Link to the Hompage of Father Alois Koch SJ
Alois Koch SJ
Body Valuation and Body Care
in the Work of the Father of the Church
published in: W. Schwank (and others Ed.): Begegnung. Schriftenreihe zur Geschichte der Beziehung zwischen Christentum und Sport, volume 4, Aachen 2003, p. 36 - 64.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation
The valuation and care of the body on the part of the representatives of the late antique Christianity is ambivalent. The judgements reach from "suspicion" and strict refusal up to a natural positive attitude. Above all John Chrysostomus, the famous preacher of the old church, is to be mentioned as a witness of a natural attitude toward the body in general, and to body care (i.e. also to "physical exercises"). In his treatises, lectures and letters he draws a multicoloured picture of the life at that time in the antique large cities Antiochia and Constantinople.
Not least by his countless comparisons from the range of gymnastics and agonistic of the outgoing Greek-Roman antiquity an amazingly vivid picture of the time is given, and of the at that time (also from Christian side) practiced body care. But it becomes also apparent a clear criticism at the customs and popular amusements (dance, theatre and games) which were particularly rejected because of their proximity to paganism and pagan immorality.
I. St John's Biography
About no course of life from the Greek-Christian antiquity we are so well informed as about that of John Chrysostomus. He was probably born in the year 349 A.D. in the Syrian Antiochia. He enjoyed a genuine "Greek" education, and attained so a "comprehensive mental training" (KACZYNSKI, P. 337). Whether he studied rhetoric with Libanius, the well known teacher of rhetoric of that time, is not sure.
In 367 he finished this study and turned to the circle around Bishop Meletius who baptized him in the following year.
In the subsequent years John stood in close contact to Meletius and the monk Diodor who acquainted him with the historical-grammatical exegesis of the so-called Antiochian School. This served him as "fundamental equiment for the spreading of the Gospel" (Stockmeier, P. 127). "Typical of the Antiochian exegesis, especially also for John, is its strongly ethical orientation." (Brändle 1997, P. 466).
Probably in the year 372 John withdrew into the neighbouring mountains of his hometown and led for six years an ascetic life, rich in privations. By this he caught a heavy damage of his health.
In the year 386 John was ordained presbyter by Bishop Flavian. From this time on his major task was to preach. This got him already during his lifetimes the fame of the greatest Christian preacher ("Chrysostomus = golden mouth"). Yes, he is considered as "the last big city rhetor of the antique world" (Brown, P. 468).
Famous speeches from this time in Antiochia are the so-called "Column Speeches" on the occasion of a rebellion of the Antiochenian population because of tax increases, and the threatening punishment by the Emperor Theodosius. Perhaps also the programmatic writing "On Priesthood" originates from those years.
In the year 397 Emperor Arcadius appointed John - probably as counterweight to the Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria - Bishop of Constantinople. There "in the large town the moralist was energetically engaged" (LEPPIN, P. 47) in pastoral and church politics until the year 404. No wonder that he thus came soon into conflict with clerical circles, above all however with the Empress Eudoxia. On the so-called "Oak Synode" he was finally pronounced deposed, and in 404 he was finally sent into exile to Armenia where he died in 407 (see BRÄNDLE, 1999, P. 61-64). He had failed because of the "intrigues of a capital" (LEPPIN, P. 51).
None of the Greek Fathers of the Church left such extensive complete works as John. Beside seventeen treatises (which in their majority have probably been written before his activity as preacher) more than seven hundred authentic sermons, eleven catecheses, four commentaries on books of the Holy Scriptures, and 241 letters are handed down.
From the papers the writing about "Egotism and Child Education" is important for our topic: "It is seen as the only coherent representation of early Christian private education, and as the oldest consistent Christian teachings about education." (KACZYNSKI, P. 339; in addition see PAUL, P. 63-68). One could call this writing a "proper text book" of education (Stockmeier, P. 133).
John is certainly no original theologian, particularly since his life's work stands predominantly in the service of the Christian way of life. Nevertheless his papers, lectures and catecheses are an impressive testimony for a critical interpretation of the Bible, which takes seriously first of all the literal sense of the texts. Above all for his homilies is characteristic that they do not only offer an exegesis of the text, but close almost always with a statement on some question of Christian life.
Although John is thus no original theologian, he may be regarded nevertheless "in all questions of theology as a particularly reliable witness for the stage of dogma development" reached at that time (KACZYNSKI, P. 341). The writings of John are not last singular cultural-historical testimonies.
II. Valuation of the Body
In the early Christianity it came to the meeting of the Biblical view of creation and man with the views of Greek philosophy. This meeting led however to the fact that in early Christianity - under the influence of the Greek environment -
the original natural view of the body that is owed to the Bible, is replaced by suspicion, yes, even contempt of the body. One feels everywhere this influence, particularly in its stoical and Neoplatonic form.
Almost all representatives of early Christianity succumbed to this "epochal obligation" of thinking, and equated therefore without hesitations the similarly reading conceptions of Greek philosophy to the Biblical expressions. Yes, many of them mean to find in the Biblical writings the confirmation of their rejection of the body, so above all Origenes of Alexandria (see KOCH, 1965, P. 86-89). Of course, these negative views are qualified due to the Christian dogma on God's good Creation, but the human body stands nevertheless to a large extent under a devaluating mark.
