On Sexual Indulgence: Paul and contemporaries like Musonius Rufus

Quite well-known are the moral exhortations of early Christian authors such as Paul, which include a fair bit of advice on how to conduct oneself sexually.   Thus, for instance, Paul objects to a follower of Jesus at Corinth who was sleeping with his step-mother (the father was not likely around anymore) (1 Corinthians 5).  Quite well known and controversial these days are Paul’s comments about Greeks and Romans (“gentiles” = non-Judeans) who engage in what Paul considers “degrading passions”: “Their women exchanged  natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men. . . were consumed with passion for one another. . . ” (Romans 1:26-27 [NRSV]).  And Paul speaks to the followers of Jesus at Thessalonica and advocates that “you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body [vessel] in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the gentiles [non-Judeans] who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).  In some ways, Paul is reflecting quite typical stereotypes about Greeks and Romans from a Judean perspective here.

Yet such perspectives on sexual morality and modes of moral exhortation were not necessarily specifically Judean or “Christian” in Paul’s time.  Some of Paul’s “lustful” gentiles advocated similar moral choices when it came to sex.  In many ways, the instructional techniques and lifestyle choices advocated by Paul have parallels in contemporary philosophers (see also my early post on the “Golden Rule” among the ‘pagans’).

Musonius Rufus is one of these contemporary philosophers, a Greek philosopher who combined elements from both the Stoic and Cynic schools.  As I was designing my introductory Christian origins course this week, which this year focuses on placing Jesus, Paul, and other early Christian founders in the context of contemporaries, I re-read Musonius’ advice “On Sex”.  There he includes the following advice addressed primarily to men:

Not the least significant part of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess.  For example those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men.  Sometimes they pursue one love [women] and sometimes another [men], and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible, and invent shameful intimacies, all of which constitute a grave indictment of manhood.  Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage.  But of all sexual relations those involving adultery are most unlawful, and no more tolerable are those of men with men, because it is a monstrous thing and contrary to nature.

Trans. by Cora E. Lutz, “Musonius Rufus: ‘The Roman Socrates’,” Yale Classical Studies 10 (1947) 85-87, with adjustments to punctuation.

To modern ears, this may sound wonderful or ridiculous, or a bit of both, depending on who’s listening.  Here one of my points is that Paul had more in common with a guy like Musonius than Paul’s condemnation of the morally bankrupt non-Judeans would imply.

One thought on “On Sexual Indulgence: Paul and contemporaries like Musonius Rufus

  1. Steven Kurtz

    Thanks for this: I was looking for Musonius online to follow up a citation.

    Question: I want to teach an adult course at my church, but not just for church people, on the formation of Christian ethics – not an “issues” course, but a “foundations” course. I am looking for good sources; recommendations?

Comments are closed.