Historian Presents Evidence Of Same-Sex Marriage Ceremonies Performed In The Christian Church In 100 AD

Many LGBT rights advocates considered the Pope's recent message of tolerance towards gay priests and Christians to be quite revolutionary, despite what some have argued to the contrary. However, according to historian John Boswell and his seminal book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, the Christian church has already performed same-sex unions. Granted, it was some centuries ago during the Dark Ages. Nevertheless, io9 reports that

"There were dozens of records of church ceremonies where two men were joined in unions that used the same rituals as heterosexual marriages. (He found almost no records of lesbian unions, which is probably an artifact of a culture which kept more records about the lives of men generally.)"

The Catholic historian's book was published in 1994, shortly before his death from AIDS. As io9 noted, "given the Church's present-day views on gay marriage, these detractors argued, Boswell's history seemed like wishful thinking." Now, the book is being re-released as an e-book, and finding itself in the spotlight once again. It chronicles much of Boswell's research the he conducted throughout the 1970's and 80's, sifting through legal and church records from throughout the late Roman Empire and Early Christian church. 

So why doesn't the Church recognize same-sex unions anymore? Any why are the documents chronicling these same-sex unions just now surfacing centuries later?

"One easy answer is that — as Boswell argues — the Church reframed the idea of marriage in the 13th century to be for the purposes of procreation. And this slammed the door on gay marriage. Church scholars and officials worked hard to suppress the history of these marriages in order to justify their new definition. 

Achilles and PatroclusBefore you start celebrating, though, know that the unions described in these documents don't necessarily mirror the same-sex unions we recognize today. These unions took place in era during which Europe was still transitioning from its last years of the Roman Empire. Thus, these unions most likely reflected the kind of same-sex relationships that existed in Rome. Documents would often refer to the two men as "brothers" rather than "husbands". Annalee Newitz, author of the io9 piece, also noted that "marriages over a millennium ago were not based on procreation, but wealth-sharing." Unions like this were not always sexual in nature. That said, the documents still present evidence that the Early Christian church performed marriage ceremonies between two men. 

One legal scholar even "wrote a law journal article explaining that Boswell's book could even be used as evidence for the legality of gay marriage, since it shows evidence that definitions of marriage have changed over time." Most of the individuals who cite religion as their chief objection to marriage equality cite the belief that the Church's current definition supports the same, "natural", divinely inspired definition that it has always had. Boswell's work certainly presents evidence that contradicts that.

Unfortunately, Boswell is no longer around to defend his work. If he was, though, there is no doubt that he would have one or two things to say about the current legal state of same-sex marriage. One can only hope that the release of his work in this much more accessible and cost-effective might allow more people to get their hands on it. 


  1. JMC says

    lol it’s really funny and terribly tragic at the same time that the people keeping us from achieving marriage equality by advocating for “traditional” unions would have the totality of their rationale for perpetuating institutionalized homophobia shattered if they just spent 15 minutes perusing Wikipedia articles

  2. DannyEastVillage says

    @QJ201: no–ignorant Towleroad contributors just discovered it. Boswell died 20 years ago and this work has been out there ever since. And to show how ignorant this contributor is, no mention is made of the fact that Boswell was chair of the Department of History at Yale. Yes, THAT Yale.

  3. DannyEastVillage says

    i also note that this half-assed reporting doesn’t mention that Boswell discovered these ceremonies in the Vatican Archives accidentally when he was doing research on something else. That discovery led to his discovering manuscripts of similar ceremonies in cathedral and monastery libraries all over Eastern and Western Europe.

    Predictably, when his book was published, the Vatican had “No comment.”

  4. Martin says

    This was written in a very Huff Post headline fashion. At first I thought something new on the topic had been discovered, rather than the existence of a book that made a bit of a splash when it came out 20 years ago. Boswell took quite a flogging from other historians concerning his findings. I thought this story was going to be someone new coming to his defense. Glad to see the book come back into print (I see a Kindle version coming, didn’t immediately see a hard copy pre-order), but without Boswell to defending his work, the flogging will likely continue.

