The Boswell Thesis:
Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.
Edited by Mathew Kuefler.
University of Chicago Press 2006.
ISBN 0-226-45740-0 (cloth).
ISBN 0-226-45741-9 (paper).
Reviewed by John Lauritsen
In 1980 John Boswell, a young history professor
at Yale, published Christianity,
Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from
the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century
(hereafter CSTH). The book's central message — that the Church was not
inherently antigay — was one that many people wanted to hear. CSTH was
phenomenally successful, going through five printings in the first
year; even two decades later, it was still selling about 2,000 copies
per year. Boswell died in 1994 at the age of 47.
The fifteen contributors to this book address a
broad range of topics, all more or less influenced by Boswell's work.
The first three essays deal with Boswell's thesis (or theses),
described by editor Mathew Kuefler as comprising four main points:
“First, that Christianity
had come into existence in an atmosphere of Greek and Roman tolerance
for same-sex eroticism. Second, that nothing in the Christian
scriptures or early tradition required a hostile assessment of
homosexuality; rather, that such assessments represented a misreading
of scripture. Third, that early medieval Christians showed no real
animosity toward same-sex eroticism. Fourth, that it was only in the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries that Christian writers formulated a
significant hostility toward homosexuality, and then read that
hostility back into their scriptures and early tradition.”
This is a fair summary, but Boswell himself describes his primary
thesis more simply: “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.”
A disclaimer: I and my colleagues in the Gay
Academic Union (GAU), Wayne Dynes and Warren Johansson, were among
Boswell's earliest and most severe critics, and we are mentioned
throughout the book. The talks we gave and the pamphlet we published in
1981 are now available, handsomely formatted, in the Library section of
Trust web site.
One would expect that the main goal of a book
entitled “The Boswell Thesis” would be to evaluate criticisms of that
thesis, but this happens very selectively, if at all. In the case of my
GAU colleagues and me, none of our arguments, major or minor, are
given. We are said to write with “animus”, “hyperbole”, “passion”,
“vitriol”, etc. — we are described as “harsh” and “unforgiving” and
seeking “to undermine the Boswell Thesis” — but the reader can only
conjecture what might have prompted our “animus”.
The chapter by Ralph Hexter, “John Boswell's
Gay Science: Prolegomenon to a Re-Reading”, is particularly
interesting, as Hexter was a personal friend of Boswell's and is the
“Ralph” to whom (along with Boswell's parents) CSTH was dedicated.
Hexter was Classics Professor at Berkeley and is now president of
CSTH was often criticised for containing
anachronisms, especially with regard to Boswell's deployment of “gay”
and “gay people”. Here, in a half dozen pages, Hexter analyzes
Boswell's choice of these words, arguing convincingly that Boswell's
usage was far more precise and nuanced than his critics realised, and
that other words (“homosexual”, etc.) would have been more
anachronistic, as well as awkward. Following his discussion of “gay”,
Hexter comments perceptively on the current usage of “queer”:
“Ten or fifteen years later
another scholar might have considered whether he or she might have want
to use the term 'queer,' though I'm virtually certain John would not
have. For one thing, by using 'gay,' Boswell was not seeking to
highlight outside status or any necessarily minoritarian consciousness;
indeed, according to his narrative, for certain cultures at certain
periods, being 'conscious of erotic inclination' towards a member of
one's own sex was neither exceptional nor a matter for shame or
condemnation — nor was it necessarily exclusive.”
With regard to anachronism, Boswell's most
antagonistic critics were the “social constructionists”, followers of
Michel Foucault, who believed in extreme historic discontinuity.
According to the SCers, there were only “homosexual acts” before the
middle of the 19th century — but no gay people and no homosexuality.
