Boswell on Bible Passages, the Shift to Intolerance, and Stoicism

I’m continuing my way through John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

I’m not overly convinced by Boswell’s interpretation of the biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexuality.  Boswell argues that Leviticus 18:22 does not condemn homosexual sex as a moral sin, but rather relates to distinguishing Israel from the Gentiles, ritual impurity, or idolatry.  Boswell looks at the Septuagint for the passage and sees the Greek word bdelugma being used for abomination, and he states that this particular Greek word pertains to “infringements of ritual purity or monotheistic worship” rather than “violations of law or justice” (page 101).  But bdelugma can also refer to moral sins, as one can see in the LXX for Proverbs 11:1, 20; 12:22; etc.

Regarding Romans 1:26-27, Boswell does not think that the passage is saying that homosexuality violates the natural order, but rather is criticizing heterosexuals who engaged in homosexual activity.  For one, Boswell states that the “concept of ‘natural law’ was not fully developed until more than a millennium after Paul’s death, and it is anachronistic to read it into [Paul’s] words” (page 110).  Later, however, on page 148, Boswell states that Philo of Alexandria (first century C.E.) and Platonist Jews regarded “any use of human sexuality, potential or actual, which did not produce legitimate offspring” as a violation of nature, implying that Philo considered certain sexual acts to be unnatural.  While Boswell does well to point out that early Christianity differed from Philo in that it did not place as high of a value on procreation, the fact that Philo considered certain sexual acts to be unnatural invites the question of why Paul could not have done so as well.

Second, according to Boswell, there was a widespread notion in the Hellenistic world that “homosexuality represented a congenital physical characteristic”, and Boswell states that “Plato and Aristotle had both suggested variations on this idea, and it was commonplace of Roman medicine” (page 110).  This stood out to me because it appears to suggest that there was a notion in the ancient world that homosexuality was not necessarily a lifestyle choice, but that there were people who were born gay.  Boswell doubts that Paul was aware of this difference, but Boswell does argue that Paul criticizes homosexual acts committed by heterosexuals, not gay people.

Boswell’s essential point appears to be that, up to a certain time period, Roman society and Christianity did not have much of a problem with homosexuality.  Boswell even states on page 135 that “Many prominent and respected Christians—-some canonized—-were involved in relationships that would almost certainly be considered homosexual in cultures hostile to same-sex eroticism.”  The shift towards intolerance, according to Boswell, corresponded with the “barbarian invasions” of the fifth century, and the “dissolution of the urban society of Rome and the ascendance of less tolerant political and ethical leadership” (page 127-128).  Remember from my last post that Boswell associates intolerance against homosexuality with rural areas and authoritarian governments.

(UPDATE: On pages 346-349, Boswell mentions Christians before the fifth century who criticized homosexual activity or abuses: Tatian, Justin Martyr, Eusebius, etc.  Boswell’s argument is that these figures criticize homosexuality in some manner, yet they do not use a word translated as ‘homosexual’ in I Corinthians 6:9, and so that word probably does not relate to homosexuality per se.)

Boswell also appears to think—-and there may be more nuance to his argument than I am seeing—-that asceticism played some role in intolerance towards homosexuality.  Influenced by Stoicism and other ideologies, there was a sense within Christianity that sex should only be used for procreation, which would cast homosexuality in a negative light.  Boswell provides more nuance on Stoicism, which is often regarded by scholars to be anti-homosexual, for Boswell argues that prominent Stoic figures (i.e., Zeno, Seneca) either had no problem with homosexuality or engaged in homosexual acts themselves.  Whether Boswell contends that Stoicism became more anti-homosexual, I’ll have to see as I read more of his book.

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.
This entry was posted in Bible, Greco-Roman, Philosophy, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.