Not 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
OK, 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.
So 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.