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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 53, 2005

WILLIAM LOADER, Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). Pp. viii+288. $US30.00.

This book is a detailed study of all that the Gospels tell us, and all that Paul has to say, about sexuality. It is not primarily a study of the historical Jesus, though Loader does draw inferences, from time to time, about what Jesus is likely to have thought. In addition, he examines passages from the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of the Egyptians and 2 Clement. Having clarified his aim, Loader embarks upon a detailed discussion of all the relevant passages. His main conclusions are:
  1. Sexuality was not a major preoccupation of the early Christian movement.

  2. There is a pervasive change of focus, seen most clearly in the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, from act to attitude. At almost every point, we are taken beyond a concern with acts towards a more holistic approach.

  3. There are quite a number of stories that speak of Jesus engaging with women in ways that respected their dignity. The story of his encounter with the Sadducees, for example, portrays him resisting the flippant and demeaning treatment of women. Nor is he seen as responding to them as dangerous or evil. It is likely that these stories represent accurately the attitude of Jesus himself.

  4. There is evidence of a concern that the Christian community should be a safe place for children, as well as for women. Thus, he takes Mark 9:42 to refer, not to the mistreatment of children in general or to the mistreatment of believers, but rather to the sexual abuse of children.

  5. There is a strong tradition of celibacy in the Jesus tradition. Celibacy appears to have been the personal option of John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul. Along with this, we find a widespread assumption that the age of resurrection will have no place for sexual relations. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul affirms celibacy but concedes that marriage will be the right option for some.

  6. There is a substantial array of evidence to show that the historical Jesus opposed divorce.
In all of this there may not seem to be much that is particularly new. Nevertheless, I believe that Loader deserves to be congratulated, and on several grounds. First, his scholarship. His conclusions are supported by an impressive amount of reading. There are 486 items in the bibliography and 627 footnotes, many of considerable length. The patient reader of the footnotes, as well as the text, can expect to learn a lot. I cite, for example, his observations that “Romans did not marry for love” (p. 157, note 70); or that “it has become increasingly difficult to argue that only men could divorce their wives in the Judaism of the time” (p. 240).

Loader is also to be commended for his honesty in facing the problems that some of the texts in question present to readers seeking guidance for their lives today. He has set out to be as strict as he can about describing what these ancient authors said and meant, whether that proves palatable or not to modern tastes-including his own. Our task, as he defines it, is “to seek first to understand what is being said and why, and then to appropriate what is life giving and faith building for today” (p. 232). Here are two examples of such a critical appropriation. Loader finds “bafflingly simple” the assumption underlying the teaching about divorce in the Gospels that marriage is something that God does and is therefore not to be reversed. It is significant that Paul, in 1 Cor 7:15, is prepared to show flexibility in applying the teaching of Jesus in new situations.

Again, in Mark 12:25 (and parallels), Jesus affirms the belief, widespread in New Testament times, that “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Loader cites this passage and then ventures the opinion that Rabbinic sayings that stress the joy of marriage and its place in the world to come represent, in some ways, a more logical extension of the biblical tradition. This book is not ‘an easy read,’ but it is an enlightening and stimulating work of scholarship.

Review by
Nigel M. Watson
10 Chatham Street
Flemington VIC, Australia