Book Review: The Body and Society (Brown)

The Body and SocietyIn the updated 20th anniversary edition of his classic work, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Peter Brown examines the “practice of permanent sexual renunciation—continence, celibacy, life-long virginity” that developed in Christian circles from the first through fifth centuries.[1] In this work, Brown examines a vast array of perspectives within the early Christian context, purposing to clarify notions of the human body and society within Christian renunciation and to examine the effects of those ideas among Christian writers.[2] This review will summarize Brown’s work and offer an assessment of the strength of his claim that there was no mainstream perspective on sexuality and the body in early Christianity.[3]

Brown begins with an updated introductory section, in which he makes clear his purposes in writing, both to clarify notions of human persons and sexual renunciation among early Christian writers, and to ask why the authors of extant Christian texts expressed themselves the way that they did within the context of varying perspectives within the Church.[4] He notes the historical and social distance that must be taken into account when considering ancient attitudes toward the body, society, and material world,[5] asking readers to recall that early Christians produced a variety of perspectives within the market of Greco-Roman ideas.[6] Brown’s formative query seeks to understand why early Christians wrote so much about sex, especially in light of his supposition that the variety of perspectives on sexuality and body were by-products of the variety of expectations in the Greco-Roman contexts in which each respective writer worked. Brown emphasizes the centrality of discerning the complex relationship of body and soul within the ancient world,[7] especially as perspectives on body and soul impacted what he argues was the main concern for early Christian writers—the problem of death.[8] Brown keenly notes that despite some similarities between “micro-Christendoms” on issues such as the relationship of body and soul and the problem of death, no clear mainstream of Christian thought on issues of sexuality manifested itself against more radical conceptions.[9]

Peter Brown
Peter Brown

In the first section of The Body and Society, Brown traces perspectives from the era of St. Paul to St. Anthony. Within the pre-Christian context, he notes the widespread norm of utilizing young men and women as agents of reproduction[10] and the importance of the nuclear family and continuity of society,[11] though these social ideals were tempered concerns for control over sexual desire. This control appears to have been but one facet of the widespread desire to create an “unaffected symbiosis of body and soul” that would have been tolerant toward use of the body within the confines of the family and city units.[12] The Jesus Movement having arrived on the Greco-Roman scene, Brown argues that Jesus’ continence was initially viewed as but a portion of his prophetic program, not as the solitary distinctive factor.[13] For Brown, Paul’s central message was not one of sexual renunciation, though he declared the body a “temple of the Holy Spirit” and applied Jewish sexual ethics to those Gentiles in Christian family.[14] By the beginning of the second century however, the church began to define the human condition in terms of its sexuality and view continence as an announcement of a new creation.[15] As persecution and martyrdom increased, the importance of distinguishing gifts signifying those close to God increased, sexual abstinence being one such indicator.[16] Fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian demonstrated a shift in thinking that moved the body towards transformation, as they saw human bodies as undergoing preparation to be filled indwelt by the Spirit of God.[17] With the rise of Marcionite and Encratite churches, more Christian thinkers began to conceive of sexual desire as the first cause of death.[18] A more radical conception of sexuality began to emerge, especially among the Encratites, which viewed sexuality not as something to be used in a disciplined fashion, but instead to be entirely renounced.[19] Valentinian and Gnostic perspectives provided similar variations, though these tended to emphasize the importance of spiritual removal of divisions in sexuality and new spiritual birth instead of focusing on physical sexual concerns.[20]

Clement of Alexandria’s perspective on sexuality stemmed from his understanding the entire Christian life as one of service to God and relation to Christ.[21] Clement argued that married intercourse was to be approached in a Stoic manner and be undertaken in service of God, and defended Christian marriage and the endurance of the Christian household.[22] Up until this time, Brown writes that the Church drew on its reservoir of post-marital celibates for leadership and not from those committed to continence from adolescence.[23] By the end of the second century the perspectives of Fathers such as Tertullian and Clement, that the human being existed as a normal constituent of society whose sexual activity needed to be disciplined within the confines of the household, were being challenged by new schools of thought, such as that of Origen.[24] Drawing on the Platonic realm of ideals, Origen understood human sexuality as more of a passing stage in a process of transformation that would culminate in untarnished souls.[25] Sexual relations, even within marriage, Origen found to be lacking, as he understood virginity to be the privileged link between heaven and earth.[26] Methodius similarly argued that the virgin body would be lifted up from the commonality of the earth and glorified. Brown notes that from Origen and Methodius onward, the continence of the few was understood to provide the entire world with holy mediators.[27] Cyprian, too, emphasized the preservation of the body’s sexual integrity for Christ as of the utmost importance.[28] In an interesting parallel to Origen, the Manichees argued that sexual urges could be totally transcended.[29]

