How did Judaism and early Church face contemporary sexual morality?

Erkki Koskenniemi
Elina Salminen

During the past decades we have witnessed many vivid debates related to Christianity and its sexual ethics. Western lifestyle seems to drift apart from traditional Christianity, which has led to continuous contradictions also among Church leaders.

From our own ethical backgrounds it is good to have a look into the past: Both the Early Church and Judaism had to confront a new world with its unfamiliar sexual ethics.

Life without the Sixth Commandment

Classical Antiquity lasted over one thousand years, and many different folks were inhabiting the Mediterranean countries. That is why we shouldn't talk about Antiquity as a united whole. However, Greek and Roman writings are quite equal when it comes to sexual ethics the Jews and Christians had to face. Like today, people were either more or less following their leaders' moral advice. Guidelines were given and there was a pattern of correct behavior, but an element was missing, the one that still affects every European's life whether s/he wants it or not. That is the sixth commandment which was unknown and consequently, sex lives were reaching far beyond marriage. Neither outside of marriage nor premarital sex including homosexuality were considered morally wrong for men. Thus, Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian sexual moralities differed significantly from each other.

The way of life for Roman boys

We are familiar with the moral codes given to young Roman men. Before their marriage they usually spent a time period called ludus that was meant for just searching for sexual experiences. The boys were encouraged to be sexually active, not to practice celibacy. Both girl- and boy slaves as well as brothels were part of young men’s sexuality education. Also later in life possible sexual relations outside marriage, whether straight or gay, were not considered improper. However, the line was clear-cut: someone else’s wife was out of the question and adultery was indefensible. To avoid adultery, the role of prostitutes and slave girls and –boys was crucial.

Moral but free

Greek world holds very similar ground on reality as Roman. Despite that some philosophers emphasized celibacy especially in Late Antiquity, free men were entitled to free love. As Demosthenes puts it in one of his speeches: “We have lovers for pleasure, housemates for daily sexual needs, and wives for receiving legal offspring.” The purpose of marriage was to get legitimate heir. That didn’t prevent men from living in straight- or gay relationships both before and during marriage. Those relations as such had nothing to do with morality or unruliness. They covered the whole sexuality spectrum from tender love to then legal pedophilia.

Our understanding of everyday life in Classical Antiquity is based on the writings of free men, as are all literal sources from those times. Biological facts constrained women’s free sexuality. The fear of getting pregnant made the life of a young woman considerably different than the life of a young man. As a consequence, a girl’s place was at home.

As shown, Greco-Roman sexual morality was mostly really different from Jewish and Christian ways of thought. In which way and scale did these two worlds conflict?

Jews formed the majority in Jerusalem but the minority in Diaspora

In the time of Jesus, the Jews confronted very different realities depending on whether they lived in Palestine or Diaspora. We need to remember that comparing the two places is not fully exclusive, since there were many foreign people living in Palestine at the time, and also in Diaspora the combination of people varied significantly depending on the area: The city of Alexandria had strong Jewish society with apparently firm social control, while a Jew in the city of Philippi might had to live without a synagogue and settle for a small prayer group by the river. (Acts 16).

The sexuality education given by Jewish leaders is revealed through very diverse sources. According to early Rabbinic Laws, both men and women should marry early. Attitudes to sex life outside of marriage (m.Sot. 9:13) or gay sex (m.Sanh. 7:4) were strictly negative. Besides the Rabbinic teachings, the basics of sexual ethics for pagans are introduced also in some other Jewish writings. The Jews might also have re-narrated the stories of The Old Testament with new emphasis to their own people. In addition, we know some interesting texts equivalent to catechism that also interfere in sexual ethics.

Only your own wife

Remarkably important overview of Jewish sexual ethics is found in the work of Josephus written against Apion, in which Josephus defends the Jews who have been denigrated by Greek authors. At the end of his work, Josephus shortly describes Jewish faith. An interesting paragraph says:

"Thus, what are our laws concerning sexual ethics? The law only accepts natural intercourse with woman practiced purely for making children. Intercourse between men is strictly prohibited and trying it will lead to death penalty... A husband has an intimate relationship only with his wife and everything else is ungodly. Practicing adultery inevitably leads to death, whether conducted by attacking a virgin engaged to someone else or seducing a married wife..." (2,199; 201).

As often is the case with counterwords, also Josephus describes Jewish society as an ideal community that is detested for no reason. However, his words undoubtedly reflect the reality he met while growing up and studying in Jerusalem.

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife

A notable technique of protecting the identity of Jewish people was re-narrating the stories of The Old Testament. Sometimes the narrators were faithful to sacred texts only very roughly; they often added completely new elements into their narrations aiming at guiding the listeners in their contemporary life situations. Also Philon, who lived in the city of Alexandria, re-narrates the episode in Potiphar’s house, making Joseph educate Mrs. Potiphar about Jewish way of life in the following words:

“We Hebrews follow our own laws and manners. The sons of other people, after they turn fourteen, are freely allowed to go to prostitutes and all kinds of women of the streets. In our society, however, a prostitute has no right to live but will be sentenced to death. We never sleep with a woman before legally valid marriage, and both men and women approach each other as virgins. We are not searching pleasure from marriage but legal offspring. Until this day I have kept myself clean and will not commit adultery as my first sin.” (De Iosepho 42-44).

