Sex and Gender in Early Christianity

I had the privilege this weekend of hearing Westar Fellows Pamela Eisenbaum and Stephen Patterson speak about sex and gender in early Christianity at a Jesus Seminar on the Road jointly sponsored with the University Congregational UCC Lecture Series in Seattle, Washington. Pamela Eisenbaum, author of Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, and Stephen Patterson, author of The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, introduced ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish ideas of gender, and tackled some red-flag issues such as virginity, asceticism, male-male sex, and some early Jesus followers’ practice of cross-dressing (yes, really!). I wish I could pack it all into this blog, but I’ll have to confine myself to the highlights.

Male-Male Sex in Greco-Roman Culture
By far the most fascinating thing I learned this weekend from Stephen was about Greco-Roman attitudes toward male-male sex. Homoeroticism was commonplace in ancient Greece, but of course when you delve into the history, the situation is more complex than that. Properly defined, ancient Greek culture condoned pederasty, or amorous relations between young adult men and boys in their upper teens, and most of the relationships gave way eventually to heterosexual marriages. The intent behind this practice was to develop the boys into proper citizens.

Here’s the catch: there were specific rules around such relations, the most important of which was that male citizens were not to penetrate other male citizens. This rule did not apply to male citizens penetrating women, male slaves, or foreign men. Thus, maleness in this culture was defined not by male-female relations but by dominant-subordinate relations. Any subordinate could be one’s partner, but if one penetrated another male citizen, it was labeled rape and could be prosecuted.

In short, as Stephen explains from a different angle in his 2013 article “David Loves Jonathan,” in the ancient world male-male sex was generally about ownership, not love. We should not confuse this with modern definitions of male-male sex as an expression of intimacy between two partners.

By now you might be wondering about female-female sex. What do we know about it? The answer is, not much. The reason for that is pretty straightforward: it didn’t directly challenge the power hierarchy, so it didn’t get much attention or regulation. Of course, this doesn’t mean women didn’t challenge the power hierarchy in other ways. For example, the early Christian heroine Thecla rejected her arranged marriage for a life of celibacy, cut her hair short, and dressed as a man. Thecla is by no means atypical; she is one of many possible examples we might cite of women in the Jesus movement acting out masculine or asexual roles as a way to express their commitment to mastering human desire for the sake of religious commitments.

As I hope this admittedly brief description of Greco-Roman ideas about gender and sex demonstrates, gender is, among other things, a structure of power. Gender as power manifests in expectations about what a person can or should wear, spaces people are allowed to occupy, forms of speech they can use, and so on. Like all socially constructed concepts, gender holds a different meaning depending on culture, and power is allocated differently depending on one’s gender. We still see this today in areas like government office, church hierarchy, and the arts. Yet to enforce power differences you must define male and female; you have to know which is which. The philosopher Judith Butler, whom I mentioned last week, defines gender as a role to be performed. Early Christ followers operated within the structures of the reigning culture but also challenged them, discovering and shaping new gender roles through experimentation and practice.

Image of  an androgyne, detail on ancient greek amphora, from Plato's theory of the origin of sexual orientation.  Credit: aquileana.wordpress.com

Image of an androgyne, detail on ancient greek amphora, from Plato’s theory of the origin of sexual orientation.

The Body in Greco-Roman Culture
Pamela in her presentation transported us back to a world before Descartes introduced the concept of mind-body separation. Westerners often struggle to return to that world because Descartes’ explanation of the relationship between mind and body as two separate entities, coming as it did at the cusp of the Enlightenment, was so helpful and timely that Western culture has more or less absorbed his language into its basic concepts of existence.

In contrast, words like “spirit” and “soul” in the ancient world did not describe non-tangible entities. Prior to Descartes, psyche and pneuma were substances, like ether. For instance, the Stoic philosopher Seneca says, “Nature (natura) includes things that exist (sunt) and things that do not exist (non sunt).” Would we ever say this? Probably not, because nature in the modern world is specifically confined to the physical universe. We can see that the very models of what a person is and what the fleshy aspects of the self were in ancient times, are not the same as our concepts of them today. Even where Paul describes a “spiritual” resurrection, he still implies a substance of sorts, just not the base material substance (physic).

Queering the Bible
Most of the discussions in the final hours of the lectures today were dedicated to dialogue among participants, Pamela, and Stephen. A couple lessons emerged from this back-and-forth that I thought you also might find helpful in your own reading of biblical and other early Christian stories:

  • Queer theory is about how we handle difference.
    Do you take a fundamentally fearful or a fundamentally curious approach to difference? Do you let yourself imagine your way into a very different position from your own? Next time you read a biblical story, try reading the story from the point of view of each of the actors, and ask yourself how each person might have interpreted what happened. Where do you see power relations acted out? Does reading the story from somebody else’s point of view change the lesson you take from it?
  • Uniqueness can be an empty concept if not given some context.
    When we talk about difference or uniqueness, it’s hard to know what we mean by it. “Christianity was unique in that [insert a characteristic].” However, common sense tells us that everything is unique in and of itself. It would be just as easy to flip a statement about Christianity around to make a claim of uniqueness about a pagan cult, Second Temple Judaism, or another movement of the times. Often, what we are actually doing is making a claim of superiority. We’re implying that Christianity was special. It may very well have been special, but only when given a context for that special status. We need to ask why we care about that uniqueness and be mindful of present-day power plays based on such claims.

