Did Ancient Christianity Perform Same-Sex Marriages?

SameSexNot since Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1981) have Christians of all creeds confronted a work that makes them look so closely at their notions of the relationship between the church and its gay and lesbian believers. Diligently researched and documented, this immensely scholarly work covers everything from the “paired” saints of Perpetua and Felicitas and Serge and Bacchus to lesbian transvestites in Albania. Examining evidence that the early church celebrated a same-sex nuptial liturgy, Boswell compares both Christian same-sex unions to Christian heterosexual unions and non-Christian same-sex unions to non-Christian heterosexual unions. Appendixes contain, among other things, translations and transcriptions of cited documents. Whether or not minds are changed on the matter will probably fall along sectarian lines, according to current attitudes on homosexuality. However, the work will provoke dialog. A groundbreaking book for academic, public, and theological libraries.

-Lee Arnold, Historical Society of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia
as quoted on Amazon.com’s description of John Boswell’s book
Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Recently on Facebook, someone referred to Boswell’s 1995 book and posted a link to a recent article commenting on this work called Gay marriage in the year 100 AD. I had no idea there was such a book in existence or that anyone had done any serious investigation on the status of same-sex marriages in different, ancient cultures. As a Christian who takes a more or less conservative interpretation on the Bible, I tend to believe that both the Old and New Testaments take a dim view of homosexual activities, at least between males (Lev. 18:22, Lev. 20:13, Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, 1 Tim. 1:8-11, Rev. 22:15-21). However, as I said in DOMA, Prop 8, and a Guy Named Moshe, Christians (I can’t speak from the Jewish standpoint) can only hold accountable other Christians, that is, those people who have voluntarily entered into a covenant relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ, to any prohibitions regarding homosexual activity.

Paul didn’t attempt to lead a social revolution in the ancient Roman empire, demanding that laws be changed for the general population in the diaspora nations ruled by Rome to become more consistent with the teachings of Christ. He was only concerned with taking the good news of Messiah to the Jews and Gentiles and then guiding the religious communities (churches) he founded into correct behavior based on the standards of God. That means, I’m not going to go off on some big harangue against “marriage equality” in the 21st century.

I don’t have a massive agenda about the LGBT community or same-sex marriage, but I do have an interest in any historical and cross-cultural data that could possibly establish that same-sex relationships might have been “normalized” among different people groups in the past. I can’t ignore the vast amount of (admittedly anecdotal) information regarding how gays describe their experience, nor the desire of same-sex couples to enter into legal relationships that reflect their emotional commitment. Although this is in contradiction to the tenets of my faith (as I understand them), I want to be fair and to listen to voices that aren’t always in accord with mine.

There’s a tremendous surge of support in the modern, western world to equalize homosexual relationships with heterosexual relationships and liberal and progressive political, social, and media venues don’t seem to bat an eye. And yet, if gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals are “born that way” and have always comprised a certain minority percentage of the general population world-wide, then you’d expect to see some sort of historical record of same-sex relationships, not as a social aberration, but as a recognized and accepted practice.

Supposedly, Boswell’s book establishes this record. If that were the end of it, I probably wouldn’t comment, since societies “normalize” all manner of behaviors and lifestyles that are contrary to the standards of God we see in the Bible, but Boswell takes it one step further (and it’s an important step). He believes that same-sex marriages were officially sanctioned and accepted in the Christian church as early as 100 CE and up through about 1000 CE.

That’s a pretty astonishing claim.

As you can imagine, when this information hit Facebook, it acted as a bold declaration that modern Christianity must now accept same-sex marriages because there was historic validation, and the ancient conditions that spawned these unions in past times were automatically and anachronistically accepted by the social media audience and applied to modern social imperatives.

Again, if this were just a matter of secular commentaries taking this stand, it would be one thing, but liberal religious people, including congregational leaders (not sure of the original Facebook poster’s exact clerical status), supporting Boswell’s book as an endorsement of “marriage equality” in the community of believers in Jesus is something else altogether.

I was curious just how “iron clad” Boswell’s research was and why it’s becoming such a big deal now (the book was published almost twenty years ago). Of course, in 1995, the idea of same-sex marriage was nowhere near being achieved as a social reality as it is in 2013, so that’s one reason and probably the biggest one. Even if one by one, the various States in our union make legal the marriage bond between same-sex partners, it’s seems important for liberal Christianity to also make it acceptable in the wider church body across the board.

But does Boswell’s research hold water?

Roman Archaeologist here, but this area isn’t my specific field. From my very limited knowledge (ie. a single book [:P]), homosexual relations between two male Roman citizens was frowned upon. It’s kind of interesting, actually.

