Statement Of The Problem

Healing From An Affair

Survive, Heal And Thrive After Infidelity

Get Instant Access

Christianity was once nothing but a novel, deadly superstition, or so its detractors claimed. But Christians were accused of even worse: from incest to orgies, nocturnal religious rites, and the ceremonial murder of an infant, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were said to pursue "a religion of lust" that venerates genitalia, tricks initiates into ritualized cannibalism, and serves as a cover for the indiscriminate sating of desire.17 In one especially purple passage, the Latin Christian apologist Minicuius Felix recounted charges lodged against the Christians that he attributed to M. Cornelius Fronto, a Roman aristocrat:

On the day appointed they gather at a banquet with all of their children, sisters, mothers, people of either sex and every age. There, after full feasting, when the blood is heated and drink has inflamed the passions of incestuous lust, a dog which has been tied to a lamp is tempted by a morsel thrown beyond the range of his tether to bound forward with a rush. The tale-telling light is upset and extinguished, and in the shameless dark lustful embraces are indiscriminately exchanged; and all alike, if not in act, yet by complicity, are involved in incest, as anything that occurs by the act of individuals results from the common intention.18

Apparently, by the mid-second century, Christians were widely suspected of such behavior. But Christians were not the only group accused of an addiction to illicit sex and other moral or religious crimes during this period: Jews were said to worship the head of an ass, perform human sacrifice, and pursue lust, despite their famously strict marriage customs.19 Conversely, Jews characterized Greeks or Egyptians as profligate, perverse, and adulterous.20 Greeks represented Persians as slavish and licentious;21 yet, according to several Roman authors, it is the Greeks who are lascivious pleasure seekers.22 In other words, Christian, Jew, Greek, Roman, they were all said to be guilty of sexual excess of one sort or another.

Early Christians were not averse to participating in this sort of name-calling. For example, in his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul claimed that idolaters—those who do not worship the God of Israel—are inevitably guilty of sexual misbehavior. Idolaters "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds of animals or reptiles" (Rom 1:23); therefore, they have been handed over "to immorality, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves" (Rom 1:24). In their depravity, their women engage in "unnatural" acts while their men become inflamed with lustful passion for one another (Rom 1:26-27). They are said to be guilty of a whole laundry list of atrocities, including envy, hatred of God, disobedience to parents, and greed (Rom 1:29-31). According to Paul, the rejection of (his) God leads to a predictable decline into immorality characterized, principally, by "unnatural" sexual excess. Second-century Christian apologists built upon and expanded this argument, gleefully describing the incestuous, adulterous, and lascivious behavior of the pagan gods and those who worship them.23 Christian authors also turned these stereotypical charges against one another, arguing that the "heretics"—fellow Christians with whom they disagreed—were incapable of sexual restraint.24 False Christians allegedly "pervert the grace of God into licentiousness" (Jude 4), capture "weak women" (2 Tim 3:6), or entice formerly faithful Christians into fornication (Rev 2:21). The second-century heresiologist Ireneaus summed it up: pseudo-Christians always "live licentious lives and hold godless doctrine."25 Greek, Roman, Jew, Persian, Christian, and heretic were all accused of sexual impropriety of one sort or another; enemies were inevitably represented as sexually profligate whether the author of the charge was a first-century Greek speaking Jew or a second-century Roman aristocrat.26

Clearly, allegations of moral turpitude were standard fare in ancient rhetorical invective, available to any author interested in discrediting an opponent or set of opponents. The practice of charging one's intended victim with sexual misbehavior can be read as part of a rhetorical tradition extending back as least as far as fourth-century Athens. For example, in his famous speech De Corona, the Athenian orator Demosthenes attacked the origin, occupation, and character of his target Aeschines by suggesting that Aeschines' mother engaged in indiscriminate intercourse in a public latrine; Aeschines (allegedly) imitated her example by involving himself in suspect religious rituals, wearing exotic apparel, and associating with old women.27 Writing some five hundred years later, the Roman orator

Cicero followed Demosthenes' example, accusing his opponents of family scandals, uncontrolled lust, and other "shameful deeds."28 Political opponents, unpopular emperors, controversial philosophies, new religions, and "barbarian" cultures were all characterized as debauched, depraved, and perverse.29

