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Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community

Publisher: Oxford University Press 2010 | 328 Pages | ISBN: 0199736480

In Hermeneutics of Holiness, Naomi Koltun-Fromm examines the ancient nexus of holiness and sexuality and explores its roots in the biblical texts as well as its manifestations throughout ancient and late-ancient Judaism and early Syriac Christianity. In the process, she tells the story of how the biblical notions of “holy person” and “holy community” came to be defined by the sexual and marriage practices of various interpretive communities in late antiquity.

Koltun-Fromm seeks to explain why sexuality, especially sexual restraint, became a primary demarcation of sacred community boundaries among Jews and Christians in fourth-century Persian-Mesopotamia. She charts three primary manifestations of holiness: holiness ascribed, holiness achieved, and holiness acquired through ritual purity. Hermeneutics of Holiness traces the development of these three concepts, from their origin in the biblical texts to the Second Temple literature (both Jewish and Christian) to the Syriac Christian and rabbinic literature of the fourth century. In so doing, this book establishes the importance of biblical interpretation for late ancient Jewish and Christian practices, the centrality of holiness as a category for self-definition, and the relationship of fourth-century asceticism to biblical texts and interpretive history.

In mid-fourth-century Persian Mesopotamia, a Syriac Christian named Aphrahat writes the following: I write you my beloved concerning virginity and holiness [qaddishuta] because I have heard from a Jewish man that insulted one of the brothers, members of our congregation, by saying to him: You are impure [am’in] you who do not marry women; but we are holy [qaddishin] and better, [we] who procreate and increase progeny in the world.

With this short notice, Aphrahat underscores a major polemical confrontation of his time: the debate over “holiness” and its relationship to sexual practices. Is holiness attained by a life of marriage and procreation (as the Jews in this text maintain) or, instead, by its opposite—a life of sexual asceticism and abstinence (as Aphrahat claims)? These are two very distant worlds, yet both assert holiness. Who is right? How is human holiness manifested on earth? The answer is important because the holy are those who will live forever in God’s midst, a position for which both Jews and Christians vied. Yet, the quest of the present book is not, of course, to pinpoint an answer to this age-old question of holiness, one that will continue to follow us into the distant future. Instead the book’s goal is to reveal this ancient nexus of holiness and sexuality and to explore its roots in the biblical texts, as well as its manifestations throughout ancient and late-ancient Judaism and early Syriac Christianity.

In particular the book examines the biblical exegetical underpinnings of Aphrahat’s hermeneutic of holiness (which explicitly links holiness with celibacy, but does not relegate marriage to impurity) and places it within his fourth-century Aramaic milieu by way of comparison to the rabbinic culture that fl ourished simultaneously in the same Persian-Mesopotamian context, as well as to the post-biblical literature that preceded them both.

Interestingly, Aphrahat and the early Rabbis understand the nature of holiness in a similar way and both build their hermeneutics of holiness and sexuality on related exegetical traditions and interpretive methods. Yet the two groups arrive at very different practical conclusions for how holiness itself should be achieved. I contend that the polemic discourse of these two groups is but a manifestation of these developing communities’ essential need for self-defi nition, both internally and against the other, as well as in relationship to God. In the end, Aphrahat’s links between virginity, celibacy, and biblically inspired holiness become his hermeneutic of holiness—it is how he rationalizes and physically demonstrates his elevated relationship to God (and hence salvation) in distinctly physical human terms. Although posited here in opposition to Jewish constructs of holiness and their resultant practices, it resonates deeply within early rabbinic thought as well. Sexual asceticism, the direct result of Aphrahat’s interpretive move, manifests itself as sexual restraint, if not full abstinence, among certain layers of rabbinic tradition. Moreover, these practices embody or further demonstrate a practitioner’s more intense relationship to God, for both Aphrahat and the Rabbis.

This book suggests that sexual practices among Jews and Christians, particularly ascetic sexual practices, are rooted in the history of biblical exegesis and tradition as much as in any other late-ancient phenomena. Moreover, the book posits that holiness as sexual practice helped these groups demarcate borders between communities. Hence, this book establishes the importance of biblical interpretation for late-ancient Jewish and Christian practices, the centrality of holiness as a category for self-defi nition, and fourth-century asceticism’s relationship to biblical texts and interpretive history. In order to understand the process of biblical interpretation and the study laid out here, it is necessary to defi ne several key terms and issues, as follows.


