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The Credibility of Boswell's Historical Reconstruction   by Richard B. Hays

Richard B. Hays is professor of New Testament at the Duke University Divinity School. Professor Hays is the author of a number of books, including The Moral Vision of the New Testament and The Faith of Jesus. Professor Hays is also an ordained United Methodist minister.
How sound is Boswell's treatment of the historical evidence concerning early Christian attitudes towards homosexuality? He summarizes his reconstruction in the following manner:

Not only does there appear to have been no general 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.

In point of fact, however, every pertinent Christian text from the pre-Constantinian period (Romans, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Testament of Naphtali [if this is indeed a Christian text], the Apostolic Constitutions, Clement of Alexandria, Minucius Felix, etc.) adopts an unremittingly negative judgment on homosexual practice, and this tradition is emphatically carried forward by all major Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries (Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome,, et al.). A critical reading of Boswell's own discussion will confirm the point: he is unable to cite a single early Christian text which approves homosexual activity. The two anecdotal examples that he does present (Boswell, 1980:133-35) of "love relationships" between members of the same sex (the relationship between Ausonius and Paulinus of Nola and the story of the martyred saints Perpetua and Felicitas) do not, as he admits, actually provide evidence of a sexual relationship between the parties in question.

How, then, can Boswell put forward an account which claims that early Christians were tolerant of "gay" sexuality? The argument rests on two types of appeal: the argument from silence and the claim that the reasons advanced by early Christian writers for rejecting homosexuality are in fact insufficient or invalid. Let us consider each of these briefly in turn.

The argument from silence derives whatever plausibility it may possess from the fact that early Christian references to homosexuality are relatively infrequent, despite the prevalence of homosexual practices in the Greco-Roman world. If Christians had really been opposed to homosexuality and if Christian self-definition entailed sharp distinction from common pagan practice in this matter, would we not hear a good deal more about it?

This argument does indeed rightly call our attention to the fact that homosexual behavior is not a major issue for early Christian writers, particularly the writers of the NT. It is fallacious, however, to infer from this that they were tolerant of it. On the contrary, the evidence that does exist suggests that they regarded it as so self-evidently loathsome as hardly to require discussion. This attitude appears to be one which the early church inherited from its Jewish wellsprings. (In addition to the prohibition of homosexual intercourse in Leviticus, see the above discussion of Josephus and Philo.) As Boswell puzzles over the "source" of "antigay prejudices" in the Christian tradition, he seems to give all too little weight to the early influence of Jewish tradition on this matter. The early Christian texts which decry homosexual practice do so, as we have already noted, in terms which are directly dependent upon Jewish polemic against pagan vices. It appears that the early Christians unreflectively adopted and baptized the characteristic Hellenistic Jew! ish hostility towards homosexuality. It is perfectly legitimate for the historian to wonder, as Boswell (1980:102-03) does, why such a taboo would be retained in early Christian communities which set aside many other Jewish scruples such as dietary laws and the practice of circumcision; however, it is entirely illegitimate to suppose that opposition to homosexual activity must therefore have arisen from some other source or, worse yet, that it did not exist at all simply because it appears to the modern historian to be illogical.

The most grievous and pervasive error in Boswell's historical reconstruction of early Christian attitudes towards homosexuality is his tendency to confuse normative with descriptive judgments. If he can show that the arguments of early Christian writers were "inconsistent, contradictory, and often illogical" (as indeed often they were), he supposes (Boswell, 1980:128) that such arguments must therefore have had little influence on "the general atti- tude toward homosexuality among rank-and-file Christians." But where is l l the evidence, particularly for the pre-Constantinian period? When Boswell tries to dismiss the weight of the literary evidence by asserting that "there is l . . . no evidence that Christians in general were much affected by the narrow sexual attitudes of some of their leaders," we might, with all good will, ask where is the evidence that they were not so affected? Boswell's recurrent strategy is to discredit the logical validity of early Christian polemics against homosexual practice, or to show that antecedent philosophical traditions such as Stoicism did not necessitate a rejection of homosexuality, and then to dismiss these texts as historically valid evidence for determining what early Christian attitudes actually were. The formulation quoted at the beginning of this section is revealing: "there does not seem to have been any reason for Christianity to adopt a hostile attitude toward homosexual behavior." Be that as it may, such an assertion must weigh lightly on the historian's scale against the considerable body of evidence which demonstrates that early Christian writers did in fact hold a unanimously hostile attitude toward homosexual behavior. Boswell is able to tell a story of early Christian tolerance towards homosexuality only within an artificial silence created by gagging his sources with a sheet of normative judgments.

Excerpted with permission from "Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell's Exegesis of Romans I" by Richard B. Hays in the Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 14 (1986), pp. 202-204. Footnotes omitted.

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