Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity

A Critical Examination of John Boswell’s Work

Culpa Ecclesiae: Boswell’s Dilemma

by John Lauritsen

In the documentary film, Army of Lovers, the German filmmaker, Rosa von Praunheim, conducts an interview with an earnest young man who is a leader of a gay Nazi cult in California. At the conclusion of the interview, Von Praunheim asks the gay Nazi: “Tell me, don’t you find it a contradiction, being gay and being a Nazi?” “No”, he replies, “not any more than being gay and being a Christian.” This riposte serves as an immediate transition to the gay Christianity of Metropolitan Community Church founder, Troy Perry, whose antics are then followed by the antigay Christianity of Anita Bryant.

Let it be said up front that John Boswell is a Believer, and that his goal is essentially to reconcile homosexuality and Christianity — to plead on historical grounds for greater tolerance for “gay people”, while at the same time exonerating Mother Church for her role in the oppression of homosexual men. [1] In Boswell’s own words, “Much of the present volume ... is specifically intended to rebut the common idea that religious belief — Christian or other — has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people.” [2]

Bearing in mind the difficulties in preparing an abstract of a dense and varied work of over 400 pages, I think the following fairly summarizes the central argument of Boswell’s book:

The only unequivocal scriptural basis for the condemnation of homosexuality is in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, which as part of the Old Testament is not necessarily binding on Christians. Therefore there was no reason for Christianity to adopt a hostile attitude towards homosexual behavior.

The Greeks and Romans were either sympathetic or indifferent to homosexuality, up to the Christian era. Contrary to the impression created by rationalist historians, this indifference (despite occasional antigay outbursts from certain Church Fathers) lasted well into the High Middle Ages; notably, the 12th century was a period of considerable tolerance in general, with a great flowering of homoerotic expression. Only near the 13th century did intolerance against gay people appear, for secular reasons not fully understood. (At this point the book ends.)

It is not surprising that Professor Boswell has been enthusiastically hailed by the gay Christians, to whom he appears as a new Savior who will rescue them, not only from queer-hating religionists, but from gay liberation secularists as well, by demonstrating historically that it’s all right to be a gay Christian. Well before publication of the book, Boswell was in demand as a speaker before meetings and conventions of Dignity (gay Roman Catholics) and Integrity (gay Episcopalians). In time, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality may become a fifth gospel to gay Christians, to be inserted behind the book of the “Beloved Disciple”.

I cannot remember reading a more frustrating book. Undeniably, it is a formidable work of scholarship. Boswell has retrieved, and translated, charming medieval verse, letters and other materials from periods which were previously more or less blank in the pages of gay history.

On the other hand, Boswell’s arguments, his use of evidence, are fatally flawed by his doomed attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. In his effort to marry the gay liberation movement to the Christian Church, Boswell is too often required to compromise the former while becoming complicitous in the historic crimes of the latter.

Boswell’s book is heavily laden with the accoutrements of scholarship, and must be sufficiently intimidating to the general reader that he will tend not to question Boswell’s evidence or arguments. In 400 pages of text there are over 1100 footnotes, an average of 2.9 footnotes per page. Furthermore, the footnotes are often quite long and printed in small type, so that there are probably about as many words in the footnotes as in the main text. (This is not a criticism per se — the footnotes contain some of the most interesting material.) Many texts are included in the original languages: hundreds of lines of Latin, dozens of lines of Greek, as well as text in Hebrew and Arabic. This sort of thing intimidates me also, and I am only too aware that I have not the language and research skills of the professional historian. At the same time, I believe that Boswell’s work is more vulnerable than it seems at first, and that the more one knows about a particular area, the less impressed one is by Professor Boswell’s competence in handling it.

It is clear from his “Introduction” and his first chapter, “Definitions”, that Boswell has very limited knowledge of the literature of the homosexual rights movement. A disproportionate amount of space is spent on the eccentric theories of a small circle of “sociobiologists” at Harvard. The book which I and others consider to be the best general work in English — Homosexual Behavior Among Males by Wainwright Churchill — is merely ticked off in a footnote that falsely implies it is no more than an obsolete book on animal studies. The dismissal of the book is unfortunate, because the reader who has followed Wainwright Churchill’s argument will not likely be taken in by John Boswell’s Christian apologetics.

