How Gay Were the Early Christians? Or, The Perils of Hyperbole in Historiography – By John David Penniman

John David Penniman on Douglas Boin’s Coming Out Christian in the Roman World

Douglas Boin, Coming Out Christian in the Roman World, Bloomsbury, 2015, 224pp., $28
Douglas Boin, Coming Out Christian in the Roman World, Bloomsbury, 2015, 224pp., $28

The question of what happened to the Roman Empire between 200 C.E. and 400 C.E. is a flame to which many a moth-like historian has fluttered. A millennium and a half later, Rome hasn’t yet finished falling apart in our imaginations. Cassius Dio, a politician and historian of the late second and early third centuries attests to the fact that even some who lived during this epochal shift recognized that something significant was afoot. In his Roman History, Dio concludes that, after the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (180 C.E.), “Our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.” What caused the rusting out of this gilded age is, of course, the rub.

The eighteenth-century English historian Edward Gibbon conjured the spirit of Cassius Dio in his monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a history with such narrative power that current scholars of the period often still work with and against it. The persuasiveness of Gibbon’s story is due to his singular skill at using passages like Dio’s as a prompt for reflection on the human condition writ large. So, for instance, Gibbon concludes early in the first volume (in all seriousness): “If a man were to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”

While Gibbon and Cassius Dio agree that the death of Marcus Aurelius marks the first tremors of the fall of Rome, Gibbon famously identified the rise of Christianity as the decisive and felling blow. Again from volume one:

While [the Roman Empire] was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol.

This triumph over Rome, Gibbon argued, was achieved through “the inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit [of the Jews].” These obstinate, Christ-confessing men and women refused to assimilate their new beliefs into the old growths of Roman society and sought to convert all others to their side. For Gibbon, religious zeal — an idea grounded in his own insidious anti-Jewish essentialism — was a rot festering within the core of Rome’s institutional vitality.

Of course, not all historians have ascribed such power to the followers of Jesus. In his 2009 book, modestly titled How Rome Fell, Adrian Goldsworthy downplayed its role: “Christianity made little fundamental difference to the ideology of the Roman empire.” The significance of the emperor Constantine’s supposed conversion ought to be taken “with a large pinch of salt.” As Simon Swain has observed, there is now a cottage industry for publishing on the crisis-history of this period — and since crisis functions as a subjective category of interpretation in historiography rather than an objective fact of history, this reveals as much about the historian and the contemporary moment as it does about the period under consideration. Indeed, in recent years there has been a rising tide of books on the emperor Constantine, a trend that suggests scholars largely agree that Gibbon was wrong but can’t quite reach consensus on why or how. Since Gibbon, then, the question of what happened to Rome has been bound up with an equally perplexing question: how is it that Christianity emerged from the margins of the Empire and, some 300 years after the death of Jesus, counted the emperor among their flock?

In Coming Out Christian in the Roman World, Douglas Boin seeks to dismantle Gibbon’s narrative by bridging the fields of Roman History and Religious Studies in order to provide a more nuanced account of how people oriented themselves to their beliefs during this period. Boin is keen to dispel the idea that there was a monolithic category of social identity that can be called “the Christians” and that these people were all intolerantly zealous. (It is worth noting upfront that Boin truncates Gibbon’s “intolerant zeal” quote and thus never fully grapples with the fact it is anti-Jewish in emphasis, not anti-Christian.) Coming Out Christian describes instead “a process of fits and starts [whereby] Christians hit upon a powerful formula — of social organization, mobilization, resilience, and compromise — that led to new legal rights and greater social visibility. They achieved their political triumph without converting everyone else to their side.”

As the title of the book suggests, Boin’s method invokes contemporary terms that are central to the history of the LGBTQI community. The marketing for the book foregrounds this method as one of the ways “Boin overturns centuries of myth and misunderstanding” surrounding the early history of Christianity. Coming Out Christian is, we are told, “the first to describe how Christians navigated the complex world of social identity in terms of ‘passing’ and ‘coming out.’”

Through the metaphor of coming out, Boin recounts how disparate Christ-confessing communities identified themselves as Christian in the generations following the death of Jesus. He contends that a more rigid (“out of the closet”) use of the term “Christian” found its champion in Ignatius of Antioch, whose letters articulated “an urgent concern” that

there was only one way to be a follower of Jesus now; that meant being openly Christian (Christianismos), not identifying as Jewish. At the start of the second century A.D., three generations after Jesus’s death, Jesus’s followers very clearly had not worked out their identity issues. In short, being ‘Christian’ in the Roman world was not an idea that was born with Jesus, nor even with Paul. It began at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century A.D. when one segment of Jesus’s followers, who felt increasingly comfortable with the negative term, began to apply it to themselves.

Boin is not, however, primarily interested in this “unmistakably queer” segment that vocally appropriated the abusive term “Christian” as a positive form of self-identification. His book instead emphasizes “the quieter ones” who “passed as non-Christians, living their public lives in the closet.” Shifting away from radicals like Ignatius or Tertullian, Coming Out Christian seeks to put a spotlight on those who were behind the scenes “building bridges.”