Addressing the SC doctrines Hexter writes:
“In an uncannily prescient
prediction of the following ten or fifteen years of dispute, Boswell
wrote, 'If the difficulties of historical research about intolerance of
gay people could be resolved by simply avoiding anachronistic
projections of modern myths and stereotypes, the task would be far
simpler than it is. Unfortunately, an equally distorting and even more
seductive danger for the historian is posed by the tendency to
exaggerate the differences between homosexuality in previous societies
and modern ones.'”
And here I am on the side of Hexter and Boswell.
In the fourth section of his essay, Ralph
Hexter insinuates that all who reject Boswell's thesis of Christian
tolerance are motivated by “parti pris”. He
writes: “The first group, who despise Boswell as an apologist ... are
well represented by the authors of Homosexuality, Intolerance, and
Christianity: A Critical Examination of John Boswell's Work. The three
authors evidence considerable learning and no less animus. The
conclusion of the third and final section deserves quotation to give a
flavor of the whole:” And he then quotes, in condensed and
cobbled-together form, the final two paragraphs of my own talk, “Culpa
Ecclesiae: Boswell's Dilemma”, starting with my sentence: “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.”
Well, I will admit that this sentence is severe, but it comes at the
conclusion of an essay in which I gave many examples of Boswell's
dishonesty: deliberately suppressing evidence, ignoring major scholarly
works hostile to his thesis; misrepresenting Roman laws of the 4th
century, and so on. Since my essay is online at the URL above, readers
can judge for themselves whether my conclusion was overly harsh.
Carolyn Dinshaw's essay, “Touching on the
Past”, discusses CSTH as a phenomenon in publishing and its impact on
subsequent gay scholarship. While dipping into several scholarly
controversies, she strives to be fair to all concerned, including us
Mark D. Jordan, a professor of Religion,
contributes “On Boswell's Ministry”, which demonstrates that Boswell, a
devoutly religious man, was as much a minister as a scholar.
Regrettably, Jordan obsessively and gratuitously uses the word “queer”,
in ways which would have greatly offended Boswell. With regard to the
“longstanding tension between religious and antireligious queer
politics” he writes:.
“With considerable hyperbole, and
not a little vitriol, John Lauritsen wrote in 1981: '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 queerhating religionists, but from gay liberation
secularists as well.' What is true in this sentence is that
Boswell's fame appeared for the moment to vindicate queer Christians by
making Christianity central in queer history as a positive force.”
I comment here that Jordan has truncated my sentence, by omitting
its final words: “by demonstrating historically that it's all right to
be a gay Christian.” Without those concluding words, the sentence
is pointless; however, I deny that it is written with “vitriol”. If
anything, the first few paragraphs of my 1981 essay are more playful
and ebullient than what I would write now.
There's not space here to comment on the other
essays, which are less relevant to the “Boswell thesis”, though
interesting in their own right. Amy Richlin's “Fronto + Marcus: Love,
Friendship, Letters” — about the relationship between the Emperor
Marcus Aurelius and his tutor — is provocative, to say the least. An
article by Dale B. Martin discusses the interpretation of Romans
1:18-32 — but nowhere in the book is there even a mention of the single
most devastating critique of CSTH: Warren Johansson's essay, “Ex Parte
Themis: The Historical Guilt of the Christian Church”, which demolished
Boswell's reinterpretation of the Pauline passage, I Corinthians VI 9,
to which Boswell had devoted an entire appendix. (For Johansson's
essay, visit the URL above.)
Boswell was an important gay scholar. For me
his greatest contribution is the third chapter of CSTH, “Rome: The
Foundation”, which is especially notable for making the case, clearly
and forcefully, that the obscure Lex Scantinia of Ancient Rome did not
and could not have categorically outlawed sex between males, citizens
However, contrary to Boswell's central thesis,
the oppression of gay men really is due to religion. Given the nature
of the enterprise, it's understandable that The Boswell Thesis would be
celebratory, but it's deplorable that the most trenchant criticisms of
Boswell's thesis were swept under the rug.
This review was published in the Spring 2006 issue of the Gay Humanist Quarterly.