Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church

Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church

Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church

Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church


In the first five centuries of the common era, the kiss was a distinctive and near-ubiquitous marker of Christianity. Although Christians did not invent the kiss--Jewish and pagan literature is filled with references to kisses between lovers, family members, and individuals in relationships of power and subordination--Christians kissed one another in highly specific settings and in ways that set them off from the non-Christian population.

Christians kissed each other during prayer, Eucharist, baptism, and ordination and in connection with greeting, funerals, monastic vows, and martyrdom. As Michael Philip Penn shows in Kissing Christians, this ritual kiss played a key role in defining group membership and strengthening the social bond between the communal body and its individual members.

Kissing Christians presents the first comprehensive study of the ritual kiss and how controversies surrounding it became part of larger debates regarding the internal structure of Christian communities and their relations with outsiders. Penn traces how Christian writers exalted those who kissed only fellow Christians, proclaimed that Jews did not have a kiss, prohibited exchanging the kiss with potential heretics, privileged the confessor's kiss, prohibited Christian men and women from kissing each other, and forbade laity from kissing clergy. Kissing Christians also investigates connections between kissing and group cohesion, kissing practices and purity concerns, and how Christian leaders used the motif of the kiss of Judas to examine theological notions of loyalty, unity, forgiveness, hierarchy, and subversion.

Exploring connections between bodies, power, and performance, Kissing Christians bridges the gap between cultural and liturgical approaches to antiquity. It breaks significant new ground in its application of literary and sociological theory to liturgical history and will have a profound impact on these fields.


There are those who do nothing but make the
church resound with the kiss, while not having love
within themselves. This, the unrestrained use of the
kiss, also causes shameful suspicions and slanders.
This very thing should be a mystery—the apostle
calls it holy. Living worthy of the kingdom, we
make known the goodwill of the spirit with a
chaste and closed mouth, by which civilized ways
are shown. But there is another impure kiss, full
of poison, feigning holiness. Do you not know that
even venomous spiders, fastening only to the lips,
afflict men with pain. and kisses often inject the
poison of licentiousness.

—Clement of Alexandria

The second-century writings of Clement of Alexandria are always full of surprises. One moment you peruse a section on Christology, a moment later you are reading about the sexual habits of hyenas. Skimming through a chapter on divine knowledge you come across a passage on plant grafting. a book against heretics is followed by a lengthy discussion of proper table manners. Nevertheless, I still was shocked to find amid his writings on fashion, gambling and the racetracks a prohibition against being too passionate when kissing in church! It was my shock (and, I must admit, my delight) toward passages like this that initially motivated my examination of ritual kissing in first- through fifth-century Christianity. Discovering that, during worship, early Christian men and women kissed each other on the lips forced me to reevaluate my image of the ancient church.

Very soon, however, my perspective started shifting. What I thought was marginal and hence shocking began to appear mainstream. It was . . .

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