Boswell has little acquaintance with the early German movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, he speculates that the term, “Urning”, was “presumably a corruption of [the term, ‘Uranian’]” [3] This is entirely wrong. “Urning” is a German word, coined in 1864 by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, certainly one of the most important figures in the entire history of the homosexual rights movement. [4]

Boswell’s first chapter, “Definitions”, is quite weak; analysis is clearly not his forte. He insists on using the phrase, “gay people”, defining it in divers ways: all contradictory and all wrong. In the course of the book, the phrase “gay people” becomes increasingly absurd and anachronistic. I flinched when I encountered the phrase, “gay people and their sexuality”, but worse was yet to come: the phrase, “gay and non-gay passions”. After brooding for awhile on what “non-gay passions” might mean, I put the book down, and did not resume reading it till I had cleared my mind with a John Dickson Carr mystery. However, Boswell has a method to his muddle. The “gay people” concept deflects attention away from behavior, which is subject to theological taboos and proscriptions, and concentrates instead on a population minority, which is subject to misunderstanding, discrimination and intolerance from the majority on the basis of arbitrary characteristics, in this case, “sexuality”. The latter model is, of course, nothing more or less than standard liberal dogma of the present. Minority group analogies are vitiated by the fact that we are not a minority. The time has come for us to say boldly that the vast majority of human males are erotically attracted to other males, whether they admit it or not; homosexuality is nothing less than a phylogenetic characteristic of the male of our species.

The crowning “gay people” absurdity is reached when Boswell argues that St. Paul condemned homosexual acts only when they are committed by apparently heterosexual persons. He writes: “Paul did not discuss gay persons but only homosexual acts committed by heterosexual persons.” [5] Ergo, St. Paul must have considered bisexuality to be the ultimate evil, and perhaps it is bisexuals who should be up in arms over Boswell’s book.

In addition to the “gay people” concept, Boswell employs a variety of stratagems to exculpate the Church from her historic role in the repression of homosexuality. In his fourth chapter, “The Scriptures”, Boswell performs bizarre and revisionist exegeses on the relevant Biblical texts in order to demonstrate either that they do not condemn homosexuality (and pooh pooh to previous Biblical scholars) or that, in the case of Leviticus (a hard nut to crack), it doesn’t matter, because the Old Testament is not binding on Christians. [6]

Boswell gravely neglects one most important source of antihomosexual sentiment in Christian theology: the philosopher Philo Judaeus (c. 20 BC to c. 50 AD), whose writings have had an enormous influence on both Jewish and Christian thought, affecting St. Paul and such early church Fathers as St. Ambrose, about whom more later. To be sure Boswell does refer to Philo several times, and even mentions the passages where Philo’s comments on homosexuality can be found. But Boswell simply cannot bring himself to quote what Philo actually said, Philo’s fanatical hatred of homosexuality. From such deviously nondescript footnotes as, “In his De legibus specialibus Philo contrasts Mosaic prohibitions of homosexual acts with their complete acceptance by Hellenistic society”, [7] one would scarcely dream that Philo considered homosexuality so evil that homosexual men ought to be put to death on the spot by lynch law. The following passage is from “The Special Laws”:

Much graver than the above is another evil, which has ramped its way into the cities, namely pederasty. In former days the very mention of it was a great disgrace, but now it is a matter of boasting not only to the active but to the passive partners, who habituate themselves to endure the disease of effemination, let both body and soul run to waste, and leave no ember of their male sex-nature to smoulder. Mark how conspicuously they braid and adorn the hair of their heads, and how they scrub and paint their faces with cosmetics and pigments and the like, and smother themselves with fragrant unguents. For of all such embellishments, used by all who deck themselves out to wear a comely appearance, fragrance is the most seductive. In fact the transformation of the male nature to the female is practised by them as an art and does not raise a blush. These persons are rightly judged worthy of death by those who obey the law, which ordains that the man-woman who debases the sterling coin of nature should perish unavenged, suffered not to live for a day or even an hour, as a disgrace to himself, his house, his native land and the whole human race. And the lover of such may be assured that he is subject to the same penalty. He pursues an unnatural pleasure and does his best to render cities desolate and uninhabited by destroying the means of procreation. [8]