This is because it was alright if a male Roman was the one doing the ‘penetration’, but it was illegal for a male citizen to be ‘penetrated’. So homosexual relations were fine only if the citizen was the ‘dominant’ one, and a non-citizen was on the ‘receiving-end’ so to speak. Homosexuality between citizens was essentially illegal and frowned upon. It seems to be more of a power/dominance thing, than a revulsion towards sodomy in all it’s forms. I’m not sure about gay-marriage in ancient Rome though – as far as I’m aware, Roman marriage was about producing children. Again, not my field so I can’t state it with certainty.

Abrahamic revulsion towards sodomy and homosexuality to me looks like it springs from a different source than Roman traditions. Greek homosexuality is also different from the Roman tradition – as much as we like lumping the two together, the Greeks considered the Romans to be barbarians. They were two different worlds really.

Edit: Ooops, that didn’t answer your question at all [:P] Just a hopefully interesting side blurb! I thought Abrahamic anti-gay sentiment came from the Old Testament though? As far as I’m aware, Christianity was just one of the many eastern cult religions swirling around at the time of the empire. I’ve always seen it as a fad religion that stuck and went mainstream in a major way. The Paleochristian period isn’t my field either though!

-ABF’s comment, Monday 3:58pm
io9.com

boswellOK, ABF is only one person but he/she is at least familiar with the topic from the point of view of a Roman Archaeologist, so he/she has more information about this than almost every one else. I’m looking for one or more responses to Boswell’s position to either support it or refute it in as scientific and neutral manner as possible (good luck, right?) Almost everyone weighing in on this matter has strong personal feelings for or against “marriage equality,” so I’m forced to set aside 95% or more of the responses being provided in the various online venues commenting on the Boswell book.

I suppose I could just buy and read the book (used copies are cheap), but if Boswell has done bad research, how would I know? It’s not my area of expertise. But in the eighteen years since this book has been published, someone who knows what they’re talking about must have written something about it.

But this is not really a book of history, the author’s protestations to the contrary. Boswell insists that his purpose in writing the book is only “to reflect accurately” on what has happened in the past, but it is clear that the book has a contemporary social agenda. “Recognizing that many- -probably most–earlier Western societies institutionalized some form of romantic same-sex union gives us a much more accurate view of the immense variety of human romantic relationships and social responses to them than does the prudish pretense that such ‘unmentionable’ things never happened.” By claiming to discover a historical basis for “same-sex unions” within Christian tradition, Boswell wishes to legitimate the introduction of “gay-marriage” ceremonies in the contemporary Christian church. This gives the historical and philological discussions an immediacy, but also a poignancy. Underneath the argument there is a quiet plea for acceptance.

But the price Boswell exacts from sympathetic readers is high. To make his case he must impose on the texts meanings they cannot bear and wrench them out of their context in medieval Christian society. Only if one loads words and terms–for example, marriage, love– with overtones that are alien (and derived from contemporary Western speech), can one begin to envision what Boswell imagines. No doubt this is why there is so much throat clearing and redefinition in an introductory chapter titled “What’s in a Name?: The Vocabulary of Love and Marriage.”

-Robert L. Wilken
“Procrustean marriage beds”.., Vol. 121, Commonweal, 09-09-1994, pp 24.
quoted at fordham.edu

Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the History of Christianity, University of Virginia, and the author, most recently (at the time his review was written), of The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History (Yale).

I realize this pits one “expert” against another and you just have to decide which one to believe, but it prevents Boswell’s book from scoring a “home run” on the field of marriage equality and the church. According to Wilken, Boswell’s entire argument hinges on the following:

The term “same-sex union” used in the title of this book is a translation of a Greek phrase (adelphopoiia) which if translated literally would be rendered “making into a brother” or “adopting as a brother.” The term is used in medieval Christian manuscripts written in Greek and Slavonic to identify an ecclesiastical rite.

Can we take “making into a brother” or “adopting as a brother” as equivalent to “marriage” between two men? That’s how Boswell is interpreting “adelphopoiia” but his interpretation isn’t the only one possible. Rather than copy and paste large sections of the Wilken article into this blog post, you can click the link I provided and read the review for yourself. In short though, Wilken states that Boswell’s interpretation is far from likely and reasonable.

I also found a much more recent commentary on Boswell’s book at the Roads From Emmaus blog. While the blogger doesn’t seem to have any special qualifications as a historian or linguist, he has done his research and provided links to a number of other criticisms of Boswell’s work that are available for your consideration.