Sexual slander, therefore, was a widespread practice in ancient polemics, and similar charges were deployed both against Christians and by Christians. Still, however widespread and stereotypical, charges of sexual misbehavior were hardly "mere rhetoric." Intended to malign and defame, these accusations were deployed in fierce struggles for identity, prestige, and power. When Paul asserted that those who reject Christ are by definition sexually repulsive, he was making a claim about the superiority of his own group, declaring that he and those who agree with him are sexually pure, and drawing boundaries between himself, his followers, and "idolaters," that is, "everyone else." Similarly, by telling stories of Christian orgies, Fronto and others like him reasserted the "true" piety of Rome—a piety that leads to sexual and religious decency, not incest and human sacrifice. These accusations do not offer straightforward evidence of sexual practice; rather, they indicate a conflict between the author and those whom he maligned. Luke Timothy Johnson's characterization of New Testament anti-Jewish slander is instructive: "the main thing that such slander signified, therefore, was that someone was an opponent."30 Perhaps this is all a historian can conclude from charges of sexual immorality: those making the charges were opposed to those whom they charged. Nevertheless, the form in which the opposition was expressed remains revealing.

Two recent studies of one of the commonplace accusations of ancient invective—the charge of human sacrifice—offer further support to Johnson's view, while also demonstrating that such charges, no matter how stereotypical, carried considerable weight. As James Rives and Andrew Mc-Gowan have shown, reports about ritual murder and cannibalism, though clearly false, were employed by those who offered them to indicate a profound gap between themselves and the target of their rhetoric.31 Stories about human sacrifice served as "a marker of cultural distance between the people who told the stories and the people about whom they were told."32 In other words, accusations of murder and anthropophagy against Christians were false, historically speaking, but their message was true: Christians had distanced themselves from their cultural context.33 Read in this way, Fronto's suggestion that Christians killed and consumed an infant during their initiation rites, as shocking and extreme as the charge seems, may be understood as entirely believable to his audience—not because the accusation was thought to be "true" but because it efficiently expressed a collective distaste for the characteristic Christian refusal to participate in the common culture of city and empire. Christians, as Minucius Felix and other apologists proudly proclaimed, refused to acknowledge or worship the gods of their ancestors, a practice that was interpreted as atheism and misanthropy by their neighbors. "Such people" (the Christians) can be expected to be guilty of all sorts of moral and religious crimes. From out-of-control lust to incest and the ritual sacrifice of infants, people who would reject the gods and the city must be guilty of the worst kinds of mischief.

Charges of sexual vice could operate in similar ways. According to Catharine Edwards, accusations of sexual immorality lodged by Romans against one another were central to the "agonistic rituals of Roman political life."34 Designed to marginalize and exclude, moralizing accusations about the decadence, prodigality, and self-indulgence of target members of the male Roman elite justified the dominant position of some—said to embody proper Roman virtue—at the expense of others. Virginia Hunter made a similar observation in her survey of fourth- and fifth-century Athenian forensic discourse. Routine accusations of miserly contributions to public expenditure, cowardly performance in military service, poor treatment of family members, and, especially, reprehensible sexual conduct were forceful rhetorical devices employed by male citizens in a constant battle for status and privilege. These accusations, however stereotypical, delineated "good" from "bad" citizen in such a way that the political and sexual status quo was maintained.35 Thus, both Athenian and (later) Roman males defined and defended their privilege by referencing their own sexual virtue and condemning their rivals for failing to live up to a sexual standard they both rearticulated and reinforced. What is a "Roman"? A man who controls himself. What is an "Athenian"? A man who is brave, generous, and moderate in the expression of desire. A man who fails to display these virtues must not be tolerated, or so it was claimed.

