Wednesday, May 30, 2018


David Wheeler-Reed, Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire: Ideology, the Bible, and the early Christians. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2017. Pp. xxi, 177. ISBN 9780300227727. $45.00.

Reviewed by Caroline Musgrove, University of Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site


According to David Wheeler-Reed in this engaging and ambitious book, Michel Foucault "was essentially right" (xv). The author is referring not to Foucault's influential History of Sexuality, but to a remark he made in a lecture in New York in 1980: "so called Christian morality is nothing more than a piece of pagan ethics inserted into Christianity" (xiv). This claim reverberates through both the modern and ancient sections of the present book, echoing its central argument: that when modern institutions boast of their 'Judeo- Christian values' and accompanying notions of 'traditional marriage', they are actually referring to historical contingencies that look a lot more like Augustus' marriage legislation than anything recognisably biblical or early Christian. In fact, what the Pauline New Testament did for the ancient world was to "normalize singleness and celibacy" (xviii), instituting a cultural trend that would dominate in the early Christian world down to the fourth century CE. This way of thinking might not surprise the scholar of early Christianity, but the author is quite right to suggest it is a view of history that has proven far less enduring in the modern imagination, even among those institutions that lay claim to biblical and historical expertise.

Regulating Sex is aimed at a broad and interdisciplinary audience, somewhat at odds with its sober scholarly title. Written in a flowing, almost conversational, style, its central appeal is in its bold attempt to stake a place for academic history in the thorny modern debates surrounding sex, marriage and procreation. "Every history of the past", the author often repeats, "is also a history of the present" (102). Wheeler-Reed is refreshingly willing to reveal what most academic historians obscure: the motivation that brings him to his subject – in this instance, his Catholicism. Rather than making it in any way partial, this transparency adds an urgency and authenticity to the book that strikes the present reader as being uncommon in academic writing, and one of the book's foremost strengths. Part of his emphasis therefore becomes tracing points of change and confluence across time and space, a perspective that encourages him to portray Christian approaches to sex as fundamentally similar to those of the Classical world. On this basis he enters into dialogue with recent work by Kathy Gaca and Kyle Harper, challenging their assumption that Christianity was fundamentally unique. But curiously, he is not as critical of the 'newness' and ubiquity of Christian asceticism as perhaps he should be – a position on which there is a well-developed school of thought, from the classic studies of JoĆ«lle Beaucamp and Judith Evans Grubbs, to the more recent approaches to the family and household of Kate Cooper and Kristina Sessa.

Wheeler-Reed's approach throughout is supported by a sophisticated engagement with contemporary theory. Although there is a nod to multiple thinkers in the introduction, the most crucial for Wheeler-Reed's argument emerges as Louis Pierre Althusser, whose "ideological state apparatus" (xii) becomes the basis for the author's approach to ancient and modern discourses of family and procreation. Ideology, Wheeler-Reed explains, functions more subtly than coercive forms of state regulation. It has its roots in various cultural, religious and social institutions, and is pervasive because it invites the individual to be complicit in their own submission, masking itself in a discourse of the natural and self-evident. We meet this type of ideology repeatedly throughout the book: disseminated by the ancient lawmaker and philosopher, the Jewish thinker, the early Christian writer, and even the modern day American institution. In fact, the timelessness of the notion bolsters Wheeler-Reed's comparative approach, holding together an ambitious scope that might otherwise have fallen prey to the label of "totalizing" history the author so roundly rejects (105).

Regulating Sex takes Augustus' marriage legislation as its starting point in chapter 1, where the laws are placed in conversation with the Stoic Musonius Rufus, the physician Galen, and Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon. The lex Iulia legislation of 18 BCE, and the lex Papia Poppea of 9 CE, are presented as an attempt to codify the family morality of the glorious past, which had been threatened by the tumult of the civil wars. The laws function as "an ideological state apparatus", intended to "regulate gender by linking citizenship to reproduction" (xviii). But in effect, the purpose of the laws was "economic and political": the need to control the production of Roman sons to feed the state (14). With the attendant consequence of reinforcing class stratification, penalising celibacy and keeping "women in their place" (9), it is argued, the legislation had very little to do with family morality. This chapter occasionally simplifies complex scholarly debate. Wheeler-Reed insists that Musonius Rufus was in direct conversation with Augustus' marriage legislation (15), even where the evidence he offers seems subtler, and when he turns to Galen he relies heavily on the now controversial one-sex model of Thomas Laqueur. Although none of this necessarily invalidates his argument, more acknowledgement of the complexity of the evidence would have been welcome. The present reader would also like to have seen a brief consideration of the Christian emperors and their reception of Augustus' law, which might have served to bridge the gap between the classical and Christian authors.

In chapter 2, the author shows that many of the approaches to the family we encounter in Augustus' marriage legislation were part of a much "broader cultural pattern found throughout the Mediterranean world" (40). In fact, it is claimed that most of the sexual ethics of the Second Temple period were in keeping with Greco-Roman expectations. Wheeler-Reed calls this ideology among the Jews "Procreationism" (xix): a discourse which springs from the biblical imperative of Gen 1:28 that humankind "be fruitful and multiply", subjugating sexual desire to the faculty of reproduction. Building his case upon the Book of Tobit, Philo and Josephus, among others, the author shows that Jewish attitudes to sex were rooted in the household and in marriage, and emphasised heteronormativity and the submission of women. But it would be a mistake, he cautions, to assume there is any truly "normative Jewish sexual ethic" (xix) in this period; as with all ancient cultures, it is impossible to tell how far the average Jewish believer internalised the official sexual ethic of their faith, a sensibly cautious position which is not so readily applied in later chapters to the Christian evidence. Wheeler-Reed, then, returns to his larger question: can we locate common 'Judeo-Christian' attitudes towards the family in the ancient evidence?

