Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire: Ideology, the Bible, and the Early Christians challenges the view that current American sexual mores—ones that sustain heterosexual marriage and family—are “Judeo-Christian” values. Conversely, the sexual morality that guides conservative Americans, argues David Wheeler-Reed, does not reflect that of early Christians, who largely advocated an end to marriage and child-bearing. If conservative Americans want to look for an ancient corollary to their focus on the family, then according to Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire, they should look to the imperialist policies of the Roman Emperor Augustus. Relying on Foucault and Althusser, Wheeler-Reed examines discourses about sexuality, marriage, and procreation in both Roman antiquity and modern America (xv and 105), and asks how these discourses variously operate as ideologies that support the regulation of procreation—and in the case of the Roman state or America, shore up nationalistic interests (xiv). His argument is not that American conservatives have consciously adopted Roman imperial policies, but rather that there are strong structural similarities to their focus on procreative, heterosexual marriage with the Emperor Augustus’s marriage legislation. Moreover, Wheeler-Reed demonstrates that early Christian discourses of sexuality were not “novel” or “unprecedented” in the ancient world, but that what they cultivated over time was the promotion of celibacy, often in opposition to those who championed marriage and family (xvi–xviii). Chapter 1 introduces readers to Augustus’s marriage reforms, and compellingly charts how the emperor’s fixation on marriage and the production of children by his Roman subjects, particularly women, was deeply connected to his nationalistic designs. Wheeler-Reed’s discussion extends beyond the Augustan reforms to discourses of sexuality, marriage, and even in some cases, pleasure, in the Stoic writer Musonius Rufus, the physician Galen, and Achilles Tatius’s novel Leucippe and Clitophon. These authors hold varying positions on these subjects. Musonius Rufus considers having children a patriotic duty; Leucippe and Clitophon muses on the love of boys as well as girls; and Galen frames child-bearing as harmful to women, even “irrational” (26). Yet Wheeler-Reed surfaces across these discourses an underlying ideology that connected procreation positively to the welfare of the state. The remaining chapters look to early Jewish and Christian discourses on sexuality. In his second chapter, Wheeler-Reed traces a commitment to “Procreationism” across a swath of Second Temple Jewish writings, such as Tobit, Ben Sira, and Philo. This literature largely echoes the sexist themes of Augustan regulations that seek to contain and control women’s childbearing and protect the interests of male social elites. Yet some writings, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, promote chastity and celibacy rather than marriage and family, raising a critical point for Wheeler-Reed’s rejection of “Judeo-Christian” as an inapt construct. Ancient Jews did not share a monolithic view of sexuality, and in fact, as the next chapter goes on to show, neither did ancient Christians (60–61). Chapter 3 traces the discourses of sexuality located in the New Testament as well as in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Wheeler-Reed builds on and synthesizes earlier scholarship in the field of early Christian studies here. The view that New Testament discourses on sexuality and marriage can be divided into “anti-family” or “pro-family” camps, will, for instance, be known to readers of Dale Martin’s work. Wheeler-Reed’s exegesis of Paul especially relies on Martin’s conclusions that Paul worried over the disrupting influence of desire, disparaged porneia, and permitted sex in marriage only as a “prophylaxis” against these (69). Wheeler-Reed concludes that the New Testament canon enshrined “two ideological strategies” regarding sexuality: one located in Paul’s writings, the gospels of Mark and Matthew, and Acts of Paul and Thecla; and another, in the household codes of Ephesians and Colossians as well as the Pastoral Epistles. Later Christian writers would debate the two competing ideologies until the fourth century in which the superiority of celibacy and monasticism over marriage and family became dominant. The fourth chapter builds this familiar historical argument by looking at writers such as Tatian, Clement, Epiphanes, and Cassian. The novel insight here is that Wheeler-Reed sees Clement as promoting a sexual ethic closer to Tatian’s, and less “moderate” on the subject of sexuality in marriage than he is sometimes read to be (92). The chapter ends with the discussion of the Jovinianist controversy wherein celibacy emerges as essential to the new political and economic climate of late antiquity, supporting new, thriving institutions: the monastery and the church (101–2). Wheeler-Reed’s final chapter provides the broader pay-off for his historical investigations. In it, he analyzes the rhetoric of organizations like the Heritage Foundation, statements by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and legal arguments made before the Supreme Court in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case, which recognized the legal status of same-sex marriages. In this discussion, Wheeler-Reed unsettles an ideology of the family regularly espoused by conservative Christians today, that heterosexual marriage and child-rearing are the bedrock of a stable society and that they have been “for millennia” (122). As Wheeler-Reed has already shown, “many Christians didn’t believe this at all” (117). Overall, Wheeler-Reed provides a compelling historical argument, and one that fully persuades me. Yet I share Wheeler-Reed’s socially liberal politics, so perhaps this is not so surprising. Wheeler-Reed notes at the close of his study that we still need to ask what drives American conservatives’ “obsession” with family values (122). Historical investigations of ideologies, as powerful as they are (and Wheeler-Reed’s is certainly powerful), cannot address this bigger question. To be clear, Wheeler-Reed acknowledges the limits of his ideological-critical framework. While it reveals the workings of power and the ways that this sexual ideology sustains “neo-imperial-capitalism,” it does not offer solutions (105). Yet in revealing the “ideological content” of speech advocating “Judeo-Christian” values, I think what Wheeler-Reed shows us is that people’s investment in those values (and the social and economic arrangements they support) are not “really,” or maybe better, not primarily about the history of the Bible and early Christianity anyway. A way to that bigger question, then, might be to leverage theoretical approaches (for instance, affective and psychoanalytic ones) in our historical investigations, to examine, in Wheeler-Reed’s terminology, how ideologies are internalized, and how they persist, particularly when they have little historical credibility undergirding them. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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