While I admit to having chosen hermeneutics in part because of its appealing alliterative effects alongside holiness in the book’s title and, in so doing, to slightly stretching the term’s usual semantic range, my deeper logic for selecting the term follows. “Hermeneutics” is usually understood to be the study of the methodologies used in biblical exegesis and interpretation. I use it here more as a lens through which to view the variety of understandings of holiness itself. Phyllis Trible explains, in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, that her “topical clue” is “the image of God” and that her “hermeneutical clue” is “feminism as a critique of culture.” In a similar vein, I would like to claim for my subjects that their topic is holiness, and their “hermeneutic” is sexuality. That is, I, as a scholar, am interested here in those biblical texts (and the biblical exegesis built upon them) in which holiness is described as somehow connected to human sexuality. Hence, when I write of different “hermeneutics” of holiness, I am thinking of the different ways in which my subjects have constructed their notions of holiness, how these notions both exist in and are linked exegetically to the biblical texts, and how these notions manifest themselves in sexual practices.


Biblical scholars and academic theorists of religion have attempted to define holiness with varying results. In the early twentieth century, Rudolf Otto, perhaps reacting to social-scientifi c constructions of religion as human creations, focused on the intangible yet ineffable nature of the holy and therefore defi ned holiness as the numinous and awesome part of God that no human could possibly understand or achieve, for it belongs solely to God and is in fact what differentiates the divine from the mundane. It is the element of God that most attracts humans, but it is also the reason they cannot know God fully. Moreover, for Otto, it has no physical manifestation and it was shared with only one human in history, Jesus. It is through Jesus that true Christians will become holy ones of God in the next world. But this world retains no physical manifestations of the holy. Building on Otto, but acknowledging certain positions in the scientifi c study of religion; Mircea Eliade perceived God’s holiness in the world around him and in the humans that populate that world. Humans and the divine work together to create and maintain holiness in this world. Places can be holy (as portals to the divine), objects can be imbued with holiness, and people who pursue God can become holy as well. Holiness for Eliade is not just an otherworldly substance that remains elusive to most humans, but is a tangible characteristic of this world. It is God’s gift to the world, but it requires constant maintenance by humans. Thus, Eliade and Otto each focused on different elements of holiness as they see it manifested in the world, yet its ultimate source remains God or the divine, however understood. The holy, as a manifestation of God, is transcendent for Eliade and Otto. It cannot be in and of itself a human construct.

Note that I will use the English terms holy and sacred interchangeably, as they both equally translate the Hebrew root ק ד ש (QDS), which is the focus ofthis study. Yet I acknowledge that the terms have been distinguished from each other. According to Williard G. Oxtoby, holy in general refers to God and the things that God consecrates, while sacred is used to describe special or venerated objects. Our bible, for instance, is “holy” while other cultures have “sacred” literature. The key is in the source of the “holiness.” That which humans revere as holy is only sacred, unless also consecrated by God. This differentiation between “God-made” and “human-made” holiness proves useful to my discussion, for both types appear within the biblical constructs. While holiness clearly is fundamentally a divine characteristic, other things, places, and people come to be holy (i.e., to participate in the divine) as well. So, for instance, God is holy and therefore can consecrate things to himself: land, sanctuary, or priests. But humans, too, can consecrate items to God (sacrifi ces, offerings) and sometimes even themselves (the case of the nazir is interesting here, as it is a temporary holiness). So while acknowledging the difference between the divine (holy) and the human (profane), the biblical worldview allows for an in-between space in which humans can participate in that divinity either by appointment (e.g., the priest) or by ritualized action (e.g., the nazir ). This book is an exploration of how Jews and Christians reconstructed that in-between space in their own time and place in the fi rst centuries of the Common Era. While I may describe one group’s holiness as “ascribed” (i.e., given at birth) and another as “achieved” (i.e., acquired through ritualized behavior), my subjects most likely saw them as manifestations of the same thing: holiness.

