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On Kissing: A Q&A with Michael Penn

A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. Right?

Actually, despite the lyrics to the famous torch song from the movie Casablanca, the answer is no.

Kissing has many meanings—from an expression of erotic love to the social equivalent of a handshake. But, the act of "touching somebody or something with the lips, either gently or passionately," as one dictionary defines kissing, is not just a modern phenomenon. Kissing has a long, colorful history that moves into some unexpected terrain, such as the early Christian Church.

Long neglected by scholars, the role kissing played in the development of early Christianity is both important and complex and is the subject of Kissing Christians, its first full-scale scholarly investigation.

In his new book, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church, just published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, assistant professor of religion Michael Penn explores how and why the kiss rose to symbolic and liturgical prominence among early Christians.
According to the publisher: "Throughout the first six centuries of the common era, early Christians kissed each other during prayer, Eucharist, baptism, ordination, and funerals, when taking monastic vows, in greeting, and at events surrounding martyrdom. Controversies concerning whether men and women should kiss each other, could one kiss a heretic, or do Jews even have a kiss became part of larger debates regarding the internal structure of Christian communities and their relations with outsiders.

"Kissing Christians is the first comprehensive study of this ubiquitous early Christian rite. Through an examination of the ways ancient Christians described and practiced the kiss, Kissing Christians shows how early Christian leaders utilized ritual kissing to help construct Christian identity."

  Michael Penn
  Assistant Professor of Religion Michael Penn

In the following Q&A, Penn answers questions about his new book.

What prompted you to write Kissing Christians?

As you can imagine, my friends have many of their own theories for why I spent years studying kissing. The real answer, though, is by comparison a bit anticlimactic. I wanted to help correct a bias that I think many of us have regarding religion in general and Christianity in particular. For most Americans, Christianity is all about belief. Consider, for example, the often-quoted question, “Do you accept Jesus as your personal savior?” And yet, when one looks at religion in a broader context, it becomes clear that religion isn’t just about what one thinks, but also about what one does. So when I decided to concentrate on the history of early Christianity, I wanted to produce a work that investigated what role early rituals had in defining who was and who was not Christian. As I began my research, I discovered that one of the most widely practiced and discussed early Christian rituals was the exchange of a kiss. The more I explored this ritual, the more intrigued I became. As I discovered that early Christian women and men often kissed each other, in church, on the lips, my vision of early Christianity radically changed. I quickly decided that there was enough material here for a book, and especially as kissing is such a bodily centered action, I thought it would be the perfect case example for exploring the role of religious practice in early Christian communities.

First, tell us a bit about the history of kissing and what kissing meant in the Greco-Roman world.

As in our own society, kissing had many different meanings in the ancient world. Not surprisingly, Greco-Roman artwork and texts often depict the kiss as an erotic gesture; it appears in everything from Greek pornography to the Roman equivalent of a Harlequin novel. In other contexts kissing was seen as a familial gesture; several sources even claim that the reason men always kiss female relatives is to perform a sort of breath check and make sure the women aren’t stealing the family wine. Friends frequently kissed each other; politicians seeking office would kiss constituents (the ancient equivalent of “kissing babies”). Individuals would kiss the hand of rulers (I think of this as an early version of “kissing up”). The kiss also played a role in patronage, slavery, celebrations, magic, elections, funerary rites, contracts, departure, reunions. Just when I thought my collection of ancient kisses was complete, I’d come across an unexpected reference such as the statement that kissing a donkey’s nostrils cures the common cold, a description of animal trainers kissing tigers, or a discussion of a woman trying to seduce a man who recently was transformed into a mule! It was this huge diversity of meanings that provided both the opportunity for and a challenge to the early church appropriating the kiss as a Christian ritual.

What was the meaning of kissing in the early Christian church?