A comparable phenomenon may be found in the association between idolatry and prostitution in the Hebrew Bible, though the distinction here is between (pious) Israel and (idolatrous) Canaan. Throughout much of the Bible, idolatry—worship of any god other than YHWH—was described in sexual terms as "fornication" or "prostitution" (znh and cognates). Canaan-ites were said to "prostitute themselves to their gods" and were therefore guilty of both false religiosity and sexual licentiousness.36 Though scholars have occasionally interpreted these passages as an indication that the

Canaanites included cult prostitution among their repertoire of religious practices, Phyllis Bird disagrees. She comments: "while prostitutes may have had functions at times in the cultic sphere ... and while hierodules may have had functions or duties involving sexual activity ... the terms used in the indigenous languages to describe these two classes never connect the sacred sphere with prostitution or prostitution with the cult." The association of znh with sacred prostitution, therefore, was a consequence of a polemical interpretation of Canaanite practice present throughout the Hebrew Bible rather than a report about Canaanite religious ritual. In other words, the claim that Canaanites promoted sacred prostitution was designed to differentiate "true" religion, figured as the worship of YHWH, and the truly pious, figured as Israel, from false religion, figured as the worship of Baal or other gods, and the impious, figured as the Canaanites.

Early Christian authors deployed sexual slurs to similar ends, consistently claiming virtue for themselves alone, especially sexual virtue, while vilifying their competitors as utterly vice-ridden, most often in terms of lack of sexual self-control. From the obscure comment in the Gospel of Matthew that some have made themselves "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven," to the celebration of the 144,000 (male) virgins who did not "defile themselves with women" in the book of Revelation, the insistence that (true) Christians are sexually pure pervades this literature.37 Paul, disciples of Paul, Ignatius, and Polycarp all warned against tolerating anything that might resemble improper sexual behavior among "the saints."38 Aristides, Athenagoras, Justin Martyr, Tertul-lian, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, and numerous others asserted that the Christians are exceptionally chaste, especially the continent who never engage in sexual activity at all.39 The quests of elite Christian women to remain sexually continent in face of the demands of family and city are central to the dramas of the stories preserved in the Apocryphal Acts.40 Christian texts in a variety of genres from the first century onward declared that, above all, sexual self-control was the trademark of their movement.41

Christian authors did not agree regarding the content of this self-con-trol—indeed, as Peter Brown and others have pointed out, Christians argued vociferously about the character and meaning of the sexual mores they recommended42—but they were certain that all "true" followers of Jesus must display sexual purity, however defined. Moreover, whatever the position taken on sexual renunciation, Christians repeatedly represented differences between themselves and others, outsiders or insiders, in sexual terms. Either one was a "true Christian," and therefore chaste, or one was depraved. For example, the second-century Christians Tatian and Irenaeus radically disagreed regarding Christian marriage—to Tatian marriage was incompatible with Christian life,43 to Irenaeus an outright rejection of marriage involved a presumptuous rejection of God's creation44—yet both persistently contrasted the propriety of their behavior with the purported sexual impropriety of their enemies.45 Opponents were demonized and denounced across a spectrum of Christian authors and points of view by means of elaborate descriptions of sexual vice: gentiles were said to be licentious lovers of luxury;46 the pagan gods were described as perverse lovers of incest and adultery; "false" Christian teachers were represented as profligate pleasure seekers;47 and "heretics" were widely associated with prostitutes, demon possession, and wicked desire.48

What did Christian authors seek to gain by employing such slurs? Sexual slander, as I have already observed, draws boundaries between "us" and "them." Arguments presented in terms of the bad sexual behavior of a target, such as those frequently put forward by early Christians, served to reinforce boundaries between those associated with the bad behavior and those who claimed that such behavior is abhorrent. Finding themselves in agreement, the bonds between an author and audience were strengthened and the targets of the accusation were pushed even further away. The author and his sympathizers discovered that they are "superior" since they, of course, engage only in "proper" sexual activity. In the case of early Christians, then, the claim that the true followers of Jesus practice self-control while "everyone else" remains uncontrolled can be read as part of an effort to produce and maintain a discernible Christian identity. Arguably, there were no "Christians" at all in the in the first-century, only followers of Jesus who defined themselves in various ways.49 Though later authors did identify themselves and their associates as Christian, the boundaries of the group remained much more ill-defined than these writings would suggest.50 Did each author understand the label Christian in the same way? Would each author draw the same boundaries around the group he sought to identify? Clearly the answer is no. The overwhelming impression left by reading early Christian writings is of tremendous diversity: diverse points of view regarding the significance of Jesus; diverse claims about how, precisely, Christianity ought to be related to Judaism; diverse and contradictory positions regarding the nature of flesh and matter. The category "Christian" was (and is) subjective, not fixed; sexual slander served to provide this label with the appearance of closure when, in fact, there was (and is) none.

