Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

In this passage we can see the expression of a belief in the general desirability of sexual continence, but also the quite distinct recognition that continence is a “gift of God” which many do not have, and a specific assertion that it is not sinful to marry, and that the purpose of marriage is to avoid fornication; this can only mean that it is to provide a legal alternative. Nowadays the Pauline view is expressed by saying that the purpose of marriage is “the relief of concupiscence” while the extreme mediaeval view is expressed by saying that the sole purpose of marriage is procreation.

Paul also made it clear that he was not propounding the official teaching of Christ, but was simply giving his personal opinion in reply to a number of questions which had been put to him by the Church at Corinth.

Attaching, as it did, such importance to preventing masturbation, the Church sought a Biblical justification, and had no hesitation in twisting the facts to its purpose. Genesis xxxviii refers to Onan’s seed falling upon the ground and his subsequently being put to death. The idea was established – and is still widely believed – that this passage refers to masturbation, and the word onanism has come to be used as a synonym for it. Actually, it refers to the practice of ‘coitus interruptus‘; and the reason why Onan was put to death was that he had violated the law of the levirate, by which a man must provide his deceased brother’s wife with offspring.128 Even the Catholic writer Canon A. de Smet, in his book Betrothment and Marriage, admits this:

“From the text and context, however, it would seem that the blame of the sacred writer applies directly to the wrongful frustration of the law of the levitate, intended by Onan, rather than the spilling of the seed.”

It was as part of its comprehensive attempt to make the sexual act as difficult as possible that the Church devised laws against the practice of abortion. Neither Romans, Jews nod Greeks had opposed abortion, but Tertullian, following an inaccurate translation of Exodus xxi. 22, which refers to punishing a man who injures a pregnant woman, but which appeared to prescribe punishment for injuring the foetus, gave currency to the idea that the Bible held abortion to be a crime. He devoted much ingenuity to determining when the foetus became animate, and decided that it was after forty days in the case of males, eighty in the case of females. (Modern English law is even more absurd, for it does not stay the execution of pregnant women until the fourth month of pregnancy, yet may prosecute for abortion before that time.) Jerome, though knew Latin, perpetuated the error. (190) Though the error has long since been exposed, the Church still maintains this position, and it has become incorporated in the law of the state which beautifully demonstrates that moral laws are not really derived from Biblical authority, but that Biblical authority is sought to justify regulations which, because of unconscious prejudices, seem ‘natural’ and right.

Still more drastically, the Church revamped the story of the Fall to support its general position on sex. The doctrine was gradually propagated that the reason for Adam’s expulsion from the garden of Eden was that he had performed the sexual act, or at least had acquired sexual knowledge. The temptation with the apple became the symbol of a sexual temptation, and Eve, the temptress, was specifically a sexual temptress. As at embroidery on this it was asserted (and is still widely remembered) that menstruation represented a curse imposed on women in punishment for Eve’s part in this seduction. But a single reading of the Book of Genesis is enough to show that this is not what was asserted. It contains, as a matter of fact, two versions of the Fall. In the first (Genesis iii), Adam eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and it is for acquiring this knowledge that he is expelled. In the second (Genesis vi), certain angels have intercourse with humans, teach them the arts and sciences, and are expelled from heaven. This is the story of which Milton made use: and it is the version to which Christ makes a passing reference. Both stories concern the acquisition of knowledge by men and are versions of the Prometheus myth – Lucifer, the light-bringer, is an exact analogue of Prometheus who steals fire from the Gods. (251)