Marriage and Divorce in the Orthodox Church according to St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite († 1809)

NOTE: The following article is taken from the Rudder, which was published in 1800:

the-rudder
The Rudder (Pedalion). The “Talmud” of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Canon 48 of the Holy Apostles

“If any layman who has divorced his wife takes another, or one divorced by another man, let him be excommunicated”

Interpretation

Inasmuch as the Lord decreed in His Gospel that “Whosoever shall divorce his wife, except on account of fornication, is causing her to commit adultery; and whoever marries her who hath been divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32; 19: 9), therefore the divine Apostles too, following the Lord’s decree, say in their present Canon: If any layman who insists upon divorcing his wife, except on the ground of fornication, which is to say adultery (for the Evangelist here used the word fornication instead of adultery. Concerning this point see also Canon IV of Nyssa), and takes another woman that is free to marry, let him be excommunicated. Likewise let him be excommunicated if, after being divorced from his wife without the ground of fornication, he takes another woman who is one also divorced from her husband without the ground of fornication, or, in other words, of adultery. These things, which we have said with reference to the husband, must be understood to apply also to the wife who leaves her husband, except on account of fornication, and takes another man as her husband. As for any man or any woman who separates from his or her spouse without a reasonable cause and remarries or is remarried, he or she shall be canonized to have no communion for seven years according to Canon LXXXVII of the 6th Ecumenical Synod, Canon XX of Ancyra, and Canons LXXVII and XXXVII of Basil. Read also Canon XLIII of Carthage which prescribes that if a married couple separate without the commission of fornication on the part of either spouse, either they must remain unmarried or they must become reconciled and be reunited, as St. Paul also says in Chapter 7 of his First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Holy Apostles

Footnote 68 to the 85 Apostolic Canons Concerning Marriage & Divorce

Strictness and the Lord’s decree are equally averse to letting a man divorce his wife, or a woman her husband. For the Lord said in regard to both the man and the woman: “Whoever shall divorce his wife and marry another, commits adultery against her” (Matthew 19:9); and “If a woman shall divorce her husband and be married to another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:12), without adding except it be for fornication either in the case of the man only or in the case of the woman only, but He left this to be understood by us indifferently as regarding both.

The custom of the Church is to allow the man authority to divorce his wife when he finds her to be fornicating or committing adultery, but not to let a woman divorce her husband even though she find him to be fornicating or committing adultery. If on the other hand, she should divorce him on grounds of fornication or adultery, and he, being unable to suffer should marry a second woman, the first women who divorced him will have the sin of such a separation, whereas the husband deserves a pardon for having married a second time, and his second wife is not condemned as an adulteress. Gregory the Theologian did not accept this custom, which came into the Church from Roman civil law. For he says in his (Discourse on the saying in the Gospel, when Jesus spoke the previous words); “I see many men belonging to the common people to be judging perilously regarding temperance. And I see their law as being unequal and inconsistent”. For what reason does the law chastise a woman if she fornicates, but allows a man the liberty to do the same. And if a woman betrays the bed of her husband, she is judged an adulteress, but if a man who has a wife fornicates with other women, is he guiltless? I do not accept that legislation; I do not praise the custom. It was men who made that law, and on this account they only legislated against women.

For those same legislators of this civil law made a law for children to be under the control of their father, but as for the weaker side that is, the mother who is a weak woman, they left her without care, not having made a law for her children to be under her control. However, God made no such law. On the contrary, He says, “ Honor your father and your mother,” which is the first commandment among the promises, “that it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 5:16; Exodus 20:12; Sirach 8:8; Matthew 19:19; Mark 7:10; Luke 18:20) and “He that speaks evil against his father or mother, let him die the death” (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19:3; Deuteronomy 5:16). Both in the case of the father and in the case of the mother, He equally honored obedience and chastised insolence. And “A father’s blessing firmly establishes the houses of children, but a mother’s curse uproots the foundations” (Proverbs 19:14).

New Martyr Argyre of Proussa, Patron Saint of Marriage (+ 1725)
New Martyr Argyre of Proussa, Patron Saint of Marriage (+ 1725)

 

Herein do you not see the equality of the legislation? The Creator of man and woman is one. Both of them are of one and the same clay. One and the same law governs them both. There is but one resurrection. We have been born quite as much by a woman as by a man; children owe their parents a single debt. How then is it that you the legislator being a man, demand temperance of women, when you yourself are intemperate?

