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A Conservative Catholic attack on Boswell

The following text is taken from a "Gay Marriage: Reimagining Church History", by Robin Darling Young, Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America. It was brought to my attention by an email correspondent, who asked me to comment on it. I have added links to other documents on my WebSite in order to keep my comments here brief. To avoid copyright infringement, I have summarized parts of the document and only quote in green the most pertinent parts. My reactions and qualifications are given in purple. Readers who wish to confirm that my abbreviation and paraphrase is accurate are referred to the original document.

RDY's purpose in writing her paper is to undermine Boswell's "startling claim" that the adelphopoiesis liturgies are "actual nuptial ceremonies" for homosexual couples. She begins by telling of her own experience: "Nine years ago I was joined in devout sisterhood to another woman, apparently in just such a ceremony as Boswell claims to elucidate in his book." For her and the female colleague with whom she celebrated the ceremony at the invitation of Archbishop Dionysius Behnam Jajaweh, the event had no romantic or homoerotic significance. The implication is that neither did it have any such significance to anyone else who through history has celebrated the rite.

RDY continues ".... neither Boswell's reconstruction of them nor his method of argumentation can possibly support the interpretation he proposes. First, it is highly implausible that homosexual unions either in antiquity or in the Middle Ages would have been blessed by a religion that promoted ascetic devotion to the kingdom of God rather than that condition which contemporary Americans understand as the healthy expression of erotic drives."  This is, of course, why heterosexual marriage rites were equally late to develop!

She then points out that "early Byzantine law codes contain extremely harsh punishments for homosexual intercourse." While true, this makes no allowance for the fact that these codes generally relate to the clerical state, neither does it allow for the fact that even harsher punishments were inflicted on usurers.

She then alleges: "Despite its facade of scholarship, the book is studded with unwarranted a priori assumptions, with arguments from silence, and with dubious, or in some cases outrageously false, translations of critical terms. And Boswell's insouciance about historical accuracy would be unacceptable in an undergraduate paper." She then purports to establish this by referring to a number of inconsequential errors. Whether she is right or wrong in her criticism it is impossible for me to judge. For someone to have become Professor of History at Harvard while maintaining such a low standard of scholarship is difficult to believe. RDY continues to sling more mud at Boswell, accusing him first of political and commercial motivation and then of reinventing a history congenial to his own agenda. By implication she attempts to establish that her motivation is pure and her judgements objective. She continues of Boswell "he portrays his work as an investigation that by patient reconstruction and analysis restores the record of gay couples of the past whose existence was heretofore hidden by the prudery of an oppressive church and culture. It is understandable that groups that see themselves as oppressed should want to recover their authentic history. But to create a false history, as Boswell has done in this book (despite its elaborate scholarly apparatus), is to undermine the very cause the work he hopes to advance." The amazing implication being that RDY's concern is to help the cause of those homosexuals who "see themselves as oppressed". Somehow, I think not! Whether or not Boswell's work is biased and partial, RDY's text is over brimming with prejudice and hostility.

RDY asserts that Boswell claims that the rite of adelphopoiesis was sacramental and equivalent to marriage. As far as I am aware he does not: though they may have been! He only claims that they served a parallel purpose and developed on the same time scale as the liturgical rites celebrating the sacrament of Matrimony.

She then says that "The language employed in these texts does not suggest any kind of sexual connection between the two parties united in this particular bond." This is, of course, generally true of liturgies for marriage, save for occasional phrases like "with my body I thee worship": which is itself indeterminate in meaning. By a providential coincidence, it is not true of one of the adelphopoiesis liturgies. RDY simply should be more thorough in her research. The Sinai 966 text contains the prayer "that they be joined together more in spirit than in flesh."  This manifestly includes the recognition that some joining in flesh is envisaged.

She then goes on to critique Boswell's scholarship, which "compromised the plain meanings of words, meanings supported by the majority of readings in the corpus of classical literature", in suggesting that brother could have had a romantic connotation in the adelphopoiesis texts, in the same way that sister certainly does have in "The Song of Songs". She scoffs at Boswell's assertion that "[I]ts nature has long been obscured both by artful mistranslation and a general unwillingness to recognize something as ostensibly improbable as a same sex union."

She then takes exception to Boswell's review of heterogender secular marriage in the Greco-Roman world. While admitting that
it was "a practical arrangement" she asserts that it "also included the aims of mutual affection and successful child rearing", as if Boswell was arguing otherwise! For some reason unclear to me, RDY claims that Boswell "therefore needs to establish that Roman law permitted homosexual unions" and proceeds to argue that he fails to do so. In fact, all Boswell tries to establish is that same gender unions of various kinds and degrees of formality were common place and not at all unusual, which is (so far as I am aware) uncontentious! Apparently, RDY denies this historical fact.

Next follows another personal attack on Boswell's scholarship: "The final five chapters of the book contain Boswell's analysis of the Christian history of homosexual marriage. These chapters contain frequent gaffes, faulty translations, and specious arguments, and a sizeable essay would be required to correct them all." Needless to say, not one is specified! This is an unworthy attempt to establish an atmosphere in which anything that Boswell says is presumed to be wrong and everything that RDY says is right!

Amazingly, she says "it is highly questionable to assume, with Boswell, that pre-Christian sexual practices could be easily transferred into Christian ritual, when in fact they could not be and were not." Of course, this is exactly what happened as far as marriage was concerned! The explicit New Testament teaching on family, sex and marriage is predominantly negative: it was hugely moderated by the dialogue with secular Roman culture and the necessities of human experience. RDY herself quotes "the homilies of John Chrysostom or Augustine, the orations of Gregory Nazianzen or the Life of Macrina by Gregory of Nyssa" as
examples of patristic texts where can be "found a considerable emphasis on what we nowadays call the 'nuclear' family as the primary way of life for Christians, despite the attractions of an undistractedly religious life."  However, she fails to note that these all date from after the time that this adjustment to secular norms had been concluded.

RDY then simply dismisses Boswell's treatments of the relationship of Our Lord and St John; the paired Saints Perpetua and Felicity and Polyeuctos and Nearchos. In particular, she particularly objects to their ametro philia being translated as boundless love, rather than (as she insists is "correct") limitless friendship, which is difficult to understand when Marriage is portrayed by its more fervent proponents as the most excellent form of friendship and St Thomas Aquinas teaches (following Our Lord) that friendship is the greatest love.

This is all to prepare for her attack on Boswell's translation of The Life of Sergius and Bacchus. She neglects the general fervour of the text and focuses on one phrase out of context, which she claims Boswell has mistranslated. The Greek is Sun soi gar apokeitai moi ho tes dikaiosynes stephanos. RDY claims that "the Latin version more correctly translates the Greek as Tecum enim mihi reposita est justitia et corona: 'For with you is laid up for me the crown of righteousness'" Now, while this translation admits of a less strong personal element than the one that Boswell proposes, it is still striking. Moreover, RDY's translation is hardly sensible. It makes the martyred Bacchus say that the crown of righteousness that he has already won is somehow "laid up with" his as yet unmartyred friend, Sergius: before whom the saint has appeared, in order to console him. Boswell's translation at least has the virtue of being subject to an orthodox meaning. Bacchus is simply saying that (part) of the reward that God has promised him for his faithfulness in martyrdom is to be reunited with Sergius. The fact that RDY does not take exception to Boswell's use of the phrases

suggests that she accepts these all to be accurate renderings of the Greek.

RDY's paper concludes with a set of unfavourable but nit-picking comments on the novelty or otherwise of Boswell's researches, which I am not inclined to comment on.

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