John Chrysostomus too is in its view of the body shaped by that contemporary Greek philosophy that is under the influence of Platonism. This "coinage" becomes apparent e.g. in the following remarks: "The soul is like the musician, the bodily nature like the zither; it too sounds so as the artist wants it. Hence we may not accuse the body of a discordant tune but the soul." (Homily on Rom, 13:3).
In the fourteenth homily is said: "We concede that the flesh is less distinguished than the soul, and that it is inferior to it; but we do not state that it stands in contrast to it, that it is its enemy, or that it is actually bad. No, it is subordinated to the soul like the zither to the zither player and the ship to the helmsman." (Homily on Rom, 14:2).
Characteristic for the influence of "Greek" thinking is also the following remark, "The soul is covered by the body as with a mask." (Homily on Mt, 34:5)
But John does not transfer these from Greek philosophy influenced conceptions about man to the Biblical view. This becomes particularly apparent in his homilies on St Pauls's letters to the Romans and Galatians. He looks in each case quite exactly what St Paul means. Some excerpts from his homilies may prove this.
Thus John writes while interpreting St Paul's word from the letter to the Romans, "This we know: our old human being has been crucified too, in order that the body of sin was destroyed" (Rom 6:6). St Paul means with it (i.e. with the body of sin) not this our body, but sin to its whole extent. As he calls the evil in another place (Col 3:9) generally the 'old human being', so he calls in the same sense the evil that consists of different phenomenons, 'the body' of this (old) human being.
That this interpretation is not a mere speculation, you may learn from the further things said by St Paul. After the words 'in order that the body of sin is destroyed' he continues, 'and that we do no longer serve sin'. This means: I call for 'being dead' not in the sense of no-longer-being or dying, but in the sense of no-longer-sinning." (Homily on Rom, 12:1)
In the fourteenth homily is said on verse eight of chapter eight of the Letter to the Romans: "Those who are in the flesh cannot please God". "What does that mean? Are we to cut the flesh into pieces, in order to please God, are we to leave the flesh? Do you instruct us to become murderers by giving us directions on virtue? You see which absurdity comes out, if we take the words literally. Not the body is called 'flesh' by the apostle, and not the nature of the body, but the fleshly and worldly life that is mere luxury and immoderateness and which lets people become wholly engrossed in the care of the flesh. Just like those who let themselves carry by the wings of the spirit will also spiritualize their body, so will those who escape the influence of the spirit and are only slaves to their stomachs and to luxury, turn their souls into flesh. Of course, they do not modify the nature of the soul, but they destroy its aristocracy."
The same section reads further: "One may not take the words according to their literal meaning, but one must always pay attention to the speaker's intention, and know to distinguish the words well. There are words denoting something good, others something bad, and there are such words that designate something in the middle between good and bad."
"To the latter kind belong the words 'soul' and 'flesh'. They can designate the one or the other thing. 'Spirit' however can only be something good, never something else. But the 'striving of the flesh', i.e. the sinful doing, can in each case be something bad only; for it does not submit to God's law. If you place now your soul and your body into the service of the good, then you will also participate in the good; but if into the service of evil, then you take also part in the doom following from it, and this not because the nature of soul and flesh is so, but because of your free will in power of which it is to chose this or that." (Homily on Rom, 14:7)
In similar way John says in the fifteenth homily: "We owe to the flesh many things, for instance that we feed it, hold it warm, let it rest, nurse it when it is ill, dress it and do to it thousands similar services. But in order that you do not mean that the apostle wanted to stop these services too, he explains the sentence: 'We do not owe the flesh', by saying: 'that we live after the flesh'. I want to see that care of the flesh eliminated (is meant by this) that leads to sin, as I want on the other hand that those things happen that belong to the care of the body."
A little later is said to St Paul's sentence, "If you destroy in the spirit the works of the flesh, you will live": "Do you see how the Apostle does not speak of the nature of the body, but of the fleshly works? He does not say: If you destroy in the spirit the nature of the body, but 'the works'; of course, not all works but only the sinful. ... For also seeing, hearing, speaking, going are works of the body. If we wanted to 'destroy' these, we would be so far away from it 'to live' that we were punished rather as murderers." (Homily on Rom, 15:1)
Hence for Chrysostomus the body or the "flesh" is not something inferior, surely not something bad at all, particularly since Christ by his incarnation sanctified the body: "The nature of the flesh is not bad. For Christ accepted no other flesh than the original, and changed nothing in its nature ...
