The cultures Christianity emerged from, (Jewish and Greco-Roman, c.30-100CE), were patriarchal and sexist. While women in some spheres could hold positions of power, the mainstream way of life was men had more authority and women were expected to be submissive. Christianity’s saviour, Jesus, overtly and covertly challenged these gender attitudes.
A clear example of Jesus defying culture norms is in the Gospel story Luke 7:36-50. This chapter details a “sinner” woman, usually presumed to be a prostitute, who anoints Jesus feet with oil and begs for “forgiveness”. Pharisees witnessing the event are shocked that Jesus did not shun her as was expected by a Jew.
The narrative does not explicitly state the woman is a sex worker, however, it is broadly recognised that she was. Why? Because she had her hair out. (Disciple Paul confirms values of the period by implying honourable women should cover their hair or have their heads shaved when praying or prophesying; 1 Corinthians 11:1-6).
Christ in the House of Simon, Dieric Bouts, c.1420-1475. Source: Wikipedia Commons
In Biblical times there were three types of prostitutes:
- Women who made a living by sleeping with men. The reason why some women engaged in this occupation is as varied as today’s sex workers with the exception that women in antiquity did not have access to social security payments or a vast option of employment opportunities (women rarely studied and they weren’t allowed to do “men’s jobs”, like being a tax collector, fisherwomen, soldier, politician, etc.), therefore, being a prostitute was some women’s only option if they did not have a man (father/son/uncle) to financially support them.
- Sacred or temple prostitutes. Being a temple worker had associations with performing fertility rites that may or may not have included sexual acts. Such traditions go back to old Babylonian days and were a feature of some Roman cults. While there is conjecture amongst scholars about the types of activities that took place in temples (especially of women’s roles), there is also clear evidence that in some instances, ritualised sex was performed to praise and/or appease deities that people idolised. Israelites despised these traditions and clearly stated in their law that such behaviour was forbidden (Deuteronomy 23:17).
- Any woman who had sex outside of marriage could be labelled a harlot. Under Jewish law an adulteress could be stoned to death (John 8:1-11). Men could be stoned for adultery too, however, this was considered to be a lesser crime; wives were a husband’s possession, therefore, if she voluntarily slept with another man his “goods” were damaged, but since a wife didn’t own her husband she did not have the same reprieve if her husband was unfaithful.
(Side note: in Greco-Roman societies males could also be prostitutes. Their clients were usually other men. To engage in male prostitution in a brothel, as a sex worker or client, was looked down upon but was also considered an unremarkable aspect of daily life.)
Luke 7 does not tell us what type of “sinner” the woman was, nonetheless, the Pharisees would have looked down upon her because Jewish scripture denounced harlotry in all forms.
Jews hatred of prostitution had gross misogynistic overtones, as evidenced in Judges 19 where women (daughters and virgins) are depicted as being disposable objects that can be raped and abused without men needing to feel any guilt for their actions (it can be argued that the story is not literal, nonetheless, the symbolic imagery of women being objects at men’s disposal signifies cultural values). Moreover, there is a strong message of male entitlement to women’s bodies. Personally, Judges 19 reminds of contemporary online forums run by Incels (involuntary celibates), but perhaps that’s just me.
From a realistic viewpoint, assuming the woman in Luke 7:36 was a harlot, by any definition, I can’t imagine her experiences were pleasurable, absent of abuse, or born of her freely making life choices. Rather, the manner in which she is described – rushing into the house and begging for reprieve from Jesus – suggests she was in a desperate state, in other words, traumatised. Nowadays we know a lot more about the impacts of sexual trauma, coercive control, and victim responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn compared to 2000+ years ago.
From a contemporary mindset, the Pharisees’ expressions of judgement about the woman’s sexual interactions reflects arrogance and cruelty. Jesus does not address these issues directly, instead he does so indirectly by giving the woman unconditional positive regard and appreciating her endearing qualities as she anoints his feet with oil. Jesus’ compassion confused the Jewish religious leaders.
The story of Jesus’ forgiving the prostitute is juxtaposed with a parable of two people being granted clemency of financial debts, one owes little money, the other a lot. The moral is that whomever is forgiven the larger debt will be more grateful, which is likened to whomever excessively sins will be more grateful for God’s forgiveness than one who has only sinned a little.
A standard interpretation of the passage is that it is the prostitute who had sinned the most, therefore, she will love God more than the Pharisees who had sinned little. I would like to challenge these assumptions by suggesting it was the prostitute who had sinned the least, and the Pharisees’ discrimination, prejudices, harsh judgments, and absence of compassion were the bigger sins. This proposition is supported by Matthew 21:31 “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you”.
Further, I can’t help but wonder if the seven “demons” Jesus expelled from the woman were shame, guilt, embarrassment, self-loathing, stigmatisation, humiliation, and helplessness.
From a trauma-informed lens, Jesus’ act of forgiveness actively rejected victim blaming and the stigmatising behaviours of the Pharisees. The superstitious pretence of the woman’s so-called demons being the cause of her sexual “immorality” is archaic sexism. The society she lived in was the dis-ease that needed curing (Christianity and Disease).