    Am I remembering this wrong, or did Boswell make some sort of correction or admission concerning his research before his death? Might be thinking of someone else.

  5. Mike in the tundra says

    I actually read the book about 10 years ago. It was dry as day old toast. We really don’t need to look at these unions to prove that the definition of marriage has changed. Just look at King David’s, Solomon’s, and Abraham’s marriages.

  6. aj says

    Several Years ago I performed a Marriage ceremony for 2 couples, the first couple was an Old Catholic Bishop and his partner of over 25 Years and the second couple was an Old Catholic Benedictine Abbot and his partner of over 35 Years. Together they asked for a double wedding Mass. The Bishop sent me the “Original Text” of the Catholic Same Sex Union service from the days (centuries past) when the church would actually Bless same sex couples. We edited it to make it more contemporary and celebrated the Nuptial Mass with the words of the original service……A Priest in Boston…

  7. Kyle says

    Some wild and erroneous leaps of logic. First and second century Christians were believers in the Old Testament and first century Christian teachings on sexuality and morality. As such, they believed that the Scriptures and Church taught that any sexual actions outside of the confines of heterosexual marriage was a sin and not consistent with Christian teaching and lifestyle. There is no evidence that these rituals were for same-sex couples that were openly in sexual or romantic relationships, in fact, everything we know about early Christians would lead reasonable people to conclude the opposite. Further, even if there were some purported Christian sect that celebrated sames-sex marriage at that time, that sect would have been thought of as herectical and non-Christian by the great body of mainstream Christianity by virtue of their radical departure from Scriptural teachings and practice.

  8. Jerry says

    In 1981, Boswell earned the National Book Award for history for his landmark work on the history of attitudes toward homosexuality in the Christian West: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. It’s gone through several editions and is still in print. It is a tribute to Boswell that his writings continue to generate ongoing scholarship and act as a touchstone and inspiration for the work of others. We know same-sex unions took place, as the text of the service has been found in several languages. Regrettably we live in an age when the vicious anti-semitic rantings and homophobia of a John Chrysostom (4th C.) have more value in today’s Roman and Orthodox Churches, than the solid, albeit controversial scholarship of John Boswell.

  9. spg says

    I think an interesting article that talks about his sort of thing and how tenusous the study of premodern sexuality in western socitey can be is:

    “Privilege, Possibility, and Perversion: Rethinking the Study of Early Modern Sexuality”, Katherine Crawford-Vanderbilt University. The Journal of Modern History
    Vol. 78, No. 2, June 2006

    In any case it’s very hard to make blanket statements on these early ceremonies as society and culture back then was not only very different than today, but highly dependent on the locality or geographic location of it’s various cultures. Huge ranges of behavior could be seen by simply traveling 50 km. for example. Never the less, thinking about such is very interesting.

  10. Michaelandfred says

    It always astounds me how the religious, who’s entire belief system is based on “faith,” always demand facts or undisputible evidence for the things they disagree with.

    Why is this so hard to believe? Early Christianity adopted or superimposed themselves on many different religious and secular ceremonies as it grew from infancy into dominance. Christmas and Easter are classic examples. Why should this be any different. Popes used to wives and children. Our modern imagine of Christ was commissioned by the pope by Da Vinci using his son as the model.

    2,000 years one or a handful of men have been making it changing the rules at their discretion or whim, for reasons usually based on money and power. Why should this be any different?

  11. jamal49 says

    @KYLE You remind me of the the type of person who has read the King James Version of the Bible a couple of times and therefore feels sufficiently confident to declare themselves to be a “biblical scholar”.

    Obviously, you know very little of the history of the early christian church and how it evolved. Regarding early Church teachings on marriage and conjugal relations, you know even less. Perhaps you might actually READ Mr. Boswell’s scholarly works, the first being “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality”. Then, you might progress to the book as mentioned above.