How is it that you ask for what you do not give? How is it that you enact unlike legislation for woman notwithstanding that your body is like that of woman? But can it be that if you are thinking of the evils attending disobedience because the woman sinned? Why, did not Adam also sin? The serpent deceived them both. Accordingly, it cannot be said either that the woman proved the weaker of the two in being deceived, or that the man proved to be the stronger of the two in that he avoided being deceived. Or if you are thinking of the good results attending reformation remember that Christ saved them both with His passion. He became flesh for man, but also for woman.

He died for man, but woman too is saved through His death. Perhaps you think that He honored man because He was born of David’s seed. But in being born of the Virgin He honored women. “They shall be one flesh,” it says (Genesis 2:24): that one flesh accordingly must deserve equal honor. St. Paul, also lays down a law of temperance for man. How? “This is a great mystery; I am speaking concerning Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32).

It is well for a woman to revere Christ by means of the reverence which she shows toward her husband. It is also well for a man not to dishonor the Church of Christ by means of the dishonor toward his wife by fornicating with another.

The Patron Saints of Marriage, Love, Family and Fidelity. Celebrated in Russia up to 1917. Saints Peter and Fevronia.
The Patron Saints of Marriage, Love, Family and Fidelity. Celebrated in Russia up to 1917. Saints Peter and Fevronia.

In the same way, Chrysostom also testifies to the same view in his fifth sermon on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians. “I beg,” he says, “that we guard ourselves against this sin. For just as we men chastise our wives when they betray their honor to others, so does God, if not the laws of the Romans, chastise us when we betray the honor of our wives, and fornicate with another, since the sin of men with other women is also adultery. For adultery is not only when a married woman commits adultery with another man, but also when a married man commits adultery with any other woman. Give attention to the accuracy of what I say to you. Adultery is not only when married men sin with a strange woman who is married, but also when they sin with an unmarried woman, which is also adultery. For notwithstanding that the woman with whom they sin is not tied to a man, they themselves are tied to a woman. And for this reason it can be said that they have violated the law and have wronged their own flesh. For why should they chastise their wife if she fornicates with a man that is not married? Of course, it is adultery, despite the fact that the man who fornicated with her has no wife, also simply because his wife is tied to a man. So they also, since they are tied to a wife, if they fornicate with an unmarried woman, are committing adultery by their act of fornication.

“Whosoever shall divorce his wife,” says the Lord, “except on account of fornication, is causing her to commit adultery; and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32; 19:9). And if this is so, is not one committing adultery even more so, who has a wife when he joins in self-corruption with an unmarried woman? Yes.

That is obvious to everyone. Not only St. Gregory and St. Chrysostom, but even Basil himself cannot bear to follow that custom which disregards the commandment delivered by God, as he makes known in other pages as well as in the twelfth definition of his Ethics. But he also says in his Canon XXXV: “When a woman abandons her husband, we must inquire into the reason why she left him. Then, if it appears that the woman left him unreasonably and without cause, the man is to merit a pardon, but the woman, a canon and penalty, as having become the cause of the evil.” No other reasonable cause for the separation of a married couple can be found besides that of fornication or of adultery of a man and or a woman.

St. Justinian the Great

But Justinian Novel l17, situated in Book 28 of the Basilica, Title VII, ordains that if any man has another woman either in the city where he is dwelling or under the roof of his house, and is corrupting himself with her, if his real wife should tell him to abstain from the other woman, and should he refuse to abstain from her, permission is granted to be released from the marriage due to the jealousy of his wife. For such jealousy leads many wives to drink poison and commit suicide, and others to lose their mind, others to jump off a precipice, and others to still other absurd things, as may be seen from such examples which are daily occurrences in nearly every city and island and town.

For just as a man’s anger is full of jealousy for his wife if she has committed adultery, as Solomon says (Proverbs 6:34), “and he will not spare in the day of vengeance, nor will he forgo his enmity for any amount of ransom, neither will he be coaxed to remit it in exchange for a multitude of gifts.” In much the same way (or even more) is a woman’s anger, and her heart is full of jealousy for her husband if he has committed adultery.

