Paul the Slaves of Desire and the Saints of

For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that you refrain from porneia, that each of you know to possess his own wife [skeuos, lit. "vessel"] in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the gentiles who do not know God, that no one transgress and defraud his brother in the matter, because the Lord is an avenger concerning all these matters, just as we told you before, and we solemnly warned you. For God did not call us for impurity, but in holiness.

In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul warned the brothers in Christ to refrain from porneia ("fornication" or sexual immorality more generally), avoiding the passion of lust (pathei epithymias) exhibited by the gentiles (ta ethne). Paul similarly exhorted the members of the Galatian church (lit. "assembly") to practice self-mastery (enkrateia), since they had "crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Gal 5:24). Writing about one hundred years later, Justin Martyr made comparable claims. First he decried the unreasonable passions of the Greeks and their gods (Justin 1 Apol 5.9.2) then, remarking upon the transformation that occurs when one is devoted to the God of Israel, he concluded: "We who not long ago delighted in porneia now embrace sophrosyne alone" (1 Apol 14). Ancient Christians from Paul onward frequently employed this basic argument: non-Christians are enslaved to desire, but Christians have gained control of their desires and rejected all impure, "unnatural" sexual behavior. Conflating a biblical polemic against gentile idolaters with Greco-Roman arguments that figured corruption in terms of sexual vice, authors such as Paul and Justin defined themselves against others by contrasting their exceptional virtue with the supposed vice of everyone else. The world is corrupt, they argued; it is infected with lust. Those who abandon themselves to this lust will be punished. By contrast, the followers of Christ are pure. They control their desires and will be saved.

Paul and later followers of Christ frequently defined the boundaries of their movement in sexual terms. Paul claimed that gentiles take their wives "in the passion of lust"; one of Paul's disciples added that gentiles "have given themselves up to licentiousness" (Eph 4:19). Justin suggested that gentiles are "driven by unreasonable passion and by the scourge of worthless demons" (1 Apol 5);1 a later apologist added that they "have made a business of harlotry and established immoral houses of every base pleasure for their young" (Athenagoras Leg 34.2).2 According to Paul, the followers of Christ must always be exceptionally chaste: They do not (or should not) visit brothels (Rom 6:15-20). They do not (or should not) tolerate porneia in their midst (1 Cor 5:1-13; cf. Eph. 5:5). His disciples insisted that Christian wives remain submissive and chaste (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22-4; 1 Tim 2:8-15; cf. 1 Pet 3:1-6) and that (male) leaders rule themselves and their households well (1 Tim 3:1-7).3 Becoming "saints," they have "put to death" what is "earthly"—"porneia, impurity, wicked, lustful passion and greediness, which is idolatry"—or so one Pauline Christian asserted (Col 3:5).4 Later Christian authors continued this theme, celebrating the fact that some Christians renounced sexual relations altogether for the sake of Christ.5 Indeed, as one author boasted, "the world hates the Christians ... for they resist the pleasures" (Diogn. 6.5).

Assertions about sexual morality pervade early Christian discourse. Paul worried about marriage practices, sexual renunciation, incest, adultery, intercourse with prostitutes, and other sexual practices he identified as porneia.6 Later Christians discussed virgins, virginity, marriage, divorce, desire, porneia, and adultery at great length. Though followers of Christ did not always agree on the precise nature of the self-control required, there seems to have been universal agreement that desire (epithymia) and pleasure (hedone) would lead to sin. In contrast to all outsiders, the brothers and sisters in Christ were—or should have been—capable of keeping desire in check.7 They were to be characterized by true righteousness and holiness. Turning away from idolatry, they no longer engaged in sexual excess of any kind, distinguishing themselves from the corrupt communities they left behind. Claims regarding the outstanding sexual virtue of "the saints" were accompanied by a corresponding depiction of "the world" as plagued by sexual vice. Sexualized invective became a key strategy for drawing boundaries between outsiders and insiders and also for enforcing insider sexual ethics. Who were the followers of Christ? They were not gentiles. Who were the gentiles? They are sexually immoral idolaters. In this way, Christian sexual ethics, and Christians as a group, were constituted as both different from and superior to others.

This chapter considers one aspect of this early Christian sex talk: charges of sexual licentiousness against gentile outsiders as lodged by the apostle Paul. My goals are twofold: to place Paul's arguments in the context of other ancient Mediterranean discourses and to offer an analysis of the function of these arguments. For Paul, drawing boundaries between the gentiles-in-Christ and gentile outsiders on the basis of sexual virtue (theirs) and vice (everyone else's) was an effective strategy during the early empire, a period in which claims about virtue, sexual and otherwise, were frequently deployed to justify status and difference. Despite his world-critical stance, Paul often relied upon the very categories of virtue and vice put forward in the philosophical and moralistic traditions of his targets, combining these categories with biblical assertions regarding the gentiles and illicit sex. On the whole, Paul upheld widely shared assumptions regarding sex, gender, and status. He may have been highly critical of outsiders, yet he reinscribed the gendered sexual norms he shared with many of those he criticized.

