Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. Revealing antiquity, 20. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780674072770. $39.95.

Reviewed by Kristina Sessa, Ohio State University (sessa.3@osu.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


"What difference did Christianity make?" When Ramsay MacMullen posed this question over twenty-five years ago, he initiated a conversation about Christianity's complex ethical relationship to everyday life that continues to drive scholarship.1 MacMullen famously answered his question with a qualified "not much," and since then historians of late antiquity have typically emphasized continuities between classical and Christian views of the body, marriage, and sexuality. Studies of Constantine's legislation on marriage and divorce, for example, have argued that Christianity had little (if any) impact on the emperor's formation of his laws, while scholarship on late ancient sexuality has largely followed the path forged by Michel Foucault and Peter Brown, who did not view the Christian emphasis on chastity and asceticism as constituting a fundamental break with Greco-Roman ideals.2

In his bold new book, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Kyle Harper challenges this consensus. For Harper, the answer to MacMullen's question is emphatically positive: Christianity made an enormous difference in how late ancient men and women conceptualized their passions and sexual activities.3 According to Harper, "the transition from a late classical to a Christian sexual morality marked a paradigm shift, a quantum leap to a new foundational logic of sexual ethics, in which the cosmos replaced the city as the framework of morality" (8). With a deliberate, frequent, and provocative use of terms of such as "rupture" and "revolution," Harper argues that Christianity discursively transformed the erotics of classical Greece and Rome into a narrow, intolerant sexual ethics that applied to men and women, slave and free, wherein all forms of sexual activity outside procreative marriage were transmuted into sins, and the individual choice to act upon desire came to carry theological rather than social weight. Hence the title From Shame to Sin: whereas classical culture was oriented around shame, a internalized and externalized emotion, with concrete social and civic ramifications, Christian culture, Harper argues, was underpinned by a new conception of sin, whose implications were largely subjective and, more importantly, extra-worldly. The author dates this "deep earthquake in human morality" (18) to the early decades of the fifth century, and sees it as completed by Justinian's reign (527-565 CE), by which time "anything resembling classical eros had lost its pulse and a new order of relationships between sexual morality, public culture, and the legal regime was consolidated" (3).

The argument unfolds in four chapters, with an introduction that outlines the book's primary claims and a brief conclusion. Chapter One presents an argument for seeing the Roman empire (first to third centuries) as a culture wherein sexual experiences of varying types were visible, ubiquitous, and constituted a fundamental component of the social dynamics, since they instantiated relations of power. It opens with a familiar critique of Foucault's work on the history of ancient sexuality and, through spirited readings of Hellenistic novels (especially Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon), (re)characterizes the sexual culture of the high Roman empire as openly erotic, driven by reproductive interests, and principally governed by age, legal status, and/or power relations. While little of this is new, Harper deepens our understanding of classical sexuality by paying attention to slaves and prostitutes, whose bodies it was always acceptable to dishonor, and who were always available to men desiring sex outside marriage. Among this book's innovations is its insistence that such seemingly marginal figures are central to the history of ancient sexuality.

Chapter Two examines the contributions of pre-Constantinian, proto-orthodox Christian thinkers (e.g. Paul, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen) to the development of what Harper describes as a uniquely "Christian" sexual program. At the center of Harper's inquiry is the problem of desire and its place in debates about sexuality. The chapter tackles two interrelated issues. First, it traces a genealogy of early Christian ethical thought on same-sex relations and sexual activity for both men and women outside of marriage, both of which are categorically condemned as porneia ("fornication") in the writings of Paul and others. Second, the chapter describes what Harper calls "the invention of the free will" by thinkers such as Justin, Clement, and Origen. Rejecting recent studies that trace the idea of a free will back to Greco-Roman philosophers, Harper contends that Christians first developed a "thoroughly libertarian view of free will, defined by the capacity to act in a certain way" (118) in direct response both to the determinist worldviews championed by many Stoics, Gnostics, and practitioners of astrology, and to discussions of sexuality among Christian thinkers.

