Most of us give little attention, other than winks and giggles, to the verses commanding us to "greet one another with a holy kiss." Mount Holyoke religion professor Michael Penn, however, has recently written an entire book on that early church practice: Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

Let's first define "ritual kissing." When did early Christians kiss and who kissed who?

Our earliest reference to the kiss is from the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians. He doesn't give us very many details, which suggests that it was already a well-established practice.

It's only decades later that other Christians give us more details. We discover that early Christians kissed each other in a variety of different rituals, as part of prayer, baptism, Eucharist, everyday greeting, martyrdom, and so forth. In the first two centuries, at least, not only did men kiss other men and women other women, but men and women kissed one another. And most often this was a kiss on the lips.

What did the kiss mean culturally in the broader Greco-Roman context?

The short answer is that it meant a heck of a lot of different things, just as it does in our own time period. We find everything from a romantic kiss to a familial kiss to a kiss between friends. One difference between us and the ancient world, however, is that then when people kissed, particularly on the lips, it was seen as an exchange of spirit. Sometimes Christians would take the contemporary cultural meaning wholesale, and other times they would modify it.

How did Christians modify the meaning of the kiss from what it was outside the church?

For example, often Paul spoke of Christians being brothers and sisters in Christ. So the kiss as a familial gesture served to redefine the family as the family of God.

Or again, one of the places we find the largest discussion about the exchange of souls through kissing is in the ancient equivalent of Harlequin novels. The church took this exchange of spirit in an erotic sense and made it into an exchange of the Holy Spirit as a way to bind different Christians together.

Did the ancient church have a concern that the kissing would be erotic? Today, that would be a major concern, if we were to have a sudden revival of ritual kissing.

Yes, there was a concern of erotic temptation, and it may be one of the reasons why in later centuries men and women did not ritually kiss each other. But one of the biggest concerns, and one that was actually more prevalent, was the concern that the kiss would be one of betrayal, a kiss of Judas.

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Early Christian clergy often warned their congregation that if they kissed while still upset with one another, they were really reenacting this kiss of Judas. And in some ways that possibility is even more frightening than eroticism, because if Joe and Jane are kissing inappropriately, you can tell. But if someone kisses someone else in church and they're thinking the wrong thing, that's hard to know.

Early Christian pastors were saying, "Look, we're about to have the Lord's Supper, you're about to kiss, and this is the time according to Matthew that you have to be at peace with one another. If you're not, you're betraying Christ just as Judas did." The kiss becomes a very powerful moment in early Christian services for Christians to assess whether or not they truly are the body of Christ. Are they reconciled to one another?

So is this the root of that part of church services when …

You mean the awkward moment where you kind of shake hands?


Yep, that's exactly what it is. Within many Protestant traditions it has been replaced by other gestures or done away with entirely. Initially that term, "the peace," as in "the passing of the peace," referred to a kiss. But as you know, kissing has dropped out of favor among 21st-century Christians, at least in the worship service.

What is your interest in kissing, if I'm not being too forward?

When I was in graduate school, my friends had their own theories about that.

First, one of the things we've unfortunately inherited from the Reformation is a de-emphasis of ritual. We think of Christianity as a belief system. What does one believe? But early Christians thought it very important what one does.

When I think of my experience during a worship service, I have to admit I forget a lot of the sermon. And unless it was a really good hymn, I forget some of the words. The most powerful moments are those when I am fully participating, body and all, whether that be in the Eucharist or a baptism service, or a variety of other things. The kiss is like that—very body-centered and powerful.

Second, I was most interested in all the different ways the kiss defined the Christian community. Kissing someone shows that she is part of our family. That we're exchanging the Holy Spirit. That we're a reconciled, forgiven community.

But there is another side of that coin, for at the same time, it was also used as a ritual to exclude people: Non-Christians are people we don't kiss. There were arguments that Jews don't even have a kiss. There were questions of whether or not you should kiss a heretic. Later on, you only kiss certain Christians. That is, starting in the third and fourth century, you only kiss Christians of the same gender. Later on, only clergy kiss clergy and laity, laity.

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The amazing thing is that something like the kiss, a great symbol of love and of family, also gets used as a symbol of anti-Judaism, as a way to divide men and women, to reinforce clerical hierarchies, and to label people as heretics. I think it's important for us to recognize both sides. I don't have the answer, but I'm trying to figure out one of the most difficult challenges to modern Christianity: How do we create a strong sense of community but do so in a way that isn't exclusive?

That is why the ritual kiss was so interesting to me. At first it seems so astoundingly trivial, yet for the early Christians it was far from trivial. They're writing about it all the time, connecting it with some of the most important theological arguments and debates going on in the early centuries. Even though it's only one aspect of Christian history, I think a lot can be learned from it.

Bethany Pledge is a writer living in Chicago.

Related Elsewhere:

Mount Holyoke College has more information about Penn and his book.

Kissing Christians received attention from The Boston Globe and The Springfield Republican.

Martin Marty reviewed the book for The Christian Century.

University of Pennsylvania Press has more information about the book.