Is this a case of misinterpreted brotherly love?

July 28, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

Rare are the medieval scholars who can claim that their publications are whisked from stores and put to immediate and personal use by non-academics.

Fewer still can say that their books receive comment from serious liturgical journals as well as Garry Trudeau's comic strip "Doonesbury."

Yale University historian John Boswell can.

In a book published last month, the medievalist cites ancient documents in an effort to prove that early Christianity, before it evolved into separate churches, sanctioned -- and celebrated -- homosexual marriage.

His claim has brought to high pitch a debate being waged from Baltimore to Honolulu over the issue of gay marriage. And the book has been met with reactions from delight to scorn: Already, several academics and church leaders have denounced Dr. Boswell's work as specious.

Nonetheless, the book, "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," (Villard Books, $25) is in its fourth printing, 32,000 copies overall. As it flies out of bookstores, church leaders are poring over manuscripts, scholars are hastily translating documents -- and some gays and lesbians are rushing to the altar.

"For an expensive book, we are selling it at quadruple the pace of an equally priced book, and in a frugal city like Baltimore, that's saying a lot," says Jack Garman, manager of Lambda Rising, a gay bookstore here. "I know some couples who used it and other books for their holy unions so it's much more than a historical curiosity in our community, it's inspirational."

Dr. Boswell's explosive pronouncement comes amid widespread discussions about same-sex unions in both the secular and religious world.

Last spring, Hawaii passed legislation to prohibit the legalization of same-sex marriages. In recent months, the pope has, on several occasions, vehemently condemned homosexual activity. And, at an Aug. 24 convention, leaders of the Episcopal Church, who are pondering both ordination and marriage of gays, will issue a long-awaited report that will address homosexuality.

To the flurry of criticism, Dr. Boswell, who is gravely ill, says simply: "I expected that people would have trouble believing this." He points out that his book includes the English and Greek versions of some ceremonies and adds, "Let them read it and see."

Dr. Boswell's intellectual abilities are not at issue: Even his harshest critics describe the 47-year-old as "brilliant." He speaks or reads Arabic, Old Church Slavonic, Greek, Latin, Portuguese, Hebrew, Spanish, Catalan and Old Icelandic, among other languages.

In 1980, his book, "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century" won the American Book Award.

The professor, who is himself gay, also has written books about "outgroups of society" -- abandoned children in the Middle Ages as well as Jews. "I could personally identify with them," he says.

Although his speech is slurred by his illness, which he describes as a "brain infection," Dr. Boswell is witty, personable and eager to talk about his book. His fervor for religion and history began early, he says. As a high school student in Petersburg, Va., he studied Hebrew and converted from the Episcopal to the Catholic Church. Even then, he says, "I was a historian and it struck me that this was the only [Christian] church that could claim to go all the way back."

The premise of his most recent book is that for hundreds of years in antiquity, Christian priests performed ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions. His case rests upon dozens of manuscripts that document a particular ritual practiced in the Christian church during that time. The ceremony is known in Greek as "adelphopoiesis," or the "making of a brother."

Among many examples of same-sex partners joined by this ritual, Dr. Boswell cites the fourth century Greek martyr saints Serge and Bacchus; the Roman female martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas; and the apostles Peter and Paul

A question of interpretation

The manuscripts cited by Dr. Boswell were collected during 12 years of hunting through archives from Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale to the Vatican library. The validity of the documents is not in dispute -- only his translation and interpretation of their significance.

Greek Orthodox scholars have always known about the rituals, according to the Rev. Milton B. Efthimiou, a historian of that church, who read the book and expressed admiration for the assiduous research.

Rather than homosexual marriages, the rituals mark fellowships between two people of the same sex, usually men, he says. Such a pact might be made by men going to war.

"It is ridiculous to think that the church would have created a ritual sanctifying homosexual unions when, at the same time, the ecumenical councils were coming down very hard on the acting out of homosexuality," says Father Efthimiou, who is director of interchurch relations for the Greek Orthodox Church of North and South America.

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