Do Early Christians Hate the Body?

Do Early Christians Hate the Body? June 18, 2024

“Didn’t Augustine have a weird theology of sex?” This question was posed to me by a friend at dinner last week, after a discussion about the Confessions, and not unfairly. Augustine, she pointed out, claims that virginity is better than marriage and argues that succumbing to physical desire, even with a spouse, was sinful in some capacity. When we look at examples like this—and examples abound—we might question how the early church viewed the body and sexuality. At the very least, those Christians seem weird when it comes to sexuality; at worst they seem gnostic, believing their bodies to be inherently bad. But is this true? Do early Christians hate the body?

Desert Fathers and Mothers

We could go to any number of individuals from this period to explore this question, but I might point us to the ascetics of the Egyptian desert from the fourth century (for another exploration of early Christian conceptions of the body, see this fascinating reflection on the Shepherd of Hermas by my fellow Anxious Bench contributor, Lynneth Miller Renberg). In many ways, they seem like the example par excellence of people with an unhealthy or hateful attitude towards their body, on account of their strict fasting and isolated lifestyles in harsh conditions.

But, in surveying our sources on these figures (most notably, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a collection of sayings from the ascetic men and women of the desert), it is far from clear that they viewed the body as bad or something to be transcended. Rather, the body is central to spiritual discipline and the Christian life—even if it must be carefully disciplined, to avoid sin. Take the words of Abba Poemen, for instance: “We are not taught to slay the body but to slay the passions” (Abba Poemen 183, Give Me A Word, 258). As Hannah Hunt comments on this, “the monastic emphasis on the need to mortify the body was ‘not a struggle with the body per se but rather with the sin that dwelt within it’, a battle not with soma (σωμα) but with sarx (σαρξ)” (Hannah Hunt, Joy-Bearing Grief, 105).

While it is often challenging to untangle the body (soma) and the flesh (sarx) in these writings, it is clear that sinful passions pull us away from God.  As one monk exhorts his followers, “Renounce this life so you may live for God… despise the flesh in order to save your souls” (Abba Antony 33, Give Me A Word, 38-9). That is to say, following God in soul required careful discipline of the body. As Peter Brown points out though, “to describe ascetic thought as “dualist” and as motivated by hatred of the body, is to miss its most novel and its most poignant aspect. Seldom, in ancient thought, had the body been seen as more deeply implicated in the transformation of the soul” (Peter Brown, The Body and Society, 235). The body is not only part of what it means to be human, but central to living after God properly.

Just a Reminder: You are Human

Further complications in discerning early monastic understandings of the body arises out of their consistent pursuit of the angelic life, as the end of their spiritual and physical discipline. It seems that the desire to live as angels in constant contemplation of God, a constant refrain in the literature, might lead them to try and ‘overcome’ their bodily limitations. We have an interesting example of this from an overzealous monk:

They used to say of Abba John Colobos that he once said to his elder brother: “I wanted to be free of concern just as the angels are free from concern, not working at all, but unceasingly worshipping God” [cf. Matt 6:25, Luke 12:22-28]. He took off his garment and went out into the desert. After he had spent a week there, he came back to his brother. When he knocked at the gate, before opening up, [his brother] gave heed to him, saying, “who are you?” “I am your brother John,” he said, and in replying [the other] said to him: “John has become an angel and is no longer among humans.” But he begged him saying: “It is I – but he did not open up for him; he left him to be afflicted until dawn. When he finally did open, he said to him: “You are human, so you have to get back to work again in order to be fed.” He prostrated himself saying: “Forgive me.” (Abba John Colobos 2, Give Me a Word, 131-2).

St. Antony with an angel
St. Antony the Great, a famous desert father, conversing with an angel.

In this, we see the tension in the monastic life. The ultimate good is to be in unceasing worship of God—so, John heads out to the desert for constant prayer. But the snarky response of the elder brother is telling: you are human, body and soul. Thus, you must care for the body as well as the soul, working for both physical and spiritual nourishment. And this elder is not alone in this belief, as there is consistent advice to be moderate in discipline of the body for the sake of holistic health. For instance, “Our body is like a garment: if you take care of it, it holds up; but if you neglect it, it wastes away” (Wortley, The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers, N.174, pg. 117). Or, “If your body is unwell, act in its regard and for your need, lest it become really sick and you are likely to seek [various] foods, thus imposing upon your attendant (Wortley, The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers N.592.49, pg. 421).” The body is not to be neglected but put in its proper place. While they may have sought the angelic life, they did so as embodied humans.

Putting the Body in Its Place

So how did this rumor start, that the early church hated the body? Or why do we ask questions like: “Didn’t Augustine have a weird theology of sex?” Well, to be fair, there are some historical sources that present a problematic picture of the body. Blæsilla, the daughter of Paula (Jerome’s companion), fasted so persistently that she died (Jerome, Letter 39), and later Gregory the Great permanently damaged his body doing the same (Richards, Consul of God, 45). There are even a few sources that do show an explicit hatred of the body in the desert fathers: “I am telling you this, my son, because unless a man hate his own body like an enemy and an adversary, not caring for it in any way, not even a little bit, he is incapable of being liberated from the snare of the devil” (Wortley, The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers N.592.64, pg. 427). While I would argue these are a minority report, they are still there.

Importantly though, we must acknowledge it is our weird understanding of the body that pushes us to condemn those who come before. In our overly sexualized culture, any discussion of chastity or sexual asceticism seems foreign and strange—even in the church. While the early church did not hate the body, they did affirm the need for its discipline, along with Jesus and Paul. Are we a bit too trusting that the desires of the flesh are innately good? If we look at the obsession of the body in the modern church, in which we often ‘baptize’ secular notions of sexuality and sexual activity (so long as you are married, anything goes!), we might realize that we have prioritized the body at the expense of spiritual health.  While I am not calling us back to the desert, perhaps we can learn from these figures about putting the body back in its proper place. No, Christ followers (in the early church and now) should not hate the body—but they must mortify the flesh as a living sacrifice to God.

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