How Jesus’ Teaching on Sex Changed Rome (and the World)

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Sex in the Ancient Roman World

Before the influence of Christianity, the Roman world was a dark, dangerous place — especially for women. This culture did not ascribe equal dignity, value and worth to all people.

In the eyes of Roman society and law, women had significantly less dignity and value than men[1]—especially if they were non-Roman citizens. This gave rise to legal codes, which institutionalized multiple double standards when it came to the criminality of various forms of sexual assault. Nghiem L. Nguyen explains:

  • While rape of Roman citizens had repercussions, forced sexual intercourse in other contexts was not even considered rape. Again, protection of a woman and her security…was not the paramount goal [(safeguarding the reproduction of legitimate Romans citizens was)], and Roman sexual legislation emphasized this through the application of rape laws only to those of a certain social status. In many circumstances, acts clearly viewed as modern-day rape were permissible. For example, “a husband could force himself on his wife without breaking any law.” Additionally, there were groups of women, including slaves, prostitutes, and foreigners, upon whom rape (stuprum) could be committed due to their social status.

If you combine the Roman view of human dignity, with the legal position that Roman men could have consenting recreational sex with almost whomever they wished, and forced sex with their wives and women of a lower social status, then you have conditions which are conducive to women being taken advantage of sexually. Not to mention the negative influence the violence of the gladiatorial games, the immodesty of the public bath-houses and gymnasiums,[2] and the romanticized rape that was part of Rome’s origin story[3] had on the sexual disposition and mindset of Rome’s citizens.[4]

It should not surprise us that extensive sexual misconduct is exactly what came to characterize Roman society—especially as it concerned men taking advantage of women.[5] Commenting on the Roman world, Philip Schaff writes: “Woman was essentially a slave of man’s lower passions.”

Jesus' treatment of women and teachings on sex and violence had a revolutionary impact.

Historical Influence of the Christian Sex Ethic

Now, enter Christianity. If you combine the Christian belief that everyone has equal dignity and value, with Christianity’s beliefs about sex (e.g. that sex is exclusively reserved for marriage, which is between one man and one women), then you have a worldview that is conducive to making sexual assault socially taboo/illegal when perpetrated against anyone—regardless of their gender, race, social status or economic status.

As Christianity’s influence on Rome grew, that is exactly what happened. Nguyen writes:

  • In AD 538, in the Codex Justinianus 9.13, Justinian refined the definition of raptus as abduction, seduction, rape, or ravishment of all women, regardless of standing and including slaves. Here, he was most likely influenced by both his Christian beliefs and [his wife] Theodora’s former status [as a prostitute], for earlier he had written “‘[i]n the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave’ (Justinian is paraphrasing Galatians 3:28).

We should also note that Empress Theodora, inspired by her faith, was a legislative force in her own right. As the Ancient History Encyclopedia puts it: “[She] is remembered as one of the first rulers to recognize the rights of women, passing strict laws to prohibit the traffic in young girls and altering the divorce laws to give greater benefits to women.”

That is not to say that the Church always got it right (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:1), but as Alvin Schmidt comments, “…even though the church did not always get it right, the teachings of Jesus did eventually get through, despite his error-prone followers, thus changing and improving the way much of the world viewed sex” (emphasis added). Sex came to be viewed as a sacred dance between covenant partners for the twin purposes of procreation and mutual pleasure.[6] That is, sex was not to be had extramaritally or with children; it was to be had consensually with one’s husband or wife to deepen the marriage bond and create children.

Consequently, something hitherto unimaginable in Rome happened: the doctrines of a sanctioned religion (Christianity) and later the laws of the state (Rome), supported an equitably monogamous sex ethic (men and women were held accountable and all social classes were protected). In short, Jesus’ treatment of women (e.g. John 20:11-18; John 7:53–8:11) and teachings on sex (e.g. Matthew 19:5-6; Matthew 5:27-28) and violence (e.g. Luke 6:27-29) had a revolutionary impact on the way the world thought about women, sex, and violence. As scholar L.F. Cervantes writes: “The birth of Jesus was the turning point in the history of woman.”

