Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the New Testament and Early Christianity

Todd Penner

in Biblical Studies

ISBN: 9780195393361
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the New Testament and Early Christianity

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The study of gender, sex, and sexuality in early Christian literature is largely the product of more recent developments in the study of ancient texts. A combination of the evolution of contemporary feminist criticism and the so-called linguistic turn in the study of history (with its attentiveness to the socially constructed nature of historical study in light of the relativity of language itself), both emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the shift to gender, sex, and sexuality arises from increasing attention to the body, with a focus on how it is constructed and how it functions in discourse and society. For fairly evident reasons, earlier scholarship on ancient Christianity did not pay attention to these factors (they would have been deemed nonserious, puerile, and inappropriate). The earliest work that was done in this respect would likely be traced to scholars such as Rosa Söder. Her work on the early Christian apocrypha brought in elements of the “exotic,” which had clear affinities with some of the erotic facets prevalent in these noncanonical texts. Even here, of course, clear discussions of sex and sexuality were quite out of the question. The seminal and humanities-field-changing work of Michel Foucault (see Introductory Works) shifted historical study in a decidedly different direction from the work that came before him. His focus on the socially constructed nature of ideas, societies, and language changed the way scholars thought about the past. In particular, his uncompleted three-volume work, The History of Sexuality, formed the basis for historical analysis that followed, particularly in classical studies that then filtered into the study of early Christianity. Foucault was most interested in how discourses and perceptions of the self (and others) developed within societal-historical matrices, and how meaning was both localized within that context but also, in many ways, contributing to a longer genealogy of development of meaning over time (that is, the meaning of “sex” is determined by a specific historical context but is also indebted to those historical connections that preceded in time). Foucault is much more interesting and valuable for his method than he is for his particular conclusions. His work focuses on elite, male sources, and he has often been criticized for this by feminists. That said, most scholars doing work on gender, sex, and sexuality utilize his method, even as their conclusions may be different. Foucault’s method, but not necessarily his specific conclusions, forever transformed the field of the humanities (this fact is often a cause for confusion in contemporary perceptions of Foucault’s legacy). His work has to be read if one is to understand the general direction of the discussion. In the following treatment, the three terms “sex,” “gender,” and “sexuality” are distinguished as follows: “sex” refers to making biological distinctions between “man” and “woman”; “gender” refers to the types of social and cultural performances relative to particular sex-distinctions (being “male” and female” in behavior); and “sexuality” refers to the expression and orientation of desire, subjectivity, and passions connected with both sex and gender (and includes but is not exclusive of issues related to the distinction between “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality”). Finally, sources outside of English are rarer in this field of study than in more traditional approaches related to the field of biblical studies. The primary reason for this is that the specific emphasis on sex, gender, and sexuality is a distinctly Anglophone area of study. Those scholars who do produce work in other languages (particularly important here is Italian) find their work rather quickly translated into English. It should also be said that the field of gender studies is quite a mix of approaches and methods. Depending on who defines the field, it looks dramatically different. In order to make this entry as broadly appealing as possible, in what follows there is a conscious attempt to offer a range of approaches and understandings, from more sophisticated theoretical studies to more traditional feminist approaches to works that simply reflect historical study on “women” and “men.” There is a slight preference given to theoretically informed historical methods and inquiry, but the overall coverage in this entry is broad.

Article.  21479 words. 

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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