Holiness, then, for late-ancient Jews and Christians, is, on the one hand, the most valued attribute of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet, on the other hand, sharing in that divine attribute marks a person or community as belonging to God and, hence, as being elevated above other human beings. Moreover, this special relationship with God in this world positions one for privileged placement in the next: salvation. Holiness is a manifestation of power—whether physically in this world or existentially in the next. According to the biblical text, God chose Israel from among all the nations to be that special people—the holy nation of God. In so doing God promised to protect Israel from its enemies. But who in the fi rst, second, third, or fourth century CE could claim exclusive lineage from Ancient and Holy Israel, and therefore be that community with sole access to divine protection? Furthermore, how did they prove it? From the beginnings of the Second Judean Commonwealth, various groups competed for that very title. Second Commonwealth Jews, as well as Jews and Christians in the early centuries of the Common Era, developed their respective communal religious identities out of a shared notion of exclusive access to God. If one community had divine access, the other surely could not.

But how could one tell who was holy in this world and hence saved in the next? Retaining or gaining that title, as a community, remained of paramount importance to fourth-century Christians and Jews as it did for their ancestors. In these centuries, the groups who eventually became “Christian” and “Jewish” struggled to separate themselves from each other. Holiness loomed as a fulcrum of difference at the center of these struggles. The community that could prove its exclusive claim to holiness prevailed.

Holiness, Sexuality, and Purity

As we have seen, Aphrahat achieves his holiness through his sexual practices, calling his practice of sexual renunciation “holiness” in his native Syriac (qaddishuta). Aphrahat also uses Scripture to forge the link between holiness and sexual practices; yet he is not the fi rst to do so. Even before the Hebrew biblical canon could be constructed as “secured,” biblical exegetes mined its narratives, poetry, prophecies, and law codes for usable prooftexts of holiness.

They too often discovered, uncovered, or created a connection between specific sexual practices and individual or community holiness. Here unfolds, then, a history of holiness—specifi cally of holy people (not places or things), that proves to be dependent on human sexuality—from its biblical beginnings. Aphrahat’s hermeneutic of holiness and sexual practices, as well as the chronologically and geographically parallel rabbinic traditions on holiness and sexual practices, are case studies of this long and complex development.

The quotation at the opening of this chapter shows that, for Aphrahat, holiness is linked to celibacy through some notion of purity; in other words, for him, chastity, purity, and holiness fall under a single religious rubric. Yet, while it is impossible to discuss holiness without reference to purity, they are not one and the same. In the biblical context, one pursues purity in order to protect or achieve holiness. But purity can be procured without any attainment of holiness. Holiness ultimately comes from God. It is God’s to give or take away, and therefore it remains on another level, above and beyond purity. The deserving person or community will be granted holiness at God’s will. The pure person has potential but has not yet won the key to the prize. Ambiguities and inconsistencies in the biblical texts leave the holy pursuer at a loss as how ultimately to gain that key. Different hermeneutics of holiness, even within the biblical texts, offer different answers.

In recent years, notions of purity and impurity have been discussed at length by scholars such as Jonathan Klawans (Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism) and Christine Hayes (Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities.) Like Klawans and Hayes, I trace an intellectual and exegetical history of a biblical concept. While they focus on purity and impurity, I focus on holiness. Nevertheless I am beholden to both authors for their insights and categorizations, for an understanding of biblical and post-biblical purity constructs is essential for comprehending paradigms of holiness. Purity exists for the sake of holiness. How one understands the dynamic between the two is a key to one’s construct of holiness. Klawans argues that the biblical texts present two competing notions of purity (one “ritual” and one “moral”). I argue that the biblical texts also present several paradigms of holiness, which are in part dependent on these two different systems of purity. What is of interest to me is not so much when and where the two categories of purity cross paths (this is Klawans’s study) but when and where the paradigms of holiness intersect with the various systems of purity. For when there is confusion between the categories of purity and holiness, sexuality is often present and even the agent of that confusion.

