Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch recently narrated a TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity. I found the series excellent, although, in truth, it did not tell us very much that is not already known by millions of reasonably intelligent and/or widely read people. However, what is astounding is that the knowledge and understanding contained within the TV series has not already had a profoundly beneficial impact on Christian thinking about sex. Might it have a beneficial impact in the near future? I am not sure, because closed minds are resistant to accommodating what is true, particularly if the truth conflicts with what people assume are truths contained in scripture.
I am so impressed with what Diarmaid MacCulloch had to say in the first episode of the series that, below, I paraphrase the main points in his argument. If, by paraphrasing, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.
Comments in brackets are my reflections on what was originally said.
Churches in the West have never been able to agree what to say about sex, and such disagreement has turned sex into an obsession. Issues such as contraception, homosexuality, women in the priesthood and clerical child abuse have long caused immense controversy, just as today immense controversy rages within Christianity about same-sex marriage and whether women should be ordained as bishops.
The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) turned sex from biological necessity into a vice, from a pleasure into a sin.
According the the gospels, Jesus said very little about sex. He spoke in favour of monogamy and against divorce, and, when asked by a crowd of people if they should stone a woman thought to be guilty of adultery (Jesus is alleged to have said that only those who are themselves sin-free can cast a stone. The crowd broke up when it was obvious no one was sin-free), he made it clear to the woman that she should not sin again (we can therefore assume that Jesus thought adultery a sin). Perhaps of far greater importance than his pronouncements on sex is that Jesus appears to have thought that forgiveness and mercy are far more important than just about everything else (as the story just mentioned would seem to confirm).
Early Christian attitudes toward sex were shaped by Judaism, the religion from which Christianity emerged, and Greek and Roman civilisation. Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation were male-dominated and, although Jesus challenged some of the patriarchal attitudes enshrined in contemporary Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation, it was not long after his execution that Christianity became as patriarchal as the world views from which it emerged.
Jesus, himself a Jewish male, knew full well that contemporary Judaism was preoccupied with the survival of the Jewish people because of how the Jewish people were so often subjected to persecution and massacre (persecution and massacre were suffered partly because Judaism required its followers to subscribe to a monotheistic conception of the divine, when, as far as we can tell, all other Middle Eastern religions were dualistic or polytheistic). Reproduction of the Jewish people had become a sacred duty, so much so that procreation was the main object of marriage. However, sex was something that could be enjoyed, but within marriage alone. Divorce was possible, but, as a general rule, for specific reasons only. However, the reasons for divorce favoured men and disadvantaged women.
It would be a mistake to paint too glowing a picture of sexual attitudes within Judaism because the patriarchal assumptions of the time meant that husbands possessed their wives. Also, the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah suggested that women were nothing but trouble. Outcome? Women had to be controlled and confined as much as possible to the home where they had to “serve” their husbands. Moreover, the Jewish people engaged in polygamy, which, although increasingly uncommon with the passage of time, was not outlawed until the 11th century. Celibacy and adultery were unacceptable and homosexuality an abomination (more so among men than women). Put rather crudely, sex within marriage was wonderful, but sex in all other circumstances was unacceptable.
The Greek and the Roman world views affirmed sexual pleasure whether such pleasure was heterosexual or homosexual. Concubines existed, as did male and female prostitutes. Older Greek men of high social standing befriended younger males to teach the younger males how they could prosper in wider society, and such relationships invariably involved sexual encounters that were deemed normal and acceptable.
However, a very different line of Greek thought began with Plato who believed that a great gulf existed between the body and the soul. He said that reality and everything that was important to humankind related to the soul, while unreality and everything that was unimportant related to the body. The world of the flesh, which embraced the sexual impetus, was false, worthless and wicked. Plato advocated “denial of the flesh” and, in the fullness of time, this became a basic instinct in Christianity. Plato’s concern for the “pleasures of the flesh” played a key role in encouraging Christian celibacy and monasticism.
Aristotle built on Plato’s thinking by developing a distinction between what he thought were “natural and unnatural practices”. Such practices applied to the sexual domain as to all others. Aristotle believed that male semen contained a complete unborn child in embryo and a male needed a woman only to incubate the semen as it developed into the unborn child. Aristotle argued that to “spill” male semen for other than reproductive purposes (e.g. in masturbation, in sexual encounters with other males) was to engage in the “unnatural act” of murder.
With all these sometimes contradictory ideas about sex and sexuality around when Jesus was alive, it becomes clear that Jesus was relatively radical in his thinking. For example, it can be argued that his commitments to monogamy and life-long marriage were designed to enhance women’s rights at a time when they had very few rights. Moreover, Jesus posed other challenges to patriarchal attitudes in so far as he seemed to encourage women, some of whom existed on the social and sexual margins of society, to play an active role in the religious sect emerging prior to his execution. It is also worth noting that, according to the Bible, women were the first people to be aware of Jesus’ resurrection, and they are described as deacons not long after his execution.
What we can say with confidence is that, if the New Testament is to be believed, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and very little about celibacy, even though both these matters assumed disproportionate importance in Christianity after his execution. Conclusion? jesus is not representative of what was to become a sexually repressive religion.
Paul, who at one time was called Saul and engaged in the brutal persecution of Jesus’ followers, can be blamed for steering Christianity toward a more sexually repressive outlook, but only because Christians who followed him took his writings out of context and ignored some of the positive statements attributed to him.
Paul has a lot to say about sex in relation to the city of Corinth, which, at the time, would appear to have been a place where people lived in a most uninhibited manner. It was the alleged “sinfulness” of many of the Corinthians, and the fact that Paul thought the end of the world was not long away, that led him to suggest that marriage had no point to it and celibacy would ensure no one engaged in fornication. But Paul is also on record saying that marriage between a man and a woman is good and that, within marriage, a man and a woman are equals. He also praises a number of women deacons and calls a woman in Rome an apostle. However, Paul says that women should not speak in houses of worship, which would seem to negate their chance to officiate during ritual practices, and this statement has been used to this day by many Christians as the reason to deny women a leadership role in churches.
