Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Toward a Recognition of Evidence

A slight digression here.  I just reread At Eighty-two (Norton, 1996), the final volume of May Sarton's journals, and as usual it was a fascinating view into old age and ill health.  It also pointed me to a few writers I might explore, such as the poet Deborah Pease, and reminded me of Sarton's friend, the academic and novelist Carolyn G. Heilbrun, who championed Sarton's work when few academics were willing to consider it.  The cold shoulder she got from academic critics was something that bothered Sarton a great deal, a theme she harped on throughout the journals, including this one, and I admit I was surprised to be reminded that Florence Howe didn't include Sarton in her anthology of women's poetry No More Masks, not even the expanded 1993 edition.

Anyway, now that I've finished re-reading all of Sarton's journals it might be time to return to Carolyn Heilbrun's feminist critical writings.  Her book Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, first published in 1973, is probably still her best-known work.  I've read it two or three times, most recently last year, and it's one of those frustrating books that I remember positively but can't recall any of what it says.  The only notes I took from my last reading have little to do with androgyny, but they may explain why the book hasn't stayed with me better.
In the face of the evidence of Jewish life at the time of Jesus, or, indeed, at any time, more blatantly still in the face of the evidence of the Gospels, the Church was determined to deny sexuality its place in the religious world, to idealize celibacy, which the Jews and probably Jesus considered sinful, and to enshrine virginity, which the tradition had heretofore never seen as anything but a perversion.  Not only may Jesus not have been a virgin, but there is little beyond the patristic tradition to suggest that he was not born from an ordinary sex act.  The pagan tradition in which the father is a god (one need only recall Zeus’s many sexual affairs with mortal ladies) and the Jewish tradition which saw God as, in one sense, the father of all children were no doubt distorted for the uses of a Church which feared sexuality almost as much as it feared the feminine principle, perhaps for many of the same reasons [17-18].
On the whole, the factual errors in this passage are hard to excuse, though it reflects common views of Jesus and Christianity at the time, and down to the present.  I think that historical scholarship on Judaism since the 1970s has enriched our knowledge and understanding of rabbinical attitudes toward sexuality in Jesus' day, and I don't hold Heilbrun responsible for not taking into account work that hadn't been done yet.  But most of what she gets wrong was avoidable.  It boggles my mind when she says that the Church idealized celibacy and virginity "in the face of the evidence of the Gospels" and blames the doctrine of Jesus' birth to a virgin mainly on "the patristic tradition."  In fact the virgin birth is reported in two canonical gospels, one of which (Matthew) has traditionally been touted as the most "Jewish" of the four.  Jesus' harshly repressive teachings on sex in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew again) are hardly obscure, and then there is his commendation of those who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven.  (That link will show you numerous translations of the verse, which are evidence of how uncomfortable it makes many modern Christians.)

There's a tendency, due I think to influence from 20th-century village-atheist polemic, to talk as though the gospels were written much later than most scholars today think they were, as if they were written in the second or third centuries rather than the first.  But the same downgrading of marriage and the body is found in Paul's letters, which were certainly written before the gospels, within twenty-five years of Jesus' death, though Paul was not merely Jewish but a Pharisee.  Paul is ambiguous on the point, but it's generally accepted that he was celibate, and he argued in 1 Corinthians 7 that marriage was a second-best relation, a concession to human weakness for those unable to control their lusts and give their full devotion to the Lord.  These passages were not discovered in a clay jar after 1973; they'd been there all along, and were not obscure.

Heilbrun goes on to cite William E. Phipps's Was Jesus Married? (Harper & Row, 1970), a popular controversial book at the time she was writing Toward a Recognition of Androgyny.  I've only read Phipps's later book The Sexuality of Jesus (Harper & Row, 1973), and it has been a while, but as I recall his main argument was to point to the universality of marriage in Judaism, which is a slight oversimplification anyway. Whether Jesus himself was married, let alone a lifelong virgin, we'll never know, but it can't be settled by appeal to mainstream Judaism of his time, because Jesus was not a mainstream Jew of his time, even on the evidence of the gospels, which show him at odds and in mortal combat with the mainstream Judaism(s) of his time.  This wasn't (or wasn't solely) a fabrication in the service of patristic propaganda; the hostility between the early Jesus cult and their fellow Jews was intense, and no less so if it was over issues that seem trivial to 20th century Americans.  Again, the apostle Paul, who on his own account had been a mainstream Jew, a Pharisee no less, was also hostile to marriage and sexuality before the gospels were even written; and even though we have some of Paul's own words about himself (unlike Jesus), it's not certain whether he was or had been married himself.

I don't know of any evidence that Jesus "probably considered [celibacy] sinful," and I've just pointed to evidence to the contrary.  As for the claim that "the tradition had heretofore never seen [virginity] as ... a perversion," that's absurd: virginity was mandatory for women before marriage in Judaism, as in other traditions.  It's also absurd to claim that the idealization of celibacy and virginity denied "sexuality its place in the religious world"; marriage and sexuality always had their place in Christianity, even if it was a second-best place.  If women and men were not to remain virgin or unmarried throughout their lives, that hardly indicates a respect for their freedom or well-being.  Compulsory marriage was as much a distortion of human potential as compulsory celibacy, but then individual freedom was not a Christian, Jewish, or pagan ideal.

I wish that Heilbrun were still alive; I'd like to ask her how she could have overlooked the evidence that celibacy had a place in Christianity from its earliest days.  If she cites the gospels, I presume she'd read them at some point.  Was no one who read the book in manuscript, or helped prepare it for publication, knowledgeable enough about the Bible to notice this strange mis-characterization of New Testament teachings?  It now seems to me that much of Toward a Recognition of Androgyny involved generalizations about culture and literature that I can't accept, even if I like Heilbrun's rejection of sexual polarization.