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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Celibacy in the Ancient World: Its Ideal and Practice in Pre-Hellenistic Israel, Mesopotami, and Greece by Dale Launderville (A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press)

Celibacy is a commitment to remain unmarried and to renounce sexual relations for a limited period or for a lifetime. Such a commitment places an individual outside human society in its usual form. What significance does such an individual, and such a choice, have for the human family and community as a whole?

These questions guide Dale Launderville, OSB, in Celibacy in the Ancient World, his study of celibacy in the ancient cultures of Israel, Mesopotamia, and Greece prior to Hellenism and the rise of Christianity. Launderville, professor of theology at Saint John's University School of Theology Seminary, Collegeville, Minnesota, focuses especially on literary witnesses, because those enduring texts have helped to shape modern attitudes and can help in understanding the factors that may call forth the practice of celibacy in our own time. Readers discover how celibacy fits within a context of relationships, and what kinds of relationships support a healthy and varied society, one aware of and oriented to its cosmic destiny.

Is celibacy possible? Does it play a socially constructive role for the communities in which it is practiced? These two questions guided Laudervilles investigation of the traditions of ancient Israel, Mesopotamia, and Greece in identifying those instances in which authoritatively endorsed celibacy occurred and to explain the contextual factors supporting such a way of life. Many of the texts dealing with this way of life have influenced the development of attitudes toward family life and sexual morality in the traditions of the Western world.

Lauderville contends in Celibacy in the Ancient World that the celibate way of life is compelling in the context of a particular set of nurturing relationships. These vital, nurturing relationships that endure and extend through more than one generation are familial in character. Such relationships are formed not only in a nuclear family but also in the extended family and in those communities that work to make visible the cosmic destiny of such familial relationships. Celibates wager their lives on the matrix of relationships of love that constitute a family and thereby help to fashion a cosmic scope to the potential of earthly life. The outlook, attitude, and discipline of the celibate overlaps and complements in significant ways those of the married members of a household. Thus attention to how to live as a celibate can be beneficial to both married and unmarried members of a household.

Celibacy in the Ancient World compares and contrasts the voices of the traditions the traditions of ancient Israel, Mesopotamia, and Greece on the central aspects of the discipline of celibacy. Contents include:

  1. Sexual Restraint Within the Context of a Cosmic Household.
  2. Intermarriage: A Threat to the Household as the Enduring Matrix of Personal Identity?
  3. Sex and the Holy: Erotic Synergy or Warfare?
  4. Virginity and Chastity: Feminine Ideals Integral to the Patriarchal Household.
  5. Composite Guardian Figures: Tension at the Cosmic Junctures.
  6. Celibacy as a Proleptic Death and a Quest for Transcendence.
  7. Communion with the Real: The Goal of Celibacy.

This volume provides a masterful treatment of celibacy in the ancient world. Dale Launderville discusses the topic in relationship to inner-household relationships, intermarriage, virginity and chastity, relationships with the divine, and transcending death s limitations. Skillfully utilizing vastly diverse material from ancient Israel, Mesopotamia, and Greece, he illuminates how celibacy was understood within each society while also illustrating how the parallels mutually inform our understanding of celibacy in the ancient world. John L. McLaughlin, Associate Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, Director of Advanced Degree Programs, Faculty of Theology, University of St. Michael's College, Toronto, Ontario

The sheer abundance of scholarship in this book makes it well worth reading. But Father Dale Launderville has not only gathered and digested the traditions surrounding celibacy in Greece, Mesopotamia, and ancient Israel. His insights and interpretations are compelling and often inspiring. Father Launderville writes well and helps the reader with frequent summaries and conclusions. A must-read book! Irene Nowell, OSB, author of Women in the Old Testament
This wide-ranging book situates virginity, chastity, and celibacy within the larger social structure of the patriarchal household in Mesopotamia, Israel, and Greece. Drawing out the understandings of human sexuality in these three pre-Hellenistic cultures, this probing study examines sexual outliers, such as the celibate prophet, Jeremiah. In this study, celibacy emerges as an effort to separate from customary social-sexual relations with a human partner in order to connect with the divine in a manner that would transcend death; it is, in other words, a proleptic death and a quest for transcendence. The result is an understanding and a concrete rationale for the symbolic value of celibacy in the modern world: For one committed to a celibate life such sexual discipline is a fundamental means of shaping the ascetic body into a symbol of enduring life in the cosmic community. The result of this challenging book is a rethinking of sexual outliers, based on a learned examination of the very societies of antiquity that influenced Christian traditions of celibacy. Mark S. Smith, Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, New York University

Celibacy in the Ancient World is a deep, exceeding well researched and thought-provoking book. Seeing how the celibate way of life was possible in these three ancient cultures helps readers understand those human and natural factors within contemporary communities that call forth the practice of celibacy.





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