The Burden of the Flesh: Fasting and Sexuality in Early Christianity

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The Burden of the Flesh: Fasting and Sexuality in Early Christianity. Teresa M. Shaw. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998. xi + 298 pp. $27.00 (paper).

Teresa Shaw's The Burden of the Flesh is an intricate and scholarly interpretation of the practice of ascetic fasting within the Christian community of the fourth and fifth centuries. The notable contribution of Shaw's research is that it greatly complicates familiar claims that Christian asceticism is merely a wholesale rejection of the body grounded in a simple dualism between body and soul, spirit and flesh. In contrast, Shaw demonstrates that GrecoRoman philosophical ethics and medical theory combine with Christian eschatology to shape a complex intellectual field within which Christians deal with the burden of the flesh and seek to return to the lost angelic condition of paradise precisely through tightly prescribed and carefully observed manipulations of the body. Far from being completely rejected, the body becomes a necessary tool by which to effect transformations of the soul, and the physiological changes that accompany ascetic fasting become signs of eschatological hope and the recovery of original perfection.

Eschatologically, eating and sexual activity are both signs of mortality, reminders of the penalties of the Fall. Both are tainted by desire and the passions. Both are associated with labor (production of food, child-rearing) and with pain (economic competition, childbirth). Thus eating and sexual activity are primary arenas for ascetic training, and their renunciation becomes the starting point of the reorientation toward paradise (p. 182). And certainly Shaw does not minimize the dualistic aspects of early theologies which claim that original and future perfection consist in a pre-corporeal existence or in the possession of a body untainted by desire, feeding freely of the spontaneous fruits of the garden and without need for sex to procreate. Yet in early Christian ascetic practice, medical and physiological models and techniques blend with such theological speculation to form a coherent religious lifestyle which might be summarized as management of desire by diet (p. …