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LHMP #278b Boswell 1980 Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Full citation: 

Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4

Part II The Christian Tradition

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Part II The Christian Tradition

Chapter 4: The Scriptures

There were massive changes to attitudes to same-sex relations that can be attributed to Christian influence on Eureopean culture, but that influence was complex and derived from several separate factors including scripture, social dynamics, and theology.

There is an extensive discussion of the background of the Biblical story of Sodom and how it was developed and elaborated in Christian interpretation. There is also an extended discussion of the original context of references to same-sex relations in Leviticus. Boswell argues that neither of these texts were in a position to shape early Christian thought, whatever influence they may have had later.

He picks apart the several texts associated with St. Paul that are considered to be anti-gay. There is a long discussion of the concept of “against nature.”

Chapter 5: Christians and Social Change

The Roman Empire underwent a crisis of change involving cultural shifts with demographic changes, including a shift from urban to rural background of the political elite. Personal behavior came to be seen as a matter of state interest and same-sex relations came in increasingly for control and prohibition.

Another thread of change was the rise of ascetic philosophy which focused on acts done for pleasure rather than productive purpose.

During this era, “acceptable” same-sex love tended to be expressed in terms of religious bonding rather than eros.

Chapter 6: Theological Traditions

Though early Christian ascetics were a minority, their philosophy provided justification for anti-homosexual attitudes based on four principles: animal behavior (associating specific animals with anal/oral sex and thus concluding that this behavior is “bestial”); unsavory associations (e.g., with child molestation and paganism); being “against nature” (derived from Platonic and Aristotelian concepts of “essential natures”); and gender expectations (which appears to apply specifically to male pairings, as it is concerned with the receptive partner being feminized). But the ascetics also had a general hostility to eroticism in general and only considered it justified by procreation.

Boswell asserts that the falsity of many of these theological grounds (e.g., that the animal behavior models were based on myth rather than biology) make the anti-gay conclusions theologically invalid.


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