Late-Hellenist Judaism

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This chapter will deal with Judaism in the Roman Empire and in Babylonia from the completion of the Mishnah through the Christianization of the Empire to the death of Justinian. During that time, from one of many competing religions it became the sole religion other than Christianity tolerated within the Roman Empire.

Of Jewish intellectual life in the Roman Empire proper the principal monument is the Palestinian Talmud, which contains the deliberations of the sages living in Palestine under Roman rule.

Of Jewish writing in Hellenistic Greek or in Latin from this period nothing has survived. Only in the tenth century does Jewish intellectual activity emerge in the West, in a radically changed setting, now in France, the Rhineland, and Italy, all countries of Latin Christianity, and as part of medieval cultural life. However, in Babylonia under Sassanid rule the Jewish sages speaking an Eastern Aramaic dialect compiled a far more influential Gemara, the commentary on the Mishnah which further elaborated its interpretation of the Law of Moses in the direction of the most neurotic-compulsive system of religious observances and taboos ever devised by the human mind. The Biblical prohibition of male homosexuality was reiterated with precise definitions and qualifications that remained part of Jewish morality even when Jewry, now without a state and with only the memory of a homeland, evolved into a scattered network of communities living in a diaspora that stretched from the westernmost provinces of the Roman Empire to the western frontier of China.[1]

The jurists of the Talmud supplemented the legislation of the Pentateuch and the Mishnah. They held that in homosexual intercourse, a minor could not be considered capable of committing the offense, as either the active or the passive partner, just as in rape. If a boy under the age of nine has intercourse with an adult male, this act is not qualified as intercourse, and even the adult is not to be punished following the rule that the active and passive partners are equally guilty. Later judges, however, ruled that the adult should be flogged. If a boy between nine and thirteen has intercourse with an adult male, the older partner is to suffer the death penalty while the younger goes unpunished. The rule applies to the boy whether he is the active or the passive partner in the act.

A Noachide (non-Jewish human being) is equally guilty if he commits the said offense. His sexual involvement is deemed equal to that of an Israelite with an adult partner; but his sexual act with a boy, unlike an Israelite’s, is punishable. A Noachide need not be warned of the gravity of the offense and may be tried by a single judge and on the testimony of one witness. He is to be executed by decapitation, and under certain conditions by stoning or strangling. Noachides may testify for or against one another, but not for or against an Israelite. A minor, a deaf-mute, and an imbecile are not to be punished, since they are not subject to the law.[2]

Any penetration, however slight, constitutes the offense. The rule adopted was that the definition of carnal knowledge of a woman applies also to a man. Apart from the minor incapable of intercourse, an impotent male cannot be punished either, even if he inserts his penis with the aid of his hand, because he derives no pleasure from the act.

The jurists add that no punishment for any offense can be inflicted without the warning of two witnesses. If the offense was unintentional, the offender is not to be punished but is to make a sacrifice. However, absence of intent must be proven from beginning to end, and if there was intent at any stage of the act, the culprit is excluded from the right of performing a sacrifice.

The sages of the Talmud further adopted certain prohibitions intended to prevent the likelihood of an offense of this nature. Two bachelors are not to sleep together under a single cover, a Jewish infant is not to be entrusted to a heathen for purposes of tutoring or of instruction in a craft, for all non-Jews (as idolaters) are under suspicion of pederasty. Mixed bathing, too, fell under certain restrictions. The jurists further added a rule condemning lesbian relations, even though they escape mention in the Pentateuch.[3]

Thus, on the basis of the written law (the Pentateuch compiled at the beginning of the fourth pre-Christian century) and the oral law (the Mishnah and Gemara assembled during the first five centuries of the Christian era), the Jewish law of sexual offenses was formulated and elucidated on the basis of rulings in individual cases. Nothing suggests that the notion of exclusive, involuntary homosexuality entered the minds of the Jewish sages as either motivating or exculpating the behavior which they condemned. They judged the culprits guilty solely for having committed the act. They also appended their own condemnation of lesbianism, but never ranked it in severity with male homosexuality (pederasty). Of some current interest is a passage in Sifra, the earliest commentary on the book of Leviticus, the nucleus of which probably dates from the second half of the third century, although the oldest surviving manuscripts are only from the eleventh. In effect, it applies the juris­prudence of the Mishnah to its starting point. The commentary on Leviticus 18:3 asserts that among the moral failings of the heathen peoples against which the prologue to the code proper warns the Israelite were that “men made marriage contracts with men and women with women”. The Jewish sages had thus fully anticipated–or knew only too well–the evil practice which John Boswell hopes to commend as a lost part of Christian tradition in his forthcoming book.[4]

These formulations possess a wider interest than their relevance to the Jewish law and the rabbinical courts which enforced it. In later centuries similar definitions and rulings became part of the law of sodomy or buggery in Western Europe, and some remain in force to this day. All legal authorities, Jewish and Christian, regarded homosexual behavior as criminal, and took no interest in the mental state of the deliberate (or habitual) perpetrator. The foundation had been laid for some fourteen hundred years of intolerance, against which the gay rights movement with its apologetic concept of exclusive homosexuality is still struggling.[5]

  1. Johansson (n.d.).
  2. Dynes (1985) 78.
  3. Ibid. 27, 4-5.
  4. Boswell began his case that mainstream Christians were no more hostile to homosexuality than adultery or fornication with the spurious argument derived from Bailey (1955) that the Sodomites were punished for inhospitality rather than homosexuality by claiming like Bailey that “to know” in Hebrew meant “to get acquainted with a stranger” so as not to feel threatened by his presence, although in the same chapter Lot offers to the Sodomites his daughters “who had not yet known a man” (Genesis 19), which was of course the legal euphemism. In any case all Jewish tradition interprets Genesis as well as the outrage at Gibeah (Judges 19) parallel to the Sodom story as a discussion of homosexuality. The Bailey/Boswell thesis is tendentious nonsense, albeit popular with Dignity and other neo-Christian homosexual circles. This is a communication from Lester Segal, Rabbi and Professor of History at U-Mass./Boston: The upshot of Genesis 19:4?11 is that although the Sodomites were, to judge from the context, bi-sexual (after all, Lot offers them his daughters), the meaning of verse 5, “that we may know them” is: to be sexually intimate with. 1 Although the “sin” of Sodom need by no means have been limited to homosexuality 2, there is, Bailey notwithstanding, no getting away from the meaning of “that we may know them” as sexual intimacy. This is the essence of N. Sarna’s view of the matter, who also emphasizes the clear Pentateuchal legislation regarding homosexuality. 3. Let me add the following three observa­tions: 1. With respect to the verb “know” in the context of Genesis 19, it is I think of some relevance to note that in verse 8, the same Hebrew verb is used by Lot when he says: “See, I have two daughters who have not known a man”–a not uncommon Hebrew biblical way of referring to an unmarried woman. 2. For the likely variety of Sodomite wrongdoing, see e.g. Genesis 13:13, Ezekiel, 16: 49?40. These are cited by Bailey, too, p. 9. 3. Bailey, p. 37, acknowledges the legislation in Leviticus, despite the problems he finds in ascertaining the precise other ancient Near Eastern practice in this regard. With respect to Leviticus, I consider it highly unlikely purely as a matter of the realities that law codes are prone to reflect that “they (i.e. the relevant verses in Leviticus) are simply items of abstract legislation designed to provide against a future possible occurrence of the offenses penalized” (Bailey, p. 29).
  5. M. Stern in Ben-Sasson (1976) 251.


Upon Herod’s death in 4 B.C. revolts broke out everywhere, one in Jesus’s neighborhood. Gamaliel the Elder (d. 63 A.D.) summed up the feelings of the Jewish majority: “This empire gnaws at our substance through four things: its tolls, its bath buildings, its theaters, and its taxes in kind” ( ). Remembering their success against Antiochus, the Jews rose against Rome. Ministering not long after the brutal repression, Jesus may have resembled a liberation priest more than a communist.[1]

Summarizing nineteenth century German scholarship of David Friedrich Strauss and Bruno Bauer that emphasized Jesus’s Jewish background of Messianic expectations of triumph over oppressors and denouncing Renan’s “French lyricism” that depicted Jesus as a do-gooder, Schweitzer portrayed the Gospels as an undecipherable puzzle of contradictory traditions of the early Church, among which Christ (the anointed Messiah) contrasted with the historical Jesus of Nazareth, about whom virtually nothing, including even the Sermon on the Mount, is certain.[2]It is almost impossible to ascribe words or deeds, except trial and crucifixion, with certainty to Jesus.

