BMCR 2006.03.13

Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity. Gender, Theory, and Religion Series

, Abandoned to lust : sexual slander and ancient Christianity. Gender, theory, and religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xviii. 279 pages).. ISBN 0231510047 $45.00.

Abandoned to Lust, a revision of Knust’s Columbia University dissertation, examines the ideological and theological commitments undergirding the early Christian use of sexual slander. According to Knust, the Christian appropriation of longstanding assumptions about sexuality played an essential role in the formation of Christian identity: sexual invective functioned not only to distinguish the followers of Jesus from both pagans and Jews, but it also proved effective for demonizing “others” in intra-Christian debates. The first chapter, an outline of gender and the function of sexual rhetoric in the Greco-Roman world, acts as a foundation for analyzing Christian invective against non-Christians (chapters two and three) and the use of vituperative discourse within the Christian tradition (chapters four and five).

The introduction (“Who’s on Top? Sex Talk, Power, and Resistance”) outlines the issues and theoretical positions that shape the study’s argument. Knust begins by observing that notions of gender and views of proper or improper sexual behavior are both human constructions rather than “fixed” or stable categories. As cultural productions, gender and sexual mores will necessarily reflect and adjust to changing social patterns. Building upon this assertion, Knust states that employing gender stereotypes within the context of sexual polemic was (and is) an effective tool for creating identity. In particular, Knust finds these rhetorical moves important for 1) establishing group boundaries; 2) policing insiders; and 3) eliminating rivals and establishing the authority of the author’s group as the bearers of virtue (3; 143). In addition to contributing to the construction of identity, however, Knust argues that the rhetoric of sex and gender represents an effective strategy of resistance. Specifically, when Christians promoted themselves as the sole practitioners of sexual morality, they indicted non-Christians for their vice, effectively challenging the legitimacy of both the Roman empire and the emperor. In essence, they adopted the rhetorical invective of the Greco-Roman world and turned it against the empire. At the same time, sexual slander became a weapon for polemicists and heresiologists who sought to marginalize other forms of Christianity. For Knust, then, sexual slander represents more than mere rhetorical flourish. It is, rather, a site of contestation over claims to power and knowledge (6).

The first chapter (“Sexual Slander and Ancient Invective”) surveys Greco-Roman assumptions about gender and examines how these stereotypes functioned within the broader context of “power relations and … knowledge production” (17). Knust shows that ancient writers sought to establish privilege and status by drawing upon a list of commonly accepted virtues and vices. The presence or absence of these traits revealed a person’s character, which in turn determined whether he deserved recognition among the elites. Maintaining social prestige and power was thus dependent upon a rhetor’s skillfulness in establishing that a person deserved either praise or blame. Among the most important traits a person could possess was self-control ( σωφροσύνη or temperantia), the ability to manage one’s self and others. Knust demonstrates how stereotypical thinking about sex and gender informed these evaluations. On the one hand, “real” men mastered their sexual urges through moderation, played the “natural” role of the active partner during sex, and controlled the sexuality of their women. On the other hand, “effeminate” men slavishly succumbed to immorality ( πορνεία), assumed the passive role in sexual relations, and were unable to prevent their women from participating in illicit sexual relationships. By deploying these motifs, orators sought to reinforce their own privileged status as paragons of virtue and defenders of the community while condemning their opponents as “failed” men whose lack of sexual restraint endangered the moral character of the state.

