We must begin by recognizing that Christianity was born into a world whose assumptions about sex and marriage were radically foreign to our own. Aristotle devotes a chapter of the Politics to discussing the ideal age of marriage.1 Questions of mutual compatibility or love do not enter the discussion. The issue as he frames it is that of how to maximize the couple’s childbearing potential. Since a man (as he believes) remains fertile about twenty years longer than a woman, the man should be roughly that much older at marriage. It is important, too, that both be physically healthy and mature. He concludes that ideally the woman should be eighteen and the man thirty-seven.
It is not hard to see what would become of the possibility of equal companionship given such a beginning. Even setting aside differences of education and social status—which were immense—it is unlikely that a man and woman entering marriage at those ages could view one another as equals. We may add that the man would have been (and was expected to be) sexually experienced with slave girls and prostitutes, whereas the woman would have been a virgin. The man’s sexual freedom would have continued after marriage, too, whereas the woman would have remained sequestered if the family could afford it, and in any case would have been expected to remain strictly faithful. This is not to say that there would have been no love in such a marriage. Most commonly there was, but the love was philia, the affection that comes of living and laboring together. As Plato’s dialogues attest, passionate desire or eros most commonly existed between an older man and a male youth. A man could have eros for a woman, too—as Paris notoriously did for Helen of Troy—but it was likely to come to no good.
Roman women had more freedom than those of the Greeks, but in other respects Roman practices were equally far removed from our own. The legal age of marriage for a Roman woman was twelve. As Rodney Stark has observed, there is evidence that some girls were married even younger, although the marriage did not become legitimate until she came of age.2 Regardless of the bride’s age, the marriage was consummated without regard to whether she had passed through puberty. Roman marriage practices thus were predicated upon what we would consider to be child rape.
Repugnant though such practices are, we must see them in light of the demographic realities of the age. Life expectancy was short—less than thirty at birth—and furthermore, due to the widespread exposure of female infants, there was a dearth of marriageable women.3 Stark cites a study estimating 1.3 males per female in Rome and 1.4 in the rest of the empire.4 There was thus immense pressure to produce children. Yet the long-term effect of Roman marriage practices was precisely the opposite of that intended, for men as well as women found marriage under such circumstances unappealing. As the classicist Beryl Rawson observed, “one theme that recurs in Latin literature is that wives are difficult and therefore men do not care much for marriage.”5 It could hardly be otherwise when girls were married as children and expected to accept without complaint their husbands’ extra-marital indulgences. Despite much official encouragement of marriage and children, and legal prohibition of adultery, birth rates remained low and adultery and divorce commonplace.
It was into this world that Christianity was born. Christians were sharply critical of much that they found in society around them, including abortion, infanticide, adultery, divorce, homosexuality, and prostitution, as well the general atmosphere of licentiousness and debauchery that characterized much of ancient life. They also “voted with their feet” in less vocal ways that over time had an immense effect. As Stark has shown, Christian girls tended to marry at an older age than their pagan counterparts, due no doubt to the expectation that the marriage would last a lifetime and must therefore be entered into freely.6 Christian men moved in the opposite direction, marrying younger than their pagan counterparts because they did not have the same freedom in the meanwhile of indulging in prostitutes. By the Byzantine era these trends produced an average age at marriage of around fifteen for women and twenty for men.7 This convergence in ages worked with more explicit aspects of Christian teaching, such as the ban on adultery for both sexes, to produce what were no doubt in practice more equal and companionate marriages.
What Christians did not do was to offer a full-scale program for the reform of marriage. Christianity was not a social reform movement. Abortion and the other acts mentioned were ready targets because they were sinful acts that could be freely renounced by individuals. The very institution of marriage as it then existed, despite its many noxious features, was not itself a sin but simply part of the existing furniture of the world.
By the same token, although the early Christians had much to say about right and wrong sexual practices, they did not challenge prevailing assumptions about the very purpose of sex. Pagans tended to approach this subject through a few simple categories: the purpose of sex in marriage was to bear children and (for the husband, at least) sexual release; that of sex outside of marriage was pleasure. As Demosthenes notoriously remarked, “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.”8 Plato, it is true, had explored the potency of eros as a means of spiritual growth and interpersonal communion, but he had seen these as occurring precisely through the renunciation of sex, and in any case he focused almost exclusively on the attraction of an adult man to a youth. Only in the Renaissance did Christian authors begin, with considerable hesitation, to explore how the Platonic teaching about eros could apply to the relation of a man and a woman.
We might be inclined to think that the early Christians should have sought to articulate a higher view of sex by drawing on biblical sources. After all, Christ based his teaching about divorce on the beautiful and evocative statement of Adam when God presented him with Eve: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh . . . Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:23-24). The reference to becoming one flesh places sexual union simultaneously in two lights: as a sign or token of the permanent union of marriage, and as a reunion of man with woman, who was originally taken from his side. This statement is undoubtedly important for the ontological and moral depth it gives to what might otherwise be mistaken for a merely biological act. However, that very depth means that the value thus assigned to the sexual act is decidedly two-sided. According to St. Paul, sex can also make one of one flesh with a harlot (I Cor. 6:16). The Genesis story thus does not give intrinsic value to sex. Sexuality is like so much else, a power we have that can be used for good or evil.
Lest we overlook the obvious, let me add that Christ cites the Genesis passage not to exalt sex, but to exalt marriage. Elsewhere he warns against the corrupting power of sexual desire: “whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). St. Paul, too, although he offers a profound interpretation of marriage in Ephesians 5, says little about its physical dimension. Husband and wife are not to deny one another without mutual consent, a commandment that did much to encourage greater equality in marriage (I Cor. 7:3-5). Yet this passage goes on to recommend celibacy for those who are capable of it and to present marriage primarily as a remedy for concupiscence—as St. Paul remarks drily, “it is better to marry than to burn” (I Cor. 7:9). It was partly in deference to this passage that the early Christians, too, showed little interest in exploring the positive potentialities of sex or marriage.
But this was far from the whole story. Rather than challenge ancient views of marriage directly, the ancient Church executed what may with hindsight be seen as a kind of end-run around the entire marital-procreative complex of antiquity. I would emphasize that to execute such an end-run was not primarily its purpose. The purpose was to seek Christ, to glorify him, and to live in obedience to his commandments. Nonetheless, the Church in pursuing its own ends revolutionized human society, including how marriage was understood and experienced, as well as how sex came to be viewed in its human and ethical dimension.
Much could be said on this subject, beginning with how the Christian understanding of God as one who loves mankind and underwent suffering for our sake was itself revolutionary. However, here I will concentrate on two factors that I believe are most germane to our question about how Christian sexual ethics went wrong. These factors were not themselves the cause of the problem; it was rather the failure to integrate and appropriate them fully that led, over time, to the failures that concern us. Those two factors are monasticism and the Christian devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Part 3 coming soon…
- Aristotle, Politics VII.16.
- Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 105-107.
- See Stark, Rise of Christianity, 97-98, 115-22 (dearth of women), 155 (life expectancy).
- J.C. Russell, Late Ancient and Medieval Population (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1957), cited by Stark, Rise of Christianity, 97.
- Beryl Rawson, The Family in Ancient Rome (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 11; cited in Stark, Rise of Christianity, 117.
- Stark, Rise of Christianity, 105-107.
- See Alice-Mary Talbot, “Women,” in The Byzantines, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 117-43, at 121.
- Demosthenes, Against Neaera 122; trans. A.T. Murray, Demosthenes: Orations, vol. 6 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939), 445-47.