A recent article in the Style section of the New York Times was a notable departure from the usual fare of wedding and anniversary announcements. Titled ‘Far From Galilee, a Joseph-and-Mary Sort of Marriage,’ (or ‘One Chaste Marriage, Four Kids, and the Catholic Church’ in the online version) the article concerned the highly unusual decision of the author’s parents to forego sexual intimacy for a period of nine years in what is euphemistically referred to as a ‘Josephite marriage.’
The term is inspired by the widely-held belief that Joseph and Mary lived as brother and sister throughout their marriage. As the author of the article explains in great detail, the arrangement was undertaken at the request of the Catholic Church while the labyrinth of circumstances surrounding his parent’s marriage was being worked through. What the author is either unaware of or fails to mention is that an ancient version of the practice was undertaken voluntarily, and for very different reasons than the rigidly doctrinaire attitude that dictated his parents’s decision.
The decision of married couples to forego physical intimacy was not uncommon among the first Syrian Christians who took their inspiration, not from Joseph and Mary, but surprisingly, from Judaism. Like the rabbis who refrained from contact with their wives during periods of intense prayer and Torah study, Syrian Christians lived chastely for specific periods of time and for specific reasons. They practiced an ancient form of Christianity that is all but forgotten.
The Christian Scripture tracks the spread of Christianity into Asia Minor and Europe with a kind of triumphant inevitability—‘The hand of the Lord was upon them.’ But Christianity moved along another path as well, one that took it through the Aramaic-speaking synagogues linking diaspora Jews in Syria and Babylonia to their homeland in Israel. Here, Christians worshiped in Aramaic, not Greek or Latin, and remained vitally attuned to their Jewish origins. By the third century, a core group known as the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant emerged as a defining characteristic of early Syrian Christianity.
‘Covenanters,’ as they’re conveniently referred to, consisted of two groups of people: male and female virgins who took lifelong vows of sexual abstinence, and ‘Holy Ones,’ a term with distinct links to the Essenes, the Jewish sectarians who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Essene men didn’t practice celibacy, but like the rabbis, they refrained from sexual contact with their wives from time to time during which they were known as ‘Sons of Holiness,’ a term which reprises the original meaning of holy as ‘separate.’
Syrian Christian ‘Holy Ones’ might be married couples with their child-rearing days behind them who decided to forego physical intimacy as they prepared to enter their golden years. Similarly, young people might choose to avoid even socially acceptable contact with the opposite sex while deciding whom to marry, or whether to marry at all. They too were known as ‘Holy Ones.’
What’s important to note is that whether they were life-long virgins or temporary ‘Holy Ones,’ Covenanters were not the forerunners of monks and nuns. They didn’t form separate communities or live apart from everyday Christians. They stayed with their families and did what other people their age did—with the exception, of course, of sexual contact. The chaste life, whether permanent or for a specified period of time, was meant to free those who practiced it to live more deliberately, to cultivate habits of empathy and compassion.
Almost everything we know about the Covenanters comes from St. Ephrem the Syrian (307-373). Pious tradition reinvents Ephrem as a monk, a deacon, or a theologian. He was none of these. Ephrem was a poet and visionary who had more in common with mystics like Hafiz and Rumi than with the churchmen of his day. Ephrem reminded Covenanters that foregoing sexual intimacy was meant to free them from themselves, not create a privileged class of Christians. ‘Without good deeds,’ he bluntly affirmed, ‘sexual renunciation is worthless.’
Ephrem’s insights could be arrestingly prescient. He warned that if celibacy were to become institutionalized in the church, it could result in great harm. Ambitious churchmen, he said, might use it as a stepping stone to privilege and status. Ephrem even raised the specter of celibate men who might use their rank to ingratiate themselves to young, unsuspecting believers. In language that might be ripped from today’s headlines, he cautioned against making sexual renunciation a prerequisite for leadership in the church: ‘Stalkers,’ he warned, ‘would be everywhere.’ Ephrem is the rare example of a dedicated celibate who praised marriage and childbearing. It was a view that only Christians with deep ties to Judaism might appreciate.
As Christianity became more deeply entwined in Roman imperial bureaucracy, structure and organization took center stage. Rigidity replaced fluidity. The monastic movement, newly introduced into Syria from the Greek West, supplanted the Covenanters who came to be viewed as free-lancers, beyond ecclesiastical control; a tragic loss, not only for Syrians, but for Christianity writ large.
With the disappearance of the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant, a vital link in the cultural memory of Christians was lost, one that reminded them of who they were, and just as importantly, where they came from. If the rigid version of Josephite marriage recounted recently in the Times is any indication, this cultural memory has yet to be recovered.