Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire

Ideology, the Bible, and the Early Christians

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David Wheeler-Reed
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , November
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire, David Wheeler-Reed takes on the ambitious project of mapping the various ideologies of marriage and sexuality in the Roman Empire, Judaism, the New Testament, and early Christianity, in an effort to understand the relationship these ideologies have to contemporary “Judeo-Christian” family values. His main argument is that “Christian groups that want to (re)establish so-called Judeo-Christian values in this country…have codified the imperial discourse of Augustus, with its emphasis on marriage and procreation, instead of early Christian ideology…which emphasized singleness” (xx). Relying on Foucauldian ideas about the relationship between discourse and power (e.g., xiv-xv), coupled with Deleuzian “map-making” (104), Wheeler-Reed eschews totalizing history (105) in favor of “a study of ideologies” (xi). He writes in an easy, readable­­, perhaps even conversational style unsual for monographs so heavily steeped in critical theory. Most impressive, however, is Wheeler-Reed’s command of an immense amount of ancient material spanning from Achilles Tatius to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Paul to John Cassian, and Philo to Jovinian.

Wheeler-Reed first focuses on Roman marriage ideologies, centering his analysis on Emperor Augustus’s marriage legislation, which afforded civic and economic advantages to Roman men and women who married and produced a requisite number of legitimate children (4-14). Other Roman-era texts, such as the medical writings of Galen and the novel Leucippe and Clitophon, offer variations on Augustan morals. For example, Wheeler-Reed shows how Galen was ambivalent towards childbearing “even though it’s necessary for the survival of the species” (26), and that texts like Leucippe and Clitophon celebrate pleasure, and not just procreation, as “fortify[ing] Augustus’s reforms” (36). Next, Wheeler-Reed turns to Second Temple Jewish texts and argues that “there’s very little…that would not please Augustus and fit nicely with his legislation and agenda” (61). Nevertheless, he notes that some Jews, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls community, preferred celibacy to procreation (51-54).

The chapters on the New Testament and early Christianity form something of a piece, with Wheeler-Reed arguing that “two ideologies concerning marriage and sex pervade the New Testament writings…‘profamily’ and ‘antifamily’” (63). The antifamily ideology, primarily in Paul, promotes singleness and celibacy (65-73), whereas, Ephesians and Colossians contain a profamily ideology where “there’s a blanket assumption” that Christians marry and procreate (77). This “battle” between the two ideologies continues into the patristic period “until sexual renunciation becomes the norm by 300 CE,”with Jovinian’s excommunication in 393 determining the antifamily ideology Christianity’s “de facto winner” (84-85, 99).

Wheeler-Reed magnifies the nuanced variations between different ideologies of marriage among Roman, Jewish, and early Christian texts, and he might have brought more of that kind of analysis to his last chapter on modern discourses of marriage. Just as ancient texts display a vast array of subtle differences, so too do contemporary defenses of “Judeo-Christian” traditional marriage. For example, one particular version of the conservative argument from the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges displays a level of sophistication different from other examples in the chapter. In his analysis of the oral arguments in Obergefell, Wheeler-Reed writes that the conservative attorney “assumes, as do many others, that the default position when it comes to marriage is that it’s a union between a man and a woman, that its basic purpose is procreation, and that almost every society on earth has thought this since the beginning of time” (117, emphasis added).

Although I take the point that the assumption of the unchangeability of ideologies of marriage is wildly problematic, I disagree when Wheeler-Reed characterizes “the default” conservative position as believing marriage to be the cause of procreation. In fact, as Chief Justice Roberts explains in his Obergefell dissent, some conservatives view marriage not as a cause of procreation, but as its effect: “Procreation occurs through sexual relations between a man and a woman. When sexual relations result in the conception of a child, the child’s prospects are generally better if the mother and father stay together rather than going their separate ways. Therefore, for the good of children and society, sexual relations that can lead to procreation should occur only between a man and a woman committed to a lasting bond. Society has recognized that bond as marriage” (Obergefell dissent, 5). It is not the case that the Chief argues that marriage’s “basic purpose is procreation.” Rather, it is because men and women procreate that they should marry. For Roberts, the purpose of marriage is not procreation. Procreation is what necessitates marriage.

Perhaps Wheeler-Reed’s most insightful observation is that proponents of “Judeo-Christian” marriage “seek to present their highly constructed argument as ‘natural’ interpretations, obvious to all ‘rational’ people” (105). Some of these arguments, such as that of Chief Justice Roberts, are more insidious than others. Essentially, if marriage is an effect, rather than a cause of procreation, heterosexual marriage appears far more “natural” because modern Americans assume procreation is natural. It is precisely here that Wheeler-Reed’s excellent analysis of the ancient material is most helpful, since no ancient source, whether Roman, Jewish, or Christian, assumes that procreation is inevitable. In fact, Augustus’s marriage legislation was enacted precisely to encourage procreation (4-14). Christianity, as Wheeler-Reed demonstrates, preferred to embrace celibacy as the natural and ideal state of humanity (100-101), and––usually only grudgingly––allowed marriage in cases where celibacy was unachievable (e.g., 91).

What Wheeler-Reed shows us is that one principal difference between ancient and modern understandings of marriage is this: In the ancient world, one marries in order to procreate, whereas, in the modern world, one marries because one procreates. This shift in assumptions between then and now further proves Wheeler-Reed’s larger point in the book, namely, that the relationship between history and today is neither one of complete rupture nor simple repetition. Rather, the weight of history impinges on our contemporary moment, as we simultaneously innovate seemingly unchanging and unchangeable concepts. As a result, no modern ideology can truly lay claim to an unproblematic connection to the past, no matter how hard we might wish for one.

About the Reviewer(s): 

M Adryael Tong is a doctoral candidate in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity in the Theology Department at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Wheeler-Reed is a postdoctoral visiting research fellow at Yale Divinity School and an instructor in religious studies at Albertus Magnus College. His work focuses on the New Testament, the ancient family, and gender and sexuality in antiquity.


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