Just as kissing had many different meanings in the wider ancient world, so too early Christians interpreted the kiss in various ways. Because ancient kissing was often seen as a familiar gesture, many early Christians kissed each other to help construct themselves as a new sort of family, a family of Christ. Similarly, in the Greco-Roman world, kissing often was seen as involving a transfer of spirit; when you kissed someone else you literally gave them part of your soul. The early church expanded on this and claimed that, when Christians kissed, they exchanged the Holy Spirit with one another. Christians also emphasized the kiss as an indication of mutual forgiveness (it’s from here that we get the term “kiss of peace”). These different meanings influenced and were influenced by the sorts of rituals kissing became associated with. For example, because the kiss helped exchange spirit, it made perfect sense for it to become part of baptism and ordination, rituals in which you wanted the Holy Spirit to descend and enter the initiate. The flip side of the coin is that before someone was baptized you wouldn’t want to kiss them. Early Christians often believed that previous to exorcism and baptism people were inevitably demon possessed. Given that they also thought that kissing resulted in spiritual exchange, it’s pretty clear why you wouldn’t want to kiss non-Christians. I sometimes think of this as an ancient form of “cooties.” It resulted in early Christian debates over whether one could kiss a pagan relative, if one should kiss a potential heretic, or if Jews even had a kiss.

One has to ask. What kind of kissing are we talking about here? A peck on the cheek? Lips to lips? Or more passionate?

Almost always lip to lip. The amount of passion depended on the participants. Two of my favorite second-century Christian references allude to overly enthusiastic kisses. The first essentially says no “French kissing” in church. Instead one must kiss with, “a closed and chaste mouth.” The other warns against those who kiss a second time because they enjoyed the first kiss too much; they’re going to hell. Starting in the third century, Christian sources began to prohibit men and women from kissing each other. Other writers tried to modify opposite-sex kissing to insure that everything stayed under control. For example, one author suggests that women wrap their arms in cloth and only then can men approach and kiss their hands. That’s a long ways away from a French kiss.

How have those kissing codes from the formative centuries influenced contemporary practices in Christianity and contemporary society?

Modern Christians still kiss. In Catholicism, for example, there is a practice of kissing the Pope’s ring. Among Eastern Orthodox, it’s common to kiss holy objects or particularly reverent individuals. For example, one summer when I was in Egypt I was speaking with a monk, and throughout our conversation Coptic Christians who were passing by would take his hand and briefly kiss it. This must have happened a dozen times while we were talking but the monk never missed a single word of our exchange. Among Protestants there’s a moment in most worship services when congregation members are to “exchange a sign of the peace,” a handshake or some other gesture. I once knew a pastor who when running a bit long with his sermon declared that in interest of time that service was limited to a “two hug Sunday.” All of these practices have their roots in ancient Christian kissing.

Why has kissing in the early church been largely ignored up to now?

In many ways this question brings us back to the reason I wanted to concentrate on early Christian ritual in the first place. Until the last few decades, the study of early Christianity was mostly done in the context of religiously affiliated institutions, especially seminaries and schools of theology. Those institutions most closely associated with Protestantism often inherited a lengthy Protestant tradition of opposing what they saw as “Catholic ritualism.” The last thing they’d want to do would be to emphasize the importance of ritual in the earliest strata of Christianity. Catholic scholars more often concentrated on early rituals, such as baptism or confession, that formed the basis for the later system of sacraments. Even as religious studies became increasingly secularized, scholars often ignored or intentionally down played the role of kissing in early Christianity. One modern translation of the New Testament takes the apostle Paul’s command for the followers of Christ to “greet one another with a holy kiss” and changes it to “give one another a hearty handshake.” I’m hoping that my investigation of the kiss challenges scholars to reevaluate the role of ritual in early Christianity and suggests that the exploration of other rarely studied rites may provide additional insight into the dynamics of early Christian communities.

On the Web:

University of Pennsylvania Press

View Michael Penn's Faculty Bio

Copyright © 2006 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on June 13, 2006.