Sexuality becomes the fulcrum for many of the prevailing post-biblical hermeneutics of holiness because of sexuality’s presence in various forms in the biblical systems of purity defined by Klawans. Semen, for instance, is a physical pollutant that must be removed in order to achieve “ritual” purity so as to protect the holy presence of God (e.g., Lev. 15). Removing an impurity renders one pure, for God’s protection, but does not change one’s status vis-à-vis the holy.

Forbidden sexual practices, such as bestiality, sleeping with a menstruant, and incest all fall into the category of “moral” impurity that opposes holiness (e.g.,Lev. 18, 20). Avoiding the latter practices renders one “morally” pure, which then allows one to enter the holy community. Hence, pure behavior here does have something to do with the possibility of advancing to a holy status. But later texts (e.g., Jubilees) instruct the Israelites to behave purely in order to protect an ascribed holiness in the people, not just in God. Hence, purity here also protects an innate holiness. Thus, the differences between purity as a protective fence around God’s holiness and purity as a protection around Israel’s holiness begin to collapse. Furthermore, when a purity practice (e.g., avoiding incest or bathing after the voiding of a “ritual” impurity such as semen) becomes a means to achieving holiness in and of itself, a new hermeneutic of holiness and sexuality emerges. Hence, Aphrahat’s choice of celibacy ( chapters 5 and 6 ), and the Rabbis’ suggestions of ethnic endogamy, on the one hand, and sexual restraint, on the other ( chapter 7 ) fall within a several-centuries-long continuum of exegetical discourse on proper marriage partners, sexuality, purity, and holiness. This book traces that discourse from the biblical texts through the Second Temple literature and early Christian writings into the Jewish (rabbinic) and Christian (Syriac) exegetical writings of the fourth century.

Within these texts and traditions I highlight two prominent paradigms. In the fi rst, the holiness of Israel is assumed (that is, God ascribes holiness to them) and hence their sexual practices protect their innate holiness. In this case, in order to maintain one’s God-given holiness, one must limit one’s marriage partners to other members of one’s holy community (endogamy). In the second, achieved holiness is the goal. That is, whether or not one might be of an ascribed holy community, the community also maintains that there are means or methods to improve on, elevate, or change one’s holy status. One often achieves or gains this holiness through sexual restraint. The notion that the ability to stand in God’s presence, to participate somehow in divine holiness, requires some sort of sexual restraint pervades the achieved-holiness construct. In contrast, for the person whose holiness is ascribed—gained at birth—endogamy proves to be the best protection.

As Martha Himmelfarb has argued, the biblical phrase “a kingdom of priests” expresses an important tension that is central to understanding ancient Judaism. This phrase refers to the notion that Israel, the nation, is or becomes holy through God’s choosing of it at Sinai, in imitation of God’s “choosing” the priests from among Israel to be God’s holy servants. The tensions Himmelfarb describes between priests by birth and those who win priesthood by merit map outwards to all of Israel (whether “Jewish” or “Christian”), when Israel considers itself to be holy as a “kingdom of priests.” Are they holy by birth or did they do something to deserve to be called holy? While Himmelfarb focuses on the priesthood, the present study moves toward an exploration of the fi gure of Moses, for at Sinai he manifests himself as the leader of this newly chosen “kingdom of priests.” But the question often raised about him by later authors is: why was he chosen from among Israel, if he himself was not a priest? Moses—the prophet of God, the leader of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, and the one biblical character allowed to speak “mouth to mouth” with God— arises as the exemplary holy man because of his sexual choices (in his case giving up his married life). And it is here that we see an enduring fusion or cross breeding between notions of holiness—both ascribed (given to Moses by God) and achieved (attained by Moses through his sexual choices). We also see a fusion here between holiness and purity. At Sinai, God instructs Moses to direct the people to prepare themselves for Revelation. They must purify themselves by washing their clothing and abstaining from sexual contact for three days. An exegetical tradition as old as Philo, if not older, suggests that if the Israelites had to be celibate for three days, Moses, who was constantly in God’s presence must have had to give up his conjugal life for his leadership role.

