Explain the Early Christians’ understanding of sex, marriage, and family according to Elaine Pagel.
Sex was thought of as the original sin. When Adam and Eve consummated their relationship, this was seen as the first sin and has ever made sex something that is only done for procreation or is inherently sinful. This understanding is one that is held even by those of differing opinions on marriage. Even in marriage, if sex is not for procreation, it should be abstained from. All our human desires are things we should not want. Clement wrote, “Our ideal is not to experience desire at all…” (Pagels p29).
Most others who were not Jewish peoples were monogamous at the time of Jesus but practiced acts which were seen by early followers to be against God’s intent. Many pagans regarded marriage as an economic social arrangement; homosexual relationships a part of education; prostitution both male and female as legal and a part of life and divorce, abortion, contraception, and exposure of unwanted infants as a part of life and not questioned. (Pagels, p10).
Marriage has many varied understandings in the early church. Coming from a Jewish background where polygamy was the norm because sex was a tool for procreation, the more wives or concubines or slaves one could “try” to procreate with, the better for the procreation of more offspring. So one man could have many wives and could divorce a wife if he desired. Jesus changed this when he said, “what God has joined together let no man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:6b). Here Jesus says marriage is with one person and divorce is not allowed. Jewish understanding was that divorce was allowed for marital infidelity by all and others allowed it for burning soup. Jesus here says that the relationship is more important that procreation. Marriage is not about begetting children but about the understanding of relationship that Jesus came to teach us to live into. Jesus also blesses the barren woman, the eunuch, and those who cannot have children. Paul took what Jesus said and said that marriage was not a sin but should not be entered into unless you aren’t able to control your desires. Plus, Paul was taken to have said that marriage should be celibate, and that sex is for the weak and doesn’t allow us to serve God but has us serving our own desires.
Jesus said in Luke that “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder”, but Matthew took this and went back to a semi-Jewish understanding by adding unless there is immorality. And Matthew softens Luke’s hate of family to love more than Jesus. Family is important as it is about relationships and caring for those who would be left behind or shunned.
All of this shows us there were many opinions about how one should handle sex, marriage, and family. Jesus only mentions Adam and Eve once, which was to answer a question from Pharisees to legitimize divorce. (Pagels, p8) Jesus had very little to say about sex and marriage from this passage. And yet the early church took the story to mean that sex is bad, and our desires are not to be followed. Sex and marriage in the early church were seen as a means of procreation. Marriage was to be monogamous and only for begetting children. Anything else was our desires and that should only be directed towards God. Yet it seems to me that God telling Adam and Eve to be fruitful is more than simply procreation to me giving the sense that there may be more to sex and marriage than procreation. The early church didn’t think so and, according to Pagels, that is still coloring our world and sexual understanding today.