By utilizing sexualized discourse to define the contours of their group, Christian authors adopted a common strategy. We have already noticed that Roman noblemen jockeyed for position by proclaiming their own superior virtue while decrying the vices of their rivals. By doing so, they were also engaged in a contentious project of defining "Rome" and "Ro-manness." As Rives has observed, the categories "Greek" and "Roman" ought to be viewed "more as subjects of a debate and polemic by contemporary actors than as objective qualities to be traced by modern scholars."51 The "politics of immorality"—described so nicely by Edwards— participated in the project of shaping the contours of the ideal Roman, a malleable category rather than an identifiable thing in itself. Similarly, "Greek" and "Greekness" were not fixed identities but cultural markers that were performed and enacted and, as such, subject to change.52 Moreover, "Jew" and "Judean" were not set identifiers, labels with a stable content upon which everyone agreed; like the other labels under consideration here, these terms were subjective.53 By adopting these labels, therefore, I do not mean to imply that group boundaries were clear. Rather, whenever possible, I note how particular authors claimed these various identities for themselves, demarcating insiders and outsiders by means of a sexualized discourse of "us" and "them," among other strategies. Pierre Bourdieu commented, "there is no social agent who does not aspire, as far as his circumstances permit, to have the power to name and to create the world through naming: gossip, slander, lies, insults, commendations, criticisms, arguments, and praises are all daily and petty manifestations of the solemn and collective acts of naming."54 Engaging in a "solemn act of naming," the followers of Jesus sought to define their group by representing themselves as sexually virtuous and their enemies as sexually degenerate. In the process, a "Christian" became someone who exhibits sexual self-mastery.

Christians were not the only group that grounded their claim to legitimacy, in part, on sexual restraint. According to an ancient and venerable tradition, a tradition at least as old as Plato, only good men can truly be kings.55 Though a bad man may seem to be king—he may be called king by his subjects, he may call himself king—in actual fact, this is impossible. Enslaved to his passions, he is equally enslaved to his subjects, though he and his subjects may not realize it. In other words, men deserve to rule others when they demonstrate that they are capable of ruling themselves. Dio Chysostom attributed this theory to Homer:

Homer, in the same manner as other wise and truthful men, says that no wicked or licentious or avaricious person can ever be a ruler or mas ter either of himself or of anybody else, nor will such a man ever be a king even though all the world, both Greeks and barbarians, men and women, affirm the contrary.56

With this theory in mind, Greek histories and biographies evaluated rulers and other illustrious men according to their relative virtues;57 Roman rulers were similarly evaluated by how well they did (or did not) promote and display virtue during their reign.58 Trading on this logic, Octavian, soon to be "Augustus,"59 sought to present himself as the restorer of Roman mores by instituting a moral reform through legislation, building projects, and a revival of Roman religion at the expense of "foreign" cults.60 In 27 b.c.e, the Senate recognized Augustus' exceptional political and moral achievements by praising his virtus, dementia, iustitia, and pietas and commemorating his restoration of the respublica on a golden shield.61 Among later authors, Augustus came to set the standard for the "good emperor," a man in control of his passions who rules both himself and the empire well.62 Augustus, Nero, and Trajan were all, at one time or another, said to personify virtue, at least in theory.63 The ideal emperor "embodies in himself and ensures for all mankind [sic] the divine blessings of justice, peace, concord, abundance, and prosperity, his virtue ensures the well-being of the entire empire."64 By the second century c.e. the association of the emperor with the virtues had become a cliche.65