However, note that though the Lord allowed husbands to separate from their wife on account of fornication, that is because of adultery, yet a bishop ought not to give them permission to enter into a second marriage, but ought to leave them thus separated for a long space of time, until the one who committed fornication, which is adultery, comes to repent of his or her act, to fall at the feet of the other, and to promise that henceforth he or she will keep the honor of the other mate, and in this manner they are finally reunited.

For even the Lord did not allow them to be separated only on account of adultery, but mainly because of the jealousy which results from such adultery, and the murder which often follows as a result of the jealousy. A second reason for allowing a separation is to prevent the confusion and bastardization of the offspring that follows as a result of such adultery as St. Gregory the Theologian says. So that, as Zonaras says in his interpretation of Canon IX and XXI of St. Basil, a man is not forced to keep his adulteress wife if he does not want to do so, but if he wants her, he may without prejudice keep her and live with her. What am I saying, without prejudice? Why that man is to be praised and to be esteemed very wise indeed who takes his wife back even after she has committed fornication (on the promise, however, that she will sin no more) for two good and sufficient reasons.

First, on account of the love and sympathy he is thus showing for his own flesh — I mean for his own wife — by emulating the very Master and God of all things, who notwithstanding that human nature was formerly an adulteress and had formerly committed fornication with idols, He condescended to make her His bride by virtue of the incarnate economy, and to save her through repentance and union with Him. And just as it is the part of a prudent man when any of his members is wounded or injured not to cut it off, but to make it his business to give it medical treatment, so is it the part of a prudent man, when his own member sins, that is his own wife, not to divorce her, but to take even greater care of her and to cure her by means of repentance and by giving her an opportunity to return. And secondly, because when such an impure condition has developed between a husband and wife, it is by God’s concession, and as a result of previous sins that it ensued. (And let everyone examine his own conscience, and he will find our words true.)

Saints Timothy and Maura,
Saints Timothy and Maura, Married Saints and Martyrs for Christ

Hence both parties must have patience with each other, and not insist upon a separation. Even the Apostle says that a faithful husband ought to cohabit even with his unfaithful wife, and conversely, a faithful wife ought to cohabit with her unfaithful husband, for the hope of salvation of both of them. “For how do you know, wife, whether you shall save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you shall save your wife?” (1Corinthians 7:16). How much more ought a husband and wife, then, to cohabit with and not separate, even after fornication has occurred, at a time when impiety, the worst of all sins, will not separate it? Of course all that we have said concerning the husband, is to be understood also as pertaining to the wife. Nevertheless, that the author of Proverbs says: “Whoever retains an adulteress is foolish and impious” (Proverbs 18:22; this saying reflects the harshness and severity of the old Law, and not the leniency of the most sweet Law of the Gospel.

Rather should the Old Covenant be quoted from the mouth of Malachias, who says: “Do not abandon the wife of your youth: but if after coming to hate her you send her away, a feeling of impiety will darken your recollections, says the Lord Almighty”’ (Malachias 2:15).

If, however, in the end no way, nor device, can be found to reunite the couple henceforth, the innocent party may, as a matter of great necessity, marry a second time, but never the party guilty of fornication who became the cause of the separation.

This party, instead of second nuptials and wedding candles ought rather to sit mourning and weeping over his sin, and find solace in the darkness of sorrow of a widow or widower, because of the fact that whom God joined he or she rent apart. What am I saying? Why, the party that was the cause of the separation ought to pay damages, as the imperial laws command, according to St. Chrysostom (Discourse on a woman bound by law, etc.); and that the guilty party in the couple ought not to be allowed to marry may be inferred from Novel 88 of Leo. For this Novel says that the husband of a woman guilty of adultery is to receive her dowry, while the woman herself is to be placed in a monastery and compelled even against her will to become a nun.

 

Whatever property she had over and above her dowry is to be divided between her children and the monastery; or if she has no children, her parents and relatives are to have it. Justinian Novel 117 also commands that if the husband of a woman confined in a monastery for adultery should die within the two years before taking her back, she is to become a confined nun and not be allowed to remarry).

