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:

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.

10 replies
  1. Jugu Abraham says:

    A pair of early saints of the Christian church, St Sergius and Sr Bacchus were gay! There is a church in their honor in Cairo, Egypt.

  2. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Epictetus wrote (Golden Sayings 47 ), “In theory it is easy to convince an ignorant person: in actual life, men not only object to offer themselves to be convinced, but hate the man who has convinced them.
    Explaining Roman culture of antiquity does nothing to mitigate the impact seeing the Bible as a rulebook has today. The rules concerning sexual relationships are fairly clear. Sex for anything but procreation is considered bad. Even the “spilling of seed,” thought to encapsulate the complete human, the female merely being the incubator, could get one killed. Just ask Onan, who spilled his on the ground because he didn’t want to sire someone who would have been in line before him to inherit (Gen. 38). He was killed by his god. Those who couldn’t control passions in Romans 1:24 were “fired” by that Stoic god, though looking at the various hapax legomena in that passage one can’t help but wonder when it was enlarged, since it doesn’t seem to be a part of Marcion’s Romans. But that is lost completely when the Bible is elevated to THE “Word of God” and unquestioned.

    The Bible is not really up-to-date in sex education, either. In the TNK it is always the woman’s fault if her husband is childless… Her womb has been sealed. This is a motif played out in the reiteration of Hannah, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Samson’s mama, having their “wombs opened” by their god, a man, of course and played out in the “virgin” or “young girl” Mary (of Jesus fame). Maybe a lesson anatomy would be more appropriate than a biblical view of procreation!

    How much of the responsibility does the Bible have on how we identify and stereotype people? I have found it rather incongruous that heterosexual couples are defined by their love yet homosexual couples are defined by sexual methods. A culture that can rightfully call itself Christian has been at the forefront of stereotyping heterosexuals in terms of “love,” homosexuals in terms of “sexual behaviors.” Finally, it seems the stereotype is dying, certainly not because of the Bible, but because the culture is becoming more secular, unaffiliated to pre-modern literature of religions. The “Rulebook Bible” mentality might be interesting in a quaint way, but as a moral code it falls short in a way that has left humanity mangled in its wake.
    (3000 is much better for someone like me, who writes about that many words a day!)

    • Cassandra says:

      Dennis, great points all around (and yes, the 3000 characters is much better!) – lots of stuff here came up in conversation from various angles, although we didn’t get into Romans 1:24. Our speakers this weekend did touch on your observation about what happens when we view the Bible as rule book. The gist of it was that claiming to be unique is a way of claiming power and greater value, so in historical inquiry that sort of language should be treated with a degree of suspicion. When a book is closed to inquiry of any kind (such as, as you say, by elevating it to divine and therefore unchanging status), it remains so only via the power of those who can keep it closed: financial, social, and so on. That, fortunately or unfortunately, is all too human and malleable.

      • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

        I looked at one of the two passages I have heard recently condemning homosexuality, Romans 1:19 – 1:32 and wrote my thoughts about it. Most just look at “Paul” and interpret. I look and wonder about the authenticity. This is my summary of it. The only resources other than BeDuhne’s Marcion book were a Greek lexicon & Greek NT.

        There are at least four reasons to consider Romans 1:19 – 2:1 an interpolation. In the second century it is apparently unattested in some versions of Romans (like ostensibly the Marcionite copies circulating). It has fourteen hapax legomena and another fourteen words used only once in the “authentic 7” Paulines and only found two or three times in the canon. Romans 1:18 and 2:2 form a natural connection not present between 1:32 and 2:1. (2:1 is rather nonsensical, looking at the block preceding it. After condemning the aforementioned wickedness, this is a reason for not judging or condemning? Ludicrous!) Finally, the “wrath” of God found in 1:18 does not equate to the consequence of “God giving them up” found in 1:24. I do not believe the author of Romans 1 – 8 included this in the original version. (In another study I will look at the differences in Romans 1 – 8 and 9 – 11. I’m just not there. Yet!)

        • Cassandra says:

          Dennis, you’ll have to report back to us what you discover! I can’t remember offhand if this passage came up in Bill Walker’s upcoming book, but he does deal both with interpolations and with gender and sexuality (I know, for instance, that he discusses his theory of why one version of the “neither Jew nor Gentile…” passage, commonly thought to be associated with baptism, includes “neither male nor female” and one doesn’t.)

  3. Bob Fitzgerald says:

    Thanks, Cassandra, for your informative summary of our stimulating lectures at church last weekend. It is encouraging to know that our Leadership Team at church is so supportive of such educational events. And lay leadership leads the way to provide JSOR and other lectures (Robin Meyers in Feb. 2015). These lectures expanded my awareness of the diversity of gender/sex issues in the lives of the early followers of Jesus. It, also, provides some relevant perspective to deal with issues today —- especially news of discussions going on in the Roman Catholic Church. Thanks, again.

    • Cassandra says:

      Bob, it was great to see you this past weekend! I was impressed by the fact that University Congregational UCC has sustained a lecture series for seven years. What a wonderful resource!

  4. Bob Fitzgerald says:

    Thanks, Cassandra, for your informative summary of the lectures at our church last weekend. It was a stimulating series of lectures re gender/sex in the lives of the early followers of Jesus. It helped expand my understanding of such issues. It will help in putting into perspective the issues of gender/sex today — esp. in the Roman Catholic Church. It is encouraging to have the support of our Leadership Team at our church. We will continue to offer JSOR and other lectures (Robin Meyers in Feb. 2015). Thanks to Westar for opportunities and challenges to provide educational experiences in our community.

  5. Bob Fitzgerald says:

    Sorry that my ‘tech’ abilities are so ‘low’…!!!
    I feared that I ‘goofed’ on my first effort….and was motivated (frustrated) to send another similar message to you…..My intentions are sincere…my efforts are goofy.

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