“When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during the first century it did so as a persecuted minority known for its distinctive sexual ethic. Harper argues, in fact, that it was their views of sex more than anything else that distinguished Christians in the ancient world.”
The West is jettisoning the Christian understanding of human sexuality at an alarming speed. It is doing so, to a significant extent, without any meaningful understanding of how Christianity shaped western sexuality in the first place. Many seem to think that by freeing ourselves from the burden of Christian teaching we will finally be able to enjoy our sexuality without hindrance, as if this is what human beings were doing before prudish Christians came on the scene and ruined everything.
For this reason, Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is an illuminating read. Harper wants the West to better understand our inheritance. He wants us to appreciate what sexuality looked like in the Roman world, and how revolutionary Christianity’s impact was on western sexuality, for good and for ill. Harper is not a Christian, as far as I can tell. He writes as a historian who wants to get the story right.
He seeks to present Roman views of sexuality in all their diversity, including the perspectives of the philosophers, romantic literature, medicine, law, and the economics of slavery and the sex trade. Permeating the portrait he paints is the reality of a society in which gender and status counted for everything. Philosophers and novels wrestled with the interplay between freedom and fate, pleasure and health, but in the final analysis who a person was in the social calculus of honor and shame amounted for everything.
Romans did not wrestle with the morality of sex outside of marriage or sexual activity between persons of the same sex. Rather, they wrestled with what was honorable for a free-born man or a free-born woman. It was acceptable for a free-born man to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys (under certain conditions), so long as these things were done in moderation. But a free-born man must act as a man. It was shameful for him to play the passive role in sex.
The restrictions on a free woman, on the other hand, were much tighter. A woman’s modesty (i.e., sexual honor) was a fragile thing. “The sexual life course of free women was dominated by the imperatives of marriage. In a society that was never freed from the relentless grip of a high-mortality regime, the burden of reproduction weighed heavily on the female population” (39-40). Women were expected to marry at a very young age and to produce children for their husbands and for society. To commit adultery was to violate a respectable woman and so to sin against her husband. To do so was without excuse, because any man was free to have sex with slaves and prostitutes at will.
Underlying this double standard was the lucrative and omnipresent Roman sex trade, which itself was inseparable from the Roman system of slavery. The masses of slaves, prostitutes and other dishonorable persons had no claim to honor, and thus no entitlement to sexual morality. Slaves, especially girls and women, were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse” (26). They were utterly without social or legal protection. “The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability… Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (27). Prostitutes “stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex. Brothels ‘were visible everywhere'” (47).
When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during the first century it did so as a persecuted minority known for its distinctive sexual ethic. Harper argues, in fact, that it was their views of sex more than anything else that distinguished Christians in the ancient world. For Christians sex lay at the heart of what it meant to be a free person destined for communion with God. And Christians called all people, whatever their status or gender, to lives of sexual purity.
Harper refutes the notion that Christian teaching on sexuality was simply the product of Greco-Roman conservatism or even of Judaism. The Apostle Paul, he shows, developed a fresh sexual ethos and a new sexual vocabulary to go with it. The threat to human beings was not shame or dishonor, first and foremost. It was sin. In the Corinthian church Paul was faced with a libertinism that owed much to the Roman sense that sex outside of marriage, including sex with prostitutes, was simply a matter for moderation. In response, Paul called Christians to flee porneia just as they would flee idolatry. He turned the body – indeed, all human bodies – “into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine” (92). Porneia, for Paul, encompassed all sex except that between a man and a woman in marriage, and it bound men and women, free and slaves, with equal rigor.
Paul closely associated sexual immorality with idolatry. “[S]exual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous.” Same-sex practice was a “particularly egregious violation of the natural order” (94). Harper observes that “any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered” (95). Paul’s originality, he maintains, lies in the fact that he did not reject homosexual behavior because of a logic of status, age, hierarchy, exploitation, penetration, or active and passive roles, but for the simple reason that it is not between a male and a female as intended from creation. For Paul, it is a simple question of gender difference. Natural sex, for Christians, following Paul, “came to mean, exclusively, the one configuration of body parts that has generative potential” (145).