“Sexual transgression” is not ontologically real. The phrase is a power-laden “seeming”: it functions as a sociolinguistic sleight-of-hand in a cross-cultural card game pointing ideologically, and so quite significantly, to the power a given group or culture bequeaths to its dominant definitions of “normalcy,” broadly understood. “Normalcy” is the effort to create a stable, cultural (and often legal) set of givens for human in-group interaction, typically in order to sustain a set of “elites” most able to effect “normalcy” and thereby to retain the moral, sociopolitical, and economic cache typically given the “normal.” These givens can acquire over time the sensibility of “naturalness,” “ubiquity,” and “universality,” but they are, in actuality, agentially chosen “truths” set by empowered players within these specific cultural systems. Said more simply, understanding “transgression” and “sexual transgression” in the periods in which the biblical narratives were produced requires us to understand the distinct efforts of different groups—Judeans, Greeks, Romans, and that liminal tribe called the Christians—to define themselves as peoples and in particular the manner in which they defined themselves over against other peoples by setting gendered sexual “norms” of acceptability and deploying the slander of sexual deviancy against others. It also, simultaneously, requires us to understand how moderns are describing them.

Theoretical and Cultural Starting Points in the Study of Sexual Transgression.

Since the 1970s, scholarly moves in the study of “sexual transgression” of the ancient Mediterranean have undergone several major shifts. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, classicists and historians like K. J. Dover and John Boswell deployed a historical positivism and an essentialist understanding of “sex” and “sexuality” in the study of Greek Homosexuality (1978, 1989) and Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1981), producing important monographs that assumed the security of “history” and the historical study of a factual, singular “past” to highlight the transtemporal historical presence of one group of modern Western “sexual transgressors” (namely, male homosexuals) in the vibrant life of ancient Athens, Rome, and emergent Christianity. It made for luscious reading, not to mention an imagistic admiration of our very self, almost as if a time portal had opened and we could see our gay selves supping at symposia. During the same time period, feminist scholars such as Phyllis Trible (1984), Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1984), and Carol Meyers (1988), who were rightly concerned with the seeming silence of women’s voices in the Bible, famously highlighted the “texts of terror” in the biblical corpus; they sought to “reveal,” through eloquently “suspicious” studies below or behind the textual surface, the discovery, disappearance, dismemberment, and/or memorialization of “women” (as modern Westerners understood the term). Note that for these early feminist biblical scholars, “sexuality” had far less to do with sex acts than with biological sex or gender; “transgression” was the presence of the sexed/gendered subject herself, an irony not lost on the scholarly interlocutors who sought to rediscover their ancient counterparts.

The scholarly politics of sexual transgression—“we’ve always been here, get used to it”—embedded in this kind of essentialist positivist historicism gave way in the early 1990s to the impact of cultural criticism and poststructuralist thought. Linguistic moves prefigured by Saussure and Gadamer found their home in the twistily exultant Dissemination of Derrida (1981): tracing his finger upon Plato’s pharmakon, he wrote of Logos:

"The truth of writing, that is, as we shall see, (the) nontruth, cannot be discovered in ourselves by ourselves. And it is not the object of a science, only of a history that is recited, a fable that is repeated. The link between writing and myth becomes clearer, as does its opposition to knowledge, notably the knowledge one seeks in oneself, by oneself. And at the same time, through writing or through myth, the genealogical break and the estrangement from the origin are sounded. One should note most especially that what writing will later be accused of—repeating without knowing—here defines the very approach that leads to the statement and determination of its status. One thus begins by repeating without knowing—through a myth—the definition of writing—which is to repeat without knowing. This kinship of writing and myth, both of them distinguished from logos and dialectics, will only become more precise as the text concludes. (pp. 74–75)"

In 1978, Hayden White in Tropics of Discourse had deployed a newly emerging cultural criticism to compatible effect, underscoring the instability of “history”—the illusion of it as an orderly science of the past—much as Derrida sought to undercut the stability of “the word,” instead penning an ever-moving, disseminating logos. Both were strongly impacted by Michel Foucault’s insistence on the empowered, cultural bases for language—that words have no set referents in transcultural reality but are rather figurative and thus mythic, culturally specific “strategies that sanction conceptualizing rituals” (White, 1978, pp. 231–232)—rituals, that is, like the study of history and science and sexual activity. As Foucault’s own genealogy, The History of Sexuality, articulated, sexual identity and homosexuality were nineteenth-century cultural inventions (1976, p. 43).

These linguistic-cultural challenges to structuralism and historical positivism found receptive ears among scholars of sex and Bible. I will focus on the work of one of them: Dale B. Martin. In a series of outstanding articles now collected in the volume Sex and the Single Savior (2006), Martin integrated and deployed insights from White, Derrida, and Foucault in seismic, cultural-critical, and ideological-critical genealogies of “sexual transgression” as it was being debated by Paul scholars. In “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18–32” (1995), for example, he eschewed the approach of scholars who were treating Romans 1 as the (homo)sexual transgression passage par excellence in favor of uncovering the modern, heterosexist ideological assumptions (about nature and homosexuality) that regulated their cultural overdetermination of the text’s “acts.” In “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences” (1996), he took a compatible but distinct tack; offering a genealogy of translation, he identified the cultural constraints on the translation of the terms in different time periods in order to demonstrate, definitively, that arsenokoites and malakos have not until the present period been conjoined to carry the modern weight of meaning (homo-)sexuality. Instead, he showed precisely what we do not know about these terms for a Paul who never used them elsewhere and, in 1 Corinthians 6:9, stuck them in a vice list riddled with primarily economic signifiers. As he says in “The Myth of Textual Agency,” the Bible does not speak; we are always already the agents of its interpretation. Martin’s cultural critical and ideological genealogies of scholars’ inculcation of modern standards of “normalcy” into ancient texts on “transgression” have been challenged, but never bested.

Genealogy also bred gendered and (gender?-) queer turns in the study of ancient sex. The most significant were born from the unexpectedly sinuous slow dance of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, authored in the same year (1990). In Gender Trouble, Butler argued definitively that, like language itself, gender and human subjects are culturally constructed and performative. We are made and constantly in the making; we are what we do to and with our bodies. Launching a full-frontal assault on essentialist (white) feminists’ love of “woman,” Butler argued that the category is as fraught as it is definitionally squishy—fraught by what we may now call “intersections” with sexual desire, class, and race too-often erased from its meaning and fraught by the false dualism between gender, understood as enculturated, and biological sex, treated as a fixed, “natural” ontology. (The distinction had worked, for a time, in white feminists’ efforts to break “the glass ceiling,” but for Butler it had lost its mystique.) So Butler offered the first well-known feminist gender challenge to the solidity of biological “sex,” one that has subsequently been refined by such scholars as Thomas Laqueur (1990), Alice Domurat Dreger (1998), and Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000, 2012). Such researchers showed that biological “sex” has been culturally created by modern medicine as dual and “naturally” stable, as “male” and “female.” But Butler argues that supposedly naturally “sexed” bodies are defined at several incompletely overlapping levels at once (phenotypically, genotypically, hormonally) and, further, that they only signify their “sex” through gendered displays, one of which was sexual performance. Domurat Dreger builds on this picture, detailing the intentional ideological erasure of third-gender/sexed bodies by twentieth-century physicians so alarmed by the number of non–dually sexed bodies discovered in physical exams that they worked to entrench culturally the “natural” truth that there exist but two sexes: “male” and “female.” Finally, Laqueur adds the backstory to Butler’s critique of “sex”: that physicians into the 1900s understood “female” bodies not as a separate sex but, like ancient doctors, as a physical inversion or deformity of the masculine form—woman was incomplete man, the vagina was an undescended penis, and sexual gender deviance was attached to the figures of the tribas (sexually dominant woman) and the mollis (male softie). In short, “from the Greeks to Freud,” male writers and doctors in the West assumed ideologically the “natural” existence of a hierarchical, gendered body continuum grounded in the theoretical perfection of physical masculinity.

But Butler’s more famous argument is that “heterosexuality” is constructed normatively to attach desire, as a “natural” orientation, to a particular “biological sex”; persons are “driven” to desire members of the same or opposite sex. Further, because biological sex is gendered dualistically as either male or female, the category of “(hetero)sexuality” requires the presence of its abject opposite, “homosexuality,” to remain stable. After all, one can only be “driven” to desire the same or “opposite” sex—as opposed, say, to desiring muscles, soft skin, a strong back, chocolate, or some other luscious object—in a dually sexed/gendered sexuality system fixated on “orientation.” In other words, the assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality regnant in 1990—that there are two sexes, two genders, and two sexualities that, when performing “normally” and “naturally,” overlap to create a biologically driven heteronormativity—are a triadic modern gender construction, sex-gender-sexuality, each element of which requires the other two lest the three-legged stool of modern sex/uality split in half. Thus, Butler famously concluded, feminist political praxis should focus not on “woman” but on making gender trouble; rather than exalting “woman” they should queer the heteronormative triad, especially in the “gender-sexual” sphere, by troubling seemingly set gender assumptions about dress, walk, talk, and sexual touch.

Butler’s jaw-droppingly important book made David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality on the profound difference between “homosexuality” and ancient male sexual performance an easy swallow. Halperin did not know the work of Butler (or that of Laqueur, for that matter). But after demonstrating that the word “homosexuality” did not make it into the Oxford English Dictionary until 1892, Halperin showed that throughout the nineteenth century the modern organization of sexual preference around object choice (i.e., for a person of same or different sex) “was not clearly distinguished from other sorts of non-conformity to one’s culturally defined sex-role: deviant object-choice was merely one of a number of pathological symptoms exhibited by those who reversed, or ‘inverted,’ their proper sex-roles by adopting a masculine or feminine style at variance with what was deemed natural and appropriate to their anatomical sex” (pp. 15–16). It wasn’t until Freud that “sexuality” was given a biological base (and an orientational “drive” train). Put another way, before the rise of “sexuality” as a cultural construct, Westerners typically treated “normalcy” in gendered terms and assimilated sexual behaviors, “normal” and “abnormal,” to gendered standards of conduct.

Halperin showed that ancient Greeks likewise defined what we moderns might call male “homoeroticism” in fundamentally gendered terms. “Masculinity” of sex role was aligned with penetration and other markers of social dominance, high status, and hierarchical superiority, while femininity (in anatomical “women” and “men”) was aligned with sexual receptivity and inferiority. In this elite Greek economy of sex, “sexual transgression” was marked by opposition to these standards: for women, it was to be insertive, dominating, to become tribades. For adult males, it was to choose to take the position of women, the receptive, penetrated position. Doing so, Halperin accurately implied, threatened elite Greek men with effeminizing “sexual transgression”—they could become diseased, prefer the feminine position in sex, and potentially transform into girlish softies (molles, malthakoi), a malady Caelius says he observed more often as men aged (1990, pp. 22–23). Critically, the gendered nature of “sex” and “sexual transgression” in Halperin’s portrait of Athenian male sex play extended well beyond the strictly “sexual” sphere.

"Sexual activity is thematized as domination…between social superior and social inferior. “Active” and “passive” sexual roles were therefore necessarily isomorphic with superordinate and subordinate social status; hence an adult, male citizen of Athens can have legitimate sexual relations only with statutory minors (his inferiors not in age but in social and political status): the proper targets of his sexual desire include, specifically, women, boys, foreigners, and slaves—all of them persons who do not enjoy the same legal and political rights [sic] and privileges that he does (p. 30)."

In other words, not only did Greek elites fundamentally gender sex acts and sexual actors and assume the existence of a plurality of gendered actors, they also regulated “sexual transgression” based on gendered notions of status difference, social power, and politics.

In 1991, Halperin followed up this watershed work with Before Sexuality. Coedited by John Winkler and Froma Zeitlin, Before Sexuality is a tour de force that demonstrated and expanded Halperin’s thesis in exquisite detail. As a whole, the research of this group of scholars revealed that ancient Mediterranean peoples lived (emphatically) before sexuality, in performatively gendered worlds of sexual deviance and display. In these worlds “women” were thought fundamentally wet, dirty, and wild; astronomy and swaddling were body-molding acts; physiognomy could tell you the “make” of a man; and men could, by failing to work their gender daily (sexually and in several other ways), become women or, worse, something(s) in-between, the androgyne or mollis. If acknowledged, the extent of the difference between a world in which “sexual transgression” was materially gendered and ours, of the imagined (hetero)normative, would require modern scholars of sex to reposition studies of ancient “sexual deviance” not just within specific socio-historical contexts that admitted the centrality of gender performativity and plurality but also within multi-axial fields of knowing that included (the gendering of and intersections of gender with) politics, ethnicity, empire, status, rhetoric, and sexual slander.

Quarter Turn: Doing Sex “History” Differently after Halperin.

Emphasizing that Halperin and others developed these critical insights about the gendered nature of ancient sex at the end of the twentieth century is required because scholars of ancient sex are still wrapping our collective head around the diverse implications of these insights. Together with Gender Trouble, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Before Sexuality marked the end of the reign of “essentialist” treatments of sex and “sexual deviance” in the ancient world. After Foucault, Halperin, and Butler, even scholars of Paul could not, with a modicum of scholarly integrity, continue to say that Paul (or Jesus) ever discussed “sexuality” (much less “transgression” of that sexuality). But Halperin’s Before Sexuality also functioned as something of a gauntlet thrown. It marked the beginning of a still-current split between scholars who acknowledge Halperin and speak of sex and sexual deviance as fundamentally gendered acts and those who highlight gender but still use the language of “homo-” (and presumably hetero-) “eroticism,” as well as those who embrace plurality but keep the concept of sexualit(ies) and insist on the existence of ancient “sexualities” that are simply different from our own.

Among those scholars who have heeded Halperin’s (and Foucault’s and Butler’s) fundamental warning that “sexuality” is modern, some have tenaciously stuck to the language of “sexuality” in their depictions of ancients’ sexual conceptions, perhaps despite knowing better, and quite possibly because publishers told them that entitling their studies “Roman gender deviance is sexy” wouldn’t sell books (Williams, 1999). The unfortunate consequence of the refusal of the modern in this otherwise excellent book is the confusion of the fundamental difference between “our” orientational systemic of sex categories and ancient one(s) that Williams himself knows were built on gender performativity. For a modern audience, it is an ideological intercalation that confuses far more than it illuminates. It arguably hands over to moderns the power of forgetting contexts—cross-cultural difference as well as multi-ethnic pluralities of approaches to sex and transgression as gendered ancient realities—so that we may again name those realities in our own image.

Others uncomfortable with the language of sexuality have acknowledged the ancient foundational focus on gender performance, shifting their descriptions of “sexual deviance” to “homoeroticism,” but the ideological effect of naming “deviance” primarily as “homo-” anything is an unwitting replication of modern assumptions that there are but two sexes and that sexual orientation is transculturally “real.” Martti Nissinen’s Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (2004) and Bernadette Brooten’s flawlessly researched Love between Women (1996) exhibit this tension between the gendered character of ancient sexual self-definition (quite apart from object choice) and that of modern Westerners. An extraordinary scholar, Brooten repeatedly brings life to the gendering of ancient denunciations of certain sex acts by women, but her study is skewed by the belief, or perhaps the hope, that like women-loving women today, real “women who loved women” existed behind ancients gender-typing.

Still other scholars have acknowledged the “turn to gender” not by turning to gender but by turning from the singular “sexuality” to the plural, “sexualities” (Hallett and Skinner, 1997; Hubbard, 2014). As a political strategy, embracing the plural does work to distribute and decenter the power of a centralized singular, and much scholarship on sex in modernity has therefore shifted to embrace this language (e.g., the excellent journal Sexualities; for the pluralization of gender study, see, e.g., Ramet, 1996). But there are real troubles for this move as a schematization of ancient sex. For one, some scholars, like Thomas Hubbard, would (I believe) like to use it to return to the age of Dover and Boswell (2003). Second, as I argued in “Still Before Sexuality” (2007), supposed terms denoting different Roman “sexualities” are all gendered passive and active, indicating that the masculo-penetrative gender binary articulated by Halperin is the culturally regulatory force for “normalcy” in Greece and Rome (pp. 13–21). But the biggest problem with this naming practice is that introducing “sexualities” reasserts (however subliminally) the dominant symbolic of “orientation” in a way that hides not only the centrality of gender to ancient “sex” but also the various “extra-sexual” cultural dynamics that contributed to ancients’ understanding of sex as gendered (again: rhetoric, slander, politics, interethnic strife, imperialism, and ethnic difference). The reason for this failure of insight is, I believe, that we “moderns” have worked so often and so hard to hide from ourselves the ideological impact of these mechanisms in the construction of “sexual orientation”—and perhaps because we really do want sexual orientation to exist before it did.

The obverse of this rusty coin is that with the erasure of a regnant, transcultural “sexuality,” a door has been opened wide to the robust, multi-axial gender analysis of sexual normalcy and sexual deviance in the ancient Mediterranean. Scholars who walked through that door have indeed begun in earnest to engage gender pluralities, gender reversals, and gender cultures and the rhetoric, slander, politics, interethnic strife, imperialism, and ethnic difference that gave them all meaning.

This emerging body of literature is large, and I can only gesture here to some of its directions and the underlying refinements to method and gender theory that these works reflect. First and foremost is the openness to plurality in sex stories and practices and the consequent recognition that biblical texts, like the multiple intersecting worlds they reflect, never had just one pattern for acceptable or unacceptable sexual relations (Knust, 2011). Second, growing awareness of the distinct ethnic contexts of biblical texts facilitates a much deeper understanding of the role of sex, desire, and sexual deviance in group definition and intergroup relations. For instance, Craig Williams (1999) highlights important distinctions between Greek and Roman elite standards for masculinity: for example, Halperin’s treatment of the gendered “penetrator-penetrated” frame was critical for understanding a dominant Greek ideology of sex, but while some elite Greeks idealized eros between the adult erastes and young eromenos as education, for Romans the penetration of future viri was prohibited because of the imperial fear of effemination. Similarly, I argued in “Sexy Stoics” (2004) and “Disease of Effemination” (2003) that Judean treatments of sexual “transgression” are differently pointed but, for the same reason, imperialism. Paul, Josephus, and Philo of Alexandria all insisted vehemently that Judeans did not engage in sexual license “like the nations” did; Philo went so far as to say that “androgynes” who practiced effeminating intercourse should perish unavenged (On the Special Laws 3.37–39). In other words, it was far too effeminating for an already-effeminated subject group like Judeans to be associated with “sexual transgression.” As “Still Before Sexuality” shows, imperialism even lies at the root of Roman gendered charges of sexual deviance against fellow Romans. Fearing penetration of the Roman “body” by conquest, Roman men responded to their gendered paranoia of “Greek invasion” by stereotyping their “proximate others” (elite Roman women) as sexually luxuriant, andrygynous tribades unduly influenced by their imperial other (Greeks). In Abandoned to Lust (2006), Jennifer Wright Knust extends the study of interethnic and politicized sexual slander, arguing convincingly that such stereotyped accusations of sexual license and depravity—slander of various kinds from adultery to incest to bestiality—were leveled, with searing specificity, by Romans against Greeks, Greeks against Romans, Romans against Christians, Jews against “the nations,” and Christian Jews like Paul against nonbelieving “nations” and even believers, when they were “the nations.” As Knust details, “accusations of sexual licentiousness…depended upon and reinforced cultural codes about the characteristics” appropriate to the elite, and by slandering others, ‘elites’ were able to self-define as powerful and virtuous” (2006, p. 47). She rightly states that the ancient categories of “man” and “woman” (and, I would add, “androgyne” and “eunuch,” among others) were defined in no small part by such slander. In short, specific ethnic, imperial, and political groups’ gender definition depended, in part, on leveling the charge of sexual transgressions against equally specific “others.” Dominant groups, like the Romans, slandered subject peoples sexually for social control, and subject groups (like Jews and Christians) slandered both other subject groups (Greeks) and dominant groups sexually to retain their ideological power or to regain a sense of control over others. Sexual slander serviced the masculine phallus of cultural control.

