Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality


Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1980)

The publication of this magisterial book in 1980 was a landmark for the academic study of LGBT history and queer theology, both of which can be almost said to have begun with it.

With scrupulous academic care, Boswell has assembled an abundance of detailed evidence from several languages, and used it to trace the development of thought and attitudes to same gender sex from the anything goes tolerance of the Roman Empire, through a gradual hardening of attitudes, to a flowering of a gay culture in the high middle ages, to final strong opposition and active persecution.  He includes a wealth of detailed information, and stresses the importance of evaluating all the evidence from each period, and not just the selected writings that have been filtered out and incorporated into the official history of the Church.  So far example, he notes that the first general council to rule on homosexual acts was the 3rd Lateran Council of 1179.  Although the magisterium today points to selected earlier writings as the foundation of current teaching, at the time of writing, these early writings were very much minority views, and widely ignored. Indeed, the evidence assembled by Boswell show conclusively that for over half its history, majority opinion in the Catholic church has at least tolerated, and often praised or practiced, same sex love.


(Still in development)

1 Introduction

2 Definitions

3 Rome
Under the Republic and early Empire, Romans paid little attention to the gender of sexual partners. More important were the roles taken, in the context of social status.

Sexual relationships between same sex partners was not against Roman law or religion. Poets celebrated equally love of women, or of ‘boys’ (which also included young men).

There was some disapproval of adult male citizens taking the passive role in intercourse, as this was seen as submissive, and thus only appropriate for those of lower status: women, slaves, and non-citizens. Even this prejudice declined during the Empire, when many emperors were known to prefer the passive part.

Same sex marriage was possible, and well known, both between men and between women. Both Nero and Elegabalus married men. Hadrian was well known for his deep love of Antinous.

4 Scriptures

After noting that “Christianity had a major effect in the shift of social mores, it’s influence on attitudes to homosexuality was certainly more complex and varied and complex tha is commonly supposed or has been recognized”, Boswell goes on to show that the infamous “clobber texts” often used today to condemn homosexual practice were not so understood in the early church.

In early Christian ethics, “homosexuality” did not exist, either as a word, nor as a concept referring to an identifiable calss of people. Furthermore, the “Bible” as we now know it did not exist either ( the biblical canon was not fixed until 1546).  Instead, the early church drew on a wide range of writing, much of which is no seen as longer canonical, and ignored some texts which are today so viewed.

The now loaded term “Sodomy” had nothing whatsoever to do with the biblical sin of Sodom.  The specific sin in the story as told in Genesis 19 is not homosexuality, but about either the failure to provide hospitality to strangers, or about male rape. More generally, the wickedness of Sodom is elsewhere described as “pride, fullness of bread, abundance of idleness.. neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy”. (Ezekiel 16:48-49). (The word “sodomite” as it appears in the King James  Bible is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “temple prostitute”).

In Leviticus, the “abomination” of men lying with men is not a sin of wickedness, but an offence against Jewish impurity laws (comparable to dietary regulations, and prohibitions against trimming on’e beard, or wearing clothing of mixed cloth).  As these were part of the explicitly Jewish cultural heritage, they wre not seen as morally binding on Gentile Christians.

In the New Testament, the hostile interpretations of 1Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 are based on mistranslations of two Greek words.  The first, “malakoi”, refers not to sex between men, but to a more general softness or effeminacy, and was widely understood to refer to masturbation.  The other, “arsenokotoi“, probably refers, like the Hebrew “kadash“,  to temple prostitutes.

The final clobber text, that of Romans 1:26 -27 is the only New Testament that clearly refers to sex between men, but Boswell argues here that the context shows that this is not the sin, but the punishment for the sin, which is general infidelity to the Lord.  the act istelf is described as ‘unseemly’ – and that is because he is talking about apparently heterosexual persons engaging in homosexual acts.  It follows that the unseemliness does not apply to same sex acts between homosexual partners.

Boswell then goes on to note that Christ himself made no comment at all on homosexual activities, nor pronounced any condemnations of sexuality among the unmarried.  “Sexuality appears to have been a matter of indifference to Jesus”

5 Christians and Social Change

Although sexual attitudes and mores began to harden some centuries after Christ, this dis not begin immediately, was very gradual. Boswell suggests as causal factors the decreasing urbanisation of the empire and associated increasing rural influence, together with increasing absolutism of the Roman state.  As evidence for this hardening of attitiudes, but also an indication of the slow rate at which it took hold, he provides as evidence;

  • Increasing disapproval of male citizens taking the passive role in male intercourse (but not of the active role);
  • leading to a legal ban in the Western Empire on “exoleti” (i.e. male prostitutes taking the active role, whose male clients would have taken  the passive part).  The legal ban was widely ignored, and was not imposed in the eastern Empire until the 6th C;
  • outlawing of same sex marriage in 342 AD – but without the provision of legal penalties, so that the practice continued.

