Where second-century pagans differed most profoundly from the views that had already begun to circulate in Christian circles was in their estimate of the horizons of the possible for the body itself. Potentially formless and eternal matter [to pagan civilians], the body was barely held together, for a short lifetime, by the vivid soul of the well-born man. Its solid matter could change as little as the crystalline marble of a sharply cut and exquisitely polished statue might blossom magically in its depths, into a more refined and malleable substance. Like society, the body was there to be administered, not to be changed. Others had begun to disagree with this view. Writing at the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria, a Christian who knew his pagan authors well, summed up with admirable clarity and fairness the essence of the expectations of the body [to those of the Roman Empire]. Pagan philosophers, he knew, subscribed to an austere image of the person: "The human ideal of continence, I mean that which is set forth by the Greek philosophers, teaches one to resist passion, so as not to be made subservient to it, and to train the instincts to pursue rational goals." But Christians, he added, went further: "our ideal is not to experience desire at all."
Moses had stood on Sinai for forty days, a man transfigured by the close presence of God. The needs of the body were stilled in him for all that time [cf. Stromateis 3.7.57]. Through the Incarnation of Christ, the Highest God had reached down to make even the body capable of transformation. In admitting this possibility, Clement implied that the stable environment posited by pagan thought, an intractable body and a social order adjusted to its unchanging needs, might burst from its ancient bounds. Sexual renunciation might lead the Christian to transform the body and, in transforming the body, to break with the discreet discipline [ie. the suppression] of the ancient city.
Clement was a moderate among Christians. He stood closer to Plutarch, Musonius Rufus, and the doctors of his age than he did to many of his fellow-believers. In little groups scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean, other Christians had seized upon the body. They had set it up as a palpable blazon of the end of the "present age." They believed that the universe itself had shattered with the rising of Christ from the grave. By renouncing all sexual activity the human body could join in Christ's victory: it could turn back the inexorable. The body could wrench itself free from the grip of the animal world. By refusing to act upon the youthful stirrings of desire, Christians could bring marriage and childbirth to an end. With marriage at an end, the huge fabric of organized society would crumble like a sandcastle touched by the "ocean-flood of the Messiah." [cf. Acts of Judas Thomas]
These were the views of [the] exact contemporaries ... of Marcus Aurelius. Their implications could hardly have been more appalling to the pagan elites of Rome and the Aegean, and more calculated to upset the average married householder in any Mediterranean or Near Eastern community. In the century that followed the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the issue of sexual renunciation came to be elaborated in Christian circles as a drastic alternative to the moral and social order that seemed so secure, so prepared to expatiate upon its fundamental values in treatises, in works of medicine and on the warm stones of so many monuments in so many little cities.
Peter Brown, Body and Society (1988: 30-31)