In addition to the studies of the tribas, the androgyne, and the malakos, research of other gender-ambiguous categories of person like slaves and eunuchs has also contributed insights to the study of ancient gender, especially as a tool of and response to empire. For instance, Matthew Keufler argues in The Manly Eunuch (2001) that dominant masculinities (e.g., of Roman elites) exist in a dialectical relationship with the peoples they have dominated. Taking cues from postcolonial theorists like Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, Keufler and others have recognized that the dominated can create new masculine ideals for themselves through mimickry, hybridity, or “postcolonial” inversion of dominant goods. As Eric Thurman showed in “Looking for a Few Good Men: Mark and Masculinity” (2003), the gendered logic of colonial mimickry is precisely what enabled early Christians to stake claim to the august title “Son of God” in order to revirilize—however ambiguously—a Judean Christ crucified and effeminated by the Romans. It is quite possibly why Matthew cited Jesus as embracing the gender-deviant “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven” as the exception to the rule against divorce ((19:12). (On this and other transgressive readings of the Jesus Movement, see Moxnes, 2003.) Kuefler argues that such revirilization is the reason that late antique period Christians, in a time of reduced Roman power, inverted the Roman masculine ideal of the “perfect male-penetrator” and redeployed early Christian traditions of acceptable gender-ambiguity to assert a “new masculine ideal” for Christians—as “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.” The gender-ambiguous, even (or perhaps especially) in their “sexual transgressiveness,” can empower disempowered peoples; gender ambiguity was a counter-imperial power play.

This is but one reason why, in the study of “sexual transgression,” recognizing the role of status, especially of slave and free, is so critical. As Keith Bradley (1998), Jennifer Glancy (2006, 2011), Clarice Martin (2006), and other scholars of slavery have shown, slaves hardly counted as human in the Roman hierarchy of persons. As “talking tools” they did not have gender, were defined as the sexual property of their masters, were consequently called “boys” when adult, and yet had a “social currency” as slaves, both in economic and sexual terms and, because of their “deviance” from Roman standards of selfhood, required their own rules for sexual “propriety.” Both Roman and Christian household codes (from Ephesians to 1 Peter) demonstrate how central slaves were to “normal” domestic economies and, indeed, how dangerous they were if they ever climbed above their “place” (Dixon, 1992; Osiek and Balch, 1997); early Christians exhibited the contradictions of gender power inherent in the category of “the slave” by at once bowing as slaves before a crucified kyrios or “master” (Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1) and mimicking Roman household codes in an effort to best their Roman counterparts at “the perfect normal.” Slaves of Christ themselves, Christians enslaved fellow Christians and simultaneously used slaves’ enslavement to protect their communities, through assimilation to a Roman domestic norm based on top-down patronal rule, from harm or death at Roman hands. It was a most ironic form of Christian “masculinity” (that is, community-resistance to imperial control).

From slander to enslavement, empire to effeminacy, multi-axial study of sexualized gender transgressions demonstrate the value of poststructuralist gender theories and interdisciplinary research (e.g., ethnicity studies, postcolonial studies). They produce richly diverse ancient narratives of “sexual transgression” that are as genuinely reflective of the intersecting cultures that produced them as we can offer. “Sexual transgression” has never been a singular reality. But the study of it, which is necessarily both modern and ancient, teaches us about the ancient and modern worlds, what is at stake for us in naming the “sexual transgressive” in the past, and consequently informs the manner in which we use gendered conceptions of sexual propriety to sustain ourselves and our societies’ sense of stability—quite often at the expense of others.

Let Us Conclude with Those Who Went “Queer”…Whether They Actually Did or Did Not.

The language of things “queer” exploded in biblical studies (and elsewhere) after Judith Butler troubled gender. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was writing “queer” theologies and books about the queer Bible. But for the most part they were just a little bit too much like the gay and lesbian “Love Boat.” And so, with the caveat that I have great respect for the brave, real-world leadership of such people as Robert Goss, biblical studies was nevertheless “blessed” with Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (2000) and Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up (2007). Such books and their descendants, which continue to populate the publishing market, are efforts to make Jesus and the Bible open and affirming for non–straight-identifying people—whether gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, or transgender—by making Jesus and the Bible, well, just fabulously gay. And yet they do not destabilize the sexed or gendered identities that “queer” theorists showed to have sustained “heteronormalcy” and its stable, abhorrently “transgressive” homosexual other. This work is vinegar in a holey wineskin masked as “old vine” wine.

In fact, most biblical studies that go under the title “queer” deal with issues facing the identity groups named above (although trans folks are really just beginning to find a serious hand hold in biblical scholarship; see Swancutt, 2006; Leone, 2013; Nyland, 2007). Unlike the work of Goss, several are indeed rigorous in their efforts to approach biblical texts, both as ancient texts and, because of the Bible’s iconic power, as culturally and politically dynamic spaces in which peoples determine “who shall live and who shall die.” Works in this genre include two books authored or edited by Ken Stone (2001, 2005). Always careful, in his introduction to Queer Commentary Stone recognizes the potential problems of identity politics for this kind of “queer biblical engagement” but argues nevertheless for a reader-centered approach. While highlighting critiques of the work that occur even within the pages of the book—for example, that biblical narratives of domination remain even as the aberrancy of homosexual “transgression” is being decentered, Stone argues that such queer commentaries are nevertheless a powerful enterprise. They undermine heteronormativity (per se) “in” the ancient and modern spaces of scripture by highlighting the Bible’s life-giving resonances for sexually “transgressive” biblical readers (e.g., God as Top; God as Lover; the deep joys of food and sex) (2001, pp. 20–34).

There are a few notably delicious exceptions to the rule of “queer” as an umbrella term meant to appeal to modern “sexually transgressive” readers: Stephen Moore’s God’s Beauty Parlor and Other Queer Spaces In and Around the Bible (2001) is a masterful poststructuralist romp through the gender-ambiguous masculinity of historical Jesus and Paul studies. In the 2010s, outstanding contributors put current queer theories to the test in Ken Stones’s Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, co-edited with Teresa Hornsby (2011). Similarly, Sean Burke’s Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch (2013) offers a lovely refusal to resolve the ambiguities of Luke’s narrative about the eunuch’s geographic, ethnic, colonial, and gender transgressiveness, arguing—with a bit of theoretical slippage about authorial intent—that “Luke” upholds the eunuch’s gender and ethno-political ambiguity as a symbolic pointer to the direction the Christian mission was to take in Acts. Finally, Dale Martin’s “The Queer History of Galatians 3:28” argues vigorously against a modern “egalitarian” understanding of the text in its first historical contexts, correctly recognizing the central (andrygynous) masculinity of the figure of Christ there, and yet it wonderfully refuses the “original” masculine as the solution to the text’s meaning, pushing against the hegemony of historical criticism for a plurality of viable bottom-up possibilities, as well as a variety of (sexed, raced, and gendered) mixing of kinds that refuses modern dualities. This is queer history and ethical thinking at its best (2006, p. 89).

Finally, apt critiques that “queer” scholarship aimed at sexually transgressive readers too often fails to account for the needs of nonwhite readers or to destabilize sexuality itself as a cultural construct have also been met by queer theologians like Patrick Cheng (2013). Cheng seeks to be inclusive of persons experiencing oppressions based on their sexual or gendered “transgression” of heteronormativity while at the same time challenging the theological, sexual, political, and identity boundaries and binaries (between gay and straight, male and female, god and human, and East and West) that sustain it. Especially helpful is Cheng’s deployment, upon the problematics of “the intersectional transgressive,” of Homi Bhabha’s notion of colonial hybridity (1994): that the developed cultural identities of colonized subjects create an ambivalence and anxiety in colonial “masters” (understood by Cheng in geopolitical, racial, and sexual terms) and, as a consequence, decenter their power over those they have colonized. Embracing “the Christian transgressive” as hybrid, Cheng argues that sex- and gender-queers and “the Christ” may together experience their lives as love incarnate—as erotic, out, liberative, transgressive, and hybrid—rather than as “sin,” the cultural symbolic of the heteronormative colonizer. That is indeed good news.




  • Bhabha, H. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Boswell, J. Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Bradley, K. Slavery and Society at Rome. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Brooten, B. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.
  • Burke, S. Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.
  • Butler, J. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Cheng, P. Radical Love: Introduction to Queer Theology. New York: Seabury, 2011.
  • Cheng, P. From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ. New York: Seabury, 2012.
  • Cheng, P. Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race Sexuality and Spirit. New York: Seabury, 2013.
  • Derrida, J. Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Dixon, S. The Roman Family. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
  • Domurat Dreger, A. Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1978.
  • Fausto-Sterling, A. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
  • Fausto-Sterling, A. Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World. New York: Routledge, 2012.
  • Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1976.
  • Gadamer, H.-G. Truth and Method. London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2004.
  • Goss, R. Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2007.
  • Goss, R., and M. West. Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 2000.
  • Glancy, J. Slavery in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002.
  • Glancy, J. Slavery as Moral Problem: In the Early Church and Today. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011.
  • Hallett, J., and M. Skinner, eds. Roman Sexualities. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Halperin, D. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Halperin, D., J. Winkler, and F. Zeitlin, eds. Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Harper, K. From Shame to Sin: the Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • Hornsby, T. J., and K. Stone, eds. Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.
  • Hubbard, T. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Hubbard, T. A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.
  • Knust, J. Wright. Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Knust, J. Wright. Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions and Sex and Desire. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
  • Kuefler, M. The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Laqueur, T. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.
  • Leone, K. The Transsexual and the Cross: Disproving the Myth That Transsexuality Is a Sin. K.T. Leone, 2013.
  • Macwilliam, S. Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew World. Sheffield, U.K.: Equinox, 2011.
  • Martin, C. “The Eyes Have It: Slaves in the Communities of Christ-Believers.” In Christian Origins, vol. 1, People’s History of Christianity, edited by T. A. Horsley, pp. 221–239. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.
  • Martin, D. B. Sex and the Single Savior. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006.
  • Meyers, C. Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Moore, S. God’s Beauty Parlor and Other Queer Spaces in and Around the Bible. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001.
  • Moxnes, H. Putting Jesus in His Place: A Radical Vision of Household and Kingdom. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
  • Nissinen, M. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004.
  • Nyland, A. Study New Testament for Lesbians, Gays, Bi, and Transgender: With Extensive Notes on Greek Word Meaning and Context. Uralla, Australia: Smith and Stirling, 2007.
  • Osiek, C., and B. Balch. Families in the New Testament World: Households and Housechurches. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
  • Phillips, K., and B. Reay. Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History. London: Polity, 2011.
  • Ramet, S. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Saussure, F. de. Course in General Linguistics. Chicago: Open Court, 1998.
  • Sheridan, V. Crossing Over: Liberating the Transgendered Christian. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 2001.
  • Stone, K. Practicing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective. London: T&T Clark, 2005.
  • Stone, K., ed. Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 2001.
  • Swancutt, D. M. “‘The Disease of Effemination’: The Charge of Effeminacy and the Verdict of God (Romans 1:18–2:16).” In New Testament Masculinities, edited by S. D. Moore and J. Capel Anderson, pp. 193–233. Atlanta: Brill and the Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
  • Swancutt, D. M. “Sexy Stoics and the Rereading of Romans 1.18–2.16.” In The Feminist Companion to Paul, edited by A.-J. Levine with M. Blinckenstaff, pp. 42–73. Feminist Companion to the Bible Series. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
  • Swancutt, D. M. “Sexing the Pauline Body of Christ: Scriptural ‘Sex’ in the Context of the American Christian Culture War.” In Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline, edited by V. Burrus and C. Keller, pp. 65–98. New York: Fordham University Press, 2006.
  • Swancutt, D. M. “Still Before Sexuality: ‘Greek’ Androgyny, the Roman Imperial Politics of Masculinity, and the Roman Invention of the Tribas.” In Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, edited by T. Penner and C. Vander Stichele, pp. 11–61. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.
  • Schüssler Fiorenza, E. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1984.
  • Thurman, E. “Looking for a Few Good Men: Mark and Masculinity.” In New Testament Masculinities, edited by S. D. Moore and J. Capel Anderson, pp. 137–161. Semeia Studies 45. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
  • Trible, P. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984.
  • White, H. Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
  • Williams, C. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Diana M. Swancutt

Ancient Near East


Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible, sexuality itself is good, and sometimes even celebrated. Sex between a husband and wife is built into creation, part of the natural, divinely ordained order of things. Yet sexuality is also viewed as potentially dangerous when it varies from forms of expression that are considered part of the order of the world.

Because of this potential danger, the Hebrew Bible is filled with attempts to control and regulate forms of sexual expression and choices of sexual partner. Often the texts that attempt to regulate sexual behavior are found in legal collections, which also present the consequences of engaging in these forbidden sexual acts as severe, involving both individual punishment and putting the entire community at risk of exile from the land.

Yet the legal collections are in part a delineation of ideals of behavior, a reflection of how certain individuals felt members of society ought to act, rather than a reflection of actual societal norms. While some of the laws, commands, decrees, and prohibitions in the legal collections probably reflected mainstream mores, others likely did not. If one considers texts from other genres, one sometimes gets a different picture regarding societal values, norms, and mores regarding sexuality. Sometimes sexual acts that are prohibited and punished in the legal collections are depicted negatively in other biblical genres, and sometimes they are not. Therefore one must consider texts from all genres, not just the prescriptive texts, to get a fuller idea of what might have been the reality of the culture that produced these texts.

The forms of sexual expression identified as sexual transgressions in one or more prescriptive texts include male-male sexual relations, rape, incest, bestiality, adultery, sexual promiscuity, sex with a menstruant, and possibly autoeroticism. Male-male sexual relations and rape are discussed in other entries. Other acts are discussed below, with particular attention paid to how much evidence from other genres corroborates the condemnation of these acts in prescriptive texts. Sometimes the narrative and poetic texts confirm the belief that a certain sexual behavior or choice of sexual partner is illicit, and other times they show a glimpse of alternative views about these sexual behaviors and choice of partners, revealing that perhaps the society that produced the Hebrew Bible was more diverse than may first appear.


Incest, the violation of prohibitions against sexual relations, cohabitation, or marriage between close relatives, is treated as a sexual transgression in four texts in the legal collections. In all cases, the restrictions against sex with close relatives are addressed exclusively to males and concern which female relatives, including both blood kin and kin through marriage, are sexually off-limits. No distinction is made between consensual and nonconsensual sexual relations.

Leviticus 18:6–18, which provides the most detailed guidelines, opens in verse 6 with a general statement prohibiting sexual contact with šĕʾēr bĕśārô, “close kin” (author’s translation). Verses 7–18 follow with prohibitions against sexual contact or marriage with twelve categories of female kin, starting with those closest: mother, father’s wife, sister (full or half), granddaughter, stepsister who is part of one’s father’s clan, paternal and maternal blood aunts, (paternal) blood uncle’s wife, daughter-in-law, brother’s wife, both a woman and her daughter or granddaughter (labeled as zimâ, depravity, because, as the author specifies, they are kin) and both a woman and her sister (while the former is alive). Noticeably absent is a prohibition against sex with one’s own daughter. A possible explanation (originally proposed by Rattray, 1987, p. 542) is that the daughter does not need to be stated in verses 7–18 because šĕʾēr bĕśārô, close kin, in Leviticus 18:6 includes the daughter (as well as two other female kin: the mother and sister).

Leviticus 20:11–12, 14, 17, and 19–21 includes seven categories of female kin in its restrictions: father’s wife, daughter-in-law (labeled as tebel, illicit mixing), marriage with both a woman and her mother (labeled as zimâ, depravity), sister (both full and half), maternal and paternal blood aunt, uncle’s wife, and brother’s wife. Penalties range from death to karet (likely the cutting off of one’s family line through a combination of premature deaths and infertility), childlessness, and “bearing one’s sin,” an unspecified punishment by divine agency.

Deuteronomy 23:1 (22:30 in NRSV) is a prohibition against marrying one’s father’s wife. Since polyandry was not practiced, the prohibition refers to marriage to one’s father’s former wife. The purpose of this law may have been to stop the practice of sons laying claim to their father’s wives after they died (see 1 Kgs 2:13–25). In Deuteronomy 27:20, 22–23, sex with three categories of female kin (father’s wife, sister or half-sister, and mother-in-law) are part of the list of sins that often escape detection that, if committed, result in a self-imposed curse in the communal self-imprecations of Deuteronomy 27:14–26.

Ezekiel 22:10–11 is the one prophetic text to address forbidden incestuous relations, grouping sexual relations with one’s father’s wife, daughter-in-law, or half-sister with other transgressions, both sexual and nonsexual, committed by leaders of the people (Ezek 22:9–12) that God will punish with exile (Ezek 22:13–16). As in Deuteronomy 27, these female kin may have been singled out because sex with them was considered likely to escape detection.

There are several narrative texts that describe sexual relations between relatives that are deemed incestuous in one or more of the legal collections. Sometimes the narrative texts and the legal collection both depict a sexual act between relatives as illicit. At other times, relationships categorized as incestuous in legal collections are not presented as problematic in narrative texts. Abraham is married to his paternal half-sister, Sarah (Gen 20:12). Jacob marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel (Gen 29:21–30). Moses and Aaron are sons of Amram and his aunt Jochebed (Exod 6:20). Judah has sex with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen 38:18). In 2 Samuel 13:1–14, Tamar tells her half-brother Amnon that David would not deny him her hand in marriage. While this may have been a lie on Tamar’s part in order to attempt to escape a rape, it seems unlikely. When Amnon casts her out afterward, Tamar accuses him of committing an even greater wrong than the rape, reflecting her expectation that he should do the right thing and marry her.

The sometimes contradictory understandings of incest that we find among the biblical texts can be explained several different ways. One possibility is that what relationships between kin were considered incestuous varied over time: indeed, all of the examples noted above predate the giving of the Torah and the prohibitions on incest it contains (other than Amnon/Tamar). Another possibility is that the restrictions in legal collections were an attempt to impose stricter regulations on which kin one could marry or engage in sex. A final, and perhaps most likely, possibility is that sexual and marital relationships in the narrative texts reflect exceptional cases. Royalty is often not subject to the same mores that apply to the rest of society, which could explain Tamar’s belief that she could marry Amnon. Other relationships in question come from folk traditions and legends about patriarchs, who were part of Israel’s mythic history, which is not necessarily reliable evidence of social conditions and sexual mores of an earlier period, or any period.