It is a question he answers most persuasively in his third chapter, which takes the writings of Paul as its main focus. The New Testament, Wheeler-Reed says, is pervaded by two very different ideologies of sex and marriage, in tension throughout the early Christian period: what the author effectively calls "profamily" and "antifamily". Yet, he explains, "many modern Christians … seem unwilling to acknowledge the impasse these two ideologies created" (64). Moving in a chronological fashion through the Pauline epistles, and taking the authentic letters as his starting point, the author demonstrates that Paul's approach unanimously favoured celibacy. Marriage is seen as a prophylaxis against sexual immorality, and Paul grants it no essential virtue of its own – not even in a procreative sense. Of course, Wheeler-Reed suggests, it is highly unlikely Paul understood he was creating "an entire theology of marriage" in his surviving letters (65), which were themselves pervaded by a sense of the imminent second-coming of Christ. It was only in letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, and in the later Pastoral Epistles, that a competing, profamily ideology resurfaced. Possibly written by disciples or critics of Paul, this new ideology sought to soften his stronger statements on the family, re-establishing marriage as a central Christian institution, with the household and procreation at its centre. As time passed, he concludes compellingly, these ideologies would reoccur in repeated cycles of power and resistance, belying any modern notion that a single narrative of 'traditional family values' can be found in the writings of the New Testament.

Chapter 4 explores what became of these "profamily" and "antifamily" ideologies in the first four centuries of the early Church. By the second century, Wheeler-Reed explains, Christians had to adapt to a world to which the impending apocalypse had not come, making necessary a reconciliation with society and its norms. Yet by the fourth century, the antifamily ideology had once again gained prominence, and would prove the more influential, especially with the monastic movement and the aftermath of Pope Siricius' condemnation of Jovinian. In Tatian, Wheeler-Reed finds an author who most closely followed the authentic Paul, while in Clement of Alexandria, marriage becomes the prophylactic grace that guards against desire. With Cassian, the author perceives the final victory of chastity and the monastic movement – part of a fundamental break with Jewish 'Procreationism' and everything it represented. In fact, Wheeler-Reed argues, the early Church fathers repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Jewish attitudes to sex and marriage, once again implying that any modern ideology rooted in common 'Judeo-Christian' values cannot be representative of this early period. Rather, when an early Christian author like Jovinian did emerge to claim celibacy and marriage were equal, he was promptly declared a heretic – strong proof, Wheeler-Reed suggests, that popular understandings of the early church have profoundly missed the asceticism that defined its sexual ethic. Again, the argument here is compelling, if not occasionally oversimplified, on which more in a moment.

By the time the author confronts modern-day America in chapter 5, he has already laid the groundwork of his central argument: that the 'traditional family values' touted by many American institutions have more in common with Augustus' marriage legislation than they do with anything authentically 'Judeo-Christian'. Not that he sees any "logical, linear development" between the ancient and modern worlds; his interest has been in "contingencies – the accidents of history" (104). Intending to probe the ideological alliance between marriage and procreation further, the author promises "to unmask modern forms of power that use Christianity in the service of policing modern society" (105). In the writing of Anne Wilson and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Wheeler-Reed exposes a one-sided approach to scripture, which glosses over the tension between the profamily and antifamily discourses of the New Testament. In a brief excursion into the landmark Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, Wheeler-Reed demonstrates that rooting procreation in the 'naturalness' of conjugal marriage helps to uphold heteronormativity. But it is in Patrick Fagan, the director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, that Wheeler-Reed unearths an overt statement of why some American institutions have internalised the good of conjugal marriage. For Fagan, marriage creates social stability, providing a space in which children learn the market values of a Capitalist economy. Conjugal marriage, on this view, is a 'state apparatus' akin to Augustus', one as underpinned by economic and political concerns as the marriage legislation itself.

Regulating Sex is a timely book, which seeks to bring history to bear on urgent contemporary questions. The author's attempt to hold modern institutions to account for their unexamined biases is refreshing and exciting, but the present reader cannot help but wonder if some of this excitement is based on occasional oversimplification. Wheeler-Reed's "profamily" and "antifamily" categories offer an impressive synthesis of early Christian approaches to sex and marriage, but they also somewhat over-categorize trends that were more permeable and complex. Ascetic imagery commonly borrowed elements of the household, family and even sexuality, while many of the celibate saints of the early Christian centuries were, in fact, married. Early Christians themselves were not beyond linking sexual morality with the good of the polis in the way that modern institutions do: the sermons of John Chrysostom offer fitting example. And it might also be asked how the argument would accommodate the complex Augustine of Hippo, who is conspicuously excluded on chronological grounds. Finally, the book contains some minor errors. There is a misquotation of Kate Cooper on p. 37 ('ancient' rather than 'ancients'), and Karlfried Forehlich is out of place in the bibliography. But none of this should detract from what the author has achieved here. It is a book that demands to be noticed far beyond its specialised field, and the present reader heartily hopes that it is.

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