Antioch, 386 ce
In his first sermon against the Jews, delivered in Antioch in the autumn of 386 ce, John Chrysostom told a story of an abduction in which a "defiling and unfeeling man" forced a Christian woman, "elegant and free, well-behaved and faithful," to enter a synagogue. The woman resisted her attacker. She pleaded with Chrysostom to help her. Heroically, the newly ordained priest came to her rescue: "I was fired with jealousy," Chrysostom said, "and burning with anger, I rose up, I refused to let her be dragged into that transgression, I snatched her from the hands of her abductor! I asked him if he was a Christian, and he said he was. . . . I told him he was no better than an ass if he, who said that he worshiped Christ, would drag someone off to the dens of the Jews who had crucified him." This licentious abductor claimed to be a Christian, but, in Chrysostom's eyes, he was tainted with the stain of Jewishness. The abductor believed that an oath sworn in the synagogue was more powerful than one sworn in the church. It was precisely this sort of dangerous religious hybrid—this impure "half Christian"—that Chrysostom railed against in his sermons Adversus Iudaeos. The sexualized depiction of the heretical Christian-Jew as a male predator who preyed upon pure Christian women was not lost on Chrysostom's audience.
In Adversus Iudaeos, John Chrysostom frequently depicted Jews and so-called Judaizers as lascivious wolves in pursuit of innocent Christian sheep, and he asserted that he himself was the good shepherd who protected the sheep from their Jewish predators. His self-presentation as a stalwart guardian of Christian women went hand in hand with the gendered and sexualized portrayal of his religious opponents. Delivered at a time when the church in Antioch was more imperial than imperiled, his first sermon against the Jews made use of this narrative of violent abduction and aggression to map differences between "true" Christians and their heretical Others, Jews and Judaizers especially. Chrysostom's portrait of a heretical Judaizer luring a pure(ly) Christian woman into the synagogue was just one example of how he denigrated his opponents by constructing them as sexual aggressors.
By the fourth century, the depiction of Jews and Judaizers as carnal, sexual deviants had become a topos in early Christian texts. Writing several decades before Chrysostom in 344, Aphrahat, the Christian sage of Persian Mesopotamia, claimed that Jewish interpreters of his day "stumbled" in their interpretation of scripture because of their "lasciviousness and the immodesty of their bodies." Jews had it backward, he asserted. Rather than associating purity and holiness with virginity, as Aphrahat would have it, Jews thought that purity and holiness were achieved through marriage and sexual reproduction. Eighty years later in Roman North Africa, Augustine, like Aphrahat before him, insisted that Jewish carnality was rooted in Jewish hermeneutical error: "Behold Israel according to the flesh," Augustine wrote, quoting Paul's phrase in 1 Cor 10:18. "This we know to be the carnal Israel; but the Jews do not grasp this meaning and as a result they prove themselves indisputably carnal."
How did the figure of the "carnal Jew" come to function as a topos of early Christian literature? When did this topos first appear, and what purposes did it serve? How did the stereotype of the "carnal Jew" serve Christian leaders as they forged boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy, Christianity and Judaism? And what can the development of this topos tell us about ancient understandings of gender and sexuality?
This book explores these questions by examining the sexualized representation of Jews in writings by Greek church fathers from the first through fifth centuries ce. The construction of the Jew as a subject of perverse and excessive sexual desire was implicated in several major developments of the early Christian era. As Christian theologians developed methods for interpreting the Bible, the carnal, literal-minded Jewish reader served as a convenient foil for the spiritual Christian exegete. Moreover, as Christian leaders embraced practices of asceticism and sexual renunciation, the carnal, hypersexualized Jew served as a warning against indulging the appetites of the flesh. Christian theologians also used the stereotype of the fleshly Jew as a way to classify heresies. They figured the Judaizing heresy (the fall into Jewishness) as a degeneration from spirit to flesh, purity to impurity, health to sickness. And as the interests of Christian leaders began to dovetail with the interests of the empire, the figure of the carnal Jew served to dehumanize Jews and justify violent acts against them.