Lastly, there is the issue of Levirate marriage. Leviticus 20:21 states that if a man marries his brother’s wife, it is nidâ, impurity, and they will remain childless. This law makes levirate marriage illicit, punished by God with childlessness. But according to Deuteronomy 25:5–10 and Genesis 38, it is a man’s duty to marry his deceased brother’s wife if she is childless, to produce offspring for his brother. There are a few possible explanations. Levirate marriage perhaps was seen as an exception to the law against marrying one’s sister-in-law, and it was understood that such behavior was forbidden otherwise. Another possibility is that attitudes toward the practice evolved over time. Lastly, Leviticus 20:21 could have been an innovation intended to eliminate a practice that up to that point was acceptable.


Bestiality, sexual relations between a person and an animal, is categorized as a transgression in several legal collections. Exodus 22:18 states that anyone who lies with an animal will be put to death. In Deuteronomy 27:21, lying with an animal is part of the list of sins that, if committed, result in a self-imposed curse in the communal self-imprecations of Deuteronomy 27:14–26. Leviticus 18:23 prohibits both men and women from having sex with animals, labeling such behavior tebel, illicit mixing. Leviticus 20:15–16, the only text that specifies that the animal is also punished, sentences both the man or woman and the animal to death and adds that both have incurred bloodguilt.

One narrative text may imply acts of bestiality. Genesis 2:18–22 explains that a woman was created after Adam failed to find a suitable helpmate among the animals. While it is not explicit in the text, perhaps the way Adam tested helpmates was through attempts at sexual intercourse. If this is the case, then it is implicit in Genesis that sex between humans and animals is not considered part of the order of things, since Adam found the animals unacceptable as partners.

It is difficult to draw general conclusions about the mores of Israelite society as a whole based on the limited available evidence. However, given that bestiality is presented as a transgression in three different biblical legal collections and the only other possible reference presents sex with animals as unnatural, bestiality likely was generally viewed as unacceptable.


Adultery (often, but not always, denoted by the root nʾp and its nominal derivatives) is understood in the Hebrew Bible as consensual intercourse between a married or betrothed woman and a man other than her husband, whose own marital status is immaterial. It is the one sexual act prohibited in the Decalogue (Exod 20:14; Deut 5:12). Leviticus 18:20 also prohibits adultery, while both Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 sentence a couple who commits adultery to death. In Deuteronomy 22:23–24, a betrothed woman (legally bound to her husband) and a man caught having what is assumed to be consensual sex within the town are sentenced to stoning. The one case in the legal collections where the stated punishment for adultery is not death for both parties is Numbers 5:13–30, in which a wife suspected of adultery but never caught must drink the “water of bitterness.” The way her body responds will prove her guilt or innocence.

The narrative texts present more variety in terms of who is punished and how they are punished. Pharaoh and his household suffer plagues for his inadvertent commission of adultery (Gen 12:10–20). Judah sentences Tamar, found to be pregnant while awaiting levirate marriage, to be burned, though the sentence is not carried out (Gen 38:24–36). Reuben loses his birthright (Gen 49:3–4). God punishes David with the death of the child from his adulterous sex with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11–12). While Absalom is not punished directly for adultery, his death is the result of his rebellion against his father, to which his adulterous act is integrally related (2 Sam 16.21–23; 20.3).

Proverbs 2:16–19; 5:1–23; 6:20–35, and 7:1–27 warn young men to avoid the adulterous “strange woman,” whose charms cost too high a price. The author focuses on the negative consequences of adultery for the man, which is described as a path to ultimate self-destruction (elaborated upon in Prov 6:27–35 as including disgrace within the community and suffering the wrath of the cuckolded husband). The consequences for the woman were not the author’s concern.

In prophetic texts such as Hosea 4:1–3 and Jeremiah 7:9; 23:10, 14, adultery is grouped with other sins that the people are guilty of committing, and for which the people may they suffer God’s wrath. Additionally, some of the prophets (e.g., Hos 4:1–3; Jer 3:6–10; and Ezek 16 and 23) use adultery as a metaphor for Judah and Israel’s religious and/or political infidelity to God. In these metaphors, only the woman is depicted as guilty of adultery, only she is punished, and it is her husband (God) who punishes her with divorce and, in some texts, sexual humiliation. However, prophetic metaphors are likely not a reliable source for drawing conclusions about actual practice.

While all of these texts consider adultery to be a serious transgression, there is quite a bit of variety regarding who was considered guilty, who was punished, what the punishment was, and who delivers the punishment. It is probable, given the biblical evidence, that a variety of sanctions, both formal and informal, were employed against adultery in order to discourage members of society from engaging in it.

Sexual Promiscuity.

When a woman engages in sexual activity that is considered a violation of the rights or honor of a male who has authority over her, whether husband or father, it is labeled as sexual promiscuity (znh) in biblical texts. As Phyllis Bird has demonstrated, the basic meaning of the root znh is “to engage in sexual relations outside of or apart from marriage” (1989, pp. 75–80). Thus znh covers all instances of sexual intercourse in which there is an absence of a marriage bond between otherwise acceptable partners, including adultery, premarital sex, and the licit sexual activities of a prostitute. It is used both literally and figuratively. When used literally, the subject is always female. When used figuratively, the subject is those (usually men) who engage in religious infidelity, acting promiscuously with other gods.

The qal feminine participle form of znh, zônâ, when used as a noun, denotes a prostitute. The biblical texts that mention prostitutes reflect a society in which prostitution is licit and tolerated. Women who work as prostitutes appear to be without husbands or male guardians, and thus are not violating the rights or honor of any male by having sexual relations outside of marriage. In contrast, adultery and premarital sex are considered illicit.

Since adultery is discussed above, this section considers texts in which a woman who is still under the authority of her parents engages in behavior labeled as znh, sexual promiscuity. Three texts, Leviticus 19:29, Leviticus 21:9, and Deuteronomy 22:20–21, treat such behavior as a grave matter with severe consequences. Leviticus 19:29 warns each man not to desecrate his daughter by making her a prostitute or allowing her to be sexually promiscuous, depending on how one interprets the hipʿil of znh, lest the land become promiscuous and filled with depravity (zimâ). Leviticus 21:9 states that when a priest’s daughter desecrates herself through sexual promiscuity, she is sentenced to death by burning, because her illicit behavior also desecrates her father. Deuteronomy 22:20–21 states that if a husband’s accusation that his bride was not a virgin when she married is found to be true, she should be stoned to death in front of her father’s house because she committed an outrage (nĕbālâ) against Israel by acting promiscuously while living in her father’s house. The woman is guilty of both premarital sexual promiscuity and marrying under false pretenses, by claiming to be a virgin.

There is a question as to whether these texts are representative of attitudes toward young women’s sexuality as a whole in ancient Israel, since there are other biblical texts in which young women who engage in sex out of wedlock while living under their father’s authority are not treated as harshly. In Exodus 22:15–16, no blame appears to be placed on the young woman who is seduced. Rather, her seducer must pay a bride price and, if her father chooses, marry her. In Deuteronomy 22:13–19 (to which verses 20–21 were likely added later, changing the meaning of the passage as a whole), it appears that the only punishment a woman and her family would suffer if her husband was successful in his accusation that she wasn’t a virgin when she married is divorce, returning the bride price, and, likely, humiliation. While none of the texts present daughterly premarital sexual activity in a positive light, they do provide evidence that there was some variation in how seriously the matter was viewed.

Sex with a Menstruant.

In four biblical texts, sex with a woman who is menstruating is designated as a sexual transgression. Leviticus 18:19 prohibits males from approaching a woman sexually during her time of menstrual impurity. Leviticus 20:18 states that if a man has sex with a menstruant (expressed as ʾišâ dābâ, a woman in her [menstrual] infirmity), they will both be subject to karet. Ezekiel 18:6 groups sex with a menstruant with other sexual sins that the righteous avoid, while Ezekiel 22:10 groups sex with menstruating women with other transgressions, both sexual and nonsexual, committed by leaders of the people (Ezek 22:9–12) that God will punish with exile (Ezek 22:13–16).

However, there is one text in which sex with a menstruating woman is treated differently. Leviticus 15:24 states that if a man lies with a woman during her menstrual impurity, he will take on her impurity and be ritually impure seven days. In this case, sexual relations with a menstruating woman are treated as a source of ritual impurity, but not as a serious sexual transgression. The sexual act is neither prohibited nor punished. After seven days the period of ritual impurity is over, and the man can go back to life as usual, just as a woman can after her seven day period of ritual menstrual impurity.

There are several possible explanations for the difference between Leviticus 15 and the other texts. The first is that the Priestly text, Leviticus 15:24, and the Holiness texts, Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18, reflect different concerns. The Priestly law focuses solely on the incurring of ritual impurity, while the Holiness laws focus on the incurring of moral impurity and its consequences. If this is the case, there is no innate contradiction between them, and sexual relations with a menstruant would result in both (temporary) ritual defilement and karet for both parties. Another possibility is that Leviticus 15 concerns inadvertent sexual relations with a menstruant—the woman’s menstruation began during intercourse, and thus neither party was aware of the impurity risk. However, Leviticus 15:24 gives no indication that this is the case. The last possibility is that the Priestly source did not consider sex with a menstruant to be problematic, as long as neither party approached the sanctuary during their period of ritual impurity. If this is the case, then the Holiness source collection took an innovative step and made a sexual act that was previously not considered a sexual transgression of any severity into a serious sexual transgression.


There are some possible biblical references to autoeroticism, generating sexual arousal and/or achieving sexual gratification through physical or mental self-stimulation without the participation of another person or creature. While masturbation is the most recognized form, erotic daydreams and nighttime dreams are also forms of autoeroticism.

There are no clear references to masturbation in the Hebrew Bible. While Genesis 38:8–10 is sometimes interpreted as a condemnation of masturbation, there Onan practices a form of coitus interruptus (withdrawing penis from vagina before ejaculation) to prevent the impregnation of his sister-in-law Tamar. Two other texts might refer to masturbatory behavior. Ezekiel 16:17 describes God’s metaphoric bride Jerusalem melting down gold and silver jewels he gave her and using them to make herself male images, with which she behaves promiscuously. Similarly, in Ezekiel 23:7, Yahweh’s metaphoric wife Oholah (sexually) “defiles” herself with idols.

Since erotic dreams and daydreams are forms of autoeroticism, two other texts should be considered. Leviticus 15:16–17 states that if a man has an emission of semen, he will be impure until evening. The circumstances behind the emission are not mentioned. The emission is treated as a natural and normal phenomenon, as defiling as ejaculation during intercourse, which is treated separately in the next verse. Deuteronomy 23:10–11 states that if a man has a nocturnal seminal emission in the camp during a military campaign, he becomes impure until evening and must remain outside the camp until his period of impurity is over. While there may have been a distinction between masturbation and unintentional forms of autoeroticism, such as erotic dreams, in ancient Israel, there isn’t enough evidence to draw a definitive conclusion.

Illicit Sex and Biblical Worldview.

The Hebrew Bible often reflects a belief that cosmic order hinges on maintaining clear distinctions between certain categories, such as sacred and profane, clean and unclean, humans and animals, and male and female. Keeping things in proper categories maintains the stability of the world by upholding the proper order of the universe. At the same time, there is great concern with upholding societal order by maintaining harmonious relations between members of society and between members of each household. Each of the acts identified by one or more biblical texts as a sexual transgression was believed by someone to have posed a threat to either the cosmic or societal order, or both.

On a societal level, incestuous acts were problematic because they blurred family lines, which could pose a threat to the stability of family structure. Since marriage within the extended family was encouraged and even viewed as desirable, it was necessary to clarify which matches with kin were permissible and which were not to maintain peaceful relations within the household. The understanding of adultery and sexual promiscuity in biblical texts revolves around female sexuality, since the concern is with protecting the sexual property of the husband. Of central importance was a man’s knowing that his wife’s or future wife’s offspring, who would inherit his property and continue his name and line, were in fact his own. Adultery and premarital promiscuity threatened the stability of family and society, since such behavior raised questions about paternity and wreaked havoc on relationships between members of the community.

On a cosmic level, both bestiality and sex between a man and his daughter-in-law are labeled tebel, illicit mixing (Lev 18:23 and 20:12). In both instances, the illicit mixtures involve semen. In the case of bestiality this likely reflects a concern with the blurring of borders between the categories of animal and human; sex with animals results in a forbidden mixing of the species. In the case of a man having sex with his son’s wife, the issue may be the intermixing of father’s and son’s semen in the same woman. Leviticus 20:18 explains that the man who has sex with a menstruating woman has uncovered the source of her (blood) flow. It was perhaps direct contact with this source of ritual impurity, the woman’s menstrual fluid, that was problematic, though it could also be that a man who had sex with a menstruant intentionally brought upon himself relatively long-lasting impurity (seven days) that was easily avoidable. Intentionally taking on ritual impurity put the whole community at risk.

In the end, each of these sexual transgressions was viewed as putting the entire community at risk, creating danger at a familial, societal, and/or cosmic level. For this reason, they had to be strictly controlled and regulated and, ideally, eliminated entirely, lest the community and the cosmos devolve into chaos.




  • Bigger, Stephen F. “The Family Laws of Leviticus 18 in Their Setting.” Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979): 187–203.
  • Bird, Phyllis. “To Play the Harlot: An Inquiry into an Old Testament Metaphor.” In Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited by Peggy L. Day, pp. 75–94. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
  • Brenner, Athalya. The Intercourse of Knowledge: On Gendering Desire and ‘Sexuality’ in the Hebrew Bible. Biblical Interpretation 26. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.
  • Coogan, Michael. God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says. New York: Twelve, 2010.
  • Ellens, Deborah L. Women in the Sex Texts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy: A Comparative Conceptual Analysis. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 458. New York: T&T Clark, 2008.
  • Ellens, J. Harold. Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006.
  • Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “Pollution, Purification, and Purgation in Biblical Israel.” In The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by Carol L. Myers and M. O’Connor, pp. 399–414. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983.
  • Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “Law and Philosophy: The Case of Sex in the Bible.” Semeia 45 (1989): 89–102.
  • Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
  • Lipka, Hilary B. Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible. Hebrew Bible Monographs 7. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2006.
  • Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 17–22: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 3A. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
  • Pressler, Carolyn. The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 216. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993.
  • Rashkow, Ilona N. Taboo or Not Taboo: Sexuality and Family in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.
  • Rattray, Susan “Marriage Rules, Kinship Terms, and Family Structure in the Bible.” Society of Biblical Literature, Seminar Papers 26 (1987): 537–544.

Hilary Lipka

Greek World

Sex in the ancient Greek world was not itself transgressive. For the classical period, sex is primarily associated on a divine level with the goddess Aphrodite and her son Eros (also the Greek word for “desire”). It is, however, also associated with the god Dionysus, and its outcome, in the form of childbirth, is associated with Hera, Artemis, and a series of lesser deities. “The works of Aphrodite” (or of Dionysus), associated with pleasure and procreation, carried a divine sanction, making sexual abstinence a more problematic mode of life. That said, sexual activity, through its association with bodily fluids, most crucially female bodily fluids (because of associations with menstruation), was regarded as polluting; brief periods of sexual abstinence were held to be essential for the purity required to undertake certain religious rituals. But prolonged abstinence (despite its own divine instantiation in figures such as Artemis and Athena) was subversive and transgressive, resonating as a rejection of the social and therefore quintessentially human role.

Thus, sex was regarded as an essential part of human life, valued both as the fundamental catalyst of procreation and as vital and pleasurable recreation. This is not to suggest, however, that sex for the ancient Greeks was valued in an uncomplicated or purely positive way: just as in religious terms sex is both sacred and polluting, so generally it was both an accepted and highly valued element of human existence and, at the same time, a source of conflict, tension, transgression, and shame. The source of these more negative associations of sex serves as a microcosm of certain attitudes to the divine and mortal spheres of life framing much of the ancient Greek attitudes to sex and sexuality.

For the ancient Greeks, rules of human social or sexual engagement do not emerge from the divine world. Divine interest in mortal affairs is partial, tangential, and generally impossible to predict. A small number of highly generalized prohibitions may be guaranteed by divine backing, but usually by a deity in a particular cult persona, which may have only limited purchase on their more usual role (such as the role of Zeus Hiketesios as the protector and guarantor of suppliants). However, the transformation of these general rules into complex systems for human interaction and regulation operates entirely on the human plane. As for other spheres of human life, such as warfare, justice, and recreation, so also for the rules framing acceptable and transgressive acts of sex.


As in most ancient societies, the Greeks regarded incest as abhorrent and wrong, that is, as a human sexual transgression, although it must be noted that it occurs frequently in relations between gods. Thus Zeus and Hera are husband and wife, but also sister and brother (and also children and, in some versions, grandchildren of a similarly incestuous union); the gods of ancient Greece are not models or moral arbiters for the mortals who worship them. Although not emanating from the gods in any straightforward way, prohibitions against incest are explored in literary contexts reflecting the Greeks’ sense of their own origins and a previous world where gods and mortals interacted more freely and directly, that is, in myth and tragedy.

The most obvious example of the Greeks’ relationship to incest is its exploration in the Oedipus myth, the most full version of which is Sophocles’s play Oedipus Tyrannus (fifth century B.C.E.). The play opens with the citizens of Thebes going to their king, Oedipus, to ask him for help with a terrible pestilence that has afflicted their city, blighting their crops and all the fertility of land, animals, and human beings. They have good reason for believing that their revered king may be able to help them in this crisis because he had previously saved the city, arriving as a stranger, but becoming their king (after the mysterious disappearance of their former ruler) when he solved the riddle posed by the monstrous Sphinx ravaging their land. Oedipus believes that just as he had used his human powers of deduction and intelligence to save the city then, so he can now. When the message comes back from the oracle of Apollo that to save the land they must find the accursed killer of Thebes’s former king, Laius, Oedipus sets to it. He is initially unsuccessful and ends up in a heated exchange with the prophet Teiresias who, goaded by a furious Oedipus, tells him that he himself is the cursed killer. Oedipus is further enraged and complains bitterly to his wife Jocasta, who tells him that prophetic speech carries no weight: she is proof of this, since she and her former husband, Laius, were given the prophecy that their son would kill his father and marry his mother, but they exposed the infant and thus avoided the terrible fate. Of course, the audience already knows the story and knows that Oedipus’s hunt will turn out to be for himself: that he is the accursed killer and incestuous husband to his own mother and that the children he has fathered are his brothers and sisters.

Freud’s infamous use of the Oedipus myth as the central symbol for his belief in the infant’s sexual obsession with their opposite-sex parent has almost overshadowed the original play, and thus exploring incest in its ancient context is revealing. Without doubt the incest in Oedipus Tyrranus is regarded as sexually transgressive. Although some might call the play “a sexual tragedy” (Sissa, 2008, p. 123), it is also a tragedy of human knowledge and attempts to order the world. Oedipus and those around him believe in the human ability to understand and make better the world in which they live, but those attempts are proven to be in this instance (and in all instances potentially) futile. Incest, although signifying sexual horror, is also a moment of the failure of categories and the failure of human attempts to order and police those categories. Jocasta should have been one of the few women in the world Oedipus could not marry and have sexual congress with (given that the story mentions no other close relations for Oedipus, perhaps the only woman on whom this prohibition should have fallen). Humans must order the world—since such order will not emanate from the gods—but human understanding is flawed and partial, so mistakes of judgment get tragically made. Sex is a moment highly fraught with such dangers for three main reasons: it is a moment of mixture (e.g., heterosexual sex between two fundamentally mismatched beings, male and female); it has such profound consequences in childbirth and the continuance of the human species into the next generation; and, finally, its vital relationship with pleasure and passion means that it can be a moment of loss of rational control. Incest, especially as it is represented in this tragedy, is transgressive because it speaks of humans’ failure to see what needs to be seen and make the right critical decisions to order their world correctly.