The second chapter (“Paul, the Slaves of Desire, and the Saints of God”) examines the use and function of sexual invective in Paul’s letters (particularly Romans and 1 Corinthians). Knust uncovers two intellectual currents influencing Paul: the biblical affinity for identifying sexual deviance with idolatry, the refusal to worship the true God, and the Greco-Roman tradition of delineating virtues and vices for the purposes of establishing praise and blame. When concerned with establishing insiders from outsiders, Paul readily appropriates both traditions, claiming that the idolatry and sexual practices of the gentiles will cause their destruction, and insisting that the Christian attainment of salvation derives from their sexual moderation. Knust finds proof of this in the apostle’s distinction between “slaves of sin,” who reject the truth of God and give themselves up to lust and passion, and “slaves of God,” who have mastered their passions through their allegiance to Christ and God. This argument, Knust maintains, both confirmed and subverted Greco-Roman notions of slavery, for it equated some “slaves” (i.e. those ignorant of God) with sexual license, and other “slaves” (i.e. those who had dedicated their lives to God) as models of sexual restraint (67-71). Moreover, this scheme represents an act of resistance against the emperor, for it implies that the “father” of the empire commands a religio-political system characterized by sexual depravity. By contrast, in 1 Corinthians Paul offers himself as a positive model of fatherhood, one who advocates a sexual restraint among his community consistent with the ethical demands of the true God. By employing and reconfiguring Greco-Roman sexual codes, Paul makes an argument that later Christian authors will imitate, namely, that the sexual morality of Christians attests to and reveals their elite status within a corrupt and perverse empire.

The presentation of Christians as “men” due to their self-mastery of sexual desire receives greater and more explicit treatment in the writings of Justin Martyr, the subject of the third chapter (“Sexual Vice and Christian Apologia“). Before making this jump into the mid-second century, however, Knust offers a brief examination of two distinct Pauline trajectories that challenged the Greco-Roman claim to possess moral virtue. The first examples derive from the household codes found in the deutero-Pauline letters. Knust argues that these sections articulate the image of Christian “manliness” by advocating a hierarchical power structure with men in control of their families and religious communities. Not surprisingly, non-Christians receive censure for their disorder and enslavement to desire. The second Pauline current, found in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, makes a similar point by promoting an entirely different sexual ethic. In this text, the apostle’s lack of sexual desire indicates his superiority over the non-Christians in the story. Moreover, Paul’s instruction to Thecla and her adoption of a similarly encratite lifestyle reveal the power he held over his female subordinate. Justin’s writings continue in this tradition, although his criticism of the empire and emperor is more direct than in previous literature. Knust finds in Justin’s defense of Christianity a contest over gendered images of Romans and Christians. In particular, to combat Roman depictions of Christianity as feminine and slavish, Justin constructs a speech of blame that simultaneously refutes this charge and redirects it against his non-Christian opponents. To do so he draws upon the rhetoric of sexual slander, specifically identifying the Roman elite’s inability to master their desires as a result of their idolatrous worship and chiding them for unrestrained, passionate excess. At the same time, Justin presents Christians as prototypical “men” who display a sexual restraint and whose self-mastery stems from their exercise of reason.

Knust believes that Justin’s work helped define the boundaries of Christianity by claiming the Greco-Roman model of sexual moderation for Christianity and characterizing the non-Christian world as idolatrous and sexually deviant. At the same time, other authors employed this rhetorical strategy against fellow Christians in order to control their own community members and eliminate rivals. Tracing the contours of this intra-Christian debate is the subject of Knust’s next chapter (“The False Teachers of the End Time”). Her rhetorical analysis of texts such as Jude, 2 Peter, and The Shepherd of Hermas reveals authors intent upon linking fidelity to God with sexual practices. Specifically, the authors imagine that their communities embody a sexual purity based upon their faith in Christ and the true God, while their opponents display a sexual licentiousness because of their corrupt teachings and worship. The authors thus seek to warn their readers of the appearance of false prophets and ungodly persons whose “heretical” beliefs are inseparable from their porneia and are indicators of the approaching eschaton. True Christians, these authors assert, must resist these deceivers and maintain their sexual purity.

