David G. McDowell

Contemporary Christian Thought

Professor Dan Lewis

November 1, 2004

A Review of Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality

Finding biographical information about the author, John Boswell, was very difficult. Most of the biographical info that was found was regarding his academic contributions rather than his personal life. He was born in 1947 in Boston into a military family. He received his undergrad degree from William and Mary College and upon receiving his doctorate from Harvard University in 1975, joined the Yale University faculty. He published his first book in 1977 titled The Royal Treasure: Muslim Communities under the Crown of Aragon in the Fourteenth Century and gained popularity when he published Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality in 1980. The book won the American Book Award in 1981. He was appointed a full professor at Yale in 1982. In 1987, he helped to organize the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center that is now the Research Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies. Most interestingly, Boswell was a practicing Catholic as well as himself, a homosexual, a combination that must have played a major role in his passion of the subject. His Catholic colleagues viewed his book as “nigh heretical.” Many of them believed the book was written to criticize the church of its abuse of homosexuals. However, gays and lesbians outside of the church as well as some from inside the church embraced Boswell’s views. After contracting AIDS, he died on Christmas Eve in 1994. He was only 47 years old.1

The book, although academically thoughtful, is a difficult read. It is impressive that Boswell begins his book by defining terms, but the author has a tendency to leave his audience behind unless his audience is very knowledgeable in history and mythology. He begins, after defining his terms, to discuss Rome. He tries to refute the myth that the Roman Empire viewed homosexuality as taboo. He spends a great deal of time discussing various Roman laws arguing that they were against sexual crimes in general, not just particularly homosexual crimes and also argues that the sexuality of the Roman empire could have been exaggerated by literary writers.2

Boswell moves on to the Scriptures and discusses the more liberal view of Genesis 19, that Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin was not one of sexual immorality, but of not being hospitable. He also discusses the Levitical passages and believes that “the Levitical enactments against homosexual behavior characterize it unequivocally as ceremonially unclean rather than inherently evil.”3

Regarding the Pauline passages, Boswell uses the Greek language to suggest that, in at least two passages, Paul was not even referencing homosexuality. In the one that he is, Romans 1, the crux of the passage is not to condemn homosexuality, but rather to affirm monotheism. He concludes, “There is, however, no clear condemnation of homosexual acts in the verses in question.”4

Regarding theological traditions, Boswell tries to refute some of the basic arguments against homosexuality including animal behavior, unsavory associations, concepts of “nature”, and gender expectations. He discusses the early Middle Ages, urban revival, and the reappearance of a gay subculture during the High Middle Ages using the mythical figure of Ganymede, the son of the King of Troy whom Boswell believed became synonymous with allusions to the subject of homosexuality. The crux of the book begins in the next chapter regarding social change that intolerance did not set in until the 13th century.

Boswell writes from a historical-critical perspective. This perspective has risen out of a post-Enlightenment Age of Reason that promoted rationality over religious tradition. In other words, following the Enlightenment, the assumption that the Bible was inerrant simply because it was the Word of God was no longer used. (This separation is very apparent in Neoorthodox theology, particularly the theology of Karl Barth.) This assumption, along with his Ivy-League education, which is steeped in this method, seems to have tainted his views of history and the Bible.

There are many arguments that this book presents that are contrary to what an evangelical Christian, by definition, would believe. There are so many, that and in-depth critique would require many more pages than this requires. This paper will represent an overall, surface critique of the book.

While the book stands on its own academic footing, he makes his arguments hard to argue against unless one has an extensive understanding of mythology. Boswell draws a great deal from mythology and mythological writings and although never stated as such, it is obvious that he views these stories on the same level as the Bible. This does not mean, however, that he views the Bible in high regard. Rather, it is the opposite. It seems he wanted to elevate mythology to the level of Scripture and demote Scripture to simple and unreliable literature.

His examination of the immoral Roman culture is well documented. However, Boswell fails to tie the Roman culture to the church. Just because the Roman culture, or any culture, was tolerant of homosexuality, does not mean that the church was. Boswell failed to show this.

Gay activists within the church have repeated his exegesis of the Genesis 19 passage for at least twenty years and it is possible that Boswell was repeating it himself. It does not stand the test of logic. The Bible is filled with references that would make God himself appear less than hospitable so it defies logic that God would destroy two cities for not being nice to strangers. (It should also be noted that Boswell does not accept Jude 7 as proof of Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin. Although he quotes Jude 7 on page 97, he says that what Jude referred to was a “legend.”) Boswell’s logic of the rarity of inns in the time of Abraham, himself a nomad, also does not seem logical. In an agricultural setting where many peoples were nomadic and accustomed to temporary shelters and having to move on a regular basis in order to provide food for themselves and their livestock, it hardly seems the case that lack of shelter could mean the difference between life and death.

His treatment of the Levitical passages also betrays his background. Like most liberal theologians, he fails to make the distinction between the civil, ceremonial, and moral law. He lumps the law together and as such, throws it completely out. At one point he places emphasis on the order of the law where the language does not warrant it. He takes Jesus’ words on the law out of context reducing the law to a mere legal code of standards instead of being reflective of the character of God.

His look at the Pauline passages was also less than stellar. Again, Boswell writes from a historical-critical perspective. For him to argue the specific merits of a passage is the antithesis of his background. Those that write from a historical-critical perspective do not believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. They reduce the Bible and place it on the same level as other great works of literature. Thus, if the Bible is not logical or was written in a different culture that lacked understanding, it could easily be stated that Paul was simply ignorant. Using this background, why not simply claim that Paul was wrong? If the Bible is not inerrant, then that leaves open the argument (that some have used) that Paul could not have known about sexual orientation and therefore was just simply ignorant of science. He would have done better to simply claim this. Instead, he plows through the Greek and appears to misquote a word regarding 1 Corinthians 6:9 adding the wrong ending to the word.5 If this is not a misquote, it is different from an edition published by the United Bible Societies.6 (In the copy of the book that was obtained from a public library for the purposes of this review, a previous reader had also noticed this and made the correction above the word in pencil.) If this is a misquote, one has to ask the question about what else Boswell may not have been intellectually honest about. Also, in one of the appendixes, after emphasizing the meaning of words and claiming that Paul was misinterpreted, he contradicts himself and writes that there is no direct Greek words for the meanings that he suggests either.7

In summary, this is a well-respected book and arguably, the best academic work written specifically on the subject of homosexuality from this perspective. However, its employment of the historical-critical method and its high use of mythology, almost to the point of replacing Scripture, leave it open to be heavily criticized. Boswell does not appear to be intellectually honest regarding everything, particularly in the issue of languages. He uses mythology deceivingly, stretching it to a point that is thin at best, and almost non-existent at other points. This book would be recommended to a person who is interested about what liberal Christianity has to say about homosexuality and to a person who wants to go above and beyond tabletop discussion of the subject and into academic research. To others, it should simply serve as a warning of the dangers of the historical-critical method and the slippery slope that it provides.


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