As in many ancient societies, the Greeks regarded parent-child sexual relations as incestuous. However, it is interesting to examine the perspective on consanguineous marriage and sex from a different source, fifth- and fourth-century Athenian law. If tragedy reflects the fifth-century Athenian context from which it emerges, it does so by projecting backward onto a mythic and Panhellenic world. But the Athens we can glimpse through legal speeches is a different entity. Herein we have an Athens that is not historically “real” in any provable sense because we have no way of checking the “facts” of the cases presented or how much editing went on subsequently or even, with some speeches, whether they were rhetorical exercises never intended for delivery in court at all but which represent the ways Athenians thought they should represent themselves to their fellow citizens. They may not reflect what actually happened, but they do show us what individual Athenians wanted others to believe of them or expected their peers to find believable.

In this world, incest as such is never mentioned, but consanguineous marriage is. The marriage of an uncle and niece would seem to be reasonably common (Lysias 32; cf. Menander Aspis), and indeed in many ways is seen as an ideal marriage, especially with a paternal uncle, allowing the property of the two brothers to be divided as little as possible (particularly favored if one brother dies leaving his daughter to inherit: her marriage to her paternal uncle allows the two brothers’ inheritances to be united into one line of male inheritance, effectively from grandfather to grandson). It is even the case that half-sibling marriage was acceptable in Athens as long as the siblings did not share the same mother. Such disregard for paternal consanguinity seems strange to us, but from the point of view of inheritance, this is an idealized match: paternal property remains intact, with no dowry alienated, and indeed the property added to by the addition of the dowries of the two mothers. How regular an occurrence such a marriage would be is impossible to tell.

This is an interesting companion piece to the depiction of consanguineous relations in the Oedipus Tyrannus. The sexual transgression of incest excited horror in Athens and Greece more widely, but certain consanguineous relations appear to have been positively valued. Where the boundaries of appropriateness and transgression were placed in relation to sexual and marital relations is perhaps not quite where we would expect. Clearly parent-child relations were highly transgressive, but other very close, transgenerational relations were not. Full siblings were clearly prevented from marriage, but extend that even as far as half-siblings and we begin to find the prohibition weakening, if not indeed disappearing altogether.

Law and Politics.

For fifth- and fourth-century Athens, much of the picture we can construct about intimate domestic details such as sex and marriage comes from legal sources. A vital preoccupation of this period, and particularly in this genre of texts, is the civic life of the democratic city. The democratic rule of law, its equality for all (male) citizens, regulation of public and private life in accordance with it, form one of the most significant ordering systems for this period. Thus transgression—and for this topic, sexual transgression—is played out in these terms.

From an ancient Greek legal and political perspective, then, what would count as sexual transgression? There are three parallel issues at work here. The first is that for heterosexual encounters, the Athenian legal system treats as acceptable sex that which is sanctioned by the kurios (legal guardian) of the woman involved. Sex that occurs without his consent (regardless of the consent of the woman in question) is transgressive and, in certain terms, illegal. Second, the legal system seeks to ensure the legitimate and appropriate inheritance of property, the equally valuable cultural capital of citizenship, and importantly (but sometimes difficult to locate in the sources) the religious duties of family cult. The third factor is the ideological division of the category of heterosexual encounters into “procreative sex” and “recreative sex.” Although we should note that this division is by no means total (for instance, the procreative, imagined as just as much the “realm of Aphrodite” as the recreative, is expected to be pleasurable, often for both male and female—in some medical versions, indeed, the female orgasm is held to be essential for conception), there are other ways in which the boundary between the two is ideologically highly impermeable. For example, the birth of legitimate heirs is the goal of procreative sex, but entirely inappropriate to recreative sex.

In these terms, then, sexual transgression is sex that inappropriately breaks this boundary or that confuses issues of legitimacy and inheritance and the kurios’s control of sexual access to his female dependents. Adultery would be very high on such a list because it takes the object of legitimate procreative sex with one man and makes her the partner of another for illicit recreative sex. Such an act transgresses in this way, but also in terms of the kurios’s control and the integrity of inheritance. Adultery is a punishable crime in Athens. We also have a long and fascinating legal case traditionally ascribed to the fourth-century orator Demosthenes, which details the case again a woman called Neaira ([Dem.] 59 Against Neaira). By the latter half of the fourth century B.C.E. it is no longer merely that the children of a union between an Athenian citizen and a non-Athenian would not be able to inherit citizenship: at this point such unions are themselves illegal. The speaker is prosecuting Neaira (although the attack is aimed primarily at her partner Stephanus) on the grounds that they have lived in marriage although Neaira is not an Athenian. In the course of the speech the speaker effectively has to demonstrate what sexual activity counts as legitimate procreative, marital sex and what does not through painting Neaira as a nonrespectable, non-Athenian woman who has engaged in sexual activity with multiple partners—in one incident on the same occasion at a drinking party, including, while her main partner was asleep and she was drunk, with the host’s serving men. This is presented as a sexual transgression, although not in and of itself: the speaker states that if Neaira’s status is as he claims (a foreign, slave-born, prostitute), the sex detailed in this account is not transgressive, but if her status is as she and Stephanus are claiming (that is, that she is capable of being an Athenian wife and engaging in procreative sex), then it is hugely so.

A famous line toward the end of the speech has the speaker claim that in Athens “we have hetairai (courtesans/prostitutes) for the sake of pleasure, pallakai (concubines) for the day-to-day care of our bodies and wives for the procreation of legitimate children, and as careful guardians of our domestic concerns.” Of course such a claim comes at a highly rhetorical moment in a speech where a specific argument is being made about the role or rather roles of women, but it is still valuable to note that the speaker’s sense of outrage here is expressed in terms of the transgression of these demarcated boundaries of sex and its female personnel.


The French philosopher and cultural critic Michel Foucault famously and controversially declared that there was no such thing as homosexuality in the ancient world (1980). Rather than a denial of ancient homoerotic practices, his claim is that structuring sexual identity around the genders of the desiring partner and the desired object (e.g., homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual) does not work for the ancient world. Although many of Foucault’s ideas have been challenged and even rejected by later scholars, these claims have had a profound impact on the study of ancient sexuality. What has emerged is a sense that ancient Greek sexualities were conceptualized not by object choice, but by sexual role. So there was an active, desiring, pursuing, initiative-taking, penetrating, getting-sexual-pleasure sexual role, coded as “adult male,” and a passive, desired, pursued, penetrated, giving-sexual-pleasure role that was coded as “not adult male.” In heterosexual relations, the not adult male role falls uncontroversially to the female, but how does this work in relations between, for instance, two men?

There is widespread evidence in the ancient Greek world that male-male sexual encounters and relationships were relatively common and regarded in a positive light and that the expectation was that an adult male would engage in both homosexual and heterosexual behaviors. Although it is hard to quantify exactly how prevalent such practices were and some scholars would argue that it was a behavior linked only with specific echelons of society (i.e., the elite), there is certainly a wealth of evidence to support the existence and acceptance of such practices. Vase paintings, homoerotic love poetry, a court case, and a philosophical text discussing the nature of eros (“love/desire”) focused not exclusively but primarily on male-male relations all point in that direction.

Claims about ancient Greek sexual identities notwithstanding, it would seem that a strict etiquette governed expectations of male-male contact, and relationships that did not conform to this etiquette were regarded as transgressive. Thus the males involved in a relationship needed to be clearly identifiable as performing the roles of erastes and eromenos. The erastes, the active and pursuing sexual role, was suitable to the adult male or the male in the socially superior position (a “master”), whereas the eromenos role (“beloved”) was suitable to a younger, adolescent male or one in a socially inferior position (e.g., a slave). Sexual relationships between same-status males were regarded as abhorrent. So the standard, idealized homoerotic relationship is between an adult male (who is also married, thus appropriately involved in procreative heterosexual activity, and perfectly likely to engage in other recreative heterosexual encounters) and a young male of similar social class, but inferior standing because of his youth. The prime time of an adolescent’s sexual attractiveness to adult males is “between puberty and the growth of the first beard” (i.e., roughly mid to late teens). Sexual activity is acceptable between such parties, but should result from a prolonged phase of courtship where the elder male displays to the younger (and the group at large) his erotic devotion to the younger male, but also his credentials as a male mentor to the younger, concerned for his acculturation into proper modes of male behavior such as military courage and other male social virtues. In this idealized scenario, after this courtship phase, sexual contact is acceptable and the younger male accepts the sexual advances of the elder, including sexual penetration. In the most highly idealized situation, this would be intercrural (between the legs). Anal penetration, although legitimately desired by the elder, would be resisted or granted only very privately and sparingly by the younger male. The younger male’s body, although in his youthfulness a legitimate object of the sexual advances of the elder male, still needs to be treated as the future body of an adult male, that is, as a body that will be impenetrable. Excessive habituation to more extreme forms of sexual penetration at this youthful stage can put that future impenetrability in jeopardy. Oral penetration is never acceptable for a nobly born youth.


In myth, the god Zeus takes on the form of a swan to enjoy sexual congress with Leda and the form of a bull to snatch away Europa (ancient depictions of the latter scene focus always on the moment of carrying off, not sexual relations). Zeus also turns Io into a heifer in an attempt to hide his sexual interest in her from his jealous wife Hera. In the eventual union of Zeus and Io (from which the demigod Epaphus is born) it is unclear whether she is restored to her human form before or by the transforming act of sex.

As a curse on Minos, the king of Crete who has offended the gods, his wife Pasiphae is caused to fall violently in love with a bull. She persuades (or in some versions, forces) the master craftsman Daedalus to make her a hollowed-out simulation of a cow, into which she can climb for her to consummate her passion. From this union, the monstrous Minotaur is born.

Dionysus is also a god associated with sex, but primarily with the ecstatic release found in the sexual act, just as with the ecstatic release of (excessive) alcohol, religious frenzy, or the experience of alternative realities allowed by these or by the assumption of different identities in drama. Dionysus is associated with excessiveness, with what allows individuals to exist and experience the world outside themselves, with the mixing and crossing of boundaries—but then using the insight gained from such transgressions as a way of returning to one’s normal, nonecstatic role with better understanding. One could say Dionysius is a god of (controlled) transgression.

Traditionally and mythically Dionysius’s followers are Maenads (women in ecstatic religious frenzy, able and willing to transgress all normal female boundaries) and satyrs. These creatures are half man and half goat and represented as interested in excessive production and consumption of alcohol and transgressive sex. Generally depicted as ithyphallic, with highly erect and often enormously enlarged penises, they are often shown in vase paintings, on drinking cups, and on other vessels associated with alcohol as engaged in excessive sex of all kinds: exaggeratedly penetrative homo- and heterosexual activity, bestiality, autoeroticism, and other sexual encounters that can be interpreted as aggressive or even violent.

Excess and Order.

For the ancient Greeks, a vital human need is to create order in a world that is chaotic, unknowable, and highly complex and over which humans have important but only limited power. Patterns dictated by unchangeable fate and divine exhortation or prohibition are fragmentary and, at best, can only be guessed in advance. Sex was a moment of danger and potential transgression because it is a moment when the delicate but profoundly important hierarchies of order and control are acted out (by proper sex conforming to expected norms) or are put under threat or even destroyed (by transgressive sex). Sexual transgression is therefore defined as actions that break the boundaries humans have created to try to make their world an ordered place: but even these transgressions are ultimately divinely sanctioned by figures such as Aphrodite and especially Dionysus, so humans “can never win.”




  • Davidson, James. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.
  • Dover, Kenneth J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
  • Golden, Mark, and Peter Toohey, eds. Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.
  • Goldhill, Simon. Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality. Stanford Memorial Lectures. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Halperin, David, John Winkler, and Froma Zeitlin, eds. Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Henderson, Jeffrey. The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Hunter, Virginia J. Policing Athens: Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420–320 b.c. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • Keuls, Eva C. The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Omitowoju, Rosanna S. Rape and the Politics of Consent in Classical Athens. Cambridge Classical Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Sissa, Giulia. Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World. Translated by George Staunton. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Winkler, John J. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New Ancient World. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Rosanna S. Omitowoju

Roman World

Inherent in the notion of transgression is the existence of a stable and in some sense monolithic normativity, one that is clearly demarcated without appreciable interstitial space between what is permissible and not. Yet, in the realm of sexuality, the location and nature of boundaries are often unclear. What is strictly legal in practice may nonetheless be culturally or socially illicit within the whole, or within a particular subset of the culture. The multiculturalism of the ancient Roman world further complicates any attempts to generalize across, or even within, the temporal and geographical space one might call “the Roman world,” as even a cursory overview of sexuality in the first century demonstrates. A discussion of “sexual transgression,” therefore, must accommodate a multiplicity of norms—whether real or idealized—and/or must reconfigure binary notions of transgression as it considers the texts, authors, and historical circumstances under which transgressive acts entered public dialogue.

Active/Passive Inversions.

Scholars of ancient sexuality have tended to agree that acts were generally categorized according to rigid dichotomies of active versus passive (or insertive versus receptive), masculine versus feminine, social superior versus social inferior (e.g., Halperin, 1990; Winkler, 1990; Parker, 1997). Generally speaking, the active/passive paradigm configures normative sexual practices as those that preserved the integrity of the citizen’s body and protected the citizen’s legitimate lines of succession, reinforcing the role of the male citizen as the penetrator in the sex act rather than penetrated, and positing self-control as an ideal of male Roman temperament and behavior. “Normal” female sexuality, conversely, was passive and penetrated. Sexual practices wherein these polarities were reversed, or wherein the sexual appetites were fulfilled in an immoderate manner, potentially not only transgressed cultural ideals or notions of propriety but, importantly, transgressed political ideals, since the integrity of the state depended upon the maintenance of hereditary lines and political legacies.

An understanding of the close relationship between the individual body and the body politic may also shed light on the highly pejorative contexts in which we find references to transgressive persons: cinaedi and pathici (anally passive males), tribades (active females/“lesbians”), fellatori (givers of fellatio), cunnilincti (givers of cunnilingus), and others that occur with frequency in epigram and satire. The same focus on citizenship and the state also explains, at least partially, the lack of censure implied in certain visual representations of the same acts, such as in the well-known frescoes of Pompeian brothels or the molded images on terracotta oil lamps. In short, it is not that the acts are transgressive per se, but rather that transgression depends upon the social and political position of the actors.

The penetrated male: cinaedus or pathicus.

The vox propria for the passive partner in anal sex, cinaedus, like its less common synonyms pathicus and catamitus, is of Greek origin and occurs most commonly in coarse joking contexts in epigram, satire, and other invective verse, as well as in Plautine New Comedy. Together the three epithets occur 10 times in Plautus, thrice in Lucilius, 11 times in Catullus, 7 in the Carmina Priapea, 23 in Martial, and 7 in Juvenal. This distribution is not insignificant, indicating that the words are primarily pejorative rather than purely descriptive. Because the male citizen who is anally penetrated allows his status to be compromised, it comes as no surprise that the epithets (particularly cinaedus) are often joined with other kinds of personal and political ridicule (e.g., Catullus 10, 16, 29; Martial 2.28, 4.43; Juvenal 4.105–106; and Gellius, N.A.

Cinaedus and its synonyms belong to a broad semantic domain, connoting more than mere sexual passivity. The terms are associated with a wide variety of general character traits and physical features that the Romans identified with “softness” (Lat mollitia) or lack of masculinity, such that the identity of the cinaedus was communicated visibly in his dress and manner, and on his body (Williams, 2010). At the heart of the various characteristics associated with mollitia, there lies one primary feature—the loss of self-control or abandonment to physical pleasure viewed as anathema to notions of the idealized Roman male (cf. Catullus 25, 29; Juvenal 2, esp. lines 88–120). Hence we find colorful literary representations wherein the dangers of immoderation are displaced onto the anus itself, and it becomes “voracious,” “capacious,” and “swollen,” a metaphorical representation of the cinaedus as a whole (Catullus 33.3; Martial 6.37; Juvenal 2.1–4).

Passivity and Political Invective.

Even when there were no outright charges of sexual passivity, suspicions of mollitia carried a particular stigma. In the waning days of the republic and throughout the Principate, a high threshold of manliness was applied to public figures, and allegations of effeminacy proved to be an effective form of political slander, not merely because the caesar’s physical appearance served as an embodiment of the state, but also because mollitia, and its concomitant lack of self-control, may have indicated a predilection for other vices including violence. Among the various signs of “softness,” depilation of the legs, face, or buttocks was often singled out as a particularly telling offense. Neither Julius Caesar nor Augustus were exempt from such allegations (Suetonius, Julius 45.2; Augustus 68.1), and by the end of the Julio-Claudian period, slander against smooth-skinned politicians had reached campy extremes, particularly in the case of the emperor Otho, whose penchant for depilation was accompanied by a love of facial cosmetics and the wearing of a toupee to cover his baldness (Suetonius, Otho 12; cf. Tacitus, Hist. 1.22; Juvenal 2.99–116).

The penetrating female: tribas.

All but invisible in the Roman world, lesbianism in its few literary appearances is derided as transgression against the traditional active/passive dichotomy and/or as transgression “against nature” (Brooten, 1996, pp. 235–241; Hallett, 1997; Parker, 1997; for a contrary view, Butrica, 2005). The paradox of the Roman “lesbian,” or Latin tribas, however, is that the action denoted by the noun itself, namely, “rubbing,” from the Greek tribein, is not the transgressive activity; rather, transgression often arises from a form of penetration accompanying the act. Strangely, nowhere in the literature is the “rubbing” itself criticized. Three of Martial’s epigrams and a letter of Seneca the Younger raise the specter of the lesbian as a pseudophallic monster whose genital deformity, an enlarged clitoris, allows her to usurp the role of male penetrator (Martial 1.90, 7.67, 7.70; Seneca, Ep. 95.20–21). For the first-century fabulist Phaedrus, too, the “anomaly” of the tribas was thought to be the possession of an actual penis (Phaedrus 4.16). In Juvenal’s sixth satire, the lesbian transgression is also one of penetration, although this time via streams of urine rather than the clitoris (6.306–313; see also the story in Seneca the Elder where the woman in question is called a phēlarrena moichon, a pretend-man or fake-male adulterer; Controv. 1.2.23). The crime of the tribas, however, cannot be reduced simply to the penetrative act. Even as the cinaedus transgresses social order and proper gender roles with his “softness,” so too the tribas transgresses not merely because of the usurpation of the phallic act but also because of her assumption of masculine behaviors and activities, such as wrestling or drinking (e.g., Martial 7.67). In at least one literary example, the masculine behaviors of the tribas extend to the realm of pederasty. The Roman version of Sappho, the quintessential lesbian, is transformed into a man in pursuit of a beloved boy in Ovid’s Heroides 15. Sappho’s beloved boy is entreated to return to his lover as the submissive partner using language typical of pederastic courting. Not only is the example of female pederasty unparalleled in literature of the classical period, but the assumption of this male role suggests that the tribas has the power to subvert the social order at multiple levels simultaneously.


