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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Early Church Greatest Hits on Celibacy

The early Christian church’s practice of celibacy has drawn the sustained attention of scholars since the late twentieth century. Treatments of the topic traditionally focus on the origination of clerical celibacy [1], the role and position of virgin women in the church [2], and the diverse practices and views on sexuality represented by various strands of early Christianity [3]. These various studies have highlighted intriguing themes in early Christians’ sexual practices and have refined contemporary understandings of Christianity’s formative years. Yet the theological underpinnings of these developments have not yet been understood in our popular understandings of Christian history. The first four centuries of the church developed a sexual ethic that prioritized sustained or lifelong celibacy, an ethic based on theological themes in discussion at the time. The theological vision viewed celibacy as a present image of the age to come, an eschatological reality. In the body, wrapped in the social expectations of the present age, Christians could experience the pure and holy life of the age to come through the practice of sustained celibacy.


The culture in which Christianity developed prescribed particular expectations for the use of the body. Individuals, especially women, were expected to reproduce to ensure the survival of society. To maintain a stable population, each woman would need to bear an average of five children. Virgins in Greco-Roman religion were not presented as images to aspire towards, nor was their state one of personal choice. They were selected by the society and dedicated to the gods for a definite period. After their time of service was completed, they were released to marry and expected to bear children, though later in life than their peers. The bodies of ancient Roman citizens, used for procreation, were inferior to the souls which possessed them. For the soul’s tenure in the body, it must learn to live with the body’s needs without allowing the body’s needs to tyrannize the soul. The soul was not expected to overrule the body and introduce it to the higher life of the soul. The body had its own needs and its own expectations to reproduce for the sake of society. The soul must accept the necessary earthly entanglements with which the body was preoccupied [4].


The earliest Christians recognized the presence of society’s expectations and the body’s potential entanglement with the present world through the sexual act. For many Christians, this was a good reality. The virgin Theophila’s discourse in The Banquet of the Ten Virgins offers one of the most positive portrayals of sexual expression with the intent of child-bearing in early Christian literature. While recognizing child-bearing will come to an end at a future date, its present reality is rooted in God’s command to multiply and fill the earth. Yet not only is it commanded by God, but it is done in imitation of God’s creative activity. Just as He took a rib from Adam’s side to form a new individual, Eve, men and women create new individuals through reproduction. God utilizes the reproductive activity of men and women to form new humans, just as He did when He created Adam and Eve [5]. Marriage is perfectly good for the multitude of faithful Christians as they continue God’s creative activity [6]. While the ensuing discourses will praise virginity as superior to marriage for participating in the purity of the age to come rather than concerns of the present age, they do so without denigrating the married who fulfill their necessary societal role of procreation. Such a perspective is not only theological, but also pragmatic. The church, just as much as society, required begetting new children to ensure its future continuance [7].


For other Christians, the body’s potential entanglement with the present world through the sexual act was considered evil. Jerome commented on 1 Corinthians 7:1, “If it is good not to touch a woman, then it is evil to touch one, for there is no opposite to good except evil. But if it is evil and it is forgiven, the concession is made to prevent something worse than this evil from happening” [8]. While Jerome’s views were considered extreme in his day [9], he was not considered outside the boundaries of the classical Christian church. However, several other figures with similarly negative views of sexuality were considered theologically out of bounds. The infamous Marcion taught that the created world was the result of the sinister God of the Old Testament. For Christians to know the true God, they must abandon the bonds of family and reject marriage [10]. Another second-century group taught that once baptism had replaced demonic rule over an individual with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit could not permit further sexual activity. Sexual activity joined humanity to the animals and joined humanity to death. To partake in the heavenly life, sexual activity must be renounced by all Christians [11]. The Encratites were drawn to the apocryphal Acts of Thomas which portrayed sexual activity as “filthy”, as laden with nothing but vice and misery, and from which an individual must be freed to walk the path of Christ [12].


For most Christian theologians, while sexual activity was not evil, it was laden with danger because it entangled the individual with the concerns of the present society. Tertullian, writing in the third century, interpreted Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:27, 28 as saying, while marriage is better than giving free rein to lust, it is not necessarily good. While it was better than evil, when considered on its own, it was not necessarily good. He did not consider sexual activity the worst evil, nor did he consider it the greatest good. It was better than evil, but not as good as continence [13]. Cyprian, writing forty years later from the same city as Tertullian, taught that sexual activity belonged to the present world, which was passing away. The implicit danger in sexual activity was that it could unite an individual to a world destined to be condemned [14].


