The Ambiguity of the Acceptance of Homosexuality in the Hellenistic Era leading up to the Birth of Christianity

Benjamin D. Watts

The topic of homosexuality and its acceptance among the Christians has been a controversial topic among historians for many years. Adding to the topic of homosexuality among Christianity includes the on going debate of same sex unions. A well known historian by the name of John Boswell has written many books on the topic of homosexuality in the Hellenistic era, homosexuality and Christianity, each discussing the idea of same sex unions. The Greek word adelphopoiesis meaning "brother-making" is among the topics Boswell contends; during the Middle Ages Catholic and Orthodox churches developed liturgical rites for solemnizing unions between pairs of males. Robert Kennedy and Kenneth Kemp who wrote a review of Boswell's book, Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, state that "Boswell's carefully crafted reconstruction is extremely fragile. His research contains numerous misleading references, where sources do not say what he claims they say: corrupt translations, fanciful interpretations, and artful and glaring omissions" (Kennedy and Kemp 2). Despite Boswell's prominence as a scholar, we are still left with the uncertainty and ambiguity as to whether or not homosexuality was truly accepted among the Hellenistic and Christian societies.

Documentation has been found by Boswell in original Greek manuscript showing actual prayers for gay marriage ceremonies trying to show that they were an accepted part of the early Christian church that the rituals that formalized such marriages were only later deliberately and consciously effaced by the church. A section of the prayer reads:
"That these thy servants, N. and N. be sanctified with thy spiritual benediction, we beseech Thee, O Lord. That their love [agape] abide without offense or scandal all the days of their lives, we beseech Thee, O Lord. That they be granted all things needed for salvation and godly enjoyment of life everlasting, we beseech Thee, O Lord. That the Lord God grant unto them unashamed faithfulness [pistils] and sincere love [agape anhypokritos], we beseech Thee, O Lord..." (Shaw 14).
Shaw goes on the explain that to justify the reading of "love" in his sources, Boswell has to demonstrate that the noun agape, "love," and the verb agapan, "to love," could be used to describe any sort of love relationship, including a wholly erotic one, which the idea of eroticism is usually associated with the word homosexuality and the idea of two men being together whether sexually or in a marriage. A study of the term agape will justify the traditional view that this was an unusual Christian coinage when applied to love. Shaw continues to say that agape signaled an ability to accept and embrace one's entire condition as a part of a millennial transformed world. Boswell notes that the verb eran, meaning to love erotically is pretty much left out of the New Testament. Although the Christian term agape did occasionally enter the discourse of other late Greek writers as an alternative manner of expressing physical or erotic love, such usages are rare. In this argument, what remains indisputable is the significance of the word in ecclesiastical, theological, and liturgical writings in the specific genres of Boswell's "same sex union" documents (Shaw 17).

Same sex unions became more frowned upon, especially by the Romans with the beginning of the rise of Christianity. When the idea of heterosexual matrimony came to be, it was more along the lines of planned matrimony, for example, a business deal, property arrangement, and producing offspring was apart of that arrangement of marriage. This same practice took place in the Greek culture as well, but through out history if the man was sexually dissatisfied in the marriage, he sought sexual gratification elsewhere, whether through male prostitution or relationships with other men. It is true that men also sought sexual pleasure with other women, but since the topic of homosexuality is being discussed it will continue to stay that way. The search for sexual gratification outside of the marriage was expected, considered common, rarely disapproved, and neither were homosexual relationships disapproved either, especially if they were between two equals and more or less permanent; though, they might under these conditions constitute the highest form of friendship.

The idea of a friendship between two men constitutes the concept that the two men have formed a union where the men were joined as "brothers". Marriages back then, as well as today involved the formation of a common household, permanent co-residential unit, with the intent of raising children, but this was not among the precepts of a homosexual relationship, though in a sense their joining could be considered a "ritualized kinship" or "brotherhood." Shaw states that "This is the type of "brotherhood" is similar to the ritualized agreements struck between two members of the Mafia or other "men of honor" in our own society" (Shaw 16). For example the declaration of love and friendship through a kiss or handshake. Boswell found that the ceremonies involving the joining of two men were considered to be the bonds of "brothers by nature", by the means of faith/trust and sprit. This is among the deepest forms of a bond that can be created, which would included the bonding and unification of two souls.

In conclusion, homosexuality among the Hellenistic and pre-Christian era was accepted as being extremely odd and not the normal way of life. Several Greek philosophers tried to justify it and explain it from Aristotle to the present times. As a whole, homosexuality became less accepted as Christianity became more concrete and stable as a religion, though the concept of agape love and is spoken about in the bible it is what most people want to attain in any relationship whether homosexual or heterosexual.

Whether or not Boswell is right or the Romans are wrong, we as humans seek that deep connection with whomever we can be fortunate enough to know and have in our lives. The debate of homosexuality in ancient times and modern times will continue to be a controversial top at hand for many centuries to come.


Kennedy, Robert G. and Kemp, Kenneth. History With A Bad Attitude, World Wide Web, 1995-96.

Shaw, Brent D., Reviews of John Boswell's Books, "A Groom of One's Own?" World Wide Web, 1994.

Thorp, John. The Social Construction of Homosexuality, World Wide Web, 1992.


March 25, 1996

prepared for Intro. to the New Testament
by Ben Watts