Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community

Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community

Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community

Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community

Synopsis

In Hermeneutics of Holiness, Naomi Koltun-Fromm examines the ancient nexus of holiness and sexuality and explores its roots in the biblical texts as well as its manifestations throughout ancient and late-ancient Judaism and early Syriac Christianity. In the process, she tells the story of how the biblical notions of "holy person" and "holy community" came to be defined by the sexual and marriage practices of various interpretive communities in late antiquity.

Koltun-Fromm seeks to explain why sexuality, especially sexual restraint, became a primary demarcation of sacred community boundaries among Jews and Christians in fourth-century Persian-Mesopotamia. She charts three primary manifestations of holiness: holiness ascribed, holiness achieved, and holiness acquired through ritual purity.Hermeneutics of Holinesstraces the development of these three concepts, from their origin in the biblical texts to the Second Temple literature (both Jewish and Christian) to the Syriac Christian and rabbinic literature of the fourth century. In so doing, this book establishes the importance of biblical interpretation for late ancient Jewish and Christian practices, the centrality of holiness as a category for self-definition, and the relationship of fourth-century asceticism to biblical texts and interpretive history.

Excerpt

In mid-fourth-century Persian Mesopotamia, a Syriac Christian named Aphrahat writes the following:

I write you my beloved concerning virginity and holiness [qaddishuta] because I have heard from a Jewish man that insulted one of the brothers, members of our congregation, by saying to him: You are impure [ṭam’in] you who do not marry women; but we are holy [qaddishin] and better, [we] who procreate and increase progeny in the world.

With this short notice, Aphrahat underscores a major polemical confrontation of his time: the debate over “holiness” and its relationship to sexual practices. Is holiness attained by a life of marriage and procreation (as the Jews in this text maintain) or, instead, by its opposite—a life of sexual asceticism and abstinence (as Aphrahat claims)? These are two very distant worlds, yet both assert holiness. Who is right? How is human holiness manifested on earth? The answer is important because the holy are those who will live forever in God’s midst, a position for which both Jews and Christians vied. Yet, the quest of the present book is not, of course, to pinpoint an answer to this age-old question of holiness, one that will continue to follow us into the distant future. Instead the book’s goal is to reveal this ancient nexus of holiness and sexuality and to explore its roots in the biblical texts, as well as its manifestations throughout ancient and late-ancient Judaism and early Syriac Christianity. In particular the . . .

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