Trained to varying degrees in Greek or Latin rhetoric and living within the cultural environment of the Mediterranean, early Christian authors would have been well aware of the rhetorical commonplaces referencing virtue and vice discussed in the previous chapter. Paul utilized "all the subtleties of Greek logical argumentation," even if his rhetoric did not reach the heights of some of his more eloquent contemporaries.8 The second-century Christian Justin called his First Apology, a prosphonesis, "an address," especially to a ruler, employing the technical term for the treatise he composed (i Apol. 1.1).9 By the second and third centuries, Christian authors like Justin demonstrated self-conscious attention to Greco-Roman rhetorical forms in the speeches, letters, and dialogues they composed;10 Paul's letters also employed common Greek rhetorical tropes and devices.11 Not surprisingly, then, Christian authors listed many of the same virtues and vices found in works by Greek moralists12 and employed metaphors resembling those utilized by Stoic and Cynic philosophers.13 Yet Paul and later Christians also built upon a familiar biblical argument: gentile idolaters engage in reprehensible sexual practices. "Idolatry"—itself a term of opprobrium meaning "worships other gods"—was figured as znh or porneia; one usually implied the other.14 Paul adopted this rhetorical tactic as his own, reconfiguring "idolatry" to mean "does not worship God/Christ" while continuing to equate idolatry with sexual depravity. Later Christian writings adopted a similar point of view: so, for example, the author of the Didache warned against "murders, adulteries, lusts, porneia, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, sorceries, robberies, false witness," and "hypocrisy," among other behavior that leads to the "way of death" (Did. 5.1), and Polycarp cautioned that one who does not abstain from avarice "will be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as if he were among the gentiles who do not know the judgment of God" (Poly. Phil. 11.2). To the author of Colossians, "porneia, impurity, passion, evil desire and greediness" were a form of "idolatry" (Col 3:5). In this way, the followers of Christ incorporated Greco-Roman commonplaces—"blaming" others for immoral sexual behavior, ignoble family or national origin—into their own arguments and combined them with biblical and postbiblical Jewish15 claims about the fornications of the gentiles.16 The apostle Paul was the earliest follower of Jesus to put forward these sorts of arguments, so we begin with him. But first Paul's claims need to be placed within a larger tradition of anti-gentile sexualized invective.


Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your god. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.

The book of Leviticus prefaced prohibitions against incest, intercourse with a menstruating woman, child sacrifice, bestiality, and "lying with a man as with a woman" (LXX: meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten gynaikos) with a warning: the people of Israel are not to "do as they do in the land of Egypt" or "as they do in the land of Canaan." After listing the prohibited behaviors, Israel was warned once again: if they commit any of these abominations, they will defile the land just as the Canaanites had done and, as a result, "the land will vomit them up" (Lev. 18:24-30). By framing the commandments in this way, the book of Leviticus implied that certain sexual acts were non-Israelite practices. Furthermore, Leviticus cautioned, such acts lead to punishment by God no matter who commits them. In the process, God's true people were represented as sexually pure, and outsiders—be they Canaanites, Egyptians, or disobedient Israelites—were associated with abhorrent sexual and religious behavior.

This association between gentiles, apostate Israel, and (purportedly) depraved sexual behavior can be found in many other biblical and post-biblical writings. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, idolatry was described in sexual terms as "fornication" or "prostitution" (znh and cognates). Ca-naanites were said to "prostitute themselves to their gods"; they were guilty of both false religiosity and sexual licentiousness, or so these sources suggested (Exodus 34:15-16).17 The prophet Ezekiel turned these accusations against Jerusalem. Jerusalem, by failing to live up to the covenant, acted just as one would expect idolaters to behave: as a whore. She "lavished her [Heb. "your"] whorings on any passer-by," betraying her faithful husband, God. Judgment, appropriately, was the result (Ezek 16:15).18 As Ho-sea put it, Israel "plays the whore," and Ephraim, joined to idols, engages in sexual orgies, loving fornication more than glory (Hosea 4:15-19). As a consequence, God will punish Ephraim and Israel; Ephraim will become desolate and Israel will be put to shame (Hosea 5:9, 11, 14-15; 7:8-10, 12-13; 8:2-3; 9:1-3; 10:6).

These biblical commonplaces were extended to include Greeks and other gentiles by later Jews. To the Wisdom of Solomon, idolatry was the "beginning of fornication"; idolaters "kill children in their initiations," "hold frenzied revels," and "no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure" (Wis. Sol.14.12). The Letter of Jeremiah accused gentile priests of stealing gold and silver from their gods, in part, to fund trips to a brothel (10-11).19 The Book of Jubilees states that "all [the ways of the gentiles] are a pollution and an abomination and uncleanness" (22:20) and therefore a man who dared to give his daughter or sister in marriage to a gentile man ought to be stoned "because he has caused shame in Israel."20 The Testament of Levi presented the patriarch Levi at his deathbed warning his sons to avoid behaving "like the gentiles" by eating the Lord's offerings with whores, committing adultery, having intercourse with prostitutes, taking gentile women for their wives, and becoming like Sodom and Gomorrah. If they do indulge in such abhorrent, "gentile" behavior, they will bring a curse upon Israel (T. Levi 14.1-8). The third Sibylline Oracle contrasted Judeans who "remember the hallowed marriage bed" with Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and others who (allegedly) commit adultery and "have impious intercourse with male children" (Sib. Or. 3.590-600).21 According to Josephus, the Greeks follow the example of their depraved, incestuous gods, using the bad sexual behavior of their deities as an excuse "for the monstrous and unnatural pleasures in which they themselves indulged," "unnatural" pleasures that included incest, adultery, and male homoerotic sex (Joseph Ap. 2.275).22 The sectarian Judeans of Qumran interpreted Hosea's earlier (sexualized) condemnation of Israel as a description of Judea during their own time: the (current) disregard of God's commands and the celebration of gentile festivals in Judea will soon leave these (new) apostates shamed and in mourning (4Q166-7).23 The Alexandrian Jew Philo excoriated apostates for becoming "licentious, shameless, unjust, frivolous, small minded, quarrelsome, companions of falsehood and false testimony." Their impiety has led them to serve "the delights of the belly and the organs below it" (Philo Virt. 34.182).24 In this way, gentiles and wayward Israelites were persistently identified with prostitutes, adultery, lust, fornication, idolatry, and homoerotic sex while "true" Judeans were identified with proper sexual and religious practices.

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