Lactantius, in the first systematic theology of the Western church [15], recognized sexual desire as “proper”, specifically to procreate children. However, it is easy for such desires to lose control and lead to the body’s defilement by exercising its sexual desire outside of its proper confines, namely the intent to procreate [16]. “Anyone who immerses himself in filth necessarily becomes covered with filth” [17].


In the following century, Gregory of Nyssa detailed the griefs always present in a marriage. Specifically, it was tainted by death. Every joyful moment in marriage is potentially the last since the possibility of death is always present. Marriage, no matter how joyful, will always end in grief. Parenthood is rife with the same potential for grief. The attachments of marriage also tempt married individuals to vices such as greed, envy, anger, hatred, and vainglory. Since marriage ties individuals to the present life, it entangles them in petty endeavors which have no lasting value and subjects them to passions in this life which can lead them away from virtue [18]. Despite these dangers, Gregory considered marriage a blessing from God and affirmed “that one should not scorn the moderate and measured use of the duty of marriage” [19].


Gregory’s contemporary, Ambrose of Milan, followed a similar argument, though he focused particularly on the miseries of childbearing. The act of childbearing in itself contains a potential for death. Giving birth is a painful and traumatic experience for the mother, which may easily result in the death of the mother, the child, or both [20]. If the child survives, the mother is susceptible to grief as she witnesses her child’s potential sufferings. Fathers, too, encounter the possibility of loss [21]. In giving away a daughter to be married to obtain grandchildren, the father must undergo a loss and a separation from his daughter [22]. Ambrose went so far as to compare giving a daughter away in marriage in return for a dowry to selling a daughter into slavery [23]. Similar to Gregory, Ambrose argues that not only does childbearing risk grief, but marriage itself also binds women to the concerns of the present world and has the potential to lead them astray. A married woman or a woman seeking marriage seeks to make herself pleasing to her husband or potential husband, but in so doing, she is led to falsify her physical appearance and become an enticer, even if she does not entice for immoral purposes [24]. Yet despite all these dangers, Ambrose refuses to condemn marriage and recognizes it can be a blessing [25].


Only a few decades later, Augustine of Hippo stood with Gregory and Ambrose to advocate against the rejection of marriage. Augustine argued that if Paul did not condemn marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, neither should the church of his day [26]. Yet for Augustine, as well as Gregory and Ambrose, while marriage did not entail sin on the part of the husband and wife, it entangled them in the concerns of the flesh and the burdens entailed by it. The only persons who should undertake such burdens are those who would fall into sin otherwise [27].


While diverse branches of the church differed on the morality of sexual activity in and of itself, they all agreed that, even in the confines of marriage, it belonged to the present age and entwined the believer with the concerns of what the Apostle Paul called, “the present evil age” [28] which was “passing away” [29]. The early church, however, saw itself as living in the “the age to come” [30], inaugurated by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The virgin birth narratives, in particular, fueled theological imaginations with the image of divine purity entering the present age through a virgin womb.


The first discourse in The Banquet of the Ten Virgins noted that Christ was the first to teach virginity because He brought divine perfection into human life. “Sent down into the world to perfect, He first took upon Him our form, disfigured as it was by many sins, in order that we, for whose sake he bore it, might be able again to receive the divine form” [31]. Just as a potter melts a marred pot to repair it, Christ took the marred form of Adam, the first man, and, in the virgin Mary’s womb, repaired it by defeating the evil which had marred humanity while He was in human flesh. His divine existence in human flesh reintroduced the possibility for a human being to live in incorruption [32].


Gregory of Nyssa taught that perfect virginity can only be found in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as integral to their pure, virtuous, incorruptible nature. The purity of God entered humanity through the virgin birth of Christ [33]. “It has been granted to those whose life has been allotted through flesh and blood, in order that it may set human nature upright once more after it has been cast down by its passionate disposition, and guide it, as if by the hand, to a contemplation of the things on high” [34]. The incorruptible divine nature took on human flesh, not through marriage, but in a virgin womb “to demonstrate through the manner of His becoming man this great mystery, that purity alone is sufficient for receiving the presence and entrance of God, a purity that cannot be otherwise achieved fully, unless one alienates himself from the passions of the flesh” [35].


