either boys or slaves who had no control over their bodies and so had to endure shame.
So, can we tie together ancient sexual practices and the Bible with Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty? There is a transition going on in western Christianity, a transition some Christians have made with respect to the Bible’s teaching on “homosexuality” – they have moved beyond it – and a transition others have resisted – they want to be faithful to what the Bible and their Church teaches. It seems to me that Phil Robertson is attempting to be faithful to the teaching of the Bible, but he also seems willing to accept that he is not the final judge on these matters. It seems possible to me that biblical studies might ultimately play some small role in opening up people to the patterns of sexuality in the ancient world which were often coercive and cruel and used those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy in a fundamentally abusive manner.
Frankly, much of male sexuality in the ancient Roman Empire of Paul’s day was based upon slavery. I believe that understanding the nature of ancient sexuality might also help us understand precisely what Paul was speaking against: the coercive sexual use of boys and slaves. And if we understand malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 in the context I have outlined here, would we not agree with Paul that such behavior needs to stop? This is information, though, which usually does not make its way into a broad public forum; usually this writing appears in academic journals and books. Would it make a difference to Phil Robertson’s views if he knew it? Would he distinguish between coercive sexual relationships of the ancient world and consensual ones today? Perhaps not, but as this difficult transition in understanding is taking place in the modern Western world, with Christians on both sides of the fence on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, we need to recognize that with few exceptions Christians want to remain faithful to what the Bible and the Church teaches. Helping everyone understand the Bible more fully can only be for the good of all concerned. The ancient Roman world did not speak of sexual identity or preference as we do today. As we come to understand sexual identity and preference more fully today, we need to accept all people with love no matter their sexual identity or preference and offer them a home within the Church.
John W. Martens
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