Women & Gender in Ancient Religions: Interdisciplinary
Approaches by Stephen P. Ahearne-Kroll
(Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament: Mohr
Siebeck) Following a scholarly conference given in honor of Adela
Yarbro Collins, this collection of essays offers focused
studies on the wide range of ways that women and gender
contribute to the religious landscape of the ancient world.
Experts in Greek and Roman religions, Early Christianity,
Ancient Judaism, and Ancient Christianity engage in
literary, social, historical, and cultural analysis of
various ancient texts, inscriptions, social phenomena, and
cultic activity. These studies continue the welcomed trend
in scholarship that expands the social location of women in
ancient Mediterranean religion to include the public sphere
The result is an important and lively book that deepens the understanding of ancient religion as a whole.
The past twenty years or so has seen a healthy blossoming of work on ancient Mediterranean religions — and I especially wish to draw attention to the plural noun with which I ended that phrase: one important advance has been an enhanced appreciation of the fact that ancient Mediterranean religions must be studied in the same way as they were often practiced: in concert with one another. As Carin Green reminds us in her essay in this volume, to do otherwise is to institute a "divide that is utterly false to the subjects themselves." Several new Program Units at the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature have explicitly set out to address ancient religions from a comparative perspective or to question traditionally acceptable divisions between Judaism and Christianity, Christianity and various paganisms, or within the paganisms (or Christianities and Judaisms for that matter) themselves. Established graduate programs have added comparative requirements to their curricula; newer graduate programs have been founded on the premise that no ancient Mediterranean religion can be studied in isolation from the others.
At about the same time (although, notably, nowhere near as visibly at the AAR and SBL) the importance of understanding women's religious experiences, in the ancient world and elsewhere, began to be more keenly appreciated. This brought a new awareness, however, of the difficulties of recreating female experience for any time prior to about the twentieth century. How can we properly dissect the comments of male writers and the artistic creations of male painters and sculptors in order to arrive at some approximation of what it was like to be a female participating in a religious system? How do we read the second-hand cues our texts and artifacts provide, and how do we expunge from ourselves the accumulation of androcentric impressions that we accrue from reading the scholarship of the past few centuries? Although the challenges inherent in these questions have not yet been fully met, certainly there has been progress in recent years, especially in conceptualizing the issues (as Patricia Ahearne-Kroll particularly demonstrates, in this volume, throughout her discussion of Joseph and Aseneth).
Interestingly, however, there have been very few attempts to build on these developments by bringing these two areas of inquiry together: few scholars have set out to study the religious lives of ancient Mediterranean women within a comparative context. Thus, the present volume is all the more welcome. Classicists rub elbows with scholars of Judaism and Christianity; the words of Greek curse tablets, Alexandrian grave epigrams and Roman philosophers are brought cheek to jowl with those of the apostles and church fathers. Many of the essays are comparative in their own right: Loveday Alexander, for instance, shows how in both the Greek novel and the New Testament, religious sites and festivals are the scenes for significant encounters between men and women — but also that the narrative of Acts begins to redefine sacred space so as to include the household, a predominantly female sphere in almost every society. Mary Rose D'Angelo studies the divorce dialogues in Mark 10:2-12 in the context of Julian divorce laws and, more generally, first century Roman political and moral discourse. In addition to this emphasis on cultural comparativism, we find attention to comparison amongst genres: Clare Rothschild, for instance, looks at the question of whether medical texts concerning the generation of embryos influenced the Fourth Gospel; in addition to analyzing that issue itself, she offers the important reminder that we must not privilege ancient scientific theories over theories provided by myth, theology or over narrative discourses — all are equally embedded in their cultures. Also welcome is the long overdue attention paid to several topics that engage issues that are vital to both the study of religion and the study of gender construction: Can we identify females in antiquity that can properly be called 'witches'? asks Radcliffe Edmonds, and if we can, for what sorts of disasters are they blamed? On the same topic, Fritz Graf emphasizes that, whatever the ancient literary portraits of the witch may imply, seldom were such creatures actually identified and charged with crimes.
Excerpt: The present volume stems from "Women in the Religious and Intellectual Activity of the Ancient Mediterranean World: An Interdisciplinary and International Conference in Honor of Adela Yarbro Collins," held March 1517, 2009 at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and The Ohio State University. The conference featured nineteen papers and eighteen responses from experts in Greek and Roman religion, ancient Judaism, the New Testament, and ancient Christianity from nine countries in North America and Europe, reflecting the laudable, interdisciplinary research program of the honoree. The essays in this volume are, by and large, revised versions of the papers given at the conference, plus a few additional invited essays.'
The study of women in the ancient world has made tremendous strides in recent decades. What was at first groundbreaking work in the (male-dominated) world of scholarship has now become integral to a proper understanding of the social, political, economic, religious, and family life of ancient cultures. The study of women in the ancient world was initiated by feminist scholars; now it is embraced by scholars from a wide variety of methodological and hermeneutical perspectives. Thanks to much fine work in this area, we now understand much more thoroughly than in previous generations past the roles that gender constructions, more generally, and women, in particular, played in ancient religion. Earlier scholars passed over these issues for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a biased view of the (un)importance of women in ancient (and modern) cultures. Taken as a whole, the present collection of essays makes a significant contribution to both expanding and focusing the scholarly community's understanding of not only ancient women's religious lives but also ancient religion as a whole.
The book falls into three major sections: Part I: Narrative; Part II: Ritual; Part III: Logos. This delineation should in no way be understood to imply sharp boundaries between the sections. Indeed, the overlapping of certain topics reflects the interconnectedness of the evidence on women and gender in ancient religion. Although the book offers a snapshot of only certain themes and problems on women and gender in antiquity, it illustrates how fascinating and intertwined in-depth studies on the topic can be.
Part I, "Narrative," includes a collection of essays on various narratives that may or may not have women as their central focus but in some way concern issues of gender and women. Loveday Alexander and Patricia D. Ahearne-Kroll look at ancient Greek novels. Alexander's essay, "The Virgin and the Goddess: Women and Religion in the Greek Romance," examines Chariton's Chareas and Callirhoe, offering a wide-ranging treatment of the ways that women and religion feature in Greek romances. After plumbing the depths of likely the earliest of the Greek and Roman novels, Alexander studies Luke-Acts, highlighting avenues for further inquiry into early Christian writings in parallel with ancient romances (for example, the way festivals and religious sites offer places of significant encounter between men and women, as well as opportunities for Luke's redefinition of sacred space to include domestic space and the space around the person of Jesus). Patricia Ahearne-Kroll's essay, "The Portrayal of Aseneth in Joseph and Aseneth: Women's Religious Experience in Antiquity and the Limitations of Ancient Narratives," also utilizes Chariton to examine the characterization tendencies of this genre. In particular, Ahearne-Kroll studies the characterization of the main protagonist, Aseneth, arguing that because Aseneth is an elite Egyptian convert to Judaism, she does not reflect "real" ancient Jewish women. Aseneth functions similarly to the way that Callirhoe functions in Chariton's aforementioned novel, and the way that characters, in general, function in ancient fiction, namely to communicate the author's favored cultural values and social structures. Aseneth's conversion to worship God the Most High and her royal marriage to Joseph uphold the value of marriage between nobility, communicate that partners in a legitimate marriage must only worship God the Most High, and assert that devotion to God the Most High is the only context in which passion between these partners can flourish. These are not just individual values, but rather form the basis for the success of the civilization.
Mary Rose D'Angelo and James A. Kelhoffer examine the Gospel of Mark. D'Angelo ("Roman Imperial Family Values and the Gospel of Mark: The Divorce Sayings [Mark 10:2-12]") shows how Roman divorce laws and 'family values' illuminate Mark 10:2-12. She argues that Roman social legislation created an ideal of "original, indissoluble marriage comparable to the vision of origins articulated in Mark 10:2-9." As a result, Mark 10:2-9 and 10:13-16 should be understood as "a defense against too radical an understanding of the call to discipleship in 10:17-31," perhaps made even more unusual by the participation of women in the early Jesus movement. Kelhoffer ("A Tale of Two Markan Characterizations: The Exemplary Woman Who Anointed Jesus' Body for Burial (14:3-9) and the Silent Trio Who Fled the Empty Tomb [16:1-8]") examines two contrasting characterizations of women in Mark. First, he argues that the woman who anoints Jesus' body for burial in 14:3-9 is an exemplary character in Mark, one to be emulated. Yet contrary to many feminist scholars, he argues that the three women at the empty tomb in 16:1-8 offer a negative example of discipleship not unlike that of the hapless Markan disciples.
Turid Karlsen Seim and Clare K. Rothschild examine the birthing metaphor and fatherhood in the Gospel of John. Seim ("Motherhood and the Making of Fathers in Antiquity: Contextualizing Genetics in the Gospel of John") argues that John, following ancient ideas of paternity, sees Jesus' "only-begotten" status as representing the birth of a child in the absence of a mother through the process of "epigenesis." This process includes the notions that only the male is able generate seed and that this seed provides the active principle of movement and life, whereas the female role is to provide the passive material. In contrast to Seim, Rothschild ("Embryology, Plant Biology, and Divine Generation in the Fourth Gospel") argues that "parthenogenesis" (a la ancient theories of plant generation) is more fitting than epigenesis as a model for John's depiction of the origin and status of Jesus as "only-begotten". Parthenogenesis holds that "a female gamete is activated spontaneously on its own without fusion with a male reproductive element or sperm." Rothschild picks up on the language of the mechanisms of parthenogenesis in plants (seed blown by the wind as a possible step) to argue for a similarity of the way works to generate rebirth in John. From this she extends her argument to other passages in John to make her case for parthenogenesis over epigenesis as the most fitting theory of the generation of the only-begotten Jesus.
Four more essays round out Part I. Using a careful narratological approach to Josephus's Antiquities, Jan Willem van Henten ("Blaming the Women: Women at Herod's Court in Josephus's Jewish Antiquities 15.23231") argues that Josephus depicts negatively Alexandra and Salome, in order to portray Herod more favorably, even tragically, for Herod's loss of Mariamme at the hands of Salome. Robert Doran ("To Bear or Not to Bear: The Argument for Abstinence in the Greek Gospel of the Egyptians") presents the four sayings in the Greek Gospel of the Egyptians as Christian testimonia used by Julius Cassianus and reinterpreted by Clement of Alexandria. The sayings originate from an encratite group that advocates sexual continence but does not completely reject marriage. Doran goes on to argue for the way that the sayings present the status of women in contrast to prevailing cultural mores: "What is interesting is that the argument in the Greek Gospel of the Egyptians completely overturns the sense of subordination of women, and rather places them on an equal footing with men. . . . Such a . . . stance in the second century would thus be an argument for the equal status and function of women in early Christianity."
Candida R. Moss ("Blood Ties: Martyrdom, Motherhood, and Family in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas") examines the presentation of family rejection in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. She argues (a) that when placed in their larger martyrological context, Perpetua's actions are quite commensurate with attitudes towards the family in martyrologies focusing on men; and (b) the martyrs' acts do not "promote the rejection of the idea of family so much as they promote its reconfiguration." Finally, Jeremy F. Hultin ("A New Web for Arachne and a New Veil for the Temple: Women and Weaving from Athena to the Virgin Mary") notes the insights on weaving in ancient Greece as articulated in Sarah Iles Johnston's analysis of the myth of Arachne, and he highlights narratives in early Christianity where weaving functions similarly. Hultin demonstrates that the presence of the main concerns of weaving in ancient Greece ("weaving as an activity connected to the transition from girlhood to womanhood; a skill showing female readiness for marriage and childbirth; a craft representing the joining together of disparate bodies so as to produce something new") are also present in the depiction of Mary in the Protevangelium of James, symbolizing the new life built in weaving the chaste person asexually to Christ.
Part II, "Ritual," contains four essays on ancient magic and one on a little known Roman festival that involved women and goddesses in the protection of the city. Fritz Graf's essay, "Victimology: Or, How to Blame Someone for an Untimely Death," examines grave inscriptions that attribute untimely death to sorcery, which is a neglected category of evidence regarding magical practices in the ancient Mediterranean world. He finds that relatively few (about 1000) grave inscriptions describe the death of the deceased, but of these under 5% attribute the death to some sort of pharmakeia. Because the accusations "remained always on the level of suspicion, rumor, and gossip," formal accusations of sorcery and witchcraft were actually quite rare. Also, the one accused of pharmakeia usually is not named and has no more frequent association with women than with men: "Compared to the stereotype of the female witch that we find in Greek and Roman literature, the reality 'on the ground' is much more complex." Graf's essay offers a point of departure for Radcliffe Edmonds's contribution, "Blaming the Witch: Some Reflections on Unexpected Death." Edmonds discusses the social dimensions of witchcraft in ancient Greek and Roman cultures and concludes that "within the range of possible causes [of untimely death], either the specification of one — a witch or a poison — or the emphasis on the uncertainty itself can serve as a strategy for dealing with the social situation." In other words, the accusation of specific or general witchcraft is one way that ancient Greek and Roman societies coped with the tragedy and shock of untimely death.
Stephen J. Davis ("Forget Me Not: Memory and the Female Subject in Ancient Binding Spells") finds in the Greek Magical Papyri a group of spells related to memory and the manipulation of memory. He argues for the connection between memory and the spells' ritual manipulations of the female body. Responding to Davis, Matt Jackson-McCabe questions the posited connection between memory and the female body. Instead, he suggests that "Greek love spells' interest in the anatomy of their victims may be better understood in connection with their eroticism than with their references to memory." He goes on to examine the common charge of magic in early Christian devotion and suggests a connection with the eroticism of magic as a possible reason for the accusation.
This section's final essay deals with an ancient Roman ritual designed to guard and secure the boundaries of the city. Carin M. C. Green ("Holding the Line: Women, Ritual, and the Protection of Rome") investigates the Roman goddesses Sessia, Messia, and Tutilina, highlighting their role in protecting the sacred boundary (pomerium) of the city. She also looks at the link between Tutilina and the Festival of the Handmaidens, arguing that the festival, in part, honors the three goddesses who protect the boundaries of the city. She further argues that the festival can be characterized as a Roman combat myth, thus connecting the study of this ritual with Adela Yarbro Collins's work on Revelation 12.2 If one thinks of the festival as a combat myth, "the women are warriors for the city. It is about enemies and possible disaster, and women as the champions who save Rome."
Part III, "Logos," contains discursive presentations on a variety of issues around gender and women in ancient thinkers with respect to religion. Paul A. Holloway considers two of Seneca's consolatory essays to women, Ad Marciam and Ad Helviam matrem, where Seneca "is forced to work out in practice the Stoic theory that woman are by nature equal to men in their capacity for virtue, although by training they are much their inferiors." Despite the philosopher's best efforts to present women as by nature equal to men in their capacity for virtue, "Seneca powerfully attests to elite Roman gender prejudice."
Next are two essays dealing with Paul and his legacy. First, Christopher N. Mount ("Religious Experience, the Religion of Paul, and Women in Pauline Churches") discusses Paul's letters with respect to the slippery category of religious experience. He argues that the criterion for ecclesial authority in the undisputed writings of Paul is based upon a person's possession by the spirit of the crucified Jesus. Ecciesial authority is thus not based upon gender but upon one's status as possessed by Christ crucified.
Focusing on the social dimensions of this phenomenon, he argues, "'Religious experience' is an apologetic category for the essence of religion, a category that depends entirely on the mythology of those who believe." Instead of focusing on religious experience, scholars of ancient religion should examine the discourses constructed about how deities interact with humans, including women. Second, Outi Lehtipuu ("The Example of Thecla and the Example(s) of Paul: Disputing Women's Roles in Early Christianity") examines the "competing views of how the legacy of Paul was understood and used in the second Christian century to justify the role and place of women." In particular, Lehtipuu argues for a multiplicity of second-century perspectives regarding how Paul's views of women are tied to arguments about marriage, opportunities for teaching and leadership, celibacy, and submission to male church leaders.
In an essay entitled, "Sophrosyne for Women in Pythagorean Texts," Annette B. Huizenga builds on the work of Abraham Malherbe and Helen North with regard to how women were to embody sophrosyne in the ancient world. She analyzes two neo-Pythagorean texts, On the Sophrosyne of a Woman and a short letter written by a certain Melissa to another woman named Kleareta. The most essential way women can embody sophrosyne is through sexual fidelity to her husband, but this is not just one quality among many that characterize a woman's sophrosyne. Instead, "all other prescribed female displays of the virtue (in adornment, speech and silence, child-bearing and child-rearing, household management, and activities outside the house itself) manifest this one primary achievement: a woman's uninterrupted practice of marital fidelity." Judith L. Kovacs ("Becoming the Perfect Man: Clement of Alexandria on the Philosophical Life of Women") studies in detail the fourth book of the Stromateis, particularly chapters 8 and 19-21, to flesh out precisely what he means when he advocates, "Women should philosophize the same as men" (Strom. 126.96.36.199). At first glance, this statement may seem straightforward enough, but in the context of the Stromateis, in dialogue with other philosophical writings, and as an integral part of Stromateis 4 as a piece of biblical interpretation, the statement shows Clement to be an even more complex thinker on the subject of women than previously acknowledged. Finally, Susan E. Myers ("The Spirit as Mother in Early Syriac-Speaking Christianity") surveys the textual evidence for early Christian mother imagery in northern Mesopotamia. After reviewing the current state of scholarship, Myers focuses on the use of feminine imagery for the Spirit in the Acts of Thomas. In particular, she looks at how the Acts develops certain elements from its regional heritage and how Ephrem and Aphrahat develop this imagery further, even while some elements of the tradition simultaneously are condemned.
The Feminine Personification of Wisdom: A Study of Homer's Penelope, Cappadocian Macrina, Boethius' Philosophia and Dante's Beatrice by Wendy Elgersma Helleman (Edwin Mellen Press) examines the attribution of abstract values to women by analyzing four characters spanning literary genres and more that 2000 years. Penelope, Macrina, Philosophia, and Beatrice are connected by their contribution to the theme of wisdom through their use of reason against passion. Feminine personification of reason and wisdom makes its own contribution as antidote to traditional understanding of 'feminine' as 'emotional' or 'irrational'. This book examines allegorical personification of Sophia, or wisdom, in ancient and medieval philosophy and literature, examining four feminine figures who personify wisdom. The first is Penelope of Homeric epic, weaving and unraveling to forestall her suitors; the tale is interpreted allegorically by Cynics and Stoics to discuss the place of logic in philosophy. The second example, Macrina, sister of Gregory of Nyssa, is less obviously allegorical. But Gregory depicts her as an embodiment of wisdom using the theme, 'reason against passion'. Boethius' Philosophia is portrayed as the lady who consoles as she reminds the prisoner of divine reason ruling the world. And finally, Dante's Beatrice, his muse, teacher and guide in achieving the beatific vision. Contemporary recognition of allegory as rhetorical technique supports appreciation of Dante's skill in depicting Beatrice as Lady Wisdom. More
Recalling Religions: Resistance, Memory, and Cultural Revision in Ethnic
Women's Literature by Peter Kerry Powers (
These images of literature and religion as hybrid forms are
useful figures for the work of all the writers taken up in this book.
Consciously or unconsciously all these writers address religious traditions to
and through literature, and in the process they discover the ways in which
traditions themselves can bend and be remolded without breaking. Traditions
reveal themselves as having less the stony logic of a philosophical edifice and
more the practical delicacy and stubbornness of the spider web, plunging here
and there to make itself in the context of the moment, as if from air. A good
thing this, since in the logic of stones the larger crush the smaller into
insignificance. It is also the logic of stones that they are not easily
reshaped to fit the practical needs of the moment. These practical needs are
the things to which these writers have addressed themselves. Thus Cynthia Ozick
fills out her stories with images and anecdotes pasted together across
millennia, reminding her readers to remember and not forget. Similarly Alice
Walker grabs hold of what is useful in the Christianity she inherited in order
to find a place for the women that Christianity has typically disregarded.
Leslie Silko creates new ceremonies in the pages of a book, drawing not only
from Navajo and
In many ways I hope that this image of the spider web is an
apt metaphor for the method I have tried to follow in this book. The connections
between the authors are various and pragmatic, having the logic of the spider
web rather than the architectonic logic of the skyscraper. The differences in
their literature and their religions will not allow them to be reduced to a
single foundation that we might call "Religion" or even "Ethnicity." Neither can
they be treated discretely as belonging to separate ethnic or literary
traditions. Like the points of connection in a web, they share too much.
Similarly, their work suggests that the important connections between the
disciplines of literary studies, religion, history and gender studies cannot be
ignored. While any single one of these fields provide useful points of entry
into the work, without the contact with other fields a point of strength and
understanding will be lost.
The image of the spider web, of course, suggests all the
strengths and precariousness of the project at hand, both in this work and in
the work of the authors I have examined. Nothing is easier than brushing aside a
spider web. As I have suggested, the possibilities envisioned here remain
hopeful rather than triumphalist. Ozick's audience remains forgetful. It is
A Woman of Salt by Mary Potter Engel
(Counterpoint) When Ruth VanderZicht receives the news
that her mother, a fierce Dutch Calvinist with a hardscrabble,
Looking back: that’s the theme of Mary Potter Engel’s provocative book,
A Woman of Salt, which blends the biblical story of
Written by Mary Potter Engel, a Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a tenured professor of theology for years, A Woman of Salt is a beautiful story about one woman’s longing for rest. It is a brave and fascinating novel, leaving one with much to think about.
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