While the references to the life of Christ are few in the Talmud, they are inevitably insulting. Jesus was the illegitimate child of a soldier called Panthera. He performed His miracles by magic, which He had learnt in Egypt. After His death, which was a legal condemnation in which He was given every chance to prove His innocence, His body was stolen by His disciples in order to invent the story of the Resurrection. He was a 'deceiver of Israel' and His teaching was evil. The Talmud and Midrash have little more than this, but it is evident that common Jewish stories went far further, and that allt he main elements of the 'Sepher Toldoth Jeshu' were in existence from a very early date. There are explicit references in Origen [quoting the pagan Celsus] to some of the stories. Jesus collected a band of malefactors around Himself, and with these He lived the life of a bandit up and down Palestine. More references are to be found in Tertullian, who speaks of the libels on Jesus as the 'son of a carpenter or furniture maker, the destroyer of the Sabbath, the Samaritan possessed of a devil.' Eusebius expresses his disgust that 'when a writer belonging to the Hebrews themselves [Josephus] has transmitted from primitive times in a work of his own, this record concerning John the Baptist and our Saviour, the Jews should proceed to forge such memoirs against them.' The passage he is referring to is that alluding to Christianity which many now think to be original and not an interpolation. In any case, it existed in the copies of Josephus in the fourth century.[3]

Two centuries ago Jeremy Bentham took an even more radical position:

On this whole field in which Moses legislates with such diversified minuteness and such impassioned asperity, Jesus is altogether silent, Jesus from whose lips not a syllable favourable to ascetic self-denial is by any of his biographers presented as having ever issued, Jesus who among his disciples had one to whom he imparted his authority, and another on whose bosom his head reclined and for whom he avowed his love, Jesus, who in the stripling clad in loose attire found a still faithful adherent after the rest of them had fled, Jesus, in whom the woman taken in adultery found a successful advocate, Jesus has on the whole field of sexual irregularity preserved an uninterrupted silence.[4]
While the references to the life of Christ are few in the Talmud, they are inevitably insulting. Jesus was the illegitimate child of a soldier called Panthera. He performed His miracles by magic, which He had learnt in Egypt. After His death, which was a legal condemnation in which He was given every chance to prove His innocence, His body was stolen by His disciples in order to invent the story of the Resurrection. He was a ‘deceiver of Israel’ and His teaching was evil. The Talmud and Midrash have little more than this, but it is evident that common Jewish stories went far further, and that all the main elements of the ‘Sepher Toldoth Jeshu’ were in existence from a very early date. There are explicit references in Origen [quoting the pagan Celsus] to some of the stories. Jesus collected a band of malefactors around Himself, and with these He lived the life of a bandit up and down Palestine. More references are to be found in Tertullian, who speaks of the libels on Jesus as the ‘son of a carpenter or furniture maker, the destroyer of the Sabbath, the Samaritan possessed of a devil.’ Eusebius expresses his disgust that ‘when a writer belonging to the Hebrews themselves [Josephus] has transmitted from primitive times in a work of his own, this record concerning John the Baptist and our Saviour, the Jews should proceed to forge such memoirs against them.’ The passage he is referring to is that alluding to Christianity which many now think to be original and not an interpolation. In any case, it existed in the copies of Josephus in the fourth century.[5]
  1. Horsley (1985)
  2. Schweitzer (1906)
  3. Parkes (1934) 110 111.
  4. Crompton (1985) 259-260
  5. Parkes (1934) 110-111


If, however, we should understand racha as passive homosexual (rakh), not translated by King James and moros = nobhol translated as “fool,” which could mean the active homosexual as seen in the use of nebhalah (folly) to describe the attempted homosexual outrage at Gibeah in Judges, “council” as equivalent to Knesset = Sanhedrin),[1] then we can translate as follows: “But I say unto you that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment: and whoever shall say to his brother, Racha [cinaedus] shall be liable to the Sanhedrin: but whosoever shall say, “Thou fool [pederast or active sodomizer] shall be liable to hellfire” (Matthew 5:22). In this passage thus understood, so obscure in all existing translations, Jesus harshly condemned any pointing of the finger at active or passive male homosexuals. This interpretation is hardly inconceivable in view of His acceptance of such despised persecuted groups as prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers, prisoners, and the demented, though most likely He expected homosexuals, like prostitutes, to desist and follow him.

George Howard, Professor of Religion at the University of Georgia, published the text of a Hebrew translation of the Gospel of Matthew that was included in a Jewish polemical work of the late fourteenth century. This was the Ebhen bohan (Touchstone) of Shem Tobh ben Yishaq ibn Shaprut, written in Christian Spain about 1380 and revised during the subsequent quarter-century. Howard’s edition and translation is titled The Gospel of Matthew according to a Primitive Hebrew Text (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987).

Matthew 5:22 appears on pp. 18-19, with the English rendering:

But I say to you, he who angers his companion is guilty of judgment; he who calls his brother inferior shall be guilty of judgment before the congregation; (he) who calls him a fool is guilty of the fire of Gehenna.

The word here rendered “inferior” is pahot, which means “less, lesser” but can also be understood as the passive participle “broken”, which is equivalent to Latin fractus, used by Cicero and later writers in the sense of “swishy, effeminate”. The second-century rhetorician Quintilian speaks, for example, of the fractus incessus “swishy walk” of obvious pathics. It is possible, therefore, that the Hebrew translator of Matthew connected rachâ with rakh “soft, effeminate” and rendered it by the word that under Latin influence had come into use in Late Hebrew. The Latinism in Hebrew was cleverly chosen as a mirror image of the Hebrew loan word in Hellenistic Greek.

A better rendering of the Hebrew would be:

But I say unto you, that whosoever angers his companion is liable to judgment; and whoever shall call his brother effeminate shall be liable to judgment before the congregation; and whosoever shall call him fool is liable to the fire of Gehenna.

The importance of this text lies in its being the first independent, pre-modern (and relatively early) confirmation of my interpretation of rachâ, the mysterious word in the Greek text of Matthew’s gospel, as a term of derision for the pathic the passive-effeminate homosexual. Its implication is that Jesus forbade his followers to engage in queer-baiting, advice unfortunately not taken in the ensuing 1900 years. But it also refutes the widely-heralded notion, which goes back to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), that “Jesus said nothing on the subject of homosexuality”.

Whatever he thought about homosexuals, Jesus’s sect at least initially during the break from Judaism often demanded a denial of family ties:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew X, 34-37)

He repeated the same theme further on:

And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredful, and shall inherit everlasting life. (Matthew XIX, 29)

“One’s ‘kin’ were no longer one’s family but the members of the sect:”[2]

But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother. (Matthew XII, 48-50)

Luke’s (XIV, 26) words are unambiguous:

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

How many disciples were celibate and did the married ones forsake wife and children?
A few have seen homoeroticism between Jesus and his youngest and most beloved disciple St. John, usually depicted as still beardless or his spending the night baptizing in the nude Lazarus.
According to the playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), as reported by the informer Richard Baines, “St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma.” The only clear precedent for this assertion known thus far is the confession of a libertine of Venice who was tried about 1550 for believing, among other heresies, that St. John was Christ’s catamite (cinedo di Cristo) ... . In a curious episode preserved only in a late fragment, Jesus spends a night naked with a youthful disciple, inducting him into the mysteries ... . [3]

Using rabbinical, apocryphal, and pagan sources such as Porphyry or Celsus some have suggested that Jesus may have been primarily a magician, at least until his final year, when he may have come to consider himself the Jewish Messiah as the Synoptics indicate, at all times working miracles (like his contemporaries Apollonius of Tyana or Simon Magus the Samaritan.), whom first after his crucifixion Paul and John transformed into Christ.

Jesus the magician was the figure seen by most ancient opponents of Jesus; ‘Jesus the Son of God’ was the figure seen by that party of his followers which eventually triumphed; the real Jesus was the man whose words and actions gave rise to these contradictory interpretations. ‘Jesus the Son of God’ is pictured in the Gospels; the works that pictured ‘Jesus the Magician’ were destroyed in antiquity after Christians got control of the Roman Empire. We know the lost works only from fragments and references, mostly in the works of Christian authors. Hence modern scholars, trying to discover the historical Jesus behind the Gospel legends, have generally paid no attention to the evidence for Jesus the Magician and have taken only the Gospels as their sources.[4]

Stressing analogiessuch as Apollonius instead of the Mysteries of Isis and Mithra, which seem to have exerted maximum influence later during the third century,[5]Smith attempted to reconstruct the lost picture from the preserved fragments and related material, mainly from the magical papyri, that New Testament scholarship has generally ignored. M. James’ The Apocryphal New Testament prints fragments of some twenty lost works about Jesus and references to many more of which only titles are known.[6]

Jesus Prophet and then Messiah appears more clearly in the Synoptic Gospels especially in John, the true embodiment of “the Son of God.” Perhaps Jesus moved from one to another or was at once magician, prophet, Messiah, and Christ.

