Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity

Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity

Kimberly B. Stratton

Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity. By Jennifer Wright Knust. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006. Pp. xviii + 279. Cloth, $45.00.

The use of sexual slander in ancient rhetoric has been a subject of study among classicists for the past decade. Knust brings this body of knowledge and understanding of sexual invective to a reading of Christian texts; in the process, she challenges common assumptions about what various groups of early Christians and others were actually doing. As Knust states, “Christian authors have at times been taken at their word when they accused others of sexual misbehavior,” leading some scholars to speculate on the libertine practices of “Gnostics” and other “heretics” or to attribute the collapse of the Roman Empire to dissolute Roman debauchery (3). Knust argues that, in fact, while charges of sexual immorality may be based on actual practices (as in the case of president Clinton) they none the less indicate competition and a contest for power: “Charges of debauchery, unrestrained lust, and the like illuminate cultural assertions about sex and morality while providing evidence of competitive power relations between individuals and the groups they claim to represent” (3).

In her introduction Knust introduces the problem of accepting sexual slander at face value, arguing that accusations of immorality, excessive luxury, and “unnatural” desire function as attempts to differentiate one group from another: to create boundaries between “us” and “them.” Sexual slander was a powerful rhetorical strategy that effectively distanced the one speaking from the one being accused. It could, furthermore, serve to unite a community around a claim to superiority and moral purity. But, as Knust argues, claims about what constituted sexual purity were not universal or uniform even among ancient Christian communities. Some Christian authors argued for absolute celibacy while others saw chastity as a “rejection of God’s creation” and advocated marriage (9). The positions on what constituted sexual immorality reflect larger debates about the nature of flesh and matter, the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, as well as the significance and message of Jesus. Sexual slander, as Knust reveals, played a central role in the contests to define Christian identity. The category “Christian,” Knust argues, “was (and is) subjective, not fixed; sexual slander served to provide this label with the appearance of closure when, in fact, there was (and is) none” (9).

Chapter 1 situates Christian invective in the context of Greek and Roman rhetoric. Knust begins with Aristotle to show how ancient rhetoricians learned at an early age to master the art of disparaging their opponent’s character. Rhetorical handbooks offered lists of virtues and vices that could be employed in speeches to praise friends and patrons or, conversely, attack rivals and enemies (20). As expected, sexual morality and ideas about “natural” sex roles figure prominently in these lists. In chapter 2 Knust moves to analyze how Paul enlists the rhetoric of sexual virtue and vice to draw boundaries and create an idealized Christian community that is defined by moral purity and self-mastery. Combining a potent discourse found in the Hebrew scriptures, which identified idolatry as adultery, with the Stoic claim that self-mastery and restraint signal virtue and social elitism, Paul identifies the members of his churches as sexually pure in contrast to outsiders, who defile themselves with impure thoughts and actions. Thus Paul lays claim both to ideas of moral purity and holiness (fulfillment of the Israelite covenant) and to Greco–Roman ideas about manliness and legitimate authority, laying the groundwork for later Christian writers who come after him. In chapter 3 Knust interrogates the sexualized rhetoric of second-century Christian writers, particularly Justin, who wrote in defense of this new religion.

Knust shows how Justin enlists the sexualized dualism of Paul to defend Christianity against recrimination and persecution, as well as to attack traditional Greco-Roman religion and even the emperor himself! Justin claims that Romans violate all the canons of moral conduct, demonstrating their enslavement to demons rather than their social superiority. Christians, alone, he asserts possess the traits of self-control that make them the elites fit to rule. In chapters 4 and 5 Knust extends the discussion to show how this rhetoric was turned against other Christians, accusing them of being immoral idolaters, magicians, and fornicators when they did not conform to the perspective of the writer. Through the logic of antique dualism these “heretics” were accused not just of fornication and other acts of sexual immorality, but of being in league with Satan as well. Thus, Knust demonstrates how the deployment of sexualized invective by early Christian writers served to create a new category of elites: true Christians, who were distinct from immoral and demonic others. In fact, she argues that “[p]lacing their rivals, real or imaginary, within diverse ‘schools’ with multiple founders and one inspiration (Satan), Justin and Irenaeus developed a classificatory scheme that produced Christianity as a distinct, legitimate, and restricted genos” (157). Knust’s study combines careful research with insightful readings and penetrating analysis, presenting a convincing interpretation of the discursive strategies of early Christian texts and demonstrating the need to read these texts with more careful attention to the ideological effects of their rhetoric.

Kimberly B. Stratton

Carleton University

Ottawa, ON, K1S 5B6

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