Psychology and Biblical Studies


SBL Annual Meeting Papers, November 2010

For review only; do not distribute

 .pdf format

J. Harold Ellens
Independent Scholar in Psychology and Biblical Theology

Fornication and How it Got That Way:
An Evaluation and Critique of Kathy L. Gaca’s Work


            When my book, Sex in the Bible, appeared I narcissistically asked the clerk at Barnes and Noble if they had it in the store.1 A young and, as it turns out, very secular fellow overheard me and exasperatedly inquired, “How can you put the words sex and Bible in the same sentence?” That immediately confirmed in my mind the importance of Gaca’s book. The Western secular and religious worlds have equal investment in preserving  the sick sexual code created by Tatian and Clement of Alexandria 18 centuries ago and perpetuated by the Christian Church ever since.

What is the psycho-spiritual driver that keeps this pathology in force? Gaca has sketched the story from Pythagoras to Plato, the late Stoics, Paul, Tatian, Clement, and the Desert Fathers. Then she has turned the page and demonstrated the comparable trajectory from the Deuteronomist and Mosaic law, to Leviticus, though she seems to have the chronology backward there, and on to the prophets, the LXX, Philo, Paul, and Clement and company. These two trajectories join forces in Philo and Paul, providing a Hellenistic-Jewish ethic as the foundation for our Christian sexual sickness.

Consequently Vernon K. Roberts thinks that “This book is a gold mine of information for anyone interested in the dynamics of sexual morality in Western culture. General readers, students, and scholars will find surprising data about sexual views, theories, practices, and politics in ancient Greek and Roman society, Hellenistic Judaism and philosophy, and early and Patristic Christianity. Gaca’s dynamic prose is exciting to read. Her detailed footnotes are a virtual encyclopedia of sexual morality in Western culture.”2 Vernon Robbins, as usual, is wise and on the point.

Indeed, Robbins is correct about this volume in many ways. This is an aesthetically pleasing book to look at, hold, fondle, smell, and digest. It is also that immensely rare book that is consummately scholarly throughout and also a page turner; once taken up it cannot readily be put down. Before reading Gaca’s prime volume I confidently felt I had mastered the Greco-Roman, biblical, and patristic corpus, which I have been teaching at the university, holding forth on in the pulpit, and commenting upon with self-assurance for a half century. Now I feel more like a mere neophyte in this most crucial aspect of my professional domain.

Gaca sets the stage with two questions that can be stated as one. Is the patristic ethical code a significant alternative to that of the Greek philosophers and that of the biblical theological ethicists? The simple answer is a resounding, “No! It amounts to essentially the same thing as the most depraved and depriving of both traditions.” However, it takes Gaca 305 pages to get to that confident conclusion, and with very good reason. She has carefully outlined the meandering journey of the Greeks from the strict communal pro-creationism of Pythagoras in his desire to insure the commonweal, to Plato’s modified Pythagoreanism that permitted a continuation of sexual communion after the period of state-required reproduction. From Plato she carries the investigation forward to the early Stoics, Zeno and Chryssipus, who depart from Pythagorean pro-creationism and contend that sexual communion is for the creation of friendly relationships between all males and females, consummated by communal conjugal sexual play, with reproduction naturally taking care of itself.

Gaca informs us that the later Stoics had a knee-jerk reaction to their philosophical progenitors and adopted Plato’s model, with an unacknowledged tendency to present that model in a more Pythagorean form than Plato would have approved. This latter Greek model of modified Platonism seems to have been in the back of the mind of Philo and Paul as they undertook to interpret the LXX biblical tradition.

Gaca traces that biblical tradition from the Mosaic Deuteronomist model which was a modified pro-creationism, not very unlike Plato’s. As in the model of Pythagoras and Plato, the purpose for the constraints on sexual play was to please the god’s in each case, and thus avoiding the divinely threatened consequences. The Greeks saw the consequences as disordered society, and the Hebrews saw them as extermination of the community by a hostile and chronically dangerous Yahweh. This Deuteronomist model was reinforced by the prophets and codified in detail by the Priestly Code in Leviticus during the Babylonian Exile. In that context the LXX came into being during the Hellenistic Era in the final three centuries BCE.

Thus Philo (30 BCE-50 CE) inherited the late Stoic and the post-exilic traditions and in trying to meld them developed a model containing a rigid pro-creationism similar to that of the late Stoics and that of the Priestly Code of the LXX. Paul attempted to create a model that also melded the same two traditions, succeeding in conveying a confused proposal for Christian sexual ethics, which contained enough of Pythagorean restriction, Platonic ambiguity, and late stoic rigidity to be interpreted as requiring sex exclusively enacted as in honor of God, and certainly deprived of any of the delicious pleasures of normal sexual desire.