Orthodox Wedding at Cana Icon
Wedding at Cana

That the husband is not permitted to take back his wife after she has been guilty of committing adultery is attested on the one hand by Armenopoulos (Book 6, Title II), and on the other hand by holy Photios (Title I, Chapter 2). Novel 184 of Justinian (inserted in Book 28 of the Basilica, according to Balsamon), ordains that the husband can take back his guilty wife within two years after she committed the adultery and was sentenced to the monastery for the act of adultery, and that he can cohabit with her freely without fearing any danger on this account and without injury to his marriage as a result of the previous sin and separation. St. Basil the Great, also says in his dissertation on virginity that if a woman who has been left by her husband repents and corrects the cause on account of which he left her, the husband ought to have compassion on her because of her because she corrected herself, and to take her back as his own member again. Moreover, Canon XCIII of the 6th Ecumenical Synod permits a soldier to take back his own wife if he so chooses, even though she has taken another husband because of his many years’ absence from the country in foreign lands. Canon VIII of Neocaesarea likewise appears to permit a priest to live with his wife when she is guilty of adultery if he cares to, though he must be deposed.

Note also the fact that not everyone can start suit for adultery, but only five persons listed, and these must be the most intimate and nearest relative of the woman, namely, father, brother, uncle on the father’s side, and uncle on the mother’s side, and exceptionally and especially and above all her husband. As long as the marriage is in force nobody else is permitted to start such a suit except only the husband of the woman, by means of five witnesses attesting in fear of God that they all saw her in the very act of committing adultery. A suit for adultery may be started at any time within five years, and not late (Armenopoulos, Book 1, Title III).

Besides any of these things, it ought to be known to everyone that the civil and imperial laws never permit husbands to kill their wives, even though they have caught them as adulteresses. Hence there is no excuse for those who kill either their wives, or their sisters and daughters or relatives of any other kind, on the ground that they have been guilty of fornication or of adultery.

So, inasmuch as it may be inferred, from all that we have said, that a married couple ought not to be separated, therefore it is necessary for one side of the couple to bear with the other patiently, according to St. Gregory the Theologian. Thus, the wife ought to put up with her husband even though he insults and beats her, even though he spends her dowry, and no matter what else he may do to her; and just as much ought the husband to put up with his wife even though she is possessed by demons, as mentioned in I Timothy 4:1, and even though she is suffering from other defects, and has diseases, according to St. Chrysostom (in his Discourse on a woman bound by law, etc.). And yet that imperial and external laws on many accounts permit married couples to separate and be divorced, St. Chrysostom (in the same place), in the course of voicing opposition to them, says: “God is not going to judge in accordance with those laws, but in accordance with the laws which He himself has laid down with regard to marriage.

There is but one reasonable ground for divorce, and that is the one ordained by the laws, according to Emperors Leo and Constantine, when one party plots against the life of the other (Title XIII, of the selection of laws). A married couple may be divorced reasonably enough, again, when one party is an Orthodox Christian, and the other party is a heretic, according to Canon LXXII of the 6th Ecumenical Synod; or when there is a blood relationship by marriage, according to Canon LIV of the same Synod; or a relationship due to baptism, according to Canon LIII of the same Synod; and also when the lord of the couple will not consent to their being wedded, according to Canons XL, XLI, and XLII of St. Basil. As to the proper form of a Letter of Divorce, see at the end of this Rudder. (pp. 320 -329)

Thomais of Lesvos - patron saint of marriage
St. Thomais of Lesvos – patron saint of marriage.