Moses rises as both unique in his role and as a model to follow. For the Rabbis, he is Moses our teacher (Moshe Rabbeinu), the model rabbi who passes on rabbinic lore and law to his faithful disciples and spiritual descendants, the Rabbis, who represent and lead the descendants of holy Israel, the Jews. For Aphrahat, Moses is the quintessential mystic—the one human being who achieves the ultimate mystical goal: communion (or even union) with the divine. Moreover, Moses’ achievements can be emulated by his followers, the ihidaye (single-minded ones), by copying his behavior at Sinai. The celibate Moses on Sinai, a tradition upheld by both the Rabbis and Aphrahat, suggests a culminating fusion of the various paradigms discussed in this book: singular devotion to God, sexual purity, and holiness. Finally, Aphrahat’s laudatory praise of Moses places Aphrahat more solidly in his Aramaic milieu and differentiates him from his Greek and Latin counterparts.

Holiness and Ethics

Scholars who discuss “moral” impurity (even as a separate category from “ritual” impurity) often describe it as an impurity created by sin. Thus, one can talk about the “defiling nature of sin.” But what happens to this person so defi led? If he were already holy, does he lose his status? If one manages to avoid all the sins enumerated, can he become holy? If so, does this mean that anyone can become holy? This line of thinking often leads to a seemingly related conclusion: if sin (general or specific) is equated with “moral” impurity and “moral” impurity stands in opposition to holiness, is the holy one sinless?

That is, if one can be sinless, is one necessarily holy? Moreover, while one can certainly argue that the levitical holiness code is in part an ethical code, it is more difficult to determine whether all biblical hermeneutics of holiness contain the same or any ethical component. The post-biblical discussions of holiness are equally opaque and difficult to understand on exclusively ethical grounds. If one begins with the premise that an Israelite is inherently holy (as many of the post-biblical texts do), how can she lose her status through sin? Or, from another angle, do all sins tarnish holiness, or just grievous sins?

Furthermore, to suggest an exclusively ethical or moral understanding of holiness is equally misleading. At times it can be claimed that holiness is linked to “good behavior,” but at others it is not. I have chosen to avoid such terms as “sin” and “moral” in order not to be tied to a notion of holiness as strictly (or even remotely related to) an ethical code of behavior. Moreover, the authors examined here do not necessarily link their ideas of holiness to ethical or moral behavior and I do not wish to do so for them. For the authors and exegetes of this study, holiness remains an indescribable, yet quintessentially valuable attribute of God, an embodiment of divine power. The focus of this book is not the ethical implications of holiness but, rather, its sexual implications. That is, how sexual practices, when mapped onto notions of holiness, become markers of community identity.

Holiness and Asceticism

Even within the biblical texts, I argue, it is possible to foresee the tendency to link holiness with sexuality that develops among certain groups in the post-biblical period. I contend that for these exegetes who pick up on this particular hermeneutic, they also integrate it into the foundations of their ascetic practices.

Elizabeth Clark, in her book Reading Renunciation, argues that certain Western Church fathers read their already established ascetic practices back into the biblical texts, rather than exegeting it out of the text. She argues that they were compelled to read asceticism back into the biblical texts in order both to further support their practices and to reclaim the rather procreative-oriented Hebrew Scriptures as truly Christian and hence ascetic. 19 Yet Clark concedes, in contrast to the flow of much modern scholarship on Christian asceticism, that asceticism was not imported from the outside culture, such as Hellenism, nor was it motivated by politics or social pressures.  Rather, she understands Christian asceticism as a phenomenon or tendency already present in the New Testament writings. The very first generations of Christians read and understood their developing Christian canon in various ways. Some chose to understand Paul, for instance, in a more ascetical way than others. These Christians then composed their own ascetically inclined tracts, such as the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles , which present Christianity as a sexually renunciative religion. Others, such as the authors of the Pastoral Epistles, promote an anti-ascetic practice.