Boin weaves together an impressive array of material and literary evidence, presenting the reader with a gradient of out-of-the-closetness on which to plot ancient people and their beliefs — from the “safe space” created for Jews in the synagogue of Dura Europos; to the “well-placed allies” who helped worshippers of Isis gain acceptance in Rome; to prominent men, like Marius Victorinus, who for a time “didn’t really feel comfortable being ‘out’” as a Christian among his peers; to Constantine, who “wrapped himself” in his Christianity and flaunted it with pride. Boin is an entertaining guide, leading the reader through complex texts, materials, and events with a panoptic gaze, an engaging pace, and humor — like Morgan Freeman narrating March of the Christians. As in his previous publications, Boin explores the dynamic cultural interactions that took place throughout the Roman world and considers how these interactions resulted in different Christian orientations. Coming Out Christian thus provides an attractive alternative to Gibbon’s stereotype of the intolerant Christians who ruined Rome. It will surely appeal to audiences beyond the tweedy folk who work on late antiquity for a living.

Constantine the Great (ca. 275-337 CE) reportedly converted to Christianity before he defeated his rivals for control of Rome in a crucial battle at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River in 312. The belief that the victory was due to heavenly intervention is indicated by the angels. Once emperor, some reported that Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The composition here was taken from a famous 16th-century fresco by Giulio Romano in the Vatican that was well known through engravings. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Constantine the Great (ca. 275-337 CE) reportedly converted to Christianity before he defeated his rivals for control of Rome in a crucial battle at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River in 312. The belief that the victory was due to heavenly intervention is indicated by the angels. Once emperor, some reported that Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The composition here was taken from a famous 16th-century fresco by Giulio Romano in the Vatican that was well known through engravings. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Any reader of this book must accept two guiding premises from the outset, each of which has consequences for the impact of the book’s overall argument. The first premise is that Coming Out Christian breaks ground previously untilled by historians of the Roman Empire or early Christianity. Identifying himself as an ancient historian and archaeologist, Boin claims that this training has afforded him unique access to “the subtle stories that haven’t been told” — the stories that “challenge many of the stereotypes we’ve harbored about Rome and its early Christians.” Statements like this appear regularly throughout Coming Out Christian. Each time, I wondered just who is this “we,” what are the errant stories they (I?) have been told, and what heretofore neglected evidence has Boin rediscovered? To be sure, the intrigue of a lost or suppressed history is a great hook — a common enough authorial strategy that has, at least in the wake of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, been quite effective in generating wider interest in the story of early Christianity.

Boin stakes his claim on a privileged insight into history as it really happened, advertising the real story of how Christianity began. This framing implies that other scholars working on this time period are either negligent or, worse, actively complicit in the suppression of the real story. While Gibbon is a fun straw man to cudgel — early modern historians say the darndest things! — it is not as though scholars of late antiquity and early Christianity have simply regurgitated his narrative. There are at least five different major university presses that publish regularly on the question of what happened to the Roman world and the role of Christianity in that transformation. Boin knows this, as his erudite previous scholarship has demonstrated — a fact that makes the vaunted claims of the present book so surprising. Even if the presumed audience for Coming Out Christian is a general readership, the framing of Boin’s argument as a “rediscovery” results in a flattening of the robust interdisciplinary conversations devoted to the historical period in question. Indeed, the argument of Coming Out Christian is so tightly woven into its own marketing pitch that, in order to maintain the book’s hype, each figure and text is trumpeted before the reader as though this were the first time anyone has ever considered them. Such a reliance on hyperbole to buttress the work of historical analysis inevitably means that the novelty of the argument is emphasized at the expense of the argument itself. In a contemporary moment in which journalism comes prepackaged in the form of clickbait headlines, the similar packaging of academic scholarship for a wider audience is a most worrisome trend.

A reliance on hyperbole to buttress the work of historical analysis inevitably means that the novelty of the argument is emphasized at the expense of the argument itself.

This problem becomes evident when one takes stock of the “untold stories” found throughout the book: Marius Victorinus, to take only one example, is called the “most famous Christian no one’s ever heard of.” One could excuse such an exaggeration if Boin had not from the outset claimed that he has walked “through the warehouses of the Roman past” and peered into “many of those crates.” Looking over his shoulder like a sidekick to Indiana Jones, the reader is led to believe that the life of this “closeted” Christian is a lost artifact that has been waiting for a daring discovery. Of course, the story of Victorinus that Boin narrates is drawn from Augustine’s Confessions, one of the most widely read texts in the history of the printed word.

