Early Christianity on Sexual Abuse of Children
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).