Ambrose of Milan argued along similar lines: “Truly, after the Lord came into the body and fused into one a fellowship of divinity and of body unstained by confusion or mixture, then it was that this heavenly way of life was implanted in human bodies, spread through the whole world” [36]. His pure divinity entered human existence through a pure virgin womb and He maintained His purity in human flesh throughout His life [37].


Augustine of Hippo added to this theme by beginning with the assumption that Mary was a consecrated virgin, already devoted to lifelong celibacy at the time the angel appeared to her to announce Christ’s birth in Luke 2. Because of His purity, it was more fitting for Christ to enter through a pure womb, rather than typical sexual reproduction [38]. Christ entered humanity through virginity that had been dedicated to God out of love rather than commanded. His birth through Mary’s consecrated virginity created a precedent for those who follow Mary’s example. Spiritually, He has the same relationship with all who have faith in Him and obey the will of the Father through love for Him. Those who follow Mary’s example share in the Divine Life [39].


These authors represent a common theme in early Christian thought begun in the New Testament: with the coming of Christ, a new reality has begun. Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of God, which is yet to come in all its fullness [40]. While Christians still lived within the “present evil age”, Christians had been freed from it by the coming of Jesus Christ [41]. As previously discussed, a mark of the present age was the need or possibility of sexual activity and the bearing of children in light of the reality of death. However, a mark of the age to come in the New Testament was that “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” [42]. The early church consistently combined these themes by asserting that, while their present bodies were susceptible to corruption and death, because Jesus had already inaugurated the age to come, the present bodies of Christians could participate in that future reality through the practice of celibacy. There were several possibilities for the practice as summarized by Brown:

By 'virginity' Christians tended to mean lifelong abstinence from sexual intercourse. Thus, the precise physical state of virginity was upheld as the state to which all human beings-men quite as much as women-had every right to aspire….Continence, however, was the more usual option for many males. This involved the irrevocable renunciation of all future sexual relations. Such renunciation might follow youthful sexual activity, it might come with widowerhood, or it might even be practiced within marriage itself by withdrawal from the marriage bed [43].

These various practices pointed to the same reality: the eschatological future purity of the Christian’s future resurrection body could be experienced in the present, corruptible state.


Early Christian apologists pointed to the practice of celibacy as proof of Christianity’s validity to Greco-Roman society. Most simply, it was an example of Christianity’s strict morality. Christians went beyond the morality of their neighbors by banishing even the thought of sexual activity outside of their marriages and even sustaining lifelong celibacy. They claimed their sexual morals were superior-as in stricter-than their neighbors, despite accusations that Christians practiced adultery and incest [44]. Yet it also served as an indication that the divine life had entered the human race. Justin Martyr emphasized the change seen in individuals who had been amongst the most sexually active, but had come to live in accord with Christianity’s purity standards: “What shall I say, too, of the countless multitude of those who have reformed intemperate habits, and learned these things? For Christ called not the just nor the chaste to repentance, but the ungodly, and the licentious, and the unjust” [45]. Celibate Christians served as examples of individuals intent on living the present life with a “closer communion with God” [46].


Cyprian, in his treatise On the Dress of Virgins [47], drew on the eschatological dimension of celibacy as a component of his argument for virgins to dress modestly. When he turned to address virgins specifically, he called them “the flower of the ecclesiastical seed, the grace and ornament of spiritual endowment, a joyous disposition, the wholesome and uncorrupted work of praise and honour, God’s image answering to the holiness of the Lord, the more illustrious portion of Christ’s flock” [48]. His description hints at the eschatological reality of celibacy: virgins are unique individuals, particularly esteemed in the church because they already possess the uncorrupted holiness of God. Such women should renounce “earthly dress” because they are “destined for the Kingdom of God”. Because virgins are particularly focused on the Lord, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:32 [49], they possess an inner purity that should be reflected in their body and dress [50]. Virgins who engage in extravagant dress commit adultery against Christ, their Spouse [51]. Their actions were labeled “adultery” because they were already sharing in the union between Christ and His bride promised in the age to come. Their bodily dress is to be in accord with their present orientation towards the age to come [52]. They were to live in the present age in accordance with who they are in the age to come.


