BMCR 2009.04.72

The Body and Society. Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Twentieth-anniversary edition with a new introduction. Columbia Classics in Religion

Peter Brown, The Body and Society. Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Twentieth-anniversary edition with a new introduction. Columbia Classics in Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. lxvii, 504. ISBN 978-0-231-14406-3, 978-0-231-14407-0 $27.50 (pb).


The launching of anniversary editions of scholarly studies in the classics often signifies a eulogistic tribute to the scholar himself. Peter Brown, arguably one of the most prominent scholars of late antiquity between AD 250 and 800, is the author of a dozen books, including Augustine of Hippo, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World, The Rise of Western Christendom, and The Cult of the Saints. Such a range of erudition marks the range of scholarly thought and approaches he brings to bear upon his whole body of critical works, and this twentieth-century anniversary edition of The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity stands as a case in point. First published in 1988, The Body and Society became a groundbreaking study in the practices of permanent sexual renunciation, of continence, celibacy and lifelong celibacy, among Christian circles from the first century to fifth century AD. In lieu of using “practice”, I use “practices” to describe the act of sexual renunciation in the context of this book, especially because Brown’s book can be read as more than just a testimony to the pluralistic expressions of sexual renunciation in the late Roman (and early Christian) world. Its structure can also be read as an intellectual journey through the theological-social terrains of early Christianity. Its chapters can be read both as isolated chapters and as units leading to one another, confounding the idea of Christianity in the late Roman world as monolithic in its views and practices of sexual renunciation.

The addition of a new scholarly introduction has the benefit of situating the previously published work in the context of contemporary scholarly reception of Brown’s work. Brown’s introduction lays out various strands of his thought that still have relatively broad resonances within the scholarly community in terms of categories like “Divergent Christianities”, “Body and Cosmos”, “Different Bodies, Different Worlds”, “East and West”, “Augustine: Before and After”. The question of why early Christians write perpetually about sex, despite the otherworldly outlook of the Christian religion towards the afterlife, is purportedly the main question which informs not only his introduction, but also the rest of the book.1 That the human body is in itself the nexus upon which society and the cosmos is seen to center is a late antique obsession, radically different from the expectations of modern society about the body as simply a locus of physical needs involving sex, food and drink.

Part One of the book, “From Paul to Anthony”, surveys this spectrum of attitudes towards sex, the body and marriage in the early Christian milieu of the Roman world, notably by situating the role of the body within then-emerging Galenic views of the body, male and female. For example, in the thought of Galen, just as males possess a “decisive surplus of “heat” and fervent “vital spirit”” in their bodies because they have realized their full biological potential, females are failed males because they lack such heat. The implications of such a differentiation between male and female, of the latter as simply failed males, bespeak a late antique anxiety of a man’s deterioration into “womanish” behavior, and, at the same time, the need to discipline a woman into compliance with the public standards of orderly male life. This model, found in Greek medical thought like Galen’s, must be distinguished from the Judeo-Christian model of dualism. Namely, it was the juxtaposition between an evil inclination to give in to the love of pleasure (the flesh) and a good inclination to yield to God in chastity (the spirit), which Paul the Apostle and various post-apostolic fathers like Justin Martyr took care to maintain. The emerging cult of martyrs in the later second and third centuries, after the apostle Paul, needs to be drawn into the orbit of this host of practices of sexual renunciation, where, as Church Fathers like Irenaeus and Tertullian state, a distinguishing mark of true prophecy or martyrdom’s glory is best encapsulated in the body of the virgin, or the sexually continent person, where all sexual activity is suspended in order to mark the body as an appropriate vessel for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, Brown’s study marks the emergence of radical heterodox groups like the Marcionites, Tatian of Syria’s Encratite movement and the Valentinian Gnostics, which were broken off from the legislative and disciplinary arm of the Church at Rome. For such groups, the control of the body and its pleasures via sexual renunciation was best exercised by a total writing off of all sexuality: putting an end to all sex, regardless of its licitness within marriage or not, was seen to plug off the switch to this world that hurtles on towards the end of this “present age” and to re-constitute the world anew.2

Brown’s ability to assimilate a plethora of primary sources might also be demonstrated in the attention he gives to women’s prominent roles in advancing sexual renunciation as a means of access to the holy in the late Roman world. Such an area of attention is important especially because women were largely involved in any Christian circle which enjoyed membership from the upper classes of the aristocracy. Brown’s study in chapters like “”A Promiscuous Brotherhood and Sisterhood”: Men And Women in The Early Churches” thus provides a balance alongside his other chapters’ focus on the misogynistic Christian groups or preachers which renounced sex by attributing its effects to the perpetuation of sin or human mutability. An awareness of the emergence of the cult of saints as a phenomenon which invokes the laudability of women alongside their male compatriots is found in an example like Thecla in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, whose unflinching faith in the face of martyrdom encapsulates that of “an ideal Christian in an age of persecution”.3 Similarly, in Part Two of his book, “Asceticism and Society in the Eastern Empire”, chapters such as “”Daughters of Jerusalem”: The Ascetic Life of Women in the Fourth Century”, attest to this abundance of female examples in sanctity in figures such as the virgin Macrina, sister of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, Melania the Elder and Olympias of Constantinople who chose to remain in widowhood after her marriage to a pagan.

Notably, Part Three of the book, “Ambrose to Augustine: The Making of the Latin Tradition”, marks a registered shift from Part Two’s emphasis on the practices of asceticism in the Eastern outposts of the Roman Empire to a focus on the Latin patristic tradition, centering on the iconic figures of Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo. The plotting of this trajectory of thought starts from Augustine of Hippo’s earlier predecessors, namely Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose not only sought to defend the Virgin Birth but also to assert her Perpetual Virginity against other Christians, a move which embodied the virgin state that Ambrose believed to be held up by the Church par excellence to all men to emulate, especially among the clergy. Jerome, better known to moderns as the translator of the Bible into its first Latin Vulgate version, plays an equally important role in this germination of Augustine’s understanding of human sexuality’s centrality as an irreversible symptom of man’s Fall here. According to Brown, Jerome’s contribution to the sexual interpretation of Paul the Apostle’s notion of the flesh, as opposed to the spirit, had effects like his letter Against Jovinian, a highly misogamous tract which sent ripples of inspiration as well as irritation throughout the Roman world for the inflammatory views which it put forth against marriage, especially among the clergy.

In revisiting this classic work of scholarship in the practices of sexual renunciation within the late Roman world between the first and fifth centuries AD, one has to ask oneself what remains to be said when this work has already been reviewed, first in 1988 during its first release, and now again in 2008. Considering the erudition and the stylistic grace of Peter Brown’s writing, as well as the scope of his studies, which takes into account primary sources in the Coptic, Syriac, Greek, and Latin, its meticulous scholarship is something to which many recent studies in the field of asceticism in late antiquity return.4 The Body and Society, as a seminal work in the study of late Roman practices of sexual renunciation, highlights for us how the body cannot be taken as a natural or biological given, even in earlier societies like late antiquity, but was a tool by which individuals and groups might marshal their theologies of heaven and (or) hell.


1. Peter Brown, The Body and Society. Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. xli.

2. Brown, p.85.

3. Brown, p.158.

4. This includes titles such as Eliezer Diamond’s Holy Men and Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) and Caroline T. Shroeder’s Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), just to name a few exemplars.