Reviews of

Women and Knowledge in Early Christianity

In Brill, Early Christianity, Gnosticism, Ivan Miroshnikov, Outi Lehtipuu, Patristics, Sarah Whitear, Ulla Tervahauta, Women on April 27, 2020 at 2:46 pm


2020.04.08 | Ulla Tervahauta, Ivan Miroshnikov, Outi Lehtipuu and Ismo Dunderberg (eds.), Women and Knowledge in Early Christianity. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 144; Boston and Leiden: Brill 2017. Available in open Access.

Review by Sarah Whitear, KU Leuven.

Women and Knowledge in Early Christianity is an edited collection in honour of the retirement of Antti Marjanen, Professor of Gnosticism and Early Christian Literature at the University of Helsinki. The book is made up of fourteen essays split into four different sections. As explicated in the introduction, ‘women and knowledge’ can be understood in a variety of ways, and thus the book features studies on various areas from the role of the feminine in gnostic literature to the knowledge of real flesh and blood women. Although the four subject areas into which the collection is divided are diverse (there is a wide topical, methodological and geographical scope), there are, aside from the main connection of the focus on women, a number of threads that run through the book which tie the volume together nicely. Firstly, the introduction comments on how the honouree of the volume, Antti Marjanen, cautioned against reading positive accounts of the feminine in gnostic literature into the reality of everyday life. This inspiration is felt throughout the book as the contributors also grapple with idealised accounts of the feminine versus negative views on real women and their knowledge. A second theme that comes back time and time again is the link between women and sexual promiscuity. This is also dealt with in a balanced and critical way throughout the book. The introduction provides a brief but helpful overview of women and knowledge in the Jewish and Christians traditions, especially in the New Testament texts; an outline of the contents of each chapter; and a short note about the career and legacy of the honouree.

Part one is entitled ‘Women and Knowledge in Social-Historical Contexts.’ In the first contribution, Denzey Lewis takes Irenaeus’ polemics as a starting point from which to explore the lives of real women in ‘gnostic’ circles. She examines Irenaeus’ portrayal of Helena, the partner of Simon Magus; the women associated with Marcus ‘the Magos’; and Marcellina. She convincingly demonstrates that in his portrayals of gnostic women, Irenaeus leaves much to be desired. With the exception of Marcellina, the women are not afforded authority or power, they are characterised as foolish, easily deceived, vulnerable to sexual exploitation, or even prostitutes. In the second essay on historical women, Synder also looks at Marcellina, asking what we can know about this Christian woman. He provides an overview of the problems in understanding the text of Irenaeus, namely determining who exactly conducted the heretical activities of using images of Christ among images of philosophers in worship. Synder determines that Marcellina was most likely the one to whom Irenaeus attributes these activities. Additionally, the essay guides us through the other ancient evidence about her and importantly her absence in accounts which seem to be influenced or taken from Irenaeus. This leads to the conclusion that the information about her was added to Irenaeus’ account at a later date. In the final contribution of this section, Salmenkivi surveys the evidence for women’s literacy in Roman Egypt in Greek and Coptic sources. Although a somewhat brief overview, it demonstrates well the multiplicity of the types of writings attributed to women. Perhaps unsurprisingly all of the sources are of the everyday sort (letters, contracts, etc.) rather than literary pieces. Nevertheless, Salmenkivi’s chapter reveals a fascinating look into Roman Egypt where women wrote in a variety of circumstances, exhibiting a valuable insight into the lives of real Egyptian women.

The second part of the volume focuses on the ‘afterlives of biblical women’. In the first chapter (chapter four), Bull explores the story of God’s angels / sons found in Genesis 6. He looks at the reception of this story in the Book of Watchers, which interprets these beings as angels, and the subsequent reception of this text in the different recensions of the Apocryphon of John which maintains the understanding of these creatures as angels. Bull contrasts these readings with ancient Egyptian monastic texts which interpret the entities as the sons of Seth who were not spiritual beings. This informative account does an excellent job in showing how the variants in the above mentioned texts impact on the view of women presented within them. The portrayal of the women range from innocent victims of seduction to dangerous seductresses. In chapter five, Rasimus examines the afterlife of Jezebel in early Christian writings, looking at three female characters who are in some way modelled on the woman Jezebel in 1 Kings. Rasimus assesses how the portrayals of three women, Jezebel of Thyatira (Revelation), Herodias (Gospel of Mark), and Helen, Simon Magnus’ wife (Irenaeus, Haer.), draw upon the characterisation of Queen Jezebel. The allusions are to greater or lesser extent: Revelation having the strongest parallels and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies the weakest. Through narrative analysis in chapter six, Luomanen examines the female characters in the Protoevangelium of James and the ways in which they serve the plot. He convincingly demonstrates that Mary, the mother of Jesus, whilst appearing to play a starring role is a somewhat flat character who is often silent and submissive. This is demonstrated through comparison with rounder characters such as her own mother Elizabeth, Juthine and Anna. Luomanen contends that the reason for this is the fact that Mary was becoming an object of veneration and as a result Mary is masculinised within this text. Tervahauta’s essay on three different Marys in John Moschus’ Meadows (chapter seven) is an enlightening investigation into the portrayal of women. The author shows that the text offers an interesting look at social dynamics as the women speak out for themselves, take drastic actions and are treated with respect and reverence. At the same time, the female characters are strongly related to sin: the first is a murderer and the others are prostitutes or linked with sexual sin, as is the fate of many other women in this volume.

