Failed Attempt to Rewrite History (Adelphopoiesis) [Fr. Patrick Viscuso, 1994]

NOTE: Patrick Viscuso, of Chantilly, Vir­ginia, is a priest and canonist of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. He has written numerous articles in the area of Byzantine marriage theology and canon law in scholarly journals. He is cited three times in Boswell’s book.


Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.  By John Boswell. Villard. 412 pages. $25.


Writing the history of a religious institution involves understanding concepts and language within their historical and cultural context. Yale professor John Boswell’s book purports to find precedents for homosexual marriage, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy during the late Byzantine period. His main contention is that the Byzantines regarded the rite of adelphopoiesis, a Greek term translated as “same-sex union” by Boswell, as a form of marriage contracted between two males and blessed by the Church.

It is beyond dispute that there are rites for adelphopoiesis contained in Byzantine manuscripts dating from the ninth to the 15th century. The ceremony was conducted by a priest for two males in church, and contained symbols common to Byzantine marriage rites including holding candles, joining hands, receiving Communion, and processing three times around a table used in the celebration. Prayers used for the sacerdotal blessing referred to God establishing “spiritual broth­ers” (pneumatikous adelphous) and contained references to sainted pairs, including most no­tably SS Sergius and Bacchus, who were famous for their friend­ship. The order of the service var­ied, but appeared to possess a simple structure, usually includ­ing petitions followed by the cen­tral prayer(s) of benediction and a dismissal.

sergius and bacchus

In order to evaluate whether this service was equivalent to a marriage ceremony, it is necessary to understand how marital unions were formed in late Byzantium, and then to compare the rites. Our concern in this analysis will not be to examine the content of the prayers involved in the rites, as has already been accomplished in sev­eral reviews of Boswell’s work, but to focus on the context in which the rites were used and described in late Byzantine society.

In late Byzantium, marital union was established through a process involving several stages: engagement, marriage contract, betrothal, and crowning.

Simple engagements were civil contracts. They were a prom­ise of future union by the heads of households acting for their pre­adolescent children. They were not regarded as having any ecclesiasti­cal significance and could be dis­solved merely with the civil penal­ties related to breaking a legal agreement.

Marriage contracts also were a civil arrangement, most probably the “cross bonds” discussed by the 15th-century St. Symeon of Thessalonica. These consisted of agreements made before a repre­sentative of the state prior to the church ceremonies. During these arrangements, the spouses each agreed to a written marriage con­tract by signing a cross. The con­sent of the families to the union was expressed when the fathers of the future spouses touched the pens used by their children during the signing. The contracts signi­fied the agreement of the couple and their families to the union, as well as the transfer of property into the marital community — e.g., the dowry of the bride and the ante-nuptial gift of the bridegroom. The contract signing was a purely civil form of marriage.


In contrast, formal betrothal involved a priestly blessing de­scribed in Byzantine sources as a “benediction.” The main purpose of this blessing was the invocation of God in order that the betrothal might be confirmed and made in­dissoluble. However, if betrothals were broken, a Church divorce procedure was undertaken on the basis of stipulated grounds. After betrothal, the spouses were re­quired to exhibit fidelity, but could not enjoy the positive rights of marriage, such as nuptial relations. The effects of betrothal on rela­tions of kinship were similar to those of complete marriage.

The distinction of betrothal from complete marriage, which was established by the final rite of crowning, may be understood if the grounds for their dissolution are compared. While the grounds for divorce of a completed mar­riage concentrated on the disrup­tion of marital union and dealt with adultery or situations that concerned actual or suspected sexual immorality, the causes for dissolving betrothals had a differ­ent focus, namely, finances, char­acter, position in life, and events surrounding the contracting of the marriage. The difference indicated that while divorce in the case of a completed marriage was con­cerned with the loss of union, the sundering of betrothal dealt with the loss of the foundation for the union. Betrothal is a step in the completion of matrimony, nearly equivalent to marriage, but it is not the same as the completed union.

Crowning, the final stage of the formation of marriage, was named after the central rite of benediction during which crowns were placed on the heads of the bride and groom by the priest. As in the case of betrothal, a solemn invocation of divine blessing was made to establish the marital union. The marital union resulted in a number of kinships by mar­riage, known as relationships by affinity. Complex rules or canons governed whether such family members were allowed to inter­marry. Once established, this type of kinship even survived the death of either or both of the spouses. These relationships were more ex­tensive than those formed through any other Sacrament or mystery, including Baptism, which also re­sulted in certain prohibitions on marriage between the sponsor’s family and the baptized.


