virgin in paradise. After the garments of skins her married life began' (Letter 22.19.3). The close association between sex and original sin led Jerome, among others, to relegate Christian marriage to the lowest rank in a hierarchy of ascetic merit: the hundred-fold, sixty-fold and thirty-fold fruit in the parable of the Sower belonged respectively to virgins, widows and chaste married persons. This articulation of a 'states of life' hierarchy determined by degrees in sexual renunciation was yet another form of Christian discourse that served to 'naturalise' and institutionalise power relations based on sex. Not surprisingly, the Western requirement of sexual continence for clerics in higher orders (bishop, presbyter, deacon) emerged at precisely the time when the 'states of life' hierarchy was establishing itself.

This rhetoric of ascetic hierarchy, however, did not go unchallenged by Christians in the West. In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, a series of writers questioned the prevailing orthodoxy that ascribed superior value to sexual renunciation. Helvidius, Jovinian and Vigilantius argued that the elevation of celibacy over marriage degraded sex and implicitly impugned the Creator's work. Each received a stinging rebuttal from Jerome, and Jovinian was even condemned as a heretic by Pope Siricius and Ambrose of Milan in 393. Early in the fifth century, the bitter conflict between Jerome and Jovinian led many Christians to wonder whether it was possible to uphold the superiority of celibacy without actually condemning marriage. In order to answer this pressing question, Augustine of Hippo entered the debate and provided the most extensive theological discussion of marriage in the early church.

Augustine's thinking on sexuality and marriage is subtle, complex and often misunderstood. Although he supported the notion of the ascetic hierarchy, Augustine skilfully subverted it. In his treatises The good of marriage and On holy virginity, Augustine sought to mediate between Jerome and Jovinian, although he did not mention either of them by name (Retractationes 2.2). He accepted the idea that celibacy was superior to marriage. But Augustine also argued that there were virtues in the Christian life of greater importance than celibacy; obedience, humility and readiness for martyrdom are the ones that he names. As a result, Augustine concluded, a married person might actually be superior to a celibate, if the married person possessed the higher virtue. And since virtues often lie hidden until tested, no one really knows for certain whether he or she is superior (On holy virginity 46.47). Moreover, Augustine believed, God's gifts are too numerous to be limited to the thirty-fold, sixty-fold and hundred-fold fruit enumerated in the Gospel parable (ibid. 45.46). Hence, while the ascetic hierarchy remained in theory, its application in practice became extremely problematic.

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