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The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire: An Interview with Heidi Wendt

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.

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? The infographic below is based on an article by Westar Fellow William O. Walker Jr., Jennie Farris King Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity University. You can read the full 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.