Marriage as a Social Good: Origen of Alexandria and John Chrysostom, Revisited

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2020

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Abstract

As Elizabeth Clark has shown, early Christian theories of marriage spun around an ‘axiology of ‘difference’’ that employed sexual renunciation as its central axis. In the gap between an idealized marriage of the soul and Christ and the actual marriages of most believers, sexual congress emerged both as a generative metaphor and a key validation of human-human and human-divine marriage. This essay revisits Clark’s famous argument by reconsidering the homilies of two Greek Christian writers: Origen of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. Origen’s imaging of marriage is first presented. He envisioned a future ‘marriage’ between the soul and Christ, seeking release in the dissolution of the bounded self. Marriage operates in his texts as the ideal image of human-divine union. Actual marriage, with the necessarily involvement in conjugal activity, is best avoided so that one’s desire can be lifted beyond the physical to the transcendent love of Christ. His imagery centers on the male ascetic, and women can access this divine union to the degree that they participate in these manly virtues. The essay then turns to John Chrysostom. He also celebrated the celibate dedication to Christ and Christ alone, but he developed a place for marriage in the path of holiness. He thus reaffirmed the good of human marriage as beneficial even as he celebrated the superior self-control of virgins. For Chrysostom, while the ascetic life lifts one beyond specific social and gender concerns, those Christians who live in the world should conform to these concerns. Thus, marriage becomes a way of living out one’s maleness and femaleness in the proper way. The article concludes by reflecting on how neither re-evaluation of marriage’s central meaning overturned the quotidian practices associated with marriage as a legal instrument; marriage legislation was perceived to be a principal duty of emperors and civic assemblies both before and after the advent of Constantine. Chrysostom’s recalibration of the duties of marriage within the newly Christian state preserved this dynamic while also re-emphasizing a strict, gendered dimorphism that disallowed non-marital forms of male-female intimacy.

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Scholars@Duke

Knust

Jennifer Wright Knust

Professor of Religious Studies

Jennifer Knust is a scholar of religion who specializes in early Christian history and the religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Author of To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story(with Tommy Wasserman, Princeton 2018), Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire (HarperONE 2011), and Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (Columbia 2005), she studies early Christian texts, their contexts, and their receptions from multiple angles, with a particular focus on rhetoric and gendered discourse. Her numerous articles, book chapters, and edited books address the materiality of texts, the intersection of Christian practices with other ancient religions, and the ethics of interpretation in ancient as well as contemporary contexts. 


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