Early Christianity and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe

By Abraham Johannes Malherbe | Go to book overview

MEN, WOMEN AND MARITAL CHASTITY
PUBLIC PREACHING AND POPULAR PIETY AT ROME

Hanne Sigismund Nielsen


Introduction1

When he was still a young man, Augustine prayed: “make me chaste, make me continent, but not right now.”2 The story of his earlier life and his eventual conversion is familiar to most readers. Augustine had severe problems overcoming his own sexual impulses, but he finally succeeded and later spent much energy preaching on the subject. A proponent of the ascetic life, he also advocated marital chastity in numerous sermons and other writings devoted to the correct behavior of married couples. Similarly, Jerome gave advice to married couples on how to live according to God’s demands. Both Jerome and Augustine contended that virginity was preferrable to marriage, but they accepted the facts of human life, viz. that most Christians married and had children. In light of this fact, the question is how their ideal of the married life affected Christians of the day. Did they respond positively to the teaching of Augustine and others by showing a new awareness of their moral conduct or did they remain unaffected?

In this article I will argue that Christian married couples certainly did—at least on the normative level—become concerned about their moral conduct, especially in sexual matters. Their salvation depended on it. How we may determine their compliance is, of course, part of our critical inquiry. For, as one often observes, the formal rhetoric of

1 For their many suggestions and substantial help, I wish to thank John Fitzgerald and Michael White; without the insight, generosity, and tireless enthusiasm of the latter, this article would not have been written.

2Conf. 8.7: da mi castitatem el continentiam, sed noli niodo. In the following I have consulted the standard modern translations of the works of Augustine, principally that of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. SchafT (repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956). Other more recent translations will be cited where pertinent. When it seemed necessary, as is often the case with the older translations, I have either brought the translation into agreement with the Latin text or made my own translation. All translations of epitaphs are my own. The Latin found in epitaphs is often not in accordance with Latin literature; therefore, some of my translations are free in order to convey the meaning of the text.

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