Situating Anti-Jewish Sexual Slander
The portrayal of cultural difference as sexual(ized) difference was nothing new in the ancient Mediterranean world, nor has it disappeared in modern times. Today, as then, visual and textual depictions of the Other as sexually deviant or abject serve as a rationale for state violence. In recent times, for instance, various representations of Muslim men as overly domineering, sexist, hypersexualized, homophobic, or effeminate have served as ways to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In late antiquity, Christian preachers created disparaging sexual stereotypes of those whom they opposed. Heretics, "pagans," and Jews, in particular, came under attack as Christian writers sought to define an orthodox Christian identity that was distinguished, significantly, by practices of bodily self-control and sexual purity. Christian writers portrayed these Others, alternately, as sexually aggressive or vulnerable. Their men were too feminine, their women too masculine, their bodies too wild, their morals too loose. The creation of an orthodox Christian attitude toward the body thus coincided with the construction of an abject "heretical" sexuality. Once Christianity became the religion of the state in the late fourth century, the construction of the heretical, Jewish, or Judaizing subject as perversely sexual functioned as a way for the church to justify the use of force against these groups.
As Christian writers began to define the boundaries of orthodoxy, they often encountered difficulties in tracing the border line between Christianity and Judaism, in particular. Christian writers framed their battles with heretics in this way: on the one hand were heretics who refused to use the Hebrew Bible altogether (such as Marcion); on the other hand were heretics who insisted on following Jewish law and practices according to biblical precepts (so-called Judaizers). Faced with such a diversity of attitudes toward Judaism, the writers of Christian orthodoxy defined a middle way: they appropriated the Hebrew Bible for Christian use while simultaneously distinguishing between Christian and Jewish practices, interpretations, and identities. Heresiology, or the representation of heresy, was thus largely caught up with the project of defining Christianness in relation to Jewishness. The Christian use of sexual stereotypes to construct a carnal Jewish subject was part of this larger heresiological project to produce Jewish-Christian difference and identify practices that stood in opposition to orthodox Christian practice.
Early Christians and Jews shared not only a common scripture (the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament) but also common practices of piety. In some communities, Christians celebrated Easter at the same time as the Jewish Passover, and in other communities (such as Chrysostom's Antioch), it is reported that Christians worshiped, fasted, and feasted with Jews. The creators of Christian orthodoxy reacted to these situations of proximity by expressing their desire for the Jews—their sacred scriptures, their God—and, simultaneously, their disavowal of this desire. Some of the fiercest anti-Jewish rhetoric occurred within the context of Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, where the dynamics of desire and disavowal were in full view. As Christians sought to claim the Bible as their own, they slandered their Jewish contemporaries, depicting them as overly licentious, immoral, and misguided interpreters of their own texts and traditions. Christian preachers turned the biblical prophets against Jews, accusing their Jewish and Judaizing contemporaries of the same crimes of adultery, prostitution, and impiety that the prophets claimed biblical Israel committed. Although sexual slander was a particularly useful tool for any ancient writer who wished to malign an individual, group, or culture, Christian sexual slander against Jews was particularly virulent because it occurred within this volatile context of cultural hybridity, in which the lines between Christian and Jew, orthodox and heretic, were in a constant state of negotiation and contestation. Indeed, the church fathers' continual enforcement of the boundaries between Christian and Jew exposed the instability of these categories of identity.
Daniel Boyarin and Virginia Burrus have observed that "hybridity inflects Jewish and Christian identity in precisely the places where 'purity' is most forcefully inscribed." Faced with borrowed and overlapping cultures, practices, and texts, early Christian preachers inscribed and, later, enforced the "purity" of Christianity by attending to the boundaries of their communities with the same strict vigilance with which they attended to the boundaries of the Christian body. The discourse of asceticism—which served to construct an ideal Christian subject of bodily and sexual purity—was accompanied by a rhetoric of dehumanization that characterized the Jew as sexually impure, promiscuous, immoral, diseased, and animalistic. The Jewish reprobate served as the negation of the Christian ascetic. This rhetoric of dehumanization, in turn, produced the conditions for the anti-heretical and anti-Jewish violence that would secure Christian dominance in the late ancient Mediterranean world.