The final chapter (“Illicit Sex, Wicked Desire, and the Demonized Heretic”) demonstrates how Justin and Irenaeus advanced the production of an “authentic” Christian identity by developing family trees that identified the “true” members of the Christian γένος. In this enterprise, Justin excises the Jews, most of whom had forfeited their membership in God’s genos because of their slavery to desire and their rejection of Christ. Even worse, however, are the Christian “heretics,” whom he places completely outside of the divine economy. These groups never enjoyed inclusion into God’s people, a fact confirmed by their idolatrous practices and sexual immorality. Irenaeus supports this argument through his contention that all heresies derive from one “father,” the idolatrous and licentious Simon Magus. The illegitimacy of these groups are then contrasted with true Christians, the spiritual inheritors of the Jewish genos and a people who trace their ancestry from God through Christ and the apostles. By slandering “others,” these patristic authors assert that “their” Christians are members of the best genos and preserve the true teachings of God. Knust concludes by placing such arguments within the larger context of ongoing debates about the nature of Christianity, surmising that “the sorts of charges lodged against heretical insiders shifted in concert with the sorts of charges Christians as a group were facing, reflecting the unstable terrain of insider-outsider controversies and group definition” (162).

Knust’s study is a superb addition to recent works that have explored the relationship between sex and gender, culture, and power in early Christian discourse.1 The recognition of the instability of both gender and identity, by now virtually commonplaces in scholarly literature, provides her with the appropriate theoretical lens through which to trace the interaction of sexual rhetoric and social formation. Drawing upon a diverse cross-section of pre-Nicene texts, from letters to apologies to apocalyptic literature, Knust has convincingly demonstrated that sexuality was a useful category for authors engaged in producing a “normative” and “stable” form of Christianity from among its bewildering varieties. Moreover, by identifying sexual slander as a well-known topos found in the Greco-Roman world, Knust shifts the discussion from the debate over the “real” existence of Christian deviants to the more complicated (and perhaps interesting) question regarding the rhetorical function such discourse meant to serve (118, 130-132, 145, 160).

A study as wide-ranging as this inevitably invites questions for futher investigation and clarification. At a theoretical level, it may be that the “insider-outsider” classification scheme Knust proposes is a bit too rigid. For example, Knust argues that Justin Martyr’s 1 Apology seeks to indict Rome (“outsiders”) for its depravity, but she also admits that the text was probably never read by the Roman elite and instead was designed to reinforce a sexualized identity among elite Christians (“insiders”) who may have had second thoughts about their decision to join the movement. Here, at least, the rhetoric seems to serve a dual purpose, targeting outsiders for their immorality in order to establish a sense of “Christian-ness.”2 The same issue arises when Knust argues that the Acts of Paul and Thecla represents a critique against Roman elites. While the rejection of marriage and sexuality does subvert Roman morality, should not Thecla’s self-baptism, hair-cutting, and self-designed missionary program also be read as a rejection of traditional modes of male apostolic authority found within the more “domesticated” Pauline stream?3

This ascetic strain within early Christianity is a more specific issue that seems to demand closer scrutiny than Knust offers in her work. Her treatment of Greco-Roman sexual polemic focuses primarily upon its condemnation of licentiousness but does not address critiques directed against extreme forms of asceticism that some philosophers condemned.4 The inclusion of this trajectory might strengthen her argument that early Christian invective against “radical” askesis was primarily rhetorical; that is, it functioned to establish the boundaries between inappropriate and acceptable forms of ascetic practices rather than to attack “real” Christians.

These criticisms suggest avenues for continuing research, but they do not detract substantially from the book’s main contentions. Knust’s work is an original and provocative contribution to the ongoing study of rhetoric, identity, and power in the early Christian tradition.


1. For instance, Elizabeth A. Castelli, “Gender, Theory, and The Rise of Christianity : A Response to Rodney Stark,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6 (1998): 227-257; Bernadette J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Maude W. Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995); Elizabeth A. Clark, “Ideology, History, and the Construction of Women,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 2 (1994): 155-184.

2. Knust (13, n. 74) is not unaware of this complexity, but it unfortunately does not receive thorough attention throughout the book. Making this notion a central feature of the argument would provide additional texture to the study, and its complexity perhaps signals a topic for further research.

3. See, for instance, Dennis Ronald MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983).

4. Musonius Rufus provides an example of this perspective when he states that “whoever destroys human marriage destroys the home ( οἶκον), destroys the city ( πόλιν), and destroys the whole human race ( σύμπαν τὸ ἀνθρώπειον γένος)” (14 p. 73,11-13 Hense).