The Devil and the Flesh

The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity

by Peter Brown
Columbia University Press, 504 pp., $45.00

In March 1971, the newly established Center for Byzantine Studies at Birmingham University held a seminar on the subject of the role of the ascetic in the early Byzantine world. At the end came what was apparently a second draft (the first having been read at Oxford) of a paper, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” by Peter Brown. We had expected something good from the author of Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, and here it was. Those present felt they had been given in the space of three quarters of an hour a new perspective on Syria and the Roman East in the fifth century AD, and how the “unlikely figure of the lone hermit” had come to exercise so much social and religious authority. Now, after eighteen years and the appearance of two fine collections of essays, Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine (1972) and Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (1982), we have a full-length study in which holy men figure in one of the most complex yet historically most significant aspects of the early Christian world: sexual renunciation and the factors that lay behind this. How does it succeed?

Despite the suggestive title, The Body and Society is not a book about sexual life among the early Christians. It is a profound sociological and intellectual study dealing with many ideas about personal and social relations affecting men and women in the early Church. These included their attitudes toward marriage, celibacy, lifelong renunciation of family life, and the motives that drove them along these different courses. While sexuality sometimes obtrudes—though no more than in Clement of Alexandria’s third book of Stromateis (Miscellanies)—and the discussion of “night emissions” and “sexual fantasies” seems to become more frequent as the reader approaches the career of Augustine, the theme is always sensitively handled. The author leads his readers into the mental life of those whom he describes and explains them with erudition and sympathy. His work is a tour de force, showing a mastery of text and subject through six centuries of history.

Brown begins his three-part study with the second century AD, in a pagan world where Christianity was just becoming a significant force. This in itself is original, for the many, more conventional, studies of Christian asceticism almost invariably begin with the Christians themselves. But Brown wants to point up the contrasts with the pagan world on the one hand, where “the body had its rightful place in a great chain of being that linked man both to the gods and to the beasts,” and the Jewish, on the other, where replenishment of the life of the Chosen People was all-important and a man looked for a wife who “shall be as a fruitful vine.” For Jews, sexuality should be disciplined, but the Jewish model of sexual relations derived from a single-minded solidarity with the first couple, Adam and Eve. The institution of marriage among pagans and Jews was designed, Brown points out, with an eye to offsetting appallingly high mortality rates.

In the account of Palestine in the time of Jesus, Jesus himself occupies only three pages, a sign perhaps of a prudent agnosticism. “We know singularly little about Jesus’ own hopes for the coming of what he called ‘the kingdom of heaven,”’ Brown writes, “except that he identified this kingdom with the renewal of Israel and that he expected this renewal to be imminent.” Unmarried himself, Jesus insisted on monogamous marriage, like his Jewish contemporaries, seeing it as “a renewal of the individual union of Adam and Eve,” in which divorce had no place. Brown does not attempt to fit Jesus into any already existent celibate strain in Judaism (the celibates at Qumran were after all his contemporaries) and hence bases an enormous superstructure on such tenuous guidance from the founder. It is in the discussion of Paul that the reader feels the power of his descriptive writing, the short sentences, the unexpected turns of phrase and original insights that are always based on sure foundations of evidence. The Apostle’s conviction that the human person was divided between “the spirit and the flesh” led him to make assertions a more systematic thinker would have questioned. Though he did not view the human body as being the sole cause of human resistance to the will of God, he regarded it as weak, under the power of the flesh, liable to sexual temptations which he abominated and, finally, to death. While he told the Corinthians it was no sin to marry (1 Cor. 7,9), he never expressed the belief shared by pagans and Jews that the sexual instinct, though disorderly, was capable of order and benefit to mankind through a warm marriage relationship. As Brown points out, “by this essentially negative, even alarmist, strategy, Paul left a fatal legacy to future ages.”

Paul, however, did not single-handedly begin the Christian tradition of celibacy. As Brown points out, the second factor making for sexual renunciation among Christians of the second century AD was the influence of prophecy. Prophecy was a living tradition for the early Christian communities. The spirit of God was felt to be immediately present, communicated by prophets who, like Paul himself, spoke “in tongues,” and whose lives were expected to mark their closeness to God by, among other things, sexual abstinence. The conviction that the Second Coming was imminent was kept alive by prophets, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that was manifested in prophecy required abstinence, for as the former Stoic Tertullian stated around 200 AD (On Fasting, 9), the Holy Spirit could not dwell with unclean spirits. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, such prophets as Melito of Sardis—Brown quotes Eusebius’s fourth-century description of him as “a [continent] eunuch who lived altogether with the holy spirit”—gave a spiritual value to celibacy that did not exist in the Jewish or Pagan traditions. Some Christians of the second century considered themselves prophets “from their mother’s womb” and stayed unmarried; Irenaeus of Lyons believed that intimacy with the Holy Spirit and the continence it required would be the lot not only of prophets, but of all Christians at the Resurrection.

Nonetheless, sexual renunciation was not yet intended for the body of Christians as a whole: the Church was still a “collection of households.” Even for Tertullian, who exhorted the Christians of Roman Carthage in the beginning of the third century to practice long, difficult fasts and celibacy as a prescription for “clarity of the soul,” marriage was the norm for a properly Christian community. True, Tertullian also saw marriage as a school for continence in which the sexual urge was overcome with age, but even when celibacy could be achieved within a marriage, the “basic structures” of the married household—the dominance of the husband over the wife, the respect of children for their parents—were to remain unchanged.

Only those communities of Christian radicals outside the bounds of incipient orthodoxy were willing to abandon “the household-based core of the Church” with the corollary of perpetuating the household through producing offspring. The Encratites, whose name was based on Greek enkrateia, or continence, practiced sexual renunciation. The Marcionites in Syria followed Marcion’s enjoinder of celibacy on true Christians, and for the Gnostics, the strength of sexual desire was a measure of the Christian’s distance from spiritual redemption. Even though they were condemned, such little groups of continent men and women, “sons and daughters of the Covenant,” survived in the third century, principally in Syria, firm in their conviction that the Spirit rested on them, and that through baptism and continued continence they had regained the full humanity of our first ancestors.

Brown then turns to Alexandria, and here one can especially appreciate his wide learning, sensitivity, and ability to surprise. In his work one can never afford to skip a sentence or take a traditional opinion for granted.

Two of his best chapters concern Clement, a priest in Alexandria from around 180 to 202, and Origen, his successor. Clement was much influenced by the Christian Gnostics of Alexandria, followers of teachers in the second century, for whom simple faith was not sufficient for redemption. Required also was “gnosis,” true, secret knowledge about the teachings of the Christ. The Gnostic contribution to Christian sexual ethics had been to seek to abolish the polarity between male and female—for the Gnostic, sexual difference was the outward symbol of the inner division that tortured unredeemed man, and sexual desire was a symbol of this division. For Clement, while true Christians, or “Sages,” under-went the same deep transformations of the soul by Christ as those that took place in the Gnostic conversion—which Brown likens to being “born again”—they expressed their spiritual redemption not through renunciation of their human urges but in their sense that a God-given importance infused every moment of their daily life. Clement’s writings guided his followers through such activities as eating, conversing, and giving orders to slaves, but especially through their behavior within a Christian family. In marriage, he saw uncontrolled passions as destructive, and sexual desire as validated only by its role in procreation; but a “controlled marriage,” i.e., one approached in a manner befitting the Christian Stoics, could be as much of an ideal as that of the sexual renunciation that, for a sage, came later in life:

Unlike the converts of more radical groups, Clement’s Christian sages gazed more serenely at their past life, and at the society and culture in which they had lived. Their past spread out beneath them like a pleasant landscape, its once-accustomed landmarks now shrunk to miniature proportions from their high viewing-point. Though dwindled by distance, they had not been wished away…. Far from constituting an unsurmountable bar to spiritual perfection, the cares of an active life, even the act of married intercourse itself, had served to tune the strings that would, in old age, produce the well-tempered sound of a perfected sage.

But it is the genius of Origen, Clement’s successor as the principal spiritual leader in Alexandria, that for Brown dominates all accounts of the further development of ideas on sexuality and the human person in the Greek Christian world. Origen settled in Alexandria shortly after he saw his father martyred for his Christian faith by the Augustal Prefect of Egypt in 200 AD, and quickly attracted a large following to his spiritual teaching. He taught in Alexandria—often bravely tempting martyrdom when other Alexandrian clergy were fleeing persecution—until around 234, when he and his followers were “virtually exiled” to Caesarea, in Palestine. He died there twenty-two years later, probably but not certainly as the aftermath of torture inflicted on him in Caesarea during the Decian persecution in 250.

Clement had brought to Christians an awareness of the spirituality of their daily lives. Origen was not concerned with the day-to-day: he was a scholar and an exegete, who “presented the life of a Christian teacher as suspended above time and space.” His message, Brown points out, was “stark and confident.” “Be transformed,” he urged a group of bishops. “Resolve to know that in you there is a capacity to be transformed” (Dialogue with Heracleides). How? The human condition for Origen was one in which the sadness and frustration of our distance from God after the Fall was measured by the physical limitations of our bodies. It was this limitation that needed to be surpassed, and the body was the appropriate “sparring partner” God had allotted to each Christian in his own individual fight for redemption. In this struggle, each body was suited perfectly to each spirit fighting for liberation: each person’s flesh and blood was his own uniquely, adjusted by God to the needs of its soul “to challenge the potentially mighty spirit of each to stretch beyond itself.” The body was therefore not a prison but a temporary staging point along the spirit’s progress back to a former harmony with God:

It had been Origen’s life’s labor, as an exegete and guide of souls, to make the “spiritual senses” of his charges come alive again in their original intensity. By withdrawing from the dull anaesthesia of common, physical sensation, the soul of the “spiritual” person might recapture the sharp delights of another, more intensely joyful world. The believer’s spirit would stand totally exposed before the Bridegroom, stripped of all sensual joys to receive on a “naked” sensibility the exquisite touch of His darts.

As the spirit became transformed, in the stages of life after death, so would the body, and therefore for Origen the body’s sensations in the present life, notably sexual ones, were of little consequence to the spirit’s progress:

The body was poised on the edge of a transformation so enormous as to make all present notions of identity tied to sexual differences, and all social roles based upon marriage, procreation, and childbirth, seem as fragile as dust dancing in a sunbeam.

Sexuality, married intercourse even, impeded spiritual progress (Origen himself was said to have chosen to be castrated), and virginity stood for the original state in which every body had been born. The example of the holy body of the Virgin through whom God had joined himself to humanity demonstrated how human nature could become divine. Each human body could likewise be made holy by God:

Virginity was presented as a privileged link between heaven and earth. For it was only through the “holy” body of a virgin woman that God had been able to join Himself to humanity, thus enabling the human race to speak, at last, of Imanuel, “God among us.” Christ’s Incarnation, through His descent into a virgin body, marked the beginning of a historic mutation: “human and divine began to be woven together, so that by prolonged fellowship with divinity, human nature might become divine.”

Brown thus presents a vivid picture of Origen’s teaching, which can be said to contain the essence of Christian Platonism. But on Origen himself, one may feel that for once the author’s imagination has taken flight. Those closest to him, such as his patron Ambrosius, did not regard him as a man of “unhurried timeless scholarship,” one “striving to achieve icon-like tranquility.” They saw him as a relentless driver of underlings who would not let his assistants have even their meals in peace. “The work of correction [text of Hexapla] leaves us no time for supper, for exercise or rest. Even at these times we are compelled to study and to emend manuscripts.” Thus Ambrose wrote to a friend. Origen indeed was an unquiet, questing intellectual, impatient with anyone who criticized him, and ready in his fifties to journey from Caesarea to Jericho on news of the discovery of a new manuscript of the Psalms, found in a pot there. Such qualities might have been expected in the young man who had courted martyrdom in vain; but the inspiration he gave to the new movement of asceticism that was beginning to take shape some seventeen years after his death in 254, in the career of Saint Anthony, was immense. Works of Clement and Origen were to be found in the monks’ cells.

Asceticism and Society in the Eastern Empire” and “Ambrose to Augustine: The Making of the Latin Tradition” are the titles of the second and third parts of Peter Brown’s book. Here the reader moves to more familiar ground, not least that covered by Elaine Pagels in her recent excellent study, Adam, Eve and the Serpent.1 They show also how Brown sees the divide between Eastern and Western Christendom in their differing understandings of sexuality and renunciation.

Brown first discusses the outlook of the desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries in the Eastern Empire and then that of an intellectual, the antithesis of these monks, Gregory of Nyssa. Concerning both, the reader is given a fresh, imaginative interpretation of the vigorously presented evidence. Among the monks of Egypt, we are told, the problems of sexual temptation were most often seen according to “the massive antithesis of ‘desert’ and ‘world.”’ It was not a matter of “body” versus “spirit”—the body was given by God as a field to cultivate. As Origen had taught, the whole personality was involved in the monk’s long return to the original, natural, and uncorrupted state once enjoyed by Adam and Eve.

Gregory’s understanding of the importance of asceticism was similar. Adam’s sin had been to wish to control, instead of contemplating (as a good Platonist should) the perfection of God’s handwork. This had tilted Adam toward the animal world; the blurring the divine vision that resulted constituted the Fall. It had nothing to do with sexuality, for Adam as a perfect being would have filled Paradise eventually with offspring. To Gregory, the fundamental effect of the Fall did not concern sex but death. Marriage and reproduction were human efforts to blot out the sight of death. “To abandon marriage was to face down death” by delivering it further hostages to death in the form of children.