The scarcity of serious prose accounts of bestiality in the Roman world is paradoxically matched by a plethora of sexual motifs involving animals in literature and in art.

In literature.

Broadly construed, cross-species encounters—whether divine and human, divine and animal, or a combination thereof—lie at the heart of some of the most popular myths, in ancient as well as in modern times. Even Rome’s foundation story of Romulus and Remus suckled by a she-wolf suggests a kind of primal fantasy involving the interrelationship between the animal and human realms. That the founding twins were born to a vestal virgin impregnated by the god Mars adds another dimension to the romance of cross-species encounters. The bestial motif is not unique to the indigenous Roman tradition; bestial encounters occur with the same frequency in the inherited Greek tradition as well. Such tales, then, suggest a certain confluence of the animal and divine realms, and may imply that the human/nonhuman encounter addresses fundamental questions about the nature of humanity. Among the few literary examples of bestiality outside the Greco-Roman mythological canon, Apuleius, the second-century Latin novelist, provides the most extended narrative (Met. 10.19–22) in a scene in which Lucius, the protagonist who has been transformed into an ass, enjoys a fantastical tryst with a woman who is enamored of all his bestial qualities and proportions. This episode stands out both for its detailed description of the coital act as well as for its overwhelmingly positive portrayal of bestiality outside the standard exempla from the Greco-Roman mythical corpus. Other references to bestiality in literature tend to occur in isolated satirical references, such as Juvenal, Sat. 6.331–334, wherein the act is meant to ridicule the wanton sexual behavior of matrons.

In art.

Intercourse between human and beast, whether merely implied by the image of hybrid offspring or whether described in flagrante delicto, is visible in several aspects of material culture. The images of satyrs, centaurs, and hermaphrodites that abound in painting, sculpture, and other media all suggest a fascination with hybridity and suggest that “bestiality” in some form was ever present to the eyes and the imaginations of the Romans. Even explicit encounters between humans and animals are frequent in some aspects of material culture, such as in terracotta oil lamps of the first–third centuries C.E. Like the literary references to bestiality or near bestiality, on lamps the human figure is almost invariably female whereas the animal is male. Such a rigid gender typology may suggest that transcendence of existential categories achieved in these encounters is primarily accessible to males, and only vicariously or passively accessible to females. Under this interpretation, the bestial encounter ultimately reinforces rather than subverts hierarchies of power. Alternatively, the levity of the images and in some cases the gynocentric focus (e.g., London, British Museum 1865.11-18.249 [Q900], see below) may suggest precisely the opposite: that the beneficiary of temporary transcendence is the woman. Representations of the myth of Leda both on oil lamps and especially on Roman sarcophagi (London, British Museum 1865.11-18.250A [Q871], ca. 40–70 C.E., and 1814.7-4.51 [Q1359], ca. 175–225 C.E.; Athens, American School of Classical Studies in Athens Agora excavations L519) may also suggest that the bestial motif essentially represents an exploration of the nature of the human, animal, and divine.

However one interprets the iconography, the motif is most apparent on oil lamps, which feature human/bestial intercourse in several subject types: (1) an African or Ethiopian woman (caricaturized) with a crocodile (London, British Museum 1865.11-18.249 [Q900] and 1836.2-24.480A [Q1004], both first century C.E.); (2) a woman with a horse or donkey (e.g., London, British Museum 1917.4-26.30 [Q3271], late third century C.E., on which see Clarke, 2007, pp. 226–227); (3) a woman with a monkey (e.g., London, British Museum 1814.7-4.53 [Q1356], 1814.7-4.54 [Q1355], 1756.1-1.648 [Q1403], 1836.2-24.479 [Q1405], all ca. 175–225 C.E.). Similarly, a number of oil lamps also feature interspecies coitus, but without humans (e.g., a donkey mating with a lion, London, British Museum 1756.1-1.270 [Q758], late first century B.C.E.–early first century C.E.). Such interspecial examples would seem to belong to a similar aesthetic.


Since Roman dress was an external advertisement of one’s class and citizen status, cross-dressing, regardless of the motive, was a transgression that posed special dangers. The social importance of Roman dress is nowhere clearer than in the case of prostitutes and adulteresses, who were required to wear the toga, the customary male dress. For the male citizen the toga bespoke social privilege; for women the donning of the toga indicated precisely the opposite—a lack or loss of status and a marginalized place in society (McGinn, 1998, pp. 156–171, and see below). Whereas in the modern world dress often reflects identity, whether permanent or temporary, in the Roman world dress and identity were contiguous, such that cross-dressing arguably betrayed a bona fide transgression of the social order, not merely a pretended or temporary one.

In history.

The republican period features a notorious example in the incident of 4 December 62 B.C.E., when a young politician, P. Clodius Pulcher, disguised himself to infiltrate the festival of the Bona Dea, the “Good Goddess,” whose celebrations were restricted to women (Plutarch, Cic. 28, Caes. 9–10; Cicero, Har. 37). The outrage was compounded by Clodius’s motive, a desire for a sexual liaison with Pompeia, Julius Caesar’s wife. The event became a paradigmatic cautionary tale against the profanation of religion, the family, and state.

For those in the public spotlight, even the slightest hint of effeminacy in dress was noted with disdain. For Julius Caesar, the mere addition of long fringed sleeves to his tunic was enough to arouse suspicion (Suetonius, Iul. 45). Under the Principate, tales of cross-dressing public figures reached new heights, and in each case, the act of cross-dressing is connected with a real or imagined change in status. Among the vices of the emperor Caligula, dressing in the guise of both gods and goddesses earns special censure (Cassius Dio 59.26.6–8). If Caligula’s dress revealed aspirations to a higher status, Nero’s cross-dressing revealed quite the opposite. Several sources report that he not only dressed in women’s attire, he also crossed gender boundaries in a more outrageous manner by marrying a freedman named Pythagoras to play the role of his husband (i.e., the penetrator), as well a certain Sporus, whom he had castrated and renamed to play the role of his wife (Suetonius, Nero 28; Cassius Dio 62.13.1, 62.28.3). In the third century, Elagabalus, another imperial libertine, married his male lover as well (S.H.A., Elagabalus 10.5), an instance that might represent a genuine transgendered orientation, for according to the source, this emperor not only wore makeup and worked with wool (Cassius Dio 80.14.3–4), he also desired to become a woman insofar as was possible and even consulted a surgeon about the possibility of fashioning a vagina in his body (Cassius Dio 80.16.7).

In literature.

For all the social anxiety that attached to gender-ambiguous behaviors in real society, in mythical and religious traditions, cross-dressing was sometimes severed from social taboos. Thus, Hercules, the icon of Roman masculinity, dressed as a woman while enslaved to the Lydian queen Omphale. Although Ovid’s treatment of this episode in the Heroides (Her. 9.53–118) implies that the hero’s dress is to be regarded as a symbol of his sexual submission to the Queen, there is little sense of stigma in Ovid’s portrayal (cf. Fasti 2.305–330). First-century works of art including statuary, fresco painting, and Arretine ceramics also tend to confirm that this aspect of the Hercules myth was an object of celebration and positive interest.


Incestum (also incestus, -ūs), literally meaning “an unchaste or impure act” was the term Romans originally applied to violations of the chastity of vestal virgins (Cicero, Inv. 1.73; Livy 2.42.11; Seneca the Elder, Controv. exc. 6.5), but incestum extended also to marriage between ascendant or descendant kin of either consanguinate or affinate relationship (Gaius, Inst. 1.59–64; Paulus, Dig.; Marcian, Dig., 48.18.5; Tacitus, Ann. 12.5–6). In contrast to the Greek traditions of endogamous marriage, Roman marriage was exclusively exogamous, both by law and custom, and hence violations were regarded as crimes against natural law (ius gentium), as well as civil law (ius civile) (Paulus, Dig. 23.2.68). Although legal commentaries list prohibited marital relationships in detail, the precise application of specific laws is not altogether clear. In general, charges levied against the defendant depended on the marital status of the female: adulterium (adultery) if married and stuprum (illicit fornication) if unmarried (Papinian, Dig. 48.5.39).

That the concept of incest was intrinsically bound to the concept of marriage in the Roman world may suggest that the element of societal taboo was in some sense secondary to material concerns about inheritance and property; the jurists of the Severan period, however, maintain that incest is both a violation of law and pollution of blood ties (Papinian, Dig. 48.5.39), and the scandalous allegations of incest made against Christians (Minucius Felix, Oct. 31; Tertullian, Ad Scap. 4.4.7; Theophilus, Autol. 3.4; and elsewhere) also suggest that the behavior was a taboo associated with ethnic minorities, foreigners, and others whom the Romans considered “inferior.”

Historical exempla.

Allegations of incest are commonly levied against political figures and others in the public limelight. Cicero, for example, accused his enemy P. Clodius Pulcher of having an affair with his sister Clodia (Cicero, Pro Cael. 13.32; Att. 2.1.5). And against emperors, such allegations were nearly ubiquitous: Gaius Caligula was accused of incest with his sisters (Suetonius, Cal. 24, 36); Nero, with his mother, Agrippina the Younger (Suetonius, Ner. 28; Tacitus, Ann. 14.2); Titus, with his sister-in-law (Suetonius, Tit. 10); Domitian, with his niece (Suetonius, Dom. 22), and so on. When levied as political slander, allegations of incest are often tied closely with other forms of illicit sexual activity.

Incest in myth.

Cautionary tales about the dangers of incest are common in literature, such as the nonextant but influential Zmyrna of Cinna, describing the illicit love between Myrrha and her father, Cinyras, and later versions of the same tale, such as Ovid’s (Met. 10.311–502), as well as the myths of Byblis and her brother Caunus (Ovid, Met. 9.450–665) and Canace and Macareus (Ovid, Her. 11). Even in the case of affinate kin, the consequences for incest are dire (Seneca, Thy. 220–244; Ovid, Met. 6.424–674).


In his book on the interpretation of dreams, Artimedorus, a second-century writer of the second sophistic, categorizes masturbation among the practices regarded “natural, legal, and customary” (kata physin kai nomon kai ethos). Indeed, the act appears seldom in Roman art and literature, and when it does is unremarkable per se; rather, the censure attaches merely to the motivation or need for the practice (cf. Ovid, Fasti 1.423–438; Martial, Ep. 2.43, 9.41, 11.46, 11.73, 14.203; Juvenal, Sat. 6.237–238, 10.204–206). In the Christianized empire, however, stigma against masturbation increases. Prohibitions against masturbation are often associated first with Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summ. Theol. 2a2ae; Quaest. 154.1–12), but fleshly lust, even in marriage, is condemned as early as Augustine (Civ. Dei 14.13). The first (nearly) explicit prohibition against the practice is found in Augustine’s contemporary John Cassianus, one of the desert fathers, who regarded masturbation as a type of fornication (Coll. 5.11.4).

Oral Sex: The Os Impurum.

The Romans, unlike the Greeks, held the penetrated mouth as an object of derision, and according to the first-century rhetorician Quintilian, the oral penetration of a citizen was regarded a crime (Inst. 11.1.84). In ancient literature, oral sex is often imagined as a forced activity (Catullus 16, 21; Priap. 28, 35; Apuleius, Met. 8.29), and the mouth performing this act becomes “impure” or “polluted” (S.H.A. 1.7, 5.11; Gellius, N.A. 1.5.1; Artemidorus, Interpretation of Dreams 79.13–14). Because of the taboo attached to oral sex, it is one of the most frequently attested allegations against political figures, such as Catullus’s invective against Julius Caesar and his chief engineer (praefectus fabrum) in Gaul in Poem 57. The emperors Tiberius, Nero, and Commodus were all alleged to have been devotees of various oral perversions.


Although the practice was not celebrated in Rome as it was in Greece, pederasty (same-sex or non-same-sex) was nonetheless tolerated under specific circumstances. Sex with a freeborn boy was forbidden as stuprum, illicit sexual activity, and was covered by the republican-era lex Scantinia, with the same legal strictures that applied to sex with an unmarried freeborn woman or girl, or with a widow (Quintilian, Sent. 5.4.14; cf. Modestinus, Dig. 48.5.35; Papinian, Dig. 48.5.6 and 48.5.9). The exact nature and purview of the lex Scantinia, however, has been the subject of much debate (see Robinson, 1995, pp. 58, 70–71). Further, not all slaves were considered fair game, only those belonging to the suitor, and violations against slaves of others were prosecutable as property offenses similar to theft (Dig. 47.10.25, 48.5.6 pr.). In like manner, forced pederasty or rape was more easily prosecutable since it was covered under the broader provisions of laws on violence (e.g., lex Julia de vi publica, Ulpian, Dig. Although none of the applicable laws mention the age of the boy/girl affected, we may surmise that sex with very young children or infants was also taboo (Artemidorus, Interpretation of Dreams 79.13).


Several conclusions emerge from the survey of transgressive activities above. First, most sexual transgressions in the Roman world were only covered by law in the broadest of senses. Prosecutable offenses were generally classified under the categories of adultery (adulterium), illicit fornication (stuprum), and/or incest (incestum); in other regards, Roman law was silent. The dialogue surrounding marginalized sexual practices thus occurred more commonly outside the courtroom—for ridicule and/or humor in genres such as satire, epigram, graffiti, and comedy; for political purposes in oratory, history, and imperial biographies; and in myths and other fanciful literary tales, sometimes with an admonitory tone, but often without any pejorative sense. In art, too, sexual transgression enjoyed a similar license of fiction, since the acts depicted were not connected with the body of a particular Roman citizen and thereby with the body of the state.




  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Butrica, James. “Some Myths and Anomalies in the Study of Roman Sexuality.” In Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, edited by Beert C. Verstraete and Vernon Provencal, pp. 209–269. New York: Harrington Park, 2005. Published simultaneously as Journal of Homosexuality 49, nos. 3–4 (2005).
  • Clarke, John R. Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
  • Hallett, Judith P. “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature.” In Roman Sexualities, edited by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, pp. 255–273. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. Originally published in Yale Journal of Criticism 3, no. 1 (1989): 209–227.
  • Halperin, David M. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Johns, Catherine. Sex or Symbol: Erotic Images of Greece and Rome. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.
  • McGinn, Thomas A. J. Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Parker, Holt N. “The Teratogenic Grid.” In Roman Sexualities, edited by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, pp. 47–65. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Puliatti, Salvatore. Incesti Crimina: Regime Giuridico Da Augusto a Giustiniano. Milan: A. Giuffrè, 2001.
  • Richlin, Amy. The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Robinson, O. F. The Criminal Law of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  • Skinner, Marilyn B. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. Ancient Cultures. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Williams, Craig A. Roman Homosexuality. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Winkler, John J. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Heather Vincent

New Testament

The authors of the New Testament texts penned their own reflections on the nature of sexual transgression from within the cultural matrix of the Roman world and hence were in large part dependent on its terms. Hence, discussion begins with Roman understandings of sexual transgression before moving to the New Testament itself.

Sexual Transgression in the Roman World.

Notions of sexual transgression in the early Roman Empire were fundamentally inseparable from concerns about gender and status. As much scholarship has demonstrated, ancient Romans tended to conceive of sexed bodies using the logic of a pyramid or a hierarchically organized spectrum. At the top were to be found free adult men (i.e., citizens) of elite social standing. Below were lesser men, men of ambivalent or imperiled masculinity, and various degrees of nonmen: women, children, slaves, effeminate men, and eunuchs, to name a few (Walters, 1997; Moore, 2001). This framework has also been deemed a “one-sex” model insofar as women were considered lesser versions of men (Laqueur, 1990). Working from within this conceptual apparatus—a sliding scale of status variables oriented toward perfect masculinity—and attuned to its attendant anxieties, Roman writers articulated a set of normative claims regarding inappropriate, illicit, or even monstrous possibilities for the sexual interaction of bodies. Since these writers were generally themselves elite Roman males, the perspective they put forward was an idealized and ideological one, not necessarily reflective of the sexual experiences of others “on the ground.” Yet theirs is the dominant (and remarkably uniform) viewpoint that the preponderance of our surviving sources presents.

One significant consequence of this gendered worldview was an acute concern with so-called active and passive roles in sexual relations. Free adult men confirmed and maintained their masculinity by always taking (or being thought to take) the penetrative/insertive role (Williams, 1999), whereas females, boys, and slaves of both sexes were supposed to play the receptive role. (Here freeborn males not yet fully grown occupied an especially ambivalent position insofar as they were Roman citizen “men-to-be” and thus needed to protect themselves and/or be protected from the “unmanliness” of penetration; Walters, 1997, p. 33.) Depending on the bodily orifices available in any given sexual encounter, the receptive role could include vaginal, oral, and/or anal penetration—none of which would constitute transgressive sexual behavior on the part of penetrator or penetrated as long as the proper hierarchical roles were maintained.

Not surprisingly, then, Roman reflections on sexual transgression tended to cluster around bodily practices that threatened or subverted this economy of gender and status. Sex acts improperly or “unnaturally” engaged in could undermine a man’s true manliness, causing him to fall precipitously down the “gradient of relative masculinities” (Burrus, 2007, p. 4). Consequently, Roman writers predictably represented adult citizen males who allowed themselves to be penetrated—or, even worse, enjoyed or desired such penetration—as aberrant, diseased, and depraved. Male prostitution was explicitly linked to such pathetic behavior and derided accordingly as soft, effeminate, and slavish. By way of contrast, free Roman men understood themselves to have a certain jurisdiction over their own bodies, and therefore the right to protect those bodies from the invasions and intrusions of penetrative touch. But this prerogative extended to them alone. Women who usurped the masculine sexual role, acting as unpenetrated penetrators rather than passive recipients (usually, in the Roman male imagination, by means of a dildo or enlarged clitoris), were generally regarded as monstrous (Brooten 1996; Swancutt, 2004).

A related concern had to do with the question of excess. In keeping with the ancient Roman penchant for a loosely Stoicizing approach to ethics and bodily practice, Greco-Roman moralists emphasized the importance of self-mastery (enkrateia) and moderation (sōphrosynē). Such an emphasis proved consonant with the dominant perspectives found in ancient medical literature, perspectives that were themselves influenced by philosophical understandings of human physiology. Ancient medical writers such as Galen (129–ca. 199 C.E.) conceived of bodily health in terms of balance and equilibrium. In male bodies, this balance skewed in the direction of dryness, solidity, and vital heat, while in female bodies moisture, coldness, and permeability predominated. But regardless, because many medical writers believed that both male and female bodies produced seminal fluid that could be discharged—thereby changing the balance of the body—they saw the need for limiting and regulating sexual activity. Overindulgence in sex could be dangerous and lead to illness, but so too could total abstinence, especially if undertaken too quickly and without the proper preparation. The key, rather, was to achieve the correct and moderate balance (Rousselle, 1988; Laqueur, 1990; Martin, 1995).

