Christian Sexual Slander – By Taylor Petrey

Taylor Petrey on Susanna Drake’s Slandering the Jew

Susanna Drake, Slandering the Jew, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013, 184pp., $55.00
Susanna Drake, Slandering the Jew: Sexuality and Difference in Early Christian Texts, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013, 184pp., $55.00

The history of Christian anti-Judaism has become an important scholarly topic in the last half century, arising primarily in the wake of the Holocaust. The ancient legacy of Christian prejudice and stereotypes has resulted in persecution, suspicion, and violence against Jews for centuries — a situation that continues to haunt the present, as the contemporary rise of anti-Semitism in Europe illustrates. But the history of Jews and Christians is much more complex, and sweeping condemnations always fail to capture the whole story. It is important to acknowledge this variegated history if we wish to better understand how these dark moments have flourished.

In one of these dark moments, the fourth-century Christian theologian John Chrysostom offered a series of brutal sermons, Adversos Ioudaios, or Against the Jews, wherein he depicted an overly masculine Jewish and Judaizing aggression besieging Christian women. Where did this imagery come from? How did this discourse function in Christian communities? What issues of power were at stake in the deployment of this rhetorical weapon? Susanna Drake’s Slandering the Jew considers how Christian uses of the stereotype “interpellated Jews as colonial subjects, worthy of domination and violence.”

This book does not cover the history of anti-Judaism in the first centuries of the Common Era per se but instead explores a particular Christian trope, offering a kind of genealogy of Christian sexual slander against Jews. Drake investigates how and why ancient Christians came to talk about Jews as sexually deviant. The theme developed mostly in the third and fourth centuries as Christians were cultivating new scriptural interpretations that emphasized the spiritual significance of the Bible over against the literal (= fleshly) meaning that they attributed to Jews. The contrasting hermeneutics paralleled opposite approaches to the ascetic ideal: spiritual Christians glorified celibacy while carnal Jews continued to promote marriage.

Christian use of the language of sexual slander goes back at least to the Apostle Paul, who in typical ancient Jewish fashion identifies Gentile culture as sexually immoral. Engaging in sexual slander fits within a broader Greek and Roman context, where discussions of a group’s or individual’s sexual virtue and vice were common ways of marking boundaries between insiders and outsiders, the self and the other.

Christian sexual slander against Jews was still rare in the earliest anti-Jewish literature. The theme first appears in Christian texts by Justin Martyr and the Epistle of Barnabas, but only marginally. The third century Alexandrian powerhouse theologian Origen is the first Christian to develop systematically the theme of the carnal Jew. He connects the Pauline notion of “Israel according to the flesh” not only to claims about sexual morality but also about hermeneutics. Tweaking a contrast between flesh and spirit that he found in Paul’s letters — “for the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17) — Origen connected the inferior literal/fleshly interpretations to Jews and the superior spiritual and allegorical interpretations to Christians. These reading strategies also conformed to bodily practices: “Allegoria is askesis,” as Drake puts it. Origen draws out this theme in a number of his texts as part of a discourse of sexuality that is aimed at creating and enforcing difference between Jews and Christians.

In another instance, Christians began appropriating Jewish stories and characters for their own narratives. Hippolytus and Origen both provide third century allegorical readings of the story of Susanna, one of the Greek additions to the book of Daniel, which depicts a couple of elders as sexual assailants of righteous Susanna. In these Christian allegorical readings, Susanna, the Jewish woman, represents the Church and the Christian martyr, while the sexually domineering and violent elders represent the opponents of the Church, especially Jews. According to these Christians, Jews do not accept the text of Susanna within their biblical canon because they are trying to hide their crimes. Christian and Jewish differences are hermeneutical but also gendered in particular ways that point to a reformation of a new, ascetic masculinity.

The culmination of Christian sexual slander in this period is Chrysostom’s Sermons Against the Jews. The “golden-mouthed” orator — at the time a priest in Antioch — filled these anti-Jewish and anti-Judaizing invectives with a complex imagery of Jewish men as sexually aggressive, and immoral, and Jewish women as prostitutes. Chrysostom’s rhetoric aims to drive a sharp wedge between Jews and Christians, to depict Jews as perpetrators of violence and thus worthy subjects of violence. He uses a variety of images and descriptions to render Jewish bodies justified targets of violence. Speaking of the local synagogue, Chrysostom laments: “Here the slayers of Christ gather together, here the cross is driven out, here God is blasphemed, here the Father is ignored, here the Son is outraged, here the Spirit is rejected. Does not greater harm come from this place since the Jews themselves are demons?” Notably, these texts accusing Jews of spiritual and physical crimes precede a series of legal disenfranchisement of Jews and violent episodes perpetrated by Christians against Jews in the fourth and fifth centuries, especially the sacking of synagogues in the early 400s in several cities (including Antioch) across the empire.

Rembrandt's Susanna and the Elders. 1647. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt’s Susanna and the Elders. 1647. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

While Drake traces a particular thread of Christian sexual slander in this period, just as important in her analysis is the attention to the disjointedness of this rhetoric. Chrysostom builds on an earlier foundation but introduces new elements as well. The discourse here is not about allegorical versus literal interpretation of texts but about a battle for the landscape of the Christian city, directing his anxiety for the health of the Christian city toward the synagogue as a source of sickness. Not only has Chrysostom intensified the charges against Jews; he has also altered the content of these charges by moving from a disagreement over the value of marriage, or proper hermeneutical methods, to charges that Jewish immorality poses a physical threat to Christian men and women.

One way of understanding the shift in sexual slander against Jews in the fourth century is to pay attention to the changing scope of Christian political power after Constantine, and especially after Theodosius I comes to power in 379 CE. Drake considers carefully the implications of Christian imperial power in the dynamics of sexual slander. “Sexual heresy — however defined at a particular cultural moment — serves as a way to rationalize the domination, disenfranchisement, torture, or obliteration of the heretic.” This statement precisely characterizes the post-Constantinian era of Christian sexual slander against Jews.

At the same time, much of this book deals with an era that precedes such political power, before Christians could physically persecute Jews. Indeed, this book persuasively argues that the Pauline origins of this discourse began as Jewish critique of Gentile porneia, only to flip around completely in later Christian usage. Given the ubiquity of sexual slander from all sides, including both Jews and Christians lobbing the charge against their Greek and Roman overlords, it does not seem that violence necessarily results from such a discursive framework. As Drake rightly notes, this discourse functions to create identity and boundaries, but it does not by itself produce violence.

After all, some of the Christian sexual slander against Jews developed in the second and third centuries, before Christian imperial dominance, when this new religion’s status remained tenuous and its adherents also endured persecution and were themselves subjects of sexual slander. Second and third century Christian anti-Judaism might have its own story to tell, but the theme’s sinister conclusion in the fourth and fifth centuries (and beyond) often proves so weighty in historical studies as to overburden even the earlier period. Drake has contributed to the unraveling of these complex layers, at least in terms of the accusation of sexual deviance, clarifying its development over the centuries. Chrystostom may have sounded like Origen or even like Paul, but their own contexts color significantly the meaning of their words.

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