He let it in its natural condition and provided for it the laurel of the victory over the sin. And after the victory he let it rise from the dead and made it immortal." (Homily on Rom, 14:5)
Worth mentioning is the high estimation of the body in John's view of marriage. Just in his essay "On Virginity" he finds amazing words: "Those who condemn marriage take also from the state of virginity its fame; those who praise it, make it the more admirable and more wonderful ... Marriage is something good ... If one lowers marriage from its height, then one gives up the fame of virginity." (On Virginity 10) "For if marriage were impure, then also all beings that arose from it were impure, hence you were impure; in order not to say: the human nature." (On Virginity 8)
BROWN calls our attention to an interesting aspect. In the critical argument with the immoral representations in the theatre where young women bathed naked in water basins on the stage, John is of the opinion to prove at those women, who are forced to sexual presentations, the common human corporality: "Do not tell me that the naked woman is a whore; no, the whore and the free woman have the same nature, the same body." (Homily on Mt, 6:8) Therefore John gives in his admonishments a quite unusual weight to the human body. Since the body bears most eloquently witness of the common descent of all human beings from Adam, "John preached a brotherhood of bodies that were in danger." (BROWN, 1994, P. 325 f)
From all these statements in the homilies follows that for John Chrysostomus the human body as such is not detestable. The body needs to be taken care of by man. Therefore his conclusion: "Hence the body is not bad." (Homily on Rom, 12:3) With this view John stands however contrary to some of his Christian contemporaries, particularly to the body-hostile asceticism, as it was practiced under the influence of Origenes just in the early Christian monkhood.
III. John's Argument
with Pagan Customs
The city Antiochia was considered as the Crown of the Orient. It was "the metropolis of Syria, trading base at the old silk road, hinge for the culture transfer between east and west, and important military post of the Roman Empire" (BRÄNDLE, 1999 A, P. 16). The city extended over a surface of twenty square kilometers and was surrounded by a wall. Large gates granted entrance into the city - so the Daphne gate that opened the way to the high-class suburban district Daphne in the south.
Daphne is by the way known by the "Olympic games" held there. In the ninetieth Olympiad the inhabitants of Antiochia bought from the Eleers the permission to hold Olympic games. They were only abolished by Emperor Justinus in the year 520 A.D. (see in addition ERSCH/GRUBER, 1832, P. 325; in addition see DIEM, 1964, S. 103f and LENNARTZ, 1974, P. 15 FF).
With these games, "the fame of which had outstripped long since that of Olympia in Greece" (BRAENDLE, 1999 A, P. 13), the youth of Syria competed in races, wrestlings, archery and horse-races. Also women took part in the contests. A lifelong tax-exemption was in store for the winners. There was a large hippodrom with 80.000 places in Antiochia. Large public baths decorated the city, but also gymnasia and innumerable theatres, to say nothing of the many pagan temples that still served the worship of the gods. Add to this - as on fairs - the countless flute-players, dancers, actors and the like people. So Emperor Julian (359 - 361) said allegedly, "In Antiochien live more dancers, more flute-players and actors than citizens" (BRÄNDLE, 199a, P. 16). John found similar conditions later in his bishop city Constantinople.
In his essays and homilies John deals with these various features of the life in a late antique city, which was naturally shaped by paganism yet, hence from the belief in the Greek-Roman gods.
Many customs and life habits were retained, respectively practiced further also by the new Christians. From there it is understandable that the preacher John argued with that. The trust of his criticism aimed thereby particularly at the immorality of the plays in the countless theatres, at the dances, at the different "games" in the amphitheatre and in the hippodrom, but also at the immoral customs in the public baths.
1. Criticism at the "Plays"
To the criticized "plays" belong for John the plays in the theatres, the gladiator games and animal chases, and not least the Olympic games with their athletic exercises.
Because of their fusion with paganism the condemnation of the plays in the theatres is common to all representatives of the old church (see WEISMANN, 1972). John too denounces in his homilies time and again the immorality of the theatre performances. There has to be observed that with the criticized plays not the classical tragedies and comedies are meant, but "loose shows that were quite popular in late ancient times" (BRÄNDLE, 1999 A, P. 70).
It has also to be said that from the number of the Christian writers apart from Augustinus only John tells of his own enthusiasm for the theatre when he was young (see On Priesthood I, 4).
But the verdict is clear: Those who run always to the theatres, who squander so much time "for the swimming women" (Homily on Mt, 1:6), become "day for day adulterers" (Homily on Mt, 17:3). In another homily John similarly says: "Such things are also taught by the voluptuous plays, this ineradicable plague, this poison drink, this bad loop of lusciousness, and by those debauched people who are frolicsome even in their ruin." (Homily on Mt, 73:3)
Considering this view, it does not surprise when he - after the Antiochian riot in the year 387 - even welcomed the closing of the theatre by Emperor Theodosius: "Tell me, which unpleasant thing did happen to you? Perhaps that he closed the theatre, and forbade the entrance into the race-course (hippodrom)? That he clogged and covered these sources of wickedness? Oh, that they would never be opened again! From there the germs of malice sprout into our city." (Homily on Picture Columns, 17:2)
However John sees the actual culprits less in the actors but rather in the spectators, therefore also among the Christians: "The one who brings thus everything in confusion is the one who goes into the theatre." Hence it is not about closing or destroying the theatres: "Are we to destroy the theatre? you ask. Yes, if it were only possible to destroy it! Or better said: If you only wanted it, then it were, at least so far as it is possible, already abolished and destroyed. But I do not want to require such a thing of you. Make only that the theatre remains without visitors ... For if there were no spectators, then there were also no actors; but since there are spectators now, they will also have to share then the hell punishments for these plays." (Homily on Mt, 37:7)
Similarly another passage reads: "If nobody existed who liked to see such things, then such actors would no longer be there ... Yes, the actor who gives such performances is not even as guilty as you who command such things; yes, you do not only command them, no, you impel to them by laughing, by praiseing the performance and by showing in each way your applause to these workshops of hell." (Homily on Mt, 6:7)
Main point of criticism is for John obviously the public "nakedness". Thus he denounces once the bad habit to lead "naked virgins around the palaestra for the spectacle of people who upset and confuse ... everything, and overthrow the borders set by nature.