Thus while it was legal and indeed expected for male citizens to enjoy the services of prostitutes, to do so in an extravagant or uncontrolled way was roundly condemned—and often associated with the softness of “Greek” and other foreign ways (Knust, 2006). Similarly, Roman moralists understood the desire for too much sex as problematic, regardless of whether opposite-sex or same-sex pairings were in view. Indeed, as Roman moralists puzzled over the origin of “unnatural” sexual practices (such as men desiring to be penetrated or desiring to penetrate a person who was inappropriate or off-limits), some came to the conclusion that the problem was one of inordinate desire: not desire fundamentally disordered in its kind, but rather gone off the rails in its degree of excess. Ancient concerns about immoderate masturbation or Roman women experimenting with bestiality also fell under this same logic (Martin, 2006).

For elite women specifically, this ideal of moderation was construed in terms of chastity (understood as faithfulness to one’s husband), modesty in adornment, and devotion to household tasks. Meanwhile, anxieties about “wild” women proliferated, and in the early empire, any extramarital sex on the part of free Roman women was criminalized under the emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.E–14 C.E.). Here a gendered double standard should be noted. Either sex could commit the crimes of adultery (Greek moicheia, Latin adulterium) and fornication/sexual immorality (Greek porneia, Latin stuprum), but for women, these terms signified sex with any man other than one’s husband. In the case of elite men, by contrast, sexual activity with women of lesser (i.e., noncitizen) status, prostitutes, or one’s own slaves of either sex continued to be acceptable, even within the bounds of marriage. The charge of stuprum or adulterium applied to men who had sexual relations with a person who was socially off-limits, such as a married citizen woman or a freeborn boy (i.e., a future adult citizen). In this way, such a double standard in the Roman legal system served to underscore and reinforce the ways in which the irreducibly interrelated norms of gender and status governed the cultural evaluation of sex acts as described above (Knust, 2006).

The New Testament.

The authors of the New Testament texts were influenced by both the Roman matrix and Israel’s sacred scriptures (as mediated through both Hebrew and Greek traditions). The sexual prohibitions of the Torah focus primarily on issues of purity, interwoven in some cases with concerns about property law. Emissions from sexual organs are carefully regulated for both sexes, but the texts tend toward a broadly androcentric perspective insofar as they especially highlight concerns regarding the polluting capacity of women’s bodies. Bestiality (Exod 22:19; Lev 18:23; 20:15–16), varieties of incest (Lev 18:6–18), cross-dressing (Deut 22:5), and some form of sexual interaction between men (Lev 18:22; Lev 20:13) are all unequivocally proscribed, but in the case of this last item, it is by no means clear exactly what sexual act (anal intercourse?) is being forbidden.

Alongside this array of sexual practices, adultery—here construed as illicit sex between a man and a woman married, betrothed, or otherwise belonging to another man (i.e., through slavery or concubinage)—is treated as both a purity concern and as a property offense. Prohibitions on prostitution seem in context to be concerned primarily with temple prostitution and thus ritual purity. Autoeroticism and sexual acts between women are not mentioned (Countryman, 2007). While this scriptural background needs to be considered when interpreting the sexual prohibitions of the New Testament, the degree to which New Testament authors had the proscriptions of the Torah and other parts of the Jewish scriptures in view (and/or their elaboration in later extracanonical Jewish writings) continues to be a matter of scholarly debate.

The Gospels and Acts.

The New Testament gospels offer remarkably little direct discussion about the specifics of sexual transgression. What discussion we do find centers on the issues of adultery (moicheia), sexual immorality broadly construed (porneia), and desire/lust (epithymia). (Of these terms, porneia has an especially broad semantic range; in some contexts its connotations can include prostitution.) In the synoptic tradition, porneia and moicheia are figured in purity terms as transgressions that originate from the heart and lead to defilement (Matt 15:18–20; Mark 7:21–23). The Sermon on the Mount intensifies this emphasis on purity of heart by recasting moicheia as most fundamentally an issue of internal disposition: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust (epithymēsai) has already committed adultery with her in his heart” ((Matt 5:28; see Loader, 2005). Here Matthew’s Jesus may be linking adultery to the Decalogue’s prohibition on coveting property (including a wife) that belongs to another (Exod 20:17). Or he may in fact be making a much more rigorous statement about the problematic and transgressive nature of sexual desire in general, even when experienced involuntarily (Martin, 2006; Countryman, 2007).

The Gospels’ further exploration of these issues takes place in the context of reflections on divorce. All three of the Synoptics connect divorce and remarriage to moicheia (Matt 5:32, 19:9; Mark 10:11–12; Luke 16:18). Matthew and Mark justify this connection by appeal to marriage as a divinely wrought state of becoming “one flesh,” thereby using the Genesis creation narrative to trump the Torah’s apparent acceptance of divorce (Matt 19:3–8; Mark 10:2–9; cf. Deut 24:1–4). In Matthew, both references to divorce modify synoptic parallels (as found in Mark and Q) by adding the so-called exception clause: divorce leads to adultery except in the case of porneia. The precise meaning of this ambiguous exception has been much debated, but scholars have overwhelmingly interpreted it as a partial mitigation of the divorce prohibition’s stringency as seen in Mark and Q. It has also been suggested that the exception clause does not attenuate the prohibition on divorce (which, on this reading, Jesus forbids in any and every case; see Matt 19:6), but instead applies to remarriage—here figured as a kind of second offense except in cases where the original divorce took place because of porneia. This reading has the advantage of being consistent with Matthew’s eschatologically oriented asceticism and his tendency to render certain Torah regulations more rigorous rather than less (Martin, 2006).

At the same time, the general ethos of all four Gospels is not one of intense anxiety regarding matters of sexual transgression. In Matthew, female prostitutes (pornai) are singled out alongside tax collectors (and without condemnation) as being those who are entering the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and the elders ((Matt 21:31–32). Similarly, in John, while Jesus by no means endorses the various marital and extramarital liaisons of the Samaritan woman at the well, neither does he explicitly condemn them or her (John 4:16–26). The famous pericope of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53—8:11), while probably not original to John’s Gospel, shows a corresponding lack of concern with specifically condemning the sexual transgression in view. On the whole, the eschatological outlook of the Gospels shifts the emphasis away from the centrality of household and family, and with them the complications of sexual relationships. This perspective can be seen in an especially pointed way in the exhortation of Luke’s Jesus to “hate” one’s familial connections for the sake of discipleship (Luke 14:26), an orientation that also extends in a more muted way through the book of Acts and the modes of Christian community imagined therein (Countryman, 2007).

The Pauline epistles.

Several of the New Testament writings written by (or attributed to) the apostle Paul, however, show significantly greater interest in matters of sexual transgression. Paul repeatedly exhorted followers of Jesus to avoid porneia, associating it with licentiousness (aselgeia) and the problem of individual and collective impurity ((2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19–21; 1 Thess 4:3–7). The condemnation of porneia and its association with gentile depravity was a common trope in Jewish writings of the Second Temple period, and Paul freely harnessed it to do the work of communal self-definition. Combining this familiar theme of gentile sexual degeneracy with biblical polemics drawn from the Septuagint and common Greco-Roman rhetorical devices such as virtue and vice lists, the apostle put forward a particular form of argument that would go on to become extremely prominent in early Christian discourse—one wherein the boundaries between chosen insiders and “gentile” outsiders that defined the community of those “in Christ” were negotiated in sexual terms (Knust, 2006).

In 1 Corinthians 5–7, Paul offers an extended reflection on a variety of sexual offenses, linked conceptually by concerns about pollution and the dangers of desire. The apostle attacks the incestuous relationship of a man and his stepmother, calling for the offending man’s expulsion from the community (1 Cor 5:1–13).). Here his primary concern does not seem to be the man’s ultimate fate but rather the health of the Corinthian Christian community as a whole. Insofar as the communal “body” of Christ is dangerously permeable, the polluting offender must be violently expelled, destroying the fleshly contaminant (sarx) for the sake of the health of the spirit (pneuma). In this context, the individual, social, and cosmic resonances of the pneuma/sarx opposition would all seem to be fundamentally interconnected in Paul’s logic. The apostle then goes on in 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 to probe further this problem of the body’s boundaries, exploring the dangerous and even unthinkable pollution that might defile the pneumatic body of Christ by means of a Christian body engaging in sexual intercourse with a prostitute (Martin, 1995). Finally, in 1 Corinthians 7, he rounds out his discussion of the problems of porneia with a strikingly negative appraisal of the desire that animates them. Here, in a marked contrast to modern Christian readings that have attempted to enlist him as a champion of sexual expression within heterosexual marriage, Paul does not in fact discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate forms of erotic passion. Instead he outlines a radical eschatological program for the eradication of all sexual desire—one that shows no concern whatsoever for Christian procreation and that treats sexual relations between married men and women as a somewhat lamentable concession, a prophylaxis for the weak along the road to extinguishing desire entirely (Martin, 1995; 2006).

Discussion of Pauline or pseudo-Pauline views on sexual transgression with members of the same sex has primarily centered on the interpretation of three passages: the vice list in 1 Corinthians 6:9, the somewhat similar list in 1 Timothy 1:9–10 (considered by the vast majority of critical scholars to be pseudonymous), and the more extended discussion in Romans 1:18–32. In 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul puts forward a list of different kinds of transgressors who will not inherit the kingdom of God. With respect to sexual transgression, this list includes not only men who practice sexual immorality generally (pornoi) and adulterers (moichoi) but also malakoi (NRSV translation: “male prostitutes”) and arsenokoitai (NRSV translation: “sodomites”; cf. also 1 Tim 1:10). The translation and interpretation of the latter two terms is contested in the scholarly literature. Most basically, malakos signifies softness or effeminacy. In the case of male-male sexual interaction, it could sometimes (but need not necessarily) indicate the penetrated partner in anal sex—but even then always with a view primarily to the broader charge of effeminacy rather than the specific sex act. (Malakos could, for example, often refer to nonsexual behavior or to other kinds of sexual behavior deemed potentially effeminate, e.g., masturbation; see Martin, 2006.) The translation of arsenokoitēs as “sodomite” or “homosexual” is derived from combining the term’s two parts: “male”/arsēn and “(marriage) bed”/koitē. This is a neologism on Paul’s part as far as we know, and some scholars have proposed that the apostle derived the term from the Septuagint form of the prohibition on “lying with a male” in Leviticus (20:13)), though in that case the Greek text does not combine the two words (arsēn, koitē) into a single term; it does, however, place forms of them next to each other (Scroggs, 1983; Hays, 1996). Others have argued that this approach is linguistically problematic and that the meaning of arsenokoitēs is basically unknown. It has been suggested, given the other contexts in which the term later appears, that it may refer to some sort of sexual-economic (though not necessarily same-sex) exploitation (Martin, 2006).

Romans 1:18–32 was traditionally considered (even in modern scholarship) a more or less timeless and effectively acultural censure of all forms of homoerotic practice, male and female. More recently, the text has become the subject of significant scholarly controversy. While certain scholars continue to maintain some version of this position (Hays, 1996; Gagnon, 2001), numerous additional arguments and interpretive frameworks have been proposed for understanding what Paul is up to in these verses. These include working out worries about purity, offering a critique of Roman pederastic relationships, deploying the phrase “unnatural” (para physin) in the sense of “contrary to custom,” condemning only truly heterosexual persons for engaging in same-sex acts, and/or providing a time-bound illustration whose real point is about idolatry (see Martin, 2006, pp. 18–35, for a thorough overview plus references). Perhaps most compelling is the work of scholars such as Bernadette Brooten and Dale Martin who draw attention to the ways in which Paul’s argument in Romans 1 remains fully bound up in the Roman economy of gender and status hierarchies described above (Brooten, 1996; Martin, 2006). As Brooten shows, most fundamentally at issue in the passage is a notion of “natural” and “unnatural” sex acts whose conceptual basis is inseparable from this ancient gender hierarchy: men as active and penetrative, women as passive and penetrated. Sex acts between two persons of the same sex, at least as imagined by ancient thinkers, disrupt and threaten this hierarchy. Thus Stephen Moore summarizes: “Sex in this symbolic economy is nothing other—can be nothing other—than eroticized inequality” (Moore, 2001, p. 153). Accordingly, Martin and others argue for a greater recognition (in both scholarship and theological debate) of how profoundly and radically divergent are the “logics of sexuality” that underpin Romans 1 in its ancient context and contemporary discussions of homosexuality, respectively (Martin, 2006, p. 60).

General epistles and Revelation.

The remaining books of the New Testament touch on a number of the themes already examined. Concerns with purity and pollution appear (Heb 13:4, Jas 1:27)), but at the same time, the sexual transgressions of a specific character held up for approbation—in this case, Rahab the prostitute (pornē)—are not explicitly condemned ((Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). Accusations of sexual sin and enslavement to desire are mobilized rhetorically to condemn both Christian insiders/rival teachers (2 Pet 2:1–3, 12–14; Jude 16–19) and depraved outsiders, as represented by Rome, the “mother of whores” (Rev 17:5, NRSV). (See discussion in Knust, 2006.) Jude 7 makes a cryptic reference to the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative that has clear sexual overtones but no unambiguous censure of any specifically homoerotic element in the story. Rather, the issue seems to be one of sexual defilement with respect to the proper ordering of angels and human beings in the cosmic hierarchy (Countryman, 2007).

Modern Categories and Debates.

In addition to the points of scholarly disagreement already discussed, numerous other debates continue to animate the field. For example, in what ways did the growing prominence of Christianity (and with it the New Testament texts) change the ways that acts related to sex (quotidian, transgressive, renunciatiory) were imagined and practiced in the ancient world vis-à-vis self-formation? (Foucault, 2005). Did something like the conceptual category of “sexuality”—in the sense of a subjective disposition or fixed orientation toward a particular sexual object choice—exist in the ancient world or not? What are the implications either way for interpreting New Testament and other ancient texts? (Brooten, 1996; see critique in Halperin, 2002) How should contemporary theological interpreters make sense of the sheer difference of history that the New Testament texts confront us with? Strategies in these theological conversations include ignoring or attempting to mitigate this difference, calling for certain biblical passages to no longer be considered authoritative (Brooten, 1996), rereading the scriptures to recover suppressed exemplars of alternative sexualities (Jennings, 2003), probing the internal and unresolved aporias of early Christian reflections on sexualized bodies as a potential theological resource (Dunning, 2011), and/or abandoning “the hegemony of historical criticism” entirely in favor of self-reflexively queer reading practices (Martin, 2006, pp. 88–90). These remain debates that are far from settled.




  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Burrus, Virginia. “Mapping as Metamorphosis: Initial Reflections on Gender and Ancient Religious Discourses.” In Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, edited by Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele, pp. 1–10. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.
  • Countryman, L. William. Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. Rev. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
  • Dunning, Benjamin H. Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–1982. Edited by Frédéric Gros. Translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. English translation of L’herméneutique du sujet, first published in 2001.
  • Gagnon, Robert A. J. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2001.
  • Halperin, David M. How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
  • Jennings, Theodore W., Jr. The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 2003.
  • Knust, Jennifer Wright. Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.
  • Loader, William. Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005.
  • Martin, Dale B. The Corinthian Body. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006.
  • Moore, Stephen D. God’s Beauty Parlor and Other Queer Spaces in and around the Bible. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001.
  • Rousselle, Aline. Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. Translated by Felicia Pheasant. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988. First published in French in 1983.
  • Scroggs, Robin. The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.
  • Swancutt, Diana M. “Sexy Stoics and the Rereading of Romans 1.18–2.16.” In A Feminist Companion to Paul, edited by Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff, pp. 42–73. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
  • Walters, Jonathan. “Invading the Roman Body: Manliness and Impenetrability in Roman Thought.” In Roman Sexualities, edited by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, pp. 29–43. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Williams, Craig A. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Benjamin H. Dunning

Early Judaism

Understandings of and responses to sexual transgression underwent significant change in early Judaism. Through exegetical (midrashic) interpretation, early legal statements (e.g., mishnaic or toseftan, redacted ca. 200 C.E.) and talmudic discourse, rules related to sexual transgressions were developed, elaborated, minimized, and innovated. Rabbinic traditions were diverse and differed between individual sages, between historical periods—tannaitic (ending ca. 200–250 C.E.), amoraic (ending ca. 500 C.E.), and the later redactorial periods (Babylonian Talmud ca. 500–650 C.E. and prior to ca. 425 C.E. for the Palestinian Talmud)—and geographically between Palestinian and Babylonian traditions.

Nonetheless, notable trends may be identified in the area of sexual transgression. In the absence of a Temple cult (postdestruction from 70 C.E.), rabbinic law and culture adapted to the impossibility of Temple-contingent rituals and laws, such as sacrificial atonement for transgression, ritual purity, and the bitter waters of the Sotah. The construction and regulation of sexual transgression was influenced by asceticism, perhaps variously under Greco-Roman and Persian-Zoroastrian influence. This included notions of male and female sexuality as difficult to control and the development of negative attitudes toward sanctioned sexual activity and sexual thoughts. There is also a tendency toward the creation of legal “fences,” where formerly permitted sexual activity becomes prohibited in an attempt to prevent more serious transgressions. The association of formerly permitted acts with highly transgressive acts further allowed for the inclusion of the nontransgressive within a more problematic framework. Sexual transgression also forms part of the negative construction of the Other, as some rabbinic traditions attribute prohibited or nonnormative sexuality to nonrabbis (especially the am ha’aretz) and gentiles. This coexists, however, with a portrayal of male sexuality (and the evil inclination or yester harah) in the Babylonian Talmud as extremely powerful, putting even the greatest sages at constant risk of sexual transgression (Rosen-Zvi, 2011). In a number of areas, such as the laws of niddah, male sexuality, sex segregation, Sotah, and male masturbation, the latest layers of the Babylonian Talmud are characterized by increasing stringency and extremely negative attitudes.

Nonreproductive Sexual Activity.

Early Jewish literature addresses various forms of nonreproductive sexual activity.


There is no explicit biblical ban on masturbation. Most tannaitic and amoraic sources appear to oppose male self-arousal on an ascetic basis as part of a broader privileging of sexual self-control and a negative attitude toward sexual thoughts, even in the absence of any action (hirhur aveirah). Male masturbation might also be avoided on the grounds that it could lead to a slippery slope of forbidden acts, such as violation of the arayot (the sexual transgressions of Lev 18 and 20) or idolatry. One early text that is sometimes understood as a negative stance on male masturbation is m. Niddah 2:1, which encourages women to “check” for menstrual blood, whereas the man is discouraged from checking and states his hand should be cut off (see Satlow, 1995b, pp. 153–167).

Discussion of female masturbation is extremely limited. This silence may be the result of a general lack of consideration of female sexual activity in the absence of males, which is common to both biblical and rabbinic sources. The nonprocreative emission of what was believed to be female seed does not seem to have been a matter of concern. Elsewhere, it is suggested that women are encouraged to check frequently for menstrual bleeding because they do not have feeling and so presumably would not become sexually aroused (b. Nid. 13a). Brief mentions of female self-arousal, however, include an idol designed as a dildo for female masturbation (b. ʿAbod. Zar. 44a in reference to 2 Chr 15:16)) and a possible description of female and male masturbation as sexual display (b. Meg. 12a–b).

Nonprocreative seminal emission.

