A Brief History of the Christian Ritual Kiss

The earliest Christian references to kissing appear in the Pauline epistles. Commandments for Christians to exchange a kiss occur at the end of Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and Romans and they are virtually identical in their wording: “Greet one another” (or 1 Thessalonians, “all the brethren”) “with a holy kiss.” Although these one-line sentences do not contain much data from which to reconstruct a ritual, they form the basis for several scholarly theories concerning the kiss's origin.

Some authors suggest that the Pauline epistles simply repeat a tradition that Jesus himself instituted. Such assertions, however, ignore over a century's worth of New Testament source criticism; when modern historical Jesus research cannot agree on the most basic of Jesus's actions or sayings, it becomes problematic indeed to trace back to Jesus a ritual that the New Testament writings themselves do not assign to him. Additionally, if Jesus did originate the ritual kiss, why do no first-, second-, or third-century authors ever attribute its foundation to him?

One scholar suggests a slightly more reasonable contention—Paul was instrumental in either purposefully establishing or at least encouraging the ritual kiss. Yet the evidence points more strongly in the other direction. In his letters, Paul gives no explanation as to why, when, or how Christians are to kiss each other. Even in Romans, an epistle addressed to a congregation he did not found, Paul assumes that the recipients already are familiar with the ritual kiss. If, as these data suggest, Paul is simply passing on a preexisting tradition, New Testament scholars should add the kiss to their list of pre-Pauline rituals. Along with rites such as baptism and a common meal, kissing is part of the earliest strata of Christian ritual practice.

Another scholar argues that Paul's letters accidentally created the ritual kiss. Paul simply employed a widespread letter convention similar to the modern day “give him a kiss for me”; he did not really mean the letters' recipients should kiss each other in a worship service. Second­ century Christians, like modern scholars, did not realize Paul was using a standard epistolary formula; instead they thought he literally was speaking of kissing each other. This exegetical mistake ultimately became responsible for later Christians including the kiss in the church's liturgy. Yet, because there are very few non-Christian examples of the kiss as an epistolary closing, all in letters that appear much more intimate than Paul's, according to Edward Phillips,

The problem becomes how to explain how a letter writing “convention” almost non-existent in the rest of the Hellenistic world, would appear four times among the seven undisputed Pauline epistles?

Regardless of whether the Christian ritual kiss was established by Jesus, Paul (intentionally, or not), or (as seems most likely) by one or more unknown early Christians, the question remains what was the inspiration for this rite? Scholars argue that practices from a wide range of groups—Jews, pre-Christian Gnostics, Greek mystery cults, Neo­ Pythagoreans—influenced the creation of the Christian ritual kiss. All of these suggestions, however, remain unsupported as their proponents have been unable to find any reference to members of these communities exchanging a ritual kiss with each other. Even early Judaism, an important source for many Christian rites, does not appear to have had any practice closely related to the Christian ritual kiss.

Given the paucity of first-century Christian references to the kiss and the lack of either Christian works prior to the fourth century that discusses the kiss's beginnings or explicit non-Christian parallels, any attempt to discover the ritual kiss's origin remains extremely conjectural. Because of these source limitations, I am less interested in the kiss's beginning than in its later interpretation and development. Nonetheless, I will suggest two aspects of late ancient kissing that may have led to the kiss's use as a ritual in the earliest Christian communities.

As noted earlier, the Greco-Roman world often correlated kissing with spiritual exchange. In his analysis of Paul's letters, Ed Phillips argues that this preexisting pneumatological understanding of the kiss may have influenced the kiss's prevalence among Christian communities. Phillips notes that Paul's use of the term “holy” often implies a spiritual element. Additionally, Phillips observes that the three Pauline letters not ending with a command to exchange the holy kiss are the only ones with the blessing, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit”; Paul uses either the kiss or this blessing, but never both.

According to Phillips, the mutually exclusive relationship between the kiss and the phrase “with your spirit” suggests that for Paul “the holy kiss was a ritual communication of the divine pneuma dwelling within Christians.” Phillips's traces this connection between the kiss and pneumatic exchange through a number of early Christian writings. The greatest strength of Phillips's hypothesis is its relating a prevalent, well­-documented non-Christian interpretation of the kiss with the kiss's use among Christian communities.

Although suggestive, this continuity does not require causality; early Christians could have begun kissing each other for reasons unrelated to spiritual exchange and only later stressed this interpretation of the kiss. The lack of any pre-Constantinian sources explicitly linking the kiss with the exchange of spirit also weakens Phillips's argument; his analysis depends on his exegesis of the term “holy” and on the implications he draws from the kiss's position in early liturgies. Although this makes his hypothesis speculative, it at least appears reasonable that the combination of early Christians' desire to share each other's spirit and the widespread cultural belief that kissing could facilitate such exchanges may have helped motivate the creation of the Christian ritual kiss.