Sexuality is "an especially dense transfer point for relations of power," argues Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality. Foucault understands the category of sexuality as a specifically modern construction. Yet his insight into the relation between power and cultural understandings of sex applies not only to Western modernity (Foucault's concern in the first volume of his aforementioned work) but also to the late ancient Mediterranean world, where discourses of sex and gender functioned as a "dense transfer point" for Christian assertions of power over Jews, Judaizers, and other heretics. The portrayal of relations of power between Christians and Jews shifted according to the changing contexts and needs of specific Christian communities and writers, from Paul to Origen to John Chrysostom. Chrysostom, in particular, used representations of Jewish and Christian sexualities to construct, amplify, and reiterate Christian power in a time that witnessed not only the rise of Christian asceticism but also the alignment of Christian identity with that of the empire. It is in this imperial context that late ancient Christian writers crafted discourses of sexuality not only to distinguish "spiritual" Christians from their "carnal" religious Others but also to justify the use of power and coercion against these "enemies" of Christ. The use of sexual stereotypes as justification for violence is a topic that serves as a touchstone throughout this study.
Early Christian authors (such as Origen and John Chrysostom) often found it useful to portray Jews and Judaizers as (male) aggressors who preyed upon innocent Christians (imagined here as victimized women). At other times, Christian writers maligned their Jewish and Judaizing counterparts by depicting them as "soft," feminized men (malakoi) who were incapable of enforcing proper gender hierarchies within their households. Christians themselves were alternately cast as besieged women or courageous men. Such identifications across genders attest not only to the destabilization of gendered categories in late ancient Christianity but also to the ways in which church fathers utilized sexual slander to construct, reinforce, and contest traditional understandings of gender performance. Early Christian authors thus invoked sexuality, gender, and the body to produce Jewish-Christian difference and assert Christian dominance in an era that also witnessed the formation and (attempted) stabilization of Christian identity, the development of Christian asceticism, and the eventual triumph of Christianity as the religion of empire.
Categories such as "Christian" and "Jew," far from being metaphysical givens, emerge over time in discourse and practice. Jewish and Christian subjects are historically constituted and constructed in relation to each other. Foucault's insight into the formation of the subject proves useful here. In his earlier work, Foucault, following Nietzsche, argued that the constitution of the subject unfolds within the constraints of institutional and regulating power. In later work, Foucault subtly shifted his position to explore the "techniques of power" that the self used in relation to itself. Instead of focusing solely on how the modern subject is produced through regulatory powers outside itself, Foucault turned to antiquity to demonstrate how the self styles itself according to a certain ascesis. He writes that "there is no sovereign, founding subject, a universal form of subject to be found everywhere. . . . I believe, on the contrary, that the subject is constituted through practices of subjection, or, in a more autonomous way, through practices of liberation, of liberty, as in Antiquity, on the basis, of course, of a number of rules, styles, inventions to be found in the cultural environment." Foucault thus insists on two meanings of the word "subject": "subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to." Assujettissement (Foucault's term for the making of the subject) signals the way that the subject is produced not only in relations of power that are beyond its control but also in the disciplinary practices to which the self subjects itself. These practices of the self, Foucault observes, need not always be conceived as forms of coercion and control but, sometimes, as practices of freedom.
As Foucault and Judith Butler, among others, have insisted, the fact of the subject's formation as subject to power does not mean that the subject lacks agency. Rather, Assujettissement acts on a subject in a regulatory way and simultaneously enables the subject to intervene productively in its own formation. Assujettissement signals not only the formation of the self through subjection to external structures of power but also the opportunities for resistance, subversion, parody, and creative reappropriation of that very formation.
My interest in subjectivation and subject-defining rhetorics shapes the way that I approach the sermons, biblical commentaries, and treatises written by Christians about Jews in late antiquity. Although the Christian construction of the carnal Jewish subject went hand in hand with the subjection of Jews to Christian power, this construction—indeed, this subjection—was neither complete nor successful. The fact that Christian preachers in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, for instance, could endorse such violent acts as the burning of synagogues and the forced conversion of Jews did not mean that late ancient Jews were without power. Indeed, the very centuries in which Christian preachers and bishops authorized anti-Jewish violence also witnessed the flourishing of several Jewish communities, the formation of rabbinic identities, the development of rabbinic exegetical practices, and the construction of several major synagogues throughout Palestine (this despite imperial legislation that restricted the building of new synagogues).