For that all these mentioned things are inventions of the devil and something unnatural can probably be testified to us by nature itself which resists doing such aberrations." (Homily on Mt, 1:4)
Whether "sporty performances" are meant, resp. criticized here, does not follow from the text however.
John criticizes also the meetings in the hippodrom, i.e. the horse-race-course. In a homily he deplores that his listeners knew the names of the running horses better than those of the prophets (Homily on Joh, 58:4). Especially in one homily ("Against Those Who After Leaving the Service Run Into the Hippodrom and Into the Theatres": PG 56, P. 263 to 270) the bishop's criticism is expressed.
This homily was probably held on Holy Saturday in the year 399. After torrential rainfalls threatening to destroy the future harvest, the bishop held a rogation procession. Hardly the weather had - as by a miracle - improved, there the same people who had prayed for beneficial weather thronged into the hippodrom - obviously on Holy Thursday, the day of the Lord's Supper; and on the following day the masses streamed into the theatres. John must hear from his house the cheers and applause of the spectators. He is indignant about it, and makes no secret of his annoyance.
More still than the running to the carriage runnings in the hippodrom the bishop is annoyed by the running into the theatres: "from the smoke to the open fire"! "The one who devotes himself with such eagerness to (the performances in the theatre), how can he remain pure from guilt and taint? Is your body a stone or a piece of cold iron? You are human beings from flesh that is faster inflamed by desire than hay by fire."
The subject of John's criticism are also the fights of the gladiators, and the animal chase in the amphitheatre: "There is downright insanity in that; because these public plays educate the people to unmercifulness, cruelty and inhumanity.
One gets accustomed to watch how human beings are torn into pieces, how blood flows in streams, how animal ferocity destroys everything. The old legislators of the heathens introduced all these things, and now the cities applaude still to them and admire them." And about the "occupation" of the "gladiators" (=monomachos, actually "single fighters") is said: "See this villainous occupation of the gladiators. It seems desiderable to those people who pursue it. But therefore we regard them not as lucky, but we deplore them just the more, since they have no notion of the misery that they face." (Homily on Rom, 13:7)
Also the Olympic games (meant are certainly those which took place in the Antiochian high-class suburban district Daphne already for a long time every four years; they ended only about 520 A.D.) are not excluded from criticism: "To gain the victory by returning the insults" - obviously is thought of fist-fight or pancration - "that is an order of the devil. All people who enter into a fight, achieve a victory like that in the Olympic games (=olympiakoi agones), which were devoted to the devil. But in Christ's race-course (=stadium) the wreaths are not distributed after such laws. There applies the opposite maxim: the one who is struck will be wreathed, not the one who strikes. On this race-course quite different standards are effective. Not the victory but the kind of the victory is the strange thing. For what anywhere else would prepare a defeat provides here the victory. God's strength works here; this is a heavenly race-course; these are terraces for the angels." (Homily on Rom, 23:4)
2. Criticism at Dances
Also in the refusal of the different and at some opportunities usual dances John aggrees with many of his Christian contemporaries (see ANDRESEN, 1961). It is always about the basic position: the moral ethos proves the superiority of Christianity over the decadent pagan customs. Dance is represented as idolatry, and condemned: "Where one dances, there is the devil." (Homily on Mt, 48:3)
From John's lectures, where the invectives against the dance take up a remarkably broad room, follows that in the cities Antiochia and Constantinople the Christian House Rules are particularly endangered by the intruding of the old pagan dance customs. In the Christians' houses obviously the dance lived on as continuation of pagan customs.
Moreover, dances belonged in the late antique to the people's entertainments that were organized for reason of state. "So readily the state of the post-Constantin era helped to banish paganism from the public by legal decrees, so little it took part in the church denouncement of dance." (ANDRESEN, 1961, P. 229)
How little e.g. John could count on the national support, he should experience soon, when he continued his polemic against the dance in Constantinople. In the neighbourhoud of the main church a fixed image of the Empress Eudoxia had been set up before the town hall. As usual, ballet dances took place there, and dancers performed before the emperor and his family. In a sermon John called these national popolar amusements on the market place an affront on the Christian religion.
At the same time he aimed with his protest at the empress. He found her reproachable because of her finery mania and the worldly doings at the court. The lecture begins with the words: "Once more Herodias rages, once more Salome dances, one more she strives to carry off John's head on a dish." (cited with ANDRESEN, 1961, P. 230)
With 'Herodias' clearly the Empress EUDOXIA was meant; the dance of the 'Salome' referred to the ballet performances; with 'Baptist' however the bishop actually thought of himself, who had the same name as the by Herodias hated Baptist. The metaphor should become soon reality. John fell actually a victim to the resistance at the imperial court against his ascetic view of Christianity.
