The terms Agapetae and Subintroductae refer to chaste women living together with chaste men in an early Christian practice known as syneisaktism (spiritual marriage). Although virtually unheard of today, early Christians widely adopted the practice during the first centuries of Christianity:
Nor was syneisaktism [sacred marriage] a phenomenon peculiar to one locality; it can be found in Ireland, Syria, North Africa, and many other centers of Christianity. [Elizabeth A. Clark, John Chrysostom and the Subintroductae, Church History, 46 (1977), p. 173]
Of one thing we can be sure: there was hardly a church province in ancient Christianity in which spiritual marriages were unknown. [Roland H. Seboldt, Spiritual Marriage in the Early Church: A Suggested Interpretation of Cor. 7:36-38, part 2, Concordia Theological Monthly, Volume: 30 Number 3 (1959) pp. 176-189]
In his essay Subintroductae, Professor James S. Cutsinger refers to the subintroductae as “the consecrated Christian virgins who lived, and sometimes slept, with their male spiritual companions, though without sexual intercourse.” He continues,
There is some evidence, admittedly obscure, that Saint Paul approved the practice:
“If any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin … let them marry. Nevertheless he that standeth steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better” (1 Corinthians 7:36-38).
And it may be that [Paul himself] engaged in it:
“Mine answer to them that do examine me is this … Have we not power to lead about a sister as a wife, as do other apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:3, 5).
“Agapetae” translates as “the beloveds.” The “subintroductae” term may have referred to women who engaged in a spiritual marriage practice of the man placing his penis between the woman’s labia, against her hymen, without entering her vagina. Perhaps this was a way of uniting intimately without surrendering to the drive to orgasm.
Professor Cutsinger notes the parallel with Eastern practices for mastering sexual desire:
Tantric disciplines, in which kama or physical appetite is placed in the service of liberation, need not be a Hindu or Buddhist monopoly. Deliberately to detach himself from the passions that would physically unite him to a woman, while yet in her presence, affords a man the opportunity to become spiritually united to What she embodies, the Divine Infinitude—and vice versa, of course, for a woman, who may in this way seek to make herself a space for the Divine Absolute.
Eventually, the ‘subintroductae’ label extended to priests’ wives/housekeepers. These companions were closer to servants or wives, and certainly not spiritual equals in the sense that early agapetae were. Early on, the Agapetae had an otherworldly, spiritual function. We know few details, and most of those come from polemics against the agapetae custom. Desert ascetic St. Jerome, writing to Eustochium, froths:
I blush to speak of it, it is so shocking; yet though sad, it is true. How comes this plague of the agapetae to be in the church? Whence come these unwedded wives, these novel concubines, these harlots, so I will call them, though they cling to a single partner? One house holds them and one chamber. They often occupy the same bed, and yet they call us suspicious if we fancy anything amiss. … Both alike profess to have but one object, to find spiritual consolation from those not of their kin; but their real aim is to indulge in sexual intercourse. It is on such that Solomon in the book of proverbs heaps his scorn. “Can a man take fire in his bosom,” he says, “and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals and his feet not be burned?”
However, the practice of a man and woman sleeping together in a lust-free manner represented practical application of one of Christianity’s loftiest aims — overcoming lust and thereby freeing oneself of the pull of earthly desires. This discipline lingered widely until at least the middle of the 3rd century.
Sacred marriage and the sacrament of the bridal chamber
Was there a direct connection between the “spiritual marriage” tradition and an apparently similar practice mentioned in several of the Nag Hammadi gnostic gospels (ancient texts found in Upper Egypt in 1945)? Possibly they were one and the same. The Gospel of Philip text speaks of a “sacrament of the bridal chamber.”
The holy of holies is the bridal chamber [numphon], or communion.
Trust and consciousness in the embrace are exalted above all. (Gospel of Philip, trans. Jean-Yves Leloup, L.76.)
Seek the experience of the pure embrace [translated from the Coptic word koinonia, which is defined as ‘marital fellowship’]; it has great power. (Gospel of Philip, trans. Jean-Yves Leloup, L.60.)
Some form of the “bridal chamber” sacrament appears to have travelled as far as the Rhone Valley. We know because of self-appointed “heretic buster” Irenaeus (c. 130—202), bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France).
Irenaeus accused the prophet Marcus of practicing ritual sex with numerous women seduced into joining his popular spiritual movement. The Marcosians evidently observed a rite called the “bridal chamber” in which they entered into a “spiritual marriage.” (Adversus Haereses 1.13.4, 21.3)
However, no credible evidence supported Irenaeus’s accusations of wanton behaviour. Gnostic scholar Michael Allen Williams discounts them entirely. (Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’, Princeton University Press, 1996. pp. 174-5)
Fear of abuse wiped out the practice
The Church came to fear abuses of the practice so much that it ultimately presumed no lust-free union served any spiritual purpose. It prohibited any arrangement where ‘tempting’ women lived with priests. The Synod of Elvira (305) and the Council of Nicea (325) forbade the “spiritual marriage” practice.
In short, mainstream Catholicism vigorously expunged the sacrament of the bridal chamber from the “sacred marriage” tradition of the agapetae/subintroductae. Only through the recovered Nag Hammadi texts do we know that this sacrament apparently also called for union of male and female in a lust-free embrace.
Williams believes the sacrament of the bridal chamber probably didn’t involve intercourse. (Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’, pp. 147-49) Most people cannot conceive of lust-free intercourse unless they have experimented with Synergy-style lovemaking.
Notwithstanding mainstream scholars’ skepticism, however, a number of the Nag Hammadi documents appear to be speaking of actual intercourse:
All those who practice the sacred embrace [koiton] will kindle the light; they will not beget as people do in ordinary marriages, which take place in darkness.(Gospel of Philip, trans. Jean-Yves Leloup, L.126.) See the Gospel of Philip.
Those who are to have intercourse with one another will be satisfied with the intercourse. And as if it were a burden, they leave behind them the annoyance of physical desire and they do not separate from each other. They become a single life….For they were originally joined to one another when they were with God. This marriage brings them back together again. (The Exegesis on the Soul)
The Gospel of Philip says the sacrament is for “virgins.” However, it is not clear if it meant physical virgins, or simply women who had purified themselves via this sacrament. The agapetae were also known as “virgins.” Yet, in those days “virgin” did not exclusively mean “physical virgin.” It sometimes meant “(respected) woman who is not a wife.”
According to Andrew Lincoln author of Born of a Virgin? (p.76 fn 11) “a standard meaning for parthenos [virgin] is that of a young woman of child-bearing age who has not yet given birth, a maiden, a young unmarried woman. Biological virginity is not in view in this usage, although frequently it is likely to be the case, discernible from contextual factors, that such a young woman is also virginal.”
It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether the sacrament of the bridal chamber sacrament was but another form of the widespread agapetae “spiritual marriage” practice.
At any event, Church authorities finally suppressed and wiped the practice from the official history of the Church, the space filled with asceticism and monasticism. Thereafter, the Church considered celibacy, rather than chaste union, proof of conquering lust. Recent events in the Church suggest that celibacy has not entirely succeeded as a strategy for overcoming lust.
As scholar Charles Williams (a different scholar from Michael Allen Williams mentioned earlier) observed, the Church’s suppression of this phenomenon means that we unfortunately know nothing of the cases in which attempts to overcome lust with chaste union succeeded.
The great experiment had to be abandoned because of Scandal.
This refinement of tender chastity arose again in the Middle Ages in the form of courtly love.