Theorists of modern colonialism can help us to understand how discourses of power shape and are shaped by the material situation of historical subjects. In separate works that investigate different colonial encounters, Homi Bhabha, Robert J. C. Young, and Ann Laura Stoler explore the various ways that discourses of sexuality functioned within literary representations of colonial subjects. Colonized people, they argue, were often represented as subjects of excessive, dangerous, or deviant sexual desires, and the threat of social and racial contamination was often depicted as a sexual threat. Asymmetrical power relations, dynamics of domination and resistance, and simultaneous constructions of ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality were some of the key features that characterized the late ancient Roman world. These are some of the cultural dynamics that postcolonial theory helps illuminate. Postcolonial discourse analysis is also helpful for understanding late ancient texts insofar as it calls attention not only to the complex intersections of discourses (sexual, cultural, religious, and otherwise) but also to the material effects of such discourses.
In his analysis of Victorian race theory, Robert Young argues that sexuality "stands in" as a metaphor for cultural interaction and racial mixing in colonial discourse. Hybridity, conceived in this context as the "mongrel" product of illicit sexual encounters, threatens the "purity" of categories. This dangerous intermixture jeopardizes the clear boundaries between self and other, colonizer and colonized. As Young suggests, one effect of the sexual underpinnings of hybridity lies in the discursive association of the colonized Other with dangerous fecundity or deviant sexuality. In European colonialist texts, he observes, racial degeneracy was often described as sexual degeneracy. Young's insight about the mutual construction of race and sex helps to illuminate the church fathers' simultaneous constructions of Jewishness and sex, where Jewishness was conceived as a marker of religious, ethnic, and cultural identity. Early Christian accusations of Jewish sexual deviance and immorality occurred in a context of late ancient cultural hybridity—a context in which church fathers, faced with messy "border lines" between Christians and Jews, nevertheless sought to define Christianity and Judaism as pure, bounded, and distinct categories.
Homi Bhabha's work on the stereotype in colonial discourse also provides a fruitful lens through which to examine Christian stereotypes of Jews. Bhabha argues: "The objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction." The stereotype functions as "the major discursive strategy" by which this objective is accomplished. Bhabha's analysis of the stereotype, moreover, exposes the ambivalence that underlies the colonialist desire to "fix" the identity of the Other. "The colonial presence," writes Bhabha, "is always ambivalent, split between its appearance as original and authoritative and its articulation as repetition and difference. . . . Its discriminatory effects are visible in those split subjects of the racist stereotype—the simian Negro, the effeminate Asiatic male—which ambivalently fix identity as the fantasy of difference." Bhabha's conception of cultural difference as that which is both desired and disavowed provides a helpful framework for understanding the formation of Christian identity in relation to Jewishness. Likewise, his understanding of the stereotype as one of the major strategies of colonial discourse informs an exploration into early Christian stereotypes of Jews.
Christian writers such as Origen and John Chrysostom relied upon the stereotype to "fix" the identities of their opponents; yet the contexts of their writings suggest that religious identity was anything but fixed in third-century Alexandria and Caesarea and fourth-century Antioch. Bhabha's work helps to illuminate the "processes of subjectification" made possible through stereotypical discourse, especially with regard to Chrysostom's sermons. Bhabha's theory sheds light on the ways in which the church fathers interpellated Jews as colonial subjects, worthy of domination and violence.
Such theories of colonialism help to elucidate the variety of ways that sexuality functioned as a "dense transfer point for relations of power" among late ancient Christians and Jews. Sexual slander operated as a rhetorical weapon that early Christians utilized to assert Christian dominance and to justify violence against Jews. Before examining Christian sexual slander against Jews, however, it is important to place these early Christian representations of Jewish sexuality in context by analyzing not only Jewish accusations of Gentile immorality but also other non-Christian portrayals of Jewish sexuality in antiquity.
Sexual Slander in the Ancient World
Accusations of carnality and porneia—the ancient Greek term for sexual immorality—were part of a wider repertoire of ancient rhetorical invective. Greek writers portrayed their cultural Others—"barbarians," in particular—as bestial, sexually and emotionally unrestrained, and prone to violence and anger—traits that stood in stark opposition to that "great Platonic virtue," sōphrosynē (bodily self-control). At other times, barbarians were cast as soft, luxurious, and effeminate in an effort to construct Greeks as manly and courageous (andreia). Ancient Roman moralists often charged their opponents with a variety of vices, including economic vices such as excess, indulgence, and luxury, and sexual vices such as adultery, licentiousness, and effeminacy (mollitia). These charges of immorality functioned "in defining what it meant to be a member of the Roman elite, in excluding outsiders and in controlling insiders." Ancient moralists thus used sexual slander as a way to police social and cultural boundaries.