Despite the common assumption that nonprocreative male seminal emission is prohibited in Judaism, such is not the case. A broad rabbinic principle holds that a man may engage in any sexual activity with his wife (this may at times ignore the preferences of the wife; see b. Ned. 20b). Apart from later layers of the Babylonian Talmud, most sources appear to share Greco-Roman notions of male and female seed, including that the male seed is not precious in and of itself. Michael Satlow has argued that the prohibition of nonprocreative seminal emission primarily appears within the latest layers of the Babylonian Talmud and within the antecedent sources of the sugyot (Talmudic sections or topical discussions); the sugyot themselves do not appear to have shared such a concern (Satlow, 1995b; b. Nid. 13a–b).

Levirate marriage.

The concern regarding wasted seed is at times connected to the act of Onan (hence onanism) who in Genesis 38 refused to fulfill his levirate obligation to produce offspring in the name of his dead brother. Earlier, and especially Palestinian, sources often interpret the nature of his transgression not as masturbation but as a denial of duty, hedonism, lust, and selfishness (see, for example, Gen. Rab. 85:5). Rabbinic tradition is deeply ambivalent regarding levirate marriage, which is a violation of Leviticus 18:6 and 20:21 (see, for example, b. Ketub. 2b), going so far as to state that a levirate union where the levir engaged in procreative intercourse for any reason other than fulfilling his duty produces offspring that are close to being mamzers (b. Yebam. 39b).

Anal sex.

Anal sex (heterosexual, performed upon the woman) is exegetically connected to the phrase mishkevei ishah or “lyings of a woman” (Lev 18:22; 20:13).). The biblical use of the plural is used to understand more than one way of a male lying with a woman (Sifra a.k.a. Torat Kohanim Kedoshim Pereq 9:14, 92b). These two ways are sometimes termed shekedarkah and lo shekedarkah, “according to its way” and “not according to its way,” which may suggest vaginal and anal/oral sexual connection (Satlow, 1995a, pp. 238–242; b. Ned. 20b; b. Sanh. 58b).

Male homosexual/sex.

Mishkevei ishah is constructed as normative and permitted, in sharp contrast to mishkav zakhur (lying of a man), which is prohibited and subject to capital punishment (Lev 18:22). The nature of the specific homosexual act, which is prohibited, is a matter of debate among scholars. It is frequently noted that the biblical text has no notion of a sexual orientation per se, but only of a sexual act.

The same may be true of rabbinic sources. Rabbinic sources, however, do construct sex acts between males as atypical of Jewish men, whereas gentile men are suspected of such acts.

Female homosexual/sex.

Same-sex sexual activity between women is not mentioned in biblical law, but marriage between women (as well as between men) is prohibited by Sifra, an early midrash to Leviticus. Sifra expands the levitical arayot (prohibited relationships) of Leviticus 18 and 20 (specifically the ban against the statutes of the Egyptians) to include a ban on female-female marriage and a woman marrying two men (Sifra Aharei Mot 9:8, Weiss edition, 85a–b). The Babylonian Talmud only briefly mentions sexual acts between women, first in a discussion as to whether such sexual activity has the ability to effect female status change by rendering a woman unfit to marry into the priesthood (b. Yebam. 76a) and second in a discussion which suggests that Jewish women may not be suspected of such behavior (b. Šabb. 65a). This lack of interest is likely caused by a general lack of concern regarding female sexual activity when it does not involve men (see, however, Maimonides Mishneh Torah Issurei Bi’ah 21:8).


Bestiality is prohibited for both men and women following Leviticus 18:23 and 20:15–16, but was constructed as an act of which Jews are not suspect and came to be attributed to gentiles. In contrast, see b. Qiddushin 81b where sages avoid being in the presence of animals for fear of engaging in bestiality. This concern regarding the sexual temptation posed by animals is likely part of a late Babylonian rabbinic discourse, which emphasizes the power of male sexuality and the difficulty of controlling it (the so-called evil inclination, yester harah; see Rosen-Zvi, 2011).

Expanding the Levitical Arayot.

Rabbinic literature expands the list of prohibited relationships (arayot) provided in Leviticus 18 and 20 and creates a category of sheniyot or secondary rabbinic prohibitions, which prohibit a wider range of familial relations and create a hierarchical gradation of prohibited relations (b. Yebam. 21a, m. Yebam. 2:3–4). In Sifra Aharei Mot (Parashah 9 and Pereq 13, 85c–86d), Leviticus’s references to the acts of the Egyptians and Canaanites are expanded to include prohibitions of female-female marriage and polyandry, as well as a general prohibition of intermarriage. None of these rulings, however, holds a central place in rabbinic legal tradition.


Certain close familial relations not prohibited by Leviticus 18 and 20 continue to be permitted and even highly preferred in rabbinic tradition, namely uncle-niece marriages (aunt-nephew is biblically prohibited, see however CD 5:7–10 where both of these couplings are forbidden) and cousin marriages (Satlow, 2001).


Sexual relations with a woman in the state of niddah (menstrual impurity) are prohibited (Lev 18:19) and biblically punishable by excision (Lev 20:18). These prohibitions can be seen as more punitive than earlier parts of Leviticus: the laws of Leviticus 15 on the zav (“male with an emission”) and niddah (“menstruant”) prescribe only procedures for purification (Meacham, 1999). Even within the Bible, the term niddah, like zonah/zenut (“harlot”), came to be associated with sexual transgression and idolatry. Rabbinic literature expanded the laws of niddah significantly, emphasizing the severity of sexual relations with a niddah and extending this description to most forms of contact between husband and wife, while subsuming the period of biblical niddah within the more stringent framework of zivah (irregular menstrual bleeding); it also created the rabbinic category of “minor zavah,” which resulted in an extended period of each menstrual cycle when sexual relations and physical contact came to be prohibited, possibly under ascetic considerations (Meacham, 1999). A notable exception to this pattern of rabbinic stringency is the status of the offspring of sexual relations with a niddah, which, unlike the offspring of the other arayot, is not deemed a mamzer (b. Yebam. 49a–b). It should be noted that although biblical law is unclear as to whether the state of niddah affects all women, in rabbinic law gentile women are not deemed to be subject to menstrual impurity, just as gentile male emissions likewise do not transmit impurity (for the special case of niddah and Samaritan women, see m. Nid. 4:1).

Molekh ritual.

In rabbinic sources, the molekh ritual is exegetically conflated with the deuteronomic passing of the child through the fire (a joined description is already found in 2 Kings 23:10). The dominant interpretive tradition is that it consists of a ritual of child sacrifice to an idol. A minority tradition developed that the molekh ritual is in fact marriage or sexual relations with a gentile woman, either for the purposes of idolatry or resulting in the production of idolatrous offspring (see Tg. Ps.-J. to Lev 18:21 and Tg. Neof. marginalia to Lev 20:2). This tradition was banned in m. Megillah 4:9 and rejected by Sifra Qodashim Parashah 10:3, but transmitted by y. Megillah 4:10, 75c as an early exegesis of Leviticus 18:21. Following this targumic and exegetical tradition, intermarriage or sexual relations between Jews and gentiles were understood as a capital crime (Clenman, 2013).

Boel aramit.

The molekh tradition is at times linked to the boel aramit (one who has sexual relations with an Aramean woman; read gentile). The boel aramit is subject to deadly attack by zealots (see m. Sanh. 9:6). In both the Babylonian and the Palestinian Talmuds, the boel aramit is connected to Numbers 25, where Zimri is understood to have had sexual connection with the Midianite woman Kozbi, for which transgression both of them are summarily speared to death by Pinchas, who in turn receives divine approval for his killing. m. Sanhedrin 9:6 is classed as authoritative in both Talmuds (b. Sanh. 82a, y. Sanh. 27b). Both Talmuds, however, betray some ambivalence toward this zealot killing of the boel aramit, given its unclear connection to rabbinic legal jurisdiction and due process; y. Sanhedrin 27b forcefully rejects Pinchas’s actions (Clenman, 2013). The Babylonian Talmud rules that should the zealots fail to kill him, the boel aramit is to be punished by excision (karet; see b. Sanh. 81b–82a).

Intermarriage with gentiles.

The Pentateuch provides specific prohibitions of intermarriage, which the rabbis did not understand to amount to a general prohibition of intermarriage, aside from a minority tradition of exegesis to Deuteronomy 7:3–4 (see Hayes, 2002). The laws regulating entry to the congregation in Deuteronomy 23 were understood as marital and sexual laws in rabbinic tradition. Exegesis allowed the rabbis to permit marriages with Moabite and Ammonite women, perhaps motivated by the Moabite and Ammonite female ancestry in the royal messianic lines, despite the ban in Deuteronomy 23:4–7 (Sifre Devarim Pisqa 249, m. Yebam. 8:3). Some early sources argue further for an abandonment of the nation-specific marriage laws of Deuteronomy 23 in view of the impossibility of identifying biblical identities subsequent to historical population displacements and the ubiquity of intermarriage (see, for example, t. Qidd. 5:4). Talmudic historical constructions attribute general prohibitions of intermarriage and sex between Jews and gentile to the court of Shem (b. ʿAbod. Zar. 36b) and the Hasmonean court (b. Sanh. 82a).

Sexual Exclusivity and Access.

Various rabbinic texts limit sexual access, both within and beyond the bounds of marriage.


Adultery in both biblical and rabbinic law is understood as the violation of the exclusive sexual access of a man to his wife (Lev 18:20; Deut 22:22; Exod 20:14). A sexual act between a man and a married woman is thus adulterous and, likewise, a married woman with any man other than her husband is deemed adulterous, whereas a married man with a single woman (or married to more than one woman) is not considered adulterous (nor is a male homosexual or female homosexual act). The biblical law regarding false virginity claims (Deut 22:13–21)) appears to defy other deuteronomic laws, which call for the death penalty when a bride is found not to be a virgin. The paradox is that any relations would have occurred prior to marriage and hence would have been nonadulterous. Rabbinic sources solve this problem by concluding that the bride engaged in relations between bethrothal (kiddushin or erusin) and marriage (nisuin), which would be adulterous and hence a capital crime (note that the same solution is used for the burning of the daughter of a priest in Lev 21:9).


The biblical Sotah ritual was contingent upon a specific priestly ritual held at the temple, to be enacted in a case where the husband suspects that his wife may have been adulterous (Num 5:11–31). The ritual of humiliation and the drinking of the bitter waters appears to be meant to resolve this suspicion. The case of the Sotah must be distinguished from the transgression of adultery, which is a capital crime and must be proven according to rabbinic due process. The treatment of the Sotah is much expanded in talmudic sources, rendered even more explicit, punitive, and legally problematic than the biblical description despite the impossibility of the ritual in a post-Temple context (Rosen-Zvi, 2012). A new rabbinic legal status of the doubtful Sotah (safeq sotah) became a means for further formalizing anxiety regarding female sexuality, as the Palestinian Talmud puts it, “so that the daughters of Israel will not explode in carnality (zimah)” (y. Ketub.1:1 25a). Most significant for the situation of the rabbinic Sotah is that she is immediately and permanently forbidden to her husband, so that sexual relations between husband and wife are rendered transgressive and the couple must divorce. This stringency is a sort of compensation for the fact that she cannot drink the bitter waters, rendering any resolution impossible. Upon divorce, the husband would normally be required to grant his wife the ketubah payment, a financial surety and protection. The Sotah, however, is denied her ketubah payment. This obviously inequitable situation resulted in some rabbinic concern regarding the ease with which a man may dispatch his wife and divest his wife of her ketubah by simply expressing suspicion regarding her sexual activity or questioning her virginal status (see b. Ketub. 10a–b).


The status of zonah (“prostitute/harlot”) and the notion of zenut (“prostitution/whoredom”) in biblical literature do not appear to be transgressive per se aside from the rule against prostituting one’s daughter (Lev 19:29). Nonetheless, a priest was not allowed to marry a zonah (Lev 21:7), and for the daughter of a priest to be a zonah was a capital crime (Lev 21:9)), though in this context, the term may be understood as referring to any of a variety of categories of woman deemed unfit to marry a priest (b. Yebam. 61b). Moreover, zonah and zenut are used generally as negative terms for female sexuality (as in Genesis 34:31) and especially as a metaphor for the betrayal of the divine and the following of idols (sometimes both metaphorical and literal, perhaps, as in Numbers 25:1–3). The meaning of the term zonah in biblical and rabbinic literature is both specific, as in a harlot or prostitute, and general, as in sexually active (see Kriger, 2011). In early Judaism, some women are automatically considered to have the status of a zonah, including gentile females older than three years and a day and Jewish women over that age who have been taken captive. The former may be connected to a disputed tradition that gentile women are sexually available to all (hefqer) and have no notion of marriage (b. Sanh. 82a). This debate may be contextualized within a broader tendency to construct the Other (gentile, am ha‘arets) as sexually problematic. For a male to have relations with a zonah is generally undesirable, perhaps for ascetic considerations, yet some traditions permit relations with a prostitute (see, for example, t. Tem. 4:2). For a prohibition of relations between a nonpriest and a zonah, see the discussion of the qedesah, below. In contrast, for a woman to be a zonah (whether by default or profession) is a matter of status change, rendering her prohibited in marriage to the priest. Precisely which type of sexual relations rendered a woman a zonah was a matter of some debate (m. Yebam. 6:5, b. Yebam. 61b). Sex between a man and a single woman appears to be permissible following biblical law but becomes problematic in rabbinic tradition, which developed rules even against seclusion (yichud) of men and women to avoid any sexual contact (m. Qidd. 4:11; 12 in some editions). B. Avodah Zarah 36b constructs a history of prohibition of various sexual transgressions, especially between Jews and gentiles, culminating in decrees against seclusion with gentile women and Jewish women.

Qadesh and qadeshah.

The term qadesh (m.) or qadeshah (f.) suggests a man or woman dedicated to a temple and its deity, which is biblically banned (Deut 23:18). This prohibition has often been interpreted as a ban against Temple prostitution (perhaps not unlike the molekh ritual as a sexual act for idolatrous ends), although it has been recently argued that sacred prostitution did not exist in antiquity. Not unlike the case of the molekh ritual, the meaning of the term qadesh/ah and the nature of the activity that is prohibited remain unclear. The prohibition is understood in two ways in early rabbinic literature and the targumim: as a ban on prostitution and relations with prostitutes (Neof. and Ps.-J. to Deut 23:18)) or as a ban against sexual relations (or marriage) with slaves (Tg. Onq. to Deut 23:18).). Diane Kriger notes that Josephus banned marriage between free men and slaves as well as marriage between free men and prostitutes (Ant. 4:8:23; Kriger, 2011, p. 325). The notion of qadesh/ah as a slave is not far from its most basic meaning, namely a person belonging to another entity, here a temple/deity. Qadesh/ah is also sometimes connected with the zonah, as in b. Sanhedrin 82a, which exegetically links idolatry, intermarriage, and male homosexuality to Malachi 2:12.

Sexual assault.

Biblical law imposes upon the rapist a fine and forced marriage to the victim with no option of divorce (see Deuteronomy 22:23–29).). Rabbinic law allows the father and the minor daughter the option of refusing the marriage (b. Ketub. 39b). It likewise calls for additional payment of damages due to the father relative to his means and circumstances, as compensation for humiliation and other losses for the rape of his daughter, whether a minor or age of majority (b. Ketub. 42a–43b). A woman who has been sexually assaulted is considered exempt from the death penalty for adultery if married (for a prohibition of rape within marriage see b. Eruv. 100b), and she is permitted sexually to her husband (unless he is a priest, b. Yebam. 56b). A minor is generally considered unable to consent (see b. Yebam. 33b and 61b, y. Soṭah 1:2). However, according to some sources the father’s will may represent the minor daughter’s (see b. Qidd. 5a and commentaries there) or if a father contracts his minor daughter in marriage, he may give her over to sexual intercourse (biah) to the groom against her will, for the purposes of contracting the marriage (b. Qidd. 3b, Tosafot s.v. ha’av zakai and y. Ketub. 4:6).

The beautiful captive.

The yefat toar, known as the “law of the beautiful captive,” is a military law that allows for a man on the battlefield to take as his wife a captive woman whom he finds attractive (Deut 21:10–14). Following her capture, she undergoes a sort of protoconversion. If he subsequently does not desire her, he may send her away but is forbidden from selling her or otherwise treating her as a slave. The primary problem in a rabbinic context becomes whether the soldier may have sexual relations with her prior to her protoconversion (e.g., on the battlefield). Some argue yes, but only once; others argue that he may not and must wait until following her protoconversion, reflecting negative ascetic attitude toward the entire practice (see Sifrei Deut Pisqa 218, b. Qidd. 21a, b. Sanh. 21a–22a, Elman, 1997; Stern, 1998).




  • Biale, David. Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
  • Boyarin, Daniel. Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Clenman, Laliv. “The Faceless Idol and Images of Terror in Rabbinic Tradition on Molekh.” In The Image and Its Prohibition in Jewish Antiquity, edited by Sarah Pearce. Oxford: Journal of Jewish Studies, 2013.
  • Cohen, Shaye. Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Diamond, Eliezer. Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism. Boston: Beacon, 1994.
  • Elman, Pearl. “Deuteronomy 21:10-14: The Beautiful Captive Woman.” Women in Judaism 1, no. 1 (1997).
  • Fonrobert, Elisheva Charlotte. Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.
  • Hayes, Christine. Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Kriger, Diane. Sex Rewarded, Sex Punished: A Study of the Status “Female Slave” in Early Jewish Law. Edited by Tirzah Meacham (leBeit Yoreh). Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2011.
  • Meacham, Tirzah (leBeit Yoreh). “An Abbreviated History of the Development of the Jewish Menstrual Laws.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, pp. 23–39. Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press, 1999.
  • Meacham, Tirzah (leBeit Yoreh). “Sotah.” In Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. legal-religious-status-of-suspected-adulteress-sotah.
  • Rosen-Zvi, Ishay. Demonic Desires: “Yetser Hara” and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
  • Rosen-Zvi, Ishay. The Mishnaic Sotah Ritual: Temple, Gender and Midrash. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.
  • Satlow, Michael. Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995a.
  • Satlow, Michael. “Wasted Seed: The History of a Rabbinic Idea.” Hebrew Union College Annual 65 (1995b): 137–175.
  • Satlow, Michael. “Texts of Terror: Rabbinic Texts, Speech Acts, and the Control of Mores.” Association for Jewish Studies Review 21, no. 2 (1996): 273–297.
  • Satlow, Michael. Jewish Marriage in Antiquity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Stern, David. “The Captive Woman: Hellenization, Greco-Roman Erotic Narrative, and Rabbinic Literature.” Poetics Today 19, no. 1 (1998): 91–127).

Laliv Clenman

Early Church

Early Christian reflection on sexual transgression focuses on adultery (moicheia), fornication (porneia), and pederasty (paidophtheria) (Didache 2.2, 5.1; Epistle of Barnabas 10.6, 19.4, 20.1; cf. Hermas, Mandates 8.38.3). However, early Christians did not always agree on the definitions of these terms or the scope of sexual transgression. Celibate marriages, marriage to non-Christians, and second marriages were particularly controversial practices.