If Byzantine marriage is com­pared with the rite for adel­phopoiesis (what Boswell calls “same-sex union”), several differ­ences are apparent. The first is that marriage occurs through a pro­cess, not a single rite. The most immediate reason for this appears to be that marital unity in Byzan­tine society involved both the spouses and their families, rather than simply individuals. The con­sent of the families was required at almost every stage of marriage for­mation. This is not to say that con­sent of the spouses was not re­quired. The civil ceremony was the vehicle where matrimonial con­sent was manifested. This consent was also implied by the couple’s mutual participation in the rites of betrothal and crowning, where the sacerdotal blessing established the union, and the priest was regarded as the minister of the Sacrament. In contrast, adelphopoiesis was not established by a process of gradual union between spouses and families, but rather was a union of two individuals. The re­sulting family kinships and marriage impediments were limited. Boswell cites the 11th-century ju­rist Eustathios Rhomaios, as stating: “same-sex unions are of per­sons, and they [the persons joined through the unions] alone incur impediments to marriage, but not the other members of their fami­lies.” If “same-sex unions” were a form of matrimony, why would marriage impediments be an issue for those already united? It doesn’t make sense. Even if it were allowed that such impediments were appli­cable when “same-sex unions” dissolved, such limited kinships and impediments are completely in­consistent with marriage as practiced within the context of late Byzantine society. Moreover, there appear to be no provisions in the Church, where Boswell claims ho­mosexual marriages were blessed, for grounds of divorce. Certainly, if two men were married by the Church, would not there have been provisions for their separa­tion, as was the case for all other forms of matrimony?

Adelphopoiesis established a different type of union from mar­riage, one perhaps closer to adop­tion. This view is supported by the fact that discussion of adel­phopoiesis occurs in late Byzan­tine sources in connection with kinships established by adoption, contrary to the assertions of Boswell. In the context of these sources, the more literal transla­tion of adelphopoiesis, “adopting a brother” or “brother adoption,” appears to be more consistent with the ideas being expressed in the texts. For example, the 14th-cen­tury monk Matthew Blastares in The Alphabetical Collection, an encyclopedia of canon law, dis­cusses adelphopoiesis in the con­text of adoption, which in turn he relates to the general subject of kinship, not marriage. Boswell misses the context.

Hieromonk Matthew Blastares
Hieromonk Matthew Blastares

In his treatment of the 10th-century Typikon of John Tzimiskes, Boswell makes this translation: “it is not permitted to any of the brothers to leave the mountain to form relationships or unions [sunteknias e adel­phopoiesis] with laypersons, and if any should happen to have done something like this…they may not go to their homes or breakfast with them….” The word sunteknia expressed the spiritual relationship established between the sponsor and godchild at Bap­tism. However, by translating the word as “relationship,” Boswell changes the context for adel­phopoiesis. A more proper transla­tion might be “spiritual parent­hood.” Consequently, the parallel to this prohibition appears to be related to Baptism, another type of union establishing kinship ties, not to those rules “against monks marrying women,” as Boswell as­serts.

A similar problem occurs when the statement is made, “Harmenopoulos, a 14th-century jurist, in his commentary on a rul­ing by the seventh-century council in Trullo…quoted Peter, the chartophylax…as adding the comment that monks must not select boys at baptism and make same-sex unions with them.” Nev­ertheless, when carefully exam­ined, the passage in question is not dealing with the selection of boys, implying carnal relations, but rather with the prohibition of three types of relationships. The text of Harmenopoulos reads as follows, “It is unacceptable, he [Pe­ter] states, for monks to receive children from holy baptism, to hold crowns of marriage, and to make brother adoptions.” Two of these are clearly spiritual, sponsor­ship at Baptism and weddings, im­plying perhaps that the third, adel­phopoiesis, shares a similar na­ture. In this context, the words, “receive children from holy bap­tism,” refer to the role of the spon­sor at the Baptism rite, who liter­ally received the newly baptized child from the hands of the priest after the infant’s threefold immer­sion in the font.

Κωνσταντῖνος Ἁρμενόπουλος

These problems of interpreta­tion are not uncommon in Boswell’s work and serve to distort the meaning of adelphopoiesis, which appears, from the passages cited, more related to adoption and the spiritual relationship asso­ciated with Baptism than with marriage, and which does not im­ply any sexual dimension.

