Historian Tom Holland on How the Gospel Changed Everything. Part 1: Sex and Power

Detail of "Conversion on the Way to Damascus," by Caravaggio.

By John Zmirak Published on January 1, 2020

Tom Holland is one of the best historical writers in English today. He has penned accurate, thoughtful, gripping and fair-minded histories of:

I’ve devoured each of these books in a few fascinated days. Which means that shortly after discovering Holland’s work, I ran out of it. That left me hungry for more. So I was excited when I got hold of his newest book, Dominion. It’s an episodic history of Christianity from the ancient world to the present. And delighted when he agreed to an interview about Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.

The Gospel Came as a Shock

Zmirak: In your new book, Dominion, you demonstrate how the Christian worldview came as a shock to the ancient world. Could you speak a bit as to how the Christian view of man revolutionized relations between the sexes?

Tom Holland: It might be thought that humanity’s understanding of sexual desire is something universal. Perhaps something that has remained constant throughout history. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, 2000 years on from the coming of Christianity, we stand at an incalculable remove from the assumptions that governed sexual behavior in the Roman empire.

To suffer as Christ had done, to be beaten, degraded, and abused, was to share in his glory.

Sex, in Rome, was above all an exercise of power. As captured cities were to the swords of the legions, so the bodies of those used sexually were to the Roman man. To be penetrated, male or female, was to be branded as inferior: to be marked as womanish, barbarian, servile. While the bodies of free-born Romans were sacrosanct, those of others were fair game. “It is accepted that every master is entitled to use his slave as he desires.” Men no more hesitated to use slaves and prostitutes to relieve themselves of their sexual needs than they did to use the side of a road as a toilet. In Latin, the same word, ‘meio’, meant both ejaculate and urinate.

To the presumptions that underlay this, however, Christianity brought a radically different perspective. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” So Paul demanded of the Corinthians. How could any man, knowing his limbs consecrated to the Lord, think to entwine them with those of a whore, mingle his sweat with hers, become one flesh with her?

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Paul, however, by proclaiming the body “a temple of the Holy Spirit,” was not merely casting as sacrilege the carefree attitude of men in Corinth or Rome towards sex. He was also giving to those who serviced them, the bar girls, and the painted boys in brothels, and the slaves used without compunction by their masters, a glimpse of salvation. To suffer as Christ had done, to be beaten, degraded, and abused, was to share in his glory.

Adoption by God, so Paul assured his Roman listeners, promised the redemption of their bodies. “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” From these radical teachings, much that today we take for granted would flow.

  • The right of those at the bottom of the pile to reject the sexual advances of their superiors.
  • The assumption that monogamous love provides the surest basis for a sexual relationship.
  • The very categories of what, by the late 19th century, would come to be termed as “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality.”

The Last Shall Be First

How did the new faith change relations among the social classes?

“Christ did not say, ‘Woe to you who are the evil rich’, but simply, ‘Woe to you who are rich.’” This observation came from a radical follower of the British heretic Pelagius amid the turmoil of Rome’s collapse in the fifth century. It struck at the heart of what made the Christian gospel so counter-intuitive to a world founded on the privileges of the wealthy.

Christ had lived, not in purple and palaces, but on the margins, and he had suffered the death of a slave. What, then, did this mean for a world where the poor were regarded with contempt? Christians could never be entirely sure. Most shrunk from any notion that their Savior might wish them to live as the very first Christians had done, holding everything in common. Some, in spectacular feats of renunciation, sought to give away their entire fortunes.

And some – the most radical of all – argued that wealth itself was an inevitable form of corruption. That there was no coin dropped into a beggar’s shriveled palm that had not ultimately been won by criminal means: lead-tipped whips, and cudgels, and branding irons. Here were tensions that would endure, and continue to endure, throughout Christian history.


For Parts II and III of this interview, stay tuned here at The Stream over the next few days.

John Zmirak is a Senior Editor of The Stream, and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.

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