This issue of Forum contains four papers originally presented at the Fall 2018 meeting of the Christianity Seminar. As a part of the Christianity Seminar’s broader program of rethinking the narrative of Christian origins, these papers use gender as a way to look at, refract, interrogate, open up, and explore the dynamics of Jesus movements in the second century. Did members of Jesus movements think about and use gender as a way to make sense of their experience? And if so, how? What roles did men and women play during this time period? How were ideas about masculinity, femininity, sex, and sexuality used to bolster established norms? And how was the instability of these same ideas used to create new kinds of meaning? Each paper explores these questions from different angles, using different sources and methodologies. As such, the essays themselves mirror the complex and multiple ways gender is expressed in the ancient texts they explore.
My own paper compares four arguably second-century texts—1 Timothy, the Gospel of Mary, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and On the Origin of the World— to see what, if any, conclusions might be made about the role(s) of women in the ancient world both rhetorically and materially. My comparative reading found that the places and positions of women during this period are extremely varied: 1 Timothy relegates women to the realm of the home; the Gospel of Mary champions women’s leadership; the Acts of Paul and Thecla promotes celibacy in the service of teaching and healing; On the Origin of the World frames Eve as a sexual and maternal savior figure. While women occupy a wide range of possibilities in these four texts, paradoxically men occupy few. More often than not, men are framed as violent, policing, prohibiting, and prescribing the actions and positions of those that fall under their presumptive purview. These texts seem to limit possibilities for men more than women despite the ways many of the women protagonists are subordinated by men within the narratives.
Virginia Burrus’s essay explores gender through several martyrdom accounts from the mid-second to third centuries. She argues that martyrdom “queers conventional Greco-Roman ideas and ideals of gender rather than affirming and replicating them.” Beginning with the first-century 4 Maccabees (an influential text for later martyr accounts), she next turns toward the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Martyrs of Lyon and Vienne, and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity to draw attention to the ways in which the masculine ideals of masteryover-others and self-mastery are contrasted: mastery-over is linked with aggression while self-mastery is linked with endurance. By highlighting instances where tropes of masculine virtue coexist alongside images of frailty, slavery, birthing, mothering, and care, Burrus shows how the complexity, instability, and ambiguity of gender is used not to erase, transcend, or replicate Greco-Roman norms, but rather to alter it in “queer, hybrid, crossing, and emergent” ways.
Yet another approach to gender and sexuality is taken in David WheelerReed’s essay. Here, Wheeler-Reed reflects on his book, Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire, a year after its initial publication and in light the publication of Foucault’s fourth volume of The History of Sexuality, Les Aveux de la Chair (Confessions of the Flesh). He makes explicit the ongoing considerations one encounters in “doing history” and shows how these considerations and changes in perspective shift conclusions as well as elicit new questions. Alongside these explorations, Wheeler-Reed provides a tour of the complicated ground covered by the word porneia—a term integral for thinking through some of the knottiness of sex, sexuality, and gender in the ancient world—and in the ripples it has created to this day.
Joanna Dewey’s piece also makes explicit the way in which interpretive methods shape the questions historians ask and the conclusions they derive. Specifically, Dewey addresses the ways in which patriarchal culture actively obscures and erases the women of the early Jesus movement. Dewey’s essay not only gestures toward her own agency in rendering the women of the early ekklesia visible at the advent of feminist scholarship, but addresses the agency of these ancient women themselves through the Pauline corpus. Dewey traces the agency and visibility of women through a tour of the authentic-Pauline, deutero-Pauline, and Pastoral epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla. She then indicates the subsequent narrowing of their sphere of influence, as the nascent Jesus movements come more into alignment with the norms and mores of Greco-Roman society at large. She concludes her essay by identifying five factors that contribute to patriarchy’s triumph over the teaching of Jesus and the early ekklesias: institutionalization, the move from house churches (private) to public spaces, the shift from oral to written authority, the increasing importance of understanding the death of Jesus and Eucharist in sacrificial terms, and finally, Constantine’s conversion. Dewey herself was at the forefront of inaugurating and shaping groundbreaking feminist hermeneutics without which her analysis and that of others she cites would not have been possible.
The diversity of approaches and analyses of these essays not only reflects the diversity and complexity of gender in the ancient world, but also the diversity and complexity of the narrative of Christian beginnings. As is often the case, the work of exploring this history seems less about coming to conclusions than to render visible the multiplicity of views vis-à-vis gender. And in making this complexity visible, we are better able to explore the investments, concerns, and creativity of those using the Jesus story to make meaning in their lives.