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." — MLK

Later in history, it would be courageous women like Sojourner Truth, Pandita Ramabai, Amy Carmichael, and Shi Meiyu who would help effect change by bringing the good news of Jesus and justice to places like the United States, India, and China. Commenting on the plight of oppressed women in India, Pandita Ramabai said: “I realized…that Christ was truly the Divine Savior He claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden women of India” (emphasis added). Ramabai, and these other women, recognized something important: the idea of men and women possessing equal value and deserving equal rights under the law is unique to the biblical worldview.[7]

In other words, these ideas do not originate in Greco-Roman polytheism, Hindu or Buddhist pantheism, or any form of Modern atheism.[8] So, while it took, and is taking, time for these truths to work their way into the world, it is no exaggeration to say that any progress we have made in the area of human rights is ultimately attributable to the person we know as Jesus of Nazareth.[9]

Today, this Christian tradition of promoting “liberty and justice for all,” is being carried forward in earnest by organizations like the International Justice Mission (IJM). IJM is the largest anti-slavery organization in the world: Inspired by the Christian faith, IJM works with everyone from lawmakers to prosecutors and police forces to strengthen the justice system in areas around the world where slavery (especially sex trafficking) is prevalent.[10] Thousands of women and children have been rescued from the sex-trafficking industry, provided restorative care, and given the opportunity to do things like go to school or work without fear because of IJM’s efforts—and millions more have been protected from having to endure abuse in the first place.

Bending Towards Justice

Because of the loving sacrifice, empowering Spirit, and norming word of Christ, progress in the area of sexual ethics is being made in our world. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” To that end (biblical justice/morality), may we all take up “loving arms” and contribute by every lawful means available.

With regard to our efforts to have gospel proclamation lead to cultural sanctification, Craig Bartholomew and Bob Goudzwaard provide these encouraging words, with which we close:

  • Today…we can, in our families and churches [and communities], in a whole variety of creative ways, start living the solution, and a thousand such initiatives, like small candles in a dark night, may eventually combine locally, nationally, and globally to bring inexorable pressure to bear upon decision makers at the macro level of our society. Indeed, they may produce a fire around which the global poor [and oppressed] can gather to warm their hands and receive [the] comfort and hope [and justice of the Kingdom of God].[11]

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[1] Women and children were classified as the property of men.

[2] See Edward Gibbon’s classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Fikret Yegül’s Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity.

[3] Mars rapes Rhea Silva, who gives birth to Romulus. Nguyen explains: “This rape seems to be particularly acceptable, and almost ennobled, because the mortal woman is raped by a superior god, and the rape begets Rome’s first king. In all these literary stories of rape, some greater political interest or benefit is always emphasized over the actual sexual violation of the woman.”

[4] Pornography, excessively violent films/video games, and identity politics create a similar triumvirate of negative influences on the sexual disposition and mindset of our nation.

[5] Sexual promiscuity and deviance became so widespread in Rome that in the last century of the Republic, Caesar Augustus had to pass laws (lex Julia de adulteriis) to try and restrain the rampant extramarital sex that threatened to destabilize the state.

[6] As Anthony Thiselton explains in his pastoral commentary on 1 Corinthians: “Paul [appears to be the first writer to] assert that neither partner (husband or wife) has exclusive rights over his or her own body…Paul’s concern for mutuality, reciprocity, and most especially the presupposition that sexual intimacy provides mutual pleasure remains distinctive and far ahead of its times.”

[7] With the death and resurrection of Jesus, the curse was broken and begins to lift, and with it male dominance of women, which itself was part of the curse (Genesis 3:16). This explains the discrepancy between the Scriptural ideal for male-female relationships as depicted in the Garden of Eden (before the fall) and the ancient Hebrew society after the fall (e.g. polygamy).

[8] All other worldviews have some type of ontological hierarchy or naturally emerging caste system, which attributes varying levels of inherent value to people based on things like: race, gender, citizenship, economic status, etc.

[9] See Alvin Schmidt’s How Christianity Changed the World and Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought.

[10] Sexual assault is a global epidemic. There are over forty million people enslaved around the world and sexual exploitation is the number one reason people (primarily women and girls) are trafficked. In America alone, it is estimated that, “on average there are 321,500 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year…”; and that is probably a low estimate.

[11] In other words, Jesus will multiply our small contributions and eventually feed the whole world with justice.

  • culture
  • history
  • pornography
  • public square
  • women
Jonathan Darville

Jono Darville is a former Global Master Trainer with The Center for Leadership Studies and Co-Leader of the New York branch of Models for Christ (an international non-profit bringing the gospel to the fashion industry). Due to a decade-plus long battle with chronic illness, Jono almost lost his life in 2017. After spending a number of years bed-bound, God graciously intervened in 2020, using UNC Hospital to restore Jono’s health. Jono is now finishing an M.A. in the Philosophy of Religion at SEBTS, while serving as a Ruling Elder and Youth Director at Peace Church in Cary, NC. He and his wife, Jillian, have one son, Jono Jr.

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