But John's criticism was also directed against the dances at funerals and dead memories, above all however at weddings. Obviously the Christians abided by such pagan customs. Particularly the wedding dances are objectionable to the bishop. There songs were sung that naturally praised the goddess of love, i.e. Aphrodite, in all variations. The ears of the Christians had to hear an "invocation of the devil" in such songs (ANDRESEN, 1961, P. 252).
In rich families one engaged also professional dancers. The topic of such wedding ballets was likewise determined by the pagan mythology, i.e. by the inexhaustible topic of Aphrodite. Thus it does not surprise, when bishop's synods define time and again the wedding dances as not permitted for Christians.
The critical, often also ironical remarks of John, which correspond to this conviction are everywhere in his homilies. It is his intention to keep away the Christians from the "satanic wedding celebrations and (round) dances". "It is indecent and infamous to lead libertines and dancers and the whole satanic procession into your house ... You do surely not think that the marriage ceremony is a stage performance, do you?" (Homily on Col, 12:4)
As far as these verdicts are concerned there is to note that the late antique ballet-dancing was not an esthetic dance. Connected with it was also the danger of pagan influence on Christianity. The repertoire of the pantomimic ballet fed on the mythology of paganism and contributed so to the preservation of the antique myths.
Therefore it surprises that even the pagan Libanius - John's teacher of rhetoric - declared himself against the pantomimic dance; it is demoralizing and destroys the education. It corresponds to this that the guild of the dancers was always of ill repute. Even the decided opponent of Christianity, Emperor Julian, ordered that the pagan priests should not privately consort with professional dancers, actors and mimes (see ANDRESEN, 1961, P. 257).
3. Criticism at Bath Customs
When John's criticism at the contemporary bath customs is mentioned, then may not be concluded from it that the bishop delivered from ascetic reasons a verdict on bathing in general, as this is reported on some monk's ascetic writings (see ZELLINGER, 1928, P. 47 FF). In agreement with other church representatives he "admitted the use of baths, that was indispensable for the well-being of the faithful, and fought at best the excesses" (Mendner, 1978, P. 877).
His criticism is not directed against cleanliness, but - if at all - above all against common bathing of men and women; primarily however against the views that sins were "washed off" by bathing; and not least against people's splendor and finery mania on the occasion of bathing.
The refusal of the common bath of men and women ("balnea mixta") is already found in the early imperial era. "Common bathing of men and women was considered as indecent." (JÜTHNER, 1950, P. 1138) The emperors repeatedly forbade it, so Hadrian and Marc Aurel (see ZELLINGER, 1928, P. 36 f). After the statute-book of Justinian (6th century) it was even a ground for a divorce (see ZELLINGER, 1928, P. 37 f).
Despite the nearly unanimous refusal of the "balnea mixta" by the early Christian writers, with John there are only a few references to such a view. They do furthermore not clearly object to the "balnea mixta". Thus he warns in his booklet on child education to take boys along into the woman bath. "The boy may not to bathe together with women." (On Egotism and Child Education 60) Something similar applies for the remark that Christian women should not display golden jewelry in the bath.
Also the following remark of the bishop is directed not against bathing in general, but against the immoral presentations in the theartre:
"You go to the source of the devil, in order to see a bathing haetera and to suffer by it shipwreck of your soul. That water (in the theatre) is a sea of lewdness bringing ruin not to the body but to the soul. While she is swimming with exposed body, you who are watching sink into the abyss of vice ... (Therefore) flee the swimming-bath in the theatre! ... The Deluge at the time of Noe ruined humankind not so disgracefully, as these swimming women suffocate all their spectators." (Homily on Mt, 7:7)
John's remarks against superstitious bath customs on the occasion of moral misdemeanours may not be understood as condemnation of bathing in general. "By the sin of lewdness the whole body is defiled. It becomes dirty, as if it fell into a nauseating basin or dipped into a puddle. Thus this custom prevails also with us: If someone indulged in greed or committed robbery, then it does not occur to him to go into a bath; he will go home without hesitation. But when someone comes from the house of a whore he runs to the bath, as if he were soiled all over. Thus conscience states how infamous this sin is." (Homily on 1 Cor, 18:1)
A homily on the Second Letter to Timotheus reads: "Did (the prophet Jesaja) perhaps say: Hurry to the spring, hurry to the baths and lakes and rivers? Nothing of that, but: Do away with your malice from your souls, i.e. become pure! That clears away the defilement, that is true purity. That cleaning is of little use, this gives confidence in God. May these baths be left to adulterers, thieves and murderers, enervated and licentious men, whore-mongers and catamites - yes, to these particularly! They are it who think only of body cleanliness, always smelling of ointments, they are scrubbing their graves. For their body is a grave, and the dead soul rests inside. They may succeed with the outside cleaning. But they do not penetrate to the inside. What does it mean to wash the body? ... There are people who charge themselves during the day with guilt and sin, in the evening however they take a bath, then they come filled with confidence to the church and raise their hands for prayer, as if they had washed away any blame in their water basin. If this were so, which advantage were there in the daily bath!
