Book Reviews

Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments on Sexuality

Attitudes towards Sexuality in the Writings of Philo and Josephus and in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

William Loader Grand Rapids, MI 2011-03-01

These two books are volumes 3 and 4 of a five-part series on “attitudes towards sexuality in Judaism and Christianity in the Hellenistic Greco-Roman era.” The previous volumes cover the early Enoch literature, Aramaic Levi, Jubilees (vol. 1) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (vol. 2). The fifth volume (2012) covers the New Testament. Finally, an additional, much briefer volume, was published in 2013 in order to make the material in the series accessible to a wider audience (Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature [Eerdmans, 2013]). Loader has written a number of other articles and books in this area, with the five volumes in this series as his capstone contribution. In volume 3 (PsS), the section on Ben Sira/Sirach (PsS, pp. 362–98) was written by Ibolya Balla and is based on her 2008 Murdoch University dissertation, “Attitudes towards Sexuality in Ben Sira” (PsS, p. 3). These are weighty and comprehensive studies. Loader and Balla have closely read the ancient material, thoughtfully considered it, and presented observations and conclusions in a well-organized manner. The amount of material collected and analyzed is immense, covering centuries of time and many geographical regions. Additionally, the opinions of the ancients represented are diverse and impossible to easily summarize. Loader himself acknowledges this (e.g., PsS, p. 490; PhJTS, p. 436).

Generally speaking, none of the ancient works examined are specifically about sexuality, though much was said directly and indirectly on the subject. Loader seems to have left no stone unturned in his description and analysis of sexuality in this literature. It is important to recognize that Loader defines “sexuality” broadly. Although it includes narrow matters of sexuality often associated with sex, it also includes issues such as social and gender relationships (PsS, p. 1). Nevertheless, the focus is primarily on attitudes toward sex and includes topics such as desire and procreation. There is much in this literature with which to interact. Sexuality (like many other areas of life) was an important part of life in ancient Judaism.

For the purposes of this review, pseudepigraphic literature includes all the material from the first book as well as the Testaments covered in the second. This massive body of literature is broader than its label “pseudepigrapha.” It also includes what is often called the “Apocrypha” and fragments of the poetry of Theodotus, whose extant work is found in Eusebius. Some of this material is clearly Christian (e.g., see the discussion of the Testaments, PhJTS, pp. 368–70). However, such material is not presented in a special way. This is all considered ancient Jewish material, and it is likely that much of the Christian material had a Jewish pre-history (e.g., PhJTS, pp. 368–69).

As noted, the ancient Jews had various opinions on matters of sexuality. The massive collection of sources that Loader examines demonstrates this diversity. It does not seem possible to isolate portions of this literature and make claims such as “Josephus has unique views on . . .” (although emphases may differ). This diversity may in part be due to the specific (non-sexuality) topic in which the sexuality comments are made. Generally, the differences are points of emphasis or further development on the part of an author or corpus. For example, the role of passion, pleasure, and/or desire in marriage is mentioned in many places. For Philo, though pleasure is good, it is a means of having children and can be dangerous (PhJTS, pp. 56–76). Also, the only reason to have intercourse with one’s spouse is to conceive children; in fact, it is possible that the appropriate pleasure itself is in having children, not the means of conception (see, Philo, On the Creation 152; PhJTS, pp. 56, 61). Philo goes so far as to condemn sex with a woman who cannot bear children because this is clearly for the sake of pleasure (On Special Laws 3.34; PhJTS, p. 202; Loader notes this is without biblical support). Nevertheless, Philo does not explicitly suggest that after the childbearing years, a couple should remain celibate (On Special Laws 3.34; PhJTS, p. 203). Josephus would seem to agree at least with the main goal of sexual relations (Against Apion 2.199; PhJTS, p. 364, see the discussion there). The pseudepigraphic literature also maintains the emphasis on the procreative goal of sex and the danger of misuse (PsS, pp. 495–501). After reviewing the literature on Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments, Loader observes that although the stance on the main reason for sex is clear, there is no instruction to calculate the time of potential conception and limit sex to such times (PhJTS, p. 436).

When it comes to specific Old Testament teachings on the topic, comments in the literature are rather consistent. For example, adultery is always viewed negatively (e.g., Sibylline Oracles 3.595 [PsS, p. 59]; Pseudo-Phocylides 178 [PsS, p. 464]; Philo, Decalogue 130–31 [PhJTS, p. 190]; Josephus, Against Apion 2.201 [PhJTS, p. 333]), sexual experiences with animals are always condemned (e.g., Testament of Levi 17.11 [PhJTS, p. 432]; Philo, On Special Laws 3.43 [PhJTS, pp. 217–18]; Josephus, Antiquities 3.275 [this is the only mention of the practice in Josephus; PhJTS, p. 355]), and sexual activity between males in general (Sibylline Oracles 3.185–87 [PsS, p. 58]; Pseudo-Phocylides 191 [PsS, p. 469]; Philo, On Special Laws 3.37–42 [PhJTS, p. 204]; Josephus, Against Apion 2.199 [PhJTS, p. 333]) and specifically with male children (pederasty) is harshly criticized and never condoned (Sibylline Oracles 3.185–87; 3.596 [PsS, p. 59]; Testament of Levi 17.11 [PhJTS, p. 432]; Philo, On the Contemplative Life 50–56 [PhJTS, p. 209]).

Other topics of interest arise in this literature that may surprise the modern reader. Although most realize that the ancients generally viewed women as inferior and/or weak (PsS, pp. 502–3, PhJTS, p. 436), the force with which this is manifested is very strong. There are positive statements about women throughout this literature (e.g., Philo, Questions on Genesis 1.26; PhJTS, p. 27); however, these do not counterbalance the overall negative picture. Josephus states, “A woman is inferior to her husband in all things” (Against Apion 2.201 [tr. Whiston]; see also Philo, Apology for the Jews 7.3; PhJTS, p. 32). Josephus and Philo link a wife’s submission to this belief. Josephus continues, “Let her, therefore, be obedient to him; not so, that he should abuse her, but that she should acknowledge her duty to her husband; for God hath given the authority to the husband” (Against Apion 2.201; for more on Josephus’s view of women, see PhJTS, pp. 357–61). For Sirach, if a woman is left on her own, she is unable to control her sexual appetite. He laments for fathers of daughters, “A daughter is a secret anxiety to her father, and worry over her robs him of sleep” (42:9, NRSV; see also 42:10–14 and 26:10–12). When the New Testament’s teaching on women is compared with this, it is remarkably positive. Also, abortion seems to be universally condemned (Sibylline Oracles 2.281 [PsS, p. 75]; Josephus, Against Apion 2.202–3 [PhJTS, pp. 333, 355]).

This material is complex; however, Loader’s organization makes it manageable for the diligent reader. Before discussing issues of sexuality in a particular book in the Pseudepigrapha, Loader often provides an overview of the book in focus as an introduction to the context in which the discussion will take place. For example, his discussion of the Parables of Enoch (1 Enoch 37–71) could serve as a very helpful summary of the text’s contents (PsS, pp. 4–32). Much of the material on Philo is organized topically. Topics discussed include “conception, childbirth, and human biology” (PhJTS, pp. 117–25), “incest” (PhJTS, pp. 193–95), “intercourse during menstruation” (pp. 201–2), and “pederasty and same-sex intercourse” (pp. 204–16). Some of Philo and much of Josephus is arranged chronologically by Old Testament character.

Loader includes a nice summary in a conclusion on selected topics in portions of the Pseudepigrapha such as “marriage and household,” “contraception, pregnancy, and childbirth,” “sexual attractiveness and sexual pleasure” (PsS, pp. 490–513). The material on Josephus includes a similar review (PhJTS, pp. 339–65). These are helpful overviews in themselves but also can serve as a means to get into the more detailed discussions. The sections on Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments have corpus-specific conclusions (PhJTS, pp. 252–58, 365–67, 427–35), and the book ends with a brief conclusion on all three (PhJTS, pp. 436–37). Further, most sections throughout both volumes include helpful short conclusions.

As noted these are volumes 3 and 4 of a five-volume set. The first four volumes of primarily Jewish material contribute over 1,600 pages to the topic of sexuality. This is not simply a convenient collection of proof texts to contribute to a specific view of sexuality. Although some similarities exist, as noted above, there is much diversity on this subject, as this collection makes clear. The choice to follow the topic of sexuality throughout all this material was certainly a colossal undertaking, but it has paid off with an overview and deep analysis of the topic in ancient Jewish literature. Loader’s work can be seen as a model to pursue other topics in this literature. The amount of effort for such a project would be immense. However, the contribution could be equally beneficial.

Each volume concludes with a bibliography and two indexes (modern authors and ancient sources). A subject index would have been welcomed. A word about sources is in order. Although they exhibit vast diversity of time, place, and opinion, one area of continuity stands out, namely, the extant sources almost exclusively reflect the opinions of males, and probably males with some sort of authority or elite position within their communities. This is the nature of ancient sources. It is possible some other opinions are reflected here, but such perspectives would be through the elite male authors themselves. Of course, since such people were the authorities in their societies, this preserves an important voice. Nevertheless, despite the wealth of information here, it does not provide access to views of women, slaves, and others whose thoughts would provide important insights for understanding.

On this subject matter, these volumes (and the series) are unsurpassed and a helpful model for doing a “theology” of a topic in a specific body of literature. Still it is important to note what the reader will and will not find in these volumes. First, they present an in-depth analysis of many texts. Most Bible students will be unaware that much of this literature even exists. For most, the summary volume mentioned above will be an excellent introduction to this material, with the larger volumes serving for reference as needed. Those with a specialty in modern sexuality or women’s studies will benefit much from this work. The Bible student who reads this material closely will gain a better understanding of the ancient world, one that will illuminate the Scriptures. Second, the reader may be surprised how little here resembles contemporary modern evangelical ideas of sexuality (including marriage); where similarities seem to exist, they will often have different emphases or a different focus.

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