This really only touches the surface of the weekend’s conversations, which were incredibly thoughtful and deep. Thank you to everybody who came out to join us! Last but not least, here are a few resources recommended by Stephen and Pamela for further reading:

Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Parodying Violence in Ferguson (EHJ series)

“To stand in front of a tank and be willing to be run over is absolutely not a funny situation, but it is a case parody. … The student tries through non-violent resistance to publicly humiliate the army in an exaggerated and literal demonstration of its callous oppression.”

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 134

Smoky photos of police in riot gear alongside protestors in street clothes with paper signs, breathless cries of frustration from reporters, rumors of fire hoses and international investigations—in a heartbeat, fifty-year-old iconic images of racially charged history explode with latent power. Ferguson, Missouri, has reminded us that our everyday reality is pregnant with past violence.

The images are kept alive in our imaginations by family lore, literature and media, ready to escape when triggered. “The circulation of violence becomes a habit of life, and everybody makes a contribution,” writes David Galston in chapter 6 of Embracing the Human Jesus. We operate out of these habits as though they are the natural way to be—our “default reality” (115). Most of the time they exist as a backdrop, something that doesn’t need to be thought out or noticed, but then something happens to awaken us to our assumptions. In Jewish Dogs: An Image and Its Interpreters, Kenneth Stow tells compellingly of how the slur “Jewish dog” is perpetuated in seemingly harmless ways across history—such as through cartoons and children’s games—only to rear up in more serious forms when new developments in political and social conflicts excite feelings against Jewish people.

Consider: if we recall the murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till in a conversation about Michael Brown, as I’ve seen people do this week on social media, what are we hoping people will do with that connection? Likewise, NPR ran a story about a black teen who was ‘almost another dead black male’—the catch? His mom was white. My children’s skin color is darker than my own, so yes, this concerns me. But what I want to know is what we’re trying to accomplish with all these images.

Protest as parody

Ferguson protest © Light Bringading (Flickr) | Tiananmen protest © ryanne lei (Flickr)

David Galston suggests we can see non-violent resistance as a parody that demands change via embarrassment of the oppressor’s assumed power. Parody is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as imitation “for comic effect or in ridicule, often with certain peculiarities greatly heightened or exaggerated.” This was a strategy employed by the historical Jesus, and it was probably what motivated Roman authorities to kill him. Many readers will be familiar with the following interpretation of “turn the other cheek”: When Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” he probably was not encouraging us to passively accept abuse. Rather, it was a demand for equality. “To be slapped on the right cheek is to receive the backhanded blow of your oppressor’s right hand. It is symbolically a ‘downward’ blow meant to put you in your place” (134). Yet when you turn the other cheek, you demand a blow “that assumes equality.”

Galston does not mean to argue that Jesus taught exactly this popular lesson of non-violent resistance as it is now associated with him. It may have nothing to do with what the historical Jesus actually said and did. Rather, “the point is to extend ancient wisdom of the Jesus school into our time and language” (139). We carry the momentum of his teaching forward in our own ways. As the late Marshallese storyteller Jorju Arre once explained, he only told stories to the people who asked, even if that meant only one person would ever hear them (Kelin & Nashon, Marshall Islands Legends & Stories: 169). Sometimes we need to demand stories of the past that propel us toward a better future. If we don’t ask, it won’t be remembered.

Emmett Till’s mom left the casket open. Protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 refused to move from in front of tanks. What are we doing when we set up and recall such highly visual protests? We are declaring the imbalance of power. We are not allowing it to go unseen. It’s a parody of the oppressor’s control. True, we don’t laugh; but we sure see the ridiculousness of our oppressor’s demands for peace and quiet.

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston’s book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Damned Nation: Hell in America from Revolution to Reconstruction

Kathryn Gin Lum

Kathryn Gin Lum

The dark underside to the American Dream is a fear that America is a damned nation—damned, according to Stanford professor Kathryn Gin Lum, for failing to carry out its responsibility to evangelize the world.

Hell is alive and well in American culture. The Westboro Baptist Church and other groups are well known for presenting laundry lists of sins that are damnation-worthy. Such groups are often met with laughter or outrage today, depending on the severity of the behavior, but these voices aren’t out of place: this kind of fire-and-brimstone language has a long history in the United States.

As one attendee asked, why learn about this? What is the value of learning about an apparently outmoded concept like hell? As another attendee responded, we need to think about it because it’s still alive for people today. Whether or not we believe in hell, we have to deal with the language of hell in public debates. Sometimes it crops up in political language, such as justifications for the death penalty or interventions in other countries for the sake of democracy. Sometimes we find it in religious contexts, like end-of-life pastoral counseling. Understanding the history can help with responding meaningfully in such moments.

Gin Lum, whose book Damned Nation will be published in September 2014, cautioned against oversimplifying the history of hell in America. Antebellum America can’t just be seen as a cultural backwater, lagging behind the other side of the Atlantic. Something else was—and still is—going on with metaphors of hell in Americans’ cultural vocabulary. We can’t go on thinking, as Enlightenment thinkers often did, that human history is always rolling forward toward Progress. A lot has changed, but hell still gets under our skin.

Eighteenth-century ministers came to see human beings as agents in control of their own moral behavior. This has proven to be a very important piece of the American Dream, which claims anyone who works hard enough can achieve success in the Land of Opportunity. Yet this was a departure from the earlier, infamous views espoused in Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where God held all the power to determine each person’s future. God’s sovereignty was displaced with human agency. Charles Grandison Finney used to single out members of his congregation and place them in the hot seat while he preached. He claimed husbands and wives would have to testify against one another in the final judgment. Parents would be brought to task for the unbelief of their children. Ministers were not exempt: Timothy Merrit said ministers’ “blood shall be required at their hands” if the wicked aren’t warned, and William Meade claimed, “Witnesses against us [ministers] will be the lost souls, and perhaps also … among our executioners and tormentors.” Ministers were urged to be bold and earnest yet also tender, even for those who “deserve to perish.”

What drove this missionary zeal? In part, ministers felt there was not enough time to reach everybody. The population of the United States exploded in this period. There were only 27,000 ministers serving some 23 million people spread across a vast geography. In their urgency ministers encouraged people to see themselves as responsible for not only their family but the broader public; in the absence of a minister, any conscientious person should speak out for the sake of others’ souls. The anxiety felt by ministers was often expressed as fear for the nation as a whole, not just individuals. This also came to play a role in the language of American exceptionalism: Americans took on a sense of obligation for saving the world in order to maintain the nation’s special status in God’s eyes.

Meanwhile the public not only experienced the violence of the Civil War through loss of loved ones but also got ready access to violence through the earliest forms of photography. Among several stories of the War shared by Gin Lum were the reflections of military chaplains who had to tread a fine line between warning soldiers not to sacrifice their souls and keeping up morale. As one chaplain said, “How lamentable it will be to die for your country and lose your own soul!”

Did believers accept the ministers’ claims? Not universally. Harriet Stowe, whose unconverted fiancee and several family members passed away in quick succession, wrote a novel entitled The Minister’s Wooing in which one character cries out in her grief, “I can never love God! … And what is worse, I cannot redeem my friends!” Some people suggested the journey to heaven was a gradual process throughout life rather than the more dramatic evangelical “turn of heart.” By the mid-19th century, art showed signs of a major shift away from hellish imagery around the deaths of loved ones toward an assumption that loved ones were in heaven.

Audience questions drew out related topics like near-death experiences, the relationship of the concept of Original Sin to hell, how Satan figures into the language of damnation, and hell in modern-day fundamentalism. Many of these are captured in quotes in the Twitter feed below, so we hope you will take a moment to explore them. Most of all, we are grateful to Kathryn Gin Lum for sharing her time with the Westar community!


Infographic: What Does the New Testament Say about Homosexuality?

What does the New Testament say about homosexuality

What does the New Testament say about homosexuality? You can find an excellent article here.

It’s important to realize we can’t take the historical attitudes of the past and apply them uncritically to today. This is called anachronism: misplacing persons, objects, and customs of one era into another. No matter where we fall in the spectrum of attitudes surrounding gender and sexuality in Christian denominations today, we need to be cautious about grabbing from the past to prove our points.

That said, we can challenge common assumptions by pointing out that the past isn’t as clear-cut as we sometimes would like it to be. Diversity existed in the past, too. There were all kinds of Christians. Even the writers of books that appear in the New Testament didn’t all share the same theology. Sometimes they even edited each other’s work to suit their own communities’ needs and beliefs! The Apostle Paul regularly complained about missionaries with alternate messages for his communities. An early Christian handbook known as the Didache provided instructions for at least one Christian community to test the validity of itinerant preachers.

To quote Anne Lamott in Traveling Mercies, “If the God you believe in hates all the same people you do, then you know you’ve created God in your own image.” History, especially the history of religion, is more complex and more diverse than we usually imagine, and it doesn’t easily fit into modern categories.