Jessie’s knuckles were now bleeding. So far, mother had hit the back of each hand a dozen times with the wooden spoon, and didn’t look like she was going to stop. Jessie was sobbing quietly, because she knew her mother would be more violent if she protested.
Eventually, after another few hits, she stomped out of the room and left Jessie to deal with her pain.
Jessie’s mother had come into her bedroom late one evening and discovered her masturbating. This had happened a year before and that time she had publicly shamed her before the pastor and his wife. This time, she decided her 15 year old daughter needed a stronger lesson.
Jessie reported these events to me during trauma therapy 20 years later. Through Internal Family Systems therapy, I had helped her stay in Self and not blend with the younger self in this memory. As a result, she was able to help 15 year old Jessie to feel better about life. She invited her to notice how she lived her life in the present day. She showed her that she was able to have the sex she wanted, that she had cut her parents out of her life, and she was feeling confident.
Back in teen years, her preachers and parents had peppered her with predictions of great destruction if she ever embraced her own sexuality. By the time we were in therapy together, Jessie was no longer married and was as sexually active as she wanted to be. She had not gotten an STI, been pregnant, or had mental illness.
The main emotional struggles she faced surrounded her strict upbringing in Purity Culture.
She asked me at one point: “Mike, I know you used to be a preacher. Why is Christianity so negative toward sex?”
At the time, I was only sure it had a lot to do with patriarchal culture. But in the years since, I have learned a lot more.
There actually is an historical reason that Christianity adopted a very strict moral viewpoint toward sexuality. It has everything to do with fear.
If you want a much deeper look at this and other issues regarding early Christianity and Sexuality, read this lengthy article I wrote earlier this year.
In this summary, I’m going to rely on the work of William Loader. Specifically, I am going to draw upon the historical evidence in his book “Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition” and his landmark article, “Not as the Gentiles”: Sexual Issues at the Interface between Judaism and Its Greco-Roman World“.
After the Jews returned from captivity around the ancient near east, they re-settled in Jerusalem and the surrounding area and rebuilt the temple. This is known as the Second Temple Era. For the next 400 years, the Jews faced pressure from an ever-changing landscape of nations wanting to conquer them.
The Greek armies under Antiochus Epiphanes finally did just that.
When the Greeks conquered Jerusalem and the Second Temple, they instituted new laws forbidding Jewish men from practicing circumcision, reading the scriptures, or worshiping in the temple. They also practiced a much different set of sexual standards, which included homosexuality in public bathhouses and gymnasiums, freer access to sex workers, use of young boys for sex (catamites), and an open policy on having sex with slaves in public places.
In short, the Greek conquerors exploded the Jewish male’s understanding of what was allowed sexually. When the Maccabees were successful in chasing the Greeks out of Israel during the revolt, a backlash started against all the Greek sexual practices. As I write about in the paper mentioned above, the Jewish religious leaders hated the incursion of Greek ideas about sexuality into the lives of the average Jewish male.
What was the concern about sexuality centered on? Why were they so afraid of allowing any Greek sexual practices to become part of their culture?
After the Jews returned from captivity to Jerusalem, they began to wonder: “Why did our god allow this to happen to us? Why did we go from such a free-spirited, powerful nation to become a nation that other nations trod upon?
The answer they came up with emerged from many sources. But the general gist is that they had not kept themselves pure. Because they were seen as impure, their god abandoned them to slavery and captivity. If they wanted to avoid being judged by their god again, they wanted to purify themselves. But that meant they had to figure out what purity meant.
One prophet said one thing–another prophet had another theory. But they all focused on the concept of syncretism. This is the practice of allowing the behaviors of other nations/cultures to become part of your own. The Hebrew word for “holiness” has the twin ideas of being pure and being unmixed with the practices of other nations.
Several religious sects formed to combat the slide into syncretism. The Pharisees began to emphasize the importance of following all of the rules of the Torah. By this, they hoped to garner their god’s favor and eliminate all Greek influences. The Saducees decided the way to approach this was to gain political power and enact laws and regulations to prevent any foreigner from influencing their nation. In this, they seized control of the dominant political structure.
Finally, a third group emerged, more home-spun and rural. It was known as the Essenes. This movement had a grass-roots appeal and it reached into the sensibilities of most Jewish families. Even Jewish communities as far-flung as the North African city of Alexandria were affected. We read the Jewish historian Philo and we can see the Essene influence in their lives.
Essentially, the Essenes believed that the wrong practice of sexuality is what caused god to be angry at them.
When Philo first begins to write about Jewish history, he has a very expansive view toward sexuality. He sees the legitimacy of men having sex with slaves, with sex workers, and even with foreign women. But over the years, as the sexual purity ideas of the Essenes caught hold of Jewish culture, he began to be more strict about what kinds of sex were legitimate.
By the end of his writing life, he recommended that Jewish men ONLY have sex for procreation. He considered a man having recreational sex with his wife to be akin to making her a prostitute. In this, he echoes the teachings of the Essenes.
The christian scriptures only makes a passing reference to this movement, and that is in the description of John the Baptist. He was the quintessential Essene male–and perhaps the most famous adherent to their approach to faith. He was unmarried, solitary, lived in poverty, and preached a message of repentance and moral purity. He was eventually killed by the king for criticizing the king’s sexual practices.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were collected in a place called Qumran and represented this community’s dedication to the Essene views. From these documents we learn that they believed the following about sex:
- Sex was only to be practiced in marriage
- Sex with foreigners was forbidden
- Sex with another man’s slaves was forbidden
- Masturbation was forbidden
- Sex with one’s wife for any purpose other than procreation was discouraged
- Sex with sex workers was forbidden.
- Finally, the ultimate spiritual man was one who lived a celibate life. This was the highest ideal. Sex with a woman was considered an act that made a man impure. The book of Revelation reflects this attitude.
Many theologians, myself included, believe that not only John the Baptist was heavily influenced by the sexual mores of the Essenes, but also Jesus and the Apostle Paul. Paul’s viewpoints on sex and marriage in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 reflect the party line of the Essenes.
Look at that list of names: Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul. These three represent the dominant leaders of the origins of the christian era. Add to this Peter, James, and John who were originally followers of John the Baptist and it is clear that even if they were not Essene members, they were sympathetic to the teachings of this group.
From the very start of Christianity, there was a repressive element to the faith. The first five centuries of the church reinforced this. By the end of the fifth century, most christian leaders considered celibacy to be the highest station regarding sexuality. In no wise were any christian leaders sex positive. There are occasional sex positive mentions in early christian writings, but these are almost completely from writers considered heterodox (heretical) by the early church.
In short, the early christians inherited their fear of judgment if people strayed from sexual purity. This was always fear-based. Repression is always more powerful when it is based on the fear of punishment. These are the roots of the christian approach to sexuality. They are the roots to the endemic sexual repression we see all over the church today.
In next week’s article in this series, we’ll look at what sexual repression does to a person and how it affects a person’s behavior.