    For the record, Boswell was denounced by some secular and religious scholars. But, they were unable to refute his arguments that the Church of the Middles Ages DID have ceremonial rites to celebrate same-sex love or, perhaps, bonding. Whether those rites could be classified as a form of marriage sanctioned by the Church is the crux of the debate.

    Boswell never said that such rites were the same as heterosexual marriage ceremonies. What Boswell was pointing out, quite correctly, is that the Catholic Church DID at one time offer a ceremony for men to make a bond and commitment to one another most probably of a platonic nature, and that the Church has had an evolving view of what it defines as “marriage”.

    The Church doesn’t like to have such inconvenient truths brought to its attention because it revels in its claim to be “eternal and unchanging”. Diligent, accurate historians such as John Boswell give sound refutation to that claim.

  12. says

    And so the Latin Church, with state approval under Emperor Constantine had to depart and distinguish itself from the Greek tradition;
    this does not change the face that there were same sex marriages before Constantine/Church/Council of Nicea.

    James, the brother of Jesus and head of the early Jerusalem church, always said his brother was not divine, yet the council of Nicea voted to the contrary. And so the delusional mythology began; there are just too many vested interests to change the Church now.
    And the First Vatican Council about 1870, voted the Pope infallible…….where does this self aggrandizing neurosis end ?

  13. Rex says

    @AJ That sounds like an amazing time AJ. Congrats to those couples. You wouldn’t happen to still have “Original Text” of the Catholic Same Sex Union service from centuries past or the modernized version you created, would you?

  14. Steven says

    I read the book 20 years ago; at that time I was attending Dignity, the RC “gay” offshoot. In fact I left them (and have since foregone all religion as harmful) because they became more reactionary and wanted to become just like the main church except in the instance of allowing gays to come to service openly. Where women were once welcomed and celebrated the service, they were stopped, etc. The old white men (queens) at the group wanted everything including papal infallibility except in regards to them. I was seeing in them the same thing that the Roman Catholic (Latin Rites) did as described in the book. I have since then read several other books about the early church and what was decided to be left out. Many of the changes were essentially done to keep the PTB in charge. Every incremental change seemed to consolidate the Powers That Be stranglehold on what was a fairly open organization. The RC church became a de facto government, which has never given up its dreams of past glories, even the infallibility changes mentioned above were designed to keep that hold on power.
    “Books” written at the time of the those now included in the standard bible were knowingly ignored. Some were even purported to be written close to first hand. Many were much more open about ‘membership’ and support some of the claims of Boswell. Others also put women in a much more equal position but those were quashed as being heretical. The various modern books showing the other sides of early ‘christianity’ definitely pushed me away from ‘infallibility’ and ‘true, inspired word of GOD’ to just a bunch of oral history transcribed to parchment which was designed support those trying to hold on to power.
    Now I support no religion and wish it would all be relegated to a history of superstition and magical thinking, and rest our progress on real science.

  15. says

    Rex, I do have a copy of that Rite. Contact me through my website. BTW, I’m the Old Catholic Bishop that “AJ” witnessed the Rites of matrimony for in the presence of Priests from other faiths as well. AJ is slightly off on his numbers. At the time of our wedding, my partner and I were together for 33 years. “AJ” was at the time, one of my Priests.

  16. who cares? it was a long time ago says

    The relief I felt in announcing to others that I was gay was very much the same as the relief I felt in renouncing religion, specifically the RC church.

    I can still remember the moment when I was about 20 telling my two best friends, both gay men, that I was no longer Catholic. We had all gone to the same Catholic prep school.

    Once you throw off the yoke of religion the whole world is a brighter, happier place. And discussions like the above about who did what a thousand years ago are nothing but mildly amusing.