The Acts of Thomas, admired by groups later deemed heretical and orthodox Christians alike [53], told a story of the Apostle Thomas expounding the eschatological vision of celibacy at a wedding reception. He sang over the bride and groom the glories of celibacy, alternating between the future glories the celibate will inherit and their present realization of that future glory:

They gaze upon the Bridegroom, so that through this vision they may be enlightened. Forever they will be with him in that eternal joy, and they will be present at that wedding feast, where the great ones will gather, and where the eternal ones will be counted worthy to rejoice forever….His proud light they have received, those who have been enlightened in the vision of their Master. His ambrosial food they have received, which will never run out. They have drunk of His wine, which gives them neither thirst nor desire. And they have glorified and praised, with the living Spirit, the Father of Truth and the Mother of Wisdom [54].

In this hymn, the apocryphal Thomas sang of the future wedding feast at which celibate Christians will be united with their true Spouse, Christ. Their wedding feast with Him was presented as a future reality; however, they have already tasted of the feast and drunk the wine. In the present, they have already received the understanding and glory of their future reality. The apocryphal Thomas envisioned a future, eschatological glory which was already in the possession of celibate Christians.


Methodius’s The Banquet of the Ten Virgins expanded the early church’s vocabulary for virginity [55] and also provided the fullest treatment of the eschatological reality of celibacy as of the early fourth century. The vision is most explicit in the first discourse: “Heaven alone knew the fountain from whence it flows; for we must think of virginity as walking indeed upon the earth, but as also reaching up to heaven” [56]. To sustain this life, the virgin must continually turn her attention from the pleasures of the present age to the age to come in the heavenly presence of God [57].


The eighth discourse contains further explicit discussion of the eschatological reality of celibacy. Virgins are those who continually turn themselves from the wild desires of the present age to the beauties of the heavenly life. They are ready for martyrdom as they “have no care for pains, for the desire of them or the fear of them; so that they seem, while in the world, not to be in the world, but to have already reached, in thought and in the tendency of their desires, the assembly of those who are in heaven” [58]. In their practice of celibacy, they are already citizens of heaven. Death merely transfers them from the present age to the age to come, which they already belong to.


Methodius interpreted the lament of Psalm 137 as mourning the various evils which surrounded Christians and could easily have led them awry. Chasity anchors the body, preventing the evils of the present age from drawing it astray. “For God has bestowed upon us virginity as a most useful and a serviceable help towards incorruption, sending it as an ally to those who are contending for and longing after Zion” [59]. Chastity secures the Christian to the hope of the age to come in order to keep him or her secure amid the tumultuous evil age. Methodius does not create a simple, ideal picture of virginity, but recognizes it as a continual struggle. He calls virgins “martyrs”, “not as bearing the pains of the body for a little moment of time, but as enduring them through all their life” [60]. It is a lifelong martyrdom, requiring endurance as the virgins resist the temptations of the present age, anchored in the life of the age to come by the virtue of chastity.


Lactantius described the practice of celibacy as “seizing the virtue of God”. Virginity itself is the path to heaven, the path to achieving true holiness and knowledge of God. “If someone is able to struggle and ascend to it, the Lord will acknowledge him as His servant, the Master will recognize His disciple” [61]. Celibacy is the path which links life in the present age to the life of the age to come. By walking this path, the Christian can arrive at eternal life.


Gregory of Nyssa began his discussion of virginity with a summary of its eschatological reality:

If the achieving of this revered virginity means becoming blameless and holy,…what greater praise of virginity is there than its being proved that in some way those who have a share in the pure mysteries of virginity become themselves partakers of the glory of God, who is alone holy and blameless, since they participate in His purity and incorruptibility [62]?

He continued:

Therefore, since the power of virginity is such that it resides in heaven with the Father of spiritual beings, and takes part in the chorus of the supramundane powers, and attains to human salvation, and since, by itself, it brings God down to a sharing in human life and lifts man up to a desire of heavenly things, becoming a kind of binding force in man’s affinity to God, and since it brings into harmony by mediation things so opposed to each other by nature, what power of words could be found to equal the grandeur of this marvel [63]?


The reason virgins experience the life of the age to come, according to Gregory, is that through their commitment to celibacy, they have learned to see and experience the age to come. That age cannot be seen and, thus, the soul must develop the capacity to recognize the unseen beauty of the Kingdom. If a person is overly concerned about the desires of the flesh, they will be unable to discern the unseen life of the Kingdom. To experience the Kingdom, a person must remove him or herself from earthly things. Then, he or she will be purified by the Holy Spirit [64]. “When [the soul] submits itself to the purity of God, it will be formed according to its participation in and reflection of the prototypal beauty” [65]. Virginity is an example of such purification. Through the discipline of celibacy, virgins can cultivate a capacity to fully receive the Holy Spirit and the life of the age to come. “The goal of true virginity and zeal for incorruptibility is the ability to see God, for the chief and first and only beautiful and good and pure is the God of all” [66].


Gregory also viewed procreation as participating in the cycle of death and understood virginity as breaking that cycle. With each human birth, death gained a new victim, whether or not the child was claimed shortly after birth or after a long life. Child-bearing provides death with new fodder. Virginity, on the other hand, prevents death’s advancement [67]. They set “themselves up as a kind of boundary stone between life and death, they keep death from going forward” [68]. It interrupts the cycle of death, just as Christ shattered the power of death. “In them, mortality is truly conquered by life and the life of virginity seems to be an image of the blessedness that is to come, bringing with it many tokens of the goods that are stored up through hope” [69]. Virginity rejects the power of death, which is active in the present age, and witnesses to the life of the age to come in which death will be extinguished:

For if the life which is promised to the just by the Lord after the resurrection is similar to that of the angels—and release from marriage is a peculiar characteristic of the angelic nature—he has already received some of the beauties of the promise, having mingled with the splendor of the saints and having imitated the purity of the incorporeal beings in the undefiled character of his life [70].

Ambrose began his work, Concerning Virgins, with the story of a young virgin martyr named Agnes for whom the eschatological vision enabled her to face martyrdom. Her executioner, in his attempts to force her to recant, promised her marriage. Her bold response was, “It would be an injustice to my Spouse to look upon another as being able to please. He who first chose me for Himself shall receive me. Executioner, why do you delay? Let the body perish which can be loved by eyes which I refuse” [71]. Her commitment to the eschatological reality that Christ was her bridegroom emboldened her to endure persecution and turn from the life of the present age to instead achieve the life of the age to come.


Ambrosiaster, in the first commentary on Paul’s epistles [72], carefully exegeted 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle’s central text on the subject. While recognizing the validity of marriage, he also described celibacy as purer and especially appropriate for prayer as its “prayer may more easily be rendered effective” [73]. Virginity frees an individual from the concerns of the present life and “has a better standing” before God. Through the practice of virginity, an individual overcomes the desires of the flesh [74]. Though marriage is lawful, virginity is superior because it even abstains from desires the flesh is allowed. Yet even these desires belong to the world which is passing away and it is best to be free of such burdens. Instead, the virgin can dedicate her attention to preserving “her commitment to be devoted to the Lord” [75]. These comments do not comprise a systematic argument about virginity, but rather arise from interpreting Paul’s discussions on marriage, divorce, and celibacy. Ambrosiaster discerned an eschatological dimension to Paul’s thought: specifically, that through the practice of celibacy, individuals can turn their attention from concerns in the present age to focus on contemplating the life of the age to come.


Jerome’s perspective, considered extreme in his day [76], assumed prayer and sexual activity were incompatible: “If one must pray always, one must never be enslaved to marriage, because as often as I pay the debt to my wife, I am unable to pray” [77]. Instead, Christians are called to imitate Christ’s incorruption. Since His bodily incorruption stems from His virgin birth, a process Christians cannot share in, Christians are, instead, to follow His example by practicing celibacy. “That state of His was one of divinity and blessedness, our state belongs to the human condition and requires labor” [78]. Yet the result of this labor is to share in the blessed state of the age to come, even during the present age. As Jerome writes, with a characteristically harsh comparison to marriage: “Virginity does not die and…not even the blood of martyrdom washes away the defilement of marriage, but virginity remains with Christ, and its falling asleep is a transition, not a death” [79]. Virginity, in the present, is incorruption practiced within corruptible bodies and, at death, transitions to its true home, the heavenly presence of Christ.


Augustine derived his understanding of the eschatological vision and superiority of virginity from his exegesis of several biblical texts. Beginning with 1 Cor. 7, already discussed as a key text for the early church’s understanding of celibacy, he argued that virginity was not merely superior to marriage because it alleviated troubles in the present life, but because it focused on pleasing God [80]. It was not encumbered by present concerns, but was instead focused on contemplating the glories of Christ. Jesus Himself described “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” [81]. Isaiah 56 spoke of rewards for those who live celibately. Augustine interpreted verse 5 [82] as saying that those who chose a life of celibacy will have a superior place in the kingdom of heaven [83]. They have their position because their good works in the present life of the church exist “for the future life of eternity” [84]. They have a more blessed place in the age to come because they already live in its reality in the present age.


