Howard Ingham: Unholy Writ

March 2002
Bedtime stories
Previous Unholy Writs

Comment on this column WHEN I STARTED THINKING about sex and the early church, I found myself kind of stumped. After all, your early Christian's view of sex is pretty obvious: Sex is Bad. There is No Sex in the writings of the early church. There's lots of "non-sex", though. If you see what I mean.

To give you some kind of idea, consider the 4th-century Life of St Thaïs the Prostitute. In this story, a woman of the night is read the riot act by a stern old monk, because she's been corrupting her poor innocent patrons right, left and centre.

Instantly falling to her knees, Thaïs the Prostitute cries out, "Punish me! Punish me, please!" The monk duly obliges by locking her in a cell for three years.

And then there's the Life of St Pelagia the Prostitute, which is very different. Apart from being about a prostitute who repents and becomes a saint, obviously. In this one, the prostitute repents and gives it all up for a life of chastity, even managaing to see off the Devil himself when he tries to get her back.

Eventually, she sneaks off with the bishop's best hairshirt, poses as a man and becomes a miracle-working hermit. The moral of this story: girls, all you have to do to get into heaven is to be a man. Marvellous.

SO MUCH FOR BAD GIRLS. But what about the good ones? Let's take a look at the Acts of John. John converts a rich and beautiful woman of Ephesus called Drusiana, along with her husband. But it all goes wrong. John goes away and Drusiana finds out that one of the elders in the church of Ephesus is madly in love – or, at the very least, madly in lust – with her and is so upset she drops dead.

Not to be discouraged by piddling details like death, the Ephesian elder sneaks into the tomb in the hopes of having his way with her still-warm corpse, only to be thwarted when Drusiana is miraculously resurrected and therefore able to fight him off.

While death and miraculous resurrection is certainly one way to avoid a shag, there are others. For example, Thecla, companion of St Paul in the literally-named "Acts of Paul and Thecla", refuses the attentions of the Antiochene leader, Alexander, who, in a sulk, throws her naked to the wild beasts, as you do.

It all goes a bit wrong for Alexander at this point. First, the bears eat the lions rather than Thecla. And then Thecla jumps in the pool inhabited by vicious man-eating seals (you couldn't make this up), and rather than being eaten, she baptizes herself. At which point there's this flash of heavenly light which conveniently electrocutes the vicious man-eating seals and sticks around so that her modesty is covered up.

Alexander converts to Christianity on the spot and lets her go, thus ensuring Thecla's virginity and modesty are no longer in danger. The seals are all dead, though.

OF COURSE, WHEN DIVINE intervention isn't around to preserve a girl's chastity, low, sneaky cunning will do just as well. Take Maximilla in the Acts of Andrew, who, having converted to Christianity and therefore realizing that Sex is Bad, has her libidinous husband to contend with. Cunningly, she escapes by swapping places with her maid when her husband gets into bed (it's dark), so he has sex with her instead! Brilliant, eh?

Um, yeah. That's what I thought.

With all this sex not happening in our not-quite scriptures, the moral we can all draw is patently clear. It only remains for me to close this survey with this exhortation.

Go forth, brothers and sisters, and don't you dare even try to multiply.

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