By attaching Joseph’s panicky speech to the Bible story, Philon contributed to maintaining the Jewish society of his time. The city of Alexandria in Egypt was inhabited by Greeks and hence people lived according to Grecian sexual ethics. The Jewish minority was remarkably wide, but its members were in continuous danger of being affected by Grecian lifestyle. The situation was especially challenging when it came to sexual ethics, and the only way to prevent the threat was continuous teaching about the subject. Philon did this habitually by rejecting not only straight intimate relations outside of marriage but also gay relations, despite that the stance he took differed from the opinions of the great philosophers he admired, including Plato.

Jewish Catechism

From different parts of the old Jewish world, we have found summarized writings of Jewish faith and lifestyle used for teaching their own people. Some of them are written in metre in Greek and might have been offered also to non-Jews. Others instead have originally been written in Hebrew, and they might have worked as a basis in texts later on translated into other languages. These served as models for early Christian catechisms. Education on sexual ethics is often well represented in them.

One of these documents is written in the name of famous Greek writer Phocylides long after his death. It gives the reader the impression that being a Jew means living according to certain guidelines, but the document barely deals with the core questions of Jewish faith. Sexual morality instead is well represented, and the instructions concerning premarital sex are strict: a virgin must be kept behind the locks until the wedding day (215). Also gay sex is absolutely unacceptable: "Do not brake the lines of natural intercourse, because not even animal males have intimacy with each other. Woman is not allowed to take man's sexual role." (189-191)

As we can see, Jews around the world were well aware of the sexual ethics of Greco-Roman world, both in terms of straight- and gay sexuality. Only some modern theologians are for their own purposes trying to convince themselves that gay relations only meant violence and wild life to the Jews (2. Hen. 34:2 talks about friendship). The answer of Jewish minority to the lifestyle accepted by majority was continuous teaching about their own sexual ethics.

Reusing Jewish sacred texts

The way the Jews reacted to Greco-Roman reality through their own morality places the books of New Testament into the different light. We understand now more deeply the spirit of the time Paul had to confront in Corinth. By the time 1 Corinthians had been written, none of the pagan Christians living in Corinth had confessed Christianity more than a few years. Despite that some of them might have been listening to the teachings of Jewish city dwellers, Paul had every reason to write as follows:

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, ESV).

The teachings of the New Testament will be covered in detail in other articles. In this article I will set aside those parts and highlight the way Early Church continued teaching sexual ethics after the Jews.

Early Jewish catechisms were surprisingly quickly adopted in The Church, and the paths in the history of ideologies are sometimes interesting. The Epistle of Barnabas, written soon after 100 A.D. assumingly in Egypt, aggressively attacks against the Jews, but still in its moral teaching carefully follows a Jewish catechism not survived until our time. We wouldn’t know this unless the author of Didache hadn’t edited the same source into his own catechism of baptism. The quotation from Didache’s version:

“The way of death, on the other hand, is this: It is evil and accursed—murders, adulteries, lust, illicit sex, thefts, idolatries, magical arts, sorceries, robberies, false testimonies…” (5:1)

The same teaching in The Epistle of Barnabas says:

“Thou shalt not commit fornication, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not corrupt boys.” (19:4).

Old Jewish teaching about two ways is present in both of these Christian documents. From Jewish tradition also sexual ethics is being introduced through the strict rejection of gay and outside of marriage relations.

Common heritage

Struggle for the common heritage sometimes caused heated arguments between the Jews and Christians. However, the common heritage also bound them together. Christians often continued their ethical teachings with the weapons adopted from the Jews. For example, abandoning unwanted babies is directly forbidden neither in The Old Testament nor in The New Testament (unless Ephesians 6:4 refers to it), but the earliest Christian sources carefully followed the Jewish teaching about the matter.

The same is true with the main guidelines of sexual ethics. Despite that the Christians wrote their Apostolic Scriptures almost from word to word according to the Jewish sacred texts (see e.g. The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 5:3), Christians continued the work of Jews. However a few accents were different: Many Jewish sacred texts see marriage and having children as an order from God that everyone should follow. Christians instead saw also singlehood as an option from the very beginning, and as the centuries passed by, even as the most profitable choice. However, marriage was sacred and premarital and outside of marriage intimate relations were strictly forbidden among all the children of Abraham. Gay sex was not the topic of conversation among neither of Abrahamic Religions: Both Early Judaism and the Early Church strictly rejected it.

What did we learn?

The Mediterranean world had taught Jews to live as a minority around the world. It meant continuous challenges, which were anything but easy in the case of sexual ethics. To avoid adaptation to the continuously present lifestyles of other nations and losing its identity and getting lost in the crowd, the Jewish minority had to keep teaching its own sexual ethics.

The Jewish confronted the challenge and kept on teaching. Although the morality was sometimes proudly introduced to pagans, most of the teachings were meant for their own people. Although the Jews might have used reasonable justifications for their teachings, Judeo-Christian morality was mainly based on divine revelation. Rational argumentation was not operational at the time.

We don’t know about the results of Jewish teachers; there certainly were Jews like Timothy’s mother who against the law married a pagan, and in general the life as a minority surely wasn’t easy. The sacred texts however reveal that the Jews managed to maintain their societies and the message of their teachings from century to century. In other words, most of the Jews never adapted to the surrounding cultures. The same is true with the early Christians who got the methods for defending their faith from the Jews.

Belonging to a minority is not a pleasure, but sometimes it’s necessary. Early Jews and the Early Church agreed to live as a minority and fight for their own sexual ethics. Also Western Church today is at the crossroads. Unfortunately many of us have already proceeded along the strange road.