Sexual Slander And Christian Identity

From biblical tradition, to Greek invective, to early Christian polemics, "the opponents"—be they gentiles or slaves or barbarians or heretics— were universally said to devote themselves to sexual excess. Though there may have been licentious gentiles, slaves, rulers, philosophers, barbarians, heretics, or Christians, the sources I have been exploring will not help us find them. Instead, these sources indicate a widespread attempt to employ moralizing claims regarding sexual behavior and gender deviance to validate authority. Still, there is a sense in which all this sex talk was actually about sex: by strategically claiming superiority on the basis of a strict sexual morality, early Christians were under tremendous pressure to display the sophrosyne they had defined for themselves.72 Therefore, all of this highly charged sex talk was necessary. Christians had to be convinced to live up to sophrosyne, displaying it for all to see. Moreover, the content of in-Christ self-discipline required frequent renegotiation and reiteration in light of the changing circumstances of the first Christians. Charges against the heretics provide further clues regarding the contested nature of Christian sophrosyne as well as the imagined constitution of the group.

Justin does not charge his heretics with an overactive commitment to enkrateia (self-mastery) in his extant writings; instead, he describes them as universally prone to lust. Yet, a few years later, Irenaeus condemned Tatian and other "heretics" for preaching abstinence from marriage thereby "[making] void God's pristine creation" and indirectly reproving God himself "who made male and female for generating the human race" (Iren. Adv. Haer. 1.28.1). Irenaeus gives a name to their "school"; they were the "Encratites." Could it be that the overly ascetic heretic was invented, in part, to define what "good sexual asceticism" might look like? In her analysis of some of the antiheretical writings, Elizabeth Clark notes that the church fathers were forced to defend themselves against accusations that they promoted a hatred of marriage and the body.73 Their views on ascetic discipline, especially on sexual renunciation, were read by their enemies as a disparagement of the Creator and creation. The fathers responded to this criticism by deflecting it onto their rivals.74 Clement of Alexandria refers to the problem: "There are some who say outright that marriage is fornication and teach that it was introduced by the devil. They proudly say that they are imitating the Lord who neither married nor had any possession in this world, boasting that they understand the gospel better than anyone else" (Strom. 3.6.49; compare 3.12.81).75 Because of Christians like this, Clement laments, the Christian name was blasphemed. Yet Irenaeus, Clement, and the other fathers also recommended sexual renunciation to the faithful. As noted in chapter 4, Clement of Alexandria taught that Christians ought to overcome desire altogether, though it is porneia, not marriage, that is a sin (Strom. 3.11.90). Irenaeus, like Hermas, asserts that God punishes sins of thought as well as deed; God was offended not only by adultery but by the thought of adultery (Iren. Adv. Haer. 2.32.1; 4.15.5; 4.28.2). Jerome offers another, particularly striking example. He argues, on the one hand, that all sexual intercourse was unclean but, on the other, that only heretics would deny the goodness of marriage.76 The dividing line between the "heretical" renunciative practices of, for example, Tatian and Saturninus, and those recommended by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, or Jerome may have been rather more blurred than their writings initially suggest.77

Clark argues that charges of excessive ascetic rigor against the heretics can be read as a diversionary tactic, designed to privilege one Christian group at the expense of another. I have made a similar suggestion regarding Justin's attempt to associate promiscuous intercourse and the eating of human flesh with the followers of Simon, Menander, and Marcion. But such accusations were not only diversionary tactics since, as Clark rightly notes, the church fathers were intensely interested in developing a program of sexual renunciation that would meet the standards of orthodoxy as they defined it.78 Christians of all sorts sought to promote sexual renunciation.79 Irenaeus' contention that false Christians can only be of two types—radical ascetics or libertine sensualists—can be read as part of this intense discussion about the importance of sexual renunciation. Charges of sexual license against the heretics reflected an attempt on the part of early Christian authors to develop a sexualized disciplinary discourse that could be effective at eliminating their opponents, protect them from their non-Christian critics, and enhance their own status as the authentic bearers of Christian tradition. The alleged sexual practices of the heretics, then, point to the internal debates of Justin's and Irenaeus' respective communities, debates that were partially framed in response to pressures from without.

The impact of outsider critique on insider-directed heresiology can be observed in other areas as well. As observed in the chapter 3, by the second century Christians were being accused of ritual orgies, incest, and cannibalism, the very same charges that Justin and Irenaeus lodged against heretics, Jews, and gentiles. There are still further parallels: Irenaeus accused the heretics of playing at being Jews; Celsus asserted that the Christians tie their antiquity to the Jews and foolishly adopt Jewish customs although they are not Jews at all (Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.16, 5.41). Irenaeus suggested that the heretics developed numerous nonsensical and contradictory doctrines; Celsus argued that the Christians disagreed about everything and repeated a ridiculous myth involving an earth creature and a woman formed from his side (Origen, Contra Celsum, 3.1-10, 4.36, 4.63). If Celsus was repeating standard arguments against the Christians, as some scholars have argued, these parallels may not be coincidental.80 In other words, the sorts of charges lodged against heretical insiders shifted in concert with the sorts of charges Christians as a group were facing, reflecting the unstable terrain of insider-outsider controversies and group definition.

Disagreements over the content of Christian sophrosyne provide further evidence of this phenomenon. As observed in the chapter 2, Paul presupposed that women were "naturally" more prone to desire than men and therefore they "naturally" required surveillance by men; he was anxious to ensure that the brothers and sisters in Christ remained "real men" and "real women." Still, he presupposed that women would prophesy during church meetings and contribute to the churches as patrons, deacons, and even apostles.81 Within a generation, however, women's (limited) authority was reinterpreted as improper and shameful by many Christian au-thors,82 a position that was reinforced by Irenaeus' critique of the heresies. Irenaeus depicted women's leadership as an indication of heretical sexual deviance, implying that such behavior could not be imagined among apostolic Christians.83 His patrilineal theory of apostolic succession also eliminated women from the divine genealogy, with the exception of Mary whose purpose was to undo the sin of Eve (Iren. Adv. Haer. 3.22.4-23.5). Irenaeus' exclusively patrilineal notion of descent together with his accusations against the heretics may have been designed to silence women within his Christian community as well as to deflect charges—lodged against Christians in general—that they attracted "silly women."84 Arguments regarding the strict control of good Christian women could serve an additional purpose: Christian male authors advertised their own "manly" self-control by broadcasting the firm hold they maintained over "their" women, a particularly pressing need given the feminization of Christians by critical outsiders.

Claims about Christian manliness and self-discipline and about heretical, gentile, and Jewish slavishness and decadence involved cultural production and the performance of power relationships. As such, the implied content of sexual immorality was subject to constant reinterpretation and renegotiation by those who attempted to define and constitute them for the sake of their own persuasive projects. When the early Christian authors I have been discussing suggest that sexual licentiousness is a sign of God's rejection—non-Christian gentiles are abandoned by God to lust, false Christians are motivated by their lusts, Jews were slaves to lust all along—they are not describing what immorality is, they were creating a definition of immorality that suited their interests. Accusations regarding immorality characterize and constitute "the other" by describing what "they" are and what "we" are not, just as "slavishness" was supposed to be a characteristic of slaves, not of free citizens. By accusing enemies of sexual immorality, Christians such as Justin and Irenaeus not only challenged the claims and pretensions of those they opposed—insiders or outsiders—they defined their own movement in sexual terms. Nevertheless, the very terms of the argument remained (and remain) inherently unstable.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment