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A History of Sexuality
One thing you may find alarming is the lack of agreement and consistancy within the church over time, regarding the topic of human sexuality. What you find today taught within the church, both on the liberal and conservative side does not reflect a consistant model of times past. It seems the culture and people's own perceptions tend to model the interpretation of scripture, rather than unbiased judgement or thorough research.
Here is a brief synopsis of the treatment of sexuality within various cultures in the ancient past:
The Ancient Near East - 2100 - 1800 BC
With the ancient near east, we can find a glimpse into their sexual ethics by referencing the "Code of Hammurabi". The Code of Hammurabi (from about 1800 BC) was actually a collection of ethics passed down in other older codes (as far back as 2050 BC), sort of an overall accepted code for everyday conduct. Abraham lived around 2100 BC, to give you a person in the Bible who lived around this time frame.
Within the Code of Hammurabi, we find these sexual ethics:
Wow! That is a lot of laws! I did not even cite all of the laws that relate to wives, daughters and marriage above. Only maybe half of them..
At any rate, what can we glean from all these laws above? It is very patriarchal and very much like the laws we see in the Old Testament regarding marriage, polygamy and other topics. First, notice that incest is a sin, similar to Leviticus 18:7-20. Second, notice that the dowry made the marriage more of a contractual transaction, like you see with business contracts, in that, if someone does not bear offspring, the marriage contract can be annulled or if there is a violation like adultery, the person is killed. Third, notice, that women do have rights within these contracts, and can also leave the man. Fourth, notice, prostitutes are almost always shown as "cult" or "temple" prostitutes, which we know is the type that is forbidden in scripture, as I discuss here.
In Babylonia and as can be seen also in the Code of Hammurabi (Law 144 above) above (and in the story of Abraham and Sarah), we see that concubinage (servant girl who also acted as a secondary wife) was permitted, as a secondary choice to monogamy (one man and one woman married).
We can see, obviously, the system back in Abraham's time was not exactly the same as we commonly see today in westernized nations. It was similar in that monogamy was the common method, however, concubinage was also permitted. Further, many of their laws seem to focus heavily on the contractual side of marriage more like a family agreement, than a focus on your one true love, etc. This does not mean they did not have romance, etc. However it does mean, they saw marriage and sex through the eyes of a contractual agreement, rather than a list of do's and dont's.
Sexual Behaviour in Ancient Egypt - 1500 - 1100 BC
Sexual Behaviour in Ancient China - 770 - 220 BC
Ancient China upheld a Taoist Doctrine more so when it came to the topic of sex, hence the concept of Yin(Women) and the Yang(Men). Women had an infinite supply of Yin essence, hence sexual stimulation was encourage (be it sex or masturbation). However for men, Yang was considered limited in supply, hence men were not allowed to have as much sexual stimulation. So, if a man was having sex with a woman, she needed to orgasm more than once before he could orgasm, so as to balance the Yin and Yang. Women were encouraged to masturbate, while men were forbidden to such activities.
In this time period, female homosexuality was common, because of this Yin Yang concept, while male homosexuality was forbidden. It is possible this concept has some distant relation to the Hebrew seed concept, whereas men's seed is for producing life, hence sex with something that does not produce life (be fruitful and multiply) is forbidden. While women do not have the power to inpregnate, hence no commandment in the Old Testament against women lying with women.
Sex has three functions: physical enjoyment, health development and reproduction. Within Ancient China a lot of the focus was on health development. So they looked at it more scientifically and how it brought two people together. Sex regimen was considered a form of coition medicine for keeping good health. One legend says a Yellow Emperor was an expert in coition medicine and became immortal after having sex with 1200 young girls.
Coition medicine (coita means sexual intercourse) was the founder of Taoism himself, Zhang Daoling. He lived in the Eastern Han Dynasty. His idea of coition medicine is that it would make a man live longer, if controlled and put in regimen with the Ying and Yang concept.
Sexual Behaviour in Ancient Greece - 100 BC
This was a little before the time of Jesus, but these same ideas were still in effect within Greece and the surrounding cultures. Aphrodite seems to have embodied the mode of thought regarding love and sex during this time period.
We can see Paul ellude to this type of mindset and in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 6, when he tells Christians to "flee fornication". However, when you and I read it, we think maybe "sex before marriage", however, this was not what he was refering to. Rather, he was telling Christians not to associate with temple prostitutes or even many of the common prostitutes in the region, as almost all of them had considered themselves as devotees to Aphrodite. And as Paul said, "What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? .. flee fornication .. know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost" Should we join our Christian body temple with a Aphrodite temple prostitute? God forbid. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:17, "If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which [temple] ye are." So, the great sin was mixing idolatry with sex and love, vexing the true God.
What was some of the philosophy on marriage and sex from this time? The main idea was that sex was not a moral issue in of itself. Rather, the sin was in violation or cheating, such as adultery, which could be punished by death or imprisonment.
One law from this time period required men to have sex atleast 3 times a month with their wife (Law of Solon). Greek opinion also expected a married man to abstain from open relationships with other women, yet shockingly, the culture permitted a man to have sexual relations with other men. Athenian men were allowed to keep concubines, so this practice seems to be rather commonplace in many of the ancient cultures.
The Athenians, who had no problem with gay male sex, seemed to think themselves superior to the Spartans, who would participate in wife swapping. I guess, to me, its more of a stalemate. Prostitution was commonplace in Athens during the time of Christ, both temple and secular prostitution. Many ambitious women also established long term relationships with men of power and wealth (haven't heard that one before, have we?)
Do not assume that the Greeks were just depraved sexual heathens. No, to the contrary, many philosophers believed that virginity and abstaining from sex was very praiseworthy. Matter of fact, many of the Christianized virtues of virginity and chastity (as seen in the medieval church) had their origins in Greece (rather than scripture). Most of St Augustine and Jerome's ideas on sex find their source in Plato and Gnostic philosophy.