In a similar way, early Christian accusations of Jewish porneia contributed to the formation of emergent Christian identity. As Christian writers forged an orthodox identity amid pagans, Jews, Judaizers, and other heretics, they fashioned the border line between Christianity and Judaism, in particular, as a line that separated the pure from the impure, the chaste from the licentious. The Judaizing heresy, which these Christians constructed, thus signaled a cultural degeneration into promiscuity, carnality, and immorality.
According to the Christian apologist Minucius Felix, early Christians themselves suffered charges of sexual impropriety, most notably at the hands of M. Cornelius Fronto, who called Christianity a "religion of lust" and accused Christians of debauchery, incest, cannibalism, and worshiping their priests' genitalia. Early Christians retaliated against their accusers by drawing on the same set of charges. For example, one second-century Christian convert, Justin Martyr, took aim at Greeks and Romans who created false gods and worshiped them. In his First Apology, Justin argued that the material of which these idols were fashioned was recycled from "vessels of dishonor." Then he contended that the "artificers" of these idols were "practiced in every vice," including the corruption of young girls. Whereas Christians were recognized by their bodily self-control, Justin asserted, pagans, idolaters, and heretics were defined by practices of porneia.
Since sexual invective was a favored means of slandering an opponent in antiquity, early Christians (like Justin) put these charges to use in denouncing pagans and heretics. As Jennifer Wright Knust notes: "Sexualized invective serves several purposes at once: outsiders are pushed further away, insiders are policed, and morality is both constituted and defined as 'Christian.'" By portraying their opponents as sexually licentious, early Christian writers not only accentuated the difference and distance between "us" and "them" but also promoted the ideal of sōphrosynē as orthopraxis within their own communities.
Jewish Portrayals of Gentile Lust
The idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life.
—The Wisdom of Solomon (14:12)
Not only was the accusation of sexual immorality a topos in early Christian literature; it was also a topos in ancient Jewish texts. In Jewish texts, however, Gentiles were the primary culprits. As early as the Torah, sexual immorality was associated with "outsiders"—Canaanites and Egyptians especially. For example, in Leviticus 18, the Lord commands Moses: "You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you" (Lev 18:2-3). Following this commandment is a lengthy list of prohibitions against sexual intercourse with various relatives, menstruating women, and animals. The text declares that these forms of sexual relations are "perversions" (Lev 18:23), and, as such, they defile people as well as places: "Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations" (Lev 18:24-26). In this passage, the Lord commands Moses to avoid the defiling sexual practices that characterize non-Israelite cultures. One implication of this command is that Israelite culture is defined, ideally and in part, by adherence to a strict sexual code. Gentile culture, by contrast, is associated with sexual immorality and moral impurity.
In the Letter of Aristeas, a pseudonymous Jewish text composed in Greek in the second century bce, sexual morality characterizes Jewish "insiders," while Gentile "outsiders" are depicted as licentious and deviant. The letter describes non-Jewish men as those who "defile themselves by intercourse, working great unrighteousness. . . . Not only do they have intercourse with men, but they even defile mothers and daughters." By contrast, Jews "have kept apart from such things." Here male same-sex relations and incest are singled out as particularly defiling acts perpetrated by Gentiles. The third Sibylline Oracle, a Hellenistic Jewish composition from the second century bce, also distinguishes Jews from other ethnoi on the basis of sexual purity: "More than any men they are mindful of the purity of marriage. Nor do they hold unholy intercourse with boys, as do the Phoenician, Egyptians, and Latins, and spacious Hellas, and many nations of other men, Persians and Galatians and all Asia, transgressing the holy law of the immortal God." These texts produced Jewish-Gentile difference, in part, by drawing on the criterion of sexual practice. Whereas these texts formulated Jewish identity according to separation from sexual vices, they marked Gentile identity by a willingness to participate in defiling intercourse.