Epileptic or not but as fanatic after as before his conversion, St. Paul ardently denounced heretics and Jews as well as sexual sinners: “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections  ... men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (Romans 1: 26-27). Boswell misinterpreted I Cor. VI, 9, which the King James Version following Tyndale translated as “neither effeminate nor abusers of themselves with mankind,” by claiming that malakoi and arsenokoitai were not Greek “technical terms for passive and active pederasty” as is commonly correctly assumed in exegeses in part because these passages echo the Holiness Code (Lev. XVIII, 22 and XX, 13) which is as old as the Sodom story.[7] Though he used “against nature,” Paul’s uncompromising hostility differed qualitatively from the strictures of some Classical, Hellenistic, and Imperial Roman physicians and philosophers all of whom advocated conforming to nature by prescribing sexual restraint whereas Christians ideally demanded total abstention and mortification of the flesh. Paul, who according to Clement of Alexandria was married, denounced sex as sinful, to be tolerated only within marriage for those too weak to abstain because it was essential for the perpetuation of mankind. “Marry (but not a Jew) or burn!” Paul did, however, relegate wife, children, and servants to the authority of the father who owed them love and careful supervision. Reciprocal duties bound family and father whose authority was modeled on God’s. In accord with homophobic Jewish traditions, perhaps of Zoroastrian more than Hellenistic and Roman inspiration, and in any case inflamed by their hatred of Greco-Roman rule and culture, he condemned all “unnatural” pleasures of the flesh: bestiality, adultery, fornication, and homosexuality in any and all forms.

  1. Johansson (1984) following Schulthess (1922)
  2. Goody (1983) 87. M. Stern in Ben-Sasson (1976) 251
  3. Dynes (1985) 19.
  4. Smith (1978) vii.
  5. Harnack (1957).
  6. Smith (1978) 2
  7. Johansson (1981) 1-7


Nothing remotely like the New Testament’s doctrine of salvation or the death of God stemming from Paul can be found in Jewish literature. He substituted “an irreversible rebirth into innocence for the continual moral struggle, guided by the Torah, which for Jews gave life its significance.” Jesus’s death became not an interruption of his mission but its whole point. … By such inch-by-inch projections it is hoped that a bridge can be constructed between the Christian salvation myth and a respectable Jewish background, without recourse to Hellenistic mystery-cults. … In the Hebrew Bible this world, having been created by God is regarded as good. … At the opposite extreme is the literature of the gnostic sects that flourished around the time of the emergence of Christianity; in its view this world is evil, the creation of an evil power. Some of the pre-Christian gnostic sects were Jewish in origin, in the sense that they parasitically drew on the Bible for their mythic content. But they were profoundly un-Jewish in the way they used this content. They took the view that this world was created by the Jewish God, but he was an evil god . … It seems truer to say that the gnostics were the first anti-Semites who, like later anti-Semites, were fascinated by the materials of Judaism and fashioned their world view out of a love-hate relationship with Judaism. Included in the present edition of the Pseudepigrapha is a gnostic work, the Apocalypse of Adam, from the library of gnostic texts found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1946. This is certainly a fascinating work, most probably an example of pre-Christian gnosticism a genre often declared to be nonexistent by scholars who refuse to accept that Pauline Christianity was influenced by gnosticism. But whether it belongs in a compilation of Jewish Pseudepigrapha is very questionable. The Apocalypse of Adam, despite its biblical material, is profoundly anti-Bible, regarding the Jews as the chosen people of an evil God. Including it here is like in­cluding the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in an anthology of modern Jewish litera­ture. ... Pauline Christianity has gone still further into despair, so much further that it is lost to Judaism. It believes that the world has gone so wrong that the Torah has become irrelevant and inadequate; even in doubt is whether this world is the scene of man’s destiny. Like gnosticism, Christianity has a descending Son of God, come to rescue humanity, but here Christianity, unlike gnosticism, introduces ideas taken from the mystery cults: the Son of God has come not to impart gnosis but to die a sacrificial death. Only participation in this mystery can save. … Both gnosticism and Christianity are radically dualistic systems, seeing this world as captured by the power of Darkness in the course of its war against the power of Light. In this cosmic war, both gnosticism and Christianity identified the Jews as the earthly representatives of the power of Darkness. The Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls, both of which envisage a war between good angels and bad angels, and which may be thought of as a first step away from the unified, humanistic outlook of both the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic Judaism, nevertheless represents a milder form of dualism than that in either gnosticism or Christianity; a despair still controlled by loyalty to Torah and Covenant cannot be equated with a despair that has entered the abyss, and depends so heavily on salvation from on high. When Christianity adopted the standpoint of gnosticism and the mystery-cults, it made a decisive break with Judaism. We cannot hope to smooth away the Jewish-Christian conflict byreducing it to a family quarrel between groups that are basically akin.[1]

While Maccoby oversimplified in seeing a consistency in the early Church that did not exist before the ecumenical councils defined orthodoxy and the rebel sect became the established church he was nonetheless essentially correct in denying any fundamental continuity between mainstream Judaism and Christian orthodoxy. Indirectly by stressing Christian irrationality and dualism he also refuted the usually popular thesis that Christianity preserved the best of Greco-Roman rationalism as well as of Jewish orthodoxy. In fact the pagan philosophers and sages as well as the emperors and administrators recognized that this was an abominable departure from all that was worthy in Hellenism and the mos maiorum.

The “urge to purify the world through the annihilation of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and incarnations of evil” is well explored by Cohn, contributing to “studies in the dynamics of persecution and extermination” produced by the University of Sussex. Fantasies gripped not merely “marginal elements in society free-lance intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, landless, rootless peasants, the poorest, most desperate elements in the urban population  ... [but]  ... what we would now call the Establishment.”[2] Motivated in part by avarice and sadism, suspicion and accusations bedeviled the still small, scattered groups of Christians. Tacitus expressed the upper class attitude that the Christians were “notoriously depraved” (Annals, XV, 43). Late in the second century Minucius Felix, possibly the earliest Latin Apologist, recorded what pagans were saying from the beginning of that century:

I am told that, moved by some foolish urge, they consecrate and worship the head of a donkey, that most abject of all animals. This is a cult worthy of the customs from which it sprang! Others say that they reverence the genitals of the presiding priest himself, and adore them as though they were their father’s ... . As for the initiation of new members, the details are as disgusting as they are well known. A child, covered in dough to deceive the unwary, is set before the would-be novice. The novice stabs the child to death with invisible blows; indeed he himself, deceived by the coating dough, thinks his stabs harmless. Then it’s horrible! they hungrily drink the child’s blood, and compete with one another as they divide his limbs. Through this victim they are bound together; and the fact that they all share the knowledge of the crime pledges them all to silence. Such holy rites are more disgraceful than sacrilege. It is well known, too, what happens at their feasts ... . On the feast-day they foregather with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of either sex and all ages. When the company is all aglow from feasting, and impure lust has been set afire by drunkenness, pieces of meat are thrown to a dog fastened to a lamp. The dog springs forward, beyond the length of its chain. The light, which would have been a betraying witness, is overturned and goes out. Now, in the dark, so favourable to shameless behaviour, they twine the bonds of unnameable passion, as chance decides. And so all alike are incestuous, if not always in deed at least by complicity; for everything that is performed by one of them corresponds to the wishes of them all ... . Precisely the secrecy of this evil religion proves that all these things, or practically all, are true [Octavius cap. ix and x].

Such charges against Christians became common: If the passage in Minucius Felix stood alone one might suspect the author of rhetorical exaggeration; but other sources bear him out in almost every detail. The first really great writer of the Latin church, Tertullian, was familiar with these same accusations, and in the year 197 he set out to refute them. He describes how, in his own town of Carthage, a criminal who normally earned his living dodging wild beasts in the arena had recently been hired to display a picture of the donkey-god. It showed a creature with ass’s ears and a hoofed foot, but standing erect, dressed in a toga and carrying a book; and it bore the inscription “The god of the Christians, ass-begotten.”

Tertullian’s answer is ridicule: “We laughed at the name and at the shape.” Mockery is also his response to the tales of incestuous orgies, infanticide and cannibalism. If these tales were true, he comments, a would-be Christian would be confronted with some curious demands: “You will need a child of tender years, who does not know what death means, and who will smile under the knife. You will need some bread to soak up the blood; also some candlesticks and lamps, and some dogs, and some scraps of meat to make them jump and upset the lamps. Above all, be sure to bring your mother and sister. But what if the mother and sister will not comply, or if the convert has none?  ... I suppose you cannot become a regular Christian if you have neither mother nor sister?”

Minucius Felix and Tertullian provide the fullest evidence for the suspicions under which the Christians laboured, but by their time the suspicions were already traditional. The most damaging can be detected already in the comments of the younger Pliny in 112 or 113. Installed as Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, Pliny had the task of examining some former Christians he found there; and he wrote to the emperor asking how they were to be treated. These people, he reported, admitted that they used to attend meetings where they took nourishment together; but they insisted that, whatever others might say, the nourishment was an innocent one. There is little doubt what lies behind this cryptic phrase: Pliny had been trying to establish whether Christians did or did not practise collective cannibalism. By 152 the Christian apologist Tatian, writing for the benefit of the pagan Greeks, thought it necessary to state explicitly, “There is no cannibalism amongst us.” In the same decade Justin Martyr also refers repeatedly to these slanders. In his Apology he asks how a glutton who enjoys eating human flesh could possibly bring himself to a welcome death, as Christians did; for would it not deprive him of his pleasure? And in his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho he asks whether, like the Gentiles, the Jews believe that Christians eat human beings. Justin recognizes, too, that this particular accusation does not stand alone: when Christians are accused of cannibalism they are also commonly accused of promiscuous and incestuous orgies. It remained for Athenagoras, around 168, to find the appropriate technical terms for these imaginary offences: alongside “Oedipean mating”, “the Thyestean feast”. The name is highly significant: the children of Thyestes were killed by his brother Atreus and served up to him at a banquet. If the cannibalistic feasts in which Christians were believed to indulge could be called “Thyestean”, that means that the supposed victims were not adults but children. And that is confirmed both by Minucius Felix and by Tertullian.