Gregory of Nyssa
Gregory of Nyssa

Part two of The Body and Society covers the development of asceticism and society in the Eastern Roman Empire. Brown writes that, while accounts of notable Desert Fathers such as the Life of Anthony dwell little on specifically sexual sins the typical desert monk likely saw sexual temptations in terms of the antithesis of the world and the desert.[30] For many early Christians however, life in the desert revealed the interdependence of body and soul.[31] By the fourth and fifth centuries, a hierarchy of sexual codes had developed and hardened among Christians, with specific roles for virgins, men, and women.[32] As female asceticism grew in the East, it was praised by Basil the Great, not as an abstracted category, but for virgin’s constant and precise vigilance and mediating position.[33] Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa argued that male and female division and procreation were humanity’s attempts to stop death by producing offspring, and understood sexuality as a sign of God’s care for humanity.[34] In John Chrysostom, Brown finds a complex case, arguing that John’s attacks on marriage and sexuality stemmed from his discourse against his understanding of marriage and sexuality within the city.[35] Within the context of Syrian Christianity, virgins were understood to be “angelic persons” whose bodily holiness was believed to be able to raise humanity above the perils of the human condition.[36] This emphasis, stemming from the Encratite movement, produced a strong juxtaposition of marriage and the “angelic” holiness of virgins. Brown notes that in this context, virgins who were delivered from the typical marks of human bondage to sexuality represented for those churches a sign that the power of God was active among humanity.[37]

In the third portion of The Body and Sexuality, Brown examines the perspectives of Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine in the formation of the Latin Tradition. Ambrose stressed the superiority of the mind, which in effect emphasized the importance of the will, leading Brown to argue that he conceived of the mind as a “veil.”[38] Ambrose also conceived of humans as bearing the scar of sexuality, especially in relation to Christ.[39] For Ambrose, scarred human bodies could only be redeemed by a body whose birth had been exempt from sexual desire.[40] In this conception, the virgin state was the highest form of Christian virtue.[41] For Jerome, the human body could only be controlled by rigid diet and avoidance of temptation.[42] Solidifying Latin theologian’s rejection of Origen, Jerome turned to a rigidly defined understanding of the differences between men and women, and validated those differences and their attendant behavioral expectations.[43] For all of Augustine’s theologizing about Adam and Eve, he settled on understanding them as sexual beings created for the joys of society together.[44] The great African theologian held sexual intimacy secondary in value to friendship, with both reflecting attempts to overcome death, humanity’s most bitter enemy.[45] Whereas opponents such as Julian viewed sex through the lens of human freedom, Augustine saw sexual desire as no more tainted than any other form of human activity.[46] In contrast to John Cassian, who conceived of sexual temptations as pointing toward deeper problems of the soul, Augustine conceived as human sexuality as the central problem of the human body, which must be disciplined because of man’s fallen state.[47] By the mid-fifth century, the Great Church stood out institutionally in Roman society as privileging the continent.[48] Brown argues that Latin Christianity from Ambrose on moved toward accepting existing familial and social structures and placing blame on the perversity of the will, though he notes that sexual renunciation in Christianity had never been limited to maximizing control of the body, but had instead been interested in mapping out human freedom.[49]

Early Christian MonasticismAs the above summary of this prodigious work should divulge, Brown demonstrates the variety of perspectives among Christian writers on sexuality and the body with staggering detail and depth. This being a major part of Brown’s project, this work stands apart as an excellent resource for examining early Christian perspectives on the body and sexuality. Brown’s critical attention to the context of each respective position, as well as his attempts to place each writing in its discursive contexts demonstrate a critical awareness and methodology that only strengthen his case. In examining early Christian writers, he argues against a mainstream perspective, but does not fail to note themes of continuity between different writers. For example, Brown notes overarching concerns with death in several places,[50] most notably with the Encratites,[51] Gnostics,[52] and Augustine.[53] It may have beneficial for Brown to examine the relationship of death and the human body in greater detail, though such exclusion does not detract from his overall thesis. Overall, Brown’s argument concerning the variety of early Christian perspectives on sexuality does indicate the lack of a clear center in the church concerning sexuality and the body.

The impact of Brown’s claim concerning the diversity and center-less nature of early Christian conceptions of the body and sexuality touches on a number of concerns. First, any notion of a monochromatic view in early Christian communities concerning the body and sexuality should be quickly dispelled. While Brown notes the relative continuity of Eastern and Western Christianities in the second and third portions of The Body and Sexuality, he has been careful to note the regional flavor and influences of even writers whose perspectives may appear to be similar. Second, Brown’s work demonstrates the importance of recognizing that Christian writers were engaged with a number of other theological and social concerns when thinking and writing about sexuality. The chapter on John Chrysostom especially demonstrated Brown’s willingness to engage with the wider socio-historical context of Chrysostom’s life and work while engaging his sermons and writing on sexuality. Future projects that seek to deal with a specific range of topics such as body and sexuality should be informed by Brown’s approach and seek to contextualize each writer as he has done.

Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome

Third, Brown’s work helpfully traces the development of Christian thinking on sexuality, especially within certain regions and schools of thought. Examining the perspectives of Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine in relation to each other demonstrated the continuities and differences of each Latin Father well. Likewise, Brown’s use of conceptions of sexuality that transcended a specific writer or perspective, such as Origen or the Encratites, was also informative. Fourth, this work provides numerous insights into thinking about the diversity and organization of the early church. Not only does Brown demonstrate the plethora of variety of conception, argument, and practical advice concerning the body and sexuality among the Fathers of the Church, but he does so in a manner that highlights the dialogue between the perspectives. When seen as ideas competing against each other in the market of Greco-Roman society and perspectives, the Church Father’s views on sexuality and the body take on an active and human light. Brown notes toward the end of his work that part of his project involved attempting to re-humanize the often cold sounding perspectives of the early church on sexuality. By placing each writer within the context of diversity and conversation, Brown’s presentation highlighted well the perspectives of the respective positions.

By way of reflection, several areas of disquiet stood out when reading The Body and Society. First, while Brown notes his late inclusion in the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, his overall treatment of her place among the respective perspectives was surprisingly bare. Likewise, reflections on the continence of Jesus, though found in certain places, were often nowhere to be found. As Brown himself noted in his first chapter, arguments from silence concerning the role and place of Jesus in thinking about sexuality and body were notable in the early years of the Jesus Movement—how much more so during periods of theological development? Along these lines, though Brown touches on the Apostle Paul early on, there was a surprising lack of reference to post-Pauline conceptions of the body and sexuality. Brown’s relative disinterestedness with the Virgin Mary, reflections on Jesus, and developments with Paul may reflect his desire to focus this work on specifically post-New Testament sources. The general lack of even later discussions about Mary, Jesus, and Paul, even within commentaries of the Fathers, seems to be reflective of Brown’s general socio-historical approach. Approaching The Body and Society from a different perspective, while Brown’s writing style comes across as engaging and informed, his overall organization of the materials that he presents was often difficult to follow. Brown presents a deluge of detailed information, but his general lack of synopsis, sign-posting, and summarizing comments made reflections on his work more strenuous than necessary.

Overall, The Body and Society should be commended to all those interested in examining the practice of renunciation in early Christian communities. In seeking to contextualize and humanize the perspectives of early Christian writers, this work provides a surplus of information pertaining to the variety of attitudes towards the body and sexuality in early Christian thought, as well as clarifying the complexity of ideas and their effects in the early Christian context. Impactful in a variety of contexts, though not entirely flawless, Brown aptly demonstrates that amidst the variety and dialogue of perspectives on sexuality and the body there was no mainstream perspective on sexuality within early Christianity.

Peter Brown. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Twentieth Anniversary Edition. Columbia University Press: New York, 2008. Print.


[1] Brown, viii. [2] Ibid., viii. [3] Ibid., xxxvii. [4] Ibid., viii, xxv. [5] Ibid., xxiv. [6] Ibid., xxxviii-xxxix. [7] Ibid., xliv. [8] Ibid., xlvi; lxiii. [9] Ibid., l, xxxvii. [10] Ibid., 6. [11] Ibid., 16. [12] Ibid., 26-7. [13] Ibid., 41-4. [14] Ibid., 51, 53. [15] Ibid., 60, 64. [16] Ibid., 66. [17] Ibid., 68. [18] Ibid., 86. [19] Ibid., 95. [20] Ibid., 113, 117, 119-20. [21] Ibid., 128. [22] Ibid., 130, 133, 136. [23] Ibid., 149-50. [24] Ibid., 158. [25] Ibid., 162, 168, 170, 172. [26] Ibid., 174-5. [27] Ibid., 187. [28] Ibid., 194. [29] Ibid., 200. [30] Ibid., 214, 217. [31] Ibid., 236. [32] Ibid., 250, 254. [33] Ibid., 269. [34] Ibid., 294-5. [35] Ibid., 306, 314. [36] Ibid., 327. [37] Ibid., 333. [38] Ibid., 349. [39] Ibid., 350. [40] Ibid., 352. [41] Ibid., 362. [42] Ibid., 376. [43] Ibid., 383. [44] Ibid., 400. [45] Ibid., 402-5. [46] Ibid., 413, 418. [47] Ibid., 426. [48] Ibid., 422, 428. [49] Ibid., 435, 442. [50] Ibid., xlvi, lxiii. [51] Ibid., 86, 94. [52] Ibid., 119. [53] Ibid., 405.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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