From Judaism, the enthusiasts of Christ derived
the notion that the body was a source of shame and that women
were an inferior breed. They agreed with the rabbis that the
role of the priest was to license permissible sex and police
the most intimate of human behaviour.
But the early Christians
were also influenced by Hellenic ideas that the passions were
inherently suspect, that sex was harmful to the soul, and that
abstinence was the path of spiritual purity. The
circumspection, disdain and outright condemnation of human
sexuality in the dogmas of the church gave rise, for two millennia,
not only to the most monumental hypocrisy but to all manner
of sexual-emotional disorders.
on Sex: "No comment"
Jesus favours marriage (Matthew
5.27,28) but does not marry.
He even appears to favour
castration (Matthew 19.12) though is not himself castrated.
In heaven, JC assures his listeners, there will be
no marriage (Mark 12.25) but then, that's not the here
As to issues of chastity, masturbation,
nudity, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, abortion, polygamy*,
etc., the sexless superhero has nothing to say at all.
of course leaves a great deal of scope for deciding
yourself what Jesus "really meant."
Did Jesus favour
Why doesn't Jesus like sex?
"Every man is tempted,
when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.
Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin:
and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death."
The sexual mores of Christianity
did not derive from any "Jesus", whose attributed words
manage to avoid the subject almost entirely. Christianity's prejudices
against the carnal emerged as the unhealthy amalgam of frustrated
Jewish messianics, the traditions of Stoicism among Roman intellectuals,
and plagiarised Hellenistic gnosticism. From each, orthodox Christianity
derived a dysfunctional attitude to human sexuality.
Judaism was misogynistic, prescriptive
and racist. It encumbered sexual behaviour with ritual
and "Law". But in Judaism the misogyny which marginalised
women was overshadowed by man's relationship with the Almighty. Clearly,
under the Law, "God" approved
of both gender differences and sexual intercourse.
"In the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them."
– Genesis 1,27.
Why else, but for sex, would
the cosmic "designer" have
created human genitals so artfully suited for that purpose? The
Jews certainly saw things that way ("It
was not good for the man to be alone" – Genesis
Yet Judaism distrusted and disparaged women, even
as it used them to increase the stock of Jews. It was but a small
step for fanatical radicals within Judaism to adopt celibacy as
a surety of the righteous "purity" so precious to their
heart. One such group were the Essenes, many (though by
no means all) of whom lived in male-only communities.
For them, women stirred up lust, jealousy and pitted men against
"Jewish folk wisdom, like that of the
pagans, stressed the seductive wiles of women, and the disruptive
effect of the claims that women made upon men as bearers of
their children and the sharers of their bed."
Body and Society, p39.
The first Jewish-Christians, inheritors of the Essene
tradition, would go further, castigating the carnal life and "earthly" enjoyments
as an encumbrance upon the spirit and a distraction from God.
"Love of pleasure ... leadeth the young as a blind
man to a pit and a beast to a precipice."
of the Twelve Patriarchs.
"The hundred and forty
and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These
are they which were not defiled with
women; for they are virgins."
– Revelation 14.3,4
The Jews had cut off foreskins
as a sign of their bond with God. Now the Christians would go
further and deny their sexuality entirely.
The curse of women – the female "temptress"
"A large part of the history
of celibacy is the story of the degradation of women
and – an invariable consequence – frequent abortions and infanticide."
– Peter De Rosa, Vicars
of Christ, p404.
Sexual pleasure – the
first and bitterest fruit of "original sin".
In the mind-set of the godly, it was sex which perpetuated "diabolic
powers". Evil had entered the world through carnality and
responsibility for the "fall of man" fell primarily upon
the female sex. The misogynistic scribes of Catholicism
made clear, in Eden it had been Eve,
not Adam, who had first succumbed to the blandishment of Satan:
" And Adam was not deceived, but the
woman being deceived was in the transgression."
Eve's sin – strictly speaking, disobedience – it
seems, had been passed on to all future generations by the very
act of sex itself. God had punished the mother of humanity with
the pains of childbirth. In any event, woman was God's afterthought,
merely "an help meet" for Adam, made from his rib and
to be ruled by her husband (Genesis 3.16).
