In the first century, while Christianity was still in its infancy, the Greco-Roman world paid little attention. For the most part, the early Christian movement was seen as something still underneath the Jewish umbrella.
But in the second century, as Christianity emerged with a distinctive religious identity, the surrounding pagan culture began to take notice. And it didn’t like what it saw. Christians were seen as strange and superstitious–a peculiar religious movement that undermined the norms of a decent society. Christians were, well, different.
So, what was so different about Christians compared to the surrounding Greco-Roman culture? One distinctive trait was that Christians would not pay homage to the other “gods” (see my prior post on this subject here). This was a constant irritant to those governing officials who preferred to see the pagan temples filled with loyal worshipers (temples which earned a good deal of money from the tributes they collected).
But, there was a second trait that separated Christians from the pagan culture: their sexual ethic. While it was not unusual for Roman citizens to have multiple sexual partners, homosexual encounters, and engagement with temple prostitutes, Christians stood out precisely because of their refusal to engage in these practices.
For instance, Tertullian goes to great lengths to defend the legitimacy of Christianity by pointing out how Christians are generous and share their resources with all those in need. But, then he says, “One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives” (Apol. 39). Why does he say this? Because, in the Greco-Roman world, it was not unusual for people to share their spouses with each other.
In the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, the author goes out of his way to declare how normal Christians are in regard to what they wear, what they eat, and how they participate in society. However, he then says, “[Christians] share their meals, but not their sexual partners” (Diogn. 5.7). Again, this is the trait that makes Christians different.
We see this play out again in the second-century Apology of Aristides. Aristides defends the legitimacy of the Christian faith to the emperor Hadrian by pointing out how Christians “do not commit adultery nor fornication” and “their men keep themselves from every unlawful union” (15).
A final example comes from the second-century apology of Minucius Felix. In his defense to Octavius, he contrasts the sexual ethic of the pagan world with that of Christians:
Among the Persians, a promiscuous association between sons and mothers is allowed. Marriages with sisters are legitimate among the Egyptians and in Athens. Your records and your tragedies, which you both read and hear with pleasure, glory in incests: thus also you worship incestuous gods, who have intercourse with mothers, with daughters, with sisters. With reason, therefore, is incest frequently detected among you, and is continually permitted. Miserable men, you may even, without knowing it, rush into what is unlawful: since you scatter your lusts promiscuously, since you everywhere beget children, since you frequently expose even those who are born at home to the mercy of others, it is inevitable that you must come back to your own children, and stray to your own offspring. Thus you continue the story of incest, even although you have no consciousness of your crime. But we maintain our modesty not in appearance, but in our heart we gladly abide by the bond of a single marriage; in the desire of procreating, we know either one wife, or none at all (31).
This sampling of texts from the second century demonstrates that one of the main ways that Christians stood out from their surrounding culture was their distinctive sexual behavior. Of course, this doesn’t mean Christians were perfect in this regard. No doubt, many Christians committed sexual sins. But, Christianity as a whole was still committed to striving towards the sexual ethic laid out in Scripture–and the world took notice.
Needless to say, this has tremendous implications for Christians in the modern day. We are reminded again that what we are experiencing in the present is not new–Christians battled an over-sexed culture as early as the first and second century!
But, it is also a reminder why Christians must not go along with the ever-changing sexual norms of our world. To do so would not only be a violation of the clear teachings of Scripture, but it would rob us of one of our greatest witnessing opportunities. In as much as marriage reflects Christ’s love for the church, Christians’ commitment to marriage is a mean of proclaiming that love.
In the end, Christianity triumphed in its early Greco-Roman context not because it was the same as the surrounding pagan culture, but because it was different.
Charles Erlandson says
Thank you for this, Michael: it’s very needed in our contemporary situation.
Mike Ratliff says
So often we make decisions out of ignorance. Regrettably, the teachings of liberal theologians deceive those dependent on honest teaching and now a whole movement damaging the Church has arisen because of it.
bisi kuku says
thank you for this article….