I can’t say that the conclusions presented in Boswell’s book are invalid but I can say that there is enough of a reason based on some scholarly response to not accept said-conclusions out of hand, and such reflexive (knee-jerk) acceptance of the Boswell conclusions is exactly what is happening in online social networking (and this is worrisome since it substitutes fulfilling popular social agendas and emotion, for reason and scientific inquiry).

I present this not because I’m “homophobic,” but rather as a cautionary tale. As the saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Just because one historian wrote a book that arrived at conclusions seemly fitting into modern social/sexual imperatives in our world does not necessarily make said-conclusions automatically accurate, correct, unquestionable, or “bulletproof.”

I don’t doubt Boswell was sincere (he passed away in 1994, prior to the publication of the book in question) although not unbiased (but as I’ve said, it would be difficult to find an unbiased opinion regarding “marriage equality”), but that doesn’t mean we should accept his position regarding the first thousand years of church history relative to homosexual marriage rites. Those unions, as Boswell’s critics state, are just as likely or more than likely describing a financial or other (non-sexual/non-marital) legal relationship between two men.

I can’t say unequivocally that Boswell’s conclusions are wrong, but there seems to be enough disagreement from credible sources to indicate that he may not have been right. In other words, barring further research, the jury is still out on whether or not we have a record of the ancient Christian church performing (romantic, love, sexual) marriage ceremonies between two men.

two-spirit-dualitySo far, Boswell is just about the only source for this type of information about the ancient church, so my hopes at finding a strongly substantiated history of the normalization of homosexuality cross-history and cross-cultural are fading. The only other book I was able to find was edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang called Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. It’s also not a “slam dunk” since the book is a series of scholarly essays describing the occurrence of “sexually ambiguous” members of native American peoples who held unique roles within their people groups, perhaps as shaman or other religious or mystic leaders. This was actually something suggested by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson back in the 1970s (I wrote a paper on some of his research when I was an undergrad). However, the phenomenon of “two-spirit people” is non-conclusive and in any case, has no bearing on the matter of marriage equality, especially within the Christian church.

I can only imagine the criticism I’m going to receive as a result of writing this and the various labels and names I’ll be called. I’m sorry, I really am. I’m not trying to hurt anyone and in fact, quite the opposite. As I said, as far as the secular world is concerned, Christianity and individual Christians (including me) don’t have the right to impose our covenant standards on the societies in which we live. However, I have to draw the line with people who call themselves believers and disciples in Messiah (Christ) and who choose to accept a single publication as rock-solid evidence that Christianity has accepted and endorsed same-sex marriage in the past and thus must be compelled to do so now.

The work of a single individual without corroborating scientific investigation and peer review is does not provide sufficient and compelling reasons for Christianity as an institution to change its current interpretation of the Biblical prohibitions regarding homosexual behavior, let alone to begin officiating over same-sex marriages across the board.

Addendum: After I wrote this blog, I came across an article at the Washington Post called Trading yarmulke for blond wig, Israeli Orthodox gay Jew becomes drag queen. I know it doesn’t have a direct application to the specifics of my missive, but it’s related enough that I thought it was important to share.

11 thoughts on “Did Ancient Christianity Perform Same-Sex Marriages?”

  1. Of course something like this would be used as a scholarly/scientific(?) validation for behavior and support of such behavior. I probably mentioned here that the Hebrew midrash mentions that during the days of Noah, men were making marriage contracts (ketubot, legal documents) with other men. As in the Days of Noah, so shall the days of the coming of the Son of Man be. I also understand that the author, and others, spin the practice of a ceremony where close friends can adopt each other as brothers or sisters, and this can in no way be construed as a marriage and has no sexual connotation. But if the “church,” did something like the author claimed, it wouldn’t matter. The “church,” has done all sorts of ungodly things and violated his word; their practices don’t get a kosher stamp.

  2. I will agree that scripture tells us not to judge the non-believer, but to remove the wicked person from among us. I believe the “Albanian transvestites,” issue, was not that these women believed they were men, but if a woman didn’t chose to marry or was unable to marry, and desired to inherit her parent’s estate if there were no brothers, she had to dress and present herself as a male, and so she was granted the privileges that society conferred upon males only, as in being able to transact business and own property. It is easy to spin something and make it appear to be scholarly research, and of course it is lauded by the priesthood of multiculturalism. But, outside of political correctness, this sort of tripe wouldn’t even earn a passing grade for a high school research paper.

  3. The problem with so much historical research is that our modern-day biases and perspectives are placed onto the past. Take, for example, the insistence of some that Abraham Lincoln was a homosexual. Such authors completely ignore the fact that it was perfectly acceptable for men and women to share a bed with someone of the same gender.

