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hmsx_400_f06_f8 - John Boswell Christianity Social...

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Unformatted text preview: John Boswell Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century dilfiéo The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London 4 The Scriptures Although it is hard to imagine a more profound change in popular morality than that which took place between the time of the later Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, relatively little attention has been focused on either the causes or the exact nature of this crucial transition in Western history. Indeed the silence on this seemingly major historical problem is deafening. The transformation of the almost limitless tolerance of Roman mores into the narrowness which characterized, for example, Visigothic Spain—a nation racked by violence and hostility against Jews, heretics, political dissidents, gay people, and other nonconformists—must have been caused, one is left to infer, either by the total disappearance of the Roman population or by the advent of one or both of the two forces which replaced Roman hegemony, Christianity and the barbarians. Since the Roman population did not in fact disappear, it seems safe enough to discount the first possibility. The barbarians did alter European social structures profoundly, although not deliberately, by destroying many of the major urban centers in the West and ruining the communications systems which had linked the capitals of Roman Europe. This severely reduced urban hegemony in the area and reintroduced to most of the continent a predom- inantly rural pattern of life. As the urban-rural dichotomy proposed above would suggest, this may have had some impact on popular morality, especially in regard to gay people, and this is discussed at some length in chap. 7. Christianity also had a major effect on the shift in mores, but its influence on attitudes toward homosexuality was probably less important than is commonly supposed and was certainly more complex and varied than has hitherto been recognized. It is discussed here and in the following two chap- ters under three headings: (I) the importance of the scriptural tradition (i.e., writings received or written by the first generation of Christian leaders) ; (2) social and intellectual factors relating to early Christian opinion on the subject; and (3) the precise nature of theological objections to homosexuality among the church fathers. 91 92 Chapter Four In considering the supposed influence of certain biblical passages on Western attitudes toward homosexual behavior, one must first relinquish the concept of a single book containing a uniform corpus of writings accepted as morally authoritative. The “Bible” was not disseminated in the early church under the form in which it came to be known later. Early Christians read and venerated many books now rejected as apocryphal (e.g., the Epistle of Barnabas, part of the text of the most famous codex of the Bible) and did not generally recognize some which are now regarded as authentic (e.g., the Apocalypse).1 Roman Catholicism did not officially establish the canon of the Bible until the Council of Trent in 1546, although there had been general agreement on the contents of the New Testament at least since the eighth century. The Bible was not the only or even the principal source of early Christian ethics, and the biblical passages purportedly relating to homosexuality had little to do with early Christian misgivings on the subject. Very few in- fluential theologians based objections to homosexual practices on the New Testament passages now claimed to derogate such behavior, and those who did invoked them only as support for arguments based primarily on other authorities. It is, moreover, quite clear that nothing in the Bible would have categorically precluded homosexual relations among early Christians. In spite of misleading English translations which may imply the contrary, the word “homosexual” does not occur in the Bible: no extant text or manu- script, Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Aramaic, contains such a word. In fact none of these languages ever contained a word corresponding to the English “homosexual,” nor did any languages have such a term before the late nineteenth century. Neither Hebrew nor Arabic has such a word today, nor does modern Greek, except as they coin words by analogy with the pseudo- Latin “homosexual.” There are of course ways to get around the lack of a specific word in a language, and an action may be condemned without being named, but it is doubtful in this particular case whether a concept of homosexual behavior as a class existed at all. The idea that homosexual behavior is condemned in the Old Testament stems from several passages. Probably the most well known, certainly the most influential, is the account of Sodom in Genesis 19. Sodom in fact gave 1. It is assumed throughout this study that the books of the Bible were composed by those to whom they are commonly attributed. This is of course an extremely simplistic approach to a very complex problem, but it seems not only justified but demanded by the circumstances. It was on this assumption that all patristic and medieval biblical exegesis was based, that medieval moral theology was devised, and that Bible-based legislation was enacted. What is at issue here is not how modern Jews and Christians interpret the Bible but how ancient and medieval ones did, and twentieth-century criticism is manifestly irrelevant to the development of patristic and medieval moral theology. 