With his fifth chapter, “Christians and Social Change”, Boswell comes to a problem area. It is crucial to his case to discredit the picture drawn by such nasty rationalists as Edward Gibbon, Edward Westermarck, Havelock Ellis, and Alfred Kinsey, that the achievement of state power by the Christians was accompanied by sexual intolerance. Boswell finds no such intolerance in the first Christian centuries; he states: “Not only does there appear to have been no special prejudice against gay people among early Christians; there does not seem to have been any reason for Christianity to adopt a hostile attitude toward homosexual behavior.” [9]

However, this Pollyanna vision of a tolerant Christianity in power comes about only through some rather extraordinary lapses: notably, omitting an adequate description of the Councils of Elvira and Ancyra, and misrepresenting two 4th century statutes which decreed no less than the death penalty for male homosexual acts.

Boswell writes: “In 342 gay marriages, which had hitherto been legal (at least de facto) and well known, were outlawed in a curiously phrased statute which some authors have regarded as entirely facetious.” [10]

In this case, Boswell does not supply either the Latin text or an English translation; he bases his absurd and anachronistic “gay marriages” interpretation solely on the verb, “nubit”. The verb, “nubere”, does indeed mean “to marry”, but in vulgar usage it can simply mean “have sex with”. The law of 342 may seem “curious”, but rather than a “facetious” law against “gay marriages”, it sounds like a deadly serious antihomosexual law carrying the death penalty. Here is a translation:

When a man submits to men, the way a woman does, what can he be seeking? where sex has lost its proper place? where the crime is one it is not profitable to know? where Venus is changed into another form? where love is sought and does not appear? We order statutes to arise, and the laws to be armed with an avenging sword, that those guilty of such infamous crimes, either now or in the future, may be subjected to exquisite penalties. [11]

Boswell attempts to skim over the next major antihomosexual statute by writing: “the first corporal penalty for an act related to homosexuality was imposed in 390 for forcing or selling males into prostitution.” [12] This is quite wrong, and Boswell must know it, for he again “neglects” to provide the reader with the text of the statute in question, either in Latin or in English. His omission is highly suspect, as the book elsewhere is filled with hundreds of lines of Latin — wherever Boswell can impress the reader without compromising his argument. [13]

Far from merely outlawing prostitution, the statute of 390, in language strikingly recalling that of Philo, condemns at the very least passive homosexuals, and very likely all homosexuals, to death by burning. Translation from the Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio follows:


Moses says:

If anyone hath intercourse with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination. Let them both die; they are guilty ...

This indeed is the law. But a constitution of the Emperor Theodosius followed to the full the spirit of the Mosaic Law. (Likewise the Theodosian Code.): [14]


We shall not suffer the City of Rome, the mother of all virtues,
any longer to be defiled by the pollution of effeminacy in males
and the rustic vigor inherited from her founding fathers,
weakened through the unmanliness of her people,
to become a reproach for the ages either to her founders or to her rulers,
o Orientius whom we love and cherish,
Praiseworthy therefore is your practice of seizing all who have committed
the crime of treating their male bodies as though they were female,
submitting them to the use becoming the opposite sex,
and being in no wise distinguishable from women,
and — as the monstrosity of the crime demands —
dragging them out of the brothels (it is shameful to say) for males ...
in the sight of the people shall the offender expiate his crime in the avenging flames that each and everyone may understand
that the dwelling place of the male soul should be sacrosanct to all
and that no one may without incurring the ultimate penalty
aspire to play the part of another sex by shamefully renouncing his own.

Issued on the Ides of May (= May 14, 390) in the Hall of Minerva. [15]

The statute of 390 must be seen in historical context. At this time, the Emperor Theodosius, under the influence of St. Ambrose, was attempting the final extirpation of all vestiges of paganism in the Roman Empire. The ancient statue of Victory was removed from the Roman Senate; pagan temples and idols were destroyed; synagogues were burned; sacred groves were felled; and persecutions were waged against heretics, cinaedi (effeminate homosexuals, queans), and pederasts. [16]

In the year 390 occurred one of the most extraordinary events in gay history, the Thessalonican Massacre. Although Boswell mentions the Thessalonican massacre in a footnote, he seems unaware of the homosexual background to the event, or its relevance to the proper interpretation of the statute of 390. Here is what happened:

In Thessalonica, a handsome and popular young charioteer was thrown into prison for homosexual offenses by Botheric, the commander of the Illyrian troops. According to some accounts the charioteer had pursued a beautiful youth who was servant to Botheric. According to other accounts, the charioteer had made a pass at Botheric himself.