The generation of 380 to 410 saw East and West as grappling with the meaning of the Fall in different and diverging ways. In his final chapters Brown surveys the outlooks of the Westerners Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. We leave the Eastern idea of creation as “an ever poignant Platonic echo of an ever distant spatial world,” a world in which harmony with the divine and integration are the hallmarks, for one in which the theme is separation. Just as it may be said that the Western Church first thought of the separation of Church and state, so salvation in the West was understood as attainable through separation of spirit and body. For Ambrose the world was “polluted,” not least by human sexual instincts. A body unscarred by the double taint of sexual origin and sexual impulses stood as an ideal for human flesh. Hence he elevated virginity as the ideal of human conduct. The Virgin Birth and Mary’s perpetual virginity were the guarantee of the Church’s integrity. Little wonder that Ambrose and Jerome joined forces to crush the hapless ex-monk Jovinian, who claimed equality for all baptized Christians married or single.

In this religious environment man’s first parents were still regarded as the models against whom the standard of perfection could be measured, and as ideal examples of human marriage. With Augustine, however, orthodoxy moved firmly but disastrously away from these ideals. It was a move too, as Elaine Pagels has noted, from liberty toward bondage. Augustine refused to believe that Adam and Eve had fallen from an angelic into a physical state. The Fall had resulted from the misuse of free will, and this affected all humanity. Man had become antisocial “by inner corrosion.” The inner corrosion that Augustine associated with sexual desire, the cause of Adam’s sin, was mirrored in his descendants by the uncontrolled nature of sexual urges. Moreover, sexual intercourse was not what it had been to Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom, a merciful if somewhat clumsy remedy against death. For Augustine, as Brown points out, it was in itself a miniature shadow of death.

In so arguing, Augustine set a pattern of ethics and morality that it has taken a combination of scientific discovery and catastrophic events in the present century to challenge with any success. In Augustine’s time his opponents could only argue in vain. Pelagius’s disciple, Julian, Bishop of Eclanum in southern Italy, claimed that sexuality could be beneficial, the “chosen instrument of any self-respecting marriage.” It was no different from what God had implanted in Adam and Eve. Desire must be controlled, but it could never be said to be “fallen.” Like other aspects of human life, it was subject to the will. To deny this was to deny the God-given value of marriage.

Had ideas such as these ideas prevailed, it can be argued that Western Christianity in the Middle Ages would have held the same place for a Christian Stoic ethic as Eastern Christianity had for Christian Platonism. A more balanced and more tolerant world might have emerged. But it was not to be. The superb organization of the African Catholics that had secured their victory over the Donatists in 411 also secured their victory over Pelagius and his supporters. Europe, and its American off-shoot, had entered the long repressive era of their social and religious history when the themes of sexual renunciation, continence, celibacy, and virgin life carried with them their icy overtones. Brought into a warmer light by today’s historians, will they say, asks the author, anything of help or comfort for our own times?

Peter Brown has written a magisterial survey, a lasting work of scholarship. The original lectures on which it was based in the history of religions, sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies in 1982–1983, must have been an extraordinary event. Reviewers have been right to praise “the vibrant prose and glowing images” found throughout the book. The pity is that works that could have completed the story, as well as corrected minor flaws,2 are readily available.

It is disconcerting for example, that the book opens with a misconception. Statistics for the ancient world are notoriously hard to come by, but it is arguable that one can speak of “an average life expectancy of less than twenty-five years” only when one’s average includes the many who died in infancy. To look down the lists of those whose tombs have been recorded in some large North African cemeteries, e.g., near Constantine, is not unlike looking at a modern parish burial register. A fourteen-year-old youth is recorded next to a nonagenarian, a man of thirty near one supposed to have lived to 115. Grown-up daughters remember aged parents. Life expectancy varies, but there is even a tendency to longevity rather than its opposite. (See Inscriptions latines de L’Algerie, Vol. II, ed. H.G. Pflaum, 1957, under “Cirta.”) As Herodian (Book 8), writing c.240, indicates, there was no lack of population in North Africa. The fertility of Libyan women was proverbial. Even in offshore Roman Britain, one cannot imagine the eight hundred Roman villas and thousands of other lesser sites inhabited largely by adolescents, as Brown’s estimate of longevity would suggest.

