I’ve often wondered when and how the men in charge of Christianity decided that sex, especially outside of marriage, is shameful.
In an article in the New York Review of Books, Peter Brown (a respected professor of history at Princeton) implies that Ambrose of Milan (aka St. Ambrose) and John Chrysostom of Antioch and Constantinople were largely responsible (or irresponsible, depending on your point of view). Both men were bishops in the 4th century. According to Brown:
In their hands, long-established codes of living in this world (propounded by philosophers since classical times) were transformed … (into) divinely sanctioned precepts with which to achieve entrance to the other world….
It was not enough that precepts of courage, continence and self-denial should help to steer men and women through the dangers and temptations of this life alone. These virtues, if practiced with heroic abandon, were held to lead directly to heaven.
The ascetic or philosophical life, in which the mind or soul was elevated above the body, had often been recommended as the best or most satisfying way of life by ancient philosophers. Eventually, this way of life became not just the most prudent one, but the most religiously acceptable one. Sex became officially dirty.
No doubt the story is complex. One of the books that tells the story and which is discussed in Professor Brown’s article is Ambrose and John Chrysostom: Clerics between Desert and Empire by J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz. Only $100.96 on Amazon (or $88 if you lean toward the electronic).