Form for a Canonical Divorce

With our humbleness in the chair and surrounded by a simultaneous session of the most honorable Clerics, most reverent Priests, and most honest Magistrates (and Provosts), there appeared before all of us most honest Sir George, of the village or parish ( name ), accusing his wife Mary of the crime of adultery, and asserting that he found her really defiling her part in the bed of her husband and being caught in the very act of being polluted with adultery by another man. When interrogated about this, he also produced credible witnesses to the fact, named (So-and So and So-and-So and So-and-So), who with fear of God and a heavy conscience, before all of us testified as concerning this man’s wife that she has not truly kept due faith with her own husband, but, having abandoned her own sobriety, has acted as an adulteress. And therefore our humbleness, after being told and informed of these facts, allowed this case to be postponed. And indeed after later employing various arguments and inducements and ways and means, with a view to persuading the said George to take back and accept his wife (for this is permissible according to the divine laws), overlooking this misdeed of hers, seeing that she bitterly repents it, and promises never again to do such a thing, and after having negotiated all these aspects for a sufficient length of time, yet unable to induce him to be persuaded in her favor. Hence, following the decision rendered by our Lord in the Gospels, wherein He says that “whosoever shall divorce his wife, except on the ground of fornication, is causing her to commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32; cf. 19:7, 9). And reflecting that this is the only legal and reasonable excuse for separating a husband from his wife – the ground, that is to say, of adultery, just as the Lord declared; yet at the same time exercising due foresight lest anything more terrible may result hereafter from their cohabitation, seeing that adultery engenders jealousy in most cases, and that jealousy leads to murder: on this account and for this reason our humbleness pronounces the said George to be divorced and set free from his wife Mary, in accordance with the decision of our Lord and the divine Canons, Apostolic as well as Synodal; and furthermore gives him permission to take another woman to wife, whereas with regard to his aforesaid wife Mary our humbleness will never give her permission to take another man to husband, on the ground that she has become the cause of this separation and divorce. For she ought, instead of having another wedding and enjoying nuptial pleasures, to continue thus weeping and mourning throughout her life over her sin, since what God had joined she put asunder (Matthew 19:6), and since otherwise too, she committed adultery while her husband was living, whom she herself divorced by reason of her licentiousness, a fear subsists lest she become an adulteress again in case she is allowed to become a wife to another man (Romans 7:3), according to St. Paul, who elsewhere says that “if a woman be divorced from her husband, let her remain unmarried” (I Corinthians 7:11). Hence in evidence thereof the present Divorce was drawn up, and was given to the repeatedly aforementioned George 3 in the year of the Lord . . .”(1796) and in the month of August. (pp. 1808-1809)

Detail of the Imperial Gate mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Leo VI the Wise
Detail of the Imperial Gate mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Leo VI the Wise

 

 

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Remarriage and Arsenokoetia: Shifty Byzantine Views of Sex (Stephen Morris)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Something Wicked this Way Comes: Essays on Evil and Human Wickedness, pp. 143-165

 Something Wicked this Way Comes

Abstract: Patristic canon law condemned remarriage, under any circumstances, in no uncertain terms. Penance for remarriage demanded repudiating the wicked sexual relationship and decades of excommunication. Penances for remarriage were gradually reduced and two Byzantine political/theological crises in the 8th and 10th centuries allowed these condemned sexual relationships to be eventually tolerated and even accepted. Same-sex behaviour was condemned as satanic and diabolic by many of these same patristic authorities, often in the same breath and with the same words as they condemned remarriage. Penances assigned were virtually identical. During the 6th century, however, these penances for sex between men (especially “anal sex”) were reduced to little more than a slap on the wrist. These reduced penances suggest that just as remarriage was eventually able to be accepted into polite Byzantine Christian society, same-sex relationships might also come to be accepted in Byzantine/Eastern Christian society.

trojan_horse090803

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” warned Laocoön in Virgil’s Aeneid and the medieval West took his warning to heart. Western mistrust of the Byzantines led to the negative stereotype of Byzantine bureaucracy, so much so that the modern epithet “Byzantine” describes any complex, difficult-to-navigate, apparently unstable body of rules – such as those at New York City’s City Hall. As a slur, “Byzantine” stands for both “shifty” and “shifting;” perhaps better, “shifty,” in both popular senses – shady as well as unstable – can stand as a synonym for ”Byzantine” in Western perceptions. The medieval West did not always understand how or why Byzantine Christian theology, liturgy, and practice could vary so markedly from Western norms.

One area of such difference involved marriage and sexuality. Western canonists and theologians were baffled by how Byzantine apprehension of evil or wicked sexual behaviour could differ so from theirs. The body of Byzantine canonical rulings was simply allowed to grow like topsy and was never systematically codified as was common in the West during the latter Middle Ages (resulting in what we know today as the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law.) The redundancies, repetitions, and conflicting answers simply hung together in the practice of the Eastern Church; the Eastern canonical tradition was “talmudic,” in that it maintained the practices and rulings of all the sages and conciliar bodies that preceded whatever the “current” situation might have been and then required a current sage to apply these rulings as appropriate. It is this Byzantine approach to divorce, remarriage, and “homosexual” behaviour that I wish to turn.