Tertullian might make fun of such beliefs, but they were really no laughing matter. They were very widespread, both in the geographical and in the social sense. Christian apologists referred to them as flourishing in all the main areas where Christians were to be found–North Africa, Asia Minor, Rome itself; and not only amongst the unlettered populace, either. In the 160’s M. Cornelius Fronto made a speech accusing the Christians of infanticide, cannibalism and incest–and Fronto was not only a famous orator and an influential senator but the tutor and adviser of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. It is quite possible that Fronto influenced Marcus Aurelius in his persecution of the Christians, which was severe. And in the frightful persecution which struck the Christians at Lyons towards the end of his reign these same accusations certainly played an important part. ... The authorities and the populace collaborated in the persecution. Officially banned from public places and in effect outlawed, the unfortunate Christians were hounded by the mob, beaten and stoned in the streets; after which they were arrested and thrown into prison. At this point pagan slaves belonging to the prisoners were arrested and tortured to obtain incrimi­nating statements; and in the end some asserted that their masters killed and ate children and indulged in promiscuous and incestuous orgies. They would never have voiced such accusations without prompt­ing–which suggests that the persecutors had from the start planned to saddle the Christian com­mun­ity with these crimes. The Christians were horribly tortured first, both in prison and in the amphi­theatre. But nothing could induce them either to deny the faith they held or to admit to crimes they had never committed. As one of them, called Attalus, was being roasted alive in an iron chair, he still cried to the crowd: “What you are doing is indeed to eat men, but we do not eat men, nor do we do any­thing wicked.” And the woman Biblis also cried out under torture: “How would such people eat children ... ?”

Ritual murder and cannibalistic feasts belonged to one particular, traditional stereotype: the stereotype of the conspiratorial organization or secret society engaged in a ruthless drive for political power.[3]

Many of the varied and conflicting Christian attitudes owed far more to much maligned antimaterialist Gnostics than to rational Graeco-Roman asceticism–even the “counter-culture” of Cynic, Stoic, and Neo?Platonic varieties–or long dormant, Torah prescriptions of death for sodomites. Until late in the twentieth century with the discoveries of papyri at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere, we knew Gnostic writings primarily through their Christian enemies of the second and third centuries, who in turn accused them of homosexuality and sexual abandon, as the Christians themselves were accused by Jews and pagans. They supposedly depicted Jahweh as a malevolent deity ruling the corrupt world he created.

But what of the accusation of promiscuous and incestuous orgies? The usual explanation is that the pagans confused the main body of Christians with certain Gnostics who really did indulge in such practices. Yet when one examines the evidence in detail, it tends to disintegrate. The earliest source, Justin Martyr, merely says that he does not know whether various Gnostic sects indulged in the nocturnal orgies of which Christians were accused. Irenaeus, writing after the persecution at Lyons had already taken place, merely says of one particular Gnostic sect–the Carpocratians–that, being indifferent to good and evil, they were promiscuous, and thereby brought discredit upon the Christians, with whom they were confused. Clement of Alexandria, writing around 200, is the first to attribute to these Carpocratians erotic orgies such as had long been attributed to the Christians; while Eusebius, writing more than two centuries later, does little more than repeat these earlier sources. But whatever this obscure Gnostic sect may or may not have believed or practised, it can hardly account for the constant and widespread accusations against the main body of Christians.[4]

Whatever its relation to Zoroastrianism, gnostic dualism differed fundamentally from Platonic or any other Greek philosophy except perhaps the little understood Orphism:

The history of religions knows various ideas of the activity of two more or less independent deities or principles which are made responsible for the differing situations in the world. One of the best known is the Iranian Zoroastrian dualism, which sets a good and an evil god at the beginning of world history and views this history as dominated by the conflict between the two, until the good god with help of his adherents at the end of time carries off the victory. This dualism is however essentially ethically oriented, since it lays decisive importance upon religious and moral attitude and outlook, and the opposites “good” and “evil” do not coincide with those of “spiritual” and “corporeal” or “material”, but also are interwoven with the latter. We shall see that this dualism had a great influence upon developing Gnosis. It is otherwise with the more strongly philosophically oriented dualism of Plato, which was of great importance for Greek thought and then for the whole of late antiquity. It knows the two levels of existence: the spiritual eternal ideas and their transitory material (spatial) counterparts, which form the cosmos; the latter do indeed signify a loss of being, but nevertheless belong to the good part of the creation (for the bad part Plato ultimately made an “evil world soul” responsible). This “ontological” or “metaphysical” dualism is likewise, as we shall show, a presupposition of the gnostic. Finally one might also refer to the Indian dualism between Being and Appearance or Becoming, which has frequently been adduced as a parallel to Gnosis but which because of its quite different orientation does not come into question (it has points in common rather with the Platonic). There is also a series of other dualisms (apart from the still more widely spread simple conceptions of duality), which are formulated in more or less radical, mixed or dialectic form and whose typology belongs to the interesting field of work of the comparative study of religion; in our context those named are sufficient.
The gnostic dualism is distinguished from these above in the one essential point, that it is “anti-cosmic”; that is, its conception includes an unequivocally negative evaluation of the visible world together with its creator; it ranks as a kingdom of evil and of darkness. The identification of “evil” and “matter”, which is not to be found in Iranian and Zoroastrian thought, occurs in Gnosis as a fundamental conception. In Greek thought also–apart from certain Orphic teachings, which however are of uncertain date–there is no such anticosmic development of the dualism of spirit and body. The Greek conception is unmistakably “procosmic”, and no less a person than Plotinus (3rd century A.D.), the leading figure of the late or Neoplatonism, defended this position over against the gnostic depreciation of the cosmos. In his first treatise “On providence” it is said, with a clearly anti-gnostic point: “No-one therefore may find fault with our universe on the ground that it is not beautiful or not the most perfect of the beings associated with the body; nor again quarrel with the originator of its existence, and certainly not because it has come into existence of necessity, not on the basis of a reflection but because the higher being brought forth its likeness according to the law of nature.” [Enneads III, 2, 3] If the world also is not perfect, since it has only a share in the highest being and is troubled by matter, it is nevertheless as a product of the world plan “so beautiful that there is no other that could be more beautiful than it.” [Ibid. III, 2, 12] The same is true of man: he is “to this extent a complete vessel as it is granted to him to be perfected.” [Ibid. III, 2, 9] A treatise especially written “Against the Gnostics” takes issue in particular with their view that the cosmos and its creator are evil.[5]

About women and heterosexuals, gnostics like Christians held ambiguous, often contradictory theories:

The equal standing of women in cultic practice in the gnostic communities appears to have been relatively widespread, as we have already seen (there is probably a polemical reference to this in the First Letter to Timothy; cf. also Paul in First Corinthians [I Tim. 2, 11 f.; I Cor. 14, 34 ff.] On the other hand there is evidence in some branches of the denigration of women and the rejection of marriage.

These differing attitudes may perhaps find an explanation in the fundamental conception which at times crops up in the sources, namely that bi-sexuality is an evil of the earthly world and a mark of its lost unity, in contrast to the complete annulment of division in the Pleroma as portrayed by the male-female couplings of heavenly beings. Frequently bi-sexuality became something of an ideal for Gnosis; it is attributed among others to the highest being. The Mandaic Eve speaks to Adam in the following instructive statement:

“When there was no unevenness (or: inequality), (then) we had (but) one form. We had (but) one form and we were both made as a single mana (spirit) Now, where there is no evenness (or: equality), they made you a man and me a woman.” [Right Ginza III]
In the Gospel of Philip this division of the sexes is made out to be the woman’s (i.e. Eve’s) fault (perhaps simulating the fall of Sophia from the unity of the Pleroma) and is connected with the origin of mortality. That unity is life, separation death is a guiding principle of gnostic thought. “When Eve was (still) in Adam, there was no death. When she separated from him, death arose. When she (or it, death) enters him again and he (Adam) takes her (or it, death) to himself, there shall be no (more) death.” [Nag Hammadi Codex II 3, 68 (116), 22-26]
“If the woman had not separated from the man, she would not have died with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Therefore Christ came that he might set right again the separation which arose from the beginning and unite the two, and give life to those who died in the separation and unite them.” [Nag Hammadi Codex II, 3,70 (118), 9-17]

