Tag Archives: asceticism

Sex and menstruation in the Didascalia

An interesting conversation today with Sarah Whitear, a graduate student at Leuven who is working on attitudes to menstruation in early Christian circles.

We discussed the passage of the Gnomai regarding Mary’s amenorrhoea (6.1, stating that due to her purity (ἁγνεία) “the way of women was not with her.”) Since editing the text (I referred to Soranus Gyn. 1.4.19-23 in which he suggests that particularly active women (such as those preparing for singing contests) do not menstruate because there is no excess nutrition which needs to be diverted into menses) I have thought further about this; my medical knowledge is limited, but I understand that secondary amenorrhoea may result from malnutrition and in particular protein deficiency. One therefore wonders, given the extremity of asceticism undergone in some circles, whether such secondary amenorrhoea was actually common among female ascetics, and the description of Mary thus typical of female ascetics known to the redactor. We also compared this statement to that of the Protoevangelium Jacobi in which Mary is removed from the temple prior to beginning menstruation.

However, the greater part of our conversation was taken up with an intriguing passage in the Didascalia: I translated, back in the day as “Therefore you should not go to your wives when they are undergoing natural flux, but hold to them…” (DA 6.22.6)

My version was fundamentally based on the Latin: Nolite convenire illis sed sustinete eas.

On this I wrote:

‘You should not go to’ is absent in Syr. which reads instead ‘And when they (your wives) are in their natural flux you should hold to them (ܢܩܦܝܢ) in the manner which is right…’ Flemming in Achelis and Flemming (1904), 223, suggests some accidental omission on the part of the Syriac translator and Vööbus (1979b), 244, similarly opines that Lat. is closer to the original and that accidental omission has occurred. However, although the suggestion of Flemming and Vööbus is followed here there is much to be said for Connolly’s assertion (1929), 255, that Syr. is ‘more in the spirit of the author’. Although CA tends to support Lat. there is little verbal correspondence, thus supporting Connolly’s suggestion that Lat. and CA are independent ‘improvements’ of the original.

I remember puzzling over this when I was translating all those years ago, so was glad to be called back to it. In general I think my footnote is fair, though perhaps I give too much air-time to Connolly. What I did not write at the time, but may now say, as I said to Ms Whitear, is that Connolly probably didn’t know what he was talking about, since he was a monk! Ms Whitear, very perceptively, pointed out that we should probably not take CA into account, as it really goes off piste here. I am convinced, having re-examined the passage. And so we are left with Latin and Syriac with no help from CA which has “improved” the original so as to obliterate it entirely.

My common sense reading of Latin is that men are being told to be good and understanding husbands while their wives are having periods, and not to attempt to have sex with them. Ms Whitear said that this was what she was thinking, so we were in fundamental agreement. The combination of common sense and the witness of the Latin indicates that this is probably the correct understanding.

The Syriac is less common-sensical, particularly if it is telling husbands to have sex with their wives while they are menstruating. However, Ms Whitear, very properly, pointed out that whereas Connolly, and many since, have taken ܢܩܦܝܢ to mean sexual congress this is by no means the most obvious meaning for the verb. We thus spent some time wondering what Greek Vorlage might have led to ܢܩܦܝܢ in Syriac and sustenere in Latin. One candidate was ἀντιλαμβάνεσθαι. This remains possible, as does (I now think) ὑπολαμβάνεσθαι. In other words we discounted the first part of the phrase, (nolite convenire in Latin) assuming it to have been omitted by the Syriac through some form of corruption.

Since then it has dawned on me, since the Syriac is probably corrupt (or taken from a corrupt Greek text), that ܢܩܦܝܢ might actually represent the word rendered in Latin as convenire. This might be συνεῖναι, which might indeed have a sexual connotation (though not exclusively so).

Here we enter the muddy waters of retroversion. If the Vorlage began: οὔκ οῦν δεῖ ὑμῖν συνεῖναι ταῖς γυναιξὶ ὑμῶν… it might have been corrupted to, or misread as, οὐκοῦν δεῖ ὑμῖν συνεῖναι ταῖς γυναιξὶ ὑμῶν… The phrase rendered as “sed sustinete eas” is missing, perhaps as a result of earlier misunderstanding.

