Category Archives: Ancient philosophies

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.

Golden rule: Do unto others according to the “pagans”

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:12 [NRSV]; cf. Luke 6:31).

As you may know, rabbi Jesus was not alone among those in antiquity in advocating that ethics and treatment of others should be based on how one would like (or not like) to be treated. Thus, for instance, in a story involving another first century rabbi, rabbi Hillel, like Jesus, summarizes the ethical basis of the Torah in speaking to a Gentile convert:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is an elaborate commentary on it; go and learn” (Shabbat 31a; trans. by Moshe Gold, “Ethical Practice in Critical Discourse: Conversions and Disruptions in Legal, Religious Narratives,” Representations 64 [1998], 21).

And the book of Tobit in the apocrypha preserves a similar concept (Tobit 4:15). This was by no means a solely Jewish (or, later, Christian) way of thinking, however.

Despite what you may have heard about the “pagan” Greeks or Romans (a friend of mine — perhaps representative — thought they were all about wild orgies), “pagans” too were very concerned with proper behaviour as they defined it, and sometimes they defined it in similar ways. Educated philosophers, in particular, focussed their attention on questions of what behaviours were most fitting, desirable, or appropriate in particular circumstances. Such philosophers were often very concerned with “family values”, and so they spent considerable time thinking about what were the appropriate relationships among members of the household: husband-wife; parent-child; sibling-sibling; master-slave (the so called household codes which also appear in variant forms in Christian writings such as Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).

Among these “pagan” philosophers is Hierocles, who wrote a handbook in the second century that incorporated many ethical ideas from Stoicism (partially preserved in the works of Stobaeus). In the midst of discussing proper relations among members of the family and in society generally, Hierocles has this to say:

The first bit of advice, therefore, is very clear, easily obtained, and common to all people. For it is a sound word which everyone will recognize as clear: Treat anybody whatsoever as though you supposed that he were you and you he. For someone would treat even a servant well if he pondered how he would want to be treated if the slave were the master and he the slave. Something similar can also be said of parents with respect to their children, of children with respect to their parents, and, in short, of all people with respect to others” (Hierocles, On Duties 4.27.20; translated by Abraham J. Malherbe, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook [Library of Early Christianity; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986], 93-94. ).

Think of that bit of Greco-Roman wisdom the next time you’re watching some modern film or show depicting those supposedly wild Roman “pagans” with their orgies and gladiatorial slaughter.

Want more on “pagan” ethics and family values?:  See my earlier post on Paul and Philemon, in which I discussed the views of Galen and Seneca, both philosophers, on the proper treatment of slaves.  Also see my articles on the use of familial language including  “brothers” and “mothers or fathers”, within associations.

Was Paul a man of his time?: Contemporaries on the treatment of slaves (NT 2.11)

Yes he was. When studying Paul’s letters, it is important to consider Paul’s views on important social and cultural institutions of Greco-Roman society. One of these institutions was slavery.

Slavery was an important part of the economy in the Roman empire, and the lives of most slaves were by no means easy. You can read about some of this online in Keith Bradley’s Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome and John Madden’s Slavery in the Roman Empire: Numbers and Origins. Slaves were also integrated within social and family life, as slaves were considered to belong to the “household” as broadly understood in antiquity. They were objects owned by their masters and subject to the orders of their masters, but belonged to the “family” at the lowest rung in the ladder.

Slaves were also subject to punishment for failing to obey their masters, and this could sometimes be quite brutal, as the quotations from Galen and Seneca below indicate. It seems that Paul, like other contemporaries, assumed the continued existence of slavery and did not show any signs of calling for its abolishment or even for the manumission (setting free) of slaves. When Paul wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of Onesimus, who was most likely a runaway slave, he did not ask Onesimus’ master, Philemon, to free (manumit) the slave. Nor did Paul call for the end of slavery. Elsewhere Paul advised that slaves (and others) should remain as they are in light of the present distress and coming end (1 Cor 7:21-24).

Paul, like virtually all of his contemporaries, could not imagine a society that did not have a system of slavery. Nonetheless, it may be that Paul, like some contemporary philosophers, did advocate that masters like Philemon at least treat their slaves in a more controlled manner, or even as a “brother”, as Paul puts it (at least if the slave belonged to the Jesus movement). In writing his letter, Paul seems to be concerned that Onesimus the slave not receive severe punishment from his master for whatever wrongdoing or disobedience his master perceived.