The devaluation of the woman and what is female which finds expression here is certainly compensated by the activity of women in the life of the community and the large role which is ascribed to the female aspect in gnostic mythology (cf. Sophia, Barbelo and others), but in the final analysis we are left with the traditional assessment, standard in antiquity, of the woman as a creature subordinated to the man. Consequently there are only the beginnings of an emancipation. That this is the case is clear from certain evidence which regards a redemption of the woman as possible only on the condition of her metamorphosis into a man. Of course a part is played by the idea that for the union with the original heavenly image (often depicted as female) of the soul the returning partner (the copy) must belong to one sex, predominantly the male; hence the change is assumed for the sake of the unity to be recovered. At the end of the Gospel of Thomas the following episode takes place:

“Simon Peter spoke to them (the disciples): ‘Let Mary (Magdalene) leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: ‘Behold, I shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” [Nag Hammadi Codex II 2, log. 114]

The same view is also held by the Naassenes and Valentinians; the former maintain that all who reach “the house of the (good) God” “become bridegrooms, being rendered wholly male through the virgin spirit.” [Hippolytus, Refutatio V 8, 44] The Valentinian Theodotus believed that the “see of light”, so long as it was still unformed (i.e. uneducated, untrained), is a “child of the female”, but when it is formed (i.e. trained), it is changed into a man and becomes a son of the (heavenly) bridegroom; no longer is it weak and subjected to the cosmic powers, but having become a man, it becomes a male fruit. [Clem. Alex., Ex Theodoto 79] As such it can enter into the Pleroma and unite with the angels. “Therefore it is said that the woman is changed into a man and the community here below (on earth) into angels.” {Ibid., 21, 3} One must bear in mind that in Greek “angel” (i.e. messenger) has the masculine gender. In Valentinianism, at least with Heracleon and Theodotus, the “male”, as it was created in Adam, [cf. Gen. 1, 27] is the “elect” of the angels, the “female” which corresponds to Eve represents the “calling” of the pneumatics, who must be brought up to the male “elect” in order to become part of the Pleroma and attain again to the angelic status.[6]

Reinforcing the Gnostic influence against Judaism and Hellenism were the popular mystery religions eschewing reason and practicality in favor of spiritual escapism, of which Christianity appeared to be only one to Roman pagans. Universalist, like Christianity, they cut across ethnic lines to attract different groups. Mithra, for example, soldiers, Isis and the Magna Mater women, and Christianity urban lower classes.

The mass of religions at Rome finally became so impregnated by neo-Platonism and Orientalism that paganism may be called a single religion with a fairly distinct theology, whose doctrines were somewhat as follows: adoration of the elements, especially the cosmic bodies; the reign of one God, eternal and omnipotent, with messenger attendants; spiritual interpretation of the gross rites yet surviving from primitive times; assurance of eternal felicity to the faithful; belief that the soul was on earth to be proved before its final return to the universal spirit, of which it was a spark; the existence of an abysmal abode for the evil, against whom the faithful must keep up an unceasing struggle; the destruction of the universe, the death of the wicked, and the eternal happiness of the good in a reconstructed world ... . The cults of Asia and Egypt bridged the gap between the old religions and Christianity, and in such a way as to make the triumph of Christianity an evolution, not a revolution. The Great Mother and Attis, with self-consecration, enthusiasm, and asceticism; Isis and Serapis, with the ideals of communion and purification; Baal, the omnipotent dweller in the far-off heavens; Jehovah, the jealous God of the Hebrews, omniscient and omnipresent; Mithra, deity of the sun, with the Persian dualism of good and evil, and with after-death rewards and punishments–all these, and more, flowed successively into the channel of Roman life and mingled their waters to form the late Roman paganism which proved so pertinacious a foe to the Christian religion. The influence that underlay their pretensions was so real that there is some warrant for the view of Renan that at one time it was doubtful whether the current as it flowed away into the Dark Ages should be Mithraic or Christian. ... The spread of the Oriental religions ... was due to merit. In contrast to the cold and formal religions of Rome, the Oriental faiths, with their hoary traditions and basis of science and culture, their fine ceremonial, and excitement attendant on their mysteries, their deities with hearts of compassion, their cultivation of the social bond, their appeal to conscience and their promises of purification and reward in a future life, were personal rather than civic, and satisfied the individual soul ... . With such a conception of latter-day paganism, we may more easily understand its strength and the bitter rivalry between it and the new faith, as well as the facility with which pagan society, once its cause was proved hopeless, turned to Christianity. The Oriental religions had made straight the way. Christianity triumphed after long conflict because its antagonists also were not without weapons from the armory of God. Both parties to the struggle had their loins girt about with truth, and both wielded the sword of the spirit; but the steel of the Christian was the more piercing, the breastplate of his righteousness was the stronger, and his feet were better shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.
Nor did Christianity stop there. It took from its opponents their own weapons, and used them; the better elements of paganism were transferred to the new religion. As the religious history of the empire is studied more closely  ... the triumph of the church will, in our opinion, appear more and more as the culmination of a long evolution of beliefs. We can understand the Christianity of the fifth century with its greatness and weaknesses, its spiritual exaltation and its puerile superstitions, if we know the moral antecedents of the world in which it developed. ...
It is our belief that the main point to be cleared up is the composite religion of those Jewish or Jewish-pagan communities, the worshipers of Hypistos, the Sabbatists, the Sabaziasts and others in which the new creed took root during the apostolic age. In those communities the Mosaic law had become adapted to the sacred usages of the Gentiles even before the beginning of our era, and monotheism had made concessions to idolatry. Many beliefs of the ancient Orient, as for instance the ideas of Persian dualism regarding the infernal world, arrived in Europe by two roads, the more or less orthodox Judaism of the communities of the dispersion in which the gospel was accepted immediately, and the pagan mysteries imported from Syria or Asia Minor. Certain similarities that surprised and shocked the apologists will cease to look strange as soon as we reach the distant sources of the channels that reunited at Rome ...
Religion was no longer regarded as a public duty, but as a personal obligation; no longer did it subordinate the individual to the city-state, but pretended above all to assure his welfare in this world and especially in the world to come. The Oriental mysteries offered their votaries radiant perspectives of eternal happiness. Thus the focus of morality was changed. The aim became to realize the sovereign good in the life hereafter instead of in this world, as the Greek philosophy had done. No longer did man act in view of tangible realities, but to attain ideal hopes. Existence in this life was regarded as a preparation for a sanctified life, as a trial whose outcome was to be either everlasting happiness or everlasting pain.
As we see, the entire system of ethical values was overturned. The salvation of the soul, which had become the one great human care, was especially promised in these mysteries upon the accurate performance of the sacred ceremonies. The rites possessed a power of purification and redemption. They made man better and freed him from the dominion of hostile spirits. Consequently, religion was a singularly important and absorbing matter, and the liturgy could be performed only by a clergy devoting itself entirely to the task. The Asiatic gods exacted undivided service; their priests were no longer magistrates, scarcely citizens. They devoted themselves unreservedly to their ministry, and demanded of their adherents submission to their sacred authority.
All these features that we are but sketching here, gave the Oriental religions a resemblance to Christianity, and the reader of these studies will find many more points in common among them. ..[7]

As Christianity prospered, evolving from radical sect to established church, more educated and traditional Fathers borrowed increasingly from Stoics and Neo-Platonists, at first in a shallow, selective fashion, using their ideas as windowdressing for a religion fundamentally at odds with mainstream Classical as well as Jewish tradition. Gentile Christians rejected Judaism.

With the destruction of the Temple the Christians were convinced that all that there was of promise and encouragement in the Old Testament had passed to them. They disinherited the Jew from his own sacred books at the very moment when these provided his only comfort. All the Law and the promises led on to Christ the Messiah. Rejecting Him, the Jew lost also all share in them. ‘Judaism,’ says Ignatius, ‘is nothing but funeral monuments and tombstones of the dead.’ The Christian did not even allow him any further merit in the actual observance of the Law. It was only a mass of frivolities and absurdities, except as a preliminary to the Gospel. By some mysterious process all that was good in Judaism had become evil.[8]

Brown contradicted his assertion that “in moral matters the Christians made almost no moral innovations” before the fourth century by pointing out that Galen “was struck by the sexual austerity of the Christian communities in the late second century.”[9]

  1. Maccoby (1984) 39-42
  2. Cohn (1975) xvi-xvii
  3. Ibid. 1-4; 7.
  4. Ibid. 9
  5. Rudolph (1987) 59-61
  6. Ibid. 270-272
  7. Cumont (1911) viii-xii; xxi-xxiii
  8. Parkes (1934) 84
  9. Brown in Veyne (1987) 260, 263, 266


Often unclear and even contradictory, the views of the Fathers, especially if one includes Christian gnostics, diverge almost as much as those of modern Christian sects and denominations. Valentine, who visited Rome and Alexandria in 135/6, and his more famous disciple Marcion, who condemned even marriage and was expelled from Rome in 144, supposedly preached and practiced free love as being mandated by their faith. Denouncing Yahweh as an evil god who had created the material world, some Gnostics were accepted as Christians while others were regarded as heretics, the greatest, Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254), being on the borderline. Pagans and Christians persecuted these soi-disant Christians for believing that women as well as men should be allowed uninhibited sex, though Christians themselves suffered from the same charge.