  17. Kyle says

    So what if some subset of Christians at some time had a ritual for platonic, brotherly bonds between Christian men? That is not relevant to same-sex marriage or unions that feature overtly romantic and sexual activity. You are purportedly talking about brotherly bonds, not romantic ones.

  18. mododavid says

    This is a great book. Reading it brought gay history to life for me. I’ve been anxious for the idiotic mainstream media to crack this book open and report on it…they didn’t, until gay sites like towleroad started reporting on it. Now, could someone send a copy to Antonin Scalia!!

  19. Joseph says

    @Kyle – your position is identical to the RC Church’s position when this book first appeared in 1994. While the church had been able to destroy the manuscripts containing the service in its possession, it could not destroy copies extant in various monasteries of Eastern Orthodoxy. They are published by Boswell, and when read sanctify a holy union of two men in the name of the trinity beseeching God’s blessing. Boswell provides some 80 pages of documents of prayers and office of same-sex unions, gathered from monastery documents, all completely categorized and referenced. The evidence and documentation is overwhelming!

  20. RussTX says

    I’m with Kyle, who commented above. I did read Boswell’s entire book, word for word – stumbling through the Latin and skipping over the Greek parts – and it’s evident that there was a ceremony for “brother-making” (which is the title of it in those manuscripts where it is found). But Boswell’s contention that these same-sex unions (he uses the word “gay”) were widespread and openly celebrated as what we would now call same-sex marriages is just his assertion. I have yet to read of any other reputable historian confirming Boswell’s research. In fact, as far as I can tell, the whole history-scholar community has tiptoed quietly away from Boswell’s claims. One man’s intriguing thesis is not proof of anything, especially the idea that for the first thousand years of its existence, the Christian church had no problem at all with gays – they did, and that is proven by all sorts of evidence. Which makes Boswell’s theory highly suspicious – I’d be delighted if it were true, but in twenty years, there’s been no independent confirmation of it, as far as I know. Oh and Towleroad – shame on you for pretending this is some new and newsworthy story; or was it written by a 20-year-old intern who never heard of Boswell before?

  21. Jamei says

    Never bought into the idea that the church was ever tolerant of homosexuality. To be fair, early and medieval Christianity was also pretty anti-semitic (despite zionist Christians and “Messianics” trying to deny that fact).

  22. andrew says

    I could care less what those ancient primitive people believed or did. There actions and beliefs should have no influence on our more enlightened 21st century lives.

  23. Josh says

    “Crack open” a book set in the Dark Ages. Was there gay activity with the dinosaurs? That would be fascinating information to add to our vast history.

  24. Jerry says

    russtx: Go back and re-read it, you missed quite a bit. Boswell never asserts that these were marriage ceremonies. But the mere fact that the prayers and office for same-sex union are found in many languages indicates they were widespread. Let’s not quibble over terminology. “Making brothers” is one way the church found it could acknowledge a binding union between two men that supported the nature of their relationship short of marriage.

  25. Marco Luxe says

    Left out of the comments is the fact that the early church wanted nothing to do with marriage, as it deemed that such things were too worldly to be of interest to the spiritual concerns of the church. The church left most of these legal contracts to the remnants of Roman or local secular authorities, where they existed. For the church to have enfrerement ceremonies at all is noteworthy.

  26. Joseph says

    In light of what has recently occurred in Russia, it should be noted that Boswell uncovered religious rites for S-S unions in Slavic as well as Greek. Others have pointed out that there is a difference in church doctrines in how 1st millennial and 2nd millennial theologians regarded sex and marriage. In the 1st millennium, while early church leaders regarded celibacy and abstinence the highest state of spiritual devotion, in actual practice priests were allowed to marry, and marriage was considered a state function. The blessing of even a heterosexual marriage was not performed regularly, but done as a favor. In this context, “blessings” were performed on any number of relationships, heterosexual and same-sex relationships, households, business partnerships, and so on. Boswell argues that in a context of such sexual pluralism within Christianity and the surrounding culture, same-sex unions appear plausible.

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