Yet both groups claim dependence on Paul, and thus if we can argue that Paul pushes the envelope toward or around ascetic practice, can we ask what motivates Paul? I would like to suggest that some element of Paul’s “ascetic” roots (that is, not whether he was or wasn’t ascetic, but that others perceived him to be) can be linked to the constructs of holiness that evolve out of the Hebrew biblical and post-biblical literature. Like Clark I do not wish to impose an outside motivation toward asceticism on my subjects, yet in contrast to Clark, I wish to uncover, if possible, an internal motivation—one based on their reading and interpretation of Hebrew Scripture. Thus, while I also agree with Clark that the late ancient Christian theologians attempted to “asceticize” the more procreative elements of the Hebrew Scriptures, I argue that a native ascetic tendency also existed within these texts side by side with the more pronounced procreative elements. This element was particularly wrapped up within ancient biblical notions of holiness, a tendency that was picked up most avidly among the Aramaic-speaking (and reading) Christians. I wish to emphasize here that asceticism did not appear on the scene as something new in the fourth century but has deep roots in the biblical texts and particularly in the early interpretive history of some of those texts.

In Aphrahat’s case, then, one could similarly suggest that Aphrahat “read renunciation” back into his biblical texts. Yet, I would argue that his theology of asceticism is more strongly linked to an exegesis of text, particularly of holiness, rather than a retroactive eisegesis as Clark posits for her Church fathers (Origen, Jerome, and Chrysostom). I further claim, in part, that this is due to Aphrahat’s Aramaic (non-Greco-Roman) background. I attempt to show here that the ascetic practices of Syriac Christians are inherently tied to their hermeneutics of holiness—that is, to their exegetical and scriptural reading strategies.

In other words, without arguing for or against “outside infl uences,” I suggest that Syriac Christian asceticism can, in part, be traced back to very early exegetical expansions on notions of holiness and community derived from a reconfi guration of the various biblical hermeneutics of holiness that worked best in an Aramaic linguistic context. Moreover, Moses plays a primary role in these exegetes’ ascetical imaginations. Following a different line of argument, Kathy Gaca points to the primacy of the Septuagint in earlier Greek ascetical writings. Namely, she suggests that Greek Christian ascetic practices can be tied directly to their septuagintal readings. Gaca, arguing against what she calls the “continuity thesis,” in which she counters Foucault among others, claims that Paul, Philo, Clement, and Tatian’s ascetic tendencies are essentially more dependent on the Septuagint than on any other Greek or Hellenistic philosophical writings. Likewise, social historians miscalculate the possible rationales for Christian asceticism when they underestimate their philosophical and biblical theoretical underpinnings. Nonetheless, Gaca leaves plenty of room for cross-fertilization and philosophical enhancement from the various Hellenistic philosophies she examines in parallel to her Church fathers. While I strongly disagree with many of Gaca’s specific readings of the Septuagint and the way it was interpreted in the Greco-Roman milieu, I support her argument that the Hebrew Scriptures, in whatever version or translation, played an important if not primary role in many Church authors’ formative ascetical theologies. The Syriac Christian trajectory is but one very strong example.

In the end, Gaca argues that Paul and Philo are not moral philosophers under the infl uences of the Stoics and Pythagoreans but, rather, function as acculturated Greeks, for they read their Bible in Greek and this is what infl uences them most.

It is the particular nuances of the Greek biblical text that most directly affect their particular sexual politics. Gaca focuses on the commandment against adultery and its placement among the Ten Commandments as primary support for the ascetic tendencies of Paul and Philo. In contrast, for Paul at least, I argue that it is Paul’s understanding of holiness, as inherited from his Second Temple Jewish background, that most infl uences his thinking on sexuality. Finally, it also seems fair to argue that it is Paul’s hermeneutic of holiness, in Aramaic garb, that also proves foundational to Syriac Christian ascetic practice.

While most authors who study Christian asceticism focus on its manifestations in the Greco-Roman world, I focus on Syriac Christianity because of its Mesopotamian-Aramaic milieu. Syriac Christianity develops an ascetic practice and theology essentially different from its Greco-Roman counterparts in that sexual renunciation appears as fundamental to Syriac Christian belief (at least in its earliest forms as embodied in the Acts of Judah Thomas, for example) and is founded on an enduring image of the oneness of the believer’s dedication to God. These two concepts are interrelated in Syriac Christianity: it is because of the theology of oneness that sexual renunciation becomes fundamental. So,while the existence of asceticism, and particularly the practice of sexual asceticism in Syriac Christianity, does not differ greatly from other Christianities— sexual renunciation can be found in most forms of early Christianity—its centrality and theological underpinnings in Syriac Christianity set it apart.