350px-Otsy

Individual fathers and early Christian thinkers began to grapple with questions concerning Christian sexual behaviour before the New Testament itself was completed.1 Some authorities were satisfied to stress the need to confine sexual expression to heterosexual marriage (Didache, Hippolytus2) while others (Athenagoras, Tertullian3) felt the need to confine the definition of “marriage” proper to the first such union a Christian experienced. According to these authors, the death of a spouse did not free the survivor to remarry; any further sexual relationship was considered inappropriate and an act of infidelity to the spouse who had died but whose death did not end the marriage. (It was the later Byzantine refusal to acknowledge that death of a spouse ended a marriage which constituted one of the differences the medieval West found difficult to comprehend.) If remarriage and further sexual relationship was improper for the survivor, how much more so if the other spouse was not even dead but merely separated or divorced – practice which was allowed by Roman law. The early apologists stressed that simply because an action was legal did not make it proper, especially for Christians who were held to a higher standard of behaviour.

The practice of public penance, which patristic sources take for granted, evolved as the mechanism for reintegrating members of the Christian community who had sundered their participation in the community’s life and who wished to be restored to full membership and participation – as evidenced primarily in the reception of Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy. The sins and transgressions, which served to sunder participation in the communal life of the Church, had to be renounced and – upon ceasing the behaviour – the penitent would begin the penance (epithemia) which had to be fulfilled before the penitent could be restored to participating in the Eucharist. The penance, or epithemia, was considered a therapeutic or medicinal tool. It was not a juridical sentence that “paid off” the debt a criminal owed society. Rather, it was a method – similar to surgery – that might prove painful in the short term but which aimed at restoring the (spiritual) health of the patient; it should be remembered that the Greek terms for “health” and “salvation” have the same root and the Gospel miracles of healing were considered paradigms of salvation by the same preachers who gave their “canonical opinions.”

This system of years of penance was predicated on the practice of an extended catechumenate of three years or more preceding the baptism of the candidate who wished to enter the Christian community in the first place. The division of the penitents into a variety of ranks, indicating their distance from or proximity to full Eucharistic participation, was indicated by their position in the church building (relative to the altar-table). As can be seen in Table I, the view that remarriage was virtually identical with adultery remained the canonical pastoral response; in order to be reconciled with the community, the couple would need to repudiate their subsequent marriage and live separately before the epithemia would commence.

Constantine VI (right to the cross) presiding over the Second Council of Nicaea. Miniature from early 11th century.
Constantine VI (right to the cross) presiding over the Second Council of Nicaea. Miniature from early 11th century.

Two revolutions occurred in the eighth and tenth centuries to change this approach. The first was the “Moechian Schism” of 795 A.D. in which the emperor Constantine VI divorced his wife and married again; he was eventually permitted to begin the epithemia for a second marriage without repudiating or separating from his second wife. The second was the “Tetragamy affair,” the dispute – probably the “most dangerous crisis between the Emperor and the Patriarch in the middle Byzantine period”4 – which rocked Byzantine society from 903 – 923 A.D. over Leo VI’s fourth marriage, resulting in an official truce between the Church and the remarried. Shifting allegiances, changes in civil law, early or unexpected deaths, clergy both willing and unwilling to comply with imperial designs, secret negotiations, pious public sentiment, loud-spoken monastics, differing interpretations of how to apply oikonomia5 – the principle of pastoral discretion in applying canonical penances more rigidly or more freely, in manner that seems appropriate – all contributed to the chaos. It was the Tome of Union, summarized in Table I, which resolved the issue and led to the use of a different wedding service for those embarking on a second/third marriage. (This was a considerable difference from the Western Christian practice, which used the same service for all weddings and refused to ever officially countenance “remarriage.”) Not only were second and third marriages regularized, but the various epithemia could all be undergone while the couple began their new life as husband and wife. Rather than serving as the means of reintegration with the larger Christian community, the epithemia became the “price” a couple paid to be able to live together in a sexually suspicious relationship which was disapproved of but tolerated.

A mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Leo VI paying homage to Christ
A mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Leo VI paying homage to Christ

During this same period, a variety of responses to same-sex behaviour developed. The oldest canons, those of Basil, stipulate that several sins were considered moral equivalents and subject to the same penance of 15 years: bestiality, murder, sorcery, adultery, idolatry, and arsenokoetia.6 (Arsenokoetia is derived from the root “male” and the verb – koitai, which “is a coarse word, generally denoting base or licentious sexual activities (see Romans 13:13), and in this and other compounds corresponds to the vulgar English word “fucker,” i.e. a person who, by insertion, takes the active role in intercourse.”7

(The modern Latinate “coitus” may well be derived from this as well.) In the canonical literature, therefore, it appears that arsenokoetia is the technical term for what we now refer to as “anal sex.”

the-monasticism-of-st-basil-the-great

Arsenokeotia, as a specific act, was not singled out as being necessarily worse than a wide variety of other activities.8 However, John Chrysostom’s Homily IV on Romans decries what we now call “homosexual behaviour” in no uncertain terms.

“All these affections then were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul suffers more and is more dishonoured in sins, than the body is when diseased.”9

Arsenokoetia is clearly inspired by the Devil.

“But when God has left one, then all things are turned upside down. Not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was also diabolical.”10

Their beliefs and behaviour go hand-in-hand, one reflecting the other. Same-sex behaviour is also inherently violent.

“… [T]hey become enemies to themselves and to one another, bringing in a pernicious kind of strife, and one even more lawless than any civil war, rife in divisions, and of varied form…. It was appropriate that the two should be one; I mean the woman and the man. For “the two” it says, “shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) But this desire of intercourse affected, and united the sexes to one another. This desire the devil having taken away, and having turned the desire in another direction, he thus sundered the sexes from one another, and made the one to become two parts in opposition to the law of God. For it says, “the two shall be one flesh;” but he divided the one flesh into two: here then is one war.”

“These same two parts he provoked to war both against themselves and against one another. For even women abused women, and not men only. The men stood against one another, and against the female sex, as happens in a battle by night. You see a second and a third war, and a fourth and a fifth; there is also another, for beside what we have mentioned they also behaved lawlessly against nature itself. For when the Devil saw that this desire it is, principally, which draws the sexes together, he was bent on cutting through the tie, so as to destroy the race, not only by their not copulating lawfully, but also by their being stirred up to war, and in sedition against one another.”11

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Instigated by the devil, same-sex behaviour portends the end of the human race not only because normal reproductive processes cease but because men and women begin to fight one another. The men, fighting each other, would eventually come to blows while the arguments with women would be the cause of friction, anger, resentment – all the attitudes which conspire against a common household or urban life. Fighting against each other, each would also – in Chrysostom’s view – be fighting against each person’s own true, inherently heterosexual, desires. Not only would this aspect of the universal warfare unleashed by the devil be fought by each against himself but it would be a fight against nature: against the heterosexual nature of mankind and against the natural cycle of birth and reproduction. There would be as many wars let loose in the world as there were individuals engaged in same-sex behaviour.

St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen

As can be seen in Table II, the practice of arsenokoetia (anal sex) was the primary sexual act between men which prompted discussion. It was compared to adultery and was penanced accordingly: St. Basil gave an epithemia of 15 years to both adultery and arsenokoetia while his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa suggested an epithemia of 18 years to both behaviours. Both presumed that the behaviour would cease when the epithemia commenced. Although it is arsenokoetia (anal sex) which receives Basil and Gregory’s attention, they make no distinction in assigning penance to either the “active” or “passive” (“top” vs. “bottom”); the word itself implies the “top” role as the most blameworthy, however.