This is not a vital error, but acceptance of a more accurate estimate would have required an important addition to the account of marriage and renunciation in the early Church. Brown also fails to discuss the links that bound asceticism, prophecy, and martyrdom in Old Testament and Maccabean times, which strongly influenced New Testament writers and early Christian thought. The traditions of the ascetic prophet and of men and women of the Spirit go far back into the Old Testament to the way of life of the great prophets of Israel, whom the early Christians portrayed as wandering “destitute” and “tormented,” in “sheep-skins and goatskins,” without wives and families, martyrs if necessary for their faith (Hebrews 11:32–38). This tradition had been revived by John the Baptist, and by Jesus, hailed as “prophet of Nazareth” (Matthew 21:11) Understood in this way, Jesus’ celibacy was a matter of course, never criticized even by his sternest opponents. It implied also an ideal of the gathered community, the “little flock” (“many are called, but few are chosen,” Matthew 22:14) whose leaders were also destined for martyrdom. These two concepts of the kingdom should have provided part of the foundation for the author’s study of the ascetic ideal among Christians in the first three centuries.

Renunciation of family ties to serve God was only one aspect of “angelic living.” Brown does not sufficiently emphasize that the crowning glory was martyrdrom, witness to and imitation of the life and death of the Master; and so long as martyrdom remained the supreme manifestation of the Spirit in a Christian, ascetic practices took their places as preparatory exercises. The truth of this becomes clear when after the end of the persecutions, monks regarded themselves as “martyrs in intention,” and the severities they inflicted on their bodies as part of their martyrdom. (For example, see Athanasius, Life of Antony, Chapter 47.)

In the West also, the prophet-martyr ideal did not end with Tertullian. It continued with Cyprian and among the confessors of Abitina in the Great Persecution. It emerged during the fourth century at full strength in the ideal of the gathered community of the righteous in the Donatist Church in North Africa. Here one finds clergy claiming prophetic status, administering the Sacraments “in sanctity,” associated with women in vows (sanctimoniales), and continuing the ideal of martyrdom. With the Donatists there was also linked a social purpose, analogous to that of the Eastern holy men; but unlike the latter, they regarded the state as the “world” and their enemy. Their contrasting ascetic ideals and social aims could well have been the subject of a lecture.

Some omissions are curious. The influence of the Manichees, for example, was greater than might be guessed from these pages. The followers of Mani, a Christian visionary martyred by the Persian King of Kings in 276, practiced one of the most rigorous forms of asceticism in the Christian world—for more than a century and a half (c.290–c.450) they were the anvil on which the limits of asceticism in orthodox Christianity were hammered out. In East and West alike they formed the connection with the ascetic ideals of the Gnostics of the second and third centuries, and in the West they may be numbered among the originators of monasticism as well as one of the formative influences on Augustine’s theology.

The disciples of the ascetic leader Priscillian in Aquitaine, who prayed naked in imitation of Adam and Eve, were also worth more discussion with regard to the developing cult of asceticism and sexual renunciation in the West in the 380s, represented on the orthodox side by Paulinus of Nola, his wife Therasia, and Melania the Elder. As we now know from new items of Augustine’s correspondence recently discovered by Johannes Divjak, Priscillianism remained a significant force among the Spanish episcopate as late as AD 420 and beyond (Divjak, letter 11). In addition the Arian women ascetics (sanctimoniales), active supporters of Bishop Germinius of Sirmium in Pannonia in the 370s, were worth mentioning. What was the connection between Arianism and asceticism in the Danube provinces? In the West the ascetic movement that began c.375 as the symbol of estrangement (alienatio) from the secular world was by no means confined to the representations of orthodoxy.

Perhaps the author has yet to bring into a single perspective his biography of Augustine and his seminal studies on the holy man in the East. Continence in the early Church does not stand on its own but is part of a whole complex of ideas and practices extending all the way from abstinence from some types of food to martyrdom. Perhaps too the author’s vast knowledge of literary sources might have been balanced with archaeological findings. A wider acquaintance with archaeological method and results might have led to a better understanding of the Covenanters and their monastery at Qumran, as well as the continued influence of the Montanists in western Asia Minor and the Donatists in North Africa. The rich and varied aspects of early Christianity are more likely to emerge from the soil than from the library.

No work, however, is perfect. Brown’s book is a great achievement. It will long be read, its insights studied and discussed, and its prose admired and enjoyed. Whether one has attended Brown’s lectures or reads his book, the experience will last a lifetime.

  1. 1

    Random House, 1988.

  2. 2

    Brown’s dates, for example, sometimes seem unrevised, e.g., for Origen’s departure from Alexandria (231, not 234) and Paul’s death (c.63, not c.60).