In several biblical texts, sexual immorality is linked more explicitly to Gentile idolatry. In the story of the renewal of the covenant in Exodus, for example, the Lord commands Moses and the Israelites to avoid making a covenant with the inhabitants of other (Gentile) lands, "for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice . . . and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods" (Exod 34:15-16). Deuteronomy contains a similar linkage of prostitution and idolatry: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going'" (Deut 31:16). In these passages, the worship of foreign gods is figured as a type of prostitution. Not only does idolatry of this sort lead to porneia; it is itself an act of porneia.
This association of sexual immorality and idolatry continued in other Jewish writings of the Second Temple period. For example, the Wisdom of Solomon, composed in Greek in the late first century bce, states that "the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life" (14:12). According to this text, worship of idols leads to a litany of sins: "a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, pollution of souls, sex perversion, disorder in marriage, adultery, and debauchery" (14:25-26). Several decades later, another Hellenistic Jew, Paul of Tarsus, reiterated this polemic against Gentile idolatry when he argued that lust, impurity, and "passions of dishonor" originated in—and were punishment for—the exchange "of the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles" (Rom 1:23-26). For Paul and the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, idolatry bred porneia.
In his treatise On the Contemplative Life, written in the first half of the first century ce, Philo of Alexandria contrasts the idolatry and immoderation of various Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures to the piety and self-mastery of the Therapeutae, a Jewish ascetic community of philosophers reported to live outside Alexandria. Philo luridly depicts Greeks as lovers of luxury and wealth, fine food and drink, who indiscriminately sate their desires on "baked meats and savory dishes" and "full-grown lads fresh from the bath and smooth shaven." Philo describes a Greek symposium: "The chief part is taken up by the common vulgar love which robs men of the courage which is the virtue most valuable for the life both of peace and war, sets up the disease of effeminacy in their souls and turns into a hybrid of man and woman those who should have been disciplined in all the practices which make for valor." The Therapeutae, by contrast, are skilled in healing arts that provide "therapy" for souls "oppressed" by diseases of passion and pleasure (hence the name, Therapeutae).
In another treatise, On the Special Laws, Philo employs categories of gender and sexuality to trace differences between Jews and the "many people" who inhabit other lands. Philo argues that, in contrast to Jews, men from other lands derive pride and reward from practices of immoderation (a)krasi/a) and "softness" or "effeminacy" (malaki/a). Philo provides details about these "soft" men from other lands, taking particular aim at the worshipers of Demeter:
[N]ow it is a matter of boasting not only to the active but to the passive partners, who become accustomed to enduring the feminizing disease [no/son qh/leian], let body and soul waste away, and leave no ember of their maleness to smolder. Mark how conspicuously they braid and adorn the hair of their heads, how they scrub and paint their faces with cosmetics and pigments and the like, and smother themselves with fragrant perfumes. . . . In fact, without blushing, they practice the transformation of the male nature to the female as an art. These persons are rightly judged worthy of death by those who obey the law, which ordains that the man-woman [an_dro/gunon] who debases the custom of nature should perish.
Here Philo argues that non-Jewish "outsiders" are prone to engaging in sexual practices that jeopardize their masculinity. As hybrid "men-women," they "debase" themselves and threaten the order of nature. By contrast, Philo implies that those who "obey the law" (that is, follow the rules about sex laid out in the Torah) are assured of their masculinity. In Philo's text, gender is coconstructed alongside ethnic and religious identities.
Josephus, a Roman Jewish historian who wrote in the second half of the first century, insisted upon the unique sexual virtue of Jews. In Against Apion, Josephus defends the "Jewish race" against Gentile detractions by arguing for its antiquity, merit, and virtue. In the course of his defense, he contends that Jews, unlike their Gentile counterparts, adhere to a strict sexual code. The Jewish law, he writes, "recognizes no sexual connections, except the natural union of man and wife, and that only for the procreation of children. It abhors and punishes any guilty of such assault with death." Furthermore, the law encourages the proper treatment of women: "It commands us, in taking a wife, not to be influenced by dowry, not to carry off a woman by force, nor yet to win her by guile and deceit." For Josephus, Jews are distinguished by their stringent sexual ethics and their proper treatment of women.