Writing the history of a reli­gious institution involves under­standing concepts and language within their historical and cultural context. Otherwise, the risk is taken that history will be rewritten to suit current preoccupations. Boswell’s attempt to prove that the Byzantines regarded adelphopoie­sis as a form of marriage fails be­cause his research presents histori­cal facts and events out of context. From Boswell’s viewpoint, it would appear that matrimony is being cel­ebrated when two individuals are united by a priestly blessing in a ser­vice using symbols held in com­mon with marriage ceremonies. However, Byzantine marriage was celebrated as a process that united families as well as spouses in a se­ries of rituals, not in one rite that mainly affected its participants. Simply put, adelphopoiesis was certainly a kind of union between two individuals, but to make this institution equivalent to matri­mony necessitates a perspective and context foreign to the late Byz­antine Church.

John Eastburn Boswell
John Eastburn Boswell

Archimandrite Ephrem Lash also criticized Boswell’s book in the February 1995 issue of Sourozh. According to Ephrem, Boswell mistranslates, misinterprets, and tendentiously organizes texts, and his “knowledge of Orthodox liturgiology is, in effect, non-existent.”

With regard to Boswell’s central claim to have found evidence for the use of wedding crowns in the rite for making brothers, Ephrem notes that what the relevant text says, “somewhat literally translated,” is this: “It is inadmissible for a monk to receive [anadochos is a standard Greek word for ‘godparent’] children from holy baptism, or to hold marriage crowns or to make brother-makings. 150:124]”

In other words, “monks are forbidden to do the following:

  1. To act as godfathers at baptisms,
  2. To act as supporters of bridal couples,
  3. To enter into brotherly unions.

These are, of course, the natural consequences of a monk’s having given up all ties of earthly relationships.” Turning back to Boswell’s thesis, Ephrem writes, “What does Boswell make of this? Here is his paraphrase of the text given above: ‘monks must also not select boys at baptism and make such unions with them’. There is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that the three prohibitions are linked in the way Boswell implies, nor that the ‘children’ are ‘boys’ – the Greek has the neuter, paidia. In short, this first piece of evidence for the use of crowns in the ceremony of brother-making is not evidence for anything, except Boswell’s ignorance, not to mention the prurient suggestion that Byzantine monks went round selecting suitable boys at baptism so as to ‘marry’ them later on.” (Archimandrite Ephrem, “Review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe“, Sourozh, no. 59 (Feb. 1995): 50–55)

NOTE: In cases of secret baptisms which take place at the monasteries, Geronda Ephraim has given blessings for his monastics to act as godfathers. This is to protect the secret because “many times lay people can’t keep their mouths shut.” Such was the case at the now defunct St. John the Theologian Monastery in Picton, Ontario, Canada. In December 1996, there was a joint baptism of 5 catechumens and, under the orders of Geronda Ephraim, each of the 5 novices at the Monastery became a godfather of a candidate. Though these things happen infrequently, they do occur elsewhere both here and in Greece. At times, Gerondas and Gerondissas also become godparents for babies who are baptized.

adelp 1


Late Byzantine Canonical Views on the Disolution of Marriage (Fr. Patrick Viscuso, 1999)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 44. Nos. 1-4, 1999, pp. 273-290

Orthodox Canon Law

Canon law often affirms the ideal of lifelong marriage and fidelity. Regulations prohibiting or justifying the dissolution of marital unions reflect underlying viewpoints concerning gender and sexual behavior. This study will treat the views of late Byzantine canonists concerning the dissolution of marriage. These canonists will include Matthew Blastares (ca. 1335), whose nomokanon. The Alphabetical Collection, enjoyed great popularity during the fourteenth century; as well as Theodore Balsamon (c. 1140 – c. 1195), John Zonaras (death after 1189), and Alexios Aristenos (twelfth century), whose commentaries and works remain canonical references for the Orthodox church.


The Alphabetical Collection was a popular legal work of the fourteenth century surviving in a large number of manuscripts and translated contemporaneously for use in the Serbian Empire of Stephen Dushan. 1 Divorce legislation occupies a large section constituting an entire chapter and including citations of imperiallaw.2 Dissolution of marriage occurs legally for causes that have arisen from actions by one or both of the parties to the union. According to these causes, the divorce is either penalized or unpenalized.

