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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. 

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  1. 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?

    Posted by: RussTX | Aug 1, 2013 12:02:29 AM

  2. 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).

    Posted by: Jamei | Aug 1, 2013 2:36:51 AM

  3. 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.

    Posted by: andrew | Aug 1, 2013 2:55:13 AM

  4. "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.

    Posted by: Josh | Aug 1, 2013 5:53:05 PM

  5. 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.

    Posted by: Jerry | Aug 1, 2013 6:10:38 PM

  6. 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.

    Posted by: Marco Luxe | Aug 23, 2013 3:37:52 PM

  7. 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.

    Posted by: Joseph | Sep 2, 2013 7:08:41 PM

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