While married persons do not experience the life of the age to come in the present age as virgins do, virgins point them to the hope all Christians share. Augustine wrote:

The great numbers of the rest of the faithful, who are unable to follow the Lamb this far, will see you. They will see you, but they will not be jealous. They will rejoice with you because they will have in you what they do not have in themselves. They will not be able to sing that new hymn that is exclusively yours, but they will be able to hear it and to share your enjoyment of that special privilege [85].

The life of virgins proclaims the eschatological hope in which all Christians share. All will inherit the purity of Christ, but virgins possess it during the present age as a witness to the future glory.


Augustine concluded his discussion on virginity by focusing on Christ’s expression of love. Only such love can lead individuals into a life of purity and sustain them in the struggle against their passions.

He was fastened to the cross for you; hold Him tight to every part of your heart. Let Him occupy in your mind all the room you did not allow to be taken by marriage. It is not right that you should love Him only a little, when for His sake you have held back even from love that was licit [86].

The life of celibacy is not merely a life of denying bodily passions; it is a life of emptying one’s self from lesser passions to be filled with the love of Christ, to whom virgins have dedicated themselves as His spouse [87]. Because of His love, “in [the] midst of the burning heat of this world, even though you do not marry, you do not burn” [88]. They can experience freedom from the desires of the present life because of His love for them.


The eschatological vision of celibacy was not merely an abstract concept employed by theologians, but it influenced the life of the church. It was a foundational image for the monastic movement. Historian Susanna Elm points out that the initial monastic vow of women was seen as “the equivalent of a marriage vow, a lifelong commitment on an individual and personal level” [89]. An early, anonymous text titled “Une curieuse homelie grecque inedite sur la virginite adressee aux peres de famille” described the monastic virgin as progressing “with generosity towards the immaculate bridal chamber of Christ, where she will dwell in the company of wise virgins” [90]. Hence, the monastic vow was “a betrothal with Jesus Christ” and a lifelong practice of consecrated celibacy served as “a period of preparation in anticipation of the wedding night with the heavenly bridegroom, strict and at times miserable on earth, but leading to a blissful eternity” [91]. Early monastics recognized they lived a life “outside the world”, but also recognized they did so within the existing world of the present age [92]. Basil of Ancyra affirmed sexual desire as a powerful part of the created order in the present life and, in order to overcome it so as to live in the purity of the age to come, the monastic virgin had to overcome nature itself and force the body in this present age to submit to the will [93]. Thus, the monastic virgin, while living in a corruptible body, would develop an incorruptible soul that reflects the image of God [94].


The eschatological vision of celibacy would also form the basis for the early church’s defense of clerical celibacy. The Council of Carthage in 390 formed the basis of later decisions regarding clerical contingency. The Council ruled, “It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e., those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God” [95]. The logic is clear: clergy handled the mysteries of the sacraments, the medium in which the divine life of the age to come was appropriated through the elements of the present age in bread, wine, and water. In addition, they carried the concerns of congregants in the present age to the heavenly throne in prayer. Those who live at the crossroads of the two ages, representing each one to the other, were expected to live in the purity of the age to come by practicing celibacy. This logic formed the basis of developing pronouncements of the church on clerical celibacy [96].


In the preceding survey of the theme of virginity in early church literature, it has become clear that early Christians understood the practice of celibacy as a sign of the eschatological reality of the age to come lived in the present age. While these thinkers differed in their attitudes to sexuality and marriage and developed various sexual ethics and practices, they shared this same eschatological vision. Virginity served as a bridge between the present age and the age to come as individuals, both men and women, clerics and laypersons, lived a life of incorruptible purity in their present, corruptible bodies. For these early Christians, the practice of celibacy was not merely the repression of sexual desire, but was seen as rejecting a lesser pleasure in favor of living the perfect and pure life of the Kingdom and enjoying its joys in the presence of Christ, before the promised resurrection and the dawn of the life everlasting.


[1] Particularly in Christian Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1992) and Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).

[2] Particularly in Susanna Elm, "Virgins of God": The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) and Mary Rosamond Nugent, Portrait of the Consecrated Woman in Greek Christian Literature of the First Four Centuries: A Dissertation (Washington, D.C.: Catholic. Univ. Press, 1941).