93 The Scriptures its name to homosexual relations in the Latin language,2 and throughout the Middle Ages the closest word to “homosexual” in Latin or any vernacular was "sodomita." A purely homosexual interpretation of this story is, however, relatively recent. None of the many Old Testament passages which refer to Sodom’s wickedness suggests any homosexual offenses, and the rise of homo— sexual associations can be traced to social trends and literature of a much later period. It is not likely that such associations played a large role in deter- mining early Christian attitudes. On the basis of the text alone, there would seem to be four inferences one could make about the destruction of Sodom: (I) the Sodomites were de- stroyed for the general wickedness which had prompted the Lord to send angels to the city to investigate in the first place; (2) the city was destroyed because the people of Sodom had tried to rape the angels; (3) the city was destroyed because the men of Sodom had tried to engage in homosexual intercourse with the angels (note that this is not the same as [2]: rape and homosexual intercourse are separably punishable offenses in jewish law); (4) the city was destroyed for inhospitable treatment of visitors sent from the Lord. Although it is the most obvious of the four, the second possibility has been largely ignored by biblical scholars both ancient and modern, probably due to ambiguities surrounding homosexual rape. Since 1955 modern scholarship has increasingly favored interpretation (4.), emphasizing that the sexual overtones to the story are minor, if present, and that the original moral impact of the passage had to do with hospitality.3 Briefly put, the thesis of this trend in scholarship is that Lot was violating the custom of Sodom (where he was himself not a citizen but only a “sojourner”) by entertaining 2. Wherever possible the term “sodomy” (“sodomia”) has been exduded from this study, since it is so vague and ambiguous as to be virtually useless in a text of this sort. Its etymology is probably a misprision of history, and it has connoted in various times and places everything from ordinary heterosexual intereoune in an atypical position to oral sexual contact with animals. At some pointsinhistoryit has referred almost exclusively to male homo- sexuality and at others almost exclusively to heterosexual excess. Every effort has been made herein to specify what is meant in documents which employ “sodomy” or its equivalent. In certain circumstances, however, its unqualified use has been unavoidable. If a law, for instance, prohibits “sodomy” without further clarification and there is no secondary evidence to suggest what the legists meant by the term, there is no recourse but to discuss the law as opposing “sodomy.” Or ifa popular satirist vituperates against “sodomy” in a treatise which specifically derogates many forms of suuality, it would be misleading and unjustified to assume a priori that “sodomy” referred to a particular one of these, and it is more accurate to retain its imprecision directly. 3. This theory was most prominently expounded by Bailey but has been taken up sub- sequently by many writers, with varying degrees of acceptance: see John McNeill, 7715 Church and tilt Homosexual (Kansas City, Mo., 1976), pp. 42—50; and Marvin Pope, in The Inlnprgler'r Dictionary qflh: Blbll, Supplementary Volume (Nashville, Tenn., 1976), pp. 415—17. 94 Chapter Four unknown guests within the city walls at night without obtaining the per- mission of the elders of the city. When the men of Sodom gathered aroundto demand that the strangers be brought out to them, "that they might know them,” they meant no more than to “know” who they were, and the city was consequently destroyed not for sexual immorality but for the sin of inhospitality to strangers. Numerous considerations lend this argument credibility. As Bailey pointed out,‘ the Hebrew verb “to know” (171:) is very rarely used in a sexual sense in the Bible (despite popular opinion to the contrary): in only ten of its 943 occurrences in the Old Testament does it have the sense of carnal knowledge. The passage on Sodom is the only place in the Old Testament where it is