New College, University of Edinburgh

Encountering “Normal” Violence in early Christian Texts in the Age of #metoo

In the wake of the groundbreaking exposé of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein published in the New Yorker last autumn, the #metoo movement has directed public attention to acts of violence that have all too often been swept under the carpet. For too long, people in positions of relative weakness—usually women, but sometimes men—have been conditioned to accept sexual harassment and even assault as the inevitable cost of time spent in the old boys’ club, whether that clubhouse be a Hollywood studio, a corporate boardroom, or the halls of the academy. While each individual accusation that surfaces against a powerful man is in itself horrifying, that such violence occurs regularly fails to surprise us. Indeed, the power of the #metoo hashtag is in its acknowledgment of just how prevalent, how normal, this kind of violence is.

In recent years, my research has focussed on uncovering and engaging critically with descriptions of “normal” violence in early Christian communities.  When I tell people I study violence amongst Christians in the centuries before Constantine, I’m often met with quizzical looks.  Weren’t the early Christians known for being non-violent in a particularly violent world? In both popular culture and scholarly discourse, Christians in the age before Constantine are almost exclusively remembered as victims of violence. Only recently have scholars started to think seriously about early Christians as potential perpetrators of violence as well.[1]

And yet, as I’ve immersed myself in the Homilies preached by Origen (c. 180–250CE) at Caesarea Maritima, I have been struck repeatedly by the casual references to violence that crop up in Origen’s throwaway remarks. These parenthetical comments and appeals to shared assumptions provide valuable clues as to what constituted normative behaviour and ethical expectations within his community. With some frequency, Origen appeals to the expectation of (usually) non-lethal violence that undergirded the hierarchical structure of everyday life, what Michael Gaddis refers to as the “normal violence [that] helped to define the structure of Roman social relations.”[2] Origen unproblematically affirms the use of violence by heads of household against children, wives, and slaves, for both disciplinary and coercive purposes. In this regard, Origen’s Caesarean Christian community did not distinguish itself appreciably from the dominant practice of household violence held in the Roman Empire (see Seneca, de Providentia 4.4–16). Origen goes a step further, however, by associating the disciplinary and coercive violence meted out by powerful men (fathers, husbands, and masters) with the “pain that instructs” (see Homily on Jeremiah 12) employed by God to reform the sinful behaviours of penitent Christians. In so doing, Origen imputes the disciplinary violence employed by people in positions of power with a soteriological quality.

To hear Origen tell it, all violence experienced by the individual is ultimately “deserved” and “beneficial,” because even “unjust” violence and punishments are understood to diminish the quantity and intensity of the future post-mortem punishments necessary to reform the sinful soul after death (see Homily on Leviticus 14.4). Consequently, Origen’s auditors are encouraged to interpret violence suffered at the hands of their domestic superiors as therapeutic and purificatory rather than as cruel or violating. Origen’s Homilies provide no strategy to critique or resist unjust violence. Rather, they reinforce the dominant presumption that the bodies of slaves, children, and women were legitimate targets of corporeal violence—indeed, that such violence was ultimately beneficial.

The violence described by Origen sometimes takes on a sexualized character, especially when it’s prompted by his Septuagintal source text. Homily on Exodus 8.5 draws on real-word expectations of domestic violence to make sense of the perturbingly passionate statement in Exodus 20:3–5, “For I the Lord am a jealous God.” Because the scriptures cannot communicate anything that is unworthy to be true of God, Origen contends that God is never actually jealous, but that the scriptures employ the human concept of jealousy in order to make God’s ways comprehensible to the feeble mental capacities of humans.  Jealousy, Origen continues, is associated by humans most closely with sexual relationships between men and women. And so, by describing himself as jealous, God wants to communicate that “every woman is either under a husband and has been subjected to the laws of the husband, or is a prostitute and uses her freedom for sinning.” A man who enters a “lawful marriage does not permit his wife to make use of her power of sinning but is inflamed with jealousy to preserve the purity of his marriage in which he can become a lawful father.” By analogy, when a person enters into “spiritual marriage” with God, any “fornicating” that he commits by consorting with other gods or daemons will stir up divine jealousy. Fortunately, God is unusually forgiving and willing to take back a repentant wife. But not without punishment. Origen contends:

“Herein, therefore, ‘God is jealous’: if he asks and desires that your soul cling to him, if he saves you from sin, if he reproves, if he chastises, if he is displeased, if he is angry and adopts, as it were, a certain jealousy towards you, recognize that there is hope of salvation for you. But if you do not recover your sense when you have been chastised, if you are not corrected when you have been reproved, if you despise when you are beaten, know that if you go on continually sinning his jealousy will depart from you and that which is said to Jerusalem by the prophet Ezekiel will be said to you: ‘Therefore my jealousy will depart from you and I will no longer be angry with you.’ Behold the mercy and piety of the good God.”

Although the beating Origen describes is spiritual rather than physical, his interpretation of Exodus 20:3-5 requires the collective acceptance among his audience of the legitimacy of a husband beating his unfaithful wife in order to be intelligible.

Outside of Origen’s Homilies, scholars such as Elizabeth Castelli, Gina Messina-Dysart and Shelly Matthews have pointed out the prevalence of gendered violence in early Christian texts, noting, for instance, how long the early Christian gaze lingers on the violated bodies of a Blandina or a Perpetua, or the spectre of rape that hangs over Thecla’s narrative. While the inflictors of this violence in these texts are uniformly pagans, it is a Christian audience that the authors anticipates will read, recite, and remember these stories. The current cultural reckoning about sexual assault invites us as scholars to think more seriously about how these acts of sexualized violence might have reverberated within early Christian communities. How would they have sounded to the ears of young Christian women? Moreover, how do they sound to our students when they’re read in our seminar rooms and lecture halls? Can #metoo help us to acknowledge the ways that early Christian texts naturalize, excuse, or even promote certain kinds of violence and to recognize how deeply embedded the acceptance of that violence is, not only in contemporary culture, but also in particularly Christian ways of thinking?


Written by Jennifer Otto




[1] One recent example is the edited volume Violence in Ancient Christianity: Victims and Perpetrators (eds. Albert Geljon and Riemer Roukema. Leiden: Brill, 2014).

[2] Michael Gaddis, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 141.

  • CSCO Team,
  • 7th May 2018


  • Mara Sours, 17th August 2018 at 4:38 am | Reply

    Even though this violence was presumed as culturally acceptable among Christians of this age, (and Godly people in Jeremiah’s age) this does not imply that God endorses this ethic.
    1. God bade David to kill Philistines, yet clarified His rejection of violence and killing later by not allowing David to build His temple. Possibly God tolerated David’s killing, but didn’t specifically endorse it? Or maybe the issue was more nuanced, even than that? because of his violent behavior.
    2. Jesus and Paul did not lead a revolution against slavery, even though slavery did not represent God’s true character. God dealt with people and cultures more gradually than that, tolerating man’s culturally sinful ways for a time. Jesus referred to this quality of God’s when he described God as having been “patient” with the hardness of men’s hearts regarding divorce, but later was changing his expectation of men to improve on the issue. My comment is not fully and carefully expressed; I apologize for this.

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