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Early Christianity on Sexual Abuse of Children

August 26, 2015

The sexual abuse of children has now become a major and publicly recognized concern (and high time too!).  A recent study by John W. Martens shows that for early Christians, too, it was a major concern, and that this is reflected in what appears to be a distinctive early Christian vocabulary to refer to the practice:  John W. Martens, “‘Do Not Sexually Abuse Children’: The Language of Early Christian Sexual Ethics,” in Children in Late Ancient Christianity, eds. Cornelia B. Horn and Robert R. Phenix (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 227-54.

As Martens notes, there was a whole Greek vocabulary for the practice of having sex with children:  “pederastia” (“child-love”), “pederastes” (“child-lover”), etc.  Indeed, Roman-era poets and others celebrate the practice, and it seems to have been tolerated widely.  It was particularly slave-children who likely suffered the most.  But (and this is Martens’ contribution) in early Christian texts we see what appears to be a rejection of these benign and condoning terms in favour of terms to express forthrightly that the practice is evil and destructive.

In Christian texts from the second century onward, the person who engages in sex with children is called a “paidophthoros” (“child-corrupter/abuser”), and there is the prohibition, “do not corrupt/abuse children” (“me paidophthoreseis“).  Our earliest instances are in Epistle of Barnabas (10:6; 19:4) and Didache (2:2).  These terms seem to have been coined by early Christians to re-label and condemn the practice and those who engage in it:  Not “child-love,” but “child-corruption.”

Another important observation by Martens is that these texts show, not only that early Christians condemned the practice, but also that they recognized the need to avoid it among Christians.  The exhortations in these passages are in texts written primarily for Christians to read, and, along with the other exhortations, were intended to shape Christian behaviour collectively.

It’s fascinating to see how beliefs and stances on behaviour can generate terminology like this.  And it’s one indication of an early stage in the revolution in “sexual logic” generated by early Christianity that is described by Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

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  1. Matthew Hass permalink

    In an effort to contextualize the “strange and disgusting passage” of “rabbinic Judaism” I would like to add that the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud express profound discomfort with the institution of betrothal through intercourse. The Talmud reports that Rav, a third-century Babylonian stage, would flog anyone who contracted marriage in this manner. Dr. Hurtado is correct to emphasize the theoretical nature of the texts in Mishnah Niddah. Quoting passages without an appreciation or understanding of the broader contexts in which they were transmitted and interpreted is a sure path to misunderstanding and harmful stereotyping.

  2. stephenwinters permalink

    It sounds like the current practice of some Christians referring to abortion or termination by the more caustic “baby killing” or murder. Edginess in dealing with victimization of the innocent, apparently, is nothing new.

  3. George Williams permalink

    Is there any good info on the age of Mary at marriage, then conception? Most seem to estimate marriage or even conception around the age of 12 or so, as was local custom.

    • No reliable information. Only general practices. Marriage often ca. 13-15 for females.

  4. Dr. Hurtado, have you considered adding a “share” button for Facebook and/or Twitter to your blog?

  5. Thank you for this. I have thought for some time that ‘paedophilia’ was a misnoma.

  6. elderdxc permalink

    Was there anything similar to this in terms of homosexuality? We keep hearing from apologists that Paul’s words in Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6 weren’t referring to homosexuality, but to cultic sexual behavior or to rape. Your take on this?

    • YOu introduce a whole other topic, and one that requires much more than a blog comment. Anything anyone would say would be challenged by someone! I think, however, a growing number of scholars see Paul as treating same-sex relations negatively, but likely based on the view of his time that sexual behaviour was a matter of choice (Paul likely didn’t know the modern concept of homosexual “orientation”), and so was always indicative of disobedience. In the Roman world, the male who allowed himself to be penetrated (and for the Roman world, sex was all about penetrating or being penetrated) was acting shamefully, but the male who did the penetrating wasn’t.
      In short, it’s probably dodgy to use the Pauline texts simplistically in today’s culture war over homosexuality. On all sides, we need patience, good will, and a readiness to listen and reason with compassion.

  7. Magnus permalink

    Dr Hurtado do you think it is possible that Matthew’s Jesus addresses this in the following?:

    Matthew 18:6 “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

    In regards to rabbinic Judaism some strange and disgusting passages exists in Niddah 5.4-5, which says that betrothment through intercourse is possible with girls as young as three years old.

    Sincerely Magnus

    • Magnus: THe Matthew saying seems to have a double resonance: both applicable to children (as Margaret MacDonald shows, The Power of Children, children were part of the early household-church groups), and also as a metaphor of Jesus’ disciples.
      The rabbinic text does not advocate sex with children, but instead gives a view on the theoretical status of engagement to a girl of young age.

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