As a product of classical culture, early Christian treatment of sexual transgression is deeply intertwined with gender slippage and social hierarchy. Rules governing adultery focused on the status of the woman, and prohibitions of same-sex intercourse were rooted in social norms for the respectable behavior of men and women.

During this period, early Christian thinking also sees a transition from forbidden and permitted acts to forbidden and permitted desires. Sexual transgression becomes something that takes place primarily in the heart. As a solution to desire, some Christians see sexual renunciation as the only option, while others imagine procreative sexual intercourse without desire. Sexual renunciation generally occupies the pinnacle of the ideal sexual life, at one end of a scale descending downward into certain kinds of acceptable marriage, followed by a host of possible transgressions.

Christian Morality in the Greek and Roman World.

Early Christians disapprove of porneia and pederasty, sexual acts generally accepted by their Greek and Roman peers. The third-century North African apologist Tertullian contrasts Christian chastity with the sexual decadence of Greeks and Romans (Apology 39.11–13; all translated titles by author). Athenagoras (ca. 177) complains, “The adulterers and pederasts defame the eunuchs and the once-married [Christians]” (Plea 34.3; all translations by author). This kind of sexual slander functions as boundary-drawing rhetoric, but also reveals the acceptable sexual practices for those making them.

While earlier generations of scholars emphasized the moral gap between Christianity and “paganism,” others have challenged the trend by arguing that there is great continuity. Michel Foucault, for instance, emphasizes continuity between Christian regulation of sexual morality and its Greek and Roman context. He locates the Christian rupture, however, in the hermeneutics of the self and discernment of desires (Foucault, 1986). In contrast, Kathy Gaca emphasizes that sexual renunciation in early Christianity breaks with and misinterprets Stoic philosophy (Gaca, 2003). However, Giulia Sissa argues that the contribution that even Foucault sees Christianity making is just as central to non-Christian thinking (Sissa, 2008).

Focusing on material transitions, Kyle Harper argues that the real Christian change to Greek and Roman sexual morality does not arrive until the legal changes banning forced prostitution and same-sex intercourse in the fifth century (Harper, 2013). The question of continuity is always selective, as Bernadette Brooten shows that “a focus on female homoeroticism makes this continuity clearer than would a focus on male homoeroticism” (Brooten, 1996, pp. 2–3). Brooten’s argument suggests that, depending on the specific issue, the case for “continuity” between early Christian and Greek and Roman sexual morality may be stronger or weaker.

Marriage and Celibacy.

The Pastoral Epistles warn against those who advocated abstaining from marriage (1 Tim 4:3), insisting that women’s salvation depends on bearing children (1 Tim 2:15). This view won little support, however, and the view that celibacy was greater than marriage went almost unchallenged through the end of the fourth century. The apostle Paul had set the moral framework for early Christian sexuality (1 Cor 7).

Even within marriage, sexual transgression from desire remains a risk. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 111) advises that bishops should exercise oversight of those seeking to get married to ensure “that their marriage may be for the Lord and not desire” (To Polycarp 5.2). Tertullian explains that marriage is not forbidden, but that this does not make it good (To His Wife 1.3). Marriage is only acceptable as a means of avoiding sexual temptation (To His Wife 1.4–5; cf. Exhortation to Chastity 12). He praises those “who have preferred to marry God” and live in continence (Exhortation to Chastity 13.4). However, Tertullian objects to those who forbid marriage entirely, maintaining only that the Lord prefers continence (On Monogamy 3.1).

Some practices of sexual renunciation included “spiritual marriages” in which a couple either never has intercourse or renounces intercourse after a period of time (Tertullian, Exhortation to Chastity 12). There was always suspicion about such arrangements. Irenaeus of Lyons (180s) accuses his “gnostic” opponents of fraudulently living as “brother and sister,” only to be exposed when the woman becomes pregnant (Against Heresies 1.6.3). These practices are often condemned and even forbidden by some later church councils (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.30.12–13; Council of Elvira [306], canon 27; Council of Nicaea [325], canon 3; Cyprian, Epistle 62.2; Jerome, Epistle 22).

Fornication and Adultery.

Early Christians taught that marriage was the only acceptable sexual relationship. Adultery is defined as sex with an honorable woman—generally, a woman who is married. The transgression injures both her honor and her husband’s. Fornication is sex with a dishonorable woman who lacks the social status of a household; this includes public prostitutes. The marital status of the male is not relevant to the definition of adultery or fornication.

Early Christian sexual ethics prohibit fornication (Epistle of Barnabas 19.4; Didache 2.2). Paul condemns sex with prostitutes, believing that it pollutes the body of Christ, not the marriage bed (1 Cor 6:12–20).). Clement of Alexandria (late second century) laments the prostitution of both boys and girls. He warns that such acts lead to unforeseen consequences, such as a man unknowingly engaging in sex with a child of his that was a product of sex with prostitutes (The Instructor 3.3.21; cf. Tertullian, To the Nations 1.16.14–20). He is also critical of slave owners who profit by selling the flesh of women and boys (The Instructor 3.3.22). Athenagoras and Justin, too, bemoan the marketplace of fornication and pleasures through prostitution (Plea 34.3; 1 Apology 1.14.2).

Early Christians considered some marriages to be sinful. Clement advocates that Christians must only marry other Christians (Miscellanies 3.73.3, 97.3, 107.1). Tertullian warns, “Believers contracting marriages with gentiles are established guilty of sexual crime [stuprum], and are to be excluded from all communication with the brotherhood” (To His Wife 3.1). Those who were married before their conversion were exempt.

While adultery is strictly prohibited, the consequences were not always clear. Early Christians typically allow divorce in the case of adultery (Matt 5:32, 19:9). The lived reality was more complex. The Shepherd of Hermas (early second century) asks, what if a wife commits adultery and the husband continues having intercourse with her? If he is ignorant, he does not sin, but if he knows about it he has become a partner in her immorality. They should divorce unless the adulterous spouse has repented.

Forgiveness for adultery is controversial. In Hermas, adultery may be forgiven only once (2.4.1–11, 8.3). In contrast, Tertullian argues that adultery is an irremissible sin (On Modesty 2, 4, 22). Origen (early third century) too argues that adultery and fornication cannot be forgiven (On Prayer 18). A third-century bishop, Cyprian of Carthage, reports that bishops disagreed on whether adultery was forgivable, using their own discretion (Epistles 51.21). Some Christians suggested the custom was that only the husband should be forgiven for adultery, but the wife should not be (Basil, Epistle 188.9, 199.21).

Second Marriages.

Early Christians frequently oppose remarriage after divorce or widowhood. Justin Martyr warns that the “twice married are sinners” (1 Apology 15). Second marriages are considered adultery because a married couple becomes “one flesh” (Matt 19:9; cf. Athenagoras, Plea 33). Others cite the Pastoral Epistles’ rules about bishops being married only once (1 Tim 3:1–7; Tit 1:6–9; cf. Tertullian, On Monogamy 12).

Tertullian warns, “Second marriage will have to be termed no other than a species of sexual crime [stuprum]” (Exhortation to Chastity 9.1). Though he acknowledges that second marriages are not absolutely forbidden, Tertullian writes his treatise To His Wife to persuade his wife to not remarry if he dies first (see also On Exhortation to Chastity). He sets up a hierarchy where chastity is the greatest good, then marriage, then second marriage as it descends further and further from the ideal (Exhortation to Chastity 9–11). Tertullian insists, “We admit one marriage, just as we do one God” (On Monogamy 1.4).

Sex as Transgression.

The practice of celibacy is diffuse, not limited to any one variety of Christianity, time period, or region. Tatian (second century) condemns sexual relations and is often identified with the Encratite movement (from Greek enkrateia, meaning continence or self-control). He warns that any sexual activity is a state of uncontrolled desire, fornication, and bondage to Satan (Clement, Miscellanies 3.12.81). The slogan “Marriage is porneia” was a powerful rhetorical weapon (Clement, Miscellanies 3.12.89).

The second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla similarly praises sexual renunciation. Paul’s beatitudes extol continence, virginity, and celibate marriage (1.12–22). Thecla is praised and blessed by God for calling off her wedding, refusing all suitors, and living a life of virginity. Many of the so-called Apocryphal Acts feature females persuaded by the message of chastity.

Early Christians appeal to various typologies to explain sexual renunciation. The Acts of Judas Thomas envisions the lack of sexual activity as a return to primordial purity (12–14). Julius Cassianus, reportedly a former Valentinian, advocates sexual renunciation on the belief that sexual difference would be abolished, and taught, “Let no one say that because we have these parts, that the female body is shaped this way and the male that way, the one to receive, the other to give seed, sexual intercourse is allowed by God” (Clement, Miscellanies 3.13.91). Marcion renounces sexual intercourse and procreation to oppose the creator of the material world (Clement, Stromateis 3.3.12). Others teach that God created the human body above the navel, while the half below the navel was created by the devil (Miscellanies 3.4.34). In the Testimony of Truth, sexual intercourse is connected to the Law and as such must be opposed (29.26–30.17). The anonymous author of the Treatise on the Resurrection, attributed to Justin Martyr, argues the coming resurrection, the virgin birth, and Christ’s own ascetic example have abolished desire and marriage (Treatise on the Resurrection 3–5). Others teach that Mary was a virgin both before and after the birth of Jesus, miraculously maintaining her purity in parturition (Protoevangelium of James 19.3).

Some portions of the New Prophesy movement may favor sexual renunciation and oppose marriage, connecting sexual purity to receiving spiritual gifts (Epiphanius, Panarion 48.9.7). However, there was likely diversity of opinion among those influenced by this movement. Tertullian’s later writings show his affinity to the New Prophesy, and though he preferred celibacy, he does not forbid marriage.

Sex for Procreation.

For many early Christians, the purpose of marriage is not a safeguard against excessive desire (as Paul had described it), but only to produce children. Athenagoras emphasizes, “Each of us thinks of his wife whom he has married according to the laws laid down by us, and that only for the purpose of procreation” (Plea 33.1). Justin Martyr lays out two paths that Christians follow, marriage for the purpose of having children or a life of sexual continence (1 Apology 29).

Clement of Alexandria most thoroughly explains a procreationist perspective, seeking to eliminate sexual desire from procreation entirely. Clement argues that sexual desire is always sinful, but that it is possible to engage in sexual intercourse without desire. Married Christians should avoid any activity that might arouse desire, including kissing, dancing, and singing (The Instructor 3.11.80–82). He prohibits all unproductive sexual intercourse, including during menstruation, pregnancy, and nursing, and likely masturbation (Miscellanies 2.23.143; The Instructor 2.10.83, 91). Citing Matthew 5:28, for Clement all sexual desires, even with a spouse, are adultery (Exhortation to the Greeks 108.5). Christians must experience a transformation to practice passionless sexual acts (Miscellanies 3.7.58, 10.69, 12.82).

Sexual Communalism.

Practices of sexual communalism in early Christianity are difficult to reconstruct. Irenaeus reports vaguely on the sexual license of several groups (Against Heresies 1.23, 25, 26, 28). He accuses Marcus of practicing a secretive “bridal chamber” rite that consisted of ritual sex (Against Heresies 1.13.4, 21.3). Irenaeus also tells of two women who escaped and reportedly exposed the sexual license of these groups (Against Heresies 1.6.3). According to Clement, the Antitactae resist the Creator by opposing his commandments, including the interdiction against adultery and sex with boys (Stromateis 3.34–36). These reports, however, rest primarily on rumor and slander.

In one case, Clement mentions Nicolaus, who sought to fulfill the command “Treat the flesh with contempt” by offering his wife to the apostles (Miscellanies 3.4.25–26). While Clement redeems Nicolaus and his family from the charges of indecency, Irenaeus connects him to fornication (Against Heresies 1.26.3). By the time of the fourth century, the legends of Nicolaus’s sins multiply under Epiphanius, who accuses him of daily intercourse, eating semen and menstrual blood, consuming aborted fetuses, and spawning several imitators in licentiousness (Panarion 25.2.1, 26.1.1–3, 26.3.3).

There may be one genuine case of Christian sexual communalism. Epiphanes was the author of the treatise On Righteousness, which has been preserved only in a citation by Clement (Miscellanies 3.2.5–8). Epiphanes, who may have been the son or student of the teacher Carpocrates, taught what has been pilloried as “libertinism,” although this perspective misrepresents the philosophical and theological motivations informing these sexual practices. Epiphanes draws on Plato’s recommendation in Republic 5 of sexual communalism, including the sharing of women and children. Epiphanes’s vision of sexual communalism has roots in early Christian communalism such as that depicted in Acts 4:32—5:11: “They held everything in common.” God created sexual desires, and acting on them in moderation is appropriate for his creation, grounding Epiphanes’s sexual ethics in the goodness of the created order.


Early Christians debated the meaning of the saying of Jesus: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:12); and further, when advising against lust, “It will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell” (Matt 5:29). The interpretations conflict regarding whether the saying is taken literally as in self-castration or metaphorically as in celibacy.

Eunuchs enjoy prestige in the eyes of many Christians. Marcion reportedly admires eunuchs (Tertullian, Against Marcion 1.29). Justin Martyr approvingly cites the example of an Alexandrian who had asked a surgeon to make him a eunuch (1 Apology 29). Eusebius praises Origen’s castration (Ecclesiastical History 6.8). There are legitimate questions about the reliability of Eusebius’s account, but either way it reveals some early Christian attitudes toward castration.

Opponents of castration in early Christianity decry the gender ambiguity it created and challenge its necessity. Tertullian laments that the castrated male is “a third sex, suited to male and female, joining male and female qualities” (To the Nations 1.20.4). The third-century Acts of John depicts John condemning a young man who castrated himself to avoid temptation (53–54). The Council of Nicaea officially bans willful castration for clerics, but not for laypeople (Canon 1).

Same-Sex Intercourse.

For men, same-sex intercourse includes sex with adult males, perhaps slaves or prostitutes, as well as with young boys. Early Christians condemn such sexual relationships. Christian apologists frequently contrast male-male sex among non-Christian Greeks and Romans with their own restrained sexual practices (Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 29; Athenagoras, Plea 34; Tertullian, To the Nations 1.16.14–20).

Early Christians condemn same-sex relations because of concerns about gender slippage that extended even to those of lower status, believing that it is shameful for any male to behave as a woman. Clement condemns sex with young boys “as though they were girls” (The Instructor 2.10.90). The boys, too, who engage in these types of activities, even as slaves under duress, ought to choose death rather than “renounce their own natures and play the role of women” (The Instructor 3.3.21). He is nostalgic for the old Roman laws that prohibited males using their bodies in the “feminine role contrary to the law of nature” (The Instructor 3.3.23).

Clement also opposes anal intercourse because of his view that sex is for procreation alone. He notes that nature has made the passage at the end of the intestines for expelling excrement alone and that no animals, not even hypersexual hyenas, engage in anal sex. Hyenas, both male and female, he argues, have a separate orifice between the tail and anus which leads neither to the womb nor intestines. When male hyenas lie with other males or pregnant females, they use this other orifice instead of the anus (The Instructor 2.10.85).

Early Christians also oppose female-female sexual relations. Clement condemns women who switch roles and act as the penetrator of both men and women, and he laments that women are “given in marriage and marry [other women]” (The Instructor 3.3.21). Clement’s procreationist ideology again controls his view on proper sexual conduct, along with his view that women’s usurpation of a male’s penetrative role constituted a dangerous blurring of gender divisions. Tertullian too bemoans frictrices, or women who have sex with women (On the Philosophers Cloak 4.9; cf. On the Resurrection of the Flesh 16.6).

Early Christian apocalyptic texts frequently imagine the divine punishments for those who betray their gender by engaging in same-sex acts. The Apocalypse of Peter describes a scene in hell where men “who defile their bodies, behaving like women,” and women “who have sex with one another as a man with a woman” must repeatedly leap from a high cliff (17). The Acts of Thomas is similarly concerned with those who “exchanged the intercourse of man and woman,” again revealing that the problem with such acts was the supposed reversal of sexual roles of men and women (6.51–61). The third-century Apocalypse of Paul depicts a group of men and women in a burning pit. The angel explains, “They are those who have committed the iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrah, men with men. Therefore they pay the penalty unceasingly” (39).

Oral Sex.

There are few references to such specific sexual acts in early Christian texts. In one case, the Epistle of Barnabas allegorically interprets the prohibitions of eating certain animals in the Law as referring to certain vices. The author explains that it is forbidden to eat the weasel, believing that it conceives with its mouth. Consequently, the male reader is advised not to “perform a lawless act in the mouth…nor cling to unclean women who perform the lawless act in their mouth” (10.8).

Desire as Transgression.

Epithumia, variously translated as desire, lust, or passion, occupies a central place in early Christian thought. The Didache warns: “Do not be filled with epithumia, for epithumia leads to porneia” (3.3). The Shepherd of Hermas adds that a thought in one’s heart about porneia constituted a sin, “but if you always keep thinking about your own wife you will never sin” (2.4.1–2). Here, desire is a step toward sin, but in some cases desire was the sin.

Early Christians renouncing desire drew from Jesus’s warning that a man desiring a woman had committed adultery already in his heart (Matt 5:28).). Justin Martyr reaffirms this teaching, noting that God judges not only acts but also thoughts (1 Apology 15).

The Christian problematization of sexual desire drew upon Platonic and Stoic ideas of controlling the passions, but frequently exceeded them in the degree to which desire must be mastered. Clement of Alexandria explains that the idea of continence, “set forth by Greek philosophers, teaches that one should fight desire…. But our ideal is not to experience desire at all. Our aim is not that while a man feels desires he should get the better of, but that he should be continent even respecting desire itself” (Miscellanies 3.7.57). Clement puts forward the idea that sexual intercourse without desire is possible for the purpose of procreation.


Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries follows the trajectories laid out by earlier Christians as it coalesces around orthodox teachings and structures. Adultery, fornication, and same-sex intercourse are forbidden. Celibacy and sexual renunciation remain ideal choices for clerical and monastic life, and the ascetic urge becomes more popularly practiced. Marriage and procreation are permitted and defended against those who would forbid them altogether, but are still considered inferior to celibacy—despite Jovinian’s challenge to this framework in the 390s. Control of desires is increasingly theorized in monastic contexts, with the ideal of even eliminating involuntary desires and nocturnal emissions. Legal regulation of prostitution and criminalization of same-sex relations characterize this period of Christianization of sexual morality. Christian concern for sexuality focuses on the purity not only of the individual or the church but also of the city and the cosmos.




  • Boyarin, Daniel, and Elizabeth A. Castelli. “Introduction: Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: The Fourth Volume, or, a Field Left Fallow for Others to Till.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, nos. 3/4 (2001): 357–374.
  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
  • Clark, Elizabeth A. Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Care of the Self. Vol. 3: The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley. London: Penguin, 1986.
  • Gaca, Kathy L. The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Harper, Kyle. From Shame to Sin: the Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • Hunter, David G. Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Hunter, David G., trans. and ed. Marriage in the Early Church. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.
  • Knust, Jennifer Wright. Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006.
  • Pagels, Elaine H. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. New York: Random House, 1988.
  • Rousselle, Aline. Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. Translated by Felicia Pheasant. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.
  • Sissa, Giulia. Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World. Translated by George Staunton. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008.

Taylor G. Petrey