So Paul’s concerns may have something in common with the sentiments of upper-class authors such as Galen and Seneca. Galen, a physician and philosopher who lived in Pergamum (Asia Minor) in the second century, had this to say about punishing slaves:

“If a man adheres to the practice of never striking any of his slaves with his hand, he will be less likely to succumb [to a fit of anger] later on. . . my father trained me to behave in this way myself. . . . There are other people who don’t just hit their slaves, but kick them and gouge out their eyes. . . . The story is told that the Emperor Hadrian struck one of his attendants in the eye with a pen. When he realised that [the slave] had become blind in one eye as a result of this stroke, he called him to him and offered to let him ask him for any gift to make up for what he had suffered. When the victim remained silent, Hadrian again asked him to make a request of whatever he wanted. He declined to accept anything else, but asked for his eye back — for what gift could provide compensation for the loss of an eye?” (Galen, The Diseases of the Mind, 4; translation from T. Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery [London: Croom Helm, 1981] 180-81).

Seneca, a first-century philosopher, stressed that one needed to control one’s passions or impulses in order to live a wise life (the philosophical life). In the context of discussing the control of anger, he used the treatment of slaves as an example:

“Why do I have to punish my slave with a whipping or imprisonment if he gives me a cheeky answer or disrespectful look or mutters something which I can’t quite hear? Is my status so special that offending my ears should be a crime? There are many people who have forgiven defeated enemies — am I not to forgive someone for being lazy or careless or talkative? If he’s a child, his age should excuse him, if female, her sex, if he doesn’t belong to me, his independence, and if he does belong to my household, the ties of family” (Seneca, Dialogue 5: On Anger, 3.24; translation from Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery, 179-80).

Both Paul and Seneca seem to be concerned with modifying perceptions of status in some cases and with alleviating the negative treatments that could flow from status-distinctions, but neither had in mind an end to slavery.

Sophia’s repentance: The Apocryphon of John (NT Apocrypha 20)

In a previous post, I have discussed the (“gnostic”) mythology surrounding the figure of Sophia (Wisdom personified) as developed in some of the Nag Hammadi writings. My discussion of Sophia’s mistake in connection with the document called The Sophia of Jesus Christ placed this mythology within the framework of Middle Platonic philosophy and discussed the manner in which Sophia, as a divine being (aeon), was responsible for the mistake that led to the creation of the inferior material realm, our world as we know it.

The second-century Apocryphon of John (or Secret Book of John, online here) presents a far more developed story of the emergence of the perfect spiritual realm and the abortive creation of the material realm. Here Sophia is once again instrumental in performing a massive blunder that leads to the creation of our physical world, but the story is extended in various ways, including a more developed reference to the fact that Sophia was repentant for the mistake and willing to do penance, so to speak.

In the Apocryphon of John, Sophia is once again among the many emanations from the original monad or perfect spirit, the Father. Sophia is also once again responsible, on her own (apart from her “consort”), for the emergence or emanation of the “ruler” (archon) or “world-creator” (demiurge), here called Ialdabaoth:

“Now the wisdom [Sophia] belonging to afterthought, which is an aeon, thought a thought derived from herself. . . She wanted to show forth within herself an image, without the spirit’s [will]; and her consort did not consent. . . And out of her was shown forth an imperfect product, that was different from her manner of appearance, for she had made it without her consort. And compared to the image of its mother it was misshapen, having a different form” (Apocryphon of John 9.25-10.7; trans. by Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions [New York: Doubleday, 1987]).

Ialdabaoth (also spelled Ialtabaoth or Aldabaoth), who is largely identified with the creator god of Genesis, then goes on to create other “rulers” (archons) like himself who assist in creating the material realm, including human beings (Adam and Eve). He is an ignorant god (ignorant of where he had come from and from where his power came), according to this author, a god who just loves to assert how he’s the one-and-only (playing on passages from the Hebrew Bible), when in fact he is not : “It is I who am god, and no other god exists apart from me” (11.21-22), or “For my part, I am a jealous god. And there is no other god apart from me” (13:8-12). (This author, like some other “gnostic” authors, expresses some clear anti-Jewish tendencies, at least in the rejection of the Jewish scriptures’ creator God as an ignorant god.) So the physical world comes into being as a result of acts of ignorance and a divine element is trapped within the physical bodies of human beings, an element that properly belongs in the spiritual realm of the Father.

The repentance of a pacing Sophia comes into the picture once she sees what has happened as a result of her independent action:

“when she saw the imperfection that had come to exist and the theft that her offspring had committed, she repented. And in the darkness of unacquaintance, forgetfullness came over her. And she began to be ashamed, moving back and forth. . . And the entreaty of her repentance was heard, and all the fullness lifted up praise on her behalf unto the invisible virgin spirit, and it consented. And while the holy spirit was consenting, the holy spirit poured over her something of the fullness of all. For her consort did not come to her (in person); rather, it came to her through the fullness in order to rectify her lack. And she was conveyed not to her own eternal realm but to a place higher than her offspring, so as to dwell in the ninth (heaven) until she rectified her lack” (13.21-14.12).