The Syrian Orient was most likely evangelized by Aramaic-speaking Christians probably not before the late second century. No matter from where these missionaries originated, they most likely propagated an already ascetic Christianity (again as the Acts of Judah Thomas seems to testify, for Judah came from some place else to India). Nevertheless, asceticism is soon incorporated into the very core of Syriac Christian belief and practice. While early scholars such as Arthur Vööbus and Robert Murray argued that celibacy was a requirement for membership in the early Syriac Church almost from the beginning, this argument has been modifi ed by others such as Sidney Griffith. Nonetheless celibacy certainly was a highly valued Christian practice.

Peter Brown suggests that there must have been something specific to the Syrian East that differentiated it from the Greco-Roman world that allowed this sort of asceticism to fl ourish during the second and third centuries, for the East was not only home to the Syriac churches, but also other ascetic groups such as Manichaeans and Marcionites. Brown surmises that the lack of large Greco-Roman cities in the Syrian hinterland, the harsh life there, no anti-Christian persecutions (in the early centuries at least), and the larger and more prosperous Jewish communities all added up to create a culture receptive to asceticism.

Yet the lack of Greco-Roman culture, particularly its sense of moderation in all parts of life, and other cultural landmarks, can only be part of the answer.

Early Christianity did not land in a vacuous countryside, but into a thriving civilization with a distinctive, Aramaic culture of its own. The cities may not have been distinctly Greco-Roman, but they were vibrant in their own multicultural landscape. The Jewish communities thrived and suffered as the other communities did along with the economic fortunes of the Persian Empire. Certainly the culture of the East (or perhaps Christian reaction to the cultures of the East) fostered the growth of an ascetic Christianity, but it is equally possible that the ascetic tendencies of Christianity were already in place when the fi rst missionaries arrived in the Syrian Orient. I suggest that those tendencies grew out of native Aramaic exegesis on a shared biblical text, as well as a dependency on an already asceticized Paul, and continued to flourish in the Aramaic cultural submilieu of Persian Mesopotamia. In other words, I posit a native Hebrew biblical ascetic tendency, found within its various hermeneutics of holiness, that is expanded upon and developed first by Jewish readers of Scripture and then by Christian readers, especially Paul. Moreover, these hermeneutical trajectories manifest themselves strongly within the Hebrew and Aramaic Jewish and Aramaic Christian writings of the third and fourth centuries.

Finally, the early Christians, particularly the Aramaic/Syriac speaking ones, were not the only biblical exegetes to connect holiness, sexuality, and asceticism. The early Rabbis, or some segment of that grouping, equally imagined the importance of that three-way equation. Not just that holiness and some sort of sexual practice go hand in hand, but more specifi cally that some restriction on sexual practices is innate to holy living or holy acquisition. Steven Fraade was the fi rst to suggest that the Rabbis (and their predecessors among Second Commonwealth Jews) possessed and developed their own native asceticism. Following on the pioneering scholarship of Steven Fraade, Eliezer Diamond, in his work, Holy Men and Hunger Artists, further establishes rabbinic ascetic patterns, based innotions of perishut and nazirut, especially in the area of food and fasting. While his argumentation does not link these practices strictly or exclusively to a hermeneutic of holiness, he establishes that the early Rabbis were no strangers to asceticism. Building on Diamond’s framework, I show that the Rabbis were not strangers to sexual asceticism, either. Moreover, their sexually restrained practices often descend from their hermeneutics of holiness and compare in striking ways to Aphrahat’s hermeneutics of holiness and sexuality—both of which are firmly grounded in Scripture and revolve around the image of Moses.

In short, Syriac Christian asceticism, as manifested in Aphrahat, and early rabbinic asceticism share an Aramaic biblical tradition and cultural milieu that bring their scriptural exercises closer together while differentiating them both from the biblical interpretive practices and cultural infl uences of the Greco-Roman West.

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  1. August 8, 2013 at 1:53 am

    Very nice write-up. I definitely appreciate this site.
    Stick with it!

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