If this were so, if bathing cleaned and forgave sins, no force brought me any longer away from the baths. But how ridiculous and foolish is this faith." (Homily on 2 Tim, 6:4)
IV. Valuation of Body Care
John's criticism at the doings of the people in Antiochia and Constantinople was particularly directed against the immoral stage performances, against the pagan wedding dances, not least against the superstitious baths. His attitude to the athletic contests (for instance at the Olympic games in Daphne, a suburb of Antiochia) seems to have been to a large extent positive. Thus he mentions that he as student took part in races.
There are however no further direct references to an approval of the physical exercises. But here has to be pointed out that John had in principle a positive attitude to the human body, as we saw above.
Also the following text from a homily is characteristic for it: "If the bishop simply cares for his bodily needs, so that he can serve you, if he only wants to be useful for you, should he deserve reproaches for this? Do you not know that the physical weakness brings not less damage to us and the church than the weakness of the soul? ... If the soul alone were the organ of virtue, then we had certainly no need to worry about our body. But why then are we created in such a way? If thus the body contributes likewise much to the virtue, were it then not mere foolishness to neglect it?" (Homily on Tit, 1:4)
The in principle positive attitude of John results also from the following sentence: "I want to see that care of the flesh removed that leads to sin - as I on the other hand want that those things are done that belong to the care of the body." (Homily on Rom, 15:1) Similarly is said in another homily: "So (the Apostle Paul ... wants certainly that care is taken - but for the sake of health."
St. Paul decidedly recommends the care for the body. This care serves to promote health, not lewdness: "Look at the drunkards and gluttons, the dandies and revelers, at people who lead a wild life of idleness and luxury, and you will understand the text. These people act in this way not to remain healthy but to be slaves to their desires, and to kindle the sensual appetite. You however, who have put on Christ, remove all these excesses and strive only to have a sound body - so far take care for it, not further!" (Homily on Rom, 25:2) Similarly is said in another homily: "Make use of the baths, tkae care for your body! ... Only banish everywhere the too much!" (Homily on Eph, 13:3)
There is to refer to a set of positive statements about bathing in writings and homilies. When Emperor Theodosius as the first punitive measure for the riot of the year 387 let close the public bath of the city Antiochia and ordered that nobody was allowed to take a bath, John brought the affair on the lectern of the church. He finds the law of the Emperor exaggerated, and is surprised at the calmness with which people comply with the order. His compassion is in particular for the sick and old people, the children and women in childbed, who need this "cure". How everyday and natural the bath was one learnss from the fact that the preacher talks of a "tyrannical power of the habit", and of an "old and deep-rooted habit"; and he admits how hard it is to do without the bath (Homily on Picture Columns, 14:6).
However he blames young people, who circumvent the imperial prohibition by bathing in the Orontes: "Yes, is said, we cannot endure it without bath. Oh impudent utterance! Oh common and senseless excuse! Tell me, how many months, how many years are it already that you did not bathe? Twenty days have not gone by yet that the baths have been closed, and you are sad and sullen as if you had been a full year without bath." (Homily on the Picture Columns, 18:4)
John is aghast that one - in view of a hard imperial punishment under a penalty of death - longs without thinking for baths: "The soul is in danger, and you think of baths and want a soft life."
Among the charges stated against the bishop on the so-called "Oak Synod" in the year 403, is found also the following: John had let heat a bath alone for himself, and had asked the Deacon Serapion to come, so that nobody could enter the bath. Whether ascetic circles took it ill of the bishop that he wanted to bath, cannot be found out (ZELLINGER, 1928, P. 17 f). It was bitter for him that they never made station during the deportation, so that the exhausted had get "the comfort of the bath", as his biographer Palladius writes (see ZELLINGER, 1928, P. 18).
Informative in the sense of a positive valuation of bathing is the recommendation to educate boys to independence: "If his feet are to be washed, this should not be done by a slave but by himself ... and he is not to wait in the bath for the assistance of another person, but he is to make everything by himself." (On Egotism and Child Education 70).
V. The Agonistic as Picture and Metaphor
To which extent gymnastics and agonistic were still practised at John's time, this to find out is difficult. After all Olympic games were held in Daphne every four years up to 520 A.D.. From the writings of the Byzantine authors one can hardly get any references that refer to such activities, or to gymnasia and peristyles. However in Byzantine time weapon exercises, riding, hunting, swimming and ball games enjoyed great popularity. Certainly Christianity concurred to the disappearance of the antique gymnastics and athletic, since it disapproved of these forms of physical exercises, particularly because of their fusion with the pagan cult.
The more surprising it is to see that something of the antique agonistic "survived" in the Christian time. It is the area of concepts about the stadium and the palaestra (peristyle) that passed nearly unchanged into the vocabulary of the martyr and monk literature of the early Christian writers.
The contemporary style of the "diatribe" that loved the comparisons from the agonistic, and was cultivated e.g. by EPIKTET and SENECA, was readily taken over. However one may not so easily conclude from the use of this metaphorical language from the area of agonistic that there was an exact knowledge or even an endorsement of the agonistic (see KOCH, 1999).
One of the early Christian writers, who knew and used the metaphorical language of stadium and palaestra, is John Chrysostomus. Particularly in his writing "On Egotism and Child Education" (see PAUL, 1993, P. 63 - 68) as aim is time and again mentioned: "Educate a fighter (=athletes) for Christ!" (On Egotism and Child Education 19; 63)!
