The attitudes and values we associate with Christian tradition, particularly attitudes toward sexual matters, evolved in Western culture at a specific time—during the first four centuries of the Common Era, when the Christian movement, which had begun as a defiant sect, transformed itself into the religion of the Roman Empire. These attitudes had not previously existed in the Christian form they eventually took and they represented a departure from both pagan practices and Jewish tradition. Many Christians of the first four centuries CE were proud of their superiority to non-Christians in practicing sexual restraint. They rejected polygamy and often divorce as well, which Jewish tradition allowed; and they repudiated extramarital sexual practices, including prostitution and homosexuality, that were commonly accepted among their pagan contemporaries. Christians who practiced celibacy believed, too, that their sexual restraint freed them from the burdens of marriage and family life.
When we read the work of Jewish and Christian writers from the first centuries of the Common Era, however, we find that they seldom talk directly about sexual behavior, and they seldom write treatises on marriage, divorce, or gender. Instead they often talk about Adam, Eve, and the serpent—and it is here, in the story of creation, that they tell us what they think about sexual matters. From about 200 BCE the story of creation became, for certain Jews, and later for Christians, a primary means of revealing and defending basic attitudes and values. Our spiritual ancestors argued and speculated over how God had commanded the first man and woman to “increase and multiply; fill the earth, and subdue it”; and how God instituted the first marriage; how Adam, after he found among the animals “no helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20), met Eve, with well-known and disastrous consequences. Such interpretations of the first three chapters of Genesis engaged intensely practical concerns and articulated deeply held attitudes, for example, toward procreation, animals, work, marriage, and the human striving to “have dominion” over the earth and “subdue it.”
Augustine, one of the greatest teachers of Western Christianity, also derived many of his fundamental moral and social attitudes from the story of Adam and Eve—that sexual desire is sinful; that infants are infected from the moment of conception with the disease of original sin; and that Adam’s sin corrupted all of nature. Even those who think of Genesis as literature, and those who are not Christian, live in a culture indelibly shaped by such interpretations as these.
What has been insufficiently understood, however, is that for nearly the first four hundred years of our era, Christians had regarded freedom as the primary message of Genesis 1–3—freedom in its many forms, including free will; freedom from social and sexual obligations such as marriage and business; freedom from tyrannical government and from fate; and self-mastery as the source of such freedom. Gnostic Christians sought and claimed to find freedom through deeper knowledge—gnosis—of Christ’s message. The Gnostics’ opponents, however, including the philosopher Justin, who was converted to Christianity around…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.