Montel (@waffleater) says
um acutally the Romans were extremely prudish when it came to sex, even more then the Christians! This claim that the Romans particpated in orgies of sex and violence was a Christian propoganda invention
Source? The original article referenced several…
Montel (@waffleater) says
For example the Romans mocked homosexuality as a “greek import” that destoryed the “manliness” of a good Roman citizen (Ancient Warfare: A very Short Introduction, Harry Sidebottom). This doesnt sound like a culture that took homosexual acts to be the acceptable norm, while yes homosexuality was not nearly as hated as in Christian soceities it wasnt really seen as good or commendable either in Roman times.
Also the Romans didnt engage in temple prostitution, it was the Phoenicans and Carthaginians that did.
According to Dr. Alastair Blanshard, a researcher at the University of Sydney, and my own Greek history Professor Dr. Dimitris Krallis at Simon Fraser University the so-called Roman orgy was nothing more than a religious ritual to honor Dionysus, the god of merrymaking, people got wild and drunk but no sex (most of the time). Public sex did happen—a record TWO times in all the known history of Ancient Rome. It was actually very offensive for couples to engage in open displays of affection during the time of the Roman Republic—one senator even ended up being driven out of the Senate after he kissed his wife in public.
Sex during the day was frowned upon; sex was reserved for the night. During the act, no light from candles or lamps was allowed (it was considered bad taste), and the woman could not get fully naked (doing so was considered immoral).Pliny the Elder even claimed that silk should be banned because it was too sexually suggestive.
Early Christian writers, in promoting their religion, often wrongly used Roman satirical pieces as their sources when they wrote of the Roman way of life. For them, attacking the supposedly debauched Roman lifestyle became the perfect way to attract new recruits into their growing religion.
If you dont believe me you can contact those people with docterates that i mentioned, especially my own Greek History professor
It is certainly true that the Romans had a negative view of Greek sexual practices. However, Greeks saw homosexual acts as an important phase of life, whereas some Romans were happy with this as a permanent state of affairs. Rome also had a more egalitarian view of marriage than Greeks.
But your overall point is rather countered by artefacts, particularly from Herculaneum and Pompeii. Many of these were ‘censored’ until recently, since they undermined the sense in the West of the noble and enlightened character of classical culture.
Tim Monk (@monk_tim) says
I hope you can provide some links to support your claims so we can make a more informed judgment on these matters. Thank you.
Hmmm… that is not what Livy said and this was seconded 100 years later by Tacitus, They were both a bit put off by the excesses of the Roman elite culture as I recall. The blood festivities of the many colosseum’s spread throughout the Empire were well recorded and attested by other than Christian writers so, while we might fight over the definition of “orgy” it is difficult to deny the violence. Besides, being a persecuted cult did not allow Christians much latitude to offer up propaganda. The quotations offered in this piece are from letters to the Roman leadership appealing for them to relent on the persecution. So.. “um acutally” you are quite wrong unless you offer up something more concrete than cute, if spelling challenged, sarcasm.
Montel (@waffleater) says
well so were the mob who was put off by the excesses of the senator who kissed his wife in public. And also again often wrongly used Roman satirical pieces as their sources when they wrote of the Roman way of life they probably thought that was how the pagans really lived. And most of the quotes offered bt Dr.Kruger were from people like Terutllian- a famous chrisitan apologist. Again if you dont believed me you can contact those people with docterates that i mentioned, especially my own Greek History professor
To quote the last reference cited by Dr. Kruger: “we know either one wife, or none at all.”
And you suggest the Romans were more prudish than that? How did they have children then?
Samuel Smith says
“we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives.” Hmmm. You have emphasized the last three words, but failed to address Tertullian’s primary point: economic mutuality in the early Church, which is sorely lacking today. We build $30 million temples and send pastors to Hawaii, but let poor, hardworking Christians go on the public dole because of a corruption of the infamous Protestant work ethic. As a former minister, I can say with authority, the obsession with sex among conservative evangelicals is only matched by the trenchant unwillingness to address greed.
montel – didn’t yor greak professer teech you how to spell docter? 🙂