Holy Obscenity: Sexual Invective in the Pauline Corpus

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Holy Obscenity: Sexual Invective in the Pauline Corpus

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In a now infamous CNN interview, then-candidate Donald Trump remarked of reporter Megyn Kelly that “you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Though Mr. Trump later denied sexual or misogynistic implications, his comments reflect a tradition of sexual slander, often disingenuously denied, utilized by public figures to disparage and discredit opponents. My research proposes that the Apostle Paul similarly deploys sexual invective to delegitimize rivals among the nascent Christian communities. Sexual invective was a crucial weapon in socio-political confrontations of Greek and Roman societies, whereby ancients slandered their adversaries with salacious rumors of libidinous dalliances. Thus, the Athenian orator-politician, Aeschines, could evoke ancient prejudice against sex workers claiming that his political rival Demosthenes put everything up for sale—every part of his body—even the place whence his voice emanates. That Paul utilized these sorts of tactics requires a reconsideration of previous scholarship. Sex was not for Paul merely a topic of ethical deliberation. Paul wields discussion of sex as a weapon in his public letters. His many insults hinge on the adherence to a masculinity prejudiced against sex work, “sexual subordination,” and “excess,” hetero- or homoerotic. Whether drawing on ethno-sexual slander about foreign lechery, or brandishing “symbolic prostitutehood” against a “faithless” bride, or exploiting os impurum prejudice, Paul deployed sex discourses aimed at deriding and delegitimizing rivals, while simultaneously asserting Pauline authority. Sexual invective, therefore, was integral to Paul’s community-shaping. Just as Cicero’s invectives sought to construct the Roman identity by lambasting his rivals, so Paul sought to construct the Christian identity. By directing derision, Paul fabricates deficiencies in the sexual performance of his rivals that debar them from legitimate authority, at once creating and enforcing community cohesion around his own socio-moral authority.


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Reno, Joshua. (2021). Holy Obscenity: Sexual Invective in the Pauline Corpus. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/259642.

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