St Paul, or whoever wrote the epistles in his name,
confessed to the torments of "concupiscence":
"For I know that in me , that is, in
my flesh, dwells no good thing ... I see another law
in my members, warring against the law of my mind,
and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in
my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver
me from the body of this death?"
– Romans 7.18,24.
Like Eve with Adam, women were responsible for temptation
and the moral corruption of men. Sex turned men aside
from the pursuit of "spirituality" and God. It was imperative,
therefore, that women, the weaker vessel, easily given over to
lasciviousness, be kept in their place – and kept away from
men of piety.
"This know also, that
in the last days ... men shall ... creep into houses, and lead
captive silly women laden with sins, led away with
The Gnostic Challenge – The
"Dearly beloved, I
beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly
lusts, which war against the soul."
Greek culture embraced and rejoiced in physicality
but certain Hellenistic philosophies disdained "the passions" which
distracted from intellectual pursuits, an attitude of mind which
found a home in Roman Stoicism. Rome's educated elite found Stoicism
admirably suited to the demands of empire: a self-disciplined
sense of duty, detachment from "womanly" emotionalism,
fortitude in adversity.
But by the Augustan age the Romano-Hellenic
world had drawn into itself the diverse traditions of Egypt,
Persia and India, and this polyglot culture included Zoroastrianism,
of a cosmic struggle of "good and evil". The earliest
Hellenised Christians sought to combine Jewish fables with
a universal dualism, and had particular difficulty with the blood-thirsty
god of Jewish scripture. This violent, judgemental being had to
be a lesser
god – the
Greek 'demiurgos', 'creator'). Though acknowledged to be the maker
of the world and of the flawed human body, this god had to be subordinate
to a higher, loving god of pure spirit.
And this supreme god was female.
"To shape and manage her creation, Wisdom brought
forth the demiurge, the creature God of Israel, as her agent."
Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels,
theology was far from homogenous (indeed, its leitmotif was
the continuing elaboration of ever-more exotic revelation) its
essential belief was that "matter" was base and
the pollutant in which "spirit" had been cast, trapped
or lured. Flesh was perverse and corrupt. The body would surely
decay and putrefy, but salvation was through gnosis or
knowledge of divine truths, which would allow the spirit to return
to a heavenly realm of pure light.
Such speculations inevitably meant that gnosticism
could not subscribe to the notion that God, the sublime spirit,
would ever incarnate (or in some shades of opinion, reincarnate)
as "flesh" or
take human form. Nor could God suffer any kind of death. In the
gnostic belief system (and in "gnostic Paul", Galatians
3.28), when the spirit ascends to union with the Lord, “neither
male nor female” will exist. There will be no sex
In this, the material world, marriage and procreation
were the work of dark powers and principalities, "base matter" begetting
more "base matter". The 2nd century followers of
the gnostic Marcion, who wrote pseudonymously
in the name of "Paul",
made clear that, if possible, the godly should practice self-restraint:
"It is good for a
man NOT to touch a woman ... I say therefore to the unmarried
and widows. It is good for them if they abide even as I."
"St Paul's" instruction was
to "mortify sinful flesh", that is deny the
sexual appetites. Such detachment from carnality allowed the
gnostics to accept an equality of the sexes quite radical for
the ancient world.
Ironically, while gnosticism would be driven from
the world stage by its Catholic enemies, it was gnosticism's negative
view of the body which would underpin many of Catholicism's worst
traits: a bleak asceticism, starvation
fasting, flagellation, and the whole paraphernalia of
mortification of the flesh. The early Church Fathers, including
of Paul's epistles, glorified the asceticism that had been a
discipline of the gnostics.
Martyrdom, the ultimate mortification of the body, became the
epitome of spirituality, a fast-track to salvation.
Virgin purity: closer to God
"You should abstain from fornication
... Every one of you should know how to possess his
vessel in sanctification and honour. Not in
the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which
know not God ... For God hath not called us unto uncleanness,
but unto holiness."
– 1 Thessalonians 4.3,7.
Throughout the 2nd century the orthodox fans
of Christ were embellishing the skimpy story of their godman
with a "history" set a hundred years earlier. Yet the
very notion of a "man of divine status" was offensive
to the Jews, who responded with a darkly humourous slur that
the Christian holy man, in fact, had been a scurrilous character
of dubious parentage, the offspring of an whorish hairdresser
and a Roman trooper (Contra
Celsum 1.28). The insult could hardly be bettered. Female
virginity and racial purity were matters of great honour and
mercantile importance among
the Jews. Males, of course, were at liberty to be rampant
To meet the insult and underpin their hero's
claim to divinity, the early Christians copied a motif common
enough among the pagans. They gave JC a "virgin
birth" (Matthew 1.18; Luke 1.27), a miraculous nativity
which "proved" his godliness and gave him a pedigree
equal to that of any pagan deity. The new god thus entered the
world without the mess and inconvenience of sex. In the process,
the sacred feminine, formerly the active element in procreation,
was reduced to that of a passive receptacle,
a "mother of god" rather than a goddess in her own
right, done to rather than doing.
In time, as the sacred feminine was relentlessly
subsumed into Catholicism, the virginity of the godman's mother
would be extended through the birthing process (virginitas
in partu) and on through the rest of her life (virginitas
post partum). This created a theological conundrum because
the sacred history had already given the godman four brothers
and two sisters (Mark 6.3; Matthew 13.55,56)! But extra-biblical
fabrication (‘Protevangelium of James’)
would come to the rescue, making JC's siblings into step-brothers
and step-sisters. Later, Jerome would downgrade the
inconvenient siblings further, into mere "cousins".
At the same time Catholicism acquired a transcendent, sexless
and meek "queen of heaven", forever at the
hierarchy's beck and call.
Lethal brew – Catholic Orthodoxy
"Resisting the gnostic
view that Jesus was a spiritual being, the orthodox insisted
that he, like the rest of humanity, was born, lived in a family,
became hungry and tired, ate and drank wine, suffered and died.
They even went so far as to insist that he rose bodily from
– Elaine Pagels, The
Gnostic Gospels, p113.
Catholic orthodoxy – and its "historical" Jesus – emerged
from and was a reaction against a number of rival christianities
and saviour cults. The story of a cult founder called Jesus,
who trod the earth and was crucified under Pilate, was a late
appendage to a gnostic drama of a celestial Christ, existing
in time eternal. This allegorical device, useful in popularising
an otherwise esoteric philosophy, was debased into a "literal
the pragmatists and politicians of orthodoxy.
Organised into cells and a command structure of bishops,
priests and deacons, the Catholics outwitted and outmanoeuvred
the heterogeneous and democratic communities of the gnostics. The
gnostic leaders had charisma and intellect but their
doctrines were complex and esoteric. Catholicism's "theology"
was simple, reducible to a few chantable creeds, and its
ceremonies were public pageants, open to all who
had merely to "accept Christ" and "believe".
The gnostics were contemptuous of such easy and meaningless
salvation. For them, neophytes had to train for months, even years,
before entering the "inner mysteries"; they had to live
as Christians and not merely profess the faith. In contrast, the
Catholics adopted and adapted whatever was popular in the practices
and traditions of the pagans in order to draw an indifferent population
into the church. They forgave "sins" readily, including
murder and sexual indiscretions. As disputes in north Africa were
to show, even sacraments performed by heretics were deemed acceptable,
if the correct formula had been followed. The "open door" of
Catholicism prevailed against the "elect circle" of gnosticism.
Sex the enemy of holiness
" An ascetic movement grew up in the
church in opposition to heresies with an anti-sex bias. Orthodoxy
itself started disparaging marriage. Purity became identified
with sexual abstinence; chastity replaced charity as the central
virtue of the Gospel. Religion, as a consequence, became sombre
– De Rosa, Vicars
of Christ, p399.
birth from a virgin a "glory", dogmatised as a central
myth of the new faith, normal conception and childbearing,
in contrast, were polluted and beast-like.
The Jewish notion that birthing rendered a woman "unclean"
passed into Christianity, confining the new mother to a month
of seclusion which ended only with a ritual of purification
The gnostics and Stoics had already declared "the
passions" suspect. The apologist
Justin, in the mid-years of the 2nd century, could boast that
there were already old men "in Christ" who had maintained
an "immaculate purity" their entire life (Apology I.2).
Antipathy to the sex act became a cornerstone of the new religion.
Church father Tertullian (160-220) feared that a man's soul was
lost in the moment of ejaculation:
"In that last breaking wave of
delight, do we not feel something of our
very soul go out from us?"
– Tertullian, de anima, 27.5.
In nascent Catholicism, virginity became the
badge of a dubious "purity" and
was accorded an
unmerited and unworldly respect as being "closer to God". The
virginal were somehow superior to the
Part of the tragedy was that at a time when
the empire of Rome desperately needed manpower, the Church fathers
were encouraging chastity and continence, of men as well as women,
as a path to "spirituality".
A life devoted to God – that is, of service
to the Church – demanded nothing
less. The individual's glorious self-denial anticipated the
coming kingdom of the Lord, a time of untainted spiritual
purity. In the vain hope for the
kingdom of virginity they sacrified civilization itself.
A shadow over marriage
Another Church father, Clement of Alexandria (?153-215),
drew up a code of rules for the brethren, how they were to walk,
sit, speak, etc. Whilst he accepted the necessity of marriage – had
not most disciples been married, after all? – Clement
insisted that Christian decorum must prevail in the bedroom as
well as in the public meeting place. A lustful romp was "vulgar
"The silken threads of Christian deportment,
woven so carefully around the person in the daylight hours,
must not be torn apart at night."
His successor Origen (182-251), a self-castrating
fanatic, went further, maintaining that the soul became "polluted" in
the act of sex. Origen deprecated marriage itself. God's conduit
for joining with humanity had been a virgin body. It followed,
therefore, that through virginity the body should be made "holy":
"The body ... was made that it should
be a temple to the Lord ... the soul, as it were, a priest
serving before the Holy Spirit. In this manner, Adam had a
body in Paradise, but in Paradise he did not 'know' Eve."
– Origen, fragment
on I Corinthians.
sexual abstinence by women was not necessarily a
reluctant decision. Pregnancy and childbirth were fraught with
dangers and often caused the death of a young mother. Retaining
one's virginity might mean staying alive. Male abstinence,
on the other hand, might be embraced as a struggle
with Satan, a torment to be exacerbated by self-flagellation
and hair shirts, the chaste penitent identifying with
the very suffering of Christ himself.
many early Christians willingly adhered to a rigid asceticism
which denied the value of other physical or "earthly" pleasures:
adequate food and drink, comfortable shelter and
clothing, the pleasures of a social existence. Attendance
of the theatre and the circus were particularly abhorred.
"It was the first but arduous duty of
a Christian to preserve himself pure and undefiled by the practice
of idolatry ... The innumerable deities and rites of polytheism
were closely interwoven with every circumstance of business
or pleasure ...
The Christian, who with pious horror avoided
the abomination of the circus or the theatre, found himself
encompassed with snares in every convivial entertainment, as
often as his friends, invoking the hospitable deities, poured
out libations to each other's happiness."
– Edward Gibbon, Decline
and Fall, 15.
But of all the worldly temptations
it was sinful sex which most engaged the Christian mind.
The new religion, like an early-day Taliban, opposed life
India, an Alternative View
Sex as the highest expression of the divine!
Shiva proudly sports an erection
(7th century. British Museum)
call me Babe. Large breasted Durga – fierce
consort of Shiva. Her eight arms represent the energy of
all the gods.
Cullen Murphy, The Word According to Eve (Allen Lane, 1998)
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006)
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (1927)
Sam Harris, The End of Faith (Free Press, 2005)
Paul Tabori, A Pictorial History of Love (Spring, 1968)
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (Phoenix, 1980)
Uta Ranke-Henemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (Penguin, 1993)
Peter Brown, The Body and Society (Colombia, 1990)
James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (Harper,2006)
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Copyright © 2007
by Kenneth Humphreys.
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