Another possible influence on the kiss's adoption as an early Christian ritual is the link between kissing and kinship. In late antiquity, kissing frequently implied a familial tie. Because early Christians often tried to depict their communities as a new kind of family, ritual kissing may have appeared to be an appropriate tool for reinforcing the church's familial structure. A brief passage from Apuleius gives additional support for this theory. In The Golden Ass, the narrator “embraced Mithras, the priest and now my father, clinging to his neck and kissing him many times?”

Unfortunately, the kiss's role in this text is far from clear. Although presented in Apuleius's discussion of the Isis rites, the kiss does not occur during the initiation ritual itself but several days later and in the context of expressing gratitude; most likely it is a kiss of thanksgiving, a well-attested Greco-Roman gesture. The phrase “the priest and now my father” is also vague: does the narrator interpret his kiss primarily as a familial kiss (Mithras is now his father), a religious kiss (Mithras is a priest), or a combination of these? And, of course, there remains the often raised question of how closely Apuleius's descriptions represent actual practices.

Nevertheless, Apuleius's narrative implies a connection between kissing and a religious group's use of familial imagery. I am not proposing that the rites of Isis directly influenced early Christian worship. Rather, this passage's use of kissing to illustrate kinship with a religious officiant suggests that the kiss's link to concepts of family may have motivated its application as a religious ritual in groups such as the Isis cult or early Christianity.

Regardless of whether the kiss's use among the earliest Christians was due to its pneumatological significance, its familial connotations, or some other unknown origin, once Paul wrote about it and his writings became increasingly authoritative, the church had a clear mandate for the kiss's role in Christian ritual. Additionally, early Christians became aware of how neighboring churches exchanged the kiss and they often imitated (or in some cases challenged) the way it was performed. As a result, in contrast to the scarcity of sources regarding the kiss's beginnings, there exists a wealth of information on its later practice and interpretation.

The last first-century reference to the ritual kiss comes from 1 Peter 5:14“Greet one another with a kiss of love.” The difference between Paul's “holy kiss” and 1 Peter's “kiss of love” shows that, even in the first century, not all Christians used the same term for describing the ritual kiss. Like the Pauline epistles, 1 Peter gives no explanation of its command to kiss each other; the author assumes that his audience has previous knowledge of the ritual kiss.

These five first-century references to the kiss show that as early as circa 50 C.E. kissing formed part of several Christian communities' ritual practice. Yet after 1 Peter, there is a fifty-year hiatus during which no Christian sources allude to the kiss. Most likely this is due to the dearth of early second-century sources that speak of Christian rituals.

The first break from this silence comes from chapter sixty-five of Justin's First Apology, where Justin describes a church service that occurred after a baptismal ritual. In Justin's description, the kiss followed the common prayer and preceded the Eucharist. Unlike later authors, Justin stresses the kiss's connection only with prayer despite its temporal proximity to the Eucharist.

Within a few decades of Justin's Apology, two other patristic authors write about the kiss. Athenagoras refers to the kiss's careful exchange as an example of Christian self-control. Clement of Alexandria warns that bold salutations among Christians are like spiders biting the lips; to avoid this “poison of licentiousness” Christians must exchange the kiss with “a chaste and closed mouth.” Both authors see the kiss as a salutation, implying a connection with the New Testament commands to greet each other with a kiss.

Clement's analogy of a spider injecting poison by touching the mouth and his warning against “unchaste” kisses become the first of many indications in early Christian sources that the ritual kiss was a kiss on the lips. Combined with Athenagoras's suggestion that an overly enthusiastic kiss could corrupt the bodies of those called brothers and sisters and Clement's reference to “the shameless use of a kiss,” the passages attest to late second­-century men and women kissing each other.

The final second-century source referring to the ritual kiss is The Acts of Paul and Thecla. According to The Acts, after the Iconians imprison Paul, Thecla bribes the guards in order to visit Paul and kiss the fetters that bind him. Although no extant non-Christian sources refer to the kissing of a prisoner's chains, The Acts of Paul and Thecla gives no explanation for Thecla's actions. This lack of a gloss may suggest that the author expected the Christian reader already to be familiar with this motif.

Although The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a fictitious account, its assumptions about audience indicate that, by the late second century, the kissing of martyrs' bodies already may have become an established Christian ritual. If this is the case, The Acts of Paul and Thecla presents the only second-century attestation to ritual kissing outside of the regular worship service. It would also provide the earliest example of a type of kiss that will become extremely prevalent in fourth- and fifth-century accounts, a cultic kiss associated with martyrdom, sainthood, pilgrimage, and relics.

By the mid-third century, writings from Rome, Athens, Alexandria, Carthage, North Africa, Asia Minor, and Syria all speak of ritual kissing among Christians. Tertullian, Origen, and The Apostolic Tradition still connect the kiss with the end of prayer, although Origen is also the first writer directly to link the ritual kiss with the Eucharist. Cyprian and The Apostolic Tradition witness the kiss as part of the baptism ceremony. The Apostolic Tradition gives the first example of the kiss's use in ordination. 

