By Elizabeth A. Clark


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The subintroductae were:

[p. 171] female Christian ascetics who lived together with men, although both parties had taken the vow of continency, and were animated with the earnest desire to keep it. (John Chrysostom, Adversus eos qui apud se habent subintroductas virgines, 13 J.P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Graeca 47, 514)


Such virginal couples were united in a “permanent, intimate relation,”4 spiritual marriage, which Derrick Sherwin Bailey has vividly described as “the cohabitation of the sexes under the condition of strict continence, a couple sharing the same house, often the same room, and sometimes the same bed, yet conducting themselves as brother and sister.”3 …”brotherly love was supposed to take the place of the [p.172] love of marriage.”6 …The man and woman, he claimed, became “Platonic lovers.”7

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[173] Nor was syneisaktism a phenomenon peculiar to one locality; it can be found in Ireland, Syria, North Africa, and many other centers of Christianity. As Roland Seboldt asserted, following Achelix, “Of one thing we can be sure: there was hardly a church province in ancient Christianity in which spiritual marriages were unknown.”28

[174] The variations in translation have of course reflected differences of opinion regarding the situation presupposed in the text.

[176] Chrysostom’s reasons for condemning the practice:

The arousal of lust; the offense to “weaker brothers;” the opportunity for enemies of the Church to criticize her; the “adultery” of the brides of Christ; the necessity of suffering and denial in the Christian life; the dubious practical benefits secured by the relationship; the sacrifice of the freedom virginity was intended to bring; and the overturning of the sexual roles and functions which “nature” as well as God had ordained.

[177] The couples living in this fashion irritated Chrysostom with their claims that they could withstand the temptations constantly present to them due to their tougher moral fiber.

[181] Chrysostom’s objection: the man in such a relationship usually served the woman more than she did him.94

[183] Syneisaktism, we think, offered to men and women a unique opportunity for friendships which involved a high degree of emotional and spiritual intimacy. …

Chrysostom expressed shock that men and women could spend as much time together as did the subintroductae and their male companions. From his point of view, such a way of life was inappropriate not only to virgins, but to married women as well. As he makes clear in his many treatises, wives are to be sober, quiet, and unobtrusive. …

For the virgins and their companions, all such rules had been dashed to the ground….The laws of God and “nature” would be put in jeopardy if the partners in spiritual marriage veered too far in the direction of “unisexuality,” or even became more like one another. The androgynous ideal was one which Chrysostom could have espoused only very tentatively, if at all.

These couples, we think, were tending toward the recognition of the possibility of friendship between the sexes. Something considered improbable in the ancient world. To the classical mind, friendship in its [p 184] truest sense meant a kind of parity between two people, and women, by virtue of their inferior nature and status, could thus rarely qualify as suitable candidates for friendship with men. Chrysostom was very conscious that the monks and virgins were friends; he used the word philia to describe their relationship on at least four occasions.

[Chrysostom proclaimed] that philia must be renounced if it makes love for Jesus impossible, as he plainly thought syneisaktism did. We want to be able to say to Christ at our future meeting, “For you and your honor we have despised intimacy and triumphed over pleasure, have troubled our souls, and set aside all philia and personal preference; we have chosen you and our love for you above all things.”113

Is it out of place to imagine that [the monks and virgins] would have stressed the spiritual component of their association? Would they have pictured themselves as attempting to live the life of the Kingdom here and now? Would they have argued that God had promised to the followers of his son superhuman power to withstand temptations to which ordinary mortals might succumb?115 Would they have claimed, with Paul, that in Jesus there is “no male and female” (Ga. 3:28)?

[185] Although Chrysostom urged his audience to live like the intellectual and incorporeal powers above,117 he clearly wished to exempt the mingling of the sexes from that foretaste of heavenly life. The monks and the virgins, on the other hand, perhaps thought that God had already given them the impassibility of the angels. We know at least that they argued they had been granted superior strength to resist sexual sin,118 although Chrysostom believed that people who talked in this fashion fancied they were living among stones, not among flesh-and-blood humans.119 …[He responded] it is only later on, in the heavenly realms, after death, that men and women will be able to enjoy free associations with impunity. From his point of view, the subintroductae and the monks had prematurely assumed that they had shed their bodily desires.

[From the footnotes]

p. 173 fn22 [Achelis thought that syneisaktoi was translated as subintroductae for the first time in the sixth century, but scholar Felix Quadt, presents evidence from an early fifth century translation of the canons of the Sixth Synod of Carthage.]

p.174 fn36. Achelis thinks there are pre-Christian precedents for the practice [of spiritual marriage] in Philo’s description of the Therapeutae. See Achelis, Virgines, pp 29-31. A. Oepke, “gyne,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel, trns. and ed.

G.W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, 1964), 1:779 thinks there were also pagan precedents, and refers us to R. Reitzenstein’s Hellenistische Wundererzahlungen (Stuttgart, 1963) p. 146 f.