But also elsewhere he speaks time and again about the "fight of the virtue" (=agon) and about the "wrestling school of virtue" (=palaistra) (so e.g. On Virginity 45, and Homily on Mt, 11:8), or about the "race-course of Christ" (=stadium) and the "race-course of heaven" (e.g. Homily on Rom, 22:4).
Because of the concreteness of these pictures used by John, it is certainly not unfounded to conclude that he knew this "world" by his own experience. The following comparisons confirm this in impressive way.
The essay "On Virginity" says one should not avoid the contest. The "scenery" of the fight is vividly depictured: "Nobody says to the fighter, as soon as he put down once the garment, rubbed himself with ointment, entered into the race-course and covered himself with dust: Go away, flee before the opponent! But since one of the two possibilities will necessarily happen: either he goes away crowned or is thrown down and insulted ... Who then will dare it - after the game once has been opened, Christ is umpire, the angels watch from above; after the devil rages and gnashes his teeth, is engaged in the figth and grasped round his waist -, to step out and to say: Flee the opponent, leave off the troubles, omit the attack, do not throw down the enemy and stretch him on the ground, but leave the victory to him" (On Virginity 38)?
The comparisons with the race are liked: "The nearer the prize the more the fighters exert themselves. Also those who take part in the race do the same. The more they approach the end of the race and the receipt of the winner's wreath, the more they step out." (Homily on Rom, 25:1) Similarly is said in another place: "We must forget and leave behind us our past achievements. For also the runner does not count, how often he run already through the race-course (=diaulos), but how often he has to do it yet ... According to the apostle's word we must exert ourselves. Already before we arrive at the aim, we must always strive to attain it. For those who exert themselves (stretches) strive with their whole body, as it were, to run in front of their feet, as fast as these may ever run: they bend themselves forward and stretch out their hands, in order to accelerate the run if possible. To that they are driven by the seriousness of their striving and the heat of their eagerness. So the runner must run, so unweariedly, so joyfully, without loosing the delight" (Homily on Phil, 13:1).
"You know with which perseverance the one who strives for the aim does this: he looks at nobody, pushs all who stand in his way with great force on the side, summons attention, eye, strength, body and soul, by looking at nothing else than the prize" (Homily on Phil, 12:3).
"Do you see how the runners in their way of life depend on certain regulations? How they permit themselves not anything that could weaken their strength? How they daily practise in the gymnasium (=palaistra) under supervision of the trainer (=paidotribes), and under adherence to the rules? You may copy these people! ... For you have in prospect an incomparably higher prize. There are many people who endeavor to stop you in the run ... There are lots of things that threaten to weaken your strength. Try to make your feet strong and persistent ... Let us get ease in the motion, so that the clumsiness of the body does not impair the quickness of the feet. Accustom your feet to a sure tread. For there are many slippery places, and if you fall down you will lose thereby a lot. But even if you should fall, rise quickly again!
You can also so win the victory yet. Never dare you on slippery soil, then you will not fall down. Run always on a firm course! Thus the gymn instructor too call out to the runners. Thus the strength is held in equilibrium. But if you bend your head downward, then you will fall down and get exhausted. Direct your look upward where the prize is. The mere sight of the prize will increase the eagerness. The anxious expectation lets the strains not be felt, and the far distance seems short" (Homily on Phil, 13:2).
Thereby the aim of all trouble is to please God, to prove oneself as virtuous: "We do not want to be lazy in the race for virtue, rather to get ready with all eagerness for these wonderful fights, and to strive hard for a short time in order to get the eternal unfading crown" (Homily on Mt, 39:4). "Not do not only once want to please God but always. If the runner passes over eleven times the race-course but omits the last round, everything is lost" (Homily on Phil, 1:3).
The perseverance in the moral effort is crucial for Chrysostomus: "From this day set your foot on this wonderful arena (=palaistra), anointed for the contest with the ointments of the Holy Spirit. And if you are stranded during this exercise once, twice or more often, keep up your courage, rise again and continue to fight (=palaison), and do not cease before you did not achieve a splendid triumph over the devil" (Homily on Mt, 11:8).
Also the comparisons from the fist-fight are very realistic and show a familiarity with this "kind of sport": "The pugilist will only then become the winner, if he does not bend down to the ground and gets the blows, but if he rises and lets his opponent do the blow into the air. In this way he does not receive the blow, and makes the whole blow of the opponent ineffective." (Homily on Rom, 23:3)
There was no limited ring with the antique pugilism (see JÜTHNER/MEHL); there were also no "rounds". One fought until one of the opponents was exhausted or acknowledged his defeat.
One led above all blows at the head of the opponent. Hence the pugilists tried to avoid to be hit by the opponent.
In the fight in which the Christian has to emerge as winner it is about a prize that is imperishable - the blissfulness of heaven: "If ... violent blows seem to the pugilists quite easy and bearable because they hope for a reward that is nevertheless transient and will disappear, the more then nobody will pay attention to the present suffering, where the heaven is set as prize - with the inexpressible blissfulness and the imperishable victory wreath (=athanata epathla)" (Homily on Mt, 23:5).