When Tatian got hold of the Philonic and Pauline traditions he resolved all the ambiguity of the former and the confusion of the latter by simply ridding himself of the entire issue and all its complexities. Sex is forbidden, desire and pleasure are of the devil. The Desert Fathers seem to have given operational form to this encratite model, though one wonders what was really going on in those exclusively male dusty desert hovels, beside ritual prayer. Those cats were of a different breed than I am, if their self-reported case histories are to be taken for face value.

Epiphanes’ alternative model, very similar to that of Zeno and Chryssipus, the early Stoics, repudiated the Pythagorean and biblical claims on Christian sexual ethics and proposed instead a rational, natural communal program of sex for friendly relationships, shared mutual concern, and a rationally stable society. He seems to have been on the right track. But as is always the case throughout history, the best choice is never made. Always the temporizing or aggressively reactive decision is taken, as Fox News continually proposes we should do in our day. So too with the church in the 3rd - 5th  centuries, and so we have the sick sexual world we have today in the West, thanks to the fear-, guilt-, and shame-driven church of the ancient bishops and their subsequent Apostolic ecclesiastical progeny.

Those Christian theologians rewrote the definitions, retuned the symbols, and reprogrammed the metaphors of the biblical tradition; while cherry-picking Greek ideas and biblical proof texts so as to claim anything they wanted to as a proper Christian world view and sexual ethic. It makes one a bit sick to stand as a present day theologian in that irresponsible methodological tradition. The debate in the ancient world came down to Epiphanes versus Clement. That amounted to the contest between Plato and the early Stoics, on the one hand, and a Pythagorean and late Stoic Clement, on the other.

Gaca summarizes: Early Christian sexual ethics followed three different trajectories – rigidly conservative encratite, proto-orthodox, and rational libertine. The final outcome was a Clementine orthodoxy, with encratite inclinations. This great tragedy is most apparent in the fact that for much of the last millennium and a half the Western world, religious and secular, has so super-sexualized morality that the term morality virtually stands for sexual behavior only, and nothing else. The theft of millions of dollars by the Enron executives and the Wall Street brokers has never been referred to as immoral – only as illegal or simply inappropriate. Moreover, the long Christian sexual tradition has also, conversely, consistently super-moralized sexuality to such a degree that everything about sex is considered a moral issue. This has driven sexual function underground in most societies, resulting in the wide scope of perverse and destructive sexual aberration. The church has much for which to apologize to the world in this regard. Surely, Ephipanes’ proposal of communal sexual relationship in a respectful rational society of equality and justice, that was directed primarily toward creating friendly human sexual mutuality, is an infinitely more sacred and salvific model. It enhances sexual union as a gift of love between lovers, and as Gaca declares poetically, “Far from being problematic, such pleasure is rather a supervenient joy.”3

Let me return to my main question. What is the psycho-spiritual driver that keeps our pathological sexual policy in force? The answer is complex. Quite obviously, Pythagoras, Plato, the early and late Stoics, The Deuteronomist, the authors of the Priestly Code, the LXX, Philo, Paul, and the Patristics had one common thing as their central concern. They all felt there was a deep and urgent need to control sexual impulse or libidinous drive in humans, for the health and wellbeing of the individual and the community. It is not self-evident that such control is necessary. Epiphanes and apparently Zeno and Chryssipus to some degree, believed that sexual urges and function would be self-regulating if allowed to function naturally. They apparently thought humans were sensible enough for that process to find a healthy “water-level” so to speak. In that case the control need of all Epiphanes’ predecessors was the first sick move psycho-dynamically, and hence psychosocially, in producing the world we have today.

This unconscious or conscious societal need to control biochemically-induced sub-volitional human sexual urges is surely related to the forces in humans that induce fear, guilt, and shame associated with sexuality. Those forces are subtle, wonderful, inherent, and inevitable in humans. The main driver is the anxiety we feel about our developing sexuality in pubescence. In the 18th century, Lord Chesterton comically voiced his unresolved pubescent anxiety that for him persisted apparently even after he reached advanced adulthood. He thought sex was an unmentionable. He said of it, “The pleasure is ephemeral, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.”

Every human enters the unknown and mysterious territory of pubescence with ignorance and anxiety about what is happening to him or her. Everything about life is thoroughly turbulent. Physically, biochemically, social, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and cognitively everything is changing at an enormous speed. Nothing that seemed stable, secure, and comfortable in childhood seems any longer stable or predictable. Relationship issues become enormously problematical, with parents, particularly of the opposite gender, with former friendly chums at school or in the neighborhood, with God, and with everyone else, even the family pet. Adolescence, screened through any standard psychological test battery, is a temporary, self-limiting form of insanity. So, pubescent humans are anxiety ridden about everything, not just about sex. In fact anxiety is about equal regarding sex and spirituality for the average 13 year old. Just suddenly saying the word, God, or sex, to a 13 year old, will throw that young person into a state of anxiety and mystification. He or she will retreat to safety.

