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The Gospel of John was composed...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Jesus and a Question about Sex Talk - Le Donne

Working on a paragraph this morning and I have two questions.

1) If the cultural norm was marriage in first-century, Jewish Galilee and if Jesus chose not to marry, would it be appropriate to call him a sexual deviant?

2) If the denotative value of the word "deviant" is appropriate, does the contemporary connotative value of this word trump all else?  I suppose that I'm asking if calling Jesus a "sexual deviant" will mislead my more casual readers.

I am open to all suggestions for synonyms.

-anthony

P.s. Please understand that I am not making any assumptions about Jesus' marital status. The above "ifs" are used purposefully.

38 comments:

  1. Toying with the phrase "sexual outlier"... but the denotative value isn't quite as apt as deviant.

    -anthony

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  2. Perhaps "social deviant" or "cultural outlier" is more apt than sexual, since sexuality isn't the only aspect of marriage?

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  3. What about "sexual noncomformist"? It might connote more along the lines of "outlier" though...

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  4. Lit perspective: Does it communicate what you're seeking to communicate, or does it distract from the point?

    Language perspective: "deviant" is fine, with explanation included, but only necessary if there's no better alternative. Unless, of course, you're out to have fun being provocative. ; - )

    Historical perspective: Was it really so rare to be single in those days? I'm not sure. For instance, a man with widowed mother and crippled sister might not be able to afford a wife. The cultural norm, I'd say, rested on a foundation of what was germane to survival. Basic home economics necessitated having a woman to run the house, but not necessarily a wife.

    Of course the norm was still marriage and family, but my point is that I don't think this was for sexual reasons. Not only did the ancient world lack the same sense of sexual entitlement as the modern age (excepting the very wealthiest classes, of course) but Maslow's hierarchy means recreational sex couldn't be very high on the radar (again, excepting the wealthy). For example, regarding the hundreds of thousands of men sent to be soldiers or miners or trireme rowing slaves, I don't think their relatives back home were lamenting in terms such as, "Those poor men - they never get laid."

    Maybe Jesus never married because he couldn't afford to. (?)

    At any rate, you began with "cultural norm" and proceeded to "sexual deviant". At the very least, you may wish to try "cultural deviant" or else be prepared to demonstrate a "sexual norm". But in terms of day to day sexual activity, I suspect the lower classes' sex lives could be characterized by various levels of abstinence. That's probably one reason why weddings were such a big deal.

    Sorry to go on so long. I love pragmatic framing like this.

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  5. With regard to sexual norms, virtually as we have are elite sources, which has two implications here. One, we don't know that much about the sexual practices and ideals of lower classes, but if we're going to speculate (as Bill is suggesting), there is some ground for speculating that lower classes shared some elite perspectives. I don't have the pages at hand, but Craig Williams' book Roman Homosexuality deals with this briefly.

    Two, we can still compare Jesus' behavior to the values and norms of elite discourses on sexual behavior, including not just the pressure to marry and produce heirs, but the value of asserting one's status through "proper" sexual activity, that is playing the "active" role in sexual encounters.

    I think "queer" might be a fitting, and accurate, term--though obviously if you most concerned with historical description the word might be more provocative than you want. Wondering if you've looked at Dale Martin's chapter on Jesus' sexuality in Sex and the Single Savior? It's brief, and not primarily focused on historical questions, but it also highlights how "queer" or odd Jesus is (or is represented to be) in the ancient context--even when compared to other ascetics. Hence the value of "queer" for Martin: Jesus doesn't quite fit any known group or category.

    That said, if queer is too much, "deviant" might be ok, especially if you connect to to the "eunuch" passage in Matt. 19:13 as a self-description. To perhaps state the obvious, eunuchs were seen as sexual deviants in the Greco-Roman world, and scholarship has done much to illuminate the complexity of these figures. If you aren't already familiar with that work, Halvor Moxnes and a few others have used it to discuss the eunuch saying. Hope this helps. Sounds interesting!

    Eric

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    1. Thanks Eric, Dale Martin's book has been very helpful.

      ...I'm not sure that reading the Matt 19:13 saying as self-description can be done responsibly without heavy qualification.

      Your point about elite sources is well taken. I would say it a bit differently, however. We most often see through the eyes of the elites, even when we're getting perspectives on non-elites. Of course, the term "elite" must be qualified too.