Sophia’s mistake, however massive in the view of this author, did not preclude rectification and a continuing important role as part of the perfect spiritual realm.

Sophia’s mistake: The Sophia of Jesus Christ and Eugnostos (NT Apocrypha 16)

The mythologies preserved in the Nag Hammadi documents can be both fascinating and bewildering to the modern reader. Many, such as The Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus Christ (usually dated to the second century CE) quite clearly express their views concerning the origins of the divine realm. Often they build on the assumptions and concepts of contemporary Platonic philosophers who elaborated on the creation of the universe in Plato’s Timaeus (online article on “Middle Platonism“; online translation of Timaeus). One of The Sophia‘s main sources, Eugnostos the Blessed, is saturated in such Platonisms (and Sophia takes them on) in presenting its insights into the five main beings which emerged from the one perfect and indescribable Good, called “God of truth” or “Forefather” by the author. (Eugnostos and The Sophia available online here — check them out for yourself).

Both Eugnostos and The Sophia then go on to innumerate the other main emanations or beings that came to constitute the perfect, spiritual realm along with the Forefather. These beings include the “Self-Father” (the image of the Forefather as if viewed in a mirror), the “Immortal Androgynous Man” (who emerges in the beam of light as the Forefather views his/her image), the “Son of Man” (who is the first-begotten–the others were not begotten), and the “Saviour” (who is “revealed” as a “great androgynous light” by the Son of Man). Each of these figures are androgynous and have their corresponding “female” portion, usually called “Sophia” (Greek for Wisdom). So far, so confused, and I won’t try and sort these out for you now (in the document it is only the Saviour who can explain the whole thing in order to bring understanding).

What I especially want to point out is what The Sophia of Jesus Christ does with this source and an important “story” which the author uses to supplement this scenario. The Sophia places the whole letter of instruction into the form of a dialogue between “the Saviour” (identified with Christ) and his disciples (Eugnostos, on the other hand, shows no signs of being “Christian”, and very little, if any, indication of being “Jewish”). Absent in Eugnostos is any elaboration on how the material realm (rather than the spiritual realm discussed above) came to be, or on who it was that created the material realm in which we humans live and on how we got here.

Enter Sophia and her mistake, referred to in The Sophia document. “Saviour” (Christ) talking here:

“All who come into the world, like a drop from the Light, are sent by him to the world of Almighty, that they may be guarded by him. And the bond of his forgetfulness bound him by the will of Sophia, that the matter might be revealed through it to the whole world in poverty concerning his (Almighty’s) arrogance and blindness and the ignorance that he was named. But I (Saviour) came from the places above by the will of the great Light. . . I have cut off the work of the robbers (powers that created or control the material realm); I have wakened that drop that was sent from Sophia, that it might bear much fruit. . . And you (disciples being addressed) were sent by the Son, who was sent that you might receive Light and remove yourselves from the forgetfulness of the authorities. . . Tread upon their (the robbers or authorities who rule the material realm) malicious intent” (Sophia of Jesus Christ 106-108; trans. D. M. Parrott in The Nag Hammadi Library in English ; explanatory notes added by me).

Here we have what does recur (in variant forms) in some other Nag Hammadi documents (such as the Apocryphon of John) and which is referred to in some heresiologists (like Irenaeus). This is a reference to the story of Sophia’s mistake in desiring, by herself and without her consort, “to bring these (authorities including Almighty, or Yaldabaoth) to existence” (114; BG 118). She created, by this mistake, the “Almighty”, the god of the Hebrew Bible, and his “robber” buddies, in this author’s view. Here the god of the Hebrew Bible is cast as the ignorant creator of the material realm (demiurge), whose work necessitated the sending of a Saviour from another God, the perfect and ineffable Forefather, to awaken and bring back the drops of the perfect spiritual realm (trapped within bodies-prisons in this material realm) to the place they belong. The Saviour came to bring the knowledge of the situation so that “they (the drops) might be joined with that Spirit and Breath. . . and might from two become one,” one with the perfect spiritual realm of the Forefather. This scenario is precisely what salvation is all about, for this author (and some others who also thought of themselves as followers of Christ).

But don’t expect to understand such mythology easily, since the documents that present it presume some previous knowledge of this way of thinking. We (moderns) can at least begin to get a sense of how different this is from some other early Christian writings where salvation instead pivots on Jesus’ death and resurrection (as in Paul’s letters, for instance).

These discussions of Nag Hammadi material (traditionally “gnosticism”) are far longer than what you want a blog entry to be and they certainly do not do justice to the topic. But what can you do?