Taken collectively, Paul’s pronouncements on matters sexual are, at best, contradictory. Christians in some denominations have ignored the pronouncements that point toward gender equality to deny women the same opportunities as men. Paul denounces male and female homosexuality, but there are only two New Testament verses of about forty words that refer to same-sex relations. Forty New Testament words out of 200,000 are used by many Christians as an excuse for homophobia.
The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) ignored Paul’s more positive views on sex and emphasised celibacy and hostility to homosexuality instead.
The celibate lifestyle of monks and then nuns first appeared in the 2nd century (among hermits living in isolation in very barren parts of Egypt and Syria), but there is nothing in the New Testament about monasteries, monks or nuns. A significant part of what was to become mainstream Christianity therefore has no support in the Bible. The inspiration for monastic lifestyles derived from Syrian merchants who travelled to the east where they encountered Hindu holy men who gave up all their material possessions and Buddhists who lived simply in monastic communities. Individuals known as hermits first took to a life in which they denied themselves comfort and pleasure, sometimes in desert regions. In Egypt, Anthony played a key role in making such self-denial popular, so much so that by the beginning of the 3rd century celibacy and chastity had more prestige among Christians than marriage and sex.
It was toward the end of the 2nd century that literate Christians began to rewrite early Christian history to emphasise the value of virginity and, in the process, it was not long before Christians sought to remove any taint of sex from the story of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
In that only two of the gospels mention it, the virgin birth of Jesus cannot be regarded as a fundamental article of faith for Christians. This is even more the case in that the two gospels mentioning the virgin birth seem rather confused about whether it took place. For example, much time is spent exploring Joseph’s family tree. Why do this unless it is to confirm that he is Jesus’ father? Also, the author/authors of Matthew’s Gospel refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which sits oddly with the idea of a virgin birth.
Gospels such as that of James which did not find their way into the Bible place more emphasis on Mary’s virginity than the four gospels that are canonical, and they also say that God intervened in the conception of Mary herself! Of course, the idea that Mary was conceived without sin has become a very important Roman Catholic idea, but it is not an idea that derives from the New Testament.
What is perhaps the second most important story in the New Testament for Christians, that of Jesus’ birth (the most important story is the story of Jesus’ resurrection), does not therefore involve sex at all! And what of the “problem” posed by Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Jesus’ siblings are explained away as Joseph’s children from a marriage preceding his marriage to Mary.
The shift from the merits of marriage to the merits of celibacy were accentuated by Clement of Alexandria, for whom sex could be engaged in only for reasons of procreation, and Origen, who castrated himself so as to make it impossible to satisfy any urges he might have to engage in penetrative sexual acts. And the shift in favour of celibacy helps to explain why the early Christian churches did not elaborate a wedding ceremony. Marriage remained a civil ceremony for many centuries and the churches did not seek to interfere in the matter. It is only Christians of a much later time who felt it necessary to establish a grip on the institution of marriage. Given Christianity’s relatively late interest in marriage, one begins to wonder whether some Christians today have an interest in the institution merely to deny gays and lesbians the opportunity to partake in same-sex marriage!
Emperor Constantine’s change of heart toward Christians in 312 opened the way for Christianity to become a world religion with immense power and wealth (and in the process a religion that once suffered persecution found itself in a position to persecute others). And, as its power and wealth increased, it could promote its views on sex wherever its influence spread.
At a time when the wealth and the power of the Christian churches was rapidly increasing, Jerome tried to remain true to what he thought Christianity was all about, simplicity in faith and avoiding the temptations of the flesh. He said that sex was bad because it endangered your salvation. For this reason, virginity was best. Jerome played a key role in ensuring that, despite opposition from other Christians, celibacy and chastity were deemed superior to marriage and sex, and he had an important ally in Augustine. The idea began to emerge that all sex is intrinsically evil and sinful, even in marriage for reasons of procreation. Hence the idea that all children are born into sin and that their sinfulness must be overcome. At the same time, males elaborated the idea that women were sexually unruly temptresses as well as inferior to men (is it not always the case that those who are already vulnerable and denied opportunities enjoyed by others are scapegoated and vilified? Humankind is God’s supreme creation? Pull the other leg and quickly).
The collapse of the Roman Empire did not lead to the collapse of Christianity, even though, when the empire collapsed, Christianity was intimately associated with Roman power and prestige. Christianity endured, offering certainty in an uncertain world. Christian values gradually became the dominant values in the Western world.
In the 6th century, monks in Ireland began to turn their attention to the sexual behaviour of the laity around them. They developed many penitentials based on what they perceived to be unacceptable sexual practices. Those who indulged in such sexual practices were required to undertake penances that differed depending on the seriousness or extremity of the unacceptable act. In the fullness of time, such penitentials led to the confessional, which significantly increased Christianity’s ability to shape and control society.
The writings of some of the Irish monks are full of rules relating to sex and sexuality. The rules are so thorough that, in any given year, people could engage in sexual acts for about only a hundred days (and such acts had to be between heterosexuals who were married). Precise penalties for unacceptable sexual acts soon became the norm and such penalties were issued in the confessional.
The penitentials first elaborated in Ireland became for five hundred years the means to impose a rigid Christian sexual morality on large swathes of the Western world. As never before, an institution was invading people’s lives, and in relation to the highly personal matter of sex, which the churches thought to be sinful. Those who transgressed in relation to sexual matters should be made to feel considerable shame and guilt, and the penalties relating to such acts were often very extreme.