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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, by William Loader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2011. 488 pp. $65.00.
William Loader, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia, has focused his research and books in recent years on sexuality as discussed in the Jewish and Christian literature of late antiquity. This is his fourth book in this topic, all published by Eerdmans. The first three were Enoch, Levi, and Jubilees on Sexuality (2007), The Dead Sea Scrolls on Sexuality (2009), and The Pseudepigrapha on Sexuality, forthcoming. They are the product of a five-year project of the Australian Research Council on attitudes toward sexuality in Judaism and Christianity in the Hellenistic, Greco-Roman era. Loader is a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia.
There is considerable value in learning from the writers of late antiquity who thought and wrote about “the elephant in the room,” that is, human sexuality, an appetite that more than the other bodily appetites has a spiritual aspect to it. Loader included in this volume an exploration of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, a second-century Christian editing of a Jewish work usually included among the pseudepigrapha, along with Philo and Josephus, because they all share attitudes toward sexuality and ethical philosophy (p. 437).
We who are the heirs of the Bible, the Puritans and the Victorians, of Kinsey and Updike and Lawrence and the internet, cannot escape the pulse of this driving force that makes the generations keep coming, leaving in its wake such turbulence. Here is found the outworking of the first command given by our Creator in the Bible, “be fruitful and multiply,” that works as well with gnats and giraffes and the rest of the created order to which this command was given.
The first and longest section of Loader’s newest book investigates Philo’s take on sexuality. This Alexandrian Jew, born in the Augustan age, knew the libidinous ways of Roman aristocracy, as evident in Egypt as in Rome. He refers to the ways of the Persians, who marry their mothers, Egyptians, whose siblings marry each other, and Greeks and barbarians who practice homosexuality as examples of inappropriate sexual expression for Jews. These were the peoples in whose lands the Jews lived. Philo’s writing seems to target primarily a Jewish audience that lives in this highly sexualized climate. He is a teacher for his people. As he tried to explain the justice of God when writings Against Flaccus, the Roman governor who orchestrated the horrendous pogrom in Alexandria in the year 38, so throughout his other writings he sought to instruct his people on how Jews, informed by their Scriptures, should manage their sexuality.
As Loader informs us, Philo touched on virtually every aspect of sexuality, its aberrations of pederasty and bestiality as well as its more approved forms with their various deviations from the moral guidance of the Bible. Philo confesses that both he and his wife were virgins when they got married, which is the ideal.
Loader remarks in summarizing the vast detail he gathers, “Matters sexual are scarcely peripheral to Philo’s concerns” (p. 252). These concerns include the role of women quite apart from sexual matters. Women are types of the aesthetic element of our humanity, by contrast with men, who typify the rational. He reflects the common view of ancient Jews that women are the source of the temptation that often overcomes reason. Philo wrestled with the issue of the pleasure that accompanies sexual expression, including the pleasure it affords but which, uncontrolled, leads to dominating, even destructive passions. Sexuality is part of God’s creation, hence is in itself good. But when delight in the pleasure accompanying sexual expression is not governed by reason, it has harmful effects.
Josephus’ writing differed from Philo’s. He was not nearly so concerned with explaining appropriate sexual ways, though this might have been part of the work on Customs and Causes that he intended to write. Loader writes regarding Josephus, “Mostly, matters related to sexuality scarcely feature. The exceptions are in discussions of Josephus’ depictions of the Essenes in relation to celibacy and Qumran, his depiction of women, usually seen as misogynist, and his erotic and romantic embellishments of narrative” (p. 263). Loader observes that generally speaking, though much of what Josephus writes is of incidental interest, there is also an existential aspect to Josephus’ observations on sexuality. For example, in Vita 414–415, Josephus makes plain that his first wife, a prisoner of war forced on him by the Emperor Vespasian, was still a virgin. “Thereby he appears to exonerate himself in the light of the provision that a priest not marry a captive woman (Ant. 3, 276).
Loader points out that the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs in the form that we have them are Christian revisions of earlier Jewish writings, so they provide evidence of early Christian reflection on sexuality. As such they reflect Stoic morality as well as Jewish thoughts on sexuality derived from the Bible, from perceived angelic sources, and from the extra-canonical literature that abounded in the late Second Temple period. The Testaments present women as at least the efficient cause of sexual sin because they have less ability to control their sexual instincts.
The first son of Jacob, Reuben, is depicted uniquely weeping in remorse for his ill-conceived sexual union with his father’s concubine, Bilhah. He admonishes his sons “solemnly today by the God of heaven, not to walk in the ignorance of youth and sexual immorality, in which I was poured out and defiled the bed of my father, Jacob” (1, 6). His desecration of his father’s bed haunted him ever after. This gives the writer occasion to remark that “For by what things a man transgresses, by the same he is also punished.” (This application is actually found in the Testament of Gad 5:10.) It was the pleasure accompanying the sex act that lured youthful Reuben into succumbing to the most emphatic of the “seven spirits of Beliar” (sexual wrongdoing, insatiate desire, fighting, flattery and trickery, arrogance, lying in destruction and jealousy, and unrighteousness”) that lure humans to moral tumbles (p. 378) to the point of lapsing into idolatry. This Testament employs psychological insight, though imputing to psychology forces beyond human nature
The Testimony of Simeon, Jacob’s second son, traces sexual sin to the Watchers whose fall is described in Genesis 6 and embellished in the Book of Enoch. This abnormal union between earthly and hevenly beings was ‘the mother of all evils” (p. 39). It is strange to note that neither in this Testament nor in that of Levi is there detailed reference to the story to which Genesis 34 is devoted, the treacherous deed of Simeon and Levi in response to the seduction of their sister, Dinah. Instead, the principal concern of the Dinah episode is the inappropriateness of intermarriate with non-Jews and the importance of virginity before marriage.
This book is an encyclopedic source that will surely be mined for information on this perennially hot topic. No other source that I know of includes so much information, and possibilities of information, pertaining to human sexuality from a Jewish and Christian perspective—as found in these three sources. Remarkably, the author can write very bluntly without seeming indiscreet. It is a frankly written book whose purpose clearly is to inform rather than to amuse the searcher after esoteric sexual lore. Those with an interest to know how Jews and Christians came to their way of thinking about sexuality today are fortunate to have such a well written resource. Though this is not a review of everything Loader has written on this subject, and not having read his other works, I can yet safely say that this author’s work will become of permanent value to those who want solid information on how we got from there to here, from “Be fruitful and multiply” to the maze of repercussions that derived from this first Divine commandment.