Chapter Three moves the argument into the post-Constantinian era, which Harper characterizes passim as the age of "Christian triumph." The chapter attempts to show how some of the ideas first developed in the second and third centuries were adopted, adapted, and transmitted by later Christian officials – primarily bishops and emperors – to a larger population of ready believers via preaching, ritual, and law. The chapter has two principal sections: the first examines the trajectory of Christian ethics governing virginity, marriage, and same-sex relations through readings of sermons and imperial legislation; the second surveys the rise and fall of the will in the hands of Pelagius and Augustine. While his analysis of the Pelagian controversy largely synthesizes existing scholarship, Harper innovates by introducing slavery and prostitution into one of Christianity's most central debates. Moreover, his demonstration of how the notion of "sinning by necessity," first articulated by bishops, worked its way into imperial law is a fascinating example of the cultural transmission of ideas. Harper concludes that the fifth and sixth centuries witnessed the complete transition "from shame to sin."

Chapter Four returns the reader to romance fiction, though here the literary subjects are life-long virgins and repentant prostitutes, rather than chaste heroines whose telos is marriage. Beginning with the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, long recognized as having literary affinities with Greek romance, and moving to later fifth and sixth-century hagiographies featuring the motif of the penitent prostitute, Harper argues that these pious fictions reflect the deeply transformative ruptures in thinking about human sexuality that were articulated elsewhere by orthodox Christian moralists, bishops, and emperors. The conclusion leaves the reader with what Harper describes as Christianity's lasting contribution to the history of sexuality: a paradox. On the one hand, it engendered a new model of freedom, which marked the end of socially determined fatalism and all "brutalities accepted in the name of destiny" (244); on the other hand, it gave birth to a radical "anti-erotics" and to the regulation of sexual acts on an unprecedented level.

From Shame to Sin is a fascinating and highly entertaining book, which breaks new ground. Its contributions, however, are less in the content of its arguments (many of which have been made before) than in its emphatic insistence on Christianity's singular role in the transformation of culture. In a sense, Harper's study brings a catastrophist paradigm of late antiquity, previously associated with more materialist approaches to the period (e.g. economic and political history, archaeology), to the history of sexuality. It paints a striking "before" and "after" picture, which juxtaposes a loose, lascivious, and brutally exploitative classical sexual culture with a rigid, intolerant, and perhaps slightly more just Christian one. It is also a good intellectual history (despite claims in the introduction to ground its analyses in material frameworks, this is a book entirely about ideas), which adeptly delineates genealogies of discourse on sexuality over time and space. In this respect, From Shame to Sin is perhaps more Foucauldian than catastrophist.

Yet, these strengths come at a price. Some readers will take issue with Harper's one-dimensional and untheorized model of Christianization, which begins with the assumption that "Christianity" was a coherent, well defined minority movement from the time of Justin and Clement, which "triumphed" in the fourth century, and which singularly drove a revolution in sexual morality. While the exclusion of other voices is a deliberate move by the author, it produces a linear narrative of Christianization that has been largely dismantled in recent years, leaving the reader to wonder why Harper is not more nuanced. Indeed, rather than positing late ancient Christianity as a first-order principle and as the agent of change, one could see it as the effect of discursive shifts in sexual morality. Put another way, by adopting certain radical views on sex and the body, a series of moralists who believed in Christ as their God came to define themselves not merely as Christians but as the "true" Christians over and against the competing claims of Jews, pagans, and other moralists who also followed Christ. It is hardly coincidental that virtually all of Harper's signature voices represent what becomes the orthodox, patristic canon.