This fight it not about a "beauty prize": "Take up the great fight where one needs strength, not beauty; a strong fist, not a soft hand. Do you not see the pugilists and athlets? Do they worry about their gait, about their suit? Not at all! That is quite unimportant to them. They put on a coat dripping with oil. They see to one thing only: that they give the blow, and do not receive anyone" (Homily on 1 Tim, 8:3).
There is a condition for coming off victorious: the preceding trouble of constant training: "A wrestler who is fighting and striving for the prize, will not think of rest and idleness." (Homily on Mt, 74:5) "Which athlet, who knows nothing about gymnastics (actually: "who knows no paedotribe = coach"), will at the day of the Olympic games prove to be a brave fighter to his opponent? Has one not to practice there each day in wrestling, pugilism and running? Or do you not know how the so-called pugilists train, if they have none with whom they can grapple?
Then they will hang a heavy bag and practice at it their whole strength. The younger pugilists however learn with their contemporaries for the fight with their (future) opponents. You too are to imitate these athlets." (Homily on Mt, 33:6)
"The atleths deal in such a way: In order to show their pupils how one can win and be victorious they will gladly engage in the palaestra in a wrestling-match with others, so that their pupils by the body of their opponents see and learn how one gains the victory "(Homily on Mt, 13:2).
In his treatise "On Priesthood" John writes about the engagement and responsibility of the priests for the church, the body of Christ: "If already those who work their way up for the achievement of an athletic body constitution stand in need of physicians and gymn instructors, of an exactly regulated way of life, of steady exercise together with innumerable other observations, since the smallest coincidental mistake can upset and destroy everything, how then can those to whom is given the care for a body that has to fight not a battle against mortal bodies, but against invisible powers, this body keep pure and healthy, if they do not by far excel the usual human capability" (On Priesthood 4:2)?
In his homilies John refers time and again to the prize promised to the Christian: "What is the prize? Not a palm twig, but what? Heaven, eternal peace, glory with Christ, inheritance, brotherhood, innumerable goods that are beyond any description. It is impossible to describe the beauty of this prize; only the one who has already won it knows it, amd the one who is on the point of receiving it. It is not made of gold or precious stones; it is much more precious than these ... If you come into heaven decorated with it, then you can enter with large honours there, and the angels will revere you, when you carry this crown ... (Jesus Christ) wanted that you fight her on earth; there above he will crown you. Not as in terrestrial contests in which the winner's wreath is given where the event takes place, no, this crown beckons at the place of glory. Do you not see that even her on earth those atleths and charioteers who shall be particularly honoured are not wreathed on the race-course below, but that the emperor let come them up to himself, and puts there the winner's wreath upon their heads? So also in our case: In heaven you will receive the prize "(Homily on Phil, 12:3).
And another homily reads about the life of Christians: "The prize of such a life is not made of laurel wreaths or oil tree branches, no public honorary banquet, and no brazen statutes that are there so cold and useless, no, it is the eternal life, the childhood of God, the consorting with the angels, the permission to stand before the royal throne and to be always with Christ" (Homily on Mt, 1:5). This aim is to be realized from childhood on: "Educate a fighter (athlet) for Christ and teach him/her, even if she/he lives in the world, to be God-fearing from earliest youth." (On Egotism and Child Education 19)
VI. Summary of the Results
John Chrysostomus, the great preacher of the old church, is a fascinating figure. Taught in his hometown Antiochia in the education of his time and in the Christian theology of the Antiochenian School, he unites in himself two "worlds" that seem to exclude each other. Just in the valuation of the human body and - in relation to it - the body care and the physical exercises John's greatness becomes apparent. Although rooted in the Greek-Platonic view of life with its body-devaluating, if not even body-hostile views, he finds - due to the Christian basic dogma of the goodness of God's creation - to a positive valuation of the human body.
John's criticism at some phenomena of his time: at the theatre, the events in the arenas, the dances and the immoral and superstitious bath customs may in no way be interpreted as refusal of physical exercises and hygiene. These late antique features were still bound up with paganism, and were a great danger for the Christian community, namely in the sense of "getting-pagan-again", i.e. by the admission of pagan ideas and practices by the Christians.
Without doubt however for John a reasonable hygiene was a matter of course - in contrast to the practice particularly in monk circles that rejected bathing often in principle.
John obviously knew the late ancient agonistic by his own experience. This conclusion is suggested by the countless pictures and comparisons from the world of gymnasium and palaestra used by him, particularly since these comparisons and pictures are very concrete and realistic. But the conclusion that John regarded these forms of agonistic as good and harmless is not justified just by his use of these comparisons.
Finally is still referred to an important point. The views of John are naturally inserted into a comprehensive view of education. His "educational ideal" is religious-moral-ethical. The mental training, the acquisition of intellectual and manual abilities, not least the care for the body and the physical training are not the actual concern of John. He regards these areas as matter of course. They are and may not be the crucial things in the human life. Just by his classification into a certain "educational ideal", and with the conviction of the "primat of ethics" becomes apparent that John is in agreement with the "classical educational ideal of the antique upper class" (GÄRTNER, 1985, P. 446).