From Shame to Sin
ARTICLE BY MATTHEW TUININGA NOVEMBER 2016
Kyle Harper. From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. Harvard University Press, 2013. 316 pages
The West is jettisoning the Christian understanding of human sexuality at an alarming speed. It is doing so, to a significant extent, without any meaningful understanding of how Christianity shaped western sexuality in the first place. Many seem to think that by freeing ourselves from the burden of Christian teaching we will finally be able to enjoy our sexuality without hindrance, as if this is what human beings were doing before prudish Christians came on the scene and ruined everything.
For this reason, Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is an illuminating read. Harper wants the West to better understand our inheritance. He wants us to appreciate what sexuality looked like in the Roman world, and how revolutionary Christianity’s impact was on western sexuality, for good and for ill. Harper is not a Christian, as far as I can tell. He writes as a historian who wants to get the story right.
He seeks to present Roman views of sexuality in all their diversity, including the perspectives of the philosophers, romantic literature, medicine, law, and the economics of slavery and the sex trade. Permeating the portrait he paints is the reality of a society in which gender and status counted for everything. Philosophers and novels wrestled with the interplay between freedom and fate, pleasure and health, but in the final analysis who a person was in the social calculus of honor and shame amounted for everything.
Romans did not wrestle with the morality of sex outside of marriage or sexual activity between persons of the same sex. Rather, they wrestled with what was honorable for a free-born man or a free-born woman. It was acceptable for a free-born man to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys (under certain conditions), so long as these things were done in moderation. But a free-born man must act as a man. It was shameful for him to play the passive role in sex.
The restrictions on a free woman, on the other hand, were much tighter. A woman’s modesty (i.e., sexual honor) was a fragile thing. “The sexual life course of free women was dominated by the imperatives of marriage. In a society that was never freed from the relentless grip of a high-mortality regime, the burden of reproduction weighed heavily on the female population” (39-40). Women were expected to marry at a very young age and to produce children for their husbands and for society. To commit adultery was to violate a respectable woman and so to sin against her husband. To do so was without excuse, because any man was free to have sex with slaves and prostitutes at will.
Underlying this double standard was the lucrative and omnipresent Roman sex trade, which itself was inseparable from the Roman system of slavery. The masses of slaves, prostitutes and other dishonorable persons had no claim to honor, and thus no entitlement to sexual morality. Slaves, especially girls and women, were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse” (26). They were utterly without social or legal protection. “The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability… Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (27). Prostitutes “stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex. Brothels ‘were visible everywhere'” (47).
When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during the first century it did so as a persecuted minority known for its distinctive sexual ethic. Harper argues, in fact, that it was their views of sex more than anything else that distinguished Christians in the ancient world. For Christians sex lay at the heart of what it meant to be a free person destined for communion with God. And Christians called all people, whatever their status or gender, to lives of sexual purity.
Harper refutes the notion that Christian teaching on sexuality was simply the product of Greco-Roman conservatism or even of Judaism. The Apostle Paul, he shows, developed a fresh sexual ethos and a new sexual vocabulary to go with it. The threat to human beings was not shame or dishonor, first and foremost. It was sin. In the Corinthian church Paul was faced with a libertinism that owed much to the Roman sense that sex outside of marriage, including sex with prostitutes, was simply a matter for moderation. In response, Paul called Christians to flee porneia just as they would flee idolatry. He turned the body – indeed, all human bodies – “into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine” (92). Porneia, for Paul, encompassed all sex except that between a man and a woman in marriage, and it bound men and women, free and slaves, with equal rigor.
Paul closely associated sexual immorality with idolatry. “[S]exual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous.” Same-sex practice was a “particularly egregious violation of the natural order” (94). Harper observes that “any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered” (95). Paul’s originality, he maintains, lies in the fact that he did not reject homosexual behavior because of a logic of status, age, hierarchy, exploitation, penetration, or active and passive roles, but for the simple reason that it is not between a male and a female as intended from creation. For Paul, it is a simple question of gender difference. Natural sex, for Christians, following Paul, “came to mean, exclusively, the one configuration of body parts that has generative potential” (145).
The Christian sexual ethic stood as “one of the chief recommendations for the new religion” in the ancient world (102). But it did not remain static. Continence within marriage or celibacy outside of marriage became a powerful way for Christian men and women to break with the dominant logic of the reproductive social order. In the apocryphal language after the apostolic era sexual desire itself was devalued or rejected as inherently sinful. Even for church fathers like Clement of Alexandria, who defended the goodness of procreative marriage for Christians, “Christian marriage had as little to do with pleasure as possible” (111).
In sharp contrast to a society awed by the powers of fate and fascinated by astrology, Christians came to emphasize the power of human freedom. The early Christian emphasis on the freedom of the will went hand in hand with the new Christian ethic. Men and women could transcend their sexual desires and devote their lives to God. The new ethic, far from being perceived as a limitation on human beings, demonstrated the power of human beings to become the free masters of their own bodies.
The “most astonishing development of late antiquity,” according to Harper, “is the transformation of a radical sexual ideology, for centuries the possession of a small, strident band of vociferous dissenters, into a culture, a broadly shared public framework of values and meanings” (135). Harper tells the story of how Christian emperors oversaw the gradual implementation of Christian sexual principles in Roman law. No longer was sex merely a question of social status and honor. Now sex was a matter of sin and repentance on which the welfare of the body politic – subject to the favor or disfavor of God – depended.
Over time the law increasingly cracked down on divorce, sex outside of marriage, and homosexuality, taking much of the double standard with it. But the most decisive transformation came with the Christian rejection of the sex trade. The coercion of women into prostitution blatantly defied the Christian insistence on moral-sexual freedom. It came to be seen as a social problem precisely because of a Christian theology of sex. Beginning in 428, the coercive sex trade was prohibited and provision was made for former prostitutes. “Rarely is the translation of Christian ideology into statutory law quite so clear,” Harper observes (184). Sexual coercion became the “signal reform issue” for Christian emperors. “It was the front edge of Christian legislative intervention in the sexual economy.” And at its core it was “an expression of a new model of human solidarity” (188).
Harper explores other dimensions of the ancient world as well. He offers a shrewd assessment of Augustine’s debate with Pelagius over the freedom of the will, arguing that Augustine’s teaching regarding original sin, concupiscence, and the goods of marriage had much to do with the transition of Christianity from a religion of an embattled minority into the religion of the masses. He explores the way in which cultural ideas about sex and freedom evolved in literature, showing how Christians borrowed the motifs and conventions of Roman romantic novels in order to articulate a radically new understanding of the heroic woman or man devoted to chastity before God.
It is here, though, that a more sobering dimension of Harper’s book comes into view. More often than not Christians thought in terms of the repression of sexuality rather than in terms of its redemption. The Christian hero was one who did not have sex at all. The repentant prostitute was one who endured demeaning penance until she died. The tragic irony, Harper points out, is that a religion that called for freedom and dignity for all people ended up demeaning sexual desire and erotic relationships, even within marriage (which orthodox Christians consistently defended but only on procreative grounds). It is this negative teaching about sexuality that came to define the Christian legacy through the medieval period just as much as the more positive teaching about freedom, dignity, and the goods of marriage.
Harper’s important book reveals how central Christian teaching regarding sexuality was to the early Christian understanding of the gospel and how salutary was its effect on Roman society and sexual culture. But it also reminds us how much that teaching was corrupted by nonscriptural assumptions about the sinfulness of sexual desire. We need this clarity of thought and historical perspective as we consider how to witness to the gospel amid the sexual chaos and exploitation of our own day.
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