Few of the early Christians were sex-positive, but many deemed homosexuality and bestiality more sinful than fornication and adultery. Following Jesus’s “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and Paul’s “Obey the powers that be,” early Christians, Jewish or not, had attacked only Jews as Christkillers as well as for obstinately refusing to accept the Messiah. The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100) and Tatian (c. 150) anathematized sodomites ( ). Claiming that their gods were originally devils, the first Apologist, Justin Martyr (c.100-c.167), attacked the pagans. Other mainstream Christians like Irenaeus (f.c. 150) of Lyons denounced with disgust homo­sexuality among heretical sects which, thinking they were free of sin and in a state of grace, believed they could do no wrong. Minucius Felix (f. c. 200) reproached the Romans for condoning licentious sex, by which he understood pederasty (28.10). The anti-Semite Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.216) fulminated against gays more than other Pre-Nicaean Fathers, whom persecution apparently softened although we must remember that because the others were silent does not mean they approved it, bracing his sexual strictures with Platonic concepts about nature and Stoic ones word for word from Musonius Rufus about mutual fidelity in marriage.

Boswell failed to recognize the importance and mainstream position of the Councils of Elvira (306) and Ancyra (314), which condemned homosexuality on the eve of toleration and the edicts against it of Constantine’s sons, like their father heads of the Church.[1] An impressive homophobic literature grew up. The bishop of Constantia Epiphanius (c.315-402) condemned sexual libertinism, alleging that at a banquet members of Christian groups, held women in common and did not restrict their sexual activity to one partner. Another group practiced masturbation and other groups homosexuality.[2] John Chrysostom (d. 407) and Augustine (354-430), than whom none were more orthodox, mainstream, and influential, ferociously denounced sodomy far more than fornication or even adultery.

By this time in the East, “the role of the Christian church in the cities had been overshadowed by a radical new model of human nature and human society created by the ‘men of the desert.’“[3] Up to the fourth century the Orthodox Church was becoming Romanized, but then it fell under the influence of monks, but not ones whose “monastic paradigm drew on the more radical aspects of the pagan philosophic counterculture, most notably on the magnificently asocial lifestyle of the Cynics, and on a long Judeo-Christian past.”[4] Rather like the earliest Christians they overturned Classical and Judaic traditions to practice a Buddhistic destruction of body, denial of nature, and rejection of the world. Greek bishops prescribed early marriages, already prevalent in the West, to prevent adolescent promiscuity. “Early marriage was proposed for the young of both sexes as a breakwater that could shield Christian men from the choppy seas of adolescent promiscuity.”[5] “The fifth century was marked by barbarian invasion in the West and dogged organization of rising population and a consequent rising misery in the East,” making asceticism and other-worldly escapism more appealing.[6] In any case the sect had now become a triumphant Church, adopting upper class Roman viewpoints especially in the West and little troubled by anchorites and stylites.

Gregory of Nyssa excoriated licentious, luxurious households (P. G. 46468B) and Basil, another Cappadocian, condemned homosexuality and bestiality during the 370’s (Ep., 188, can. 7, and 217 can. 62-3). Chrysostom deemed pederasty so prevalent among the urban wealthy that one of the main benefits a youth gained on entering a monastery was to escape the “hideous disease” that threatened to make “the female sex ... superfluous” (Adv. oppugnatores vitae monasticae 3.16 (PG 47.377)) and attacked the public baths in Antioch.[7]

Fourth century pagans echoed the Christians in attacking homosexuality. The homophobic historian Ammianus Marcellinus praised his hero Julian the Apostate for renouncing sex after the death of his wife, attacked the monks for pederastic aggression, denounced the citizens of Antioch for degeneracy, and even proscribed the writings of Archilochus. (31.9.5)[8] Julian’s mentor and friend Libanius, who also taught St. Basil and John Chrysostom, depicted erastei proferring gifts to eromenoi who humiliated them and sympathizing with friends similarly rebuffed (Twenty-Fifth Oration, 26 and 27). This boring rhetorician, more of whose works have survived than of any writer in antiquity, described homoeroticism as a disease (Fifty-Third Oration, 10). A critic of Christian­ity, the historian Eunapius, who was born at Sardis in 347 and studied and taught at Athens, where he became a priest for the Eleusinian Mysteries, mentioned in his Lives of the Sophists a teacher in Constan­tinople who was accused of “diabolicalism,” presumably homosexuality ( ), henceforth often linked to the devil.

The change was not quite as abrupt as certain Victorian or modern gays have asserted: “Christianity destroyed beyond all possibility of reconstruction the free, frank sensuality of paganism. It convicted humanity of sin, and taught men to occupy themselves with the internal warfare of their flesh and spirit as that which is alone eternally important.”[9] Foucault, Veyne, and Rousselle showed that Stoicism, Neoplatonism, and medicine was inhibiting pagan joie de vivre and Boswell that considerable pederasty endured after the triumph of the early Christians who did not universally condemn pederasty as worse than adultery or fornication before the thirteenth century. Nevertheless, however long it took, there was a sea change between Archaic Greeks enjoying life and nature including love and medieval Christian renunciation of nature and demands for chastity.

The triumphant Christians, with the Emperors as their agents, wasted little time in persecuting Jews, heretics, and sodomites and in destroying books and art works. From the time of Constantine (306-337) nude figures disappeared from art.[10] Although even the eastern cities declined in size and wealth during the anarchy of the third century, gymnasia reduced doubtless in numbers and wealth nevertheless survived and continued their key role in fostering pederasty even after Constantine’s conversion. Ephebes disappeared after 325 and sources no longer mention gymnasia after 380.

Lavish pagan cult had been intertwined with particular values and a particular social order in the cities’ upper classes. During the fourth century, those classes narrowed further, while service to the home town lost almost every connection with the old “love of honour,” spread widely within a competitive local elite. Pagan cults found their funds reduced and their ceremonies threatened, while the old forms of civic education no longer survived to support them. After 325, we hear no more of the training of a city’s youth as “ephebes” with the accompanying pagan ceremonial. By the 380s, nothing more is heard of the civic gymnasium and its officials. The reduction in the cities’ incomes may have influenced their disappearance, but Christian attitudes may also have played a part. “The physical side of education languished in a Christian environment”: in the cities, it had been linked with naked exercise, paganism and consenting homosexuality. The eventual “collapse of the gymnasia, the focal point of Hellenism, more than any other single event brought in the Middle Ages.”[11]

In 326 Constantine ordered the books of heretics hunted out and destroyed. An edict of 333 mentioned that the “impious books” of Arius, like those of Porphyry earlier, had been obliterated.[12] This was one of a series of decrees issued by Constantine and his successors to destroy books. Bishops directed the burning of books on their own initiative, probably long before Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria, wrote c.450 of a heretic named Tatian:

This [fellow] also composed that gospel called “By the four,” cutting off the genealogies and such other things as show that the Lord was, as for his body, a descendant of David. Not only the adherents of his party used this [gospel], but also those [Christians] who followed the apostolic teachings [i.e., were of my party], but who did not recognize the rascality of the composition, but simply used the book as a compendium. I myself found more than two hundred such books revered in the churches of my own [diocese], and collecting them all, I did away with them and introduced instead the gospels of the four [canonical] evangelists.[13]

In 342, less than thirty years after the so-called Edict of Milan, by which Constantine granted toleration and imperial favor to Christians, his sons, Constantius and Constans, an exclusive homosexual who surrounded himself with barbarian soldiers selected more for their looks than their military ability (as the plotters who overthrew him alleged) decreed the avenging sword for sodomites in a violent polemic curiously misinterpreted by Boswell as a measure outlawing “gay marriages:”

When a man submits to men, the way a woman does, what can he be seeking? where sex has lost its proper place? where the crime is one it is not profitable to know? where love is sought and does not appear? We order statutes to arise, and the laws to be armed with an avenging sword, that those guilty of such infamous crimes, either now or in the future, may be subjected to exquisite penalties. (Theodosian Code, IX, 7, 3; Justinian Code, 9, 9, 30)

Theodosius I (379-395), who outlawed paganism in 390, in 391 imposed for homosexuality death by public burning, more excruciating than Constantius’s and Constans’s penalty of the sword. In an edict praising the Vicar of the Prefecture of Rome, Theodosius stated:

We shall not suffer the City of Rome, the mother of all virtues, any longer to be defiled by the pollution of effeminacy in males and the rustic vigor inherited from her founding fathers, weakened through the unmanliness of her people, to become a reproach for the ages either to her founders or to her rulers, to Orientius whom we love and cherish, Praiseworthy therefore is your practice of seizing all who have committed the crime of treating their male bodies as though they were female, submitting them to the use becoming the opposite sex, and being in no wise distinguishable from women, and - as the monstrosity of the crime demands - dragging them out of the brothels (it is shameful to say) for males  ... in the sight of the people shall the offender expiate his crime in the avenging flames that each and everyone may understand that the dwelling place of the male soul should be sacrosanct to all and that no one may without incurring the ultimate penalty aspire to play the part of another sex by shamefully renouncing his own. Issued on the Ides of May (= May 14, 390) in the Hall of Minerva. (Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio)

Once again effeminates, transvestites, transexuals, and passive prostitutes suffered the extreme force of the law. The very harshness of the penalty, as in other cases in this age, betrays the difficulty of enforcement. The law lay unenforced from May to August, allowing male prostitutes and owners of male bordellos time to escape.[14] to the contrary Augustine’s Confessions (397) reported that, in spite of the law they operated boldly in great numbers at Carthage. Longing for the return of an uncorrupt Golden Age, Theodosius hearkened back to the virility so prized in the traditions of the founding of Rome and of the Empire, and attacked effeminate prostitutes. That “the sojourn of the masculine soul must be sacrosanct” seems, however, to imply a Christian origin, as does the penalty of fire, previously unused by Roman law but associated by Christians and Jews with Sodom.[15] Constans’ and Theodosius’ laws, though limited, set horrible precedents encouraged by Augustine’s admonitions in his Confessions (III, 18) that states should chastise sodomites.