From Leviticus to Josephus, these authors endeavored to define Israelite or Jewish identity in and through its relation to proper sexual practices. Sexuality functioned here as one of the predominant mechanisms by which Jewish identity was distinguished as superior to Gentile identity. Paul's polemic against Gentile idolatry and porneia was rooted in this Jewish tradition (a point I take up in Chapter 1). Subsequent Christian authors reformulated Paul's arguments to contend that it was Jews themselves who were guilty of sexual immorality and Christians who upheld the mantle of sexual purity. Early Christians, however, were not the first to level charges of sexual licentiousness against the Jews. Greek, Roman, and even Jewish writers themselves at times accused Jews of sexually immoral practices.
Ancient Portrayals of Jewish Lust
Perhaps the most famous non-Christian caricature of Jewish lust occurs in the fifth book of Tacitus's Histories, where he writes that "although as a race, [Jews] are prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; yet among themselves nothing is unlawful." The Jews, he contends, "regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor." Their customs, he continues, are "base and abominable, and owe their persistence to their depravity." With these depictions, Tacitus constructs the figure of the hypersexualized Jew and uses this figure as a foil against which to extol the sexual virtue and self-control of Romans. As Judith Lieu argues in regard to Tacitus's sexualized portrayal of Jews: "That for such authors 'otherness' of customs should be most powerfully manifested in sex . . . should surprise no one at home in Greek and especially Roman literature of the period; it will be equally familiar to readers of Jewish and Christian fulmination against the Gentile world, as well as of intra-Christian polemic. It is a rhetoric to which all subscribed." Tacitus thus stood in a rhetorical tradition of ancient Greek and Roman moralists who utilized a discourse of sexuality to construct the Other.
Some Greek and Latin poets also weighed in on the subject of Jewish sexuality. Writing at the beginning of the first century bce in Palestine, the Greek writer Meleager offered the following depiction of a "Sabbath-keeper's" love: "White-cheeked Demo, someone is next to you and is taking his delight, but my own heart groans within me. If thy lover is some Sabbath-keeper no great wonder! Love burns hot even on cold Sabbaths." Over a century later, the Roman poet Martial wrote a poem to a certain Roman girl, Caelia, who, he noted, granted sexual favors to a variety of peoples, including Parthians, Germans, Dacians, Cilicians, and Cappadocians—nor did she "shun the lecheries of circumcised Jews." It is worth noting that both Meleager and Martial link Jewish lust and lechery to other known Jewish practices, such as Sabbath observance (Meleager) and circumcision (Martial). For these poets, excessive and lascivious sexual behavior was one of several practices that marked Jewish identity.
Not only did ancient Greek and Roman writers at times characterize Jews as hypersexual; Jewish writers, on occasion, depicted the Jewish people as subjects of porneia. When the rhetoric of sexual invective was deployed against other Jews, it often occurred in the context of inter-Jewish polemic. For example, in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Levi relates his vision of "the end of days" when Israel "will transgress against the Lord" and "become a scorn to all the Gentiles." According to the Testament of Levi, part of Israel's transgression will include sexual sins: "Out of covetousness you will teach the commandments of the Lord, you will pollute married women, and you will defile the virgins of Jerusalem. With harlots and adulteresses you will be joined, and the daughters of the Gentiles, you will take as wives, purifying them with an unlawful purification, and your union shall be like that of Sodom and Gomorrah." Although it is difficult to identify the specific historical and social situation in which these Testaments were produced, it is most likely that this sexual invective originated in a community that opposed the Jewish leadership or priesthood of the time.
Such inter-Jewish polemic echoed and developed accusations of sexual immorality found in the prophets. In Ezekiel, for example, the Lord accuses Jerusalem of abandoning her status as the beloved bride of God and turning instead to "play the whore" (Ezek 16:15). The Lord states that Jerusalem's lust and licentiousness exceeds that of the Egyptians and the Philistines (16:26-27); she is an "adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband" (16:32). In Hosea, the Lord brings similar accusations against the "people of Israel": "A spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God. . . . [T]hus a people without understanding comes to ruin" (Hos 4:12, 14). In these passages, charges of adultery and prostitution function as ways in which the prophetic texts communicate God's anger at Israel's apostasy and idolatry. Deviant sexuality operates here as a proxy for deviant practices of piety. A discourse of sexuality is thus invoked to "convey what is 'really' going on elsewhere, at another political epicenter."
