David M. Reis
Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianityby Jennifer Wright Knust
Early Christians used charges of adultery, incest, and lascivious behavior to demonize their opponents, police insiders, resist pagan rulers, and define what it meant to be a Christian. Christians frequently claimed that they, and they alone were sexually virtuous, comparing themselves to those marked as outsiders, especially non-believers and "heretics," who were
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Early Christians used charges of adultery, incest, and lascivious behavior to demonize their opponents, police insiders, resist pagan rulers, and define what it meant to be a Christian. Christians frequently claimed that they, and they alone were sexually virtuous, comparing themselves to those marked as outsiders, especially non-believers and "heretics," who were said to be controlled by lust and unable to rein in their carnal desires. True or not, these charges allowed Christians to present themselves as different from and morally superior to those around them.
Through careful, innovative readings, Jennifer Knust explores the writings of Paul, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and other early Christian authors who argued that Christ alone made self-mastery possible. Rejection of Christ led to both immoral sexual behavior and, ultimately, alienation and punishment from God. Knust considers how Christian writers participated in a long tradition of rhetorical invective, a rhetoric that was often employed to defend status and difference. Christians borrowed, deployed, and reconfigured classical rhetorical techniques, turning them against their rulers to undercut their moral and political authority. Knust also examines the use of accusations of licentiousness in conflicts between rival groups of Christians. Portraying rival sects as depraved allowed accusers to claim their own group as representative of "true Christianity."
Knust's book also reveals the ways in which sexual slurs and their use in early Christian writings reflected cultural and gendered assumptions about what constituted purity, morality, and truth. In doing so, Abandoned to Lust highlights the complex interrelationships between sex, gender, and sexuality within the classical, biblical, and early-Christian traditions.
Gene G. James, University of Memphis
What People are Saying About This
Abandoned to Lust is a provocative and important book. It is so not simply because it is a marvelous example of historical-interpretive research and writing -- although it certainly is that. It is so because of its refusal to be just another example of a narrow antiquarian focus upon the writings and exploits of elites of an invented antiquity. Knust's work is layered, engaged, and multifocal, with (self-) critical, sensitive, disciplined and careful attention paid to our several pasts and to our present and to the different positionalities and power dynamics in them.
Vincent L. Wimbush, Claremont Graduate University, author of African Americans and the Bible
Jennifer Knust's study of sexual polemics in early Christianity is a groundbreaking and compelling treatment of a culturally significant and unusually intriguing topic. The analysis is superb in every way: lively, learned, theoretically informed, and insightful. Many of my colleagues in early-Christian studies will no doubt have my reaction to the book -- wishing that they would have, or rather could have, written it.
Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, author of Lost Christianities: The Battles For Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
Accusations of sexual excess or deviance are a commonplace in political invective. Abandoned to Lust shows engagingly and in detail how such accusations were a mainstay in the early-Christian rhetorical toolbox, allowing Christian polemicists to create vivid and damning portraits of their opponents as slaves to their appetites and passions. Knust's book is a very important rhetorical analysis and cultural history of early Christianity, with critical implications for the study of religiously motivated polemics more broadly.
Elizabeth Castelli, Barnard College at Columbia University, author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making
Meet the Author
Jennifer Knust is assistant professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Boston University School of Theology.
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