In this context, the assertion by the followers of Jesus that they were the only group truly capable of virtue can be read as a pointed, if implicit, attack. Sexual slander is not only a tool of group self-definition, it can serve as a resistance strategy designed to undermine the legitimacy of ruler and empire alike.66 By arguing that non-Christians are depraved, ruled by the passions, and guilty of incest and adultery, Christian authors from the New Testament period onward called the authority of their rulers into question, including, perhaps, the emperor himself. How can a "just" or "virtuous" emperor possibly allow, let alone practice, immorality? Those raised on a steady diet of the theory that only a good man can truly be king could offer only one answer: he cannot. Nevertheless, by employing sexual slander to define themselves and, possibly, undermine their rulers, Christian authors often simply repeated the very same powerladen, gendered categories of sexual virtue and vice that were more commonly used to support rather than undermine the empire. For example, the emperor Augustus was praised for taming the "unclean lust" that had plagued Rome prior to his ascension to power. Thanks to Augustus, the poet Horace claimed, "mothers are proud of legitimate children; punishment follows on the heels of guilt."67 By contrast, Paul argued that faith in Jesus Christ is the sole guarantee of sexual self-control. As he put it in his letter to the Romans, though once "enslaved to sin," the followers of Jesus have become "slaves of Christ" whose bodily members serve God rather than desire.68 Still, in both cases, it is one's ruler—be he Octavian Augustus or Jesus, the anointed son of God—who makes possible the proper sexual behavior of his subjects.

The "household codes" of later Pauline literature offer a further example. The author of 1 Timothy recommended that bishops be chosen on the basis of how well they manage their households: "if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God's church?"69 Similarly, the Greek moralist Plutarch suggested that the control of women, children, and slaves offers an ideal test of the fitness of a man for leadership in the city: "A man must have harmony in his household to produce harmony in the city or in the agora or among his own friends."70 Such similarities should not be surprising. Though early Christian authors adopted sexual slander to critique those who dominated them, resistance occurs "within power," that is, within a language shared by those we might identify as "the dominated" and those we might label "the dominators."71 As Rosamond Rodman has noted, "In order for resistances to achieve their desired effect they must appropriate the cultural signs and symbols already in place."72 As we shall see, the followers of Jesus appropriated a vituperative vocabulary they shared with their neighbors in such a way that moral categories were often simply rearticulated, but to the benefit of their own persuasive projects. Christian reversion or inversion of (sexualized) moralistic discourse may have been intended to corrode the power relations that they felt marginalized them, but such a move also restated and even amplified a shared moral status quo.

For early Christians, the strategy of justifying themselves by arguing that they alone were capable of moral action and attacking their enemies as moral degenerates can be read as a resistance intended, in part, to attack the authority of the governing elite. This may have been a particularly effective strategy in a world in which privilege was already justified in terms of virtue, however vacuous such references may have seemed to those who heard them. Christians who adopted sexual slander as a weapon entered a battle already waged, to varying degrees, in terms of sexual morality. Entering the fray, Christians frequently reinscribed a view of sexual morality that they shared with their neighbors, but they turned the tables of the argument by claiming virtue for themselves alone. Having staked their own claim to legitimacy on the basis of their (supposed) moral excellence, Christian authors could then use vituperative charges of sexual misbehavior against one another in a particularly effective way. Having constituted the category "true Christian" in terms of sexual purity, accusations of sexual vice from one Christian against another would have been received as an especially sharp critique.

To conclude, the early Christian authors under consideration here operated within their particular cultural and rhetorical contexts, employing tools of rhetoric they shared with their neighbors in ways that served their own persuasive projects. This book considers the discursive production of Christian "virtue" and "vice" within a matrix of power-laden, socially formulated categories that these authors both inherited and (re)fashioned to their advantage. Averil Cameron has observed that there is no one Christian discourse, but rather "a series of overlapping discourses always in a state of adaptation and adjustment, and always ready to absorb in a highly opportunistic manner whatever might be useful from secular rhetoric and vocabulary."73 With this in mind, I have selected a set of Christian texts dating from the first through the third centuries for more careful study.74 By examining sexual slander as a discursive practice implicated in competitive struggles for power and prestige, within the context of ancient polemics and within specific Christian texts, I seek to illuminate the functions of ancient sexual slander, especially as this slander participated in and enforced what Elizabeth Clark has called an early Christian "gendered disciplinary apparatus" designed to control insiders, shame outsiders, and, as I will argue, undermine anyone and everyone who would oppose their particular point of view.75

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment