chapter  6
Bodies and Minds Sexuality and Renunciation in Early Christianity
Pages 12

A generation before Galen arrived in the city, the Christian Justin had taught in Rome. He always made a point of wearing the somber pallium of the philosopher.3 He knew what such men wished to hear. Christianity, he asserted in his First Apology, was a religion distinguished by stringent sexual codes for the many, and proud of the sexual heroism of the few. With deceptive ease, Justin organized the random and potentially conflicting statements of Jesus on sexuality, which are scattered throughout the Gospels, into a neat, high-pitched pyramid. We begin with the challenge to the untuly heart of the unmarried man: "But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her committeth adultery with her already in his heart"; and we ascend, with the irrefutable smoothness of an a fortiori argument, to those "who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven." 4 "Nay, many, both men and women of the age of sixty or seventy years, who have been disciples of Christ from their youth, continue in immaculate purity .... It is our boast to be able to display such before the human race." 5

By the time of Justin and Galen, in the middle years of the second century, we can already notice the creation of one of the most enduring misperceptions of European history. Until this century, it was assumed that Christianity had rendered more coherent, more stringent because more internalized and truly "spiritual," codes of sexual discipline that had already been canvassed, in a less consequential manner, by the finest minds of paganism. The life of continence for men, and the life of virginity for women, were regarded as no more than the logical culmination of these codes. Nowadays, of course, the enthusiasm for such a development has evaporated. Bur the story remains the same. The Christian church is made to bear the odium of having succeeded only too well in what our ancestors once acclaimed as its eminently desirable, because providential, mission in the Roman world. Christianity "overtuned" the sexual austerity of earlier ages. 6 From the fourth century onward, the combined authority of church and state imposed on the populations of the Mediterranean world principles of sexual restraint and of sexual abstinence, whose origins lay in that dark streak of discomfort with the life of the body, based on the Greek dualism of body and mind, which had lurked like a virus in the classical world since the days of Plato.?