Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean

By Sara Parks, Shayna Sheinfeld, and Meredith J. C. Warren
Routledge: 2021.
Paperback, 354 pages

Reviewed by Mark M. Mattison

The book cover for "Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean"Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean is, first and foremost, an undergraduate textbook. However, it will easily appeal to anyone who’s really serious about studying women and gender in the history of Judaism and Christianity. As an independent biblical scholar who has studied feminist theology (as well as other theologies) for over twenty years, I personally found the book to be educational, illuminating, and even intriguing – helping to fill some of the gaps in my own uneven education.

Establishing a Framework

This thorough text begins by laying out a solid hermeneutical framework in the first four chapters. The authors provide key techniques and definitions needed in the study of gender from roughly 300 BCE to 300 CE. These chapters also provide an accessible overview of history, gender, positionality, religion, and canons of scripture. Literary collections surveyed include not only the Tanakh and the New Testament but also texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint/Apocrypha, New Testament Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, Rabbinic literature, and the so-called “Church Fathers.” It would have been nice to read a little more about the Nag Hammadi Codices, although some Nag Hammadi texts, like the Gospels of Thomas and Mary, do receive welcome attention later in the book.

Also in this section, readers are introduced to a variety of hermeneutical lenses, including historical-critical, feminist, Marxist, postcolonial and aware-settler, Queer, and textual criticism. The authors effectively demonstrate how to review texts with suspicion and look for “slippage” (i.e., “places in ancient sources where we might find an answer to our questions by accident, simply because the author was talking about something else and happened to mention something to do with women,” p. 28) to glean information not otherwise readily available to the historian.

Digging In

The remaining six chapters are thematic, utilizing the tools and cumulative understanding of the first four chapters to address questions about women and gender in ancient Judaism, the early Jesus movement, religion in the daily life of women, women in literature, martyrdom accounts, and subsequent history. The breadth of literary and archaeological explorations is truly exceptional and enlightening.

Regular recaps and summaries, detailed glossaries, informational sidebars, and suggested activities for learners significantly add to the value of this text, making it a well-rounded resource. I personally gleaned more than I can possibly describe in a single book review, so an uneven recounting of noteworthy points will have to do.

Understanding How Feminism Applies to Women in Antiquity

The authors define feminism early on as “the radical notion that women are people” (p. 12). In articulating the ancient Mediterranean model of gender, the authors point out that the sliding scale between masculine and feminine really reflected a unitary gender model; there was “really only one gender in antiquity, the male, or vir (Latin for “man”), and then various degrees of failure to live up to it. This concept is sometimes referred to as the one-gender model” (p. 10). Those falling short of this manly standard included “not only women, but also non-elite men, enslaved persons, professional eunuchs, so-called ‘barbarians,’ and people with disabilities” (p. 11).

When Judith declares of Holofernes that “The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman” (p. 241), the point isn’t necessarily to uplift Judith as much as it is to denigrate Holofernes as having been overcome by a “weak” person. The authors write:

Generous feminist readings use these clearly indomitable women characters [like Jael, Deborah, the martyred Maccabean mother of 2 Maccabees, and Judith] to argue that there were, in antiquity, compelling feminine role models. On the other hand, a more suspicious reading acknowledges that this trope not so subtly reinscribes a patriarchal view of women as inferior. It is precisely because the heroes of these tales are women that their victory narratives work to ridicule enemy leaders; being depicted as beaten by a woman is all the more emasculating. Additionally, in many of these narratives the means to victory is accomplished via the heroine’s sexuality. This implies a heteronormative androcentrism as well” (pp. 241, 242).

In antiquity, women progressed along the gendered scale by becoming masculinized; that is, by becoming more “manly” (as in the Gospel of Thomas 114). Thecla liberates herself to teach, preach, and baptize by embracing an ascetic lifestyle, but this is an act of accommodation: “Early Christian figures like Thecla who taught and preached are often taken as models of radical proto-feminism. Susan Hylen reminds us, however, that to do so Thecla had to eschew marriage in favor of celibacy, and even had to dress as a man … in order to become a missionary like her beloved Paul” (p. 297).

The authors write that what is perceived as feminism in the teachings of Jesus and the authentic Pauline epistles needs to be contextualized in the light of early eschatological expectations: “some modern-day interpreters misunderstand that it was not so much feminism but rather apocalypticism that (temporarily) allowed for women’s inclusion at the early stages of this small Jewish group” (p. 152). In later stages of Christian development, women’s roles in church leadership were made possible not so much by apocalypticism as much as by asceticism, given the patriarchal and gendered norms of their times (p. 290).

The “Brooten Phenomenon”

The authors write not only about the lives of ancient Mediterranean women and their depiction in historical and literary records but also about the experience of women in historical scholarship. Sara Parks explains a scholarly tendency she’s termed the “Brooten Phenomenon” (pp. 287–288). Bernadette Brooten’s twentieth-century scholarship not only uncovered obvious evidence of women’s leadership in synagogues but also the original feminine version of the apostle Junia’s name in Paul’s letter to the Romans; and yet, her academic contributions have gone largely unnoticed: “In the case of women synagogue leaders, the knowledge was not integrated into mainstream scholarship. In the case of Junia, the knowledge was integrated, but the woman scholar wasn’t; the Junia discovery is credited to male scholars who came later” (p. 288).

Concluding Reflections

Finally, this textbook provides enlightening case studies, as in the case of Babatha, a second-century Jewish female landowner (pp. 145–147), and Beruriah, one of the greatest (and one of the few) women Torah scholars (pp. 314–317). “Difficult topic” flags (literally, with an icon in the margin) warn readers of disturbing material, such as Revelation’s threat against a woman leader in the church in Thyatira symbolically designated as “Jezebel”: “The punishment [the author] predicts for her (placed in the mouth of Jesus) is that she will be thrown on a bed, implying that she will be sexually assaulted, and her partners, likely the followers of her teachings, will be punished and her children killed” (p. 237).

Despite such shocking texts and the “disappointingly patriarchal and anti-woman” sliding scale of masculinity in the ancient Mediterranean, the authors have “built a kind of ‘people’s history’ that gives at least a small glimpse into the elusive stories of non-elite people in antiquity” (p. 320). This interdisciplinary achievement is precisely what makes their textbook such a singularly valuable resource for any reader curious about the status of women during this important period of history.

 

 

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Mark M. Mattison
Mark M. Mattison is an independent writer and scholar. He is the author of The Gospel of Judas: The Sarcastic Gospel,The Gospel of Thomas: A New Translation for Spiritual Seekers, The Gospel of Mary: A Fresh Translation and Holistic Approach, and The Goblin Gambit. He was one of the creators of the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament.

1 COMMENT

  1. Bravo, Mark! Thank you for this excellent book review! I can see that this book is well worth reading, and will help to fill in the gaps in the history of women in ancient times.

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