I am not being dogmatic here. There is some corruption, and the meaning certainly is that men should not have sex with their menstruating wives, and that they should be loving and faithful husbands. The Latin is correct (I do have great confidence in the Verona Latin as an early text and careful, if painfully literal, translation.) Quite how the Syriac ended up as it did I know not. One of the two clauses is absent; the question is that of which.

Comments, corrections, and observations are welcome!



Filed under Didascalia Apostolorum, Other church order literature

The motivations for a wineless Eucharist

Last year at the Oxford Patristics conference I gave a paper entitled, “Άριστον μέν ύδωρ: Ancient Breakfasts and the Development of Eucharistic Foods” in which I argued that the common phenomenon of finding eucharistic meals celebrated without wine might be attributed not to ascetic motivation but to the common pattern of breakfast foods in Graeco-Roman antiquity which tended to reject the use of wine at breakfast as socially inappropriate. The most common breakfast food was bread, often accompanied by water.

Paul Bradshaw has written an assessment of the discussion on this point between myself and Andrew McGowan which may be read here; it was due to be delivered at NAPS, an event which was, of course, cancelled. As one might expect it is a balanced assessment. I comment no further but invite readers to read.


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Clerical celibacy in Apostolic Church Order

I have recently had some correspondence with David Hunter over clerical celibacy in the church orders, and particularly in Apostolic Church Order (K). The origins and history of clerical celibacy are central to his research programme, and so this enquiry was particularly welcome.

The questions he put to me were as follow:

1: In 16.2, there is this prescription about bishops: “It is good should he be unmarried, otherwise he should be of one wife, having some education, and able to interpret the scriptures, even if he is unlettered. He should be generous, and overflowing with love for all, so that a bishop should not come under accusation on any account by the many.”

I was a little puzzled by the ἀπὸ μιᾶς γυναικός. The preposition ἀπό seemed odd. Stefan Heid takes it as “free of one wife,” which is even less likely. But I was wondering if you had any thoughts about this.

2: The second question has to do with 18.2: “Therefore the presbyters should have been a long time in the world, having kept themselves from congress with women in their lives, generous towards the brotherhood, not respecters of persons, struggling alongside the bishop and participating in the mysteries together with him, gathering the people and devoted to the pastor.” There is the phrase τρόπῳ τινί before “having kept themselves from congress with women in their lives.” I don’t see this phrase in your translation, and I’m not sure what it means. I wondered if it could mean “in some manner” in the sense of “in an appropriate manner,” i.e., referring to temporary sexual abstinence prior to celebrating Eucharist.

Inevitably, with such interesting and difficult questions, there was some to-ing and fro-ing. My first instinct was that Heid’s understanding of ἀπό was forced in the extreme, though I have gone back on that to some extent. I also wondered whether the text might be repunctuated to take τρόπῳ τινί with the preceding ἤδη κεχρονικόντας ἐπὶ τῷ κόσμῳ rather than the following ἀπεχομένους, again to change my mind. So rather than create a dialogue out of the correspondence I am writing up my conclusions.

On ἀπό: The versions (Syriac, Sahidic, Arabic and Ethiopic) give no helpful guidance on the disputed issue of interpretation in the Greek text.

What is interesting is the rewrite undertaken on the ἀπὸ μιᾶς γυναικός along the lines of “it is good if he is unmarried, but if he has a wife he should stay with her…” This is in the Sahidic; the Arabic and Ethiopic are (I recollect) dependent on that version, and follow Sahidic on that point. This indicates some controversy around the issue in the line of text which ends up in Egypt.

So the ἀπό is indeed odd. Although the direction that a bishop should be married once is common enough I might take a moment to wonder whether that is what is actually meant here, as I assumed back in 2005/6 when I produced my edition. At some point I now think the bishop became an ascetic like the presbyters (see below), and that this might provide a rationale for the kind of meaning (survived one wife) that Heid puts onto it. But that would constitute a deliberate rewriting of the text, that is to say the insertion of ἀπό, or perhaps something more extensive, probably at the last level of redaction. Thus Heid may well be right, but fails to notice that this is a change of direction reflecting an unusual setting and context. To say that he should have survived a single wife is almost otiose after the statement that it is better that he be ἀγύναιος; the original, I am so led to suspect, simply read that he should be μιᾶς γυναικός (I Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6), but this has been rewritten, retaining the original (as was the way) but changing its meaning utterly.