The people of Thessalonica demanded that Botheric release the charioteer so he could compete in the upcoming races. When Botheric refused, they broke out into a furious riot, as there was no interest in life in which they took greater pleasure than in the circus games. The mob stormed the prison, rescued their charioteer, and then killed Botheric and several of his guard and dragged their bodies through the streets.

Obviously the Thessalonican people felt that the charioteer had been unjustly imprisoned. It would seem that their concepts of sexual morality were still more pagan than Christian (Christianity had been the state religion for only two generations), so they saw nothing evil in sex between males. Very likely they regarded the law under which the charioteer had been imprisoned to be yet another attempt on the part of the Christians to impose their morbid strictures on the entire population.

When the Emperor Theodosius heard of the riot, he was furious — it was a direct affront to the Imperial power and Botheric had been a personal friend of his, as well as an able commander. As there had been a number of popular uprisings in the past few years, Theodosius resolved to make an example of the Thessalonicans.

The people of Thessalonica were all invited, in the name of their emperor, to a special entertainment at the circus. As soon as the stadium was filled the exits were closed, barbarian soldiers swarmed in, and a general massacre began. For over two hours the blood bath continued, and no fewer than 7,000 men, women and children were put to the sword.

The aftermath of the Thessalonican Massacre — the penance Theodosius was forced to make to St. Ambrose, the subjection of the temporal to the spiritual power — is one of the most important episodes in western history. [17]

When Boswell finally gets past our great enemy, the 6th century Christian Emperor Justinian (whom he whitewashes shamefully), the book begins to pick up, and the last half, so far as I can judge, is excellent. Chapter 9, “The Triumph of Ganymede: Gay Literature of the High Middle Ages”, is a valuable contribution to gay studies. Certainly Boswell is justified in arguing that the middle ages were not characterized by monolithic intolerance, regarding homosexuality or anything else.

The book concludes with Boswell’s rebuttal of St. Thomas Aquinas. I am not sure that medieval scholasticism is best fought with post-medieval scholasticism, but anyway it is entertaining.

The Appendix is very ample, and probably the best part of the book — extensive translations of songs, letters, poems, penitentials, and writings of the Church Fathers. My favorites are two 12th century dialogues invidiously comparing the charms of boys and women: “Ganymede and Helen” and “Ganymede and Hebe”.

It is regrettable that one must be harsh on a work with such considerable merit, but willful dishonesty in a scholar must not be condoned. (One recalls the recent vilification campaign waged against Sir Cyril Burt, one of the seminal figures in modern psychology, for scholarly indiscretions which were mere peccadillos compared to those committed by Boswell. And Burt, being dead, is unable to defned himself.) Boswell’s attempts to whitewash the crimes of the Christian Church are not innocuous wish-fulfillment fantasies. They undercut a basic argument for gay liberation: that our oppression is not due to a spontaneous revulsion on the part of the majority population (“healthy sensibility of the people”, as the Nazis put it), but rather to a particular theological tradition; that our oppression is rooted in superstition; that the Judeo-Christian taboo on Male Love is the core of the problem.

We should invite John Boswell to join gay liberation wholeheartedly; he has skills and knowledge that we need. To join us, Boswell must first extricate himself from the impossible position he’s in: attempting to reconcile Christianity and homosexuality. It would be an act of maturity for Boswell to graduate from Christianity to secular humanism. Edward Gibbon set an illustrious example: he was expelled at fifteen from Oxford for converting to Catholicism, he then reconverted to Protestantism, and thence to skepticism, to which Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a supreme monument.

There’s nothing to fear. The Church no longer has Fire and Faggot at her disposal to condemn apostates to the avenging flames.

Comrade lovers of the future will have no need for religion; they will have exchanged the illusory happiness of religion for the happiness of the real world.


[1] Previous attempts have been made by Canon Derrick S. Bailey of the Church of England (Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, 1955) and the Jesuit, John McNeill (The Church and the Homosexual, 1976).

[2] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago 1980), p. 6.

[3] Boswell, p. 43.

[4] For the European forerunners of the gay liberation movement see The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935) by John Lauritsen and David Thorstad (Times Change Press 1974, revised second edition 1995); The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany by James Steakley (Arno Press 1975).