The reason for this anxiety is that both spirituality and sexuality feel like they are very close to the defining core of our being and at 13 they are wholly unknown territory. Consequently, humans all feel enormously vulnerable in that place in life. Children, moreover, internalize pain as guilt, unconsciously blaming themselves if anything seems to be out of order or uncomfortable. This complex pubescent neurosis carries with it, then, that sense of inadequacy and maladjustment that marks most of us through adolescence; and we experience it as shame. Humans have always gone through this adolescent vulnerability with its concomitant guilt and shame.

In the ancient world of Pythagoras, Plato, Philo, and Paul this experience was overlaid with a theology of a threatening God. If one did not measure up in life, living in service to the pleasure of God, one was liable to catch hell. The threat was about equal from Yahweh and Aphrodite. That kind of world-view causes the adolescent anxiety-driven discomfort, translated into guilt and shame to take on the overriding experience of fear. When that happens, the adolescent sense of vulnerability carries over into adult life and becomes a permanent part of the adult’s psychology and of the community’s psychology in a community where such a threat theology prevails. American Fundamentalism is a classic illustration of this adolescent fear, guilt, and shame, particularly about spirituality and sexuality, carried over into adult life as a permanently defining belief system and ethic. It is this process that produced the pathology of the ancient Greek sexual ethics and the sick Patristic perspective.

Fear induced by that God-damned (I say that advisedly) old Jewish story of the Warrior God, and that Pythagorean ghost of Aphrodite, set the stage for 20 centuries of sick Christian sexual ethics. Such a view of God as a threat, who solves all his ultimate problems by an immediate resort to ultimate violence, holds that curse over human heads for any sexual aberration, If you still hesitate to believe this is the chronic Western predicament and perplexity, after reading Gaca’s exhaustive study, then read Raymond Lawrence’s two superb and highly readable volumes on the subject, The Poisoning of Eros, and Sexual Liberation, the Scandal of Christendom.4 Until we eradicate that old Jewish story from our deep unconscious psychological archetypes, and our Christian theological and ethical traditions, Western Society will never get over our pervasive and persistent sickness regarding sex, as well as regarding violence.

It is of great interest, of course, that the source stories of both the Greek and the biblical traditions have to do with the notion that the gods originally created a perfect world in which sex was not a perplexity; and humans have fallen from that pristine state. This is a product of the childish inclination to internalize pain as guilt. Life is perplexing. God and parents cannot be to blame. I must be to blame. There is something inherently wrong with me. The truth is, of course, that there never was a pristine state and there never was a fall from grace. Genesis 3 and six are bunk. The truth is that we evolved from primitive forms of organic life and we should be concentrating upon how wonderfully far we have developed instead of upon how badly off we are. The amazing thing about humans is how wonderful we are, for the most part, and we should stop demonizing ourselves and acting as though if we do not over-control, everything will go to hell and chaos. There is not evidence for that. There is much evidence for certain kinds of destructive human illnesses and there is much evidence for the fact that evil is often perpetrated by people who are reacting to injustice, deprivation, and pain or inadequacy.

The notion of sin and fallenness is untrue and does not help us manage the situation, though all the ancient seemed to believe in our fallenness, from Pythagoras, Genesis 6, and Genesis 3 forward. The realization that personal and social dysfunction derives from human pathology is a very helpful perspective and its cures can be readily sought and made operational. The human problem is not sin but sickness. We are underevolved. That is why it is probably a very salvific idea to give Epiphanes’ model a real chance at a society that would be sexually and psycho-socially shaped by the quest for friendliness in equality, freedom, rationality, and justice. Gaca puts it like this in her very last words, Epiphanes was convinced “that sexual morality should be attained through justice, dialogue, and reasoning, not through power, commandments, possessive metaphors and submission.”5

Can we get rid of that ancient pathogenic Jewish story from the Christian sacred text and conscience, and that ancient Greek story that reinforces it by way of Christian Hellenistic Neoplatonism? It is not surprising to me that Socrates, the Church Historian of the 5th century, praised Hypatia, the blessed and godly pagan philosopher in Alexandria, as more spiritually and ethically ideal and authentic than the Christian bishops and their pathological and pathogenic sexual codes. No wonder that evil, tight assed bastard, Archbishop Cyril of Alexandria, murdered her in 415 CE because she stood for truth and righteousness; while he stood for the psycho-spiritually sick Clementine sexual code that we have today.

If you care about the future of our world, sell your bed and buy this book!


1 J. Harold Ellens (2006), Sex in the Bible, A New Consideration, Westport: CT: Praeger.

2 Dust Jacket endorsement.

3 Kathy L. Gaca (2003), The Making of Fornication, Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 71.

4 Raymond L. Lawrence  (2007), Sexual Liberation, The Scandal of Christendom, Westport, CT: Praeger; and Lawrence (1997), The Poisoning of Eros, New York: Basic Books.

5 Gaca, Op. Cit. 305.