On τρόπῳ τινί: the phrase τρόπῳ τινί, whilst again slightly odd, is not unknown in statements of qualification, thus: δεῖ δὲ καὶ τοὺς διακόνους ὄντας μυστηρίων Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ κατὰ πάντα τρόπον πᾶσιν ἀρέσκειν (Ign. Trall. 2.3) and τὸν ποιμένα τὸν καθιστάμενον ἐπίσκοπον… οὐκ ἔλαττον ἐτῶν πεντήκοντα, ὅτι τρόπῳ τινὶ τὰς νεωτερικὰς ἀταξίας… ἐκπεφευγὼς ὑπάρχει (CA 2.1.1). Here it means something like “to some extent” (or in Ignatius, to the entire possible extent); in the light of the CA parallel, where time has put some distance between the ordinand and his folies de jeunesse, possibly in K it indicates the time since he last spoke to a woman. That is to say a presbyter is to be an older man, who has long given up on women! I do not think temporary abstinence is meant, because the presbyters did not celebrate the Eucharist in K. The bishop did while the presbyters keep order and undertake the distribution of gifts.

But there is more; I have recently returned to K for a paper I am writing for a conference in Finland (not actually going there, as it is too cold(!) but will be linked up by webcam). The paper is on deacons in K and Testamentum Domini (TD), following on from completing my version of TD last year. It is clear enough that TD has turned the presbyters into an ascetic cadre, male versions of the widows. I am now thinking, in the light of TD, that K is in the process of doing the same thing. I am convinced that K and TD come from the same broad area (Cappadocia/Cilicia), K being slightly earlier than TD, which is mid-4C. The result, as far as deacons is concerned, is that the deacons pick up the slack whilst the presbyters spend their lives in prayer and ascetic direction. Thus if the presbyters are ascetics, then they are celibate, or widowed. We may note by contrast that the deacon might be married. However, to return to the question of temporary abstinence, it is to be noted that the presbyters do not themselves celebrate the Eucharist in TD any more than they do in K, as this is the bishop’s task (though a presbyter can pick up if the bishop has had a wet dream the night before.)

So the presbyters, both in the K community and in the TD community, form an ascetic cadre with their bishop. I think this, rather than any common expectation of episcopal or presbyteral celibacy, is what is going on. This localized asceticism was taken to extremes by the Eustathians, and the canons of Gangra (to which Prof. Hunter had pointed in the course of our exchange), from the same context and period, represent a reaction to this, whereas TD (and K) represent a more moderate version of the Eustathian view.

As far as K is concerned, because of the state of the text and the multiple levels of redaction of what was a traditional text (possibly as old as the first century, certainly no later than the second century, and likely predating I Timothy), I would be very careful indeed about taking anything from this beyond the statement that the presbyters in this community are, by the time of the redaction of the document, forming an ascetic cadre. Monastic celibacy is a very different matter from the celibacy of simple parish priests like myself, and so I do not think that K tells us anything about clerical celibacy outside the monastic context.

Finally note that Prof. Hunter had struggled to find a copy of Apostolic church order, and he is far from being the first to report such a struggle. About a year ago I raised the question of a revised reprint with the publisher, since I had had numerous enquiries about obtaining a copy. They seemed interested in reprinting, having received the same request a number of times, though less in revising. It has gone a bit quiet since then.

I may return to my original suggestion of a revised reprint. In any such revision the blurred lines which Prof. Hunter so successfully observed in my translation (the failure to give full force to ἀπό and the failure to render τρόπῳ τινί) would be addressed. For the moment I can simply admit and advertize the errors here. Like the church orders themselves, my work on these documents is living literature.

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Stephen of Thebes and the asceticization of the catechetical tradition

I have reblogged the Ge’ez of Stephen of Thebes from the learned blog of Alin Suciu. As Suciu notes, nothing is known of this figure, beyond his monastic status; indeed I am ashamed to say that I had not previously heard of him, or of this work. However, I was immediately struck by the echoes of the catechetical tradition which entered the church order tradition from the time of the Didache on, here, as in such works as the Fides patrum and the Syntagma doctrinae, effectively asceticized through the change of audience from those being baptized to those entering monastic profession. This is perhaps a theme which needs further to be explored, and so the evidence is reblogged with thanks.


Filed under Other church order literature