This condemnation of arsenokoetia apparently remains constant for approximately 300 years. Although it is not repeated by other canonical authors, neither is it repudiated or altered. St. John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople (582-595 A.D.), is credited with a new approach to penances. In general, he adds ascetic exercises as well as deprivation of Communion to the epithemias and significantly reduces the time a penitent would spend doing “penance.” He adds masturbation and intercural sex between men (“between the thighs,” the equivalent of the heterosexual “missionary position”) to the acts which concern him but he suggests the epithemias involved be reduced to little more than a “slap on the wrist.” The epithemias for masturbation and intercural sex vary from 7 to 80 days while the epithemia for arsenokoetia is reduced to three years, thanks to the introduction of a certain number of prostrations during the penitent’s daily prayers as well as fasting during the day with xerophagy (“dry eating,” i.e. no animal products and those vegetables or fruit that were eaten were not to be cooked) after 3 p.m. It should be noted that this “double masturbation” of intercural sex between men is a significantly less grave transgression than heterosexual fornication (to which he assigns a penance of two years with xerophagy and 250 daily prostrations. The wicked sexual acts between men that had previously cost 15 years estrangement from the community were suddenly reduced in severity to less than a third of the time involved. Not only is the epithemia for arsenokoetia reduced, that for adultery is also reduced from fifteen to three years but adultery is taken to be a more serious offence as 250 prostrations, as opposed to the 200 assigned to “perfect arsenokoetia,” is stipulated. A later manuscript, used by leading medieval canonical authorities, adds a series of subcategorizations of arsenokoetia: between brothers, with a brother-in-law, and with women. A leading 18th century Greek canonist comments that, in general, arsenokoetia between men was preferable to that between a man and a woman while anal sex with a “strange woman” was “less reprehensible …than [with a man’s own] wife.”12

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 The behaviours of heterosexual divorce and remarriage constituted sexually suspicious relationships that were wicked, condemned, finally tolerated, and even gradually accepted. Although condemned by the canons, a service which acknowledged this paradox developed to bless these second and third marriages. Condemned in many of the same ways, same-sex behaviour – especially arsenokoetia – was deemed wicked but eventually tolerated as the reduced epithemias for the various grades of arsenokoetia indicate. The satanic sexual behaviour of men with men was always castigated in tandem with the diabolic behaviour of divorce and remarriage. As the one was finally admitted and integrated into polite Eastern Christian society, might this not show the way to eventually include the other as well?

Notes

  1. Didache 2, 3.3; English translation in Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers. (New York: Macmillan.) 1970, 1975. See also Athenagoras Plea, 33; English translation in Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers. (New York: Macmillan.) 1970, 1975 and Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, ii.23; cited in Pat Harell, Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church: A History of Divorce and Remarriage in the Ante-Nicene Church. (Austin: R.B. Sweet Co.) 1967. p. 177.
  2. Apostolic Tradition 15; English translation in Geoffrey Cuming, Hippolytus: A Text for Students. (Bramcote Notts: Grove Books.) 1976.
  3. Tertullian, Exhortation to Chastity, 5; English translation in Ante-Nicene Fathers (ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson.) (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson ) 1885, 1995. Vol. 4, p. 53.
  4. Steven Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy. (London: Cambridge University Press.) 1977. p. 102.
  5. Patricia Karlin-Hayter, “Further Notes on Byzantine Marriage: Raptus – αρπαγή or μνηστείαι?” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 46 (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection) 1992. pp. 133-134.
  6. Basil the Great, Canon 7.
  7. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) 1980. p. 342. See also Steven Greenberg, Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.) 2004. p. 84.
  8. See Origen, Homily 11 on Leviticus (11.3-4). English translation available in Gary W. Barkley, Origen: Homilies on Leviticus, 1-16. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.) 1990. pp. 212-213; also John Chrysostom, Homily XVI on I Corinthians (16.8). NPNF, vol. 12, p. 93 and his Homily II on I Timothy (2.1). NPNF, vol. 13, p. 414.
  9. John Chrysostom, Homily IV on Romans (4.1). NPNF, vol. 11, p. 355-256.
  10. John Chrysostom, IV Homily on Romans (4.1). NPNF, p. 356.
  11. John Chrysostom, IV Homily on Romans (4.1). NPNF, p. 356-357.
  12. John the Faster, The 35 Canons. English translation in D. Cummings, The Rudder (Pedalion). (Chicago: Orthodox Christian Educational Society.) 1957, 1983. pp. 942-943.

Stephen Morris is an independent scholar living in New York City.