generally believed to refer to homosexual relations. jesus himself apparently believed that Sodom was destroyed for the sin of inhospitality: “Whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the' dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city” (Matt. 10:14—15, iqv; cf. Luke 10: 10—12). There are, moreover, numerous other references in the Old Testament to Sodom and its fate, and scholars have failed to accord this facet of the con- troversy the importance it deserves. Sodom is used as a symbol of evil in dozens of places,6 but not in a single instance is the sin of the Sodomites specified as homosexuality.a Other sins, on the other hand, are explicitly mentioned. Ecclesiasticus says that God abhorred the Sodomites for their pride (16:8), and the book of Wisdom advances the same theory (19: 13—14) that Bailey and others have more recently propounded."I In Ezekiel the sins of Sodom are not only listed categorically but contrasted with the sexual sins of jerusalem as less serious: “As I live, saith the Lord God, Sodom thy sister hath not done . . . as thou hast done. . . . Behold, this was the iniquity of thy 4.. Bailey, pp. 2—3. The Lxx makes no implication of carnal knowledge but uses a Greek expression connoting simply “making the acquaintance of,” “becoming familiar with”: "a-uyyevcfipeda adv-01‘s"; this is in marked contrast to the verbs employed in reference to Lot’s daughters (“Evacrav” and “Xp'ricracrae ”), which clearly refer to sexual behavior. 5. 15.3., Deut. 29:23, 32:32; Isa. 3:9, 13:19;_Ier. 23:14., 4.9118, 50:40; Lam. 4:6; Ezek. 16:46—4B;Amos4.:11;Zeph. 2:9; Matt. 10:15; Luke 17:29;Rom. 9:29; 2 Pet. 2:6;Jude 7. Considering the number of references to the “wickedness” of Sodom in subsequent Scrip- ture, it is rather difficult to believe that none of them would have placed the “wickedness” squarely in a homosexual context if such were indeed the understanding of it. 6. Some authors mistakenly interpret Jude 7 as a homosexual allusion, but there is absolutely no justification for this: see below, p. 97. 7. Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom are considered apocryphal by Protestants and Jews. Regardless of the dispute over the OT canon, these works certainly antedate the tradition of Sodom's homosexuality and indicate a more ancient tradition. 95 The Scriptures sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy” (16:48—49, KJV). I One must also bear in mind that such Old Testament writers were responding to the same story which some modern interpreters still claim “obviously” refers to “homosexuality” and that they were on a far more intimate footing than modern writers with both the language and life-style of the people involved. Their refusal to see the account 'as a 'moral about homosexual behavior cannot be lightly diSregarded, especially in the face of so little evidence to support a homosexual interpretation. Indeed only one argument can be advanced to demonstrate any Sexual desire on the part of the Sodomites: that Lot’s offering his daughters to the men must suggest some anticipation on their part of sexual satisfaction. This argument, however, does not stand close scrutiny. Bailey :commentsp Its connection with the purpose (whatever it was) for which the citizens demanded the production of his guests is purely imaginary. lVo doubt the surrender of his daughters was simply the most tempting bribe Exit could offer on the spur of the moment to appease the hostile crowd, . . . This action, almost unthinkable in modern Western society, was con- sonant with the very low status of female children at the time and was not without its parallels even in the more “civilized” Roman world: Ammianus Marcellinus recounts (19.10) a similar instance where the Roman consul Tertullus offers his children to an angry crowd to save himself. There is no sexual interest of any sort in the incident. . Even more striking is a passage in judges (19:22ff.) obv10usly strongly influenced by, if not modeled on, Genesis 19. In this story the Lev1te of Ephraim and his concubine are unable to find hospitality in Gibeah until an old man—a “foreign resident” just like Lot (19: 16)——-takes them into his home. The subsequent outrage perpetrated by the men of Gibeah exactly parallels what happened in Sodom—they not only gather around the door of the old man‘s house but use the same words as the Sodomites: I Bring the man out that we may know him “ 9—and the old man even offers his daughter as a bribe. But jews and Christians have overwhelmingly failed to interpret this story as one of homosexuality,“3 correctly assessmg it as a moral about \_ 3. P. 6. The Bibi: dz Je’nualzm observes that “the honor ofa woman was at that time'of less value than the sacred duty of hospitality” (“l’honneur d’une femme avait alors moms de prix que le devoir sacré de l’hospitalité"). ’ u n 9. “Nedaenu”; the Lxx renders it "yvcfiiiev," the Vulgate abutamur. I t . h 10. In the Middle Ages “sodomy” was occas1onally imputed to the Benjaminites «in t1 e basis ofJudges 19, as in the documents of the Counc1l of Paris of 11.1). 