Early Christianity, Method, and the Body

Ancient Jesus Image
Earliest Extant Image of Jesus (here as Good Shepherd)

The academic study of the ancient world remains a field full of exciting realms of consideration. This remains especially true for historians of the early Jesus Movement and Christian Church, where numerous fields of study are in need of critical exploration, including conceptions of the human body and sexuality within early Christianity. As a means to further study of this period, in recent decades scholars have turned to consideration of the ways in which the body and human sexuality were conceived by early Christians. In this article, I employ the works of Bernadette Brooten, Peter Brown, and Dale Martin to offer insights into areas of critical needs in this field. As these and numerous other scholars have pointed out, the need for clear, critical, and contextualized definitions and an approach devoid of assumed chronological superiority are necessary considerations for future study of the body and sexuality in the ancient world. Here I argue that key to critically thinking about conceptions of body and sexuality in early Christianity are answering questions concerning the role the historical-critical method and the place of ethics in such a study.

Love Between Women (Brooten)In her study Love Between Women, Bernadette Brooten draws upon a wide variety of sources for the compilation of her argument concerning existence and knowledge of female homoeroticism in the ancient Greco-Roman world.[1] Brooten’s work raises a number of questions concerning the likelihood of conclusions drawn concerning human actions in the ancient world, as her conclusions stem from a relatively small selection of datum in the larger context of Ancient Mediterranean studies. However her use of socio-historical evidence, especially evidence such as dream handbooks or medical writings that have been used to argue for numerous and varying positions within the realm of historical-critical studies, leads to methodological concerns. For not only does Brooten’s reliance on socio-historical data prove to be somewhat sparse, but she admits that ‘fluid conceptions’ in the ancient world remain extremely difficult to reconstruct, even for modern scholarship.[2] In considering Brooten’s argument, we are struck with the need to examine the mode of analysis being used in modern scholarship, as well as the reasons that for employing that methodology and, in fact, for pursuing the study in general of ancient constructions of gender and sexuality. Considerations of mode and methodology seem important, because how we ask questions often directly correlates to the answers that we find.[3] Perhaps harder than that, we must examine the reasons for engaging in the study of the past, remaining attuned to undisclosed ideological reasons for the study of the Greco-Roman world. Brooten, for example, appears to be arguing to a type of ideological continuity between the Greco-Roman context and the developing Christian perspective on the human body and sexuality. To engage her specific study without recognizing the wider impact and relationship of her study, especially with regard to Brooten’s conception of female homoeroticism, would be negligent scholarship. A reality of the modern use of the historical-critical method has been a plethora of often significantly divergent understandings stemming from essentially the same data. Critical to thinking about the body and sexuality in early Christianity is considering the role and limitations of the historical-critical method, including the realization that a simple appeal to “the evidence” does not necessarily mean a conclusion is beyond criticism. Additionally important remains critical reflection concerning the motivation and ideology behind a study or perspective, including the need for careful evaluation of the questions being considered.

The Body and Society (Brown)Peter Brown, in The Body and Society, traces the diversity of early Christian perspectives on the body and sexual renunciation.[4] Through this work Brown touches on a number of important considerations, notably the importance of keeping contextualized discourses in view when reading ancient sources, the importance of understanding the human body as a ‘sign,’ and the need to ask about the ethical concerns at work in a study. In writing about the various perspectives on the body and sexuality in early Christianity, Brown highlights the necessity of engaging ancient sources within their specific socio-cultural contexts and relevant historical discourses.[5] For this perspective, an important aspect of this project in thinking about the body and sexuality is recognizing the diversity of early Christian perspectives on the topic and highlighting the similarities and differences between writers in attempt to let each speak o their own.[6] Brown helpfully notes the importance of recognizing the ‘sign’ function of the human body, raising awareness of our need to ask what the body is. He notes that the human body has typically been conceived of in relation to something else, understood as an agency tool for playing out various extra-bodily issues and concerns. This understands remains well represented in early Christian perspectives, as some ancient Christian writers viewed the body as essential and in need of management, while others viewed it as a constructed and indeterminate agent. From the considerations raised by Brown’s writing, one ultimately must ask what the stakes are surrounding conceptions of the human body. We must consider the implications of the body’s important, especially in terms of practical theological anthropologies of human embodiment. Such thinking ultimately leads us into the realm of the ethical, asking not only what it means to be human, but also what role ethics should play in thinking about human bodies and sexuality. Brown therefore touches on both of our concerns. Concerning the role of the historical-critical method, he argues for discursive as well as socio-cultural contextualization and the recognition of ideological uses of the human body. And concerning the place of ethics, Brown raises very practical considerations of the role of the human body and the anthropologies that are used when thinking about the human body and sexuality in early Christianity.

Dale Martin
Dale Martin

In Sex and the Single Savior, Dale Martin offers a critique of scholarship employing the historical-critical method and “foundationalist” readings of the Biblical text.[7] In offering this critique, Martin posits an argument concerning the need for an ethical reading and use of Biblical texts. Such a position begs questions concerning the importance of the ethical interpretation of writings and traditions, as well as the determining basis for such ethical practices. For Martin, a multiplicity of readings, stemming from communal interpretation and shaping, are a necessary component of reading and interpreting texts.[8] This view of interpretation questions the benefits and limits of the use of the historical-critical method and issue of certainty pertaining to interpretation.[9] In this work Martin does not argue for an objectively correct reading, but for a self-consciously reflected rhetoric, moving the central feature of interpretation away from claims to objectivity towards an emphasis on honesty of interpretation and an ethical reading.[10] Of the three perspectives represented here, Martin clearly represents the strongest questioning of the historical-critical method as a whole, as well as raising some of the most pointed questions concerning ethics. Martin’s appeal to ethics, while seemingly objectifying sui generis “ethics,” nonetheless points to the importance of considering ethics within academic work. There are two components to this, namely, how academic perspectives influence the lives of real human beings, as well as the ethical ramification of how human beings use texts and works to further their own goals. Martin’s work here seems to presuppose that the ethical reading and use of a text or authority remains the appropriate means by which to utilize its rhetorical power. While prima facia this assumption makes much sense, it seems worthwhile to consider the implied meanings behind an “ethical” use of perspectives on the body and sexuality. Simply put, moving the central feature of an interpretation from its ‘meaning’ to its ‘ethical use’ seems insufficient given Martin’s critique of textual agency and self-awareness.

The purpose of this post has not been to answer questions concerning the study of the body and sexuality in early Christianity, only to review the works of three scholars in this field and to note the relevant questions their works raise with regard to further critical thinking and study. As we have seen, Brooten, Brown, and Martin’s works have demonstrated the need to consider carefully the range and scope of historical-critical claims about conceptions of the body and sexuality in early Christianity. Additionally, Brown and especially Martin’s works have raised important questions concerning ethics, both the ethics of interpretation and the ethics of potential applications of those interpretations. For this young scholar of early Christianity, thoughtfully consideration and clarification of these two areas remains vital to critically thinking about the body and sexuality in Greco-Roman Christianity.



[1] Brenadette J. Brooten. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1996. [2] Ibid., 1-4. [3] One only need look at Historical Jesus studies to demonstrate this phenomenon. [4] Peter Brown. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Twentieth Anniversary Edition. Columbia University Press: New York, 2008. [5] Ibid., xxxvii-xli. [6] Ibid., xli-xliv. [7] Dale B. Martin. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2006. 1-16. [8] Ibid., 149-160. [9] Ultimately, this seems to be a question for metaphysics, thereby begging the question as to what role metaphysics should play in academic discourse. [10] Ibid., 185.


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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