[5] Boswell, p. 109.

[6] Obviously the burden of proof in reinterpreting scriptural passages is on John Boswell. To take just one example, Boswell’s (and Bailey’s and McNeill’s) notion that the Sodom and Gomorrah story condemned merely inhospitality — not homosexuality — contradicts the consensus of over 2000 years of Hellenistic Jewish and Christian tradition.

[7] Boswell, p. 350.

[8] Philo, Loeb edition, vol. VII, p. 499.

[9] Boswell, p. 135.

[10] Boswell, p. 123.

[11] Codex Theodosianus L. IX. tit. VII, 3: Cum uir nubit in feminam uiris porrecturam, quid cupiat, ubi sexus perdidit locum? ubi scelus est id quod non proficit, scire? Ubi Uenus mutatur in alteram formam? ubi amor quaeritur, nec uidetur? Iubemus insurgere leges, armari iura gladio ultore, ut exquisitis poenis subdantur infames, qui sunt uel qui futuri sunt rei.

[12] Boswell, p. 124.

[13] It is noteworthy that in the first Yearbook of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (the first activist homosexual rights organization), published in Berlin in 1899, Numa Praetorius (pseud. Eugen Wilhelm), in an article which surveyed legislation on homosexuality from ancient times to 1898, gave full Latin texts of both the law of 342 and 390, as well as his own translations into German. This is the way a scholar with integrity does things. Unlike Boswell, Numa Praetorius was not afraid to let the reader judge for himself.

[14] Translation from Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio — with Introduction, Facsimile and Transcription of the Berlin Codex, Translation, Notes and Appendices, by M. Hyamson; Oxford University Press; London, New York, Toronto, Melbourne and Bombay: 1913. See also the shorter text of this law (printed in the Codex Theodosianus, ed. T. Mommsen), which does not even mention male brothels. Following is the Latin text:


Moyses dicit:

Qui manserit, cum masculo mansione muliebri, aspernamentum est: ambo moriantur, rei sunt ...

Hoc quidem iuris est: mentem tamen legis Moysis imperatoris Theodosii constitutio ad plenum secuta cognoscitur. (item Theodosianus):

[15] Translation by Warren Johansson. Another translation is in Hyamson, op. cit. Following is the Latin text:


Non patimur urbem Romam uirtutum omnium matrem diutius effeminati in uiro pudoris contaminatione foedari et agreste illud a priscis conditoribus robur fracta molliter plebe tenuatum conuicium saeculis uel conditorum inrogare uel principum, Orienti k[arissime] ac iuc[undissime] nobis. laudanda igitur experientia tua omnes, quibus flagiti usus est uirile corpus muliebriter constitutum alieni sexus damnare patientia nihilque discretum habere cum feminis, occupatos, ut flagitii poscit inmanitas, atque omnibus eductos, pudet dicere, uirorum lupanaribus spectante populo flammae uindicibus expiabit, ut uniuersi intellegant sacrosanctum cunctis esse debere hospitium uirilis animae nec sine summo supplicio alienum expetisse sexum qui suum turpiter perdidisset. Prop. pr. id. Maias Romae in atrio Mineruae.

For other treatments of the law of 390 consult: Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum by Edoardo Volterra, Dott. Giovanni Bardi, Tipografo della R. Accademia dei Lincei, Roma, 1930; Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio by N. Smits, H. D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon N. W., Haarlem, 1934; and Die Quellen des Römischen Rechts by Leopold Wenger, Druck und Verlag Adolf Holzhausens Nfg., Wien, 1953.

[16] Descriptions of this can be found in the brilliant chapters 28 and 29 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and in Chapter 6, volume 5 of Otto Seeck’s Geschichte des Untergangs der antiken Welt, Franz Siemenroth, Berlin, 1913.

[17] For accounts of the Thessalonican Massacre and its ramifications, consult Gibbon, op. cit.; Seeck, op. cit.; Die Religionspolitik des Kaisers Theodosius d. Gr. by Wilhelm Ensslin, Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, München, 1953; and St. Ambrose’s Theory of Church-State Relations by Richard Charles Clark, doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1971.

URI of this page : http://www.pinktriangle.org.uk/lib/hic/lauritsen.html
Created : Sunday, 2003-09-21 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys : webster@pinktriangle.org.uk