Magazine October 20, 2014, Issue

A New Way of Life

From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, by Kyle Harper (Harvard, 316 pp., $39.95)

The first thing to say about this scholarly book is that it is interesting. This needs to be said, for even highly interesting topics can be boringly discussed by academics, a race of people who have never seen a participial phrase that they didn’t want to leave dangling, or a pronoun whose antecedent they felt an obligation to supply. Yes, there is tendentiously boring writing about sex, but such writing is not here.

Kyle Harper is a young star of the classics faculty at the University of Oklahoma who commands wisdom and erudition well beyond his years. From Shame to Sin draws on the culture of the classical Greeks and Romans, on their philosophies and their legislators, but also, particularly, on their romances. It draws, too, on Christian sources, on Scripture and theologians and great preachers — yet also, and again particularly, on popular Christian literature.

With intellectual power and verbal clarity, Harper tells the story of the radical transformation effected by Christianity upon the sexual morality of the Greco-Roman world of the first six centuries a.d. It is a story framed by stories. At the beginning is a classical Greek romance of the second century, Leucippe and Clitophon, and at the end, the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, a Christian penance narrative of the sixth. From Shame to Sin has received justified praise in high quarters. It deserves to be widely read.

With regret for the loss of color and subtlety, I venture the following summary, which is, I hope, only a gross simplification, and not a gross over-simplification. The Roman Empire held sexual matters within societal controls that allowed for moderation and release. Same-sex relations were there — but approved only for adult men with boys in the indeterminate period between childhood and manhood, and only if the boy was not freeborn. Among adult males, to be penetrated in same-sex intercourse was cause for shame. Shame also surrounded the ideal of marriage. Girls became marriageable at the age of twelve, and were normally married in their teens. Boys, in contrast, typically married in their late twenties. Girls thus moved from virginity directly to the hallowed status of wife, to avoid shame. Males were understood to need sexual outlets both prior to marriage and within; for this purpose there were public brothels. Recourse to prostitutes was seen as normal. But to commit adultery was to bring shame upon a woman of social status, and likely severe punishment upon oneself.

It is, one will see, a complicated picture. Sexuality was over all else a social concern, regulated by law and custom to maintain property and status. And it is also a picture that entailed the existence of a social institution that Rome was very good at: slavery. As many as 10 percent of the inhabitants of the empire were slaves, Harper tells us, and perhaps double that in the cities. The prostitutes in the brothel, the boys of indeterminate status in the household, the outlets for sexual desires that were seen as natural (and dangerous to deny): Here were the slaves, the invisible persons in this world.

And then Christianity came — at first naught but a speck on the horizon, as Harper says, “a dark horse in the chaotic, competitive atmosphere of the high empire.” Harper takes us to Corinth with Paul in a.d. 51, and then to Rome, to see the Apostle laying down the “germ of a new ideology.” In what we have as the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul extols virginity, permits marriage, and finds “fornication” — a churchly word without conceptual match in the classical mind — beyond the pale. Then, in an outburst at the beginning of Romans, Paul describes same-sex intercourse as unnatural. Obliterated in these “seeds” that would become Christian orthodoxy were the classical distinctions between boy and man, slave and free. New is an understanding of the freedom of the individual, a freedom that required liberation from societal constraints and that made sexual renunciation possible. Instead of society as the framework for sexuality, Christians had the entire divinely ordained creation, and a God in heaven before whom every soul would be accountable.

They could scrap the entire sexual arrangement because these early Christians saw themselves as outside society, rescued from the world. It was Clement of Alexandria who first systematized the emerging Christian sexual orthodoxy. He spoke of sin and flesh and fornication in ways “that were simply alien to the classical intellectual tradition.” Desire was the problem in sex, and Clement would teach Christians how to stamp it out. Marriage was licit, but for the sake of children “and the completion of the universe,” and not for any ideals of companionship or pleasure in bed. Marriage was better than fornication, that catch-all Christian term for any nonmarital sex, which led to damnation; but virginity was better. And virginity was possible because, the early Christians held, everyone had a free will.

#page#Even — although it took time to realize this — slaves; even, that is to say, persons who had no freedom over what happened to their bodies. Once Christianity became the religion of the emperor and began the process of taking over society, it had to confront the lack of agency in many violated and oppressed people. What Christians came to see was that the soul has an interior freedom, however compromised by original sin, still accessible to grace — a freedom that remains despite whatever happens to the body. A raped woman was not, for the Christians, shamed, and a willing prostitute could repent of her sin and be saved. That is to say, a classical world governed by the concept of shame was replaced by a Christian world governed by the concept of sin.

The literary analogue of this insight of inner freedom was the Christian transformation of the classical romance into the story of the redeemed prostitute.

In classical romance, the endangered woman managed, through techniques of plot and wit, to avoid shame: The narrative conventions required her to come through her trials undefiled, still virginal, still marriageable. In the Christian alternative, the woman, in danger of Hell because of her sin, repents and is saved, and lives the rest of her life in penance and purity.

Mary of Egypt — in what Harper refers to as the quintessential tale of this type — left her parents at age twelve and went to Alexandria full of lust. For 17 years she sought out sexual encounters, even refusing pay for them; she was the agent of her life. One day she was standing outside the Church of the True Cross in Jerusalem, “hunting fresh prey.” But there is a force that prevents her entry. She looks up and sees an icon of the Virgin Mary. She prays: “I have heard that the God who became man did so on this account, that he might call sinners to repent. Help me, for I am alone, and I have none to help me.” The profligate Mary promises to change her life entirely if she can enter and see the relic of the true cross, and the Virgin Mary grants her prayer. The monk Zosimas finds her in the desert 47 years later, during which time “she has eaten a total of three loaves of bread.” She tells him her story. He writes it down. She has had three decades of peace. He brings her Eucharist in a year, according to her request. He comes the following year, and finds her corpse “turned to the east.” Harper tells us: “He weeps over her, soaking her feet with his tears, inverting the biblical trope.”

The Christian transformation of the pagan world was focused on sex but was about much more. “Just as Christian lawmakers, suddenly anxious about the ‘necessity of sin,’ broke with immemorial tradition and extended succor to society’s most vulnerable,” Harper writes, “Christian litterateurs created stories in which sexual dishonor is the product of sin rather than circumstance, choice rather than destiny.” They have given us a mixed inheritance, more complex than we imagine. Christianity was hardly a repressive movement that bore down upon ancient libertinism, for classical culture had its own rules and taboos, and relied upon the procurement of a steady supply of slave bodies. Yet as it brought the liberation of the free will into common narrative — what the Christian philosopher Robert Spaemann has called the discovery of the “heart” — Christianity also exterminated any idea that “eros makes us part of nature and constitutes a mysterious source of the self.”

For us who live at the end of late modernity, when the shackles of the Christian centuries have been released, Harper’s is a cautionary tale. Eros is back. In the lobby of the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle in New York City, a large bronze statue of Adam stands to greet the day’s shoppers. His conical penis stands out from the rest of his body, having been well rubbed by the hands of visitors who, grasping it, smile for their friends’ cell-phone cameras. A Roman, one thinks, would be at home in our eroticized city. Yet like the early Christians, and unlike the Romans, we abhor adult sexual relations with children and we criminalize coercion in sexual matters. Still, unlike the Christians and like the classical world, we tolerate serial marriage and divorce. And unlike both the pagans and the early Christians, we are legalizing same-sex relations without differentiating active and passive, or male-male and female-female. The reemergence of eros seems good to most of us. Sex really is interesting. But what might it be that we are not seeing?

– Mr. Austin is the author of Up with Authority and Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed.

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