These sources also show the kiss's expanding role outside of the formal worship service. Perpetua has several examples of non-­liturgical kisses, including the kiss as a seal of martyrdom; Tertullian refers to kissing martyrs' bodies as well as the kiss's use in domestic devotions. Cyprian may allude to the confessor's kiss as a rite of reconciliation. Perpetua, Tertullian, and the Apocryphal Acts refer to the kiss as a non-liturgical greeting among Christians.

As detailed in Chapter 3 of my Kissing Christians, these works also show important variations in how community members exchange the kiss and the emerging ecclesiastical hierarchy's attempts to regulate ritual kissing. Tertullian and The Apostolic Tradition limit the kiss to baptized Christians; Tertullian claims that “Gnostics” do not follow this distinction. Tertullian also notes varying beliefs among congregation members regarding the kiss and fasting.

Although most early Christian sources indicate that the kiss is on the lips, the Apocryphal Acts modify it to be a kiss of the feet or hands. In contrast to previous texts that allowed women and men to exchange the kiss with each other, The Apostolic Tradition is the first source specifically to prohibit this practice. By the end of the fourth century, many of these emerging trends—the move of the kiss from seal of prayer to preparation for Eucharist, the kiss's use in an increasing number of liturgical and non-liturgical settings, further restrictions on who kisses whom—become standard practice.

The fourth-century sources speak of the ritual kiss in a variety of different contexts: as part of prayer, Eucharist, baptism, ordination, penitence, martyrdom, and epistolary salutations. These sources also hint at geographic variations in the kiss's position in the Eucharist liturgy and whether the bishop kisses the initiate immediately after baptism.

Additionally, they show increasing restrictions on how Christians exchange the kiss. Similar to The Apostolic Tradition, The Apostolic Constitutions limits the kiss to those of the same gender. Like the Apocryphal Acts, the ascetic Pseudo-Clement's Second Letter on Virginity no longer has opposite-sexed Christians exchange a labial kiss. Fourth-century documents also affirm a split between laity and clergy: The Apostolic Constitutions specifies that clergy only kiss other clergy and laity other laity. The Testament of Our Lord also supports this division.

The fifth-century sources continue to display an increased diversity in early Christian kissing practices. They indicate shifts in the kiss's position within the Eucharist service, differences between eastern and western liturgical practices, and a proliferation of the kiss's connection to other rituals. By the end of the fifth century, the kiss appears as part of the closing of prayers, the Eucharist, baptism, ordination, martyrdom, the cult of martyrs, greetings, monastic vows, home devotions, saluting the altar, epistolary conventions, and death rituals. This growing variety of kissing references also shows that as Christian practices diversify and change the kiss moves into newly developed ritual arenas.

In recent years, many subfields of early Christian studies have become increasingly committed to studying the ancient church within the context of the larger Greco-Roman world. Modern scholars often list numerous parallels between Christian writings and contemporary pagan and Jewish sources. Surprisingly, most previous work on early Christian kissing has been unaffected by this larger trend in scholarship. The resulting isolation of what Christians did from what their non-Christian neighbors did clearly hinders an effective exploration of early Christian kissing. This neglect of non-Christian practices, however, is not a problem unique to kissing scholarship. Rather, it is characteristic of many scholarly investigations of early Christian ritual.

This artificial divide between Christian ritual and non-Christian gesture may partially be due to the very process of ritualization. In their construction of a given ritual, communities often attempt to mitigate the similarities between the ritual and the non-ritual and define rituals as ontologically distinct from everyday actions. Scholars' frequent neglect of a ritual's larger cultural context may be one indication of ritualization's ultimate success. In terms of the ritual kiss, the development of kissing in the early church constantly interacted with the kiss's use as a widespread cultural gesture.

Nevertheless, most early Christian texts try to minimize these connections, as does much of modern scholarship. To emphasize the interplay between the Christian ritual kiss and everyday kissing practices blurs the very distinctions that early Christian constructions of the ritual kiss tried so hard to preserve, distinctions between ritual and non-ritual, Christian and non-Christian.

Whether one liked it or not, no one in antiquity could escape the kiss. My Kissing Christians explores what would happen if modern scholarship took seriously Martial's claim regarding the kiss's ubiquity. How does an investigation of the ways early Christian ritual paralleled, appropriated, and modified surrounding cultural practices change the way one under­stands kissing in early Christianity?

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press from Michael Philip Penn's book Kissing Christians Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church. Copyright ©2005 University of Pennsylvania Press, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Giotto, Joachim and Anna Kissing at the Golden Gate, 1305; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Michael Philip Penn

Michael Philip Penn is Teresa Hihn Moore Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of Kissing Christians Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church.

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