Although “Christian synods and princes exacted penalties against homosexual practices” (from the 4th century) Boswell does not believe that Christianity itself was the cause of this hardening, nor was it  a major casue of concern for the church as a whole for many centuries, not until the III Lateran Council of 1179!

It is true that Augustine, who hinself had experienced sexual excess in many forms, “bitterly regretted” the sexual aspects of his homosexual passions, but in this he was “unlike many of his Christian contemporaries”. Boswell argues that while Augustine’s more restrictive views date from the 5th Century, his opinion did not become mainstream until the 13th Century.

“There does  in  not seem to have been any reason for Christianity to adopt a hostile attitude toward homosexual behaviour. Many prominent and respected Christians – some canonized- were involved in relationships which would certainly be considered homosexual…”

Noting that St John Chrysostom deplored the prevalence of homosexuality in 4th century Antioch, Boswell points out that this can scarcely have been been the universal view of the church, as many of those accused were themselves involved in the practice – and why not?  For as noted in the previous chapter, there was not then believed to be anything in Scripture to oppose it:

” Those very people [i.e. bishops and church leaders]who have been nouorished by godly doctrine, who instruct others in what they ought and ought not to do, who have heard the Scriptures brought down from heaven, these do not consort with prostitites as fearlessly as they do with young men.” (John chrysosotom, quoted in Boswell).

Just one of the many church leaders and saints who engaged in homosexual love affairs in this period, from quite a different part of the Empire, was St Paulinus of Nola, Bishop, lover of Ausonius, and writer of notable homosexual love poetry.

6 Theological Traditions

7 Early Middle Ages

8 The Urban Revival

Between the tenth and foureenth centuries, Europe underwent some dramatic change and transformation, including greater stability, expanding trade networks and increases in agricultural production, contributing in turn to population growth and increased fourishing of urban culture.  In these circumstances in is not surprising that there should have been also a revival in tolerance and acceptance of same sex relationships.  Although some churchmen, notably St Peter Damian in The Book of Gomorrah launched strong attacks on homosexual practices, which are taken by later writers as an important part of the Magisterium position, Boswell shows that at the time of writing, these views had limited authority from earlier writing, received only scant attention, and were widely ignored:

“It is a telling comment on the indifference of the early medieval chuirch in this regard that for support of his hostility to such practices, Saint Peter could produce no more ecclesiastical enactment than the council of Ancyra (of 324), which Latin writers wrongly assumed to have legislated against homosexual behaviour

In response to  this impassioned polemic Peter received from Pop Leo IX a polite acknowledgement….agreeing somewhat coldly to interpose his apostolic authority in the matter.  Leo declined to accede to Peter’s demand that all clerics accused of ..homosexual offence should be removed from office.

From the late 11th century comes a remarkable story of how a later Pope, Urban II, was so little interested in homosexuality that he allowed the election and consecration of an openly gay bishop (John of Orleans), known to be the young lover of another openly gay archbishop (Ralph of Tours), and former lover of another bishop and of the king of France.  This election was strongly opposed by influential factions of the local church: but not on the grounds of sexuality, but of his youth. Pope Urban also had strong personal grounds to oppose the elevation, based on ecclesiastical politics and rivalries, to dislike and oppose the Archbishop Ralph.  Yet in spite of this, the elevation went ahead in 1098.

10 Social Change: Making Enemies

11 Intellectual Change: Men, Beasts and ‘Nature’

12 Conclusions


Recommended Books:

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1980)

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Kuefler, Matthew:  The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Jordan, Mark D: The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society)

Jordan, Mark D:  The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism


3 Responses to “Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality”

  1. Mark Says:

    I was fortunate to have met John Boswell and he signed my copy of this book.

    • queeringthechurch Says:

      To me, the biggest problem with Boswell’s work is that it can be intimidating to a non-specialist. Still it is astonishing that such a formidably academic tome should have sold so well. The story around its publication, told in “The Boswell Thesis” (ed Kuefler) is an eye-opener.

  2. Sam Zane Says:

    This is bull shit and you’re all going to hell.

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