The second guiding premise of Coming Out Christian is the usefulness of categories such as “coming out,” “passing,” “closet,” and “queer” for understanding the diverse ways that Christians oriented themselves as Christian in the ancient world. Scholars of early Christianity — Virginia Burrus, Stephen Moore, Benjamin Dunning, and Maia Kotrosits (to name only a few) — have been making important connections between the literature of this period and the fields of gender and queer studies for the better part of two decades. Kotrosits, for example, has offered a recent and crucial intervention into the supposed “queerness” of early Christians. She cautions: “Queer itself is not an uncontested term … having come to indicate both LGBTI identities (being ‘queer identified’) and that which is inimical to identity.” In the academic disciplines of gender and queer studies as well as in the lives of people for whom the term has gained a positive valence, “queer” has functioned ambivalently, both championing and undermining the idea of a real or true identity (gay, straight, or whatever) that sits at our core as humans. Nevertheless, Coming Out Christian does not engage the fraught histories of the terms it uses. Nor does it promote an awareness of the groundbreaking reflections surrounding them that have been ongoing since the 1990s by acclaimed thinkers such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Jack Halberstam. Indeed, the terms are not unpacked at any point in the book. The effect of this, strangely, is that in the precise places where Boin describes how Christians could be Christian differently, “queer” appears as a monolithic category of human identity.

It is here that the metaphor of coming out Christian fails dramatically, unable to support the weight of the analytical work it is asked to do. Indeed, the metaphor ultimately undermines the stated goals of the book. Lacking a more explicit reflection on the complex and variegated configurations in which gender and sexuality take shape in human life, Coming Out Christian can only offer the reader a static account of social identity, whether that identity is “Christian” or “queer.” The categories themselves are never analyzed, much less complicated as categories. Gibbon’s view of “the intolerant zeal of the Christians” has been traded for a murkier but nevertheless fixed definition of “Christian” — a real identity to which ancient people aligned themselves in varying degrees of public disclosure.

This oversight is, at the very least, a missed opportunity. Since Coming Out Christian stakes its merit on navigating “the complex world of social identity,” a more nuanced account of the terms “coming out,” “closeted,” and “queer” would have provided an invaluable introduction to a general readership. Not only would it have strengthened the force of the metaphor that animates the book, but it would have also helped to avoid the problematic rendering of “identity” as only ever a kind of internal and accessible Truth upon which each person modulates his or her outward behavior. Moreover, the cumulative effect of all this is that the book unintentionally endorses a politics that one can only presume is the opposite of what Boin intends. In the end, the basic argument of Coming Out Christian is something like: Rome was not defeated by “queer” Christians who were loud and abrasive — like Ignatius or Tertullian — but was instead slowly transformed by the “quiet” ones who managed to act like normal Romans. Rome, it turns out, did not fall because of Christian zealots. It was gradually won over to Christianity by the politics of respectability.

Is this, as Boin hopes it will be, a narration of history that “tilts toward liberation?”

Judith Butler poses a question at the end of Bodies that Matter that echoed in my mind each time Coming Out Christian too loosely invoked “coming out” or “closeted” or “queer” in order to describe ancient Christians: “How will we know the difference between the power we promote and the power we oppose?” In a similar vein, Eve Sedgwick’s landmark Epistemology of the Closet offers an important consideration of how the phrase “coming out” has come to function in public discourse:

The apparent floating-free from its gay origins of that phrase “coming out of the closet” in recent usage might suggest that the trope of the closet is so close to the heart of modern preoccupations that it could be, or has been, evacuated of its historical gay specificity. But I hypothesize that exactly the opposite is true … . So permeative has the suffusing strain of homo/heterosexual crisis been that to discuss any of these indices [e.g. closet/out; private/public; secrecy/disclosure; margin/center, etc.] in any context, in the absence of an antihomophobic analysis, must perhaps be to perpetuate unknowingly compulsions implicit in each.

Boin clearly appeals to the historical gay specificity of the terms in question, without ever adequately accounting for it. My concern is that, in using such phrases as an interpretive lens for understanding early Christianity without first subjecting that interpretive lens to any critical scrutiny, Coming Out Christian unwittingly promotes stereotypes about what it means to be queer, out, closeted, or even “normal.”

One of Boin’s most insightful observations arrives in the final pages of Coming Out Christian. He concludes the last chapter with the suggestion that the fall of Rome is “not a historical event; it’s more akin to a theological idea.” Theological ideas are analogical by nature, requiring the most cautious of connections between that which has happened, that which is at hand, and that which is yet to come. And so, as a discipline, theology is essentially a protracted debate about the usefulness, the merits or risks, and the fraught histories of certain ways of speaking. Words have their own density, their own genealogies of violence and injustice. The explanatory power of a metaphor, then, is never neutral — especially when it is used to collapse the distance between past and present. If it is to promote justice or tilt us toward liberation, history writing must subject its own methods and metaphors to the same scrutiny applied to the source material. The decline of Rome’s Golden Kingdom into one of iron and rust was, for Gibbon, a metaphor for the corrosive effect of religion on society. Coming Out Christian rightly critiques Gibbon and his legacy on this point. If only the book spent a little more time considering the vexed power of its own metaphor.