329, whic ps0 attributed the Flood to “sodomy” (see MGH, Legum, sec. 3, 0011611111, 2. a, p. 634., capitu um 34,). As noted, however, “sodomy” at the time covered a multitude of sins. 95 Chapter Four inhospitality, as did the Levite himself, who recounted the incident to the Israelites he called upon to avenge him without any hint of sexual interest (in him) on the part of the men of Gibeah.ll Moreover, it is anachronistic to imagine that the sexual preoccupations of later ages were major issues in such Old Testament stories as that of Sodom. The parallel story in Joshua 6 is eloquent testimony to the paramount im- portance of hospitality in relation to sexual offenses: the city of Jericho, like Sodom, was completely destroyed by the Lord, and the one person spared was a prostitute ithough prostitution is prohibited in both Leviticus (19:29) and Deuteronomy (23: 17)—because she offered hospitality to the messengers of Joshua. Some modern readers may have difficulty imagining that a breach of hospitality could be so serious an offense as to warrant the destruction of a city. According to Genesis, of course, the Lord was already inclined to punish the Sodomites before the angels arrived there (which is why they were sent). It should be remembered, moreover, that in the ancient world inns were rare outside of urban centers, and travelers were dependent on the hospitality and goodwill of strangers not just for comfort but for physical survival. Ethical codes almost invariably enjoined hospitality on their adherents as a sacred ob- ligation. Among the Greeks Zeus himself was the protector of guests, as the epithet “Zea; Eévtos” testifies: 1” “For Zeus’s care is every stranger. . . ."13 Stories of divine testing of human piety by dispatching beggars or way- farcrs to demand the sacred right of hospitality (“ theoxeny”) are a common- place of folklore in many cultures and occur elsewhere in the Old Testament as well (e.g., immediately before the Sodom story in Gen. 18; cf. Dcut. 23: 3—4. [Kjv]: “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congre- gation of the Lord: even to their tenth generation they shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever: because they met you not with bread and water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt”). In nearly all such stories evil persons appear either as neighbors or other townsfolk who do not fulfill their obligation and are punished, violently or by exclusion from some divine benefice, while the solitary upright family is rewarded with a gift or a proph- ecy of misfortunes to come.” Genesis r9 obviously belongs in this context, 1 1. “And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about upon me by night, and thought to have slain me: and my concubine have they forced, that she is dead " (KJV). The Bible dc Jinnah": notes, “ Iei encore le devoir sacré de l’hospitalité passe avant 1e respect de l’honneur d'une femme." 12. Iliad 13.625; Odyflq 9.271; Aeschylus Agammnan 61—62. 362, etc. 13. Odyssey 6.20711, 14.57ff. In discussing the types of human love Plutarch places hos- pitality (rel £svtx6v) toward strangers second after love for family, and before friendship (Moralia 7 38D). 14. For modern rcaders the most familiar example of the sacred duty of hospitality may be that of Hunding and Siegmund in Wagner‘s Die Wullcu‘re, where the former feels bound 97 The Scriptures no matter how many modern commentators may have ignored it, and a sexual element, if present at all, was probably intended only as the concrete expression of the Sodomites’ lack of hospitality.15 "On the sinners, however, punishments rained down not without violent thunder as early warnmg; and deservedly they suffered for their crimes, since they evinced such bitter hatred towards strangers. Others had refused to welcome unknown men on their arrival, but these had made slavcs of guests and benefactors" (Wisd. 19 :13— 14, JB)- I ‘ Although the original understanding of the story of Sodom surv1ved in some circles until well into the Middle Ages, the increasing emphasis of Hellenistic Jewish and Christian moralists on sexual purity gave rise in late Jewish apocrypha and early Christian writings to associations of Sodom with sexual excesses of various sorts. Thus the Epistle of Jude: “Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (7, KJV). In these early accretions to the story there is no hint of homosexuality: “strange flesh” hardly suggests homoeroticism. The Jewish tradition to which Jude alludes was a legend that the women of Sodom had intercourse with the angels.” But in an intellectual environment vehemently opposed to the casual hedonism of the Hellenistic world, many issues which had not been s...
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