Overall, Early Christianity offered acceptance to females (even “prostitutes”) in a way that other competing major religions did not: Judaism expected women to be pure and faithful to their husbands/father/other male or else they could be stoned to death. The (Roman) Mithras cult was only for men, and the (Greek) Dionysus cult had orgies, as too did the Roman version, the Bacchus cult.
In a sense Christianity subtly evened the gender score cards, at least in theory it did. Celibacy was encouraged for everyone, otherwise sex was only to occur in a marriage bed.
Moving on to Sensible Sexuality
Early Christianity was not necessarily an egalitarian sect, it did, however, provide women with opportunities of autonomy other religions of the time did not. It adopted the Jewish protocols of sexual relations being sanctified in marriage with the added doctrine of forgiveness being offered to sexual acts that occurred “immorally” – the process of confession and forgiveness could be applied to voluntarily and involuntary sexual behaviour – a great advantage of this practice being the enabling of perpetrators to redeem themselves and victims heal.
While Early Christian ideals were rather prudish and narrow there is also a nobility about them. By drawing a firm line in the sand surrounding sexual etiquette they can be commended for helping to put an end to culturally accepted sodomy and stigmatisations of abuse victims.
Christians gave a level of physical autonomy and respect for personal boundaries that was not necessarily present in other spheres of life. I imagine both men and women (who came from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds) may have felt a sense of liberation that enabled them to move around their communities without adverse social expectations to sexually perform in some way.
The problem with what may have been Christianity’s good intentions is that people are complex, we are not all binary and following strict laws is not always practicable. Further, considerations about sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity as discussed in the previous post were not understood 2000 years ago in the same way as they are today.
As Christianity developed, guidelines for sexual behaviours were accompanied by fear tactics that stipulated deviance from binary protocols would result in spending an eternity in hell. To label people as sinners if they do not abide by rigid definitions of male and female, no sex or only sex in marriage, is very severe to say the least.
I view Christian attitudes towards sexual issues as being a bit like mandatory measures taken during Covid-19 epidemics. Initially, harsh rules were implemented like mask-wearing, social distancing, and lockdowns. Without a cure or vaccine, these things were necessary to curb the spread of the disease, then once science caught up they could be eased back again. The “epidemic” Early Christianity was fighting was culturally sustained sexual abuse. They didn’t have a formal #MeToo movement, nonetheless, sexual abuses did occur, potentially on a monumental scale. To fight this “disease” harsh measures had to be implemented, ergo Christian strict sexual guidelines.
Just like mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing does not completely stop the spread of viruses, mandatory celibacy and/or sex only in marriages does not stop all abuse from occurring. We still don’t have a absolute cure for sexual abuse (or Covid) but we are better equipped to deal with it than our ancestors were. We have scientific evidence of non-binary genders, DNA testing can be used help prove rape, and our culture is working towards making the issue of consent better understood by everyone.
Looking back over Church history, I get the impression Christians of all ages struggled with comprehending defining appropriate behaviours and giving consider to individual circumstances. For example, the fourteenth century Christian, Wilgefortis. Her father tried to marry her off to a non-Christian, however, she prayed to God to prevent this from occurring and, subsequently, grew a beard and was considered too repulsive to wed. She was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death by cruxifixction. While demonised by some, others likened her to Christ and prayed to her as a saint (more about Wilgefortis is written here).
Our ancestors were superstitious, really superstitious. From Wilgefortis being considered a witch or a saint, to women’s sexual behaviours being blamed on demonic possession, attitudes towards gender identity and sexual behaviours have a long history of being influenced by irrational beliefs and spiritual theories that suppose there is perfect “nature” of males and females. Moreover, failing to meet these standards is a sin.
Faith Versus Knowledge
New Testament verses that refer to sexual orientation and gender identity are virtually none existent because, quite simply, these concepts did not exist.
In summary, Christian attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender orientation are best understood in relationship to the historical and cultural roots in which they came from. Christian traditions may be applauded for striving to end traumatic sexual relations in the form of abuse towards women and the sodomising of young males, however, these strict guidelines do not adequately address nuances of human variation.
A key issue that Christian forefathers missed is consent. Common contemporary thought places consent of all parties (whether they are male, female, or other) as being paramount to sexual experiences. The ancient world didn’t think about consent like we do, rather, entitlement, expectations, and cultural norms precipitated behaviours. And without modern criminal investigation techniques, like DNA samples from rape victims, if abuses took place, perpetrators could more easily get away with their crimes. How then could Early Christians create standards in which appropriate sexual protocols were followed? … It is a circular argument that leads back to what should have the greatest authority, the logic of humans (and modern science) or God? … Dear Australians #2.5: God’s Authority …
This blog is part of a series that I hope will encourage deep, thoughtful, respectful discussions about issues relating to the Religious Discrimination bill. If you’d like to be kept up to date, subscribe to receive notifications of new posts by email.
PREVIOUS BLOGS IN THIS SERIES
Adultery. (n.d.). Jewish Virtual Library, Www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/adultery-2
Denova, R. (2019). Prostitution in the Ancient Mediterranean. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1797/prostitution-in-the-ancient-mediterranean/
Halperin, D. M. (2016). prostitution, secular, male. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Classics. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.013.7337
How to Party Like an Animal | Psychology Today Australia. (n.d.). http://Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/hide-and-seek/202001/how-party-animal \