      -anthony

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    2. Eric, "queer" is a very complicated term. The term came to mind when I read Anthony's post, but even if we could agree on what the term means, I don't think it fits. I see nothing to indicate that Jesus' view of family wasn't "heteronormative", that he had an unusual view of gender, or that he saw heterosexuality as anything other than the "normal" sexual orientation. We'd then have to get into difficult questions of whether being unmarried (or even anti-marriage) is "queer", or whether celibacy (either by choice or by circumstance) is "queer".

      I think we'd end up concluding that, even if it is appropriate to use the term "queer" outside of the LGBT community, the term is hopelessly anachronistic when applied to the 1st century.

      But I found it valuable to consider why Jesus was unmarried and held "shocking" opinions on sex and family. Assume for a moment that Jesus' opinions all stemmed from his apocalypticism. Would we still say that this attitudes were "deviant"? These attitudes might have been thoroughly mainstream for apocalypticists.

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    3. Not that I think Anthony will adopt the term, with good reason perhaps, but "queer" isn't necessarily that difficult to define. I'd hazard "that which runs counter to or seeks to oppose definitions of normal or natural sexuality, and especially the dominance of a heteronormative definition." In that it can target the category of "natural" as well as "normal" it is not "hopelessly" anachronistic after all. And perhaps less so than "heteronormative" as a descriptor of ancient Mediterranean discourses and practices, a culture that of course lacked not only the terms "heterosexual" and "homosexual," but also the concept of sexual orientation that neatly placed individual desire in one of two mutually exclusive categories.

      "I see nothing to indicate that Jesus' view of family wasn't "heteronormative": Except perhaps his critique of the cultural priority given to biological kinship ties, a critique which, according to Matthew at least, included the positive appropriation of "eunuch" for those men who rejected the role, and accompanying status and authority, of fatherhood? In a culture in which ideal men are defined in no small part by their ability to reproduce and, more generally, to assert their dominance through sexual acts, is it really a stretch to say that "singleness" and especially voluntary "celibacy" are at least odd, and even queer to the extent they do in fact represent a rejection of dominant gender ideals for men?

      "That he had an unusual view of gender" Except perhaps his valorization of voluntary suffering and nonretaliation; his rejection of wealth- and status-seeking via competition with other men; his exhortation (for men) to model themselves after children and slaves; and, again, his positive use of "eunuch" as a descriptor for celibate male followers--all of which run counter to dominant gender ideals for men in Greco-Roman culture.

      Not to mention his own ambiguous gender "performance" as a teacher who lacked paideia; a public speaker who moved the masses; an adult male who (it seems) willfully rejected sex; a sometime wood-worker and itinerant wonder-worker materially dependent on women; a criminal tried as a bandit; and a victim of the humiliating ritual of crucifixion, both before and during which he (at times) unheroically gave into his passions (grief). To be sure, there are tendencies in his "performance" that move in the opposite direction--rejecting sex might signal his supreme self-mastery, for example, and his voluntary death might signal his noble courage if understood as done for others--but I'd argue his understanding of gender and behavior as a "man" are not quite "usual" for heroes in Greco-Roman culture, however much the gospel authors have taken pains to present him as such.

      "These attitudes might have been thoroughly mainstream for apocalypticists." Perhaps so, especially if Johnny B and Paul are anything to go by. John the Seer, too, maybe. (The Qumran community being a matter of some contention on this issue). But how mainstream are apocalypticists? I think Anthony is right: noting the distinctiveness, even the oddness, of Jesus' views/behavior with respect to gender and sexuality does not necessarily separate him from his Jewish context. That usually only happens when interpreters start seeing Jewish gender/sexual norms as "bad" or "patriarchal" AND Jesus as "good" or even a "feminist" for rejecting those norms as oppressive. In short, how "mainstream" can a guy be when he rejects marriage and kinship for himself and ideally for his followers, yet is "conservative" when it comes to divorce?

      Eric

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    4. Bill, that’s a better argument than anything I’ve put together today, but I don’t agree with it. The word “queer” means something more than something counter to prevailing norms of gender and sexuality. It is, I think, a word that signals not only the rejection of those norms, but also a rejection of the categories we use to describe gender and sexuality in general. It also signals a particular kind of objection – a person today who criticizes society as sexually promiscuous would not be deemed “queer”.