At the outset of his discussion, Blastares states that divorce by mutual consent was formerly blameless according to “ancient laws and long-held custom.” Such dissolutions took the form of the husband saying to his spouse, “Wife, manage your own affairs,” and the wife, “Husband, manage your own affairs.” This type of divorce was “abolished by Christians” through the enumeration by “the pious emperors” of causes for the dissolution of marriage, without which “it is illicit to separate.” According to Blastares, “the civil law,” and especially “the novel of Justinian which expressly sets forth the causes for which the husband or the wife sends a libellus of repudiation, i.e., a bill of divorce, to the spouse,” treats divorce “most completely.”3

Sexuality, Marriage, and Celibacy

There are six main causes listed for divorce that arises from the actions of the wife. Each is taken from imperial legislation and, with the exception of the last cause, also listed in another legal work important for the study of canon and civil law, the Nomokanon of Fourteen Titles.4 They are cited as follows:

  1. If the wife is implicated in any plotting against the Empire, and did not reveal this to her own husband.5
  2. If an accusation of adultery were to be made against the wife, and she were to be convicted as an adulteress according to the law.6
  3. If she plotted against the life of her husband in any manner whatsoever, or consented for others to do this, and did not reveal it.7
  4. If she attends banquets or bathes with strange men, against the will of the husband.8
  5. If she stays outside of the home against the will of the husband, unless she happens to be with her own parents, or he drives her out without the aforesaid causes, and parents not existing for her, she spends the night outside.9
  6. If she attends horse races, theatres, or hunts, in order to be seen, without her husband’s knowledge or against his prohibition. 10

For these causes, the husband is able to repudiate the wife and gain the dowry. The wife can be accepted back by the husband during the two-year period after the repudiation, although this would mean that he “condones the crime.”


In turn, there are five causes that arise from the husband’s actions, for which the wife is able to send a libellus of repudiation. Likewise, these are also based on imperial legislation, and are as follows:

  1. If the husband himself conspires against the Empire, or after be-coming aware of others that conspire, he does not reveal this to the emperor either in person or by any other persons. 11
  2. If the husband plots against the life of the wife in any manner whatsoever. 12
  3. If the husband plots against the chastity of the wife by endeavoring to deliver her up to other men in order to be debauched. 13
  4. If, after the husband accuses her of adultery, he does not prove it.14
  5. If the husband has carnal relations with another woman in the same house, or in the same city, and after being warned by the wife, her parents, or any other person, he does not wish to abstain. 15

These causes are listed in the Nomokanon of Fourteen Titles as well. 16 On account of them, the wife is able to send a bill of repudiation, obtain her dowry, and gain “the husband’s gift on account of the marriage,” the antenuptial gift. Ownership of the gift is held on be­ half of the children, or if there are no offspring from the marriage, it is kept by the wife.

wedding crowns

Unpenalized dissolution of marriage arises from three main causes, which are also derived from imperial legislation. These causes are: impotence of the husband for three years, entrance by either spouse into religious life, and the capture and uncertain fate of either spouse for five years. 17 In the first case, the antenuptial gift remains with the husband and no loss of property occurs for either party. Entrance into the religious life is treated with regard to property relations in the same way as the death of a spouse. On this point, Blastares cites from the fifth chapter of Justinian’s twenty-second novel:

Wherefore, the one contracting would fix by agreement a benefit to occur in case of the other’s death. This benefit is necessary for the party left behind by the other (either husband or wife can establish it), since he that chooses one mode of life instead of another is thought to be dead for his spouse.18

However, remarriage of the spouse left in the world is not dis­ cussed. Although, if both husband and wife enter religious life, and one remarries or fornicates, the children receive all of that partner’s property, and in lieu of offspring, the state treasury. 19

Finally, Blastares covers the penalties for a divorce that occurs illegally, without any of the causes set forth by the law. These penal­ ties include confinement of both spouses to a monastery with loss of all property, which in tum is given to either the family or the monastery depending on whether the ascendants or descendants acquiesced to the illegal repudiation. If reconciliation takes place before the confinement, no penalties apply. Likewise, if one of the parties “wishes the marriage to be restored, and if the other were to not consent, the punishments prevail against the one that does not assent.” This discussion appears to be a synopsis of eleventh chapter of Justinian’s one hundred thirty-fourth  novel. 20


The full article can be read here: