Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele (edd.), Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses. Brill: Leiden, 2006. Pp. xvii + 580. ISBN 90-04-15447-7. US$269.00/€199.00.
Brasenose College, Oxford, England, U.K.
This disparate collection of essays originated in two meetings of the International Society of Biblical Literature in 2003 and 2004 in Cambridge (U.K.) and Groningen. Most of the papers have been revised for publication. Most of the contributors are faculty members in religious studies in North America with primary interests in the study of early Christianity. However, the volume has an interdisciplinary orientation -- one of its stated aims is to traverse ‘some of the boundaries between different areas of research’ (p. x) -- and its contributors focus on issues and materials which may be of interest to classicists and Graeco-Roman historians as well as to some students of Jewish, Biblical, and early Christian history and literature. The chief concern of the essays is to address ‘a perceived lack of attention’ on the part of biblical scholars to ‘questions related to ancient uses and conceptions of gender’ (p. x). The following review will consist of a series of brief summaries of the main lines of enquiry of individual essays and will conclude with an evaluation of the volume as a collection.
The volume commences with a three page editorial preface, where we learn that most of the essays will be concerned primarily with the exploration of literary sources -- none of the essays engage with either epigraphic or material evidence -- and with ‘the use of gender in explicit argumentation and representation’ (p. x). There follows a brief essay by Virginia Burrus, which offers some initial reflections and a survey of the main themes of the volume’s essays. She includes a very short discussion of the language of ‘maps’ and ‘mapping’, which is followed by a very short appraisal of the term ‘gender’ -- appropriately described as a ‘notably ambiguous signifier’ (p. 2) -- and a series of observations and reflections on the changing state of the still young disciplines of women’s studies and gender studies in Europe and North America. Burrus divides the volume’s main themes into the following categories: ‘Gender and Masculinity’; ‘Gender and Sexuality’; ‘Gender and Body’; ‘Gender and Empire’; ‘Gender and Religion’. It will be seen from this division that the scope of the volume is in principle vast, and also that it is ‘gender’, rather than ‘religion’ (which Burrus identifies as a ‘distinctly modern concept too often uncritically mapped onto ancient texts’ [p. 9]), which provides the volume with its common strand. In the volume’s first essay proper, Diana M. Swancutt, ‘Still Before Sexuality: “Greek” Androgyny, the Roman Imperial Politics of Masculinity and the Roman Invention of the Tribas’ (pp. 11-61), shows that a number of Roman imperial authors detected in the behaviour of Roman tribades (matrons whom several imperial authors identified as having androgynous characteristics and homoerotic yearnings) the unmistakable whiff of Greekness. In her essay, ‘Gender and Geopolitics in the work of Philo of Alexandria: Jewish Piety and Imperial Family Values’ (pp. 63-88), Mary Rose D’Angelo highlights the influence of Roman family values in the writings of the first century CE Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria. Kimberley B. Stratton’s essay, ‘The Rhetoric of Magic in Early Christian Discourse: Gender, Power and the Construction of “Heresy”' (pp. 89-114), represents an attempt to find significance in the peculiar fact that early Christian writings invariably depict women as the victims, and never the main perpetrators, of magic and sorcery. Davina C. Lopez, ‘Before your very eyes: Roman Imperial Ideology, Gender Constructs and Paul’s Inter-Nationalism’ (pp. 115- 62), suggests that Roman depictions of conquered foreign peoples as effeminate may have shaped St. Paul’s understanding of the ethne to whom he directed his missionary activity. Fredrik Ivarsson, ‘Vice Lists and Deviant Masculinity: The Rhetorical Function of 1 Corinthians 5:10-11 and 6:9-10' (pp. 163-84), adduces Graeco-Roman evidence to support his exegesis of the vice lists of chapters five and six of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Two further essays focus on New Testament texts: Eric Thurman, ‘Novel Men: Masculinity and Empire in Mark’s Gospel and Xenophon’s An Ephesian Tale’ (pp. 185- 229), attempts to find noteworthy common ground between depictions of masculinity in the Gospel of Mark and in Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale; and Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele, ‘Script(ur)ing Gender in Acts: The Past and Present Power of Imperium’ (pp. 231-66), argue that Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, can be seen to rework his community’s ideals and teachings in conformity with the cultural expectations of imperial Romans in order better to appeal to them.
The volume’s subsequent essays focus for the most part on texts which derive from the second and third century Roman empire. In her essay, ‘From Bedroom to Courtroom: the Adultery type-scene and the Acts of Andrew’ (pp. 267-311), Saundra Schwartz presents a reading of the Acts of Andrew as a text which creates ‘a point of identification and a cognitive script for male readers . . . more so than for female readers’ (p. 311). Judith Perkins’ contribution, ‘The Rhetoric of the Maternal Body in the Passion of Perpetua’ (pp. 313-32), draws insights from the work of the feminist theorist Judith Butler to explore the depiction of the body in a well-known North African martyrdom text. Chris Frilingos, ‘Wearing it well: Gender at work in the Shadow of Empire’ (pp. 333-49), engages with the studies of Maud Gleason on Favorinus of Arles, Brent Shaw on martyrs, and Carlin Barton on gladiatorial games in his attempt to find evidence that imperial Romans could admire gender-ambiguous qualities, even ‘softness’, in spite of their more usual understandings of masculinity as essentially ‘hard’ and dominant. Rebecca Lesses’ essay, '"He shall not look at a Woman": Gender in the Hekhalot Literature’ (pp. 351-87), explores a number of questions pertaining to women and femininity in the Hekhalot literature of late antique Jewish mysticism, and highlights apparent points of intellectual departure and confluence between the Hekhalot authors and the Rabbis of the Talmuds. Gwynn Kestler, ‘Bodies in Motion: Preliminary Notes on Queer Theory and Rabbinic Literature’ (pp. 389- 409), finds evidence that a number of Rabbinic Jewish texts ‘point to a space beyond the world of binary gender oppositions’ and suggests that, in spite of the fact that the ancient rabbis ‘were not queer theorists’, they nonetheless ‘imagined the bodies of their ancestors in some remarkably “queer” ways’ (p. 409). Michel Desjardins, ‘Clement’s Bound Body’ (pp. 411-30), offers an examination of the early patristic author Clement of Alexandria’s conception of the self in its relation to the body. Jennifer Knust, ‘Enslaved to Demons: Sex, Violence and the Apologies of Justin Martyr’ (pp. 431-55), notes the gender stereotypes which Justin Martyr deployed in his second century apologies. Brad Windon’s essay, ‘The Seduction of Weak Men: Tertullian’s Construction of Gender and Ancient Christian "Heresy"' (pp. 457-78), examines various aspects of the way another pre-Constantinian Christian apologist, Tertullian, bolstered his accusations against those he accused of heresy with charges of sexual deviance. In the volume’s final essay, ‘Men of Learning: the Cult of Paideia in Lucian’s Alexander’ (pp. 479- 510), Erik Gunderson examines the cultural assumptions underlying Lucian’s description of the cult of Asclepius at Abonuteichus.
It should be clear from this summary that no single question concerning gender or sexuality is approached in every one of the volume’s essays and that individual contributors focus for the most part on issues pertaining to the history and literature of Christianity in the pre- Constantinian period. Some of the volume’s essays bring new insights to bear. In particular, Mary Rose D’Angelo’s essay is a valuable contribution to Philonic scholarship and to the study of the Jewish family in antiquity and Davina C. Lopez sheds new light on an important area of the thought of St. Paul. Other studies address more familiar material.
The volume would have benefited from a more extended discussion of its main themes in its opening pages, and contains disappointingly little in the way of methodological reflection. The volume starts out by stating that more will be in view than a series of discussions of a set of historical themes. Virginia Burrus defines ‘mapping’ in her introduction as ‘an act of translation -– or, perhaps better yet, of transformation’ (p.1), a definition which wears its presentist agenda on its proverbial sleeve. In practice, however, the volume’s subsequent contributors turn out to be concerned almost entirely with the task of (historical) ‘translation’ rather than with questions of (present-day political) ‘transformation’. On this predominance and on the question of the volume’s general tendency toward a historicizing hermeneutic, a brief final comment may be in order. For from a historical point of view, it is regrettable that important insights concerning the use of analytical terms (e.g. Burrus’ justified complaint that the ‘distinctly modern concept [of religion] too often [has been] uncritically mapped onto ancient texts’ [p.9]) should fail to engender a more thoroughgoing pursuit of the (one would have thought, crucial) task of unpacking and clarifying analytical terms. Neither ‘religion’ nor ‘gender’ comes under the kind of analytical scrutiny for which they are perhaps due if they are to be serve effectively as central interpretative categories (why should their difficulties and ambiguities be hinted at only in passing, or, in the case of Burrus’ estimation of ‘gender’, optimistically characterised as ‘productive’? [p.2]). ‘Gender’ has been argued to raise certain difficulties as a category of historical analysis, and is not merely ‘notably ambiguous’ (as Burrus’ introductory essay indicates), but also notably contested (as she neglects to emphasise).[] As for ‘religion’, it may legitimately be asked, what would constitute an ‘uncritical’, and what a critical, use of the term as a category of analysis of ancient culture? The volume nowhere addresses such questions and the possibility of establishing a clearly defined grid of analytical reference for the volume’s essays is not realised. This absence means the volume’ s essays do little together to advance any particular conception of the nature of ancient gender or religion and will ensure that the volume is likely to be consulted by future scholars only on an essay-by-essay basis, rather than as a mutually informing collection.
[] While strong cases have been made in support of its usefulness as a category of historical analysis (see e.g. J.W. Scott’s classic essay, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’ (in her Gender and the Politics of History (Columbia 1988) 28-50) and Bonnie G. Smith’s book The Gender of History: Men, Women and the Historical Practice (Harvard 1998)), others have argued to the contrary, suggesting various ways in which the term’s employment in historical scholarship has tended in certain cases to be accompanied by a number of arguably unwelcome and unwarranted interpretative assumptions (see e.g. Joan Hoff, ‘Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis’ in Women’s History Review 3.2 (1994) 149-68.