      “Queer” is also a word that, I think, is specific to our time and circumstances. Referring to someone in the first century as “queer” is akin to referring to such a person as a social democrat, a postmodernist, or a redneck. These terms belong to other contexts. You’re quite right that “heteronormative” is also an anachronistic term when applied to the first century – it describes our society and not Jesus’. But in the same fashion, “queer” describes an opposition to our sexual and gender norms, and not those prevailing in Jesus’ day.

      Moreover, I would argue that “queer” contains a component of self-identity – one might identify one’s self as “queer”, but I don’t think (even putting aside the frequently understood pejorative understanding of the term) one would label another as “queer”. This term is the wrong term to use for Jesus, as Jesus did not use the term (or anything like it) to describe himself.

      The remainder of your piece is very interesting, but I have a common problem with much of it, which is that you are trying to draw a contrast between Jesus and some norm for male 1st century Palestinian Jews. But as we learn more about 1st century Palestine, we’re having increasing difficulty trying to figure out what was normative then. Moreover, even if we think there WAS a norm back then, it would remain true that no one conforms to a norm in all respects. Jesus doubtless did and said many things during his ministry that one might not associate with a Jewish male of his time and place. So did every other Jewish male of his time and place.

      Jesus did not make himself a eunuch, nor did any of his followers. He had only male disciples. He asked the children “to come onto me”, knowing full well that the stork didn’t bring them. He opposed adultery in the strongest terms, and if he saw marriage as a problem, he failed to embrace divorce as a solution. He may have practiced celibacy, but he never recommended it. So in many respects, Jesus did conform to the norm … if there was one.

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    5. Sorry Eric, that last reply should have been addressed to you.

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    6. "I have a common problem with much of it, which is that you are trying to draw a contrast between Jesus and some norm for male 1st century Palestinian Jews. But as we learn more about 1st century Palestine, we’re having increasing difficulty trying to figure out what was normative then." I think part of the problem stems from a difference in approach between us. I'm thinking more in terms of how Jesus is represented in the gospels, and I should have been clearer about that, whereas you seem to be thinking of the historical Jesus. So I'm much more confident that we can describe, in some detail, gender/sexual norms in Greco-Roman culture.

      And regarding Roman Palestine, surely we are also becoming increasingly aware of how implausible it is to separate that region from broader social, cultural, religious, and political trends evidenced throughout the empire. I'm all for looking for local variations and emphases; but I don't think even Galilee was so removed from these broader trends and discourses as to make it illegitimate to interpret Jesus's gender/sexuality in light of them. And the fact that no one perfectly embodies gender norms is hardly a reason against studying those norms and how well a particular person may or may not perform them. If Jesus was unremarkable in his gender and sexual behavior and views, that's worth knowing--but it is something to be demonstrated, not assumed (though I don't think you are suggesting we should simply make that assumption).

      Eric

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  6. Hmm. Are you trying to think in 1st, or 21st, century terms? In the 1st century, we might think of Palestinian social rules in terms of shame and honor. In those terms, and given your assumptions, the best word to describe Jesus might be "a shanda".

    If we're thinking present-day, it gets harder. Even if we take as a given the idea of marriage as a cultural norm that Jesus did not follow, it becomes difficult to come up with a noun for this not-following. Your choice of "outlier" is interesting, because for me it is an attempt to think about this question in a statistical way, without moral judgment. We might imagine first century Palestinian Jews as points on a graph, all clustered close to some median average relationship to marriage, and Jesus way off to the side somewhere, possibly three standard deviations from the mean.

    But to picture this graph is to undermine it. How do we graph the widow and the widower, the leper, the demon-possessed, the adulterer, those that cannot or choose not to have children, the polygamist, the divorced, those in "good" marriages, those in unhappy marriages, those who think like Ben Sirach ... we might go on forever.

    The problem, I think, goes back to your assumption. I think you can defend the idea of a first century Palestinian Jewish norm of marriage. But I don't think you can defend the kind of strict and widespread conformity to this norm that would have made Jesus an outlier, not to mention a deviant.

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  7. One added thought is that I don't think it's helpful to continually define Jesus at the margins, or to paint a picture where all the Jews are over here, and Jesus is way off over there. In your little interfaith buch, AJ Levine proposed a moratorium on the use of "marginal" to describe Jesus. Levine instead described how Jesus was "mainstream". I'd follow Levine here.

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    1. Larry, I fail to see how a frank discussion about Jesus' (sometimes) shocking statements about sexuality, marriage and the family might be construed as pushing him to the "margins" of Judaism. I can see how these two topics might be related, but when have I ever given the impression that "all the Jews are over here, and Jesus is way off over there"?

      -anthony

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    2. I didn't mean to imply that this is something you do generally. You don't. Sorry if that wasn't clear. But in this discussion, use of words like "deviant" and "outlier" ARE words that suggest marginality. If all we're talking about is Jesus' marital status, then I'd question that suggestion. However, if you're also bringing in things that Jesus said about marriage, sex and family, then the suggestion is warranted. IMHO. Not just within Jesus' Jewish context, but also within the larger diaspora and Greco-Roman context to which the Gospels (arguable) were addressed.

      If what you're looking for is something with the right denotive value, I'd still go with "shanda". If you need to translate that term for a present-day Christian audience, you might try #facepalm.

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    3. Thank you Larry,

      This is perhaps fodder for another post. I'm still a bit puzzled by your position here. Are you suggesting that Jesus could not have held a "fringe" position about something like marriage and family? Or are you suggesting that if he did, it would make him less Jewish? Both of these seem like bad assumptions. Because I am not inclined to think that you make bad assumptions I must be missing something.

      Relatedly, I think that A.-J.'s call for a moratorium on the word "marginal" is unrealistic and unnecessary. We ought to use our categories better, not abolish words that have been co-opted by people with whom we disagree. But more to the point: the notion of a perceived "mainstream" supposes that there is something that falls beyond the perceived mainstream.

      -anthony

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    4. I don't seem to be communicating well today, or spelling well, for that matter.

      Of course Jesus might have held fringe positions. I am increasingly coming to see Jesus as a mainstream figure, but if we're to take seriously the sectarian nature of 1st century Palestinian Judaism, every sect would have held some positions that would strike us as "fringe" today, and might have been seen as "fringe" by those outside of the sect.Perhaps most Jews were "fringe" in those days. But "fringe" is not necessarily the same thing as "deviant", and it's not nearly the same thing as an "outlier".

      Your original "call" for comments referred only to an assumption that Jesus chose not to marry, contrasted with an assumed social norm to marry, and that doesn't strike me even as fringe. There would be plenty of unmarried folks, even in a society where marriage is the "norm".

      If Jesus actively opposed that norm, that might put him on the fringe, depending on the reason for his opposition. If Jesus was the apocalyptic prophet described by Allison and others, then he may not have been opposed to marriage (or sex, or family), so much as he thought there were other things more important to worry about in the time we had left. If so, then once again Jesus might not have been on the fringe, depending on whether an apocalyptic world view was fringe, and if he was fringe it may not have been his view of marriage that put him there.

      The question of whether someone might be more Jewish, or less Jewish, is beyond the scope of my comments here. I did not intend to address this question.

      Regarding the mainstream and what lies beyond it ... we're back into a discussion of fringe, deviant and outlier. Even a mainstream is going to encompass some amount of difference. "Fringe" might describe those on the border of the mainstream, "deviant" those outside the mainstream and "outlier" something considerably distant from the mainstream, to the point where we may question our measurements or consider whether we're measuring something other.

      The use of any of these terms requires us to make difficult judgments concerning the extent of diversity in the mainstream and how far Jesus would have to venture from the norm in order to be considered fringe, deviant or an outlier.

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  8. FWIW - deviant comes across negatively; 'deviates from a supposed' norm is just fine. Devious? - maybe - Psalm 18 וְעִם־עִקֵּשׁ תִּתְפַּתָּֽל

    avoid nominalization and adjectives - use verbs.

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  9. Sexual anomaly seems more value neutral than sexual aberrant.

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  10. Well, looks like you succeeded in getting more people to visit your blog because of the provocative content. I'm sure a paper talking about Jesus as a sexual deviant would be similarly successful. It won't mislead anyone. It will make some people upset and send others giggling like children.

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  11. and...for the second question, no, sexual deviant is not the overriding principle. If Jesus was claiming to be the Jewish messiah, we need to first see what the OT and pseudepigraphic material says about sex.

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    1. I think you've misunderstood my second question.

      -anthony

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  12. Is Jesus' putative single-status primarily about his sexual activity?

    Jesus could have been single and still had sex. This line of questioning seems silly to me.

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  13. Norwegian bachelor farmer just about covers it.

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  14. "I suppose that I'm asking if calling Jesus a ‘sexual deviant’ will mislead my more casual readers."

    If by "casual readers" you mean general readers interested in the field of historical Jesus studies, then I believe I qualify and, in answer to your question, I would have to say yes. The use of the term "sexual deviant" is so inappropriate in this context as to make this whole exercise appear as an attempt to shock rather than enlighten. Moreover, I don’t know what to make of the invitation, apparently directed to non-casual readers (or maybe both), to assist in finding a synonym that won't mislead the casual reader. Obviously, I have not read the paper you are working on and in which you may use the term. But I do think that describing unmarried people as “sexual deviants” is misleading.

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    1. Thanks for your direct answer Niccolo. I cannot convey how valuable this comment thread has been for me. I'm not quite sure that I've landed on the right phrase yet. I really do need a word that conveys how remarkably counter-cultural Jesus was on this count - so it needs to jar a bit. But I can see that the very question makes non-academics feel like there has been a breach of trust.

      -anthony

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    2. Anthony:

      I really enjoy the blog and your posts, and I am glad my answer is useful.

      If what you are after is counter-cultural, I think the reference to sex gets in the way, and you'll find yourself frequently having to explain what you meant instead of talking about the subject. Also, for me counter-cultural connotes a thoughtful and open alternative to the dominant culture, which seems consistent with Jesus' ministry, whereas deviant seems more ad hoc and furtive, which does not.

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    3. Right. But how you wanted readers to understand the terms you have chosen is not.

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    4. "Also, for me counter-cultural connotes a thoughtful and open alternative to the dominant culture, which seems consistent with Jesus' ministry, whereas deviant seems more ad hoc and furtive, which does not."

      Hmm, isn't part of the problem also that "counter-cultural" seems neutral, but "deviant" seems evaluative? Part of what Anthony is dealing with, I think, is how to convey how Jesus' behavior would be perceived, but also to avoid taking sides in that evaluation, especially in a way that might put off a general reader.

      Eric

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  15. Niccolo, being single was apparently strange enough that early Christians felt the need to preserve a story in Matthew where Jesus justifies it.

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    1. Jeremiah:

      Right, and based on his reply to my comment, it appears to me that that is what Anthony aims at, as well – the counter-cultural aspect of Jesus’ status. I am just reacting to the impact that the contemporary term "sexual deviant" will have on any discussion of this topic.

      Is this the passage from Matthew to which you refer?

      9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." 10 The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry." 11 But he said to them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it."

      If so, he does appear to be justifying abstinence for the “sake” of his ministry, but interestingly, he is doing so in response to his disciples and not the Pharisees who are said to be “test[ing]” him earlier in the passage. The audience for these remarks leads me to think the idea of marriage/non-marriage was a ministry issue and that maybe the statement by the disciples was something added to the text later to settle disputes about whether early Christian disciples can/should marry – the sudden change in focus from testing Pharisees to anti-marriage disciples seems out of synch to me. So does the structure of the concluding discussion. The disciples appear to be saying that they prefer to remain unmarried to marriage under such a stricture. Jesus explains that marriage is not for everybody – which is what I think you are getting at – and then seems to change the subject to abstinence for the sake of the kingdom/ministry. In any event, I do how see Jesus’ remarks may be taken as counter-cultural . I just don’t know anything about the relevant First Century culture to make a judgment, but hopefully I may read something here.

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  16. Sexual ascetic? If Jesus had been widowed, or never married, perhaps he chose to follow the tradition of an apocalyptic group (Qumran, where as I understand it, most but not all were celibate) or another group like it? These groups may have been a small minority, but their practices could have been regarded as legitimate religious alternatives.

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    1. I'm not sure that either (1) ascetic will be understood by a Barns and Noble sort of reader, or that (2) Jesus was a sexual ascetic.

      Also, the Yahad probably practiced celibacy on some level, but most scholars would be very cautious to speculate that most of the group practiced celibacy. They clearly looked that way to a few outsiders, but the evidence from the sectarian documents themselves give us a different story.

      -anthony

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    2. The existence of an apocalyptic tradition of celibacy seems to point away from "deviant" as I would define it and toward counter-cultural.

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    1. Sexual dissenter.

      Niccolo. The reply wouldn't let me use name/URL.

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