Christians and Homosexuality: The Boswell Thesis

January 20, 2012

Have Christians always believed homosexuality is a sin?  Has that stance been our consistent practice over the two millennia since Christ died and the first Christian communities took shape? Would knowing the answer to that question, one way or the other, carry much weight with us?

Quakers don’t have much official use for tradition, as opposed to (say) Roman Catholics.  Nevertheless, we often cling to traditional ways. If something has been that way ‘from the beginning,’ it gathers a certain weight with us.

So how about homosexuality? Have Christians had a consistent practice of viewing homosexuality as a sin? If we take our eyes off the five ambiguous Bible passages for a moment, what has been the subsequent lived experience of Christian communities over two millennia?  Did early Christians act as if they saw the same ‘homosexuality is a sin’ teaching in the Bible that many profess today?

Until 1980, no one much doubted that Christians always considered homosexuality as a sin, so settled had the negative view become. In that year, however, John Boswell published Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).  CSTH (as the title is often abbreviated) completely upended our understanding of homosexuality in the early church.

It is 442 pages long and now in its eighth printing — astonishing for an academic work. It is well worth reading, even now, 32 years after its publication.

An observant Roman Catholic, Boswell was a young scholar with an unusual gift for languages, ancient and modern.  He had a Harvard Ph.D. and was an assistant professor at Yale in the History department when the book was published.  CSTH is meticulously researched and documented.  It won many awards and prizes in the history profession. It has generated a flood of subsequent scholarship, some of it extending his thesis, some criticizing parts of what he says.  Still, the main arguments of CSTH have held up well in in the view of the scholarship that followed.

Here is another scholar’s brief summary of the Boswell thesis in CSTH. “Four main points form the narrative for the book: First, that Christianity had come into existence in an era of Greek and Roman tolerance for same-sex eroticism. Second, that nothing in the Christian scriptures or early tradition required a hostile assessment of homosexuality; rather, that such assessments represented a misreading of scripture. Third, that early medieval Christians showed no real animosity toward same-sex eroticism. Fourth, that it was only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that Christian writers formulated a significant hostility towards homosexuality, and then read the hostility back into their scriptures and early tradition.” (Mathew Kuefler, “The Boswell Thesis,” 2006.)

“… and then read the hostility back into their scriptures…”  We should take notice.

How could we have forgotten all this? Because once homosexuality did come to be viewed as a sin in the 12th century or so, those drawn to same-sex erotic behavior had to make themselves invisible or else face persecution. In 1553, for example (but not before), homosexual behavior became a hanging crime in England. Gay people disappeared from sight. And so knowledge of any sort about same-sex eroticism disappeared – disappeared, that is, until a scholar carefully combed old records and texts, and brought forth a new understanding of social and religious tolerance of homosexuality in the Church’s first millennium.

One thing that has emerged from the scholarship spawned by CSTH is that the turn toward declaring homosexuality a sin and the subsequent persecution of homosexuals, came at about the same time that persecution began against others who could be labeled outsiders: Jews and lepers, for example.  [See, for example, R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).]

Once we recognize that the Church in its first thousand years did not regard homosexuality as a sin, what changes for us? I believe we need to question whether we are reading correctly those three New Testament verses: Romans 1:21-32, I Corinthians 6:9-10, I Timothy 1:9-10.  If early Christians did not read those as saying that homosexuality is a sin, why should we?

Once a conviction that something is wrong takes hold, it can be hard to root out. Boswell puts on the frontispiece to CSTH a quotation from Moritz Goldstein about anti-Semitic views: “We can easily reduce our detractors to absurdity and show them their hostility is groundless. But what does this prove? That their hatred is real. When every slander has been rebutted, every misconception cleared up, every false opinion about us overcome, intolerance itself will remain finally irrefutable.” I pray that Goldstein is wrong; I pray that this time we can overcome a prejudice.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to Christians and Homosexuality: The Boswell Thesis

  1. Pingback: What Bible Is She Reading? | River View Friend

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