In this respect, From Shame to Sin is a "winners'" history of Christianity. There is nothing wrong with writing history from the perspective of the winners (this reviewer does it all the time). But inherent to such a project is the danger of falling into the trap of teleological thinking. While not egregiously so, Harper is sometimes guilty of this sin. Moreover, the author seems unaware of the extent to which this orthodox line of thinking on sexuality was delineated for us by medieval copyists, most of whom were male monks and thus had vested interests in preserving "anti-erotic" (if we should call them this) discourses. Some readers may question the author's rather crude insistence that this revolution in sexual morality was complete by the time of Justinian. One case that calls his claim into question is Gregory the Great's response to Felix of Sipontum, a bishop from southern Italy whose grandson had sex with the unmarried daughter of a local deacon. In a letter to Felix (Ep. 3.42, 593 CE), Gregory presented two options: Felix could either force his grandson to marry the girl or send him to a monastery for penance. What these choices show is that sex outside of marriage was not yet fully Christianized, for it could be simultaneously construed both in the classical sense as a social crime (and hence remedied by marriage), and in a Christian sense, as a sin redeemed by ecclesiastical intervention. When – if ever – the Christianization of sexual morality culminated is an open question, but it certainly does not date to the sixth century.

Moreover, scholars of ancient sexuality may object to Harper's overly narrow conflation of eros with physical sex. There were, for instance, other possible ways for an ancient viewer to interpret images of copulating couples (e.g. as statements of power or wealth), which had nothing to do with sex per se. Indeed the stark contrast drawn between late classical and Christian sexual morality really only works if you reduce the erotic to sex acts. The Platonists certainly had a non-bodily conception of the erotic, as did their Christian counterparts, like Augustine. Perhaps in the end this "deep earthquake in human morality" was really more like a big tremor.

Finally, Harper's writing style varies enormously in this book, ranging from clean and crisp prose to sentences obscured by an almost manneristic use of metaphor and abstraction. His attempts to capture (or parody?) the erotic dynamics of late classical culture can also fall flat (e.g. "eros flourished unawares, serenely confident in its eternal powers," [21] as can his descriptions of ancient perceptions of orgasm [esp. 69-70]).

All of this leaves the reader pondering the book's goal to address both general and specialist readerships. Some scholars will find Harper's brash narrative, with its bold brush strokes and triumphant voices, to be a salutary contribution to a field presently dominated by studies that privilege margins over centers, and downplay late ancient Christianity as a transformative force on human behavior. Others will appreciate his inclusion of prostitutes and slaves in discussions that typically omit them. But ultimately, the study best addresses general readers. In effect, From Shame to Sin is a "how we got here" book, which attempts to elucidate the late Roman roots of certain features of modern (American) Christian culture. "These paradoxes," Harper writes in conclusion, "are part of our cultural history, and it is has been the hope of this book that, by exploring them, we might gain a better understanding of the inheritance fate has delivered to us." (244). The book's final sentence makes explicit what is implied elsewhere, such as when Harper oddly characterizes pre-Augustinian models of free will as "libertarian" (4, 118, 126, 140). Anachronisms aside, this study has value for both audiences, not only in its engaging synthesis of recent literature on ancient sexuality and its eye for great sources, but also in its quiet insistence that those of us who prefer "the pull of each winding channel" to "the contours and destination of early Christian thought on sex" (84) reflect upon the implications of our choices.


1.   Ramsey MacMullen, "What Difference did Christianity Make?," Historia 35.3 (1986): 322-343.
2.   Judith Evans Grubbs, Law and Family in Late Antiquity (Oxford: 1995). Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vols. 2-3. Trans. R. Hurley (New York: 1985-6) and Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: 1990).
3.   As MacMullen (1986: 342-3) also surmised in brief.


  1. Michael M. EismanApril 8, 2014 at 12:55 PM

    Interesting review but at least based on what Sessa writes, I would question the fact that Harper apparently leaves Judaism out of the mix. While the Jewish and Christian views differ I would think that the Christian view owes, at least, its start in its separation of conventional Roman view to Judaism.

  2. Agreed, Michael. After all, Paul studied with one of the great figures in ancient Judaism, Gamaliel. This is itself suggests that one should turn to Jewish thought for its influence on Paul's sexual ethics, which then influenced Christian sexual ethics.