When early Christian authors began to direct accusations of porneia against the Jews in the second century, they utilized these prophetic pronouncements against Israel as biblical "prooftexts" to make their case. In the chapters that follow, I explore how early Christian representations of Jews as sexually licentious were caught up in Christian endeavors not only to appropriate biblical texts (including the prophets) for their own communities but also to formulate a Christian hermeneutic practice that differed from that of the Jews. While early Christian authors "made the difference" between Jewish and Christian biblical interpretive practices, they also strove to distinguish Christian sexual practice as different from (and superior to) that of the Jews. As Dale Martin has noted, albeit of a different context: "Anxiety about sex is coupled with anxiety about texts."
Plan of the Book
In Chapter 1, I examine accusations of porneia from Paul's letters to the Epistle of Barnabas and Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho. Paul reiterated traditional Jewish polemics against Gentiles to argue that porneia was linked inextricably to Gentile idolatry. In 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans, in particular, Gentiles (not Jews, and not humanity in general) were the objects of Paul's sexual slander. By contrast, two second-century texts—the Epistle of Barnabas and Justin's Dialogue with Trypho—identified Jews as the objects of sexual slander. In contradistinction to Paul and without reference to him, the author of Barnabas and Justin construed porneia as that which troubled Jews in particular. Barnabas and the Dialogue with Trypho both implicate these accusations of Jewish sexual immorality in the construction of Christian biblical hermeneutics.
Chapter 2 explores how Origen of Alexandria, a prolific and influential interpreter of the Bible, continued this co-construction of sexual ethics and biblical hermeneutics by construing Jewish identity, literal interpretation, and carnality as the counterparts to Christian identity, spiritual interpretation, and sōphrosynē. Unlike Justin and the author of Barnabas, however, Origen used Pauline dichotomies (flesh versus spirit; letter versus spirit) to associate Christian identity with the spirit and Jewish identity with the body. In Origen's hands, Paul became the ideal spiritual interpreter because he successfully subjugated the flesh to the spirit. According to Origen, Paul's subjugation of flesh by spirit served as a model for the subjugation of literal (Jewish) interpretive practices by spiritual (Christian) ones: in this way, the Christian "spirit" triumphed over the Jewish "letter." Origen's various performances of spiritual interpretation (in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, homilies on Genesis, and On First Principles, in particular) reveal the ways in which he invokes Jewish literalism and carnality in the exposition of his interpretive theory.
Chapter 3 provides a "test case" for the examination of the interaction between hermeneutics and sexuality in early Christianity. Here I explore patristic interpretations of the story of Susanna and the Elders, with particular attention to Hippolytus's interpretation in his Commentary on Daniel and Origen's interpretation in his Letter to Africanus. Their respective interpretations support the alignment of Christianness with chastity and Jewishness with sexual licentiousness. Origen and Hippolytus both portrayed Jews as a sexual threat to virtuous Christians, and both utilized categories of "male" and "female" in their constructions of the Christian interpreter as a "chaste" woman, vulnerable to Jewish attacks.
Chapter 4 analyzes John Chrysostom's sermons Adversus Iudaeos—sermons that contain some of the most explicit sexual slander against Jews in the early Christian period. In these sermons, delivered in Antioch in 386 and 387, Chrysostom used sexual stereotypes against Jews to produce Jewish-Christian difference and to urge members of his congregation to refrain from participating in Jewish fasts and festivals. He portrayed Jewish men variously as "soft" (malakoi), licentious, predatory, and bestial. He depicted Jewish women as prostitutes (pornai) and compared the synagogue to a brothel. By contrast, he imagined Christians as pure, chaste, and modest. Chrysostom's accusations of the Jews' "undisciplined passion" functioned not only in his representation of Jewishness but also in the construction of gender and sexuality in fourth-century Antioch.
The Conclusion returns to the question of the relationship between representation and violence. Here I briefly explore how Christian leaders used sexual slander and stereotypes as ways to justify violent acts against Jews and Judaizing heretics. The Conclusion also returns to the question of the subject. In late antiquity, the Jewish subject was constituted, in part, through the address of its other, the Christian. This address was most often intended to be injurious, as in the case of slanderous hate speech and accusations of sexual depravity. Yet, as Foucault and Butler remind us, the site of injury can become the site of resistance. With this in mind, we might ask: What do the varieties of late ancient Jewish identities have to teach us about the opportunities for resistance, subversion, and freedom made possible in the very structures of subjection?