[3] Particularly in Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

[4] Brown, The Body and Society, 5-32.

[5] Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 6:313-314.

[6] Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins”, 6:314. Brown, The Body and Society, p. 185.

[7] Brown, The Body and Society, 285-287.

[8] David G. Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018), 154.

[9] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 153-154.

[10] Brown, The Body and Society, 88-90.

[11] Brown, The Body and Society, 92-102.

[12] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 81-90.

[13] Tertullian, “On Exhortation to Chastity”, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 4:52.

[14] Cyprian, “On the Dress of Virgins”, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), 5:432.

[15] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 101.

[16] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 102-104.

[17] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 104.

[18] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Woods Callahan (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1967), 12-27.

[19] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 31-33.

[20] Ambrose writes to his sister, herself a virgin, and addresses women pledged to lifelong celibacy. Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,” in Early Christian Spirituality, ed. Charles Kannengiesser (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 25-27.

[21] Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,” 89.

[22] Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,” 91.

[23] Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,” 98.

[24] Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,”, 90.

[25] Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,” 92.

[26] Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, trans. Ray Kearney (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1999) 77-78.

[27] Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, 76.

[28] Galatians 1:4, NRSV.

[29] 1 John 2:17.

[30] Matthew 12:32.

[31] Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins,” 6:312.

[32] Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins,” 6:318-319.

[33] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 10-12.

[34] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 11.

[35] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 11.

[36] Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,” 86.

[37] Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,” 88.

[38] Origen makes a similar argument, “Against Celsus,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 4:411.

[39] Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, 69-70.

[40] ee Wright, N. T. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels for an exploration of this theme in the four canonical Gospels: “They tell us about what we might call his kingdom-inaugurating work: the deeds and words that declared that God’s kingdom was coming then and there, in some sense or other, on earth as in heaven”, 11.

[41] Galatians 1:3-4.

[42] Matthew 22:30.

[43] Peter Brown, “The Notion of Virginity in the Early Church,” in Christian Spirituality, Vol. 1: Origins to the Twelfth Century, ed. Bernard McGin (Chestnut Ridge: Herder & Herder, 1987), 427-428.

[44] Justin Martyr, “First Apology of Justin,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 1:167, 172, Athenagoras, “A Plea for the Christians,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 2:146-147, Minucius Felix, “The Octavius of Minucius Felix,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 4:190-193, 195, Origen, “Against Celsus,” 4:507-508

[45] Justin Martyr. “First Apology of Justin,” 1:167.

[46] Athenagoras. “A Plea for the Christians,” 2:146

[47] Cyprian, “On the Dress of Virgins,” 5:430–436.

[48] Cyprian, “On the Dress of Virgins,” 5:431, italics added.

[49] “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32).

[50] Cyprian, “On the Dress of Virgins,” 5:431.

[51] Cyprian, “On the Dress of Virgins,” 5:435.

[52] See Revelation 19:1-6.

[53] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 81.

[54] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 86-87.

[55] Nugent, Portrait of the Consecrated Woman in Greek Christian Literature of the First Four Centuries, 104.

[56] Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins,” 6:310-311.

[57] Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins,” 6:310.

[58] Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins,” 6:335.

[59] Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins,” 6:324.

[60] Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins,” 6:332.

[61] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 107.

[62] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 9.

[63] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 11.

[64] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 38-41.

[65] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 41.

[66] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 42.

[67] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 48-49.

[68] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 48.

[69] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 50.

[70] Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 51.

[71] Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,” 85.

[72] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 135.

[73] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 137.

[74] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 143-144.

[75] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 146-148.

[76] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 153.

[77] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 156.

[78] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 158.

[79] Hunter, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, 163.

[80] “The unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband” (1 Cor. 7:34). Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, 80-81.

[81] Matthew 10:12.

[82] “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Is. 56:5).

[83] Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, 82-83.

[84] Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, 83.

[85] Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, 86.

[86] Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, 105.

[87] Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, 104-105.

[88] Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, 105.

[89] Elm, Virgins of God, 28.

[90] Quoted in Elm, Virgins of God, 36.

[91] Elm, Virgins of God, 31.

[92] Elm, Virgins of God, 103.

[93] Elm, Virgins of God, 114.

[94] Elm, Virgins of God, 116.

[95] Quoted in Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 5.

[96] These developments are traced more fully in Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, and Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West.

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