It was Augustine ... who gave the final stamp of authority to the idea that sex is licit only in marriage and then only for the purpose of procreation, thus excluding not only homosexual and heterosexual “fornication,” but also sexual enjoyment as an end in itself even within marriage. By thus allowing for sexual union, though within narrow limits, Augustine tempered the rigidly ascetic view, found in Paul and others, that one must try to abstain from sex altogether, thereby forging an ethos acceptable to the Christian State, which required procreation to swell the ranks of tax-paying peasants and fighting soldiers ... . Medieval theologians believed (ostensibly following Augustine) that Christ had delayed his Incarnation because of his great grief at the prevalence of sodomy. A world ridden with this terrible vice was not fit to receive its Saviour. Accordingly the Sodomites had finally to be killed en masse just before the Nativity.[16]

Indeed, Augustine was the first to articulate homosexual guilt:

And what was it that I delighted in, but to love, and be loved? but I kept not the measure of love, of mind to mind, friendship’s bright boundary: but out of the muddy concupiscence of the flesh, and the bubblings of youth, mists fumed up which beclouded and overcast my heart, that I could not discern the clear brightness of love from the fog of lustfulness. Both did confusedly boil in me, and hurried my unstayed youth over the precipice of unholy desires, and sunk me in a gulf of flagitiousness. Thy wrath had gathered over me, and I knew it not. I was grown deaf by the clanking of the chain of my mortality, the punishment of the pride of my soul, and I strayed further from Thee, and Thou lettest me alone, and I was tossed about, and wasted, and dissipated, and I boiled over in my fornications, and Thou heldest Thy peace, O Thou my tardy joy! Thou then heldest Thy peace, and I wandered further and further from Thee, into more and more fruitless seed-plots of sorrows, with a proud dejectedness, and a restless weariness ... . But while in that my sixteenth year I lived with my parents, leaving all school for a while (a season of idleness being interposed through the narrowness of my parents’ fortunes), the briers of unclean desires grew rank over my head, and there was no hand to root them out. When that my father saw me at the baths, now growing towards manhood, and endued with a restless youthfulness, he, as already hence anticipating his descendants, gladly told it to my mother; rejoicing in that tumult of the senses wherein the world forgetteth Thee its Creator, and becometh enamoured of Thy creature, instead of Thyself, through the fumes of that invisible wine of its self-will, turning aside and bowing down to the very basest things ... . Behold with what companions I walked the streets of Babylon, and wallowed in the mire thereof, as if in a bed of spices and precious ointments. And that I might cleave the faster to its very centre, the invisible enemy trod me down, and seduced me, for that I was easy to be seduced. … For there is an attractiveness in beautiful bodies, in gold and silver, and all things; and in bodily touch, sympathy hath much influence, and each other sense hath his proper object answerably tempered. Worldly honour hath also its grace, and the power of overcoming, and of mastery; whence springs also the thirst of revenge. But yet, to obtain all these, we may not depart from Thee, O Lord, nor decline from Thy law. The life also which here we live hath its own enchantment, through a certain proportion of its own, and a correspondence with all things beautiful here below. Human friendship also is endeared with a sweet tie, by reason of the unity formed of many souls. Upon occasion of all these, and the like, is sin committed, while through an immoderate inclination towards these goods of the lowest order, the better and higher are forsaken, – Thou, our Lord God, Thy truth, and Thy law. For these lower things have their delights, but not like my God, who made all things; for in Him doth the righteous delight, and He is the joy of the upright in heart. … In those years when I first began to teach rhetoric in my native town, I had made one my friend, but too dear to me, from a community of pursuits, of mine own age, and, as myself, in the first opening flower of youth. He had grown up of a child with me, and we had been both school-fellows and play-fellows. But he was not yet my friend as afterwards, nor even then, as true friendship is; for true it cannot be, unless in such as Thou cementest together, cleaving unto Thee, by that love which is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us. Yet was it but too sweet, ripened by the warmth of kindred studies: for, from the true faith (which he as a youth had not soundly and thoroughly imbibed), I had warped him also to those superstitious and pernicious fables, for which my mother bewailed me. With me he now erred in mind, nor could my soul be without him. But behold Thou wert close on the steps of Thy fugitives, at once God of vengeance, and Fountain of mercies, turning us to Thyself by wonderful means; Thou tookest that man out of this life, when he had scarce filled up one whole year of my friendship, sweet to me above all sweetness of that my life. Who can recount all Thy praises, which he hath felt in his self? What diddest Thou then, my God, and how unsearchable is the abyss of Thy judgments? For long, sore sick of a fever, he lay senseless in a death-sweat; and his recovery being despaired of, he was baptised, unknowing; myself meanwhile little regarding, and presuming that his soul would retain rather what it had received of me, not what was wrought on his unconscious body. But it proved far other? wise: for he was refreshed, and restored. Forthwith, as soon as I could speak with him (and I could, so soon as he was able, for I never left him, and we hung but too much upon each other), I essayed to jest with him, as though he would jest with me at that baptism which he had received, when utterly absent in mind and feeling, but had now understood that he had received. But he so shrunk from me, as from an enemy; and with a wonderful and sudden freedom bade me, as I would continue his friend, forbear such language to him. I, all astonished and amazed, suppressed all my emotions till he should grow well, and his health were strong enough for me to deal with him as I would. But he was taken away from my frenzy, that with Thee he might be preserved for my comfort; a few days after in my absence, he was attacked again by the fever, and so departed. At this grief my heart was utterly darkened; and whatever I beheld was death. My native country was a torment to me, and my father’s house a strange unhappiness; and whatever I had shared with him, wanting him, became a distracting torture. Mine eyes sought him every where, but he was not granted them; and I hated all places, for that they had not him; nor could they now tell me, “he is coming,” as when he was alive and absent. I became a great riddle to myself, and I asked my soul, why she was so sad, and why she disquieted me sorely: but she knew not what to answer me. And if I said, Trust in God, she very rightly obeyed me not; because that most dear friend, whom she had lost, was, being man, both truer and better than that phantasm she was bid to trust in. Only tears were sweet to me, for they succeeded my friend, in the dearest of my affections. And now, Lord, these things are passed by, and time hath assuaged my wound. May I learn from Thee, who art Truth, and approach the ear of my heart unto Thy mouth, that Thou mayest tell me why weeping is sweet to the miserable? Hast Thou, although present every where, cast away our misery far from Thee? And Thou abidest in Thyself, but we are tossed about in divers trials. And yet unless we mourned in Thine ears, we should have no hope left. Whence then is sweet fruit gathered from the bitterness of life, from groaning, tears, sighs, and complaints? Doth this sweeten it, that we hope Thou hearest? This is true of prayer, for therein is a longing to approach unto Thee. But is it also in grief for a thing lost, and the sorrow wherewith I was then overwhelmed? For I neither hoped he should return to life nor did I desire this with my tears; but I wept only and grieved. For I was miserable, and had lost my joy. Or is weeping indeed a bitter thing, and for very loathing of the things which we before enjoyed, does it then, when we shrink from them, please us? But what speak I of these things? for now is no time to question, but to confess unto Thee. Wretched I was; and wretched is every soul bound by the friend? ship of perishable things; he is torn asunder when he loses them, and then he feels the wretchedness which he had ere yet he lost them. So was it then with me; I wept most bitterly, and found my repose in bitterness. Thus was I wretched, and that wretched life I held dearer than my friend. For though I would willingly have changed it, yet was I more unwilling to part with it than with him; yea, I know not whether I would have parted with it even for him, as is related (if not feigned) of Pylades and Orestes, that they would gladly have died for each other or together, not to live together being to them worse than death. But in me there had arisen some unexplained feeling, too contrary to this, for at once I loathed exceedingly to live and feared to die. I suppose, the more I loved him, the more did I hate, and fear (as a most cruel enemy) death, which had bereaved me of him: and I imagined it would speedily make an end of all men, since it had power over him. Thus was it with me, I remember. Behold my heart, O my God, behold and see into me; for well I remember it, O my Hope, who cleansest me from the impurity of such affections, directing mine eyes towards Thee, and plucking my feet out of the snare. For I wondered that others, subject to death, did live, since he whom I loved, as if he should never die, was dead; and I wondered yet more that myself, who was to him a second self, could live, he being dead. Well said one of his friend, “Thou half of my soul”; for I felt that my soul and his soul were “one soul in two bodies”; and therefore was my life a horror to me, because I would not live halved. And therefore perchance I feared to die, lest he whom I had much loved should die wholly. (Confessions, II, 2, 6, 8, 10; IV, 7?10)

