Harper, “From Shame to Sin”

Culture and law have a mutually-reinforcing relationship. Cultural transformation typically promotes legal change, and legal change often speeds up cultural transformation. A good example is the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As the revolution became mainstream, it put pressure on family law concepts that had been based on traditional Christian sexual ethics. And changes in family law have  no doubt accelerated the weakening of traditional Christian sexual morality.

Next month, Harvard University Press will publish a book that describes another cultural transformation that had an effect on law: the movement from pagan to Christian sexual ethics that occurred in late antiquity. In some ways, this seems the mirror image of what is happening today. As Christian values displaced the pagan sexual ethic, Roman law changed as well. Doubtless, pagan traditionalists grumbled about the revolution, just as religious traditionalists grumble today. It’s a good reminder that history doesn’t really move in a one-way direction.

The book is From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper (University of Oklahoma). Here’s the publisher’s description:

When Rome was at its height, an emperor’s male beloved, victim of an untimely death, would be worshipped around the empire as a god. In this same society, the routine sexual exploitation of poor and enslaved women was abetted by public institutions. Four centuries later, a Roman emperor commanded the mutilation of men caught in same-sex affairs, even as he affirmed the moral dignity of women without any civic claim to honor. The gradual transformation of the Roman world from polytheistic to Christian marks one of the most sweeping ideological changes of premodern history. At the center of it all was sex. Exploring sources in literature, philosophy, and art, Kyle Harper examines the rise of Christianity as a turning point in the history of sexuality and helps us see how the roots of modern sexuality are grounded in an ancient religious revolution.

While Roman sexual culture was frankly and freely erotic, it was not completely unmoored from constraint. Offending against sexual morality was cause for shame, experienced through social condemnation. The rise of Christianity fundamentally changed the ethics of sexual behavior. In matters of morality, divine judgment transcended that of mere mortals, and shame—a social concept—gave way to the theological notion of sin. This transformed understanding led to Christianity’s explicit prohibitions of homosexuality, extramarital love, and prostitution. Most profound, however, was the emergence of the idea of free will in Christian dogma, which made all human action, including sexual behavior, accountable to the spiritual, not the physical, world.

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