The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity

By Frilingos, Chris | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity


Frilingos, Chris, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity, by Kathy L. Gaca. Hellenistic Culture and Society 40. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. xviii + 360. $60.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0520235991.

Twenty years after his death, there remain many different Foucaults, and this, one suspects, is how the late Michel Foucault would have wanted it (maybe each of us gets the Foucault we deserve?). The Foucault whose work inspired the title of Averil Cameron's lucid review essay-"Redrawing the Map: Early Christian Territory after Foucault" (JRS 76 [1986]: 266-71)-is the author of the The History of Sexuality, specifically vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure, and vol. 3, The Care of Self, Even so, the relevant figure may be less the Foucault of these volumes than the Foucault who, before his death, described the contours of an as yet unpublished fourth volume on ancient Christianity. For a close, brief encounter, there is no better place to look than an extract from a 1980 lecture (now available as "Sexuality and Solitude" in Religion and Culture: Michel Foucault [ed. Jeremy R. Carrette; New York: Routledge, 1999], 182-87). Here Foucault identified "the new type oi relationship which Christianity established between sex and subjectivity":

Augustine's conception is still dominated by the theme and form of male sexuality. But the main question is not, as it was in Artemidorus, the problem of penetration: it is the problem of erection. As a result, it is not the problem of a relationship to other people, but the problem of a relationship of oneself to oneself, or, more precisely, the relationship between one's will and involuntary assertions, (p. 186)

For this Foucault, the new religion of Augustine caused a rupture, separating the bishop and his ilk from the dream interpreter and the strange but predictable calculus of coupling apparent in the Oneirocritica.

But there are many Foucaults. The one that Kathy Gaca selects as a foil in her important book is not the Foucault of rupture and discontinuity but the Foucault of continuity between Christian and pagan sexual ethics. The Making of Fornication represents a sustained, cogent dissent from the "continuity thesis," buttressed by a careful survey and analysis of Greek philosophy, the writings of Paul and Philo, and the diverse approaches to sexual morality among second-century Christians. Out of this investigation Gaca's main thesis emerges: early Christians adapted and altered classical Greek views nearly beyond recognition. Where the philosophers saw in sexuality the potential for social reform, most Christian authorities discerned instead "fornication" (porneia), something to avoid at all costs.

Where did Foucault and others-the "continuity" scholars-go wrong? According to Gaca, they overlooked, among other things, the Septuagint. The Making of Fornication, perhaps more than any recent comparable study, gives the Septuagint its due, not only as a cache of images and language for Paul, Philo, and others, but as a conversation partner in its own right. "Continuity" scholars also misconstrued the sexual ethics of Greek philosophy. Moreover, while social historians have plotted the rise of ascetic practices and sensibilities among early Christians, they have yet, according to Gaca, to expose the "the motivating philosophical and religious principles" behind this restrictive lifestyle. "Surely the stimulus was not one of merely irrational frenzy due to some undetectable potion that early Christians drank," Gaca drolly comments (p. 9). To correct these problems, Gaca applies a "philosophical methodology," an approach, she pledges, that will not only deliver an accurate, subtle analysis of relevant philosophical and biblical texts but will also lay out the "underlying principles" that shaped the sexual morality of ancient Christianity (p. 10).

The book's prose is dense, but on almost every page close reading repays the effort (the erudition on display in the footnotes alone is staggering). …

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