Sodomites, however, were not merely in the Church from the earliest times, but several became martyrs, and as chastity became required for bishops they had the advantage of not being held back by love of women from being promoted to the episcopate. Sergius, the Commandant of a school for recruits to the Roman army in Syria, and his assistant Bacchus, were envied because of their favor they enjoyed with Emperor Maximin. When he came to inspect their academy, neighbors denounced them for being Christians. The emperor was startled when his protegés refused to sacrifice to Jupiter as he requested. Arrested and tortured, they stood fast by their faith, being paraded through Antioch in women’s garb which they stoically endured, saying that taking off their old clothes symbolized shedding their old habit and the women’s robes they compared to the “mantle of salvation and garments of gladness.” Bacchus, who expired first under the lash, appeared in a dream to Sergius, who had to endure a nine mile march with nails thrusting through his shoes into his feet before being beheaded after further torture in 303. The relics of Sergius were soon deposited with those of Bacchus so that they could lie together. A stately church was erected c. 431 in the town renamed Sergiopolis. They became especially honored among the Orthodox. In the Greek Church erected for them by Justinian in Constantinople, as in many others later throughout Slavdom, they were portrayed on horseback, as befitted officers leaning towards each other that their haloes touched with their parallel mounts rubbing noses. In St. Mark’s in Venice they appear across from each other gazing into each other’s eyes. Although the various Lives (Analecta Bollandiana, Tomus XIV, 1895, 373-395; Acta sanctorum, October, iii, 833-883) try to obscure it, they appear to have been lovers, who may have renounced further physical contact after their conversion; the term erastes appears in one manuscript as Boswell, who called my attention to these saints, assures me. Then as now many gay couples belonged to a hostile Church without giving up their love for each other.

When Theodosius II codified the laws of the fourth and early fifth centuries in 438, he omitted the reference restricting the anti-gay law of his grandfather to male whores of the bordellos, thus condemning all passive, but not yet active gays (Codex Theodosius, IX, 7.5). Thus homosexuality as such condemned by Paul and his Old Testament models was not condemned by Roman law until after the fall of the West in 476. Nevertheless, Fathers, particularly the Gallic monk Salvian in De Gubernatione Dei, written between 439 and 453, alleged in Old Prophetic fashion that God sent the morally pure Germans, who did not practice sodomy, to punish the Romans, sullied among other corruptions by sodomy.

Latin texts (Juvenal, Satires II and XIII; Tacitus, Germania, 12; and Salvian, De gubernatione Dei, VII, 18 ff.) attest to the diffusion of the Classical idea of decline from a mythical Golden Age into an era of softness and vice–including same-sex relations.[17]

The historian Procopius alleged that Justinian I (527-565) persecuted sodomites, Jews, and heretics to acquire money (Secret History). Justinian, the sponsor of the most remarkable legal code in antiquity, which is impregnated with Christianity, consigned sodomites who caused “famines, earthquakes, and pestilences” to the flames, decreeing these “extreme punishments,” however, only for those who did not mend their ways (Novella 77). Novella 141 in 559, recalling God’s punishment on Sodom and Paul’s condemnation of “debaucheries between men,” ordered the homosexuals of Constantinople, active as well as passive, to confess sincerely to the Patriarch to reform their morals or suffer the legal penalties, i.e., the flames prescribed in the earlier novella. “When a man gives himself to a husband like a woman who rejects all virility.” Once more the law struck only passives, continuing the pagan tradition of not condemning homosexuals as such, and the passage refers to existing laws not rigorously enforced.

Greek and Roman laws had condemned adultery, because it confused paternity, and fornication with free women, that likewise diminished a woman’s value, especially a virgin’s and therefore the property rights of the man to whom she belonged. They did not condemn bestiality at all and homosexuality only when it involved force, threat of force, or undue influence and only when a free citizen was harmed. Emperor Philip the Arab attempted unsuccessfully to prohibit male prostitution among free?born males. Christian laws naturally continued to condemn adultery and fornication, especially with virgins, without exemptions for slavery, although it is hard to believe they were enforced against masters. They punished sodomy and bestiality with greater ferocity and perhaps stricter enforcement first attacking male prostitutes, then all passives, and finally daring to attack even pederasts. Unlike the ante-Nicene Fathers, who sought to isolate sodomites by excommunication, a Christian version of the Classical practice of ostracism, the Church triumphant, led by Augustine, Chrysostom, and Salvian advocated physical extermination–the final solution to the sodomite problem.

Mobs could be as lethal as Emperors, often slaughtering the officially protected Jews, whom they considered Christkillers. In 415 the greatest female scholar of antiquity, the pagan Hypatia, who succeeded Theon as professor at Alexandria, fell victim to a mob goaded by monks inspired by St. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. Even under the attacks of mobs and clergy pederasty, homosexuality, and bisexuality continued though diminished. The pederastic tradition endured into the reign of Justinian. An advocate in Constantinople, Agathias of Myrina in Aeolis (c.536-582) who continued Procopius’s history to 558, composed the Daphniaca, brief erotic poems in epic meter, and collected a Cycle of New Epigrams featuring those from dead as well as living poets, including himself, that was to be incorporated into the Greek Anthology.

Of all the heterosexual romances, only in the fourth-century Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton of Aphrodisias did the love result in immediate marriage. A long series of misadventures, however, separated the lovers before they could consummate their marriage with almost the same result as in the others: each had to defend his virtue through many importunities during their long separation. In the face of these new adversities they showed the same heroism, endurance, and faithfulness with a strictly reciprocal sexual fidelity.

Ovid, Virgil, and Statius referred to a Hellenistic model for what has come down to us only in a very late alteration by the “divine” Musaeus, a fifth-century grammarian of whom we know nothing else and who put the final form on this poem of love and death of 340 lines. In this story of love at first sight, which is both an idyll and a small?scale epic Leander swam the Bosporus and scaled the tower where Hero awaited him with a lantern. This passionate tale of early teenage romance, paralleled by Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe, which also had a Hellenistic model, also ended tragically when Leander drowned in the swollen waves of the rough mid?winter sea after Hero’s lamp flickered out and he lost his way. The grief-stricken heroine jumped to her death.

In later Greek writing several pieces of contest literature appeared debating the relative merits of boys and women as love objects. Such a debate is featured in the novel Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius (perhaps second century of our era).[18]

In Leucippus and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius (c. 450?), Clinias, unable to dissuade his lover, the hero Menelaus, from marriage, gave him good advice about how to win girls. Having never had sex with a woman, Menelaus called a boy’s kiss simple and natural, unlike the deceitful, licentious, and soft one of a woman. The central theme of a subplot is the rapturous love of the girl who remained a virgin by impressing the leader of a gang of pirates who captured her. Thus the romantic lovers typically kept themselves virgin until marriage; even alone in a cave they only embraced and kissed. They had to be pure in heart as well as physically until marriage, and love each other with equal intensity.

Thus there begins to develop an eroticsdifferent from the one that had taken its starting point in the love of boys, even though abstention from the sexual pleasures plays an important part in both. This new erotics organizes itself around the symmetrical and reciprocal relationship of a man and a woman, around the high value attributed to virginity, and around the complete union in which it finds perfection.[19]

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), a better dramatist than historian, summed up the inspiration gays have drawn from the Greek and Roman examples. And his claim that the following were at least bisexual cannot be disproved: Great Alexander loved Hephaestion, The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept, And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped. And not kings only, but the wisest men: The Roman Tully Cicero loved Octavius, Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.

  1. Dynes in Johansson (1981) 9
  2. Lauritsen in Johansson (1981) 18
  3. Brown in Veyne (1987) 287
  4. Ibid. 289
  5. Ibid. 304
  6. Ibid. 290
  7. Ibid. 298
  8. Symonds (1873) I 292
  9. Ibid. II 162
  10. De Ridder and Deonna (1924) 110
  11. Fox (1986) 669-670
  12. Smith (1978) 1-2
  13. Ibid. 2
  14. Bernay-Vilbert (1975) 453
  15.  ??
  16. Dynes (1985) 12-13
  17. Ibid. 40.
  18. Ibid. 37.
  19. Foucault (1986) 232.
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