Boswell on Social Tolerance, Rome, and Sodom and Gomorrah

I started John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

I first heard of this book at my undergraduate university.  An LGBT group on the campus invited a gay evangelical to make his case that the Bible did not condemn homosexuality, and a book that he recommended was Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.  I’m interested in reading Boswell’s case about the Bible and homosexuality, but I’d also like to read about how homosexuality was viewed in the Greco-Roman world, something that Boswell’s book also covers.

In my latest reading, Boswell discussed a variety of issues.  I will not talk about all of those issues in this post, but I’ll mention some select ones.  First of all, Boswell tried to trace the reasons for social intolerance against homosexuality.  He argued that rural societies have been more intolerant towards it than urban societies (with exceptions), since survival in rural societies is rooted in defined roles within the family, whereas urban societies tend to “transcend kinship” (page 34).  Boswell also makes the claim that authoritarian societies were more intolerant than more pluralistic ones.

At the same time, moving on to the second issue, Boswell contends that homosexuality was accepted in Rome, both during the Republic and also during some of the emperors.  Boswell even says on page 82 that “Nero married two men in succession, both in public ceremonies with the ritual appropriate to legal marriage.”

Third, on the issue of Sodom and Gomorrah, Boswell on pages 93-94 appears to define the position with which he agrees: “Briefly put, the thesis of this trend in scholarship is that Lot was violating the custom of Sodom (where he was himself not a citizen but only a ‘sojourner’) by entertaining unknown guests within the city walls at night without obtaining the permission of the elders of the city.  When the men of Sodom [in Genesis 19:5] gathered around to demand that the strangers be brought out to them, ‘that they might know them,’ they meant no more than to ‘know’ who they were, and the city was consequently destroyed not for sexual immorality but for the sin of inhospitality to strangers.”

Boswell states that the Hebrew word for knowing (yada) is sexual only ten out of 943 times in the Hebrew Bible.  He also notes that early Christians rarely referred to Sodom’s sexual sins, and this was even the case with Origen, who had an interest in sexual issues.  Rather, the focus is on other things, such as Sodom’s inhospitality.  When reference is made to Sodomite sex, as occurs in the Book of Jude, the issue is not homosexuality, but rather the Sodomites’ desire to have sex with angels.

I’m not convinced that there was no sexual meaning in “know” in Genesis 19:5, and the reason is that Lot in Genesis 19:6 highlights to the mob that his daughters have not known a man, and there it is sexual.  Boswell still raises a good question, however, about why early interpreters did not focus on homosexuality in the Sodom and Gomorrah story.

(UPDATE: On page 346, Boswell says that Philo and Josephus “both believed—-following a Jewish apocryphal tradition of their day—-that the Sodomites were punished for homosexuality…”)

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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