Part three turns to ‘women in ancient intellectual discourse’. In this section, Miroshnikov discusses the Gospel of Thomas (chapter eight). Along with tackling some of the textual problems contained within the text, Miroshnikov provides a possible scriptural basis for the misogynistic assertion that women are not worthy of life, namely that it is an interpretation of the second Genesis creation account and the subsequent fall. Miroshnikov’s arguments are well-constructed and certainly very plausible. Petersen’s contribution (chapter nine) about female heretics emphasises the need for a more holistic approach to the subject. Rather than cherry picking and repeatedly emphasising the few texts that do speak of women heretics in the first few Christian centuries, Petersen argues that we need to look also to the wider picture of gnostic literature and the polemics against the gnostics in which, on the whole, women appear very infrequently. The article is thought-provoking and fruitful not only for study of ancient texts but for our own pluralistic modern day contexts since it draws parallels between the arguments of patristics writers and contemporary Western thinkers who reject Islam based on attitudes towards women. In chapter ten, Burns gives a comprehensive account of the arguments attributed to Thecla in Methodius’ Symposium. Burns compellingly demonstrates that Thecla’s polemic is not directed against gnostics. Rather, in a threefold manner, she rejects the Bardaisan idea that fate has determination over human lives; Origen’s contention that the stars have knowledge of sin and evil; and the notion that the stars are demonic. Additionally, Burns highlights the influence of Plato’s Symposia on this ancient Christian work. Although the protagonist of the text examined is a woman, the essay does not touch much upon the question of women and gender. In chapter eleven, Lundhaug demonstrates that whilst scholars had considered the Nag Hammadi texts and early Egyptian Monastic texts to be disparate based on an unfruitful search for ‘gnostic’ elements in the latter, a different methodology for comparison yields different results. By focusing on two elements of the Exegesis of the Soul, namely, the characterisation of the soul as a prostitute and the theme of prayer and repentance, Lundhaug persuasively illustrates strong points of convergence between this text and Pachomian literature.

In the fourth part of the collection, ‘The Feminine Principle in Myth and Philosophy’, Halvgaard (chapter twelve) looks at the reception of Genesis in three gnostic texts (the Hypostasis of the Archons, the Apocryphon of John and Thunder: Perfect Mind) and in particular the role of the ‘female spiritual principle’ and its relationship to Epinoia and the earthly Eve. Halvgaard demonstrates that in these texts, these female entities not only provide heavenly and earthly life but also give knowledge. This is in contrast to the negative association between the ‘female’ and knowledge in the Genesis account where the female is associated with the fall. Through Williams’ detailed analysis of the theme of Wisdom’s innocence in different Nag Hammadi texts (chapter thirteen), a positive association emerges between the female Wisdom and creation. Williams takes us on a journey through different accounts of Wisdom’s role in the creation of the cosmos and humankind in which we learn that she has an active and fundamental role. Williams convincingly argues that Wisdom’s actions are not portrayed in a negative way save for in the text of Pistis Sophia. Additionally, the associations of sexual desire/promiscuity are also challenged, further developing Williams’ more positive characterisation of Wisdom in the gnostic texts surveyed. In the final chapter, Turner examines a great number of texts in the Platonic and gnostic traditions. He scrutinises the place and role of the feminine principle in the texts’ metaphysics and asks how this developed or rather diminished over time. He demonstrates that whilst the female principle was present in all metaphysical levels in the earliest Platonism, in later texts authors envisioned that it was present only in lower levels. In some Platonic texts the feminine came to be associated with evil. Later Sethian literature, influenced by contemporary Platonism, began to devalue the feminine principle even further and eventually turned her into a male.

Overall, the volume is informative and incisive. One small critique is that, given there is such a wide range of subjects, there is some overlap of the materials treated in the first and second chapters (Irenaeus’ account of Marcellina) and the first and fifth chapters (Simon Magus and his partner Helen). Nevertheless, all three chapters, as the rest of the essays in the volume, provide a valuable and unique contribution. The book is an excellent demonstration of how feminist methodologies work in conjunction with a wide range of other methodologies (such as historical, redaction and narrative criticism and reception history). Along with being an informative and balanced portrayal of the subject matter at hand, it was also a pleasure to read. The book is recommended not only for feminist critics and those interested in the role of women but anyone studying or working in the field of early Christianity.

Sarah Whitear
KU Leuven



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