  4. I agree that there is more than one way to interpret what Boswell chronicles. The way our modern culture is going, it is small wonder that many people would jump on such a book as establishing the “fact” of same-sex marriage in ancient history and as sanctioned by the church.

    But as you both say, there’s more than one way to look at historical events and practices. We can’t anachronistically apply modern standards to ancient situations.

    And yes, it’s one thing to understand that as the time for Messiah’s return approaches, things will be going down hill “as in the days of Noah,” and quite another thing entirely to sanction such practices within the body of believers.

    This makes for a delicate situation, because we can’t treat gay people any differently than anyone else. Our mandate is to love everyone, showing them compassion and dignity. That, however, in no way translates into tacit approval. We aren’t mandated to police world-wide culture, but we still are responsible for maintaining Biblical standards of behavior within our congregations. If a man was found to be in our congregations who used pornography, had assaulted his wife and children, had taken money from a neighbor, or any other act of disobedience against God, we would have to respond as the Bible directs us. We cannot treat homosexuality as a “special sin” but we do have to be honest about what the Bible is telling us.

    That’s not hate, bigotry, or “homophobia,” it’s doing our best to adhere to the standards left for us as disciples of Messiah.

  5. Thanks for the link, Mel. I’ve come across at least some of this information before. It’s interesting that Prager states that preferences in sexuality, before the Torah, was more or less like food preferences…no one really cared which preference you had. I’d recommend this article for a good history of how homosexuality has been viewed relative to the Torah and Orthodox Judaism.

    Yes, you’re right Mel. My focus is on the Christian point of view in this blog post, and specifically the perspective on Boswell’s book.

  6. James, I believe it was Prager quoting another person, not Prager making that statement. While Prager does admit rather quietly in one line that the torah must be divinely inspired, as it is so different from the religious texts of any other religion, it appears he is more concerned that a behavior has a positive or negative effect upon a society, rather than a behavior is either pleasing or an abomination to the Holy One. We are warned to be saved from this wicked and perverse generation, not compromise with it. That anthropologists and historians note certain types of behavior as typical or normal, ignores that these societies behaved that way because they had fallen from and were in rebellion against the divine plan. Many among the Orthodox see Judaism as an evolutionary step up from paganism; where scripture teaches a world created perfect and without sin, and the corruption that took place afterward. The Western world is moving toward a sensual free-for-all, and those who want to destroy the prevailing order know this will contribute to societies’ demise. I read that the early Soviet Marxists at first wanted to eliminate marriage as a bourgeois concept,and replace it with the idea that the need for sex should be treated like the need for food, and one should be free to take it however and with whoever was available. But it was discovered that the resulting jealousy and conflict negatively affected the cooperation needed to build the utopian society, and they canned that idea. We should take note regarding the promise that this behavior was warned to lead to being vomited up out of the land; and Israel’s secular communities endorse this sort of behavior. Understandably, the religious in Jerusalem fought the approval of a gay parade, while such celebrations are widespread in Tel Aviv.

  7. The thing that disturbs me about Boswell’s perspective is that it destroys the ability of men to have good friendships with each other without being thought of as “homosexual”. 50 years ago, even 30 years ago it was common for men to live together, or even be really good friends without casting doubt upon their sexuality. I’m speaking here about single men. But that’s getting to me more and more rare because our society is being trained to think that really close friendships between two single men are at least suspicious.

    That’s very detrimental to men. We all need the ability to have close relationships without everyone automatically thinking that we’re having sex. I think it’s much easier for women, but even there I see efforts being made to paint close relationships with a “sexual” brush in order to make homosexuality seem more normal.

    To me this is pretty insidious and very harmful.

  8. James, the, “Burt and Ernie,” as well as the warthogs in, “Lion King,” among other fictional characters, is purposeful, to present a positive and sympathetic picture. There was a recent big spread in “People,” magazine that highlighted a “transgendered,” child. It is designed to pull at your heartstrings and overcome objections. The problem is, we don’t know the whole story in these situations, and any opposing viewpoints are silenced and condemned. When I spent a summer in Israel in 1985, my female cousin wanted to walk with me linking arms. I pulled away because it made me uncomfortable, based upon my Western background, although I know there was nothing inappropriate in her gesture.

  9. If people are gay, they’re gay. However, I object to adults projecting a social and political agenda on children, let alone fictional characters. Just because two male muppets or male cartoon characters are friends doesn’t mean they have to be gay. I’m sure if someone wants gay muppets or cartoon characters, they can be created as such.

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